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Authors: Leslie Johnson

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BOOK: Fighting the Flames
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“I know.” They were both silent for a few moments. “I’ve been thinking about it all week.”

“You have?” That surprised her. And warmed her. And concerned her. She was leaving, end of sentence. What could he possibly be thinking about?

She had been trying to avoid letting her thoughts flow that way. Instead, she’d focused on spending every last moment she could with him before she left, making beautiful memories.

“Yes.” He adjusted his body so that they were face to face. “I want you to come home with me, Jess.”

She pulled the sheet tightly around her, as if protecting herself from the intensity of his words. “What?”

Ryan took both of her hands into his. “I’m in love with you, Jess. The thought of not waking up next to you every morning and falling asleep with you in my arms every night is killing me. Please. Move to Silver Creek with me.”

She looked into his gorgeous green eyes, her heart expanding, burst into little pieces. It would be so easy to throw her arms around him and say yes, but they’d agreed from the beginning that this was nothing more than a summer fling. They’d been living in a bubble, away from real life and the day-to-day grind that reality presented. There were no doubts that she loved him. She’d loved him from the moment they’d shared their first kiss. No man had ever made her feel like Ryan did and she wasn’t sure how to handle it. It terrified her and she didn’t trust it… or herself.

“Jess?”

“It’s just so sudden.” Her mind and her heart were in a tug of war. She wanted to be with Ryan, but there were loose ends at home she had to deal with; namely Derrick and his marriage proposal, which she had conveniently forgotten to tell Ryan about.

“Maybe, but you can’t tell me it doesn’t feel right.”

“No, I can’t.” She shook her head. “Everything with you feels right.”

He grinned that sexy boyish grin that she’d never been able to resist. He raised her hand to his lips and asked, “So, is that a yes?”

Head or heart? Both were screaming at her… encouraging her, judging her, criticizing her and reminding her of the past. As she processed through all the right and wrong reasons, her heart won out and she simply said, “Yes.”

****

Jessie tossed and turned, trying to find sleep but it wasn’t coming. Tomorrow she would leave with Ryan. Tomorrow she would move to a new town and start a new life with a man she was hopelessly in love with, a man who, for all practical purposes, she knew almost nothing about. Her mind was racing. She always thought she’d been a good judge of character, but after what happened with Derrick and her so-called friend, she wasn’t so sure anymore. She would never have suspected them of being so deceitful and her inability to pick up on the affair left her filled with self-doubt. How could she be sure Ryan was any different? And what about her dad? She didn’t even want to go there!

But then, who was she to judge? What about her deceit, she thought, the guilt tying her stomach in knots. Ryan had no idea Derrick even existed. What would he do when he found out? How could he trust
her
again? The questions kept tumbling around in her head.

Who was she kidding? She couldn’t go with him.

Throwing the covers off, she got out of bed and quickly dressed. Her stuff was already packed and in her car. The plan was to leave first thing tomorrow morning. What was she thinking? She’d only know this man for a couple of months and now she was willing to uproot her entire life, surrender her independence and follow him anywhere?

Panic sent a rush of adrenaline through her veins. She’d done that once, trusted her life to another and had her heart pulled out of her chest as a result.

Not again.

No matter how she felt about him, she just couldn’t place her future in the hands of another man. There were too many unknowns, too many unanswered questions. Her heart was already breaking with what she was about to do. But it was on her terms. She couldn’t risk her heart any more than she already had.

Jessie kneeled on the bed and gave Ryan’s cheek a kiss. Tears burned her eyes as she pulled a folded piece of paper from the bedside stand and placed it on her pillow. “I’m sorry, Ryan,” she whispered. “Please forgive me.” She tiptoed out of the house, got in her car, and drove away.

Chapter 1

P
RESENT DAY...

Jessie sat in the back of an ambulance, oxygen mask on her face, and watched helplessly as flames engulfed her house and everything in it. It was surreal to watch everything she owned burn to the ground—every piece of clothing, every photograph, every book, all of her furniture—everything—including her great grandmother’s bureau that had been in the family longer than she’d been alive. Her entire life had been reduced to a pile of smoldering black rubbish. Her face crumbled with that thought and her shocked outer shell finally cracked. Tears streamed down her face and she didn’t even try to hide them. What was the point? If she wasn’t allowed to cry now, in the face of almost dying, being homeless, and without a single possession, then the entire world could kiss her ass.

She took a deep breath, choked on a sob, and began to laugh. Not more than a week ago, Jessie was considering moving to a new town, starting over where no one knew her, where she could pursue her love of photography and not be teased by her family for “chasing a dream that would land her in the poor house.” She’d been torn on the decision. It wouldn’t be easy to leave her family, her job, her home, but the urge to move on was so strong. She’d prayed for a sign, a signal of what to do. Never in a million years had she expected God to give her such a blaring sign—a burning bush, so to speak. Staring at the chaos around her, it appeared as though her decision had been made for her.

“How are you, Jessie?” Bill asked.

She removed the oxygen mask, looked up at her landlord, and smiled feebly. “It could be worse, I suppose.” Jessie had been fighting off a rather persistent cold over the past couple of weeks. The Nyquil she’d taken before bed had knocked her out cold, and she hadn’t heard the smoke alarm go off. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the sounds of the sirens in front of her house, and the fireman beating down the door to rescue her, she would’ve burned to death along with everything she owned. So, yes, things definitely could’ve been much worse.

“You’re lucky nosey Miss Philips called the fire department.”

“I’ll be sure to thank her.” Jessie looked around at the chaos and wondered which of the two dozen firemen had been responsible for saving her life. She wanted to thank him.

“Do you have someplace you can go for the night?”

Jessie nodded. “I’ll go to my sister’s house. She’ll be happy to let me stay there until I find another place to rent.”

“My brother-in-law, Jim, has some rental property nearby. Just over in Bowen County, Silver Creek area.”

“That’s perfect. Thank you, Bill.” Silver Creek was just a few miles up the road from where she currently lived. Not exactly the clean slate she was looking for, but it was a start.

Bill smiled. “Good, good. I’ll transfer your security deposit over to him, if you’d like. One less thing you have to worry about. Come by the house tomorrow and I’ll give you his number and directions.”

“Thanks.” As far as landlords went, Bill was a good one, and she’d miss renting from him. Jessie sighed. “Oh, hey, excuse me.” She motioned for the passing fireman. “Do you know who pulled me out of the house?”

“That man over there.” He pointed to a very tall fireman standing near her mailbox, talking with a police officer.

Jessie shrugged off the blanket wrapped around her shoulders, hopped out of the ambulance, and made her way toward him. “Excuse me, sir?” The fireman turned to look at her and she nearly fainted from the shock. Those piercing green eyes, strong jaw that softened only when he smiled, and the fullest lips she’d ever seen on a man—there was no way she’d ever forget him. Ryan James. She hadn’t seen him in over three years, but she was positive it was him.

“Can I help you with something? How are you feeling?” he asked.

The sound of his voice sent shivers down her spine and erupted into a flood of memories—hot summer nights spent skinny dipping, making love beneath the stars, sharing their passion, their bodies melding together so perfectly…

“Ma’am, are you okay?”

Jessie blinked several times, trying to compose herself. “Yeah.” The way he spoke... didn’t he remember her? “I, uh, I was told you’re the one who pulled me out of the house.”

“Yes, that’s correct.”

“Well, I just wanted to say thanks. Thank you for saving me.” She went to tuck her hands into her pockets when she realized she was dressed in a flimsy silk nightgown and nothing else. Her face flushed with warmth.
Oh my god, how mortifying!
Worse, the sight of him, the sound of his voice, had caused her nipples to harden and her panties dampen. She crossed her arms over her chest in a feeble attempt to cover herself.

Ryan nodded. “You’re very welcome.” He emphasized the word ‘very’ and for a moment Jessie wondered if he did remember her, especially considering the way his gaze raked over her body.

She smiled and walked away. Well, that was awkward, she thought as she retrieved the blanket from the ambulance and wrapped it around her. What were the chances? Of all the people in the world she could’ve run into, it had to be him. God, he looked so much better than she remembered. It broke her heart to think he didn’t remember her. After the summer they’d spent together, how could he have forgotten? Of course, it’s not like she could really blame him. She’d broken his heart.
I’d want to forget me too, she thought.

It’s for the best, she told herself. By now, he probably had a gorgeous wife, a couple of beautiful children, and a perfect house. Did she really want to go down memory lane? Dredge up those emotions and unanswered questions? The guilt. She was still trying to figure out who she was—she didn’t need to complicate it further by waxing nostalgic about their summer romance or continue to second guess the decision she had made.

She sighed and pulled the blanket tighter around her. All she wanted to do was get out of here and curl up in a nice warm bed. Her cell phone had been in the house, which meant she didn’t have a way to call her sister. Well, that was just perfect. She looked around to see if she could find her landlord anywhere. Surely he’d have a cell phone she could use. He was nowhere to be found. Jessie didn’t want to have to ask Miss Philips. That woman loved to talk, bless her nosey little heart, and Jessie didn’t want to get stuck in an elongated conversation with her.

“Looking for someone?” Ryan’s voice interrupted her thoughts.

His mere presence had her heart racing and her body heating up to an unmanageable level. She looked at him. He was leaning against the corner of the ambulance, arms crossed over his chest, and a smile she’d dreamed about more than she cared to admit. “I was looking for my landlord so I can borrow his phone.” Ryan remained silent. “I have to call my sister and my cell phone was in the house.”

Without a word he reached into his suit and pulled out his cell. He handed it to her, but when she took it, he tightened his grip. Their gazes locked, and in that instant, she knew. “You do remember,” she whispered. Everything they’d ever felt for each other re-ignited, blazing hotter than the fire that had just consumed her house.

He leaned closer to her. “You’re as beautiful as ever, Jess.”

She inhaled sharply. He was the only one to ever call her Jess. “So are you,” she breathed, her voice barely over a whisper. Good grief, could she have said anything dumber? Ryan smiled and her heart melted. He still had that effect on her, which wasn’t a good thing.

“Hey! Ryan!” someone shouted from across the yard.

Ryan straightened. “Call whoever you need to. I’ll be right back.”

Jessie blew out the breath she’d been holding. Holy hell! That man was dangerous to her good sense. Her hand shook as she dialed her sister’s number. She had to get out of here fast, before she fell back into the bad habits she only seemed to have when Ryan was around.

Chapter 2

R
yan woke with a start. He glanced at the bedside clock and muttered a curse. Who the hell was banging on his door on his day off? Normally it wouldn’t bother him as he was a morning person, but he hadn’t slept a wink the past several nights. His mind had wandered with thoughts of Jess. He must’ve relived every single memory he had of that summer three years ago, including the not-so-pleasant ones. Ryan got out of bed, pulled on a pair of jeans, and rubbed his eyes as he made his way to the door. “Jim?”

“Sorry to wake you, Ryan. I thought you’d be up by now.”

“Yeah, it’s okay,” Ryan assured him, running and hand over his morning scruff. “Haven’t been sleeping well lately. Didn’t realize it was nearly ten. What’s up?”

“I was wondering if you could help me out with something.”

“Come in.” Ryan stepped aside so Jim could enter. “Coffee?”

“Please.”

It wasn’t odd that Jim had shown up at Ryan’s place, they were friends after all. Ryan filled a pot of coffee, yawning as he poured the water into the coffeemaker and turned it on. “So, what’s up?”

“I have a new tenant moving in next door and she needs some help getting her stuff in. She’s down on her luck. No job, no house, family can’t help, something about her sister’s kids.”

Ryan stifled a groan. Helping a total stranger was not how he wanted to spend his day off, but he really couldn’t tell Jim no. “You and your charity cases.” Ryan laughed. “She doesn’t have a boyfriend or husband to help her?”

“No, and she’s not a charity case. She lost everything in a fire. Surely you can sympathize with that.”

Ryan’s thoughts immediately jumped to Jess but he quickly dismissed the idea. What were the odds of that happening? Still, the ‘what ifs’ rumbled through his brain.

He shook his head. “Fine, I’ll help.” He gathered two mugs from the dish drainer and filled them with coffee. Handing one to Jim, he said, “We’re even after this though.”

“Deal.” Jim smiled.

“When will she be here?” Ryan blew on his coffee before taking a sip. It didn’t help. He still managed to burn his tongue on the hot liquid.

BOOK: Fighting the Flames
2.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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