“She’s up all night crying.”
At that, Brady was forced to rethink his opinion of her. She wasn’t bitchy. She was exhausted.
He knew the feeling.
Adam gave Brady a brief look. “He’s in a new place, Holly. He’s scared.” He thrust the puppy back into her arms, where it wriggled some more and licked her, too.
“I suppose you think this is funny,” Holly said, attempting to stay lick-free.
“A little bit,” Adam said evenly, not showing the smile that was in his voice.
Her mouth tightened. “My father’s a domineering, annoying, meddling ass. And you. You’re . . . ” Breaking off, she shook her head. Turning on her heels, she strode off, long gorgeous legs churning up the distance while her puppy looked back over her shoulder at Adam, head bouncing.
“Big fan of yours?” Brady asked.
Adam didn’t rise to the bait. He merely looked at the helicopter and then back into Brady’s eyes. “You in for the month or not? I need to know whether to make plans.”
“I said I’d do it. Make your plans.”
With a nod, Adam was gone.
Brady went back to work for the rest of the day and then spent the night hours once again attempting to get the mutt to sleep.
But the damn dog was not interested in anything but driving Brady to the edge of sanity. At two in the morning, he was over it and reached for his cell phone to call Adam. “Fine,” Brady grated to Adam’s voice mail. “I’m waving the white flag. I need training.”
At three A.M., Adam hadn’t called back, and desperate, Brady tried Lilah, feeling completely justified at the late hour since she was the one who’d foisted the damn mutt on him in the first place. If he had to be up, she should, too.
He got her voice mail as well. “Come get him or I’m shipping him to Afghanistan,” he said, and tossed his cell phone aside to flop to his back on the bed, listening to the damn dog cry.
Thing was, Brady was used to going on little sleep. He’d been trained for sleep deprivation in the military. But this wasn’t an enemy thing. Hell, this wasn’t even a logical thing.
It was one damn little dog getting the best of him. He’d tried everything short of strangling him, and finally somewhere near dawn, the mutt finally crashed. A grateful Brady fell into one of those dead slumbers that nothing short of a world-wide catastrophe could rise him from.
And yet he came suddenly awake what felt like a minute later to the sun poking him in the eyeballs. Sprawled face-down and spread-eagle on the bed, he cracked open one eye and blinked blearily at the clock.
Since the last time the dog had woken him up had been seven, he’d had exactly thirty minutes of sleep. “Fucking mutt.”
“Aw. Is that any way to talk about your bedmate?”
“Jesus!” He pushed up on his arms and turned his head, his gaze landing on Lilah’s. She stood at the foot of his bed in a pair of hip-hugging, ass-snugging jeans, a knit top, and a smile he couldn’t quite read but was pretty sure was smug.
Then he realized there was a weight on his lower back, and that it was the dog.
Brady dislodged it and rolled to his back. Grabbing his pillow, he shoved it behind him to lean back against the headboard.
The dog simply rolled onto its back and kept sleeping. The fucker.
Lilah’s eyes were on Brady’s bare chest. “Um.”
Brady raised a brow and waited for her gaze to meet his.
When it did, she had two spots of color high on her cheeks. “Sorry, my phone was off last night, but I came over as soon as I got your message. Wanted to see if you were still alive.”
Which he most definitely was. Alive. Very . . . alive. Some parts more than others.
Her gaze jerked back up to his eyes. “I thought you’d be . . . up.”
They both knew just how up he was. “It was a rough night.” He jabbed a finger in the direction of the dog, who was slowly coming awake and blinking innocently. “That thing kept me awake all night.”
“What did you do to get him to go to sleep?”
“I told him to shut up.”
She looked at him like he was an idiot. “Twinkles is a rescue. He needs love and affection.”
“Sorry, fresh out of both.” He sighed at her look of disappointment. He’d gone years and years, and to his recollection, he’d never once sighed. And yet he’d sighed more in the week he’d known her than he had in his entire life. “I gave him my blanket,” he said. “I put a loud clock in that blanket to simulate the sound of a mother’s heartbeat. But I’m starting to think he never had a mother, that he came from the devil himself.”
“Did you try cuddling with him?”
“Cuddle,” she repeated. “You know, hold him close, snuggle, nestle . . . Like what you’d do if someone was with you in there . . . ”
“The only someone allowed in my bed is a woman.”
“Pretend he’s a woman, then!”
Fascinated by her, he plumped his pillow some more and gave her a go-on gesture with his hand. “No, I don’t know. Tell me what I’d do. In great detail.”
She blew out a breath. “You’re sick.”
“Depends on your definition of sick.”
“Just hug your dog!”
“Not my dog. The dog you foisted on me. Which begs the question: why?”
“Twinkles. His name is Twinkles,” she grated, hands on h*ps now. “Not ‘the dog’ or ‘it’ or whatever else you’ve been calling the poor thing.”
Probably best she didn’t want to know what he’d called it earlier this morning around three thirty A.M.
And again at four thirty.
And five thirty.
“Haven’t you ever had a dog?” she asked in exasperation.
“No. And I don’t want this one. Fun’s over, Lilah. You’re taking him back.”
She was just studying him speculatively. “Really? You’ve never had a dog?”
She looked surprised for a beat, and then her expression softened. “So you don’t know.”
“Don’t know what?”
“What having a pet can add to your life.”
“Pain and suffering?”
She slanted him a pitying look and crossed her arms, which plumped up her breasts. “Unconditional love.”
“Lilah, I travel all the time. I don’t have time for unconditional love that comes with the responsibility of pet care.”
“Or . . . you don’t like attachments.”
“Attachments are messy,” he agreed. She’s chilly, he thought, watching her ni**les press against her white shirt. Or maybe turned on.
That made two of them . . .
“And messy can make you feel too much,” she said. “Right?”
“Actually, at the moment I’m feeling plenty,” he said softly.
Again her gaze flickered downward, past his chest to his lap, where the sheet was pooled. Two high spots of color appeared on her cheeks. I should . . . ”
“Yes.” She lifted her chin. “Good-bye, Mr. No-Strings.”
“Just calling it like I see it.”
“Are you casting stones, Ms. Safety?”
Her brow furrowed. “What does that mean?”
“You let all your animals into your heart the same way you do the people.”
“And,” he went on. “You do it for keeps. As far as I can tell, your friends have been your friends forever.”
“So? That’s a good thing.”
“You also have two exes, both apparently still in your life.”
“It’s a small town. And actually, I have three exes, if you must know.”
“Fine. Three. My point is that it’s a comfort for you, having familiar people around you, and I get that. But I see it as a barrier to trying new things or stretching yourself. You live your life safe, Lilah.”
He could tell he was back to pissing her off again. It was a specialty of his.
“Safe,” she repeated in disbelief.
“Yeah. When was the last time you left this podunk town and saw the world?”
Something crossed her face at that, but she recovered quickly and narrowed her eyes. “I came to help, not be analyzed. Now do you want my help or not?”
“Okay, then.” She scooped the dog off the bed. “This would be a lot better if we moved this to the kitchen. Or outside.”
“Fine,” he said. “I’ll have to get dressed.”
Her gaze once again slid to the sheet. “Don’t tell me you’re na**d under there.”
“Okay, I won’t tell you.”
She bit her lower lip as she hugged the dog close. The smart little shit licked her cheek and gave her the big, ol’ puppy-dog eyes. “Aw,” she murmured, and nuzzled him. “You’re so sweet.”
The dog craned his neck and sent Brady a knowing grin, the little shit. Brady must have made some sound of annoyance because Lilah turned back to him. “Look, it’s a simple thing to make him feel safe and secure. It’s a simple hug or a kind word. A quick cuddle. I mean, honestly, how hard is that?”
Currently hard enough to pound nails, he thought grimly.
She thrust the dog at him. “Practice while I’m here so I can see your technique.”
“I’d rather practice with you.”
She just looked at him, a tactic she’d learned from him, Goddammit. He snatched the dog then and, dangling him from his hands, brought them nose to nose.
“Not like that!” His sexy-as-hell teacher put a knee on his bed and leaned over him to press the dog to his chest. “Like that.”
Her hair fell forward, dragging like fine silk over his shoulder and arm. Her breath was warm against his jaw as she held his hands on the dog. “Hug him.”
He’d never been one to easily follow a command, even after all those years in the military, but he held the damn dog instead of doing what he wanted, which was to roll Lilah beneath him to show her cuddling. “Maybe we can call it something other than cuddling,” he said.
“What, that threatens your manhood?”
Brady was wearing just a cotton sheet and a boner for the record books, so he was pretty f**king sure he was secure “in his manhood,” but he decided to keep that to himself. More disconcerting, the dog had settled quietly on his chest, looking at him adoringly as his big puppy-dog eyes slowly . . . fluttered . . . shut.
The little shit was going to sleep. “You have got to be kidding me.”
“See?” Lilah said. “It works.”
“Yeah, now that I have to get up. I’m supposed to go running with Adam.”
Their eyes connected, and as if she suddenly realized she’d gotten on his bed and was leaning over him, she hopped up and nearly fell to her ass.
“I have to go,” she said, whirling toward the door.
“Now who’s chicken,” he murmured.
“I have a lot to do.”
Yeah, he was getting that. Maybe he should have opted for plan B which would have been pulling her down on the bed and cuddling her. They could both be na**d by now. Yeah, he liked plan B. A lot.
“You’re giving me mixed signals, Lilah.”
She dropped her forehead to his door with an audible thunk. “I know! I’m sorry.”
“When you settle on a decision, you’ll let me know.”
“My decision’s made. It’s courage I’m waiting on.”
He didn’t like the way that sat in his gut. “I scare you?”
Forehead still to the door, she let out a short laugh. “No. I scare me. And I should be scaring the hell out of you.” She turned to him. “I’ll tell Adam that you’re coming—” She broke off and grimaced. “I mean that you’re getting up—” She closed her eyes, her cheeks going pink.
Grinning, he set the sleeping dog next to him. When he made to toss back the covers to get out of bed, she squeaked and left, slamming his door.
He laughed—until he realized she hadn’t taken the damn dog. By the time he got downstairs she was gone, and stayed gone. Which, he told himself several times throughout the following hours, was probably a good thing. A month was plenty of time for him, but he thought he knew her now, or at least he was starting to know her. And she gathered people in and kept them, not walking away after four weeks. Ever.
Yeah, she was the exact opposite from him in that respect, but he was drawn to her all the same, just as he was drawn to this small town. A novelty. A diversion. It would wear off, all of it.
Any minute now.
That night Brady stood in front of his bed staring down at the dog.
In return, the dog looked at the ceiling. At the floor. Anywhere but at Brady.Finally Brady picked him up and dangled him nose to nose. “Here we are again. Bedtime.”
The dog tried to lick him, but he wasn’t holding it close enough. “And don’t start with the eyes. We’re going to sleep. Do you really need to”—Jesus—“cuddle?”
With a long-suffering sigh, Brady held him close and let himself be licked half to death. “There,” he said, and carefully set the dog down on the blanket between the fireplace and the bed. “Stay. Sleep.” Brady paused to inhale the delicious silence before getting into bed with a heartfelt groan. He was exhausted.