A big hand pried the hose from her fingers. The water shut off, and then that hand was back, turning her to face him.
Fingers slid along her jaw and forced her head up. He looked . . . wary. Not something she expected. He was dressed for the job, or so she assumed, in his usual cargoes, boots, and a nondescript button-down with the usual myriad pockets. He was carrying something, but she couldn’t pay attention to that at the moment.
And if he was trying to intimidate with the solemn expression, the sunglasses were a nice touch.
Reaching up, she took them off of him.
He stood still and let her look her fill, his mouth unsmiling. He had a network of fine lines around his eyes, more from the sun than age. His eyes were stark and clear.
And utterly implacable.
He reached for her sunglasses, but she needed the barrier, the wall to hide behind, so she took a step back.
She closed her eyes behind the lenses. Which, oh good, were still crooked on her nose. And here she’d thought she might feel stupid.
“Look at me.”
She opened her eyes and saw what he had cradled between his free hand and his chest.
A box of goodies from 7-Eleven. Be still her heart. “Breakfast?” she asked, and look at that, her voice was perfectly clear. No way to tell that she was broken.
“I was thinking more along the lines of a bribe,” he said.
Ignoring her question, his gaze searched her face with that quiet intensity of his, the one that made her heart roll over and expose its tender underbelly. “Are you crying?” he asked.
“No. I just cut up an onion. Yes, I’m crying, you big, unfeeling, insensitive . . . ”
“I was going to say ass, but okay.”
He nodded and set down the box of food on a fence post, lifting a hand to sweep his thumb beneath one of her eyes. “I’m sorry,” she whispered. “I didn’t mean the ass part.”
Though his eyes remained very, very serious, his mouth twitched. “Just the unfeeling, insensitive part?”
Again she lifted a shoulder. “If the shoe fits.”
With an exhale of air, he took her hand. “I’m in.”
Confused, she lifted her face, forgetting for a moment that she was a complete disgusting wreck. “What?”
His eyes were dark and still very solemn. “I’m in this,” he said.
She stared at him. “Define ‘this,’” she said very carefully. “Because if you mean you’re here, in the kennels, I’m going to hurt you. Badly.”
“Let’s start with where you are,” he said. “You’re here.” Taking her hand, he pressed it to his chest above his heart.
Beneath her palm she could feel the reassuring heat and strength of him.
And his heart, beating steady and sure.
“I haven’t had enough caffeine for this,” she whispered. “And I’m easily confused. I’m going to need more words here.”
“I love you, Lilah.”
Her heart stopped dead in her chest. “Okay,” she said shakily. “Those are some damn fine words.” She swallowed. “You came back to tell me you loved me?”
“And . . . that’s supposed to make it easier to let you go again?”
“That, and the fact that I intend to come back. Every single time. If you’ll have me. And plus,” he said, suddenly sounding uncharacteristically unsure of himself, “I brought junk food.”
“True,” she managed, nodding, throat so tight she struggled to speak. “And not that the junk food isn’t perfect, but the other thing. I need you to explain the other thing to me, Brady.”
“I thought the I-love-you was self-explanatory.”
“Oh my God. The coming-back thing! The every-single-time thing!”
Some of the wariness drained and he tugged her close, hauling her up against him, making her gasp. “Oh, don’t! I’m wet and very possibly wearing doggie puke—”
Ignoring that, he wrapped his arms around her and buried his face in her hair. He was taking comfort in her, she realized with a shock, something he’d never done before, and it touched her deep to her core. “Oh, Brady.” Unable to hold back, she hugged him as tight as she could. “I love you so much.”
He kissed her. It was a really great kiss, too, deep and soul searching, and by the time he lifted his head, he wasn’t breathing any more steady than she. Dropping his forehead to hers, he closed his eyes. “For as long as I can remember,” he told her, “from the time I was just a stupid little kid, to being in the military, to working as a pilot for hire, I’ve lived my life as purposely uncomplicated as possible. You changed that.”
She winced. “Because I’m . . . complicated?”
“Yeah.” He smiled, and it spread to a grin when she frowned. “Turns out, I like complicated,” he assured her. “But I’ve always thought of myself as a wanderer, a guy with no roots, no home base.”
Maybe even a guy who couldn’t be saved.
He didn’t say those words but she felt them from him, and it broke her heart.
“It changed,” he said before she could speak. “It changed because Adam and Dell nag like a couple of old women. It changed because of one silly dog. It changed because of a woman with a fierce, loyal, warm heart, a woman who refuses to back down for anything.”
She melted against him. “I back down for donuts. I’m a’ho for donuts.”
A smile crossed his face. “I know, I count on that.”
She smacked him and he smiled and took her hand. “What’s it going to be, Lilah?”
It wouldn’t be easy. Despite how much she loved him, he came with flaws. He was impatient, gruff, demanding . . . but she kind of liked the demanding part.
Besides, she was no picnic herself. She was flawed, too, as flawed as they came. He was waiting for her answer, his eyes holding more emotion than she’d ever seen from him. She rested her cheek against the soft cotton of his shirt. “You were never lost,” she whispered.
“I know that, too. Now. Thanks to you.” He drew a long breath. “My home base is here, Lilah.”
“No. With you. It’s you, you’re my home base, wherever you are. In the damn magical lake, cleaning shit out of the stalls, playing Uno. It’s all you. You’re it for me.”
“You’re good at this,” she murmured.
He choked out a laugh. “If I were good, I’d have done this before driving all the way to L.A. and back.” Cupping her face, he caught a tear on his thumb. “I’ve always been on my own. I liked it that way. No one waiting on me, depending on me in any way. I thought that meant I had it all, but that’s not how it works. You taught me that. You showed me what it means to belong. I need you, Lilah. I need you with me, loving me. I didn’t realize how much until I tried to go.”
“Sort of like home is where the heart is?”
“Yes. And mine is in the palm of your hand.”
She slid her fingers into his hair as the last piece of her broken heart clicked together. “Oh, Brady.”
“I mean it. Life before you . . . It wasn’t the same. I wasn’t the same. I can’t imagine being without you.”
“That’s good, too,” she whispered. “That’s probably going to get you good and laid.”
“I’m counting on it.”
She laughed and he lifted his head, his eyes fierce and intense on hers. “I always thought love was a weakness,” he said. “That might still be the case, but I don’t want to be without you. You’re it for me, Lilah. You make me a better man, you make me feel . . . ”
“What?” she said breathlessly when he paused.
“Everything. You make me feel everything.”
They showed up for the animal adoption clinic at Belle
Haven together, hand in hand. They were late, because Brady had taken Lilah back to her cabin for a little review session on exactly what loving each other meant.In the shower, of course, since she’d been such a mess.
Now she was clean but flushed, and her heart rate was still a little bit elevated as they walked into the reception area and stopped traffic.
Jade’s fingers were a whirl on her keyboard. Dell stood in the doorway holding a file. They both went utterly still.
Jade took in the look on Lilah’s face, the one that no doubt said Just Fucked, and let out a slow smile.
Dell’s brow shot up.
Then the door opened behind them, hitting Lilah in the butt.
It was Adam, holding a handful of leashes, surrounded by a pack of golden retrievers, all suited up in their SR vests. He was clearly in the middle of a training session and was followed by one of his students—the ever-uptight Holly.
Even attending a dog-training class she was wearing a business suit and heels. She was frowning, and when Adam stopped so suddenly, she plowed into the back of him.
“Adam,” she started. “You can’t just walk away in the middle of a class. You—”
“Shh,” he said, and they all shushed.
Every single one of them in the place shushed.
Adam locked gazes with Brady.
“Dr. Death!” someone whispered from a waiting room chair.
Beside her, Lilah felt Brady tense. She knew it was important to him that Adam and Dell accept him. And the town, too.
“You forget something?” Adam asked.
“Yes,” Brady said. “A few things, actually.”
When he didn’t expand, Dell laughed softly from across the room. “You going to fill us in or just stand there blocking traffic?”
“I forgot to tell you that the Bell sticks at two hundred and fifty feet,” Brady said. “You have to baby the throttle, ease into it. Anyone who flies it should know that.”
“We told you,” Adam said. “We don’t have plans for anyone to fly it except you.”
“Well then, I’ll make a note of it,” Brady said.
Dell was smiling as he came close and clapped Brady on the biceps hard enough to knock him back a step. “You didn’t come back for the Bell. You came back for the girl. Our girl.”
“Yes.” Bridge wrapped an arm around Lilah’s neck and pulled her in, pressing a kiss to her temple. “I came back for the girl.”
There was a collective “a w w w w” from the waiting room. Mrs. Sandemeyer stood up and pointed at Brady. “I’m first in line for you.”
“He’s taken,” Lilah said.
“I meant for him to see my baby.” Mrs. Sandemeyer gestured to the dog at her feet.
“You do know he’s not actually licensed in anything animal related,” Dell said. “Right?”
“I don’t care. He helps out, I’ve heard he helps out. He escorts the patients into the exam rooms. I’m ready to be escorted.”
“What if I live up to my nickname?” Brady asked.
“I’m more afraid this line will take too long and I’ll miss bingo tonight.”
Dell grinned and reached behind the desk for the sign-up clipboard. “You in?” he asked Brady, holding the clipboard out.
Brady cupped Lilah’s face with one hand and held her against his body with his other as he kissed her, sending a bolt of happy right down to her toes. “I’m in.”