The dog eyed Brady’s plate and licked his chops, making Brady laugh. In the military, there’d been two kinds of people—the quick and the hungry. Brady had been the quick. “No. It’s bad for you.”
Although the thing did appear to have a stomach of iron. Brady ate for a minute while the dog watched him, tail thumping hopefully on the floor every time Brady looked at him. “What is it with all of you here in Sunshine anyway? You’re all eternal optimists.”
Another whine, and with a shake of his head, Brady shared half a Hot Pocket. “Fucking softie,” he muttered to himself. “Let’s go.”
Grabbing his camera and the leash, they walked. The meadow between Belle Haven and Lilah’s place was lined with stands of cedar, tamarack, and fir and had been calling to him for days. The dog darted around the tree trunks, eyes bright, barking happily at absolutely everything as Brady took pictures.
It was one of those glorious mornings that made him grateful to be alive, the sky such a pure blue it almost hurt to look at it, a single cotton puff of a cloud floating lazily by. The night had been chilly, but the sun made its lazy appearance, and steam rose off the rocks and treetops. The bear grass was in bloom, each plant producing a cluster of creamy white tufts atop a stalk. The stalks were as tall as five feet, but even at that impressive height they were not sturdy enough to stand tall to the breeze.
And certainly not sturdy enough to stand up to the dog, who bounded with sheer exuberance through them to get to the lake. The water was a sheet of glass, a shade of blue beyond description. It was spring fed and loaded with native trout. Yesterday morning he’d seen a bighorn sheep and a mountain lamb grazing at the edge, but all was quiet this morning—no doubt in thanks to the mutt sniffing and pouncing on anything that moved, including his own tail.
“You’re going to be bear bait if you don’t cool it,” Brady warned him.
But the dog’s joy of the morning couldn’t be contained, and Brady found himself smiling when the mutt accidentally roused a pissed-off possum and came high-tailing it back, eyes wide with terror as he hid behind Brady’s legs.
Pulling the camera away from his face, Brady eyed the silly dog and shook his head. “That was all you, soldier. Don’t write checks your ass can’t cash.”
After recovering, the dog headed back to the lake’s edge and drank.
“That water’s tainted,” Brady said. “Now you’re going to fall in love with the first girl to give you a sweet smile and some tail.”
Totally unconcerned, the dog panted happily.
“It’s true. She’s going to crook her little paw at you and you’re going to roll over and expose that belly.”
When he said roll over, the dog plopped to the ground and rolled over.
Brady stared at him. “Let me get this straight. You can’t stop barking to save your own life, but you can roll over?”
“Who’d believe that I’ve found Brady Miller, ex-army ranger and all around badass, talking to a dog . . . ”
Brady had already heard the footsteps coming up behind him and placed them as Adam’s, so he hadn’t turned. Rule number one in survival—always know who’s coming up behind you.
“It’s the first sign that you’re becoming human, you know,” Adam said, coming up alongside him. “Talking to your dog.”
Brady lowered the camera and squatted to rub said dog’s belly. “You think I’m not human?”
“I think you think you’re not.” Adam hunkered down too and looked at the dog with a smirk. “He’s got you trained, I see.”
Brady shrugged. Useless to try to deny the truth.
“Lilah told me she broke into the center last night.”
Brady was used to the quick subject change when it came to Adam. Adam didn’t waste words. “She did.”
“You see her?”
Actually, Brady had seen a whole hell of a lot of her, but he kept that little tidbit to himself. He could hold his own against Adam and had, but he was feeling mellow and didn’t want to go there. “Yeah, I saw her.”
Adam looked at him for a long moment. He couldn’t have any idea that Brady had slept with Lilah, not unless Lilah had told him, which Brady highly doubted. They were tight, united by this place that was home to them like no other. They’d grown roots.
Brady wouldn’t know a damn root if it wrapped itself around his ankle and tugged, and they all knew it. He waited for Adam to warn him off Lilah, but he didn’t.
“How’s the Bell coming?” Adam asked instead.
“It’s nearly there. You ready to be rid of me?”
“You said you’d stick around for a month. You’ve got more than half of that left. I’m looking to book some air time.”
“Give me another week. You’ll have your helicopter.” As for his promise to stick for a month, he’d already said he would and he never broke his word. He turned to look into the woods, because someone was coming. Maybe a mob of someones given the noise.
Both he and Adam watched as Lilah came into view a minute later with about ten leashes and a dog on each of them. She was wearing short shorts, a snug T-shirt, those hard-on-inducing work boots, and a look on her face that rendered Brady stupid as she came to a stop right before him.
“You look amazing,” he murmured before his mouth could reconnect to his brain.
She smiled the smile of a woman who’d had more than a few orgasms the night before. “So do you.”
“Hello,” Adam said, irritated. “I’m standing right here.”
“You look amazing, too,” Brady said, not taking his eyes off Lilah.
“Fuck.” Adam shoved his hands in his pockets. “This is just f**king awkward.”
“Then maybe we could have a minute?” Lilah asked him.
Adam looked pained. “Christ. Okay.”
Her low laugh filled the morning air. “I meant with Brady.”
“Fuck,” Adam said again, clearly not liking Lilah’s response, and with a long, level look at Brady, he strode off.
Brady watched his dog sniff at the asses of all the other dogs. And Jesus, when the hell had he started to think of the dog as his? “Last night,” he started, and then ended up trailing off because he didn’t know what to say.
She was just looking at him, smiling sweetly. Glowing.
He took that in and thought that she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen. “Should we talk about it?”
He scratched his head, and she laughed. “Aw, look at you,” she said very gently. “Fine. If you need to talk about it, by all means go ahead.”
“I—” He shook his head, baffled. “But you asked Adam to leave.”
“Maybe I wanted to kiss you hello in private.” She went up on tiptoe and did just that, with all the dogs entangled around their legs, kissing him until they were both breathless. Brady felt dizzy from the lack of blood in his head, combined with the unusual emotion called concern. He hoped to God she remembered he was temporary. “Lilah—”
“It’s okay, Brady.” She secured all the leashes in one hand and patted him on the arm like he was one of the dogs at her feet. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to ask you to go steady.” She kissed his jaw this time. “I meant what I said,” she whispered against him. “I always do. This is light and easy, remember? You’re in the clear, so you can breathe now.”
Shit. She was right, he wasn’t breathing. He drew in some air. “You really are different, you know that?”
“Uh-huh.” She flashed a smile so contagious that he found himself giving her one of his own. “You seemed to like those differences last night,” she said, still grinning.
He had. Christ, he so had.
“And besides, we’re not really all that different. Although I think I’m a little more . . . ”
“Optimistic.” She nudged him with her shoulder. “You’re Eeyore.”
He blinked. “You think I’m Eeyore?”
“You tell me. I take my empty glass and try to fill it up with what happiness I can find. Friends, family, my work . . . And then there’s you.”
He raised a brow. “Me.”
She nudged him again, looking playful and damn sexy while she was at it. It was the short shorts with the boots, he decided. Or everything. It was everything.
“You take that empty glass,” she said, happily analyzing him. “And you wonder what the heck to do with it. You don’t need the glass, you don’t have time for the glass. Hell, you’ll just drink from a spigot if you get thirsty. And in any case, there’s probably another one up the road if that one runs out, so—”
“Are we still speaking English?” he asked.
Laughing, she kissed him again, blowing brain cells left and right when she touched her tongue to his. Before he could gather her close, she’d danced back with the dogs and gone on her merry way, leaving him staring after her wondering why he felt like he’d just been run over by a Mack truck.
Because you got laid by a woman who wants nothing more than sex from you, and you want . . .
He didn’t even know how to put words to what he wanted.
I can tell that you think you know what you’re doing,” Dell told Lilah a few days later. “But you don’t.”
They were in her office at the kennels, where she’d just come in from the drugstore, having bought herself a present.Condoms.
Dell, who’d looked into the brown bag thinking she had something to eat, had gotten an unhappy surprise.
“I know what I’m doing,” she said, and hoped that was true.
“It’s just a crush,” Dell said.
“Yeah. So? You crush on anything with two legs.”
He winced. “Not anything.”
“Brady’s a good guy,” she said. “Or you wouldn’t have invited him here.”
“He’s a great guy.” Dell snagged her last candy bar from her not-so-secret stash in her bottom drawer. “But—”
“No. Nothing good ever comes after a but, Dell. I hate all buts.” Except for Brady’s. He had one really great butt.
“But,” Dell repeated patiently, ignoring her annoyed snort, “he has one foot out the door.”
“I know. It’s the very definition of a crush, Dell. It’s got an expiration date. At least we both know it.” Coming around her desk, she hugged him tight and ushered him to the door. “I’m going to be okay, and so is Brady.”
When he was gone, Lilah opened a different drawer with her real junk-food stash and dove into some cookies, and then a bag of chocolate kisses, promising herself that tonight she’d eat broccoli. Maybe.
She hadn’t been kidding—she was crushing on Brady. In fact, if she closed her eyes, she could still feel him deep inside of her. She could see the fiercely intense pleasure on his face when he’d cl**axed.
She got aroused just thinking about it.
She’d worn him out, which had been a source of pride. He’d fallen asleep in her arms and she’d listened to the beat of his heart meshing with hers. She’d watched him sleep, his long, thick lashes resting on his cheekbones, loving how for once he was completely relaxed, completely unaware of his surroundings.
He was beautiful, and in that moment, he’d been hers. And perhaps because she liked that thought a little too much, she’d slipped out of his arms and out of his bed.
They’d seen each other over the past few days; him working on the Bell, her going back and forth between the center and the kennels, but they’d been too busy to talk.
She eyed her overcrowded desk and sighed. She and Cruz switched off months being in charge of the paperwork that they both hated: the receivables, the payables, the calendar, the promotion and publicity work that had to be done to keep new business flowing. Switching off kept them sane, but more important, it kept them from killing each other. But she wished it were Cruz’s turn now.
Or that her life was light and carefree enough that she could say screw it to the work and go seek her pleasure. Her phone rang, interrupting the thought.
“I’m starving,” Jade said. “And I need to get out of here before I kill any penis-carrying humans. Lunch?”
“Yes, if it has broccoli in it.”
“You eat something bad again? You need some self-control, Lilah. What did you get into?”
Lilah sighed. “Everything.”
“Be there in ten.”
Brady surfaced after two hours inside the engine compartment of the Bell 47 and realized Twinkles wasn’t in his usual sunspot. He walked around the Bell, the building, searching the entire area, but couldn’t find him. Gut tight, he entered Belle Haven and found Dell behind the receptionist’s desk looking hassled.
“Can’t figure out her stupid system,” Dell complained. “The woman runs this place tighter than a frigging ship, but no one else knows a damn thing—”“The dog,” Brady said. “You see him?”
Dell lifted his head, eyes dazed. “Man, I’ve seen fifty today alone. Maybe a hundred million and fifty.”
Brady shook his head. “My dog. Twinkles,” he corrected, saying the name out loud for the first time with a grimace. “He was outside with me while I was working and now he’s gone. Have you seen him?”
Dell had gone brows up when Brady said “my dog,” but without another word, he came out from behind Jade’s desk. “Let’s look outside.”