There, lining a bench, sat a small crowd, each person with an animal.
Dell sat at a nearby table, opened his bag, and pulled out his laptop. This he thrust at Jade. Apparently, she was going to make herself useful.
The first patient was held by a ten-year-old girl with jet black hair and matching eyes. Clutched in her hands was a skinny, scrawny cat, both looking terrified.
The woman who’d answered the door smiled at the little girl, nodding encouragingly.
The girl shuffled closer.
“Hi, Lakota,” Dell said to her. “How’s Duncan doing?”
Lakota didn’t speak, she just nodded. Dell gently took Duncan from her and gave him an exam. “He’s asthmatic,” Dell said in a low voice to Jade, gesturing that she needed to take notes. “Lakota found him a few months back. Note that there’s still no weight gain. Heart rate, one eighty; respiratory rate, forty-eight breaths a minute. No heart murmurs and his abdomen palpates normally, but he’s dehydrated.” He looked at Lakota. “He needs to have more water. You need to make sure it’s always available to him. You’ve been giving him his meds?”
When Lakota nodded, Dell rummaged through his bag and brought out a small pill bottle. “Here’s what he’ll need until next time.”
“Dell,” Jade said softly. He couldn’t give a minor meds like that, he . . .
Once again the older woman stepped forward and put her hands on the girl’s shoulders. And that’s when Jade saw another resemblance—they were mother and daughter. Jade glanced at Dell, who was looking at her, eyes as dark and silent as his family’s. Jade sat back, sorry she’d started to speak, even sorrier that she’d doubted him. Bowing over the laptop, she went back to note taking.
Two hours later, Dell had seen the last of the people waiting and he was stuffing his instruments back into his black bag.
Jade shut the laptop and stood. On the walk outside to the truck, Dell shook his head. “I can’t believe you Dell’d me.”
She had. She totally had. “I’m sorry.”
He shook his head. “Don’t be. I’d give these people whatever they needed, legal or not.”
She stared at him. He was utterly serious. Before she could ask him why, the door of the trailer opened behind them.
The woman, whom Jade now knew was named Nila, came out.
Nila’s gaze met Jade’s. “Thank you,” she said.
Jade stopped, surprised. She glanced at Dell, who was still walking. He hadn’t stopped. “For what?” she asked the woman.
“For coming out here, for giving back to people that most others have forgotten about.”
Jade looked at Dell, who was at the truck now, then back to the woman. “I didn’t do much. It’s all Dr. Connelly’s doing.”
“Yes.” The woman nodded, without looking at him. “But he won’t take my thanks.”
Jade nodded at her and got into the truck. They had an hour before their first patients at Belle Haven would arrive, and she figured they’d just make it. “You were amazing back there.”
Dell put the truck into gear and began the considerably rough drive back without a word.
“That woman . . .” Jade turned in her seat to watch Dell’s reaction. “Nila. She’s related to you.”
They hit a rut and she nearly kissed the windshield. Dell stopped the truck and turned to her, tightening her seatbelt.
They were on the move again before he answered. “Yes.”
Jade drew a breath. “She’s your mother.”
Jade nodded. There was a difference, of course. A birth mother was exactly that. The giver of life but not necessarily the caregiver. “Why did you bring me?”
A very small smile came into his eyes. “You hijacked my truck.”
“You could have told me to get out.”
“Jade, has anyone ever successfully told you what to do?”
“No,” she admitted.
They were quiet a long moment, then Dell let out a long breath. “You wanted to know me. I’m not sure why that means something to me, but it does. So I brought you.” He glanced over at her. “I can count on one finger the number of people outside of Brady, Adam, and Lilah who have been inside my home, who have unlimited access to my computer, who know what I do every Monday morning for a woman I shouldn’t give a shit about.”
Her breath caught. “Me.”
“You.” The sun slanted in, blinding them. He put on his sunglasses. “You’re in. As in as you can possibly be. Your turn, Jade.”
Two days later, Jade had lunch with Lilah in town at the bakery, where they stuffed themselves with turkey and cheese croissants. Lilah was entertaining herself by turning her ring finger to and fro so that the sun coming in through the window hit the diamond just right and glared into Jade’s eyes. “How do you get any work done if you’re staring at that thing all day?” she asked, slipping on her sunglasses to keep from being blinded.
“It takes concentration, believe me.” Lilah grinned. “Hard to believe, right? That Brady and I live together now—and I still love him.”
Jade tried to fathom it. Living with a man. Letting him see the morning routine. Having to share closet space. Needing to consult someone when she ran out at midnight because she had to have ice cream.
“You ever done it?”
“Live with a man?” Jade shook her head. “Nope.”
“Is there someone back home, waiting on you?”
“After a year and a half,” Jade said lightly, “I’d have mentioned it, don’t you think?”
Lilah shrugged. “You’re pretty tight-lipped.”
“There’s no one.”
Lilah tilted her head. “So you and Dell . . . ?”
“How did we get on this subject?” Jade asked. “We’re talking about you, sharing your space with a man. And how does that even work, anyway? What happens if he leaves the toilet seat up? Drops his tighty-whities on the floor? Eats your emergency stash of ice cream?”
“Brady doesn’t wear tighty-whities. Sometimes he doesn’t wear any underwear at all.”
There was a beat of silence as they both contemplated that image for a moment.
“And if he eats my ice cream—and he does—he buys more.”
“Are you telling me he has no bad habits that drive you nuts?”
Lilah laughed. “Well, he’s a man, isn’t he? Of course he drives me nuts. He stubborn as a damn mule, he thinks he’s always right, and he hogs the remote.”
“So how are you going to live with that for the next sixty years?”
“Buy another TV.”
Jade stared at Lilah. “I’m serious.”
“So am I,” Lilah said.
Jade must have looked confused because Lilah patted her hand. “You do realize that none of those things are deal breakers, right?”
“How do you know?” Jade asked. “Maybe a year from now, you’ll—”
“What? Get tired of the way he looks at me as if I’m his entire life? Get over the fact that for the first time ever, someone wants me for me? That the man somehow actually enjoys making me happy?”
Jade stared at her. “The ice cream . . .”
“I’ll buy a lifetime supply of ice cream. Hell, I’ll even pretend he’s right some of the time . . . it’s worth it. He’s worth it. And you know what? So am I.” Lilah popped her last bite into her mouth and pointed at Jade. “And so are you.” She pointed to Jade’s plate, and the half of her croissant still sitting there. “Now see, that’s why you look so hot in all those pretty clothes of yours. You have self-control. Too much even.”
“I’m taking a line-dancing class. If you think I have too much control, you ought to see me on Wednesday nights.”
“Yeah? Any cute guys in it?”
“Not that kind of lack of control. I didn’t know how to dance before. So I’m pretty much winging it.”
Lilah was looking at her with approval. “You’re trying to learn how to have fun.”
“Maybe you should take Dell with you.”
“Dell doesn’t need to learn how to have fun. He invented the word.”
Lilah gave her a little smile. “You of all people shouldn’t let his protective shell fool you. You’re smarter than that.”
Jade let out a breath. “You know he does pro bono vet work every Monday?”
“Yes, and I know he didn’t tell you that. He doesn’t tell anyone.”
“I went with him.”
Lilah’s brows shot up so far they vanished into her hair. “You went with him?”
“I just showed up at his house in the morning and got into his truck. He had no choice.”
Lilah laughed at that. “Honey, that man has all the choices in the world, and all the brawn. Believe me, if he didn’t want you to go, you wouldn’t have. He must have needed you there.”
Now it was Jade’s turn to laugh. “Need? Dell doesn’t need anyone.”
Lilah was shaking her head. “He might like to think it—all three of them do. But it’s not true. Brady realized it with me. And someday Adam and Dell will know it.”
“That needing someone isn’t the same as being weak. That they can still be big and bad and strong and still lean on someone. You’re that someone for Dell.”
Jade’s heart stopped. “Lilah, I—”
“I know.” Lilah covered Jade’s hand with her own. “You’re leaving. I don’t want you to. I’ve been trying not to say that because you have to go back, I get it. But I’m sick over it, and if I feel that way, I can only imagine how Dell feels.”
“I’ve got a temp service on standby and the front desk running like a charm. Anyone can take over, they’ll be fine.”
“You know damn well that’s not what I’m talking about.”
Brady walked through the door juggling two hot dogs and a large soda from the convenience store up the street, tailed by Dell and Adam. Dell was also armed with crap food, but Adam strode directly to the bakery’s front counter.
Adam was the only one of the three who cared in the slightest about what he put into his body.
“He’s going to order tea,” Lilah murmured. “That man is hot, but he doesn’t know much about how to eat.”
Brady’s gaze went directly to Lilah, and he gave her one of those smiles that told the whole world they’d very recently been na**d together and were planning on getting that way again as soon as possible.
Dell was on his phone, but his eyes tracked to Jade in a way not all that different from Brady, and her pulse kicked up. Brady had already dragged a chair to the table and was kissing Lilah hello when Dell kicked another chair over. He glanced at Brady and Lilah kissing like their mouths were fused and something flickered in his gaze.
Jade wasn’t sure what he was thinking, but she knew what she was thinking. That the intimacy between Brady and Lilah was so easy and real. Which stirred up a surprising twinge of envy.
A woman came into the bakery and saw Dell. “Finally,” she said. “I catch up with you.”
He looked up and gave her an easy smile. “Stacy.”
Stacy was a petite, curvy brunette in jeans, boots, and a broad smile. “I wanted to tell you that Trickster’s feeling so much better. We appreciate your house call the other night. I’m just sorry you had to leave so fast. Was everything okay with the emergency call?”
Brady and Lilah were preoccupied with something on Brady’s iPhone. Jade tried to busy herself with her own cell phone, but her ears weren’t on board with that plan and she eavesdropped shamelessly.
“Yes,” Dell said. “It’s handled.”
“I was thinking maybe you could come back out tonight,” Stacy said, hunkering at his side, giving him a nice view down her top. “My kitty needs a checkup.”
Jade, who’d just taken an ill-timed drink of her water, choked.
Dell slid her a glance and she went back to studying her cell phone, like look at me, I’m just sitting here working . . .
“Tonight’s not great,” Dell said to Stacy.
“Oh. You working?”
“Teaching a self-defense class, actually,” he replied, and this time didn’t look at Jade at all.
Dell didn’t say anything. Clearly taking that as agreement, Stacy leaned in even closer and whispered something in Dell’s ear, and though Jade nearly fell out of her chair to try to catch it, she couldn’t. Whatever it was, he had no reaction at all as Stacy sashayed out of the place, taking one last look over her shoulder at him.
Jade rolled her eyes and stuffed the rest of her croissant into her mouth in three bites, not even tasting it. Which meant that on top of being inexplicably irritated, she was also going to have to work out to lose the extra million calories she’d just consumed.
Lilah was helping herself to Brady’s soda. “Was Lulu delivered to the kennels while I was gone?”
“Yes, and Dell had just come by to get me. She was very happy to see him, so happy that she ate one of his socks.”
Dell pulled up the leg of his jeans. He had only one sock on.
“Sounds like she thinks she’s a goat.”
Brady leaned back in his chair, tilting it so that he was leaning against the wall as he grinned. “Turns out lambs don’t recognize calm assertive. All they want is something to eat.” He tugged a strand of Lilah’s hair fondly. “Saw that new puppy you rescued. Cute little guy.”