Authors: Jillian Hart
“Yes.” Brianna McKaslin shrugged out of his jacket with graceful movements and handed him the garment. “Here’s hoping we both have better luck on our next blind dates.”
“Sure.” It was all he could think to say. Max Decker, the man who had a comeback for any occasion, stood speechless as she cast him one last look. Her gaze met his like a bolt of electricity and it jarred his system, leaving him rooted to the spot.
Amazing. He watched as she glided away, unaware of what she’d done to him with one single glance. His heart had stopped beating. The blood was stalled in his veins. He struggled for air as she walked away with her gentle, easy gait, her sleek, straight hair brushing her shoulder blades with each step.
Why was he captivated? Was it sympathy for her or something more?
His Hometown Girl
A Love Worth Waiting For
The Sweetest Gift
Heart and Soul
For the Twins’ Sake
A Handful of Heaven
A Soldier for Christmas
Every Kind of Heaven
A McKaslin Homecoming
A Holiday to Remember
Her Wedding Wish
Her Perfect Man
A Soldier for Keeps
Love Inspired Historical
High Country Bride
Steeple Hill Books
A Merry Little Christmas
“Christmas Don’t Be Late”
grew up on her family’s homestead, where she raised cattle, rode horses and scribbled stories in her spare time. After earning her English degree from Whitman College, she worked in travel and advertising before selling her first novel. When Jillian isn’t working on her next story, she can be found puttering in her rose garden, curled up with a good book and spending quiet evenings at home with her family.
There is no fear in love;
but perfect love casts out fear.
t happened again. Another blind date gone wrong. No, worse than wrong. It hadn’t even started.
Brianna McKaslin let the edge of her sleeve slip into place, hiding the watch that said her supposed-to-be-perfect match was thirty-five minutes late. And counting.
Thirty-five minutes? Too late to be caught in traffic, not in this part of town. Bozeman, Montana, wasn’t that big of a place, so anything over half an hour meant she’d been officially dumped.
Guess what, Bree? He’s not coming. She leaned back in the chair and stretched her feet out under the table. Time to de-stress. This was, what, the third first date in a row to leave her solo in a restaurant? What was with men, anyway? Were they that commitment shy? Or was it something about her?
She took a sip of cooling tea but the soothing heat and sweetness didn’t comfort her. Not one bit. She caught a glimpse of herself in the mirrored display case. An average-looking girl stared back at her. She might
not possess a stunning fashion sense and/or spend hours at a mirror trying to enhance her appearance with a mascara wand and a curling iron. But all in all, she wasn’t so unattractive that she’d sent three poor men running to escape her, was she? Or did men come equipped with X-ray vision that could see past her plain straight hair and the average girl she was to the deeper flaws inside?
She let out a frustrated sigh. She had a lot of pent-up frustration at the male gender in general. Whatever committed, stable, loving men were out there, they seemed to avoid her like an I.R.S. audit.
She wanted to be married. Settled. Secure. Loved. Was that too much to ask?
Maybe. She straightened up in the chair, brushed the too-long bangs out of her eyes and gave the dregs in her teacup a final sip.
I’m not destined to be alone, right, Lord?
No answer came blazing down from above. She sure hoped it wasn’t true. Alone was a painful place to be. She set the cup in its saucer with a clink and looked around at the other customers. She studied the few couples, obviously out on dates, seated on opposite sides of the tables, holding hands, leaning over their desserts and specialty coffees, chatting, their gazes locked together.
Could she help it if a sigh of longing escaped? Those couples had been able to find each other. And here she sat alone, the vision of romantic doom.
Maybe chocolate would help. A girl might not be able to count on a man, but a good piece of chocolate never let her down. She twisted in her seat to get a good look at the bakery’s display case packed with comfort
ing sweets. It all looked so good. Maybe she would spring for a slice of triple-chocolate cake with fudge frosting. It was one of her favorites, and she had decorated it this morning. This was also her place of employment, where she was working her way very slowly through college.
A blur of movement flashed in the display’s mirror. The blur became a guy lumbering up to the front door. Could it be her mystery date? Did she dare hope? She whipped around to get a better look. There was a lanky, rather shorter guy around her age—twenty-twoish—with dark shades and slicked-back hair. In black leather jacket and tight pants, he wouldn’t look out of place in a twenty-something motorcycle gang or a gang of any kind.
her kind of guy. He was
the man she’d come to meet, right?
She ought to go order that wedge of cake, but curiosity kept her watching. The gang guy planted his heavy biker’s boots and scanned the length of the bakery’s dozen bistro tables, wearing the reserved look of a man about to meet with his tax accountant.
She gulped; she couldn’t help it. What if he was looking for her? What if he
Billy, the man her half sister swore was The One? No, no, no, no. She clutched the wide ceramic mug in panic.
His gaze locked on hers through the glass for one brief, mind-numbing moment. The nose ring dangling from his left nostril twinkled in the late evening sunlight. Not that she was interested, but she couldn’t help wondering. How does one go about kissing a man with a nose ring? Wouldn’t it get in the way? For a woman with marriage on her mind, this was an important question.
His black eyes flashed wide in what had to be terror. He jerked his head away, plunged his fists in his jacket pockets and hurried away as fast as his boots could carry him.
Disaster avoided. Whew. And if that
Billy, then what had Colbie been thinking? Her sister had described him as a nice Christian man. That’s what Brianna wanted—and one with a good job and an excellent credit history, of course.
Mr. Nose Ring was long gone, but he had been a good reminder. The next time she agreed to a blind date, she would have to be sure and add “no body piercings” to her long list.
Her watch said six forty-four.
“I notice you’re still sitting alone.” Brandilyn, her twin, set a fresh pot of hot water with a new tea bag on the table and cleared away the empty one. “He didn’t show up?”
Brianna shook her head and reached for the sugar. “He got a good look at me through the window and kept on going. Next time I’m going to sit in the back against the wall, so the dude has to come in and reject me face-to-face.”
“What kind of guy in his right mind would reject you? Goodness.” A great sister, that’s what Brandilyn was, and Brianna cherished her more than anything on this earth. The chime above the door jingled. “Wow. Take a look over your shoulder at the hunk just walking in. Maybe he’s Billy.”
“I see him.” No nose ring. And he looked
. Too good. He was the right kind of tall—not gargantuan but tall enough to look up to with a sigh. His wide
shoulders and his granite profile were a dream. He was Mr. Perfect. He could have stepped off the front of a magazine, all rugged good looks and presence. He exuded masculine appeal from twenty feet away as he ran a well-shaped hand through his dark hair.
What would it be like to feel his broad palm against hers? For a nanosecond, she let herself dream that he had come to meet her. That she was the woman he had been waiting for, the one who would capture all of his heart.
Then she decided to get real. “There’s no way he’s Billy. My track record isn’t that good.”
“But prayer is, and I’ve been praying hard for you, Bree. There’s no reason why you can’t find a great guy and be happy ever after.”
there were any great guys out there.
she didn’t wind up with their mother’s pattern with men. Brianna bit her tongue. Hadn’t she decided to banish those difficult thoughts? She was trying to think positively. After all, she and her sister had something their mother didn’t—faith and prayer.
Brandilyn had a point. There had to be happiness out there for them somewhere. “Isn’t that God’s promise? That He has happiness in store for us, a good future and hope?”
“You’re right,” Bree told her sister, knowing Brandilyn needed to hear it more than she did. “I’m sure God has something very special in mind for both of us.”
Maybe the kind of close family life that had always eluded them. It was hard when a girl had to raise herself. Bree was infinitely grateful for her twin. They had each other, and that had helped cushion some of life’s harder moments. She had to believe that God would one day
lead both of them to good husbands and the family life they both hungered for.
this dating thing would ever work out, that is. Bree rolled her eyes. Back to the man at the front. She twisted in her chair to get a better look at him. He had stalked up to the counter, waiting his turn in line. As he studied the menu high on the wall behind the counter, his head was tilted back just enough that she could see a cowlick at the crown. He had thick hair that was nicely kept and brushed at the collar of his jacket. He was too gorgeous. No way was he here on a blind date.
“Why don’t I ever get set up with a guy like that?” Brandilyn lamented. “Wait, I already know the answer.”
“A man like that doesn’t need to be set up.” And a girl like her did.
“Waitress?” someone in the back called out.
“Gotta go.” Brandi gave a “too bad” look before she slipped off to check on the customer.
Yes, it was totally too bad. Brianna went back to reading her inspirational romance. Forget Mr. Perfect and concentrate on fictional happy-ever-afters. Those happened much more frequently. She wasn’t even sure if girls like her—who had grown up poor with a childhood full of chaos—ever had the chance for happy endings. All she had was blind faith. And—she smiled up as her twin walked by and left a plate on the table’s edge—chocolate cake.
Excellent. She nudged the plate closer, and a pair of hiking books, scuffed and masculine, came into her field of sight. A strange prickle skidded down her spine, like a warning of doom or a sign of good things to come—she didn’t know which.
“Excuse me. You wouldn’t happen to be Alice, would you?”
It was the handsome guy. His voice rumbled deep as an evening storm. With one look into his captivating blue eyes, the power of speech abandoned her. Fabulous. Since she wasn’t Alice, she managed a slight shake of her head.
“No? That’s too bad. All I know is that she’s supposed to be blond.” He shrugged a wide shoulder beneath the dark shirt he wore. “Sorry to bother you.”
“No problem.” Thank the heavens her power of speech returned. “I was waiting for someone, too, but I think he spied me through the window and ran away in terror. I must have scared him off, the poor guy.”
“Seems like a dim bulb to me.”
What a nice guy to say that and what a nice grin he had, softening the craggy ruggedness of his features. Wow. “Trust me, it’s for the best. He had a nose ring and a gang attitude. There’s no way it would have worked out past the introduction.”
“I’ve had that happen before.” The left corner of his mouth hooked in a small grin. “That’s why I’ve given up on blind dates. No, don’t say it. This is an exception. One of my best buddies promised I wouldn’t regret this. I hope Alice wasn’t that woman with an orange Mohawk I passed by in the parking lot.”
“Maybe she was looking for the Nose Ring guy.”
“I guess there’s someone for everyone.” When he smiled wider, dimples cut into his lean cheeks.
Double wow. The din from the surrounding tables faded away into silence. For one instant, just for one little millisecond, nothing existed but the tall, incredible-
looking man towering over her. He could have walked off the pages of her romance novel. If perfection were a ten, this man was a twenty.
Yep, definitely out of her league. Too bad. She had to get real. She was turning over a new leaf with her realistic but positive thoughts and finding stability in her life—or least she was trying to. That was the plan. The right man was out there somewhere. She had faith, right? A movement outside caught her attention. “There’s someone coming up to the door now. Maybe Alice?”
“She’s not blond. I know it’s none of my business, but why are you waiting for a blind date? You don’t need to be set up. Guys must flock around you.”
“Yes, of course.” She gestured to the space around her table where no men flocked. “I’m surprised you could approach the table with all the guys crowded around me.”
a sense of humor.” Although he was a tough-looking guy, his dimples deepened. Triple wow. “I’m Max.”
“I’m Brianna. It’s nice to meet you. Now tell me why
are on a blind date.”
“I’ve gotten cynical and I can’t keep a girlfriend.” His smile belied his words, and a hint of sadness cut into his face. There was a story there, one she suddenly wanted to hear. Had he been unlucky in love, the way she had? Had he been hurt or deceived? Or did relationships simply never work out for him? “I had a tough break up a long while back and some of my work buddies think I should get out more.”
“That’s the argument my sister Colbie used to get me here.”
“Have you ever noticed that the people who set you up on a blind date actually never go out on them?”
“Yes. They don’t have to go through the torture of trying to make conversation with a complete stranger, or finding out again that no, it’s just another date failure.”
“I’ve had a lot of date failures.” He straightened his shoulders a bit as he said that.
It was hard to imagine Max had had failures. He seemed perfect, exactly what she wanted. A real man who would treat her right. Who would protect her and make her feel completely safe. After all she had been through over the past year and beyond, that thought felt as welcome as paradise.
“I don’t believe it.” She shook her head. “You are not the kind of guy to have date failures.”
“I hate to break it to you, but everyone has a bad dating tale to tell.” He curled his hand over the back of the chair and gave it a tug. “Do you mind?”
“Please, sit and tell me what could possibly have been more disastrous than being rejected on sight by three dates in a row.”
“There was the time I met my work buddy’s wife’s best friend.” He eased into the chair with an athlete’s confidence. His dark shock of hair tumbled over his brow, making him look rakish. “We all went to the county fair together.”
“Sounds like fun unless you are the type of guy who doesn’t like livestock and fair burgers.”
“You say that like you think I’m not.”
“It did occur to me. You might rather go to a ball game or, wait, a car racetrack.”
“I don’t approve of speeding.” He gave her his best grin.
He didn’t know why he was talking to this woman. Okay, maybe he did. She was adorable with big violet-blue eyes and a sweetheart’s smile. But that wasn’t why he had sat down at her table. There was something more to her, something he couldn’t place his finger on. “The problem was that every time she talked, she mentioned weddings.”
“I get it. You’re a guy who doesn’t believe in commitment, right?”
“Hey, wait a minute. You’re leaping fast to all the wrong conclusions about me.”