Yoga instructor Louise Pine is the ultimate caretaker. Everyone around her seems to have an emergency, but Lou hasn’t met a fire she couldn’t put out—until she’s faced with the hunky, bossy firefighter who crashes into her own backyard—and her life. No one tells Lou what to do, yet somehow the guy’s take-charge style makes her tingle . . .
Phoenix “Nix” Jones is used to calling the shots, whether he’s dealing with his younger siblings or taking on a dangerous blaze. Luckily, the fire at Lou’s is a false alarm. But the heat the fit and feisty woman ignites is far from dying out . . .
As the sparks turn into 5-alarm passion, can two strong-willed people end up engulfed by love—or will they crash and burn?
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Four years ago ...
Sasha leaned back into the strong arms of the man who was keeping her from falling, both literally and figuratively. The strength he surrounded her with felt like a glimmer of sun shining through on the darkest of days. The comfort of his arms soothed both her and the baby she was holding.
She was out of tears.
In fact, she was starting to feel an odd numbness that was both scary and yet welcome at the same time. Any feeling had to be better than the despair she was drowning in, right?
Cradling her niece against her chest, Sasha watched as her brother's casket was lowered into the ground. The creaking sound of the dark navy coffin as it lowered on its pulleys was the only accompaniment to the soft weeping of those gathered at the graveside.
Closing her eyes, Sasha felt the cold breeze hit the trail of tears flowing down her cheeks, tears that she was unaware were still steadily dripping from her eyes. The bone-deep hurt in her soul wasn't something she would wish on even her worst enemy. Her eyes were sore, her throat was raw, and her cheeks were itchy from being wiped over and over to hide some of the pain she was feeling. Watching the crowd, she noticed the large range of emotions on the devastated faces of their friends and family. Some of them were still in obvious shock that Max was gone. Her poor sister-in-law looked like she wasn't really there, most likely due to the sedative the family doctor had given her. The soft sobs of her mother, seated in the front of the grouping next to her sister-in-law, were like a stab to the heart.
Sasha blinked past the burning sensitivity as her father hugged her mother close to his side. Her heart broke just a little more when her father cried against the gray-sprinkled strands of her mom's hair. She looked away quickly, the sight too painful to watch.
The seat she was supposed to be in sat empty while Sasha tried to soothe little Hazel. Her niece had done well earlier at the church but had only been able to sit still for so long before her tiny body wanted to be put down. Taking Hazel from Annie had been a welcome relief for them both. It allowed Sasha a chance to step back and breathe and let her brother's widow grieve without worrying that Hazel was being cared for. She had been grateful when Jack followed her to the back of the group surrounding the grave, his presence lending her comfort by simply being there.
Her older brother was dead. A firefighter, who followed in their father and grandfather's footsteps, had simply answered a call at the station like many nights before.
Max was a hero ... dead, but a hero nonetheless.
To her family he had been so much more than that. He had been the best older brother, friend, son, husband and new father any of them could have wished for.
Their small Colorado town hadn't suffered a loss in the line of duty for the last fifteen years until two weeks ago, when Sasha's mom had called crying so hard that Sasha wasn't able to understand one word that had been said. It wasn't until she had turned on the news that she was able to figure out what her mom had been trying to get out.
Max was dead.
It was odd that no matter how many times she thought about him being gone, it seemed like the first time all over again. It felt fresh and raw, like an open wound that hadn't even started to heal yet.
That Friday was just like any other normal boring Friday. Jack was scheduled to work, and she had been bone-tired, so instead of doing something that evening with friends, she had simply headed to their apartment for a lazy night in. Max had called earlier that afternoon from work and they made plans for her to watch Hazel the next morning so he could treat his wife to a much-needed day out. He had spoken of how tired they were now that Hazel was starting to teethe, but she could tell he was smiling even as he complained. Hanging up the phone, she had never in a million years imagined it would be the last time she told him "love ya" or heard his laugh. Remembering the conversation now brought a wave of fresh wetness to her eyes.
That particular Friday night, the old movie theater downtown was running an eighties-themed marathon starting at seven and ending the following afternoon. It had sounded fun, and if Jack hadn't been working, there was a chance she would have tried to get tickets. Sasha had driven by the old brick building on her way home from work and was surprised at how many people were lined up for the first showing. Some had even stood in line with blankets and pillows to make the night a tiny bit more comfortable on the old wooden theater chairs.
A little past ten, Sasha had woken up to the vibration of her cellphone against her glass of forgotten pop next to her on the table. She had still been trying to wake from her impromptu nap when she clicked accept on the phone call only to hear a woman screaming and crying. At first, she thought the phone call had been an accident and her parents must have been watching a movie or something to account for the noise that she wasn't able to understand. Clicking end, she had tried to call back only to have it go straight to voicemail.
Turning on the TV with the intention of checking to see if tomorrow's weather would be park-worthy for a walk with Hazel, Sasha had been frozen in dread when she saw live coverage of a fire. As she watched a camera crew shoot footage from behind a safety barrier, she noted that both her father's and brother's stations had answered the call. Their small town had two fire stations, one on each side of town. Her brother worked at one with his best friend and her boyfriend, Jack, while her father was the captain of the other. On a normal day they rarely worked together, it was only when they had a large fire they had to fight that they were both dispatched.
Sasha had immediately thought of the phone call of a woman crying and redialed her mom. After going to voicemail for a solid five minutes, Sasha had done the only thing she could think of.
She drove down to the movie theater.
Parking two blocks away when she was unable to get closer, Sasha ran past stopped traffic and onlookers as the blaze glowed brightly against the dark night. The only thing that stopped her from passing the safety barricade had been a friend who was also an EMT and on duty that night. The moment she saw the look on Stan's face as he stood there in his soot-covered uniform, she knew something awful had occurred. Her first thought had been that Jack had somehow been hurt. When Stan started yelling for Jack over the crowd, she realized it was someone else who had been hurt.
In the end, the crowded and overpacked theater had an electrical short that had started a small fire backstage where they were storing the prints for the marathon. Reels and reels of movie film went up in seconds, spreading flames across all of the back exits. That left over two hundred people trying to get out the small front exit doors as they climbed over wooden seats, blankets, pillows and other items that had been forgotten once the first flicker was spotted. Max had gone back into the building after the parents of two teenagers said they were unable to find their children. The girls had gotten trapped in one of the bathrooms when a large metal trash bin tipped over in front of the door as people were running for the exit. Eyewitnesses said he muscled the can out of the way before pulling the two girls out and into the hall. As they were running past flames and falling timber, Max had pushed one of the girls out of the way just as a large portion of the old lobby balcony collapsed where he was standing. When the smoke cleared, her father and Jack had been among the crew who went in to bring Max out.
The next few days were filled with nonstop sympathy visits to her family home. Many brought food and casseroles, some even brought bottles of bourbon as a toast to Max.
During one of the visits, her father announced he was retiring early, a move that nobody expected nor questioned. Then he picked up one of the bottles and went into his study where he sat in silence for hours. Her mom wasn't doing much better. There had been a few days where she hadn't even bothered to get out of bed. It wasn't until Annie asked for help with the funeral service that her mom pulled herself together enough to even get dressed. Two nights after the fire, Sasha needed to get out of the house and offered to stay with her sister-in-law.
When Sasha mentioned staying at the house with Annie, she didn't say yes but she didn't say no either; she simply looked at her with blank eyes. Taking care of her and Hazel gave Sasha something to focus on. Making sure Annie ate and that Hazel was cared for kept her occupied and was a welcome distraction. The night before the funeral service, Sasha had walked in on Annie sitting on the kitchen floor holding a knife. Kneeling down in front of her brother's widow, she witnessed utter heartbreak as Annie contemplated out loud the ramifications of taking her own life. Sasha didn't even think Annie realized she was talking out loud as she went over the pros and cons of leaving this earth.
In the end, Annie had allowed her to take the knife out of her hand after agreeing that she couldn't leave Hazel no matter how badly she wanted to be with Max.
It was then that Sasha got a piece of advice that she hadn't asked for or wanted.
"Sash, don't ever love a firefighter," Annie had wept, almost begging Sasha to listen to her. Rocking back and forth, she had repeated a plea to God over and over again, "I just want this pain to go away ... why won't it go away? God, please make it go away."
Sasha cried with her sister-in-law that night for hours on that cold kitchen floor, and in those hours, she realized there was something she had to do.
"You holding up, babe?" Jack whispered against the top of her head.
"I don't think I'll ever be okay," Sasha croaked out.
"I know, honey. He was like a brother to me ..." Jack sniffed, his own eyes wet with tears after sitting through the service.
What he said was more than true. Jack had in fact been her brother's best friend before they had ever started dating two years ago. Their life had seemed to fall effortlessly into place when they met. Max had asked if he could bring his buddy to a family dinner, and the rest was history. She had spotted him walking in with Max and felt the breath leave her body. After their first date, he had admitted to wrangling an invite to dinner after seeing a picture of her at her brother's place.
Tall, with dirty-blond hair, Jack was her exact opposite. Yet when they took pictures together, he was the perfect complement to her dark hair and rounded body. His body was solid muscle, which had intimidated her at first, but Jack had shown her that he had nothing but appreciation for her curves. The ease they felt with each other was something she had always wanted but never expected.
Her father loved him of course, which made perfect sense since he reminded her of the type of man her dad was. Jack was strong, smart and sweet. He had more manners than any of the men she had dated before, not that she had dated all that much, but it was still true.
Jack was everything she had dreamed of when she was a little girl, and he fit in perfectly with her family. Until two weeks ago ... two weeks ago she had seen firsthand what being in love with a firefighter did to a person.
It broke them.
It broke every single piece of them.
Her father, who had lived and breathed his job, took early retirement because he couldn't stand the pain of losing Max. Annie now had to raise their daughter without her husband by her side. Jack lost his best friend, and she lost the older brother she had idolized.
Sasha jumped when a cold hand touched her arm, jerking her back to reality. A reality she didn't want to be in.
"Sorry, honey. I just wanted to say goodbye before we head back to Denver," Aunt Meg said softly, leaning forward to kiss Hazel, who was still held in Sasha's arms. Giving Jack a stern look, she squeezed his arm before ordering, "You take care of my girls, okay?"
"Of course, Aunt Meg," Jack promised and kissed her pale wrinkled cheek.
Sasha looked around and realized that the service was officially over, and it was time to head back to her childhood home. Nodding to those walking past her and Jack at the back of the cemetery, Sasha was still amazed at how many people had shown up to pay their respects. After saying goodbye to those who weren't able to make it back to the house after the service and passing Hazel off to her grandma, Sasha and Jack walked back to the graveside.
"It's so quiet now." Sasha looked around before her gaze was caught by the long line of cars streaming out of the cemetery. "So many people came ..."
"Max was loved," Jack whispered, moving to stand behind her and hold her in a loose hug. "Annie's mom mentioned that she was going to take her and Hazel to stay with her for a couple months."
Sasha leaned back to look at Jack, brushing the hair out of his face. The gold-colored locks feeling ridiculously soft under her fingers. "Really?"
"I think it would be good for her. You know, to get away from here for a little while." Jack shrugged before looking around a bit. "The town isn't going to let this die down for a while, and she's barely hanging on as it is. Leo called earlier and said the fire station wants to put together a memorial for Max."
"That would be nice." Sasha nodded, not really wanting to think of the memorial at this time regardless of how touching it was.
"Sash," Jack whispered against her neck. "I'm sorry, baby." His words caught her off guard.
"Sorry for what?" she asked, blinking her swollen eyes up at him.
"For letting Max die."CHAPTER 2
Sasha took a step back, his words catching her off guard. "What?"
"I should have been there." Jack scrubbed his hand over his head, messing up the already tussled strands. "We'd had each other's backs for years, and the one time he fucking needed me I wasn't there."
"Jack." Sasha cleared her throat, her heart breaking over his feeling guilt for something out of his control. "You didn't let him down."
"Yes, I did, Sash." Jack shook his head, causing a tear to streak down his cheek. "Your dad thinks so too. I can tell when he looks at me. The disappointment I see in his eyes ..."
"Shhhhh," Sasha whispered and pulled him into her arms. "Dad is not disappointed in you. Believe me, he knows exactly how dangerous the job is. Why do you think he decided to retire early?"
Jack shook his head at her. Sasha had to hold his cheeks in her palms to stop the motion. "I'm serious, Jack. Dad broke down a couple days ago and told Mom he wished he'd never become a firefighter. He knows the only reason Max worked at the station was to follow in his footsteps. Hell, that was why Dad did it too. He wanted to be like Grandpa and his brothers."
"That's not completely true, Sash. I'm sure that played a part in it, but that wasn't the whole reason," Jack argued. His brow furrowed. "Max was doing what he loved. Your dad loved the job too ...he just never expected to lose his son to it."
"Jack." Sasha swallowed, taking a deep breath. "I can't do this."
"What do you mean?"
Sasha looked around the now-empty cemetery before her gaze landed on the space where her brother rested. "I mean —"
The silence that followed spoke for itself.
"I can't do this again," she whispered while her eyes filled with the tears she thought she was out of. "I can't lose someone like this again."
"Don't —" Jack began, his eyes showing that he knew where she was going with this.
"I can't love someone who could get a call and be taken from me," Sasha rambled. "Do you see what this has done to my family?"
"Of course I have," Jack said hotly, anger starting to take over his voice. "I loved Max too, and you know he would call bullshit on what you're saying."
"Well, he can't because he's not here!" Sasha yelled, feeling out of control with all of the emotions rolling through her body.
"I know that, Sash!" Jack yelled back.
Sasha rubbed her hands over her face while feeling what she could only describe as ... hollow.
"Let's get to the house. Your parents are probably wondering where we are." Jack reached for her arm to help her to the car.
"I can't." The broken whisper matched how she felt inside.
"Just let me call your mom so she doesn't worry." Jack kissed her forehead, not understanding what she was trying to get out. "If you can't sit through the reception at the house, we can just head home. Everyone will understand."
The home he was talking about was his apartment, which she had unofficially moved into last year. She had left her parents' house and her childhood room, where she had moved back into after leaving college.
"Jack, I can't be in love with a firefighter."
The words stopped Jack in his tracks, causing her to bump into him. Jack turned to steady her on her black heels and took the opportunity to pull her close for a hug. "Too late for that, honey."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Still Burning"
Copyright © 2019 Leora Gonzales.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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