Authors: Barbara Freethy
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
"How many is that?"
"At least two."
"Then I might as well go for broke." He pulled her up against his chest, his other arm going around her waist. He lowered his head and pressed his mouth against hers.
She felt both hot and shivery as his passionate and demanding kiss set off a dizzying wave of desire. This kiss was nothing like the night before. He wasn't just meeting her tentative lips with his; he was taking control. When she opened her mouth to breathe, he slipped his tongue inside, taking the kiss deeper, making her feel as if she was a part of him, and he was a part of her. It was heady, exhilarating and terrifying. Her hands roamed his back, reveling in his male form, the tight muscles in his back, the broad shoulders, the strong arms that held her so close.
What was she doing? She couldn't do this. She couldn't have him. And he couldn't have her.
With her brain finally re-engaging, she managed to pull away.
He stared back at her, his gaze filled with desire, his ragged breathing telling her he'd been on the same wild ride with her.
"What was that?" she asked.
"Apparently strike three."
Actually, he'd come close to hitting a home run, but she wasn't going to tell him that. Instead, she said, "So we're done now?"
He gave her a long look. "I wish we were, but somehow I don't think so."
And with that troubling comment, he turned and left the attic.
She sank down on a nearby chest, her legs feeling suddenly weak. She felt like she'd just been through a tornado of emotions, dealing with Sean's sadness and anger about his friend, and then fighting the passion that had been brewing between them for months. She was exhausted and charged up at the same time, and she had no idea what was coming next. The only thing she knew for sure was that friends or not, Sean was going to be a problem.
Sean jogged down the stairs and out the front door, feeling a desperate need to get out of the house before he did something stupid—make that
that was stupid. Kissing Jessica had certainly not been a good idea. But he'd been revved up after spilling his guts about Stacy. When Jessica told him she had no interest in musicians, he'd wanted to prove to her that she couldn't dismiss him so easily, but all he'd really proved was that he liked her even more. He should be happy she didn't want to date a musician, because he didn't want to date a woman who was tied to his family and had a kid. He also didn't like the way he felt like spilling his guts when he was around her. He'd never told anyone about being at Stacy's house, so why had he told her?
Shaking his head in bewilderment, he walked briskly back home, but once there he found the idea of going inside unappealing. He needed to clear his head and get some perspective, so he dug his keys out of his pocket and got into his van.
He drove across town toward the beach, leaving his car in a spot off the Great Highway. Then he crossed the street to the wide sandy beach and stared out at the water glistening in the sunlight. The waves were high today, crashing down with an angry force that matched his mood. He felt restless, unsettled, and he didn't know if it was memories of the fire or kissing Jessica that had him in such turmoil. But one way or the other, he needed to get back on an even keel.
He walked along the beach for a while and then sat down on the sand. As he watched a little girl and her father walk along the water's edge, he was reminded of Stacy and her dad. He hadn't really thought much about the fact that Stacy had been with her father when the fire broke out. Why hadn't her father been able to get out of the house? Why had Stacy been alone when she'd come through that front door?
The fire had to have exploded, taken them both by surprise. But what would cause such an explosion? His father could probably tell him, but the last person he wanted to ask was Jack. Emma was an arson investigator. She might be able to pull up the old case file. He took out his phone and called her.
"What's up, Sean?"
"I need your help."
"Seriously? You never need anyone's help. What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong. I just have a question. Are you at home?"
"On my way. I should be there in about ten minutes."
"I'll meet you there."
"See you then."
He hung up the phone and walked quickly back to his car. It might be smarter to leave the Emery fire in the past. On the other hand, he'd already tried that, and his emotional reaction today had only reminded him that he'd never completely gotten over what he'd seen that night.
But how Stacy had ended up in the middle of that inferno was something he'd never really questioned. Was there more to know?
* * *
Jessica spent a half hour in the attic and soon realized that the job was going to be long and tedious. She'd only looked in a couple of boxes, but it became quickly apparent that Mrs. Emery had dumped piles of papers into boxes without any attempt at organization. Jessica would need to pace herself. Twenty years worth of junk wasn't going to get cleared out in a day.
Grabbing one of the smaller boxes, she headed downstairs. She'd peruse the contents while having a glass of iced tea and one of Lynda's sandwiches. After that, she would focus on getting her own life settled before digging any further into the past.
She had just reached the first floor entryway when the doorbell rang. Her pulse quickened. Had Sean come back? She couldn't imagine who else would be calling on her.
She set the box down and opened the door. It wasn't Sean on the porch, but an attractive middle-aged woman with dark red hair and bright green eyes. Despite being dressed in workout clothes, she had on a thick layer of make-up, and a pair of diamond earrings sparkled in the sunlight.
"Hello," Jessica said. "Can I help you?"
"I'm Sally Watson. I live next door." She tipped her head to the white two-story house on the other side of Jessica's driveway. "Are you Helen's new tenant?"
"Yes. I'm Jessica Schilling."
"It's nice to meet you, Jessica."
"I'm so sad that Helen had to move out. I'm going to miss her so much. We've been neighbors for twenty years. She's such a sweetheart, practically a grandmother to my children. Anyway, I wanted to come by and say hello. This is a nice neighborhood, and we try to watch out for each other. Helen told me that you have a child?"
"A six-year-old son. His name is Kyle."
"That's such a cute age. I miss having little kids around. My husband and I have had an empty nest for two years now. Our three girls are in their twenties. You'll probably see Christie at some point. She's our middle child and only lives a few miles away. She's about your age—twenty-five?"
"I'm twenty-seven," Jessica said.
"You had your little boy young."
She shrugged, not really wanting to get into the whole story of how she'd come to be Kyle's stepmother. Instead, she said, "Are there any other children in the neighborhood?"
"There are a couple of kids. Not as many as when my children were small. Times have changed."
"I thought I saw a boy across the street."
"That's Grayson. He's eight. He's Brett's stepson."
"Brett?" she queried.
"Brett Murphy, our local hero, at least that's what he thinks," she added, an edge of bitterness in her voice. "He's lived here for years, mostly alone. His first wife, Natasha, left him a long time ago. Adrienne and Grayson are his second family. Of course Adrienne is young and beautiful. Brett always goes for the trophy." Sally's gaze drifted across the street, and for a moment she seemed lost in thought. Then she gathered herself together and said, "Anyway, there are a couple of other children at the end of the block. I'm sure your boy will find some friends to play with."
"I'm sure he will." She didn't know what to make of Sally. The woman's friendly smile didn't quite ring true. "Thanks for stopping by."
"No problem. So, Helen told me you're going to clean out her house. That will be a big job. Helen was always a pack rat. She hated to throw anything away. I offered to help her more than once, but she always put it off. She must finally be ready to let go."
"Did she tell you about the fire?"
"I've heard about it. Did you live next door then?"
"I did. I wasn't home though. By the time I arrived, it was over. It was very sad."
"What happened to Helen's daughter-in-law and grandson?" She might as well participate in the conversation since Sally seemed eager to gossip.
"They left right after the funeral. Lana took Blake and went to live with one of her sisters. After she moved away, Helen and her husband, Tom, moved back in to oversee the remodel. It had originally been their home, you know. They'd raised Robert in the house, but after he got married to Lana, Helen and Tom retired to San Diego. After the fire, they came back. Tom died last year and Helen has lived like a hermit since then. Anyway, I'm rambling on. My husband always says I talk too much. I'm sure he's right."
Jessica liked Sally a little more for admitting her flaws.
"I should go. I have a Pilates class," Sally said. "Please let me know if you need anything."
"I will. Thanks for stopping by."
As she closed the door, Jessica wondered why Sally had found the need to bring up the fire. Was she just a nosy neighbor or had she been trying to get some information out of Jessica? But what information could Jessica possibly have that Sally wouldn't already know? And then there were her odd comments about the man across the street. What was that about?
Frowning, she walked down the hall to the kitchen and decided to focus on lunch and unpacking her kitchenware. It was time she concentrated on her own life.
* * *
"I just realized you're not at Camille's wedding," Emma said, as she let Sean into her apartment. "Why didn't you go?"
"I had some things to take care of."
She gave him a knowing look. "Funny how busy you get when there's a family event."
"Hey you're not there, either."
"I was going to go, but I had to walk through a fire scene this morning."
Her words reminded him that Emma, like so many other Callaways, lived in the world of fire, the world he had wanted nothing to do with until now.
"Do you want some tea?" she asked.
"I definitely don't want tea," he said following her into the small kitchen "Do you have anything else?"
She opened the refrigerator. "Beer, soda, orange juice."
"I'll take the juice."
As she poured him a glass of juice, he sat down on a stool at the counter. "Where's your husband today?"
"Max is working a homicide. It happened last weekend, and he's having trouble finding a lead. He's been working overtime all week."
"Sorry to hear that."
She shrugged. "It's the job." Emma filled the teapot with water and turned on the stove. "So what's this favor you want?"
He took a sip of juice, as he thought about what he wanted to say. Getting Emma involved in any part of his life was asking for trouble. His sister was a great person, but she also loved to meddle. Once he let her in, he'd never get her out. On the other hand, he had questions he wanted answered.
"Come on, spit it out," she ordered. "Does this have something to do with Jessica?"
He frowned. "Why would you ask that?"
"Because I've noticed a little spark between you two. But it seems like you go out of your way to avoid her. That makes Nicole very happy by the way. She does not want you and Jessica to get involved with each other. She's afraid you'll break Jessica's heart and drive her away and ruin everything."
Exactly what he'd told Jessica. "Nicole doesn't have to worry. Jessica and I are just—friends." He stumbled over the word, knowing that their last kiss had been anything but friendly. He cleared his throat. "I didn't come by to talk about Jessica."
"So why are you here?"
"It's the Emery house. I've been thinking about that fire. I have some questions, Emma."
"Do you know how the fire started?"
She thought for a moment. "I don't think so, but I was eleven when it happened, so all I remember is everyone at school crying. And then there was that huge funeral. There must have been four hundred people there."
"I remember." He hadn't wanted to go to that funeral. He'd had some crazy idea that if he didn't go to the mass, Stacy would still be alive, but his parents had insisted they all attend. So he'd sat in the pew with his family and tried not to look at the small white casket next to the big dark one. He pushed that thought out of his mind. "Would you be able to access the records regarding that fire?"
Emma gave him a speculative look. "What do you want to know?"
"I want to know how the fire started, why Stacy's father couldn't get out."
"Why does it matter now?"
"Because it does."
"That's not an answer."
"It's all I've got. Can you help me?"
"I could look into it, but you might be able to get a quicker and more direct answer if you talk to Dad. He was on that fire, and I'm sure the department conducted a thorough investigation. Dad and Mom were good friends with Stacy's parents."
"I don't want to talk to Dad about it."
"I want the official version, not his version."
She frowned. "What does that mean? You think he'd lie to you?"
"I don't know."
"Sean, he wouldn't lie. Jack Callaway is the most honest person I know."
"How long will it take you to find the report?" he asked, changing the subject.
"It will take a little digging. It was twenty years ago."
"But you'll do it?"
She nodded. "Yes, because I'm your sister, and you've made me a little curious."
"That's always dangerous," he said with a smile. "But thanks, I appreciate it."
"I still don't know what you're hoping to find."
"I don't know either, but being in Stacy's house again brought back a lot of memories."
"Whoa! When were you in Stacy's house?"