“You have beautiful taste,” Lilah said, something new and a little different in her voice now, and Jade paused. She understood Lilah’s confusion. Jade had once told her that she’d come to Sunshine for the good winter skiing and a break from her life.
Obviously the receptionist job and ski-bum premise didn’t quite add up to being able to afford a place like this. “I lease it furnished.”
Lilah looked at her as if she was speaking another language. “Really? Why?”
Jade hesitated. She could tell Lilah the whole sordid story. That’s what friends, real friends, did.
But she couldn’t tell. She couldn’t tell anyone, not without falling apart, and falling apart was not on today’s to-do spreadsheet.
But she could be honest about something, at least. “I leased it furnished, because as you know, I never intended to stay in Sunshine long.”
Lilah nodded. “So the whole ‘I’m painting my place’ thing . . .”
“I’ve never painted anything in my entire life,” Jade admitted. “I’m sorry. I—”
Lilah set the kitten down and squeezed Jade’s hand, her eyes warm with understanding. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me, Jade. Not until you’re ready.”
It was the first time that Lilah had ever let on that she knew that Jade hadn’t been honest with her, and the knowledge made Jade’s throat burn. “Thanks,” she whispered.
“But you can tell me something else.”
“Anything,” Jade said, relieved.
Lilah watched the kitten jump up on the couch and make herself at home. “Why did you keep her?”
They both looked at the kitten now daintily licking her Lady Town.
Jade bit her lower lip. “I don’t know. Anyone claim her?”
“Nope. And she’s going to leave hair all over that pretty couch.”
“I didn’t want her to be put down,” Jade said.
“I don’t put animals down. Ever. And you know that.”
Jade sighed. “Look, she acclimated. I can’t kick her out now.”
Lilah grinned. “You are so full of shit tonight. All the way around. Why can’t you just admit you’ve fallen for her?”
“I don’t fall.”
At that, Lilah laughed outright. “Oh, honey. Haven’t you learned yet? You can control a lot of things—work, what you watch on TV, how much ice cream you inhale—but you can’t control what your heart does.”
Jade brooded over that for a moment. “You can control how much ice cream you inhale?”
Lilah laughed again. “Come on, Brady’s meeting us at the bar. He told me I had to be on time tonight or he wouldn’t put out later.” She took one last look around and sighed wistfully. “Someday,” she murmured. “I’m going to have a place like this.”
Jade followed Lilah out and carefully set her alarm. Maybe she had the more expensive place and bigger savings account, but out of the two of them, Lilah with her tiny cabin, kennels, and adoring boyfriend was by far the richer.
Jade accepted her small glass of wine from the bartender and lifted a brow at the huge margarita he placed in front of Lilah.
“I have big plans for tonight,” Lilah said with a grin, licking the salt off the edge of the glass.
“Does it involve being flat on your ass?” Jade asked.
Lilah laughed and took a healthy sip of her drink. “Flat on my back maybe.” She grinned stupidly at the man who walked into the bar and headed directly for her.
The big, badass ex–army ranger didn’t look any less big and bad as he returned Lilah’s goofy smile and bodily plucked her out of her chair and squeezed her tight.
Lilah sighed sweetly, cupped his face, and kissed him long and hard, like maybe she hadn’t seen him in a year instead of that morning before she’d left for work.
Jade turned away to give them a moment, and herself, too. Had a man ever looked at her in the way Brady looked at Lilah? If so, she couldn’t remember it.
She’d dated in Chicago, usually with men she met through her connections at work or at the charity events she’d often run for her family. Similar minded as she, these men had professional lives that took up much of their time, and for whatever reason, not a one of them had sparked a long-term interest.
They’d been wrong for her.
She was good at that, meeting men who were wrong for her.
Still, she’d managed to have relationships, some that had even hung on for a few months at a time, often longer than they should have. What hadn’t happened was the magic that made her want to take the next step. Magic she would have said didn’t exist.
Except it did.
She was looking at it between Brady and Lilah. Then she locked eyes on another man entirely, Dr. Dell Connelly. She felt a little quiver, which was ridiculous because out of all the men in the land, he was the most wrong for her of them all.
Dell and Adam walked toward the bar, side by side, looking like the brothers they were from head to toe. Of the two, Adam was two years older but they almost could have passed for twins. Dark disheveled hair, dark eyes, features as strong and beautiful as fallen angels. Mix that with his dark skin and six feet plus of solid muscle and testosterone, and there wasn’t a woman in the place not wishing they were going home with one of them.
There were subtle differences though, if you knew them, and after working for them, Jade knew them well.
Adam was his usual unsmiling, serious self. Dell was much more open, already looking like he was having a good time, but the truth was that Dell could have a good time anywhere.
He was out of the surgical scrubs that so defined him at work, wearing a pair of jeans and a snug black T-shirt that made a woman want to drop at his knees and give him whatever he wanted.
But not her.
At least not in her waking hours. And what she fantasized about in the dark of the night was just that—fantasy.
He was smiling and would have looked younger than his thirty-two years—except for his eyes. His eyes said that he’d seen far more than his affable smile showed, and it had been those eyes to tell her eighteen months ago that she could work for him and be safe.
But safe was relative. And the fact was, she’d never seen so much male perfection grouped so closely together, and if you added Brady into the mix, it was a wonder that any woman in the place could put a thought together. These were rugged guys, built for stamina and the tough life out here that they all led. Not a single one of them were “city.” They’d never had a pedicure or worried about wrinkles or the cut of their clothes. They were real, as real as they came.
These qualities had a universal appeal, proven when Dell and Adam passed a table of three women, one of whom reached out and snagged Dell’s arm.
Jade recognized her as Cassie, a local rancher. Dell stopped and set a friendly hand on Cassie’s shoulder and she beamed up at him. So did the others at the table. This was because Dell could make ninety-year-old women preen and get infant girls to bat their eyelashes in his sleep.
He was the heart and soul of Belle Haven, and the rock of all of them.
This morning when she’d shown back up with the kitten in her carrier and informed him she was keeping her for a few days, he’d just smiled and said, “I know.” He’d known before Jade that she’d look into the strong, independent but down-on-her-luck kitten’s eyes and not be able to let her go.
Lilah finally removed her lips from Brady and waved at Adam and Dell. “Over here!”
Since Dell was currently being hugged by another woman at the table, Adam got to them first.
“’Bout time,” Lilah said.
Adam looked at his watch. “We late?”
“Nope, I’m just on time for once,” Lilah said. “All my pretties got picked up on time today.”
These “pretties” could be anything from dogs and cats to the more exotic. Jade had seen her driving around with a duck, a pig, and a lamb, stuck on babysitting detail. The woman had more patience than anyone Jade had ever met.
Adam nudged Jade and she obliged him, moving over in the booth, making room. He looked back to where his brother was attempting to extract himself from the woman’s arms and shook his head. “I told him, keep your head down and keep moving, but does he listen?” He glanced at Brady and Lilah and grimaced when he found them lip-locked again. “Ah, man, come on.”
Brady lifted his head and smiled into Lilah’s eyes. “Been wanting to do that all day.”
“You flew me around all day,” Adam said, helping himself to Jade’s wine. “We’ve been flying S&R in Eagle Canyon searching for a lost hiker.”
Brady smiled at Lilah. “I can multitask.”
Adam shook his head.
Dell finally appeared, his hair looking like it’d just been tousled by a hungry female. Kicking Brady’s legs out of his way, he stepped around Adam and pushed his way into the booth on Lilah’s other side.
Jade knew he’d spent much of his day in surgery but you couldn’t have told that by looking at him. Or smelling him. He smelled like undiluted amazingness as he bumped a broad shoulder to hers.
“Show-off,” he said.
She’d organized his inventory before he’d gotten out of his second surgery. “Just trying to help,” she said demurely.
His dark warm eyes held hers for a minute. “Bullshit,” he said, letting the smile in his voice break through. “You couldn’t help yourself, Jade.”
“That’s Goddess Jade to you.”
He laughed, and as always, the sound did something funny low in her belly. Which was really annoying considering the fact that every other woman who came in close proximity to him felt the same way.
“So, what is it you did in your previous life again? Run the world?” he asked.
“Close enough.” Running her family’s medical center had been much like running a small country, complete with the politics that went with it. “I have skills. Got ’em from my grandmother Jade. I got lots of things from her.”
“Well, she, too, was always right.”
Dell fought a smile and lost. With his warm eyes on hers and his hard thigh pressing to her own, Jade felt a silly little flutter.
No doubt this was how the women at the other table had felt when he’d focused his attention on them. At least she wasn’t simpering. She refused to simper.
“Are you always right?” Adam asked. “Or do we just let you think it because it’s easier?”
Jade took her wine back from him.
“Oh, and after you left,” Dell told her. “I took a few phone calls and squished a few more patients in for tomorrow.” He stopped to smile at someone waving to him from across the bar.
Jade poked him to get his attention back. Right in the biceps. Her finger bounced off him. “You didn’t have room in your schedule. It’s packed.”
“Yeah, but Mrs. Kyle’s cat is feeling ‘peakish.’” He shrugged. “Doesn’t tell me much, but Miss Kitty’s like a hundred, so it could be anything. She needs to be seen.”
Jade didn’t bother to sigh. It wouldn’t help. If there was an animal in need, Dell would work around the clock. “Tell me you did not even attempt to update the computer yourself.”
“Okay, I won’t tell you.”
“Man,” Adam muttered beneath his breath. “You never learn.”
Dell’s eyes were lit and Jade relaxed. “You’re just messing with me.”
A small smile crossed his face as he studied her. “How can you be sure?”
“Because if you’d messed anything up, you’d have brought me flowers, or you’d be kissing my ass like last time.”
“I’ll cop to the flowers, because you are one scary woman when you’re mad at me. But I’ve never kissed your ass.” He cocked his head and pretended to study said ass, even though she was sitting on it. “I’d be happy to do so, though. Anytime.”
She reached out to shove him, but he had lightning reflexes and grabbed her hand in his much bigger, darker one. His was calloused and work-roughed, and because that gave her an odd flutter, she pulled free. “Save it for someone that those moo-moo eyes actually work on.”
The band kicked into high gear. Lilah had pulled a reluctant Brady onto the dance floor.
“Better Fly Boy than me,” Adam muttered, and headed to the bar for a pitcher of beer.
Dell nudged Jade.
“In your dreams,” she said.
“What, is Goddess Jade afraid of something as innocuous as a dance?”
No, what she was afraid of was getting too close and getting sucked into his Hotness Vortex. She wasn’t afraid he’d ask anything of her she wasn’t willing to give.
She was afraid of what she was willing to give.
But you’re leaving, said the little devil on her shoulder. Her inner slut. You’re going back, you’re better now, what would it hurt to have him, just once?
Before Jade could thoroughly process this thought and take any action, Cassie appeared at their table. “Dell,” she said, tugging him up. “You owe me a dance.”
His smile was light. Flirty. But he shook his head. “Actually, I was just going to dance with Jade.”
“Go ahead,” Jade said. This was the little angel on her other shoulder. She wasn’t an inner slut.
Beaming, Cassie pulled Dell out of his chair. Jade shook her head at herself and headed to the bar.
Adam was there. He eyed Dell on the dance floor and he gave her a long look.