Love is a dare in this Animal Magnetism romance by the award-winning, New York Times bestselling author of the Lucky Harbor series...
Darcy Stone is game for anything—except sexy Navy vet and physical therapist AJ Colten, the guy who’d rejected her when she’d needed him most. Now the shoe is on the other foot and he needs her to play nice and help him secure grants for his patients. Unfortunately Darcy can’t refuse. She needs the money to fund her passion project: rescuing S&R dogs and placing them with emotionally wounded soldiers.
AJ admits it—Darcy is irresistible. But he’s already been battle-scarred by a strong-willed, vivacious, adventurous woman like Darcy, and he’s not making the same mistake twice—until he and Darcy are forced to fake a relationship. Growing closer than they’d ever imagined possible, Darcy and AJ have to ask themselves: how much between them is pretend? What’s the real thing? And where does it go from here?
About the Author
Karen White has been narrating audiobooks since 1999, with more than two hundred to her credit. Honored to be included in AudioFile's Best Voices and Speaking of Audiobooks's Best Romance Audio 2012 and 2013, she is also an Audie Award finalist and has earned multiple AudioFile Earphones Awards.
Read an Excerpt
Darcy Stone had never been big on rules unless she was breaking them. But that was the funny thing about nearly dying—it changed you, in a big way. So she’d taken a good, hard look at her life and decided that maybe a few “guidelines” wouldn’t hurt.
Number one: Don’t stress the little stuff.
Number two: Never let a certain man into your heart. Ever.
Number three: Don’t take crap from anyone.
It was number three on her mind right now. Today’s crap came in the form of one weasel named Johnny Myers, a dog trainer who lived two counties over from Darcy’s town of Sunshine, Idaho, deep in the Bitterroot Mountains. Johnny was complete pond scum, not to mention under investigation for illegally importing and exporting exotic animals.
It killed Darcy to do business with him, but if she didn’t, he’d send the dog she wanted straight to the kill shelter.
“I’m not paying you seven hundred dollars for a service dog you intend to dump for not passing his certs,” she said into her cell phone as she walked through the pouring rain and into work. Hell, she didn’t have seven hundred dollars.
Her wet sneakers squeaked as she entered Sunshine Wellness Center and rounded the front desk. Cold had started to seep through her drenched clothes to her aching bones but she ignored this. “Make it two hundred,” she told Johnny, “and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
She didn’t have two hundred, either, nor a way to even get out to Johnny’s place since she no longer drove highways, but she’d worry about that later.
Johnny started sputtering with outrage as she shoved her wet hair back from her face, going still when her body suddenly went into hyper-alert mode.
Damn. Again? At this rate she could hire herself out as some sort of paranormal secret agent . . . except the only person whose appearance she could predict was AJ Colten.
Guideline number two, and the bane of her existence.
And sure enough, in walked her boss: six feet two inches of solid muscle, testosterone, and attitude. And damned if she didn’t have a secret thing for all of the above. Very secret, since she’d gone there with him once—or nearly anyway—and had been burned big-time.
Never again, no matter how hot he was.
Luckily she had one heck of a poker face, because on a good day just a fleeting glance from AJ reminded her that she was a twenty-six-year-old sex-starved woman.
On a bad day, every single part of her sent urgent memos to her brain that she was practically a re-virginized twenty-six-year-old sex-starved woman.
It took everything she had not to look hungry.
Or even overly friendly.
AJ made it a lot easier by showing absolutely zero interest in her. The only thing she got this morning was a hooded glance that probably meant he was wondering why he’d even hired her.
She raised an eyebrow in his direction, trying for nonchalance while she soaked up the sight of him and the easy, confident way he moved his big body.
“Not a penny less than six hundred,” Johnny said in her ear.
“Three hundred,” she countered, tearing her gaze away from AJ. “And I’m cold and wet and almost late for work. If you don’t want the money, tell me now, because I need to go.”
Thanks to an unseasonably warm late fall putting Mother Nature in a mood, rain and wind slashed at the building. Darcy loved the rain. What she didn’t love was a violent storm. Not only was she shivering, she undoubtedly looked like a complete mess.
Her life motto was dance like no one was watching, so she told herself she really didn’t care what she looked like. Then she told herself that a few more times while watching AJ’s mighty fine bod move across the room.
“Three hundred is a joke,” Johnny complained. “I bet if I opened my e-mail I’d have ten offers that are better.”
“You go take a look,” she said. “I’ll wait.” While she did, she shoved her purse into the filing cabinet, but not before taking a surreptitious bite out of one of the two breakfast taquitos she’d grabbed on her way in.
When she realized AJ was heading her way, she nearly choked in her rush to swallow because AJ didn’t approve of the love of her life—crap food. And as he was the boss, owning the Sunshine Wellness Center as well as being head physical therapist, she tried to play by his rules. Okay, not really, but she at least did her best to hide the evidence.
She booted up the computer and caught an accidental flash of her reflection on the screen.
Yep, she was a hot mess, alright, her long curls—usually her best feature, if she did say so herself—now resembled a frizzy squirrel’s tail.
Good thing she didn’t care.
Naturally, AJ was not a mess. Not that he ever was. Nope, as usual he’d defied the odds, the rain not daring to stick to him. And no squirrel-tail hair for him, either. His sun-streaked brown hair was short and silky smooth, and as he took in her hair, his lips quirked in an almost smile.
And then Johnny was back. “I’ve got plenty of e-mails with interest, so you ain’t getting it for cheap.”
It. Darcy forgot about her hair catastrophe, and AJ’s lack thereof, and grinded her back teeth together. Guideline number three: Don’t take crap from anyone. “Three fifty,” she said. “Tops.”
This wasn’t going well. Plus, AJ was still looking at her, as always, aware of everything going on around him. She smoothed out her expression and added a professional smile. Nothing to see here.
He didn’t return the smile.
Darcy attributed this to the fact that it was seven in the morning, and AJ hated mornings with the same level of passion that she herself reserved for doctors and exercise.
From the hallway that led to the offices, Ariana waved at AJ, all sweet and cute, pointing to the steaming mug of coffee on the counter waiting for him. The yoga instructor always prepared him organic coffee in the mornings.
Organic coffee? It sounded as good as tofu or kale, not that AJ ever complained.
Sometimes Darcy wished that she could be described as sweet and cute, too, but she was usually too busy being her normal sarcastic and annoying self.
Ariana had other things on Darcy, too. Calm and steady and grounded, for instance. And she meditated, didn’t eat chocolate—who didn’t eat chocolate?—and was Zen at every turn.
Darcy couldn’t have done Zen to save her life.
“You still with me?” Johnny snapped at her. “Five hundred. Today.”
Darcy turned her back on AJ and lowered her voice. “That’s five hundred more than you deserve, you bloodsucking scumball—”
“You kiss your mama with that mouth?”
Darcy kissed her mama never. Her mother wasn’t the kissing sort. “We’re done. Good-bye—”
“Wait! Jesus, we’re having a little fun-free enterprise here, no need to get all pissed off. Four hundred. Final offer.”
“Done,” Darcy said. She’d just have to find a way. She always did when it came to rescuing service dogs who, for a variety of reasons, needed to be “reassigned.”
Some needed to be retired, either because the work was too strenuous or they’d lost their owners, or they simply couldn’t keep up with the demands of their job. Most were sold to good homes, but not all. People had jokingly labeled these dogs as “career change” dogs, but Darcy knew the truth. They were throwaways.
And no one knew how it felt to be a throwaway more than Darcy herself.
In the past month she’d rescued three such dogs, each of whom had been let go by his owner but who still had so much to offer.
She’d easily placed them as emotional support dogs with people who needed them as badly as the dogs needed good homes. In this case that had been two military vets suffering PTSD and a woman who’d lost her hearing due to illness.
Word had gotten out, and now Darcy had a list of more people who needed emotional support or therapy dogs as well, people who couldn’t afford to go through the usual channels.
There certainly wasn’t a shortage of dogs or people who needed them.
But there was a shortage of funds, as these dogs, with their training and certifications, were expensive.
“The money needs to be here tonight or he’s going to the pound,” Johnny said.
Most likely he was lying, but he was a first-class jerk so she couldn’t be sure. “No problem,” she said, and hoped that was true. She disconnected and buried her nose in work.
“That was either a drug deal or a bookie,” AJ said.
That was the thing about AJ—the Navy vet was the definition of stealth. And maybe she hadn’t heard him coming, but she’d sure as hell felt him. She ignored both her happy nipples and him. First, she’d dedicated one of her three guidelines to him. Second, he was one of the few people on the planet who could see right through her and call her on her shit.
No woman wanted to be with a man who could see right through her.
And then there was the fact that he had a ’tude bigger than hers and could back his up with an all-around bad-assery she couldn’t begin to match.
Nope, if and when she decided to jump into the man pool again, it would be with someone sweet and kind and lovely and sensitive. Someone who’d fawn all over her and think she was the best thing to ever happen to him. Someone who hadn’t rejected her.
“I don’t do drugs,” she said without looking up, using her most impressive PMS tone. “Or gamble.”
“Sure you do. You gamble with your health when you eat spicy sausage taquitos from a convenience store for breakfast.”
“Ha-ha,” she said. “And for your information, I got the veggie ones.”
He didn’t say anything to this, and damn if she didn’t finally cave and look up, right into his eyes.
AJ had deep, warm eyes the color of a hazelnut, and when he wasn’t being her militant hard-ass PT or her boss—in fact when he wasn’t looking at her at all—they softened.
Not that there was anything soft about him right now.
And that was the thing about AJ. He was tough and strong, both inside and out, and he always, always knew what to do, in any situation.
Whether that came from being raised by a Navy captain or from his own military stint, she had no idea. She could ask him for help with Johnny and he’d step in and handle it without hesitation.
Which was exactly why she said nothing. This was her problem, not his.
“Let me guess,” he said, his tone dialed to Not Surprised. “You’re in trouble.”
As that was usually the case, Darcy supposed she couldn’t blame him for the assumption. “What I am,” she said, moving past him, shoulder-checking him by pretend accident, “is none of your business.”
He caught her arm and turned her to face him. “I don’t just sign your paychecks. I’m your brother and sister’s best friend. You’re definitely my business. And,” he went on when she opened her mouth, “I don’t see how that’s a bad thing, having people want to help you.”
Of course he didn’t. Because he’d never found himself in a situation where he needed help from anyone. But if she said so, he’d only disagree with her. It was his second favorite thing to do, right after driving her batshit crazy.
“And you ever hear of a jacket?” he asked, shrugging out of his and tossing it to her. “You look like a drowned rat.”
“Aw, you say the nicest things.” And she tossed his jacket right back at him.
He simply wrapped her up in it, jerking it closed, bending close to yank the zipper up.
“I don’t need—”
“I’ll lock you in it,” he said, his voice still calm but utter steel. “You’re shivering.”
Actually, not anymore, she wasn’t. But no sense in letting him know she enjoyed the warmth of his jacket or telling him he might have been right. This was the thing about AJ—he spent a lot of time being right.
The jacket smelled like him—which was to say amazing—and held his body heat. Refusing to give in to the urge to press her face to the collar and inhale him in, she shoved her arms into the arm holes and scooped his schedule out of the printer tray to slap it against his chest.
His hard-as-a-slab-of-marble chest. She wondered if his other part-time receptionist, Brittney, ever noticed such a thing. Probably not, as Brittney had just recently gotten engaged. “Your first client is Ronan,” she said. “He just pulled up.” She didn’t look into his face because doing so tended to make her stupid. She didn’t know if it was his lean jaw, in perpetual need of a shave, or that wide, firm mouth currently set in a grim line, discouraging any casual conversation—which perversely always made her want to ask him about the weather just to watch his head implode.
Ronan walked in the front door, his left arm in a sling to protect his shoulder while he recovered. He’d been an army MP in Afghanistan when he’d been injured. He’d been medically discharged after treatment seven years ago but the shoulder had never been the same, so he’d recently had another surgery.
Another thing that had never been the same was Ronan himself. He suffered PTSD and had been having problems with going out in public because social situations made him anxious. He didn’t like people, didn’t like to interact. There were only a few that he could tolerate: Any of his army buddies.
Ronan’s hard gaze looked over at them. His gaze immediately locked on AJ and, well, softened wasn’t the right word but he definitely relaxed, as if just seeing AJ there had made it worth it to leave his house.
AJ sent him a smile and a welcoming nod. “Hey, man, good to see you today.”
Ronan didn’t return the smile but he did look less likely to rip someone’s head off as he headed to the far corner of the big, open gym where he and AJ always started their sessions.
Darcy’s leg ached from being cold and standing, and the pain made her grit her teeth. But when AJ turned his attention back to her, she hid her grimace. “What do you need money for?” he asked.
“I didn’t say I needed money.”
He gave her a get real look.
Right. Everyone knew that between her exorbitant medical bills and being unable to do her usual work—which until her accident had been travel writing for Nat Geo and the Travel Channel’s websites—she was desperately strapped for cash. “It’s not work related,” she said, annoyed that she sounded defensive.
He leaned against the counter, pose casual, body calm and relaxed.
If a panther was ever calm and relaxed . . .
“What is it related to?” he asked.
She picked at a nonexistent speck of lint from his jacket.
“How much do you need, Darcy?”
Look at that, she had a ragged nail. She hoped someone here had a nail file or she’d be tempted to chew it off.
“A couple hundred?”
“No. And never mind.” She moved to the filing cabinet. Or more accurately, limped to the filing cabinet, because now her entire body ached like a sonofabitch. She rubbed her leg without thinking and caught AJ’s gaze narrowing in on the movement of her hand.
“Stress is bad for your recovery,” he said quietly.
She dropped her hand. “I know how to take care of myself.”
He arched a brow, and hell if that didn’t really put her back up. She wanted to sit but her pride wouldn’t let her until he moved off. And fine, yes, once upon a damn time she’d been shit at taking care of herself.
Case in point—wrapping her car around a tree on a stormy night on a deserted highway out in the middle of nowhere and nearly dying. But that had been eleven months ago, and a woman could change.
Or at least, she could be working on that change . . .
The door opened and Zoe strode in. Darcy’s older sister was looking professional in a business suit, clearly dressed for a flight. As one of only two pilots for hire at Sunshine’s local airport, Zoe stayed busy.
But thankfully not too busy, because she was carrying a bag of—yes!—Gummy Bears. Darcy’s drug of choice.
Tall and willowy, Zoe had all eyes on her as she strode across the floor, sparing a smile for AJ.
AJ returned it, and without any warning, Darcy’s heart careened off her ribs. It really wasn’t fair that he looked like a fallen angel when he smiled. Good thing he rarely did.
“What’s up?” he asked Zoe.
“Just here to visit your sweet, adorable, kind receptionist.”
“She’s not in today,” AJ said, deadpan.
And Darcy sighed. But then her sister handed her the Gummy Bears, which went a long way toward soothing her rumpled feathers.
“You’ve been here for two weeks without getting fired,” Zoe said. “Impressive.”
She was referring, of course, to the three days Darcy had worked at the local bar before being shown the door. “Hey,” she said. “Putting false engagement rings in women’s drinks as an early present from Santa was funny.”
“Not to their boyfriends,” Zoe said, and then stage-whispered, “and please don’t try to punk AJ, okay? He means a lot to me, so if he kills you, it’ll be all sorts of awkward.”
“I won’t go up for murder,” AJ said. “They’d never find the body.”
AJ humor. Darcy rolled her eyes. “Thanks for the goodies,” she said to Zoe. “But I’m sure you have to go now.”
“I’ve got a few minutes.”
Great. Darcy looked at AJ. “Tell her I’m too busy to socialize. And you’re too busy, too. Ronan’s waiting.”
As if on cue, Ronan sat up from where he’d been doing sit-ups and looked over.
“Hey, Ronan,” Zoe called out with a warm smile. “How’s your mom?”
“Done with chemo and looking better.”
Zoe’s smile brightened. “Oh, I’m so glad!”
Sunshine was too damn small, Darcy thought. Not only did everyone know everyone, but no one had ever learned to mind their own business. Darcy started to move back to her computer but AJ stepped in her way, ducking down a little to look into her eyes.
“Ice the leg,” he said, and without waiting for a response, headed toward Ronan.
Damn, the man had a way of moving, his body shifting with barely sheathed loose-limbed power and grace, and both Darcy and Zoe watched him go.
“He’s got such an edible butt,” Zoe whispered. “Do you think he knows it?”
“I don’t think he cares.” Besides, his being hot didn’t change the fact that he was a bigger problem for her than Johnny could even think about being. Johnny was just an asshole. AJ was . . . well, she wasn’t sure what. Dangerous as hell to her well-being, for starters.
“So why do you do it?” Zoe asked her.
Darcy tore her gaze away from AJ’s ass. “Do what?”
Zoe took her big-sister status very seriously. But then again, in spite of the fact that there were only a few years between them, Zoe had always been more maternal toward Darcy than their actual mom ever had.
“Bait him,” Zoe said. “He’s great guy. He’s smart, hardworking, self-made . . .”
“Maybe you should date him.”
Zoe laughed. “We’re not suited.”
“Because?” Darcy asked.
“Well . . . he’s a bit alpha.”
Yeah. Just a bit.
“We’d butt heads,” Zoe said. “But I’ve always thought that maybe you two might . . .”
“A minute ago you were worried he might kill me.”
“Well, sleeping with him might go a long way toward making sure he wouldn’t.”
Darcy snorted. “Go away, Z.”
“In a minute. He did so much for you after your accident.”
This was absolutely true. Darcy had had five surgeries, and once she’d been okayed for physical therapy, AJ had taken over her care. He’d been a drill sergeant but he’d also saved her life. She knew it. He knew it.
And wasn’t that just the problem. She hated knowing that she hadn’t been able to save herself, that she’d needed help. “You’re right,” she agreed softly. “He’s done a lot for me.”
“I mean look at you, Darce. You’re walking.”
A miracle. Darcy got that. She was grateful for that, so very grateful he’d gotten her out of a wheelchair and onto her own feet again. Sure, she’d never win a track meet and she was always going to be somewhat unstable on her own two legs—especially the right one which still enjoyed buckling on her at the worst of times—but yeah. AJ would forever be a hero for what he’d done for her.
Which wasn’t to say she liked him.
In fact, during her PT she’d actually hated him. She’d dreamed nightly about strangling him, drowning him . . .
Very satisfying dreams, too.
And if there’d been a few others, some that had involved a different kind of altercation altogether between them, of the naked and sweaty variety, well, those were her little secrets.
Across the large room, past all the exercise equipment to the mirrored wall, Ronan lay flat on his back now, working with a large rubber band around his ankles, doing strengthening exercises.
On his knees at his side, AJ guided him, and wrong as it might be, the sight of the two built guys working so hard together made her pulse race just a little bit.
During a quick beat of rest for Ronan, AJ glanced over the carved muscles of his shoulder to meet Darcy’s gaze.
She stopped breathing.
At her side, so did Zoe. “I just don’t get why you’re so hard on him,” her sister said.
“Actually, I think you’ve got that backward.” He was hard on her.
And she resented that. It was almost as if he expected her to soften her edges, to be something she wasn’t—like maybe one of those soft, sweet, bendy yoga instructors he was fond of dating. But though Darcy was working on herself, she was never going to be soft and sweet.
Or, thanks to her accident, bendy.
“Maybe you could just try a little bit harder to be more . . . friendly,” Zoe suggested.
Darcy didn’t have words for what she felt for AJ, but she was pretty sure “friendly” wasn’t going to make the list. And yet if AJ had been there for Darcy in a huge way, so had Zoe. Always. So Darcy blew out a breath and managed a smile for her sister. “Sure,” she said. “I’ll try.”
Several days later, AJ was in the middle of his weekly game of rec league football. And since Sunshine was a place where only the rugged, the hearty, and the tough-as-hell resided, the “flag” part of the game had long ago been forgotten, making it a contact sport. Complainers were booted and banned. For life.
AJ’s team consisted of old friends: Darcy’s veterinarian brother, Wyatt. Griffin, a friend from high school. And the three brothers who ran the Belle Haven Animal Center: Brady, Dell, and Adam.
Their opposing team was a company of local firefighters who played fast and dirty.
In the first half AJ took a hard hit and found himself flat on his back.
From the sidelines came the collective groan of the spectators. Sunshine took its sports seriously.
AJ rubbed his aching ribs and decided that probably nothing was broken. Just as well. Not even broken ribs would’ve gotten him benched—they had no substitute players tonight. He lay there a minute to catch his breath, staring up at the sky. Looked like it was going to rain again. He heard Wyatt call a time-out.
Wyatt’s face appeared above him. “Haven’t seen that in a while,” his best friend said with a smirk. “Whatcha doing?”
“Just needed a quick rest,” AJ said.
“Well, rest on your own time. We’re down by three and I’ve got fifty bucks riding on this. Plus, Emily’s watching.”
Emily was Wyatt’s girlfriend, and he was in the “show-off” phase of their relationship.
AJ lifted his head and eyed the crowd. Yep, the cutie-pie, new-to-town intern vet was indeed watching. In fact, most of the town was.
Emily, who was just as crazy about Wyatt as Wyatt was about her, stood up, waved, and blew him a kiss.
Wyatt grinned stupidly at her.
“If you blow her a kiss back,” AJ muttered, “I’m taking away your man card.”
But he was wasting his breath because Wyatt blew her a kiss back.
AJ flopped his head back to the grass and groaned.
“Hey,” Wyatt said. “Which of us is going to get laid tonight? Me, that’s who. In fact, I get laid just about every night, so who’s got the man card now?” He offered AJ a hand up. “You going to tell me what your problem is?”
“In the middle of a time out here.”
“They’ll wait. Given your performance tonight, they think you’re so old you need the rest, that buys us some time.”
“Mind’s not on the game, that’s all,” AJ said.
“No shit. Where’s it at?”
Excellent question. Wyatt was easygoing and laid-back, which made him a great vet, and in fact, a great guy, but there were limits to what a man could say to his best friend. For instance, My mind’s on your frustrating, crazy-hot sister wasn’t going to fly, not if he wanted to keep his teeth where they were. “Work,” he finally said, figuring it was close enough to the truth.
Wyatt’s eyes narrowed. “It’s not Darcy, is it?”
AJ resisted taking yet another look at the crowd watching. He didn’t have to; he’d memorized her. She wore dark sunglasses on her clear jade green eyes and her honey-colored hair had been left on the loose tonight, the curls wild and free, much like the woman herself. She wore sexy, painted-on jeans, boots designed to make a grown man drop to his knees and beg, and a formfitting, scoop-neck vintage Led Zeppelin tee. She was long-legged, hotter than the sun that hadn’t bothered to show its face in weeks, and looked like the poster woman for the very best kind of trouble—trouble she could and had delivered.
And she was one hundred percent the most dangerous thing he’d ever faced, and that included his six years in the Navy. “No,” he said. “It’s not Darcy. She’s . . .” Driving him right out of his ever-loving mind. “Fine. It’s nothing. Let’s finish this.”
Wyatt’s expression said Nothing my ass, but he nodded and they went back to the game.
By the time the game finally ended, they were filthy and a little bloody, but they’d won by three—no thanks at all to AJ. He sucked down water like it was going out of style as Wyatt sat on the bench at his side.
“Is it your dad?” Wyatt asked. “He have another skin cancer scare?”
“No,” AJ said. “He’s fine.” Ornery as hell, but fine. “And I told you, nothing’s wrong.”
“Can’t bullshit a bullshitter,” Wyatt said. “It’s a woman. Right?”
AJ bent to the task of switching out his cleats for running shoes.
“Yeah,” Wyatt said. “It’s a woman.”
Still ignoring him, AJ stood.
“Listen, not three weeks ago you helped me get my head out of my ass,” Wyatt said. “Told me to go after the love of my life. I did and it worked out.”
AJ sighed and turned to face him. “We were both drunk. You’re just lucky I didn’t suggest something stupid, such as running like hell.”
“You never suggest anything stupid,” Wyatt said. “You’re the most logical, reasonable guy I know.”
AJ pulled out his phone and looked at the time.
“My point,” Wyatt said, “is that love isn’t logical or reasonable.”
“Gee, there’s a news flash.”
Wyatt stood up and pushed AJ’s phone away, smiling when AJ narrowed his eyes in annoyance. “It’s my turn to be Obi Wan, and that’s because now I get that the right one isn’t the right one unless she’s driving you absolutely bonkers in the best possible way. And I gotta say . . . you’re looking a little bonkers, man.”
He had that right. “Let it go,” AJ said.
“Fine. You don’t want my help until you fuck it all up, I get that, too. But I’ll be standing right here when you need me.”
AJ shook his head. “Thanks for the warning.”
“And not that you deserve the invite, but Emily and I are thinking about going camping up to Marble Flats this weekend. Her sister and her fiancé will probably come, too. We could get some of the guys and—”
“Can’t,” AJ said.
“You off to consult somewhere or heading to D.C.?”
Besides running the Sunshine Wellness Center, AJ consulted on physical therapy at military bases across the country, mostly within the special ops units. He also went to D.C. regularly to fight for better, longer PT care for injured vets. “Neither,” he said. “I’m heading to Boise.”
“That guy who’s interested in your grant program finally set up a meet, then?”
“Yeah.” AJ had been working on putting together grants to cover extended treatment for patients with extensive trauma cases who got cut off too early by their insurance companies. Unfortunately he had way too many of those cases and not nearly enough funding, so he’d gone looking for people willing to fund grants and had someone interested.
“I hope he bites,” Wyatt said. “You need this. I don’t know what we’d have done if Darcy hadn’t had you at her back when her insurance ran out.”
“She had all of us,” AJ said, but knew Wyatt was right. If Darcy had quit PT when her insurance had stopped covering her treatment, she’d still be in a wheelchair. “This guy’s got a wife who needed long-term PT care after an accident. He’s a CEO of a team-building corporation, and he’s having a weekend retreat for his employees. I’ve been asked to bring along someone I helped pro bono after they ran out of funds. Someone who’d have benefited from the grant program. My plan was to bring Seth.”
Another of AJ’s clients, Seth Williams had been in a climbing accident and worked his way back from an incomplete SCI—spinal cord injury—thanks to extended treatment.
“Seth agreed to that?” Wyatt asked, surprised.
Seth was so introverted and shy that he could barely go to the store, much less show off his motor skills on demand. “At first,” AJ said. “But he just cancelled on me today. Said he appreciated everything I’ve done to help him but that he couldn’t handle being on display.”
“So how important is it to bring someone for show and tell?” Wyatt asked.
They both glanced up at the crowd still milling around. Zoe was there, messing with her phone. Ariana, too, and she smiled at AJ. You okay? she mouthed, gesturing to her ribs, silently asking about his.
AJ nodded that he was fine.
“You’ve got other options,” Wyatt said quietly.
Yeah, on paper Ariana was the perfect match. She’d needed AJ’s PT services five years ago for a shoulder rebuild. But he knew that she cared about him as more than co-workers and friends. And though he’d tried to return the feelings, he’d felt no chemistry. He could live without a lot of things, but chemistry wasn’t one of them. “A weekend away with Ariana might give her the wrong message and screw up our friendship and working relationship,” he said. “I don’t want to hurt her again.”
“I wasn’t talking about Ariana,” Wyatt said.
AJ followed his gaze to the side of the spectator stands, to where Darcy now sat on the grass, alternately stuffing her face with nachos from the snack bar and loving up on a young German shepherd.
Her laugh came to him on the wind and he pretended that didn’t affect him, the sight of her having fun—which for the past eleven months had been rarer than him nearly screwing up tonight’s game. “Never going to happen.”
“Why not?” Wyatt asked. “She works for you.”
More like she allowed him to pretend she worked for him. “She’s not exactly on Team AJ at the moment.”
Wyatt laughed. “We both know that Darcy isn’t on any team, she’s not a team player.” His smile faded. “And we both know why.”
Yeah, they did. Wyatt, Zoe, and Darcy’s foreign diplomat parents had played a hell of a head game on all their kids, but most especially Darcy. From infancy they’d dragged her all over the world in the name of making better lives for others, giving her little to no supervision and then acting shocked whenever she’d found trouble.
Their response had always been to send her away to some tight-assed school in a country on a different continent than theirs and leave her there without communication—a total and epic parental rejection.
It was little to no wonder she had trust issues and a seeming inability to become emotionally attached to anything or anyone.
“These past eleven months have been good for her,” Wyatt said. “I mean the accident was fucked up, but having her stick around Sunshine—”
“She didn’t choose to stick,” AJ reminded him. “She hasn’t been healthy enough to chase stories around the world and write about them. If she could, she’d be gone, off traveling for work without looking back.”
“Yeah.” Wyatt scrubbed a hand over his jaw. “That was definitely true at first, but I think she’s starting to enjoy a home life now. It seems like she’s really coming around.”
“To you and Zoe maybe.”
Wyatt smiled. “She does seem to take some serious delight in screwing with you. What did you do to piss her off?”
“Breathe.” But AJ knew exactly what he’d done and he was taking it to his grave.
“There’s no reason why she wouldn’t do this for you,” Wyatt said. “Especially after all you’ve done for her.”
“Any physical therapist would’ve done what I did. And I was paid for my services. She owes me nothing.”
“You weren’t paid for all of it,” Wyatt reminded him. “You wrote off a lot of your bills after the insurance stopped paying. Given that, she’d probably jump at the chance to help you . . .” He trailed off at the look on AJ’s face. “You never told her?”
AJ slid his hands into his pockets.
“You never told her,” Wyatt repeated in disbelief. “Are you fucking kidding me? You insisted that Zoe and I not say anything to her because you wanted to do it.”
“Whatever,” AJ said. “You do the same thing at your work all the time. Do you tell your patients when you do pro bono work?”
“My patients are four-legged creatures who don’t speak English. Jesus, AJ, she should know what you’ve done for her.”
“She doesn’t need to know.” AJ met Wyatt’s gaze. “Ever.”
Wyatt opened his mouth but AJ pointed at him. “Ever,” he repeated. “Think about it. Like you just said, she’s settling in for the first time in her life. She seems happy, even relaxed. She’s finally on her feet again and feeling like she has some control back. I’m not taking that from her by making her feel like she owes me.”
Wyatt blew out a breath. A silent, reluctant agreement. “Okay, I get that, but you could still ask her to do this for you.”
AJ tried to imagine getting Darcy to dress up and go to a fancy dinner and play nice, helping him schmooze his potential financial backer. Unable to, he shook his head.
“Look,” Wyatt said, “if getting this guy means anything to you—”
“It does,” AJ said. “You know it does.”
“Then tell her. She’s got more heart than the rest of us put together. Appeal to that. You can convince her to do it.”
As if AJ knew the first thing about successfully appealing to a woman’s heart. “Have you ever talked your sister into doing something she didn’t want to do?”
Wyatt laughed ruefully, conceding the point as they both looked over at Darcy again. She’d shoved her sunglasses to the top of her head and had the German shepherd sitting obediently in front of her, eyes on the doggy treat in her fist.
AJ hadn’t seen the dog before but knew he must be the one Zoe had mentioned to him in passing, the “career change” dog Darcy had rescued from Asshat Johnny. AJ hadn’t imagined she’d be able to handle a dog. But she seemed to be handling the animal fine.
Without even realizing his feet were on the move, AJ walked up to her.
“Play dead and roll over,” she was saying.
“I’d need alcohol for that,” AJ said.
She looked up at him, eyes cool. “I meant Blue.”
“Blue” collapsed to the floor, ruining the “dead” image by lolling his tongue, appearing to smile up at Darcy.
She burst out laughing.
And actually so did AJ.
Darcy cocked her head up at him. “Huh,” she said. “Didn’t know you could do that.”
Ignoring this, and also the way her scent had come to him on the evening breeze, all soft, sexy woman, AJ crouched low and held out a fist for the dog to sniff. “Hey there.”
Blue licked AJ’s hand in greeting and then rolled over in silent appeal for a belly rub. AJ obliged, his mind doing the math. It was only a twenty-minute drive to Johnny’s, but the guy lived off of Highway 64, a narrow, curvy, two-lane highway.
Which was where Darcy had crashed her car eleven months ago.
As far as he knew, she hadn’t driven on a highway since, and she certainly hadn’t been on Highway 64. “How did you get him?” he asked.
“Xander drove me.”
AJ ground his back teeth together at the name but said nothing.
“I used the quarterly bonuses you gave out yesterday.” She paused. “Thank you for that.”
He nodded. No way would he admit that to help her without hurting her pride, he’d given out the bonuses for her sake.
“He failed his S&R training because swimming makes him anxious,” Darcy said, and offered a treat to Blue.
He leapt to his feet and gently took the prize.
“Good boy,” she said softly, and Blue melted into her hug, leaning into her, knocking them both to the grass.
Knowing exactly how much she still hurt, AJ reached for her. “You okay?”
With a laugh, she sat up. “I’m fine. Such a good boy, Blue.” She hugged the dog tight and rubbed her cheek to Blue’s. “What a good, pretty boy, yes you are.”
“Aw, thanks, baby.”
AJ craned his neck to take in the tall, skinny, leather-clad, tatted-up man who’d just appeared at their side.
Xander returned AJ’s cool look with one of his own. He didn’t like AJ much.
The feeling was absolutely mutual.
Blue, however, went nuts, giving a joyous bark at the sight of Xander, jumping up and down like a Mexican jumping bean.
“Yeah, yeah, you’re pretty, too,” Darcy told Xander. “But not as pretty as Blue—and you’re late.”
“Appointment went over,” he said, and kept looking at AJ.
AJ kept looking right back.
Darcy divided a glance between them. “Seriously? Still?”
When neither man moved, she sighed. “You’re both ridiculous.” She looked at AJ. “Xander’s giving Blue to his aunt as a therapy dog. She’s been wanting one forever but couldn’t afford to make it happen. We’re hoping to get one for Tyson next.”
Tyson was Xander’s brother, and also a patient of AJ’s. And AJ agreed, Tyson would probably get a lot out of a therapy dog, though AJ had his doubts that Tyson was ready for one. Tyson was barely ready for life as a paraplegic after a motorcycle racing accident had destroyed his spine a year and a half ago.
Xander took Blue’s leash from Darcy, giving her a secret smile before turning back to AJ. “Heard you took a hard hit earlier.”
Xander looked a little disappointed at that. Word around town was that he and Darcy were just friends, but there was nothing that said “just friends” in Xander’s gaze whenever he looked at Darcy. Nope, he looked at her like she was lunch.
Not that it mattered to AJ.
Except it did.
The truth was that even though he had absolutely no intention of making a move on Darcy, he didn’t want Xander to, either. He realized this made him a complete and total dick, but he could live with that.
“Thanks for watching him for me, babe,” Xander said.
“No problem,” Darcy said. “I—” She broke off to send AJ a startled look. “Did you just . . . growl?”
“No.” Shit, he totally had.
Above her head Xander smirked at him. Asshole.
Darcy bent low and hugged Blue good-bye one last time. When she stood, she steadied herself equally on both legs the way AJ had taught her so that she didn’t continue to baby her bad leg and keep it weak. “I’ll see you later,” she said to Xander.
“Yeah, you will,” he said, and didn’t go away.
AJ didn’t, either. He wasn’t leaving first. Hell no. And he could stand here all night, too. Even if he wanted to curl into the fetal position and whimper over his aching ribs.
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Darcy said in exasperation. “I’m sure both of your penises are the exact same size.”
“Go home,” she snapped at him.
“As you wish.” Xander brushed a kiss right across her mouth and then he and Blue sauntered off.
Darcy turned to AJ and something flashed between them, something that most definitely hadn’t flashed between her and Xander, though he was at a pretty big loss to say what it was.
Darcy sucked her lower lip between her teeth and suddenly he knew exactly what it was.
Which was going to be a problem, a big one. “You going to order me home, too?” he asked, daring her.
She laughed. “Like you’d do anything I ordered of you.”
Try him? Try him? Darcy thought about reminding him that she’d once done exactly that and he’d flat-out rejected her—a feeling she’d learned to be so at one with that it hardly fazed her anymore.
But her tummy quivered at the look in his eyes, even though she had no idea what it meant. Didn’t dare give it much thought either because she’d long ago trained herself to stop wanting him.
Especially since sometimes, like right now, she was vividly reminded of her most embarrassing moment. It had been three months after her accident. She’d still been in a wheelchair and homebound—and going stir-crazy. It had been late, really late, and she’d been alone, selfishly needing someone.
She hadn’t wanted to disturb her brother or sister, not when they’d finally gone back to having their own lives after being with her nearly twenty-four/seven for so long.
So she’d called AJ.
He’d shown up ten minutes later looking sleepy and disheveled, like he’d literally rolled out of bed and rushed to her side. He’d forever earned a spot in her heart that night by not questioning her when she asked him to drive her to the bar for a drink.
Still in casts and various bandages, it had taken her a half hour to wrestle into real clothes. Real clothes being yoga pants that stretched over her leg cast, and her fave KISS tank top. After weeks and weeks of pj’s, she’d felt infinitely more human and herself, especially after she’d added mascara and lip gloss.
AJ had rolled her from his truck to the bar, where she’d had two shots and absorbed the loud music and laughter like she’d been in prison. Afterward, they’d gone back out into the night.
It had been a clear, gorgeous one with a full moon and a million stars littered across the black velvet sky. She’d never forget staring up and inhaling deep the chilly air, and for the first time since the accident she’d felt . . . grateful.
Grateful to be alive.
She hadn’t realized she’d been crying until she’d felt AJ’s fingers on her. He’d hunkered down at her side, balanced on the balls of his feet as he cupped her face and whispered her name.
She’d pulled him in with her one good arm and kissed him.
And for one glorious moment he’d kissed her back with his firm, warm lips, a sexy low groan rumbling up from deep in his throat, the delicious glide of his tongue to hers, and then . . .
And then he’d jerked back. He’d shaken his head in disbelief before speaking. “This isn’t going to happen, Darcy. This isn’t ever going to happen, not with you.”
Cue the humiliation.
Because she’d given it her best shot. She’d thrown herself at him, and he’d found her lacking. Worse, he’d refused to discuss it, apparently preferring to pretend it had never happened.
So after making him promise to never tell a soul, she’d done the same.
She’d been as good at that as she’d been at pretending the rejection hadn’t hurt. Really good. After all, she had good practice since for most of her life she’d been dumped like yesterday’s trash and she’d long ago learned to block off her feelings. She’d been good at that, too, and was able to do it with everything and everyone—except one man.
That night she’d made a pact with herself. She’d decided she didn’t need to know why AJ affected her the way he did. She only had to steer clear of him enough so that it didn’t become an issue. For the most part she’d done just that, except she hadn’t been able to resist stepping on his every nerve whenever possible to make things more even between them.
The hardest thing was also the most embarrassing—making sure she never gave herself away by keeping her tongue rolled in her mouth when he was at work looking hot and sexy and confident.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Jill Shalvis and her novels:
“Shalvis writes with humor, heart, and sizzling heat!”—Carly Phillips, New York Times bestselling author
“Fall in love with Jill Shalvis!”—Susan Mallery, New York Times bestselling author
“Animals and hot heroes. How could you not love a romance like that?”—Jaci Burton, New York Times bestselling author
“Captivating…a sexy, hot keeper.”—Dear Author
“Romance…you can lose yourself in.”—USA Today
“Clever, steamy, and fun. Jill Shalvis will make you laugh and fall in love.”—Rachel Gibson, New York Times bestselling author
“A fun, hot, sexy story of the redemptive powers of love. Jill Shalvis sizzles!”—JoAnn Ross, New York Times bestselling author
“Jill Shalvis sweeps you away.”—Cherry Adair, New York Times bestselling author
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is the best contemporary romance novel i have read in ages. The lead woman character is strong and capable and very endearing. The lead man is just as strong and desirable. the plot is believable and i could hardly put the book down. Quite a page turner. I have enjoyed Jill Shalvis' books before but this one is one of my favorites.
I love every book I've read by Jill Shalvis...and that' s a lot of books! Still the One is another winner...characters that I love and can't get enough of. Glimpses of favorites from other books in this series makes it even better. I also love all the animal rescues, and the Wellness Center's denizens that work or heal there. (Xander and Tyson, especially). Ms. Shalvis' books are like chocolate for my imagination!
I have never given a Jill Shalvis book below a 5 star review. This book exceeded the 5 star limit. While almost every romance reader loves the hero/alpha male in the book and don't get me wrong AJ is definitely alpha with a whole lot of sweet. However I absolutely fell in love the Darcy. She was the perfect mixture of sass and class. She had a rough childhood which she was trying to overcome when she gets into a bad car wreck that turns her world up side down. She doesn't put up with anyone's crap but cares deeply about her family circle. AJ of course is in her orbit but she's trying to ignore him, even though he is her PT trainer and her boss. These two had such great chemistry. There were so many points in this book I wanted to scream at the characters and say no! or scream yay! I laughed out loud, I cried, and I smiled a lot!! This is a definite must read!! Jill Shalvis has done it again!!
Omg jills stuff is always fantastic but this one grabbed me by the heartstrings quick! Because of Darcys pain from injuries & all of AJ MAJOR ALPHA MALE i was empty after finishing this!!! It took me about 3 weeks to recover from major biik hangover!! Must gift to yourself and others!! Traci south FL
Like with all her books, Jill Shalvis wrote another wonderful story that is full of heart with her signature sense of humor. The story is fun and the hero and heroine are a great balance for each other. Always worth a read!
Before I continue with my review, allow me to gush on Jill Shalvis brilliance in writing contemporary romance that makes you giggle, snort, and feel emotions! I have been a fan of her work since I've stumbled upon her first novel in her 'Lucky Harbor' series, 'Simply Irresistible'. Reading her work is a totally different experience! Not only does the reader enjoy the characters but also the descriptive scenery that adds beauty and excitement in the book. All you need to do is just read and let your imagination run wild! Not a lot of books nowadays could give me that satisfaction. And I didn't even skip a chapter on this one. A feel good book to get my brain cells to regenerate after a rigorous week of work and going over some study materials. Well, let me introduce you to Darcy Stone (younger sister of Zoe and Wyatt--who's story was told in Then Came You, book 5 of this series), a most intriguing character that I have encountered. She's all clever, sass, and independent. A modern woman! She got into an accident that left her with scars and a right leg that is still in recovery. If you have read the last book, she was still in a wheelchair trying her best to get up and walk with some nagging and pushing from her physical therapist, AJ. The story orbits around AJ and Darcy, their constant bickering (which I think is cute), a totally different side of the story that I was not expecting at all, secondary characters that makes the story more vibrant and interesting, and plot twists that make sense. What I like most about Still The One is Darcy Stone. Like I have mentioned a while back, she is one strong woman! And she proves it by pushing herself in recovery even though it hurts and she nags at it often which leads her and AJ to sassy arguments. Her ability to help others with a traumatic past. And I like AJ's determination to help other people, too. This book just shows that there is still good in the world. There is still some people who do honorable things without the need for being famous. Outstanding!
I received this book as a Mother's Day present. It was one of the best presents I received. Jill Shalvis has such a wonderful gift for creating magic, humor and love. Darcy is recovering from an automobile accident from 11 months ago and a lifetime of rejection by her parents. AJ is physical therapist, a friend of the family and totally hot. AJ and Darcy are constantly butting heads while fighting their attraction to each other.
Absolutely amassing read. Another great book by Jill Shalvis. AJ is amazing with Darcey. I love how he makes his intentions known to both Wyatt and Zoe before their trip. Loved how strong and determined not to mention how sassy Darcey is. Most of all I loved the banter between the two and how AJ never gave up on Darcey. All around wonderful read. Can't wait to read Zoes story
I have yet to be disappointed by a Jill Shalvis book, and this one was no different!! I loved the characters and story line. I laughed, I cried, at some times I did both!! You won't regret getting this book!!
Jill Shalvis brings readers the sixth book in her Animal Magnetism series, Still the One. Shalvis is a master at weaving a story that is both relevant and heartwarming. Reader's who are looking for a feel good story with lots of humor and charm will find this one irresistible, but there is also an edgy vibe to the book that will interest readers who are looking a little deeper. Shalvis takes on two issues in this book, retired service dogs and physical therapy patients who need more rehab, after the insurance money runs out. A great new read, from a seasoned writer! Reader's who are familiar with this series and with Jill Shalvis' writing in general know that Shalvis has a real knack for writing characters that speak to readers in unique and different ways. In Still the One, we have two characters that contrast each other well. Darcy is recovering from a serious accident which has completely changed how she views life. I think Darcy's character is a little hesitant, a little fearful and is a woman who is trying to find herself again. I know that there are many readers out there who will be able to relate. The fact that she is using her own funds to find homes for retired service dogs is a cause that really spoke to my heart, since I am in need of a diabetic service dog myself. A great cause to champion as a character and as an author. AJ is a strong man. He is a confident, take charge kind of person. He see's a need in the lives of his physical therapy patients and he tries to solve that need. I think he will appeal to those readers who enjoy a hero that protective and intense. Finding the funds to continue helping others is a worthy goal and makes AJ, super appealing. Shalvis writes both characters in the book with such care, it is easy to see that she is moved by them as completely as the reader is. Six books into this series, I think Shalvis has hit a good stride here. This is my favorite of the series so far, mostly because it hit home for me a bit with the service dog aspect of the story. But there is a lot for a reader to love about this book. I loved the humor that Shalvis uses and she made me want to visit a little town like Sunshine, Idaho. Her attention to detail drew me in and kept me glued to the pages. Certainly, not one readers will want to miss. Bottom Line: I always enjoy a book that doesn't make the romance the only interesting part of the story. I love a good romance, but I want a little substance to and I think Shalvis gives reader that perfect balance. Darcy and AJ have a shared past. They have some obstacles to overcome both in their romantic lives and in their personal lives. I liked the fact that they weren't perfect. They were real and that made all the difference. Shalvis knows how to write good characters and readers will not be disappointed with this one!
I love the Animal Magnetism series. My favorite kind of female lead is strong with a lot of snark and my favorite male lead gives as good as he gets, so this book was right up my alley.
I can not even begin to describe how much I enjoyed this book! The characters are sweet and funny with just enough attitude to keep you hooked. The story flowed so nicely that I flew through this book in two days and wanted it to keep going!
This was a good read and a fast. I found it very predictable and repetative at times. But for the most part your normal love story with different back stories.
From start to finish this one had me. Wyatt and Zoe's sister is not only recovering from a near death accident, but she is emotional damaged due to their parents lack of interest. AJ, is Wyatt's best friend and Darcy's physical therapist. He has his own emotional demons that hold him back from committing to a relationship. Darcy's attitude is snarky, but it actually makes her likable. She calls it like it is and puts on a real tough front. AJ really is the only one that gets her. The two of them circle each other, each of them being afraid to be the first to admit that they care. It's a fun, sexy and emotional read. Your heart goes out to both of them. I highly recommend.
Still The One by Jill Shalvis is another wonderful book in her delightful Animal Magnetism series. Darcy Stone has come a long way since her terrifying accident. She is slowly putting her life back together. Her only hiccup is her hot and sexy former Navy vet and current physical therapist. AJ Colten seems to have no clue his effect on Darcy and Darcy wants to keep it that way. AJ finds Darcy irresistible and decides its high time she knows it. He needs Darcy’s help to woe some investors in helping add those whose insurance has run out when they still need therapy. Spending a weekend out of town has those hidden feelings coming to the surface and all bets are off. Will they be able to continue to flourish once they come back home? Darcy and AJ are two strong characters you find yourself rooting for to find their happy every after. I loved their verbal sparks as well as their intense chemistry. It was wonderful to revisit past characters in this fantastic series. You can never go wrong in a Jill Shalvis story.
I've read ever single one of Jill Shalvis' books and she never disappoints but I absolutely fell in love with this one! It literally made me laugh out loud! I love her houmor, her alpha men characters, and the love they have for the women they fall for! I love this series but this by far was my favorite!!! I highly recommend this one and quite frankly if you haven't read any of her books your missing out!
Lots of "tude" characters in this book with Darcy leading the pack. I loved this book as with all the rest of Jill Shalvis books. This book as a few characters showing some attitude (new ones) and as always romance and humor. I found it really hard to put down and loved Oreo and the 3 legged dog. Can't wait to see who Zoe will get maybe in the next book.
Love the Animal Magnetism series. This was a nice fast paced read with the perfect blend of humor and heat.
I've read many of Jill Shalvis' books and am a fan. However, this one was a BIG disappointment. Characters - especially the main ones - were so one dimensional and predictable. I found Darcy nasty and unsympathetic and I found AJ so stoic that he was a total bore. I had real trouble finishing it. Definitely not worth the $5.99 I paid for it.
Hott Review: What I liked: I love that this is a book about rescue dogs. It takes a wonderful person to pull together resources for animals in need of loving homes and I really liked that Ms. Shalvis brought this to the attention of so many. What I didn’t like: Still the One is not my favorite Jill Shalvis read. Darcy is so very abrasive that Still the One made me tense and I couldn’t enjoy it. Plus, the off-color language felt excessive.