Read an Excerpt
"How did you talk me into wearing this?" Lily Ashden pulled at the itchy straps that held her coconut bra in place. Combined with the grass skirt she wore over khaki shorts and the plastic lei around her neck, she was about as novelty Hawaiian as a girl could get. The outfit was considerably skimpier than Lily was accustomed to, and she still wasn't sure how her friend Macy had conned her into it.
Macy snorted. "Please. It matches your tattoo, so stop complaining." Macy leaned over the table, grabbed Lily's right hand and dumped bingo chips into it. "Just put your chip on B 14 and stick your coconuts out. How else do you expect to get men to buy us drinks?"
Lily rolled her eyes with a grin and willed away some of the tension in her shoulders. She'd been a little off since stepping foot in the bar a couple of hours ago. The Throwing Aces was the hottest sports bar in the bustling town of Danbury, Kansas, and though she'd never been in there before, Lily had heard it drew a huge crowd on any given evening. Tonight the bar was hosting a luau-themed fire department-sponsored fundraiser and the place was bursting at the seams with no shortage of good-looking men.
She'd been considering tiptoeing into the dating scene for a while now. What better place than a sports bar with a hot, young crowd? If there was one good thing about the outfit, it was that it drew some attention. She'd seen men glance her way more than once. Still, Lily felt out of her element, but that was to be expected. The past year had been rough. Lily realized that this was a good time to get back to the land of the living. She just hadn't been ready before now.
The bingo announcer yelled out another number. Macy wiggled excitedly on her stool and placed her chip, her corkscrew cinnamon curls doing a bounce and flop around her face. They'd been besties since grade school, and Lily had fully expected Macy to guilt-trip her into coming along tonight. And sure enough, one sob story"The fire department is raising money for one of my kindergarten students whose dad was in an accident. You're my best friend. If you say no, I'll understand, but "had done the trick. That and the batting eyelashes and pouty smile that had earned Macy the Kansas Corn Princess crown five years in a row when they were kids.
How could Lily say no to raising money for a worthy cause?
"These coconuts do make my boobs look good." Lily hoped the lightheartedness spreading inside her would stick. The outfit did go well with her full-sleeve tattoo of orange hibiscus flowers and green vines. She rarely had the opportunity to show off her artwork, and it was kind of nice. In a small way, the outfit and being surrounded by men reminded Lily that she was young and feminine and had a lot of living ahead of her yet. Second chances at life and all that. She'd been given one, and she didn't intend to waste it anymore.
A couple of men wearing T-shirts with the Danbury Fire Department logo on the back brushed by. Lily glanced at them, her gaze latching on to the DFD logo. Her heart gave a hard flip, the same way it had the other times she'd seen the logo tonight. The men stopped by a table where two blonde women sat. One of the women gestured to the tallest man's shirt, her smile wide and toothy. He nodded, said a few words, and she responded by giving an appreciative raise of her eyebrows and grabbing his biceps with a squeeze and a giggle.
Hero worship. It wasn't the first time Lily had seen it in action tonight. Firemen drew women like a handbag sale at Nordstrom, and the women in the room didn't seem shy about fawning over the proud wearers of those DFD shirts. Even Macy had fallen victim, flirting and giggling her way through the crowd on the way to the bar and back a couple of times. Lily turned away from the foursome. She didn't get out much, but this was a cozy town. People talked, and they weren't shy about slinging gossip about the local fire department. Mixed in with gratitude for the work the department did were the hushed rumors of several of the firemen's playboy ways. All it took was a trip to the grocery store to hear the latest. It was like Danbury's own live soap opera. Macy had been quick to fill her in when they'd arrived at the bar, sharing the latest gossip about a fireman who'd left his wife of twenty years for one of the teachers at the elementary school.
Heroes with huge egos, it seemed. All this hero worship seemed misplaced and wasted, Lily thought bitterly. She took a hasty drink of water, surprised by that sudden thought, though it made sense. She'd considered how she might feel coming to the bar, knowing the fire department would be there. But she'd reminded herself that this fire department wasn't the same one who'd attended the fire that had changed her life a year ago. No, this wasn't the department that had stood by and done nothing as innocent people burned to death.
Oh, God, she wasn't thinking about that now.
She was here to have funshe was having funand the past was going to stay in the past, at least for the night. She'd vowed to be present in her own life, to enjoy life in the moment, and that was what she was going to do.
"He's looking at you again." Macy's low voice puffed in Lily's ear.
Lily set down the water as her angst faded. "Again?" She dared a quick look at the bar across the room. The lighting was dim, but there was no doubt the bartender who'd been glancing her way all night was stellar in the looks department. At first she'd thought he was just people watching, but his gaze strayed to her too frequently and held too long. Maybe he thought he knew her. Maybe it wasn't coincidencemaybe. It had been eleven months since her engagement had ended. Lily thought she was ready to dive back in, find a man and have some fun. She hadn't actually tested that theory yet, so she couldn't be sure. But the bartender was tempting her to give it a shot.
Lily ran her right hand down the back of her hair. She hadn't been with anyone since Rob had packed up and walked out. She didn't miss him that much, but she was still hurt that he'd left the way he hadwhile she'd been at a therapy appointment and without a word of explanation. Hearing from his family that he'd gone to Mississippi with another woman soon after was a kick in the gut. That and the loss of years she'd spent on a man who had promised he'd loved her, was committed, said he wanted a family. The uncertainty over why he'd walked out still burned; it bugged her that she'd never had closure. But she was doing fine on her own. Although it might be nice to have someone around now and then. This loneliness had been nagging her more and more lately. It was definitely time for a change.
Lily risked a sideways glance. Even from this distance and in the dim light, it was obvious Mr. Hot Bartender was built, with muscles easily visible beneath his shirt. His biceps turned into bulging hills when he grabbed a glass and brought it close to his body. His hair looked dark blond under the lights, and, if she had to guess, that rugged face probably sported blue eyes. No wonder there'd been a lineup of women at his end of the bar. He made looking flattered an art form, flashing a killer smile and dipping his head when a woman leaned in close or touched his arm. You'd need a thick coat of armor to push your way through that crowd.
Lily hitched a brow as she watched himlooks like Thor and probably throws a mean cocktailand wished she could see his face more clearly. An ember of interest started to smolder. Her nights might get a whole lot less lonely if she had a man like that around. As if she'd have the nerve to approach him. Cheesy pickup lines began to play in her head. Did they teach you to mix drinks in Adonis school, or are you naturally talented? She laughed at herself and turned back to the bingo game. Yeah, she was a little rusty.
The band started up again, taking over from the crappy music on the jukebox, and burst out a song about a man who loved his red Solo Cup. Macy and half the people in the bar, who were really just rednecks stuffed into Hawaiian outfits and fire department shirts, jumped from their seats and gave a cheer. Lily remained in her seat, watching the crowd. Truthfully, it was nice to get out of the house and forget about the pile of city permits and construction bids she had waiting on her desk. Her social life consisted of arguing with her business partner and father, Doug, during the day, and talking to her cat, Adam, at night.
Pretty pathetic for a twenty-seven-year-old.
Macy sat back down. She made eyes at Lily, cleared her throat and nodded toward the bar. The hot bartender was giving her another glance. He didn't look away when she looked at himseemed to almost be daring her with his eyes. She made out his crooked smilesexy and sassyaimed right at her, before he turned to talk to a customer.
"He's pretty good-looking, huh?" Macy smiled knowingly and ran a hand down the back of Lily's hair.
"Not bad." Lily shrugged.
"Man, your hair rocks. It's so smooth and black." Macy continued to pet her.
Lily blew a stream of air over her fringe bangs. She'd just had them cut long enough to touch the tips of her eyelashes, and the blue-black color had been too awesome to resist. It went well with the crimson lip gloss she'd slicked on earlier. Nothing went with bitching black hair like red lipstick.
"If you keep petting me, he's going to think we're a couple." Her eyes slid to the bar. Anxiety and sweet anticipation tickled her insides.
Macy smacked her lips. "If he's like most men, and I'd bet money he is, he wouldn't mind one bit." She nudged Lily with her shoulder. "You've been eyeballing him since you got here."
The bingo announcer called out another number. Lily's face went hot. She sighed and picked at her fingernail. She wasn't sure if she was trying to put Macy off or drum up the courage to catch the bartender's eyes. "Kind of hard not to."
Macy leaned on her elbows over the small round table until her nose touched the tip of Lily's. "And?"
Lily placed one finger on the tip of Macy's nose and pushed gently until her friend backed up. "And what?" Macy's eyebrows rose excitedly.
Lily shook her head. "And, no. I'm not going over there. Too much, too soon."
The protest sounded lame even to her own ears. Was there a store where she could buy extra nerves to maybemaybewalk up to him? Lily knew her retro pinup style and tattoos gave most people the impression that she was a badass, but underneath the ink and lipstick, she was reserved. Cool, even, mostly to her disadvantage.
The stress she'd been under these past months didn't help; in fact, they'd kept her from finding any real joy in life, or any reason to actively participate in it. No wonder she felt antsy and ready for something fun and amazing to happen. No wonder she also wanted to run out of the bar and head straight home. Part of her suddenly wished she and Macy were in another bar, one that wasn't filled with reminders of why she'd been under so much stress and grief in the first place.
The announcer's voice boomed through the mic. "B 12."
Lily grabbed a chip; Macy smirked. "Look at him again. How can you say too much, too soon?"
He was facing the bar, giving Lily a perfect view of all six-plus feet of him looking fine in a dark T-shirt with Throwing Aces in white lettering across the front. The way the fabric stretched just a bit over his tight middle and settled into the dips and rise of his pecs whenever he turned or twisted was a gift to every woman in the room. Excitement shot low in her belly. Lily frowned at her body's sudden reaction. That hadn't happened in a while.
"Of all the women here tonight, he's been eye locked on you, and you're overthinking again. Remember what you said? Be present." Macy gave a lazy eye roll and slumped her shoulders in dramatic exasperation. Her curls made a Shirley Temple bounce as she leaned back on her stool. "I have three words for you, Lily. Crazy. Cat. Lady. That's what you're turning into."
Lily's lips parted. She tried a little lightness, hoping to tame Macy's enthusiasm before it turned into an atom bomb, as usual. "Adam is not a cat. He's people."
Macy managed to raise a brow and scowl at the same time. "Your Adam Levine fangirling is not a suitable replacement for a real man, Lily. Crazy cat ladies usually don't have a man around, which is why they name their cats after celebrity men they'll never have."
Lily laughed. "I have one cat!"
Macy shrugged one petite shoulder and thrust out her lower lip as she fiddled with her bingo board. "That's how it starts, Lily. That's how it starts."
Lily was about to throw in a snarky retort when someone bumped into her shoulder. She looked over as a tall man in a DFD T-shirt made a quick apology as he walked away. Lily shuddered. The man maneuvered through the crowd until he was out of sight. Firemen. The last time Lily had been surrounded by this many firemen, she'd been lying on the ground with soot burning her lungs and throat.
"Hey, you missed the number." Macy leaned over and slid a chip onto Lily's board, but Lily wasn't paying attention. She eyed another fireman. Same shirt. Same memory. Anxiety clenched her gut with a painful grip. Dang, this wasn't supposed to happen. There was no reason for this to be happening. She'd gone to therapy, and even though she refused to go into detail about that night, Lily had made progress. Just the fact that she'd finally left her house to go somewhere other than work or the grocery store was huge.
Macy's voice dipped low. "I'm sorry, Lil. I shouldn't have asked you to come to this tonight. I just thought maybe some of the wind had run out of that storm, you know?"
Lily's stomach went into free fall. This was the last thing she wanted to talk about. She was doing wellwas reining in her anxiety like a champ, thank you.
"I mean," Macy continued just audibly above the racket, "this fire department wasn't even the one who you know that night."
Lily knew that, but it didn't take the bitterness away. It didn't matter what fire department had been present the night her sister had burned to death and Lily had been nearly killed. Firefighters were firefightersthey all represented the crew that failed her so spectacularly. Combined with how unabashedly members of the Danbury crew flaunted their womanizing, it was hard for her to see firemen in the positive light everyone else seemed to. Knowing Macy, her friend would leave the moment Lily asked her to. But Macy was having a good time, and Lily didn't want to ruin that. Macy was the only person who stood by her through thick and thin, and Lily owed her. Besides, this was silly. She could do this. They were men just men. A guy didn't have to be a fireman to be a womanizerRob had proved that. There had to be at least a few good ones around this town.