Her tires squealed a little bit leaving the lot, but she didn’t slow down. From in her pocket, her cell phone vibrated. Swallowing hard, she kept driving.
She was nearly a mile down the road when her phone vibrated again. Still shaking, heart still pounding, she pried her hand from the wheel and grasped the phone.
She didn’t have to look at the screen to see who it was.
With her vision already far too blurry for safe driving thanks to the tears she refused to acknowledge, she hit ignore and kept going.
Jade made it home and knew exactly how lucky she was to do it in one piece given her condition. Running on panic and adrenaline, she stumbled out of her car and got to her door before she remembered.
“I’m sorry, I’m so sorry,” she murmured after she’d run back to the car for the kitten. “God. I’m the worst kitten mom on the entire planet.” Hugging the carrier close, she ran up the walk, up the stairs, unlocked the door and disabled her alarm.
Inside, she hit the switch that lit up the place like Christmas and then stood stock-still, her hand on the wall for balance.
Everything was in place and she was alone. Her purse hit the floor and she slid down the wall to sit on her butt next to it, gulping in air, still hugging Beans in her carrier.
Beans wanted dinner. Understandable. But Jade’s mind was doing a rewind and repeat.
Dark parking lot.
Dark face mask.
Dark growling voice in her ear. “Do as I say, bitch, and I won’t hurt you. Yet.”
Dark fear as he emphasized the words with the cold muzzle of a gun thrust under her jaw.
Frozen with fear, she tried to turn her head to get a look at him, but he stopped her cold. He ran the tip of that gun from her jaw along her throat, over her collarbone and down, skimming her breast. “Let’s go,” came the low, rough voice. “Unless you want to spend some time out here with me first . . .”
The only sound in her loft was her harsh breathing until Beans gave another soft, questioning “mew.”
Jade opened the cage and let the kitten out. Beans wound her way around Jade’s legs, giving out a rumbling purr. She accepted a scratch behind the ears and then trotted off to the kitchen nook in the obvious hope that the bowl fairy had filled hers.
Jade let out a choked laugh and thunked her head back against the door. One little thing, a silly zombie mask, a frigging kid’s Halloween mask, and she was back to a complete wreck, worse than ever.
Her first instinct was to run. Hell, that’s how she’d ended up here. After the attack, she’d run to get her head on straight. She’d gotten in the car and driven west.
She’d ended up in Sunshine.
And she’d never left. She’d found this sweet place to hole up and had taken a job she was way overqualified for, just so she could do something well.
A safety net.
She’d needed the confidence booster, and at the time, she’d truly believed it a very temporary move. She just needed to find herself again, that was all.
She thought she had.
Clearly she’d been wrong. Clearly she’d been living in Denial City. She’d built herself a little fantasy here, a temporary geographical cure, that was all.
Now she had to decide what to do about that. She could pack and go. Again. Just get in the car and go. Maybe south this time. Arizona. California. Hell, she could hit Mexico and keep going if she wanted. She wrapped her arms around her knees and dropped her head.
But running meant once again leaving everyone and everything that mattered. And she’d already done that. She didn’t want to do it again.
The knock at the door had her jerking upright as if shot. She stared at it, still as stone.
“Jade, it’s me.”
Dell, of course. Who else?
“Let me in, Jade.” She covered her mouth and shook her head, like he could see her.
After a moment, the knock came again, less patient now, again accompanied by his low, unbearably familiar voice. “Jade.”
Jade stared down at Beans, who was once again doing the head bump against her legs. “He’s never been here,” she whispered to the kitten. “Why’s he here?”
Because he saw your freak-out in the parking lot, you idiot. Because he came down to check on you and you sped off into the night. Because you didn’t answer your phone.
Pick one . . .
Leaning her head back on the door, Jade closed her eyes and fought with the conflicting urges to open the door and throw herself at him for the comfort she knew his very nice arms could provide or to continue to huddle in a pathetic little ball and pretend the world didn’t exist.
“I can hear you breathing,” he said.
Slowly she stood up. She could feel Dell on the other side, tall and strong, warm. Calm.
And he could outpatience Job, too. Once she’d seen him outwait a furious gelding who’d been out of its mind after being stung by a bee, so enraged that everyone had truly thought the poor thing would break its own leg, or worse.
Dell had stepped into the central pen while the horse ran in circles around him, and when the horse finally exhausted itself, Dell moved in, getting the thing to literally eat out of the palm of his hand.
Jade’s cell phone rang, and shock, it was Dell.
Since he wasn’t going to give up, she answered with, “Jade’s unavailable at this time. Go away.”
“Leave a message at the beep,” she whispered, trying for sarcastic wit, which is where she felt the most comfortable while completely coming undone.
“I want to talk to you.”
“Sorry, you’ve been rerouted to the Office of Too Freaking Bad.”
He hung up on her and she breathed a sigh of relief. Which turned out to be too soon because his voice came through the door. “Open up.”
His voice was low. Calm, assertive. And she actually turned to face the door before she stopped herself. Don’t be the horse that needs taming! “Stop woman-whispering me.”
There was a pause, as if he was considering his options, weighing each against her mood. But unfortunately his silence was as compelling as his voice.
Dammit. “Go,” she said, even though he hadn’t spoken again. “Please, Dell. Just go away.”
“I can’t do that.”
She began to mentally compile a new list: Dell’s negative qualities. Stubborn. Single-minded. Nosy . . .
“I’m busy,” she said.
“Yes, I am. Very, very busy.”
But Dell had gone to the No Bullshitting School of Life and wasn’t buying. “Jade, you’re standing there right this minute, just staring at the door.”
“I’m sitting.” She let out a sigh, really hating it when he was right. “I have a date.” The only date she’d had all year had been with her secret stash of Ben & Jerry’s.
And maybe once or twice with her pulsing five-speed showerhead.
“Just tell me if you’re okay,” he said.
No, she was most definitely not okay. In fact, she was an inch from a second meltdown and she desperately needed to be alone to have it, thank you very much.
Her throat burned so badly she couldn’t speak so she nodded like an idiot even knowing he couldn’t see her. “Yes. I’m okay.”
“Open the door and prove it.”
Goddammit. She tossed back her hair, lifted her chin and forced an impassive expression before pulling open the door. “What?” she asked. “What is it?”
He said nothing, but his dark eyes swept over her, doing a quick and efficient visual exam.
“I could take a picture for you, if you’d like,” she offered.
Those warm brown eyes lifted to hers, the briefest flash of humor momentarily dislodging his concern. “If I thought you meant that . . .” Belying the teasing in his voice, his eyes stayed serious, and he lifted her hand to eye the scrape that she’d cleaned and bandaged. He took a step forward to cross the threshold but she put her hand to his chest.
“We need to talk,” he said.
“Yeah, now see, that’s the last thing I want to do.” She meant to shove him away but she’d been so shaken for the past hour, so on edge, she felt momentarily confused when she felt the warm heat of him, the easy strength radiating beneath his shirt.
And suddenly all she wanted to do was lose herself in that heat and strength. Almost against her own will, her head tilted back and she stared up into his face.
At his mouth. Because she knew now. Knew how it felt on hers. Knew the power of their connection.
As if he felt it, too, he went still as stone, then dropped his gaze to her mouth as well, and for the first time since the parking lot, she warmed—thanks to him. She didn’t even realize she’d leaned in toward him until with a low groan and a curse, he put his hands on her arms. “Jade.”
Galvanized into action by sheer mortification, she broke free and turned her back on him. She scooped up the kitten, pressing her red face into Beans’s fur. “I told you, I’m busy.”
“I’ll see you tomorrow, then,” he said quietly.
Tomorrow was far too many baby steps away to think about at the moment, but she nodded. When he said nothing else, she turned back to him.
A mistake. Just another one in a long line of mistakes today alone. Because Dell had a way. For as unflappable and affable as he was, he had instincts honed as sharp as any wild animal, and he saw right through her. “You’ll call me if you need anything,” he said. Not a request.
If she called, he’d be back here in an instant. She knew that. They butted heads, they teased and pushed buttons, but there was no one better than Dell in a crisis. She could count on him, she knew that. She just didn’t want to count on him. She wanted to be able to count on herself. God, how she wanted that.
“I’ll call,” she said. “Go.” God, please, go. “I’ll see you tomorrow.” She’d have promised him the full moon if it would make him leave.
With one last long look, he nodded, and then was gone.
She stared down at Beans as she let all the air out of her lungs. “What now?”
“Mew,” Beans said.
“Right.” Baby steps. She headed straight to the kitchen, specifically the freezer, grabbing a big wooden spoon on the way. She had a date, after all. A threesome with Ben & Jerry. Then she’d take a long shower, go to bed, and figure the rest out in the morning.
Dell rose before dawn. Not that he was a morning person by choice. Nope, if left to his own devices, he would stay up all night, but these days he had early morning responsibilities.
Of his own making, at least. He’d made this life for himself. He’d bled and sweated for it.
And he loved it.
But as he rolled out of bed at the asscrack of dawn and into a shower, he’d have given his left nut for a few more hours since he hadn’t fallen asleep until an hour ago.
Couldn’t, not when he kept reliving the look on Jade’s face from the night before.
Mindless terror. That’s what he’d seen when she’d torn out of his parking lot.
It’d been so different from anything he’d ever seen from the coolly poised woman who sat running his world every day that it’d taken a moment to compute.
It’d been all he’d thought about all night, the image of her beautiful face, pale and stricken. She’d collected herself somewhat by the time he’d gotten to her loft, but when she’d opened the door he could practically feel the vibrations from the trembling she was trying so desperately to control.
Her fake bravado had broken his heart. What the f**k had happened to her? He’d stepped inside, intending to get answers, but one look at her face had told him no answers were going to be forthcoming.
And then she’d looked at his mouth. He’d read her thoughts and body language as clearly as if she’d spoken out loud. She hadn’t wanted to discuss what was wrong, but for that single beat at least, she’d been amiable to losing herself in his arms.
Not much shocked him these days, but that had. All this time and she’d never expressed an interest in him that way. In fact, she’d gone out of her way to make sure he understood that she wasn’t attracted to him.
Until two nights ago after Crystal’s. In the cab of his truck, giving each other mouth to mouth, everything had changed.
And then changed again when she’d vowed to ignore their connection.
Neither of them seemed to be capable of that, but not for lack of trying. “Come on, Gert,” he told the still sleeping St. Bernard. “Let’s hit it.”
Gertie closed her eyes. Her version of possum. She wasn’t a morning creature, either.
“If you don’t get up, you won’t get a cookie.”
Gertie scrambled to her feet. Dell drove to Belle Haven and parked next to a freshly washed, shiny truck, its interior so squeaky clean he could have eaten off the dash.
It’d been the military to drum home that neatness in his brother, but Dell didn’t have the same compulsion. His truck was covered in a fine layer of dust on the outside and Gertie hair on the inside.
The front door of the center was locked, lights off. Alarm on. The security system was being upgraded this week, a direct response to the vet clinic robberies.
It wasn’t going to be his place they hit next. Or if it was, he’d be prepared. Once upon a time he might have been an easy mark but those days were long over.