And she was desperately afraid he had become much more than that.
But just because she understood that didn’t mean he did. “He doesn’t do relationships,” she said. “You know that.” And she was discovering something that she hadn’t known about herself—she liked him too much to do anything less. Too bad she had no idea what to do with that.
“So you really are going.”
“I always was.” What she didn’t say was that her own reservations about leaving were keeping her up at night. But given Dell’s reaction—or lack of—to her trying to talk to him about it, it didn’t matter all that much. “It’s not like I’m suddenly abandoning him because we didn’t work out. We did work out, as much as he allowed us to. We both knew this was coming.” She stood up. “I’m going to go find him.”
He wasn’t in his office or anywhere that she could see, but the back door was ajar. She found Dell on the top step in the dark night, his big body hunched protectively over a small, still bundle in his hands.
Heart squeezing, she sat at his side. “Hey.” She nudged him gently with her shoulder, and he nudged back but said nothing.
“Rose is okay,” she said quietly.
“And now I’m wondering about you. Are you okay, too?”
“I just always take a minute with them. Afterward.” His voice low and a little raspy, like it hurt him physically to lose any animal, no matter how short a time he’d known them.
He hadn’t taken his hands or his eyes off the carefully wrapped puppy, and Jade couldn’t take her eyes off of him. Without being consciously aware of moving, she scooted closer, setting her head on his shoulder.
For a moment he didn’t move, then slowly he shifted and leaned into her. She slipped her arm around his waist and he shifted even more, turning into her, pressing his face to the crook of her neck.
She went still as her heart squeezed. Always it’d been him offering her comfort, safety, whatever she needed, but now for the first time he was taking those things from her.
She didn’t dare move, not even when her toes and fingers and nose and ni**les got so cold she could no longer feel them. In fact, she wanted to never move again. She wanted to preserve this quiet closeness between them that felt almost more intimate than when they’d been na**d.
But Dell pulled back and straightened. “You’re frozen. Get back inside.”
He was already regretting the brief moment of weakness. If she wasn’t still so touched that he’d trusted her enough to see it, she’d have rolled her eyes at the utter manness of the move. “Dell—”
“I’ve just got to take care of him first, then I’ll be right behind you.” He stood and pulled her up.
“Need help?” she asked, knowing what he’d say even before he shook his head with a quiet thanks and vanished.
She went back inside, looking around at the animal center that was as much a part of him as any of his long, perfect limbs. It was a visceral reminder how much more than a good-time, funny, charming guy he was. He had this huge capacity to care, and something else, too.
He hadn’t just picked a job for himself the way most people did. The way she had. He hadn’t let other people’s wants and goals guide him.
The way she had.
No, not Dell. He’d instead chosen a life that suited him to the core. One that gave him pleasure and was an innate part of him.
She hadn’t done that. Not until she’d come here, to Sunshine. To Belle Haven. She went to her desk thinking she was here, she might as well get something done. She’d barely booted up in the semidark front room when Dell came back through.
“You’re not working,” he said.
He pulled her out of her chair. “You’re going home to bed.”
Back to being the alpha pack leader. “I’m okay, Dell. What we haven’t established is if you’re okay.”
He didn’t move but she felt him draw in a deep breath. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
She wanted to say because he acted like he was all alone in charge of everyone and everything, when in reality, the people he had in his life wanted to take care of him every bit as much as he took care of them. She wanted to say how sorry she was for how he’d grown up, but that would go over about as well as hugging him right now would.
Screw it, she thought, and ran a hand up his arm, over his broad shoulder, over his throat to his jaw, which she brushed with her fingers.
Reaching up, he took her hand in his and squeezed her fingers gently, then brought them to his mouth and lightly brushed his lips over her palm. “I’m okay, Jade. I’m always okay. You don’t have to worry about me.”
She stepped into him, her br**sts brushing his chest, their thighs touching. “Did you always know?” she asked quietly. “That you were meant for this?”
Bending his head, he lightly rubbed his lips to hers. “Kissing you?”
“Yes,” she murmured. “No.” She let out a low laugh and stepped back. “No.” God, he was good, too good, at distracting her. “At this. Your job. Being a vet.”
“Actually, for most of my growing up years, I was pretty sure I was meant for nothing good.”
She opened her mouth to vehemently oppose that but he kissed her again. “I’m lucky, Jade,” he said against her mouth, his hands going to her h*ps to hold her against him. “I didn’t get screwed up, at least not too bad. I might be commitment shy and not big on traditional relationships, but thanks to Sol, I got into college and figured my shit out and ended up with a skill that works for me.”
“And it’s a bonus that you love what you do.”
“Yeah. A lot. I highly recommend it.”
“Working with animals?”
“Loving what you do.”
She lifted her head and looked at him as he stroked his fingers over her jaw and into her hair, which he tugged lightly so that she couldn’t pull away. “You ever going to try it?” he asked, his mouth whispering over hers.
“Maybe I already have.” She gripped him tight as her body reacted to his with hopeful little tremors. “How about you? Maybe it’s time for you to try something new, too.”
“Like?” he asked.
“Like . . .” She nipped at his lower lip, giving it a little tug until he hissed in a breath. Then she soothed the sting with a kiss. “Like . . .” Needing me . . .
Adam stuck his head in from the back. “Michelle just called, she’s on her way in to pick up Rose and the puppies. There’s also a message on the phone from the Anderson ranch that they need you out there pronto.”
Dell stayed still against Jade for one beat, and she thought maybe he’d ask Adam to handle something. Or let her help in some way.
But Dell never passed off responsibilities, and as he’d proven over and over, he sure as hell didn’t need anyone to step in for him. He pulled away from Jade and looked at Adam. “I’ll call Brady and have him get the Bell ready for flight. On your way into town to get your things, drop off Jade. I’ll handle Rose and the Anderson ranch.”
He was standing right there in front of Jade, right there, close enough to still touch, yet he was a thousand miles away on his own island. Dell Connelly Island. Where no one and nothing could touch him.
Because she was a glutton for punishment, on Monday morning Jade was leaning against Dell’s truck at four thirty A.M. when he came out of his house carrying two bags of what she now knew would be groceries and his medical bag slung over his shoulder.
This time he didn’t look surprised to see her. He just shook his head, shrugged out of his jacket, and tossed it to her. “Are you nuts?” he asked. “It’s forty degrees and you’re in just a sweatshirt.”
“I got hot in that trailer last time.” But she gratefully slid into his jacket, inhaling his scent and greedily wrapping herself into it, trapping his body heat for herself. “And it’s thirty-two.”
She nodded as he started the truck and shoved it into gear, taking them to the highway. He drove like he did everything else in his life, with apparent effortless ease. Without his jacket, he wore only a light blue button-down shirt, untucked over faded jeans that made his legs seem like they were a mile long. His sleeves were shoved up, revealing forearms corded with strength. He had one big hand on the wheel, the other shoving his still damp hair out of his face. The Dell version of hair combing.
“The next time I drive out here, you’ll be gone,” he said.
This was true.
“Friday’s it, right?” he asked.
Next Monday was the first. In order to fulfill her promise to Sam and her parents, she’d have to start driving back to Chicago by Friday.
Four days. “Thursday,” she whispered.
Silence greeted this.
“You won’t hardly even miss me,” she said. “I’ve taught Keith enough to maintain the front until you get a replacement. And the temp agency is on notice, by the way. I wish you’d let them send someone out this week, but either way you’re going to be fine. You don’t need me.” She held her breath, hoping against hope that he would say that he did need her.
In some aspect of his life. In any aspect of his life.
But he didn’t. He said nothing at all. And she wasn’t going to bang her head up against the wall seeking something that hadn’t been given to her freely.
Nila was waiting on them. Unlike her son, she looked very surprised to see Jade again. “Are you Dell’s woman?”
“I’m my own woman.”
There was a slight spark of what might have been humor in Nila’s eyes. “You know what I’m asking.”
Jade looked at Dell, who was suddenly engrossed in unpacking his bag. Gee, wasn’t he a help. She was tempted to give his mother the same line she’d once given Leanne and tell her that they were engaged just to see him swallow his own tongue. “I’m just helping.”
“Because I like to help.”
Nila looked at Dell. Dell looked right back at her, not explaining himself. He wouldn’t.
Even if Jade wished that for once he would.
They turned to their waiting patients. There was a cat in labor, another who needed dental work, and two dogs who’d been in a vicious fight and needed cleaning and stitching up, all of which Dell took care of with relative ease.
The last patient was a little girl sitting next to Lakota.
The little girl was clutching a dead rabbit. “You fix,” she told Dell, and set the rabbit on the exam table.
Dell’s gaze met Jade’s and she gave a slight shake of her head, utterly unable to imagine how he was going to handle this one. He very sweetly and gently wrapped the rabbit up and took both girls outside. Jade watched through the window as they walked out into the open land until they were nothing but three tiny pinpricks on the horizon.
“He’ll help them bury the rabbit and say good-bye.”
Jade turned and faced Nila, who stood there, eyes dark and solemn, long braid hanging over her shoulder. “He doesn’t like good-byes.”
“And you think that’s my fault.”
Jade didn’t want to go there. “It’s not my place to judge.”
Nila turned and poured two cups of coffee, handing one to Jade. “You’re polite. Too polite to tell me what you really think. But it’s true. I was a terrible mother for him and Adam. My only defense is that I was young. Too young.”
As far as defenses went, it was a good one.
“He turned out to be a good man, in spite of me,” Nila said quietly. “You make him happy.”
“Oh. We’re not—”
Nila shook her head. “I don’t need your words to tell me what I can see with my own eyes. You’re the first one in all this time to hold his heart. I hope you manage to take better care of it than I ever did.”
In the pit of her stomach, Jade knew otherwise. That regardless of whether or not she held a special place in Dell’s heart, she wasn’t going to be the keeper of it.
He didn’t want her to be.
Behind her, the trailer door slammed open with enough force that Jade nearly jumped out of her skin. A young man stood there, eyes narrow, teeth bared. He was in his late teens and built like a linebacker. He was obviously Native American, and spitting fury. “You told on me?” he grated out. “You told my parole officer that I cut classes?”
“Because you did,” Nila said.
“You have to take it back!”
“I’m your teacher, Robby. You know I won’t lie for you.” Nila set her coffee into the sink and closed her fingers around a paring knife there, her gaze meeting Jade’s with a clear message. Be aware.
Jade’s heart leapt into her throat. With a growl, Robby pushed forward and crowded both Jade and Nila in the kitchen up against the sink. “Tell him you were lying,” he said through his teeth, his face close. Too close. “If you don’t, he’s going to send me back to juvie.”
“All you have to do is show up for classes,” Nila said. “All of them, including your anger management class.”
With a yell of frustration, Robby threw out another arm, this time swiping everything from the counter in one fell swoop, sending it all flying. A set of keys hit Jade in the face. Nila was sprayed with hot coffee from one of the mugs, but she still gripped the paring knife from the sink. “Stop. Robbie, stop.”