“Yeah, but I think I’ve given everyone in town a puppy by now. Not sure who I can get to take him.”
“You’ve never given Jade a puppy,” Brady said.
“That’s because Dell’s her puppy.”
Brady cracked up. Dell kicked the leg of Brady’s chair, almost toppling him over.
Brady dropped his chair back down and looked at the soda, which had spilled on his chest. “You do know I can still kick your ass, right?”
Dell leaned close to Jade, slipping his arm around her. “I have a kick-ass partner now. You can’t take us both.”
“I knew it!” Lilah grinned, pointing at them. “You’re an ‘us’!”
“Hey, man, this was a clean shirt,” Brady grumbled, swiping his chest with napkins.
Lilah smacked him. “Did you not hear?”
Brady lifted his head. “Hear what?”
Lilah ignored him, looking between Dell and Jade. “So what is this? What does this mean?”
“It means that I can finally kick Brady’s ass,” Dell said. “With Jade helping me.”
“And . . . ?”
“And we’ll take Adam, too. Just on principle.”
Lilah sighed. “One of these days you’ll admit it.”
Jade didn’t look at Dell, because she knew better. She knew that while sometimes she and Dell were indeed an “us”’—like when they were working or possibly na**d—most of the time there was no “us.”
They both wanted it that way.
Besides, Dell wasn’t interested in an us and even if he was...
You’re leaving . . .
She kept forgetting that one pesky little thing. And maybe she kept forgetting because at some point she’d started thinking about not leaving . . .
At ten o’clock that night, Jade answered her door to Dell. She had The Notebook on pause on the TV and a half-empty box of tissues on the coffee table. “Dell?”
He narrowed his eyes. “What’s the matter?”
He pushed past her and entered her place. “Well, come right on in,” she murmured.
He turned back to face her. “I thought you’d come over for some gym time but you didn’t show. And you’ve been crying.”
“I’m watching The Notebook.”
He looked confused so she filled him in. “A go-to sob movie.”
“Why would you have a go-to sob movie?”
Clearly the man had never felt the need to just cry. “Never mind. And I didn’t come over because I thought you’d be with Kalie.”
He looked even more confused than before. “Who?”
“Kalie, Cara . . . whatever her face, from the bakery earlier.”
He pinched the bridge of his nose and studied his shoes for a long moment but apparently no wisdom was forthcoming on how to deal with Crazy Females. “I’m not sleeping with Melinda.”
“And I’m certainly not sleeping with Karen. There’s only one woman in my bed.” He stalked toward her and hauled her in against him so hard the air escaped her lungs. “Her name is Goddess Jade, and she’s got my full attention.”
Her heart stuttered in her chest and her hands slid up his chest.
“So now if we’re clear on that,” he said, forehead to hers, “let’s move onto the next portion of the meeting.”
Her heart, her traitorous heart, took a hard leap thinking maybe he was going to say that he’d changed his mind about relationships and he wanted one. With her. “Which is?”
“Your to-do list.” He lifted her off her feet and started toward her bed. “I know I’m on it, I put myself there. Now I’m adding you—” He broke off because his phone was vibrating between them. With a low oath he stopped, read the text, then swore again. “It’s Adam. One of his clients has a dog in labor. She’s in trouble and on the way to the clinic. Adam’s two hours out.”
“So more angry sex is off the table?”
“I wasn’t angry,” he said.
“Then what kind of sex were you hoping for?” she asked, grabbing her coat and purse as they moved in tandem to the door.
“I was wide open,” he said as they made their way down the stairs and into the night. “Maybe boss-and-naughtysecretary sex?”
Unembarrassed, he shrugged.
She was quiet a moment, considering as they walked to his truck. “There’s always doctor and nurse,” she heard herself say.
He slid her a wicked bad boy smile as he opened his passenger’s door for her. “You want to play nurse?”
“Oh no. I get to be the doctor. You’d be the nurse.”
He tipped his head back and laughed, and she found herself grinning. Grinning. “So that works for you?” she asked. “Being the nurse?”
“For you, Jade, I’d be anything you want.”
If only that were true . . .
An hour later, Dell was sitting on the floor in the surgery suite next to a large open box. Inside was Rose, the laboring golden Lab with the bad timing. Adam was on his way in, but for now Dell’s only assistant was Jade.
She sat on the other side of the box, stroking Rose’s face.
Rose lay quiet, her sides rising and falling quickly with her restless panting, eyes closed. She was clearly having contractions, readying her body for the pushing. Dell was waiting for her to start licking herself, a sign that birth was imminent.
Rose’s owner was Michelle Eisenburg—the woman whose son had inadvertently caused Jade’s parking lot breakdown all those weeks ago now. Dell had promised he’d take care of Rose as if she were his own, and sent her home to relieve the babysitter.
“You know,” Jade said. “I’ve been here a year and a half and I’ve never seen puppies delivered.” She shook her head in the quiet room. “I’ve never even had a puppy.”
“Ever?” Dell asked.
“My mother’s allergic. I sneaked a puppy in once, kept her for a week before my nanny ratted me out. I was grounded for a month.”
Dell ran his hand down Rose’s side, gauging her breathing, her contractions, as always fascinated by these little peeks into Jade’s childhood, which were like fairy tales compared to his growing up years.
“What about you?” she asked. “Tell me about your first dog.”
“Bear.” He closed his eyes, remembering. “Adam and I found him when he was nothing but a few days old, blind, starving.” Just a tiny handful of skin and bones, he’d been filthy and mewling. Dell had taken one look at the newborn puppy and had one thought, that it was even more pathetic than him. “We were living with our dad, then,” he said. “My dad said the thing would die that night, but it didn’t.” Bear hadn’t died the next night, either. Dell had nursed him back to health. “He grew into this huge mutt who took up more of my bed than I did.”
“Aw. You saved his life.”
“Yes. And then he saved mine several times over, so we were quite the pair.”
“He saved your life?”
Dell gave a mirthless smile. “I was a sickly, skinny ten-year-old, and far too dark-skinned for the very white neighborhood we lived in. Bear proclaimed himself a brother-in-arms. He once scared off three kids who tried to drag me into an alley.”
She was smiling. “Good. Did Bear live to a ripe old age?”
Dell bent over Rose. “I don’t know. We had to give him away when we went to the first foster home.”
“Oh,” she breathed with a world of empathy in her voice. She slid a hand to his back, and then she set her head on his shoulder. “I hate how bad things were for you, Dell. I hate how hard your life was.”
“It’s not hard now.”
He felt her smile against him and wanted to turn and pull her in close.
“Do you ever think about what would happen if I stayed?”
He went still, something kicking in his gut hard. And if he was being honest with himself, it was both hope and fear. “I didn’t know that was an option.”
She shrugged but was just as still as him, as if she was waiting for a certain reaction from him.
But which reaction exactly, he wasn’t sure.
Then Rose whined and began to rustle frantically around, staring wide-eyed and terrified up at Dell. He rubbed her sides. “First one’s coming.”
Jade straightened but kept her face averted. Still, it didn’t take a genius to tell that his nonreaction had been the wrong one. “How can you tell?” she asked.
Rose grunted, and the first puppy slid out.
“Well, that’s a clue,” she said.
Dell waited to see if Rose would lick and tear the amniotic sack off, but she seemed confused and unsure so Dell gently tore the membrane and allowed the fluid to be released. Rose dutifully took over bathing the newborn with her tongue while Dell tied off the cord and made sure the puppy was breathing.
Things moved quickly after that. Three more healthy puppies in a row, and then one that wasn’t moving. Dell wrapped the puppy in a small warmed towel and dried it aggressively, trying to stimulate it so it would cry. Crying was the natural way to clear the mouth and trachea of amniotic fluid.
But the puppy didn’t draw air.
“Oh no,” Jade breathed, leaning over him. “Is she going to make it?”
Dell worked the puppy for over a half hour, but it was no good. There was no heartbeat. And when Rose started to push again, he set the wrapped stillborn down to help her.
Twenty minutes later, Dell had helped extract all the stragglers. One by one he and Jade dried the pups with sterile towels, cleared their mouths and set them back next to Rose to keep them warm. When Rose was alert and starting to nurse, Dell went to his office to call Michelle and fill her in.
By the time he finished and went back to check on Rose, it was nearly four in the morning. Not sure where Jade was, he picked up the stillborn and moved out the back door to sit on the top step with her, staring out into the black sky.
Adam showed up with a quiet greeting for Jade as he leaned over her and looked into the box. The corners of his mouth quirked at the blind, soggy puppies nuzzled up against Rose. His sharp, dark eyes counted them up. “Six.”
“Seven. We lost one.”
Adam let out a breath, barely discernible, but she was learning to read him now. Grief for the one they’d lost.
“Where’s Dell?” he asked.
“He went to call Michelle.”
Adam was quiet a moment, stroking Rose. “He takes it hard. Losing them. Always did.”
“He feels things,” Jade said. “Deeply.”
“Deeper than the rest of us. Always did that, too. Along with the whole saying good-bye issue.”
Jade met his gaze. “Good-bye issue?”
“Doesn’t like ’em. In fact, he’ll go out of his way to avoid them.”
“Love isn’t real, at least not the kind you get from people. Never get too close, leave ’em smiling . . .”
She inhaled. “But leave ’em.”
He nodded. “So you do understand him.”
All too well. But there was something in Adam’s voice she’d never heard before.
Dell might be a grown man, but Adam was the older brother, if only by two years. “He has seen more than his fair share of good-byes,” she said softly. He and Adam both had.
“And he makes sure to say them first if he can,” Adam said. “But the animals are different. He’d never leave an animal first, never.”
“He doesn’t blame himself, does he?”
“Not for the animals, no.”
Jade stood up and brushed off, wanting to go find him. “Are you saying he blames himself for all the human good-byes in his life? None of them were his fault.”
Adam lifted a shoulder. “You know that self-blame isn’t logical.”
Yes, she knew. She knew exactly. She’d been blaming herself for a year and a half for the attack that hadn’t been her fault.
“Our dad died in a car accident on the way to a job he hated with a passion but kept to provide a roof over our heads. Sol died while riding broncos on a day that Dell had missed his competition. Then I left him to go off to the National Guard because there was nothing other than jail in my future if I stayed. And you—”
“That’s all ridiculous,” she said. “Not a single one of those things were his fault. And me . . .” She wasn’t sure she’d ever heard Adam string so many words together at once, but when he did, he packed a punch. “What about me?”
Adam didn’t answer.
“He’s not blaming himself for me leaving,” she said slowly. “I was always going to go.”
Adam just looked at her from those dark, dark eyes.
She stared at him some more, feeling her heart quicken as she took in everything that he wasn’t putting to words. “I’m not abandoning him. We’re not . . . He and I . . .”
One of the puppies mewled and Adam stroked a finger over the tiny body, whispering something softly to it until it stilled.
“I mean, it’s not like we’re . . .” Jade broke off.
“You’re smart,” Adam said in the same soothing voice he’d just used on the puppy. It was shockingly effective. “You’ll catch up eventually.”
Oh God. She was pretty sure she’d done that now. Just because she and Dell had never put a label on their relationship didn’t mean that it didn’t exist. Of course it did. True, it was different from any other relationship she’d ever had. It was also true that there’d never been a man in her life who could drive her crazy in one moment and then make her tremble in the next like he could. He was her best friend. Her lover.