Scars on men could be dangerous and sexy, but for Zoe Morgan, a scar was the reason she didn’t have a love life. At least that’s what she told herself at night while she listened to Clara and her boyfriend giggle and carry on in the next room.
Which is why she’d let her friend, Clara, talk her into a double-date setup yet again.
Zoe fidgeted with the collar of her sleeveless shirt after climbing out of her old, beat-up Jeep. It didn’t matter, though. Nothing she did short of existing solely in turtlenecks could hide the ghost-white stripe that trailed from her left temple, down her face and neck, and over her shoulder blade where it ended abruptly just above her waistline. She wished it could be hidden, but instead of dwelling on something that couldn’t be changed, she buried herself in work and her inability to stay ahead of mounting bills.
“Here goes nothing.” Damn, her voice was defeated, and the date hadn’t even started yet. Her grams would be ashamed of her for being so insecure. Matilda Morgan always took life by the horns. Zoe felt like the horns had grabbed her… But maybe this guy would be different. Maybe he wouldn’t look at her like she was something to be pitied.
Her expectations were not high. It was rare any prospective man took the time to look past the scar. The accident had happened when she was a freshman in high school, and she was still paying the price. Not only had the medical bills overwhelmed Grams, Zoe had been marked as the permanent memorial for her three classmates that had died. Her chest tightened every time someone in town gave her an accusatory glance. And it happened nearly every day.
Even though the wreck hadn’t been her fault, she’d been the one behind the wheel. No one ever let her forget that she lived…like they all wished she’d died, also.
Her friend stayed close to her after high school, beyond graduation. She would’ve been in the car, too, if not for a bad batch of fish. Over the years, Clara had made it her personal mission to find the right guy for Zoe and keep her best friend from feeling alone.
Of course, the only way she’d ever been on a date since the accident was via blind date setup. She was grateful to Clara and depressed at the same time. No one asked her out.
She knew it was her fault. Unapproachable was her middle name.
This time was going to be different. She was going to give it her best shot today. Taking a deep breath, she mustered up the courage to walk toward the door of Charlie’s. It looked like a place she would enjoy—an average hole-in-the-wall burger joint. At least Clara had picked somewhere she’d enjoy the food, although she tried to avoid Town Square. Most of the restaurants in old town charged a little extra for the ambiance.
As she neared the door, a perky young brunette pushed it open and held it for her. “Welcome to Charlie’s!”
“Thanks,” Zoe answered and filed through the doorway. The comforting smell of grilled meat and greasy, salt-covered fries assailed her nose and filled her lungs. Her always-empty stomach cramped with hunger.
She’d been up since three am. First, she had mucked out stalls at the equine therapy center, Saddles for Hope. Then, after a shower and a cup of coffee, she’d flown out the door for a few grueling hours of running deliveries all over town for GM Courier. She’d managed to grab an hour nap on Clara and Zach’s couch before her alarm screamed at her to get dressed for the date.
A high-pitched squeal from down the aisle caught her attention and brought her mind out of its exhausted fog. Clara was waving her over.
The knot in her gut only grew when she saw the handsome guy standing with Clara and Zach. He towered over Zach, which meant he stood at six-foot five or six. His brown hair curled in the cutest way. His waistline was slender, but he had a muscular chest and broad, athletic shoulders beneath his tight t-shirt.
Zach was wrapping up his last year at McA. His tennis scholarship had carried him through four years of business school, so they likely either knew each other from the business program or from the tennis team.
“Zoe,” Clara called again, gesturing her forward.
The heat of the restaurant was stifling, and she took a wobbly step toward them, thankful she’d chosen a comfy pair of sandals instead of heels; otherwise, her face would be up close and personal with the wood-grained linoleum right now. Taking a deep breath, she forced a weak smile and approached her friends.
Her hair was down, but the long white scar was always visible. Heat rose in her cheeks, which accentuated the mark, announcing to the world that she was damaged. That embarrassing knowledge made her blush harder.
“Clara.” She couldn’t help but smile back at her friend. Clara Vargas was always happy. Grams used to tease her about smiling too much.
She loved that her friend always found the silver lining in every situation, even Zoe’s messed up life.
Clara stepped forward and pulled Zoe into a bear hug. “I’m so glad you came. I think you and Jasper will really like each other.”
Zoe laughed, stepping back and wiping her sweaty palms on the backside of her pants. “Let’s actually introduce ourselves before you go planning anything else.” She cast another quick glance at the now-named stranger—Jasper.
He smiled and extended his hand. “It’s nice to meet you, Zoe. Zach is always talking about you and Clara. I hope you don’t mind that I asked you out via Clara.”
Her breath left her in a sudden whoosh. He’d asked for this date? It hadn’t been Clara?
“The pictures I’ve seen don’t do you justice.”
Speak. Say something. She stared up at him and then back to where her hand disappeared inside his giant paw.
“T-thank you.” She searched his face for the telltale signs of pity or disgust. He had to be able to see the scar from where she stood now, but she hadn’t noticed him even glance toward it once. “I- I thought Clara…” She flashed a quick, accusatory glance at her friend. “Sorry, I’m not used to…” She couldn’t say that out loud. If he didn’t think she was a complete ditz already, he probably did now.
“Zach said you usually work too much to date. Glad you took a break today.”
His grin threatened to melt her insides. Joints turned to jelly and words continued to evade her.
“I, um, well, that is usually the issue.” The other being the giant scar running down my face and body.
He gestured toward the table, and Zoe stepped forward, sliding into the far side of the booth so her right side faced the café wall—away from Jasper. He sat down next to her, and heat flared through her body. Her stomach tightened, and she rubbed her palms across the top of her jeans again.
Jasper was really cute. Seemed nice. But she really didn’t have time for a relationship. She barely had time to sleep these days, much less devote energy to a guy or a possible boyfriend. Zach had been right to tell Jasper she worked too much. But it wasn’t really a choice. If she didn’t work, Grams didn’t have a place to live.
“Jasper was on the tennis team a couple of years ago. He’s actually finishing his MBA this semester, Zoe,” Zach interjected, giving her a wide smile. This was his not so subtle way of telling her they’d found a suitable guy who was also older than her. She didn’t like dating younger men. She preferred more mature guys who had their lives put together already.
Her lips tightened. Damn it. They were both in on this one.
“That’s great. Congrats,” Zoe said.
The big guy beamed. “Thanks. I’m excited. I’ve got several interviews in town for after I graduate, but I’d really like to get a position over at Stinson Railways Regional office. They only hire a couple of people each year so it’s super competitive, but from what I’ve heard, once you’re in, you can climb anywhere inside the company, even move up into their national offices in Pittsburg.”
Zoe held in a sigh. He was older. Adorably cute. And had his life on a great plan. If only hers weren’t such a mess. Even if the scar didn’t turn him off, the half-million dollars she owed to the hospital and therapy centers would.
Clara had tried to get her to file bankruptcy, but she and Grams had decided from the very beginning that they would work out a payment plan with the hospital. And they had been faithful to it. The doctors that saved her life deserved to be paid. She refused be another write-off on their balance sheet.
Everything had been going along okay until her grams started suffering from Alzheimer’s. Within a year, she watched the woman who raised her fade into a shadow of who she’d been. Now, instead of being in senior classes with Clara and Zach, she’d barely finished her freshman ones. Her friends would graduate without her in a few weeks, and she would probably never finish. It didn’t matter, though. The most important thing was taking care of Grams. That and paying back the miracle workers who’d given her another chance to live.
Still, daydreaming that life was normal wouldn’t hurt for a few minutes. The table conversation went smoothly, as if she and Jasper had been friends for years. With each minute that ticked by, the firm grasp she had on why dating wasn’t important in her life at this time slipped away. Why shouldn’t she make time for someone who was truly interested in her?
Jasper and Zach were carrying on about some player on the tennis team this year when she caught Clara staring at her with a stupid I-found-someone-you-really-like-didn’t-I grin. Zoe kicked forward, landing a thump to her best friend’s shin.
Clara’s grin only grew.
Damn. She really did like him. And he hadn’t run screaming when she walked up or given her the pity-filled glance that said I’ll-talk-to-you-just-so-your-friends-won’t-think-I’m-rude-but-I’m-really-not-into-you look. So two points for Jasper.
An hour later, she folded her napkin, laid it on her empty plate, and leaned back in the booth. “That was so good. I can’t remember the last time I actually sat at a table to eat a meal.”
“Always in a hurry?” Jasper asked.
“Always working,” she answered, a sigh slipping from between her lips. “I’m lucky if I have time to down a protein bar. In fact, I’m really sorry, but I’ve got to go run by and see my Grams before I get ready for my shift at the Longrock Saloon.”
“I thought you worked for GM Courier?”
“I do,” she answered, turning her gaze to his big brown eyes. “I also work at the Longrock Saloon as a bartender and as an extra stable hand for Saddles for Hope just south of town.”
His eyes widened, and he opened his mouth to speak, but nothing came out.
Zoe couldn’t blame him for being speechless. If she hadn’t been juggling three jobs for the last three years, she would feel the same way. Somehow, she managed to keep going, though. The key was to never really slow down. If she ever took a break, she knew she’d never get all the balls in the air again.
He glanced at the table for a second and then back at her again. “Can I walk you to your car?” He slid out of the booth and extended a hand.
She slipped her hand into his large palm and took a deep breath when another wave of heat rushed up her neck into her cheeks.
A grin spread across his face, and the two dimples on his cheeks deepened. “So was that a yes?”
“Yes,” she said quietly. “Thank you.” She turned briefly back to her friends. “I’ll see you guys later.”
“Bye, chica! See you back at the apartment later.”
Zoe nodded and walked out of the restaurant, surprised that Jasper’s hand was still grasping hers. So sweet. Her mind had gone so much further. I’m a terrible person for wanting to pull him around behind this restaurant and kiss the heck out of him for giving me the best date–hell, the only half-decent date–I’ve had in years.
Couldn’t happen, though. And dating him couldn’t really happen, either. She didn’t have time for a man. She barely had time to shower and sleep.
“This is me,” she said, stopping next to the black Jeep.
His head bobbed up and down. “Nice. For some reason I pictured you with a pickup truck, but I really like the Jeep.”
Zoe snorted through a laugh. “Wouldn’t mind being a truck girl, but I don’t have the money to feed one of those suckers right now. Do yo—”
His hand slipped along the side of her face.
No man’s fingertips had touched her face since the doctors told her the scar would never fade completely. Her chest tightened, and she held her breath. Any minute, her pounding heart was bound to break free from her ribcage.
“I’d really like to kiss you goodbye.” His voice melted her insides like an iced cake outside in a Texas summer—a gooey, drippy, mess. “Do you think that would be okay, Zoe Morgan?”
Her tongue wouldn’t move. She tried to force the words out of her mouth, but no sound came out. Instead, she managed a pathetic half-nod.
His lips descended on hers with the grace and suaveness she’d only ever witnessed in movies. They were so soft. His tongue slipped between her lips and swept gently through her still somewhat-open mouth. Then he nibbled at her bottom lip until she swore her knees would give out right there in the parking lot.
When he finally pulled away, she gasped for the air she’d forgotten her body required to live.
“I hope you can find me another spare hour or two soon. I’d really like to see you again.”
“I will. Thank you, Jasper. It was really nice meeting you.”
“Same here, Zoe. I’ll call you.”
“Do you need my number?”
He shook his head. “Clara gave it to me.”
“Good old Clara. Always looking out for me. Giving my number to men.”
He laughed. “Hopefully I’ll be the last.”
“I like the sound of that.”