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Nugget, California, is remote, picturesque—and the perfect place to fall in love. Even when you’re trying desperately not to… Dana Calloway is tired of being second choice. No question she was her parents’ consolation prize, and now she’s placed second in the race for a guy’s heart—a guy she could have sworn was The One. Is it any wonder such a normally type A person accidentally burns down her house in one distracted moment? Cal Fire arson investigator Aidan McBride came to Nugget to do a little soul searching about his commitment phobia. But there’s only one available apartment in this tiny town, and the headstrong woman who just had a house fire needs it too. Of course, there are worse things than sharing living quarters with someone so beautiful… Dana’s determined to resist her sexy new roommate, but it isn’t long before Aidan realizes he doesn’t have a commitment problem when she’s around. And the hotter things get in their apartment, the brighter the blaze when someone finally ignites that first spark…
Release date: July 19, 2016
Publisher: Lyrical Press
Print pages: 274
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“It’s spongy,” the firefighter shouted over the roar of the fire.
“Then get down,” the captain yelled.
He made it to the ladder just as the roof caved in.
Structurally, the entire home was toast—by tomorrow a heap of kindling. The best any of them could hope for was containing the blaze before it spread to the two neighboring houses. Unlike downtown Chicago, there was plenty of space here between homes, providing a good defensive zone. But it was drier than dust. Front yards consisted of nothing but brown patches of grass that had somehow survived the dry summer and strict watering rules.
If they worked methodically, though, he figured they could have this mother knocked down in another hour and could start a thorough overhaul. Already, a few guys had gone in with axes and hooks. Eventually, they’d rip out the ceiling, Sheetrock, windowsills, and door frames, checking for hot spots.
Aidan hadn’t even officially started at Cal Fire when he’d gotten called out on the boomer. That’s what they called a good working structure fire. He’d just completed his six-week training at the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection’s academy in Ione, a Gold Country town only slightly larger than his new home, Nugget. Although a seasoned firefighter and arson investigator back in Chicago, he didn’t have experience fighting forest and wildland fires.
That was all about to change.
With California in its fourth year of record drought, wildfires burned at breakneck speed across the state. And Cal Fire was responsible for protecting thirty-six of California’s fifty-eight counties, meaning millions and millions of acres.
Aidan gazed out over the scene. The owner of the house stood in her bare feet and a thin nightgown on the sidewalk, away from the crowd, helplessly watching as firefighters desecrated what was left of her home. Aidan grabbed a blanket from one of the engines and approached her. A paramedic had already checked her over for injuries. She’d apparently been awakened by the smoke alarm, had tried to open her bedroom door only to find it too hot to the touch and succeeded in crawling out the window.
“Here you go, ma’am.” Aidan handed her the blanket.
She stared at the gray woolen department-issued throw, clearly wondering what to do with it. Even past midnight it was at least seventy degrees in Nugget and, with the heat from the fire, closer to a hundred near the flames. Aidan didn’t want to point out that her nightgown was see-through. So much so that he could make out the smiley faces on her bikini underwear in the glow of the klieg lights.
“You might want to cover up,” he said.
She immediately glanced down at herself and grimaced. “Oh God.”
He helped wrap the blanket around her and said, “No worries,” which, given her plight, was a pretty stupid thing to say. She’d just lost everything she owned. Everything but the car. It had been parked on the street instead of in her garage, which now resembled a stick pile.
“When will I be able to go back in?” She stared up at Aidan with golden eyes, and for a second he couldn’t stop staring back.
It was the eyes, he supposed. They were unusual, like precious stones. Amber or tiger-eye, he couldn’t remember the name. Anyway, they went nice with her brown hair. Truth be told, he liked the underwear too. A lot.
“Not tonight, that’s for sure.” They’d have to check what was left of the structure to guarantee its safety. “You have any idea what started the fire?”
Early on he’d smelled something like paint thinner or varnish. Arson investigators had extraordinary noses.
“I think I may have left a candle burning.” She looked down at the ground, her face turning red, plainly mortified.
“In which room?” As soon as he got inside he’d likely be able to tell for sure.
“The dining room. I was trying to get the smell out.”
“From the stain. I was refinishing my table . . . I can’t believe I did this.”
At this point he had no reason to suspect her of anything nefarious. “You have a place to stay?”
“Dana!” A woman pushed her way through the gawking neighbors. “Are you all right? Cecilia called me. She heard about the fire from Jake. They’re on their way over.”
“I’m okay.” She gazed over at the wreckage and her eyes welled up.
A Nugget police vehicle drove to the end of the cul-de-sac, parked, and Jake and Cecilia jumped out. Aidan knew them and a handful of other people through his sister, Sloane.
Jake joined Aidan at the curb while Cecilia fussed over the woman . . . Dana. “You know what caused it?”
“She thinks she left a candle burning.” Aidan suspected the stain or paint she’d been using had probably been in close proximity to the candle. “I’ll know better in a few hours.”
Aidan glanced at Dana. It looked like Cecilia had brought her a pair of tennis shoes. “She have relatives or friends she can stay with?”
“Her family lives in Reno, but in this town they’ll be no shortage of people who will take her in,” Jake said. “We live just a block over and have a couple of spare bedrooms if she wants to stay in the neighborhood. My guess is the insurance guys will show up first thing in the morning.”
“Yup. She should make sure she knows the extent of the damage and construction costs before she accepts a check.” Aidan didn’t want to see her get ripped off, and it had been known to happen. At least in Chicago.
“She’s a real estate agent so I don’t think that’ll be a problem.”
The captain waved him over and Aidan excused himself.
“Talk about your trial by fire, huh?” Captain Gregg Johnson reminded Aidan a little of his father. Barrel-chested, ruddy-faced and, according to word on the street, a leader who inspired unwavering loyalty. “Sorry to have pulled you in like this, but we’re short staffed.”
“Not a problem.” Aidan was anxious to jump in, especially because he’d be wearing two hats: working for Johnson as a firefighter and reporting to the state fire marshal, who oversaw the agency’s arson investigations. “She says she was staining some furniture and left one of those scented candles burning to deodorize the room.”
“Yeah, seems consistent with the odor. Dana’s no firebug.”
That’s what Aidan liked about this town. Everyone knew one another. “I’ll go in and take a look around. Anything in there salvageable?”
“Not likely,” Johnson said. “Can you come in tomorrow?”
“Yeah. I just have to sign the rental agreement on my new house. But it’s only a couple of blocks from the firehouse.”
“Tawny Wade’s old place?”
Aidan laughed. Small towns were funny. “That would be the one. I don’t think Sloane wants me to get too comfortable in her guest room.”
“Nah, she and Brady love having you. The girl’s been walking on sunshine ever since she knew you were taking the job. Us too.”
It was nice to be wanted, Aidan thought as he made his way through the shambles of Dana’s house. The guys had gone a little crazy with their axes. But with the property line being so close to the state forest, he knew they couldn’t mess around. Those pines would ignite like dry kindling. He made his way to what was left of the dining room using a flashlight. The cracking patterns on the windows corroborated that the fire had started here. He could see remnants of burned rags. Dana had probably used them for her staining project.
“You the probie?”
Aidan looked up from a deeply charred table to see a guy in his turn outs, holding an ax, smiling. “That’s me.”
“Welcome. I’m Kurtis. Glad to have you on board.”
“Thanks, Kurtis. Glad to be here.”
Kurtis swept his flashlight around the wreckage. “Poor Dana.”
“You know her?” Of course he did.
“She sold me and my wife our place in Graeagle. Nice lady and a straight shooter.”
“Looks like she’ll have to rebuild.”
“Yep,” Kurtis said and shook his head. “It’s a shame.”
At least she’d made it out. Plenty of times folks slept right through the fire and never woke up.
“Catch you later, probie.” Kurtis continued through the house, looking for hot spots.
Aidan finished up in the dining room, satisfied with Dana’s story. From what he could tell, one of the rags had caught fire from the candle. Add in the varnish and poof! Too bad. If the neighbor’s places were anything to go by, it looked like it had been a nice house. Nothing fancy, not like his sister and Brady’s palace, but comfortable. By the time he got outside, the crowd had dispersed. From the dark houses that dotted the tree-lined street, he figured they’d gone back to bed. Dana and her car were gone and Aidan wondered if she’d gone home with Jake and Cecilia.
“You done in there?” Captain Johnson asked.
“Yep. Unless you want me to help out with the overhaul.”
“We’re good. See anything suspicious?” Johnson tried to hide a grin.
“Looks like it went down the way she said it did. Where’d she go?”
“Maddy Shepard insisted she stay at the Lumber Baron tonight. Carol wanted Dana to stay at her place, but she’s allergic to her cats.”
“Who’s Carol?” Aidan assumed that Maddy was married to Rhys Shepard, the police chief and Sloane’s boss.
“She’s Dana’s real estate partner. The inn will be good—she’ll be treated to some of that five-star service. Tomorrow”—he turned to the burned-out remnants of her house—“she’ll have to deal with this.”
Aidan got a ride back to the station with the captain and drove his own Expedition to Sloane and Brady’s. They lived in Sierra Heights, Nugget’s only planned community. He parked his truck in their driveway and punched in the key code at the front door. The place still blew him away. The McBride kids had grown up in a better-than-nice home in a safe suburb of Chicago, but this house was like something you’d see in Architectural Digest. A nearly four-thousand-square-foot log house with views that went on forever.
He went into the kitchen to see if there were any leftovers from dinner. Brady had grilled wild salmon that melted in Aidan’s mouth and he was still thinking about those rosemary potatoes.
“You’re eating at this hour?”
Aidan pulled his head out of the industrial-sized refrigerator. “Yeah, I’m starved.”
“I don’t know where you put it all.” Sloane rubbed her eyes, tightened the belt around her robe, and grabbed a plate for him.
“Sorry I woke you up.” Aidan had tried to be quiet.
“I was waiting up. Is it as bad as everyone says it is?”
“You mean the house?” He nodded. “It’s a total loss.”
“Ah, jeez. Poor Dana.”
“You know her?”
“Just in passing, but still. All her stuff too?”
“Gone.” He loaded the plate and heated it in the microwave.
“How did it happen?”
“She left a candle burning next to a couple of rags covered in furniture varnish.”
“Seriously?” Sloane went slack-jawed.
When the microwave dinged she pulled out Aidan’s plate and looked at it askance. “In a few hours it’ll be time for breakfast.”
“Can’t wait.” He chuckled, and she shook her head. “Hey, it’s not my fault your boyfriend is a four-star chef. A guy can get spoiled living here.”
“I can’t figure out why you’re not big as a house.”
“Good metabolism.” He shoveled a forkful of salmon into his mouth. “I probably won’t have time for breakfast anyway. I’ve got to be out of here pretty early to sign the rental agreement for the house, then the captain wants me to come in.”
“Wow. They’re not giving you a lot of time to get settled.”
“What’s to settle? My furniture comes at the end of the week. I’ll move it into the new house and get the cable connected. Done!”
“You like the house?” she asked.
“It’s fine. More important, it’s available, affordable, and a block away from the firehouse.”
“You’re lucky it’s available. From what I hear, Tawny and Lucky’s new house isn’t even completely finished yet, but with the cowboy camp in full swing, Lucky needs to be on the property.”
“Tell me the deal with these people again . . . the guy is a champion bull rider?”
“Mm-hmm. They own a big dude ranch on the other side of town where corporate types pay big bucks to pretend they’re cowboys for a week. The rest of the time Lucky teams up with the Lumber Baron to hold destination weddings and events. Brady oversees the catering.”
“And Tawny makes boots?”
“Beautiful boots. You see them in the garage when Tawny showed you the place?”
“Yeah. But I was too busy looking at the house to really check them out. Thanks for hooking me up with her, little sister. Although I’ve gotta say, I’m gonna miss Windsor Castle, here.”
“You know you’re welcome to stay as long as you like, even if you are eating us out of house and home.”
The house was still new for Sloane and Brady, who’d just started living together. Aidan suspected the lovebirds wanted their alone time. Who wouldn’t?
“Sue call?” he asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
“No. Wouldn’t she call your cell?”
Yeah, that was the thing; she hadn’t. It had been nearly seven weeks and not a peep.
“Aid, isn’t that partly why you moved here? Because you knew it was over?”
“We just have stuff to settle, that’s all.” He felt responsible for her and wanted to make sure she was okay.
“Like what?” Sloane asked.
He slid his plate down the granite top of the center island. “You want some of this?”
“I’m going back to bed.” She started to head out of the kitchen and stopped. “Did Dana have a place to stay?”
“The cap said she went to the Lumber Baron.”
“Really?” His sister frowned.
“What? The place is plush.”
“It’s gorgeous. But she should be with people, not alone.”
“Jake and Cecilia offered to take her home . . . her partner too. Apparently, the woman has cats and Dana’s allergic to them. Maybe she wanted to grieve in private. Nothing wrong with that.”
“Maybe,” she said. “’Night, Aid.”
“Oh.” She stopped in her tracks, “I forgot to tell you. Brady and I are getting married.”
He pulled back in surprise. “When did this happen? Shit, am I interrupting your big proposal night?”
“Nah. I kind of feel like we’re past that. Our big romantic thing was when he shocked me by buying this house . . . roses, champagne; it was awesome. We’re just legalizing it is all.”
“Hell yeah! Big party. We just have to figure out where and when. But don’t worry, you’re invited.”
“Gee, thanks. Mom and Dad will be happy. They were starting to think of you as a tramp.”
“That’s because I am.” She slid her arm up one of the pine pillars and feigned a little pole dance that made him want to wash his eyes out with bleach. “See you in a few hours.”
Aidan put away the fish and potatoes and rinsed and loaded his plate into the dishwasher. Sniffing himself, he decided to jump into the shower. He stunk like smoke and char and sweat. Thank goodness Sloane had grown up with those smells or she would’ve kicked him out of her pristine kitchen.
She’d been the only one of his three siblings who’d failed to follow in their father’s firefighting footsteps. Hell, their legacy in CFD went all the way back to both their maternal and paternal grandfathers. But his rebel sister had to become a cop.
After his shower, he checked his phone; an exercise in futility, but he couldn’t help himself. It was four in the morning and he needed to get at least a couple of hours of sleep. Sloane had turned down the blanket on his bed; all that was missing was a little chocolate. Wow, she was getting married. The first of the McBride kids to take the plunge. Arron, the second oldest after Aidan, was always off-and-on with his girlfriend, and Shane, the youngest of the boys, was a manwhore. It had been Aidan who everyone had expected to settle down, not the baby of the family.
Good for Sloane, he thought as he slipped off to sleep. She’d snagged herself a good man. And they would take good care of each other.
Too soon, sunlight filtered into his room. “Christ, morning already?” he muttered to himself, covering his eyes with his arm.
“Aidan.” Brady knocked on the door. “Sloane said you need to get out early. You want an omelet?”
He probably should make his own breakfast, or grab something in town, and not take advantage, but Brady seemed to like cooking for company and his food was out of this world. “If it’s no trouble.”
“No trouble at all.”
“Okay, I’ll be right out.”
He took another quick shower just to wake up and dressed. By the time he made it to the kitchen, Brady had all kinds of things popping on that mammoth range of his. He poured himself a cup of coffee and took a seat at the island.
“You working today?” He watched as Brady fried up a pan of bacon.
“Yep. I’ve gotta streamline some things at Gold Mountain.” He referred to the nearby resort that was part of the hotel group where Brady was executive chef. “At the end of the week I have to go to headquarters in San Francisco. Sloane’s planning to take a few comp days and come with me.”
“You miss cooking at the Lumber Baron?”
“I’m still in charge of the kitchen there,” Brady said. “Occasionally, I’ll fill in, test a few recipes. And of course orchestrate the food for the gigs we have with Lucky’s cowboy camp.”
“Hey, I hear congratulations are in order.”
Brady grinned. “We’re getting the ring in San Francisco. You wanna be best man?”
“Seriously?” Aidan reeled, a little stunned. It wasn’t like Brady knew him that well, but Aidan supposed it was to make Sloane happy. Which put another check in Brady’s box. “Of course. I’d be honored.”
Brady grinned again and served Aidan an omelet big enough to feed two people. “Dig in before it gets cold. Sloane said Dana’s house is a goner.”
“Afraid so.” Aidan glanced at the clock. He had to get a move on. Luckily, he ate fast.
“That’s too bad. I think she’s on her own here.”
Aidan got that impression too, although she seemed to have people who cared about her. “I hope she has a good, honest contractor.”
“To rebuild or for insurance purposes?”
“For both, depending on what she wants to do.”
“I’m betting she wants to rebuild. An empty residential lot in Nugget isn’t worth a whole lot, not like if it had a house on it.”
Aidan shoved a few more bites into his mouth before taking his plate to the sink. “I’m supposed to be at Nugget Realty and Associates in fifteen minutes. You know where it is?”
“Main Street. Across from the Nugget Market. You better head out; it’ll take fifteen minutes to get there.”
It actually took twelve. This wasn’t Chicago during rush hour. He locked up his truck—which he probably didn’t need to do, but old habits died hard—and was halfway to the door when his cell phone vibrated in his pocket. He checked the screen and then the time. Apparently, Sue wanted to have their heart-to-heart two minutes before his appointment.
He’d waited seven weeks, she could wait an hour.
The jeans were a little snugger than Dana was used to. She hoped that with a couple of hours of wear they’d stretch. But the yellow sleeveless blouse fit beautifully and was perfect for the heat.
At eight in the morning, the front desk had called, saying there were packages for her in the lobby and someone would bring them up. She’d opened the door to find a pile of shopping bags filled with clothes, shoes, boots, underwear, even a few silky scarves. Brand new, all from Nugget Farm Supply.
She barely knew the owners, Grace and Earl Miller, and had only been in the feedstore a handful of times. Yet, Grace—she presumed it was Grace—knew all her sizes. And her taste. Because the things she’d sent were adorable. After spreading out everything on the bed, she’d sat on the floor and cried. No one had ever been this thoughtful. No one. And she couldn’t imagine how she would ever return their kindness.
Dana searched through the drawer of the writing desk, found a stash of hotel stationery, and made a list. When she got into the office, the first thing she intended to do was send the Millers a thank-you note. Then she planned to call Tawny Wade and rent her old house. Tawny had just listed the lease with Dana and Carol. They hadn’t even put an ad in the Nugget Tribune yet.
The house was only two miles from Dana’s old home, so she could easily keep tabs on the new construction. Plus, it was conveniently located near her office. Unlike most of the other rentals here—seasonal cabins tucked away in the surrounding Sierra mountains—it was winterized. And best of all: affordable. Dana had no idea how much her insurance would pay for rent. Although she had savings, as a real estate agent she worked on commission and never knew when her next sale would come. Right now the market was good, but it fluctuated like the New York Stock Exchange.
Griffin, bless his heart, had offered her any of the vacant homes in Sierra Heights. He’d heard about the fire, which by now had to be front-page news, and had tracked her down at the Lumber Baron. But living there and seeing him with Lina every day would be a special kind of torture. Plus, she couldn’t afford one of those houses and wouldn’t take charity, especially from a man she still had feelings for. She’d rather sell the vacant homes and make fat commissions than live in one of them.
She took one last look at herself in the full-length mirror, locked up the room, found her car in the small lot, and drove the four short blocks to Nugget Realty and Associates, thinking about all she had lost in the fire. Her grandmother’s needlepoint that hung over the fireplace, the leather jacket she’d splurged on just last month for her thirtieth birthday, Aunt Roe’s Franciscan Ware, and the old Calloway candy tins she’d collected from her family’s factory. All gone. The pictures of Paul, too. At least those she could scan from her parents’ albums. Like everything else of Paul’s, they’d kept them in museum condition.
There was a Ford Expedition parked in the lot when Dana got there. For a minute she worried that she was late for an appointment. Without her phone—another casualty of the fire—she’d have to check the calendar on her work computer for her daily schedule. But she was pretty sure she didn’t have anything today. Dana hoped Pat Donnelly and Colin Burke would be able to meet her later at the house and tell her what she was looking at money wise to rebuild. Before the insurance folks tried to lowball her.
She checked her face in the rearview mirror. Maddy had made sure there was a basket of necessities in her room, including mascara and lip gloss. The woman was a true angel. It was funny; Dana had always kept to herself in this town, not because she was a bitch or anything, but she was shy. Perhaps reserved was a better word for it. It was easy on the job; she just slipped into her agent persona, hiding behind the façade of an outgoing salesperson. Yet, when her house burned down, the townsfolk had rallied, treating her like she was deeply woven into their tight-knit community.
A blast of heat hit her the minute she stepped out of the car. Only June and the temperature already had climbed into the nineties, a sign that it would be a hot summer. And dry as cotton mouth if the drought persisted. As soon as she entered the office her skin prickled from the sudden change in climate. Carol had the AC cranked up cool enough to need a sweater.
“I didn’t expect you in so early . . . or at all,” Carol said, and Dana noticed a man sitting at her partner’s desk. Must be the owner of the Expedition. “Don’t you want to take the day to get situated?”
“That’s partly why I’m here.” She let out a sigh, remembered they had a client, and flashed her most professional smile at the man.
“This is Aidan McBride, Sloane’s brother, the new firefighter,” Carol said, and Aidan stood up.
“I was the guy with the blanket, remember?”
Now that she was paying attention, she felt her face flush. “I’m sorry. You look completely different without all that gear.” Like Clive Owen in the King Arthur movie. He was . . . like . . . Just wow! After Dana got her tongue to work again she said, “Shopping for a home?”
“Just got one,” he said.
“He signed the lease on Tawny’s property.” Carol beamed, ecstatic.
Dana silently cursed. They hadn’t even listed the damn place yet. “Oh . . . wow . . . that’s terrific.” She tried to sound enthusiastic, but she was pretty sure her face had fallen to the floor.
Carol, not one to miss cues, saw her mistake instantly. “Tawny showed it to him and they worked out a deal. Oh boy, I screwed up, didn’t I? The fire . . . you need a house.” Carol looked at Aidan, obviously hoping he’d tear up the contract.
“It’s fine,” Dana quickly interjected. What kind of reputation would they get if they reneged on their clients’ deals for personal gain? Finders keepers . . . “I have lots of options.” Liar, liar.
“You sure?” Aidan asked.
“Of course. I’m a real estate agent, Mr. McBride.”
“Okay.” He appeared hesitant. “There doesn’t seem to be too much for rent around here, though.”
“I assure you, I have two other places I’m considering.” Maybe she could live in one of Lucky Rodriguez’s barns. “The house is perfect for you . . . right down the street from the firehouse.”
“If you’re positive, then yeah, it’s perfect for me. My stuff’s coming at the end of the week and I thought I’d start moving in today.”
“Great,” she said, . . .
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