In the third installment in Sara Jane Stone's dazzling Second Shot series, a beautiful but broken woman must decide if true love is worth risking everything...including her freedom
After a year spent living in hiding—with no end in sight—Caroline Andrews wants to reclaim her life. But the lingering trauma from her days serving with the marines leaves her afraid to trust the tempting logger who delivers friendship and the promise of something more.
Following an accident that nearly robbed him of his hopes for the future, Josh Summers believes life has given him a second chance. He wants to settle down with the woman who stole his attention and his heart. And he’s willing to wait until she’s ready to be more than “just friends.” When fear of discovery leaves Caroline pretending to be his date, Josh tempts her to try the real thing—a relationship built on trust, not lies.
But then the past threatens and Caroline must risk everything—including her freedom—to bury her demons before she can take a chance on happy-ever-after.
“May I lick the whipped cream off your face?”
Josh lowered his fork to the pie dish and waited for the Big Buck’s dishwasher to catch up with the conversation. Pie—not flowers—had offered him the perfect way to transition from the guy who found her in the woods to her friend. And he couldn’t resist the temptation to switch from small talk to damn near close to begging for a kiss.
And a date, he thought. I’m going to ask her out today.
Caroline raised one perfect, dark eyebrow. One hand clasped a spoon and the other rested on the stainless steel work surface that on busy nights held stacks of dirty pint glasses waiting for her attention. Right now, it was just the two of them and the pie. The bar wouldn’t open to Forever’s local logging population and the university students who outnumbered the men and woman born and bred in this section of the Willamette Valley for another hour.
“No,” she said. Her tongue darted out from between her pink lips that always looked as if she was wearing a kiss-me-now lipstick. Or course, he knew the woman whose ideas of accessorizing involved a concealed weapon tucked into the waistband of her pants did not bother with makeup. She licked the whipped cream teasing the edge of her mouth. “I’ve got it under control.”
He nodded, refilled his fork and lifted another bite of key lime pie to his mouth. He always asked—for a touch, a taste, a kiss—but he never pushed. Caroline would shift the parameters of their dessert-based friendship in her own time. Or she wouldn’t and he’d be forced to come to terms with the fact that the future he daydreamed about—settling down with Caroline, buying his own home, maybe a dog—would replace sleeping with Megan Fox on the top of his Never Going to Happen list.
“You’re going to Noah’s wedding on Saturday night?” he asked, sliding back into friendly chitchat. He’d waited a year to kiss Caroline the first time. And he’d sit tight for another if it meant more sugarcoated kisses. To hell with his siblings’ opinions.
“Just because I can take the dishwasher apart and fix it every time it tries to quit on us”—she nodded to the restaurant-grade appliance behind her—“doesn’t mean Noah wouldn’t fire me for missing his wedding. Plus, he’s closing the bar for the night. Everyone else is going.”
“Everyone else is in the wedding,” Josh pointed out. Big Buck’s owner and manager was marrying Forever’s former bad girl, who’d burst into his life over a year ago, demanded a job, and quickly worked her way up to assistant manager. And the only other bartender on the payroll right now was the groom’s best friend and the bride’s big brother.
“True. But I owe Noah. I can’t miss his wedding.”
Fair enough, he thought.
“A couple of months ago, you asked me out on a date,” Josh pointed out.
“I was feeling brave at the time.”
“Are you canceling?” he challenged. If she said yes, he’d kiss her again. Maybe not today, but one day soon. And he’d reminder her why she’d summoned the courage to ask in the first place. He’d caught her looking, her eyes roaming over his biceps with a flicker of something more than friendship in their green depths. And if given the chance, he would let her run her fingers over his T-shirt, mapping the muscles beneath . . .
“No, I’m not canceling,” she said thoughtfully. “I’m still working out the details.”
“Be my date to the wedding.”
Her eyes widened, staring back at him as if he’d dropped to one knee and suggested they follow her boss down the aisle.
“No,” she said firmly. “Josh, I . . . Just no.”
Caroline refused to look away. She’d spent months learning to read Josh’s facial expressions, forcing herself to look past the red-gold stubble that screamed ‘I’m too sexy for this bar.’
Or his shirt.
Or her . . .
Right now, the corners of his mouth threatened to fall into a frown. Disappointment. But he never let his smile falter for long. He always took a moment. Looked away and then returned his gaze to her as if she hadn’t turned him down twice in ten minutes.
But he knows I’m a long way from whipped cream kisses in the bar’s back room.
Yes, she’d asked him out once. But then reality had come crashing down on her. Her life consisted of washing pint glasses and staying out of sight. She couldn’t hope for more—not even a single night out at one of the restaurants near the university—with a federal warrant hanging over her head.
Of course, the police weren’t actively looking for her. As far as she knew. But if the local cops, or even a state trooper passing through town, found out who she was . . . If they learned why she kept to the shadows, she would be under arrest and turned over to the military. She would have to pay the price for her unauthorized absence. For refusing to deploy alongside the men who’d turned a blind eye when their commanding officer ordered her into his bed. The men who’d laughed with Dustin when he’d said he would force open her mouth and make her take him between her lips . . .
And then there was the elephant in the bar’s back room that would also tag along on their date. She hadn’t had sex—oral or otherwise—because she wanted to since before she joined the marines. Josh had never treated her like a victim, but there was a first time for everything.
“I’m sorry,” she added. “But I can’t go to the wedding as your date. There will be too many people. And everyone knows you. If they see me with you . . . they’ll ask questions. And I can’t give them answers. I need to stay in the background, hiding behind a plant or something. And then leave as soon as they cut the cake.”
“A wedding probably isn’t the best place for a first date.” He pointed his fork at her. “Maybe once I get my own place, you can help me christen the kitchen.”
She raised an eyebrow. “That assumes a lot for a first date.”
He laughed. And the familiar sound threatened to lead her into his version of the future. One where they would kiss in the kitchen and then—
“I was talking about baking a pie together,” he said. “I’d invite you over to the farmhouse, but I didn’t think you’d take kindly to receiving the third degree from my siblings and their significant others.”
“Probably not a good idea,” she murmured. She’d spent the past year trying to avoid his two older brothers and his sister. It wasn’t hard seeing as his family lived in Independence Falls, a solid hour’s drive from Big Buck’s Bar. Chad Summers, the middle brother, had tried to befriend her, stopping by the bar’s back room with his girlfriend, a drop-dead gorgeous woman who’d served in the army. But Caroline had shut down their attempts.
Josh Summers remained the one and only person she’d let in since she’d showed up on Noah’s doorstep. There was something about the way he accepted the word ‘no’ that broke down her defenses. He never tossed the word aside, questioning whether it was a knee-jerk response. He never pushed—not once—under the pretense that he knew what was best for her. Not since that first night when he’d found her in the woods. Even Noah, who’d had her back when they were deployed together, pushed. Her fellow soldier turned boss tried over and over to talk her into visiting the local gun club with him. She said no and he asked again and again.
But Josh always listened.
“Have you started looking for a new apartment?” she asked, steering the conversation away from dates that might lead to compromising situations.
“I’m looking, but not for an apartment. I’m still sitting on my split from when we sold the family trucking company. I want to use the cash to buy a piece of land. Someplace with a nice view of the mountains, maybe space to put those viticulture classes I’ve been taking to use and grow some grapes. Not a lot. I’ve learned enough to know that is one tough business. I’d rather keep my day job with Moore Timber and put my blood, sweat, and tears into building my own home.”
“You can do that?” The question slipped out before she could mask the surprise in her voice.
“I’ll need help, but I know what I want. Four bedrooms. Maybe five. Plenty of space to spread out. Timber frame. A second story that is open to a great room below. And one helluva kitchen with all the modern appliances. I’ll hire an architect, and a builder. But I can swing a hammer with the best of them.”
Four bedrooms. Plenty of space . . .
About the Author
After several years on the other side of the publishing industry, Sara Jane Stone bid goodbye to her sales career to pursue her dream-writing romance novels. Sara Jane currently resides in Brooklyn, New York with her very supportive real-life hero, two lively young children and a lazy Burmese cat. Join Sara Jane’s newsletter to receive new release information, news about contests, giveaways, and more! Visit www.sarajanestone.com and look for her newsletter entry form.