“Let’s face it, Erica.
I didn’t marry you for your looks.”
She stopped in her tracks. No, he hadn’t. That had been
pretty clear very early in their marriage. Keith was after her money, not her
looks, and not even her. She didn’t have a fortune. What she did have, 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
would notice the separate bedrooms. Hadn’t Trish Delaney even drawn her aside
and asked her, more than once, 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 back her
up. If she’d told Trish money was an issue, the crew would have bent over
backward to see she had it. Erica couldn’t let that happen. This was her mess.
Hers 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. Oh, they’d eventually
find out, 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, but…
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. The
firefighter family was hers for now. All it would take was a call to any one of
them, 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 was 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 did. 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, and 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 Delaney
“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. It 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 head out 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 call back and argue with her.
Hell, 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 unpack some of her stuff. 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 her.
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
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 frozen by the closet, her
body alive and fully aware this was a real man in front of her.
“I…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?” Fingers coiled into loose fists
at Mike’s sides promised retribution if he 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 rushed his face, then
disappeared. He shrugged off the lapse and advanced again, slow, determined,
until only inches separated them. She stared into his eyes, shaken by the
unmistakable fire blazing there. Indignation over her circumstances, or
“Good, because if he did, I’d have to hurt him.”
Erica managed a little laugh. “You wouldn’t have to. I could
hurt him myself.”
“So you could.” His semblance of a smile didn’t quite make
it. “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. Oh, how 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 back on her feet.
“He robbed me blind. It’s taken me time to recover enough money so that I could
leave him. I knew he’d never move out.”
“You know any of us would have helped you out.”
“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. The only reason we
tolerate him now is because of 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
Erica could hear Berto. “What the fuck’s up with that, man?”
“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. Her
hands came to rest on his hard chest while he slipped one hand around her
waist. Long, thick fingers coiled around her neck, cradling it, drawing her
“I know you had to live it, but we had to watch it. You have
no idea how frustrating it was for us to not interfere. It’s been hell watching
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 his neck.
“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 even 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 clear 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.
One hand slipped to her lower back. There was the barest
hint of pressure there, trying to pull her even closer than they already were.
She felt the hardness between them. Hot and unmistakable.
She swallowed, her throat gone dry. Make a move or ignore
it? A mistake now risked ruining their friendship. Erica couldn’t bear that.
She left control in his hands, let him make the next move.
So why didn’t he make it? Her hopes fell. Because the
erection pulsing between them meant nothing. Guys got hard-ons
all the time for all manner of reasons. This was no different. She didn’t
expect that knowledge to hurt as badly as it did.
“Let’s face it, Erica.
I didn’t marry you for your looks.”
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 possibly 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.