Their reception area was large and airy, with wideplanked wood floors lined with comfortable benches for waiting. At one end was a long counter—Jade’s—and behind it was the hub of the entire place.
She ran this front room like a drill sergeant, and half the time Dell wanted to put his hands around her neck and squeeze.
The other half of the time he wanted to put his hands on her for something else entirely. Since he was fond of living, he kept both these urges to himself.
“What are we going to do with the poor thing?” Jade asked. “Take her home? Oh, wait. You never take any of your women home.”
This was true. He didn’t bring women home.
He went to their place. He gave the kitten a cursory look over. Other than being far too skinny, she seemed healthy enough. “She’ll need to be spayed and vaccinated.”
“Want me to call Lilah for tonight?” Jade asked.
Lilah ran the kennel next to Belle Haven, and she was also the Humane Society as well as one of Dell’s closest friends. Lilah would take the kitten and keep her until she could be placed in a good home. “That’d be best,” he said. “Because I have a—”
“Date,” she said, swiveling her chair to give him her back. “Shock.” She went back to closing up.
Everything had its place with her. Files were always meticulously filed; the copier, fax, and computer were carefully covered to protect from dust. Pencils, pens, and assorted other equipment placed into their spots in drawers. Dell never got tired of watching her, and never failed to smile when the last thing she did was consult her various to-do spreadsheets to make sure everything had been done, even though she knew damn well it had been.
She never forgot a thing.
“It’s not a date,” he said. Or not exactly. “I’m heading into Coeur d’Alene for a friend of a friend’s birthday party.”
“Yeah, I know. I get the messages on the machine, remember?” She clicked over to another of her spreadsheets on the computer. “Your friend of a friend left a message reminding you that he wants to introduce you to—and let me give a direct quote here”—she read from her screen—“Mandy, a stacked blonde who’s hoping to play dirty doctor with a doctor.” Jade swiveled back to arch a brow in his direction.
He shrugged. “You can’t believe all of what Kenny says.”
Her expression was classic don’t mess with me. “What percentage of what Kenny says can we believe?”
“Half.” He lifted a shoulder. “Maybe forty percent.”
“Okay, so by sheer odds, you’re either meeting a stacked blonde, or playing dirty doctor.”
Dell laughed and came around the counter. Good Christ, had she smelled that delicious all day long? He leaned over her chair and took another whiff.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Seeing what’s left on your spreadsheet.”
“Hey.” She pushed him with her shoulder. “Personal space intrusion.” She pushed him again as she dialed Lilah. She had to leave a message, which she did while keeping a narrowed eye on him at the same time. The same sort of narrowed eye the kitten still had on him.
Two females, both suspicious. Both wary.
Both having been hurt.
Dell would have laid money down that Jade had no idea how much of herself she gave away when she looked at him like that. And to be fair, she was good at hiding.
But he was better. The skill had been hard earned from his growing-up years, further honed by the nature of his job. There were no words when it came to animals, and out of necessity he’d become the master at reading anyone and anything. He could see past Jade’s dazzling clothes and tough-girl exterior, past the uptight perfectionist to the vulnerable woman beneath.
Yeah, the woman was definitely hiding.
What he didn’t know was why. He had a few ideas, none of which he liked, but whatever the reason, it made him a little heartsick for her, it the same way he felt for the kitten, sitting quiet but not compliant in the crook of his arm. Unfortunately, he knew without a shadow of a doubt that only the kitten was going to allow him to help her. He smiled down at her as he stroked her beneath the chin, which seemed to be the magic ticket because she let out a rumbling, rusty purr. “You’re sweet,” he murmured, rubbing his jaw along the top of her little head.
“Aw thanks,” Jade said. “I try.”
Dell smiled because that was a lie and they both knew it. Then she surprised him.
“I’ll take the kitten,” she said, and in her usual efficient way stepped back from her desk and critically eyed the clean surface as she slung her purse over her shoulder. Heels clicking, she moved to the wall of storage cabinets. Without hesitation, she opened one and pulled out a kitten carrier. Then she went to another cabinet, bending low to grab a bed liner, expertly lining the kitten carrier. “Grab me some food? And a litter box, too,” she said over her shoulder.
He didn’t move. “You’re going to take the kitten overnight,” he repeated dubiously.
“Yes.” Her hand and arm brushed his chest as she relieved him of the kitten. “Why do you look so flummoxed?”
“Well, maybe because you’ve never done such a thing before. Hell, Jade, you’ve never even let any of us come to your place.”
Ignoring that, Jade carefully slid the kitten into the carrier and turned her back on him, heading to the door.
They were the last two in the building. Keith, his animal tech, and Mike, his vet nurse, had both already left. Jade hit all the lights except one interior, casting them in a soft glow. “Look,” she said. “My job is running this front reception room like a well-oiled machine, right? That includes any loose ends.”
He stepped between her and the door. “And the stray is a loose end?”
“At this point, Doctor, you’re a loose end. Everything in the back handled?”
The “back” consisted of two exam rooms, a surgical suite, an x-ray and ultrasonic suite, and his and Adam’s offices. “Closed up tighter than a drum,” he assured her.
“Hmm.” She didn’t look impressed. She liked it better when she made the last walk through. And with good reason. He’d been known to be distracted enough to forget to turn something off or to even lock himself out. He opened the front door for her, then put a hand on her arm, waiting until she met his gaze. “I owe you. Lunch tomorrow?”
“We can never agree on a place.”
“Name it, then,” he said. “Name your price.”
This appeared to interest her given how she cocked her head. “That’s a lot of power.”
She had no idea how much power she already had. “Anything.”
She considered this so seriously he smiled. Then she flashed him a rare one of her own and his heart actually stuttered. “You’re not going to like it,” she warned.
Oh, how wrong she was. “There’s not much I don’t like, Jade.”
She poked a finger in his chest. “Okay, what did I tell you about flirting with me, about using my name in that sex-on-a-stick voice?”
Now this interested him. “You think my voice is sex on a stick?”
She poked him again. He liked to think it was because she had a secret thing for touching him, but then again, he was a realist. If she’d wanted him that way, she’d have let him know by now.
“I want you to let me take care of the stack of bills on your desk,” she said. “The one that’s threatening to fall over and hit the floor.”
They both knew that the state of his desk, which looked like it had been napalmed, drove her organized, anal heart absolutely nuts. As did how he could be counted on to lose his keys, wallet, or hell, his own brain in the mess at least once a week. But though he hated paperwork with the same passion that he hated vegetables, he wasn’t going to hand over the reins of his admittedly sloppy accounting. He realized that meant that he trusted the animals in his care more than he did the humans, but hell, everyone had their faults. “If you took care of the mess on my desk,” he said, “that would be you doing me the favor.”
“Not really. I need to organize that desk, Dell. And you hate handling the bills, I heard you swearing at them just this morning.”
“I was swearing at the news. Another vet clinic was robbed last night.” There’d been a series of vet robberies between here and Spokane in the past week. The threat of it happening here, at his place, the one he’d built with his own sweat and blood, pissed him off. “Just after closing time. This time a tech was still in the building, working late, and was knocked out.”
“Oh my God,” she said, covering her mouth. “What did they take?”
“Ketamine.” She frowned. “Horse tranq?”
“Turns out it’s a good human narcotic as well.” Not to mention an effective date rape drug but she’d gone very still, very pale. “Hey. You okay?”
“That’s why you stayed tonight,” she said. “You wanted to walk me out to make sure I was safe.”
“And the kitten. I wanted the kitten to be safe, too.” He smiled, but Jade didn’t. Instead, she looked out the window into the dark parking lot with obvious unease, making him doubly glad he’d stayed.
Belle Haven was just outside of their small town of Sunshine, five miles down a narrow, winding road. Their closest neighbor—Lilah’s kennels—was a quarter mile away. They were surrounded by the rugged, majestic Idaho Bitterroot mountain range, the peaks looming high. To say that they were isolated out here was an understatement.
Since Jade was still just standing there looking out the window, Dell took the kitten carrier and litter from her and nudged her out the door.
It was early autumn and the chill on the night air cut to the bone, reminding him that winter would be here before they knew it.
At her car, Jade took the kitten back and set the carrier on the backseat, making him smile when she carefully pulled the seat belt across it. Straightening, she faced him again. “See you and your disastrous desk tomorrow.”
The cell phone in his back pocket was vibrating. He was late and knew it, so he ignored the call. “Forget about my desk. It’s a mess, it’ll take you days.”
“My greatest fantasy,” she said.
“That’s just sad, Jade.”
Don’t distract me with your perverted mind. I was made for this.”
“What, were you born with the need to organize?”
“No, I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. The need to organize is just a freak of nature, one of life’s mysteries.”
Infamously private, Jade didn’t talk about herself often. She’d been born and raised in Chicago, he knew that much. And that she had family there, family she’d promised that she’d come back to.
Fairly private himself, Dell had never pushed her for more, but every time she doled out a little tidbit about her past and gave him a tiny glimpse inside, he found himself all the more fascinated by her.
A silver spoon . . . If that was true, they’d grown up just about as different as two people could get.
“So, what do you say?” she asked. “You going to let me in or what?”
Actually, the question was—would she ever let him in . . . “You’re a nut,” he said. “You know that, right?”
“When I clean your office, you’ll be calling me a goddess.”
“I’ll call you whatever you’d like, but forget about the—”
His phone was going off again. Reaching around him, Jade slid her hand into his scrubs back pocket. Through the thin cotton, her fingers stroked his ass cheek, and his brain clicked off. Just completely clicked off. This condition was not improved when her breast brushed his arm as she lifted his phone.
“Dr. Connelly’s phone,” she answered professionally, her face so close to his he could have turned his face and captured her lips with his.
It was her scent, he decided; it drugged him. Made him stupid. Maybe it was her skin, too, so pale compared to his, so soft and deceptively fragile-looking.
Hell. It was her. Everything about her.
The night around them was so quiet he had no problem hearing the feminine voice coming out of his phone, inquiring of his whereabouts.
“Let me check for you,” Jade said, eyes back on his. “Please hold.” She muted the phone and looked at him, affecting a sex kitten voice to match the one on the phone. “Are you . . . available?”
Having some problems accessing working brain cells, it took him a minute to answer. “Last I checked.”
She pushed a button on his phone, working it better than he did. “Yes, Dr. Connelly is still here. Who’s calling?” Jade listened with careful politeness, contrasted by the long look she slid his way just before she rolled her eyes.
Not at the woman.
She slapped the phone against his chest. “She says you’re late.” She slid behind the wheel and drove off into the night, leaving him in her dust.
Still he watched until her taillights vanished before he lifted his phone to his ear.
At her place, Jade deactivated her alarm and flipped a switch. As they’d been programmed to do, four different lights came on, one in each corner of the living area, kitchen nook, bedroom area, and entry to the bathroom.
Instant visual access.
Expensive, and worth every penny. Everything was neat as a pin and just the way she’d left it. In order.