Still the One
Darcy Stone had never been big on rules unless she was breaking them. But that was the funny thing about nearly dying—it changed you, in a big way. So she’d taken a good, hard look at her life and decided that maybe a few “guidelines” wouldn’t hurt.
Number one: Don’t stress the little stuff.
Number two: Never let a certain man into her heart. Ever.
Number three: Don’t take crap from anyone.
It was number three on her mind right now. Today’s crap came in the form of one weasel named Johnny Myers, a dog trainer who lived two counties over from Darcy’s town of Sunshine, Idaho, deep in the Bitterroot Mountains. Johnny was complete pond scum, not to mention under investigation for illegally importing and exporting exotic animals.
It killed Darcy to do business with him, but if she didn’t, he’d send the dog she wanted straight to the kill shelter.
“I’m not paying you seven hundred dollars for a service dog you intend to dump for not passing his certs,” she said into her cell phone as she walked through the pouring rain and into work. Hell, she didn’t have seven hundred dollars.
Her wet sneakers squeaked as she entered Sunshine Wellness Center and rounded the front desk. Cold had started to seep through her drenched clothes to her aching bones but she ignored this. “Make it two hundred,” she told Johnny, “and you’ve got yourself a deal.”
She didn’t have two hundred, either, nor a way to even get out to Johnny’s place since she no longer drove highways, but she’d worry about that later.
Johnny started sputtering with outrage as she shoved her wet hair back from her face, going still when her body suddenly went into hyper-alert mode.
Damn. Again? At this rate she could hire herself out as some sort of paranormal secret agent . . . except the only person whose appearance she could predict was AJ Colten.
Guideline number two, and the bane of her existence.
And sure enough, in walked her boss: six feet two inches of solid muscle, testosterone, and attitude. And damned if she didn’t have a secret thing for all of the above. Very secret, since she’d gone there with him once—or nearly anyway—and had been burned big-time.
Never again, no matter how hot he was.
Luckily she had one heck of a poker face, because on a good day just a fleeting glance from AJ reminded her that she was a twenty-six-year-old sex-starved woman.
On a bad day, every single part of her sent urgent memos to her brain that she was practically a re-virginized twenty-six-year-old sex-starved woman.
It took everything she had not to look hungry.
Or even overly friendly.
AJ made it a lot easier by showing absolutely zero interest in her. The only thing she got this morning was a hooded glance that probably meant he was wondering why he’d even hired her.
She raised an eyebrow in his direction, trying for nonchalance while she soaked up the sight of him and the easy, confident way he moved his big body.
“Not a penny less than six hundred,” Johnny said in her ear.
“Three hundred,” she countered, tearing her gaze away from AJ. “And I’m cold and wet and almost late for work. If you don’t want the money, tell me now, because I need to go.”
Thanks to an unseasonably warm late fall putting Mother Nature in a mood, rain and wind slashed at the building. Darcy loved the rain. What she didn’t love was a violent storm. Not only was she shivering, she undoubtedly looked like a complete mess.
Her life motto was dance like no one was watching, so she told herself she really didn’t care what she looked like. Then she told herself that a few more times while watching AJ’s mighty fine bod move across the room.
“Three hundred is a joke,” Johnny complained. “I bet if I opened my e-mail I’d have ten offers that are better.”
“You go take a look,” she said. “I’ll wait.” While she did, she shoved her purse into the filing cabinet, but not before taking a surreptitious bite out of one of the two breakfast taquitos she’d grabbed on her way in.
When she realized AJ was heading her way, she nearly choked in her rush to swallow because AJ didn’t approve of the love of her life—crap food. And as he was the boss, owning the Sunshine Wellness Center as well as being head physical therapist, she tried to play by his rules. Okay, not really, but she at least did her best to hide the evidence.
She booted up the computer and caught an accidental flash of her reflection on the screen.
Yep, she was a hot mess, alright, her long curls—usually her best feature, if she did say so herself—now resembled a frizzy squirrel’s tail.
Good thing she didn’t care.
Naturally, AJ was not a mess. Not that he ever was. Nope, as usual he’d defied the odds, the rain not daring to stick to him. And no squirrel-tail hair for him, either. His sun-streaked brown hair was short and silky smooth, and as he took in her hair, his lips quirked in an almost smile.
And then Johnny was back. “I’ve got plenty of e-mails with interest, so you ain’t getting it for cheap.”
It. Darcy forgot about her hair catastrophe, and AJ’s lack thereof, and grinded her back teeth together. Guideline number three: Don’t take crap from anyone. “Three fifty,” she said. “Tops.”
This wasn’t going well. Plus, AJ was still looking at her, as always, aware of everything going on around him. She smoothed out her expression and added a professional smile. Nothing to see here.
He didn’t return the smile.
Darcy attributed this to the fact that it was seven in the morning, and AJ hated mornings with the same level of passion that she herself reserved for doctors and exercise.
From the hallway that led to the offices, Ariana waved at AJ, all sweet and cute, pointing to the steaming mug of coffee on the counter waiting for him. The yoga instructor always prepared him organic coffee in the mornings.
Organic coffee? It sounded as good as tofu or kale, not that AJ ever complained.
Sometimes Darcy wished that she could be described as sweet and cute, too, but she was usually too busy being her normal sarcastic and annoying self.
Ariana had other things on Darcy, too. Calm and steady and grounded, for instance. And she meditated, didn’t eat chocolate—who didn’t eat chocolate?—and was Zen at every turn.
Darcy couldn’t have done Zen to save her life.
“You still with me?” Johnny snapped at her. “Five hundred. Today.”
Darcy turned her back on AJ and lowered her voice. “That’s five hundred more than you deserve, you bloodsucking scumball—”
“You kiss your mama with that mouth?”
Darcy kissed her mama never. Her mother wasn’t the kissing sort. “We’re done. Good-bye—”
“Wait! Jesus, we’re having a little fun free enterprise here, no need to get all pissed off. Four hundred. Final offer.”
“Done,” Darcy said. She’d just have to find a way. She always did when it came to rescuing service dogs who, for a variety of reasons, needed to be “reassigned.”
Some needed to be retired, either because the work was too strenuous or they’d lost their owners, or they simply couldn’t keep up with the demands of their job. Most were sold to good homes, but not all. People had jokingly labeled these dogs as “career change” dogs, but Darcy knew the truth. They were throwaways.
And no one knew how it felt to be a throwaway more than Darcy herself.
In the past month she’d rescued three such dogs, each of whom had been let go by his owner but who still had so much to offer.
She’d easily placed them as emotional support dogs with people who needed them as badly as the dogs needed good homes. In this case that had been two military vets suffering PTSD and a woman who’d lost her hearing due to illness.
Word had gotten out, and now Darcy had a list of more people who needed emotional support or therapy dogs as well, people who couldn’t afford to go through the usual channels.
There certainly wasn’t a shortage of dogs or people who needed them.
But there was a shortage of funds, as these dogs, with their training and certifications, were expensive.
“The money needs to be here tonight or he’s going to the pound,” Johnny said.
Most likely he was lying, but he was a first-class jerk so she couldn’t be sure. “No problem,” she said, and hoped that was true. She disconnected and buried her nose in work.
“That was either a drug deal or a bookie,” AJ said.
That was the thing about AJ—the Navy vet was the definition of stealth. And maybe she hadn’t heard him coming, but she’d sure as hell felt him. She ignored both her happy nipples and him. First, she’d dedicated one of her three guidelines to him. Second, he was one of the few people on the planet who could see right through her and call her on her shit.
No woman wanted to be with a man who could see right through her.
And then there was the fact that he had a ’tude bigger than hers and could back his up with an all-around bad-assery she couldn’t begin to match.
Nope, if and when she decided to jump into the man pool again, it would be with someone sweet and kind and lovely and sensitive. Someone who’d fawn all over her and think she was the best thing to ever happen to him. Someone who hadn’t rejected her.
“I don’t do drugs,” she said without looking up, using her most impressive PMS tone. “Or gamble.”
“Sure you do. You gamble with your health when you eat spicy sausage taquitos from a convenience store for breakfast.”
“Ha-ha,” she said. “And for your information, I got the veggie ones.”
He didn’t say anything to this, and damn if she didn’t finally cave and look up, right into his eyes.
AJ had deep, warm eyes the color of a hazelnut, and when he wasn’t being her militant hard-ass PT or her boss—in fact when he wasn’t looking at her at all—they softened.
Not that there was anything soft about him right now.
And that was the thing about AJ. He was tough and strong, both inside and out, and he always, always knew what to do, in any situation.
Whether that came from being raised by a Navy captain or from his own military stint, she had no idea. She could ask him for help with Johnny and he’d step in and handle it without hesitation.
Which was exactly why she said nothing. This was her problem, not his.
“Let me guess,” he said, his tone dialed to Not Surprised. “You’re in trouble.”
As that was usually the case, Darcy supposed she couldn’t blame him for the assumption. “What I am,” she said, moving past him, shoulder-checking him by pretend accident, “is none of your business.”
He caught her arm and turned her to face him. “I don’t just sign your paychecks. I’m your brother and sister’s best friend. You’re definitely my business. And,” he went on when she opened her mouth, “I don’t see how that’s a bad thing, having people want to help you.”
Of course he didn’t. Because he’d never found himself in a situation where he needed help from anyone. But if she said so, he’d only disagree with her. It was his second favorite thing to do, right after driving her batshit crazy.
“And you ever hear of a jacket?” he asked, shrugging out of his and tossing it to her. “You look like a drowned rat.”
“Aw, you say the nicest things.” And she tossed his jacket right back at him.
He simply wrapped her up in it, jerking it closed, bending close to yank the zipper up.
“I don’t need—”
“I’ll lock you in it,” he said, his voice still calm but utter steel. “You’re shivering.”
Actually, not anymore, she wasn’t. But no sense in letting him know she enjoyed the warmth of his jacket or telling him he might have been right. This was the thing about AJ—he spent a lot of time being right.
The jacket smelled like him—which was to say amazing—and held his body heat. Refusing to give in to the urge to press her face to the collar and inhale him in, she shoved her arms into the arm holes and scooped his schedule out of the printer tray to slap it against his chest.
His hard-as-a-slab-of-marble chest. She wondered if his other part-time receptionist, Brittney, ever noticed such a thing. Probably not, as Brittney had just recently gotten engaged. “Your first client is Ronan,” she said. “He just pulled up.” She didn’t look into his face because doing so tended to make her stupid. She didn’t know if it was his lean jaw, in perpetual need of a shave, or that wide, firm mouth currently set in a grim line, discouraging any casual conversation—which perversely always made her want to ask him about the weather just to watch his head implode.
Ronan walked in the front door, his left arm in a sling to protect his shoulder while he recovered. He’d been an army MP in Afghanistan when he’d been injured. He’d been medically discharged after treatment seven years ago but the shoulder had never been the same, so he’d recently had another surgery.
Another thing that had never been the same was Ronan himself. He suffered PTSD and had been having problems with going out in public because social situations made him anxious. He didn’t like people, didn’t like to interact. There were only a few that he could tolerate: Any of his army buddies.
Ronan’s hard gaze looked over at them. His gaze immediately locked on AJ and, well, softened wasn’t the right word but he definitely relaxed, as if just seeing AJ there had made it worth it to leave his house.
AJ sent him a smile and a welcoming nod. “Hey, man, good to see you today.”
Ronan didn’t return the smile but he did look less likely to rip someone’s head off as he headed to the far corner of the big, open gym where he and AJ always started their sessions.
Darcy’s leg ached from being cold and standing, and the pain made her grit her teeth. But when AJ turned his attention back to her, she hid her grimace. “What do you need money for?” he asked.
“I didn’t say I needed money.”
He gave her a get real look.
Right. Everyone knew that between her exorbitant medical bills and being unable to do her usual work—which until her accident had been travel writing for Nat Geo and the Travel Channel’s website—she was desperately strapped for cash. “It’s not work related,” she said, annoyed that she sounded defensive.
He leaned against the counter, pose casual, body calm and relaxed.
If a panther was ever calm and relaxed . . .
“What is it related to?” he asked.
She picked at a nonexistent speck of lint from his jacket.
“How much do you need, Darcy?”
Look at that, she had a ragged nail. She hoped someone here had a nail file or she’d be tempted to chew it off.
“A couple hundred?”
“No. And never mind.” She moved to the filing cabinet. Or more accurately, limped to the filing cabinet, because now her entire body ached like a sonofabitch. She rubbed her leg without thinking and caught AJ’s gaze narrowing in on the movement of her hand.
“Stress is bad for your recovery,” he said quietly.
She dropped her hand. “I know how to take care of myself.”
He arched a brow, and hell if that didn’t really put her back up. She wanted to sit but her pride wouldn’t let her until he moved off. And fine, yes, once upon a damn time she’d been shit at taking care of herself.
Case in point—wrapping her car around a tree on a stormy night on a deserted highway out in the middle of nowhere and nearly dying. But that had been eleven months ago, and a woman could change.
Or at least, she could be working on that change . . .
The door opened and Zoe strode in. Darcy’s older sister was looking professional in a business suit, clearly dressed for a flight. As one of only two pilots for hire at Sunshine’s local airport, Zoe stayed busy.
But thankfully not too busy, because she was carrying a bag of—yes!—Gummy Bears. Darcy’s drug of choice.
Tall and willowy, Zoe had all eyes on her as she strode across the floor, sparing a smile for AJ.
AJ returned it, and without any warning, Darcy’s heart careened off her ribs. It really wasn’t fair that he looked like a fallen angel when he smiled. Good thing he rarely did.
“What’s up?” he asked Zoe.
“Just here to visit your sweet, adorable, kind receptionist.”
“She’s not in today,” AJ said, deadpan.
And Darcy sighed. But then her sister handed her the Gummy Bears, which went a long way toward soothing her rumpled feathers.
“You’ve been here for two weeks without getting fired,” Zoe said. “Impressive.”
She was referring, of course, to the three days Darcy had worked at the local bar before being shown the door. “Hey,” she said. “Putting false engagement rings in women’s drinks as an early present from Santa was funny.”
“Not to their boyfriends,” Zoe said, and then stage-whispered, “and please don’t try to punk AJ, okay? He means a lot to me, so if he kills you, it’ll be all sorts of awkward.”
“I won’t go up for murder,” AJ said. “They’d never find the body.”
AJ humor. Darcy rolled her eyes. “Thanks for the goodies,” she said to Zoe. “But I’m sure you have to go now.”
“I’ve got a few minutes.”
Great. Darcy looked at AJ. “Tell her I’m too busy to socialize. And you’re too busy, too. Ronan’s waiting.”
As if on cue, Ronan sat up from where he’d been doing sit-ups and looked over.
“Hey, Ronan,” Zoe called out with a warm smile. “How’s your mom?”
“Done with chemo and looking better.”
Zoe smiled brightened. “Oh, I’m so glad!”
Sunshine was too damn small, Darcy thought. Not only did everyone know everyone, but no one had ever learned to mind their own business. Darcy started to move back to her computer but AJ stepped in her way, ducking down a little to look into her eyes.
“Ice the leg,” he said, and without waiting for a response, headed toward Ronan.
Damn, the man had a way of moving, his body shifting with barely sheathed loose-limbed power and grace, and both Darcy and Zoe watched him go.
“He’s got such an edible butt,” Zoe whispered. “Do you think he knows it?”
“I don’t think he cares.” Besides, his being hot didn’t change the fact that he was a bigger problem for her than Johnny could even think about being. Johnny was just an asshole. AJ was . . . well, she wasn’t sure what. Dangerous as hell to her well-being, for starters.
“So why do you do it?” Zoe asked her.
Darcy tore her gaze away from AJ’s ass. “Do what?”
Zoe took her big sister status very seriously. But then again, in spite of the fact that there was only a few years between them, Zoe had always been more maternal toward Darcy than their actual mom ever had.
“Bait him,” Zoe said. “He’s great guy. He’s smart, hardworking, self-made . . .”
“Maybe you should date him.”
Zoe laughed. “We’re not suited.”
“Because?” Darcy asked.
“Well . . . he’s a bit alpha.”
Yeah. Just a bit.
“We’d butt heads,” Zoe said. “But I’ve always thought that maybe you two might . . .”
“A minute ago you were worried he might kill me.”
“Well, sleeping with him might go a long way toward making sure he wouldn’t.”
Darcy snorted. “Go away, Z.”
“In a minute. He did so much for you after your accident.”
This was absolutely true. Darcy had had five surgeries, and once she’d been okayed for physical therapy, AJ had taken over her care. He’d been a drill sergeant but he’d also saved her life. She knew it. He knew it.
And wasn’t that just the problem. She hated knowing that she hadn’t been able to save herself, that she’d needed help. “You’re right,” she agreed softly. “He’s done a lot for me.”
“I mean look at you, Darce. You’re walking.”
A miracle. Darcy got that. She was grateful for that, so very grateful he’d gotten her out of a wheelchair and onto her own feet again. Sure, she’d never win a track meet and she was always going to be somewhat unstable on her own two legs—especially the right one which still enjoyed buckling on her at the worst of times—but yeah. AJ would forever be a hero for what he’d done for her.
Which wasn’t to say she liked him.
In fact, during her PT she’d actually hated him. She’d dreamed nightly about strangling him, drowning him . . .
Very satisfying dreams, too.
And if there’d been a few others, some that had involved a different kind of altercation altogether between them, of the naked and sweaty variety, well, those were her little secret.
Across the large room, past all the exercise equipment to the mirrored wall, Ronan lay flat on his back now, working with a large rubber band around his ankles, doing strengthening exercises.
On his knees at his side, AJ guided him, and wrong as it might be, the sight of the two built guys working so hard together made her pulse race just a little bit.
During a quick beat of rest for Ronan, AJ glanced over the carved muscles of his shoulder to meet Darcy’s gaze.
She stopped breathing.
At her side, so did Zoe. “I just don’t get why you’re so hard on him,” her sister said.
“Actually, I think you’ve got that backward.” He was hard on her.
And she resented that. It was almost as if he expected her to soften her edges, to be something she wasn’t—like maybe one of those soft, sweet, bendy yoga instructors he was fond of dating. But though Darcy was working on herself, she was never going to be soft and sweet.
Or, thanks to her accident, bendy.
“Maybe you could just try a little bit harder to be more . . . friendly,” Zoe suggested.
Darcy didn’t have words for what she felt for AJ, but she was pretty sure “friendly” wasn’t going to make the list. And yet if AJ had been there for Darcy in a huge way, so had Zoe. Always. So Darcy blew out a breath and managed a smile for her sister. “Sure,” she said. “I’ll try.”