In the latest novel from the New York Times bestselling author of Hope Burns, a woman discovers that the man she least expects is exactly what she needs…
High school math teacher Chelsea Gardner has the perfect plan. She’s tired of dating all the wrong men, and after years of frustration, she’s developed a foolproof list of requirements for finding “The One.”
Bar owner Sebastian “Bash” Palmer finds Chelsea beautiful, smart and fun, but he thinks her list is ridiculous and unnecessary. Intent on proving Chelsea is looking for love in all the wrong ways, he offers to help her find the “perfect” man.
Chelsea knows Bash isn’t the right guy for her—he barely meets one of her criteria—but there’s something about the charismatic man that has her yearning for things that are most definitely not list approved.
Because sometimes, a relationship that looks totally wrong on paper can turn out incredibly right…
About the Author
Jaci Burton is a USA Today and New York Times bestselling author of the Hope novels, including Hope Burns and Hope Ignites, and the Play by Play novels. She lives in Oklahoma with her husband and dogs. A lover of sports, Jaci can often tell what season it is by what sport is being played. She watches entirely too much television, which she considers “book research.” When she isn’t on deadline, Jaci can be found at her local casino, trying to become a millionaire (so far, no luck). She’s a total romantic and loves a story with a happily ever after, which you’ll find in all her books.
Read an Excerpt
Wild Rider Series
CHELSEA GARDNER SAT at the No Hope at All bar, waiting for her friends.
While she waited, she got out her notebook and doodled.
Okay, maybe she wasn’t doodling. She was on a mission.
The ten-point list made perfect sense to her. She’d fine-tuned it, but really, she’d had this list in her head for a while now, and decided it was time to memorialize it, get it down on paper. Maybe even laminate it.
Chelsea was thirty-two years old, and the one thing she knew and knew well was men. She had years of dating history, and she could weed out a decent man from a loser in the first fifteen minutes of a date.
She should write a book about it. She’d probably make millions.
Okay, in reality, maybe not. But she had a lot of experience in dating. She could offer up some valuable advice. At least advice on how to date the wrong man. Had she ever dated a lot of the wrong men. She was an expert on that.
Hence the list.
Her list would ensure she found the right man—finally. She was tired of going out on useless dates. From now on, she was going to ask the correct questions so she wouldn’t waste any more time on the wrong man. If a prospective date didn’t meet the criteria on her list, then he wasn’t the perfect man for her.
Her list wasn’t going to focus on personality traits—she already knew in her head the type of guy she wanted—warm, caring, compassionate, with a sense of humor. If he didn’t possess those basics, he’d be out of the running before they even got started. And those she could suss out right away without a list. Nor did she have a preference for looks. No, this list was compatibility-based. That’s where she’d run into roadblocks in the past and where she was going to focus her efforts on in the future.
She scanned her list, nodding as she ticked off the attributes in her head.
• Never married. Guys with exes carry a lot of baggage and woes.
• Has to be a suit and tie kind of guy, because it means he cares about his appearance.
• Has to work a 9-to-5 job, so he’ll be available for her.
• No crazy ex-girlfriends. This one needs no explanation.
• Likes fine dining and good wine. No more burger joints! Some guy out there must like something other than hamburgers, right?
• Hates sports. Everything about sports. What is it with men and sports, anyway?
• Must want at least two kids. A man who doesn’t want children is a deal breaker.
• Must love animals—preferably big dogs, not those yippy little dogs.
• Doesn’t spend all his time at the bar with his friends. If he’s always hanging out at the bar with his friends, then he isn’t with her.
• Idea of a perfect vacation getaway is somewhere warm and tropical. With room service.
She studied the list, tapping the pencil on the bar top.
“You look deep in thought.”
Her head shot up as Sebastian “Bash” Palmer, the owner of the bar, stood in front of her.
Talk about the wrong guy. Bash was the epitome of wrong, on so many levels.
“I’m . . . working on something.”
He cocked a dark brow. “Yeah? I noticed you were intently focused on writing. So . . . grocery list?”
“Funny. And no.”
He leaned over, trying to sneak a peek. “The perfect—”
She shut the notebook. “None of your business.”
He laid the rag on the bar. “Hmm. The perfect something. The perfect steak. That was it, wasn’t it? You’ve got some secret recipe for the perfect steak. That’s the way to a man’s heart, you know.”
“You think I’d try to capture a man by cooking? Well, you’re wrong.”
He laid his palms on the edge of the bar. “So, it does have something to do with a guy, doesn’t it?”
She refused to take the bait. “I didn’t say that.”
A couple guys came into the bar and took a seat.
“We’re not done talking about this,” he said, his stormy gray eyes making contact with hers before he walked away.
Oh, they were so done talking about it.
Typical Bash, always up in her business.
And he was definitely the wrong type of man for her.
While Bash attended to his customers, she opened the notebook and checked her list.
Yes, Bash was the perfect example of the wrong type of guy. She mentally ticked off all the items on her list that he didn’t fit.
He was divorced. He was a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy. And while he might look super hot in said jeans and T-shirt, it still counted against him.
She wasn’t sure he even owned a suit. As owner of the No Hope at All bar, he worked terrible hours. As a teacher, she worked during the day, and he worked afternoons and evenings. They’d never see each other.
She had no idea who he was dating, but he was always going out with some woman or another, so he likely had some crazy ex-girlfriend somewhere in his past. She knew he was a beer and hard liquor guy, and his idea of fine dining was a burger and onion rings from Bert’s. He wouldn’t know fine dining if he fell into it. She had no idea how he felt about kids, but the guy practically lived at the bar, and he hadn’t had a serious relationship since his divorce, so it wasn’t like he was in any hurry to have children. Plus, he didn’t have any animals.
Then again, she didn’t have pets, either. But that wasn’t her fault. Her apartment didn’t allow them. She just wanted to make sure whatever guy she ended up with loved them. She wanted a dog. Or a cat. Her best friend Emma had two dogs, Daisy and Annie, and her other best friend Jane had a dog. Logan and Des had several dogs on their ranch.
She’d always wanted pets, and she hadn’t had one since her childhood dog, Scotty. She’d missed having a dog to cuddle with.
She shook her head. Back to her list. She scrolled down the list and stopped at the next item.
Oh, right. Not hanging out at the bar with the guys all night. That answer was self-explanatory, since that was pretty much all Bash did. All the time.
She knew he loved sports because there were several TVs set up at the bar, and Bash was always cheering for some team or another. The man was sports-crazy.
And she had no idea what his idea of a perfect vacation would be, but she highly doubted it involved room service. Bash had an ATV and she knew he was an outdoorsy kind of guy.
Whereas Chelsea was allergic to everything outdoorsy. Anything involving the outdoors typically meant you couldn’t wear high heels, and Chelsea lived for her heels.
See? They were not compatible in the least. Bash had failed everything on her list.
She closed her notebook and tucked it back into her purse.
Why was she even comparing Bash to her list, anyway? It wasn’t like he was remotely in the running. Even if there had been that night she and the girls had come here during the holidays. And maybe she had been a little on the inebriated side, and maybe Bash had whispered something in her ear that even several months later still made her blush hot, and still kept her up at night thinking about—
“The perfect drink.”
She pulled herself out of that very erotic daydream and met Bash’s teasing gaze. “What?”
“You were going to give me ideas for the perfect drink. That’s what you were writing in your secret notebook, right? I know you like to challenge me.”
She sighed. “Believe it or not, Bash, not everything is about you.”
He feigned a shocked look. “It’s not?”
She rolled her eyes.
“What are we talking about?”
Her best friends, Emma and Jane, grabbed seats on either side of her.
“Chelsea’s hitting on me,” Bash said.
“She is?” Emma grinned at her.
“I am not hitting on Bash. He’s being ridiculous.”
“She’s writing love notes to me in her notebook and won’t let me see them.”
She shot him a glare. “Are you twelve? Stop it.”
Jane looked over at her. “You’re writing love notes? To Bash? This is the most interesting thing that’s happened all day. Please continue.”
She was going to throw her drink at Bash. “No. I am not writing love notes to Bash.”
“Then who are you writing them to?” Emma asked.
Chelsea wanted to scream. “No one. No love notes.”
“She doesn’t want you to see them, because they’re for me,” Bash said.
Emma looked at Bash, then at Chelsea, a questioning look in her eyes.
“He’s full of it,” Chelsea said. “And he’s just giving me a hard time, because that’s what he does.”
Bash slanted her that look again, the one he’d given her that night a few months back. Smoldering. Filled with promise. The kind of look that made her squirm on her barstool.
“I have never given you a hard time, Chelsea.” And as if he hadn’t just infuriated her, he calmly asked, “What would you ladies like to drink?”
Jane and Emma both ordered sodas, so Bash poured their sodas, then went off to tend to his other customers.
“He drives me crazy,” Chelsea said.
Jane cocked her head to the side, studying Bash’s retreating form. “Oh, I don’t know, Chelse. He’s funny. And so hot.”
“He is not.” Chelsea refused to acknowledge the way Bash’s black T-shirt fit so snugly across his incredible chest, or the bulge of his biceps beneath the hem of the shirt. Or his flat abs, or his incredible ass.
Not that she’d noticed. At. All.
“This is true,” Emma said. “Why haven’t you ever dated him?”
“Bash?” Chelsea slid a look down the bar at him, then at Emma. “Totally not my type.”
Emma laughed. “I think Bash is every woman’s type. Tall, great muscles, killer smile—and those eyes.”
“Phenomenal butt, those tattoos, a goatee. We have discussed your standards being impossibly high, haven’t we, Chelsea?”
Chelsea shifted her attention to Jane. “Like I said. He’s not my type. I’ll just leave it at that.”
“And what exactly is your type, Chelsea?” Jane asked. “Are you holding out for royalty or something?”
She lifted her chin. “No. I’ve actually made a list.”
Emma’s brows arched. “A list? What kind of list?”
“A list of the qualities I’d like my perfect man to have.”
Jane laid her hand on Chelsea’s arm. “Honey. You do realize the perfect man doesn’t exist.”
Chelsea took another look in Bash’s direction, then turned her back to him. “Yes, he does. The perfect man does exist. And trust me, it isn’t Bash.”
BASH BUSIED HIMSELF with his customers. On a Friday night, the No Hope at All bar would be filling up as people got off work and came in for drinks and to play pool or watch sports on several of the televisions scattered around.
While he drew a few tap beers for some of his regulars, he kept an eye on Chelsea, who was waving her hands as she animatedly explained something to Jane and Emma.
He shook his head.
That woman was a piece of work. A hot, sexy, redheaded piece of work.
He knew he had to steer clear of women like Chelsea. She was not the type of woman for him.
No woman was. Easy, no-strings relationships were perfect. They’d satisfied him for years, and he saw no reason they couldn’t continue to keep him . . .
Maybe happy wasn’t the right word. He hadn’t been happy since the day he’d gotten married. Even that happiness had been short-lived.
Content. That worked. Nothing wrong with content.
He shifted his attention as Luke McCormack came in. Luke wore a T-shirt and jeans instead of his Hope police officer uniform, so he must be off duty. Bash grabbed a bottle of Luke’s favorite beer from the cooler and popped the top off, sliding it across the bar while Emma, Luke’s wife, came over and gave him a kiss. Then Jane and Chelsea moved over as well.
“Just get off work?” he asked Luke.
“Thanks for showing up, man. You know I hate these lonely Friday afternoons.”
Luke took a long pull of his beer, then set it down and looked around. “You’re never lonely, Bash. Besides, the place is picking up. You’ve always got a crowd in here.”
“Business is looking great.”
Luke nodded. “You should consider offering food.”
Bash leaned against the bar and nodded. “Funny you should mention that. I’m thinking of expanding the back of the bar on the east side and adding a kitchen.”
“How hard would that be?” Chelsea asked. “Because if you serve food, you could really draw in a lot more people.”
He cocked a brow. “I bring in a good-sized crowd already, and I don’t want to offer a big menu. Just bar-type food.”
Chelsea wrinkled her nose. “You mean like burgers or wings and stuff.”
He grinned. “Something like that. I’ve had the plans drawn up for a while. I just need to pull the trigger on it, get the permits, and start the project.”
“Great idea, Bash,” Luke said.
Chelsea sighed and sipped her soda. “What Hope really needs is a place that offers fine dining.”
Bash shook his head. “You can go into Tulsa for that. We’re too small a town for a fine-dining restaurant. It wouldn’t get the draw. Folks here like their small-town restaurants, bars, and easy comfort food.”
“I agree,” Jane said. “Tulsa’s just a short drive, and there are lots of restaurants to eat at there.”
Chelsea played with her straw. “I suppose.”
“You could always move to Tulsa,” Bash said. “Then you’d be near all that fine dining and culture.”
She cocked a brow. “Trying to get rid of me, Bash?”
“Nope. I like you just fine right where you’re sitting.”
She gave him a confused look, and he smiled at her.
He loved teasing her, maybe because she made it so easy. He was about to say something, but then there was a commotion at the front door. A woman had walked in with a dog, drawing everyone’s attention.
Oh, shit. Gerri.
“Aww, who’s the cute brunette with the Chihuahua?” Emma asked.
“I’ll be right back,” Bash said.
He moved around the bar and caught Gerri by the arm as she stalked her way in. He could tell by the look on her face that she was ready to do battle.
He pulled her to the side of the room.
“Hey, Gerri. What brings you here?”
She handed Lulu to him. “Here. You take her.”
He barely had time to catch the poor dog before it went tumbling to the floor.
“Hang on. What am I supposed to do with your dog?”
Gerri wagged her finger at him. “No. Now she’s your dog. I only got her to impress you, which apparently was an epic fail, since you broke up with me.”
The poor dog trembled against his chest. He wrapped both arms around her to comfort her. The dog, that is. Not the obviously batshit-crazy woman currently glaring at him.
“Wait. You bought this dog to impress a guy? What the hell, Gerri. I never asked you to get a dog. I thought you wanted this dog.”
She shrugged and affected a pout, her full lips glossed to the max.
“She pees. Like . . . everywhere. And barks at everything. And shakes. She’s a pain and I can’t deal. I travel all the time, and do you have any idea what it costs to board that thing?”
Yeah, he knew. Apparently, though, Gerri hadn’t done her homework. “You can’t just give her away like some purse you decided you didn’t like.”
She gave him a bitchy smile. “Sure I can. She’s all yours now. I’m done with her as quickly as you were done with me. See you, Bash.”
Before he had a chance to object, Gerri pivoted and was out the door, leaving him holding a very scared little dog.
Jesus. That had been fast. Kind of like his relationship with Gerri had been.
The dog lifted her soulful, dark eyes up to his. He swept his hand over Lulu’s back. “Trust me. You’re better off without her, honey.”
When he turned around, the entire bar was staring at him.
He went back around the bar, still holding Lulu in his arms.
“Who was that?” Chelsea asked.
“That was Gerri. We . . . uh . . . sort of dated for about a month. She was a little high-strung at times, so I broke it off.”
“And who is this?” Emma asked, reaching across the bar to take Lulu from Bash.
“That’s Lulu. Gerri told me she’d always wanted to adopt a shelter dog, so I went with her one day. Lulu’s a year old. Cute little thing, and Gerri just gushed about her, saying she was the perfect dog for her.”
Emma looked up at him. “And now?”
“She just told me she only got the dog to impress me. And that Lulu pees everywhere and barks a lot. And since I stopped seeing Gerri, she apparently has no use for the dog anymore.”
Chelsea’s expression changed from curiosity to anger.
“What? She used a dog to score points with a guy? What a bitch.” Chelsea gently ran her fingers over Lulu’s back, then took her from Emma. “Come here, sweetheart. Was that horrible woman mean to you?”
“She seemed a little immature, and maybe a bit . . . young for you, Bash?” Jane said, clearing her throat.
Bash shrugged. “We got along fine for a while, until I realized she had a habit of pouting when she didn’t get her way, and yelling at me whenever I had to cancel a date. So yeah. Maybe you’re right, Jane. She was too young for me. Clearly she has issues.”
Emma looked angry, too. “Clearly. So what are you going to do with Lulu?”
He looked over at the dog, who was happily curled up against Chelsea. “I have no idea.”
“You’re keeping her, right?” Chelsea asked, cuddling Lulu close. “I mean, you can’t just abandon her.”
Bash stared at Chelsea. “What am I going to do with her?”
“Raise her. Love her. Be patient with her. Everything you’re supposed to do, Bash.”
All eyes landed on him, and rather expectantly, too. Even Luke, who just shrugged in sympathy.
Chelsea handed Lulu back to him. “She’s yours now. Be good to her.”
He glanced down at Lulu, who raised her head and looked up at him as if to say they’d both been hosed by Gerri, so they were going to have to deal with it together.
“Okay, Lou. I guess it’s you and me against the world now, girl.”
BASH LEFT LOU—because no way in hell was a man like him having a dog named Lulu—in the care of one of the waitresses, who he promised to pay extra tonight while he made a mad dash to the pet store for food, bowls, a collar, a leash, toys, treats, a crate, and a dog bed. An extremely long damn list provided to him very sweetly by Emma.
Lou wasn’t all that thrilled with the crate, but she finally settled in at his feet while he managed to get his job done.
At least Chelsea, Emma, and Jane took off to go to the movies or a girls’ night out or something, leaving him in peace about the dog once he promised them he intended to keep and care for her. Luke lingered for a while, but then he had to go home to check on his and Emma’s dogs.
Chelsea seemed relieved when he told her he was keeping Lou. Not that her opinion mattered. He just wasn’t the type of guy to abandon a dog. And okay, maybe Chelsea’s opinion mattered a little. All of their opinions mattered. Emma told him to bring Lou in to the vet clinic on Monday and she’d look her over.
So after the bar closed, he loaded Lou and all her new belongings into his truck and drove home.
He was bone-weary, and he still had the busiest night of the week at the bar tomorrow night.
He pulled up in the driveway and got out, then pulled Lou’s crate out, taking it into the house. He set it down on the floor in his living room.
“Be right back. Chill here for a few seconds, okay?”
Lou lay there staring up at him. He dashed outside and grabbed the bag of supplies and food, then came back in.
No barking. Nothing.
Yeah, Lou just hadn’t liked Gerri, no doubt because Gerri was high-strung and nervous all the time. Dogs could read that kind of tension, and they reacted to it.
He let Lou out of her cage, connected the leash to her collar and took her outside, where she did her business in a hurry. He walked her around a bit to let her stretch her legs some, then they came back in.
He disconnected the leash to give Lou an opportunity to wander around.
Instead, she sat on his foot, shaking.
Bash shook his head. “My guess is she didn’t exactly give you the run of her place, did she, pal?” he asked, then figured if Lou wasn’t going to go exploring on her own, he’d help her out. He turned the light on in the living room, then took off toward the kitchen, taking it slow.
As he suspected, Lou followed along, keeping her body right next to his feet as they moved past the living room into his kitchen, where he hit the light switch and opened the fridge, pouring himself a glass of water.
He’d brought the bag of supplies, so he got out Lou’s bowl, put water in it, and set it down against the wall in the kitchen. Lou went over and sniffed it, then lapped up a couple sips. He leaned against the counter and waited a bit, hoping Lou would explore on her own.
She didn’t, moving back over to his feet after she’d taken a drink.
“Okay, pal, let’s go see the rest of the house.”
He walked her through every room, including the bathroom, and ended up out in the backyard, where she peed—again.
“For a tiny dog, you have a great bladder. Let’s see if you can hold it all night, okay?”
He let her back inside and found his water. He sat on the sofa, kicked off his shoes, and laid down, and turned on the TV. He’d already had his fill of sports from the bar, so he decided on an old action movie and settled in.
It didn’t take more than five minutes to hear the whimper from the floor. He tried ignoring it, but apparently Lou was an expert whimperer.
He took a peek over the edge of the sofa to find her sitting on his shoe, looking up at him with her sad, dark eyes.
“No sofa for you. Go lay down in your crate.”
He resumed watching the movie. For another five minutes, anyway, until the whimpering started up again.
“Christ.” With one hand, he scooped the dog up and laid her on his stomach, where she turned around in a circle three times, laid down, and promptly went to sleep.
“Fine. But don’t get used to this.”
Bash was asleep a few minutes later.
CHELSEA PULLED UP in front of Bash’s house and turned off the engine, then wondered what in the world she came there for.
To check on the dog, of course. She’d seen the indecision on Bash’s face last night. He didn’t want that dog, and he’d ended up stuck with her. And then she, Jane, and Emma had had to leave, so she hadn’t had an opportunity to follow up and make sure the poor little thing would be well taken care of.
Not that it was any of her business, really, but she couldn’t help herself. One look at the sweet little pup’s face and she’d fallen madly in love. She’d thought about her all night, worrying about her, and she just wouldn’t be able to run her errands today until she was sure the dog was well settled.
She went up to the front door and rang the doorbell, smiling when she heard the sharp little bark. She waited, but didn’t get an answer, so she rang the bell a second time. And again, another bark. After a minute, the door opened and Bash leaned against the doorway, wearing his boxers, a sleeveless tank, and nothing else.
Chelsea held her breath. Oh, did Bash have a body. She normally saw him in jeans and a T-shirt, so this was the most skin she’d ever seen exposed on him. He was tall and lean, but well-muscled, with great legs, amazing shoulders, and those arms . . .
“Chelsea. What do you want?”
She finally exhaled and looked down at his bare feet, where the adorable dog sat perched next to him.
“I wanted to check on Lulu.”
“Lou is fine, as you can see. And it’s eight goddamn thirty in the morning.”
“I know what time it is, Bash. Shouldn’t you be up by now?”
“I don’t close the bar until two. By the time I clean up and get home, it’s after three.”
She’d sort of forgotten about his crazy hours. “Oh, right. Sorry.”
The dog wriggled against his foot. “Shit. Hang on a second while I put some pants on. Or just . . . never mind. Come in since you’re already here.”
He walked away, and Lulu—or Lou—followed him. Since he’d left the door open, she went inside, closing the front door behind her.
She’d been to Bash’s house before when he had a party one night a few years back. She remembered she’d brought a date.
That had been a disaster. The guy had gotten so drunk in the first hour that Luke had driven him home and Chelsea had ended up begging a ride home from Megan Lee that night. She’d been so embarrassed she’d hidden out in a corner with her friends.
Bash had been dating some hot blonde at the time who’d hung on him all night long.
So not a surprise, since Bash was always dating some hot woman. There were so many women in and out of his life on a regular basis, no one could ever keep track of their names.
But none of them had ever dumped a dog on him.
He came out of what she assumed was his bedroom. This time, he had on pants and a T-shirt. “Come on,” he said to her. “I need to take Lou out back.”
The dog stayed right next to his feet as he walked from the hallway toward the back door. When he opened the door and stepped outside, Lou went with him.
Obviously, the two of them had already formed an attachment. Chelsea supposed that was a good thing.
While Lou ran outside to do her business, Chelsea took a seat on one of the chairs on the patio.
“You look terrible,” she said to him.
He ran his fingers through his hair. “Let’s see how you look on four and a half hours’ sleep.”
“Sorry. Again. I wasn’t thinking about the hours you keep.” She was an early riser and tried to maximize her weekend time. Which made her very happy that she’d added the “nine-to-five job” on her perfect-man list. A man like Bash, with the hours he worked, would never do.
Though watching Lou, who pranced her way back to Bash and happily sat while he scratched her ears, made her wonder about revising the small-dog thing on her list. She didn’t seem yippy at all. In fact, she was awfully cute and had only barked when she rang the doorbell.
“So you’re keeping her?”
Bash yawned. “What?”
“Lou. You’re keeping her?”
He shrugged. “For now, I guess.”
“What does that mean?”
“It means that as of today, I have a roommate.” He pushed off the railing he’d been crouching against and stood. “I need coffee.”
He walked to the back door and went inside, Lou following him. And, of course, he’d left Chelsea, which she supposed meant that was an invitation for her to follow as well.
He was such a terrible host. She sighed and went inside, again shutting the door behind her.
“You want coffee?” he asked.
She shook her head. “I’ve already had a couple of cups. But thanks.”
He ignored her while he dragged out a sauté pan and started pulling things from his refrigerator, so she decided to ignore him as well. She sat on the floor in between his kitchen and dining room, trying to coax Lou to come to her.
At first, the dog wouldn’t leave Bash’s feet. But eventually, she came over and crawled onto Chelsea’s lap.
She was so tiny, and kind of adorable.
“Do you have the capability to care for a dog?” she asked.
Bash turned away from the stove to shoot her a look. “She survived the night, didn’t she?”
“It requires a commitment of more than one night, Bash. She isn’t one of the women who slide in and out of your life.”
He waved the spatula at her. “Funny. And yes, I’m aware of what it takes to care for a dog. I had several when I was a kid.”
She looked around at his spacious house. The kitchen was open and led into a dining and living area that afforded awesome entertainment space. The kitchen was tiled and the other rooms had wood floors. Much better than carpet, especially with a dog.
“You’ve had this house for how long now?”
“About four years, I guess.”
“So how come you never got a dog before?”
He shrugged. “Never got around to it, I guess. Plus I work odd hours.”
“Aha. So what are you going to do with Lou while you’re working?”
He got two plates out and set them on the kitchen island, then laid bacon on the plates, as well as the eggs he’d made. “Come on and sit.”
She’d had no idea he’d cooked breakfast for her as well as himself. “I didn’t expect you to cook for me.”
He frowned. “You’re here. Why wouldn’t I cook for you?”
First he ignored her, then he fixed her breakfast. She could not fathom Bash at all. She stood, placing Lou on the floor. “What if I’d already had breakfast?”
He smiled at her. “Then I’d have eaten your portion.”
He poured out food for Lou, who dashed over to her bowl and started chowing down. Chelsea took a seat at the breakfast bar and Bash got out some orange juice, hovering over her glass, giving her a questioning look.
“So have you eaten yet?”
“Well . . . no.”
He poured juice into her glass. “Okay, then. Let’s eat. I’m hungry.”
She dug into the food, which was surprisingly good. Maybe she should have added “a man who can cook” to her list. It wasn’t too late to revise it, or add items. It was, after all, her list. She could do anything she wanted to it.
“Maybe you could become the cook at the bar,” she said. “What did you do to these eggs?”
“It’s a secret recipe. I can’t divulge the ingredients.”
She shot him a look. “Seriously.”
“I am serious. Besides, if they’re that good, I might consider using the recipe for the bar.”
“You’ll serve eggs at the bar?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll do an ‘after midnight’ menu, with breakfast choices.”
“It’s not a terrible idea.”
His lips curved. “Thanks for the vote of confidence. Anyway, I have to give the customers something to eat besides burgers.”
“Well, thank God for that.” She studied him as she ate. “You’re serious about expanding the bar.”
He leaned a hip against the counter, his plate in his hands as he scooped the last of the eggs onto his fork. After he took the bite, he swallowed and nodded. “Yeah. It’s something I’ve been working on for a while. I needed to save the capital first, and work out a design scheme that made sense, but I think I’m ready. I’ve already got the permit work started and a contractor picked out. Once that’s all in place, it shouldn’t take more than three to four months to get the project finished.”
“Do you know who you’ll hire to cook for you?”
“Jason Longmire. He works at Tadashi’s in Oklahoma City as a chef right now, but he was raised in Hope. We went to school together. Do you know him?”
She shook her head. “The name doesn’t ring a bell. I know the restaurant, though. It’s a good one. Why would he want to leave there and work at your bar? No insult intended.”
Bash finished off his juice and set the glass on the counter. “None taken. His mom is selling her house and wants to move in with her daughter—his sister—in Tennessee. Jason wants to buy the house and live here.”
“He could probably get a job as a chef in one of the Tulsa restaurants.”
Bash laid his hands on the island. “Are you trying to find my chef another job?”
She tore off a piece of bacon and slid it into her mouth, chewing thoughtfully before answering. “No. Just playing devil’s advocate. I mean, the bar is basically a bar, not a restaurant.”
She studied him, trying to figure out his angle. Then it hit her. “You’re thinking of expanding into the restaurant business and you need a really good chef to help you.”
“Maybe.” His lips curved.
She had no idea he had such grandiose plans. “How long have you had this idea?”
“Awhile. You finished with this?” He motioned to her now-empty plate.
“Yes, but why don’t you let me do the dishes?”
“Nah. I’ve got this.” He pulled her plate across the island and went to the sink.
Refusing to just sit there after he’d fed her, she slid off the barstool and went into the kitchen, taking a peek at Lou, who’d finished her food and was taking a snooze next to her food bowl.
“Seriously, Bash. I didn’t pop over for you to feed me breakfast and then clean up after me.” She hip-checked him and shoved him out of the way of the sink.
“Fine. I’m going to go grab a quick shower while you do that.”
She looked down at the dog, who raised her head when Bash left the room. Lou tracked his movements, then looked up at Chelsea. Obviously happy to have someone in the kitchen with her, she went back to sleep.
“You sure are cute,” Chelsea said, going back to the dishes. “You know, I always thought I wanted a big dog, like a Labrador or a golden retriever. Maybe even a Great Dane, though those dogs are pretty big. I’d need a huge house for a dog that size. Anyway, I never wanted a little dog. I thought they’d be too noisy and high-strung. But you? You seem kind of mellow, Lou.”
After loading the dishes in the dishwasher and laying the clean pans in the dish rack to dry, she bent down to swipe her hands over the sleeping dog. “And you sure have taken to Bash in a hurry, haven’t you? That says a lot about the guy, doesn’t it?”
The dog slumbered peacefully. God, she was cute.
“Though he still has a lot of marks against him on my list. Not that I’d consider him, anyway.”
“What list, Chelsea?”
Her head shot up and she saw Bash leaning against the doorway in the hall. He was wearing jeans and a T-shirt, with his hair still damp from his shower.
And he’d obviously heard her talking to the dog about her list.
CHELSEA STRAIGHTENED. “SO, thanks for breakfast. I should be going now.”
He walked into the kitchen and grasped her wrist, his fingers on one very fast racing pulse.
“What list, Chelsea?”
There was something about her that got to him in the most basic of ways. He dated a lot of women, and typically not for long. He’d known Chelsea for a lot of years, but she wasn’t the type of woman he went out with. First, he figured she was high maintenance, with her fancy clothes and her high-heeled shoes and her ideas about men. They just didn’t mesh.
But there was chemistry between them—something he’d definitely been noticing a lot more in the past several months. And the way her pulse ticked up and her eyes dilated, and the way she licked her lips whenever he got close?
Yeah, she noticed it, too.
Plus, she had a fiery personality, and he knew damn well that would translate to a spitfire in bed. He couldn’t deny he wouldn’t mind experiencing a little of the wildcat Chelsea in bed.
But he’d garnered enough from the conversations she’d had with her friends at the bar to know she was looking for a relationship. And that was the one thing he wasn’t at all interested in. He didn’t mind dating the same woman for a while, but he always made it clear he wasn’t into anything permanent. Being married once had taught him an awful lot about what not to do. He wasn’t ready for another round of bruised emotions and battered hearts. He was better off keeping things light and simple between him and women.
But Chelsea? He couldn’t seem to stop himself from teasing her. After all, they weren’t dating. They were just friends, and had been for a long time.
So when she didn’t answer his question, he had to press the issue.
“You were talking to my dog about your list. And the fact that I don’t meet the criteria.”
“I said no such thing. You misheard me. I was talking about my grocery list.”
Now he was really curious, because she sure as hell hadn’t been talking about him and food in the same sentence. “I don’t think so. You said I still have marks against me on your list, and you wouldn’t consider me anyway. So what list is this? The one you were making at the bar yesterday?”
She looked down at where he had hold of her wrist. He let her go, and she went into the living room to grab her purse.
“If you don’t tell me, I’ll just start making things up. Like maybe you’re making up a list of men you’d like to help you make a baby.”
She stopped and turned to him, her eyes wide. “I do not need any man to help me make a baby.”
He scratched the side of his nose and slanted a grin at her. “Well, yeah, you kind of do.”
In answer, she rolled her eyes at him. “You know what I mean. I’m not trying to have a baby right now, Bash.”
“Then why don’t I qualify for your list?”
She huffed in a breath of frustration. “None of your business.”
“It is my business if my name is on it.”
“That’s just it. Your name is not on it. It could never be on it.”
He stepped in closer. “Yeah? And why’s that?”
“I’d prefer not to say.”
“So back to my idea about you finding a man to make a baby with . . . ”
She gave him an exasperated look. “Bash.”
“I’m only trying to help, Chelsea. Not that I’m going to give you a baby, but I know a lot of guys . . .”
He liked seeing that fire in her eyes, the one that turned her emerald green eyes dark.
“This is ridiculous. But fine. You’re not on the list because you’re not my idea of the perfect man.”
His brows rose. “You made a list of the perfect man? You know the perfect guy doesn’t exist, right?”
“Of course he does.”
“You’ve met him.” He didn’t like the way his gut tightened at the thought.
“Not yet. And that’s the problem. But I know what I want, and I’ll know who he is when I do.”
“Really.” He sat on the edge of the sofa. “Show me your list.”
“I don’t think so.” She wrapped her arm tighter around her bag, as if he were going to wrench it away from her. Obviously, whatever was on Chelsea’s list was important to her. That made him eager to see it.
“No, really. Maybe I can help. Show me your list.”
She hesitated, but finally dug into her purse and pulled out her notebook, flipping the pages, then gave him a hard stare. “You cannot laugh.”
“I promise I won’t laugh.”
She thrust the notebook at him.
He scanned the list, the corners of his mouth ticking up.
He held up his hand. “I’m not laughing. But yeah, I can see why I’m not the man for you.” He handed the notebook back to her and met her gaze. “I’m divorced, I work at night, I love sports, and you’ve already met one of my crazy ex-girlfriends. Though she’s not my fault. She was normal when I met her.”
Chelsea arched a brow.
“Hey, I don’t set out to date crazy women. I like them unemotional and uncomplicated.”
That won him an even harder stare.
“Maybe I’m not making myself clear enough.”
He figured the best way out of that one was to leave the crazy-ex-girlfriend topic alone. “As far as the rest of your list, I’m a beer-and-burgers kind of guy. I spend all my time at a bar, I’m definitely not a suit guy, and my perfect weekend getaway is camping. And while I like kids, I’m not ready to have any yet. Plus, I apparently just adopted one of those yippy little dogs.”
She crossed her arms and nodded. “Exactly my point. We have nothing in common. Nothing at all.”
He stood and approached her. “You’re right. Nothing in common.”
They were standing only inches apart, and damn, she smelled good. Like a cinnamon roll and fiery brandy or something. Hot and spicy—and he suddenly wanted a taste of her. If he was being honest with himself, and he always tried to be, he’d wanted a taste of Chelsea for a long time now.
She tugged on her lower lip with her teeth, and he felt the tight pull in his groin, the fierce rush of desire that had nothing to do with a list and everything to do with basic chemistry.
“So . . . I should go,” she said, her eyes a crazy mix of blue and green and fixated on his.
Bash moved forward, but Chelsea didn’t step back. And when he picked up her hand and entwined his fingers with hers, that tiny little voice inside her head said, Run like hell. Only she didn’t run like hell.
“You know, Chelsea, sometimes you just have to go with your gut. And sometimes what’s between a man and woman has nothing to do with a list, or what’s in your head.” He picked up her hand and laid it on his chest. “It’s what’s right here. It’s that feeling of chemistry, that sensation of ‘Wow, if I don’t kiss this person right now, I Might. Just. Explode.’”
Chelsea was certain she’d forgotten how to breathe. Her palm against Bash’s chest was damp, as were other, more vital, throbbing parts of her.
She was out of her mind for even entertaining the idea of kissing him, but here she was, moving in closer to the temptation. Clearly she was having an out-of-body experience. Her normally logical self had fled, and had left in its wake this needy, lustful being whose only thought was naked desire.
Maybe it was the way Bash looked at her. Could she ever recall a man devouring her with his eyes like this before? Not in recent memory. Or the way he held her hand—so light and easy. But his thumb swept across her skin, sending skittering zings of sensation through every part of her—all the good parts that stood up and took notice.
Sure, it had been a long time since she’d had sex—way too long, because after all, she was really picky. But it wasn’t like she didn’t know how to take care of those kinds of needs on her own.
Still, that wasn’t at all the same as having a man touch you and take care of those needs for you.
Merely imagining all the ways Bash could take care of her needs had her going up in flames. She had a habit of watching him whenever she stopped in at the bar. He had great hands, always so sure and confident. What would those hands feel like gliding across her body?
Suddenly, that low throb turned into a constant thrum that beat incessantly throughout her. And that lustful being grew more demanding.
So when he lifted his hand to her jaw, then slid his palm around the nape of her neck and aligned that rock-hard body of his against hers, any thoughts of running like hell were gone, baby, gone.
“So what do you think, Chelsea?” he asked. “I’m not list material, but let’s just try this out and see how it goes, okay?”
She only had a split second to give him a short nod before his lips descended on hers.
It was magic. An explosion that threatened to make her implode from the inside out. She grasped hold of Bash’s shirt with both hands and held on for dear life as his mouth moved over hers. She vaguely registered her breaths going shallow, the hard pump of her heartbeat, and the trembling in her legs, but those were minor things, because honest to God, she was drowning in the sensation of a hard-bodied man doing delicious things to her mouth.
She hadn’t had much luck in the dating department lately, and she couldn’t even remember the last decent kiss she’d gotten.
This wasn’t dating. And what Bash gave her wasn’t a decent kiss at all. It was hot and wicked. It was fireworks. The kind of kiss a woman could feel all the way down to her toes, and in every follicle of her hair. In every cell, and in all the good female parts of her as well.
Bash knew how to kiss. It went beyond every fantasy she’d ever had. It was firecracker-worthy, and she couldn’t help but clutch his shirt and lean in for more. And when his tongue slid inside her mouth to deepen the kiss, she could feel herself falling deeper and deeper into the web of desire he weaved around her. Every part of her felt oh so good, oh so needy, and she wanted to rub against him and beg him to touch her.
It would be so, so easy to fall into bed with him, to let him tease her and taste her and touch her and see where this led.
Unfortunately, she still retained some of her common sense. She knew exactly where it would lead with someone like Bash.
That’s when the warning bells started to clang.
Not the right man for you, Chelsea.
She smoothed her hands flat on his chest, and with deep, deep regret, she pulled away.
He still sat on the arm of the sofa, giving her that smoldering look of intense desire. It had taken everything in her to stop that kiss, and if she really wanted to, she could fling herself against him, topple them both over, cover his body with her own.
She could already envision the tangle of arms and legs, the way their bodies would entwine on the sofa. And as she shifted her gaze from the sofa onto Bash, she was crushed under the heated weight of the look he gave her.
This is not helping, Chelsea. Snap out of it.
She blinked, drew in a deep breath, and grabbed her purse from the floor. “I should go.”
He still hadn’t moved from his perch on the sofa. He inhaled on a deep breath, then nodded.
“If you say so. But you know, I could help you with your list.”
She stilled. “What?”
“Your list.” He motioned with his head toward her purse, where she kept her notebook. “You’re looking for that perfect guy, right?”
“I can help you find him. I know a lot of guys.”
He’d just kissed the living hell out of her. And now he wanted to find her the love of her life?
She did not understand men. At all.
“I don’t think you’ll find me the perfect man at your bar, Bash.”
“I didn’t say they were all at the bar.”
Now she was curious. “Really. You know guys who wear suits.”
He nodded, then pushed off the sofa. “And who work nine-to-five jobs. Though I think your whole idea of making a list is a little stupid.”
She blinked, the wash of his words more than a little chilling, effectively banishing the heat from their kiss. “Really.”
“Yeah. Which is why I’m going to help you.”
“That doesn’t even make sense.”
He laid his hands on her upper arms. “I don’t fit your list parameters at all, but you can’t deny that kiss we just shared was smokin’ hot.”
She would very much like to deny it at the moment, especially since she felt the heat of his hands through her long-sleeved shirt. “That’s just chemistry, and chemistry can burn out in a matter of weeks.”
His lips tilted upward. “Wanna give it a try and see how fast we burn out, Chelse?”
It might be an interesting experiment. And she’d definitely enjoy some awesome sex with Bash, no doubt. But he wasn’t relationship material, and she was bound and determined to have a bona fide relationship with the “right” guy—not the wrong one.
But he’d so easily made the transition from hot kiss to finding her another guy. A man who was interested in her would never do that. If he could turn it off that easily, so could she, right? “No, thanks. But you’re right about one thing—the kiss was amazing.”
“Glad I wasn’t the only one who thought so.” He dropped his hands, and she immediately felt the chill. “So what do you think? How about I go through your list and play matchmaker for you?”
“I’ll have to give that some thought.”
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Jaci Burton:
“Jaci Burton’s books are always sexy, romantic, and charming!”—Jill Shalvis, New York Times bestselling author
“Jaci Burton is a stalwart in the romance genre.”—USA Today
“Jaci Burton’s stories are full of heat and heart.”—Maya Banks, New York Times bestselling author