Animal magnetism, p.27
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       Animal Magnetism, p.27
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         Part #1 of Animal Magnetism series by Jill Shalvis

  “It’s okay,” he said.

  “No, nothing about that was okay.” She took a deep breath, clearly fighting for control. “What about the third family? And if you tell me that they traded you in, too, I’m going to go hunt them down myself.”

  “They got transferred out of state and didn’t want to go through the paperwork to keep me. So I got dumped on Sol. By then my biggest goal was to get the hell out. I was done.”

  “Well, no wonder!”

  Because she was a little drunk and a whole lot adorable in her righteous anger for him, he pulled her close to his side and nuzzled his face into her hair. “At that point, I had no particular destination in mind. I just wanted to be free, to go.”

  “So what happened?”

  “Sol happened. He wasn’t much on patience, but he knew enough about how a teenage boy’s head worked. He put me on a horse and pointed me in the direction of more than seventy-five thousand acres of wild land to explore.”

  “Goal accomplished?” she asked softly. “You felt free?”

  “Goal accomplished.”

  Again they took a shot, and Brady was glad they were within walking distance of her place.

  They played another round.

  Lilah lost. “By the time I got to high school,” she said, knocking back more whiskey, “I had a good idea of what poor white trash was and I didn’t like it. I’d never left Idaho, not once in my entire life. Can you imagine?” She shook her head in amusement at herself.

  The moonlight touched over her hair, her face. Brady thought he’d never seen anyone more beautiful.

  “All my life,” she went on, “all I wanted was to go see the world. I mean I love the people here, love my life, but I wanted to see what was out there. College was my ticket out. I got a full ride at UNLV, and off I went.”

  She’d been a girl from the wilds of Idaho who’d never seen a big city much less left those wilds. He could only imagine how different Vegas must have seemed to her. “What did you think of the place?”

  She laughed a little. “Culture shock. But it was a free ride, at least at first.” She shook her head. “And it was a goal accomplished for me as well, and I never took that lightly. Ever.”

  He nodded. He understood perfectly.

  “My grandma was so proud,” she said softly, wrapping her arms around her knees, staring out at the water reflectively, remembering. “Everyone was. And I knew I had to do it—I had to succeed. But then my second year happened. My grandma got sick and I was coming back and forth, and my grades dropped. Because of that some of my funding fell through, and I had to take a couple of jobs to make ends meet.”

  His heart stopped. “Is this the part where you tell me you were forced to dance or strip for tuition? Because if so, I’m going to kick Dell’s and Adam’s asses and enjoy it.”

  “No, I didn’t become good friends with them until after college.” She laughed. “But sweet offer, thanks. I’ll shelve that for the next time either of them pisses me off. I worked at night waiting tables at a club. It was fun but hard work, and I took on more hours than I should have. I fell even more behind and needed help. So the TA of my microbiology class offered to tutor me. Tyler—” She broke off, both the words and the eye contact, and dropped her head to her knees. “I fell for him a little bit.”

  He couldn’t quite read her tone now and for the first time felt unsure as to her feelings since her face was hidden. “Is he still in your orbit like everyone else?”

  She shook her head, her entire body tense. Clearly, this had not been a lighthearted fun relationship. He slid his hands to her shoulders, which were knotted tight. He worked at them silently, tugging a low moan from her before she straightened. “I fell in love with him. With Tyler. And he . . .”

  Her sudden silence had his heart stopping again, because he could read her quite clearly now. He wasn’t going to like this story.

  “I thought he loved me back,” she said very softly. “But . . . it turned out that he had this whole other life he’d hidden from me. He was a dealer on campus. Which sounded so crazy to me when I found out—he wasn’t a guy you’d ever think was dealing drugs. He didn’t do them himself, he was clean cut and well liked, but . . .” She shook her head. “One day he got wind of a police search at his frat house, and he got stupid.”

  “How stupid?”

  “He panicked and planted all his stuff in my dorm room. He had to save his stash,” she said. “Screw me, right?”

  Brady drew a long, slow breath. “What happened, Lilah?”

  “They couldn’t find what they wanted at his place, so they thought they’d check with the girlfriend. The stupid, naïve girlfriend. I was arrested.” She drew a shaky breath while Brady worked through the rage churning through him for what had happened to her.

  “Everything eventually got cleared up,” she said. “But the damage was done. I’d missed so much class time that I couldn’t make it up, and even if I could have done so, I couldn’t possibly have focused while working at clearing my name.”

  “Tyler,” Brady said past a very tight jaw. “What happened to that asshole?”

  “He got off on a technicality, something to do with the way the search had been conducted. He ended up skipping town without so much as a sorry or good-bye.”

  Since she was facing away from him, he couldn’t see her expression. Which meant she couldn’t see his, and that was a good thing. He knew she was used to keeping the people in her life close, developing real, deep, lasting relationships that stuck. It was a comfort to her and made her feel like she had a full family at all times. This, he was certain, had completely devastated her on all levels. “Tell me you taught him a lesson involving your boot and his nuts before he left.”

  “I thought about it, but no.” She paused. “I tried to shake it off, tried to go on and not think about it, but . . . well, I guess I got a little depressed.”

  He pulled her into his lap and hugged her. “I’m sorry.”

  “In the end, what happened with Tyler didn’t matter. I was too busy dealing with my grandma. I came back here to take care of her.”

  Which is how she’d ended up not finishing school at all, he realized. “Was there no one else?” he asked. “No one to help you?”

  “No one really knew how bad it was. And it didn’t matter because shortly after that, I was too busy to worry about it because the doctors wanted me to put my grandma in a nursing home. I . . . couldn’t. I just couldn’t do it to her. She was so independent all her life, so feisty and strong . . . I just couldn’t.” She paused, pressing her face into his throat. He tightened his grip on her and she burrowed in like she’d been made for him.

  “When she died,” she said very softly, “I should have gone back to Vegas, but I couldn’t even think about it. The joy of it was gone for me. I didn’t want to leave Sunshine anymore. I felt like a failure.”

  Given how hard she worked at getting her degree at night, and how equally hard she’d hid it from everyone, she still did. “You have nothing to be ashamed of, Lilah.”

  “Are you kidding? I fell for the oldest trick in the book—the TA seduction. And the arrest and all that—I was so stupid.”

  “Not stupid,” he said quietly, with rage seething through him for what had happened to her.

  “Naïve then,” she said. “I wasn’t ready for the hurt. It surprised me and turned me off on the whole relationship thing.”

  “What about Nick and Cruz and Ian?”

  She shrugged. “Nick’s a good guy, but he’s got weird feet.”

  Brady arched a brow. “Weird feet?”

  “And he’s allergic to dogs and cats.”

  He nodded. “And Cruz?”

  “Hates junk food.”

  “And Ian?”

  “I never got to see his feet.”

  Brady fought the urge to remove his boots and ask her if he had weird feet. “So you’ve been using excuses on why not to have a relationship. Got it. But why me?”

 
“Well, for starters, you’re not allergic to animals.” She smiled and kissed him. “That’s a point for you.”

  “And I like junk food.” Another point.

  “Yeah, that was a biggie.” Her smile faded as she got serious. “But mostly it’s because you were a complete stranger, someone new, someone who didn’t know me, someone who maybe in the end wouldn’t hurt me because I’d keep it light.” She smiled again but minus her usual wattage. “I was wrong about that, by the way.”

  She was so strong and fierce and loyal and sweet and even though she’d made it perfectly clear all along that she didn’t want to keep him, that he was held in her heart but not owned, he’d let her inside him. So who was the stupid one here? Him.

  Because even if she changed her mind about wanting a future, there was no future to be had. He was leaving. In a few days, as a matter of fact. Trying not to let the pain of that show, he tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and traced his finger down her soft cheek. “Lilah—”

  “I don’t know if you know the rules of Uno,” she said, extricating herself from his lap and standing up. “But if you lose twice, there’s a penalty.” She looked down at him, eyes shiny but smiling.

  She was trying to lighten the mood, and he was game. “What kind of penalty?”

  She tugged on the halter tie of her dress and it slipped over her breasts, then her hips, and dropped to the ground, pooling at her feet, leaving her in nothing but those very tiny black panties.

  “God bless the penalty,” he whispered reverently.

  She hooked her thumbs in the strings at her hips and let those fall as well.

  Brady tried to say something but found he couldn’t speak because his tongue had stuck to the roof of his mouth. He couldn’t breathe either. “You are so beautiful, Lilah.”

  She smiled, and he felt a helpless one curve his mouth as well. “Come here,” he said.

  Shaking her head, she turned away, giving him a heart-stopping view from the back as she took a few running steps and then a very neat dive into the water, vanishing beneath the surface.

  Twenty-Two

  When Lilah surfaced and shoved her sopping wet hair out of her face, she found Brady right where she’d left him, sitting on the edge of the water.

  Watching her.

  If she had to guess, she’d say that his expression was an intriguing mix of dark desires and warm affection. If her nipples hadn’t already been hard from the shock of the cold water, they’d have tightened simply from looking at him.

  When he remained still, nothing but that unfathomable stare that was alternately turning her on and making her want to stick out her tongue at him, she dunked.

  When she surfaced again, farther out this time, barely able to touch her feet down, he’d gotten to his feet.

  Eyes narrowed.

  “What are you doing?” he asked.

  He hadn’t raised his voice. He knew the water carried sound with ease, as if he were standing right in front of her instead of thirty feet away. “Skinny-dipping.”

  “By yourself?”

  “Well,” she said, “I’d hoped to have company.”

  “Your arm—”

  “Doesn’t hurt.” Much.

  “You’re under the influence,” he said.

  She smiled. “Are you worried you’d be taking advantage of me?”

  “Hell, no. I’m worried you’ll take advantage of me.”

  She laughed and he smiled, and the knot that had been tight in her chest since she’d opened up to him far more than she’d ever intended to finally loosened.

  He bent and untied his boots, then kicked them off, and her pulse kicked into gear. She’d wanted this, had hoped to goad him into it, but now that the moment was here, her belly quivered and heat bounced through all her good parts like a Ping-Pong ball.

  When he straightened, he pulled his shirt off and tossed it aside. “How cold is it?”

  “Like bathwater.”

  “Liar.”

  She smiled. “Didn’t want to scare you.”

  “I don’t scare easily.”

  “Uh-huh, and now who’s the liar?”

  His eyes never left hers as he unbuttoned, unzipped, and shoved down his cargoes.

  Her tongue was still hanging out of her mouth when he dove in. Choking back her laugh, she whirled and started swimming, hampered by her bad arm. She’d been raised out here and had swum almost as soon as she could walk, but her arm slowed her more than she’d planned on.

  And sure enough, in less than five seconds Brady came up alongside of her, tempering his pace to match hers.

  She flipped to her back and used her legs. And still he remained with her. She kept it up for a few more minutes, swimming as hard as she could, enjoying the exertion. After a quarter of a mile or so, she turned and headed back.

  Brady beat her by a length.

  Treading water about fifteen feet from where their clothes lay, she shoved her hair out of her face and breathed heavily, watching him.

  He shook his head, sending water flying. His eyes were dark and hot. God, so hot. His breathing was labored, too, but not nearly as much as hers. “Cocky,” she complained.

  “No, I’ve swum in waters much colder than this, and for much farther.”

  “Hmm. So you’re a better swimmer than me.”

  His smile was slow and sure as he dragged her in close against him, taking away her need to tread water as he did it for the both of them. “Maybe we could find an area where your talents exceed mine,” he said, all low and sexy.

  “Hmm.”

  “Lilah.”

  His voice never failed to give her a secret little rush. She found that there were things that she desperately longed to hear from him, things she’d told herself she didn’t need, but she’d lied to herself.

  She needed.

  So damn much.

  So she pushed even closer, craving the contact, craving the connection, because when they were together like this, his body said things to her that his voice never would. She ran her hands up his chest and let her legs drift around his waist. The contrast of the cold water lapping at her with the warmth of his hard body made her shiver.

  “Are you cold?” he murmured.

  “No.” She slid her hands into his hair and stroked his scalp with her fingernails. A sound of sheer male pleasure, nearly a purr really, escaped him, and his hands went to her ass, a cheek in each palm. He was hard against her belly. Moving them toward the shallower water, he dropped to his knees with her so that she was straddling his lap, the water at their chests. Her legs were spread by his thighs, his hands tightening on her as he stared into her face. “Every time I look at your mouth,” he said huskily, “I want it on me.”

  With a soft smile, she pulled his head to hers and kissed him, long and deep, feeling him pulse against her. Mmm. Reaching down, she stroked him, making both his breath hitch and her inner muscles contract. “In me,” she whispered against his mouth.

  His face was etched in pure desire, but he shook his head. “No condom.”

  “Just for a minute.” It was reckless, and she didn’t care. Dammit, for once, she wanted to do something wild, something without thinking about the consequences. So she wrapped her fingers around him and guided him home, burying him inside her in one long fluid motion.

  He choked out her name in a rough groan and then again when she lifted up until he almost came out of her. Slowly she sank back on him, the angle of their bodies pushing him even deeper. Still gripping her ass tight with one hand, his other came around and lightly stroked her where they were joined.

  And then again. And again. Until she felt like she was going to burst. “Brady,” she gasped. “Stop—I’m going to . . . ”

 
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