Animal magnetism, p.19
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       Animal Magnetism, p.19
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         Part #1 of Animal Magnetism series by Jill Shalvis

  before it was all said and done.

  And she’d give up Brady when the time came. She would. Even if the little ache in her heart reminded her that there would be a price.

  She was halfway to Mrs. Sandemeyer’s house when she got her second call of the night. This one from Cruz. “Babe,” he said, voice solemn. “Problem.”

  “Well, it’ll have to get in line,” she said.

  “There’s a tourist looking for a three-legged cat that she lost a month ago.”

  Lilah’s heart, already aching, full-out stopped at this news. “What?” she whispered.

  “She’s only just now seen the lost-and-found bulletins online. Lilah . . . ”

  “Sadie,” she whispered.

  “Yeah.”

  Seemed she had one more thing she had to give up, after all.

  Fifteen

  Brady cleaned out both Dell and Adam at the poker table, which took his day from pure shit to pretty damn good, especially when Dell was reduced to whining.

  By the time Brady and Twinkles got into his truck to drive back to the loft for the night, it was past midnight. Only he didn’t go to the center.

  Instead, he turned right. Onto Lilah’s property. Twinkles got all perky as they passed the lake, but Brady kept driving. He didn’t believe in the legend, but neither did he believe in tempting fate. “Don’t want to risk you falling for the first dog you see.”

  The dog snorted because even he knew it was Brady who was afraid to take the risk. He pulled up Lilah’s drive-way and Twinkles looked confused. “Don’t ask. I can’t explain it.”

  Not even to himself. It wasn’t as if he needed to see her—although having her naked and writhing beneath him again would be nice. “I just . . . ”

  Twinkles was listening, head cocked, and Brady let out a breath. “I’ m talking to a dog again.” And worse, he really didn’t know what he was doing here. He honest to God didn’t. He sure as hell didn’t want to talk. In fact, the only words he wanted to hear coming out of Lilah’s mouth were his name, how much she liked what he was doing to her, and whether or not she wanted it harder.

  The kennels were dark. But the cabin’s kitchen was lit, so he and Twinkles headed that way and knocked on the front door.

  Nothing.

  He glanced back at Lilah’s Jeep. She was most definitely here. Was she with someone? Whoever had helped her with the rescues? Cruz . . . ?

  No, she’d still have answered the door. Or at least he sure as hell hoped so. He thought of all the reasons she’d be home alone with Cruz and not answer.

  Finding that he didn’t much like any of those reasons, he knocked again, harder now.

  Still no answer. Reaching out, he tried the handle. It turned under his hand. She’d indeed been here, working on the kitchen sink. The lower cabinet was open, tools strewn around, and the pipes were wrapped in duct tape at the seams.

  But the sexy plumber was nowhere to be seen, and the cabin was empty, including the bed.

  He checked.

  Stepping back outside, intending to touch the hood of her Jeep to see if it was warm, he heard a soft gasp for breath that made him frown. “Lilah?”

  Nothing but the dark night.

  But she was out here, he could feel her. He wasn’t crazy about the fact that he was so in tune to her. It made him more than a little uneasy.

  And vulnerable.

  He didn’t do vulnerable for anyone. But he heard the sound again and followed it into the woods. Just past the first group of trees, he came to the water he’d been determined to avoid at this time of night at all costs, only to find Lilah huddled down by it. She was sitting, arms wrapped around her bent legs, forehead to her knees.

  Sobbing.

  Twinkles bounded forward and ran a circle around her, then sat obediently at her feet, head cocked, eyes worried. “Arf.”

  Brady nudged the dog aside and squatted down in front of her.

  “Go away,” she said through her tears. “Please, just g-go.”

  He’d like to, Christ he really would, but the fact was that he could no more walk away from her than he could stop himself from breathing.

  Or aching for her. “Are you hurt?”

  Leaving her forehead against her knees, she shook her head.

  He reached out to touch her, but she shoved at him. “Don’t.”

  Fuck that. She was dirty again, more than she had been at poker, and between that and the dark, dark night sky, he couldn’t get a good look at her. So he sat next to her and dragged her into his lap.

  She fought for about two seconds then gave up and slumped against him, fisting his shirt in her hands as she quietly and thoroughly went to pieces.

  He’d survived roadside bombings, dickhead officers with more stripes than courage, and once, being captured and tortured for two days when his chopper had gone down in enemy territory before being dragged out half alive by the good guys.

  So this, holding a small sobbing woman, should be a piece of cake.

  Instead it felt like someone had put a vise on his chest and cranked it impossibly tight.

  While Lilah continued to let loose with the mysterious waterworks, he ran his hands over her, making sure there was no physical injury. He was getting that it was something far deeper, but it was second nature for him to want to make sure. When he was positive she wasn’t bleeding out and there were no broken bones, he just held her and let her get it all out, until she finally quieted down to the occasional hiccup. “Better?”

  She tightened her grip on him, keeping her face buried in his tear-soaked shirt.

  “Okay,” he said. “Not quite yet.”

  They fell silent for a while. Which worked for him. Silence always worked for him. Around them, the night carried on. The water slapped at the rocks at the shore’s edge. The crickets were going to town. Far in the distance came a howl of something, and then a beat later came a matching howl.

  Lilah shivered.

  Brady stroked a hand down her back and pressed his face into her hair. Coconut again, and something else, the combination both sweet and sexy. She was cold, her nose especially, which he knew because she had it pressed to the base of his throat. Her hands were tangled in the material of his shirt, her ass snug to his crotch. He was doing his damnedest not to fixate on that, but she was squirming a little.

  He was aware that he shouldn’t be turned on while holding an upset woman, and he gripped her hips to keep her still.

  “Why are you here?” she finally whispered, voice hoarse.

  The question of the day. “A friendly visit?”

  “It’s late for friendly. It’s more like booty-call hour.”

  He tightened his grip on her booty and rubbed his jaw to hers. “Don’t tease me.”

  She choked out a laugh—as he’d meant her to—and then there was more easy silence, which was his favorite kind. They continued to watch the night go by, and when her occasional shuddery inhales had dwindled away completely, he hugged her. “Tell me.”

  She sighed. “Sadie’s mommy showed up.”

  “Does she have only three legs, too?”

  She let out a mirthless laugh and rubbed her hands over her face. “Her human mommy. I had to give her back tonight, Brady.”

  Shit. He ran his hands up and down her back and neck, over her muscles which were rigid and tense. “So you reunited a family.”

  “Yes.” She didn’t say anything else, just sat there staring out at the water looking lost and sad. “Which I realize is the point. But . . . ” She closed her eyes and fell quiet.

  “You had this one awhile.”

  “Four weeks, three days.”

  The pain in her voice killed him. “You get attached. Emotionally.”

  She turned her head away from him, signifying he was an idiot. Which, of course, when it came to this stuff, he totally was. “I guess that’s the brutal reality of your job, right? You care for them until you can reunite them with their family or find them a new family. I mean it su
cks to let go, but doesn’t it also make you feel good? A job well done?”

  “Yes,” she admitted. “But the letting-go thing. I have a hard time with that. Always have. I loved Sadie,” she whispered. “So much.”

  He’d never felt so useless in his entire life. “But it’s okay to let something go out of love,” he said, trying logic and reason. “When you’re being part of a solution, in making a situation better.”

  Lilah’s eyes filled again, and he realized his mistake—there was no logic and reason for her right now.

  “I hate letting them go,” she whispered thickly.

  “You’d rather keep them all?”

  “Yes.”

  Well, if that didn’t completely lay out their differences right there, he had no idea what could. “You have others still. Like that last wild kitten. Boss?” At her nod, he went on. “And you have all the others you care for, even if they’re not technically yours, like the piglet. And that duck. And the lamb—”

  Another tear escaped, running down her cheek. “Lilah,” he said helplessly.

  She choked out a laugh and dropped her head to his shoulder. Again he pulled her in, wrapping her in his arms, which by sheer luck seemed to be the right thing to do.

  Letting out one shuddery sigh, she nuzzled in and he tightened his grip on the most confusing, baffling woman he’d ever met.

  “Brady?” she asked, sounding waterlogged.

  “Yeah?” He was still gob-smacked that logic hadn’t worked but a hug had.

  “About that booty call,” she whispered, and it was his turn to choke out a laugh.

  Lilah woke up with papers stuck to her face. She was in bed with her books and laptop.

  She’d fallen asleep studying, again.

  “Mew, mew, mew.”

  Boss, not Sadie, and her heart stuttered. Life went on . . . And Boss clearly felt that she’d slept long enough. He worked at climbing up the mountain that was her bed. It took him a while. He was tiny and new to his claws, but finally he stood triumphant on her chest.

  She sighed and stroked him, and he began to rumble with his little baby purr. She’d pleased him.

  She wished someone would stroke her until she purred.

  Last night had been rough. Brady had brought her home, and though she’d attempted to pull him inside with her and let him distract her from her spectacularly bad night, he’d resisted. He’d tucked her into bed, kissed her long and thoroughly, then left.

  Just as well, really. She’d been waaay too vulnerable, and given that being in bed with Brady tended to strip her down to a naked, raw, earthy emotional state such as she’d never felt before, she was grateful he’d been smarter than she.

  Because last night? She would have fallen in love with him for sure.

  So she’d forced a smile when he’d pulled free of the bone-melting kiss, playfully swatted him on his very fine ass, and watched him walk away.

  And then, apparently, she’d studied until falling asleep. She dragged herself around the rest of the morning, finally stopping for a quick lunch break. Cruz had left the newspaper opened to page 2, which held a funny commentary about Dr. Death complete with a picture of Brady looking big, bad, and tough as hell standing in front of the Bell 47. Lilah grinned, tore out the picture, and taped it to the kennel’s refrigerator, making Cruz shake his head.

  Then she went back to work. With summer in full swing, people were in and out of town, many leaving their animals at the kennels. This was great for the bank account. Not so great for free time, not with midterms coming up, and Cruz readying to leave on vacation.

  Three nights after having to give Sadie back to her owner, Lilah was in desperate need of a night’s sleep that didn’t include waking every hour to a ball of anxiety choking her. So she took two Tylenol PM and while waiting for them to kick in, sat at the table to study. Once again she fell asleep there and dreamed about a set of warm arms.

  Brady’s arms.

  Mmmm . . . So nice of him to show up in her dreams. Smiling, she clung to him as he carried her off somewhere. Hopefully to an island. Maybe somewhere in the South Pacific, where it would be just the two of them, a sandy beach, warm sun, and no responsibilities. She loved her life, but sometimes she dreamed about a day that didn’t begin at the crack of dawn to clean pens and stalls. No dealing with the daily grind of running two businesses. No heartache . . .

  She sighed in pleasure at the thought. “Just a day . . .”

  The arms holding her tightened. “Shh, I’ve got you . . . ”

  She struggled to come out of the haze, but he nuzzled her hair. “Sleep,” he commanded softly.

  She woke up in the morning alone in her bed. Boss was standing on her, eyeing her accusatorily for having slept for so long. Her reading glasses were on her nightstand, her clothes on the chair in the corner of her tiny bedroom—

  Wait a minute. Lifting the covers, she stared down at herself. She was in a big T-shirt and her panties—and nothing else.

  She’d have recognized the T-shirt by the scent of Brady alone, and she brought the material up to her face for a big, delicious sniff of him.

  God, she was a sap. A sap who smelled coffee. She followed the scent to her kitchen, a wave of sadness hitting her when there was no Sadie to trip over.

  On the counter sat a large coffee, and next to it—be still her heart—two breakfast burritos. And a bright red shiny apple. For the first time in a few days, she smiled. “He’s good,” she said to Boss.

  The kitten gave her a look that said, Of course he’s good, he’s a man, isn’t he?

  By the time Lilah showered and dressed, she was nearly late at opening the kennels, and her day got crazy from there. It wasn’t until Cruz’s shift in the afternoon that she managed to walk over to Belle Haven.

  Brady was gone, having flown Dell up north for a complicated foal birthing, so Lilah stopped to talk to Jade at the reception desk. She had to laugh at the Dr. Death newspaper clipping taped to Jade’s computer.

  “Oh, you like?” Jade asked. “He’s my beefcake of the week. Plus, it drives Dell nuts. He’s been working for how many years, and he’s never made page two in full color.”

  The waiting room was packed with patients waiting for Dell’s return. There were dogs and cats and a ferret. Most were well behaved, but the same couldn’t be said of a young boy around five, sitting on the floor with his army men, throwing a tantrum every time any of the animals looked at him.

  His mother was sitting in a chair as far from him as possible. Lorraine Talbot had been several years ahead of Lilah in school. She’d been prom queen, head cheerleader, and had never found much time for people outside her circle.

  Lilah hadn’t been in that circle.

  Apparently neither was her own child.

  Lorraine came in to Belle Haven often, mostly because she had a fat crush on Dell. It might have been the fact that he had “doctor” in front of his last name these days, as opposed to their high school days when he’d just had “dweeb.”

  The front door opened and in walked Brady and Dell. They were both filthy from head to toe, covered in dirt and muck and God knew what else, looking weary and worn.

  Dell turned to the waiting room and Lorraine immediately leapt to her feet and gave him a finger wave and flirtatious smile.

  Dell nodded. Definitely muted from his usual wattage, which had nothing to do with exhaustion but the fact that he’d learned not to
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