In the aftermath of tragedy, it's strange the things you remember.
The deafening boom as the house exploded.
The paralyzing fear as I searched for my wife.
The blinding smoke burning my eyes as I carried her out.
But carved into my soul for the rest of my days would be the earth-shattering realization that the woman in my arms wasn't my wife.
Bree and I were the only survivors—not that either of us were truly living after that night. As a single dad with nowhere else to go, I moved into her guest house. And somehow, through the guilt and grief, we forged an unlikely team.
It took years, but I watched the gradual return of her smile—slow and life-altering.
The two of us could sit outside for hours, talking about nothing, and it filled the massive hole in my chest with new life.
I may have carried her out of that fire, but the truth was, Bree saved me.
As we healed, the secrets and lies of the past smoldered in the ashes, threatening to ignite again.
Our love was born from the embers, and together we would go up in flames.
Release date: April 28, 2021
Publisher: Aly Martinez
Print pages: 288
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From the Embers: A Single Dad Romance
I was dumping the last of the chips into a bowl just as the doorbell rang. “Jess?”
“Yeah, I got it.”
Wiping my hands on a towel beside the sink, I surveyed my handiwork. Chips with homemade salsa and some random cheese that the lady at the grocery store had promised would be delicious along with a plate of fancy crackers, each one looking about as appetizing as a piece of cardboard. It wasn’t perfect. All in all, it had cost less than twenty bucks. But it looked good and that was more than enough to appease my wife.
“How’s it going?” Rob asked, walking in carrying a bottle of wine, as if the champagne hadn’t been bad enough.
“A gift for our hosts.”
I leveled him with a glare. “Seriously?”
Laughing, he shook his head. “Don’t give me shit. Bree insisted. Besides, a little extra wine never hurt anyone.” He arched an eyebrow and turned a pointed gaze on the ladies who were already huddled around the sofa table I’d converted into a makeshift bar.
Jessica was sporting a massive grin, so I gave up being annoyed at my best friend’s gratuitous generosity, took the bottle, and put it in the fridge.
“Can I get you a Scotch?”
He quirked a dark eyebrow. “Are you expecting me to play Pictionary tonight?”
I chuckled and started toward the bar. “Right. I’ll make it a double.”
Together, we walked over to the ladies, where I went in for the hug on Bree. “Hey, long time no see.” As usual, her return embrace was short and stiff, but I’d long since given up on reading into it. “How were the kids when you left?”
Rob coughed. “Don’t.” Another cough. “Mention.” He cleared his throat. “The kids.” He grinned at his wife. “Champagne or wine, sweetheart?”
Bree rolled her eyes. “I’m fine. Stop making such a big deal about it.”
“Of course you are, my love,” Rob crooned, shooting me a wink. “Champagne?”
After the pop of a cork that cost more than my mortgage and a quick toast to me with some bullshit about new beginnings and a bright future, we migrated in different directions. Jessica took Bree to Luna’s nursery to show her the new letters we’d hung over her crib while Rob and I meandered into my fortress of solitude that I shared with Jessica’s car—the garage.
Long before he’d worn Dolce and Gabbana suits and started driving a Porsche, Rob and I had grown up together, playing pickup basketball at the park while our parents worked late to keep food on the table. He’d made fun of me when I found an old keyboard at a yard sale and spent hours teaching myself piano in high school. He’d also given me hell when I began singing and writing my own music. But once I started gigging in college, he became my biggest fan.
The summer after our second year at the University of Georgia, Rob borrowed his grandmother’s decrepit ’92 minivan and booked my very first tour. Okay, the so-called “tour” consisted of fifteen open-mic nights around the state, many of which had Rob and the bartender as the only faces in the audience, but dammit, that was the summer I truly discovered what I wanted to do with the rest of my life.
Not long after, I dropped out of college and threw myself into writing and playing anywhere that would have me, and my album Solstice in the ’92 was born.
Rob had always believed in me, even when I was ready to throw in the towel. Which was exactly why I side-stepped the truth when he finished bitching about a new guy he’d hired at Prism and asked, “So, how are you really feeling about selling the songs?”
Avoiding eye contact, I swirled the Scotch in my glass. “It’s good for the family.”
“And what about what’s good for you?”
I shrugged. “There’s been a lot of what’s good for me happening the last few years. It’s not my turn anymore.”
His lips thinned, a motivational speech no doubt poised on the tip of his tongue. I wasn’t in the mood though. This was supposed to be a night of fun and freedom. A few hours of laughs to distract us all from the real world.
Or, in my case, drown them in a bottle.
“Let’s go find the ladies. Jess and I have a game of Pictionary to win.”
He barked a laugh, clearly reading my escape. But Rob being Rob, he didn’t call me on it.
Just like in the game of life, Jessica and I lost the first round. I had a strong suspicion Bree was either cheating or had become a telepath. There was no way she got apple picking from Rob drawing a damn tree that honestly looked more like a shrub, not a single fruit in sight. It did make for some good old-fashioned trash talk and upped the ante for round two, so I let it slide.
“Walking. Floating. Doing magic!” Jessica yelled.
“No. This.” I stabbed the marker at the very skillfully drawn stick figure jumping rope.
Bree giggled from the couch as my Pictionary-challenged wife threw her hands up in the air.
“I don’t know! Draw something else.”
Grabbing Jessica’s arm, I dragged her closer to the board as if the three feet between us were somehow distorting her vision. “This. This thing.” I pointed at the jump rope.
“No talking!” Rob chided, holding the tiny hourglass to his face, already smiling in victory, waiting for the last grain to fall.
Ignoring him, I cleared the frustration from my voice. “Baby, sweetie, honey, look at the—”
That was all I got out before time expired on us all.
With a deafening boom, the entire house exploded.
I didn’t remember falling, but in the next blink, I was on the floor, covered in debris. My ears rang and my vision blurred as I fought to gain my bearings, but nothing made sense. As I rolled to my back, the ceiling was wide open, insulation and wires hanging, flames covering the support beams like lightning streaking the sky.
“Shit,” I breathed, gripping my head as though I could manually slow my thoughts. “Jes—” I coughed, smoke scorching a path down my throat. “Jessica.” Suddenly, a single terrifying thought pierced through my foggy brain. “Luna!” I sat bolt upright.
I shook my head again, memories flooding my subconscious. Luna wasn’t there. She was at… Fuck.
It was eerily silent.
No pleas for help.
And in that second, it might have been the most terrifying sound of all.
Desperation collided with a surge of adrenaline in my veins. With a strained groan, I managed to climb to my feet. Heat licked at my face as I staggered to catch my balance amongst the wreckage. It was somehow simultaneously dark and yet blindingly bright. In the shadows of the dancing flames, I made out the empty space where the couch Bree and Rob had been sitting on had once been.
It was gone.
Everything was fucking gone.
“Jessica!” I roared into the nothingness. She’d been standing right in front of me. She couldn’t have fallen far. Panic engulfed me and I dropped my knees, frantically digging through the rubble. Blood poured from my hands as broken pieces of God only knew what slashed through my skin.
I had to find her and get her out of there and then come back and find Rob and Bree and somehow get them out too.
In the first few seconds, everything seemed possible. I still couldn’t wrap my mind around what had happened. It was bad, but losing the people I loved didn’t seem like a realistic outcome. Though, as the fire grew, so did my fears.
Smoke invaded my vision until I was searching blind, furiously patting around the floor where I thought she might have been.
Where I prayed she might have been.
Where I really fucking needed her to be.
A wave of relief hit me like a tsunami, nearly knocking me to my ass, when I finally felt her hand. “Jessica!” I choked, coughing and gagging.
I had no idea if she was injured or breathing, but I’d found her. Now, I had to get her the hell out of there. In one fluid motion, I scooped her into my arms and took off toward the door, forging a path by memory alone through the pieces of a home that no longer existed.
We’d almost made it to the front door when I tripped over something, nearly dropping her. Pure determination alone kept me upright.
One step farther, one second later, one wrong move and I would have missed her completely. Her body was hidden beneath a pile of broken furniture, but her dark hair cascaded across the dirty floor.
Oh, God. Bree.
I froze for a beat, juggling Jessica in my arms while trying to squat down to grab Bree too. At six-two, I was a big guy, but one lifeless woman was hard enough to blindly carry from a burning house, much less two. Panic screamed inside me. The smoke was getting thicker by the second. The more I tried and the longer we stayed, the more dangerous it became for all of us.
Everything changed in the next second.
Asher’s and Madison’s lives.
One decision in the middle of the unimaginable and the world as we knew it was irrevocably changed.
It all came down to one single decision.
“I’ll be right back,” I choked out.
Using my arm to block my face, I continued to the door. The knob seared my palm as I yanked it open, but the pain didn’t even register through the adrenaline. The sound of my feet pounding down the driveway echoed in my ears as the fire crackled behind me. Our closest neighbor was over half a mile away, but there was no way they hadn’t heard the explosion. The fire department would be there soon.
I’d get Bree out. They’d find Rob. Everyone would be okay.
“Eason,” she croaked in my arms.
My feet were still moving as I sprinted away, but time stopped as her voice permeated my senses.
It wasn’t possible.
She was covered in soot, and my eyes were caked with ash and what I would later learn to be blood, but I could still make out the large flowers on her yellow—
“Uh, no. It’s my dress that Jessica borrowed and I had to do an entire Tom Cruise Mission Impossible thing to get it back last week.”
I kept running until the wind changed direction, clearing the smoke. With my heart in my throat, I prayed that my still ringing ears had deceived me. Then I set her down and used the inside of my shirt to clear my face.
“Eason,” she croaked.
But once again, she wasn’t my wife.
“Oh, God,” I breathed, watching as she rose on unsteady legs. Tears carved twin riverbeds through the ash on her cheeks.
“What happened?” Bree asked, her green eyes focused on the blazing inferno behind me.
Acrid guilt devoured me. “I…”
I saved the wrong woman.
I left the mother of my child in a burning building.
My final broken promise to the woman I’d vowed forever to was, “I’ll be right back.”
Bile crawled up my throat. “I don’t know.”
I glanced back at the house, the heat of the roaring fire scorching me even from yards away. Overwhelming grief hit me as I realized there was no way I could get back through those flames.
Oh, God. Jessica.
In the middle of tragedy, it’s strange the things that become engrained into your memories. Years later, I wouldn’t be able to tell you how long it took the firetrucks to get there. I couldn’t tell you what time it was or what I had been wearing. But I would never be able to forget the absolute devastation on Bree’s face when she realized we were the only two standing outside the burning house.
“Where’s Rob?” she rasped, her voice sounding like it had traveled over a mile of gravel before exiting her throat. “And Jessica. Where are they?” She took an urgent stride toward me.
“I tried…” I doubled over into a fit of coughing. It was probably for the best. There was no way I could have finished that thought.
Grabbing the front of my shirt, she shoved me back upright and gave me a hard shake. “Are they in there?”
“I don’t know!” I shouted, fear and failure mingling into one soul-crushing emotion.
There was a pause. Neither of us breathed. We desperately tried to rationalize our way out. She’d been unconscious when I found her. She hadn’t seen the inside of that house.
The hell we’d both narrowly escaped.
No. Bree hadn’t experienced any of that.
And it showed, because she still had hope.
“Rob!” she cried, darting past me. She slipped on the grass and fell, the brutal heat like a forcefield stopping her in her tracks. “Help me!” she screamed, giving up on standing altogether. She began crawling one inch at a time. “Eason, help me. We have to get them out.”
It took every ounce of strength I had left to hook her around the hips. “Bree, stop.”
She tore at my arms, kicking and flailing. “Let me go! I have to get them.” Her voice echoed off the trees, each reverberation slicing me to the core.
“You can’t go in there!” I barked. “You won’t make it out.”
“Then you go.” Her chest shook with broken exhales. “You did this. You did all of this. Now you go in there and get my husband and you fucking fix it.”
I was in a state of shock, running on nothing more than adrenaline. I couldn’t feel the third-degree burns on my hands or the six-inch gash on my head, but her verbal jab hit me like a TKO. “What?”
“Get him!” she screamed, her face vibrating with a pain so visceral it rattled my bones. Her anger broke into sobs, but her words were no less venomous. “You left him in there. You have to go get him. He never would have done that to you.”
I drew in a deep breath, desperate for oxygen I couldn’t seem to absorb. My mind spun in a million different directions, a frantic sprint of my neurons to make sense of the world on fire around me. “I didn’t do this,” I gasped, glancing over my shoulder at the towering inferno, the weight of gravity suddenly more than I could carry. “I barely got you out. I thought you were Jessica. I was going to go back for—”
That was all I got out before our entire lives exploded all over again.
Maybe she was right and this was somehow my fault.
Maybe I’d failed them both.
But as blinding orange and red flames shot high into the sky, there was only one person left that I could save.
“No!” Bree screamed as I dove on top of her, pinning her to the Earth. Fiery fragments of my life rained down over us, each one feeling like a rusty blade slicing the heart from my chest.
She fought beneath me, biting and clawing at me.
She cried his name and cussed mine.
As sirens screamed in the distance, she had air in her lungs and a beat in her chest.
And through it all, no matter how hard I prayed, she never magically became Jessica.
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