The truth was, he’d welcome either.
Six hours later, Dell had finished his business and Brady had the Bell 47 aimed back at Sunshine. The trip had gone well, rendering Belle Haven a new contract handling the vet care for a 250,000-acre ranch in the Idaho Falls area.
“This trip alone was worth having the chopper,” Dell said as they headed into Sunshine.Brady shrugged. “Anyone can fly you after I’m gone. Hell, you can hire a pilot right out of Smitty’s if you want.”
“Rather have you.”
“You might want to check with Adam on that,” Brady said dryly.
“Why, because he found you coming out of the woods suspiciously near Lilah’s cabin at the crack of dawn looking like you’d had a long night?” Dell shrugged. “He’s always a bitch when he’s not getting any.”
“What are we, sixteen?”
“If we were, then he would have threatened you with death or dismemberment. Which one did you pick, by the way? I always pick death.”
“And yet here you still are.”
Dell grinned. “Yeah. He’s all bark and no bite. Probably you should just stick around and keep us in line.”
“Oh, I’m sorry. You don’t know those two words in that particular order. They mean stay. Unpack. Whatever you want to call it.”
Brady stared at him. “Because.”
“I realize you’re allergic to permanent,” Dell said. “But so’s Adam, and he makes it work. He travels everywhere all over the country all the time training and delivering the search and rescue dogs, but he always comes back. That’s the trick. You could do the same.”
“I could train dogs?” Brady asked.
“Travel, smart-ass. Go back and forth.” Dell paused. “Be a partner.”
“I don’t work well with others.”
Dell laughed. “Well, no shit. And here I thought your sunny disposition would be such an asset.”
Brady let out a breath. “I’ll think about it.”
“You do that. I’m thinking if you turn us down, I’ll hire a female pilot instead, maybe one who wears a short, tight uniform and greets me with ‘How can I serve you, sir?’”
Four days later, Lilah was near the outskirts of the county, on the edges of a ranch about to rescue a raccoon mama and her cubs. It had to be close to a hundred degrees outside and she was hot, tired, and filthy. Despite the unseasonably warm day, she was dressed for work in Carhartts and a long-sleeved T-shirt meant to protect her arms. She was tired because she hadn’t slept much. Midterms were over, at least for now, but it hadn’t been studying that had kept her up the past few nights.
It had been Brady.Or the lack of Brady.
As for the filthy part . . . well, that was part of her job. She’d been sent here by Dell, who’d talked to the rancher who owned the land and was mad as hell about the raccoons who were constantly stealing the fresh eggs from the hen coops.
Lilah understood the problem. Raccoons were messy and mischievous, and they made pests of themselves on small ranches like this. Certainly it was easier to shoot them, but she hated the thought. She and Dell had a friend in Lewiston who had three thousand open acres. The woman had previously taken in various wild critters and didn’t mind doing so again.
Lilah had a pile of humane cages in her Jeep ready to go, and with the hope in mind that the raccoons would be fond of the canned cat food she’d brought as bait, she got out of the Jeep and headed to the front door.
No one answered.
Knowing that she had permission via Dell from the ranch owner to try and solve his problem, she walked around to the barn, which was opened from two sides. Standing in the first opened doorway, able to see clear through to the other opened door, she caught sight of a man out on a horse in a neighboring field.
Probably the ranch owner.
Not wanting him to think she was trespassing, she waved a hand and called out to him, but the sun was in his eyes and he clearly couldn’t see her. Plus, she knew he was older and couldn’t hear well. She turned back to the barn and went still as she caught sight of movement in the rafters.
The resident raccoons. One big masked head appeared, and then three little matching ones perfectly lined up beside their mama.
Her cell phone rang. “How’s it going out there?” Dell asked.
“Working on it,” she said.
“Yeah, well be careful. Newberry’s pretty determined to shoot the shit out of them. I guess they got into his kitchen yesterday and completely destroyed the place. Remind him that I sent you, that he said it was okay for you to remove the raccoons if you can. He’s an older guy and can be mean as a snake. Part of the reason I called you about this in the first place is because his neighbors are threatening to call the authorities on him for using whatever moves as target practice.”
“He’s out in his field right now but I’ll flag him down before I leave.” She disconnected and went to the Jeep for two of the cages. Using a ladder she found against the far barn wall, she climbed to the top of the rafters and then precariously balanced there as she came face-to-face with the big mama herself.
Who showed her teeth.
Lilah ignored her and set the traps. This took a few minutes because she had to keep backing off to give the growling, snarling mama some space. “You’ll be thanking me for this in a few days,” she promised the pissed-off matriarch raccoon. “You’ll—”
The crack of a shotgun ricocheted over her head and shocked the hell out of her, and she barely held on to the rafters. “What the—”
“Goddamn raccoons!” Newberry shouted, clearly frustrated that the sun was in his eyes and he was shooting into a dark barn, which didn’t help his aim or his mood.
“Wait!” she cried.
But he’d already pulled the trigger and this time the bullet pinged somewhere just to her right, so close she felt it whizz through her loose hair. She flattened herself on the rafters so that she was lying belly down, and felt the contents of her pockets fall. Keys. Phone. The single buck she held in reserve for the swear jar. She gulped for air as the dollar bill slowly floated to the ground. Through the opened door she could see Mr. Newberry, still on his horse, closer now, once again sighting with his rifle through the opened doors.
He’d seen her shadowed movement, had known the raccoons were up here, and had started shooting.
Unfortunately, Lilah was a side dish on the same platter. Before she could blink, the gun went off again and this time she felt the impact jerk her body.
Fire blazed along her arm.
Barely managing to cling to her perch, she looked down the twenty-plus feet between her and the ground, which was suddenly whirling like she was on a merry-go-round. Through the spinning, she heard Mr. Newberry’s horse gallop off. “Wait!” she called with a gasp, but he didn’t hear her. She reached out for the ladder and then empty air as said ladder crashed to the ground. Alone, with no way down and no cell phone, she blinked past the sweat in her eyes.
Even the raccoons had deserted her. She set her forehead to the rafter she was clinging to. “Don’t pass out,” she told herself, knowing the fall would definitely be worse than the bullet wound. “Just keep your eyes open.”
But that was hard . . .
The next thing she knew, she heard male voices raised in question, and she forced herself to lift her head. Either she was hallucinating, or the two tall, imposing figures in the doorway were Dell and Brady.
Yelling for her.
“I don’t know why she wouldn’t be answering her phone.” This was from Dell. “Her Jeep’s out there, but Mr. Newberry hasn’t seen her.”
“Here’s why she’s not answering,” Brady said grimly, and crouched down to look at the pieces of her smashed phone.
Just as Lilah opened her mouth to say his name, he raised his head, his gaze landing unerringly right on her.
“Hi,” she said, voice nothing but a croak.
He rose and strode toward her. “You okay?” His voice was calm. Maybe that meant everything was just fine.
“I-I think I was hit.”
He was at the fallen ladder now, raising it with far more ease than she had. “Hit with what?” He broke off, focusing in on the drops of blood that had fallen from her to the ladder.
“What is it?” Dell asked, moving toward them.
“Blood. Hers, I think.” He never took his eyes off her. “Hold on, Lilah,” he said, climbing the ladder with agility and speed. “You hear me?”
She didn’t answer because she was busy shivering. Odd to be so cold and hot at the same time, and as a bonus, someone was sticking her arm with a hot poker with every heartbeat.
“Lilah. Open your eyes right now.”
Oh. Oh yeah, that was the problem. Still clinging to the beam, lying along it like she was on a balance beam, she tried to concentrate.
“Lilah, you hold on. Don’t you dare let go,” Brady told her.
That’s when she realized that she was weaving. And the rafter was shaking, trembling beneath her. And look at that, her hands kept slipping . . .
Suddenly Brady was right there, wrapping an arm around her waist, drawing her up against his body, his free hand running over her as he balanced for the both of them. When he got to her arm, she cried out and his face went grim.
“What is it?” Dell called up.
“She’s been shot and is going into shock.”
“What the fuck?”
Oh, look at that, Lilah thought, eyeing her arm. There was blood dripping—everywhere. “Mr. Newberry thought he was shooting at the raccoons. It was an accident.”
Brady cupped her face and forced it up so she could no longer see her arm. “Are you hit anywhere else?” Without waiting for an answer, he ran his hand over every inch of her, searching for more holes.
“Ouch,” she said weakly.
“I’ll kiss it later,” he promised. “Let’s go.”
She relaxed her death grip on the rafters and wrapped her good arm around his shoulder, burying her face in his neck. Her world tilted as he descended with one hand on the ladder, the other wrapped tightly around her. As soon as their feet were on solid ground, he slid his other arm beneath her knees and carried her out of the barn to Dell’s truck.
“Thought you weren’t a hero,” she murmured.
She thought she heard a rough, low laugh as he tore her shirt from her arm. “Christ.” He ripped off his shirt and used it to staunch the bleeding.
“How bad?” Dell asked him, stroking Lilah’s hair.
“Bullet’s still in there.”
Lilah used Brady’s now bare chest as a painkiller. As far as narcotics went, it was good. She smiled at the definition of muscles, the light smattering of hair that tapered to a line, vanishing into the loose waistband of his cargoes. She wanted to run a finger along it to find the hidden treasure, but then he pressed down on her arm and she cried out.
“I know.” Brady gathered her back into his arms, then sat in her spot, cradling her in his lap, pulling her in so tight she couldn’t breathe. “You’re my hero,” he murmured against her temple.
“I want to go home now.”
“You’re going to the hospital, sweetheart,” Dell said, getting into the driver’s seat.
“No,” she murmured. She hated hospitals. They reminded her of losing her grandma, but as she looked down, she saw that she was bleeding right through Brady’s shirt, and her world spun.
“It’s okay,” Brady said, holding her close. “I’ve got you now.”
That was a good thing, because that last little pinpoint of light faded, and Lilah fell into the darkness.
Brady entered Lilah’s bedroom balancing a tray. Nurse Nightingale, that was him. He set the tea and toast on her nightstand and eyed the white bandage on her arm, covering the spot where the bullet had penetrated her biceps.
“Lucky lady,” the doctor had said, and the words rang in Brady’s ears now as he sat at her side.She was white, pasty, and out cold.
The eighteen stitches, she’d managed. Dealing with the police and their questions as she’d assured everyone that one, she hadn’t been trespassing, and two, that Mr. Newberry had not in fact been trying to kill her, she’d handled as well. Sitting in a hospital room waiting to be released, though—that had been torture given how she’d hounded the hospital staff for her release papers.
The doctor had finally released her with a whispered “Good luck” to Brady beneath his breath as he left.
It had taken all three of them, Adam, Dell, and himself, to bring her home. And a silent battle of wills to see who would get to stay to take care of her. But then Adam had been called out on an SR call.
“I’m not leaving,” Dell said.
“Yes,” Lilah said groggily from her bed where Brady had set her. “You are.”
“Don’t, Dell. I’m too tired to fight with you, but if you want tears, I’ll work some up.”
Dell grimaced. “But—”
“I’ll cry all over you,” Lilah promised weakly as Brady pulled off her boots and covered her with a quilt. “Besides, you heard the doctor. I’m going to be fine. I just want to sleep off the drugs he gave me.”
“Actually,” Dell said, “he didn’t say you were fine. He said you were a pain in his—”
“Go,” Lilah said.
“You were shot because of me,” he said tightly. “I sent you out there.”