“Why did I let you convince me to do this?” Brianne Nave grabbed the shirt she’d discarded two minutes ago and held it up to her body as she looked in the mirror. It was the same plain pink shirt it’d been the first time she considered it.
Her best friend, Avery, laughed on the other end of the phone line. “Because you’re the best friend a girl can have?”
Which was the same argument she and their other best friend, Drew, had used to convince Bri to agree to this blind date in the first place. Drew’s brother was back in town for a few weeks on leave, and they were worried he’d spend the whole time holed up doing…whatever it was they thought he’d do. They hadn’t exactly been clear on that.
She threw the shirt back on the bed and started to reach for the other shirt she’d considered, only to realize it was also pink. She’d been waffling between two nearly identical shirts for the last fifteen minutes. “I can’t do this.”
“Sure you can.”
“Avery, I haven’t been on a date in…” God, she couldn’t remember the last time. Maybe once in college?
“That’s exactly why you need this. There was never a better time to get back on that horse—or a better guy. Ryan’s a total sweetie.”
She knew that. She knew all about him. Drew and Avery had said nothing but good things about Ryan since she met them a little over a year ago. He was a real-life hero, to hear them tell of it. A god among men. Throw in a brother as attractive as Drew, and she wasn’t worried about him being a dud.
No, she was worried about him thinking she was a dud.
Hating the insecurity trying to take root in her stomach, she walked to Mr. Smith’s fish tank and dropped in a few flakes of the fish food he liked so much. I’ll only be gone a few hours. Not nearly long enough for him to get lonely. “But—”
“It’s too late to worry about it now. He’s already on his way. So just take a deep breath, let go of whatever neurosis is circling that busy brain of yours, and have a good time.”
Easier said than done. “He’s leaving in two weeks.” She dropped onto her mattress and reached for her boots. They were cute, not sexy, but she’d rather sacrifice a little style than end the night in an ER because she slipped on ice.
Besides, she didn’t exactly own any shoes that could be considered sexy.
“You have to start somewhere. It’s not like he’s flying to the moon. Long-distance relationships work all the time.”
“You sound like you’re already planning the wedding.” Avery did that, though. She skipped adding two plus two and jumped straight to four. Drew, the town’s sheriff and most eligible bachelor, wasn’t much better.
“There can’t be a wedding at all unless you actually go on a date.” She knew exactly what to say to cut right through Bri’s arguments. Because Bri wanted that life—the husband, the kids, the white picket fence, the roots—on a foundational level. She’d just never been courageous enough to take that first step.
Hadn’t her childhood taught her better than to expect permanence? Nothing was ever concrete. Life took people away—forever, in the case of her parents. She’d gone through three foster homes before she finally landed in one that stuck, and while she’d never been abused, there never seemed to be enough food to go around, never enough clothes to keep warm, always bigger kids who wouldn’t hesitate to hurt her if she didn’t hand over whatever it was they wanted at the time.
Back then, it was convenient to think that someday a Prince Charming would come along and they’d live happily ever after, but she’d learned a long time ago that fairytales only existed in books.
A rumble of an engine had her rushing through her small house to the front window to peer through the sheer curtains. An SUV stood at the end of her walkway and the man getting out of the driver’s seat could only be described as perfect. And women thought Drew was handsome? “Oh my God, Avery, you didn’t tell me he was gorgeous.”
“Don’t be gross. Ryan’s like a brother to me.”
She took in his square jaw and short dark hair and—oh Lord—those shoulders. He looked like Clark Kent without the glasses… “You set me up with Superman.”
“I’m not hearing this.”
“He’s here early. Who shows up for a blind date early?” Bri looked down at her boring maxi skirt and sensible boots. She should have dressed in something racier, something that would make a man like that stand up and take notice. As it was, she’d be lucky if he didn’t ask to have pizza delivered to avoid being seen with her at any of the restaurants in town.
Unfortunately, she’d probably already killed the ability to do “racier.” She shot a guilty look at the empty Oreo package visible through the doorway to the kitchen. When her neighbor Marcy’s cat had gone missing, she’d invited the poor woman over to comfort her. She’d been so busy chatting, she’d eaten half the package herself.
Maybe there was still time to change.
“He’s a solider. They take that punctual stuff pretty seriously.”
He was already halfway up the walk—and answering the door in her bra might be racy, but it wasn’t the kind of racy she wanted to aim for. She hurried into her bedroom and threw on the closest pink shirt. “Hair up or down?” Surely there was a hair band in this room somewhere?
“You’re stressing yourself out. I can hear it.”
“I have to go.” For better or worse, she had to open the door when he knocked. Bri moved back into the living room, shuffling to the window, needing another look at him. He was just as gorgeous now as he’d been the first time. Crap.
“Relax and have fun! I’ll call you tomorrow.”
She hung up her phone and realized she was sitting here, staring out the window, like some kind of freak. Bri dropped the curtain and backed up so quickly, she almost tripped over her end table.
Oh God, this is going to be a disaster.
At least he hadn’t seen her watching him. She hoped. Even knowing he was a few steps away from the door, she still jumped when he pounded on it. “You can do this. It’s just one date. It doesn’t matter if he’s gorgeous. He’s a nice guy.” Taking a deep breath that did absolutely nothing to fortify her, she opened the door.
Drew’s brother really did look like Superman. He had that amazing almost-too-perfect-to-be-real face going for him, and his eyes were the clear blue of a winter’s day—far better than her murky-ocean color. He towered over her, the sheer size difference making her wonder what it would be like to be wrapped up in his arms.
She realized she was drinking him in like a cool glass of water on a summer’s day. He, however, didn’t seem to be feeling the same overwhelming awe she was. He had an odd look on his face, as if he didn’t know what to make of her.
Her stomach tied itself in knots as the truth hit her like a bucket of icy water. She’d seen the very same expression on the faces of her first foster parents. They’d tried to tough it out, but their determination only lasted six months. That he might be judging her just as quickly hurt more than she dared admit.
“Ryan.” He held out his hand, apparently deciding that shaking was better than…whatever the alternative on dates was. A kiss on the cheek? A hug?
She took his hand, wishing she didn’t notice how warm it was despite their breath ghosting across the air between them. “Bri.”
“Nice to meet you.” He didn’t smile, just continued looking at her with that odd look on his face.
“You, too.” God, she must really not be what he’d expected. Had Drew painted him a picture of a sexy librarian, complete with pencil skirt and thigh-high stockings? Even on her best day, she couldn’t measure up to those kinds of expectations.
Maybe it was best she didn’t know what he’d told Ryan.
She swallowed hard, hating the way her throat had tightened. “I just need to grab my purse.” And try to convince herself that she could do this. A minute alone to shore up the barriers she’d built to protect herself would have to be enough. It’s just a favor to your friends, she reminded herself while ducking into her living room. When the night is over, I’ll never have to see him again.
Ryan cleared his throat behind her. “I’m sorry. I think I’ve gotten this off to the wrong start.”
Here it comes. “What do you have to be sorry for? It’s obvious you were expecting something else.” She wasn’t even close to being in this man’s league, and they both knew it.
“Not so fast—you’re jumping to conclusions.”
“Maybe you’re right.” He wasn’t, though, and all her childhood defense mechanisms rose to the surface, demanding she lash out before he could hurt her further. She faced him, forced herself to smile, and went for the one thing that might level the playing field. The only black mark on his stellar record. “Let’s get something straight, okay? This is just dinner. I have no intention of embarking on any kind of building-burning—or burning of any kind—with you.”