Dell met them at the center and confirmed his suspicions—the dog’s intestines were blocked by towel shreds. He operated and was back in his office by seven, leaning back in his chair studying the ceiling.
His eyes felt gritty. He was exhausted, but every time he closed his eyes he saw Jade. He could feel her touch, hear her laugh, taste her tears in their last kiss.
Closing his eyes, he took a deep breath. He’d been such a cocky son of a bitch. He’d actually convinced himself that Jade being the one to walk away was a good thing. He wouldn’t have to break her heart.
And then he’d gotten his broken. He had definitely not seen that one coming . . .
His door opened. “Mrs. Mason’s Chinese Shar-Pei puppy is in exam one,” Keith said. “Star was wounded in a scuffle with a housemate.”
The twelve-week-old Star weighed all of ten pounds dripping wet. Her “housemate” was a twenty-pound Siamese cat with the disposition of Scrooge. Shit. Well, he’d needed more distractions . . .
It was easy enough to busy himself. He’d already f**ked up his neat, organized office. That had happened the day Jade had left. He was back to his old ways. If she wanted to fix it, she’d have to get her sweet ass back here.
Only that wasn’t going to happen.
If he wanted her sweet ass back here, he was going to have to go get it. He was going to have to figure his shit out, figure out how to give her what she wanted and get what he wanted at the same time.
The next day Jade got up, showered, dressed, and drove into work. She parked in the lot, grabbed her purse, and reached into the backseat for Beans’s carrier.
Which wasn’t there, of course.
Jade had left the cat in the town house. The medical center was no place for her.
Beans had taken this as the final insult. After a three-day drive and being thrust into yet another new environment, she’d revolted, retreating to beneath Jade’s bed, and no coaxing or bribing could get her to come out.
Jade had been forced to leave her there or be late for work, but she felt like shit, like she’d let down the one friend she had in the same state as her. She locked her car and hurried out of the lot into the biting November cold. Her hand was in her purse, fingers wrapped around her can of hair spray.
Adam would be proud, she thought, not allowing herself to think of Dell because thinking of Dell brought a rush of emotions that made her knees weak and threatened her mascara.
And everyone knew, a Bennett never let her mascara run.
It was bright daylight and there was no danger now, not like there’d been that night, but unreasonable fears always trumped logic. She practically ran up the steps and then stopped, hand on the door.
The point of no return. Sandy was supposedly perfectly happy with going back to managing the Urgent Care Department of the center, but still, Jade didn’t like the idea of pushing her out.
Jade, Jade, Jade. What you don’t like is the idea of being back . . .
She took her hand off the door handle. A woman and a man walked up the steps behind her. The woman smiled politely and said, “Excuse me,” gesturing that Jade was in her way.
Jade backed up. The building was a large glass and concrete beauty, surrounded by other equally impressive buildings. Her father loved architecture.
Belle Haven wasn’t an architectural marvel, but the country exterior surrounded by the majestic, rustic Bitterroot Mountains had felt infinitely more warm and accepting and inviting.
She shook her head. The parking lot behind her was as busy as the streets, and so was the front door. People were entering and exiting around her. Between each, Jade stared at the door but never quite managed to walk through it. After a few minutes, the door opened and Sam came out. He was in a doctor’s coat with a stethoscope around his neck, his badge pinned to a pec pocket: DR. SAM BENNETT.
Clearly he’d been working but had either looked out one of the windows or been alerted to her presence. Who knew what she’d drawn him away from. “I’m sorry, Sam.”
“Jade—” He put his hands on her arms. “You’re shaking. Come inside, we’ll get some coffee and—”
“No.” She pulled free, taking one of his hands in hers and staring up into his handsome, caring face. “Sam, listen to me.”
“I’m all ears for you. You know that. Talk to me.”
“You remember how this used to be so exciting that we’d show up for work early? That everything we accomplished here was a thrill?” She could see in his eyes he knew exactly what she meant, that he still felt that way. She swallowed the lump in her throat. “I don’t feel that way anymore.”
He shook his head but she squeezed his hand. She needed to say this. He needed to hear it. “Being here isn’t the same for me. The very things that fueled me, working with people, living in a big city—it all paralyzes me now.”
“Jade,” he said, sounding raw and devastated. “You can talk to someone about that—”
“It’s not the attack.” She pressed the heels of her hands to her eyes, then dropped them. “Okay, that’s what started it. But that’s not what it is now. I’m not afraid, I just don’t want to be here. I’ve changed, Sam. This place isn’t for me anymore. And to be honest, I don’t think it ever really was.”
“What are you talking about? All your life you were groomed for this.”
“Exactly. I was groomed. I never made the choice. I’ll take responsibility for that, but it’s time, past time, for me to do what’s right for me.” Going up on tiptoe, she brushed a kiss to his jaw. “I love you. Please believe me when I tell you that I wanted to do this for you, for all of you. But I can’t.” She hugged him and felt the vibration of his cell phone furiously going off in his pocket. “You’re needed inside.”
He squeezed her hard. “You’re going back.”
Yeah. She was going back. She knew it as she crossed the lot and got into her car. She didn’t want to run a big empire. She wanted to sit at the front desk of Belle Haven and run that world. She wanted to see friendly faces, she wanted to play poker with her friends, she wanted to listen to Lilah wax poetic about Brady, she wanted to watch Adam play his tough guy while melting over the puppies he bred.
She wanted . . . Dell.
No, he hadn’t asked her to stay. He wouldn’t. It had been her decision to make and he’d trusted and expected her to make the right decision for herself.
She’d screwed up there.
She’d screwed up a lot. But she was hoping she was smart enough to learn from her mistakes.
Back at her town house, she stuck her key in the lock, figuring she’d pull Beans out from beneath the bed and load her things, which she’d never unpacked.
That should have been a sign.
She had no idea exactly what the plan was. Just get in her car and drive? Show up in Sunshine and hope that the relationships she’d forged there were as real as they felt?
Count on Dell being happy to see her?
But all those thoughts were derailed when she realized her alarm was decoded. Her dad was in his chair in her living room, Beans in his lap, eyes closed in bliss, purring.
Jade stared at her. “Are you kidding me?”
Her dad smiled. “She’s a sweet thing.”
Hmmm. Jade gave Beans a long look, then crouched at her father’s side. “Sam called you.”
He nodded. “Sam called me. I had my driver bring me here, I hope you don’t mind.” His tremors were slight but more noticeable than the last time she’d seen him. “He’s waiting outside for me.”
“Dad.” She had to find a way to explain it all to him, why she couldn’t do this, why she couldn’t stay, how she never meant to hurt him, but she had to do this for herself. “Dad, I—”
He covered her hand with his, and when she looked up and met his gaze, his eyes were full of something she hadn’t expected.
Understanding. “It’s okay, Jade,” he said. “Whatever it is, just tell me.”
“You always said I could do whatever I wanted,” she said softly, and her voice caught. Dammit. Dammit, she was already too close to tears.
“Yes,” he said. “Whatever suited you.”
“The thing is, I never really knew what that was.”
He ran a thumb over her knuckles. “Now, see, I was under the impression you did.”
“I wanted to make you happy,” she said.
“Oh, Jade.” He closed his eyes, then opened them, a world of emotion there. “You’ve always made me happy.”
“Because I lived here and ran your medical center. I was your Jade.”
“You’re still my Jade.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m—”
“You’re also your own version of Jade. That’s new,” he said, his voice carrying a tremor, too, she realized.
Her eyes filled. “Yes. Dad, I’m not . . . I can’t . . .”
“You aren’t staying,” he said.
God. God, this was hard. “No, I’m not staying. I’m so sorry.”
“Oh, honey. Don’t ever be sorry for being who you are. Most of us go our whole lives not really getting it right, just settling.” He tugged a strand of her hair. “Do you have any idea the strength it takes to not settle? To keep pushing and seeking for what works?”
It was like a huge weight lifted off her chest. She could breathe again, and when her dad was gone, Jade looked for Beans.
Who was once again beneath the bed. “We’re going back,” she told the cat, bending low to look into her eyes. “Home.”
Beans just stared at her.
Beans paused, just long enough to make it clear that this was Beans’s decision and no one else’s, and then she walked out from beneath the bed, head high.
They were going back. Not running from something this time. But running to . . .
An hour later, Jade was staring at her spreadsheets. She was leaving tomorrow and she’d made a list of lists to keep organized. She had a things-to-do-before-selling-the-condo list. And a buy-for-the-trip list. A who-to-call list. And she was working on a places-not-to-stop-at list, which would include that rest stop in Nebraska that never had toilet paper. Her tummy rumbled, reminding her she hadn’t eaten since . . . She couldn’t remember. She scoured the kitchen and came up with a box of graham crackers, a candy bar, and a bag of marshmallows.
S’mores supplies from two years ago when she’d had a party. She eyeballed Beans. “Dinner’s on me tonight.” She stepped onto her front porch and looked at the small little hibachi barbecue that also hadn’t been used in far too long. There was frost on it.
She went back inside and searched for something for kindling. The only thing she could come up with was her business cards. She put on a wool coat, hat and gloves, and using her business cards, built a very nice little bonfire, if she said so herself.
She figured she had maybe half an hour before someone reported her to the association and they complained. They could all take a flying leap, she was out of here in the morning.
She was putting the finishing touches on her first s’more when a car drove up. Damn, that was fast. She peeked, then went still, certain her eyes were deceiving her.
Because it was a cab, and she recognized the dark silhouette getting out of it. Dell, with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder.
Her mouth fell open.
It stayed open as he paid the cab and headed up the walk toward her.
His eyes tracked to hers and locked on, and she felt a surge of warmth spread through her. God, he was a sight for sore eyes in jeans and a down jacket, hair tousled, eyes tired—though they sparked at the sight of her.
She sparked, too. In her good parts, certainly, but most of all in her heart.
He’d come here.
All the way here.
He took the steps two at a time with his long legs, and then he was standing right in front of her. “Hey.”
She tilted her head back and tried for cool but couldn’t access any cool. “Hey,” she whispered.
He dropped the duffel bag and hunkered at her side. “You did say we could have the occasional weekend. Too soon?”
The lump in her throat was back, but she swallowed it and smiled, so damn happy to see him she could hardly put words together. “So you flew out here to go on a date?”
His lips curved, and something happened inside her chest. It filled with . . . hunger. Longing.
“A date sounds good,” he said. “We never really did much of that, did we?”
“No.” She crumpled up a few more spreadsheets and tossed them into the dying flames. “But that was okay with me. You didn’t keep any of the women you dated. And even if you had, I didn’t want to be one of your . . . gaggle.” She handed him a stick and a marshmallow. “S’more?”
“A family of noisy geese. Or in your case, all the single women in all the land.”
His smiled widened, but he took the stick and snatched three additional marshmallows. “You aren’t part of my gaggle, Jade. You never were.” He eyed the small stack of business cards she had left but was smart enough not to mention them. Instead, he concentrated on carefully constructing a s’more with the same precision he used in surgery.
Jade could hardly believe he was here. She wanted to throw herself at him. Instead, she stuffed her face with her own delicious s’more, then licked chocolate off her fingers. “I’m surprised to see you,” she said as casually as she could. “Given your whole no-relationship decree.”