Lilah’s eyes filled again, and he realized his mistake—there was no logic and reason for her right now.
“I hate letting them go,” she whispered thickly.
“You’d rather keep them all?”
Well, if that didn’t completely lay out their differences right there, he had no idea what could. “You have others still. Like that last wild kitten. Boss?” At her nod, he went on. “And you have all the others you care for, even if they’re not technically yours, like the piglet. And that duck. And the lamb—”
Another tear escaped, running down her cheek. “Lilah,” he said helplessly.
She choked out a laugh and dropped her head to his shoulder. Again he pulled her in, wrapping her in his arms, which by sheer luck seemed to be the right thing to do.
Letting out one shuddery sigh, she nuzzled in and he tightened his grip on the most confusing, baffling woman he’d ever met.
“Brady?” she asked, sounding waterlogged.
“Yeah?” He was still gob-smacked that logic hadn’t worked but a hug had.
“About that booty call,” she whispered, and it was his turn to choke out a laugh.
Lilah woke up with papers stuck to her face. She was in bed with her books and laptop.
She’d fallen asleep studying, again.“Mew, mew, mew.”
Boss, not Sadie, and her heart stuttered. Life went on . . . And Boss clearly felt that she’d slept long enough. He worked at climbing up the mountain that was her bed. It took him a while. He was tiny and new to his claws, but finally he stood triumphant on her chest.
She sighed and stroked him, and he began to rumble with his little baby purr. She’d pleased him.
She wished someone would stroke her until she purred.
Last night had been rough. Brady had brought her home, and though she’d attempted to pull him inside with her and let him distract her from her spectacularly bad night, he’d resisted. He’d tucked her into bed, kissed her long and thoroughly, then left.
Just as well, really. She’d been waaay too vulnerable, and given that being in bed with Brady tended to strip her down to a na**d, raw, earthy emotional state such as she’d never felt before, she was grateful he’d been smarter than she.
Because last night? She would have fallen in love with him for sure.
So she’d forced a smile when he’d pulled free of the bone-melting kiss, playfully swatted him on his very fine ass, and watched him walk away.
And then, apparently, she’d studied until falling asleep. She dragged herself around the rest of the morning, finally stopping for a quick lunch break. Cruz had left the newspaper opened to page 2, which held a funny commentary about Dr. Death complete with a picture of Brady looking big, bad, and tough as hell standing in front of the Bell 47. Lilah grinned, tore out the picture, and taped it to the kennel’s refrigerator, making Cruz shake his head.
Then she went back to work. With summer in full swing, people were in and out of town, many leaving their animals at the kennels. This was great for the bank account. Not so great for free time, not with midterms coming up, and Cruz readying to leave on vacation.
Three nights after having to give Sadie back to her owner, Lilah was in desperate need of a night’s sleep that didn’t include waking every hour to a ball of anxiety choking her. So she took two Tylenol PM and while waiting for them to kick in, sat at the table to study. Once again she fell asleep there and dreamed about a set of warm arms.
Mmmm . . . So nice of him to show up in her dreams. Smiling, she clung to him as he carried her off somewhere. Hopefully to an island. Maybe somewhere in the South Pacific, where it would be just the two of them, a sandy beach, warm sun, and no responsibilities. She loved her life, but sometimes she dreamed about a day that didn’t begin at the crack of dawn to clean pens and stalls. No dealing with the daily grind of running two businesses. No heartache . . .
She sighed in pleasure at the thought. “Just a day . . .”
The arms holding her tightened. “Shh, I’ve got you . . . ”
She struggled to come out of the haze, but he nuzzled her hair. “Sleep,” he commanded softly.
She woke up in the morning alone in her bed. Boss was standing on her, eyeing her accusatorily for having slept for so long. Her reading glasses were on her nightstand, her clothes on the chair in the corner of her tiny bedroom—
Wait a minute. Lifting the covers, she stared down at herself. She was in a big T-shirt and her panties—and nothing else.
She’d have recognized the T-shirt by the scent of Brady alone, and she brought the material up to her face for a big, delicious sniff of him.
God, she was a sap. A sap who smelled coffee. She followed the scent to her kitchen, a wave of sadness hitting her when there was no Sadie to trip over.
On the counter sat a large coffee, and next to it—be still her heart—two breakfast burritos. And a bright red shiny apple. For the first time in a few days, she smiled. “He’s good,” she said to Boss.
The kitten gave her a look that said, Of course he’s good, he’s a man, isn’t he?
By the time Lilah showered and dressed, she was nearly late at opening the kennels, and her day got crazy from there. It wasn’t until Cruz’s shift in the afternoon that she managed to walk over to Belle Haven.
Brady was gone, having flown Dell up north for a complicated foal birthing, so Lilah stopped to talk to Jade at the reception desk. She had to laugh at the Dr. Death newspaper clipping taped to Jade’s computer.
“Oh, you like?” Jade asked. “He’s my beefcake of the week. Plus, it drives Dell nuts. He’s been working for how many years, and he’s never made page two in full color.”
The waiting room was packed with patients waiting for Dell’s return. There were dogs and cats and a ferret. Most were well behaved, but the same couldn’t be said of a young boy around five, sitting on the floor with his army men, throwing a tantrum every time any of the animals looked at him.
His mother was sitting in a chair as far from him as possible. Lorraine Talbot had been several years ahead of Lilah in school. She’d been prom queen, head cheerleader, and had never found much time for people outside her circle.
Lilah hadn’t been in that circle.
Apparently neither was her own child.
Lorraine came in to Belle Haven often, mostly because she had a fat crush on Dell. It might have been the fact that he had “doctor” in front of his last name these days, as opposed to their high school days when he’d just had “dweeb.”
The front door opened and in walked Brady and Dell. They were both filthy from head to toe, covered in dirt and muck and God knew what else, looking weary and worn.
Dell turned to the waiting room and Lorraine immediately leapt to her feet and gave him a finger wave and flirtatious smile.
Dell nodded. Definitely muted from his usual wattage, which had nothing to do with exhaustion but the fact that he’d learned not to encourage her. The last time he’d smiled at her she’d come by every single day for two weeks.
“Sorry for the delay, guys,” he said to the room at large. “I’ll go get cleaned up and be right back.” He went into his office, and Lorraine sat with a huff.
Brady’s gaze tracked directly to Lilah, and a little frisson of anticipation danced down her spine. At the same moment, the ferret decided he was bored and leapt out of his owner’s hands to playfully bump its head to Lorraine’s son’s leg.
The boy went berserk, tipping his head back and screaming bloody murder.
The ferret dove beneath his owner’s chair, then peeked out, eyes bright, staring at the incredibly loud little human.
Brady was the closest to the kid. “Are you hurt?”
He only screamed louder. A few of the people waiting put fingers in their ears.
Brady craned his neck and eyed the waiting room, clearly trying to figure out who the boy belonged to.
Lorraine was filing her nails.
“Hey,” Brady said to the boy. “Only people who are bleeding out get to scream like that. Are you bleeding out?”
The boy stopped screaming to stare at him wide-eyed and openmouthed.
Probably having no idea what “bleeding out” even meant, the boy shook his head.
“Good.” With a nod, Brady rose to his feet and headed toward the stairs but not before giving Lilah a look that had Jade fanning herself.
“Good Lord,” Jade whispered. “Dr. Death is hot.”
“Hot,” one of the women agreed from the first chair across the desk. “He makes me sweat in interesting places.”
Every other woman in the room nodded.
“Did you see the look he sent you?” Jade asked Lilah. She gulped down some of her ice water. “If he ever looked at me like that, my panties would just go whoosh, up in flames.”
Lilah could understand that. Her panties did the same. It did something to her to watch Brady deal with silly women who got too attached to every animal to cross their paths with the same aplomb he handled a screaming kid, even though he clearly wasn’t sure what to make of any of it. Which didn’t stop him from living his life the way he wanted to.
She admired that and thought maybe she could get better at doing the same.
Ten minutes later, he came back down the stairs wearing fresh clothes, hair still damp from his shower. He headed out the door, and she followed. “You brought me breakfast.”
He looked at her, eyes warm and assessing. “You looked a quart low last night. Thought maybe you could use the pick-me-up.”
“I was, and did,” she said. “Why didn’t you sleep with me?”
They’d crossed the yard and were heading toward Smitty’s, where the Bell 47 was tied down.
“Sleeping with you is . . . ” He hesitated.
At the chopper, he turned to face her. At the confused, defensive look on her face, a faint smile crossed his lips. “Amazing.” Then he shocked her by leaning in to kiss her.
When she sucked in an aroused breath, he slid his tongue against hers and melted all her bones. “And,” he added, “confusing.”
“Confusing. What’s confusing?”
“You.” He ran a hand over the chopper’s steel body, making Lilah remember, vividly, what it felt like to have those hands stroking her.
“Okay,” she said. “Now I’m confused.”
He turned to face her. “You wanted fun and easy. A light relationship, with an expiration date.”
“So this is me, trying to give you what you want.”
“Sometimes,” she said slowly, “what a woman wants is complicated.”
“No shit.” He let out a breath. “I’m just trying like hell to be a good guy here and make sure no one gets hurt.”
“Who’s going to get hurt?” But she already knew the answer to that, of course.
She was going to get hurt.
He stroked a strand of hair from her temple, and then ran his finger over her jaw, across her lower lip until it trembled open for him.
And then he leaned in and kissed her again, with such heat and hunger and desire that she was clinging to him, shaking, by the time he pulled back. All she could do was blink up at him, realizing just how right he was to try to hold back. Because suddenly, or maybe not so suddenly at all, she was wanting a lot more than the easy fun she’d promised him.
She struggled to get a handle on herself. Was she so obvious in her feelings for him that he had to worry about her? Yeah. Yeah, she was. She didn’t have his seasoned inscrutable mask to hide her emotions. “Maybe it’s going to be you who gets hurt,” she finally said. “I’m pretty damn unforgettable, you know.”
“You are,” he agreed so softly that she had to strain to hear him, and even then, she wasn’t sure if he’d really said it or if she just wanted him to.
Several mornings later, Brady drove into town. His plans included something hot for breakfast and caffeine, since he’d stayed up until all hours, restless.
Sleepless.He and Twinkles had ended up going for a long drive, his mind free. No, that wasn’t exactly true. His mind hadn’t been free at all. He’d ended up sitting at the lake’s edge, he and the dog, staring out at the supposedly magical waters. On his way home, the truck had taken him to Lilah’s cabin.
Because there’d been a light on, he’d gotten out and knocked. When she hadn’t answered, he’d looked into the window and seen her at her table, head down on her books, fast asleep.
He couldn’t have altered what he’d done next even if he’d had to walk through an enemy camp to do it. Breaking in was no problem. Nor was being silent as he did so.
He’d been trained by the good ol’ US of A.
For the second time that week, he’d carried Lilah to bed without waking her—and just how many times was she going to work herself into such exhaustion that he could even do that? Still, he savored the task and the silence of the night all around them for long moments before forcing himself to leave instead of climbing into bed with her.
He’d headed back out into the dark night from which he’d come, letting his eyes and ears search out anything that didn’t belong. But this wasn’t some third-world country, and he wasn’t searching out some foreign operative. Unfortunately, old habits were hard to break, and at his core he was still a soldier.
But all had been as it should be, leaving him no choice but to go.
Now it was morning, and in the light of day he could only shake his head at himself. He was doing just that when a dented red Jeep pulled in behind him at 7-Eleven.