The silence was heavy. Not awkward, just . . . weighted. Unable to mistake the emotion coming from her for anything other than temper, Brady let out a breath and removed her sunglasses.
She blinked up at him from eyes that were clear and . . . not full of temper, as it turned out.
And somehow that was worse, far worse. “I have to go,” he murmured, hating himself in that moment.
“Yes,” she said, crossing her arms. “You have to go.”
He hadn’t expected her easy agreement and didn’t believe it. “It’s my job,” he said carefully.
“I know that, too.”
“Shut up, Brady.” She uncrossed her arms, grabbed his shirt, and yanked him in. The first brush of her lips was soft, gentle. Tender. As if she’d put her entire heart into it. Then she settled in and the kiss deepened, a hot, intense tangle of tongues that nearly brought him to his knees. Before he could recover, she gentled the connection again, retreating in slow degrees until her lips were nothing more than a barely there butterfly kiss. “Be careful with yourself,” she whispered huskily against his lips.
He didn’t move, his body still a breath from hers. She . . . wasn’t going to devastate him with guilt? For a moment he couldn’t quite wrap his head around that. Or the fact that she wasn’t going to even ask him to stay.
And suddenly he remembered how he’d reasoned with her when she’d had to give up Toby and then Sadie. He’d told her that if she’d found a loving place for the animals to live where they could be happy, it was okay to let them go. That haunted the hell out of him now, because apparently she’d listened and taken his words to heart.
Only she wasn’t a fraction as devastated at letting him go as she had been the animals. “I’m leaving,” he said again, just in case she hadn’t gotten the right idea.
“I know,” she said softly.
He just stared at her, and then shook his head. “Okay, wait a minute. Why is this so easy for you, letting me go?”
“You’ve made a career out of holding on to everything, pets, people . . . You gather them all to your side, in your heart, but when it’s me, you give me a smile and a kiss and tell me to be careful?”
She opened her mouth, then closed it. Then stabbed him in the chest with her finger, hard. “Well, what would you have me do, fall at your feet and beg you not to go?”
Yeah. Actually. A little bit.
Christ, he was one pathetic asshole.
She let out a mirthless laugh. “I care about you. I want you. And neither of those two things change whether you go or not. Do you understand the helplessness of that? And even then, honestly, I wouldn’t change any of it if I could.” She stabbed at him again. “So don’t you tell me I’m just letting you go. I hate that you’re going, but I’d rather have the pain of that than not having had you in my life at all.” She glared at him from brilliantly shimmering eyes, breath coming hard. “You going will leave a huge gaping hole.” She pressed her open hand to her chest. “Here. You’re in my heart, and there’s no way around that. I consider you mine, Brady. Mine.” A single, devastating tear fell and she swiped it angrily away. “But you need your happy place. If it’s not here, you have to go to it. And I need to let you.” She paused, let out a soft broken breath. “You taught me that.”
While he was still absorbing her words, and the utter anguish in which she’d spoken them, she stood up on tiptoe and brushed another soft kiss across his lips. His hands went to her h*ps to hold her against him and he closed his eyes, burying his face in her hair. “Lilah.” His voice was raw and matched his throat and the burning in his chest.
Her arms slid around his neck and for a moment she clung, hard. He felt a tremor go through her and then she whispered against his jaw. “It’s okay to go if that’s what your heart is telling you.” She pulled back and cupped his face, staring into it as if to memorize his every feature. “I’ll take Twinkles back when you go,” she whispered. And with one last long look, she left.
Shaken to his core, he sank to the pilot seat.
He’d gotten what he wanted.
He was free to go.
Shaking his head, he hopped down out of the helicopter and whistled.
Twinkles leapt to his feet from his spot under a tree in the shade and came running. Together they walked to his truck. Brady patted the passenger’s seat and Twinkles hopped up, taking the shotgun position. Brady had been left behind enough in his life to know that it sucked. No way was he doing it to the dog—his dog. He was taking Twinkles.
So why it still felt as though he were leaving his entire life behind, never mind his f**king heart, he had no idea.
This was his choice.
It was always his choice.
Nodding, he drove, refusing to look back in his rearview mirror.
Except he did.
He kept looking into his rearview mirror the entire drive to L.A. It took him all night. At LAX, just before dawn, he parked in long-term parking and started walking with Twinkles toward the terminal where the charters flew from. Tony had booked him a ride from here. “Not sure what our choices are going to be for you,” he told the dog. “Or exactly where Tony has booked us a ride to. But there are rules for four-legged creatures, so you’ll probably be crate-bound for this next leg of the trip.”
Twinkles didn’t look concerned, he was just happy to be involved. Brady shook his head and let himself run Lilah’s words back through his head.
I consider you mine, Brady.
I need to let you go. You taught me that.
She’d set free what she loved. She’d done so without knowing that she was his happy. She was his everything.
Christ, he was a total and complete jackass. Leaving her wasn’t going to make him happy at all. It was going to make him a very sorry sack of shit with too much pride for his own damn good.
He looked down at Twinkles, who was sniffing everything in his path. “I don’t want to do this.”
Well, that wasn’t quite true. He still wanted his job flying to all corners of the earth. He just wanted something else to go along with it.
He no longer wanted to work 24/7, never stopping or slowing because he had no reason to.
He had a reason. A five-foot-four, messy-haired, mossy-green-eyed reason named Lilah Young. He stopped walking. “Dell was right,” he said to Twinkles, who stopped, too, then sat on Brady’s foot. “I am a chickenshit bastard.”
He choked out a short laugh that was completely devoid of humor and pulled out his cell phone. “I can’t make this job,” he said to Tony.
“Where are you?”
“L.A., but I’m cutting out.”
“Again? Christ.” He gave a big sigh. “And the next job?”
“Maybe, but I’m going offline for a few days.”
“You’ve been offline for a month.”
“I need a little bit more time.”
“I’ll get back to you.”
Brady and Twinkles got a hotel room to catch up on some desperately needed sleep, then got up at dusk and once more drove straight through the night. As Sunshine came into view around dawn the next morning, Brady stopped at the 7-Eleven to fortify his nerves for what he was about to do. “Breakfast?” he asked the dog.
“Something with sausage. Got it.” He went inside and loaded up with breakfast burritos, bagels, and donuts.
“Looks like you’re buying breakfast for a crowd today,” the young woman said. She was the same woman who’d been manning the cash register his very first day in town, when she’d asked him if men really thought of sex 24/7.
“It’s actually more of a bribe than breakfast,” he said.
She popped a bubble with her gum and adjusted her purple and black polka-dotted glasses frames. “For Lilah?”
He’d almost forgotten that there were no secrets in this town.
“Honey,” she said, leaning on the counter, “I’m going to help you out.” She added a package of donuts and two bags of chips to the stack. “Trust me.” She patted his hand and gave him his total.
“That can’t be right. It’s not enough,” he said, looking over all the loot in front of him.
“Oh, the donuts and chips are on the house,” she said, bagging it all up. “You make our Lilah happy, and that’s worth more than the snack food.”
He didn’t know what to say. He wasn’t used to people knowing his business, but the reality was that here in Sunshine, Lilah was everyone’s business. “Thank you.”
She nodded and handed him his bag. “But you should know, screw up with her and I’ll never sell you another piece of crap food. Ever. And let me tell you, from one junk-food addict to another? Ever is a damn long time.”
“Understood,” he said, not telling her he’d already screwed up. Because he was going to do whatever it took to rectify the situation. As he turned to walk out, she tossed in an extra package of donuts.
“Just in case,” she said.
In case of what, he wasn’t sure, but he’d take all the help he could get.
Lilah stood in front of her outside kennels, hose in hand. The duck and the lamb she’d been boarding had left a mess. She was literally elbow deep in things that she didn’t want to think about. It was a very attractive look for her.
Not.Adding to the stress level was the fact that today was the first Saturday of the month. She had only a few minutes before she was due to work at Belle Haven’s monthly animal adoption clinic.
“My life,” she said to no one in particular, “completely sucks.”
Because he’d done it.
Brady had taken him and Twinkles and her shattered heart, and without even realizing that he had pieces of her with him, he’d gone.
She hadn’t slept, she hadn’t eaten, and it was all so ridiculous. She’d known he would go.
But she’d hoped . . .
The tears that she’d managed to hold at bay clogged her throat and, dammit, fogged up her sunglasses.
And perfect, now her nose was running.
She tried to shove her sunglasses to the top of her head with her forearm but succeeded only in making them crooked on her face and she sighed deeply.
And maybe a tear slipped.
This was all her own fault. She hadn’t told him she loved him. She hadn’t told him what it would mean for him to stay. She hadn’t let him know.
The thought brought a few more unwanted tears and further fogged her lens. She couldn’t see a thing. So when the hose hit a corner of one of the kennels and splashed up, it thoroughly drenched her with icy water and God knew what else.
“Crap!” She dropped the hose and reached out blindly for the towel she’d set on the railing behind her. Except her feet landed in something slippery and down she went.
For a stunned beat she just sat there on the ground, absorbing how bad every inch of her felt.
A truck rumbled up the road and she went still because she knew the sound of that truck. Great, and now her mind was playing tricks on her. It had to be Adam or Dell. Or maybe a customer. She sneaked a peek and gasped out loud.
It was Brady. He’d forgotten something. Dammit. She couldn’t take another good-bye. Keeping her back to the direction of the clearing where he was parking and—oh God—turning off his truck, she scrambled to her feet and grabbed the hose. Must. Look. Busy.
Even when covered in dirt and gunk.
No, scratch that. She hosed herself down as fast as she could because no way was she going to let the last view he had of her be like this. Because looking like she’d just been in a wet T-shirt contest was ever so much preferable. Damn, why hadn’t she put on a black T-shirt instead of a white one this morning? Now she looked like she was on spring break in Florida. Or on Girls Gone Wild.
Eat your heart out, Brady, this is what you’re leaving.
Shading her eyes from the sun, she aimed the hose at the kennels to look busy, refusing to turn and look at him as he got out of the truck.
She heard Twinkles’s little paws pounding the ground as he bounded through the open gate to her, butt wriggling happily along with his tail.
“Aw,” she murmured, hugging him close with her free hand, feeling her throat tighten when he licked her chin. “What did you guys forget, huh?” she murmured, cupping his face. “What are you doing here?”
Her heart dropped to her toes. Keeping her back to him, she concentrated on hosing out the kennels as if it was brain surgery.
“Can I come in?” he asked very quietly, pausing at the opened gate.
He’d never asked before. He bulldozed, quietly demanded, or just did whatever the hell he wanted.
But now he was asking . . .
Oh God. She couldn’t do this. She’d gotten used to the fact that he was going, and now he was standing here being sweet and gentle.
Okay, she hadn’t gotten used to the fact that he was going, and him being sweet and gentle was killing her.
“Can I come in,” he repeated.
She shrugged. “The gate’s open.”
“I don’t mean into the yard, Lilah.”
No, she really couldn’t do this. She was miserable and she’d lost sight of any positive reasons for him to go. If she had to say good-bye again, she was going to throw herself at him and cling. She nodded, swiping her eyes with her sleeve, probably smearing the last of her mascara while she was at it.