“Quack,” Abigail said.
With a low laugh, Lilah opened the door and managed a smile at her business partner, Cruz Delgado. “I’m back. Again.”
Cruz’s perfectly toned hard body was still where it had been two minutes ago when she’d come running in—sprawled flat on his back in the center of their greeting room, with Lulu on top of him.
Lulu was a lamb that thought she was a puppy. She belonged to one of their clients who was out of town for a few days, and she sometimes needed a little extra TLC in the middle of her day. Okay, all of the time she needed a little extra TLC. Lulu was a ’ho for TLC. “How many times do I have to tell you,” Lilah said to the lamb. “Cruz is mine.”
From the floor, Cruz grinned, then pushed Lulu off of him and sat up. His silky dark hair fell into his face, but he shoved it back, flashing laughing melted-chocolate eyes Lilah’s way. “She was feeling lonely. We were playing tag. She won.” He rose to his feet, scooped Abigail up, and disappeared into the back. When he returned without the duck, he took the box from Lilah’s arms next and smiled down at the three sleeping babies. “They were good for you?”
“Not even close, the little heathens. Don’t get me started.”
Cruz looked out the window at the truck turning around in the front yard. “So where’s your Jeep?”
She didn’t really want to talk about it, not when she could still hear Brady’s truck’s motor, just the sound making her ni**les hard. “The Jeep’s on Main. Don’t ask. Today’s crazy enough. We have a full house, and I have a message that there’s a new rescue at Belle Haven.”
She and Cruz had rotating shifts that allowed the kennel to be open for enough hours in the day to be effective. They traded off between two shifts—six A.M. to two P.M., and noon to eight P.M.—with part-time help from high school kids on the weekends and as needed.
Lilah typically took the early shift because Cruz didn’t do early. But he had a gig tonight in Coeur d’ Alene, where he moonlighted as a bass guitarist in a cover rock band, so he’d come in at six o’clock.
Along with the kennels, Lilah was the go-to person in town when there was an abandoned animal. There was no official humane society in the area, so if an animal needed temporary shelter, she was it. This came mostly from her inability to bear seeing anything suffer and the fact that she got far too attached to every animal she met. The rescue part of the business was extremely nonprofit and depended on grants and donations, so Lilah—along with Cruz—worked hard to keep the kennels afloat.
Their only source of income. A typical workday began at the crack of dawn with the day’s client files spread out in front of her. She reviewed all the pets coming in or going out and decided where they would be kept. The facility had several sections: the outside pens, the inside pens, and the inside playroom, where the friendly, well-adjusted animals could hang out together under careful supervision. The not-so-friendly and grumpy older clients, were separated out from the pack and dealt with individually. It was usually those animals that claimed Lilah’s heart the fastest.
Part of the morning’s record-keeping process always involved reviewing any other important events such as vet appointments, client visits, and employee notes. In today’s case, there’d been an abandoned dog dumped off at Belle Haven, the veterinary center a half mile down the road.
Belle Haven was run by her two closest friends, Adam and Dell. They were holding the dog for her. She’d pick him up and care for him until she placed him in a foster home. But first she looked herself over. “I got up too late to grab a shower. I’m going to go take a quick one now before I head to Belle Haven.”
“Need me to soap your back?”
She slid Cruz a long look. “Been there, done that, remember?”
“I remember it was good.”
“Uh-huh.” They’d dated for approximately two weeks several years back, until they’d realized they were far more suited for this, for a friendship. “Except for the part where we drove each other crazy,” she reminded him.
“Yeah.” He blew out a sigh. “Maybe you could work on not driving me crazy.”
She laughed. Living in a small town had made it hard for her to find a guy she meshed with. There weren’t all that many to choose from in the first place, and the few that there were, she’d known a long time. Forever.
She loved Cruz, but they were day and night when it came right down to it. And the biggie: she wasn’t in love with him, and she never would be.
Ditto for him. He liked to be the center of a woman’s universe, and she had too many things in her orbit to give herself wholly. Luckily, they’d both survived the attempt, and so had their business. “Let me guess—Marie dumped your sorry ass again?”
He shrugged. “Little bit, yeah.”
Lulu bumped her head into Lilah’s thighs until Lilah bent and stroked the lamb’s ears. “What did you do this time?”
He sighed. “I forgot our anniversary.”
“What anniversary? You’ve only been dating a few months.”
“Not that kind of anniversary.” When he waggled a brow, she rolled her eyes.
“TMI. And just make it up to her. I’m sure you can figure out how.”
He was thinking about that when Lilah headed out. She lived in a small cabin next door, and when she slipped inside the small cozy place, she sighed. It was neat and clean and warm, and unlike just about everything else in her life, all hers.
But even with the three years that had gone by, it was still too quiet without her grandma’s cheerful voice.
Lilah looked down at the three-legged black cat winding her way around her ankles. There were rescues coming in and out of her life, waiting patiently for the right home, but Sadie was her favorite. Lilah knew that wasn’t fair, but tell that to her heart. Twice she could have placed Sadie with a foster home, but she hadn’t been able to do it.
Whenever there was even a hint of an animal being fragile, she had a hard time letting it go to an adoptive family. And though Sadie wasn’t fragile, she was special.
Okay, so the truth was, they were all special to her. She couldn’t help it, she just couldn’t make herself abandon anything, ever. After all, she knew what that felt like.
“Mew,” Sadie said, bumping her little head to Lilah’s calf.
Lilah scooped her up and nuzzled her close.
Sadie was deceptively small, and it made her look like a kitten even though she was full grown. The mistake was in thinking that she had a kitten’s temperament. She didn’t. She was ornery as hell.
“Miss me today?”
Sadie blinked up at her sleepily, the rumble of a purr thick in her throat as she leaned in—and bit Lilah’s chin.
Rubbing her chin, Lilah moved to the window. Brady’s truck might be gone, but the memory of his mouth on hers was not. He was a bit more attitude-ridden than I usually go for, but trust me, it worked for him.” She met Sadie’s narrowed gaze. “Hey, don’t judge me. It’s been a long time for me.”
And she’d been lonely.
The truth was, she needed . . . something.
Actually, someone. She needed someone. But Sunshine was small, and the problem wasn’t helped by the fact that Adam and Dell tended to watch over her like they were her big brothers, making it clear that anyone with less-than-honorable intentions were risking life and limb.
Which had left her with slim pickings and a secret yearning for a guy with some not-so-honorable intentions.
Like Brady . . .
She knew why Adam and Dell did it. They’d been the ones to help her pick up the pieces when she’d come back to Sunshine during her second year of college to quietly and completely fall apart. The reasons had been complicated, but in short, her grandma had died and she’d let a guy devastate her. It’d taken a while, but eventually she’d picked up the pieces and moved on. Gotten stronger. Adam and Dell knew this, but old habits were hard to break. “Is it so wrong to want a guy in my bed?” she asked Sadie.
Sadie just stared at her with those pale green eyes, and Lilah sighed. Much to her annoyance, she’d been fairly unsuccessful at getting any man she knew to cross Adam or Dell. Fairly, because certain guys were just good at being sneaky and getting around the watchdogs.
Cruz, for one.
But she didn’t count Cruz because she didn’t ache for him.
She wanted to ache, dammit.
Her thoughts drifted to Brady and she shivered. “He kissed me,” she told Sadie.
Actually, she’d kissed him first, and then he’d taken over. And oh boy how he’d taken over, with that bone-melting aggression that had seriously rocked her world. It’d taken her right off her axis, in a good way, a way she’d been unconsciously needing quite badly.
And she’d hit his truck. “God,” she moaned, and covered her face. “I am such an idiot.”
“Okay, no opinions from the peanut gallery, thank you very much.” She pulled out her cell phone and speed-dialed Dell. The three of them had gotten tight a few years back, when the guys had bought the property down the road from hers and built the animal center. They had no family to speak of and she’d just lost her grandma so they’d created a tight-knit family of their own.
Dell’s phone went right to voice mail, so she tried Adam. Same thing. “I had an I Love Lucy moment,” she admitted in her message. “A doozy. I’m going to shower, then head over to get the rescue dog and I’ll tell you guys about it then. Oh, and I’m sort of going to need a little help with the Jeep.”
The Belle Haven center was close enough to Coeur d’Alene and neighboring smaller towns like Sunshine to serve domesticated animals but it was also ideally located in ranching country to specialize in bigger animals, both wild and ranching-based as well. Dell ran the place with a growing staff and a reputation that had spread to the entire northern state area. Adam was in search and rescue. He trained and bred dogs for SR teams across the country and was also extremely well known—much to his discomfort.
Lilah set her phone down and stripped on her way to the bathroom, passing her kitchen table in the process, which was still strewn with her laptop and books. She’d fallen asleep there sometime past midnight and had woken with a page from her biochem book stuck to her face.
She still hadn’t finished studying and had a paper due and a midterm coming up in both physics and animal biology, but that would have to wait. She let the baggy, grungy work clothes fall where they might. They’d suited their purpose this morning cleaning out stalls, but they sure hadn’t suited her purpose to meet an enigmatic stranger. She wondered what he’d thought of her, then told herself it didn’t matter.
Besides, he’d kissed her—so how put off by her appearance could he have been?
She let the water pound over her body and then turned to her shelf, filled with her guilty pleasure—soaps and scrubs of all scents. Coconut, she decided. She felt like being a coconut today.
As the warm scent permeated the bathroom around her, she relaxed, standing there under the spray for long moments, dragging it out as long as she could, in no hurry to get on with the rest of her day.
“Ack!” she screeched when the water went suddenly icy, as it did every day thanks to her ancient water heater. Shivering, she stepped out of the shower and onto the mat of her teeny bathroom, banging her knee on the toilet, which was the last straw. “Shit!”
Sadie, sitting in the sink prissy as could be, smirked.
“Shit doesn’t really count as a bad word,” Lilah said in her own defense as she grabbed a towel. “It’s practically a legitimate adjective.”
Sadie lifted her back leg to wash her lady town.
“Yeah, yeah.” Lilah bent for her clothes and shoved her hand into the front pocket to pull out a dollar. She walked it to the kitchen and dropped into her swear jar on the counter. The jar had been Mrs. Morrison’s idea, the owner of a parrot who’d stayed with Lilah for a week last month when Mrs. Morrison had gone on a Mexican cruise. When she’d come home, her parrot had a new vocabulary made up of “crap,” “shit,” and “Dammit, Cruz!”
The jar had at least fifty bucks in it.
When it reached two hundred, Lilah was going to splurge on a spa day. At this rate, she’d have it by next week.
She pulled on fresh jeans and a scooped-necked T-shirt, then dropped two pieces of bread into her toaster, one of them being the heel because she needed to go grocery shopping, a chore she put up there with cleaning out the crates at the kennels. When the toast popped up, the lights in the kitchen flickered and went out. She’d blown the fuse again. She swallowed the very bad four-letter word on the tip of her tongue because she was broke and grabbed a new fuse from the stack in the drawer.
The cabin needed work more than she needed her next breath of air, but for now, with business loans hanging over her head and school debt looming, Lilah was like a drowning victim going down for the last count. She replaced the fuses as they blew—which was all the time—because it was still cheaper than trying to redo the entire electrical in the place, something that needed to be done sooner than later. Just thinking about it had her chest tightening.
Save the stress, she told herself, for when you have a spare pint of double-fudge ice cream to go with it. Sighing, she looked at the toast. She had to skip the butter because it was healthier that way—and also because then she could justify the ice cream later. But she did add strawberry jelly, because hey, that was a fruit.