Having spent his college years and early twenties faithful to his sweetheart who ultimately dumped him for his brother, Jesse Kirby will never again be anyone’s fool. He’s been making up for lost time by sampling every woman he missed out on. But as thirty approaches, the revolving door to his bedroom isn’t doing it for him anymore. When he meets the altruistic Cassidy Anderson, he realizes it’s time to make some meaning out of his life. Sure, she may only be interested in him for his body and his literary tattoos, but he will make her see him for the man he now knows he can be.
Cassidy Anderson has always lived her life to serve others and dated stable men her own age or older with the same goals in mind. As she considers an offer from one of those stable men, twenty-nine-year-old bartender Jesse Kirby sets his sights on her, giving her options she doesn’t need to consider. It’s been so long since Cassidy has experienced a body and a libido like his that she isn’t sure if she can pass him up. But just for a taste, because a relationship like theirs could only be headed for heartbreak.
The offer on the table was one Cassidy had trouble refusing—not because it was such an attractive offer, but because her chest panged with guilt. She needed to do more. Dedicating two months a year to helping people in Jamaica or wherever the efforts were currently focused was a drop in the bucket compared to what she could be doing. But as much as she hated to admit it, her comfortable home in Seaside, Florida was her sanctuary.
She folded her arms over her chest, scanning the pink and aqua walls and floors of her bakery. Her stomach soured just thinking about her friends from her volunteer group making food for hungry children while she served cinnamon rolls and muffins to privileged vacationers. Those people dedicated their lives to that work. Cassidy committed to two months a year, some years. But now, with Todd’s offer, she had the chance to go and help full-time…devote her life to the greater good. She just wasn’t sure she had it in her. She was damn sure no saint.
Todd had been lovely. That was the word for it. He was a solid man. Considerate, kind, funny at times, and possessing a heart of gold…mostly. He had his faults, as everyone did. He could at times be a little self-important, but she almost felt guilty thinking that about him. The man had devoted his life to helping people. So what if he did it on his terms. He was a man. They mostly did things on their terms.
The bell on her bakery’s door dinged, getting her attention. Bo Harrison walked toward her with that guilty grin of his, glancing down at his shoes and then back up at her. She was fairly sure she hadn’t seen him without Maya on his arm since the two of them found their way to one another last, what, May? June?
As he approached the counter, her core ignited as it did every time she saw him. In her defense, she’d never seen a man ooze sexuality like Bo Harrison. It hadn’t been that long ago that he was knocking on her door. Shooting him down had been a necessary evil. Guys like Bo, before they met the one of course, were in it for the sex. In her case, he’d probably had some misguided cougar fantasy he’d wanted to live out.
Cassidy never understood the attraction of the one-night-stand. For her, sex was about furthering a connection that was established through mutual admiration and respect…deepening emotions that were built on trust. A night with Bo would have been like eating a hot fudge sundae—sinfully delicious going down, but marked with immediate regret. They shared the same friends. She didn’t want to have to wear red cheeks every time she saw him at a gathering, not to mention the rumors that would have gone around this chatty group of hers. No thanks. She had a vibrator that worked just fine.
She met him with a smile. “I was expecting your wife.”
“Sorry to disappoint you with the worse half.”
“How is your lovely bride?”
“She’s awesome.” Bo went pink-cheeked, grinning from ear to ear. His smile infected Cassidy, filling her chest with warmth. She had turned him down on several occasions, even punching him in the nose once when he’d had way too much to drink and tried to kiss her. But she couldn’t deny that he deserved the love he’d received from Maya. He’d had a rough go of it in his twenties getting tied up in a long-term relationship that was littered with addiction on the woman’s part. Maya was a beautiful soul, and Bo was a complete man with her.
Cassidy gave him her warmest smile. “I’m truly happy for you, Bo.”
Somehow his grin grew a few inches. “Thanks.” He scratched his head. “And, uh, I want to apologize if I ever made you uncomfortable with my advances.” He met her gaze with an innocence she never knew he had in him. He was always so full of bravado and confidence, but clearly the love of a wonderful woman had humbled him.
It was moments like this she was so thankful she’d never caved and let herself fall for him. It’d taken strength beyond her capabilities at times, because as much as she wanted sex to be about connection, those connections had come few and far between in her time. She had primal needs that went unmet on an ongoing basis. And God knew if any man could have filled them, it would have been him.
But she’d been worried she’d fall for him or, worse, he’d fall for her. Bo was in his mid-thirties. Those were the baby-making years. Those days were in Cassidy’s rearview. As much as she enjoyed children—her nephew Daryl’s boys were her favorite humans on earth—she’d never had the urge to have her own. She considered fostering an older child one day, possibly, but bearing a child wasn’t in her plans. The last thing she ever wanted was to handcuff a younger man into a relationship with her, keeping him from having his own children and being filled with regret a decade later, saddled with a fifty-something-year-old woman.
“You were always respectful, Bo,” she said.
They pointed at each other and said in unison, “Except that one time.”
He winced. “I’m sorry about that.”
“You’ve apologized many times for that night. Once was plenty.”
“There was no coming back from that, was there?” he asked.
She shook her head. “Probably not. It would have been hard to kiss a man I’d previously punched.”
He nodded, his face and neck seeping red. God, he was embarrassing her with his own humiliation. She wondered if being on a straight and narrow road with Maya had made him look back on past regrets.
She saved them both from any further conversation on the subject by fetching the cake Maya had ordered. “Here you go. I hope your nephew has a wonderful birthday.” Bo pulled out his wallet and she held up a hand. “Maya already paid in advance,” she lied. She’d never felt right about taking money from friends.
He frowned. “You sure? She told me she hadn’t.”
Cassidy waved him off. “Oh yeah. She probably forgot.” She came from around the counter to walk him to the door so she could lock it behind him. It was close enough to quitting time. When they got to the door, she went to open it, and he went to hug her all at the same time, leaving them in an awkward limbo. After a few attempts at him opening the door and her trying to hug back, they both stopped and looked at each other with smiles.
He held out his free arm. “Can I have a hug?”
She smiled for him. “Of course.”
They hugged, and then she let him go and opened the door. “So good to see you, Bo. Please tell Maya hello.”
“I will. She wants to have a dinner party at the house with all the group in a couple of weeks. I hope you’ll come. I know you pick and choose your occasions to get out.”
“I’ll make it for sure. Just let me know when.”
“Will do,” he said with his million-dollar grin.
They both turned to find a guy with auburn-ish, shaggy hair on the sidewalk in front of them. Jesse, the bartender and owner of the Bohemian Guppy in Grayton, who could single-handedly heat up South Walton. Marigold had introduced them last week at Cassidy’s welcome back party, but Cassidy had seen him around. He was a full-on, unapologetic player. Trouble coming and going. He’d hit on her that night, and she’d had a moment where she considered breaking her no-one-night-stand rule. But she’d stayed strong, thank God.
Jesse blinked when he took in Bo. “Hey man. Good to see you the other night at the bar.”
Bo transferred the cake to his left arm and shook Jesse’s hand. “What the hell are you doing here?” Bo asked.
“I’m here to see Cassidy.”
Bo lifted his eyebrows. “Oh, okay. Y’all know each other?”
Jesse met Cassidy’s gaze with piercing blue eyes that put Bradley Cooper’s to shame. He nodded at her. “We’ve met.”
The three of them stood in a silent triangle, Jesse looking at Cassidy, and Bo glancing between them with curiosity. Cassidy didn’t get embarrassed often, but something about standing with the door propped behind her in this confined space with two of the hottest guys in the Florida panhandle was making her squirm.
“You and Blake used to come in quite a bit,” Jesse said. “What happened to the two of you?”
“Both got married,” Bo said, taking the cake with this right hand and holding up his left, wedding ring on display.
“Ah,” Jesse said, nodding as if someone had died. “Hey, you’ve still got your shop there in PCB?”
“Do you sell paddleboards? Mine’s about bit the dust.”
“Got a big selection of them. Come on in. I’ll give you the friends and family discount.”
“Awesome. Thanks, man.”
“Good to see you,” Bo said, and then turned to Cassidy. “I’ll see you soon, for that dinner.”
“Absolutely,” Cassidy said. Bo gave one more significant look between the two of them, almost like a concerned dad, and then he was off. Cassidy couldn’t help a smile. She turned to Jesse. “Come on in.”
Jesse came through the doorway. “I hope this isn’t a bad time. Did I run him off?”
“No, he was just leaving. I suppose you’re here to talk cookies?” she asked. They’d spoken briefly at his bar last week about the idea of putting a cookie on the menu. She was ready to hurry this along. Not that she didn’t enjoy the visual man candy, but Jesse made her body feel things it really shouldn’t at her place of business.
“Yeah,” he said, seeming to wake up. “Cookies. I’m thinking about adding them to the menu.”
She pulled back a chair at a table. “Have a seat. Can I get you anything? Coffee? A soda?”
“No, I’m fine.” He sat. “Your friend Marigold gave me the idea a while back. She said I needed to serve cookies on my menu. Something sweet that wasn’t an elaborate dessert. Something noncommittal that customers can snack on while they drink. Most of my customers are guys, and they don’t tend to want dessert, so I’ve not really pursued it, but I want to bring more women into the bar, so I’d love to have something unique to entice them.”
All this guy needed to do was stand in the doorway if he wanted to entice women into his bar. “You think cookies will do the trick?” she asked.
“Marigold said they needed really good cookies.” He formed a circle with what looked like strong, capable hands. “Big and thick, and warm.”
Jesus Christ, she was going to have to dust off her vibrator when she got home. She cleared her throat, brushing her wild hair out of her face. She’d put the mess up in a knot earlier, but it basically had a life of its own. “What kinds of cookies?”
He made a motion with his hands like he was wiping a slate clean. “Chocolate chip. That’s what Marigold said. Oozing with dark chocolate. No nuts. I’d heat them up for a few seconds on the grill before serving, so maybe they wouldn’t even be all the way cooked. I’d keep them refrigerated, of course. I’m not sure how all this would work. Probably be a trial and error thing.”
She nodded, thinking it through. “We could try that. A thick cookie partially baked. Or I could just provide you with the dough separated into balls.” She should probably tell him there were about a million places that would sell him such a thing in bulk, but she wouldn’t mind the business. “Would this be a standing order?”
“Yes, if it works out. Marigold said it was important these be fresh. I could come get them from you each day, or every other day, or whatever.” His cheeks colored just a tad, making her core light up for some stupid reason.
Dammit, she was not interested in this man boy. How old was he anyway? Twenty-five? Surely he didn’t own a bar in this expensive area at only twenty-five. If he did, he probably had help from his parents, which was a whole other issue. The last thing she needed was to take on some boy toy as a sugar mama. She had enough problems keeping the shop afloat and living a comfortable life in her overpriced home. She didn’t need some kid latching onto her when Daddy’s money ran out, if that was his game. God, it probably wasn’t. Where had all that come from?
She was losing it, and she had a feeling it was because this guy was stoking a fire that had been lit in her for too long. She and Todd had one night of comfortable, passionless sex in Jamaica. It’d been fine. Adequate. She’d wrapped her arms around his thick belly and avoided running her fingers through his balding hair for fear of taking out the last remaining pieces. She cringed when she thought about what happened the second and final time they tried to do it.
But here Jesse sat in front of her with a full head of thick hair and muscled, tattooed arms. No belly to speak of. It’d been so long since she’d had a guy like this that she’d almost forgotten what it was like.
“Don’t you think?” he asked.
“Hmm? Oh, yes, warm cookies are the best ones.”
He smiled. “I asked if you thought I should offer vanilla ice cream on top.”
She was zoning out now in a one-on-one conversation. What the hell was wrong with her? “Absolutely. But I’d suggest the menu item being the single cookie with the offer of ice cream for an extra charge. That way it keeps the non-committal aspect of the single, easy-to-eat cookie intact.”
“I was thinking the exact same thing.”
“Great. I’ll get started on some samples this afternoon.” She smiled at him and then stood.
He hesitated to stand. “Do you want to talk pricing?”
She waved him off. “Let me get into it and see if I can even provide you with a decent product. Once we get there, I’ll put that together for you.”
“Sounds good.” He headed toward the door, but slowly. He needed to leave…just walk out the door. She was, for some odd reason, feeling a little vulnerable. Maybe it was seeing Bo and how he acknowledged his pursuit of her. Maybe it was the fact that she’d not smelled a young man like this up close since the George W. Bush administration. Or maybe it was the fact that this particular man made the temperature in her shop jump a few degrees.
He turned back toward her. “You should come by for a drink after you’re done here. When do you close?”
“Five o’clock. I’m gonna lock up behind you.”
“That’s when I’m walking into my bar,” he said. “Ships passing in the night, you and I are.” He scrunched up his face like he was embarrassed of his words and shook his head, walking toward the door. He stopped. “Oh, here.” He pulled a card out of his wallet and handed it to her. “Please call when you have that sample ready. I’ll come get it, or you can come by and have a drink or whatever.”
She took the card and tapped it against her hand. “I’ll do that.”
“Or, I’m usually there opening around eleven. You’re welcome to stop by then if that works better.”
“That would be good. I’m usually too exhausted by five to move.”
He smiled, his boyish charm in direct contrast with what she knew to be his full-on player personality on the inside. “See you soon.”
“Yep,” she said. He just needed to freaking leave before she did something really stupid, like take him up on that drink.
He headed out the door and she locked it up tight behind him. She walked straight to the back room and collapsed in the desk chair by her computer. “Jesus Christ, Cassidy,” she said to herself. “Get a freaking grip.”
She pulled up a search for chocolate chip cookie recipes. As the pages of cookie porn passed by her on the screen, all she could think about was that longish hair of Jesse’s that would feel so good between her fingers.
Cassidy typically dated older men. She didn’t seek them out, but it seemed to work out that way. Most of the single men her age were divorced with school-aged children or teenagers, and that just wasn’t a road she was willing to travel down. If she’d wanted kids, she’d have had her own.
Older men were her safest bet. They challenged her intellectually…usually…sometimes. They did appreciate her body. She was good about keeping thin, though it’d gotten tougher as she’d aged. Lean Cuisine was her BFF, but that was mainly because she was too exhausted at the end of the day to cook something. Working as a baker didn’t help matters, but she found being around the stuff all day long made her sort of impervious to it.
The older men she dated liked sex, but it was on a schedule, timed out with their erectile dysfunction medication. They all hid it at first, taking it before their dates with her, but she’d learned the signs. Red neck, literally. The stuff doubled their body temperatures. She’d be sitting across from a man at dinner and he’d be eyeing her like a filet mignon. If she wasn’t ready yet, she couldn’t help feeling a little guilty for saying goodnight at the end of the meal and excusing herself, knowing he’d just prepped for the night out of hope. The medicine took the spontaneity out of sex. But she couldn’t complain. She was starting to experience hot flashes and hair in places it’d never popped up before. Aging wasn’t for sissies.
She imagined that Jesse did not need a pill to get a hard-on. He could probably have sex on command, just give him thirty seconds to think about boobs and he’d be there. She clucked her tongue against her cheek, shaking her head at herself. How old was she, anyway? Physically, her forties, mentally about twenty-two. And her mental self couldn’t help but daydream about a night with Jesse.