Burn So Bright
Wildfire “hotshot” Josh Marshall is all about fun, firefighting and flirting. But ever since his crew got trapped in a burnover, he's been plagued with recurring nightmares. It's not just the fire haunting him – it's an ongoing family drama that's kept him determined to stay strictly unattached. Now that's all changing—but is it thanks to that near-death experience or his attraction to the sexy, fascinating Suzanne Finnegan?
Suzanne, honeymoon-planner extraordinaire, knows exactly what she wants: marriage and a stable home like the one her family lost in the financial crash. Her on-again-off-again fiancé fits the bill perfectly, unlike the distracting, live-for-the-moment, heartbreakingly handsome Josh Marshall. Sure, her chemistry with Josh is insane and Logan is mostly MIA. But she has a plan, and she's sticking to it.
Except fate has a way of making plans go up in smoke.
Between a fast-moving wildfire, a mortifying breakup, and news that changes everything—it's hard to tell who's doing more rescuing, Josh or Suzanne. Only one thing's for sure--there's no ignoring sparks that BURN SO BRIGHT.
Release date: December 13, 2016
Print pages: 362
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Burn So Bright
Suzanne Finnegan always had a plan. And a backup plan—sometimes several. In her opinion, planning was essential for a happy life and for success in anything. Take the Y’s Outdoor Education fundraiser she’d spent the past few weeks planning, and which was now drawing raves from the guests. Words like “spectacular,” “sensational,” and “fabulous” were wafting through the well-dressed crowd gathered on the grounds of the Jupiter Point Observatory.
Every detail, from the damask tablecloths to the pink champagne flutes, was exactly how she’d imagined it. Every detail except one. Logan, her fiancé, was once again missing in action.
She fixed her gaze on a red balloon, part of the bunch that marked the entrance to the kids’ area. Not only was Logan missing, but he’d dropped a bombshell on her right before the start of the party. She’d had to shove it aside so she could focus on her job. But now that everything was underway, his shocking words kept flooding back to her.
Free pass. Free pass. FREE PASS???
“Okay, sweetie, this is getting dire. You have to stop glaring at your party guests.” Evie McGraw, Suzanne’s newly in love and disgustingly happy cousin, steered her behind a potted ponderosa pine. “What’s going on with you? You’ve been planning this event for so long, and it came out great. You should be dancing a jig right now.”
Suzanne could barely look at Evie. The glow of her joy was just too much. “I don’t want to rain on your love parade, Evie. Just go be happy and don’t worry about me.”
Evie’s silvery eyes widened. “Let me guess. Is it Logan?”
If she wasn’t such a genuinely kind and compassionate person, it would be hard to be related to someone as beautiful as Evie. But Suzanne had very few family members who had actually stuck around in her life. So her relationship with Evie meant the world to her—more than Evie knew.
“You can skip the ‘I told you so.’” Suzanne signaled to a passing waiter, who nodded as he headed to refill his tray of sushi rolls. “I’m sure it’s just normal engagement jitters.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“It’s written all over your face in big capital letters. I know you don’t like Logan. Hang on.” With an eagle eye on the area roped off for kids’ games, she spoke into her little walkie-talkie to one of the other volunteers. “Someone needs to liven things up in the kids’ area. They look like they just got assigned homework.”
Evie raised her eyebrows. She was wearing a lilac linen sheath dress and had a camera slung over one shoulder. “So back to those jitters…”
Suzanne whooshed out a breath, wishing she could expel all the hurt in her heart with that one exhale. “I don’t want you to be mad at him. That’s my job.”
“I promise to try not to, is that good enough?”
Evie waited patiently, but Suzanne wasn’t quite ready to spill her news yet. “Where’s Sean?”
At the mention of her new boyfriend, Evie lit up. “He’ll be here. They just got back from a fire in Utah this morning. They have to debrief, unload their gear, do inventory, all sorts of details like that. But they’re planning to come.”
“They?” A funny little jump of excitement twisted in her stomach. Sean Marcus, Evie’s boyfriend, was the leader of the new wildfire crew that had just moved into Jupiter Point. Through Sean, Suzanne had gotten to know the other members a bit. Actually, one of them in particular had quickly made himself one of the most popular people in town. Josh Marshall’s charm did nothing for her, of course. She had no idea why everyone liked him so much. All he did was joke around like a boy who’d never grown up. A six-foot-plus, blond-streaked, more-fun-than-should-be-legal boy.
“He’s bringing a few of the guys, I’m not sure who.”
Oh great, now she’d be wondering if and when Josh was going to show up. Ugh—never mind Josh. He wasn’t her type of person. He wasn’t serious about himself and his future.
Not like Logan, who was studying for the California Bar Exam and was sorting through job offers. And who had just knocked her world upside down.
“Have you ever heard of the concept of a ‘free pass’?” Suzanne lowered her voice to pose the question to Evie, who was in the midst of framing up a photo of the strings of twinkle lights shaped like stars.
Evie clicked off a few shots. “In what sense?”
“Well, Logan just dropped this whole idea on me. He says that since we’re getting married, and we’re about to swear off all other sexual partners for life, we should agree to a free pass now, while we’re still just engaged.”
Evie lowered the camera, revealing an expression of horror. “You might have to spell this out for me. You’re saying he wants to sleep with other women until you get married?”
Suzanne winced. It sounded terrible when Evie phrased it like that. “He’s being practical. We’re still young. Isn’t it better to get it out of our system now than to cheat later on?”
“Why isn’t it cheating now? He’s your fiancé.”
“He says it’s only cheating if he’s doing it behind my back. He doesn’t want to do that, so he came to me first. He said that’s the only part of being married he’s worried about. So he wants to deal with it now rather than later when it could ruin our relationship.”
It had made sense when Logan explained it—sort of.
“Think of it as a preemptive strike,” he’d said on the phone, just minutes before the party started. “It’s better to face facts head-on. I’m a man. I’m facing a lifetime ban on sex with other women. That could breed resentment and everyone knows resentment is a relationship-killer.”
Luckily, the conversation had taken place on the phone so he couldn’t see her slamming her cell phone repeatedly into her passenger seat. “I don’t know, Logan,” she finally managed when she got control of herself. “What’s the point of being engaged if you’re going to…” She didn’t even want to say it out loud for fear she’d lose it and yell at him.
“Not just me. This applies to both of us. Listen, sweetheart. You’re the one I want to marry. Our life is going to be exactly what you always wanted. Everything will be how you planned it after the wedding. I’m being very honest with you. Isn’t that worth something?”
Yes? No? She didn’t know what to think. Her mind had been in a whirl ever since that conversation. Logan was everything she wanted in a husband—or so she’d thought. He had the same goals she did. A stable, successful life, a home, eventually a family. Not too soon, they both agreed. Only when the time was right and they could afford to give their children absolutely everything they needed. Her dream was to give her kids the happy childhood that had been ripped away from her. And Logan could make that happen.
But only if she went along with this free pass idea. The alternative—losing Logan—ugh, she didn’t want to consider that. She was tired of dating, tired of facing life alone. She’d been alone since the age of fifteen. Everyone thought she was the town social butterfly, but in her mind, she was more like the town chicken with its head cut off. Logan’s proposal had made her so happy. So what if their chemistry was off and they didn’t laugh at the same things? They wanted the same things. Logan was her future. She needed to be practical.
No, she wasn’t going to let this little pothole derail their relationship. Stick to the plan.
“He’s trying to save our relationship from future resentment,” she told Evie with all the confidence she could muster. “I think it’s very reasonable.”
“He’s a lawyer.” Evie put her camera lens cap back on. “He can make anything sound reasonable.”
“Yes, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t reasonable.”
“Well, how does it make you feel? That’s the most important thing.”
Like screaming. Like stomping her feet. Like throwing Logan’s diamond ring down a gutter…well, maybe not that. Suzanne appreciated nice things and didn’t like waste. “Like I just slipped on a banana peel and fell on my ass,” she admitted.
“In that case, you need one of these.” Their friend Brianna appeared, with three champagne flutes clutched in her hands. She handed them out one by one.
Normally Suzanne didn’t drink during an event that she had planned. But this one was basically done, and dammit, she could use a mood-lift.
She took a sip. “Just so you know, you are enjoying the best of Napa Valley’s new sparkling champenoise, with a hint of blackberry liqueur, just enough to provide a refreshing tartness but not enough to overwhelm the palate.”
Details. It always came down to details.
Brianna took an enthusiastic swallow—more of a gulp, really. “Nice. Great party, Suzanne. I just wish the kids were having more fun. Can’t we set up a volleyball game or something for them?”
Suzanne drained the rest of her champagne and squinted in the direction of the play area. Half a dozen kids slouched around two picnic tables. Most were staring at their phones, looking bored. “I know, they look like they’re on detention. I arranged for balloon animals and face-painting. But none of them are going for it.”
Now that she looked closer at the kids, she saw they were older than she’d anticipated. None of them had a speck of paint on their faces—not counting the emo-Goth boy with all that black eyeliner. The balloon animal artiste sat off to the side, looking at his own phone.
“I think they’re a little past balloon animals,” Brianna said dubiously.
Suzanne tugged her lower lip between her teeth. Okay, so that one detail hadn’t gone so well. “Oopsies. You know, I wouldn’t mind a balloon animal. A sad panda or something.” She craned her neck, looking for another waiter with more champagne.
Evie and Brianna both laughed. “You’re adorable, do you know that?” Brianna pinched her cheek, which seemed ironic considering that she was about a foot shorter than Suzanne. “Do you want me to get something going for them? Charades is always fun.”
Suzanne shrugged and tipped the flute to her mouth. She couldn’t drum up any enthusiasm for this party anymore. Logan had promised to be here to lend support. Instead he was in Palo Alto, probably taking full advantage of his free pass.
Details. Details were important. What did the details say about Logan?
No. It didn’t matter. She and Logan would work it out. They had to.
She beckoned to Seth, one of the waiters, who hurried over to them with another tray of drinks. She took one and downed about half of it before even realizing it.
“How’s the champagne supply holding up?” Suzanne hiccupped. “Asking for a friend.”
Evie and Brianna exchanged glances of alarm. So silly. She could handle a little champagne. It took the edge off, that was all.
“We’re in good shape, boss.” Seth gave her a conspiratorial wink. “Enjoy yourself, you’ve earned it. The party came out great.”
She smiled at him, the fizzy effect of the champagne making it an extra-wide grin. “Dyn-o-mite.”
She giggled and swallowed more delicious fizziness. Had she really just said “dyn-o-mite”? God, champagne was the best thing ever invented. Logan didn’t know what he was missing. He could be at her side, watching the sun glide toward the Pacific, listening to the happy chatter of party guests, admiring the perfection of her meticulous planning.
“Oh wait!” Brianna said suddenly. “The kids don’t need me. They have hotshots.”
Suzanne jerked back to attention. Sure enough, three of the new Jupiter Point Hotshots—Sean Marcus, Josh Marshall, and Rollo Wareham—were pushing aside the balloons and striding into the kids’ area. In jeans and flannel shirts, they looked like wild men compared to the rest of the guests. Rugged good looks didn’t begin to describe it. Their physical fitness level was insane. They all looked like they could have run up the mountain to the observatory without breaking a sweat. For all she knew, they had.
“Oops, I forgot to tell them this was a formal party,” Evie whispered. “Sorry, Suzanne.” She raised the camera and took a few more shots. “Make that sorry not sorry. Good Lord, they’re photogenic. Every last one of them.”
Suzanne heaved a sigh, pretending to be annoyed. Better to look annoyed than fascinated, which was her usual response to the sight of Josh Marshall. Had he even combed his hair? Did he ever comb his hair? It always tumbled around his face as if he’d spent the day at the ocean. Or just gotten out of bed. Which, given the amount of flirting he did, was pretty likely. And did he always have to have that teasing sparkle in his eyes and that “I love trouble” grin?
Would he ever bother to grow up?
“It’s okay. I’ll handle it.” She took a fortifying sip of champagne, then beelined toward the hotshots, ignoring Evie’s and Brianna’s attempts to stop her. This was her event, damn it, and Josh Marshall had no business cruising in here as if it was some kind of block party.
She ducked past the balloons at the edge of the play area. One of them swung back and bumped her in the nose. She brushed it aside and blinked her eyes back into focus. Josh—of course it would be Josh—had caught the entire embarrassing moment. A wide grin took over his face. That smile would make the panties melt off any girl, Suzanne most definitely included.
Except she refused to fall for that carefree vibe of his. It was so not her thing, at least not anymore. Carefree was for kids.
“What are you guys doing back here?” she asked as she reached them.
“Checking out this rockin’ party you have going on.” Josh tucked his thumbs in his front pockets and cocked his head at her. “I’m all for outdoor education.” And he winked.
As if outdoor education was something naughty. And of course now all sorts of images were hightailing it through her brain. Josh at the beach, in nothing but board shorts. Josh jogging shirtless up a mountain trail. Josh chopping wood, muscles flexing as he wielded the axe—and guess what? No shirt.
She shook her head to clear it of all those unwelcome Josh Marshall images.
“The outdoor education is for the kids,” she said stiffly.
“Yeah, I hear this whole event is about the kids.” He cast a glance at the group of young people who had finally put away their phones and were listening to the two of them. “Having fun, kids?”
Shrugs. A few “whatever” glances. Suzanne sighed and admitted defeat. “Suggestions are more than welcome. You’re more or less still a kid, right, Josh?”
Sean laughed, then hid the sound behind a cough when Josh glared at him. “I’m…uh…going to say hi to Evie.” Sean whisked himself away.
Josh dug into his pocket and came up with a small, well-worn leather sack that fit into the palm of his hand. He addressed the moody group of young people.
“You kids like hackeysack?”
Suzanne started to laugh in anticipation of the mockery that suggestion would receive from the kids. But that wasn’t what happened. Their faces lit up and they gathered into a loose circle. Josh flashed a grin at Suzanne.
“You can thank me later,” he whispered. “Actually, you can thank me now by bringing me a beer.”
“This isn’t a beer kind of party,” she snapped. “I budgeted five hundred dollars for kids’ entertainment and you’re telling me all I needed was that little sack?” She pointed at the item in his hand.
“Please don’t insult the hack,” Josh said solemnly. “Right, kids? The hack is a thing of beauty and a gift to all mankind.”
The kids, who had all clearly been brainwashed, laughed along with him. How did Josh do it? He had them all eating out of his hand.
Disgruntled, Suzanne watched as he dropped the little pouch onto his foot and flicked it into the air. The emo boy caught it on his knee, then kicked it across the circle to someone else.
“He’s like the Pied Piper,” Rollo murmured in her ear. “Just go with it.”
“I need more alcohol,” Suzanne muttered.
Rollo must have departed, because she didn’t hear him say anything else. Her attention was riveted on the sight of Josh playing with the kids. For such a physically tough guy, he moved with an amazing amount of grace. Apparently you weren’t allowed to touch the hack with your hands, so the players had to twist their bodies or fling their feet into the circle to snag it. This gave her an excellent opportunity to watch him in action. His reactions were so quick, his movements incredibly nimble. He was like a cat out there. A lean one, with lots of muscles, and a smile that made everything more fun.
Another flute of champagne appeared in her hand. “Oh, I shouldn’t,” she told Rollo. “I’m actually working.”
“And you’re doing an awesome job.” He clicked her flute with his and drained his glass. “Everyone’s raving about the party.” He indicated the sweeping view of the Pacific off in the distance. The setting sun spread liquid gold across the horizon. “Nice setting.”
“I can’t take credit for the sunset,” she pointed out. “Or for the kids having so much fun. They were bored out of their minds before. I guess I should thank you guys.”
“Thank him.” Rollo gestured toward Josh. “Handy guy to have at a party.”
Fine. She probably should thank Josh. He’d corrected the one big oversight in her party planning. And you really couldn’t stay annoyed with a guy who was doing a scissor kick in mid-air while his blond hair flew around his face. Feeling suddenly charitable, she raised her voice. “Thank you, Josh.”
Her gratitude seemed to trip him up. He got a foot on the hack but then whipped it in the wrong direction—right toward her. With perfect aim, it winged through the air and dinged her champagne flute.
Champagne splattered all over the front of her favorite cream silk dress. The best thing about the dress was the little mesh cutouts at the waist and neckline. With champagne drenching her, it was now the worst thing about the dress—the liquid went right through the mesh onto her skin.
She gasped in shock and stared down at the wreck of her dress. Then looked up and met Josh’s apologetic gray eyes.
How dare he show up here and ruin everything? Well, everything that hadn’t already been ruined by Logan.
Someone deserved to be yelled at. But Logan wasn’t here and Josh was.
She shoved her glass at Rollo and marched toward the gray-eyed hotshot.
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