Besides him, Dell let out a breath. “I was beginning to wonder if I was going to have to kick your ass to remind you.”
Brady let out a rare smile. Because it was true that Dell had kicked Brady’s ass, exactly once. Of course Brady had been drunk as a skunk at the time and already down for the count. They’d been teenagers, and once Sol had gotten hold of them, they’d all been down for the count because Sol had made them drink the rest of the stolen vodka, watching in stoic silence as each of them had puked up their guts. Probably not a condoned method of parenting, but it’d worked.
Brady had never overindulged again.
“I could have taken you even without the vodka,” Dell said, reading Brady’s mind.
“Hey, whatever helps you sleep at night.”
They both laughed softly, the tension gone. “When the Bell came into our possession,” Dell said, “I knew we had you.”
Brady blew out a breath. What the hell. No use denying that. He was here in the States with nowhere else pressing to be, and it was a sweet old chopper. “Yeah.”
“You going to stick, then?”
Chances were he’d stick all right. He’d stick out like a sore thumb. But he was used to that. And what the hell. He watched as below Lilah carefully picked back up her precious bundle, loving him up as she did so.
He wouldn’t mind being loved up by those arms, that was for damn sure. “For a month,” he heard himself say. “Just a month.”
Lilah took Toby back to the kennels. Actually, she had no idea what the dog’s name was since he hadn’t come with a collar, but he was an adorable mass of tangled fluff and looked like a Toby to her. He was also in desperate need of a bath, but getting him cleaned up turned out to be tricky since he told her he was deathly afraid of water.
Loudly.She sweet-talked him into calming down and carefully soaped him up, working around the stitches from his surgery, and ended up wearing more of the soap than he did. Keeping up a steady stream of soft cooing and baby talk seemed to soothe his concerns quite a bit.
“There,” she murmured. “Doesn’t that feel better, to be clean?” Giving him a final rinse, she wrapped him in a towel.
He watched her solemnly from the most adorable, soul-searching eyes she’d ever seen, then very carefully licked her face.
“My second kiss of the day,” she said.
“And the first?” Cruz asked, coming into the back, leading Lulu the lamb to her pen.
“Not telling,” Lilah said.
Lulu stretched her neck and tried to take a nip out of Cruz’s tush, and Lilah burst out laughing.
“That’s okay,” Cruz told the lamb. “All the ladies want to bite my ass. You can’t help yourself.”
Lilah rolled her eyes. “You leaving for your gig?”
“Yes. Unless you want to take a bite out of my ass. No?” he asked, grinning when Lilah just gave him a shove to the door. “Okay, but you’re missing out. I taste better than the jelly filling you have on your right boob.”
Lilah looked down. Strawberry jelly, from her toast. “Balls!”
She sighed. “I can’t afford to say ‘Goddammit.’ I’m out of cash for the swear jar. And stop looking at my boob!”
He fished a five out of his pocket and slapped it into her hand for her swear jar. “Even though I don’t like to hear a woman talk disparagingly about my second favorite body part,” he said on a laugh as he left.
Alone, Lilah began the afternoon routine of cleaning out cages, changing blankets, changing water bowls, and starting laundry. She fed everyone and administered any medicines required. Then she cleaned and disinfected the entire kennel.
After that, she dealt with all the animal pickups and drop-offs for the day, which they had scheduled for certain hours only to make the running of the place go a little smoother. Then she took their overnight guests—all dogs today, plus Abigail—for one last walk before tucking everyone in for the night.
With that done, she faced her desk. She was behind in the paperwork and needed to type up their monthly news-letter and file, not to mention a little thing called study.
It used to stress her out how much endless work there always seemed to be, but it piled up in the best of times and she’d learned to let some of the little stuff go.
She gave Toby an extra treat, and while he wolfed it down, she went to her computer and pulled up the database of people in town who were willing to foster animals and had already been thoroughly checked out and approved. She ran through the list, calling potential candidates and hitting bingo on the third try. A woman named Shelly who worked at the rec center had lost her dog to a coyote earlier in the year. Lilah didn’t know Shelly personally, just in passing, but she was relieved to find her so ecstatic about Toby. Shelly said she could get him first thing in the morning if Lilah wouldn’t mind meeting her in town since the roads out to the kennels were still bad from the rains and Shelly only had a VW Beetle. They arranged to meet at the bakery, which worked for Lilah. Two birds with one stone and all that.
She’d have to eat a bag of carrots tonight to make up for the donuts she’d consume in the morning but it would be worth it.
With that accomplished, Lilah broke her own rules by taking Toby home with her, letting him sleep on a soft blanket next to her bed.
Sadie hopped up onto the mattress to look disdainfully down at the rumpled, tired dog.
“You were a stray, too,” Lilah reminded her.
Sadie gave her a banal stare.
“Stop. It’s just for the night. And you will not smack him around.”
Sadie lifted her nose in the air, turned in a circle, and daintily sat with her back to Toby, as if to drive the point home that he wasn’t even worth watching.
Sighing, Lilah pulled open her books to study, but she had trouble concentrating. Her mind was on the new strays. Toby, of course, but also the six foot, blue-eyed, badass stray who’d kissed like heaven on earth.
The next morning started at the usual crack of dawn. Sadie mewled a protest at the blare of the alarm. Not Toby. He was much perkier than he’d been the night before, even seeming to smile at Lilah as he padded with her into the small bathroom. He lay quietly on the rug while she showered—cherry blossom soap today—and yelped along with her as the hot water gave way to cold.
Lilah dressed and headed outside, the dog so close on her heels that he ran into her when she stopped short.
Early as it was, someone had been up earlier than her because her Jeep was in her yard waiting for her, a note taped to the windshield:
Hey Trouble—Note that the brake is not the skinny one on the right but the fat pedal on the left.
Adam humor. Lilah sighed and looked the Jeep over. The front end was still dented in pretty good, but it’d been hammered out a bit, and best of all, the engine started.She and Toby turned away from the Jeep and headed inside the kennels, where Lilah made her way through her morning routine: feeding, watering, walking, cleaning . . . From seven to nine was drop-off/pickup time. This was when clients could drop off their animals for the day or pick up from the night before. They had another two-hour stretch at the end of the day for the same thing. At nine thirty, she put a sign on the door saying she’d be back at ten and told all the animals she’d return. Time to bring Toby to Shelly.
Lilah bribed Toby into the Jeep with his antibiotics wrapped in a piece of cheese, which he took with a sweet lick, and then they took off. Ten minutes later they stood outside the town bakery. “We can’t go in,” she told Toby. “I didn’t eat any carrots last night.”
Toby looked sad. She couldn’t blame him. But she’d promised herself to eat healthier and she meant it. “Of course, we could buy, say, a bran muffin. Or . . . carrot cake.” Yeah, that was brilliant. Cake and veggies, all in one. “Let’s do it,” she said, and Toby’s ears perked up. Clearly, he agreed wholeheartedly.
“Plus,” Lilah said, “it’s cold, right? It’ll be much warmer inside. And Dee allows dogs—she even has a canister where she has doggie treats. You’ll see.”
Toby nodded. He was on board. So Lilah opened the door. They were immediately blasted by the heated oven air and the scent of fresh sugary goodness and coffee. Her stomach growled. “Let’s get in line,” she said. “For carrot cake.”
The bakery was set up buffet style, meaning customers grabbed a tray for themselves and then had to walk by the open displays of all the goods in order to get to the cash register.
Cruel, cruel setup.
Lilah grabbed a tray, and oh look at that, two old-fashioned chocolate-glazed donuts somehow landed on it. “I don’t know, must be fate,” she told Toby, who followed closely on her heels, the leash slack and unnecessary.
The guy in front of her turned around and smiled. “Thought you didn’t believe in fate.”
Nick McFarlan, who ran the hardware store down the street. Lilah and Nick had gone together on and off through high school and had gone to prom together. He’d been her first kiss, her first boyfriend, her first everything.
Until they’d gone their separate ways for college, breaking up to experience new things. Lilah had done that all right, only it hadn’t exactly been as positive as she’d hoped for. When Nick had returned home after college, he had wanted to pick up right where they’d left off. But Lilah had been too raw and devastated over two unexpected things—her grandma’s death and a bad relationship experience while she’d been away.
So they’d fallen into a sort of friendship zone instead. Nick, buying two dozen donuts for his customers, smiled. “You’re looking good,” he said softly.
She laughed. “I’m wearing Carhartts.”
“I have fantasies about those Carhartts.”
“Okay, I have fantasies about what you might be wearing beneath them.” He leaned in playfully as if to peek for himself.
He grinned. “Admit it, one of these days I’m going to wear you down.”
She smiled, but the truth was he probably could. Like Cruz, he was good-looking, kind and familiar.
But she was tired, oh so very tired of familiar.
Dee smiled as she rang him up. “You can look beneath my Carhartts, Nick. Any time.”
Game, he looked her over. She was ten years older than them but still trim and pretty. And wore a man-eater smile. “You’re not wearing Carhartts,” Nick said.
Dee leaned over the counter, eyes sultry and laughing. “For you, I’d buy some.”
While Lilah waited for them to stop flirting, a jelly-filled donut fell onto her tray, all by itself, joining the two old-fashioned glazes. “Oh, look at that,” she murmured to Toby. “Fruit.” She started in on that one first and moaned in sheer bliss. “God, so much better than carrots.”
“You’re going to start a riot.”
At the low, familiar voice in her ear, she went still, then slowly turned to face Brady.
He was halfway through his own donut—a chocolate-frosted by the looks of it. And good Lord, talk about starting a riot. He was wearing army flight cargoes today and a soft-washed long-sleeved polo that was form-fitted to his toned body.
“Hey,” she said.
“Hey back, Crash.”
“Okay,” she said. “I object to that—” But she was talking to air because he’d crouched in front of Toby, elbows braced on his thighs as he offered a hand for the dog to sniff. “How’s he doing today?”
“Good.” She kneeled down as well. “But he’s really skittish, so you need to—”
Toby licked Brady’s hand, then arched up to lick his chin as well.
“Go slow,” Lilah finished on a sigh.
Toby was rewarded by Brady with a behind-the-ear scratching that had the little guy sliding to the floor in a boneless heap of pleasure.
“Ah, good boy,” Brady praised, giving him an all over body rub that left Lilah yearning for the same.
Brady rose fluidly on his feet, and for a beat, she found herself eye to eye with his flat, zero-fat stomach. That he could even have a flat, zero-fat stomach with the way he ate really irritated the hell out of her.
And/or turned her on. She couldn’t decide which. It was early yet.
A small smile curved his sexy mouth as he offered her a hand, telling her that he knew of her battle, and hell if that didn’t settle it. Irritation.
He gestured to the choice on her tray. “Nice.”
She winced, then realized he wasn’t judging her but truly complimenting her choice of breakfast. “I almost got one of those,” she admitted, gesturing to his chocolate-frosted. “But I didn’t eat carrots last night.”
Nodding as if this made perfect sense, he sank strong white teeth into his donut, licking chocolate frosting off his upper lip. “Mmm . . . ”
Her mouth watered. “I’ll give you a piece of mine for a piece of yours.”
His eyes darkened and he immediately broke off a large part of his donut and offered it to her. She did the same and felt his warm breath brush over her fingers before he sank his teeth into her jelly-filled.
Eyes on hers, he smiled as he chewed and swallowed. “Yeah, that’s good, too. Hey!” He pulled his tray back and looked at the second chunk she’d quickly snagged from his donut.
“Sorry,” she said with an easy grin. She wasn’t sorry. At all. And she might have laughed at the look on his face as he studied what was left, but she was up next at the cash register. She gently nudged Toby forward, as just ahead, Nick picked up his bag and turned to her.