Order meant safety, and Jade depended on both. She set the kitten carrier on the foyer floor and opened the little door. The kitten tentatively poked her nose out, definitely not quite as sure of herself without Dell’s warm arms.
Jade supposed she couldn’t blame her. Dell had a way of making a woman feel safe. “Get comfortable,” she said as her cell rang.
Dr. Doolittle himself.
“Don’t tell me,” she said. “You lost your wallet and/or your car keys.”
“Okay, now that hurts,” Dell said, sounding anything but wounded.
“Uh-huh. Why else would you be calling after hours when you’re supposed to be playing doctor?”
“If you think you know me so well, why don’t you guess?”
“You’ve forgotten the code for the alarm,” she said. “Again.”
“Hey,” he said. “Once.”
“Yeah, once. Once a week.”
“I’m calling to make sure you got home okay.”
His words were a direct hit to her carefully built defenses. She’d gotten used to being on her own. But Dell was a true pack leader and took care of his own. Whether she liked it or not.
She didn’t. It gave her a false sense of security. She’d been working on that, on letting people in. On trying to loosen up. She’d even put it on her to-do spreadsheets to remind herself. Live. Open up. Have fun.
Wasn’t she driving into Coeur d’Alene every Wednesday night to take a line-dancing class? Skiing here and there on the weekends?
So she needed to not be charmed by him. She was leaving, and now was not the time to get involved, not when her time here was nearly up. “I’m home safe and sound, thanks,” she said, then paused. “Good night, Dell.”
“Night, Goddess Jade.”
She hit the End button and looked down in surprise at the soft “Mew.” She’d almost forgotten about her house guest. “That was our boss,” she said, and shook her head. “Making sure we’re okay.”
“Mew,” the kitten said, sounding . . . lonely.
Common ground, Jade thought. Loneliness. And something she could understand that Dell could not. He wouldn’t know lonely if it bit him on his very fine ass.
The kitten had stepped outside of the carrier but not a foot farther.
“It’s okay,” Jade told her. “It’s all about baby steps.”
The kitten sniffed the floor.
“Really. Mi casa es su casa,” Jade assured her. “Well, for the night, anyway.” She walked through her living room area. She’d rented this place the day she’d come to town eighteen months ago now. It was an older building, built in the 1950s, and beautifully renovated. Jade was on the top of three floors. The loft was large, the ceilings high, lined with intricately carved crown molding. It had come furnished and cost an arm and a leg.
But far more important to Jade, she could see everything in one sweeping glance.
She flipped through her mail, separating it into three piles: junk, bills, letters. The junk mail she dropped directly into the shredder under her small desk in the corner. The bills she set next to her laptop to be promptly paid. The letter she set on the mantel and then stared at for a few minutes.
It was from her mother. Everyone else in her life called, texted, or e-mailed, but her mother had never gotten the hang of modern technology.
Jade had a pretty pothos plant whose abundant leaves had worked their way in front of the few pictures she had on the mantle. Nudging them aside, she looked into the eyes of her family. Her well-meaning retired physician parents were arm in arm in front of their large successful medical center, which until eighteen months ago, Jade had overseen for them. The job had been her life, which was no wonder given that the center had five major departments to oversee; urgent care, ob-gyn, family practice, pediatrics, and orthopedics.
Then there was the picture of Jade and her cousin, Sam Bennett, a doctor as well, the two of them on skies and mugging for the camera.
Both pictures had been taken two years ago now and represented a time when Jade had known exactly who and what she was, and the path of her future.
They’d been a happy, loving, successful family.
She ran a finger over her father’s face and heard his voice in her head, shaking slightly with the Parkinson’s disease that was slowly killing him. Nothing can scare you, princess. You’re a natural, you were born to be strong and do anything you want.
How often had he told her that?
Her mother, too.
Sam had been fond of the mantra as well, and it had meant even more coming from him. Only two years older than Jade, Sam was far more a brother than a cousin. He called weekly and texted daily, checking on her, bugging her to come home.
Something she’d promised to do the day she’d left Chicago. She’d told them she’d be back within the year. But that year had come and gone and she’d had to ask for an extension because she hadn’t been ready.
Now it had been eighteen months and her grace period was gone. But as it turned out, she could get her pencils and her lists and her clothes just the way she wanted, she could expect her world to fall into place just the way she wanted, but healing . . . healing couldn’t be ordered.
Healing had to come from the inside.
It had to come from the “strength” her family had constantly told her she had, strength she’d blindly accepted as fact.
That had been the fatal flaw.
Because she’d never had to actually be strong. And as it turned out, being told you’re strong and actually being strong were two very different things.
Which she discovered the night she’d been tested beyond endurance.
After the attack, she realized the truth—that everyone had been wrong, very wrong. She hadn’t been strong at all. Once that had sunk in, her foundation had cracked and fallen away from beneath her feet.
And she’d run. She’d run hard and fast, from family, from well-meaning friends, from work, from everything. She’d come here to Sunshine and ordered herself to feel safe. But the attack had showed her that even ordering something to happen couldn’t stop the unexpected. So even as she worked hard at creating structure to Dell’s life, she wasn’t facing her own weakness—dealing with the unexpected.
Her cell phone rang again, and still staring at the unopened letter, she answered without looking at the ID. “Dell, I’m going to start to think you’d rather be playing doctor with me.”
There was a startled beat of silence. “You and Dell are playing doctor?”
Jade winced. “Hey, Lilah.”
“Don’t ‘Hey, Lilah’ me. You got some ’splaining to do, Lucy. You’re playing doctor with Dell?”
“No! I just thought you were him again, and—”
“Again?” Jade was sounding excited now, a big mistake on Jade’s part. Lilah had the nose of a bloodhound, and she was on the scent.
“Is there something going on that I need to be informed of pronto?” Lilah asked.
“No!” Jade drew a calming breath. Like Dell, Lilah worked with animals and could read a lie a mile away. “Okay, let’s focus here. Where are you?”
“In Boise with Brady.”
Damn. “Are you at least getting some action from the hottest pilot in all of Idaho?”
“In all the land,” Lilah corrected. “Not just Idaho. And don’t think I didn’t spot the subject change. Nicely done. What did you do with the stray?”
“I took her.”
There was a prolonged silence at this. “You?”
Jade sighed. “It’s not that weird. You were gone and there was no one else.”
“So . . . you have the stray at your place?”
“It’s just for the night, Lilah.”
Another pause. “Can I talk to her?” Lilah joked. “And get the secret admittance handshake?”
“Ha,” Jade said at the subtle knock at the fact that she never invited any of them over. She had no idea why Lilah liked her, but she was glad. Lilah was open and welcoming and inspired trust. And she got the same feelings from Sunshine itself. “I’ll bring you the kitten tomorrow.”
“Sounds good. But I’m actually calling about tomorrow night. I want to get everyone together at Crystal’s.”
Everyone meant Lilah and her boyfriend Brady—an ex–army ranger, now a pilot for hire—and Brady’s brothers, Dell and Adam. They were a tight group, and considered themselves family.
By some miracle, they’d included Jade in that group. “Sounds good.”
“Tell Dell for me?”
“Aha!” Lilah cried triumphantly. “So there is something going on with you two.”
“Lilah, we work together. I meant I’d tell him tomorrow at work.”
“Or when you play doctor . . .”
There was no doubt Dell could show Jade a good time. But she’d seen his patterns over the past year and a half, and they didn’t involve being friends with the women he slept with. And they were friends. So she could squelch the occasional yearning for more. Especially since . . . “He’s on a date.”
“Oh.” Lilah sighed. “You got my hopes up there for a minute. I know, stupid.”
Yes. Yes, Jade and Dell together would be stupid. He was her boss. He had an allergy to relationships. And she wasn’t made for quickie affairs, not to mention that she was going back to Chicago soon.
All good, solid reasons to avoid said stupidity.
“Bringing this back to me,” Lilah said. “Put tomorrow night at Crystal’s on your fancy spreadsheet calendar thingie and send it to Dell. Wait—are you still forbidden from sending him any more spreadsheets?”
This had happened a few months back after Jade had accidentally (on purpose) mixed up his social calendar, causing him to pick up the wrong woman on the wrong night. “Nah, he got over it.” Dell got over everything, it was part of his easy charm. Nothing much got to him.
“Make it seven o’clock tomorrow night,” Lilah said.
“I’ll be there.”
“Want me to come by and get you?”
“I’ll honk for you.”
The usual routine. Jade looked around her loft. Eighteen months, and though Lilah had picked her up numerous times for a girls’ night out or dinner or any of a hundred other things, Jade had never invited Lilah inside.
At first it was because she’d been protective of her privacy. And then as she’d made friends, it had been a way of keeping her heart protected from becoming too attached.
Which, of course, was far too late. She drew in a breath. “Don’t honk,” she said.
“Tomorrow night. When you get here, just come up.”
“You mean you’re finally finished painting?” Lilah asked, sounding excited.
Jade bit her lip, feeling a flush hit her cheeks at the shame of the little white lies she’d told everyone to protect herself. “Yeah. I finally finished painting.”
“Well, it’s about damn time, considering you’re leaving next month, sheesh! Can’t wait. See you tomorrow.”
Jade hung up the phone and looked at the kitten sitting in the doorway of the foyer, watching her with those narrowed feline eyes. “Baby steps,” she reminded the both of them.
When Lilah picked Jade up the next night, she was grinning as Jade opened the front door. “Lemme in, lemme in,” she said, pressing past Jade.
Jade held her breath as Lilah walked through the place. “It’s—”
“Nice,” Lilah finally said, turning in a circle. “It’s . . . wow nice.” Lilah lived in a tiny cabin, one that was both adorable and ancient. At any given moment either the plumbing or electricity were threatening to go out and stay out. But the place had been purposely, carefully, lovingly furnished by Lilah herself, and every inch of it was . . . well, Lilah.
Jade looked around now, trying to see her loft as if for the first time to decide what these furnishings said about her. Smooth lines, glass, mostly white or pale earth tone colors.
They said expensive lease.
“So neat,” Lilah said, sounding amused. “I shouldn’t be surprised at that.”
There was very little clutter. Jade had always been proud of that, and the clean lines. It said she was on top of things. Successful. Smart.
An illusion, and one easily shattered at that.
“It’s so light and airy,” Lilah said. “Fancy.”
And costly. The word went unspoken, but it was true. She paid for the tight security and a good neighborhood, made all the more pricey because she was on a month-tomonth, not an annual lease. The owner charged her more to give him the security he needed in case she bailed.
And she did plan on bailing.
Sooner or later . . .
Or so she’d been saying every month for over a year now.
“Mew,” said the stray kitten that Jade hadn’t given to Lilah this morning.
Lilah scooped the kitten up for a hug. “Aw. You’re what, four months old? You’re precious.” She looked at Jade. “I thought you were going to bring her to the kennels for adoption.”
“I am. Tomorrow.”
She’s meant to do it today, but there was just something about those green eyes that said the little thing had seen too much for her few months. And the way her little ribs stuck out, it grabbed Jade by the heart and wouldn’t let go. She wanted to fatten her up first, is all, give her a day off from the cruel realities of the big, bad world out there.