Peanut the parrot sat in her opened cage, eyeballing the room with interest, occasionally squawking out a “mew” or “wuff wuff” because she liked to be a part of every conversation. Behind Jade’s chair lay Gertie, Dell’s ten-year-old “baby.” The St. Bernard liked the chaos as much as Jade did and had decided she liked hanging out with Jade.
Gertie was currently snoring over the din.
The stray kitten was still with her and had gotten very attached to the carrier that Jade had been using to transport her to and from the loft. Jade kept it in a position of honor on her credenza, door open.
From the carrier, the kitten loftily surveyed her kingdom, looking down her nose at the waiting patients.
Jade had named her Beans because . . . well, she wasn’t exactly sure but the kitten seemed to like it.
“She still here?” Dell asked, coming through the front room holding a chart.
“Just until she gets fattened up a little.”
Dell just smiled, sure and confident and smelling amazing, damn him. “I am going to give her up,” she said. Tomorrow.
Okay, so maybe next week. It had to be sooner than later because Jade was going back to Chicago.
At some point.
“Would it be so bad to want to keep something in your life?” he asked.
She laughed. “Okay, Mr. Pot. Meet Kettle.”
“I have animals.”
“Just not women. At least not permanent ones.” She immediately clamped her mouth shut, with no idea where that had come from. With a shake of her head, she turned back to her computer.
Dell stepped to her side, but before he could say a word, Keith, their animal tech, squished in between them, reaching for the sign-in sheet with his usual cluelessness. He brought the patients to the exam rooms for Dell and took notes and stats. He divided a look between Dell and Jade. “What?”
“Nothing,” Jade said and nudged Dell out of the way.
When he was gone, Keith looked at her. “We in trouble?”
“No.” They weren’t in trouble. She was in trouble, all by herself.
Keith sighed in relief. He was a twenty-four-year-old mountain biker and mountain bum. He was great with the animals but more forgetful than anyone she’d ever met, and he moved slower than molasses. “Dude,” he said—just like he did every time Jade passed him in the hallway, assisting him in bringing the animals to the back. “You in a race?”
“No, but you could pretend to be.”
Keith merely grinned. “You know what you need?”
Yes. Yes, she knew exactly what she needed.
“You need yoga. Or Xanax.”
“What I need is you to move it.”
“Move it,” Peanut repeated.
Keith grinned. “I only move it on the mountain or in my bed.”
Jade sighed but kept cracking the whip. By pushing the patients along, continuing to fill and empty the exam rooms as fast as Dell worked his way through them, she made up even more lost time. This she used to help Adam as needed, who was working from the center today as well. He gave a S&R training class in the morning, and then puppy obedience classes all afternoon, and Jade helped him stay as organized as she could.
Eventually, sometime after five o’clock, the place slowed down. The last of the patients were seen. Jade was straightening up the front room when Bessie arrived from the cleaning service.
Actually, Bessie was the cleaning service. She came at the end of the day and sometimes at the lunch break as needed. “That’s my job,” she snapped at Jade, who was straightening out the waiting room.
“Move it,” Peanut said.
Bessie eyeballed the parrot. “I know how to make a mean parrot soup.”
Peanut ducked her head beneath her wing.
“I’m just trying to help,” Jade told Bessie. The benches were heavy and she knew Bessie’s back bothered her by the end of the day.
But Bessie’s eyes flared with temper as if she’d been insulted. “You think I can’t do my job?”
Bessie was somewhere between fifty and one hundred. Hard to tell exactly. Time hadn’t been kind, and neither had gravity, but Bessie had been cleaning offices in Sunshine for decades and wasn’t ready to admit defeat. “I think you do your job better than anyone I know,” Jade said.
“Then leave me to it,” Bessie said.
This was a nightly conversation. Jade lifted her hands in surrender and went back to her desk to close up.
Keith left, as did Mike, Dell’s animal nurse. Dell, done seeing patients, was holed up in his office, hopefully catching up on returning phone calls and making final notes to the animal charts and other various but necessary paperwork.
Adam came in from the outside pens, bringing a blast of autumn air in with him. He had a golden retriever puppy tucked beneath each arm. There was a woman with him. “Thanks so much for today,” she was saying as he walked her to the door. “Timmy’s already in the car, but I just wanted to confirm we’re on for this weekend, for the special-needs kids.”
“I’ll be there,” Adam said.
“It’ll mean so much to the kids. Your dogs just have such a way of reaching them. Having you bring your puppies, letting the kids see how you train and treat them, is such a wonderful experience for them. We can’t wait.”
“Looking forward to it.” Adam nudged the door open with his foot for her. He walked out with her and then surprised Jade by coming back inside, still holding two pups.
“Heading out for the night,” he said. “I’ll walk you to your car.”
One of the puppies barked happily, earning him a low, authoritative look from Adam. The puppy seemed to smile at him but obeyed and fell quiet.
“I’m not ready yet,” Jade said. “I’m backing up the files right now.”
Adam nudged his chin in the direction of Dell’s office. “Then call him when you’re ready to go.”
“Believe it or not, I think I know how to find my car.”
Adam didn’t return her teasing smile, just shook his head. “Another animal clinic was hit last night. No one walks to their car by themselves.”
“You are,” she pointed out.
That did make him smile. He was over six feet, solid muscle, and intimidating as hell. “Don’t worry about me,” he said, lifting the puppies higher. One licked his nose, the other licked his chin. “I’ve got guard dogs.”
Jade came around her desk, kissed each puppy and opened the door for them. Then she went back to her desk. “Gertie,” she said. “Go to Dell.”
Well used to the night routine, Gertie trotted off to Dell’s office, where she’d wait patiently for her master to take her home.
Jade covered up Peanut, then settled Beans in her carrier. She slung her purse over her arm, dimmed the lights, then stuck her head into Dell’s office.
He’d had a long day and was still in his scrubs and white lab coat, sprawled in his big leather office chair talking on the phone. He had his feet up on his desk, his laptop in his lap, and he was hunting and pecking keys with an impressive speed for someone using only their pointer fingers. He had his cell phone open and on speaker, and at first she thought maybe he was consulting, as he often did for the other vets in the area.
That or going over the stack of paperwork she’d left for him. They had plenty of it, the most pressing tonight being the blood drawn from a jet-setting Boston terrier heading for England on a month-long vacay with his owner. The sample needed to be sent out to a lab authorized to give a rabies-titer clearance proving the dog had an adequate level of rabies antibodies to avoid Britain’s quarantine. But . . . big surprise, a soft female voice was speaking.
“I’ve got a steak on the barbecue with your name on it, Big Guy,” that female voice said.
Dell’s dark eyes warmed at the sight of Jade. “Sorry, Kel. I have work.” His hair was even more disheveled than usual. He’d shoved his fingers through it. He did that a lot when he was tired or frustrated, and today he’d been both. He’d lost a very ill cancer-ridden cat on the table, not entirely unexpected but never easy.
I’m going, Jade mouthed, and waved to indicate she was heading out.
“Wait,” he said.
“I’ll wait as long as you need,” the woman said.
“Sorry,” Dell said, putting his feet down and setting his laptop on the desk. “I meant Jade.”
Jade rolled her eyes at Dell and left his office. The man was gorgeous as sin, and incredible at what he did for a living, but if he couldn’t see that he went through women like other men went through socks because he insisted on choosing the wrong women, it was really none of her business.
Not that she was one to talk. She hadn’t exactly been successful in the relationship area herself, especially lately. “People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones,” she murmured to Beans as they stepped outside.
It was a relatively mild night, but she could hear the rustle of the dry leaves on the trees. They were getting ready to fall. The ground crunched beneath her heels as she walked across the parking lot. She was halfway to her car when it happened.
A figure darted between her car and Dell’s truck. He was tall, lean, and had a face chalk white with hollow, sightless black eyes and a black mouth, gaping wide open in a soundless scream.
Terror gripped Jade by the throat and between one heartbeat and the next, she was transported back to another time and another place.
To the night of her attack. And this time it was worse because she knew she was weak. She was supposed to be getting better and she wasn’t. She was hiding behind the same routines, different place, and she was no better than she’d been before the first attack.
She told this to her feet. Run. But like the last time, her feet didn’t obey. And also like last time, she froze.
That long ago night she’d been snagged up in hard, gripping hands, and dragged away by gunpoint. Knowing she couldn’t survive that again, she opened her mouth to scream but only a whimper escaped.
The dark figure stopped short and tilted its head. The white face wavered in her vision, then floated disembodied as it was torn away. A mask. A zombie, she thought dimly. A cheap zombie Halloween mask.
And the figure? Just a teenager, and a young one at that. But it was too late for logic. Panic had stolen her breath, stopped her heart, and she couldn’t breathe.
From a great distance she heard the second horrifyingly pathetic whimper that came from her throat. Her legs wobbled and gave, and she hit her knees, bracing herself with one hand on the rough asphalt.
The kid reached out to put a hand on her shoulder and she further embarrassed herself by cringing back.
A woman appeared, the woman who’d been talking to Adam only a few moments before, Jade realized. Michelle something. She crouched before Jade and tried to take the kitten carrier.
“No!” Jade gasped, tightening her grip on Beans.
“Your hand’s bleeding, you must have scraped it when you fell,” Michelle said. “I’m so sorry. Timmy didn’t mean to scare you.”
“He . . . he didn’t say anything.”
“He’s deaf, he doesn’t speak. I’m so sorry. I know I should take the mask from him, but he’s so attached to his Halloween costume. He loves to wear it.”
Only seconds ago it had been terror blocking the air in Jade’s throat. Now it was humiliation. She got to her feet, still clutching Beans. “It’s okay, I’m fine.”
But she wasn’t. With the memories she’d beaten back now pounding just behind her eyes, she was barely holding it together.
“Your hand’s bleeding,” Michelle said again. “Please. Let me—”
“No.” Jade’s jaw was clenched to keep her teeth from chattering. “I’m really fine.” Whirling away, she practically ran to her car. Her hands were shaking badly, and it took three tries to find her keys in her own pocket. Glancing up, she caught sight of Dell’s office window, lit from within. He was there, looking out, his phone to his ear.
It felt like five years had passed since she’d fallen, but it’d probably been less than a minute. Had he seen her mini freak-out?
Their gazes connected, and in the next beat he was gone from the window.
He was coming out.
She couldn’t be here when he did, couldn’t let him see her like this, shaken and trembling like a baby. Knowing she had only seconds—for a laid-back, easygoing guy Dell could really move when he wanted—she talked herself through it. Don’t lose it, not yet.
Shoving the key into the ignition, she mentally accessed her to-do list. One, pull the seat belt over the carrier. Two, shut the door. Three, open the driver’s-side door and get in.
There. At least now she couldn’t fall down again. She gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles and gulped in air. For a single heartbeat she gave into the emotions battering at her and dropped her head to the steering wheel. “Get it together,” she whispered. “Get it together.” Lifting her head, she turned the key. Her engine came to life just as she saw movement from the doors.
Dell was striding through them. She caught the glint of his dark hair beneath the bright outside light hanging above the entry way of the center.
Heart in her throat, she put the car in gear and hit the gas. Don’t look back, don’t look back, don’t . . .
Dell stood there in the center of the lot, hands on hips, a grim expression on his face.