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LIGHTS TWINKLED FROM the rafters and country music blared from a stage at the far end of the old barn as retired football star Dash Pennington and his old college teammate Sinclair “Sin” Vernon weaved around people dancing and mingling and children darting through the crowd with fistfuls of cookies. Women decked out in jeans and cowgirl boots eyed Dash suggestively. Enjoy the visual buffet, ladies, because that’s all you’re going to get.
Dash had been thrilled when his motivational speaking gig had been canceled. He’d jumped on the first flight out to see his buddy and had arrived in Oak Falls, Virginia, about an hour ago. This was just what he needed—a break from his crazy life and the skintight dresses and money-hungry claws of the plastic women in the circles in which he’d run for the last decade. He’d thought things would slow down after he retired from football, but he’d gone from one media circus to another with motivational speaking gigs, sponsorships, and the upcoming tour for his new bestselling book, Capturing the Fire Within, a guide for young men to find their paths and realize their dreams. The funny thing was, he was still trying to figure out his own path.
“This jam session is frigging awesome!” he shouted as they walked past the stage where a group of twentysomething girls were singing with a band that looked more like a family reunion. A kid who couldn’t have been older than ten or eleven was playing the violin beside a man who looked to be about sixty playing a guitar. A teenage girl was on drums, and a handful of other people were playing a variety of instruments. “How often do they do this?”
“Every few weeks.” Sin raked a hand through his jet-black hair. At six foot three, two hundred and thirty pounds, he stood eye to eye with Dash. “The Jerichos invite everyone in the area to play music and dance. People bring food and catch up with neighbors. It’s pretty cool.”
“Kind of reminds me of home.” Dash had grown up in Port Hudson, New York, which was a college town, not a rural area, but it had the same close-knit feel, and while they didn’t have jam sessions, they had other community activities.
“Good old Port Hudson.” Sin cocked a grin. “I need to take a trip out there soon to see how Dawn and Andi are doing, remind them what a real man looks like.”
Dash narrowed his eyes in warning at the mention of his younger sisters, but it was all in good fun. They gave each other a hard time about their sisters often, but they also stepped in like protective brothers when necessary. “Speaking of sisters, did Kiki tell you she finally kicked that guy she was dating to the curb?”
“Yeah, last week. Thank God she listens to you.” Kiki was Sin’s younger sister. “I owe you one. Come on, let’s find Amber.”
“Right. Amber. The only woman on the planet not clamoring to get near me.” Amber Montgomery owned Story Time bookstore and was hosting Dash’s debut signing in a couple of weeks. She was the only bookstore owner who hadn’t immediately agreed to host, which he found odd, considering how much attention his presence would bring to her store. It seemed like everyone wanted a piece of him. By the time she’d accepted, all the tour spots had been full. Dash had been curious about the holdout, and since Sin lived in the area, Dash had Amber’s bookstore added as the first stop on the tour.
Sin looked at him wryly. “She’s out of your league, man. But it looks like you’ve got plenty of fans. People around here don’t usually gawk like this.”
Dash glanced around as they moved through the crowd, noticing that, in addition to the women checking him out who probably had no clue who he was, guys were looking over like they recognized him, and a few cowboys were sizing him up. Don’t worry, I’m not here to take your women for a ride. He’d learned his lesson about meaningless hookups when he was young and stupid, and he sure as hell wasn’t going to screw over some random guy just to get his rocks off.
“Really? With you around, I’d think they’d be like this all the time.” Dash wasn’t kidding. Sin was impressive as hell on and off the football field. They’d met while attending Virginia State on football scholarships. After graduation, Dash had turned pro, and Sin had followed a coaching path, eventually becoming the athletic program director for their alma mater. A couple of years ago, Sin had taken over as the athletic director at No Limitz, the Oak Falls youth center. Dash had always admired his friend’s determination to follow his heart instead of the money.
Sin gave him a don’t-give-me-that-bullshit glance.
“I should’ve worn a cowboy hat to blend in. How about we don’t mention football to your friends? Tonight I’d just like to be your friend, and when necessary, some guy who wrote a book.”
“Yeah, I got that impression when you called. No problem.”
As he followed Sin through the crowd, his attention caught on a beautiful brunette talking with a group of people. Her fingertips grazed the head of a golden retriever wearing a service vest. He had a fleeting curiosity about the dog, but he got caught up in watching the woman as she talked with the dark-haired guy beside her. A smile as natural and enticing as summer rain brightened her face, giving her an even sweeter girl-next-door vibe. As they neared, he realized her hair wasn’t brown but more of a chestnut color, the long layers a little messy. The kind of hair that beckoned to be touched, the kind of easy smile he hadn’t seen in a very long time. There was nothing overtly sexual about her simple peach sweater or dark skinny jeans tucked into scuffed brown cowgirl boots with pink designs that looked like old favorites, but he found her utterly captivating. He wanted to know who she was and what her voice sounded like. Was it as sweet as she looked? Was she? It had been a long damn time since he’d actually been drawn to a woman enough to want to know more about her.
The beauty shook her head, and her hair tumbled in front of one eye, giving her an alluring edge. She tucked that wayward strand behind her ear, her eyes sweeping over the crowd, colliding with Dash’s, and holy hell, the air between them sizzled with a wild, frenetic energy. He couldn’t look away, didn’t want to, the need to meet her as real as the heat burning beneath his skin, and Sin was leading him directly toward her.
When they joined the group, Sin said, “The best thing about these jam sessions is seeing all the hottest ladies in Oak Falls in one place,” startling the chestnut-haired beauty. She tore her gaze away from Dash, crimson spreading over her cheeks.
A familiar-looking dark-haired guy rolled his shoulders back and cleared his throat.
Sin laughed. “And the hottest guys. Sorry, Axsel.”
“No worries. With a body like that, you’re always forgiven.” Axsel dragged his eyes down Dash’s body. “And hello, gorgeous friend of Sin’s.”
Dash offered his hand. “Hi. I’m Dash. Where do I know you from?” In the next second, he recognized the man as Axsel Montgomery, the lead guitarist in the infamous band Inferno. “Wait, you’re a rock star, right?” He started connecting the dots and wondered if Axsel was related to Amber.
“In and out of the bedroom,” Axsel said flirtatiously, giving Dash’s hand a squeeze. “And you have a great name. Short for Dashing, I assume?”
Dash laughed and shook his head, his eyes finding the brunette’s again, causing a rush of heat to redden her neck and cheeks. She was adorably refreshing, in the sexiest of ways—a rarity in his world.
“Keep your trousers on, Axsel,” Sin said. “Dash is straight, and I brought him along tonight to meet Amber, not to hook up with her brother. Dash wrote a book, and he’s doing a signing with her in a couple of weeks.” He motioned to the brunette, who was staring at Dash again. “Dash, this is Amber Montgomery. Amber, this is Dash Pennington.”
It’s my lucky day. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you in person, Amber.” Dash held out his hand. “Shea had wonderful things to say about you.” Shea Steele was his publicist. She’d told him that Amber ran the busiest bookstore in the area, and she was sweet, cautious, and definitely not his type. Shea couldn’t have been more wrong.
The blond woman standing next to Amber, wearing about a dozen necklaces and a blouse with flowing sleeves, nudged Amber with her elbow, startling Amber out of her trance. Amber blinked repeatedly and shook Dash’s hand. “Hi. It’s nice to meet you.”
Her hand was soft and warm, her voice as sweet as honey, and her gorgeous hazel eyes were as lost in him as his were in her. “I hear you own a great bookstore. I’m looking forward to getting to know you.”
She continued shaking his hand. “I…yeah. Books…in the shop.”
She was too damn cute.
A tall woman with thick and wild dark hair trailing over her shoulders from beneath a cowgirl hat stifled a laugh, and the blonde nudged Amber again.
“Bookstore, sorry,” Amber said quickly, dropping his hand. Her fingers landed on the dog’s head. “I own a bookstore. But you already know that. Oh my gosh. I better…” Her eyes darted around them. “Nice to meet you. I have to…do that thing. Over there.” She pointed into the crowd. “Sorry. See you in the bookstore. Come, Reno.”
As Amber hurried away, a thin blonde lowered her voice and said, “So much for flirting lessons.”
Flirting lessons? That piqued his interest.
“You’ll have to excuse my sister,” the hippieish blonde said. “She’s had a long day.”
Dash watched Amber moving through the crowd. “No excuse necessary. She made a remarkable first impression.” And he couldn’t wait to see what her second impression was like.
AMBER HURRIED THROUGH the crowd until she was sure Dash couldn’t see her and finally stopped to catch her breath. Reno, her seizure response dog, whined, and she petted his head. “I’m okay.” She was trying to convince herself as much as Reno, who sensed her anxiety. She glanced over her shoulder to make sure she was in the clear and rose onto her tiptoes, leaning to the right to catch sight of that shockingly gorgeous muscled man talking with her mother and siblings. Great. They were probably joking about how flustered she’d gotten.
I have to do that thing? Ugh.
She was a total rambler when she was nervous. Even her brother, Axsel, had flirted better with Dash than she had. Everybody knew it, too. When her youngest sister, Brindle, and her besties, Lindsay Roberts and Trixie Jericho, found out that she’d been asked to host a book signing for Dash, they’d not only talked her into it, but they’d decided she needed flirting lessons. A man finally caught your attention. You need him, Amb…Once you learn to use that to your advantage, he won’t stand a chance, Brindle had insisted. Lindsay had been dragging her out in the evenings, trying to teach her how to flirt. Last week she’d taken Amber to a meat market of a bar forty-five minutes away, where she hadn’t known anyone. Talk about a fish out of water. Needless to say, Amber had drowned in embarrassment, while Lindsay had come home with two phone numbers and a date for the weekend. Their plan had become the bane of Amber’s existence.
She was a professional bookseller and businesswoman. There would be no flirting with Dash Pennington, no matter what her friends thought.
She moved deeper into the crowd, wondering what Dash Pennington was doing in town so far ahead of schedule. She’d been looking forward to the jam session for weeks, and she’d been having a great time. Now she was a nervous wreck. She knew not everyone loved the nuances of small-town life, but it was the only life for her. Amber loved being surrounded by the people who had known her forever, had weathered the storms of her epileptic seizures, and had cheered her on when she’d opened her bookstore. Nothing compared to the safety of living in a community where everybody knew her name and her medical background.
Except maybe love…
Not that she had any firsthand experience with that. She reached down to pet Reno as the lights dimmed and the barn quieted. At least I have you.
Amber moved so she could see the stage just as a spotlight hit Nick Braden, Trixie’s boyfriend, who lived in Peaceful Harbor, Maryland. Nick stood center stage in a black button-down shirt, jeans, and his ever-present cowboy hat. Trixie’s four brothers were also onstage. To his left, Trace and JJ held their guitars, and to his right, Shane sat behind the drums, and Jeb was at the piano.
Even though Amber knew what was coming, she already had tears in her eyes.
Nick spoke into the microphone as he came off the stage, looking at Trixie like she was his entire world. Amber sighed, longing to be loved like that, wondering when it would be her turn. She was the middle child of seven, and in the past year and a half, three of her five sisters had gotten married, and Brindle already had an adorable little girl. None of them had even been looking for love, much less dreamed about a white wedding, a house full of babies, and building a life rich with family traditions, the way Amber had. She was happy for them, but she’d couldn’t shake the niggle of jealousy.
Amber held her breath as Nick dropped to one knee in front of Trixie, professing his love for her. The barn erupted in congratulatory cheers. Tears slipped down Amber’s cheeks, and she pressed her hand over her heart as Trixie and Nick kissed.
“That was pretty magical,” a man said from behind her.
“It sure was,” she said dreamily, wiping her eyes. “It was perfect. I want that so badly.” She turned, and her mouth went dry at the smoldering dark eyes and panty-melting grin aimed directly at her.
Dash raised his brows. “So, you’re a romantic.”
She was not going to embarrass herself again. She wasn’t a giddy girl, and he was…too darn good-looking. But he was still just a man. She touched Reno’s head, centering herself as she straightened her spine and lifted her chin, hoping she wouldn’t sound as nervous as she felt. “A proud romantic, thank you very much.”
“A beautiful woman like you must have lots of men romancing her.”
Laughter fell from her lips before she could stop it. “Hardly.”
“I don’t believe that.” He cocked a brow. “Unless you run away from all men.”
“I don’t run away from all men.” Amber had never needed thrills the way some of her sisters have, and in an effort to control her epilepsy, she avoided anything that created too much excitement or stress—like the ex-footballer turning her body into an inferno with nothing more than a little charm.
Amusement rose in his eyes. “So, you only run away from the men you Google?”
She was going to kill her gabby sisters. “I had to research you before I could accept the invitation to host.” And she’d found out all she’d needed to know about him. He lived in New York City, had retired from football last year to pursue motivational speaking and launch the book he’d written, and from the many pictures she’d seen, he enjoyed partying with high-profile celebrities and gorgeous, leggy women. Mr. Tall, Dark, and Delicious was better suited for Sable, who loved a good challenge, than Amber, who had always preferred books and low-key gatherings to rowdy men and the drama that seemed to come with them.
She narrowed her eyes. “Why are you here, anyway? Shouldn’t you be on your motivational speaking gig this week?” She’d seen his schedule, and between his speaking engagements and sponsorships, she wondered how he kept up. There were twenty-eight stops on his upcoming monthlong book tour, starting with her bookstore and taking him across the country with stops every other day, and some weeks there were daily signings, interviews, and television appearances. The man must run on all that testosterone billowing off him.
“So you did research me, quite extensively it seems.” His lips quirked up, giving him a boyish expression that looked really nice on him.
“Of course I did. Did you think I was lying?”
“No. I had a nice chat with your sisters, their husbands, and your mother, who are all lovely, by the way, and according to them, you are honest to a fault. I respect that in a woman. So tell me, Honest Amber, why were you the only bookseller who didn’t jump at the chance to host my signing? Did you read my book and hate it?”
“No. I really liked it. I mean, I don’t know much about football, or the best positions, but I just skipped those parts.”
He stepped closer, amusement and heat warring in his eyes. “I find hands-on experience is best when choosing positions.” He leaned closer, bringing a gust of his spicy, masculine scent. “I’ll be more than happy to help you discover which ones you like best.”
The air rushed from her lungs. She didn’t even know how to respond to that. His eyes drilled into her, and Reno whined, brushing against her leg. She petted him, trying futilely to calm herself down. He looked at Reno, and she braced herself for the questions that always came.
When his eyes met hers, they were filled with as much compassion as heat. “You okay?”
She nodded, wishing she were as sassy as her younger sisters Morgyn and Brindle, or as savvy as her older sisters, Grace and Pepper. She’d even take being snarky like Pepper’s twin, Sable. Being anyone else would be better than her suck-at-flirting, blush-like-a-teenager self.
“It’s him,” a female voice said loudly.
Dash’s eyes skirted to the right, the muscles in his jaw bunching at the sight of a group of women heading their way. Amber recognized them from Meadowside, the next town over, where her bookstore was located. Dash stepped back as they flocked to him, asking for his autograph as Sable’s voice rang out from the stage, congratulating Nick and Trixie on their engagement. Sable was the lead guitarist and singer in the band Surge, and they began playing one of Trixie’s favorite songs.
“Will you sign my address book?” A blonde shoved the address book at Dash and whipped a pen out of her purse.
Dash took them from her, but his eyes never left Amber as he said, “Sure. No problem. What’s your name?”
“I’m going to…” Amber pointed behind her, walking backward.
“Amber,” Dash said authoritatively, taking paper from another woman. “Save me a dance.”
Not only was he too darn aggressive, confident, and delicious for her, but women were pawing at him, and he looked all too comfortable with that, too. “I think your dance card is full. See you at the signing.” She made a beeline for the barn doors with Reno, but even the cool October air stinging her cheeks wasn’t enough to quell the heat thrumming through her.
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