Serving Trouble (Second Shot #1)
by Sara Jane Stone
The first sexy contemporary romance in Sara Jane Stone’s brand new Second Shot series!
Five years ago, Josie Fairmore left timber country in search of a bright future. Now she’s back home with a mountain of debt and reeling from a loss that haunts her. Desperate for a job, she turns to the one man she wishes she could avoid. The man who rocked her world one wild night and then walked right out of it.
Former Marine Noah Tager is managing his dad’s bar and holding tight to the feeling that his time overseas led to failure. The members of his small town think he’s a war hero, but after everything he’s witnessed, Noah doesn’t want a pat on the back. The only thing he desires is a second chance with his best friend’s little sister.
Josie’s determined to hold onto her heart and not repeat her mistakes, but when danger arrives on Noah’s doorstep and takes aim at Josie, they just might discover that sometimes love is worth the risk.
“I drove to 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 people to the names of the bars remained the same. The triplets, who had to be over a hundred now, still owned The Three Sisters Café 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, 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 “country” 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 that 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 wheelers, pick-ups, 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 . . .
“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 and—”
“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 café.” 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, lasting trauma. The things he probably saw . . .
“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 agency—whoever’s coming after you—the 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-seven 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 bookstore—a 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 . . . Her water broke too early . . .
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 future—and 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 people 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 and . . .
Oh my . . .wow . . .
She’d gained five pounds—well, 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-three.
But Noah . . .
He’d gained five pounds of pure muscle. His tight black t-shirt clung to his biceps. Dark green cargo pants hung low on his hips. And his face . . .
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 that night.
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 temptation . . .
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-going 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.”
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