Chapter 1

Running a business in a small town was a huge success for me. Dating in a small town . . . not so much. What was wrong with guys? I’d found a string of duds lately. They weren’t all from the small town where I lived, but that didn’t make me feel any better. In fact, it made me feel worse. Jeans and boots or suits and ties, no matter what they wore, they showed their true colors by the end of the night.

I knew better than to paint all guys with the same brush. But it seemed that most of the good ones were taken.

If good guys were out there and single, they sure weren’t asking me out.

After a quick glance at my speedometer, I wiped my eyes and focused on the road.

Tonight’s date was worse than the last few. Not that I went on many these days. I should’ve left as soon as he asked how the lingerie business was going. Shoot, I should’ve gotten back in my car when he’d greeted me with that icky grin. My alarms had gone off then, and I should’ve trusted my gut. Maybe I should add that to my rules—trusting my gut.

But I’d stayed, thinking it wouldn’t be all that bad. Usually, I made it until dessert before bad dates turned south. This guy propositioned me before drinks arrived at the table. Lucky for him or he might’ve been wearing his.

What about me attracted the bad guys? I was a rule-follower. I didn’t speed. At red lights, I stopped. When I changed lanes or turned, I used my blinker. In spite of my rule-following ways, men often made assumptions about me because I owned a lingerie store. And I hated when they did that.

With my dating track record, I chose places within walking distance, or I drove. Tonight, I’d driven, which was why I was wiping tears and trying to stay in my lane. Being so upset about it was embarrassing. It was just a bad date.

Now I was hungry, furious, and contemplating the idea of staying single. I should probably chuck my whole plan for a happily ever after. But so far, the success of my business hadn’t choked out my craving for a handsome husband and, maybe someday, a family.

Nothing would choke out that desire, more accurately a need. I needed to have a career and a husband, a dog and at least one kid. Anything short of that, and I feared that I’d turn into my mother. Of all the people in the world, she was not who I wanted to emulate.

My plan wasn’t going well.

Would I ever meet a man who was worth the effort of putting on heels and makeup? A guy who checked all the boxes. Someone who didn’t assume that lace signaled an aversion to commitment.

Okay. Slow down. Commitment? I needed at least a first date to go well.

After exiting the highway, I drove toward Stadtburg, brushing fresh tears off my cheeks. Anger had my eyes leaking.

At the red light, I turned right, eager to be home. Just as the strip mall came into view red and blue lights flashed behind me.

Tonight couldn’t get any worse.

I rolled down my window and waited, squeezing the steering wheel a little too tightly. The officer had no reason to pull me over, so now I was even more angry. That meant more tears.

Wiping my face and blinking, I smiled when he appeared at the window. Great. It was the hot one. Eli Gallagher. Most of the deputies in this county were married and/or old. This guy was neither. And my friends had been less than shy about trying to set us up. I’d be fine with that. Hello? He was extremely good-looking, and he was employed. But there was one teeny tiny problem with the setup thing.

He hardly spoke to me at social functions. He’d never pulled me over before. Maybe he was more talkative on the job.

“Evening. May I see your license and insurance please?” His brow knitted when I turned on my overhead light.

I dug through my purse, handing him what he needed as I found it. “I didn’t do anything wrong.”

“You failed to come to a complete stop at the red light.”

“Right on red is allowed there.” I blinked rapidly. “Sorry, I have something in my eye.”

Tears. That was what I had in my eye. In both eyes actually.

He tapped his hand against his ticket book. “You didn’t come to a complete stop before turning.”

“I’m sorry you didn’t think my stop qualified as complete.”

He smirked. “Right.” He handed back my license and insurance paper. “Miss Carter, next time please make sure you stop completely before turning. Tonight, I’m issuing you a verbal warning.”

“What does that mean?” I thumped the steering wheel.

“It means you aren’t getting a ticket, only my mini lecture on not rolling a red light.”

“Thank you, Eli.” That part I meant. A ticket would have made me bawl, and doing that in front of him would be horribly embarrassing.

He nodded and turned.

I started the engine, rolled up my window, and shrieked when he knocked on the glass. Trying to find the right switch, I managed to roll down all the other windows before getting the driver’s side window down.

“Yes?”

He scrubbed his face, and I could see the concern swirling in his eyes. “You okay?”

All I had to do was nod and drive away, but no. I unloaded. “Are there any men in this county who don’t ask out a woman, hoping for nothing more than a one-night stand? It shouldn’t matter that I own a lingerie store. That doesn’t mean I want . . . want . . . that!”

His eyes widened as I continued.

“Why is it that the rotten apples seek me out? All I wanted was a puppy, but I can’t get one yet. And he seemed nice at first.”

“The puppy?”

“The guy. We didn’t even have our drinks yet when he asked me to—” I covered my face with my hands. “And now I’m making a fool of myself. I cry when I’m angry. It’s like when there’s a fire and the automatic sprinklers come on.”

He didn’t respond.

After a deep inhale and letting the breath escape, I turned to face him. “But, yeah, I’m okay.”

His jaw was clenched, and anger flared in his green eyes. What I expected to see wasn’t there. Pity. There wasn’t a hint of it anywhere on his face.

His head bobbed in a small nod, and he pointed at my overhead light. “It’ll be easier to see if you turn off that light.”

It was easier to see him with the light on. And now was when I should take a good look because after my display, he wouldn’t come anywhere near me again.

I’d wager money on that.

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