It wasn’t Lulu he was afraid of, and something of that must have shown on his face.
Dell studied him a moment, brow drawn. “I can trust you with her, right?”
“The lamb? Sure.”
When Dell only looked at him, Brady glanced at Lilah as she moved toward them and slowly shook his head. “Definitely not.”
“Christ,” Dell muttered, and swiped a hand down his face. “I’m going to hope to God you’re kidding.” And with that, he met Lilah halfway, kissed her cheek, shot one last long warning glance in Brady’s direction, and was gone.
Lilah came to a stop before Brady. “What was that?”
“You told him you couldn’t be trusted with me.”
Brady arched a brow. “So if you overheard, why did you ask?”
“Because I wanted to see what you would say. What kind of an answer was that?”
“What did you want me to say?” Brady asked her.
He shrugged. “It was the truth.”
She stared up at him, looking a little flummoxed at that. “Oh,” she breathed.
Yeah, oh. Just being near her like this—she smelled like mangoes tonight—drained some of the tension in him, in spite of himself. No matter what she thought, she was a sight for sore eyes, that was for damn sure. She wore snug, hip-hugging jeans and a lacy white T-shirt that was sheer enough to reveal the white cami beneath it and a faint hint of an equally white bra.
Which he found ridiculously, inexplicably hot. The past few nights he’d fantasized about Lilah. He’d told himself that he was an ass, but his self seemed completely unconcerned.
The lamb—Lulu, he presumed—stepped forward and tried to shove her face into his crotch, but duly warned by Dell, Brady backed up.
“Don’t be afraid. She’s sweet.”
At Lilah’s words, Lulu appeared to smile, pulling back her lips to show her teeth, which didn’t look sweet to Brady.
“She just wants to catch your scent,” Lilah assured him.
Pushing aside images of dropping to his knees and pressing his face to Lilah’s crotch to catch her scent, he grabbed the dogs’ leashes from Lilah. Given the unstableness of his brain tonight, it was best to get this over with.
Two hours later, he got the last shot of the night, a cat sitting on Jade’s desk daintily washing her face with the computer opened on the schedule behind her.
Lilah gathered up all the animals while Brady slipped his camera back into its case. “Think you have everything you need?”
He knew he didn’t. Not even close. She looked up from wrapping a leash around her wrist, caught his expression, and went still. “Are you going to kiss me again?”
“Yeah,” he said, surprising himself as he moved in. With two dogs, a duck, a lamb, and a cat between them, he cupped her face and kissed her. A brush of his lips to hers, once, twice. Unable to pull away without more, he settled in against her mouth, their lips the only points of their body touching. He’d meant it to be short and sweet, but she made a sound that went straight through him and the kiss deepened, a hot, intense tangle of tongues that ended abruptly when one of the dogs at their feet barked.
She let out a shaky breath and backed to the door. “I don’t know what that means.”
He did. It meant he was fucked. “It means good night.”
She nodded and turned away but not before he caught the quick flash of disappointment and hurt.
But she was gone.
For two days Lilah worked and avoided going to Belle Haven, and for two days all she thought about was Brady. She knew from Adam that Brady had started uploading pics for their website and brochures. She knew from Jade that he was also working on the Bell, and apparently upping foot traffic to the center because he was looking good while doing it.
A part of Lilah had wanted to go see but she’d been busy. Busy thinking about her growing restlessness and what she needed. She was pretty sure that what she needed was Brady, but she wasn’t sure he was on board with the program.“You okay?” Cruz asked after they worked the midday shift together.
“We’ve had three customers mention the new guy”—Cruz put air quotes around new guy—“and you’ve gotten a look on your face each and every time.” He gave her an exaggerated look of dazed lust, complete with dopey eyes and tongue hanging out.
“I never look like that,” she said, and shoved him. They were in the back, organizing outside playtime. They had two of the dogs separated from the others because they were elderly and liked sedate, quiet playtime, which they’d just had. They were now lying happily on the floor at Lilah’s feet, cooling down, and she took a moment to hug each of them.
“You do so get that look. When it’s been a while since you got laid.”
“Bite me, Cruz.”
“I’d love to bite you,” he said as they escorted the older dogs back to their area and took out their three other guests; Lulu and two rambunctious dogs. “But been there, done that. And you bit back, remember?”
She laughed and, not for the first time, felt grateful that they’d realized that they were so much better together like this, bicker-buddies. It’d have been awful if they couldn’t make this work because she cared about him so very much and knew the feeling was mutual. “Kissing and telling, Cruz?”
“Biting and telling.”
They took the rest of the animals outside for supervised playtime in the sunshine and fresh air. Later, when they were back inside, Cruz administered meds and Lilah moved to the kitchen to do the dishes and general cleaning. Afterward, she worked on paperwork until it was pickup and drop-off time.
Celia came in for Lulu. Celia Ayala had been Lilah’s grandma Estelle’s frenemy and bridge partner for fifty years—until Estelle had committed the ultimate faux pas and gone to the Big Bridge Game in the sky. Alone.
Lilah accepted Celia’s check and wrote up a receipt.
Celia was the approximate size and shape of an Oompa-Loompa, and thanks to the new tanning salon in town, she had the same skin tone as one, too. “Can you book me for next Thursday, dear? Oh, and also tell me about the new sexy hunk working at Belle Haven. What’s his name?”
“Brady,” Lilah said without thinking, making Celia grin. “What?”
“I hear you’re seeing him.”
“What? No. No. I’m not, I only—” Kiss him every chance I get . . . “No,” she said again weakly.
“Someone told me you’d been seen in his truck.”
Lilah sighed. “I hit it. I was tired and—”
“You work too hard. Listen, dear. Your grandmother—bless her ornery soul—agreed with me on one thing.”
“Are you sure? Because I never knew you two to agree on anything.”
Celia waggled a finger. “We agreed on this. You only get one life. So you need to find the right man. Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“Listen to you,” Celia chided. “You have a mouth on you, just like Estelle did.”
Lilah thought about her beloved grandma, who for all intents and purposes had been her mom, her dad, her everything, and smiled even though her chest felt too tight. “You miss her.”
“She drove me crazy.” Celia sighed. “But yes, I miss her. She was my last friend. The rest are all dead. Since I’m planning on living forever, it’s going to be lonely. Now stop changing the subject. I’m old, not stupid. We all know how much you gave up to care for her in the end, but she’s gone, Lilah. It’s your turn to live.”
“Then stop wasting time talking to old ladies. Go back to kissing the hunk.”
Lilah stared at her. “How did you know?”
“Well, honey, if you want to keep a man a secret, you don’t kiss him out in front of the bakery on Main.”
Later, Lilah was in the middle of an online lecture for her animal biology class when she got a call from Dell.
“Got a check for you,” he said. “For last week when you boarded those two beagles for us.”Belle Haven didn’t keep overnight guests; they paid the kennels to do that for them. “My favorite kind of call,” she said.
“And here I thought just hearing my voice was your favorite kind of call.”
“Oh no, it’s too late. You’ve given yourself away. You only want the money.”
“Yes, it’s ridiculous how fond of eating I’ve become.”
Dell was silent for a beat. “You were supposed to tell me if you need help.”
And wasn’t that just the problem. She hated needing help. Always had. “I’m fine, I was kidding.”
“I’ll bring the check over with dinner,” he said. “We’ll talk.”
Oh great. A talk. Where he’d try to butt in and she’d dance around her money problems. “No, I’ll come to you. I have some files for you, anyway. And I’m busy for dinner.”
She had a date with a very healthy, very green salad, followed by a little ice cream—or the whole pint, depending on how her studying went.
A few minutes later, Lilah walked to the center, eyeing the dark clouds drifting down from the peaks, turning into shreds of mist that gave substance to the raw wind. She zipped up her sweatshirt and picked up the pace. Either Mother Nature had forgotten it was summer, or she needed some Midol.
At Belle Haven, she went straight to the reception desk. Jade sat behind the counter working the phone and the computer at the same time with her usual calm, implacable efficiency, with a kitten sleeping in her lap. Behind her chair on the floor lay a 150-pound St. Bernard dog, snoring with shocking volume.
Jade had glorious strawberry blonde hair that she kept perfectly twisted on top of her head and sharp green eyes that didn’t take shit from anyone. Her clothes looked straight out of a magazine, some sort of belted shirt dress, bangles up one arm, and shoes to die for. She’d moved to Sunshine a few years ago from Chicago so she could ski her way through the winters. She and Lilah had since become good friends, so Lilah knew the real story, that Jade’s move hadn’t so much been a desire to ski as it’d been a need for some space from a tough situation.
“Check it out,” Jade whispered, nudging her chin in the direction of the windows.
Lilah’s attention was first caught by the very full waiting room and the women whose noses were practically glued to the windows leading to the side yard. “What’s going on?”
“That’s what I’m trying to show you. It’s our newest attraction.” Jade pointed outside, off to the right where the Bell had been parked for weeks now, ever since it had been delivered from Smitty’s airport across the meadow. From the hood the lower half of a male body stuck out. Scuffed work boots and long legs that led to—
“The best ass I’ve ever seen,” Jade whispered.
It was true. Brady absolutely had the best ass ever seen. Lilah took a minute to admire it.
“Don’t you think?” Jade asked.
“Well . . . he sure looks good in cargo pants,” she said carefully. “All those pockets for his stuff.”
“And you just know that not all of his . . . stuff is in his pockets.” Jade slid her a look. “You kiss him again?”
“What?” Lilah started guiltily. How the hell did everyone know this? “I don’t . . . I haven’t . . .”
“Main Street, Lilah,” Jade said patiently. “You might as well have sent a clip to You Tube yourself.”
Oh, good grief. “Dell said there was a check . . . ?”
Jade laughed, but took mercy on her. “In his office.”
Lilah made her way through the crowded reception area to the offices. Dell wasn’t behind his big desk, but there was an envelope leaning up against his computer with her name on it. In it was the check for services rendered, plus three hundred bucks in cash. “Oh, hell no.”
“Not enough?” he asked, coming into the room. He was wearing scrubs and a white lab coat, both emphasizing his tall, lean form in a favorable way. His charming smile only added to his appeal. It was the smile of a man who knew it rendered most females stupid.
“Don’t you smile at me.” She pulled out the three hundred dollar bills and slapped them down on his desk. “I don’t take pity cash.”
“Noted, but that’s not what that is. It’s a loan.” Clearly seeing the ready denial on her face, he added softly, “We just want to help, Lilah.”
Damn if that didn’t melt her. “You can. By believing in me.”
She sighed and hugged him hard. “The kennels are doing better this year, really. I’m going to be fine.”
He held her a minute, cheek pressed to the top of her head as he let out a long breath, a good indicator that she was being a pain in his ass. With a sigh of her own, she patted his chest, took the check, and left him. She was back at the main counter saying good-bye to Jade when the front door opened.
Brady strode inside, moving with that easy economical grace that spoke of a lifetime of discipline and military training. His T-shirt was snug around his broad chest and biceps, loose over his flat abs. He was streaked with grease and looking hot enough to be on the cover of Aviation as he stopped in front of Jade’s desk with a bundle in his hands. “Either of you know what the hell this is?”