Falling and falling hard.
That night she drove to Dell’s house for their monthly poker night. Dell lived in town in a house he’d recently fixed up for himself. To Lilah’s surprise, she found Brady already seated at the big round table. He was slouched in a chair, long legs stretched out in front of him, a ball cap low on his head hiding most of his gorgeous face except for his mouth.
Which had the sexiest scowl on it she’d ever seen.Amused—and more—she plopped down beside him. “Heard about your day, Ace.”
He slid her a dark look that made her ni**les hard before he went back to his cards.
“I’m in,” she said to Adam, who was dealing.
“Five-card draw.” Adam shuffled the deck like a pro. “And he had more than a hell of a day,” he said, tossing a look at Brady as he dealt, taking Lilah’s ten bucks and handing her a stack of chips. “He went with Dell on rounds. They were unable to save Mr. Williams’s dog after it got hit by a car, then got to the Cabreras’ in time to watch their elderly cat die, and as a bonus, on the way home, they headed out to a ranch and had to euthanize a horse with a broken leg.”
“It was just shit luck,” Dell said, studying his cards, tapping the table to indicate he was holding. “No one’s fault.”
Brady tossed in some chips. “Raise you five.”
“Fuck,” Adam said conversationally, but put in his five.
Since she had nothing, Lilah folded.
Dell tossed in his five and shook his head. “Best part is his new nickname.”
Lilah glanced at Brady, who was looking pained. “What is it?”
“Nothing,” Brady said, and adjusted his hat even lower over his face.
“Dr. Death,” Adam said, and flashed a rare grin.
“What?” Lilah burst out laughing. “Are you kidding me?”
The muscle in Brady’s jaw bunched and Adam shook his head, still grinning. “Now no one wants him to go along on out-calls anymore, no matter how badly they need Dell.”
Everyone but Brady cracked up. He just swore, with a colorful assortment of four-letter words. Lilah wanted to jump him right then and there, but she controlled herself.
Or maybe not quite.
Brady turned his head and met her gaze. He studied her a moment, and though he remained scowling, his eyes heated. He saw right through her, she realized, not knowing whether to be embarrassed or aroused.
So she settled for both.
They played two more rounds before Dell looked at the grease streaked down Lilah’s jeans. “Plumbing problems again?”
Her cabin had more problems than she could count, but she loved the old place ridiculously. For one thing, it was all she had of her grandma, and it was filled with precious memories that not even bad plumbing could erase.
For another, it was her only option, given that the money she made went back into the business or toward her tuition. “Nothing I can’t handle.”
“Lilah, you need to—”
“Change from brass to PVC. Yeah, I know.” She hadn’t budgeted for it this month. Or next month, for that matter. In fact, she wasn’t budgeted for anything anytime soon. “I’m babying the plumbing along for now.” Well aware of Brady studying her, she smiled. “Duct tape is a girl’s best friend.”
Adam shook his head.
Brady was still looking at her. Slowly his gaze dropped, taking in her clothes, probably wondering if she was wearing the lingerie. She gave him a secret smile. He didn’t return it, but his gaze singed her skin.
Her cell phone buzzed with a forwarded call from the office line, the one she used for the humane society, and she picked it up to hear Mrs. Sandemeyer’s voice.
“Someone did it again,” the elderly woman said in her eighty-year-old quavery voice. She lived on the outskirts of town right off the highway. “Dumped a dog they don’t want. I’ll hold her for you, dear.”
“Is the dog injured?”
“Not at all. And sweet as a lamb.”
Lilah closed her phone and reluctantly folded her cards. “I’m out.”
“But it’s just getting good,” Dell complained.
“Translation,” Adam said. “He thinks he’s about to kick our asses.”
“I don’t think it,” Dell said. “I know it.”
“Sorry.” Lilah rose. “Much as I look forward to that ass-kicking, I have to go. Someone dumped a dog off the freeway again.”
“Assholes,” Dell said. “Be careful, Lil.”
Brady stood up. “I’ll go with you.”
“No worries, I’ll call Cruz if I run into trouble,” Lilah said. “Finish playing.”
“She has Cruz,” Adam said softly. “It’s his job.”
Lilah patted Brady’s arm, nearly hummed in pleasure at the hard, knotted sinew of his biceps, and smiled. “Adam’s right. Stay for the ass-kicking.”
His eyes met hers, dark and unreadable, and more than her ni**les reacted. Her heart actually skipped a beat.
Stupid heart. Because he was leaving soon, she reminded herself, ignoring the little ping in her belly at that thought. She was going to have to give him up, but then again, she was used to giving things up.
She gave her animals up all the time.
She’d given her grandma up.
She’d given certain dreams up, and knew she’d give up more before it was all said and done.
And she’d give up Brady when the time came. She would. Even if the little ache in her heart reminded her that there would be a price.
She was halfway to Mrs. Sandemeyer’s house when she got her second call of the night. This one from Cruz. “Babe,” he said, voice solemn. “Problem.”
“Well, it’ll have to get in line,” she said.
“There’s a tourist looking for a three-legged cat that she lost a month ago.”
Lilah’s heart, already aching, full-out stopped at this news. “What?” she whispered.
“She’s only just now seen the lost-and-found bulletins online. Lilah . . . ”
“Sadie,” she whispered.
Seemed she had one more thing she had to give up, after all.
Brady cleaned out both Dell and Adam at the poker table, which took his day from pure shit to pretty damn good, especially when Dell was reduced to whining.
By the time Brady and Twinkles got into his truck to drive back to the loft for the night, it was past midnight. Only he didn’t go to the center.Instead, he turned right. Onto Lilah’s property. Twinkles got all perky as they passed the lake, but Brady kept driving. He didn’t believe in the legend, but neither did he believe in tempting fate. “Don’t want to risk you falling for the first dog you see.”
The dog snorted because even he knew it was Brady who was afraid to take the risk. He pulled up Lilah’s drive-way and Twinkles looked confused. “Don’t ask. I can’t explain it.”
Not even to himself. It wasn’t as if he needed to see her—although having her na**d and writhing beneath him again would be nice. “I just . . . ”
Twinkles was listening, head cocked, and Brady let out a breath. “I’ m talking to a dog again.” And worse, he really didn’t know what he was doing here. He honest to God didn’t. He sure as hell didn’t want to talk. In fact, the only words he wanted to hear coming out of Lilah’s mouth were his name, how much she liked what he was doing to her, and whether or not she wanted it harder.
The kennels were dark. But the cabin’s kitchen was lit, so he and Twinkles headed that way and knocked on the front door.
He glanced back at Lilah’s Jeep. She was most definitely here. Was she with someone? Whoever had helped her with the rescues? Cruz . . . ?
No, she’d still have answered the door. Or at least he sure as hell hoped so. He thought of all the reasons she’d be home alone with Cruz and not answer.
Finding that he didn’t much like any of those reasons, he knocked again, harder now.
Still no answer. Reaching out, he tried the handle. It turned under his hand. She’d indeed been here, working on the kitchen sink. The lower cabinet was open, tools strewn around, and the pipes were wrapped in duct tape at the seams.
But the sexy plumber was nowhere to be seen, and the cabin was empty, including the bed.
Stepping back outside, intending to touch the hood of her Jeep to see if it was warm, he heard a soft gasp for breath that made him frown. “Lilah?”
Nothing but the dark night.
But she was out here, he could feel her. He wasn’t crazy about the fact that he was so in tune to her. It made him more than a little uneasy.
He didn’t do vulnerable for anyone. But he heard the sound again and followed it into the woods. Just past the first group of trees, he came to the water he’d been determined to avoid at this time of night at all costs, only to find Lilah huddled down by it. She was sitting, arms wrapped around her bent legs, forehead to her knees.
Twinkles bounded forward and ran a circle around her, then sat obediently at her feet, head cocked, eyes worried. “Arf.”
Brady nudged the dog aside and squatted down in front of her.
“Go away,” she said through her tears. “Please, just g-go.”
He’d like to, Christ he really would, but the fact was that he could no more walk away from her than he could stop himself from breathing.
Or aching for her. “Are you hurt?”
Leaving her forehead against her knees, she shook her head.
He reached out to touch her, but she shoved at him. “Don’t.”
Fuck that. She was dirty again, more than she had been at poker, and between that and the dark, dark night sky, he couldn’t get a good look at her. So he sat next to her and dragged her into his lap.
She fought for about two seconds then gave up and slumped against him, fisting his shirt in her hands as she quietly and thoroughly went to pieces.
He’d survived roadside bombings, dickhead officers with more stripes than courage, and once, being captured and tortured for two days when his chopper had gone down in enemy territory before being dragged out half alive by the good guys.
So this, holding a small sobbing woman, should be a piece of cake.
Instead it felt like someone had put a vise on his chest and cranked it impossibly tight.
While Lilah continued to let loose with the mysterious waterworks, he ran his hands over her, making sure there was no physical injury. He was getting that it was something far deeper, but it was second nature for him to want to make sure. When he was positive she wasn’t bleeding out and there were no broken bones, he just held her and let her get it all out, until she finally quieted down to the occasional hiccup. “Better?”
She tightened her grip on him, keeping her face buried in his tear-soaked shirt.
“Okay,” he said. “Not quite yet.”
They fell silent for a while. Which worked for him. Silence always worked for him. Around them, the night carried on. The water slapped at the rocks at the shore’s edge. The crickets were going to town. Far in the distance came a howl of something, and then a beat later came a matching howl.
Brady stroked a hand down her back and pressed his face into her hair. Coconut again, and something else, the combination both sweet and sexy. She was cold, her nose especially, which he knew because she had it pressed to the base of his throat. Her hands were tangled in the material of his shirt, her ass snug to his crotch. He was doing his damnedest not to fixate on that, but she was squirming a little.
He was aware that he shouldn’t be turned on while holding an upset woman, and he gripped her h*ps to keep her still.
“Why are you here?” she finally whispered, voice hoarse.
The question of the day. “A friendly visit?”
“It’s late for friendly. It’s more like booty-call hour.”
He tightened his grip on her booty and rubbed his jaw to hers. “Don’t tease me.”
She choked out a laugh—as he’d meant her to—and then there was more easy silence, which was his favorite kind. They continued to watch the night go by, and when her occasional shuddery inhales had dwindled away completely, he hugged her. “Tell me.”
She sighed. “Sadie’s mommy showed up.”
“Does she have only three legs, too?”
She let out a mirthless laugh and rubbed her hands over her face. “Her human mommy. I had to give her back tonight, Brady.”
Shit. He ran his hands up and down her back and neck, over her muscles which were rigid and tense. “So you reunited a family.”
“Yes.” She didn’t say anything else, just sat there staring out at the water looking lost and sad. “Which I realize is the point. But . . . ” She closed her eyes and fell quiet.
“You had this one awhile.”
“Four weeks, three days.”
The pain in her voice killed him. “You get attached. Emotionally.”
She turned her head away from him, signifying he was an idiot. Which, of course, when it came to this stuff, he totally was. “I guess that’s the brutal reality of your job, right? You care for them until you can reunite them with their family or find them a new family. I mean it sucks to let go, but doesn’t it also make you feel good? A job well done?”
“Yes,” she admitted. “But the letting-go thing. I have a hard time with that. Always have. I loved Sadie,” she whispered. “So much.”
He’d never felt so useless in his entire life. “But it’s okay to let something go out of love,” he said, trying logic and reason. “When you’re being part of a solution, in making a situation better.”