By Diana Gardin
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For seven years he’s fought for his country. Now he’ll fight for her.
Army Ranger Dare Conners has been through hell. He’s left combat behind, yet the memories that refuse to fade are proving just as dangerous. Ordered to take R&R, he joins his buddy for beaches, beers, and babes-if that can’t cure him, nothing will. But when he meets Berkeley, a woman who affects him like no one else, a new kind of battle begins . . .
An Admiral’s daughter, Berkeley knows her life has been planned since birth. The right school, the right boyfriend-and now that she’s graduated-the right marriage. But after years of being right, Berkeley is ready to be a little wrong. And Dare Conners has wrong written all over him. The sexy soldier has a body built for sin and secrets he won’t share. What starts as a fling quickly grows into something more. But summer can’t last forever, and when the truth comes out, both Berkeley and Dare could be in for quite a fall.
“Last True Hero is the perfect escape. Diana Gardin is a fresh new voice in contemporary romance.” — Lia Riley
Being alone was something I had always excelled at. As a kid, I kept to myself from the time I started school. I noticed how the other kids seemed to crave company, how they sought out a pack of friends to roll through life with. That wasn’t me; I never needed anyone. Or anything. As I grew up, that feeling of everything being better if I didn’t have to share it followed me wherever I went. I got strong, and smart, and completely self-sufficient. That was the way I liked it.
That was the way it had always been.
Then, one day, I met the pin in the grenade that blew my entire world apart.
And she obliterated my desire for a simple, solitary life. She destroyed my existence, as I knew it.
I was slain by her; where years in the army had failed to demolish my lone spirit, she blew it to smithereens. She owns me.
And I will walk through fire to protect her.
Welcome to Lone Sands, North Carolina. Where lonely hearts find a home in the sun and the sand.
Seriously? This postage-stamp-size town off the coast thinks that their best feature is that it’s full of lonely people?
This is probably the point when I should turn around, drive pell-mell in the opposite direction of Lone Sands. But I don’t. I keep plugging. The love of my life, my Ford F-250, has made it this far from Fort Benning. I’m tired of driving, tired of pulling through fast-food drive-throughs. I just want to stop.
I just want to live.
That sounds so simple, just live. But how am I supposed to do that, now? I have no idea what the hell I’m supposed to do with my life from this point forward.
But according to my buddy Drake, this quiet little town is the place to be if you’re looking for some peace and quiet after the army sends you packing.
I observe as I drive. That’s something I’ve always been good at. Observing. Reading people. Taking mental notes.
Each new road I turn on is picturesque, dusted with sand. Charming shops and restaurants in bright colors adorn the quaint little streets. The ocean is visible sometimes when I glance down a side street, shining and winking with the afternoon sunlight. Cottages are scattered in clusters, tall sea grass intermixed with small dunes for yards.
I’m going to be living in a town that doubles as the cover of some damn girly book.
When I pull up to the address I’d put in my GPS back in Georgia, Drake strides out of the unpretentious bungalow. The front garden beds are alive with the leafy fronds of palm bushes, waving at me as if in welcome.
“Man, you made it!” Drake is pulling open my truck door and dragging me onto my feet. He proceeds to squeeze me in a bear hug so tight I think a few of my ribs are left cracked in his wake.
“Yeah.” I rub my sides as he releases me, wincing. “I made it.”
He’s already standing beside the extended truck bed, reaching to grab my suitcase, pulling it up and out. “This all you brought?”
“That’s all I’ve got.”
Drake nods his blocky, shaved head. It sits atop his neck like a boulder perched on a stump. Every inch of him is like that: big and steady. The dude is as solid as a mountain.
He disappears through the heavy oak front door, and then pokes his head back outside to peer at me. “Get in here!”
When I enter, I look around, my eyes drinking in the living room. Whistling, I nod my head in appreciation. “This is nice, Drake. Real nice.”
The floors are some sort of dark hardwood, and although the living area we’ve just entered is a little tight, the ceilings are high and decorated with exposed beams. The fireplace takes up the entire far wall, made of some kind of natural stone that makes me stupid with envy. I walk over and reach out a hand, feeling the rough texture beneath my fingers.
“This is amazing.”
“Yeah.” Drake shrugs. “I knew that would speak to you. I worked on all of this myself. Place was a wreck when I bought it. But I can see the water from here, and I wanted the beach in walking distance. It was worth it to fix this old dump up.”
I can tell from the loving way he talks about his house that he doesn’t really think it’s a dump. Whatever the opposite of a dump is, that’s how my friend feels about this house.
“You did good, man. It’s beautiful.”
He grins his trademark, full-on cheesefest of a grin. “Thanks. Let me show you your room.”
The house has two bedrooms; Drake leads the way to the smaller of the two and sets my bag down on a queen-size bed. The room is sparse: a bed, a dresser, and an en suite bathroom off to one side. But the ceilings are high here, too, and there’s a sliding glass door that leads out to the sand beyond.
“Drake,” I begin. “I don’t know how to thank you for this.”
He shakes his head and lifts a hand, cutting me off. “Don’t. We’re brothers. Maybe we don’t have the same blood running through our veins, but you’ll always be my family, Dare. I look out for my own. And I know what it’s like when you first get out. You’ll come work with me at the garage tomorrow, and we’ll take it from there. You hungry?”
I nod, gratitude filling my chest. The feeling steals my words away; all I can do is nod. “Starving.”
“Let’s go to a little place I know. Crab legs and shrimp. We can eat till we’re stuffed, drink a few, and then come home and crash. Sound like a night?”
“Sounds like the best damn night I’ve had in a while.”
He grins ear to ear and slaps me on the back so hard I’m forced to take a lurching step forward.
A few minutes later, we are rocketing down the town’s main drag and my long legs feel like they’re wrapped in a burrito.
“I’m used to more legroom than this,” I groan. “How do you drive this thing? Your ass is like five hundred pounds bigger than I am.”
Drake cuts his eyes at me. “Don’t. Talk. Shit. About. The. Challenger.”
I roll my eyes so hard my forehead aches. Drake’s always had a thing for fast cars, especially if they’re packing extra heat under the hood. “Next time, we take the truck.” My gorgeous, black, four-door, extended-cab, extended-bed demon.
We pull up in front of the restaurant, and I just sit in the car and study it a moment while Drake lugs himself out of the driver’s seat. It’s tiny, like everything else seems to be in Lone Sands. It’s definitely a hole in the wall, with its gravel parking lot and creaky old sign hanging on rusty chains above the door. Written on it is the name of the place, SEE FOOD.
“Clever,” I mutter as I exit the Challenger. Drake’s breath hitches as my belt buckle scratches against the side of the car. I wince, checking the dark gray paint to make sure it’s intact.
“My bad.” I shoot him a chagrined smile. “All good.”
When we’re seated at a tiny booth inside the restaurant, I’ve already changed my mind about the sketchy vibes I was getting on the outside. In here, it smells like coastal heaven. My mouth is watering as I gaze hungrily at the menu, and I’m ignoring Drake completely, which is okay because he’s ignoring me, too.
“What can I get for you boys today?”
I keep staring at the menu while Drake begins rattling off his food order for the waitress. I can imagine her eyes growing rounder and larger as he keeps going, because Drake normally eats enough for three men. Finally, I zero in on what I want and glance up at her to relay my wishes.
Now is a good time to point this out: I’ve been in the army for seven years. I’ve lived all over the United States. I’ve traveled plenty outside of it, too. I’m not a saint; I’ve met women all over the place that made my time in their native lands worthwhile. I’m only a man, and I’ve always enjoyed a woman’s company.
But I’ve never in my twenty-five years seen a woman like this.
At first, as I stare, I’m not sure what exactly it is that sets her worlds apart. Her face is gorgeous, yeah. It’s the kind of face that keeps men alive in a desert far, far away. The warm, whiskey-colored eyes that pierce me straight through my heart are Disney-princess big, and when she blinks something in my chest explodes. Or maybe it’s her hair. All those light-colored curls piled high on top of her head, one wavy tendril hanging into her eyes.
Damn. I physically have to restrain my hand from reaching up to brush it away.
But it can’t be any of those things, can it? I’m no stranger to meeting beautiful women in all shapes and sizes.
Maybe it’s her body. Which, even covered up in a tight restaurant T-shirt and short-enough-to-peek denim cutoffs, is luring me dangerously closer to those legs that seem to go on for days.
But, as I continue to embarrass myself because I can’t pull my eyes away and force my mouth to work, I realize it’s her total aloofness that has me salivating at the mouth. She could give two shits about who I am or what I’ve done. She’s barely even looking at me. Wait, she really isn’t looking at me. She’s looking at a spot just above my left ear.
So, I’ll make her look at me. I clear my throat and ask, “What’s good here?”
Finally, finally, her gaze slides to mine, and whatever exploded in my chest earlier detonates once again, only about a million times harder.
“Everything’s good here,” she replies. Her tone is cool and cautious, as if she thinks I’m hitting on her. Huh. That must happen a lot.
“Okay.” I shoot her what I hope is a winning smile. “Then get me one of everything.”
Her mouth drops open slightly, and I enjoy watching her tongue play across her top teeth. “What?”
My grin grows as wide as one of Drake’s kooky ones. “Just give me whatever you usually eat. I’m sure I’ll love it.”
She frowns, and a tiny crease forms in the center of her forehead that draws something inside of me up, out, and into the open. Looking at her is causing me to feel too exposed, too out in the open and unprotected. I glance back down at my menu, but the smile doesn’t fade from my face.
“All right,” she finally says. “I’ll bring you a few of my favorites. But don’t blame me if you hate them.”
Her voice is a little haughty, and so soft and feminine that an extra surge of testosterone races through me. All those hormones centered in one particular place in my body, and I shift in my seat as I feel my jeans shrinking.
When I look up again, she’s gone. But Drake is now staring openly in my direction, his grin as wide as I’ve ever seen it.
“You just fell in love a little bit, didn’t you?”
“Shut the hell up.”
He laughs. “I don’t blame you. She’s definitely hot.”
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Okay, Romeo, we won’t. I just want to watch you make an idiot of yourself for the rest of the night.”
I’m halfway through my second bottle of Killian’s when she returns, laden down with two trays of food. She sets them down on the table opposite us, and I watch closely as she first lays three platters in front of Drake.
“Thanks, sweetheart.” His whole face lights up with his trademark smile, and it appears it’s contagious, because she smiles right back at him.
When I see it, I suck in a breath and bite down hard on my tongue.
She has dimples.
“You’re so welcome,” she answers.
I like the slight twang in her tone. I like it a whole damn lot.
“And for you,” she continues, aiming that gaze, the one that stabbed me earlier, in my direction. “I have a little selection.”
She rattles off the name of each item as she sets it down: crab cakes, calamari, mushrooms stuffed with succulent lobster meat, and a metal bucket of buttered corn on the cob.
I’m still starving, and somehow the fact that this food is brought to me by someone who looks like her is making me so much hungrier.
“Thank you. You have amazing taste. Everything looks delicious.”
“It will be,” she assures me, leveling her gaze at mine for another second. When she turns away, she leaves the sweet scent of roses in her wake. I inhale deeply, receiving the blend of seafood and flowers and mentally adding the mixture to the list of things I can’t resist.
“Y’all let me know if you need anything else.” She flounces away.
“So.” Drake begins tentatively, and I know I’m not going to like the turn our conversation is about to take.
I stuff my mouth full of lobster-infused mushrooms and have to close my eyes because they taste fucking incredible.
“Your physical therapy is done, right?”
Drake doesn’t waste time; he gets directly to the point. It’s one of the reasons he’s one of few friends I have in civilian life. I hate bullshit.
“Yeah. It’s done, Drake. I’m clear.”
“But you weren’t cleared for duty. So how much are you going to be able to handle in the shop? I’m serious, dude. I don’t want you getting hurt on my watch.”
“I’m a grown-ass man, Drake, and an ex-Army Ranger. I can handle getting under some cars and getting shit done. You don’t have to worry about me.”
Drake continues to chew a mouthful of food while he studies me, and then washes it down with a gulp from his own bottle of beer.
“I know you’re tough. But you’ve gone through a lot, Dare. I wouldn’t blame you if you just wanted to take it easy for a while.”
“I live at the beach now, right? I am taking it easy. But I’m going to earn my keep. Conversation over?”
He nods, not taking his eyes off of me. “Roger that.”
I nod, allowing my eyes to wander around the restaurant. I spot Legs over by the computer on the back wall, checking her cell phone. I keep track of her as she busies herself with bringing food and refills to her tables. Other than ours, she has only two others. I’ve arrived in Lone Sands in April, a good month before the tourists will surge in, searching for summer fun.
Finally, she returns to us, holding our check.
“How was it?” she asks me. The wariness in her voice bothers me. She doesn’t seem as cautious with Drake, and I want to know why.
“Drake,” I say suddenly. “It’s on me tonight. Want to head out to the Challenger while I finish up?”
Chucking, he salutes and heaves himself out of the booth. “Yes, Sergeant.”
The waitress—how do I not yet know her name?—glances sharply at him as he speaks, and then aims her steadfast gaze at me while I take the check gently from her fingers.
“Berkeley,” I read aloud. Damn, even her name strikes an image of perfect beauty.
“That’s me. Did you like everything?” She’s asking me as if she doesn’t want to ask, but she needs to know.
“Best meal I’ve had in a long time,” I answer honestly. “Thank you for that.”
“I didn’t cook it.” She finally reaches up to pull that curly tendril off her face. My fingers curl on the table in response.
“I know that. But you chose it. I appreciate that.”
She nods. “Anything else?”
“Yes.” She waits, and I toy with my empty beer bottle as I talk myself into what I’m about to do. “I’m new in town, and—”
“What?” I haven’t even asked her yet, so I’m more than a little confused about her refusal.
“No. I’m not going out with you.”
“I haven’t even asked you yet!” I know my mouth is agape, but I’m unable to force it closed. This is new territory for me. I’m drowning in uncertainty.
“Doesn’t matter. I get a lot of guys like you in here. Can you understand that? I don’t date customers.”
I begin to nod. She takes the crisp bill hanging out of my outstretched hand. “Especially not military customers.”
She walks away quickly before I can tell her to keep the change, disappearing behind a door leading to the kitchen and the back of the restaurant.
I let my head fall back against the booth, muttering a curse and closing my eyes. Somehow, that had gone so much more smoothly in my mind. Not that I’d thought it through well enough.
“Idiot,” I whisper as I slide out of the booth and head for the door with my proverbial tail between my legs.
Lone Sands, 1. Dare Conners, 0.
The last two weeks of my college career fly by in a whirlwind of final exams, tearful exchanges with friends, and extra-special pressure from my parents to “get serious” with Grisham.
That would be Grisham Abbot, the man, according to my parents, I’m going to marry.
Grisham, quite honestly, is a great guy. He’s the son of a navy admiral, a man who serves just under my father at the base he commands. Grisham’s father and mine go way back to their days at the Naval Academy, where they both emerged as officers. Both men met their wives shortly thereafter, and the four of them have been an unstoppable team ever since. It’s only natural, at least in their minds, that Grisham and I live happily ever after as a product of their lifelong friendship.
But Grisham’s just not my guy. He just graduated from the Naval Academy, exactly like our fathers. I don’t want to marry a younger version of my dad. I don’t want to become the new and improved carbon copy of my mom. That’s so not the life I’ve planned for myself.
What kind of life do I have planned for myself?
Ain’t that the question of the century?
I have no clue. Trained chimps have a better grasp on their future than I do. I graduated with a major in interior design. My mother thinks that’s perfect, because I’m going to be planning and designing navy events for the rest of my life. Sigh.
My welcome home begins with a bang.
My parents have thrown me a graduation extravaganza. Because my mother can’t just call it a party. That would be ludicrous.
It’s also, in a sense, my “coming out” party with Grisham. My reflection in the full-length mirror in my bedroom at my parents’ house mocks me. The girl staring back at me looks as though she was made for this life. She was made to belong to affluent parents, her father one of the most powerful men in the United States military. Her mother is a flawless version of herself, always on top of her game, always the picture of class and authority. The girl staring back at me looks like she belongs on the arm of a handsome, clean-cut man of privilege who will work his way quickly through the ranks of the navy.
But inside that girl, another is fighting to claw her way to the surface. The real me, just waiting for a chance to spread her wings. The me who loves to run around in funny T-shirts and cutoffs. The me who spends hours in her room drawing beautiful spaces and painting canvases to hang on the walls inside of them. The me who is most at home in a seafood restaurant with old wooden floors and down-to-earth people who love me for me. Not for the future me who will make them proud, just the me I already am.
I leave the room, shutting the door a little too loudly behind me, and crash directly into my mother.
“Honey,” she coos. “You look beautiful. Here, let me fix your hair. This piece is falling down again. I wish you’d grow out these layers. And flatiron it. It really would become you so much better.”
I puff my lips out and blow, allowing the strand of hair in question to flutter flippantly around my face. “Better?”
She frowns, an expression her face doesn’t handle very well due to the monthly Botox injections.
“Don’t be smart. Get downstairs. Grisham’s been waiting on you for thirty minutes, at least.”
“Grish knows me well enough to know he could be waiting all night.”
My mother’s eyes roll skyward and I can almost hear her counting to ten.
I hold up my hands in surrender. “All right, Momma. I’m going.”
The pins holding my hair up are already giving me a headache as I reach the bottom of our grand dual staircase, but I plaster a giant, fake smile on my face and begin to greet guests as they hover near me. Just dying to offer me their sincere congratulations on my completion of four years in college.
The University of North Carolina at Wilmington wasn’t at all where my parents envisioned me earning my four-year degree. Since I was born a daughter and not a son, a military academy was out of the question. At least for my father. But they just knew I’d be headed to an Ivy League school after I graduated high school in Brunswick County, North Carolina. The last place my father was stationed when he earned admiral quickly became my home. Even though I’ve lived in many places before this town, I feel like I belong here. The Carolina coast is in my blood, and leaving it, even for four years, would have completely shattered my heart. So I fought hard, and won.
The faces around me are a blur as I head for the dining room table, which was nearly sagging under the weight of all the food littering the top of it.
“I swear to God, Berk, if you hadn’t shown up in the next five minutes I was going to either shoot myself, or just straight-up leave this party and hit the bars.”
I whirl around, and the sight of the caramel-brown skin, long, spiraled hair, and chocolate eyes of my friend Mea is so healing that instant tears spring to my eyes. Wiping them away, I slam myself into her arms.
“Mea! Ohmygod, they invited you? There is a God!”
“Of course they didn’t,” she scoffs, cheerful as ever. “I crashed. Just got back into town. I missed you, Berk!”
I just sigh and squeeze her tighter. After high school, Mea and I went to separate colleges, and a friendship with her didn’t really fit into my parents’ plan, anyway. She comes from blue-collar parents, and our families never ran in the same circles. But we were inseparable as teenagers for a reason. Mea just gets me, and I get her. We know who the other is, and she knows who everyone in my life expects me to be. She doesn’t judge, she just loves me unconditionally. The same way I do for her.
“Please tell me you’re here to stay.” My words are lost in her bare shoulder, and she laughs and pushes me back so that she can look into my eyes.
“You look like you need rescuing. Here, you take this and chug, and I’ll keep watch. Do it!”
I grab the silver flask from her hand like a lifeline and let the liquid inside burn my throat. If Mea is going to be in Lone Sands this summer, I can make it.
I will make it.
I freeze, but only for a second. Grisham’s voice is full of disapproval. But we’ve known each other for so long, I just don’t care. And he knows it. I down about a third of the liquid in the flask before turning around to face him. The grin on Mea’s face is so wide, I’m scared that her face is going to crack from the extra pressure.
A not-so-delicate snort escapes me, and I wipe my mouth. Good thing I didn’t apply the sensible pink lipstick my mother left on my dresser.
“Grish? You want a sip?”
His thick, blond brow furrows, and I can see the internal battle going on behind his gorgeous, perfectly sculpted features.
Grisham’s dirty blond hair is so thick shampoo models everywhere are screaming with jealousy, and it’s expertly styled into an array of spikes. His skin is tan and smooth, and his eyes are a green so deep a girl could see the rain forest if she stared into them long enough. There’s no denying that his tall, muscular body, the one that helped him earn Navy its first football win over Army in twenty-three years, is every woman’s fantasy.
He just isn’t my fantasy.
- "With her usual charm and engaging storytelling Diana Gardin has once again proved why she's my new go-to author."—#1 New York Times bestselling author Rachel Van Dyken
- "LAST TRUE HERO is the perfect escape. Diana Gardin is a fresh new voice in contemporary romance."—Lia Riley
- "This is a story not to be missed!"—Scandalous Book Blog
- On Sale
- Nov 10, 2015
- Page Count
- 320 pages
- Forever Yours