Authors: Sara Jane Stone
For every woman who has ever wondered if she was strong enough.
into my imagination four year ago and never left. I owe Amanda Bergeron a huge thank you for helping me craft Josie's story. And to everyone at Avon ImpulseâÂthank you for everything you do, from the covers to the marketing to the publicity!
A heartfelt thank you to Jill Marsal for reading dozens of early drafts of this story and for finding a home for the Second Shot series!
I also must thank my husband for always being my hero when I need one. When we left the hospital with our son still in the neonatal intensive care unit .Â .Â . I would have crumbled without you by my side. I never thought I would be strong enough to face that again. And yet, nineteen months later, when we found ourselves in the NICU again, you were right there by my side.
I owe a debt of gratitude to the doctors and nurses who cared for my babies. Thank you for helping them through those first few days and weeks. I can't imagine my life without my kidsâÂeven when they refuse to go to bed the night before a big deadline.
To all of my readers, thank you for embracing the cast of characters in the Independence Fall series. And thanks for asking for more of Noah and, of course, Josh!
the wrong bar.”
Josie Fairmore stared up at the unlit sign towering above the nearly vacant parking lot, her cell phone pressed to her ear. Nothing changed in Forever, Oregon. Everything from the Âpeople to the names of the bars remained the same. The triplets, who had to be over a hundred now, still owned The Three Sisters CafÃ© downtown. Every car and truck she'd sped past had the high school football team's flag mounted on the roof or featured on the bumper. And her father was still the chief of police.
Nothing changed. That was why she'd left for college and never looked back.
She'd blown past the Forever town line ten minutes ago. She'd driven straight to the place that promised a rescue from her current hell. And she'd parked under the sign, which appeared determined to prove her wrong.
“Josephine Fairmore, it is ten thirty in the morning,” Daphne said through the phone, her tone oddly stern for the owner of a strip club situated outside the town limits. “The fact that you're at a bar might be your first mistake.”
Damn. If the owner of The Lost Kitten was her voice of reason, Josie was screwed.
“When did they take the âcountry' out of Big Buck's Country Bar?” Josie stared at the letters above the entrance to the town's oldest bar. She twirled the key to her red Mini, which looked out of place beside the lone monster truck in the lot. She should probably take the car back to the city. The Mini didn't belong in the land of four-Âwheelers, pickups, and logging trucks. The red car would miss the parking garage.
But I can't afford the parking garage anymore. I can't even pay my rent. Or my bills.Â .Â .
“Big Buck gave in three years ago,” Daphne explained, drawing Josie's attention back to the bar parking lot. “He decided to take Noah's advice and get rid of the mechanical bull. He wanted to attract the college crowd.”
“He got rid of the bull before I went to college.” And before his son left to join the United States Marine Corps. She should know. She'd ridden the bull at his going away party.
And then she'd ridden Noah.
“Well, Buck made a few more changes,” Daphne said. “He added a new sound system andâÂ”
“He changed the name. I guess that explains why Noah came home.” She glanced at the dark, quiet bar. The hours posted by the door read “Open from noon until the cows come home (or 3am, whichever comes first!).”
“He served for five years and did two tours in Afghanistan. Stop by The Three Sisters and you'll get an earful about his heroics,” Daphne said. “But from what I've heard, Noah didn't want to sign up for another five. Not after his grandmother died last year.”
“You've seen him?” Josie looked down at her cowboy boots. She hadn't worn them since that night in Noah's barn. She'd thought they'd help her land the job at the “country” bar. But now she wished she'd worn her Converse, maybe a pair of heels.
“At The Lost Kitten?” Why, after all this time, after she never responded to his apologetic letter, would she care if Noah spent his free time watching women strip off their clothes? One wild, stupid, naked night cut short by her big brother didn't offer a reason for jealousy.
But the fact that I told him I love him? That might.
“No. I bumped into him at the cafÃ©.” Daphne hesitated. “He didn't smile. Not once.”
“PTSD?” she asked quietly. She couldn't imagine walking into a war zone and leaving without long-Âlasting trauma. The things he probably sawÂ .Â .Â .
“Maybe,” Daphne said. “But he's not jumpy. He just seems pissed off at the world. Elvira was behind the counter that day. She tried to thank him for serving our country after he ordered a burger. He set a ten on the counter and walked out before his food arrived.”
“He left his manners in the Middle East.” Josie stared at the door to Big Buck's. “Might hurt my chances for getting a job.”
“I think your lack of waitressing or bartending experience will be the nail in the coffin. But if Noah turns you down, you can work here.”
“I'd rather keep my shirt on while I work,” Josie said dryly.
And he won't turn me down. He promised to help me.
But that was before he turned into a surly former marine.
“You'd make more without it,” Daphne said. “Or you can tell the hospital, the collection agencyâÂwhoever's coming after youâÂthe truth. You're broke.”
“I did. They gave me a payment plan and I need to stick to it.” She headed for the door. “I ignored those bills for months. Besides, what kind of mother doesn't pay her child's medical bills?”
The kind who buried her son twenty-Âseven days after he was born.
Daphne didn't say the words, but Josie knew she was thinking them. Her best friend was the only person in Forever who knew the truth about why she was desperate for a paycheck. If only Daphne had inherited a restaurant or a bookstoreâÂa place with fully clothed employees.
“He has to agree,” Josie added. “I need that money.”
“I know.” Daphne sighed. “And I need to get to work. I have a staff of topless waitresses and dancers who depend on me for their paycheck. Good luck, Josie.”
“Thanks.” She ended the call and slipped her phone into the bag slung over her shoulder alongside her wallet and resume.
She drew a deep breath. But a churning feeling started in her belly, foreboding, threatening. She knew this feeling and she didn't like it. Something bad always followed.
Her boyfriend headed for the door convinced he was too young for a baby .Â .Â . Her water broke too early.Â .Â .
She tried the door. Locked, dammit.
Ignoring the warning bells in her head telling her to run to her best friend's club and offer to serve a topless breakfast, she raised her hand and knocked.
“Hang on a sec,” a deep voice called from the other side. She remembered that sound and could hear the echo of his words from five long years ago, before he'd joined the marines and before she'd gone to college hoping for a brighter futureâÂand found more heartache.
Call, email, or send a letter. Hell, send a carrier pigeon. I don't care how you get in touch, or where I am. If you need me, I'll find a way to help.
He'd meant every word. But Âpeople changed. They hardened. They took hits and got back up, leaving their heart beaten and wrecked on the ground.
She glanced down as if the bloody pieces of her broken heart would appear at her feet. Nope. Nothing but cement and her boots. She'd left her heart behind in Portland, dead and buried, thank you very much.
The door opened. She looked up andÂ .Â .Â .
Oh my .Â .Â . Wow.Â .Â .
She'd gained five poundsâÂwell, more than that, but she'd lost the rest. She'd cried for weeks, tears running down her cheeks while she slept, and flooding her eyes when she woke. And it had aged her. There were lines on her face that made her look a lot older than twenty-Âthree.
But NoahÂ .Â .Â .
He'd gained five pounds of pure muscle. His tight black T-Âshirt clung to his biceps. Dark green cargo pants hung low on his hips. And his faceÂ .Â .Â .
On the drive, she'd tried to trick herself into believing he was just a friend she'd slept with one wild night. She'd made a fool of herself, losing her heart to him then.
She'd made a promise to her broken, battered heart and she planned to keep it. She would not fall for Noah this time.
But oh, the temptationÂ .Â .Â .
His short blond hair still looked as if he'd just run his hands through it. Stubble, the same color as his hair, covered his jaw. He'd forgotten to shave, or just didn't give a damn. But his familiar blue eyes left her ready to pass out at his feet from lack of oxygen.
He stared at her, wariness radiating from those blue depths. Five years ago, he'd smiled at her and it had touched his eyes. Not now.
“Josie?” His brow knitted as if he'd had to search his memory for her name. His grip tightened on the door. Was he debating whether to slam it in her face and pretend his mind had been playing tricks on him?
“Hi, Noah.” She placed her right boot in the doorway, determined to follow him inside if he tried to shut her out.
“You're back,” he said as if putting together the pieces of a puzzle. But still no hint of the warm, welcoming smile he'd worn with an easy-Âgoing grace five years ago.
“I guess you didn't get the carrier pigeon,” she said, forcing a smile.
Please let him remember.
“But I need your help.”
OAH STARED AT
the dark-Âhaired beauty. Her white T-Âshirt hugged her curves, and her cutoff jean shorts sent him on a trip down memory lane. And those bootsÂ .Â .Â .
The memory of Josephine Fairmore had followed him to hell and back. He'd tried to escape the feel of her full lips, the taste of her mouth, her body pressed up against his .Â .Â . and he'd failed. He'd carried every detail of that night in the barn with him to basic training. Right down to her cowgirl boots. He'd dreamed about Josie in a bikini, Josie on the mechanical bull, Josie damn near
, while hiking through the Afghan desert. He'd spent years lying in makeshift barracks wanting and wishing for a chance to talk to her while staring into her large green eyes.
And yeah, who was he kidding? His gaze would head south and he'd let himself drink in the sight of her breasts.
He closed his eyes. He'd spent two long deployments hoping for an email, a letterâÂsomething from her. He'd wanted confirmation that she was all right. But she never wrote. Not once. She'd reduced him to begging for tidbits from Dominic. Not that her brother had volunteered much more than a
She's fine. Stay the hell away from her.
But she wasn't fine.
He opened his eyes.
“You needed help and you sent a pigeon?” He released his grip on the door and rested his forearm against it. “You could have called.”
“I thought it would be better to apply for a job in person,” she said, her voice low and so damn sultry that his dick was on the verge of responding.
Not going to happen.
There were a helluva lot of things beyond his control. His dad's health. His grandmother's heart failure while he was stationed in Bumblefuck, Afghanistan, fighting two enemiesâÂand one of them should have been on his side. And the fact that the only time he felt calm, in control, and something bordering on happiness, was at the damn shooting range.
Still, he could control his own dick.
But why the hell should I?
He let his gaze drift to her chest, down her hips, and down her slim legs. He'd wanted her for five long years and here she was on his doorstep. What was stopping him from pulling her close and starting where they'd left off five years ago? He wasn't the good guy worried about her big brother's reactions or her reputation. Not anymore. Nothing he'd done in the past five years had left him feeling heroic. So why start now?
She crossed her arms in front of her chest. And while he appreciated the way her breasts lifted, he raised his gaze to meet hers.
“I'm not hiring,” he lied. Big Buck's needed a waitress or two, another bartender, and a dishwasher to keep up with the crowds pouring in from the nearby university, desperate to bump and grind to house music. But if she worked here, well hell, then he'd have another reason he shouldn't touch her. He had a rule about messing around with his female employees. It was bad business. He'd worked too hard to turn Big Buck's into something to fool around with a waitress or a bartender.
She raised an eyebrow and nodded to the Help Wanted sign he'd put up in the window. “Someone put that up without asking you?”
“I recently filled the position,” he said, searching for an excuse that didn't touch on the truth.
“I'm too late.” She shook her head. “Perfect. I guess I should have gotten up the nerve to come home a few days ago.”
He glanced over her shoulder and saw a red Mini parked beside his truck. It looked like a toy next to his F-Â250. And apart from the driver's side, every cubic inch appeared stuffed with bags.
“I thought you liked Portland. Greg from the station said you haven't been back here in a few years,” he said, knowing he should close the door and end the conversation. If he let her in, if he handed her an application followed by a Big Buck's apron, he couldn't touch her. That wasn't much different from the past five years, or the ones before the going away party, but she hadn't spent the past decade or so within arm's reach.
“It didn't work out,” she said.
“They don't have jobs up there for someone with a fancy degree? I bet you could do a lot better than serving drinks.”
She blinked and for a second he thought she might turn around and walk away, abandoning her plea for help. “I took a break from school, lost my scholarship, and then dropped out,” she said.
“What?” He stared at her. “Dominic never saidâÂ”
“My dad didn't know I'd quit school until recently. And I don't think he told Dom,” she said quickly. “My brother has enough to worry about over there. Like not getting killed or .Â .Â .”
“Worse,” he supplied. Like losing a limb or a fellow soldier. Yeah, Noah knew plenty of guys who'd lost both. But he'd worried about losing respect for the band of brothers serving with him because they'd flat out refused to treat the woman busting her ass alongside them with an ounce of decencyÂ .Â .Â .
Except Dominic would probably have stepped in and saved the woman before she was attacked. Josie's brother wouldn't let the situation get beyond his control and then try to pick up the pieces.