He had a sinful combination of smolder and charm, with his close-cropped dark blond hair, strong jawline, and pure blue eyes. And his body. Just kill her with its perfection. A body like that should be outlawed.
There was a reason he was the star of the fireman’s calendar, and that was the same reason every woman here—and probably around the country, come to think of it—had a copy of the Hidden Oaks Volunteer Firefighter’s Calendar.
Because Smith Grayson was gorgeous, and a glass of wine or two had a way of making her check him out more than usual.
“Hey, Jamie, you might want to stop staring, or Smith will think you actually like him.”
Her cheeks flushed as she returned her attention to her friend Kaitlyn, who leaned against the bar. They both worked at The Panting Dog—Jamie was the manager, Kaitlyn a waitress—but they had the night off and were here at the kickoff party for the town’s upcoming Spring Festival that would lure a whole slew of tourists to Hidden Oaks. Jamie had organized the party, so wanted to see how it turned out, and she was pleased with her work. Laughter and music rang through the bar, and spilled out into the wide and grassy town square, where the festival would be held in a week.
“I’m not staring at him.”
“Right. And I’m the Queen of England, and these are my people,” Kaitlyn said, gesturing widely to the crowd that filled the microbrewery. A new establishment, The Panting Dog had quickly become a popular watering hole in their Northern California town, known for its vineyards, boutique hotels, cute shops, and its absolutely fine men who put out fires.
“I always had a hunch you were royalty,” Jamie said, grateful to segue into any other topic than the volunteer fireman she should absolutely, positively not be lusting after. The trouble was, Smith was always around. He’d been spending even more time than usual at The Panting Dog since the construction company he ran was building out the back of the bar. To top it off, she and Smith bowled together once a week at the local lanes with a group of friends. Bless those friends; they made it so she didn’t really have to be alone with him. She could only imagine how that would work out—them bowling together, him trying to show her how to improve her form, standing behind her, slinking his arms around her waist, making her shiver.
Damn, why did her mind stray there when it came to Smith? She wasn’t the type of woman who was given over to thoughts of lust, who let her body’s physical cravings lead her on. Besides, she’d spent enough time around that man and had resisted him because he simply wasn’t her type. She wasn’t his type either. She was organized, a planner, devoted to her to-do list, and he was fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants. She was the woman who didn’t swear; he was the fireman with a sailor mouth. She wanted someone serious, someone studious, someone she could see having a future with. Too bad she hadn’t met anyone in a long time who fit that bill.
A long, dry, aching drought of a time.
“You should just go for it with Smith,” Kaitlyn said, nudging her with an elbow.
Jamie shook her head. “I can’t and I won’t, thank you very much.”
“Oh, c’mon. You two can’t stay away from each other. You’re always chatting.”
“No, we’re not,” she said, narrowing her eyebrows as if her friend were crazy. Though, admittedly, there was some truth to Kaitlyn’s comment.
“And you’re always hanging out together here at the bar, or at the bowling alley.”
Jamie flubbed her lips. “We do not.”
“And he’s always giving you the eye like he wants you.”
Her heart beat faster, betraying her brain. “Really?”
Kaitlyn’s eyes widened, and she pointed at Jamie. “See? You’re into him, aren’t you?”
Jamie shook her head quickly, trying to deny the way her heart skittered with the possibility that he was attracted to her too. “I was just surprised, that’s all.”
“That’s why your cheeks are all red and flushed.”
Her hand flew to her face, and she could feel the warmth there.
Kaitlyn lowered her voice. “You’re always looking at him like you want him too. So why not see if there’s something to the two of you?”
Jamie sighed. “I can’t. You know that. Look what happened to Diane when she got involved with a guy she was good friends with. I’d be walking down the same path of trouble she faces with her ex,” she said, mentioning her sister’s ex-husband. They were friends first, and even though he had a whole lot of notches on his bedpost, Diane took a chance on him anyway. A fireman a few towns over, he’d wound up trampling all over Diane’s heart and marriage, and was one more reason why Jamie needed to stay far away from those love ’em and leave ’em types. A smooth one with the ladies, Smith had that same easy way about him, especially on nights like this, as he held court, telling a story to the curvy brunette, Lisa, who seemed to cling to his every word. A photographer for the calendar, she’d been snapping party pictures, and was now trying to glue herself to Smith’s side. When she ran a hand down his arm, jealousy flared inside Jamie.
What the hell? Why on earth would she feel a sliver of anything? She had no reason to feel jealous, and she wanted to drop-kick her stupid envy right out into the night.
“He’s not so bad. You should think about it,” Kaitlyn said, her matchmaker smile lighting up her entire face. She couldn’t resist trying to bring two people together, with a little nudge here, a nudge there.
“Nice try, but I am Not. Thinking. About. Him. One. Bit,” Jamie declared.
She turned away from the scene and reached for her glass of wine as the music switched to Maroon 5. Good old Adam Levine would distract her from Smith. She’d listen to the song and get lost in the words. She finished off the rest of the chardonnay in a hearty gulp that she was sure would wash away all thoughts of the man she could never be with.
“Not thinking about whom?”
The sexy southern drawl made her neck feel hot. That was the problem. Ever since she’d first met him, she hadn’t been able to blot out the heat she felt when he was near. His voice alone made her skin tingle. Why did men who were totally unsuitable make a woman’s body feel so good with just a few words?
Kaitlyn mouthed see you later, and slinked off.
Jamie swiveled around to face him. “Not thinking about Adam Levine one bit.”
Smith wiped a hand across his brow in an exaggerated gesture. “Well, thank the lord. I was terrified your mind was wandering to the Sexiest Man Alive,” he said, relaxing against the bar, looking far too good in his jeans and dark gray T-shirt that fit him so well. He ran a hand through his hair, and she found herself wishing that were her hand.
“My mind is wandering nowhere at all, except to another one of these,” she said, tapping the edge of her wine glass. “But good to know you read People Magazine.”
“Of course. Gotta stay current on all the important matters at hand. Who wore what when and who’s doing who,” he said with a twinkle in his eyes and a flirty tone in his voice. She laughed at his comment; he’d always made her laugh. Life of the party, the guy who was fun, never too serious. He held up his index finger, signaling the bartender for another glass. “And I’ll take one more of the pale ale.”
“Coming right up,” the bartender said.
“Now that we’ve established you’re not thinking of rock stars, and that your mind isn’t anywhere but exactly where you want it to be, are you having a good time tonight?”
“I am having an excellent time. I’m very excited for the Spring Festival,” she said, doing her best to keep their chitchat friendly, because that’s all they were—friends. They’d be no good for each other as more. Opposites in every way. She was a romantic, he was a playboy, she was wine, he was beer, she was poetry, he was…wait, did he even read?
So not her type. She read all the time. Everything from poems to romance novels.
“And what is it that gets you most excited about the Spring Festival? Is it, say, the scent of cotton candy in the air?” he asked in a mock serious tone, as if cotton candy were a very important topic.
“Of course, seeing as I’m the keeper of that sweet treat,” she said, since she’d be running the cotton candy stand this year with her sister.
“I do love the taste of sweet things,” he mused, then inched closer to her, meeting her gaze, speaking in a low and sexy tone, making it clear he was enjoying the word play.
“You do?” she asked, as a spark zoomed through her.
“Some more than others,” he said, keeping his gaze locked on her as the bartender set down their drinks. He didn’t stop looking at her as he tossed some bills on the counter.
“Like what?” she asked, unable to resist the suggestive back-and-forth.
“The ones that are sinfully delicious,” he said, in a voice laden with innuendo. “The kind of sweetness you almost need to repent for.”
Sinfully delicious. Those words thrummed through her, and she found herself hoping she was one of those sweet things.
Snap out of it.
When he raised his beer in a toast, she tried to steer away from the double entendres. She picked up her glass, clinked it against his, and took a drink. Her throat was dry, and she desperately needed the liquid. “To the festival,” she said.
“To the festival.”
“Tell me what else excites you,” he said, and it was clear he wasn’t talking about the festival.
But she needed to. She had to. Or she’d be fanning herself soon.
“Oh, you know. All the games.”
“All those crazy games booths where you can win the stuffed animals?”
“Oh definitely. I’ve been practicing my bottle ring toss all year,” she joked, miming throwing a ring, glad to find her way back to banter, because that’s what she and Smith were good at. Innuendo? She didn’t think she could manage that tonight, not with the wine already flowing in her veins, making the night feel smooth and buzzy.
“How about dunking a certain fireman in the dunk tank?” he asked, referring to his booth at the festival.
“I’ll make sure you go down with a splash.”
“All you have to do is hit hard,” he said, downshifting to that slow and seductive tone, one that seemed to linger on that last word,“And I’ll go down.”
Oh holy hell, why did she have two glasses of wine tonight? It weakened all her defenses. Now she was right back on the first bus to Lustville, fueled by flirting.
That’s how it went for the next half hour as she finished her wine, he knocked back his beer, and they chatted more about the party, and the music playing, and the festival. Even though Smith could never ever be her kind of guy, they’d always been able to talk about anything from the foibles of celebrities to the best technique for nailing a strike, from what makes a perfect microbrew to favorite desserts. Through it all, there was the common thread of ribbing and teasing, like the time a few months ago when he’d seen her on the side of the road changing a flat tire. He’d pulled over and offered to help, but she’d laughed him off as she twisted the lug nuts off. “I know what I’m doing, thank you very much,” she’d said, as he leaned against the frame of his truck. “I’ll just stand and watch, then,” he’d fired back.
“You do that and see if you can learn something,” she’d replied with a roll of her eyes. Then the teasing stopped and he strode over to her.
“Let me do it, Jamie,” he said, in a commanding voice, one that made it clear he wasn’t going to permit her to do it herself. “I’m not the kind of man who’s going to stand by and watch a woman change a damn tire.”
Then he took the jack from her and swapped the spare tire on her car in minutes flat.
“All done,” he said, and stowed the damaged tire and the tools back in her car, taking care of every single detail.
She knew how to change a tire, but she wasn’t going to complain about not getting her hands dirty.
The music shifted over to a slow song.
“You should dance with me,” Smith said. No flirting. Just a straightforward statement. It threw her off, the directness. Because it was the same way he’d talked when he told her he was going to fix the tire: in no uncertain terms.
“What? This is a party at a bar. It’s not a dance.”
“So? One dance,” he said, resting his hand on the bar so near to her hand that she wished he’d inch closer.
She looked around. The Panting Dog was still packed, tables were full, and the bartender was busily serving up more drinks. The party likely wouldn’t lose steam for another few hours, but she needed to cut out early since tomorrow night she’d be back behind the bar for her regular shift.
“I really should go,” she said, pointing to the hallway. “My purse is back there.”
“Then one dance on your way out the door,” he said.
She shook her head. “I don’t want to dance in front of everyone. It would look weird,” she said, her mind racing back to Diane and her ex-husband. He was always kissing her, touching her in public, wrapping her up in his arms and making it seem like she was the center of his world. What a lie that had been, since he was never truly serious about their marriage.
Smith leaned in, brushed his finger lightly against her wrist, sending a flurry of shivers down her spine. “Then don’t dance with me in front of everyone.”
“What do you mean?”
The noise and the crowd turned blurry, and Jamie’s focus narrowed solely to him.
He tipped his head toward the unfinished section. “Dance with me alone. Back of the bar.”
It wasn’t a question. It was almost a command, and it was one she found she liked.
“Why?” she asked, her breath catching.
“Why do I want to dance with you?”
He stepped closer, his words only for her. “Because it’s spring. Because the weather’s beautiful. Because it’s a lovely night. Because you are the prettiest woman here. No, wait. In the whole damn town. Because dancing is fun, and on nights like this, one dance can sometimes be the best part of the night.”
Her stomach flipped like a pipsqueak gymnast. They were only words, but there was something borderline lyrical about them. Whether he meant them or not, she didn’t know. But she liked the way they made her feel—sexy, pretty, carefree, and full of possibility, like this night.
Then his hand was on the small of her back—a light touch, but a thoroughly possessive one, as if he were marking her, and it was enough to turn her senses upside down. She shouldn’t flirt with him, and she definitely shouldn’t dance with him, because dancing could lead to her hands on his body.
Images flashed before her eyes. Her hands on his waist, the hard planes of his abs, his hips. Her holding on to him.
She didn’t want to give in, but maybe if they danced just once—one dance, that was all—she would get him out of her system. She could say good-bye to this wild kernel of lust that ping-ponged through her body whenever she saw him. Prove to herself that the ridiculous attraction she felt for Smith was misplaced.
“Okay. Let’s dance.”