Kate Darby has suffered horrors worse than imaginable in the past. She's closed off her personal life to focus all her time and energy on the pub her father bequeathed to her. When her bar comes under attack by a vandal and sexy, sweet Toby Angel is there with unending emotional support, she can't turn him away. He gets under her skin and helps her heal. But when he's the one accused of damaging her pub, can she find it in herself to trust in him? She’s always believed that where there’s smoke...
Kate Darby perched on her favorite bar stool and cast a worried gaze over the crowd. There were a few known troublemakers in the pub tonight, but so far they were behaving themselves. She hoped the atmosphere stayed calm. She couldn’t afford any more repairs right now. All the hard work was starting to pay off. Darby’s clientele was expanding, and putting the books into the black was finally within reach. But right now every wasted penny hurt like hell.
Running a pub in Cooper Valley, a city of only twenty thousand residents, took more than serving pints of Guinness and fine Irish whiskey. It took initiative and imagination.
Since her dad’s death a little over a year ago, Kate had jumped in with both feet. She’d nearly made it up from the pit of debt her father had accrued. In another six months, she’d make her first goal. A profit.
“Lover boy is here,” Drake said, leaning slightly over the bar toward her and wiggling his eyebrows.
Her heart fluttered, even as she sent the bartender a scowl. “Don’t you have some glasses to polish?”
Drake chuckled and winked. “Come on, boss. I’d love to see you get laid.”
“Chuck is kinda cute,” she said with a smirk. “Maybe he’s getting tired of you.”
With a feigned look of horror, Drake laid his hand over his chest. “Honey, you don’t have what it takes to make Chuck a happy man.”
Grinning, she took a sip of her diet cola. “No kidding.” Drake and Chuck had been together for over ten years and were possibly the happiest couple she knew.
The singer announced a ten-minute break, and Kate finally turned her attention toward the door. Sure enough, in walked her firefighters. They arrived like clockwork every eighth night after finishing their four-day rotation. Her pulse kicked up another notch as she held her breath. First came Steve and his gorgeous redheaded wife, Gracie who always hung out with the guys. Then came Bret and Keith, both single tonight, though they often brought their current squeezes. And then—her heart nearly stalled—Toby Angel.
The last through the front door, he stopped and exchanged a few words with Cal, the bouncer. Then, as always seemed to happen, his dark chocolate eyes scanned the room and zeroed in on her. That wonderful, scary shot of electricity zinged through her, making her tingle from head to toe and a few interesting spots in between.
Her breath whooshed out, and she turned away, grabbed her glass and scurried behind the bar in order to look busy. That...that powerful pull happened every time their eyes met—every single time—but she never got used to it. Had never been able to block it. Ignore it. Control it.
She’d known him for what felt like forever. She was only twelve when her father retired from coaching football at the high school, bought the run-down bar, and turned it into a quaint Irish pub. Toby had been his star athlete at Cooper Valley High, and he’d spent a year washing dishes and sweeping floors at the pub to help support his mother and sister after his father died.
But these past few years since returning home had been so different from when she’d been a kid with a crush on an older boy. Now she was a woman and knew exactly what he was offering. Only...she couldn’t accept.
“Why do you do that?” Drake asked in little more than a whisper from beside her as he poured a shot of whiskey.
“Do what?” Kate dumped out the cola and tipped the glass upside down in the buss tray under the bar.
“Act like you don’t see him.” After collecting the customer’s money, he waved it under her nose. “You two are like dogs in heat with a ten foot high chain link fence separating you. Panting over each other, but never making the leap that would bring you together. When he asks tonight, say yes.”
Over the past three years, Toby had used one tacky pickup line after another on her almost every night he came in. Oh, God, wouldn’t it be nice to accept? To be able to just let go and give in?
“You know I don’t date the patrons.”
“You don’t date anyone.”
True. But she didn’t need that fact pointed out to her. “Mind your own business.”
Drake clucked his tongue. “Sex would take care of that nasty little problem of yours.”
She folded her arms over her chest and narrowed her eyes. “What problem?”
“Do you like your job?”
He laughed at the empty threat and walked to the end of the bar to help another customer.
The butterflies inside her belly fluttered like mad, and her skin heated at the deep voice. She turned, and there he stood—all six-foot-four inches of him lean and muscular in a navy blue Cooper Valley Fire Department T-shirt. Her gaze lowered, and she felt faint. Black jeans hugged thickly muscled thighs and cupped his sex in the most inviting way. How could someone be so flawless?
Half Native American, half African American, his looks bordered on exotic. With skin the color of lightly creamed coffee, a straight, aquiline nose, high cheekbones, square jaw—but not so square as to look harsh, just...right. She’d never been one to go for guys with shaved heads, but for some reason his turned her on. Hell, everything about him turned her on.
And damned if she didn’t want to know what those lips would feel like on her skin. Full, but not too full, and always quick with a dangerous, daring smile. Like the one there now.
“Yoo-hoo, anybody home?” He waved his hand in front of her face.
“Two pitchers, four glasses, and my usual.”
His usual was cola, not the Guinness his buddies always drank. In the three years she’d been back and working in the pub, he’d never once touched alcohol. That was just one more thing she liked about him. She may run a bar, but the scent of beer or whisky on a man’s breath could still send her over the edge. Especially if they got too close.
She gave herself a good mental shake, grabbed up two beer pitchers, and began filling them.
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Toby lower himself onto a stool and lean his elbows on the bar.
“So, when are you going to run away with me?”
There it was. She grinned. The last few weeks he hadn’t asked, which meant he’d been seeing someone. The question tonight let her know he was single again.
“When you make Captain and can afford me.” She added a flirtatious wink and set the pitchers on the bar.
He chuckled, as he always did. “You’re a cold woman, Kate Darby.”
If he only knew how deep those words cut into her heart. “Gotta look out for number one, ya know?” She set a tray with four empty glasses and one filled with Coke next to the pitchers.
Toby pulled out a few bills and dropped them on the bar. “Keep the change, sweetheart.” He picked up the tray in one hand and the pitchers in the other as easily as any professional waiter. That sexy, teasing smile never left his lips, nor did the twinkle in his deep brown, almost black, eyes. “Someday you’ll cave.”