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"Erin, c'mon, you'll have fun, and if anyone needs to have some fun, it's you."
Erin Riley shook her head at her friend Dana Rogers, who grabbed Erin's hand and pulled.
"Come join me," Dana invited. "Let loose."
Erin let her friend drag her along, and before she knew it, strong arms were boosting them up on top of the bar. Dana was grinning like the wild woman that she was, dancing even before the music started.
They were having a fun night out, and as she looked around the bar, Erin was self-conscious at first. She seriously thought about climbing back down, but everyone was watching and chanting dance, dance, dance.
So she started to dance, and that's when things got better. A lot better.
Letting go, she raised her arms high and put more hip-swing into it, much to the crowd's appreciation. Dana hooted in approval and danced with her. Erin had to admit, she enjoyed how the guys were slack-jawed as they watched. She smiled at them and winked as she turned and shimmied to a blaring version of "I'm Alright." For that one moment, she was all right. Perfect, in fact.
Erin felt sexy, which she hadn't in a long time.
Noting the heat in the eyes of a few men who watched, she also felt powerful. In control, for the first time in a while.
Dana was right. This was exactly what Erin needed, so she planned to enjoy herself. This was her second chance. She wasn't going to waste one single minute.
She'd almost died, after all. A former firefighter, she'd been inside a building when an explosion had knocked her down and she'd been trapped by a loose beam. After several brain surgeries and a week in an induced coma, she'd come out of it all with no memory of her life. Most of her adult past had been obliterated, though she could remember her childhood. The doctors said it was uncertain when or how much of her memory would come back.
Tastes and some emotions remained. She could like or dislike somethinga place, food, etc. She could experience familiarity, without remembering something exactly. It was the same with people. For instance, the firemen she'd worked with for eight years had been her support system since she got out of the hospital. Still, they were strangers to hermostly. When she was with them, or with Dana or her sister, she could feel the familiarity even when she couldn't remember their history together.
She couldn't, however, recall anything about the accident or being a firefighter. Another member of her crew had died in the same incident, and there was an ongoing investigation since the fire had been arson.
Erin couldn't remember what happened. And she had tried. She had suffered and punished herself for not being able to remember, and she couldn't do it anymore. All she knew was what people told her.
She also couldn't remember who she was, but she finally realized that meant she could be anyone she wanted. Smiling as someone handed her a beer, she and Dana danced right into the next song.
Good thing she'd worn her new jeans and one of those tees that showed a teeny hint of belly. It was all courtesy of a recent shopping trip with Dana, who had helped Erin supplement her otherwise pitiful wardrobe. Apparently it was something Dana had wanted to do for quite some time.
When she'd gotten home from the hospital, Erin thought there must be a guy living at her house. Most of her clothes were for work or bore the insignias of her department. Not a single pair of high heels in the lotnot like the ones she was wearing now.
Even her pajamas were cotton pants and oversize fire department T-shirts.
Those days were over.
Sending a sexy smile to the cute bartender, she planned on making up for lost time. She tilted her head back and chugged her beer as the song ended, enjoying the chants that accompanied her finale.
When she was done, her head spun. Her skin was warm. She laughed, wobbling a bit as she handed her glass back to the bartender.
She and Dana finally made their way down off the bar to riotous applause. Several burly menmost of them firemen or copshappily offered a helping hand.
Dana was a dispatcher and engaged to a firefighter in the unit Erin had worked with. He met her back on the floor with a kiss.
"I can't leave you alone for a minute, can I?" Scott scolded, but he was grinning. His eyes were warm as he took in his fiancée. Erin averted her eyes discreetly from the deepening kiss that the two were sharing in front of everyone.
Erin cleared her throat. "Okay, well, then, I'll just go back to the table and eat all of those wings."
Dana never broke the kiss while waving her away, making Erin laugh. She suspected the lovebirds were going to find some privacy, and she left them to it.
As she walked back to their table, she figured she should have known better. She could hear the boisterous voices of the crew the minute she crossed the floor toward the tables at the back. They saw her, too. No doubt they'd seen her up on the bar, as well.
"What's up, Buttercup?" Hank shouted.
"Tulip!" Leroy followed up.
"Daisy!" Derek added with a snicker.
The last one got a round of high fives as Erin took a breath and approached the group, smirking at them for teasing her about her work at the flower shop. Her sister owned the shop and had taken her on as soon as Erin was able.
Still, it was a far cry from being a firefighter to working as a florist. Not so long ago, she'd been one of the guys, so she tried to act like it. As if nothing had changed.
"You guys calling each other pet names again?" she asked as she joined them. Giving as good as she got was par for the course with this bunch. "Leroy must be Daisy, since he's always fresh as one."
Another round of laughter rose and then settled down as Leroy eyed her from the other side of the long table.
"Someday, when your memory comes back, you'll pay for that one." The threat was playful and made with a glint in his eye.
"I hope that day comes," she said, more serious than she meant to be.
"We do, too," Pete said as they all became quiet.
Erin frowned. "Sorry, didn't mean to be a downer. Hand me a beer?"
"Gladly. Nice moves up there, by the way. We never knew you could dance like that."
"Yeah, me, either."
She accepted another beer and helped herself to some wings.
"Carry on, then," she said, waving them on like a queen to her subjects. That succeeded in lightening the mood again.
"Hey, we thought of something that could help with your memory," Leroy said.
"You said the doctors told you that things from your life before could help bring your memory back, right? We have a lot of stories we could tell."
"Those stories are probably things she'd rather leave forgotten," Pete said with a grin.
Erin smiled. It was good to be around friends who could joke with her about her memory loss. It balanced out the absolute terror and grief that had been frequent, though less so these days.
"I'm game. Take your best shot."
"Well, there was this time when Riley came running out from that fire at the old folks' home, carrying the older gentleman, buck naked and thrown over her shoulder," Pete offered with a wry smile. "They got him on the gurney and he wouldn't let the medics take him away until he asked her out on a date."
Erin's jaw dropped. "That did not happen."
She liked how they called her by her last name. She felt more like a "Riley" than an "Erin" anyway, in spite of her sexy clothes.
"Oh, it really did. And you said yes."
The guys made a few lewd comments and laughter picked up, and Derek put a hand on her arm.
"You were being kind. You brought him dinner a couple of nights when he was in the hospital and watched TV with him. That was your date. He passed away a few months later, and his family sent you a thank-you for your visits."
Erin swallowed hard and nodded.
"There was also the time we told you everyone was dressing up for duty on Halloween and you showed up at the station as Princess Leia. The alarm rang almost as soon as you arrived. You had to change in the truck, which you did, without batting an eye, I'll add. Though you fought the whole fire wearing the braids. I have to find the picture that made it into the paper," Pete said nostalgically.
Even Erin had to laugh at that. She lifted her hand to her hair, now boy-short as it grew in after being cut and shaved for surgeries. She couldn't remember it long, but in most of the pictures she saw, she wore either ponytails or braids. She wasn't sure if she'd grow it long again. Having it short was convenient, especially for summer. Her sister said it framed her face better, and made her eyes look bigger.
"You always swore like a sailor. More quarters in the jar for pizza night from you than anyone."
Erin appreciated them filling in gaps for her, but the stories felt as if they were about someone else. She was just getting to know these people whom she had known for years. Men and women who had trusted her with their lives.
She wanted to have it all back, her history with these people. Her whole life. It wasn't likely; the doctors said the longer she didn't recall anything, the less chance that she would.
She put her beer on the table as her eyes burned.
"Hey, you okay?"
"Yeah, fine," she said, pretending to bend to fix the strap on her shoe while she got hold of her emotions.
Apparently, they did this often, getting together for sports or food. Erin couldn't remember, but it did feel normal. Normal was nice.
When she rose, they were already talking about other thingssports and upcoming vacations. She took a chair near the wall and munched on her wings.
As she licked some of the sauce from her fingers, she stopped and looked up, feeling as if she was being watched. And she was.
Bo Myers sat across the room, alone at his table, his eyes glued to her as if she were the only one there. His eyes rooted her to the spot and sent licks of heat scattering over her skin. She lost track of everything and almost tumbled her plate to the floor, catching it before it fell.
He was the local fire marshal. She'd met with him a few times since the accident. He'd been there when she'd woken up in the hospital.
He was an intense, somewhat intimidating man in every waytall, brooding and powerfulwith a serious face and eyes that meant business. She wasn't sure she'd ever seen him smile. Irrationally, she always wanted to touch his hair. Bristly on top, but soft, she imagined. As if he had just rolled out of bed or gotten caught in a strong wind.
His magnetic eyes were, right now, focused on the finger she had been sucking some of the wing sauce from. She removed it from between her lips and grabbed a napkin.
The guys told her that Bo had been one of their crew before he'd moved on to being an investigator. It was hard to imagine. He was terse, quiet, and not at all like the rest of the group.
There was no question that he affected her differently than the other guys. They were all handsome, fit, and yet she felt nothing but some vague friendliness toward all of them. As if they were her brothers, or at least friends.
Bo, whom she hardly knew at all, had been taking center stage in her dreams latelyin a mostly naked way. The way he was looking at her now was almost as if he were angry, or as if he were undressing her. She wasn't sure which, or which she wanted it to be.
"I think it's time for me to go," she said too brightly. She stood, pushing her plate to the side.
The guys barely noticed, and after a round of goodbyes, she decided to walk home. Her house was only a mile away and she needed the fresh air. And to get away from Bo Myers. But as she walked to the door, she made the mistake of looking back. His gaze met hers across the room, sending a shiver down her spine.
Then, as she reached for the door, he got up and headed directly toward her.
Bo wasn't sure why he was following Erin as she left. She didn't want his company. He should definitely keep his distance, as he had been doing. A clear, professional distance that ate away at him a bit each day.
He couldn't remember the last time he'd slept except due to sheer exhaustion. He'd come here tonight to remedy that with a few drinks. Maybe more than a few. He didn't know she'd be here, and if he had, he would have avoided the bar completely. There were plenty more in Syracuse.
He thought he was seeing things when she'd gotten up on that baror rather when she'd been hoisted up by a guy with his hands on her ass. Her dancing had nearly killed him. It was so unlike herexcept in private. She'd danced for him plenty of timesonly for him.
The Erin he'd known would have died before dancing on a bar like that. Dana did it all the time. It was part of her personality, to be wild. Flirtatious. No one took it seriouslyif they did, they'd have to deal with Scott.
But Erin, no way. It was all he could do not to drag her down off the bar, but what she did wasn't his business anymore. Unfortunately, his body didn't agree. When she'd started licking the barbecue sauce from her fingers, he'd stiffened and had to wait until he could stand up again.
He'd watched how she laughed and smiled with her crew, not noticing their covert glances at her curves and movements. She'd been one of them, one of the guysbut not now. They touched her more often than they did before. Casual, supportive touches, but still. Things were already changing.
Bo noticed, because he couldn't touch her at all.
As he caught up with her, she stilled, looking right and left as if seeking an escape. That irritated him. He'd never done anything to hurt her. Quite the opposite.
"Riley," he said, feeling like a teenager who was talking to the beautiful girl he wanted, but he had nothing prepared to say.
He blinked, his head buzzing. Maybe he should have skipped that last Scotch.
"How are you?" he managed to ask.
Erin always had a way of looking at him. Her clear green eyes would darken to a mossy-jade, and she would seem to completely absorb him with that gaze. For a second, he'd caught that look again when their eyes met across the room. Bo felt that connection, strong as ever. He wanted to think what they'd had was too strong for the explosion, or her amnesia, to wipe out.
But now she looked at him like a stranger. There was a gleam of panic in her expression, as well. Why?
"Hello, Marshal. I'm good. Thanks. Actually, um, I was just leaving." Her tone was distant, polite. Eager to go.
She was the woman he knewin her movements, her expressionsbut in many ways she was oddly unfamiliar.