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Light My Fire

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Light My Fire

Big City Heat, Volume 1

Misha Carver

Published by Misha Carver, 2016.

Light My Fire

Big City Heat Firefighter Series Book 1

By Misha Carver

Copyright © March 2016

Edited by: Claudette Cruz from indieeditingservices.blogspot.com

No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any way whatsoever without written permission from the author.

This book contains sexually explicit material that may offend some readers and is intended for adult audiences only. That means if you’re under 18, it’s scorching enough to burn your eyes out, so stay away.

Everything in this book is purely fictitious and none of the people in it are real. They exist only in my overactive imagination. If they seem like someone you know, it’s just a coincidence. It also means you must have some pretty exciting friends.

All sexually active characters are over 18 and none are related by real or imaginary blood.

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NEWSLETTER SIGNUP

Also by Misha Carver

Big City Heat

Light My Fire

I’m on Fire

Ring of Fire

Billionaire Seeks An Heir

Billionaire Seeks An Heir Book 1: Unplanned Fairy Tale

Billionaire Seeks An Heir Book 2: Unraveled Lives

Billionaire Seeks An Heir Book 3: Unforgettable Melody

Purrfect Mates

Purrfect Chaos

Purrfect Storm

Purrfect Harmony

Purrfect Mates Complete Boxed Set

Second Chance Christmas Romances

The Christmas Homecoming

The Christmas Reunion

The Christmas Spirit

The Alpha’s Bride

Bearly Smitten

Standalone

Sasha’s Storm

Watch for more at Misha Carver’s site.

Table of Contents

Title Page

Disclaimer

Also By Misha Carver

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

About The Author

Also By Misha Carver

CHAPTER ONE

Alexandria

I smiled as I walked out into the crisp morning air. What a great day to be alive, I thought to myself as I passed by the Johnstons’ yard. Their garden, filled with peonies and other flowers that I’d seen before, but didn’t know the names of, was a sight to behold. The delicious floral scents permeated the air and further boosted my mood.

I couldn’t wait to arrive at the station. Today was the day I would finally receive my long-awaited promotion to Fire Chief. For months I’d been the acting chief while they searched for a replacement for Larry.

Poor old Larry, he’d served with the team for years, probably longer than he should have. We’d all seen a shift in his judgment and his memory, but he still knew his stuff until that last fire. One bad call and his career came to an end.

Seeing him in tears as he packed his office broke my heart. As firefighters, we often didn’t show emotion. We were immune to it. It’s not that we became hardened in our line of work, it’s that after a few years on the job feeling anything was difficult.

When I found out that I was his temporary replacement I felt terrible. Larry had been my mentor, the one who helped me during my rookie days. I wasn’t out for his job, and I didn’t want him to think I had reported him.

I remembered walking into his office as he put some pictures from the shelf on his wall into a box. He turned to look at me with his gray hair slightly out of place.

“Alex, I’m sure you’ll lead this team well. Make me proud,” he said as a tear ran down his cheek.

“I didn’t…” I managed to get out as I choked my own tears back.

“I know,” he said softly. “It’s time I retired anyway. Margaret’s been bugging me to spend more time at home. Apparently there’s some work around there that I’ve been neglecting. This is your chance, little one. Now show this department how bright you can shine.”

I nodded my head. A tear escaped from my eyes as I reached out to shake his hand.

“Alex, it’s my last day,” he said. “This is no time for formalities.” He pushed my hand out of the way and hugged me. It was more than a hug, it was a reassurance that I was capable, that I was strong enough, and that I was ready for the position that I was being left in.

As of today, I thought to myself, [_the position will no longer be acting. I’ll be the Fire Chief. It’ll finally be official and I’ll have the raise that goes along with it. _]God, how I needed that raise. I had an alcoholic husband who wouldn’t work, so we had a single-income household, and an eight-year-old daughter.

My sweet little Emily was both beautiful and brilliant. She looked like a china doll with her dark hair, pale skin, and rosy cheeks. And brilliant; she could outsmart almost anyone. When Jeopardy came on the television, she knew all the answers. She was a genius in the making. But there was one problem. She couldn’t hear.

At home, we were able to work around it by using subtitles on the television and using sign language. She also attended a special school for the deaf. However, her school didn’t offer any programs for gifted children, and I couldn’t afford to send her to a private school that could accommodate her needs.

Almonte Institute for the Deaf had a great program for gifted children and it was only a block away from our house, but the tuition prices were higher than my income allowed. The raise that came with being the Fire Chief would put me in a position to enroll her. Excitement flowed through me as I thought about all of the possibilities for her future.

***

“You look rather chipper this morning O’Neil,” Anderson said as I bounced into the station and made myself a coffee.

“Why wouldn’t I be?” I answered. “It’s a beautiful morning. The birds are singing and the sun’s shining. What’s not to be happy about?”

“You sure it doesn’t have anything to do with the big Fire Chief announcement this morning?” Billings asked as he walked over to the big table in the middle of the room and sat down.

“Was that today?” I asked innocently with a big grin on my face. “It completely slipped my mind.”

“Yeah, right,” Anderson said as I sat down at the table and joined them. “You’ve only been waiting for today for six months. I doubt you forgot all about it.”

“Don’t worry, guys. It’s just a title. Nothing’s going to change around here,” I promised as I took a sip of my coffee.

I was always jealous of the camaraderie the rest of them had. Sure, I felt the same teammate bond with them, but they were closer. They all lived together, but I didn’t have that option.

With a husband, and a child for that matter, living in the firehouse wasn’t practical for me. As much as I felt like one of the guys, part of me felt like I was missing out, like they saw me as somewhat of an outsider.

“When is Chief McMillan arriving from Ankington, anyway?” I asked, trying not to sound too eager.

“She who doesn’t care wants to know when the bigwigs will be here. Sounds like she’s a little antsy to me,” Billings laughed.

“Maybe we’ll get a call just before the meeting and you’ll have to wait for the announcement,” Anderson laughed.

“Knock it off, guys,” I said as I took a sip of my coffee and saw three men walking into the station.

Chief McMillan stood with a clipboard held tight against his chest. He had the same stern expression on his face that he’d always had. I didn’t recognize the other two men.

“Let’s get down to business, shall we?” Chief McMillan said, not wasting any time. “Join me in the meeting room now, please.”

We all got up from the table and went into the meeting room. As hard as I tried not to smile, I couldn’t control my facial expressions. My dream, my biggest aspiration in life, was about to come true.

The musty smell of the wooden chairs and the old wooden floors filled the room as I sat down. That old room needed some TLC in a big way. As people filed in and sat down, Chief McMillan waited for everyone to quiet down.

“Today’s the day your station gets a new Fire Chief,” he said as he stood there with his shiny clipboard in his hand still pressed firmly against his chest. “We’ve mulled over the applications and we feel confident that we’ve picked the best person for the job. This firefighter has proven themselves over and over in the line of duty, has gone out of their way to protect their men, and will go on to lead your team in the best way possible.”

I sat there smiling. The chief was saying such wonderful things about me, and I hadn’t expected such a flattering introduction.

“Before we announce the new Fire Chief, Chief Blondin from Manitonga wants to say a couple of words.”

I watched as one of the men who came in with Chief McMillan stood up to speak. He was a brute of a man, probably excellent in the line of fire, but obviously not used to public speaking. Before he opened his mouth, he lowered his head and scratched the back of his neck, a sign of nervousness.

“A Fire Chief has a lot of responsibilities,” he said. “Not just paperwork, and putting people in the right positions. The chief also has to take care of his men. That isn’t just about keeping them safe either. That’s about ensuring they are always in the right physical and mental state to go out there and risk their lives to save the lives of people in the community around them.”

Wow, I thought to myself. I hadn’t realized I’d been doing all those things. Kudos to me. I’d have to work harder on talking to everyone to make sure they were okay emotionally in the future. But at least they thought I was doing a good job of it for now.

“Without further ado, may I present to you your new Fire Chief, Chance Friedman.”

I stood up and started walking to the front to shake their hands before he even finished his sentence. I didn’t hear Chief Blondin say the name, probably because of the excitement of the moment and being lost in my own thoughts. I was halfway there when I realized that someone else had been given the honor.

My cheeks burned when I saw him standing there accepting the position, Chance Friedman. My childhood rival. The boy who grew up next door to me. We’d gone all through school together. He’d made my life a living hell, always making fun of me and teasing me. And now, years later, at my moment of glory, here he was taking it away from me. Bastard.

I turned to walk back to my seat, only to see my colleagues struggling to hold back their grins and giggles. I’d made a complete ass of myself, and I didn’t get the raise I needed. Goddammit, I thought as I tried to sit as low in my chair as I could. I needed that raise so bad.

I waited until the congratulations were over and everyone started filing out before I approached Chief McMillan.

“Are you fucking serious?” I asked as I walked up to him and grabbed his arm.

“That’s no way to talk to your superior,” he reminded me as he pulled his arm away. “Do that again and you’ll be on suspension.”

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’ve been doing this job for months, and you hired out of the local station. I don’t get it.”

“You don’t have to. It’s just the way it is.”

“But I needed this job, I needed the raise. I have a daughter to support. She needs to go to a special school. I’ve been the acting chief ever since Larry left, and there haven’t been any complaints filed against me. You know I can do this job better than anybody.”

“I’m sorry, Alexandria, but we just can’t have a female chief. A chief has to make calls without emotion or empathy getting in the way,” he said with that smug look on his face.

“That doesn’t make sense. You’ve been letting me do the job…”

“Temporarily. I’ve been letting you do it temporarily. We never intended for it to be permanent. I’m sorry if you thought otherwise. If you want to keep your job here, you’ll be answering to Chief Friedman from now on. If not, I wish you well on your future endeavors.”

CHAPTER TWO

Alexandria

I stormed out of the meeting room, my cheeks blazing red, as fury tormented my soul. Couldn’t have a female chief? What the hell was that? It’s the 21st century for God’s sake. Whatever happened to equal rights?

“Here she comes, it’s Miss America,” Billings laughed when I entered the room. “Are you ready to accept your crown?”

“Don’t talk to me,” I snapped as I poured another coffee. I knew I’d need a lot of coffee to get me through the day after losing out on the promotion.

“What’s the matter, didn’t things go the way you planned?” Anderson chuckled as he set his cup down on the table.

Carmella, the only other female on the team, walked over and put her arm around me. “Don’t sweat it,” she said. “Shit happens. These guys are just jerks. Don’t mind them.”

“I’m okay,” I reassured her. “They got a good laugh out of it all. I’m glad my misery could entertain them.”

“If you ever need anyone to talk to,” she said hesitantly.

“Thank you,” I replied. “The offer goes both ways.”

Chance walked into the room with a clipboard in his hands. His first day on the job and he already looked like he owned the joint. I wanted to kill him.

He’d taken away my only shot of putting my daughter into that private school. He’d humiliated me for years when we were growing up, and somehow he’d managed to do it again.

I walked over to the table, trying not to look at him. The awkward teenager with acne had evolved into a handsome man with a strong jaw and perfect skin. His perfection disgusted me, and looking at him only made me hate him more.

I wanted to leave, to hand in my resignation and walk out. But to do that would leave me with no way to support my family, so I was stuck.

As he pulled out the chair beside me and sat down I felt the bile rising in my stomach. Just having him near me made me want to hurl. It would serve him right if I puked on his shoes, I thought to myself.

“Before we do anything else, I want to get to know each one of you,” he said.

I turned and looked at him. His sandy-brown hair and cocky expression didn’t fool me. He didn’t have a clue what he was doing.

“We should be doing our group workout right about now,” I said as I took a sip of my coffee.

“Getting to know the team is important to my job,” he said as he turned to me.

“Our group workout is important to our camaraderie and our ability to stay fit enough to do the job,” I said, staring back at him.

“I’ll talk to each of you and then we’ll do the group workout,” he offered.

“The workout should come first,” I responded.

“Don’t challenge me,” he said, trying to stare me down. “I said I’ll talk to each one of you first.”

I sat there feeling defeated as my teammates looked at me and smiled both because they were impressed that I stood up to him, but also because they felt bad that I’d been through so much in one day. As he called everybody one by one into his office, I waited impatiently for my turn.

For some reason, as much as I hated him, I wanted to get in there, to tell him what I thought. I wanted him to know that he was stepping on my toes and that he wasn’t going to get away with it. I was the rightful Chief and he was the lowly rodent who stole the position away from me.

“Alexandria O’Neil,” he finally called in that low, gruff voice of his. It was almost like velvet. If I hadn’t been so angry with him, it might have turned me on. But in that instant, it only made me angrier.

I stormed into his office and slammed the door behind me.

“Take a chair, Alexandria,” he said, motioning to the one in front of his desk, the desk that used to be mine.

“Don’t call me Alexandria,” I said with a sneer.

“What would you prefer I called you?” he asked with a funny grin on his face.

“Alex, or O’Neil. Almost everybody around here calls me O’Neil.”

God, how I hated it when people called me Alexandria. My parents were so unimaginative. They spent their honeymoon in Egypt and named me after the city I was conceived in. Why couldn’t they have given me a normal name, like Lindsay? Instead, I was stuck with Alexandria.

“Alex it is,” he said as he smiled at me. “You’ve been the acting chief for several months, I see.”

“Yes, I have,” I said as I folded my arms in front of myself.

“I don’t mean to step on your toes by coming here. They hired me because I’m the best man for the job.”

“You could say that,” I replied with a smug grin on my face.

“What do you mean by that?” he asked.

“Oh, you know exactly what I mean by that, and don’t pretend you don’t.”

“Okay then,” he said as he looked back down at the file in front of him. “You need to stop contradicting me in front of the team.”

“When you’re wrong, I’ll contradict you all I want.”

“This team only needs one chief, and I’m it. Are we clear on that?” he asked as he stared right through me.

“Why are you here?” I asked, challenging him once again.

“Because you weren’t what they were looking for,” he said without backing down.

His words stung and I struggled to hold back the tears that I could feel coming to my eyes. There was no way that I would let him see me cry.

“Why do you do this to me, Chance?” I asked. “Why do you always find a way to make my life a living hell?”

He looked up at me again with a strange expression on his face. “What the hell are you talking about?” he asked.

“When we were growing up and all through school, all you ever did was pick on me.”

“Excuse me?” he said with a questioning expression on his face. It was clear that he had no idea who I was and that I needed to refresh his memory.

“At the bus stop, you got down on your hands and knees and had someone else push me, so I’d fall over you. You took my pet frog and rolled down a hill with it and killed it. You made my books fall out of my locker and hit me in the head. You…”

“Lexi?” he asked before I could go on. “Lexi O’Neil? My God, I haven’t seen you since we finished high school. How have you been?”

“Like you even care,” I said. “You never cared back then and you don’t care now. I’ve been just fine. I have a husband and a daughter and a great job. Up until today, I thought I was getting a great promotion, but then some jackass stole it out from under me.”

CHAPTER THREE

Chance

When they offered me the Fire Chief position in Karawa, I almost turned it down. I liked the station and the team in the small town where I was. We were all in it together, and to move on to another team in a big city didn’t make sense.

It would be like starting over with a new family. That’s what it was like, being a firefighter. Your teammates were your family. You lived together, and you had each other’s backs. You knew everything about each other.

Had my ex-wife not been making my life miserable, I probably would have stayed. But her harassing phone calls and visits were making life impossible.

I knew I’d never be able to move on unless I relocated. With regret, I accepted the position in Karawa and said goodbye to my old team.

Everybody at the new station seemed accepting of me as their new Chief, except one. Alexandria O’Neil. She’d been the acting chief since the old chief had been forced out of his position due to incompetence.

She’d applied for the new position too, but they’d offered it to me instead. I wasn’t surprised that she was upset, just surprised that she showed it.

Very early on it became clear that she would challenge me at every angle. I just wanted to get to know everybody before the group workout, but she didn’t want any of that.

As far as she was concerned, her way was the only way. She’d have to learn that there was a new dog in town and his name was Chief Friedman.

When I called her into my office, she was quite the firecracker. Her plain appearance in her uniform with her hair tucked up made her seem quiet, almost demure. But as soon as she opened her mouth, I knew I had a real problem on my hands.

A station with two chiefs spells trouble. You wind up with teammates not knowing who to follow, and then lives are put in unnecessary danger.

I knew I’d have to get her in line quickly. She needed to learn her place before she got out of control.

All of a sudden she was talking about how I’d ruined her life and it was like talking to my ex-wife all over again. I thought she’d gone nuts, and was ready to relieve her of her duties on a short-term leave. Then she reminded me who she was.

Lexi O’Neil, the girl next door. She and I had lived next door to each other the entire time we were growing up. I thought she was so cute with her long dark hair and her perfect pale skin. She never went through awkward teenage years. She just got more beautiful as time went on.

She never paid any attention to me, though. It was as if I didn’t exist, so I came up with ways to get her attention whether she liked it or not. Apparently, she didn’t.

I’d had such a huge crush on her back then, and now she worked for me. She was one of my men, one of my teammates, and we’d have to find a way to make it work.

CHAPTER FOUR

Alexandria

When I left the station I wished I hadn’t walked to work. Usually I drove, but I was so full of energy that morning, I thought walking would give me an extra burst. Had I gotten the promotion, the walk home would have been perfect. Instead, I felt like I was taking the walk of shame.

The whole way there all I could think of was losing the job to a man and how I’d never be able to enroll my daughter into that school. I didn’t even want to go home. Facing my drunken husband and telling him the news wasn’t something I was looking forward to.

The flowers on the Johnstons’ lawn that had looked so beautiful only hours earlier no longer held the same glory. The scent didn’t even delight me as it had earlier. I only felt the sickness in my stomach, the tightness that came from losing out on the biggest opportunity that had come my way in a long time.

“There she is. There’s my beautiful wife,” Mike slurred when I walked into the house. He wrapped his arm around my neck as he held his bottle of whiskey in his other hand as he kissed my cheek. His breath smacked me in the face, and when he tried to kiss my lips I tilted my face, forcing him to kiss my cheek again.

“Where’s Emily?” I asked, worried.

“She’s in the other room watching television,” he said. “How’s the new fire chief?”

“Why don’t you ask him?” I asked as I walked into the kitchen to grab something to eat.

After searching through the fridge and the nearly bare cupboards, I decided on leftover chicken from the night before. Mike and Emily would have eaten hours earlier, so I didn’t need to worry about making dinner for them. I threw my plate into the microwave when Mike came staggering into the room.

“I did ask you, silly. How’s the new fire chief?” he asked as he struggled to hold himself up with the table.

“I’m not the fire chief, Mike. They gave the job to someone else, okay?”

“No, it’s not okay,” he slurred as he slammed his bottle down on the table. “You risk your life every day. It’s not worth it for the measly paycheck you bring home. What would happen to Emily if you died? It’s not worth it anymore, Alex.”

“What’s not worth it anymore is supporting your drunken ass. Ever since Emily was born, I haven’t seen you without a bottle in your hand. How about you put that thing away, get a job, and start helping me support this family?”

“Don’t be mean, Alex. You know I love you. I just don’t want you to fight fires anymore.”

“I’m not being mean, you need to stop drinking. You’re disgusting. And if I give up my job, how will we survive?”

“We’ll find a way, baby, we always find a way.”

Yeah, I thought to myself. I always find a way while you float away on your river of booze.

“I’m not leaving my job, Mike. We can’t survive without it.”

“Why would you want to stay there when they don’t appreciate you?”

“Because it’s my job, because they’re my colleagues. Mike, we need the income.”

“We’ll get by, baby. I promise,” he said as he tried to pull me onto his knee. The thought of his hands pawing through my hair and his whiskey-tainted breath on my neck sickened me.

“We won’t get by, and I won’t leave my job,” I said as I released myself from his grip.

“Don’t you care about Emily?” he asked, suddenly looking vulnerable.

“Of course I do, you know that.”

“Then why do you want to leave her without a mother?” he asked.

“I don’t, and I won’t.”

“You do. You work long hours. If there’s a fire, you’re gone even longer. Someday you’re going to die in one. Think about it, Alex. Every time you go to work, she’s without a mother for the day, and if the worst happens, she could be without one forever.”

I hated it when the drunken asshole was right. As much as I loved saving lives, I loved my daughter more. Now that he’d laid it out on the table, even if he didn’t realize how much sense he’d just made in his inebriated condition, I was going to have to consider it.

CHAPTER FIVE

Chance

“Hey O’Neil,” Billings said when Alex walked into the station. “Did you hear about Friedman’s new idea?”

“Let me grab a coffee first,” she said as she walked over and started pouring herself a cup.

“Good morning, Lexi,” I said as I walked over to get some more sugar for my own coffee.

“Yeah,” she grunted back before putting the carafe back in the coffee maker. “Don’t ever call me that.”

“You okay?” I asked her as I looked at her red swollen eyes. “You don’t look like you got a lot of sleep last night.”

“I’m fine,” she answered. “Don’t worry about me.”

We both grabbed our coffees and walked over to the table to join the others. As I sat down beside her, she gave me a dirty look, but I sat there anyway. Who was she to tell me where I could and couldn’t sit?

“So what’s Friedman’s brilliant idea?” she asked before she took a sip of her coffee.

“I was thinking…”

“I asked them, not you,” she said as she glared at me.

“I just thought since it was my idea…”

“You thought wrong,” she said.

“Friedman here wants to boost morale, so he’s throwing a fireman’s ball at the end of the month,” Billings replied.

“Oh, isn’t that special?” she said as she rolled her eyes. “We can all get dressed up just in time to hear the bell and rush to a fire. That’s so impractical.”

“O’Neil, one hundred pushups now,” I said as I stood up and towered over her.

“You’re kidding, right?” she asked as she set down her coffee and looked up at me.

“Do you see me laughing?” I asked.

“You can’t do that,” she said.

“I’m your chief, and I’m sick and tired of you undermining me. Now get down there and get to it.”

I took great pleasure watching that little witch get down on the ground. If nothing else, she was going to learn who the alpha dog was around here, and it sure as hell wasn’t her.

I hoped to break her. I prayed she’d give up after fifty. But no, she just kept on going until she hit one hundred.

“Is that all, sir?” she asked in a sarcastic tone when she was finished.

I wanted to tell her what else she could do while she was down there, but I bit my tongue. To keep the respect of my men, I had to stay professional.

“Get up,” I said as I held my hand out to help her.

“So for this ball, are we supposed to bring dates or something?” Anderson asked.

“Bring ‘em if you got ‘em,” I answered as I took a sip of my coffee.

“What about you, Friedman, you bringing a hot date?” Billings asked.

“Don’t know yet,” I said.

“You mean a guy like you doesn’t have a trophy woman to hang on his every word?” Alex asked coldly.

“No, I don’t,” I answered. “My wife and I split a few years ago. I’ve dated a little bit since, but one thing I’ve learned is that you can’t trust women. Any sign of crazy and I’m out of there. You never get a second chance with Chance.”

“Is that your new mantra?” Alex asked sarcastically as she rolled her eyes.

“Do you want to give me another hundred?” I asked her.

She drank down her last sip of coffee and got up to make another cup. Her hands were shaking and I knew something was wrong. I was just about to go question her about it again when the fire bell started going off.

“Let’s go,” I yelled as the station went from a group of people sitting around and chatting to people running in all directions, grabbing their gear, and hopping on the trucks.

The minute we pulled up in front of that old abandoned warehouse I knew things didn’t look good. The fire had been burning for quite some time before the call came in. It was so far out of control that it would take my men a while to simmer it down.

“What do we do?” Anderson asked.

“Spray it from out here until it’s safe to go in. It’s flashing and I’m worried about backdrafts,” I said while I contemplated the best approach.

I watched as they tried to get the fire under control from the outside for hours. Nothing was happening, and our only chance at controlling it was by getting inside the building. I sent Anderson and Billings in.

“Stay low,” I told them. “If you stand up, the heat will get you.”

“Got it, chief,” Anderson said as they headed toward the building.

The others continued to work on the outside. We were fighting an uphill battle and it kept looking worse by the minute. Even with Billings and Anderson on the inside, I wasn’t sure if we could put the damn thing out.

“Chance, the fire’s spreading,” Alex said when she walked over to me. “You need more men on the inside.”

“We’re doing okay,” I said, trying to reassure her.

The fire continued to rage as smoke and flames rolled from the building until the roof finally began to collapse.

“O’Neil,” I yelled. “Go in and get Anderson and Billings out of there, but stay low. If you can’t see them, get the hell out.”

She nodded and started running toward the warehouse with her hose in hand. I expected her to tear into the building given her personality, but instead she just stood there, staring as she got closer. I watched her standing there motionless for a second before I grabbed my gear and went running in to save my men.

When the three of us came back out she was still standing there with an expressionless look on her face. I grabbed her and pushed her down to the ground as the building exploded and balls of flames hit the ground all around us.

When it was safe again, we ran back to the trucks to continue trying to put out the fire. I kept an eye on Alex as she sprayed and worked alongside everyone else. When we finally managed to put the fire out, we headed back to the firehouse to celebrate.

I made sure Alex rode with me so I could talk to her. She was hesitant to get in the truck, but I didn’t care. What happened back there could never happen again, not on my watch.

After we pulled out of the warehouse parking lot, I turned to her. “What the hell happened back there?” I yelled.

“We put out a fire,” she said, as if she didn’t understand the question.

“No, when I sent you in after Billings and Anderson. What the hell happened? You just stood there.”

“I don’t know,” she said as tears rolled down her cheeks. “I was running towards the building ready to go in and rescue them, when all I could think about was my little girl. I saw the flames and the smoke, and the heat hit me so hard as I got closer. I guess I just hesitated.”

“Your hesitation could have killed your teammates. Remember that every time you look at Billings and Anderson from now on. If I hadn’t been ready to run, they’d be dead right now. Taking a second to daydream can cost lives.”

“I’m sorry,” she cried. “I don’t know what came over me tonight.”

“Just don’t let it happen again,” I said firmly as we pulled into the station.

She got out and started heading toward her car. I knew I had really given her the gears, but I didn’t think she’d be that upset.

“Aren’t you coming in to celebrate?” I asked.

“You guys have fun,” she said. “I don’t really feel like celebrating. I’d rather just go home.

CHAPTER SIX

Alexandria

Why did I hesitate? _]I thought to myself. [_I put people’s lives in danger and made myself look like an idiot. Maybe I didn’t deserve the chief position. Maybe that’s why they gave it to someone else, to Chance.

That man was going to drive me crazy. Him and his idiotic ideas—a ball, for God’s sake, like we had time to go to a ball. And then making me do all of those pushups. That was just him showing off for the guys. What an ass.

I walked in the front door to my house to find Mike passed out on the couch with a bottle of vodka in his hand. Nothing surprising, I thought as I went to check on Emily.

She was sound asleep in her bed with her favorite teddy bear gripped tightly in her hands. She’d loved him since getting him for Christmas when she was three. He was a little tattered with age, but she didn’t care.

I went back out to the kitchen and looked at the clock. Nine thirty. I should have stayed at the station to celebrate. I grabbed a salad out of the fridge and picked up the phone.

“Allison, I hope it’s not too late to call, but I needed to hear a friendly voice.”

“Of course not. What’s going on?”

“Everything. I feel like my life is falling apart. Mike’s drinking too much. Things at the station aren’t the best. I don’t know what I’m going to do.”

“Do you want to come over for a glass of wine?”

“I’m bushed. We just spent the last few hours putting out a warehouse fire. Are you free for lunch tomorrow?”

“It’s a date.”

Allison was one of those friends you could count on. We’d known each other since high school, and even if we didn’t talk for weeks, if either of us needed someone to lean on we knew we’d be there for each other.

Back in the old days, we’d been inseparable. Always sleeping over at each other’s houses. She had a sleepover once and we woke her mother up. She came into the room and called us all a bunch of horses’ asses. I remember we all laughed so hard.

We had so much fun together calling taxis to bring us junk food in the middle of the night while we gossiped about boys and love. She was the kind of best friend everyone needed, and I was glad she was mine.

I ate my salad and headed off to bed quietly. I didn’t want to wake Mike and risk that he’d be able to make his way to the bedroom. The only thing worse than smelling his alcohol-laden breath when I was awake was smelling it the entire time I was sleeping.

CHAPTER SEVEN

[* ~Alexandria~ *]

“Good morning, Alex,” Chance said when I walked into the station. “How are you feeling this morning?”

“Good,” I answered. “In fact, I feel great. How about you?”

“I’m okay,” he said as he stared at me. “You look like you slept better last night,” he said.

“I did. Thanks for noticing,” I said as I went to get a cup of coffee.

“That was some fire yesterday, huh?” Billings asked as he put his cup down.

“About that,” I said, “I’m really…”

“Listen, O’Neil, it could have happened to any of us. Don’t sweat it,” he said.

I put my head down. I couldn’t help but feel bad for what had happened, but he was right. It could have happened to anybody. I grabbed my cup and headed over to the table.

Chance, of course, followed me and sat down beside me. His thigh brushed against mine. At first I cringed and thought about pulling mine away, but then a heat rose within me.

No way. I can’t be attracted to him. No freaking way.

I sat up there thinking of all the reasons why I hated Chance and why I couldn’t fall for him, when I heard a familiar voice downstairs.

“Alex, Alex, come here. I need to talk to you,” the voice yelled through slurred words.

“What the hell is that?” Anderson asked.

“That would be my husband,” I answered as I started to get up from the table.

“Do you want me to come with you?” Chance asked as he grabbed my arm.

“No, I’ll be fine,” I said as I walked downstairs to deal with Mike.

For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out why he’d come to my work to humiliate me. It was obvious from his voice that he was drunk already. As if I hadn’t already humiliated myself enough, now he had to bring his drunken ass down to make it worse.

“What are you doing here?” I asked as I folded my arms in front of me when I saw him standing there at the front entrance.

“I was worried about you. You didn’t come home last night,” he said as he swung his bottle of sambuca around.

“I did come home, and you were passed out on the couch. I went to bed, and this morning I got up and came to work.”

“You didn’t even say goodbye or tell me you loved me,” he said as he started to cry.

“Mike, you need to go home now,” I said, infuriated.

“But Alex, baby, I love you,” he said as he reached out to grab me and pull me closer.

“Go home,” I said, pushing him away as he lost his grip on his bottle of sambuca and it poured all down the front of me. “Now look what you’ve done. I’m serious, Mike, go home.”

I turned and walked back upstairs. Dealing with Mike was like dealing with a small child. He just wouldn’t listen. His drinking had gone too far. Now he was coming to my work all tanked up, and God only knew what would be next.

“Everything okay, O’Neil?” Billings asked when I walked back in.

“You could say that,” I replied, still trying to get used to the stench that now filled the air around me.

“What the hell happened to you?” Anderson asked, looking at the stain down the front of my shirt.

“My husband, that’s what happened,” I said, shaking my head. I looked at the stain, trying to figure out how I was going to make it through the day.

“I have an extra shirt in my car,” Carmella offered.

“Do you guys care if I use the shower?” I asked. “I’m meeting a friend for lunch and…”

“You stink,” Anderson said. “Go ahead and use the shower.”

Carmella brought me her extra shirt and helped me find towels. I couldn’t wait to get under the hot water and wash the stench of the sambuca off. Goddamned Mike. I couldn’t believe he did that. His drinking had been out of hand for some time, but not like this.

It had been a gradual buildup. At first he started drinking earlier in the day, then he was drunk all the time, and then his speech was constantly slurred. Now it had come to this; now I stunk because of him.

As the hot water eased my stress away, I let the shampoo and soap work their magic. When I felt confident that all traces of the offending alcohol were gone, I opened the shower door and reached for the fluffy yellow towel that Carmella had grabbed for me.

It was so soft against my skin, and I felt so relaxed, more than I had in days. Part of me just wanted to stay in there, but I knew I had to go back out, so I reached for my clothes. But they weren’t where I left them. My eyes darted around the room, trying to figure out if I had set them somewhere else and forgotten, but they were nowhere else to be seen.

Wrapping the towel tightly around myself, I got up and started searching the room, hoping to find them somewhere, anywhere. Good God, I thought. I can’t go out there in front of all of them like this.

No matter how hard I searched, I couldn’t find any of my clothes, not even a sock. I closed my eyes and pulled the towel tighter around myself. Goddamned jerks, I thought as I tilted my head to the side and gathered my confidence before walking back out to them.

“Where are my clothes?” I asked, quietly at first.

Every one of them turned and looked at me. I could feel their eyes giving me the once-over from my feet up to my face. There wasn’t an inch of my body that their eyes didn’t fondle. Thank God for the towel. I was surprised they at least left me that.

“I said, where are my clothes?” I was a little louder that time.

“Getting a little cold there, O’Neil,” Billings said as he chuckled.

“No, I just want my goddamned clothes,” I said, starting to get upset.

“You know, you’re cute when you’re angry,” Anderson said with a laugh.

“Guys, give her her clothes,” Chance said. “Enough is enough.”

Billings handed me my clothes and I turned and headed back to the shower to get dressed. Goddamned animals, _]I thought to myself. [_No wonder most of them aren’t married.

After I was dressed, I went back out there holding my head high. I wasn’t about to let them win the battle of the sexes. I was a confident woman, despite the fact that they’d just tried to humiliate me.

“You’re pretty quiet,” Billings said as I poured my coffee.

“Hmm,” I answered.

“Giving us the cold shoulder, are you?” Anderson asked.

“Leave her alone,” Carmella said. “Can’t you see that she’s having a bad day?”

“And the last thing I need is you guys trying to humiliate me,” I added.

“Humiliate you?” Billings asked. “We aren’t trying to humiliate you.”

“Then why the hell did you guys take my clothes and make me walk out here naked?” I asked.

“You didn’t walk out here naked, sweetie, but I wish you did,” Anderson laughed. “It happens to all of us when we come to work here. We never had a chance to do it to you before because you don’t live here with us. We were trying to make you feel like one of the guys, but I guess it backfired.”

All of a sudden I felt like an idiot. They weren’t harassing me or trying to humiliate me at all. They were trying to give me everything I’d been missing out on and I didn’t even realize it. I felt so bad for tearing into them.

“Aw, thanks, guys,” I said. “I had no idea.”

“Consider yourself initiated,” Billings laughed.

“So, who are you going to lunch with?” Anderson asked.

“An old friend. My best friend, actually. We went to high school together.”

“We’ll miss you here. It’s coleslaw day and it’s always a treat to see the strings hanging out from between your teeth,” Billings chuckled.

I choked on my coffee at his remark and it flew from my mouth onto Chance, who was sitting across the table from me for a change.

“Don’t say things like that when my mouth is full,” I laughed.

“Do you provide towels with your showers?” Chance asked.

“Sorry, no towels or clothes,” I said as I got up and grabbed my purse.

***

I sat at The Wooden Spoon waiting for Allison. It was a tiny little diner, but it had been our favorite lunch spot for years. Over time, many different people had owned it, but they never changed the name.

It wasn’t the greatest-looking place by any means. Many people would have called it a hole in the wall. But it was quaint and quiet, a place where we could talk. I loved going there for a bite to eat and great conversation.

When she walked in, heads turned at every table. She was beautiful with her red curls and ivory skin. Her emerald skirt suit set it all off. She worked as a legal secretary, but she was a fashion diva and had the slim build to go along with it.

I’d always envied her tiny body that made the men stare whenever she walked by. She, on the other hand, said she’d always envied my curves. She said more men stared at me than at her. I’d married my high school sweetheart right after graduation, so I’d never noticed.

“Alex, how are you?” she asked as she walked over to the table.

“Good, good. How are you?” I asked as I stood up and hugged her.

She sat down and the waitress brought our menus. I always found it odd that the menu never changed; we always ordered the same thing, and yet they still brought menus every time.

“So what’s new in the legal world?” I asked.

“Not a lot, but last night it sounded like you might have some things going on. Tell me about it.”

“I don’t know where to start,” I said, playing with my napkin and shaking my head. “The more I think about it, the more muddled up the whole mess seems. Mike’s getting worse, he wants me to quit my job, I think I have a crush on my jackass boss…”

“Can I take your order?” the waitress interrupted.

“I’ll have a plain bacon cheeseburger deluxe,” I said. “Make sure there’s nothing on that but bacon and cheese, and I’ll have gravy for the fries.”

“I’ll have chicken fingers with onion rings on the side,” Allison said.

“And can I get you ladies anything to drink?” the waitress asked as she took our menus from us.

“I’ll have a Pepsi,” I said.

“A Sprite for me,” Allison said. The waitress left with our orders. “Okay,” Allison said, turning back towards me. “Why don’t you start with Mike? What’s going on with him?”

“Oh God, Allison, it’s so bad. I can’t even stand to be around him anymore. He’s drunk all the time. I mean slurring-his-words drunk. When he breathes on me all I can smell is alcohol. He’s not attractive at all to me anymore. In fact, he disgusts me.”

“Have you talked to him about his drinking? Maybe if he went to AA…”

“I’ve tried. It doesn’t do any good. He doesn’t want to quit drinking. He’s perfectly happy with his life the way it is, but I’m not. He won’t work. The truth is he can’t. He’s unemployable. The way he drinks, he can’t get up in the morning and go to work. It’s impossible. I’m stuck paying all the bills while he sits home and drinks all day. I can’t take it anymore.”

“What about Emily?” she asked as she folded her napkin in her lap.

“Emily’s doing okay, but I don’t think it’s good for her to be around that. When she’s not in school, she’s with him.”

“He drinks around her?”

“Of course. There’s never a time when he doesn’t drink. Seriously, Allison, I can’t remember a time when I haven’t seen him without a bottle in his hand.”

“You can’t have that,” she said as she looked down at the table.

“It gets worse,” I said. “Lately he’s been bugging me to quit my job, but if I do then we won’t have any money coming in.”

“That’s ridiculous. Why does he want you to quit your job?”

“It’s a long story. You remember how I was acting chief for a while? Well, they hired out of the local station for the permanent position. He was mad and started focusing on the fact that I’m not home enough.”

“So he’s upset because you didn’t get a raise,” she said as the waitress brought our food.

“Yes,” I said. “Now he’s trying to convince me that every fire could kill me and leave Emily without a mother. He’s got my mind so messed up that I hesitated at a fire the other night and almost cost a couple of my teammates their lives.”

“Alex, you need to stop listening to Mike. Any time anyone leaves their house to go to work could be the last time, whether they’re a firefighter, a police officer, a teacher, a lawyer, or a waitress. You never know what each day is going to bring. You just have to hope for the best.”

“I know that, but I’m so lost. Then today he showed up at the station with a bottle of sambuca in his hand and dumped it all over me.”

“Okay, that’s going too far. You need to do something about him.”

“I know I do. I just don’t know if I’m ready.”

“OK, so what’s going on with your work? Do you want to quit your job?”

“Allison, I love my job and I love the guys I work with—most of the time. I did think about quitting when I didn’t get the promotion. I worked hard for it, and it was heartbreaking to see it go to someone else. But then today they stole my clothes when I was in the shower to make me feel like one of the guys, and I realized that the camaraderie there is unlike anything I’d find anywhere else.”

“It sounds like your mind is made up,” she said as she took a sip of her Sprite.

“It is. I could never leave my job.”

“Who did they hire to take the position?”

“That’s another problem,” I said as I put my burger back down on my plate. “Do you remember Chance Friedman from high school?”

“Ha ha, geek city. Of course I remember him. He loved torturing the hell out of you.”

“He’s the new chief.”

“No way,” she said as she put her fork back down and stared at me.

“And he’s not a geek anymore, unfortunately. He’s gorgeous, Allison. I want him with every fiber of my being, but at the same time I don’t want to find him attractive. I hate him. He’s such a jerk, and yet he makes me feel alive.”

“That’s quite the dilemma you have there,” she said, grinning.

“Don’t laugh,” I said. “It’s not funny. I can’t fall for him, Allison, I just can’t.”

“Why not?” she asked before she took another bite of her chicken fingers.

“Well, let’s see, the guy took the chief position out from under me, he’s acting like he owns the place…oh, and let’s not forget I have a husband.”

“Let’s put this in perspective, Alex. You don’t have a husband. You have a second child. Mike isn’t capable of carrying his own weight in your household. As for Chance, he was offered a job, he took it, and he gives orders because it’s part of his job. That makes him a bad guy why?”

I sat there for a few minutes unable to talk. Everything she said made perfect sense. Mike wasn’t capable of being a husband, and he hadn’t been for years. And Chance, well, he hadn’t done anything wrong. He’d taken a job that was offered to him. I had no right to be mad at him for that.

“I see your points,” I said. “But I still can’t fall for Chance while I’m still married to Mike.”

“I thought we both agreed that you needed to do something about that,” she said while she chewed away on one of her onion rings.

“What can I do?” I asked. “I’d need to find a babysitter for after school hours. It’s all so complicated.”

“Why is it difficult?” she asked. “If things were really that bad you’d find a way to leave.”

“You don’t understand,” I said after I took another sip of my Pepsi. “I’m on a limited budget as it is, and then finding childcare for Emily, well, that’s going to be almost impossible.”

“She’s eight, Alex. She’s almost old enough to stay on her own.”

“She’s deaf, Allison. It’s a whole different ballgame. Someone could break into the house and she wouldn’t know it. She needs someone there with her.”

“What time does she get off school?” she asked as she put down her fork.

“Around three thirty, why?”

“I finish work at four, and could swing by your place and stay there with her until you get home.”

“I don’t know. I’ve never left her with anyone besides Mike or I before,” I said as I played with my fork.

“Alex, I’ve known her since she was a baby. I even know basic sign language. You won’t need to worry about the extra expenses because I won’t charge you any money. It’s a perfect situation and you know it.”

“I’m just not sure that I’m ready,” I said, staring down at the table.

“Not sure if you’re ready to leave Emily with someone else, or not sure if you’re ready to leave Mike?”

I shook my head and sighed. “Both,” I admitted. “Mike and I married fresh out of high school. I don’t know how to leave him, or even if I could. He used to be a good guy, you know. I’m sure he could get back to that again. It’ll just take time.”

“Alex, you can’t fix people. Get that out of your head right now. He’s not the same person you knew back then and he’s not the same person you married. It’s not good for Emily to be around his drinking. Do you want her to grow up thinking that’s normal?”

“You don’t get it because you’ve never been married, but it’s not that easy. We have a history together. It’s hard to let that go.”

“A history of what? A couple of good years before he stopped supporting his family and started spending your money on his booze habit? That ship has sailed, Alex, whether you care to admit it or not. You said he’s refusing treatment, so he doesn’t even want to help himself. The only thing you can do at this point is help yourself and Emily, and get out of there.”

“I know you’re right, but I don’t know if my heart can let go.”

“You told me you find him disgusting now, not even attractive. Is your heart even hanging on still? Or are you just there out of some self-made obligation to take care of him?” she asked as she folded up her napkin and put it on her plate.

“I don’t know,” I said, taking the last bite of my burger. “I honestly don’t know.”

“I think you need to figure that out. If you need someone to watch Emily, let me know. The offer still stands.”

***

“Alex, can you come into the office, please?” Chance called when I arrived back at the station. “I need your help with some paperwork.”

While I hated paperwork with a passion, I appreciated the opportunity to focus on something besides my own problems for a while. Drowning myself in schedules might be just what the doctor ordered.

“I’ll be right there,” I called back. “Just let me make a coffee first.”

“Make it snappy, would you?” he called back.

I hated it when he pulled rank. It felt like he was always trying to remind me that he was the boss. It’s not like I could forget. He had my office, after all.

“What’s the problem?” I asked when I walked in his office and sat down in front of the oak desk that used to be mine.

He’d done quite a bit of redecorating in there. The gray walls were now covered with pictures of his family: his parents, his sister, his brothers, and his cousins. None of his ex-wife, though, not a single one.

“The paperwork system here is different than what I’m used to. Can you get me up to speed?” he asked as he set his coffee cup down on the desk and looked up at me.

His green eyes penetrated mine, and as much as I tried I couldn’t look away from his stare. My eyes wandered down to his soft pink lips, and I wanted to reach out and touch them, kiss them.

I shook my head to try to bring myself back to reality. I prayed he couldn’t read my thoughts, that he didn’t know that I was crushing on him hard.

“You mean like a crash course?” I asked before I took a sip of my coffee.

“Exactly,” he said, flashing me a winning smile. “Of course, that will mean that you’ll need to spend a couple of days in here working closely with me.”

[_Bastard. _]Didn’t he know what working beside him would do to me? I wanted him—no, I needed him—and now he wanted me to spend hours with him each day. How could I do that and keep my job?

CHAPTER EIGHT

~ Chance ~

Lexi, oh Lexi, I couldn’t stop thinking about her. Getting used to calling her Alex was almost impossible. She was still the beautiful girl next door, the one I’d had a crush on. The one I would always have a crush on. But now I had to keep things on a professional level.

When she came out of the shower wrapped in a towel, my jaw dropped to the floor. She’d looked so plain in her uniform, but the voluptuous curves she displayed set my body on fire. My pants swelled under the table and I hoped to God nobody would notice.

I wanted to take her right there and then. Picturing myself calling her into my office and bending her over my desk only made my need grow stronger. I had to divert my attention to Billings, knowing my erection would disappear in a heartbeat.

Had I not been her boss, and had everything not been riding on our ability to work as a team, I would have jumped all over her. But she had a husband, and I knew I needed to keep it in my pants no matter how much it hurt.

But oh, to touch those breasts, and to run my hands along those thick thighs. I’d give anything to run my lips all over her body and kiss her deeply. If only I could.

I decided if I couldn’t have her, I could at least find a way to spend more time with her. So I devised a stupid plan to spend hours alone with her in my office. I made up a lie about the paperwork being different.

Everybody knew that the paperwork was exactly the same from station to station, but I bargained on the chance that she didn’t. I was right.

When I asked her, I was shocked that she agreed. I’d get to spend hours inhaling the sweet scent of her perfume and staring at her beautiful face all in the privacy of my office.

Just as she came around to start teaching me how to use the computer programs, the fire bell rang.

“Saved by the bell,” she laughed as she set down her coffee cup and headed out of my office.

“Unfortunately,” I said under my breath while I stood up from my chair. I grabbed my gear and headed out into the sea of people rushing to the trucks.

When the upstairs was emptied and the last person ran down the stairs, I started down them. I was always the last one out. It was my job to make sure all my men had their gear and made it to the trucks.

Alex sat on the seventh stair holding her gear and shaking. I started walking down slower as I approached her.

“You okay?” I asked as I sat down beside her with my gear still in hand.

She looked up at me with tear-filled eyes. “No,” she sobbed. “I can’t go, Chance. I just can’t.”

“Listen to me,” I said. “You can and you will. You’re a seasoned firefighter, and sitting here on the stairs isn’t putting out any fires. Now let’s go out there.”

“You don’t understand, I just can’t.”

“You’re always trying to prove you can do it all. So why can’t you go on this call?” I asked.

“I’m afraid,” she admitted as she wrapped her arms around me and started sobbing into my shoulder.

I closed my eyes, almost afraid to hold her, knowing that it would stir up feelings in me that I wasn’t ready to face. Finally, I put my arms around her and stroked her long, silky hair to reassure her.

“What are you afraid of?” I whispered.

She just kept crying. I don’t think she was capable of answering.

“Are you afraid of fire?” I asked, worried that I might be losing one of my best men.

“No,” she managed to get out. “The last time I hesitated and nearly cost two men their lives. I’m afraid of doing it again.”

“You won’t,” I promised her. “Like Billings said, it could have happened to anyone. You won’t make the same mistake twice.”

“And then you yelled at me, and that scared me,” she said.

When I yelled at her, I hadn’t meant to terrify her. I only wanted to get my point across.

“Has nobody ever raised their voice to you before?” I asked curiously.

“My father, when he’d come home drunk and hit my mom. Us kids would all hide as soon as we heard him come in the door, because we knew after he was done with her, it was our turn.”

I held her even tighter. Had I ever known, I would never have raised my voice to her. There were other ways I could have handled the situation, but I’d handled it badly.

“I’m so sorry, Alex,” I said. “I didn’t mean to frighten you. When you hesitated that night, it brought so many memories flooding back to me. I had a sister who passed away before we moved into the house next door to yours.”

“I remember,” she said. “You used to talk about her all the time. You two were really close. I think you were twins or something.”

“Yes, we were twins. We moved into that house because our old house caught on fire and burned down.”

“I’m so sorry,” she said.

“Let me finish,” I said, pushing her face into my shoulder. I didn’t want her to see the emotional pain that I knew was going to show on my face. “The fire, it was my fault. I was playing around with matches in the garage and there were chemicals around, and…”

She pulled her face out of my chest and looked up at me with her big blue eyes, now swollen from tears. “You can’t blame yourself,” she said. “You were just a little boy.”

“My sister was upstairs in her room playing. The fire got out of control quickly and I was scared. I ran to my friend’s house to play. I don’t know why. I guess I just thought if I wasn’t there to see it, it wasn’t real.”

“You were really young. You didn’t know any better,” she said as she ran her fingers along my shoulder.

“The fire spread from the garage to the house before a neighbor saw it and called 911.”

“Thank God someone saw it. Where were your parents?”

“God only knows. They used to go out all the time and leave us to ourselves. Anyway, by the time the fire trucks arrived on the scene the fire was out of control.”

“So nothing could be saved?”

“Not even my sister. They coaxed her to jump out of her bedroom window, but she hesitated just like you did and the fire took her. I’ve never forgiven myself.”

“I’m so sorry, Chance,” she said. “What a horrible thing to have to go through and carry around on your shoulders. It’s not your fault. You can’t keep blaming yourself.”

“When I yelled at you, I was yelling at my sister, but more than anything I was yelling at myself. I couldn’t stand the thought of losing someone else.”

She reached out and touched my hand while I closed my eyes and relived those painful moments. When I opened them she was still looking up at me with those tender eyes. I could feel my heart beating faster as my palms began to sweat.

She leaned further and further forward until her lips almost touched mine. I wondered if I was going to let her kiss me, if I was going to kiss her back. In the back of my mind, I kept telling myself to keep it professional, but oh how I wanted to taste her lips, just once.

“Now why don’t we get out there with the others and take care of that fire?” I said as the chief in me took over and I straightened my hat.

“Yes, sir,” she said, grabbing her gear and rising to her feet.

CHAPTER NINE

[* ~Alexandria~ *]

What a day, I thought to myself on my way home from work. That fire had been a doozy, but we managed to get it out in record time, and this time I didn’t hesitate. I was able to get the job done as I had many times before. I was back, thanks to my pep talk from Chance.

Somehow that talk made me feel closer to him. Now that I knew about his childhood and his sister, I felt like I understood him. He’d been through a lot. It was almost like every fire was an opportunity for him to make amends, in his mind at least.

“We need to talk,” I said to Mike when I walked in the door.

He was so inebriated, I didn’t think the talk would get very far, but I figured it was worth a try.

“About what?” he slurred.

“About your drinking,” I said quietly.

“Do you want some?” he asked as he held out his vodka bottle and sat down on the couch.

“No, I don’t, and I don’t want you to drink anymore either,” I said sternly as I tried to pry the bottle out of his hand.

“I’ll drink if I want to drink,” he said. “You can’t take this away from me.”

“Mike, things aren’t working out. Either you give up the bottle, or you give up me.”

“This,” he said, holding up the bottle, “this is all I have left. I’m stuck in a miserable marriage with a wife who’s never home and a daughter who can’t hear a word I say. My life has gone to hell and you want to take the one thing I can control away from me.”

His words stung. I knew his drinking started getting bad when Emily was born, but I had no idea that it was because of her. I’d always thought he’d been happy all these years.

“You can’t have it both ways,” I said. “Either give it up, or get out.”

His facial expression changed into something I’d never seen before. The contortions were almost frightening as he leapt from the couch and towered over me.

“You think this has been wonderful for me?” he screamed. “I’ve supported you and stayed with you no matter what. I’ve been your glorified babysitter for years, and now you want to kick me out because I enjoy a drink now and then? You stupid bitch.”

I didn’t even see his fist coming before it smacked hard against my cheek. Between the shock and the sting, it took me a few seconds to realize what had happened.

“Mike,” I said, scrambling to get away from him. “Mike, please stop.”

He continued after me like a madman with his arms swinging, making contact whenever he could. I struggled to get away, even after he stumbled and fell, but he just grabbed my ankles and pulled me down with him. He continued pounding on me despite my pleas until I finally passed out.

***

“What’s with the sunglasses?” Anderson asked when I went into the station the next day.

“It’s a little bright outside,” I replied as I poured my morning coffee.

“You’re inside now, dear,” he laughed.

“My eyes haven’t adjusted yet,” I said calmly as I added my milk and sugar.

I’d spent an hour on my makeup trying to cover my bruises, but it didn’t do any good. At the last minute I grabbed my sunglasses, hoping they would cover a multitude of sins. The last thing I needed was anyone else finding out what I was dealing with at home. I already had enough people giving me advice.

The entire time I was getting ready, Mike apologized profusely. He’d never hit me before and he swore it would never happen again. The way he cried, I believed him.

When my coffee was ready, I walked over to join them at the table. The whole gang was already there sipping their drinks and chatting away.

“You going for the movie star look?” Chance asked when he saw me in the sunglasses.

“You’re the one talking about throwing a ball. I just wanted to add some social grace to the place,” I giggled.

His eyes had a look of deep concern as he kept staring at me. I kept trying to hide behind the glasses, but somehow I thought he knew my secret.

“When you’re finished with your coffee, would you like to join me in my office?” he asked.

“To teach you how to do your job, sure,” I laughed as I set my cup back down.

Chance just nodded and pulled away from the group. He went into his office and shut the door behind him.

“Uh oh, Alex is in trouble,” Billings laughed. “Getting called to the chief’s office and everything.”

“No, he just needs a little bit of help,” I said. “Someone has to teach him how it’s done.”

I stood up from my chair and excused myself before heading toward Chance’s office. When I got to the door, I hesitated and smoothed my hair.

Who the hell am I fooling? _]I thought to myself. [_I look like hell. It’s not like smoothing my hair is going to make it any better.

“Come in,” he said when I knocked.

“Where do you want to start?” I asked before I picked up a chair and started carrying it around to his side of the desk.

“At the beginning,” he said. “You can start with the sunglasses.”

“How about we start with the logging program?” I offered as I sat down. The scent of his woodsy cologne filled the room and I just wanted to sit there inhaling him and thinking about nothing else.

“I’d rather start with your sunglasses,” he insisted. “Take them off.”

“I’d really rather not. Can we just get down to business?”

I was starting to get angry at his obsession with my sunglasses. As long as I helped him, what did it matter if my eyes were covered?

“Do you trust me?” he asked.

“What kind of a question is that?” I asked as I started looking over his shoulder at his computer screen.

“Our whole team rides on how much we trust each other. We need to know that we always have each others’ backs. Now I’m asking you, do you trust me?”

His stare almost paralyzed me. I nodded, barely able to speak as he reached up and gently pulled the sunglasses away from my face.

“I’m sorry,” I said as I turned my head away in embarrassment while I tried to hide my face.

“Why are you sorry?” he asked as he reached for my chin and tilted my face back toward him.

“I’m sorry that I look like this,” I said, stammering for words.

“Did you do this to yourself?” he asked as he held my face in both of his firm hands.

“No, of course not,” I said, staring up at him.

“Then you have no reason to be sorry. What happened, Alex?”

“I really don’t want to talk about it,” I said, trying to look to the side and break his stare.

“We need to talk about it,” he said as he held my face firmly in place. “Now, what happened?”

“I was running up the stairs, and I fell. My face took the blunt of it, I guess.”

He tilted my face from side to side, studying it carefully. “I’m not buying that,” he said. “Stairs wouldn’t have done this. Now why don’t you try telling me the truth?”

“My husband, Mike,” I said, staring up at the ceiling. “He…he hit me when I asked him to stop drinking.” The tears that streamed down my face stung my wounds as he wiped them away with his thumbs.

“The drunk guy who was here yesterday, he did this to you?” Chance asked.

“Yes, but he was just upset. He’s not like this.”

“You can’t go back there, Alex. If he hit you once, he’ll hit you again.”

“No, he won’t. You don’t understand,” I said. “He’s never hit me before. He said he was sorry.”

“Did your father say he was sorry when he hit your mother?”

His words stung, and I wished I’d never told him about my parents. I didn’t expect him to turn around and throw it back in my face.

“Yes, but this was different,” I said as I tried to pull his hands away from my face.

“How was it different?” he asked, refusing to let go.

“He said he wouldn’t do it again,” I said, staring into his eyes.

“Did your father promise your mother he wouldn’t do it again?” he asked, staring back at me.

“Yes,” I admitted, still staring into his beautiful eyes. If I weren’t so angry at him, I would have kissed him.

“And what happened after your father made that promise to your mother?” he asked quietly.

“He did it again,” I whispered before I collapsed in his arms and began sobbing.

“You’re going to be okay, Alex,” he whispered. “You’re a strong woman. You’ll get through this.”

“I can’t do this right now,” I said, pulling myself away from his chest.

“Can’t do what?” he asked.

“This,” I said, pointing to the computer screen and the paperwork on the desk. “Can I have the rest of the day off?”

***

“Allison, I need your help,” I said when she answered her cell.

“What’s up?” she asked. “I’m on my lunch break if you want to meet somewhere.

“Let’s go somewhere private. There’s a picnic table in the park on Ontario Street.”

“I’ll be there in five minutes.”

I sat in the park, donning my sunglasses as I waited for Allison. Getting off work by noon gave me time to formulate a plan without having to worry about Emily, who was still in school. Mike would be at home drinking, and for all he knew I was still at work.

The lush trees waved their leaves in the breeze, providing me just the right amount of shade on such a hot day. I hoped Allison would know how I should carry everything out, because I had no clue.

“Hey Alex,” she said when she arrived. “It’s not often I get to see you twice in one week. What’s so important?”

I took off my sunglasses to show her as she sat down at the table. The horrified look on her face told me that she’d figured it out.

“Oh, God,” she said. “Did he do this to you?”

“Last night, when I told him he had to quit drinking or I was leaving,” I said as I stared down at the picnic table and continued etching into it with my nails.

“God, Alex, you have to get out of there. Did you call the police?”

“I couldn’t. I kept trying to get away from him, but he kept hitting me until I passed out.”

“It’s not too late, you know,” she said as she reached out to touch my hand. “You can still call them now and report it. You can’t let him get away with this.”

“No. He said he wouldn’t do it again. Right now, I just want to make a plan to leave.”

“Men say a lot of things they don’t mean, Alex. But what do you mean by a plan?”

“I mean I don’t want to leave with everything up in the air. I want to make sure my finances are secure, and that I have full custody of my daughter. Somehow I need to move money and remove him as a secondary holder to my credit cards. I also have to take care of custody without him finding out about it. Then I can leave.”

“Honey,” she said as she took my hands in hers, “these things take time. He could kill you before you have all of that worked out. Just get your things and leave. You and Emily can stay with me for a while.”

“No,” I said, taking my hand back to wipe my tears. “I need to do this on my own. I just need your help to tie up the loose ends. With you being a legal secretary, I thought you might have some idea how to do it.”

She sat there thinking for a few minutes while I pondered my future. Even if he never hit me again, I knew I couldn’t put up with his drinking habit.

“Why don’t you come back to the office with me?” she suggested. “I’ll see if one of the lawyers has time to talk to you. They’ll know what to do.”

CHAPTER TEN

[* ~Chance~ *]

Seeing Alex’s face all bruised up infuriated me. How could any kind of man do that to a woman? I wanted to go to her house and tear her husband apart. But I didn’t have to. He came to me.

She wasn’t gone an hour when a slurred yell hollered up the stairs. “Alex? I need to talk to you. Oh, Alex.”

“Is that her drunken husband again?” Billings asked with an annoyed look on his face.

“That would be the one,” I said as I felt the anger in me growing intensely.

“Alex,” he called again. “Come here, baby.”

That was it for me. I flew down the stairs ready to confront him. That sick bastard needed to pick on somebody his own size.

“What do you want?” I asked when I approached the man standing at the bottom of the stairs swinging the bottle around. He was much smaller than I thought. He stood about six feet tall, but only weighed about one hundred and thirty pounds at best.

“Get Alex down here,” he slurred as he tried to push past me.

“Go home,” I said sternly as I shoved back at the scrawny little man.

“I’m here to see my wife,” he insisted. “Now let me see her.”

“She’s not here,” I said. “Now get out of here. I saw what you did to her, and if you get out of here fast, I won’t tear you apart.”

“If you had to live with her, you’d take a round out of her too,” he laughed as he kept swinging his bottle.

“Keep it up, little man,” I said as he started to walk away.

CHAPTER ELEVEN

[* ~Alexandria~ *]

“Where the fuck were you?” Mike sputtered when I walked in the door. I wiped his spit off my face before answering.

“At work, where do you think I was?”

“I went to the station, and some asshole told me you weren’t there,” he said, laughing.

“Oh, it must have been while I was running errands,” I lied. I couldn’t let him know what I’d been up to.

“Yeah, he told me you told them all about the bruises on your face,” he added.

“I told them I fell up the stairs,” I said. It was partially true.

“No, Alex. He said you told them what I did to you. Does it make you feel good to make me look like the bad guy in all this? Does it?” he yelled as he grabbed my arm.

“Mike, I didn’t tell them anything. I swear,” I cried, trying to break myself free from his grip.

“Don’t give me that shit, Alex,” he said as he threw me down on the floor and started hitting me. I threw my hands up to try to protect my face, but the blows just kept on coming.

Just when I thought he really was going to kill me, my cell phone rang. We both looked up and saw Emily standing in the doorway watching us while she cried. We looked at each other and then back at her before he climbed off me.

I scrambled to my feet and grabbed my phone out of my purse while Mike went to console her. The station, I thought when I saw the number, this time I really am saved by the bell.

I threw my arms around Emily and calmed her down before telling Mike I had to go to another fire.

“Like hell you are,” he said.

“It’s my job, Mike. I have to go,” I said as I walked out of the house and got in the car.

***

“Forget your sunglasses, O’Neil?” Chance asked when I arrived at the station.

I reached up and touched my face. I’d been in such a hurry, I hadn’t even thought to cover it, and the wounds were so much worse now.

“You could say that,” I said as I went to grab my gear while I tried to ignore him.

“Have you given any more thought to what we talked about earlier?” he asked.

“What the hell, Chance? I thought I could trust you. Why did you tell him I wasn’t here?”

“What? Is this my fault? Alex, I didn’t mean…”

“It’s not your fault. It’s mine. I should have let him know where I was going.”

“Listen to yourself. You didn’t make him hit you. It’s not your fault at all. It’s his fault. He did this, not you.”

“Did you also tell him that I told you that he hit me?” I asked him as I headed towards the stairs.

He looked down and touched the side of his nose with this thumb. “I did, and I’m sorry. I was just so angry that anyone would do that to a woman. I wanted to let him know that it wasn’t okay, ever.”

I nodded my head and started walking down the stairs to get on the truck and head off to the fire. I’d have to be careful what I shared around work if I wanted to stay safe at home.

“Hey, Alex,” he called as I headed out the door.

“Yeah,” I yelled back up.

“I don’t think you should go on this run. Why don’t you stay here?”

I stood there frozen in the doorway staring up the stairwell. Who was he to tell me what runs I should go on?

“What do you mean?” I asked, grabbing hold of the railing and starting back up the stairs.

“I don’t think you should go,” he repeated.

I ran up the stairs to make sure I’d heard him right. I was good at my job, and to be held back felt like a punishment.

“Why shouldn’t I go?” I asked him when I reached the top.

“I don’t think your head’s in the right place,” he said as he reached out to grab my shoulders.

I flinched away, not because I didn’t want him to touch me, but because I was in such pain. There wasn’t a square inch of my body that wasn’t covered in bruises.

“Does it really hurt that bad?” he asked as he steered me toward a chair.

I nodded as the tears started coming again.

“I’ve got to go, but why don’t you sit here until you’re ready to drive home?” he asked.

I sat there in solitude, staring at the walls for what seemed like an eternity before I got up to make myself a coffee. How did I wind up here, _]I thought to myself, [_sitting alone in a station house while everyone else is out fighting the fire?

At one time my life was so simple and easy. I got up and went to work, and then I went home. Over the years, it gradually became harder until it got to the point where it was almost impossible.

Sit here until I’m ready to drive home, yeah right. If I go back there tonight, he’ll kill me. Allison had mentioned I could go there, but I didn’t feel like being around people, and the station looked as good as anywhere else.

It’s peaceful and quiet, I thought to myself as I sipped on my coffee, just what I need right now. I might be better off just spending the night here, and worry about tomorrow when the time comes.

As the hours went by I realized the guys would be coming back to celebrate as soon as they put the fire out. The last thing I needed was noise and confusion. Chance’s office was out of the way, but I worried that he’d go in there, and I didn’t want him to hear me snore. He’d already seen me looking terrible, but I didn’t want to make matters worse.

Finally, I decided on the shower room. Nobody would be going in there at night. I could curl up with a few towels as a mattress and I’d sleep like a baby until morning.

CHAPTER TWELVE

Chance

After we put the fire out and returned to the station, I noticed Alex’s car was still sitting in the parking lot. I’d told her to drive home when she was ready, but hours had gone by, so I hadn’t figured she would still be there.

“What’s up with O’Neil?” Anderson asked, motioning toward her car.

“I’m not sure,” I said as I walked over to take a look. Billings and Anderson followed me and we checked it out. Nothing seemed unusual, and there was no sign of a struggle.

“She must have decided to walk home,” Anderson said.

“She was in quite a state,” I said. “It wouldn’t surprise me.”

“I can’t wait to get to bed,” Billings said. “That fire took a lot out of me.”

“Me too,” Anderson said as the others all agreed.

“I can’t,” I said. “I’m all covered in black shit and grime. I need to take a shower before I hit the sheets.”

“I can’t do it, man,” Billings said. “Showers can wait until morning.”

“Yeah, maybe you’re right,” I agreed while I held the door open for them.

***

I sat there on the edge of my bunk thinking about Alex. I wish I knew how to save her from her wreck of a marriage and that beast, but I didn’t. She wouldn’t let me.

She was too beautiful to waste her life on someone like that. She had too much going for her. I couldn’t understand why she’d stay in that kind of a relationship for the life of me.

I scratched my head, reliving the last couple of weeks in my mind. I finally get reunited with the girl of my dreams, she hates me for taking a job out from under her, and then she has a deadbeat husband. Why do these things always happen to me?

It’s just the weariness talking, I told myself. [_Tomorrow you’ll pull yourself together. Just keep it professional and don’t lose it again like you did with her husband this morning. _]

Just thinking about him made my jaw tighten and my muscles flex. I pulled back and punched the wall hard.

“Fuck,” I whispered loudly when my fist hit a stud, leaving me with bloody knuckles. Thank God I had a private bunk. All of the other guys bunked together, but the chief always had his own bunk. If the other guys had seen that they’d be questioning my mental stability.

I sat back down on the bed and started taking off my socks as the blood trickled down my hand. [_I can’t do this, _]I thought. [_I really need a shower. _]I rubbed the back of my neck before standing up to head off to clean the soot and grime off my exhausted body.

While the hot water poured over me, I sang away. I’ve always sung in the shower. I don’t know why. It’s just an old habit from childhood. Back then I sang “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” Nowadays, it’s whatever’s playing a lot on the radio that I can’t get out of my head.

I could feel the grime being released from my body as the smell of the soot washed away. Giving my hair a final rinse, I leaned back and let the hot water run over my face. I knew I’d sleep much better now that I’d cleaned myself up.

“Fuck,” I said as I stepped out of the shower. I’d been so eager to hose myself off that I’d forgotten to grab a towel on my way in. I hadn’t even turned on the light switch by the door, which made me even more of an idiot.

I knelt down and started feeling my way around. I figured I’d either find a towel or the far wall so I could turn the light on. Either way, I’d be better off.

Bingo, I thought to myself when I felt the plush terry cloth between my fingers. I gave it a tug, but it didn’t budge. I pulled harder, but it still didn’t move. Finally, I grabbed it with both hands and pulled with all my might.

A loud shriek frightened me, and I fell backwards on my bare ass on the floor with my fingers still clinging to the towel. The lights flicked on suddenly. Alex was kneeling over me fully clothed with her face dangerously close to my balls. She laughed hysterically as she stared down at my naked body.

My eyes darted over to the doorway, where my men all stood by the light switch with their eyes wide and jaws hanging open.

“Go away,” I grumbled before they turned around and left Alex and I alone.

“What are you doing here?” I asked her.

“Sleeping,” she said. “What are you doing here?”

“What any normal person does in the shower room. Taking a shower. Now give me that towel.”

“Sure,” she said, handing it over so I could cover myself.

“I thought I told you to go home as soon as you were able to drive. You damn near scared the hell out of me.”

“I didn’t want to go back there, so I figured I’d spend the night here with you guys. I didn’t see any harm in it.”

“There’s no harm in it, but you could tell a guy if you’re going to sleep in the shower room.”

“What’s the matter, Friedman? Afraid I got to see all of your little secrets?”

“Hey, it’s not small. It’s way bigger than average and you know it,” I said, turning around and opening the towel.

She covered her eyes, trying to shield herself from getting another view. “I’ll take your word for it,” she said.

“And what was that laughter all about?” I asked. “The last thing a man wants to hear the first time a woman sees him naked is her laughing.”

“I always laugh when I’m nervous,” she explained. “I was taken by surprise and I was so shocked to see you lying there that it just set me off.”

“Do it again, and I’ll give you more pushups,” I warned her with a grin on my face.

“Yes, sir,” she laughed. “Can I go back to sleep now?”

“Yes, but why sleep there when we can hook you up with a bunk?” I asked her as I looked at her makeshift bed on the cold, hard floor.

“If it’s all the same to you, I’d rather be alone,” she said softly.

“Suit yourself,” I said as I wrapped the towel around my waist and headed out of the room.

Just as I expected, all of the guys were waiting for me on the other side of the door.

“What was going on in there?” Billings asked.

“Just grabbing a towel,” I said as I walked by toward my bunk.

“Sure,” he laughed as the others followed suit.

I lay in my bed listening to the sounds of their whispers and giggles. From the sounds of it that was the most action this station had seen in a long time, and it wasn’t much.

She laughed at me, I thought as I drifted off to sleep. She actually laughed.

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

~[* Alexandria~ *]

At the crack of dawn the sunlight filled the room and burned my eyes. I tried to cover my head with my pillow, but I couldn’t find it. I fumbled around for a few minutes reaching for it before I realized where I was.

My back ached from sleeping on the hardwood floor and there was no getting back to sleep. I sat up and stretched while I tried to get my bearings. Had I really seen Chance naked the night before, or was that a dream?

I wracked my brain trying to think, but the only thoughts that kept coming to my mind were of him. His hard muscular body, and his six-pack, those toned arms and legs. Oh, how I’d love to be wrapped up in him, I thought, to feel him against me.

It was real, it wasn’t a dream. He had been upset with me for laughing when I hadn’t even seen his balls or his dick. I’d been so shocked that my eyes hadn’t even wandered there yet when he’d covered himself with his hands.

All I saw were the strong arms that I wanted around me, and the rippled torso that I wanted on top of me. [_How will I ever face him now? _]I thought. Everyone had been standing in the doorway. It was all coming back to me. Things around the station were going to be awkward at best.

Oh God, I thought as I folded up the towels I’d used for a mattress and headed out to the other room to make a coffee.

“Sleep well, did you, O’Neil?” Anderson asked when I got out there.

“Like a baby,” I answered. “You’re up early.”

“Every morning. It’s good for the soul. Hours spent sleeping are hours wasted.”

“Sleep is a wonderful thing,” I said as I walked over to the table and sat down.

“People waste years sleeping,” he said. “Think of how much living you miss out on. I go on three or four hours a night tops.”

“I couldn’t do it,” I said, smiling. “I’d die from exhaustion.”

“I thought that too when I was younger,” he said. “Minimal sleep isn’t for everyone, but it works for me. So what’s going on with you and the chief?”

“Oh, so that’s the real reason you’re up so early. You’re hoping to catch the scoop.”

“Is there a scoop to catch?” he asked as he set his cup down and leaned across the table.

“No,” I said. “There’s nothing going on between Friedman and I at all.”

“Then what was that last night?” he asked with a coy look on his face.

“Just an inopportune moment,” I said as I stood up to go get the newspaper.

Before long the others came out and joined us at the table. I hadn’t realized they all woke up so early. I usually arrived at the station at eight o’clock, but it was still only six thirty.

“You guys sure are early risers,” I commented as I looked over at the clock.

“You’re just a slacker, O’Neil,” Anderson laughed.

“How was the fire last night?” I asked, sorry that I’d missed out on the call.

“It took a lot out of us, but we managed to put it out,” Billings said. “Another warehouse fire.”

“O’Neil, the bathrooms are disgusting. Get in there and clean them,” Chance yelled when he walked into the room.

Everybody turned and looked at him, shocked at him taking that tone with me. It was early, but I was up for the fight.

“Bathrooms aren’t in my job description,” I said as I took another sip of my coffee.

“Get on it,” he said as he reached over and grabbed the cup out of my hand.

I kept my grip on my cup while I stood up. “What the hell?” I asked. “Why are you doing this?”

“The bathrooms need attention,” he said, walking over to the coffee maker.

“Why single me out? I don’t see you assigning anyone else to the dirty work,” I said as I marched over to him.

“Yeah, well, nobody else laughed at my…my private areas last night,” he whispered in a low voice.

“Your private areas,” I laughed. “So that’s what this is about, your pride?” I asked, taking his cup and setting it down on the counter loudly.

“Yes,” he whispered. “It’s a matter of pride. Do you have a problem with that?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact, I do. If it makes you feel any better, I didn’t even see any of your ‘private areas’ as you call them. But even if I did, I don’t think you should take your hurt pride out on me.”

“Fine. Billings, go clean the bathrooms. They’re disgusting,” he yelled as he picked his cup back up and continued making his coffee.

Billings shook his head and got up from his seat. As he walked past us he gave me an icy stare. I felt bad that Chance had stuck him with the job, but I was glad that I didn’t have to do it.

“What the hell is going on with you two?” Anderson asked when we sat down with the others.

“Nothing,” Chance and I both said in unison.

“Well, you’d better figure it out before it affects the team,” Anderson said.

“Alex, get your ass down here,” a slurred voice started yelling up the stairs.

God, I’d almost forgotten about Mike. Now here he was to remind me that my life was hell.

“Well, that’s my cue,” I said as I set my cup down on the table and went to stand up.

“I’ll go,” Chance said, motioning for me to sit back down.

“No, it’s okay,” I said. “I’ll go. He’s my husband, not yours.”

“I don’t want you talking to him. Look what he’s done to you already,” Chance said, trying to reason with me.

“Who are you to tell me I can’t talk to my husband?” I asked, raising my voice.

“Alex, baby, hurry your ass up, we need to talk,” my husband yelled, slurring all the words.

“Think about this, Alex,” Chance said as he grabbed my arm.

“Let me go,” I said, breaking free from his grip and heading toward the stairs.

The whole way down, I dreaded reaching the bottom. The last thing I wanted was to have to deal with Mike.

“You little bitch,” he slurred as soon as he saw me. “Had to go to a fire my ass. I don’t see any soot on you. Only wrinkled clothes and messy hair.”

“Mike, go home,” I said as I watched him wave his bottle around. He looked so pathetic standing there, and the scene was getting old.

“I tried to check the bank accounts online this morning, Alex. Tell me why there’s no money in any of them.”

Oh God, I hadn’t thought he’d find out before I left. I didn’t even know he knew how to do online banking. In his state, I was surprised he could still use a computer.

“That’s strange,” I said. “I have no idea.”

“Bullshit you don’t. I checked to make sure I could get a bottle as soon as the liquor store opened and there’s nothing in there. Nothing. Where did the money go?”

“I don’t know,” I said quietly, hoping the others wouldn’t hear all the commotion.

“Where is it, Alex?” he yelled.

“I don’t know,” I insisted.

A blur of darkness flashed in front of my face before my head snapped back, hitting the brick wall behind me. I felt my body slowly slumping to the ground before I felt the sting of the impact, both to my face from his fist and my head from the building.

Mike just stood there yelling while I realized that I would die at his hands. His slurred words all ran together as my mind clouded over. A sharp pain in my side brought me back to reality when I realized he was kicking me. This was it, I was really going to die.

I curled myself into a ball, trying desperately to protect myself, but the kicks came harder and harder until I couldn’t feel them anymore. I couldn’t even cry anymore. I felt nothing, absolutely nothing as I lay there on the cool asphalt.

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

~[* Chance~ *]

“Are you sure there’s nothing going on with you and O’Neil?” Anderson asked while we sat upstairs waiting patiently for her to come back.

“No, nothing. She’s definitely not my type. Too controlling. Why?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “You two just seem rather close, and then after last night…”

“We’ve known each other since we were kids. Last night, she was sleeping in the shower room on a bunch of towels and I went to grab one in the dark, that’s it.”

“What about just now?” Billings asked. “You offered to go talk to her husband in place of her. What’s up with that?”

“Look,” I said, putting my cup down. “Her husband is a drunk, a violent drunk. Have you not seen the bruises on her face? I thought I could help her out by going down there for her.”

“She’s still with him,” Billings said. “Sometimes it’s best not to get involved.”

“Listen to yourselves. Not getting involved is like saying it’s okay. It’s not okay.”

I could feel myself getting angrier by the second. They couldn’t understand why I wanted to protect a member of my team. I would have protected any one of them if I felt they were in some kind of danger.

“I just don’t want to see you set yourself up to get hurt,” Anderson said, looking up from the newspaper in front of him.

“Get hurt, by that pitiful drunk she’s married to? I don’t think so. I’ll beat that little cocksucker into the ground if that’s what it takes to teach him to keep his hands of women,” I said as I took another sip of my coffee.

“Not by him,” Anderson said. “I’m worried that you’re getting too emotionally involved with her, and that you’re going to get hurt.”

“Emotionally involved? Is that what you all think? I want to protect a member of this team and you all think I’m emotionally involved. So tomorrow if I want to protect Carmella are you going to think there’s something going on there? Or if I want to protect Billings are you going to suddenly think I’m gay? You guys need to get a handle on the gossip around here.”

“Calm down, Friedman,” Billings said. “Nobody’s getting on your case. We’re just concerned.”

“It’s my job to make sure you’re all in the proper mental and physical state to do your jobs. Right now she needs my help. Got it?”

They all sat there and looked at me. Maybe I was too involved, but I didn’t care. No woman should have to go through that.

“Got it?” I said again, raising my voice.

“Yes,” they all said, immediately looking away and starting to talk amongst themselves.

As glad as I was that they were finally leaving me alone, the time to think made me look at the clock. Alex had been down there for a bit too long in my book. I kept telling myself that everything was probably fine, but still a part of me didn’t like it at all.

“She’s taking a really long time,” I mumbled before I took another sip of my coffee.

“They’re just talking. Relax,” Billings said.

“No, she’s been gone too long,” I said, glancing up at the clock.

“Give them some time,” Anderson said. “They probably have a lot to talk about.”

Yeah, lots to talk about. Like the cuts and bruises all over her body and face, I thought to myself. She’d been down there way too long for my liking and I couldn’t take it anymore. I set my cup down and stood up from my chair.

“Where are you going?” Anderson asked as if he didn’t already know.

“I’m going down there,” I said as I pushed my chair in and headed toward the stairs.

“Seriously, Friedman, stay out of it. It isn’t your business,” Billings said.

“I’m going,” I yelled as I darted down the stairs.

When I got to the bottom, I realized they’d taken their conversation outside. All I could hear was him yelling something about money. It was difficult to make out what he was saying, the way he was slurring his words. Alex wasn’t answering back, or if she was, her responses were quiet.

I slowly opened the door and saw that idiot standing over her limp body kicking her and screaming. Fire rose within my body and I flew into a rage. I wanted to tear him limb from limb. The next few minutes were a blur as I ran over to him and took him down, pounding him into the asphalt.

My rage was so intense that I couldn’t stop hitting him. My fist had a mind of its own and it kept slamming down on his face over and over again.

My senses had zoned out, and although I could hear Alex trying to say something, her voice sounded like it was a million miles away. Even when I heard the sirens, they sounded like they were way off in the distance.

“Get off him,” an officer yelled while I whaled away on her husband’s face.

A second officer walked over and grabbed my arms, tackling me to the ground before cuffing me. At that moment I became aware of my heavy breathing and racing pulse. I tried to reach up to wipe the sweat from my forehead, but the cuffs were so tight that I couldn’t quite make it.

They questioned Mike, Alex, and I separately on the scene. I explained the situation, hoping I wouldn’t be going on a ride in a cruiser, but the cops had other things in mind. Before I knew it, I was sitting in the back of a police car with the sirens going like any common criminal.

This is going to look so bad on my record, I thought to myself. Assault right outside the station. Maybe the other guys were right, maybe I shouldn’t have gotten involved. I just hoped beyond hope that Alex was okay.

When we arrived at the station I started asking the officer who took me to my holding cell about her, but he wouldn’t tell me anything. Instead, they just placed me in a cold, dark cell all by myself. I was hoping they’d put me in with Mike so I could take another round out of him, but no such luck.

I sat on the shelf they called a bed with the wafer-thin piece of cloth that they called a mattress. Looks more like a giant maxi pad to me, I thought to myself.

“You guys can’t keep me here long,” I yelled. “What if there’s a fire? Don’t you know who I am?”

“Keep it down in there,” an officer yelled back.

I started pacing the floor of my cell. What if Alex was dying somewhere while I was stuck in this hole? I kept brushing my hair back with my hands, trying to think, but I knew there was no way to think my way out of this one.

Finally, an officer came in to get me for questioning. It’s about time, I thought as I followed him.

“Would you like a coffee?” he asked after I sat down.

“I’m not thirsty,” I said as I stared at the icy-blue walls around me. Blue for calmness my ass. I was in a goddamned police station. How the hell was I supposed to keep calm?

“Would you mind telling me in your own words what happened out there today?” the officer asked.

“It was self-defense,” I answered. “Alex, the woman, is a member of my team. Her husband Mike is a violent drunk. I went outside, saw him hitting her, and called him on it. He hit me and I hit him back. End of story.”

“Is that all you’d like to tell me?” the officer asked as he looked up from the notes he was writing.

“That’s all there is to tell,” I answered.

“Alex said you came out of the building and beat her husband up for no reason. Would you like to comment on that?”

Alex, how could you do this to me? _]I thought. [_I was defending you and now you throw me under the bus?

“Did you see her face?” I asked the officer. “She’s in no condition to remember what happened today.”

“Her husband made the same statement,” the officer said. “Is anything starting to ring a bell?”

“He’s a goddamned drunk. Couldn’t you smell him or see the bottle in his hand? How the hell do you expect him to remember?” I yelled.

The officer stood up and walked me back to my cell. The whole way there I kept thinking they would keep me for a long time and throw away the key. As far as the law was concerned I looked like a violent attacker on a psychotic break.

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

Alexandria

“Here comes Muhammad Ali,” Billings said when Chance came waltzing back into the station.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” he said as he walked over to the coffee maker.

“Is that how you got those bloody knuckles, Sugar Ray?” Anderson asked.

Chance looked down at the knuckles on his right hand, titling it from side to side as if he were inspecting it. His facial expression made me think he was deep in thought.

“Yeah, that’s exactly what happened,” he said. “His face is made of stone to go along with the rocks in his skull.”

“Nice,” I said as I looked over at him from the chair where I was sitting.

“You’re okay,” he said, smiling at me. “I was so worried about you.”

“How dare you,” I said loudly as I marched over and slapped him across the face.

I hadn’t intended to slap him when I went over there. It was an involuntary reaction. But oh, it felt so good when my hand made contact with his face. The smacking noise it made relieved weeks of tension. He stood there shocked for a few seconds.

“What was that for?” he asked as he reached up and touched his cheek.

“For hitting my husband,” I said. “Now he’s in jail, and apparently he’ll be there for a few years if I testify against him.”

“Are you going to?” he asked me as he put the cream and sugar into his cup.

“No, of course not,” I said, putting my hand over his cup.

“Alex, if he doesn’t stay locked up, he’ll kill you. And why did you lie to the police earlier?”

“Why did you lie to them? Self-defense. He didn’t touch you.”

“Can you guys take this somewhere else?” Billings asked. “We’re trying to think over here.”

“Then go somewhere else,” I said, glaring at him. “Right now Friedman and I have some things to discuss.”

Everybody turned to look away from us and started talking amongst themselves. I’d clearly gotten my message across.

“Now Chance, why’d you do it? Why’d you lie? You knew they’d take him away,” I said with my hands on my hips.

“I was saving you,” he said as he looked down at me.

“Do I look like I need saving?” I sneered.

“Yes, you do. Take a good look at yourself, Alex. You’re falling apart. You’re all bruised up both emotionally and physically. You need rescuing.”

“I can rescue myself with no help from you,” I said as I reached out for a cup.

“Apparently not, or that sick bastard wouldn’t still be doing this to you,” I said as I grabbed her hand.

“I didn’t need you to step in,” I whispered. “I was already planning on leaving. I just need time to get everything set up.”

“And what happens in the meantime? He kills you? That sounds like a perfectly acceptable plan to me,” Chance laughed.

“It wouldn’t have taken that long. I already had my finances in check. I’m just working on custody of Emily.”

“Alex, use your head. He’d never get custody,” he said, trying to reason with me.

“You don’t get it. I didn’t want to leave the house. He needed to leave. He hasn’t paid one dime towards it, and I’ll be damned if I’m leaving him with it,” I said, pulling my hand back.

“So that’s what this is all about. You were worried about your house? You’re seriously telling me that your house is more important than your life?” he said as he shook his head.

“No,” I said as I rested my hand against the corner. “But the house is important to me and he can’t have it.”

“You know, if you’d died, he’d have wound up getting it anyway,” Chance said as he put creamer in my coffee.

“I can do that myself too, you know,” I said, getting angry. “I don’t know why everybody thinks I need to be taken care of. I can take care of myself.”

“Yeah, well, you’re not doing such a good job of showing it. Anyway, right now he’s in jail where he should be, and you’re safe. That’s what matters,” he said as he put his hand on my shoulder.

The pain soared through my body from his light touch and I bit my lip to keep myself from screaming out in agony. I looked up at him and I could tell by his eyes that he knew how grateful I was, even though I was telling him otherwise.

At that moment I blocked everything else out. I’d been through so much and everything had come to a head.

“Thank you,” I whispered as I burst into tears before I collapsed in his arms.

“Anderson, can you man the station while I drive her home?” Chance called while I continued to sob into his chest.

“You got it,” Anderson answered.

“Let’s get you home,” Chance said when he wrapped his jacket around my shoulders and started wiping my tears away. It didn’t do any good. I just kept crying harder.

“Is she going to be okay?” Billings asked when we were on our way out.

“She’ll be fine. She just needs some time to come to terms with everything,” Chance said.

During the entire ride to my house, I sat sobbing in the passenger seat. The damn seatbelt kept me from curling up into a tiny ball. All I wanted to do was make myself as small as possible, almost invisible. Yet that thin strap wouldn’t let it happen.

“It’s okay now, Alex,” Chance said, trying to calm me down. “He won’t be there. You’re safe now.”

The closer we got to the house the worse my reactions became. When he pulled into the driveway, I started trembling and refused to get out of the car. I knew Mike was in jail and that he’d been denied bail, yet I was still terrified to go inside.

My brain was in a loop. I’d gone from being mad at Chance at the station for interfering and getting Mike arrested, to being terrified to walk into my own house. I was going insane. I knew it.

“Oh God, Chance, I can’t go in there,” I sobbed when he came around and opened the passenger door for me.

“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m here with you. We’ll take it slow.”

He held his hand out for me and helped me out of the car. I stared up the driveway at the front door. The short distance now looked like a walk of a thousand miles. I looked up into Chance’s face and then back toward the door.

“We can do this,” he said reassuringly. “I’ve got you.”

Together we walked while he kept his hand on my elbow and the small of my back. I even started to feel better, until we got inside. Everything was still in disarray from the struggle the night before. Pictures and broken glass were all over the floor, and my blood was splattered everywhere.

Nausea washed over me and I fell to my knees with my arms folded in front of my stomach. Chance knelt down and wrapped his arms around me. I tried to raise my head to look around, but every time I did, everything started spinning again.

“It’s okay,” he said as he held me and rocked me gently while I trembled in his arms. “Let’s get you to the couch.”

I nodded, and he slowly raised me to my feet and led me over to the gray overstuffed sofa in the middle of the room. I rested my head against the back and stared at the ceiling, hoping the queasy feeling would go away.

“Do you want me to make you a coffee?” he asked after he took my shoes off and rested my feet up on the coffee table.

“Tea,” I answered without looking at him.

“Pardon?” he said.

“Tea. Coffee wakes me up, tea calms me down. The tea bags are in the cupboard over the sink, and the kettle’s on the stove.”

“Got it. Let me guess. The milk’s in the fridge. Do you take sugar?” he asked on his way into the kitchen.

“Eww, no. Sugar would ruin it. Grab yourself a coffee if you want.”

A few minutes later he came back in with a coffee and a tea, and we sat there together silently while I stared off into space. He knew I was grateful that he was there even if I wasn’t capable of verbalizing it. I wasn’t capable of anything right then.

I just kept staring and thinking. My mind ran in circles while I thought about everything I had to do. I needed to get hold of Allison about babysitting. Hiring someone to clean up the house was a necessity because I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it myself. It was too overwhelming.

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

[* ~Chance~ *]

Women, they’re so complicated. Just when you think you have them all figured out, you realize you don’t know anything at all. I run out the door to save Alex, and she gets mad at me. Downright angry. What’s up with that?

You’d think she’d be grateful that I rescued her, but no. She wasn’t. At least not at first. I don’t know who was more shocked when she slapped me, me or her. All I know is that it stung. She must have put all of her pent-up frustrations into that swing, because I expected to carry welts from her fingers for months afterward.

Once everything hit her, she broke down and realized that she was finally free from that bastard. I drove her home, where she broke down again. I couldn’t believe it when we walked inside.

I knew she’d lived in terror, but seeing the aftermath of the violence horrified me. Everything was in disarray, and seeing her blood smeared everywhere, I can’t even describe what it did to me.

I could picture her struggling, imagine her trying to get away as her blood trickled and smeared everywhere. Just the thought of it made me want to destroy her husband. But she was safe now, and that was what mattered.

It affected her in a different way than it affected me. I don’t know if she was reliving it or what, but the second we walked through the door she collapsed on the floor.

I managed to get her to relax on the couch with a cup of tea before she fell asleep.

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

[* ~Alexandria~ *]

I yawned and grabbed for my blanket but it wasn’t there. Reaching up to massage my aching neck, I realized I wasn’t in my bed. I opened my eyes and saw that I was sleeping on the couch sitting up.

Gazing around, I wondered if Mike being in jail was just a dream. I closed my eyes and shook my head before opening them again.

“Hello sleepyhead,” Chance said when I opened them again. “Can I get you another cup of tea or a coffee this time?”

“A coffee,” I said as I stretched my arms and sat forward.

It was real, I thought to myself. Why is Chance still here? What was he doing, watching me sleep?

“I cleaned up a bit while you were sleeping,” he said while he was puttering around in the kitchen. “I thought it would make you feel better if the mess was gone when Emily got home from school.”

Oh God, Emily. I’d forgotten she’d seen the struggle the night before. She would have seen my blood on the floor last night and this morning before school too.

“Thank you,” I answered. “I guess you’re my hero now, after rescuing me and all.”

“Hey, you would have rescued yourself,” he said when he handed me my coffee.

“Like you said, I wasn’t doing such a great job of it,” I said.

“Sometimes we all need someone to look out for us,” Chance said. “Maybe we came back into each other’s lives for a reason. I came back into yours to look out for you, and you came back into mine to show me that women aren’t all crazy.” He walked around the couch and sat beside me while he sipped his coffee.

“Speak for yourself. You came back into mine to steal the promotion I’d worked hard for right out from under me,” I laughed.

“Hey, that was the catalyst that got me here when you needed me. The reason isn’t important. What’s important is that I’m here now,” he said as he stared deeply into my eyes.

I reached out to touch his hand. His strong fingers were so rough and yet so smooth. As I traced the outline of his hand, I kept looking up at him. I’d known him forever, but somehow I felt like I was meeting him for the first time.

He reached up and touched my cheek and I leaned forward to kiss him. I longed to feel his soft lips touching mine, and I needed comfort at that moment more than anything. He started leaning toward me too, and the heat inside me intensified as our lips were just about to touch…until the front door opened.

“Emily,” I signed to her. “How was school today?”

“Good,” she signed back. “I got an A on my math test. Who is he?”

“He’s a friend of mommy’s,” I signed.

“Where’s daddy?” she signed.

I thought for a second. I hadn’t anticipated the question. I should have, but I’d had so much going through my mind that it hadn’t even dawned on me to be ready for this.

“Daddy’s gone on a trip, honey,” I signed. I figured that would give me time to figure out how to explain everything.

“When will he be back?” she signed.

“I’m not sure,” I signed back.

“I don’t want him to come back,” she started signing faster. “He hurts you and he smells. Don’t let him come back, Mommy. Please, don’t let daddy come home.”

“That’s amazing,” Chance said after Emily went to her room. “The way you two talk like that. How did you learn that?”

“When you have a deaf family member, you learn to sign pretty quickly if you want to communicate,” I said.

“I guess,” he said. “I should go and leave you two alone. I’m sure you have a lot to talk about.”

“Thank you,” I said, “for everything you did today. I really mean it.”

“I know you do,” he said as we got to the door.

“Do you think,” I said, “that we could finish sometime what we started on the couch?”

He turned and smiled at me. I could have sworn he was blushing.

“Alex, I like you, I really like you. But you just got out of your marriage. Right now, today, it would be cheap. I should say no, never, because I’m your boss, but what do you say we date first?” Then he knelt down and kissed me on the forehead.

I stared up at him in disbelief. Was he the sweetest guy I’d ever met? Most guys would’ve taken advantage of my vulnerability, and yet here he was saying he wanted to date me. He really wanted to date me.

For the rest of the day I wavered back and forth. Part of me was excited that he wanted to date me, but I also felt guilty that I barely had Mike out the door and I was already planning on dating someone else.

“The love was lost a long time ago,” I told myself. “Mike wasn’t good for you. He was a lush and he beat you. Go out and enjoy yourself. You deserve it.”

But then that other voice would start up, the little one that makes you feel like crap. “Your husband’s in jail and you’re thinking of dating,” it said. “You’re a horrible wife.”

After Emily went to bed and the house was silent, the voices got louder and I couldn’t stand it. It felt like the walls were closing in on me.

“Allison,” I said when she answered the phone, “I need to talk.”

“Can it wait until tomorrow?” she asked.

“I guess, if you have something planned,” I said through my shaking voice.

“Never mind,” she said. “I’ll be right there.”

***

“You look terrible,” Allison said when I opened the door and she looked at me.

“Thanks,” I said while I took her jacket and hung it up for her.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just can’t believe what that jerk’s done to you. Where is he, anyway?”

“In jail,” I said quietly as I looked down at the floor.

“In jail?” she asked. “It’s about time you called the police.”

“It wasn’t me,” I admitted as we walked into the living room.

“What happened?” she asked as she sat down on the armchair in the corner.

“He came down to the station again to ask about the bank accounts…”

“Oh no,” she said, putting her hand over her mouth.

“Oh yes,” I said. “I tried to play stupid, but he started hitting me and kicking me. Chance came out and whaled him. The police came out of nowhere and took all three of us down to the station, and now Mike’s in jail.”

“Exactly where he should be,” she said matter-of-factly. “You won’t believe me now, Alex, but you really are better off.”

“That’s what everyone keeps telling me,” I said. “I was ending it anyway. I just wanted it to be on my terms, you know?”

“I know, honey, but however it happened, it was for the best.”

“I know,” I said, nodding my head. “I’m going to have to take you up on your offer to watch Emily now.”

“Consider it done,” she said. “I told you I’d help any way I could. Something else is bothering you. What is it?”

“It’s Chance,” I said, shaking my head and looking off to the side.

“What about him?” she asked.

“Nothing. Everything. He brought me home from the station today after it was over.”

“Good. I’m glad you had someone with you.”

“Now I have to walk to work tomorrow,” I said, playing with the arm of the couch.

“Stop trying to find the negative in everything,” she said. “It’s not a long walk, and he gave you a ride home when you were going through a rough time. Don’t get all caught up in the fact that you’ll have to walk. Be grateful for the ride when you needed it.”

“I know,” I said. “While he was here he made me tea. I fell asleep and he cleaned up,” I said, spreading my arms out.

“He sounds like a keeper to me,” she said, smiling.

“Stop it,” I said. “My husband hasn’t even been gone for twenty-four hours and Chance and I almost kissed on the couch after I woke up.”

“Really?” she asked. “I say go for it.”

“Allison, it’s not that easy. Didn’t you hear the part about my husband not being gone for twenty-four hours?”

“Alex, relax. Your husband wasn’t a husband. You need to remember that. Now tell me about this kiss. You said almost. What happened?”

“Emily came home from school.”

“Nothing like a child to spoil the mood,” she nodded with a giggle.

“Actually, he was fascinated watching us sign to each other. But then he had to leave.”

“Did he say anything about the kiss?” she asked as she stared at me.

“That’s the thing. He said he wants to date me,” I said sheepishly.

“What’s so bad about that?” she asked.

“I can’t date. I have a husband,” I said. “I want to date him so bad. God, Allison, I’m so attracted to him. Every time I look at him, I want to kiss him, I want to feel him touching me, but I know it’s so wrong.”

“Alex, stop thinking like that. Mike is not the man you married anymore. You were planning to leave anyway. You’d already put the wheels in motion.”

“I know, but…”

“No buts,” she said. “No matter how the marriage ended, it was going to end soon. You’re free to date whoever you want. Don’t let guilt hold you back.”

“It’s not that, it’s just…”

“It’s just what?” she asked, staring at me and waiting for an answer.

I rested my elbows on my knees and put my head in my hands. I didn’t have an answer for her.

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

[* ~Chance~ *]

“Where’s O’Neil?” Billings asked as he drank his morning coffee and read the newspaper.

“She’s going to need a few days off,” I answered as I rubbed my neck.

“Did somebody say my name?” Alex asked as she walked into the station and threw her purse down on a chair.

I turned around, shocked to see her standing there. She’s in good spirits by the looks of things, I thought to myself. Maybe being here with the guys is good for her right now.

“Do you want a coffee?” I asked.

“No, I can get my own,” she said as she joined me at the coffee maker.

“What are you doing here?” I asked her. “You can have all the time off you need.”

“I know,” she said. “I woke up this morning and felt like coming in. I hope that’s okay with you.”

“Yeah, it’s fine,” I answered.

“Besides,” she giggled. “You still need help with the paperwork.”

“That I do,” I laughed. “Let’s get started on that after our caffeine fix.”

“Yes, sir,” she said, looking up at me and smiling.

“How are you feeling today?” Billings asked her after we went and sat down at the table with the others.

“No worse for the wear,” she answered. “Any fires after I left yesterday?”

“Not one. They must’ve known our star firefighter was off for the day,” Anderson said.

“Don’t make me blush,” she said, giggling.

“I was referring to Friedman,” Anderson laughed.

“You idiot,” she laughed.

After we finished our coffees, Alex and I made another and then she joined me in my office to teach me how to do the paperwork. The way everything had played out, I felt guilty for continuing my ploy, but I’d gone too far.

“So this goes in this field,” I said, shaking my head and pretending I didn’t understand.

“Yes, it’s easy,” she said. “And then you put this over there.”

“Okay, that makes sense. And then it all totals over here?”

“You’re starting to get the hang of it,” she said excitedly.

“That’s because I have a great teacher,” I said. “You should take a break for lunch soon.”

“Do want to go somewhere for lunch?” she asked.

I cringed as soon as she asked. I had mentioned dating the night before, but I didn’t want her to be the one to ask me out. It just didn’t feel right.

“I can’t,” I said, staring at my computer screen. I looked at her out of the corner of my eye and saw her crushed expression. “But I’d love to take you to dinner tonight,” I added. “That is, if you’d like to go.”

“Dinner? Sure. What time?” she asked.

“I’ll pick you up around eight.”

“Eight sounds perfect,” she said, smiling as she walked out the door.

CHAPTER NINETEEN

[* ~ Alexandria~ *]

“Allison,” I said breathlessly when I ran in the door after work at the end of the day.

“What is it?” she asked. “Is everything okay?”

“Everything’s fine,” I managed to get out. “But can you stay a little later?”

“Sure,” she said as she took my purse from me. “What’s up?”

“Chance asked me out for dinner. He’s picking me up at eight.”

“A date with Chance. I’m all in. I’ll stay as late as you need me to,” she said. “Now let’s make you look spectacular.”

There was no one I would rather have had to help me get ready. Allison should have been a beauty queen, and she knew tricks that I bet some makeup artists didn’t know. I just lay back on the couch and let her work her magic.

After a soothing aloe mask that took some of the sting away from my wounds, she applied another one that she said would help keep my skin supple. She said I should use it all the time to keep my skin soft and smooth.

“What’s in it?” I asked her.

“One quarter cup of honey, and one quarter cup of brown sugar,” she said. “I’m just going to let it sit on your face for thirty minutes and wipe it away.”

After the thirty minutes were up, I was surprised at how soft and smooth my skin felt. “Wow,” I said. “Is that ever nice.”

“Honey is a natural humectant,” she said. “It helps hold moisture in. The brown sugar works as a moisturizing exfoliant. When I wiped it away using circular motions, it sloughed off any dead skin.”

“How often can I do this?” I asked her as I kept touching my face.

“A couple of times a week,” she said. “Let’s get to work on your makeup now.”

She reached into her oversized purse and pulled out more makeup than I’d ever owned in my life. I had trouble fathoming that she could possibly even wear that much makeup.

“My makeup is in the bathroom,” I said, motioning toward the hallway.

“For that,” she said, “you need a heavy-duty concealer and foundation.”

I nodded and watched her poke around through her products until she smiled in approval at some bottle and applied the liquid in it to a sponge. “Lie back,” she ordered.

“There we go,” she said. “That’s perfect.”

I couldn’t see, so I had to take her word for it. I knew she wouldn’t steer me wrong. I let her play around with her brushes, enjoying the attention until she finally stopped.

“Are you ready?” she asked as she held up a mirror in front of me.

I looked in the mirror and hardly recognized myself. For days, all I’d seen in the bathroom mirror were bruises and cuts. It had gotten to the point where I tried not to look anymore. But now as I stared a beautiful woman looked back at me.

“Thank you,” I whispered as I stared at my reflection.

“Now, what are you going to wear?” she asked.

“I don’t know,” I said. “It’s just dinner. I haven’t even thought about it.”

“Dinner with a guy you want to impress,” she said. “You have to look fantastic. Let’s go look in your closet.”

We got up and made our way into the bedroom. “I’m sorry for the mess,” I said when I switched on the light.

“You slept in here?” she asked as her eyes wandered all around the room. The clothes and empty bottles strewn everywhere were only the beginning. Plates of uneaten food were sitting all over the place, and the entire scene was disgusting.

“I couldn’t change it, so after a while I guess I came to accept it,” I said.

“I’ll take care of this while you’re gone,” she said. “Just in case you bring him back here later.”

“There won’t be any of that tonight,” I said. “He’s a gentleman.”

“All men are animals,” she laughed as she walked over to my closet and started rummaging through my clothes.

“Not all of them,” I said, thinking of Chance. “I’d like to think there are some good ones left.”

“No, no, no and no,” she said, swiping the hangers to the side.

“You don’t believe there are any good ones left?” I asked her.

“No,” she laughed. “I just meant those outfits won’t do. We really need to go shopping together. This one, this is wearable.”

She held up a royal blue off-the-shoulder mid-thigh dress that fit my curves perfectly. I always loved that dress and was glad she picked it out.

“That’s my favorite dress,” I said as she handed it to me.

“Why?” she asked when I took it from her.

“Because I feel good in it,” I said, looking at her questioningly.

“You should feel good in everything you wear,” she said. “Now go put it on.”

I held the hanger in one hand and the body of the dress in the other as I walked into the bathroom. Oh my God, I thought as I stared into the mirror, I’m actually going on a date with Chance tonight.

I slowly peeled away my uniform in agony. Every muscle, every bone in my body hurt as I bent and twisted to take it off. I stared at the bruises in the mirror. The ones on my face might have been hidden, but these ones still told the story.

This was the real reason nothing would happen tonight. I knew I wouldn’t be able to bear the pain of someone’s weight on top of mine, or being held too close. Even the idea of him seeing my body like this made me cringe. As much as I longed for him, sex would have to wait.

Although the pain and my nerves were getting the better of me, I managed to slip into the royal blue sheath. When I turned to look in the mirror, I realized that Allison and I may have made a mistake choosing an off-the-shoulder mid-thigh dress. Some of my bruises were peeking out.

Other than that, the dress was perfect, and I was heartbroken that I wouldn’t be able to wear it. According to Allison, it was the most wearable thing in my closet.

“Are you coming out?” Allison called. “Let’s see.”

God, I didn’t want to go out there and show her the extent of my bruises. She knew about my face, but she didn’t know about my body. I looked like hell, and I didn’t need her reminding me of it.

Slowly, I got up the nerve to turn the doorknob and walk back into the bedroom. The self-confidence I’d felt only a few minutes earlier had been shattered to the floor.

I kept my head down and stared at the floor, trying to roll my shoulders forward, hoping she wouldn’t notice. Those bruises brought me such shame.

“Alex, what’s wrong?” she asked when she started walking over to me and picking at the dress.

“Look at me,” I said, pointing to my shoulders and arms.

“Don’t sweat it. It’s nothing that a little bit of makeup can’t fix. We can take care of your legs too.”

“Makeup can cover this?” I asked her with an astonished tone in my voice.

“Makeup can cover anything, sweetheart,” she said. “I wish I had known before you got dressed, though. Now get me some paper towels and I’ll get to work.

“And why do you look so sad?” she asked. “I thought you were excited about going out with Chance.”

“I am. I’m just so ashamed of my body. These bruises, they’re hideous. I look like the Loch Ness monster or something.”

“Honey, you have nothing to be ashamed of,” she said. “Your bruises are battle scars. Be proud of them. You came out of the battle alive. Now let’s do something about this.”

I sat there on the couch while she took care of the damages Mike had done to my body. Thank God he didn’t break any bones, I thought to myself. There’s no way she could cover a cast with that gunk.

“There we go,” she said. “Go look at yourself in the mirror.”

I stood up and walked back into the bathroom. I’m not sure what I was expecting to see, but in my mind, I’d visualized a patchwork pattern over my shoulders with skin-colored makeup that didn’t quite match my own.

Instead, as I stared in the mirror, I was astonished that her work was flawless. I couldn’t even tell where the bruises were. She’d done a marvelous job and my confidence was back.

I looked into the mirror, smiling. I actually looked like me again, even if it took three pounds of makeup to get there. The dress looked exquisite, and I couldn’t wait for eight o’clock to arrive.

“Get out here,” Allison yelled. “We aren’t done yet, and he’ll be here soon.”

“Coming,” I yelled back, taking one last glance at myself before I headed back out to the living room.

“I see you managed to tear yourself away from the mirror long enough to join me,” she giggled. “Now sit down.”

I sat on the couch while she yanked my hair into all kinds of contortions. At times it felt like she was pulling it out.

“Ouch,” I yelled when it felt like she’d grabbed out a handful.

“Relax. It’s painful to be beautiful,” she said as she continued ripping at my hair. “Hey, you wear your hair up to work right?”

“Yes, I have to,” I replied.

“Never mind. You should wear it down tonight, then.”

“After all that?” I asked as I reached up and touched my aching scalp.

“Sorry about that,” she said as she started combing my long hair and pinning the top back. “There, now that’s beautiful. Take a look.”

I took her handheld mirror and raised it. The hairdo looked amazing from the front with the little wisps hanging down.

“Now it’s time to get Cinderella ready for the ball,” she laughed.

“Ah, but the ball isn’t until the end of the month,” I said sarcastically.

“One date at a time, sweetheart,” she said as she made her way back into my bedroom.

“What are you looking for?” I asked as I rummaged around, trying to find my purse.

“These,” she said as she came back into the room triumphantly.

“I can’t wear those,” I said as I looked at the blue sequined heels and matching clutch she’d brought back with her.

“Why not? You bought them,” she said as she set the shoes down on the floor in front of me.

“They’re uncomfortable. They pinch my toes and make my feet ache.”

“They’ll look great with that dress. Is impressing Chance worth it?”

“I guess,” I said as I reluctantly put them on and grabbed my other purse.

“Oh, no,” she said. “You need this one.”

“But that purse won’t hold anything, Allison. It’s impractical.”

“Tonight’s about glamour, Alex. Besides, what do you need to take with you on your date? Trust me, nothing that you can’t fit into this purse.”

I mulled it over in my mind and realized that she was right. I transferred my wallet and a lipstick over to the tiny clutch and looked up at the clock. Chance would be arriving any second.

CHAPTER TWENTY

[*~Chance~  *]

A date with Alex, I thought to myself. How did I let this happen? I’m her superior. I tried to keep it professional. God knows how badly I wanted her, but I still tried not to act on it. Now here I was, getting ready to go on a date with the girl I’d had a crush on since I was a child.

I wanted to call her and cancel. A couple of times I even picked up the phone and dialed her number, but hung up before it started ringing. I knew the date was a bad idea, but I also couldn’t stand to disappoint her.

“Where are you going all spiffed up?” Anderson asked when I walked out of my bunk to go pick up Alex.

All spiffed up, I thought to myself. I’d purposely dressed down for the date in my best pair of blue jeans and a deep purple shirt. I didn’t want to overdo it for our first date, and I felt it was best to keep things at least semi-casual for a while. If my men thought this was dressed up, I was concerned about what they’d wear to the ball.

“I have a date,” I said, trying to sound as casual as possible.

“A date,” Anderson said as he looked up from the paper.

“Yeah, a date. Does that surprise you?” I asked as I smoothed my hair back one last time.

“No. Well, a little. I really thought there was something going on between you and O’Neil. But if you’re going on a date, then…”

“We already told you there was nothing between us. Just leave it,” I said as I headed down the stairs and went to pick her up.

On the drive to her house, my nerves set in. I hadn’t dated in a long time. After my ex-wife, it seemed like every girl who wanted to date me was some sort of psycho, and we only went out once. After that, I stopped dating altogether.

I couldn’t even remember how to date. Should I bring her flowers or chocolate? What are guys doing these days, I thought. Not wanting to be a total dud, I stopped at a corner store on the way and bought both.

When I pulled into her driveway, I sat in my car for a few minutes listening to the radio and trying to calm my nerves. My palms were sweating and my pulse was racing. No other girl had ever brought out these reactions in me.

I looked at the clock on my dashboard. It was 8:03 p.m. and I was already late. I’d better get in there, I thought, or she’ll think I’m not coming. It was time to man up, get out of my car, and walk up to the door.

“These are for you,” I said before I looked up and saw the tall red-haired beauty grinning at me.

“Alex is in the other room,” she said. “She’ll just be a second.”

“These aren’t really for you,” I said when I walked in.

“No kidding,” she laughed. “I’ll put these in some water while you make yourself comfortable.”

“Where’s Emily?” I asked as I made my way over to the couch.

“She went to a friend’s house for dinner. She should be back shortly,” she said.

I sat there making small talk with the redhead while I waited patiently for Alex. Every second that went by made me wonder whether I was making a huge mistake, until she walked out looking like a goddess in blue.

“You look gorgeous,” I said, barely able to get the words out.

Her dress clung to her like a well-tailored glove hugging each and every curve. I wanted to grab her and feel my way around the fabric, but somehow I managed to hold myself back.

“You look great too,” she said when she walked over to give me a hug. I realized that I probably looked like a deadbeat in my jeans and dress shirt. I’d never thought she’d go all out like that.

“Just something I had lying around,” I laughed. “But you, you look magnificent.”

“Can you two stop swooning over each other and get out of here?” Allison teased.

“I guess that’s our cue to leave,” Alex said as she grabbed her purse.

As we headed out to my car, I couldn’t help but notice the way the moonlight danced across her hair.

“Oh dear God,” she screeched as she stumbled in her shoes.

I caught her around the waist to keep her from falling and her hair tickled my nose. The fruity scent of her perfume teased my senses and set me on fire. I wanted to inhale more of her and couldn’t wait to get her in the car.

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

[* ~ Alexandria~ *]

When I walked into the living room and saw Chance sitting there in blue jeans and a dress shirt, self-consciousness took over. I was completely overdressed, and I felt out of place. He kept reassuring me that I looked great, but I knew that I’d gone too far.

I should have known when Allison made me wear the damn heels that I was in for trouble. As soon as we headed out for his car, I stumbled and would have fallen if he hadn’t caught me.

When I was wrapped up in his strong arms, I felt so safe, like nothing could hurt me. I wanted to stay like that forever. But he reached over to open the passenger’s side’s door for me, and I had to let go of his warm embrace and get inside.

“Where are we going?” I asked when he started to drive.

“Is it important?” he asked as he looked at me and grinned.

“No, not really. I just thought it would be nice to know where you’re taking me for our date.”

“Trust me,” he said as he winked at me.

I sat there staring at his hands on the steering wheel. Such strong hands that I so wished he’d wrap around me again. He wore an onyx insignia ring on his right hand with a C on it, and a gold watch on the same arm.

“Why do you wear your watch on your right arm?” I asked.

“Why wouldn’t I?” he asked, giving me a funny look.

“You’re supposed to wear it on the left so you can see it easier.”

“I prefer it on the right. I didn’t know there were rules when it came to watches.”

The scent of woodsy cologne filled the car and intoxicated me. I wanted to get closer to him so I could inhale more of it, more of him. I tried moving closer to the middle of the front seat, but my seat belt was giving me a hard time again.

“Everything okay?” he asked, giving me a strange look.

“Everything’s fine,” I said as I reached out and touched his hand.

He took my hand in his and held it gently. He hadn’t mentioned anything about my face since he’d picked me up. I supposed that was a good thing. Anything he could have said would have only made me reach up and touch it, and I would have become more nervous.

“We’re here,” he said as he pulled up in front of a small fish and chip diner. “I found this place last week. They have the best seafood around.”

“I’ve never been here before,” I said as we got out of his car in front of the tiny blue and white building. It looked almost like a bungalow, a house. I couldn’t imagine that it could be a restaurant, but it had a sign out front.

“Friedman, reservations for two,” Chance said when we walked inside.

We were immediately led through the small dining room to a tiny table for two. I glanced around at the wooden floors and exposed beam ceilings. With less than ten tables in the place, it seemed hard to believe that they were able to stay in business.

“Actually, can we have a table on the patio?” Chance asked the hostess before we sat down.

We were then led through the dining room out to the patio. The atmosphere out there was completely different. Nicer tables, sparkling lights, and laughing voices. This was where the majority of their clientele spent their time.

“Normally, I sit in there, but a gem like yourself should be out here sparkling,” he said as he pulled out my chair for me.

I felt like a princess for the first time in my life while we sat out there laughing and talking as the waitress brought our entrees. The stars were twinkling and the lights were shining against the crystals that cascaded from the ceiling. I felt like I was living a fairy tale.

“Did you hear that?” Chance asked when we were finishing our dessert.

“Hear what?” I asked, looking around frightened.

“The fish jumping,” he said quietly as he got up and walked to the edge of the patio.

“Fish jumping?” I asked, following him, sure he’d lost his mind.

“Out there,” he said, pointing over the railing.

“There’s water,” I said, shocked by the discovery.

“Didn’t you realize I brought you down to the docks?” he laughed.

“I guess not,” I laughed.

“I think the fish are done showing off for tonight,” he said. “Would you like some wine?”

Alcohol and I had a love-hate relationship. I had always liked the occasional drink, but I’d also seen what it had done to my father and to Mike. As much as I didn’t mind it personally, in some ways it sickened me just thinking about it.

“I don’t know,” I said, turning to walk back to the table.

“If you want, I can take you home,” he said, taking his wallet out of his back pocket.

“No, no. I think a glass of wine would be lovely,” I said, sitting down at the table.

Chance called the waitress over and ordered a bottle of wine. I was a little bit nervous drinking around him in case I got tipsy or even a little bit silly. But I knew he wouldn’t take me too seriously, so it was all good.

When she came back with our drinks, Chance smelled the cork and nodded before she poured a small amount into his glass. He tasted it and then nodded again before she filled my glass, and then the remainder of his.

“I had no idea you were a wine connoisseur,” I said after she left.

“There are a lot of things about me you don’t know,” he laughed. Then he put his chin in his hand and said, “Don’t get too impressed, it’s just something I saw in a movie once.”

“Aw, so should I worry that you’re going to steal airplanes or wear a coconut bra?” I asked as I took a sip of my wine.

“What?” he asked, cracking up.

“In case you saw it in a movie once,” I laughed.

***

The entire time Chance was driving me home after our date, I worried about what would happen next. Would he want to come in, would he walk me to the door, would he kiss me goodnight? I had myself in a frenzy to the point where I could barely think straight. Or maybe it was the wine.

“I had a really good time tonight,” I said as I opened my door when we got to my house.

“Let me come around and get that for you,” he said as he got out of the driver’s seat.

Okay, so he was going to at least walk me to the door. One down, two to go.

He walked around the car and extended his hand to help me out of the car. I felt like an actress stepping out onto the red carpet as I put my feet down on my driveway. Within seconds, I lost my footing and landed on my ass right at Chance’s feet.

“Falling for me now, are you?” he laughed as he knelt down to help me up.

“It’s these damn shoes,” I said as I struggled to take them off.

“Problem solved,” he said as he wrapped one arm under my knees and the other around my back and lifted me up off the ground.

“Sweeping me off my feet now, are you?” I laughed.

“Otherwise you’d never make it to the door,” he said, giggling along with me.

I felt so tiny and small there in his arms while he carried me. His cologne continued to permeate my soul while I wrapped my arms around his neck and rested my face against his chest.

Once we got to the doorstep, he stood me back up on my feet. I felt myself coming back down to earth from my cloud nine fantasies of devouring him.

I stood there looking up into his gorgeous green eyes. “I had a great time,” I said for the second time.

“So did I,” he said.

“We should do this…”

“Again sometime…” he finished my sentence for me.

We both burst into a sort of nervous laughter. It was as if neither of us knew what to do next while he stood there with his hands in his pockets and I stood there shifting my weight from leg to leg.

Finally, he put his hand on my waist and started pulling me closer. I’d been waiting so long to feel his lips on mine. I leaned in towards his face. Those seconds felt like hours until our lips finally touched, sending shivers up and down my spine.

When he pulled away from me, I smiled, thinking two down, one to go. He leaned in for another kiss, and I eagerly leaned in towards his juicy lips once again. This time as his soft tongue parted my lips, sparks flew and the earth moved. My hands were tracing his back, and his moved up to my hair. The more the kiss lingered on, the more I wanted him.

“Would you like to come inside?” I asked him when we came up for air. “I have coffee.”

“I know you do,” he said. “But I really have to go. Morning comes early. Goodnight, Alex.”

He gave me one more peck on the lips and then started walking back towards his car. I stood there on the doorstep as he drove away before I walked into the house. Oh well, I thought to myself, [_two out of three ain’t bad. _]

“Well, how did it go?” Allison asked as soon as I opened the door.

“Like you weren’t watching out the window,” I said.

“How’d you know?” she asked as her cheeks turned red.

“I know you,” I laughed. “Just so you know, my date went amazing with a capital A. I had a great time.”

“Are you going to go out with him again?” she asked as she started putting on her shoes.

“I hope so,” I answered.

After Allison left, I sat down on the couch and thought about Chance. Everything about him was perfect, and everything about our date was perfect. I’d never had such a fantastic time in my life, not even with Mike.

Even in the good days, Mike had never treated me like that, like a princess. All those years, I’d been missing out. I’d been holding myself back from being treated like a princess, the way Chance treated me. Now that I had him, I was never going to let him go.

I got up and grabbed a glass of wine from the kitchen. The more I thought about Mike the more infuriated I became. Mike who tortured me, Mike who spent my money, Mike who always stank like alcohol, Mike who ruined our lives.

He was finally in jail, but I wanted him completely out of my life, gone. I had to erase him somehow. Emily didn’t want him to come back, and neither did I. If neither of us wanted him back, then the memories had to disappear.

I saw the shiny object on the coffee table and knew it was time to take action. I grabbed the photo albums out of the closet and took the pictures out of each one before I started cutting him out of them. That’s a start, I thought before I started rummaging around some more.

I took all of his photos off the wall, and found every picture of him I could. As they all lay in front of me on the coffee table, I stared at them with hatred. “You miserable bastard,” I yelled. “How could you do this to us?”

I grabbed the old wooden bowl that belonged to my grandmother off the shelf in the corner and put it on the coffee table. The ornate rose carving on it was beautiful, and I’d cherished it for years. She’d always hated Mike while she was alive, and tonight she’d help me get rid of him.

One by one, I looked at each of his pictures for the last time and tossed them into the bowl. I hadn’t realized until then how pitiful he looked with the permanent smile that drunkenness gave him. When the last photo finally dropped in, I sighed a breath of relief, knowing that I wouldn’t have to look at that drunkard’s face again.

Now for the kill shot, I thought to myself as I looked around the room. “This morning’s newspaper sounds perfect, doesn’t it, Mike?” I said as I removed the front-page story about his arrest and carefully folded it before grabbing my lighter.

“Burn in hell, Mike,” I said as I put the newspaper into the bowl and watched it burn.

The pictures weren’t burning fast enough for me. Still seeing traces of his face, albeit distorted, made me head off into the kitchen in search of lighter fluid.

“This ought to finish you off,” I said when I came back, and doused the bowl with the lighter fluid before adding more newspaper and igniting it.

The flames danced around in the bowl, devouring all traces of Mike. Finally, I thought as I sat back on the couch feeling at peace with everything. He was finally out of our lives, once and for all. I took a few more sips of my wine, thinking ahead to the future, a future without Mike.

***

What the hell? I thought as a loud screeching sound lifted me up off the couch. It felt like someone was driving a nail through the center of my forehead and I couldn’t orient myself.

My eyes and throat stung as a thick fog circled around me. I couldn’t see. Oh my God, I thought, smoke. Then I heard the crackles, the sound of flames. It couldn’t be. I turned in their direction to see the curtains and the ceiling on fire. The entire room was on fire.

I scrambled toward the kitchen to find a fire extinguisher.

Don’t be so stupid, my brain kept shouting. Call 911. You can put this out yourself, my inner voice kept telling me, you’re a seasoned firefighter.

I pushed forward toward the kitchen despite the heat. Charred blocks of wood were falling everywhere as I dodged them.

I can make it, I thought. It’s just a few more steps. The harder I choked the dizzier I got, until everything finally turned black.

The End of Big City Heat Book 1 – Light My Fire

[*To find out what happens next: *]

[*Read Book 2 – I’m On Fire *]

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About The Author

I love to write stories about powerful men and women and the romances fiascos they find themselves in. Whether it’s billionaires, shifters, bad boys, or just ordinary people, they’ll make their way into one of my books.

So many stories flood my imagination every day. I love to write them down so other people can enjoy them too. For me writing isn’t a job. When I write, I see the stories playing out in my head. It’s almost like going to the movies for free. I hope you have the same experience when you read them.

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Did you love Light My Fire? Then you should read I’m on Fire by Misha Carver!

I’m falling in love with him. It’s way too soon. I can’t let that happen, at least not yet.

Alexandria

That man is going to drive me crazy. Sometimes I feel like everything I do is wrong. I know I’m unconventional in a lot of ways, but I can’t help how I feel. Now I have an even bigger problem… the truth. If he ever finds out my secret, the one I’ve only shared with my best friend Allison, I’ll lose him forever.

Chance

That girl is going to drive me crazy. I’ve done everything a guy can do, but sometimes it feels like my best isn’t good enough. The guys at the station keep prying to find out who my mystery girl is. For now, it’s my secret. They can all find out at the Firemen’s Ball… if we’re still together by then.

Sparks ignite, tension soars, and passion erupts. Can they both keep their cool long enough to win their heart’s desire? Or is the fire between them too hot to keep them holding on?

I’m falling in love with him. It’s way too soon. I can’t let that happen, at least not yet.

Alexandria

That man is going to drive me crazy. Sometimes I feel like everything I do is wrong. I know I’m unconventional in a lot of ways, but I can’t help how I feel. Now I have an even bigger problem… the truth. If he ever finds out my secret, the one I’ve only shared with my best friend Allison, I’ll lose him forever.

Chance

That girl is going to drive me crazy. I’ve done everything a guy can do, but sometimes it feels like my best isn’t good enough. The guys at the station keep prying to find out who my mystery girl is. For now, it’s my secret. They can all find out at the Firemen’s Ball… if we’re still together by then.

Sparks ignite, tension soars, and passion erupts. Can they both keep their cool long enough to win their heart’s desire? Or is the fire between them too hot to keep them holding on?

More from Misha:

BILLIONAIRE SEEKS AN HEIR
Unplanned Fairy Tale
Unraveled Lives
Unforgettable Melody

BIG CITY HEAT:
Light My Fire
I’m On Fire
Ring of Fire

PURRFECT MATES:
Purrfect Chaos
Purrfect Storm
Purrfect Harmony

About the Author:

Misha Carver loves writing sensual paranormal/shifter and new adult/contemporary romance stories for people who want to escape into another world. Whether you’re looking for shifter tales or hot alpha males, Misha’s your girl. Why not put her on your eReader today?

Read more at Misha Carver’s site.

Also by Misha Carver

Big City Heat

Light My Fire

I’m on Fire

Ring of Fire

Billionaire Seeks An Heir

Billionaire Seeks An Heir Book 1: Unplanned Fairy Tale

Billionaire Seeks An Heir Book 2: Unraveled Lives

Billionaire Seeks An Heir Book 3: Unforgettable Melody

Purrfect Mates

Purrfect Chaos

Purrfect Storm

Purrfect Harmony

Purrfect Mates Complete Boxed Set

Second Chance Christmas Romances

The Christmas Homecoming

The Christmas Reunion

The Christmas Spirit

The Alpha’s Bride

Bearly Smitten

Standalone

Sasha’s Storm

Watch for more at Misha Carver’s site.


Light My Fire

No Way. I can’t be falling for him. No freaking way... Alexandria I’ve been the acting chief at this station ever since they let Larry go. There’s no reason why they shouldn't make my position official. I’m a seasoned firefighter and I’m the best man for the job. Besides, I need the raise that comes with the promotion. It's the only way I'll ever be able to afford to leave my alcoholic husband and put my daughter in a private school. The last thing I need is someone coming along and screwing it all up. Chance When they asked me to leave my small town fire hall and head on out to the big city, I wasn’t keen on the idea. I can think of a million places I’d rather be. But, the ex-wife’s harassing phone calls and visits finally did me in. Before I knew it, I was starting a new life fighting fires in Karawa, New York. It's too bad one of the men on my team keeps challenging my every move. Only, it's not a man. It's the girl I've had a crush on my whole life, the girl I grew up next door to, the one I went all through school with. Sparks fly, tension explodes, and flames ignite. Will muscular Chance Friedman win the heart of the girl he’s always dreamed about? Or will curvaceous and sassy Alexandria O’Neil come out on top?

  • ISBN: 9781988343068
  • Author: Misha Carver
  • Published: 2017-01-05 17:20:15
  • Words: 28839
Light My Fire Light My Fire