“When I went through the window?”
“No. I tucked and rolled. I may have a bruise on my hip or thigh tomorrow from how I landed, but I’m fine.”
“Good.” She ran her hands up and down the sweating glass. “Maybe you think I’m being unfair to you,” she said softly.
“And maybe I am.” She lifted her gaze to his. Tears swam in her cornflower-blue eyes. “But I watched Cole do things several times that could’ve taken his life. Then when the accident happened, I knew I couldn’t be with him—or anyone like him—anymore. I won’t go through that kind of pain again.”
“Julia, I’m not Cole. I would never hurt you.”
“Perhaps not intentionally. But I care about you, too, Stephen, and I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
“Nothing is going to happen to me.”
“You don’t know that!” She blinked away the tears, ran one hand through her hair. “What happens when jumping through a window into a fire or racing motorcycles isn’t enough to give you the high you crave?”
“You make me sound as if I don’t give a shit about protecting my life. I don’t have a death wish.”
“I didn’t say you do.”
“Didn’t you?” A bit of anger crept into his apprehension at what he perceived as her demanding something from him she shouldn’t. “You said I’m going to hurt myself if I don’t stop what you consider my dangerous ways. You’re going to break up with me if I don’t change.”
Tears filled her eyes again. “Yes, I am,” she said in a choked whisper.
“You aren’t being fair, Julia. We met four days ago. Yes, I care about you, but you can’t ask me to change who I am after only four days. You have to give us more time to get to know each other.”
“Don’t you see, Stephen? I can’t give us any more time unless you
He stared at her as his heart crumbled. He’d finally met the woman who could be “the one” and she wouldn’t even give them a chance because of something that happened to her in a previous relationship. Part of him understood her fear, yet a bigger part of him knew she had no right to try to change him. “I guess we have nothing else to talk about.”
“I guess we don’t.”
Stephen continued to look at her, memorizing every one of her features for the upcoming nights when he’d ache for her. He’d still see her around town. A person couldn’t help bumping into people he knew in a town as small as Lanville. He’d simply have to turn the other way to avoid her and wanting something that would never be.
He slowly pushed back his chair and stood. “Good-bye, Julia.”
Without a backward glance, Stephen crossed the floor and walked out the back door.
ulia stopped running the vacuum in the library when the young woman from the
brought in this week’s edition. She wanted to see the issue out of curiosity for the kind of newspaper Lanville produced, but also to see if Stephen appeared on the front page.
Not only did the photo of Stephen’s rescue make the front page of the newspaper, it took up almost the entire area above the fold with the headline,
DARING RESCUE SAVES WOMAN.
Julia stared at it as her heart turned over in her chest. She couldn’t see his face clearly because of the faceplate he wore, but she knew it was Stephen who carried the elderly woman close to his chest.
A hero, just like Manny had said.
She carefully replaced the newspaper on the stack at the check-in counter. These issues were for The Inn’s guests, so she didn’t feel right about taking one. She’d buy one on her way home tonight. Although she and Stephen no longer dated, she wanted to keep his picture. She only had the one picture of him that she’d snapped with her cell phone. This would make two.
Two pictures to remind her of their time together . . . a time she’d cut short out of fear, both for him and herself.
She missed him. Ever since he’d walked out of Dolly’s kitchen three days ago, he’d rarely left her thoughts. She didn’t think it possible to care so deeply about someone after a few days of knowing him, but she did. What she felt for Stephen could easily turn into love with a little nurturing.
She’d put an end to the possibility before it got the chance to start.
A prickling along the back of her neck had her straightening. Slowly, she turned her head to the right. Stephen stood three feet behind her.
Her heart took off at a gallop. He looked amazing in his brown McGettis Roofing polo shirt and faded jeans. Three days’ worth of stubble covered his cheeks and chin. He carried a clipboard in his hand, the same one she’d seen him with at Dolly’s house. That must mean he had work in the area.
She couldn’t tell a thing from his blank expression. Julia had to swallow before she could speak. “Hi.”
“Alaina called and asked me to stop by this afternoon.”
Straight to the point and all business. Julia didn’t know why she expected him to be any different after the way she’d demanded he change his life for her after knowing each other only four days. “She isn’t here. She went to the post office, but I expect her back soon.”
“Okay if I wait for her?”
“Sure.” She motioned toward the room off the foyer. “You can wait in the library.”
He nodded once to acknowledge her comment, then turned and walked away.
Just like Sunday.
Julia pressed a hand to the center of her chest. Her throat tightened, tears formed in her eyes. She should follow Stephen into the library, tell him she didn’t mean to hurt him, tell him she wanted him in her life. Cowardice and fear kept her from doing it.
“You should talk to him, Julia,” Kelcey said from behind her.
Julia turned to see her boss standing at the check-in counter, her eyes full of sympathy.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to eavesdrop, but I was in the next room when Stephen came in.”
Julia blinked to hold back tears. “You know about what happened between us?”
Kelcey nodded. “There aren’t many secrets in a small town.” She rounded the counter, walked up to Julia. “Something happened to me when I was young that made me leery of ever trusting a man, especially a man like Dax Coleman.” She released a small laugh. “He was such a tomcat, flitting from woman to woman without any intention of settling down. I couldn’t trust a man like that.”
She took Julia’s hands, gently squeezed them. “But I
trust him and now I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life. He still flirts outrageously. That’s part of him. He doesn’t know how to be any other way. But I know it’s all for play and in the evening, he comes home to me and only me. I have no doubt about that.” She squeezed Julia’s hands again. “Every moment in his arms is worth the pain I went through in my past. I can’t imagine my life without him.”
Although her time with Stephen had been brief, Julia could honestly say she’d been very happy with him, too. That didn’t stop her fear. “He does such dangerous things. How can I live with the thought that I could lose him at any time?”
of us are guaranteed a long life. Stephen is more likely to fall off a roof while doing his regular job than wreck his motorcycle.”
She couldn’t help sputtering out a humorless laugh. “Great. Now I’ll worry about him roofing, too.”
Kelcey grinned, then turned serious again. “He’s on a roof almost every day. He races his motorcycle once a month. Figure out the odds and you’ll see I’m right.”
Kelcey’s words gave Julia a lot to think about. Nothing would be settled, though, until she talked to Stephen. “Could I take my break now and talk to him?”
“Of course. Take all the time you need.”
Julia turned and walked toward the library. As she got closer to the room, she heard voices. She stepped through the doorway to see Stephen speaking with Alaina. She must have come in the back door since Julia hadn’t seen her come in the front.
The owner of The Inn smiled at her. “Are we in your way, Julia? We can go back to the office to talk.”
“No, that’s okay. I’m finished in here.” She shifted her attention to Stephen. He still wore that blank expression. “Could I talk to you when you’re finished with Alaina?”
“I have another appointment.”
“Oh.” It hurt that he didn’t want to talk to her, but his refusal didn’t surprise her.
“I could come by Dolly’s house after work.”
All the sadness drained out of her body, to be replaced with hope. “That would be great. Thanks.”
Julia left Alaina and Stephen alone to conduct their business. She didn’t know how the evening would end, but she prayed she and Stephen could work out their differences and be together.
Stephen wiped his palms on his thighs before he rang the doorbell to Dolly’s house. He hadn’t decided yet if he was an optimist or a fool to think he and Julia could start over.
She answered the door wearing a V-necked, pale blue T-shirt and denim shorts. His gaze swept down her legs to her bare feet. Pink nail polish covered her toenails.
He wanted to nibble on every toe.
“Hi,” she said softly. She opened the door wider. “Come in.”
The scent of cheese and spices wafted toward him when he stepped over the threshold. “Something smells good.”
“Dolly made a Mexican chicken casserole before she left.” She shut the door behind him. “It’s in the oven.”
“Dolly isn’t here?”
Julia shook her head. “She went out to dinner with friends. She told me she wouldn’t be home until late.”
So they had the house to themselves. They could talk as long as necessary without interruption. Again, emotions battled inside Stephen . . . a mixture of hope and apprehension.
“I need to check on the casserole,” Julia said. “Be right back.”
Stephen waited five seconds before he followed Julia to the kitchen. He watched her open the oven door, bend over to peer at the bubbling casserole. Her shorts tightened across her ass, making him long to peel them off to get to the sleek flesh they hid.
Before they made love again—
they made love again—they had to talk first, settle things between them.
Taking a chance she’d want his touch, he walked up behind her as she shut the oven door and slipped his arms around her waist. “I’ve missed you,” he whispered into her ear.
She laid her hands over the top of his. “I’ve missed you, too.”
“Can we start over?”
Turning in his arms, she touched his chest and looked up at him with pleading eyes. “Can we?”
“I’m willing to try if you are.”
She ran her hands up his chest, over his shoulders. “I’m still scared.”
“I’ve been thinking about that a lot the last three days. It’s natural to be afraid of something you don’t know. Maybe you wouldn’t be so scared if you went with me and experienced the things I do.”
Her eyes widened in disbelief. “You mean race motorcycles?”
“Not race them, but you could watch and see all the precautions we take. We aren’t reckless, Julia. None of us want to get hurt, or hurt anyone else in the race. And maybe eventually you can find the courage to ride with me. I promise no zipping in and out of traffic.”
He slid his hands up and down her back. “I’m going white-water rafting in Colorado in July. Go with me.”
“I’ve never done anything like that.”
“You can participate or just watch. It’s up to you.”
“I have a brand-new job, Stephen. I don’t know if I could get any time off this quickly.”
“Okay. I understand that.” He slid his hands down to her hips. “What do you think about skydiving?”
“That people are insane to jump out of a perfectly good airplane with nothing but some cloth to keep them from splattering all over the ground.”
Stephen threw back his head and laughed out loud. “Don’t hold back, darlin’. Tell me how you really feel.”
“You do that, too?”
He nodded. “I’m going this weekend. Come with me.”
She covered her face with her hands. “Arrrggghhh! You aren’t making this easy.”
“Probably not.” Clasping her wrists, he pulled her hands away from her face. “I live an active lifestyle, Julia. That doesn’t make me an adrenaline junky. It makes me . . . adventurous.” He kissed both her palms. “I’m willing to compromise. I can give up some of the more . . . physical things I do, but you have to participate or at least watch before I give up anything. Deal?”
Her gaze traveled all over his face. Stephen braced himself for her refusal. Then a soft smile turned up her lips. “Deal.”
He kissed her, gently, sweetly. Soon, he needed more than gentle and sweet. He needed her naked beneath him as fast as possible. The way she clung to his neck as they kissed proved she had a similar thought.
He moved his lips to the sensitive area beneath her ear. “How long does that casserole have to cook?”
She sighed when he nipped the pulse in her neck. “About twenty minutes.”
“Plenty of time for a quickie.”
Stephen bent over and pulled her across his shoulder. Julia squealed. “What are you doing!”
“Demonstrating a proper fireman’s hold.”
Laughing, she gripped his belt as he started toward her bedroom. “If you drop me, you’re in big trouble.”
“I have no intention of dropping you, darlin’. I’m going to hold on to you for a long, long time.”
arcus Holt leaned on the fender of his pickup and took a long pull from his can of beer. The sun had set a few minutes ago, which meant the fireworks show would start soon.
He wouldn’t be here if the Fourth of July barbecue and fireworks hadn’t been sponsored by the Lanville Volunteer Fire Department. He’d avoided the downtown parade this morning, not interested in being around so many people, but couldn’t avoid something in which he played such a huge part. As one of the three fire department captains, he felt he had to at least make an appearance. He planned to escape as soon as the show ended.
Some of his firemen buddies apparently had other ideas.
Nick Fallon and Stephen McGettis wandered over to him and took their places on either side of him. Beer cans in hand, they leaned against his pickup and crossed their ankles.
“Nice night,” Nick said.
“Too hot,” Marcus replied with a frown.
“It’s July in Texas,” Stephen said after taking a sip of his beer. “It’s supposed to be hot.”
Nick turned his head toward Marcus. “The breeze helps.”
“The breeze is hot, too.” Marcus released a heavy sigh. “Why are y’all bugging me?”
Stephen nudged Marcus in the ribs. “We couldn’t let you watch the fireworks all alone.”
“Shouldn’t you be with Julia?” Marcus looked at Nick. “And you’re a newlywed. Where’s Keely?”
“Both our ladies are helping with the food.” Nick turned his billed cap backward on his head. “Looks like you’re stuck with us.”
Stephen leaned forward to look at Nick. “He’s grouchy tonight.”
“Yeah, even more than usual.”
Marcus had had enough. He wanted to be alone, not in the middle of a “bro” sandwich. “Okay, what the fuck do y’all want?”
“We know what today is, Marcus,” Stephen said, all traces of humor gone from his voice. He laid his hand on Marcus’s shoulder. “We just want you to know we’re here if you need us.”
Marcus’s throat tightened and his eyes burned. He wouldn’t fall apart. Not in front of his friends. Tears could come later when he sat alone in his house, not out in public. He gave a quick nod to let them know he understood.
Stephen squeezed Marcus’s shoulder. “I want another helping of Mrs. Hurley’s peach cobbler. How about you?”
A hint of a smile worked its way to Marcus’s lips. “She does make the best peach cobbler in town.”
“That she does.” Stephen jerked his head toward the fire hall, where all the food had been set up on tables outside the large building. “C’mon. I’ll buy you another beer.”
Despite the horrible memories of this day and what happened five years ago, his friends made him feel better. A real smile turned up his lips. “You’re on.”
“Hey, Marcus.” Paige Denslow smiled at him with a “come hither” bat of her eyelashes. “What can I do for you?”
Marcus ignored Nick’s snicker at the double entendre. Paige had made it very clear she wanted to date him. At six years his junior, he didn’t consider them close enough in age to have anything in common. Except for maybe sex. He had no doubt she would be willing to share his bed. If Marcus felt any desire for her at all, he’d take her up on her numerous offers. The fact that a gorgeous, well-built woman with long blond hair and hazel eyes didn’t turn him on meant some parts of his brain didn’t fire the way they should.
“Any more of Mrs. Hurley’s peach cobbler?” he finally asked her.
“Sure. She brought two huge pans of it.” Her gaze passed to Stephen and Nick. “Y’all want some, too?”
“Yeah,” Nick said, his stare fastened on Keely standing next to Paige. “And a kiss from my wife.”
A lovely blush spread over Keely’s cheeks. She leaned over the table and met Nick halfway for a gentle kiss. They’d married one month ago today and still had that newlywed air around them. A yearning clutched Marcus’s heart, the desire to have the same kind of happiness.
He’d been in love and happy once . . . until his wife left him.
Pushing aside thoughts of Rayna, Marcus accepted the paper bowl of cobbler from Paige. She gave him another smile. “Enjoy.”
Marcus returned her smile. “Thanks.” Even though he didn’t desire her, he could still be friendly. It made working together on the volunteer fire department much easier.
He turned away from the lovely blonde and found Stephen talking to Julia Woods next to the ice chests of drinks. Two large glass jars with slits in the lids sat in front of her, each bearing a label that read
Water or Cokes $1.00, Beer $2.00
. The honor system had worked well for drinks for years. The fire department threw barbecues and fish fries several times a year as fund-raisers. People often paid more than requested for the food and drinks to help out a service everyone in Lanville appreciated.
As a captain with access to the accounting records, he knew exactly how finances stood for the department. Whatever they took in from tonight would go toward the new tanker-truck fund. What they already had, plus what they’d make on the firefighters calendar that would come out in September, should push them over the top so they could order their truck.
Thank God he’d managed to avoid posing for the calendar. His fire chief’s girlfriend, Maysen Halliday, had even begged him, but he’d refused. He’d help however he could to raise money for his department, but he’d drawn the line at posing shirtless with some of the other firefighters. Luckily, with twenty-four men and three women in the department, Maysen had had plenty of others to photograph.
Stephen slipped a five-dollar bill into one of the jars and took two cans of beer from a cooler. After kissing Julia’s cheek, he turned toward Marcus and held out one of the cans to him. “Let’s find a place to enjoy the fireworks.”
Marcus swallowed his last bite of cobbler and accepted the can. He appreciated his friends’ caring, but he believed a fireworks show should be enjoyed with a loved one. “Thanks, man, but watch it with Julia.” Nick walked up to them, so Marcus turned to him. “And you watch with Keely. I was down for a bit, but I’m fine now.”
Stephen didn’t look convinced. “You sure?”
“Yeah, I’m sure.” He tossed his bowl and plastic spoon into a nearby trash can. “Go be with your ladies.”
Before either Nick or Stephen responded, the pagers attached to all three men’s belts gave off loud beeps. Marcus unclipped his and looked at it. “Two beeps. Grass fire.”
All around the trio, other firefighters’ pagers sounded with the same alarm. Being the closest to the fire hall’s entrance, Marcus shouted out, “Let’s go!” and ran into the building.
Clay Spencer, their fire chief, stood inside the door. Marcus waved for the firefighters to be quiet so the chief could speak. “Grass fire on County Road 2221. Bad one. It’s heading toward Parker Place. Move it!”
Marcus went into automatic mode, the way he always did when a fire broke out. Nothing mattered except taming the conflagration, hopefully before it destroyed much property.
Or took a life.
“Holy shit,” Quade Easton muttered as he slowed the pickup several yards from the fire line.
“I second that,” Marcus said. The blaze had definitely gotten out of control. Flames as far as he could see burned acres of dry brush and trees. With the drought that all of Texas experienced now, the flames had plenty of fuel. They shot several feet into the air in a wicked dance on their way to nearby houses.
Wasting no time, he exited the pickup with Quade and headed toward the rest of Lanville’s crew. Fire departments from several of the nearby towns had already been called to help. Marcus knew the Lanville firefighters would need the extra help as there seemed to be three distinct blazes going in three different directions.
“Power and gas are off,” Clay said loud enough to be heard over the commotion behind him. “Everyone’s been evacuated from the houses. We’re fighting three fires. You”—his arm swept a group of a third of Lanville’s firefighters—“to the main brush blaze. You”—he pointed to the next group—“come with me to the secondary brush blaze heading toward the houses. And you”—he turned to the remaining group—“you’re working the houses. Move, move!”
Marcus couldn’t help taking a moment to glance over the nearby houses. His ex-wife’s grandmother, Grace, lived in one of them. Right now, with all the commotion and the smoke making it difficult to see, he couldn’t tell which one belonged to her.
Pushing aside thoughts of the elderly woman he adored, Marcus led his six firefighters toward the houses. Two of the new homes were completely engulfed with no chance of saving them. The roof of the third house burned, but not badly enough yet so it couldn’t be stopped. Acting on instinct and experience, he helped Quade connect the hose to the fire hydrant and aimed the powerful spray toward the structure.
Nick raced up to him, an ax lying over his shoulder. “Anyone inside?” he yelled to be heard through the built-in microphone in his mask over the roar of the water.
“Not supposed to be,” Marcus said.
Nick looked toward the house, a concerned expression on his face. “I think this is Grace Simpson’s house.”
Fear skittered down Marcus’s spine. He knew Grace got around fine on her own, yet also knew she had a heart condition. He had no idea if her caretaker, Mattie, had gotten her out of the house safely.
He had to know for sure.
“Nick, with me. We’re going in.”
Two other firemen aimed the hose through a window as Marcus and Nick entered the front door. “Left first,” Marcus said.
Marcus led the way through the smoky living room. “Is anyone here?” he called out as loud as he could. No one in the dining room, or the kitchen. He assumed the bedrooms occupied the other side of the house.
He and Nick made their way down the hall, searching every room. The ceiling above him burned, so the fire made it through the roof at least in part of the house. Showers of sparks fell on him and he knew they had to get out of the house soon.
“All clear,” Nick said. “We’d better get out of here.”
He didn’t have to say that twice. Marcus took a step toward Nick, intending to follow him out of the house, when a crack sounded overhead. A huge part of the ceiling collapsed, right over Nick.
Marcus lunged toward Nick and pushed him backward. Nick fell against a wall as the burning debris came down on top of Marcus. His left arm twisted beneath him when he hit the floor. He cried out in pain and instinctively curled into a ball to protect himself from the flames.
“Man down!” he heard Nick yell over the microphone.
Marcus batted at the burning chunks of wood while trying to protect his wrist. Only a few moments passed before other firefighters were by his side, knocking away the remnants from the ceiling. Someone grabbed him beneath his arms and tugged. He pressed his lips tightly together as the movement jarred his arm and pain shot through his wrist.
“I’ve got you, buddy,” Stephen said. “Hold on.”
Once clear of the debris, Nick lifted Marcus’s legs behind the knees. Marcus clutched his left wrist with his right hand while his friends carried him from the burning house all the way to one of their ambulances, despite his protest that he could walk.
Clay rushed up to the ambulance as Marcus sat inside the door. “You okay?” he asked.
“Yeah. Bummed up my wrist a bit.”
Starla Harkins, one of their EMTs, helped Marcus remove his turnout coat. Stocky and tough with short dark hair, she looked like she’d just as soon break his arm as repair it. Her gentle touch while she checked his wrist didn’t fit at all with her appearance.
“I don’t think it’s broken, Marcus, but we’re taking you to the hospital to get it checked.”
“I don’t need to go to the hospital,” Marcus said, frowning. “Just slap a bandage around it and I’ll get back to the fire.”
“You aren’t going anywhere except to the hospital.” Clay’s firm voice clearly implied there would be no argument. “You know the rules, Marcus.”
“Chief, I’m fine. I can still work the hose.”
Ignoring his protest, Clay spoke to Starla. “Get him out of here.”
“Nick, Stephen, back to the fire.”
The two men hurried off while Marcus still sputtered in protest. Clay finally held up a hand to silence him.
“Enough! More fire departments are on the way. We’ll handle it, Marcus. You get that wrist taken care of.”
Blowing out a sigh, Marcus nodded. Starla stayed by his side while he climbed into the ambulance and sat on the gurney. “Ronnie driving?” he asked her, referring to another of the EMTs.
She nodded. “He’s talking to the hospital now and letting the ER know we’re on the way.”
“Shit,” he muttered.
Starla grinned, which transformed her face from rough to friendly. “Don’t worry, macho man. You’ll be back to swinging your hose before you know it.”