“To become a vet?”
“I wasn’t sure. Mostly I just wanted out to see what I was missing. Nobody wanted me to go to Vegas. They all wanted me to go to Idaho State, so of course I did the opposite.”
“And hit the city of big lights.”
“Yeah, I followed the scholarship, I really had no choice—I needed the money.” She hadn’t been able to keep it, unfortunately. Among other things, her grandma had gotten sick, and she’d ended up coming back and forth too much. Her grades had slipped and she lost her scholarship.
Okay, so it hadn’t all been because of her grandma’s failing health, but that part of the story wasn’t in the short version, nor was it up to be shared. “Vegas was a culture shock,” she allowed, and smiled a little at herself, at the good memories she could summon. “But for a time, I loved it.” At least at first. “My roommate was a local girl, and she was determined to help me experience everything I’d missed by growing up in a small ranch town.”
Lilah had been extremely determined to get out and live. Never look back.
Well, okay she’d planned to look back a little. After all, there were her friends here, and her grandma, but in those years, she’d been an idealist, thinking her grandma—and everything else here—would remain the same, locked in time, safe in the capsule that was Sunshine.
Which hadn’t happened.
“I was going to make something of myself,” she said, adjusting the overhead light to the other side of Lucky’s nose and continued to work. “I was going to be the first Young in my entire family to get a college degree and do something with my life.”
Which she’d pretty much blown on all counts.
“So what happened?” he asked quietly when she stopped talking.
Cocking his head, he studied her for a long moment. “You’re leaving out the juicy stuff.”
Yes. Yes, she was. On purpose, because she was pretty sure she couldn’t tell the story without losing it and she wasn’t ready for that. There were quills to remove. “Maybe it’s your turn to tell me juicy stuff. Why did you come to Sunshine?”
He didn’t say anything to that. Shock.
“Oh come on, that’s easy enough.”
“You already know why I came,” he said.
“Because Dell badgered you. Yeah, yeah. But you don’t seem like the kind of guy to be . . . badger-able.”
His eyes slid her way. “You think there’s some deep, dark reason?”
She didn’t know what she thought—he was an enigma. And also, sin on a stick. “You owe me a secret,” she reminded him.
That got her nothing but a little smile.
“Come on,” she said. “There’s got to be something you can tell me.”
“You and the guys grew up rough,” she said. “I know that much. Then you went in the army, which was obviously a different kind of rough altogether, and now you roam at will because you never learned to settle down in one spot.”
Annoyance flickered across his features. “Adam and Dell can’t keep their mouths shut.”
“I think it’s more that they don’t see us as a good fit.”
“They’re right,” he said.
“They have no idea. And I’m not looking for a damn ring, Brady. Any more than you’re looking to give one.”
He studied her. “What are you looking for?”
She shrugged. “A fun and easy relationship with someone who gets me,” she said without hesitation.
He took the vinegar and poured it over the last quill.
She cut the quill close to the skin and pulled it out while he soothed Lucky, calming her with his quiet voice, assuring her that her trial was over and she’d been very brave. When the dog settled, Brady lifted his head. “I’m a short-term bet at best.”
“Maybe I wasn’t considering you for my fun, easy relationship. I mean, let’s face it, you’re not exactly easy.”
He laughed softly, wryly. “Yeah.” He met her gaze. “But we both know that there’s no one else here in town right for you.”
Her breath caught. He did want her. “No?”
“No.” He put Lucky down, where she immediately twisted into a pretzel to try to inspect the damage.
Lilah was resisting the urge to check for damage as well, within herself. That he’d so accurately read her was startling. “I am content,” she told him. “At least for the most part. I like my life, quiet and simple as it is. I like being anchored.” She met his gaze. “Maybe you can’t understand that because you’ve never done the anchor thing.”
“Sunshine is really your anchor?”
“The people in it, yes. My grandma. She raised me. She died two years ago after a cancer battle, but until then we were a unit.” Her voice had gone a little husky. That whole awful time in her life—losing her grandma, her college funding, and then Tyler—was still very hard to talk about. “Dell and Adam are my unit,” she said. “My friend and business partner, Cruz, is in that unit.”
“Everyone you know is in your unit.” He flashed a small smile. “It’s who you are. What happened to your parents?”
“My mom lives in France with her boyfriend.” Squatting low, she rubbed Lucky. “She didn’t take much to motherhood.”
“And your dad?”
“Not around.” She knew her voice was flat when it came to her father, but he deserved no less. He’d walked away before her mother had.
“So let me see if I get this right,” he said. “For the most part, people stay in your life until they leave or die?”
She stared up at him, not sure she liked the fact that he’d analyzed her so accurately. “Yes.” Was there any other way? And why did he make it sound like it was so unfathomable? “What about you?”
“Until coming here, I was the only one in my life.” He shrugged. “Easier that way.”
“Talk about safe.”
He choked out a laugh. “You think my life is safe?”
“Maybe not physically, no. But emotionally? Yes. Yes, I do.” She paused, watching him touch a finger to his own palm and wince. Rising, she took his hand between hers. “You got poked by a quill.”
“No, but it will be.” With no idea what was coming over her, she pressed her lips to the rough calluses of his palm. Take that, too safe life.
He went very still. “What was that for?”
“To make it better.” She lifted her head, closed the space between them and kissed one corner of his mouth.
“And that?” he asked, his voice lower now, and husky.
“Same.” She kissed the other side of his mouth. “Is it working?”
“Getting there.” He slid his arms around her, hauled her in tight against him and took over, kissing her long and wet and deep, and by the time he lifted his head, she was shaken to the core.
“And now?” she managed.
“Much better.” He was reaching for her again just as a thump sounded above them.
“What was that?” she asked.
He was already moving up the stairs. “Stay here.”
She and Lucky followed him, so close on his heels that she nearly plowed into the back of him when he stopped short in the center of the loft. Her hands slid up his back for balance, encountering warm skin, smooth, sleek muscle.
“Shit,” Brady said.
“I’m sorry, I—” She yanked her fingers back, but he shook his head. “The damn dog.”
Peering around his broad shoulder, she caught sight of Twinkles devouring the trash and having a good old time while he was at it.
At Lilah’s feet, Lucky whined. She wanted some trash, too.
“He’s already eaten more than his own weight today,” Brady said in disgust. “Nice job on the staying put thing, by the way.”
“Me or him?” she asked.
Lilah ignored the bad temper in his voice and went to her knees to hug Twinkles close. “Oh, you are one very bad little boy.”
“Yes, and you can spank me later,” Brady grumbled. “When are you going to admit you’ve had your fun and take him to the kennels?”
“Aw. A big, tough guy like you, afraid of one teeny tiny dog.” She set Twinkles on the blanket on the floor, which he’d clearly been using as a bed. Lucky joined him. They sniffed each other’s hind ends and settled together.
“That’s not one teeny tiny dog,” Brady said, staring at Twinkles. “That’s the devil in disguise. And besides, I’m way more afraid of you.”
She smiled. “You are not.”
“Terrified. You’d better hold me.”
She burst out laughing at that, and gave him a shove instead, her hands against his hard chest.
Damn, he felt good.
He shook his head when she continued to grin at him. She couldn’t help it, she couldn’t stop.
“What?” he asked.
He shook his head. “With you, Lilah, it’s always something.”
Yeah, actually. It was. “You were right before. I’m restless and no one else in town is able to help me.”
“No.” Stepping into him, she kissed him. She kissed him like she meant business, and by the time she pulled back, neither of them were breathing so steadily. “I hope you’re ready for this,” she said, because she’d consulted with the part of her brain in charge of making rash and stupid decisions, and it’d been unanimous.
“Shh,” she said. “Don’t be afraid. I’ll be gentle.”
Brady didn’t say anything, but his eyes were aroused and darkened with something else as well. He took Twinkles from Lilah’s arms and set him on his blanket in front of the fireplace. He snapped his fingers and Lucky joined Twinkles, the two of them sitting perfectly still and at rest, ready for their next order.
“You’re good,” she said, and turned to the bed, where if the tossed bedding was any indication, Brady had been restlessly sleeping, if at all.“And you’re drowning in these sweats,” he said, coming up behind her. “You must be hot.”
Yes. Yes, she was.
God, so hot.
She’d been sleeping in just a lacy tank and matching panties, but when Lucky had gotten hurt, she’d thrown on an old pair of sweats, both the top and bottoms several sizes too big. Obviously she hadn’t planned on a seduction, but that’s exactly what she wanted. A seduction. A night filled with passion and desire.
Brady was the man for the job, she knew it. He made her yearn and burn, he made her want. And then there was the added bonus of each of them knowing exactly what this was, and what it wasn’t. When the expiration date was up and he left Sunshine, she’d watch him walk away with a smile on her face.
“I want you,” he said, and stroked a finger over her shoulder, evoking a shiver. “I usually put what I need ahead of what I want, but with you the line blurs.” He slipped an arm around her waist, dipping his head to press his mouth against her jaw.
She had to clear her throat to speak. “I want you, too.” And needed him. Lord, how she needed him.
He ran his talented mouth up the side of her neck. His hand was low on her belly, the very tips of his fingers playing just beneath the elastic of the sweats, gliding lightly back and forth on her bare skin. “Be sure. This is unlike you, and a bad idea to boot.”
“It feels like a great idea,” she managed.
A low laugh escaped him, disturbing the hair at her temple.
“Christ, Lilah.” His other hand pushed her hair out of his way and then his mouth was on the nape of her neck, his teeth scraping over her, making her shiver. “Tell me no.”
“Yes.” She clutched the arm bracing her against him, already halfway to the “great” part of “great idea.” She could feel the heat of him, the strength, and it aroused her, making her shiver.
“Are you cold?” he asked against her skin.
“No. Hot.” She wanted—needed—his hand to move, either north or south.
“Please,” she finally whispered, only to break off with a moan when his fingers trailed up her belly, along the zipper of the sweatshirt and then back, the rasp of metal on metal filling the room as he slid the zipper down. “This needs to go,” he said, and urged it off her shoulders.
The camisole beneath was white silk, a little sheer, and barely contained her breasts, which were spilling out over the top.
From over her shoulder, Brady took in the sight and groaned. His hand skimmed up her belly again, his thumb tracing the heavy underside of a breast for a moment before he nudged the spaghetti straps to her elbows, pressing his mouth to her shoulder. “Pretty,” he said in a voice gone so low in timbre as to be almost inaudible.
“My underwear matches.”
With a rough growl, he nipped at her shoulder and palmed her breast, grinding his erection into her bottom.
Lost in pleasure, her eyes drifted shut and she let her head fall back to his chest. “I’ve pictured this with you. Hope you live up to the fantasy,” she teased, then practically purred when his thumb rasped over her hardened nipple.
“You let me know.” He turned her to face him and she slid her hands up his chest and over his scruffy jaw, feeling the roughness beneath her fingertips. It was arousing and intimate.