For days, burn unit nurse Marly Haskins has noticed a handsome firefighter sitting vigil at patients' bedsides. Chief Drake St. John's concern touches the single mother deeply. But despite the warmth in Drake's cobalt-blue eyes, tall, strong, powerful men only remind Marly of the abusive ex-husband on her trail and the dreams she's long since given up on.
With his own harrowing past, Drake recognizes that Marly is running scared. His life and career are about saving others from harm, but there's something about Marly that makes his protective instincts more personal. Helping Marly and her daughter feel safe in Stonerock is his new missionone that might heal his own burned heart.
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The firefighter was back.
Once again dressed in his blue cargo pants and matching blue polo with the Stonerock, Tennessee, fire department's seal embroidered on the left side of his chest a chest that really maxed out the material of his shirt.
But muscles meant something entirely different now. A few years ago the well-sculpted body of a man would have had her appreciating the view. Unfortunately, her world had been vastly changed six months earlier, and now muscles, power and strength only reminded her of the scars she'd be wearing forever.
Pediatric nurse Marly Haskins moved farther into the private room of her six-year-old patient. The young boy had been badly burned in a house fire only a few days ago. The doctors were waiting to see how the wounds healed and pumping him full of antibiotics to ward off infection before discussing the use of skin grafts on his arm and torso.
Marly's heart ached for the boy, who had started kindergarten with her daughter, Willow, just a few weeks ago. This little guy should be at school running around on the playground, not recovering from a fire that had claimed his home.
As Marly approached the side of the bed, the firefighter raised his gaze to her. Those piercing blue eyes shouldn't make her belly do flips, but she couldn't control her body's reaction. Her mind, though Her mind knew better than to be impressed by beauty, brawn and silent allure.
"Let me know if I'm in your way," he told her as his eyes drifted back down to the sleeping boy. "I just wanted to see him before my shift."
Other than family, no one had been by to see Jeremy. Marly had been told by Jeremy's parents that the fire chief was a close friend of the family and he would be visiting often. Marly didn't know his name, just that he was the chiefanother man in a powerful position. A man whose physical appeal had her wishing she wasn't so cynical and jaded. Would she always look at muscles and power as a bad thing?
"I'm just giving him another round of antibiotics," she told him, hoping he didn't want small talk and thankful that he stood on the other side of the bed.
Marly wiped the boy's port with an alcohol pad and injected the medicine before slipping the needle into the biohazard bin on the wall.
Jeremy slept peacefully, due in part to the pain medication he was on. This was the hard part of her job. The part where she imagined how easily this could be her daughter lying here and how fortunate Marly was that Willow was in school right now, safe and having fun with her friends just as any five-year-old child should.
"I'm Drake, by the way."
Marly turned her attention back to the imposing man. With wide shoulders stretching his polo, his tall, lean build and those captivating baby blues, the mesmerizing stranger silently demanded attention. Her pulse kicked up whenever they made eye contact, and she hated the thread of fear that niggled at her.
He reminded her too much of her past lifea life she was still trying to escape. A life she was privately rebuilding one day at a time.
Guilt slid through her. Judging a stranger wasn't quite fair. After all, a stranger hadn't hurt her. The man who'd vowed to love, honor and cherish her, though, had nearly destroyed her.
"I know." With a soft smile, he nodded toward her badge clipped on the pocket of her puppy-printed smock top. "I should've introduced myself before now."
"You were preoccupied." The man may be menacing in size, but the worry lines between thick, dark brows spoke of vulnerability. "I understand you and Jeremy's parents are friends."
Nodding, Drake gripped the edge of the bed rail and stared down at the boy. "Yeah. I graduated with his dad, Shawn. I was on the scene of the fire."
Marly swallowed. Remorse seemed to envelop this man, and there was no doubt he was mentally replaying said scene in his mind.
She'd witnessed that level of sorrow many times over the years as a burn-unit nurse at a children's hospital in Nashville before moving to the suburb of Stonerock. And that was the only reason Jeremy was allowed to stay at this small-town hospital.
"I just wish I could do more," she whispered. "His parents "
She trailed off, not wanting to get too emotional with this stranger.
Private. That was the theme for this stage in her life. She needed to remain private and locked in her own world, where she could protect herself and her daughter.
"They're having a tough time," he added as he pushed off the rail and came around the edge of the bed. "But you're doing all you can. Keeping their son as comfortable as possible is a blessing to them right now."
Marly nodded, Drake's large, looming presence causing her to step back. He'd done nothing to her, yet she couldn't help that proverbial knee-jerk reaction.
"Are you okay?" he asked, dark brows drawn together.
Easing her side bangs over a tad to keep her scar covered, Marly nodded. "Yeah, just worried. It's hard not to get swept into the lives of my patients."
"That's what makes a good nurse." His soft smile didn't quite reach his eyes, as if the gesture was only for her. "Getting emotionally involved is an occupational hazard."
On one level she knew he understood. After all, they were both public servants and protectors. But on another level, she really didn't want to bond with this man who had her emotions all jumbled up because of his gentleness and potent sex appeal. A lethal combo.
If she wasn't careful, she would find herself slipping into his personal space, and she'd promised herself no more letting herself trustnot yet and probably not for a long, long time. There was too much at stake in her life for her to let her guard down with anyone.
"When will he be transferred to another hospital with a burn unit?" he asked, crossing his arms over his wide, taut chest.
"We'll have to wait and see if the doctor and his parents decide on the skin grafts."
She tried to ignore the way Drake's size dominated the room. Tried to ignore the way her heart kicked up at the way he seemed to study her.
"I think he needs to be transferred to a hospital that specializes in this type of care," Drake told her, crossing his arms over his wide chest.
Marly wasn't really in the mood to defend her medical position or to discuss her patient's needs with a non-family member. And she definitely wasn't up for being bullied by this man, who no doubt was used to getting his way. She didn't think he was posing for an argument, but he was making it clear his opinion mattered.
"For now he's fine to stay here." She forced herself to meet his gaze. She was no longer that meek woman who was afraid to stand up for herself. "I'm able to care for him because I was a nurse on a burn unit at a larger hospital before I moved here. But if his parents choose for him to have skin grafts, he'll go to a specialist."
"Why the wait?" Drake demanded. "Wouldn't he heal faster if he were with a specialist now?"
Fisting her hands at her sides, Marly shook her head. "The doctors here have Jeremy's best interest in mind, and he's getting the best possible care. And we can't transport him yet anyway."
Drake swore under his breath. "Shawn and Amy are self-employed, and this is really going to hurt them financially on top of all the emotional turmoil they're already experiencing. Never mind the fact they lost their house and they're staying with Shawn's parents."
Okay, so the overpowering man had a soft spot. Seriously, though, how dare he question not only her, but the doctors and Jeremy's parents? Perhaps he was just speaking out of worry, but still, Marly wasn't interested in this chief's medical opinions.
But he was right about one thing. Medical bills were going to flood their lives before they ever got their son home. Marly couldn't imagine the financial strain this would put on the poor family.
Since she'd run from her ex and left behind all the money and flashy things, she was having a hard time adjusting to her single salary, but it was hard to feel sorry for herself when a tragic case like this smacked her in the face with a dose of reality. There was always someone worse off. She had to remind herself of that when pity started to settle in.
"Can I talk to you outside?" Drake asked, intruding on her thoughts.
Surprised at his request, Marly nodded. This was the first real interaction they'd had since Jeremy had been admitted to her unit two days ago. Even though he'd been here both days, she'd made sure to just stick to the pleasantries, getting in and out of Jeremy's room quickly when Drake visited.
They stepped outside the room, and Marly eased the large wooden door closed behind her. Trying to come off as a professional was hard when your hands were shaking, so she crossed her arms over her chest and tipped her head to level his stare.
"Something wrong?" she asked.
"I'm going to be at the station for the next thirty-six hours," he told her, stepping closer so there was only a small gap separating them. "I know Shawn and Amy won't let me know if they need anything, but could you keep an eye on them when they're here? If they need food or a break, could you let me know? I can give you my cell. If I'm not busy I can run over or I can have one of my brothers stop by. I don't want Shawn and Amy to feel like they're in this alone."
Wow. He was serious. The fire chief was ready to drop everything to help a friend in need.
The cynical side of Marly wanted to know if he was using this opportunity for publicity in his position, to look good in the eyes of his superiors. Or did this man actually have that kind of a heart?
She shook off the pull to want to know more. The old Marly would've reached out, but that woman was dead, cut off from all the emotional tugs toward the wounded hearts of others. She had her own heart to heal.
Pulling herself back to his request and his intense stare as he waited on an answer, she smiled. "Of course I can let you know."
His mesmerizing blue eyes continued to study her, and she resisted the urge to reach up and make sure her side bangs were covering her scar. She didn't want to know what he was thinking, didn't want to know what he saw when he looked at her.
Her ex had used her as a trophy, only wanting her to look good at his side and remain silent. But, gone was that quiet, reserved, perfectly-coiffed woman. Now Marly kept her long blond hair in a ponytail, downplayed her voluptuous chest and wore little to no makeup. This was the real Marly Haskins.
"Did you need anything else?" she asked, ready to get out from under his questioning gaze.
Drake shrugged one shoulder. "Just wondering why you look so sad."
Taken aback by his abrupt, imposing question, Marly shook her head. "I'm not sad. I mean, I'm sad for Jeremy and his family, but that's all."
Reaching out, Drake slid a thumb beneath her eye. "No, you've got shadows and there's sadness there."
Swatting his hand away, Marly stepped back. "You don't know me, so I'd appreciate if you didn't analyze me."
Drake raked a hand over his closely cropped dark hair. "My apologies. It's second nature to worry. I just wondered if you were okay."
Was she okay? Far from it. Was she going to spill her heart to this charming stranger? Absolutely not.
But, oh, how she wished she had someone she could open up to. It was so hard being a single mother in the best of times, let alone when trying to keep her abusive ex from discovering where she was living and trying to remain strong and put up a cheerful front for strangers who had no clue the hell she'd endured.
She couldn't focus on Drake or his charms. She needed to concentrate on getting her life back in order and setting a stable foundation for her and her daughter. No room for a handsome stranger with vibrant blue eyes and a killer body. Those two qualities meant nothing in the long run.
Drake reached back and pulled out his wallet, producing a business card. "My cell is on there."
As she slipped the card from his grasp, her fingertips slid across histhe briefest of touches, but enough to have her pulling back. She hadn't touched a man in any way since leaving her husband. Her patients were all children and she'd made a point to stay clear of men at least until her mental state returned to normal.
Scars weren't always just on the outside.
"You sure you're okay?" he asked, brows drawn in as he leaned closer.
Great, now he was seriously concerned about her.
Forcing what she hoped was a convincing smile, Marly nodded. "Fine. Just thinking about Jeremy."
That answer seemed to pacify the chief as he pulled his keys from his other pocket. "Call me anytime. If I can't talk, I won't answer, but leave a message."
Marly nodded, still eager for him to be on his way.
"I'll be back tomorrow," he said.
Yeah, that was what she was afraid of. Each time she saw him her heart would speed up and she'd find herself drawn deeper and deeper into his appeal. That type of mentality was exactly what had gotten her in trouble to begin with.
As Drake walked out of the cheerily painted pediatric unit, Marly couldn't help but watch him go. Those broad shoulders, that uniform, those dark forearms Drake St. John was all man and all powerful.
But whatever fluttery feeling she got from being around him would just have to be ignored, because no way would she ever get involved with another manespecially one so sexy and powerful. That combination nearly killed her once before.