Animal magnetism, p.9
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       Animal Magnetism, p.9
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         Part #1 of Animal Magnetism series by Jill Shalvis

  “Really?” Lilah said to her, heavy on the disbelief. “You’re going to go there?”

  Jade lifted a shoulder. “Sorry. It’s been a long day.”

  Brady gave Lilah a long look she couldn’t begin to interpret to save her own life before turning to Jade. “Book me for the last appointment of the day. I’ll be back.” He glanced down at the dog. “He looks like he’s healthy enough to make it until then.” Clearly frustrated with the lot of them, he made his way back toward the door to leave, the dog tucked against his chest.

  The sexy cuteness, Lilah thought. Oh good Lord, the sexy cuteness . . .

  Jade was brows up. “What was that?” she whispered.

  “Don’t start. And why did you bring my grandma into it?”

  “It slipped out. I’m telling you. I need a nap. But seriously, what was that, making him keep the stray? What are you up to?”

  Lilah watched Brady stop just outside the door and stare down at the dog in his arms. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

  “Really? Because forgive me if I’m wrong,” the receptionist said dryly, “but I was under the impression that you take in all the neglected, forgotten animals around here.”

  Lilah shrugged.

  Jade’s smile came slow and proud. “You wanted him to suffer. Nice. So what did he do to you exactly—besides kiss you into apparent insanity?”

  Exactly? Lilah had no idea.

  Except she did. She was horribly, devastatingly attracted to him, like moth to the flame attracted. Which technically wasn’t his fault, but she felt that if she had to suffer, then so did he. “Does there have to be a reason?”

  “To make a guy suffer? Absolutely not,” Jade said with certainty.

  That night Lilah was sitting at her table doing a balancing act with her bills when the knock came at her door.

  “Mew,” Sadie said, all soft and warm and cozy in Lilah’s lap. The watchdog on the job.

  “Have to get up,” Lilah told her.

  The cat dug her claws in just enough to have Lilah hissing in a breath, but before she could dislodge the cat, Adam let himself in. His big body filled up her kitchen as he dropped a large pizza box, a six-pack, and a bag on the table.

  “Dinner,” he said. “A meat supreme special and, in case you’re feeling girlie, a salad.”

  She stared at the food, torn by the rumbling in her belly and the sick feeling that he was babysitting her. “I told Dell I was busy.”

  “Yeah, but I’m not the sucker he is.”

  This was true. Nothing got by Adam. Which is what worried her. “He told you that I didn’t take the money.”

  Not answering, he handed her a bottle of Corona before getting another for himself. Then he opened the pizza box.

  They ate in silence for a while, silence being Adam’s favorite state of being. She tried going with that, but in the end she was just not in the mood. “So . . . you’re worried about me,” she said flatly.

  Adam grabbed another slice of pizza.

  “Let me guess—you lost the coin toss with Dell, which left you stuck with me. Only you don’t know how to tell me this because you’re a penis-carrying human and can’t figure out how to communicate with a mere vagina.”

  He choked on a bite and reached for his beer.

  She clapped him on his broad-as-a-mountain back, then ruffled his short, silky dark hair. “I’m okay, you know. Really.” She looked at the last piece of pizza. She didn’t need it. Problem was, it was calling her name.

  “It’s got the same amount of calories if you eat it now or after agonizing over it for another two minutes,” Adam said.

  Blowing out a breath, she snatched it before he could.

  “And I didn’t lose the coin toss,” he said. “I won it. Loser had to talk to Brady.”

  That caught her interest. She licked cheese off her thumb. “About?”

  His silence was answer enough.

  “Oh, for God’s sake!” she burst out. “Are you kidding me? Haven’t you done enough to my sex life?”

  He choked again and spilled beer down the front of him. “Fuck,” he muttered, rising, then tripping over Sadie.

  “Mew!”

  He scooped up the three-legged cat and held her to his wide chest in apology as he grabbed the paper towels. “Want to run that by me again?”

  “Sure. You’re ruining my sex life!”

  He carefully set Sadie back down. “I didn’t realize you had a sex life.”

  “Exactly!” She rose, too, giving him, for good measure, a shove to the chest that didn’t budge him one single inch. “You hover like an overprotective mama bear, scaring all the guys away except for the ones I don’t want anymore. And I’m . . . Argh!” Turning away from him, she went to the sink and stared out into the night, gripping the edge of the tile so she didn’t smack him again.

  “You’re lonely,” he said, sounding surprised.

  “What, you think only guys need regular orgasms? And before you get all sanctimonious, I wanted Brady well before I knew he was your foster brother.”

  “Jesus.”

  In the reflection of the glass in front of her, she watched as he pressed his fingers to his eyes and grimaced. He drew a deep breath and pointed to the table. “Sit.”

  “Why, because you asked so nicely?”

  “Sit your ass down and I’ll tell you about Brady.”

  She fought with her curiosity and lost. She sat.

  Adam strode to the freezer, grabbed her always present ice cream, retrieved two spoons from a drawer, and sat next to her. “He was fifteen when we showed up at Sol’s. I was thirteen, Dell was twelve. None of us had ever had a steady home.”

  She already knew this, about Dell and Adam at least. They were blood brothers. Their mother was Native American and lived on a reservation somewhere. She’d left only to give birth and had gone back to that world. Their father had taken the boys but then had died when they’d been young. Their mother, already moved on to another husband and family, had not wanted them back.

  “Dell kept getting beat up at school,” Adam said, staring at the beer in his fingers. “I kept getting suspended for fighting—badly, by the way. I had no idea what I was doing. Brady scared the shit out of us. He was silent. And tough as nails.”

  Lilah could imagine that without too much difficulty.

  “Sol had a gym in his basement,” Adam went on. He ran a finger over the bottle. “One day Brady took us down there. We were pretty sure that he was going to kill us and no one would ever find the bodies, but instead he taught us how to protect ourselves.”

  “He taught you how to fight?”

  “Yeah. It took a good long while, too—we were pretty pathetic. About a month into this, we were out past curfew. I can’t remember why. And a group of, I don’t know, maybe five or six kids tried to jump us.” He laughed softly but without much mirth. “Dell was feeling brave and swung the first punch. The guy ducked and Dell hit Brady by accident.”

  Lilah gasped. “Oh no.”

  “Brady had to fight the guys trying to jump us and keep Dell from hindering the process.”

  “Well?” she demanded when he didn’t go on. “What happened?”

  “We managed to come out on top but only because of Brady’s skill at hand to hand.”

  “Did any of you get hurt?”

  “Some. Not too badly.” He rubbed his jaw as if remembering the old aches.

  “So that’s how you got so tough,” she said, going with a teasing tone to lighten the mood.

  But Adam didn’t smile. Instead he hesitated. He never hesitated.

  “Uh-oh,” she said. “Is this where you tell me the three of you launched into a life of crime?”

  “No, I was already well into my criminal career by then, all on my own.” He rubbed a hand over his eyes, looking weary. “I already had two arrests for underage drinking and then I got caught trying to steal a car.”

  “Oh, Adam.”

  He shook the sympathy of
f. I was young and stupid and angry. Brady helped steer me through the aftermath of that disaster on the condition that I straighten my shit out or he’d straighten me out himself. Painfully.”

  Lilah felt her heart turn over in its chest. “He cared about you, like a brother.”

  “At the time it felt more like a prison warden, but yeah. The point is, he always came through for us when we needed him.”

  “And you want to come through for him now?”

  “Yeah. This land is one third his. And it’s good to have him here.”

  “Where he’s safe,” she guessed. “For those few years he kept you safe, and you’d like to return the favor. Look at you trying to save us all.”

  He grimaced. “Jesus, don’t make me out like a saint.”

  “No, a saint would have brought something good to top off my ice cream with.” She smiled at him. “And I think it’s sweet. Even if Brady, and me for that matter, don’t like to accept help.”

  “No,” he said quietly. “But you want him.”

  “Yes,” she admitted, unwilling to lie. “Is that going to be a problem?”

  He shrugged, his eyes dark and troubled. “Just . . . be careful. He’s not the white-picket-fence type.”

  “I don’t want a white picket fence.” Yet. Because the truth was, she did want to meet the One and get married. Someday. But she’d waited this long, she could wait a little longer.

  And in the meantime, there could be Brady. The pros far outweighed the cons. He wouldn’t let Adam and Dell scare him off, and she didn’t have anything to lose because they both knew the score up front. He was leaving. So there were no expectations and she could be free to enjoy herself.

  A lot.

  A corner of Adam’s mouth quirked as he read her thought like a book. “Brady was tossed around more than we were. Something like four or five foster homes before Sol got him.”

  “Which makes it all the better that he has you guys and this place.” And me . . .

  Adam nodded. “Yes. He’s had a lot of people in his life who didn’t stick. So you should know . . . he doesn’t tend to stick either.”

  “That’s actually pretty funny coming from you.” She hugged him. “Listen to me, okay? I’m not looking to make him stick. I’m just looking for some company.”

  “So you’re okay being his one-night stand?”

  “Not a one-night stand, no,” she said. “I’ll take a couple of nights. Or as long as it lasts. On our terms, his and mine. Not yours.” She kissed his tense jaw. “Love you, though. Always will.”

  Adam just sighed and reached for the ice cream.

  Seven

  Brady stood by the unlit fireplace and stared at the rug in front of it.

  Or more accurately, the thing on the rug.

  It was staring back at him. It was now midnight. An hour ago Brady had gone to sleep. Or tried to. The loft, being one room, allowed noise to carry, so when the dog had started crying and howling almost immediately, it was a shocking decibel level considering the pup was maybe seven pounds.

  He’d tried everything. A blanket. A ticking clock from the mantel. Soft music from his own iPod. Okay, not soft, he didn’t have soft, but hell, it was hard rock, the good stuff.

  Every single time, the dog would appear to settle and Brady would crawl cautiously off to bed. He’d get comfortable and start to drift off.

  And then the hell would begin all over again.

  “They tell me that you’re one hundred percent canine,” Brady said, hands on hips. “But I’m thinking you’re one hundred percent pussy.”

  The dog—Brady refused to think of it as Twinkles—let out a low whimper and rolled over, exposing its belly.

  “Jesus.” Brady sank to the couch in nothing but his knit boxers. “Come here, then.”

  Its sorrow apparently forgotten, the dog leapt up with enthusiasm and bounded over. He tried to jump up onto the couch, making it only about six inches off the ground before falling to his back on the floor.

  Brady shook his head. “Failing is not an option, soldier. Try again.”

  Gamefully, the dog did just that, getting even less height this time before he once more hit the floor. With another sad whimper, he sat at Brady’s feet, tail tentatively sweeping the floor.

  Brady sighed and scooped a hand beneath his little concaved belly, lifting him up so that they were eye to eye. “Out of all the trucks in all the land, why mine?”

  The dog wriggled joyfully. “Arf.”

  Brady blinked, then found himself grinning at the unexpected bark. It had been high-pitched and soprano, but hell it was better than a meow. “So you are a dog. You’ve got to work on the pitch, man. Can’t have all the chick dogs thinking your boys never dropped.” No need in telling him he probably wouldn’t get to keep his boys.

  “Arf!”

  He’d created a monster. Brady laughed, then started to set the dog down, but he clung to his hand. Shaking his head, Brady set the thing on the couch next to him, where he immediately crawled into his lap.

  Brady stared down at him and realized he was shivering. “You’re nothing but a bag of bones.” Pulling the dog against his chest, they had a little moment, and finally the dog stopped shivering. He licked Brady’s chin.

  “Listen,” Brady said. “This is just temporary. Tomorrow we figure out what the hell Lilah’s game is and she’ll find you a home. She’s good at it.”

  The dog didn’t even blink, but in its chocolately eyes, Brady saw a hint of sadness. “Don’t even try the puppy eyes, they don’t work on me.”

  The dog blinked slowly.

  Brady pointed at him. “Knock that off.”

  His answer was a soft whine.

  “Look, I’m just passing through, that’s it.”

  Not getting it, the dog set his head against Brady’s chest and let out a shuddery sigh.

  And Brady did the same. In his life, he’d taken responsibility for more people than he could count, but he’d steered clear of animals, never keeping one for himself. He’d not needed the extra burden. “If I were going to keep a dog,” he said, “it would be a big one. Or at least one that could get up on the couch by himself.”

  He would have sworn censure filled the dog’s dark gaze. “Hey, I’m just being honest here. You little things are yappers.”

  The little guy put his ears down, the picture of innocence.

  And Brady had to laugh. “Right. Save it for someone you can manipulate, okay? Maybe the ladies.” He thought of Jade and Lilah, both of whom had manipulated the hell out of him. “I deserve this,” he muttered.

  The dog cocked its head.

  “Never mind. I’m so tired I’m talking to a dog.” He got up, set the dog on the blanket, and then dropped like a stone onto the bed. He remained tense a moment, waiting, but he heard nothing and slowly relaxed.

  Ahhh, sleep. He was halfway to paradise, lying on a warm beach with a beer in one hand and the silky coconut-scented skin of a woman under the other. And yeah, okay, maybe the woman looked a little like Lilah, right down to the mossy green eyes and deliciously curvy body, which was at the moment wearing nothing but
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