Sean Murphy has spent years fighting forest fires. The former hotshot turned forester knows the growth that can sprout from unfathomable destruction. That's what he sees in Delaney—someone who got leveled by life but didn't stop growing. He's spent the past several months watching the shy red-head blossom, and he really likes what he sees.
When Delaney is accused of a crime she didn't commit, everyone is willing to believe the worst of her. Everyone except Sean. The woman he knows couldn't possibly be behind the rash of fires that are keeping the volunteer fire department hopping. Someone is deliberately framing her. Will Delaney trust him enough to help her find the real culprit?
*Please note, this book was originally published as CAN'T STAND THE RAIN. It has been retitled.*
Release date: July 12, 2018
Publisher: Take The Leap Publishing
Print pages: 146
* BingeBooks earns revenue from qualifying purchases as an Amazon Associate as well as from other retail partners.
Burn For You: A Small Town Romantic Suspense
It’s just drinks.
But as she stepped out of her car, Delaney Newell smoothed her sweaty palms over the skirt she’d worn like she was on an actual date.
No. I wore a skirt like a girl who likes skirts.
Never mind that she hadn’t actually done that in years. She did like skirts. When she wanted to look nice and show off her legs. It was just…there had been nobody she’d wanted to do that for in a long time. Nobody except Sean Murphy, her study buddy and the object of the deep and embarrassing crush she didn’t have the courage to do anything about. The gorgeous, sexy firefighter, who hadn’t seen her as anything but a classmate. Or so she’d thought, until he’d asked her out for drinks to celebrate the completion of their EMT certification.
She’d said yes. Of course she had. And then she’d spent the last few hours working herself up to an absolute dither analyzing what the hell it meant. Was it just a friendly gesture or was it more?
It doesn’t mean anything.
But oh, Delaney wanted it to mean something.
It’s not going to mean a damned thing if you don’t march yourself through that door to meet him.
She didn’t see his truck, but the parking lot of The Mudcat Tavern was packed, and the overflow stretched on down the street. For just a moment, she quelled at the idea of walking in, alone, in front of all those people. The very notion of so many eyes on her made her physically ill. The stares and the whispers—and the not whispers—had dropped off over the past several months. It wasn’t like it had been. But it still went against the grain to do anything that potentially drew attention to herself.
It’s busy. Nobody will notice you.
She’d gotten good at making herself invisible the past couple of years.
Squaring her shoulders, Delaney went inside. For a night without live music, the bar was unusually busy. The chalkboard hanging in the entryway announced Beat the heat! $2 Pitchers, with a list of beer brands underneath. That would do it. The August heat was still oppressive, even this close to sundown. The roar of conversation pressed down on her as she made a slow circuit, scanning tables and booths for Sean without actually meeting anybody else’s eyes. After two laps through, she admitted the truth. He wasn’t here.
He didn’t stand you up.
For all her lack of confidence, Delaney knew Sean well enough to be certain of that. He wasn’t cruel. If he wasn’t here, it was because he got delayed. Maybe he caught a fire. The Wishful Volunteer Fire Department had been hopping with the drought conditions hanging over this part of Mississippi since May.
She checked her phone for a text. Nothing. Well, she was obnoxiously punctual, so maybe he was running a little late. She’d just get something to drink at the bar while she waited. Slipping through the crowd, she found a little open spot and bellied up to the long, polished stretch of wood. Adele Daly, the owner of The Mudcat, moved like a whirlwind behind it, pouring shots and pulling pints as if she had six arms.
“What can I getcha?”
Delaney started to just order a water. But on the off-chance that Sean wasn’t able to make it, she didn’t want tonight to be a total waste. She’d come out to celebrate. “Whatever hard cider is on tap, please.”
By the time she had the drink in her hand, there was still no Sean. After a few moments’ debate, she sent a quick text saying she was here. If he was running late, maybe that would prompt him to say so. Although, if he was still at a fire, he certainly wouldn’t be checking his messages.
Delaney sipped at her cider and wished she didn’t feel so ill at ease. Maybe she should’ve talked one of her girlfriends into coming as a buffer. Just in case. Not that the list of possibilities there was long. She’d been dropped by most of her so-called friends and cut herself off from the majority of the rest. Keisha would’ve come, but Delaney remembered she had that out of town wedding this weekend. And anyway, she hadn’t wanted a buffer in case this was actually meant to be a date.
“Why Delaney Newell, don’t you look a picture?”
Her shoulders tensed at the oh-so-familiar voice. This was not the easy drawl she’d been expecting. This was the stuff of nightmares. Ruthlessly forcing herself to move slow and steady—the picture of unaffected—Delaney sipped at her cider and turned. “Hello, Bryce.”
Her ex made a slow perusal of her body, from head to toe and back again, lingering on the legs bared by the skirt she now regretted wearing. Once upon a time, she’d have found such attentions flattering. Once upon a time, she’d loved him. That had been Before. Now that hungry look just made her skin crawl. His smile spread, slick and oily. Had he always had this creeper vibe and she just hadn’t seen it?
“Want some company?”
“I really don’t.” She couldn’t even regret the bite to her tone.
“Oh now, don’t be like that.”
“I’m waiting for someone.”
An expression of yeah sure flickered over his face. “I just wanted to talk.”
“I have nothing to say to you.” Please, please let Sean get here soon.
“I know we didn’t part on the best of terms.”
“You cheated on me. And unless something’s changed, you’re still with Gina.”
Bryce dialed up the sleazy smile. “She never has understood me as well as you did.”
This man represented the worst time of her life. She didn’t want him back. Didn’t want to associate with him. She didn’t want anyone to even see them together because that would just start the gossip engines up anew. She’d worked too hard and too long to overcome all that.
Seeming to realize his current tack wouldn’t work, Bryce shifted gears. “You’ve been doing well for yourself. I heard you went back to school.”
Delaney’s fingers pressed so hard against her glass, she wondered the thing didn’t shatter. “Why do you care?”
“I always cared about you, sugar. And I just wanted to say how proud I am of what you’ve done with yourself the past couple of years.”
So he’d destroyed her life, and now that she’d started to get everything back together, he was sniffing back around? Words, harsh and hateful, clogged in her throat. But she didn’t let them fly. That would make him too important, and giving them voice would draw too much attention to herself and the situation. With a dawning horror, she watched him reach out a hand to brush the hair from her cheek. She wanted to stumble back, not to let those fingers skim over her skin. He didn’t have the right to touch her anymore. But the bar was packed and she barely had room to move. Warring with the cringe was an equally strong desire not to cause a scene. As her instincts battled, her feet remained rooted in place, and she understood that despite the bar full of people, she was utterly alone, with no one here to save her.
* * *
Sean was late. Almost unforgivably so. Wishful wasn’t even big enough to be able to blame it on getting caught in traffic. Well, unless there was some kind of funeral procession. Which there hadn’t been. He’d spent way too long at county headquarters, going over the map he’d been maintaining of the fire threats in the region and trying to convince the powers that be to take an offensive rather than defensive position in the face of the months-long drought. The best he’d managed was to get the boss man to temporarily reinstate use of the fire towers to watch for threats. It was a small victory, but he’d take it.
The interior of The Mudcat was loud. Exactly the kind of atmosphere Sean knew Delaney hated. He hoped she hadn’t given up on him and bailed already. He’d spent too many months coaxing her out of that shell to blow it now. He scanned the throngs of people, searching her out. There, on the other side of the bar. The dark red hair that had been haunting his dreams shone in the dim lights. His automatic smile froze as he realized she wasn’t alone. Some guy was all up in her personal space, reaching out a hand to touch her. Every muscle of her body was poised to flinch away, but she didn’t move, seeming frozen like a deer in the headlights. This guy was the kind of asshole who wouldn’t back off without a fist to the face or some other guy pissing to mark his territory. Since he didn’t think Adele would appreciate a bar fight, Sean went with Plan B.
Cutting through the crowd like a hot knife through butter, he reached Delaney’s side in a half-dozen strides, managing to insert himself between her and the douchebag, as if he hadn’t seen the guy reaching for her, hadn’t been able to see anything but her.
He caught the flash of relief and gratitude in her eyes, the confusion at the endearment, then saw the flare of surprise when he didn’t simply stop. Riding on instinct, he slid his hand beneath the fall of that hair, tipped her face up to his, and kissed her.
Sean meant it to be just a gentle peck. Something chaste, like a high school freshman at the end of his first date. But the moment his lips touched hers, Delaney gasped. Her mouth opened under his and Hercules himself wouldn’t have been able to resist taking just a little taste. He got a hint of sharp apples and spice, like an apple pie. Sean freaking loved apple pie.
For one beat—two—he waited to see if she’d push him away. Instead, Delaney’s body, which had been straining away from the other guy, melted into him, her hand coming to his chest before skimming up over his shoulder to curve around his nape. His body was giving a whole lot of Hell yeah. And then she sighed—a contented purr of a sound that absolutely did him in and made him forget that they were in a very crowded bar and this was about proving a point to somebody else.
It was the cheer and wolf whistle that pulled him back, had him lifting his head.
Delaney’s big blue eyes slowly blinked open. Her pupils were blown wide and her kiss-swollen lips parted in a way that had him wanting to taste her again.
There was a reason he shouldn’t be doing that. Sean was sure of it. While he waited for his brain to finish rebooting, he just said, “Hi.”
God, he liked knowing he’d caused that slightly breathless tone.
“Sorry I’m late.” Remembering why he’d started this, Sean shifted, sliding an arm around her waist as he turned toward the douchebag. “Is this guy bothering you?”
Delaney cleared her throat. “He was just leaving.”
Douchebag eyed him with considerable hostility. Sean just arched a brow in a You-wanna-try-me? gesture. Years of wrangling fire hoses and hauling other heavy equipment meant Sean easily had an extra thirty pounds of muscle on the other man.
Douchebag took a step back, gaze shifting to Delaney. “I’ll see you around.”
“No, you really won’t. You lost whatever shot you had with me a long time ago, and as you can clearly see, I’ve moved on. Get lost, Bryce.”
Sean pulled her a little closer and flashed a smug smile at Bryce to back up her words. Nostrils flaring, he turned away. Sean didn’t move, watching as the guy moved through the crowd and straight to the exit, metaphorical tail between his legs. Good.
As soon as Bryce was out of sight, Sean reluctantly let Delaney go.
She was looking everywhere but at his face, and spots of color flew high on her fair cheeks. “So, um…not that I’m not grateful for the assist but…why did you do that?”
Damn it, he’d embarrassed her.
“I’m sorry about that. I saw him bothering you when I came in. I know his type. They won’t back off just because a woman asks, and that seemed to be the most expedient means of shutting him down that wouldn’t end up with me getting arrested for assault.”
“Oh. Well, thank you?” It came out more of a question than an expression of gratitude, and she was frowning somewhere in the vicinity of his left shoulder.
Sean told himself to leave it there and say something to get them back on even footing. To the friends they’d slowly become over the past several months. But then he thought about how she’d kissed him back.
“And at the risk of coming off like an opportunistic asshole, I also did it because I’ve been thinking about it for the last four months.”
Her head snapped up at that, those eyes going wide with surprise, that kissable mouth dropping into an O.
Sean offered a rueful smile. “I guess inviting you out tonight was not as obvious a clue in that direction as I’d originally thought.” He’d played things so slow and close to the vest, apparently she hadn’t even realized. Great job, Murphy.
The blush got deeper. “I didn’t want to make assumptions. I…months? Really?” A timid, hopeful smile curved her lips.
Sean relaxed. He hadn’t blown it. “Really. Let me buy you that drink and I’ll tell you about it.”
He hunted up a table in the corner, one where she could sit largely out of view. Over the months he’d hung out with her, he’d learned she was pretty uncomfortable in public. He’d never asked why and wasn’t sure if it was some kind of social anxiety or something else. But he didn’t want her to be any more nervous than she already was.
Once they’d put in an order for their drinks and an appetizer sampler, Sean leaned forward in his seat, lacing his hands together on the tabletop. “I have a confession to make.”
One delicate brow winged up. “Another one?”
“Well, it’s part of the first. I didn’t actually have to take the EMT course.”
Delaney frowned. “But I thought you had to be recertified.”
“I did. But recert courses tend to be much shorter. They’re refreshers, not the whole enchilada. I took the whole thing over again to hang out with you.”
“That seems…kind of extreme.”
Too late, Sean wondered if that made him look like some kind of stalker. It had seemed like a good idea at the time. “I didn’t mean it in a creepy way.”
She laughed. “No, I mean, that seems like an expensive and time consuming option. Why didn’t you just ask?”
“Oh. Well, honestly, I thought you might bolt. You’re shy. Getting to know you in a group context through school stuff seemed like it’d be less threatening.”
Something that might’ve been consternation flickered over her face and was gone. “God, you’re a sweetheart. I’ve never felt threatened by you, Sean.” In a tone so low he could barely hear it, she muttered, “I know what it is to be threatened.”
Yeah, he’d been afraid of that.
When he’d been a kid, he and his brother, Collin, had found a dog out at the baseball field a couple miles from their house. It had been skinny as a rail, with a thin, whip of a tail, and ears that seemed permanently lowered. After begging and pleading with their parents, they finally got permission to bring the dog home. But it had taken weeks to coax it close enough. And even years later, Flash had been skittish around strangers, hunching into shadows and hiding whenever somebody came over. Delaney reminded him of that dog. There was a deliberation to her attempts to be invisible, and he wondered what she was hiding from. But tonight wasn’t the time for asking about it, so he let the comment slide.
“While we’re in confession mode, I have one to make myself.” Delaney dropped her gaze again, rubbing a finger up and down, through the condensation on her glass.
Sean couldn’t stop thinking about what that would feel like on him. Shifting in his seat, he dragged his attention firmly to her face. “Oh yeah?”
“I took that bowhunter safety course back in January to spend time with you.”
“Really? How did you even know I was taking it?”
She jerked her shoulders, still not meeting his eyes. “That day you were at the clinic for your physical, I overheard you talking to Eli about it.”
“We’d just met. You didn’t even know me yet.”
The color was up in her cheeks again. “You kinda rescued me that day, when I almost dropped the vials from that bloodwork in the hall. Our patient has terrible veins and bloodwork is always hard on her.” The look on her face was far more serious than a simple catch seemed to warrant. Then she banished it with a smile that skated the edge of flirty. “Besides, have you looked in a mirror?”
He flashed a grin. “I was too busy looking at you that day.” At her look of skepticism, he added, “No, really. You had your hair all twisted up with those stick things, and they slipped when you dropped the vials. Your hair came half down around your shoulders.”
She snorted in self-derision. “I was a mess that day.”
“You were gorgeous.” He’d spent the rest of that week wondering what she’d look like with all that red hair loose and mussed from his hands. He hadn’t known her then. The desire had only grown stronger over the months he’d spent working his way under that careful shell.
She was still blushing, but now it seemed underscored with a glow of pleasure. Sean vowed to make it a priority to elicit that glow on a regular basis. He lifted his glass. “To confessions. And getting out of our own way.”
Did he imagine that shadow crossing her face? Surely it was a trick of the light.
With her first truly honest smile of the night, Delaney lifted her glass and clinked it to his. “Cheers.”
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