It was an hour before any of his staff would show up, and as he knew Adam had, he walked around back.
He kept their horses, Reno and Kiwi, here. Dell handled most of the day to day care of them, but on this foggy morning as he made his way to the pens, only one equine head appeared to pop through the fog as she neighed a soft greeting.
Reno and Adam were gone. “Aw, you got left behind,” he said, laughing when she butted her face to his chest, knocking him back a step, letting him know what she thought of being deserted.
Kiwi always played hard-ass. “Much like another woman in my life,” he said.
Kiwi snorted and searched his pockets. When she found the apple, she softened her limpid eyes and batted her lashes.
Her version of the femme fatale.
He laughed again when she ate it nearly whole and then burped in his face. “If only you were all so easy.” Saddling her up, he rode into the nearby hills, where as a boy he’d gone to be invisible instead of the easy, skinny, scrawny target he’d once been.
He rode hard, grateful to not be on foot as he mostly had been in those years, trying to outrun his demons.
Halfway back, he ran into Adam and Reno.
At a wordless command, Adam halted Reno and studied Dell’s face. He said nothing, just arched a brow in query.
It was rare, extremely rare, that Adam beat Dell into Belle Haven.
“Overslept,” Dell said.
Or not slept at all.
Adam just looked at him and Dell sighed. “Everything’s fine.”
With a nod, Adam urged Reno onward.
“Good talk,” Dell muttered, and followed.
They made it to the center a good half hour before any patients were due. Normally Dell cut it closer than that, but Jade always came at exactly seven thirty and he wanted to be there when she arrived.
Assuming she would arrive this morning.
But as he walked Kiwi onto the property, she pulled in, and he knew a moment of unrelenting relief. He hadn’t realized until that very moment exactly how afraid he’d been that she might simply vanish as mysteriously as she’d arrived.
Going to happen sooner or later, he reminded himself. Because no matter what had set her off last night, she was temporary here. She’d been telling him that since the day she’d walked in with his help-wanted ad in hand.
She got out of her car and hesitated. Their gazes met for one long, charged moment.
“Well, that’s new,” Adam said.
Dell ignored this comment as he dismounted.
Adam slid off Reno at the same time and casually grabbed the reins from Dell’s hand. He didn’t say anything more, just led the horses away.
Jade reached into her backseat for Beans’s carrier, then headed across the parking lot toward him. Hard to tell what she was thinking behind her big, dark Hollywood glasses.
All he’d managed to piece together about last night was that fourteen-year-old deaf and slightly mentally handicapped Timmy, had run by her, wearing a mask.
At the sight of it, Jade had completely lost it.
Clearly she’d found it again because she walked right past him now and into the office, her usual implacable self.
The phone was ringing as he followed on her heels and she answered it while unbuttoning her jacket and slipping out of it.
She left her glasses on.
“Belle Haven,” she said, the phone in the crook of her neck as she gathered her hair up and held it there with two tongue depressors, the kind he had in small jars in each exam room.
She wore a black wraparound top, tied with a neat bow over her hip, and black pinstriped trousers. The sophistication was broken by the kick-ass boots with the stiletto heels and the pin above her breast in the shape of a dog cookie that said: REAL DOCTORS TREAT MORE THAN ONE SPECIES.
She looked both prim and outrageously sexy as she let Beans out, and Dell’s brain stuttered and twitched. His dick also twitched, but he ignored both responses.
“He just walked in,” she assured the person on the phone, not looking his way as she uncovered Peanut and booted up the computer. “We’ll work you in before he heads into surgery. No problem, see you then.” She hung up and nearly plowed into Gertie, who wasn’t at her usual spot but standing very close to Jade staring up at her.
“Gertie,” Jade admonished. “Out of my way, please.”
Gertie stayed at attention, still staring up at Jade, and then let out a low whine.
With a noise of annoyance, Jade walked around the dog, avoiding Dell by turning to her computer, even though he’d stopped and leaned against the counter, also right in her way.
Dell eyed Gertie, who was watching Jade with worried eyes, clearly noticing the tension in Jade’s body language. “Jade.”
“Jade,” Peanut squawked. “Jade, Jade. Pretty Peanut. Peanut so pretty.”
“You’re going to have to hustle this morning,” Jade told Dell, handing him a file comprising all of the faxes that had come in.
Yes, but hustle was the usual speed around here, especially in the mornings where they always had to hit the ground running to keep up. Dell typically began his day checking on any of his patients who’d been hospitalized during the night, reading through the lab results that Jade pulled for him off the fax machine. That’s what was in the file she’d just handed him.
The closest overnight animal hospital was in Coeur d’Alene, and sometimes he’d have to go there to see his patients in person and do rounds. Either he’d drive or Brady would fly him in their Bell 47 helicopter, but he flipped through the file and saw that wasn’t required this morning.
Jade had turned to her printer, which was now spitting out his schedule for the day. “You’ve got your usual early morning rounds and four surgeries; a spay, two neuters, one dental cleaning, and then—”
She went still for one telling beat, then turned to face him.
Pushing away from the counter, he crossed her work space and pulled off her sunglasses. As always, her makeup was flawless. She wore lip gloss that smelled like vanilla mint and there was no sign of a sleepless night.
She’d made damn sure of it.
But as he stared at her, she drew a deep, bolstering breath and just like that, he knew. She wasn’t cool, calm, or collected. Not even close. But she had a hell of a store of bravado, probably because she was braced for him to mention last night. In fact, her eyes, those mesmerizing green eyes, were daring him to.
He wouldn’t. Not here, not now, when she so clearly needed to keep her shield. He handed her back her glasses.
There was a flash of surprised relief and then she slowly turned away. “I’m really swamped,” she said. “So—”
“I need some help.” He paused, waiting until she turned back.
“What kind of help?” she asked suspiciously.
And with good reason. He rarely, if ever, asked for help. “Work help.” He’d made it a point to never let anyone f**k around with his files. It was a lifelong habit deeply ingrained from growing up having to watch every penny, and it had carried over. His receivables and payables were as personal to him as his patients, and he handed them directly over to his accountant quarterly.
In between those times, he muddled through, sometimes messing everything up without trying, more often than not simply neglecting them. He knew the piles on his desk drove her nuts. And he’d always enjoyed driving her nuts. She looked so pretty steamed.
But today felt different. She felt different. He felt her tension, her fear every bit as much as Gertie did. Whatever it came from, he wanted to assuage it. Not that she’d let him, but she needed something to distract her, then. Something more challenging then making appointments, and he could give her this. “I’m waving the white flag,” he said.
She just looked at him. He nearly smiled at having his own trick of loaded silence played against him. “If you have time,” he said, “my billing needs help.”
Her mouth opened, then closed. The spark that had been missing in her eyes didn’t come back, but much of her wariness vanished, and she at least finally spoke to him. “Did hell freeze over?”
“Did you forget your password to get into the system again?”
“Okay, one time.”
“Weekly.” She continued to study him, eyes narrowed. “Is this a pity offering?”
“If I were going to make a pity offering, it wouldn’t be in my office.”
She stared at him, then let out a low laugh. “In your dreams.”
“You keep saying that. Makes me think you’re the one having the dreams about me.”
She bent and scooped up Beans. “Are you getting a load of this?” she murmured to the kitten, then kissed her on the nose. “He thinks I’d dream of him over Nathan Fillion.”
Jade tapped a finger on the schedule in Dell’s hands, pointing to one of his eight o’clocks. “Dixie’s in heat. We’re going to have to be careful that she doesn’t excite every male in the place.”
“If we don’t rush her through, we’ll have a clinic full of boners. What’s wrong with your hearing this morning?”
“Nothing,” he said. “I just really like it when you say things like excite and boner.”
“Boner,” Peanut said.
“Oh, no,” Jade said to the parrot. “No, no, no . . . you can’t say—”
“Oh God.” Jade panicked. “Peanut—”
“Pretty bird,” Del broke in, smiling at the parrot and speaking low and soft. “Such a pretty girl, Peanut.”
Peanut preened under his admiring tone. “Pretty Peanut.”
Jade shook her head in disbelief.
“It’s all about distractions.” Dell eyeballed the schedule. Jade was right, it was manageable. She always made sure of that. “So are you in on the books?” he asked casually.
She stared at him for a long, interminable beat, clearly attempting to see how much of this was because of her.
All of it . . . But if she hadn’t figured out that he’d do anything for her, he wasn’t about to tell her. He gave her his most harmless smile.
“Dell,” she said softly.
“Jade,” he said just as quietly. “Or should I say Goddess Jade?”
She closed her eyes. “Is this because we . . . kissed?”
“Is that what that was? I thought it was the Fourth of July.”
“Dell.” She grimaced. “Tell me this isn’t about last night. Because I’m not good with sympathy.”
“Noted. How are you with just some good old-fashioned caring?”
“Not so good with that, either.”
“Huh,” he said, and crouched to rub Gertie’s belly. “Maybe you should work on that.”
“My family’s been trying to drown me in it for a while now, but I just keep floating to the top.”
He straightened. “Keeping your head above water is good, Jade. In or out?”
She blew out a breath. “You know I’m in.”
“Good.” He smiled. “Don’t tell Adam—he’ll whine like a little girl because he actually thinks he’s good at the books. But he screwed up last month’s billing so badly that we might have to start completely over.”
Instead of looking nervous, she actually looked thrilled, and he shook his head. “You are one odd woman, you know that?”
She laughed, laughed, and he felt like he’d won the lotto. He turned to head into the back but she surprised him when she set her hand on his arm.
“Thanks,” she said. “For not pushing.”
He looked down at her fingers on his. “You’re safe here, you know that, right?”
She nodded, and for a second, neither of them moved as that something new zinged between them. Smarter than him, and also faster, Jade pulled free and stared at him.
“Boner,” Peanut said.
As Dell walked away, Jade drew a deep breath and attempted to shrug off her tension. Only it didn’t shrug off. Her shoulders were so tense they felt like pins and needles were stabbing into them, and now there was something odd going on low in her belly as well.
You could be halfway to somewhere new by now, said a little voice in her head. She told the cowardly weasel to zip it and held her chin high.
She wasn’t going anywhere. So she’d had a minor setback yesterday, she could recover. She could go back to burying the past.
Her cell phone rang. Normally she’d ignore it at work, but she pounced on that sucker.
“Just looked at the calendar.” It was Sam, her cousin. “And guess what, J? It’s the first of October.”
“Happens every month,” Jade agreed, ignoring the significance. “What are you doing calling so early, is everything okay?”
“I was going to ask you the same thing.”
She glanced at her watch and added an hour for Chicago time. “Wow, so you no longer sleep late?”
“Haven’t slept more than five hours straight since med school. And then, to make it worse, a certain cousin of mine skipped out on her job and left us all in the lurch. I’m working my ass off.”
“Poor baby. And that fat paycheck doesn’t help at all?”
Sam blew out a breath and softened his voice. “Okay, truth, J. How are you doing really?”
“Fantastic.” But they’d grown up together and were as close as family got. She couldn’t bullshit him, she didn’t even try. “I’ve been better.”