“Let’s face it, Erica. I didn’t marry you for your
She stopped in her tracks. No, he hadn’t. That had been clear
very early in their marriage, hurling those words at her. Keith had been after
her money, not her looks, and not even her. She didn’t have a fortune. She’d
worked for every dime, saved pennies, cut corners. Then she’d married him,
trusted him, and lost everything in less than six months. Pride had kept her
from sharing the outcome of her folly with anyone. Brave face and all that. But
the rift between her and Keith was apparent. Anyone who came to their house
noticed the separate bedrooms. Trish Delaney had drawn her aside more than
once, asking why she didn’t dump his ass. Erica couldn’t tell her how close
Keith’s spending had put them toward bankruptcy, how she barely had enough to
pay the bills he’d racked up. She couldn’t lie either and say she loved the
guy. She didn’t. Looking back, she never had. She’d done this to herself, and
it’d been up to her to fix it.
A clean exit needed precise planning and money to survive
afterward. If she’d told Trish money was an issue, the crew would have done everything
possible to see she had it. Erica couldn’t let that happen. This was her mess
to solve. She’d scrimped and saved until the moment was right. Then fate had
stepped in with a whopper of a surprise. If Keith ever found out…
Erica shook her head. She’d keep that little secret close to
her chest, even from her nearest and dearest friends. They’d eventually learn
about it, but by then Keith would be history. Actually, him filing for divorce
was perfect. He couldn’t accuse her of pulling a fast one. Well, he could,
One problem at a time.
Erica pulled in a much-needed breath and scrolled through
the numbers on her cell phone while she paced the empty living room. All it
would take was a call to any one of the firefighters, and she’d have all the
help she needed to move tomorrow.
Her heart skipped a beat when she came to Mike Barnard’s
number—the other reason she knew her marriage to Keith had been a mistake. The
man made her blood sizzle in ways she couldn’t describe. She’d met him when
she’d met the rest of Keith’s crew. Something had kept drawing her and Mike
together that night, like magnets. She should have known, should have realized.
Keith proposed that very night after everyone left. Almost as if he felt
threatened. Maybe he had. After all, he had an agenda of his own—her money.
Erica shook the memory away. Mike still did things to her
that she’d never believed possible, yet he never once crossed the line beyond
friendship. Neither had she. He was her friend. If truth be told, her best
friend. Logic decreed he be the one she called now. She called Trish instead.
“Hey, you. What’s up?” Trish’s bubbly greeting bolstered
“I could use a little muscle tomorrow, moving my things from
the house into my new place.”
“Woo-hoo! You finally did it! You left the son of a bitch.”
Erica managed a small laugh. “Yeah, all about the planning.
Unfortunately, things didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped.” She gave Trish the
rundown of events.
“Bastard. The guys’ll go over there right now—”
“No. I don’t want any trouble.” Nothing could risk her
bigger plan. “Keith’s spoiling for a fight. Them going over there won’t go
well. He’s on-shift tomorrow. That will be the better time.”
Trish huffed. “Where are you now?”
“In my new place.” Erica gave her the address. “I was
getting ready to go for pizza and to find a motel room for the night.”
“Screw that. We’re coming to get you.” Trish disconnected
without waiting for a response.
Erica didn’t have the energy to argue with her—suddenly she
wasn’t sure she had the energy to move. The luggage in her car disagreed. She
had at least fifteen minutes before Trish showed up. Time she could use to start
unpacking. An overnight bag would suffice for her stay with the Delaneys.
Anger and adrenaline had helped her carry the suitcases to
her car. All Erica had going for her this time was determination, because those
suckers were heavy as hell. She wouldn’t put it past Keith to have packed them
with rocks. Relief sagged through her when she opened one up and found
clothing, complete with hangers. It looked as if he’d grabbed everything from
her closet and dumped it in. Fine by me. She discovered a similar
disarray in the other three suitcases. She did a quick inventory and found all
her clothing and personal effects accounted for. At least he’d done something
right. Maybe things weren’t going to be so bad after all.
Her breath caught at the sound of Mike’s voice echoing
through the empty house. Nerves quivered along the surface of her skin.
“I’m in the bedroom. Be right—”
His body filled the doorway before she could finish the
sentence. Damn, but he looked fine. His deep-blue eyes settled on her face. At
six-four, he made Erica’s five-ten feel petite. It was one of the things she’d
liked about him, one of many. Too many. She stood by the closet, her
body alive and fully aware this was a real man in front of her. A man she
wanted more than she could say.
“I was expecting Trish.”
“She called.” A slow step brought him nearer. “I came right
away.” Another step. “Is everything here?” He motioned to the bags. “Clothes,
personals, papers, jewelry?”
“Clothes and personals, yes. My valuables are in a
safe-deposit box Keith can’t access. I always carry my laptop in the car.”
“Did he hurt you? Hit you?” Mike coiled his fingers coiled
into loose fists at his sides, an act that promised retribution if Keith had
Erica shook her head. “No. You can put the guns away.” She pointed
to his fists.
Mike glanced down. The hint of a flush swept his face, then
disappeared. He shrugged and advanced again, slow, determined, until mere
inches separated them. She stared into his eyes, shaken by the unmistakable
fire blazing there. Indignation over her circumstances, or something more?
“Good, because if he did, I would hurt him.”
Erica managed a little laugh. “You wouldn’t have to. I could
hurt him myself.”
“So you could.” His grin washed over her. “But still, he’s a
sneaky little bastard.”
“Tell me about it.”
“He’s hurt you here.” He pressed the pads of his fingers
above her heart, right at the curve of her breast. She wanted to push it into
his palm, feel his grip mold around it.
“He definitely shook what little faith I had in him, disappointed
me, but my heart was never his to break. If I’m heartbroken at all, it’s
because I failed to trust my instincts in the first place and married him
anyway. It was wrong from the start and only got worse.”
“Did I stay with him so long?” A year of her life wasted.
There was no harm telling the truth now. She was financially on her feet again.
“He robbed me blind. It’s taken me time to recover enough money so that I could
leave. I knew he’d never leave or vacate the house.”
“You know any of us would have helped you.”
“My mess. My marriage, such as it was. I retook control I
never should have relinquished and worked it out. No sense dragging the rest of
you into it. I didn’t want you to have to choose sides.”
“We did that the minute we met you. There isn’t one of us
who wouldn’t go to the mat for you, Erica.”
He said that now, and Erica knew he meant every word, but…
“You still have to work with the guy.”
His scowl darkened the room. “Don’t remind me. I do my best
to make sure we’re not on the same shift. He’s lazy, incompetent, and those are
his good qualities. He has no friends at the station. You aren’t the
only one he’s screwed.”
“Well, technically speaking, he hasn’t been screwing me.” It
was important Mike know that.
There was a hitch in his breath. “Yeah, we’ve noticed the
his-and-her rooms. Berto cornered him on that one day.”
Erica could hear Berto. “What the fuck’s up with that,
“Apparently, I snore,” she said. “Or his hours make it
easier for him to sleep without me dashing all over the place. Or I twist the
covers. Or my body’s too hot.” She lifted her palms. “It was fine with me
because at that point the last thing I wanted was him anywhere near me.”
“Keith is an ass. Always was, always will be. I’m glad it’s
Mike closed that last bit of distance between them. She
rested her hands on the plane of his sculpted chest while he slipped one hand
around her waist. Eyes on hers, he slipped his long fingers behind her neck,
cradling it, drawing her near.
“I know you had to live it, but we had to watch it. You have
no idea how frustrating that was for us to not interfere. It’s been hell
He pressed his lips together, rolling them, moistening them,
tempting her with a taste. What would he do if she stretched up on her toes and
kissed him? There’d never been a hint her attraction to him was reciprocated.
He’d never crossed a line, never made a pass, never treated her any differently
than anyone else. But then, she’d been taken. Now she wasn’t.
Mike cupped her head and drew it to his shoulder. “Someone
needs a hug.”
“You or me?” She slipped her arms around him.
“Both of us?”
Mike did like his hugs. He was always tossing them around.
Granted, he never gave hugs this close, but this circumstance was unique. Erica
was glad she hadn’t tried to sneak a kiss. She felt silly thinking he’d want
her. A man this yummy had his pick of the crop. Women were always trying to
cozy up to him. Beautiful women. She’d envied every one of them when he’d cast
that dazzling smile in their direction. A smile that promised a night they’d
never forget. She’d wanted to draw them aside afterward for a blow-by-blow
account. Nothing like living vicariously. But Mike was careful to keep
his relationships away from the crew. Few were allowed within the family,
as they were called. He never spoke of them either. “Real men don’t need to
kiss and tell.” How many times had she heard him say that? And there was no
doubt Mike Barnard was a real man.
He slipped his hand her lumbar. There was the barest hint of
pressure there, as if he were trying to pull her even closer than they already
were. She felt the hardness between them—hot and unmistakable.
She swallowed. Her throat had gone dry. Make a move or
ignore it? A mistake now risked ruining their friendship. Erica couldn’t bear
that. She’d leave control in his hands, let him make the next move.
Why didn’t he make it?
Her hopes fell. The erection pulsing between them meant
nothing. Guys got hard-ons all the time for all manner of reasons. This was no
different. She hadn’t expected that knowledge to hurt as badly as it did.
“Let’s face it, Erica. I didn’t marry you for your
That knife thrust to the heart again, similar to words her
own family had uttered time and again. Too tall, too big, too opinionated,
too…everything that could be wrong with a person. And she had the nerve to
think a man like Mike would want her? She was buddy material, not mating
material. How many men had told her that since college?
Tears welled up. She tried her best to fight them. The hurt
was too much. Words slashed at her heart. The fantasy she’d carried with her
crumbled to ashes around it.
“Oh, sweetheart, it’s okay.” Mike rubbed his big hands over
her back. “I’ve got you.”
How she wished that were true.