he first sign of daylight barely penetrated Stephen’s brain when he heard the beeper go off from his belt. He listened closely, waiting to be sure he’d actually heard it or if he’d only dreamed it.
Three beeps. A house fire.
The normal burst of adrenaline hit him, having him ready to jump out of bed and rush off to fight the fire. He couldn’t do that with Julia wrapped around him.
“Hey.” He kissed her forehead, trying to wake her gently. “Julia, I have to go.”
She stirred against him, made a noise in her throat. “Hmmm.”
“Move, darlin’. I have to go to a fire.”
The three beeps sounded again. He had no choice but to push her away from him so he could rise. He rounded the bed, found his jeans and pressed the button to silence the beeper.
“There’s a fire?” she asked, lifting her head from the pillow.
“Yeah, a house fire,” he said as he jerked on his clothes. “I gotta get to the fire hall.”
He sat on the edge of the bed to tie his shoes. Julia scooted closer to him and touched his back. “Call me later and let me know you’re okay.”
It pleased him to know she worried about him. “Will do.” Clasping her nape, he gave her a quick kiss. “Bye.”
He ran out of the house and took off in his Mustang. He could see the black smoke rising in the distance, showing him the exact location of the fire. He made a quick call to his fire chief to let him know he’d be at the fire hall in five minutes. The fire truck was about to pull out of the hall, so Clay gave Stephen the address and told him to meet the crew there.
Great idea, since getting to the house would be quicker than driving into town. Stephen hit his gas pedal and inched up the speedometer.
Dolly took Sundays off from Boot Scootin’, so it surprised Julia when Dolly invited her to go to the bar with her. “Aren’t you off today?”
“Supposedly, but I have some paperwork I want to finish. It’ll be quiet there since it’s Mother’s Day. The nicer restaurants in town fill up, so my business dips. That’s okay. It makes today a good day to work in my office.” She sipped from her glass of tea. “Did you talk to Cathy?”
Julia nodded. “First thing this morning. We talked for almost an hour.” Her throat still felt tight from that conversation. It had been really hard not to cry while on the phone with her mother.
“I’ll be leaving in about half an hour,” Dolly said. “Why don’t you come with me? I still haven’t fixed you one of my famous cheeseburgers.”
Julia laughed. “You’re determined to put weight on me.”
“No, I just want to make sure you’re eating enough.”
She placed one hand over her stomach. “I feel as if all I’ve done the last few days is eat.”
“Don’t worry. Sex burns a lot of calories.”
The impish grin on Dolly’s lips made Julia laugh again. She shook one finger at the older woman. “You are bad.”
“It’s more fun to be bad than good.” Dolly took the last sip of her tea. “So everything is okay with you and Stephen?”
The knowing look in Dolly’s eyes made Julia hesitate before she answered. “Sure. Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. You seem . . .” She tilted her head to the side. “Down this morning.”
Not ready to talk about her conflicted feelings for Stephen until she sorted them out, Julia forced a smile. “I’m fine. Just a little tired. I’m sure one of your cheeseburgers will perk me up.”
Her cell phone rang. She looked at the display to see Stephen’s face. Her heart skittered in her chest, both from pleasure and anxiety. “Hello?”
“Hey,” he said, an obvious smile in his voice. “Fire’s out, everyone is safe. There’s quite a bit of damage to the house, so I don’t know if it can be saved or not.”
“But everyone is safe, so that’s what counts.”
“You bet.” She heard something bang in the background, like a locker or cabinet door closing. “Some of the guys are going over to Boot Scootin’ to shoot pool. Want to go with me?”
“Actually, I’m on my way there. Dolly invited me to try one of her cheeseburgers.”
“My mouth is already watering for one. I’ll see you there in . . . oh, probably an hour.”
“Okay. See you then. Bye.”
She pressed a button to end the call. “Stephen and some of the other firefighters are going to Boot Scootin’.”
“Good. Then we can get the firsthand scoop on the fire.” She stood and picked up their empty tea glasses. “Do you want to ride with me or take your own car? I probably won’t stay much past three.”
“I’ll ride with you.”
Julia felt a little guilty ordering her cheeseburger before Stephen arrived, but her growling stomach overrode her guilt. She’d taken two bites of the delicious sandwich when the door opened. Five men entered, Stephen in the rear. He zeroed in on her right away. With a sexy smile on his face, he strode toward her while the rest of the men walked to the pool room.
“Hi.” He slid onto the stool next to her and looked at her plate. “I see you didn’t wait for me.”
The humor shining in his eyes proved he wasn’t angry, yet Julia apologized anyway. “Sorry. I was hungry.”
“I forgive you.” Snatching one of her French fries, he popped it into his mouth. “Come to the back room with me and watch us play pool.”
He picked up her plate and glass of Coke before she could and carried it to the table they’d sat at Thursday. After she took her chair, he leaned over and gave her a slow kiss. “Mmm, that’s better than any cheeseburger.”
He looked at her as if he wanted to drag her to a storage closet and fuck her until she couldn’t walk. Julia didn’t think she’d stop him if he tried it.
“I’m not waiting for Monica to make the rounds. I’ll order at the bar.” He took another of her fries. “Be right back.”
Apparently the other four guys had the same idea, for they all descended on Mel to turn in their food and drink orders. “I think Stephen should buy for all of us,” she heard Quade say. “He still has money left over from winning his race.”
“Yeah,” Manny agreed. “Besides, he’s the hero today.”
“Cut it out, guys,” Stephen said with a frown. “I’m not a hero.”
“You saved a life.” Wes slapped Stephen on the shoulder. “I’d say that makes you a hero.”
Stephen glanced her direction, an uncomfortable expression on his face. He obviously didn’t want the guys mentioning whatever happened today.
Quade turned and looked directly at her. “You should’ve seen him, Julia. He jumped through a window to save an elderly woman.”
“Off the ladder.” Tate made a diving arc with his arm. “Five feet away from the window. He crashed right through it. Flames shot up everywhere. Man, it was something.”
“The next thing we knew,” Wes said, “he came out of the house carrying the woman in his arms. Michaela was there from the newspaper. I won’t be surprised if that’s the picture on the front page of the paper Wednesday.”
The more the guys talked, the more uncomfortable Stephen seemed to become. The few bites of cheeseburger Julia had eaten congealed in her stomach. He’d jumped from a ladder, which meant he had to be at least two stories in the air. He didn’t wait until the ladder was safely positioned against the house, but pulled a daredevil stunt instead of following protocol.
She couldn’t go through this again. No matter how much she cared for Stephen, she couldn’t continue to date him.
He must have sensed her anxiety for he came over to the table, slid into the chair opposite her. “Hey, you okay? You look pale.”
Her throat felt so tight, she could barely speak any words. “You
from the ladder and
“Yeah. Look, the guys are making a bigger deal out of it than it was.”
Unable to consider eating any more, Julia pushed her plate aside. “I can’t do this, Stephen. I can’t be involved with an adrenaline junky.”
His eyebrows drew together in a scowl. “What are you talking about?”
“You! With your motorcycle racing and your jumping through windows and all the other dangerous sports you do. I went through that with my boyfriend in California. I can’t do it again.”
His scowl faded, replaced by a look of alarm. “I don’t know what happened with you and that guy in California, but—”
“I’ll tell you
what happened, Stephen. Cole’s carelessness caused him to crash his motorcycle with me on the back of it.”
All the color drained from Stephen’s face. “No,” he said weakly.
“He pleaded with me for weeks to ride with him. He swore he’d be careful. So I finally gave in, even though I didn’t want to.
“Cole wasn’t capable of being careful. He zipped in and out of traffic, despite me asking him over and over to stop. I guess my complaining finally angered him because he looked at me over his shoulder and yelled at me to chill. A pickup pulled into our lane while he was distracted. He swerved to miss it and lost control. We slid for several yards.
“I was in the hospital for four days. My knee was so messed up, I couldn’t walk on it for weeks. It still gives me trouble if I stand too long.”
“Julia, I would never do anything to hurt you.”
“That’s exactly what Cole said.”
Thinking back to the accident made her food roil in her stomach. Afraid she would be sick, she dashed toward Dolly’s office and her private bathroom.
Stephen ran after Julia, but he wasn’t quick enough to catch her before she slammed the door to Dolly’s bathroom. Dolly whirled around in her chair, her eyes wide, and stared at Stephen.
“What happened?” Dolly demanded.
Stephen could hear retching from the room. He rubbed the center of his chest, which had tightened from what she’d told him about her accident. Dolly stood, walked over to the bathroom door, and knocked softly. “Julia? May I come in?”
“No.” Julia’s voice sounded weak, but he still made out her negative response.
“Do you need help, sweetie?”
The toilet flushed, water ran, then the door slowly opened. Julia stood in the doorway, her face pale and her eyes dull. Stephen stepped forward to take her in his arms. One sharp look from her stopped him.
“Dolly, may I borrow your car?” Julia asked, her voice still weak. “I don’t feel well.”
“I’ll take you home, Julia,” Stephen said. He had to talk to her, in private. It couldn’t be over between them before their relationship barely started.
Dolly looked from Julia to him and back again. He could almost see the wheels turning in her mind. “Actually, sweetie, it’s a good idea for Stephen to take you home. I have a couple of errands to run in a bit.”
Bless you, Dolly.
Stephen slipped his arm around Julia’s waist. He felt her body stiffen, but refused to release her. “I’ll take you right now. Dolly, will you stop my lunch order?”
“Of course.” She gave Julia a quick hug. “Do you have your house key?”
“No, I didn’t bring my purse.”
Dolly reached into her desk drawer, removed a key ring, and pressed it into Julia’s hand. “Here’s a spare key to the back door. Feel better. I’ll see you later.”
Stephen led Julia through the bar, glaring at the guys who looked as if they might approach or ask questions. By the time they made it to his Mustang, she walked on her own without his help. He opened the passenger door and let her slide onto the seat.
Once behind the wheel, he glanced her way, but she had her attention focused out the side window. She swiped at her eye, as if wiping away a tear. He wanted to touch her so badly, he ached all the way through his body.
“Julia, you said you can’t be involved with me. We’re
involved.” Unable to resist a connection, he laid his hand on her arm. “I care very much about you.”
She moved her arm away from his hand. It hurt that she didn’t want his touch.
He refrained from speaking the next four minutes as he drove to Dolly’s house. He felt as if he’d gone down for the third time without a life preserver anywhere around.
Julia had come to mean so much to him in a short amount of time. He couldn’t lose her.
He parked in the driveway behind her car. “May I come in with you?”
She hesitated so long, he expected her to say no. Finally, she nodded.
Stephen followed her to the back door and into the kitchen. “I need something to drink,” she said after laying the key ring on the counter. “Would you like something?”
“Sure. Whatever you’re having.”
He sat at the table and watched her prepare two glasses of Pepsi over ice. His stomach rumbled . . . not from hunger, but from dread of what she would say.
After setting one glass in front of him, she sat on the chair opposite him. She took a healthy gulp of her drink before wrapping both hands around her glass and staring down into the dark liquid for several moments. “Were you hurt?”