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Love After All

Jaci Burton


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27

  Chapter 28

  Chapter 29

  Chapter 30

  Chapter 31

  Chapter 32

  Chapter 33

  Chapter 34

  Chapter 35

  Chapter 36

  Chapter 37


  By Jaci Burton

  Hope Series

  Hope Flames

  Hope Smoulders (e-novella) Hope Ignites

  Hope Burns

  Love After All Play-by-Play Series

  The Perfect Play Changing The Game Taking A Shot Playing To Win Thrown By A Curve One Sweet Ride Holiday Games (e-novella) Melting The Ice Straddling The Line Holiday On Ice (e-novella) Quarterback Draw


  Special thanks to my awesome friend, Shannon Stacey, ATV rider extraordinaire, for her knowledge and assistance in crafting the ATV scene. I couldn't do it without you, Shan.

  Chapter 1

  Chelsea Gardner sat at the No Hope at All bar, waiting for her friends.

  While she waited, she got out her notebook and doodled.

  Okay, maybe she wasn't doodling. She was on a mission.

  The ten-point list made perfect sense to her. She'd fine-tuned it, but really, she'd had this list in her head for a while now, and decided it was time to memorialize it, get it down on paper. Maybe even laminate it.

  Chelsea was thirty-two years old, and the one thing she knew and knew well was men. She had years of dating history, and she could weed out a decent man from a loser in the first fifteen minutes of a date.

  She should write a book about it. She'd probably make millions.

  Okay, in reality, maybe not. But she had a lot of experience in dating. She could offer up some valuable advice. At least advice on how to date the wrong man. Had she ever dated a lot of the wrong men. She was an expert on that.

  Hence the list.

  Her list would ensure she found the right man--finally. She was tired of going out on useless dates. From now on, she was going to ask the correct questions so she wouldn't waste any more time on the wrong man. If a prospective date didn't meet the criteria on her list, then he wasn't the perfect man for her.

  Her list wasn't going to focus on personality traits--she already knew in her head the type of guy she wanted--warm, caring, compassionate, with a sense of humor. If he didn't possess those basics, he'd be out of the running before they even got started. And those she could suss out right away without a list. Nor did she have a preference for looks. No, this list was compatibility-based. That's where she'd run into roadblocks in the past and where she was going to focus her efforts on in the future.

  She scanned her list, nodding as she ticked off the attributes in her head.

  1. Never married. Guys with exes carry a lot of baggage and woes.

  2. Has to be a suit and tie kind of guy, because it means he cares about his appearance.

  3. Has to work a 9-to-5 job, so he'll be available for her.

  4. No crazy ex-girlfriends. This one needs no explanation.

  5. Likes fine dining and good wine. No more burger joints! Some guy out there must like something other than hamburgers, right?

  6. Hates sports. Everything about sports. What is it with men and sports, anyway?

  7. Must want at least two kids. A man who doesn't want children is a deal breaker.

  8. Must love animals--preferably big dogs, not those yippy little dogs.

  9. Doesn't spend all his time at the bar with his friends. If he's always hanging out at the bar with his friends, then he isn't with her.

  10. Idea of a perfect vacation getaway is somewhere warm and tropical. With room service.

  She studied the list, tapping the pencil on the bar top.

  "You look deep in thought."

  Her head shot up as Sebastian "Bash" Palmer, the owner of the bar, stood in front of her.

  Talk about the wrong guy. Bash was the epitome of wrong, on so many levels.

  "I'm ... working on something."

  He cocked a dark brow. "Yeah? I noticed you were intently focused on writing. So ... grocery list?"

  "Funny. And no."

  He leaned over, trying to sneak a peek. "The perfect--"

  She shut the notebook. "None of your business."

  He laid the rag on the bar. "Hmm. The perfect something. The perfect steak. That was it, wasn't it? You've got some secret recipe for the perfect steak. That's the way to a man's heart, you know."

  "You think I'd try to capture a man by cooking? Well, you're wrong."

  He laid his palms on the edge of the bar. "So, it does have something to do with a guy, doesn't it?"

  She refused to take the bait. "I didn't say that."

  A couple guys came into the bar and took a seat.

  "We're not done talking about this," he said, his stormy gray eyes making contact with hers before he walked away.

  Oh, they were so done talking about it.

  Typical Bash, always up in her business.

  And he was definitely the wrong type of man for her.

  While Bash attended to his customers, she opened the notebook and checked her list.

  Yes, Bash was the perfect example of the wrong type of guy. She mentally ticked off all the items on her list that he didn't fit.

  He was divorced. He was a jeans and T-shirt kind of guy. And while he might look super hot in said jeans and T-shirt, it still counted against him.

  She wasn't sure he even owned a suit. As owner of the No Hope at All bar, he worked terrible hours. As a teacher, she worked during the day, and he worked afternoons and evenings. They'd never see each other.

  She had no idea who he was dating, but he was always going out with some woman or another, so he likely had some crazy ex-girlfriend somewhere in his past. She knew he was a beer and hard liquor guy, and his idea of fine dining was a burger and onion rings from Bert's. He wouldn't know fine dining if he fell into it. She had no idea how he felt about kids, but the guy practically lived at the bar, and he hadn't had a serious relationship since his divorce, so it wasn't like he was in any hurry to have children. Plus, he didn't have any animals.

  Then again, she didn't have pets, either. But that wasn't her fault. Her apartment didn't allow them. She just wanted to make sure whatever guy she ended up with loved them. She wanted a dog. Or a cat. Her best friend Emma had two dogs, Daisy and Annie, and her other best friend Jane had a dog. Logan and Des had several dogs on their ranch.

  She'd always wanted pets, and she hadn't had one since her childhood dog, Scotty. She'd missed having a dog to cuddle with.

  She shook her head. Back to her list. She scrolled down the list and stopped at the next item.

  Oh, right. Not hanging out at the bar with the guys all night. That answer was self-explanatory, since that was pretty much all Bash did. All the time.

  She knew he loved sports because there were several TVs set up at the bar, and Bash was always cheering for some team or another. The man was sports-crazy.

  And she had no idea what his idea of
a perfect vacation would be, but she highly doubted it involved room service. Bash had an ATV and she knew he was an outdoorsy kind of guy.

  Whereas Chelsea was allergic to everything outdoorsy. Anything involving the outdoors typically meant you couldn't wear high heels, and Chelsea lived for her heels.

  See? They were not compatible in the least. Bash had failed everything on her list.

  She closed her notebook and tucked it back into her purse.

  Why was she even comparing Bash to her list, anyway? It wasn't like he was remotely in the running. Even if there had been that night she and the girls had come here during the holidays. And maybe she had been a little on the inebriated side, and maybe Bash had whispered something in her ear that even several months later still made her blush hot, and still kept her up at night thinking about--

  "The perfect drink."

  She pulled herself out of that very erotic daydream and met Bash's teasing gaze. "What?"

  "You were going to give me ideas for the perfect drink. That's what you were writing in your secret notebook, right? I know you like to challenge me."

  She sighed. "Believe it or not, Bash, not everything is about you."

  He feigned a shocked look. "It's not?"

  She rolled her eyes.

  "What are we talking about?"

  Her best friends, Emma and Jane, grabbed seats on either side of her.

  "Chelsea's hitting on me," Bash said.

  "She is?" Emma grinned at her.

  "I am not hitting on Bash. He's being ridiculous."

  "She's writing love notes to me in her notebook and won't let me see them."

  She shot him a glare. "Are you twelve? Stop it."

  Jane looked over at her. "You're writing love notes? To Bash? This is the most interesting thing that's happened all day. Please continue."

  She was going to throw her drink at Bash. "No. I am not writing love notes to Bash."

  "Then who are you writing them to?" Emma asked.

  Chelsea wanted to scream. "No one. No love notes."

  "She doesn't want you to see them, because they're for me," Bash said.

  Emma looked at Bash, then at Chelsea, a questioning look in her eyes.

  "He's full of it," Chelsea said. "And he's just giving me a hard time, because that's what he does."

  Bash slanted her that look again, the one he'd given her that night a few months back. Smoldering. Filled with promise. The kind of look that made her squirm on her barstool.

  "I have never given you a hard time, Chelsea." And as if he hadn't just infuriated her, he calmly asked, "What would you ladies like to drink?"

  Jane and Emma both ordered sodas, so Bash poured their sodas, then went off to tend to his other customers.

  "He drives me crazy," Chelsea said.

  Jane cocked her head to the side, studying Bash's retreating form. "Oh, I don't know, Chelse. He's funny. And so hot."

  "He is not." Chelsea refused to acknowledge the way Bash's black T-shirt fit so snugly across his incredible chest, or the bulge of his biceps beneath the hem of the shirt. Or his flat abs, or his incredible ass.

  Not that she'd noticed. At. All.

  "This is true," Emma said. "Why haven't you ever dated him?"

  "Bash?" Chelsea slid a look down the bar at him, then at Emma. "Totally not my type."

  Emma laughed. "I think Bash is every woman's type. Tall, great muscles, killer smile--and those eyes."

  "Phenomenal butt, those tattoos, a goatee. We have discussed your standards being impossibly high, haven't we, Chelsea?"

  Chelsea shifted her attention to Jane. "Like I said. He's not my type. I'll just leave it at that."

  "And what exactly is your type, Chelsea?" Jane asked. "Are you holding out for royalty or something?"

  She lifted her chin. "No. I've actually made a list."

  Emma's brows arched. "A list? What kind of list?"

  "A list of the qualities I'd like my perfect man to have."

  Jane laid her hand on Chelsea's arm. "Honey. You do realize the perfect man doesn't exist."

  Chelsea took another look in Bash's direction, then turned her back to him. "Yes, he does. The perfect man does exist. And trust me, it isn't Bash."

  Chapter 2

  Bash busied himself with his customers. On a Friday night, the No Hope at All bar would be filling up as people got off work and came in for drinks and to play pool or watch sports on several of the televisions scattered around.

  While he drew a few tap beers for some of his regulars, he kept an eye on Chelsea, who was waving her hands as she animatedly explained something to Jane and Emma.

  He shook his head.

  That woman was a piece of work. A hot, sexy, redheaded piece of work.

  He knew he had to steer clear of women like Chelsea. She was not the type of woman for him.

  No woman was. Easy, no-strings relationships were perfect. They'd satisfied him for years, and he saw no reason they couldn't continue to keep him ...

  Maybe happy wasn't the right word. He hadn't been happy since the day he'd gotten married. Even that happiness had been short-lived.

  Content. That worked. Nothing wrong with content.

  He shifted his attention as Luke McCormack came in. Luke wore a T-shirt and jeans instead of his Hope police officer uniform, so he must be off duty. Bash grabbed a bottle of Luke's favorite beer from the cooler and popped the top off, sliding it across the bar while Emma, Luke's wife, came over and gave him a kiss. Then Jane and Chelsea moved over as well.

  "Just get off work?" he asked Luke.


  "Thanks for showing up, man. You know I hate these lonely Friday afternoons."

  Luke took a long pull of his beer, then set it down and looked around. "You're never lonely, Bash. Besides, the place is picking up. You've always got a crowd in here."

  "Business is looking great."

  Luke nodded. "You should consider offering food."

  Bash leaned against the bar and nodded. "Funny you should mention that. I'm thinking of expanding the back of the bar on the east side and adding a kitchen."

  "How hard would that be?" Chelsea asked. "Because if you serve food, you could really draw in a lot more people."

  He cocked a brow. "I bring in a good-sized crowd already, and I don't want to offer a big menu. Just bar-type food."

  Chelsea wrinkled her nose. "You mean like burgers or wings and stuff."

  He grinned. "Something like that. I've had the plans drawn up for a while. I just need to pull the trigger on it, get the permits, and start the project."

  "Great idea, Bash," Luke said.

  Chelsea sighed and sipped her soda. "What Hope really needs is a place that offers fine dining."

  Bash shook his head. "You can go into Tulsa for that. We're too small a town for a fine-dining restaurant. It wouldn't get the draw. Folks here like their small-town restaurants, bars, and easy comfort food."

  "I agree," Jane said. "Tulsa's just a short drive, and there are lots of restaurants to eat at there."

  Chelsea played with her straw. "I suppose."

  "You could always move to Tulsa," Bash said. "Then you'd be near all that fine dining and culture."

  She cocked a brow. "Trying to get rid of me, Bash?"

  "Nope. I like you just fine right where you're sitting."

  She gave him a confused look, and he smiled at her.

  He loved teasing her, maybe because she made it so easy. He was about to say something, but then there was a commotion at the front door. A woman had walked in with a dog, drawing everyone's attention.

  Oh, shit. Gerri.

  "Aww, who's the cute brunette with the Chihuahua?" Emma asked.

  "I'll be right back," Bash said.

  He moved around the bar and caught Gerri by the arm as she stalked her way in. He could tell by the look on her face that she was ready to do battle.

  He pulled her to the side of the room.

  "Hey, Gerri. What brings you here?"<
br />
  She handed Lulu to him. "Here. You take her."

  He barely had time to catch the poor dog before it went tumbling to the floor.

  "Hang on. What am I supposed to do with your dog?"

  Gerri wagged her finger at him. "No. Now she's your dog. I only got her to impress you, which apparently was an epic fail, since you broke up with me."

  The poor dog trembled against his chest. He wrapped both arms around her to comfort her. The dog, that is. Not the obviously batshit-crazy woman currently glaring at him.

  "Wait. You bought this dog to impress a guy? What the hell, Gerri. I never asked you to get a dog. I thought you wanted this dog."

  She shrugged and affected a pout, her full lips glossed to the max.

  "She pees. Like ... everywhere. And barks at everything. And shakes. She's a pain and I can't deal. I travel all the time, and do you have any idea what it costs to board that thing?"

  Yeah, he knew. Apparently, though, Gerri hadn't done her homework. "You can't just give her away like some purse you decided you didn't like."

  She gave him a bitchy smile. "Sure I can. She's all yours now. I'm done with her as quickly as you were done with me. See you, Bash."

  Before he had a chance to object, Gerri pivoted and was out the door, leaving him holding a very scared little dog.

  Jesus. That had been fast. Kind of like his relationship with Gerri had been.

  The dog lifted her soulful, dark eyes up to his. He swept his hand over Lulu's back. "Trust me. You're better off without her, honey."

  When he turned around, the entire bar was staring at him.


  He went back around the bar, still holding Lulu in his arms.

  "Who was that?" Chelsea asked.

  "That was Gerri. We ... uh ... sort of dated for about a month. She was a little high-strung at times, so I broke it off."

  "And who is this?" Emma asked, reaching across the bar to take Lulu from Bash.

  "That's Lulu. Gerri told me she'd always wanted to adopt a shelter dog, so I went with her one day. Lulu's a year old. Cute little thing, and Gerri just gushed about her, saying she was the perfect dog for her."

  Emma looked up at him. "And now?"

  "She just told me she only got the dog to impress me. And that Lulu pees everywhere and barks a lot. And since I stopped seeing Gerri, she apparently has no use for the dog anymore."

  Chelsea's expression changed from curiosity to anger.

  "What? She used a dog to score points with a guy? What a bitch." Chelsea gently ran her fingers over Lulu's back, then took her from Emma. "Come here, sweetheart. Was that horrible woman mean to you?"

  "She seemed a little immature, and maybe a bit ... young for you, Bash?" Jane said, clearing her throat.