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Published by Berkley on October 06th, 2015
Genres: Contemporary, Romance
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Source: Nina Bocci
Pilot-for-hire Zoe Stone is happy to call Sunshine, Idaho, her home base. But her quiet life is thrown for a loop when her brother’s friend Parker comes to stay with her for a week. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife special agent is a handsome flirt with a gift for getting under her skin. And the situation only escalates when Parker hires her to fly him around the area while he collects evidence on a suspected smuggler.
Now she has to live and work with the guy. But when they’re in the air, she sees another side of him. He’s driven, focused, and sharp. And while he enjoys giving commentary on her blind dates, she quickly realizes with a shock that it’s Parker who gets her engines going…
Zoe Stone had tried on everything in her closet and not only did her room now look like an explosion in a mattress factory, not one single item of clothing had worked for her.
She was still standing there eyeing the carnage when her sister, Darcy, appeared in the doorway, arms loaded with clothing. “Got your 911 freak-out text. Here’s all the stuff I’ve ever borrowed from you.”
“You mean stolen?”
“Tomayto, tomahto.” Darcy dumped the entire pile of loot in the only space available—on top of the slightly tubby Bernese mountain dog snoring in the center of Zoe’s bed.
“The pretty little black dress of yours is in there,” Darcy said. “You should absolutely be wearing that for your date instead of the granny dress you’ve got on. Seriously, how old are you, eighty-five?”
She’d just had the first anniversary of turning thirty, thank you very much, but Zoe looked down at herself. Her floral print dress was soft and clingy, fell to just past her knees, and hid a multitude of sins—such as the fact that she’d been stress-eating her feels all week. “It’s not that bad.”
“Zoe, you could walk into any Denny’s before five o’clock and get a discount.”
“I like this dress,” Zoe said, “and so does Oreo.”
Oreo, the aforementioned Bernese mountain dog, cracked open an eye and looked up at Zoe with love and adoration. “See?” she said, ruffling the dog’s big head. “And not that I have time to change anyway, but I don’t see what’s wrong with this outfit.”
“Absolutely nothing,” Darcy said, “assuming that you don’t care if you ever get laid again. And for God’s sake, stop taking fashion advice from a dog who rolls in bear poo and thinks he smells good.”
Panting happily, Oreo smiled up at the both of them.
Through the open window came the sound of a vehicle pulling up. Darcy moved to the second-story window and peered out. “Looks like your blind date’s here. What’s his name again?”
“Well, Newman’s in a black Jeep with the top off. Not his top, the Jeep’s top, but still very nice—Whoa.”
Darcy’s nose was glued to the window now. “Holy crap on a stick—he’s hot for a guy named Newman. Way too hot for that dress you’re wearing. Quick,” she said, waving a hand at Zoe. “Exchange it for the LBD.”
“I’m fine in this,” Zoe said. Maybe because she couldn’t wear the LBD; she hadn’t shaved her thighs—her own little insurance policy against making any rash decisions tonight such as getting naked. No way would she be tempted knowing she had hairy thighs. “And get away from there and stop spying on him.” But then she moved to the window next to her sister and sucked in a breath because Darcy was right, Norman was hot. Dark hair, a little wavy, a lot wind tousled. Black shirt that fit him well enough to define broad shoulders. Dark jeans. An easy gait that said confident male.
Butterflies took flight low in her belly and she pressed a hand to it. “Oh boy.”
“And I bet he’s got a six-pack, too,” Darcy whispered. “Maybe even an eight-pack. I’m going to need you to remember every detail for me.”
For Darcy, abs were a requirement in a man.
But Zoe had learned a lot for a woman who’d just had her thirtieth birthday—again. She had a completely different list of requirements. Honesty and kindness. That was it. Easy to remember and simple. But she’d also learned that nothing about men was simple.
“I wonder what color his eyes are—” Darcy broke off as the guy stopped on the path to the house and unerringly looked up at the window where the two of them stood staring at him.
With a commingled squeak, they dropped to the floor.
Afraid he was missing some fun new game, Oreo barked happily and leapt off the bed and right on top of them.
“Oomph.” Darcy pulled the silly dog in for a hug. “You big lug. You need a diet.”
Zoe pushed Oreo’s tail out of her face. “Think he saw us?” she asked, panicked.
“Nah,” Darcy said.
Zoe let out a relieved breath. “Really?”
“No.” Darcy grinned and sat up. “He totally saw us.”
Oh for God’s sake. The guy’s a dentist, she reminded herself. By definition, that meant he most likely was a people person, right? Right, she decided. And him being a people person was a good thing since one of them needed to know what they were doing.
She and Darcy—and Oreo—crawled away from the window and stood.
“Feels a little like old times, doesn’t it?” Darcy asked, dusting herself off. “Remember when we sneaked out of the house to do that midnight full moon climb up White Eagle with the Connelly brothers? We climbed out the window and got caught by Grandpa and were grounded for the rest of the summer.”
“That was you and Wyatt,” Zoe said. Their brother had always been able to find trouble. “I never got grounded.”
“That’s right. Wyatt was way more fun than you.”
Zoe slipped into a pair of flats and Darcy rolled her eyes.
“What’s wrong with the flats?” Zoe asked. “You wear flats all the time.”
“Yes, because I have a spinal injury that makes me want to drop to the floor and curl up in a ball whenever I wear heels,” Darcy pointed out. “You don’t have such an excuse. Plus you have legs a mile long that look amazing in heels, which makes me hate you just a little bit.”
“Flats,” Zoe insisted.
“Fine. So what do we know about this guy?”
“He’s a dentist from Hennessey Flats,” Zoe said. “Karen set me up with him, he’s her neighbor.”
“The Karen who does your hair, the Karen who’s been married and divorced three times?” Darcy asked.
“Sooooooo,” Darcy said, “don’t you think if her neighbor was hot, she’d date him herself, if not make him husband number four?”
Well, crap. She hadn’t thought of that.
“Plus . . . a dentist?” Darcy asked doubtfully.
“What’s wrong with him being a dentist? At least he’s gainfully employed.”
“Nothing’s wrong with it at all,” Darcy said reasonably. “If you want to sleep with a guy whose hands have been inside other people’s mouths all day long. Do you know how many germs that is? A million. A million trillion.”
Zoe shuddered. “Great. Thanks for that. Don’t you have somewhere to be?”
“Yep,” Darcy said, but moved back to the window. “You got a reprieve; he stopped to take a call.”
Zoe grabbed her purse and turned to Oreo. “Hold down the fort for Mommy, okay?”
Darcy snorted. “If a bad guy showed up, he’d hide in your closet.”
This was probably true but the big, goofy dog was the only home security system she had right now. In the past few months both Wyatt and Darcy had moved out, Wyatt to live with his fiancée, Emily, and Darcy to live with her boyfriend, AJ.
Zoe had told herself she was good with that. Sure, she missed bossing them around as she’d been doing since the dawn of time because one, their foreign diplomat parents had never seemed to notice that they’d had children, and two, well, Zoe kind of just loved to boss people around. But she wasn’t going to complain. Not when she’d seen just about every corner of the world and knew exactly how good she really had it right here in Sunshine, Idaho, alone or not.
Besides, with her newfound freedom she had a lot planned for herself. She wanted to fix up the house, although she admittedly had very little talent in that area. She wanted to learn to bake, even though she had even less talent in that realm. She wanted to date—where she had absolutely zero talent.
It might seem silly, but to a woman who’d been uniquely unlucky in her love life, Zoe had never gotten the hang of dipping her toes into the wading pool, especially with the audience of her siblings.
But now, with the house empty, it seemed like a perfect time.
Hence blind date number one. And she was ready. She wanted this. She totally almost did.
“He’s off the phone,” Darcy reported, back at the window.
Oh God. “I changed my mind,” Zoe whispered.
Darcy turned to her. “No.”
“Then why did you tell everyone to set you up with blind dates so that you could get laid?”
“I never said that! I really wish you’d stop saying it.”
“What?” Zoe asked. “That you want to get laid?”
Zoe shot Darcy a look that went completely ignored. “And that’s not why I wanted to go out, I just wanted . . .” She trailed off, because what she wanted was much more complicated than her short list of man requirements.
She had a job she loved: being both a pilot-for-hire and giving flying lessons out of the small regional Sunshine Airport. Sunshine was a sleepy ranching town at the base of the heart-stopping Bitterroot Mountains and didn’t see a lot of action, but she managed to keep busy enough to eek out a living.
She had Wyatt and Darcy, whom she loved fiercely even though on any given day she felt like strangling and/or smothering them, but she was working on that.
And then there was the ancient—and some might argue dilapidated—150-year-old Victorian house that her grandparents had left the three of them, which she loved with the same fierceness with which she loved her annoying siblings.
Not to mention Oreo, whom she’d rescued not all that long ago and who’d quickly become her favorite family member.
So yeah, her life was good and she was happy, blah blah blah.
But something had been missing for a while now.
She’d never given that particular emotion much thought before. She’d always been too busy keeping things together. But now that she had an empty nest, so to speak, she’d decided she was due. Past due—
At the knock on the front door downstairs, she nearly leapt out of her skin.
Startled, Oreo gave a loud bark and farted at the same time, and then as he did every single time this happened, he whipped his big head around to stare at his own hind end in surprise.
Darcy grinned. “Killer protective instincts, this one.” She rumpled Oreo’s fur. “I’m going to sneak out the back door, okay?” At the door, she blew Zoe a quick kiss and then smacked her own forehead. “Oh, almost forgot! Wyatt told me to remind you that his friend Parker could be showing up any time over the next few days. And change your dress and shoes!”
“I’m not going to change!”
Darcy sighed the put-upon sigh of a sister who thought she knew everything. “Fine. But do me a favor?”
“Anything if you’ll leave.”
“For once,” Darcy said, “just once, act spontaneously, okay?”
“Yeah, like if when you open the door and he’s even hotter up close, step outside your comfort zone and kiss him. Right up front, you know? Set the mood.”
Zoe just stared at her. “Are you completely nuts?”
“Well, obviously,” Darcy said. “But what does that have to do with anything?” She laughed, but then her smile faded. “Listen, most people spend a first date filled with anxiety, obsessing over the good-night kiss. Will there be one, won’t there be one . . .”
“I don’t obsess,” Zoe said.
“Are you kidding? You’re the queen of obsessing. So just get it out of the way, okay? Act spontaneously. And then relax and go with the flow.”
“I always go with the flow,” Zoe said.
Darcy laughed. “You go with the flow never. Try it my way? Just this once? Trust me, if there are sparks, you’ll thank me.”
“And if there aren’t?” Zoe asked.
“Then you don’t need to worry that that dress makes you look like a grandma.”
And then the whirlwind that was Darcy was gone.
Zoe took one last look at herself in the mirror. Okay, so maybe the dress didn’t scream sex, but that was okay. She wanted a guy to want her for her, right?
The knock came again. Solid. Firm. And the butterflies in her belly once again took flight.
Oreo’s, too, given that he gave another ear-piercing bark and scrambled to hide under her bed. All he could fit under there was his big, fat head, which left the rest of him sticking out.
She thought about joining him, but she’d never been much for hiding her head under the bed. So she made her way down the creaky stairs, her dress catching on her legs. Dammit. Darcy was making her doubt the choice, but it was too late now. Still, if the dress wasn’t going to make a statement, then she’d have to make do with her personality.
No pressure or anything . . .
Oreo followed her, hiding behind her legs as she opened the front door and got her first look at her blind date and . . . stopped breathing.
Damn. He was even better looking up close. Tall, and that leanly muscled build of his spoke of a man who worked with his body, not a guy who sat on a stool with his hands inside his patients’ mouths all day. He had sharp, light green eyes that crinkled in the corners, like maybe he spent a lot of time in the sun or, better yet, smiled a lot. A scar bisected his left eyebrow, giving him a dark and mysterious air. His square jaw had a slight shadow of growth, shown off when his mouth curved at her scrutiny, and this time her heart kicked hard because he also had a killer smile.
“Hey,” he said in a deep, warm masculine voice.
“Hey,” she mirrored back as Darcy’s words flashed in her head. Act spontaneously. Step outside your comfort zone.
Heart pounding, Zoe let out a breath and moved forward, having to go up on her tiptoes to brush her mouth across his.
His lips were warm, firm, and yet somehow giving at the same time. She could have easily lost herself in him, but sanity returned and stepped back.
His smile got a whole lot warmer, but he didn’t speak.
“Thought I’d get that out of the way,” she managed. “It’s nice to meet you. I’ve never met a dentist without having to be in a dentist’s chair.” Great, and now she was rambling. She bit her tongue to keep it from running off with the last of her good sense.
“Nice to meet you, too,” he said. “Who’s the dentist?”
Zoe’s smile congealed and her heart stopped, just completely stopped. “Uh . . . you,” she said, “You’re the dentist.”
Still smiling, he shook his head. “Not me.”
Oh God. “You’re not Newman Tyler,” she whispered in horror.
“No,” he said. “But if your next guess is Parker James, you’d be right.”
Oh God. Wyatt’s friend, to whom she’d agreed to rent a room for the few weeks he was in town. She’d had mixed feelings about it, but Wyatt had vouched for the guy, and Zoe could really use the money for some desperately needed renovations. “You’re my brother’s old friend.”
“Not all that old, really,” he said, and looked at her mouth.
The mouth she’d kissed him with. Good God, I kissed him.
And . . . she’d said that out loud. Perfect. She covered her face. “I’m sorry, I—”
“Don’t be sorry,” he said. “That kiss was the best thing to happen to me all week.”
Behind her fingers she moaned a little, and he laughed at her. “Wyatt didn’t mention the welcoming committee,” he said. “He did say you might be grumpy. I like this better.”
She was going to have to kill her brother, but since he was out of town for the weekend at a vet conference, that pleasure would have to wait.
Maybe she could just move to Iceland. Iceland might be far enough to escape the humiliation, but probably not. Dammit. She’d kissed a perfect stranger, just accosted him on her doorstep. And . . . now her chest hurt. Maybe an impending heart attack would explain her behavior. Still holding her chest, she used her other hand to point at him to stay. “I just need a minute,” she said.
And then slammed the door in his face.
Behind her, in the living room, a brick fell from the ancient old fireplace. It did that every time she slammed the door. She’d tried to get someone out here to fix it but the contractor had wanted her to promise her firstborn, so she’d just decided not to slam the door anymore.
But she kept forgetting. Note to self: Stop kissing strangers, and stop slamming the door. She ran to the kitchen, where she’d left her cell phone, and pounded out her brother’s number.
“Yo,” Wyatt said in greeting. “Hear you’re going out with some dentist guy tonight. Watch where he puts his hands. You don’t know where they’ve been.”
Oh, for God’s sake. Her siblings gossiped like a pair of old ladies. “You’re a veterinarian,” she pointed out. “God knows how many worse places your hands are all day long. Maybe I should tell
Emily to watch where you put your hands.”
Wyatt just laughed. Since Emily—the love of his life—was also a vet, it had been an idle threat and they both knew it.
Zoe sucked in a deep breath. “Listen, about your friend, the one who’s coming to stay—”
“Yeah, Darcy told you he’s coming early?”
“Uh-huh,” she said with what she thought was a perfectly even voice.
But Wyatt had been seeing right through her for years. He was the only one who could. “Zoe,” he said in his most annoying brother voice. “You’re going to be nice. You promised. At least until I get back to Sunshine.”
“Yeah,” she said, and grimaced. “About that . . .” She closed her eyes. “I might be a little short on nice as it turns out.” Try hoochie-mama on for size . . .
“Shit, Zoe. He’s there already? What did you do?”
“Hey, I didn’t do anything.” Well, except kiss him.
And then slam the door on his nose . . .
Crap. “So . . . just how good a friend is this guy again?”
“Very,” Wyatt said. “We met in college when we were bartenders at the same place. On my first night, we got jumped at closing by five drunk assholes. Parker saved my ass. Haven’t gotten to see him in years, though, so don’t chase him away before I get home.”
She grimaced again. “Gotta go.”
She disconnected. “Ooops,” she said. “My bad.” She glanced at herself in the microwave glass door. “Go make nice,” she told her reflection. She turned to do just that, stopping to grab one of the cooling chocolate chip cookies she’d baked earlier. She was a great cook but she’d never been much of a baker. Determined to change that, she’d used one of her grandma’s recipes—Zoe’s first-ever batch that wasn’t from the grocery store’s frozen aisle. She took a bite . . . and nearly gagged. They tasted like baking soda.
She spit the disgusting thing out in the sink and rinsed it down. Okay, so her baking needed a lot more work.
And maybe your attitude.
Brushing the crumbs from her hands, she went back to the living room. She let out a heavy breath and once again opened the front door.
Parker was crouched low, chuckling over Oreo, who’d stayed outside with her new roommate and was sniffing at the guy’s proffered hand.
“He’s not much for new people,” Zoe warned. “And especially not much for men. He’s a rescue and—”
And nothing because Oreo jumped up onto his two hind legs and licked Parker’s chin.
Parker winced, but the pained expression vanished so fast Zoe wasn’t sure if she’d imagined it. “Are you hurt?”
“Cracked a few ribs a couple of weeks ago,” he said lightly. “Still a little sore, that’s all.”
“How did you do that?”
“Wrangling some big-game poachers.”
She stared at him. “Is that code for none of your business?”
“I don’t talk in code.” Mr. Mysterious rose to his feet, Oreo in his arms like he weighed nothing instead of one hundred pounds of tubby Bernese mountain dog.
“Careful,” she said. “You’ll hurt those ribs.”
The statement was so alpha male to the core that she laughed. “Of course, you’re fine. You’re a man. Good to know you’re all equally pigheaded.”
Not insulted in the least, he grinned. “You have us all figured out, then?”
“Not that much to figure out,” she said.
Those sharp green eyes held hers. “Maybe I’ll surprise you.”
The words brought a quiver to her long-neglected lady parts, but she was pretty confident he couldn’t surprise her. But then he let Oreo lick his face again.
“A real watchdog you’ve got here,” he said fondly, and set Oreo down with one last body rub.
Well, damn, she thought reluctantly. She had to give him at least a few brownie points for loving up on her big old silly dog. “Yeah,” she said. “He’s a real killer.” She slid the killer a long look.
Oreo pretended not to see it, which only served to prove her point about men. . . .
“So,” Parker said straightening. “Can I come in yet or do you want to slam the door on my nose again?”
She felt her cheeks flush but met his gaze.
He held it prisoner with his warm, patient one and waited her out.
Great, he was also a man who knew the value of silence. She’d never met anyone like him, that was for sure. “Okay,” she said, deciding to pretend that the past few moments had never happened, hoping that he’d already forgotten it.
Denial wasn’t just a river in Egypt. . . .