He puts on a comedic front, but she may be the one to tear down his emotional wall…
With Shayla Harrison’s dangerous ex leaving rehab and headed her way, she needs to find a safe house and fast. When tall, dark, and ridiculously handsome Chase O’Neil offers a secure place to stay in beautiful Seagrove Beach for dirt cheap, she and her wallet can’t refuse. Romance is the last thing she wants, but the safety and warmth she feels with Chase are impossible to ignore.
Chase is the life of the party. He makes everyone laugh—whatever it takes to hide a soul-deep pain he can’t fix. He’s been living in romance purgatory since his son died and his marriage ended six years ago. When he meets the mysterious and intriguing Shayla, the emotional wall he’s worked so hard to build starts to crumble. She makes him want all the things he knows he can’t have, including her love.
Chase O’Neil stood in front of the most gorgeous woman he’d ever seen—long, dark hair falling over her chest, intense eyes, and a lean torso that stretched down to hips that curved into one of those asses men only knew about from their dreams. Too bad she was wielding a baseball bat at him.
His friend Bo’s dog had gone from barking like the devil was on the other side of the door to wagging his tail and nudging Chase with his nose, looking like he was desperate to jump up on him, but Bo had him too well-trained.
Aware that his size could be intimidating, especially to someone holding a baseball bat looking like she was expecting Freddy Kruger, Chase knelt down and stroked Jake’s fur. “Oh, that’s such a good boy. Look at that sweet boy. Isn’t he a handsome fellow?” He wrapped his arms around his friend’s dog in a hug and Jake’s long tongue reached out for a wet kiss on Chase’s cheek. Chase met the woman’s gaze. “Would you hit a man holding a dog?”
The woman looked like she was about to whack one over the fence—that one being Chase’s head. She relaxed her swinging stance and moved around Chase, scanning the perimeter of the front yard like a Secret Service agent. She closed the door and ran her hand over the top of her hair, looking like she was catching her breath. It didn’t escape him that she was still holding the bat with one hand.
“Can I assume you’re Shayla, Bo’s sister?” Chase asked.
She exhaled deeply and switched the bat to her left hand. “Yeah.” She held out her hand to him, formally. “Shayla Harrison.”
She looked him up and down. “Yeah, I figured that out.”
His ego boosted up a little bit, which didn’t take much seeing that she was just ready to take his head off. “Oh yeah?”
“I recognize you from the signs.”
“Oh,” he said, his cheeks heating. It hadn’t been his idea to put his picture on all his signage. That’d been his marketing expert’s job, and when they’d initially launched with that plan, Chase’s company had been miniscule. Now, his mug was plastered all over signs stretching across the Florida panhandle, proving his smiling face on the signs hadn’t been the worst idea. But standing in front of Bo’s beautiful, no-nonsense sister, he felt a little silly.
She narrowed her gaze. “What the hell are you doing with a key to my brother’s house?”
“I’ve had it for years. I’ve been known to stay here with Jake on occasion when your brother’s been out of town. You know how prissy he is about boarding this dog.”
Shayla closed her eyes tightly, shaking her head. “Why are you here?”
He was definitely second-guessing his initial intentions, though he could have sworn they were pure. “Well, I was actually coming by to meet you. I’ve been trying to introduce myself for the past couple of months. I’ve stopped by the shop, but you’ve been out on jobs. Bo and I used to go to Alligator Alley quite a bit before he left. I’ve missed it since he’s been gone, so I was heading there this evening, and on a whim thought I’d drop by here and see if you wanted to go with me.”
She studied him. “Why did you let yourself into this house?”
“I rang the doorbell, and then I heard a scream and Jake barking like a banshee, and then nobody came to the door, so I was worried about you.” He nodded at the bat in her hand. “Any chance I can get you to drop that?”
She looked at the bat like she didn’t realize she was still holding it, and then propped it in a corner. “Thanks for checking on me.” She exhaled a deep breath looking around. “Do you want to…sit down or something?” she asked, seeming like that was the last thing she wanted.
“No, I’m just heading out. Do you want to come with me?” He hated how wimpy he sounded asking that. Chase had never had trouble communicating with women in a confident but approachable way. He sounded now like he was back in sixth grade asking a girl to go with him. Maybe it was the bat.
“No, thanks.” She stared at him, waiting for him to make the next move, which she clearly hoped was right out the door.
He nodded, heading in that direction, but a ringing phone somewhere down the hall had him turning his head by instinct. Her face lost all color, and she gravitated toward the bat again.
“Do you need to grab that?” he asked.
“No,” she said quickly, stepping away from the bat.
He considered her, trying to gauge what had her so freaked out. “I meant the phone.”
“Oh, no.” She glanced around the living room scratching her cheek like she was displaced, Jake panting by her side, awaiting her next move.
“You know, I’m a really good listener if you had something you wanted to talk about, not that you do.”
“I don’t,” she said.
“Okay,” he said, but he didn’t leave.
The phone stopped ringing, and she exhaled. But then it started up again, and she cursed under her breath, holding up a hand. “Just…I’m gonna turn that off.” She headed down the hall, Jake following behind her. Chase refrained from sneaking a peak at her ass in those black, skin-tight workout pants. Though it wasn’t easy.
He waited for her to come back, not prepared to leave her like this, even if she wanted him gone. She dropped the phone on the table and ran both hands across her hair, staring at it. She faced him, narrowing her gaze. “Would you like a beer?” This time, the question sounded sincere.
“Yeah,” he said. “Thanks.” He waited while she got the beers out of the fridge and then followed her lead, sitting at the kitchen table, Jake settling at her feet. “So, how are you liking being back home? You moved back from Nashville, right?” Chase asked.
She scraped at the label on the beer bottle with her fingernail. “Yeah. I worked for a healthcare company in Franklin, just south of Nashville.”
“What did you do there?”
He was impressed. “Sounds a bit different from taking over Bo’s pool cleaning business and shop and all. How has the transition been?”
“I wouldn’t say I took it over.”
“He says that.”
She lifted an eyebrow.
“Not in a bad way. He just told me on the phone that he couldn’t have moved to Indianapolis without you in place here. Says you saved his life, dealing with all his stuff while he went off to try to win over a girl.”
Something that could almost be considered a smile crossed her lips for a brief moment, and then her brow creased just slightly. “He’s coming home, you know.”
“For a visit?” he asked.
“For good, actually. With Maya.”
He smiled. “Son of a bitch pulled it off. Good for him.”
“They’ll be home this coming week sometime…temporarily. She’s got interviews lined up.”
“Really?” Chase smiled, realizing suddenly how much he missed his friend. “How do you feel about that?”
She shrugged. “Glad to have him back.” She glanced around the room. “Guess I’ll need to give him back his house.” She looked down at Jake. “And his dog.” Jake looked up at her and wagged his tail. She stroked him with her bare foot a couple of times, and then focused on her beer.
“Do you know where you’re gonna live?” Chase asked.
“Not a clue.”
“Well, you’ve come to the right guy.”
She gave him a look. “I didn’t come to you.”
“Of course not. But I’m here. And this is what I do for a living.”
She considered him. “Yeah, but you do beach rentals. I need something affordable.”
“I’ve got affordable.”
She tilted her head to the side. “I can guarantee you that your idea of affordable and mine are not the same.”
“They are. I promise. Give me a chance. I’ll just pull some listings and you can take a look. Do you want to stay in PCB?”
She pursed her lips, glancing out the window. “I’d rather get something off 30A if that’s possible. I know it’s high over there, but do you think there might be something in Seagrove or Seacrest? I want something really small. One bedroom, even an efficiency or studio would work, would actually be preferable.”
“I think I can find you something like that in one of those areas. When do you need it?”
“I’d love to have something in place before he gets here. Otherwise he’ll go on about how I don’t need to leave yet and try to get me to take my time. I’m not interested in living with my brother and his girlfriend.”
He bit the inside of his cheek, staring down at his beer as he remembered Bo saying that Shayla had a boyfriend a few months ago, right before she moved back. “What about you? Do you have a boyfriend?”
Her gaze went to the phone like it was the guy in question. “No.”
He nodded, waiting for her to elaborate, but she just stared at the phone and then took a drink of beer.
“Was that him who called?” he asked.
She met his gaze, frowning.
“Bo mentioned you were seeing someone, but that was a couple of months ago. The night you were driving back here, actually.”
“That’s over,” she said, staring at him.
“Okay,” he said.
She stood up. “Thanks for stopping by.”
He followed her lead, wishing he would have kept his mouth shut. “Can I get your email address so I can send you the listings?”
“That’s not necessary.”
“You need a place to live, don’t you?”
She glanced around and then let out a resigned breath. “Yes, I do. Thank you.” She held out her hand, and he unlocked his phone and gave it to her. He didn’t want to leave. He wanted to tell her whatever was going on with her was going to work out, but that was a lie. He had no idea what she was going through if anything at all. But what he did know was that his buddy Bo was close with his sister, and if she was in some kind of real danger, and Chase just walked away from her like a dumbass when she needed someone, he’d never forgive himself, and Bo wouldn’t forgive him either.
She handed him his phone. “Thank you for your help. I appreciate it.” She wasn’t a smiler. He wasn’t used to that. He was flirty, and women were almost always flirty back with him. But this woman wasn’t most women. He was figuring that out quickly.
“Have you eaten dinner?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said, but she shook her head slightly as she said it, looking off to the right. She was a terrible liar.
“Are you sure? Alligator Alley has the worst bar food in Panama City Beach.”
She hinted at a smile. “That’s supposed to sell me on it?”
“I could take you somewhere decent.”
“I’ve got food here,” she said. “You don’t need to take me anywhere.” She must have read the look on his face because she furrowed her brow. “But it’s kind of you to offer.”
“I just feel bad for rattling you earlier.”
“I’m not rattled.”
She didn’t seem like the kind of woman who got rattled often, so he imagined whatever did shake her must have been something serious.
He held up both hands. “Got it.” He headed toward the door, and then turned back to her. “What are you doing tomorrow?”
She shrugged. “Cleaning, probably.”
He glanced around Bo’s house which looked as immaculate as the Taj Mahal for once. “Good thing. This place is filthy.” He met her gaze with a smile.
She gave him an exhausted look. “Sunbathing.”
If only that were true, he’d find out what beach and be there with bells on, but clearly, she wasn’t serious.
“Would you like to go house hunting?” he asked.
“Last time I checked.”
She lowered her chin. “You want to spend your Saturday working?”
“It wouldn’t be unheard of. I’m in the property management business. Saturday’s our busiest day.”
She put her hand on her hip. “Then you don’t have time to be carting me around looking for a dinky little apartment.”
“Will you please let me gauge what kind of time I have?” he asked.
She pursed her lips. “Okay. Thanks.” She pulled the door even farther open.
He walked through the doorway. “Should I pick you up at nine?”
“I’ll come to your house since we’re looking on that side of town.”
He held out his hand for her phone. “Do you want my address?”
“I’ve got it in the system. We clean your pool.”
“Ah. That’s right. Then I’ll see you at my house at nine?”
“Does that give you enough time to find something?” she asked.
“Yeah, it’s all in the computer. I just have to put in the parameters. We can actually do that together at my house in the morning if you like. That way we can eliminate some duds from the outset.”
“Sounds good.” She scratched her forehead, and then scanned the front yard.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.
“Of course I am.”
Jake appeared at his feet, tail wagging. Chase reached down and petted his head. “I was going to ask if you had a security system, but I guess you have Jake, huh?”
She looked down at him, her brow furrowed in worry. “For now.”
“Want me to find a place that takes dogs?”
She gave him a barely smile. “Beggars can’t be choosers.”
He smiled at her and held up his hand in a wave. “I’ll see you in the morning.”
She nodded and closed the door behind her. He walked to his Jeep and got in, but he wasn’t ready to back out of the driveway just yet. He pulled up the contact she’d set up in his phone. He smiled when he saw she included her phone number. He texted her.
Hey, it’s Chase. Just wanted you to have my number in case you need anything.
He waited a minute and then felt a sigh of relief when he saw she was typing back.
He tossed his phone in the cup holder. He wasn’t sure what to make of Shayla Harrison. She seemed impervious to him, which he wasn’t used to. This was the first time in a while he hadn’t been able to get a smile out of someone. Chase put on an easy, uncomplicated, fun exterior every day, and people responded to him in kind. Women flirted with him. People smiled at him everywhere he went. Deals were negotiated in his favor.
He was the fun guy. It was his job to plaster on the charm and make everyone feel better, and when he couldn’t do that, he wasn’t sure what he was good for. When he couldn’t make others feel okay, even for a brief moment, he wasn’t okay, and he couldn’t go back to the place where he wasn’t okay…not ever again.
Shayla settled into a spot on the couch and mindless television, because there was no way she was going to sleep after all that had just happened. How fantastic that one of Bo’s closest friends got to meet her with a baseball bat in her hands.
She’d overreacted, but not without reason. Chase had rang her doorbell as soon as she’d hung up with Brian. The idea that Brian was waiting at her doorstep to go another round was enough to send her over the edge, and when that door opened, she saw broken ribs, concussions, and hospital rooms…or worse.
When it’d been Chase O’Neil instead, she’d almost kissed him out of sheer relief. There was that face she’d seen on signs covering the PCB and 30A area since she moved back two months ago. She tried not to notice how much better looking he was in person than he was on those signs, not that he didn’t look good on the signs. And his height. How tall was he, anyway? She wasn’t short. They’d measured her at 5’7 last time she was at the doctor. But she had to lift her chin to look him in the eye. At first, she’d been intimidated, but it didn’t take long to figure out he came in peace, or in search of beer at Alligator Alley.
She winced at how rude she must have come off. Why did she have to meet him like that? This was a good friend of Bo’s, and she didn’t need him running his mouth back to Bo, telling him his sister was a basket case. Bo would want to know what was going on with her, and under no circumstances could Bo find out what had happened to her in Nashville.
The phone rang, but this time she was expecting it. “Hey, Scott,” she answered.
“Did I wake you?”
She smiled. Every night he called at nine, and every night he asked if he’d woken her.
“No, I swear that was just that one time. I almost always stay up late. How did your date go? Are you still on it?” she asked.
He hesitated, and she winced, wishing she hadn’t asked. First dates usually sucked. “Oh, it was fine. Nonstarter,” he said.
“I’m sorry. Did her picture match her profile?”
“Yeah, she was fine. Sweet. Just…no chemistry.”
“Mmm,” she said, worried again that he was holding out for her. She’d made it perfectly clear that she wasn’t interested in a relationship with him or anyone else right now, and he’d sworn he wasn’t after her for anything romantic, that he just wanted to be friends. But she wasn’t sure she bought it.
“So, my brother’s coming back next week,” she said.
“That’s good, right?”
“Yeah, I’m ready for him to be home. I’ll have to move, of course, but that’s not a bad thing.”
“You can’t stay there with him?”
She chuckled. “God, no. He’s bringing his girlfriend back. If I had to lay in the bed and listen to the wall thump, I think I’d cringe myself to death.”
“I hear you, but Bo can…” He trailed off. They both knew what he was trying to say.
“I didn’t mean it that way.”
“You did, but it’s okay. I appreciate your concern. But I can’t live the rest of my life hiding in my brother’s guest room. I’ve got to get out sometime.”
“He’s out of rehab, you know.”
She exhaled a deep breath. “I know. He called tonight.”
“Do I need to get Travis involved?”
“No, thank you for the offer though. He’s done plenty. You have, too. You really have. I appreciate everything so much.”
“Stop thanking me, Shayla. I really don’t need you to do that again, okay? It kind of makes me uncomfortable. I don’t want you to feel like you’re indebted to me.”
That was exactly how she felt. Scott was the one who helped her get away. Her last day at work, he drove home with her with his cop friend in tow. Travis kept Brian occupied while Shayla gathered what she could. Shayla had refused to press charges. The last thing she wanted was a scene…a public record, pictures, proof that she’d allowed herself to be in an abusive relationship. She just wanted it all to go away.
Two months later, Scott was still calling her daily to make sure she was okay. She wasn’t sure how much of that was because he was a concerned friend, and how much was that he wanted more. There was just a feeling she had. Hints he’d dropped about how he’d always wanted to live at the beach. She’d responded with the negatives about the humidity, the traffic in the summer, even telling the story about the time Bo had run over a baby alligator on accident with his truck. He’d back off then, but another hint would come a week or two later.
“So what did Brian say to you?” Scott asked.
“You can probably guess. He wants to talk.”
“That’s not a good idea.”
“I’m not going to, of course,” she said.
“Why don’t you change your number?”
She turned the sound on the television down another notch. “I was already thinking about it.”
“Good. Well, I don’t want to keep you.”
“Thanks for calling,” she said.
“Of course. Text me if you get a new number.”
“Of course,” she said in return.
“All right. Good night, Shayla.”
Scott was a good guy. She wished she secretly had a thing for him, but when he said her name she felt nothing but friendship. She always loved it when a man she was interested in said her name.
Her text alert dinged as she was hanging up. It was Chase sending her a few listings.
Is this your idea of reasonably priced?
They were, surprisingly. Two in Seacrest and one in Seagrove.
Actually yes. You’re good.
He texted her back with a picture of Bugs Bunny holding a carrot, all cool. She couldn’t help a smile.
She texted him back with a picture of Elmer Fudd holding his shotgun. Was that a stretch? Would he get it?
He texted back.
I deserve that. I promise not to use my key next time. Good night, Shayla.
That time, a tiny flutter knocked at her belly.