Christina Hovland is kicking off a brand new series this week, and I have the whole first chapter for you from the first book in the series—a swoony, single parent, forced proximity romance.
This fire? Not her fault.
Well, mostly not her fault.
Fine, a little bit not her fault.
Sonofabitch, it was totally her fault.
Her fault for always saying yes. Her fault for marrying the wrong man. Her fault for divorcing him. Her fault for thinking she deserved an orgasm to celebrate closing the loan on her new home in her new life. A life where she did not plan to blend in with the curtains anymore. A life where she planned to stand up and shout, “I’m Emmaline!”
But now, flames licked up the inside of the dumpster as though they were starving and the metal came coated in chocolate syrup.
She sighed. Mostly, the fire was her fault for purchasing a knock-off-brand battery-operated-boyfriend that began smoking before things even got good.
Here’s the thing: she was the daughter of a firefighter. He had lectured her about how fires start. Never once—not once!—had Dad mentioned the peril of knock-off vibrators.
She should’ve gone brand name.
Emmaline Eaton learned this lesson in the hardest of hard ways.
Light the neighborhood dumpster on fire the first night in her new home in Denver? Check that box right off the list. She was officially the worst at all things decision-making related.
This was not the way she’d planned to make herself stand out.
The neighborhood stayed quiet this close to midnight, and no one was around. Small blessings and all that. The thin mountain air of Denver’s summer was sure feeling thick right about then—and not because of the burning garbage fumes, either.
When the “thing” started smoking, she’d panicked. Tossed that pretend lump of a man right in the trash and took that bag to the neighborhood dumpster.
Em had considered putting out the flames quickly, but she couldn’t risk anyone digging through the trash to figure out what had started this mess. She’d briefly hoped that maybe no one would connect the dots on this one. They’d find the who-dittily-do and have no idea where it came from.
But then she’d remembered the mail with her name that she’d tossed out in the same bag. So it made lots of sense to just let it burn for a minute. Not too long. Just long enough to destroy the evidence.
Burn, baby, burn.
The neighborhood HOA had the foresight to place the dumpster way off at the end of the cul-de-sac with nothing in the direct vicinity but some soaked grass from the sprinklers. Nothing flammable close by—other than the contents. Contents that needed to burn, burn, burn.
Not to worry, she had a plan to eventually put out the fire where Bob was burning. Bob being the name she’d given her battery-operated boyfriend when she still had hope for his usefulness. Being a responsible adult, she had a fire extinguisher and a hose with her—she’d even turned on the water at the spigot nearby before she came to battle the flames, something Bob couldn’t do. Turn her on, that is. She could just get a Roomba and name him Bob. Then she’d at least get clean floors.
Next time she bought herself a vibrator, it’d be top of the line, and she’d name it Banks or something even more unique. Something creative.
She used to be creative, but that was before the divorce. Before the marriage, really.
Definitely before the current dumpster fire.
“Mom?” Fiona, her nine-year-old daughter, called from the porch of their new home. Oh geez, she had apparently woken up.
“I’m here, babycakes,” Em replied, not as loud as her daughter, but with enough volume to be heard through the distance that stretched between them.
“Why are you outside?” Fiona asked, sleep still present in her voice.
“Taking out the trash.”
“Why’s it on fire?” Fiona asked, like this was totally normal and not that big of a deal.
Which was good because it wasn’t that big of a deal.
“Everything’s fine, baby,” Em whisper-yelled down the street. She didn’t want to wake the neighbors. You know? “Go back inside. I’ll be right there.”
She would be once she dealt with this whole situation successfully.
Now was the time to stand tall and deal with things. She was going to deal-the-shit out of this situation. Yes, she stood taller. She was not the Em of yesterday who let the world roll right over her. No, she was doing this life thing right and not hiding anymore.
This was her fault. Look at her owning it. Owning all her mistakes.
“Should I call 9-1-1?” Fiona yelled back. “Grandpa always says to dial 9-1-1 if there’s a fire.”
“No, babycakes, this is like a campfire. We can sing songs and roast marshmallows next time I take out the trash.” Lying to her kid? She shouldn’t do that.
“Are you going to use the hose soon?” Fiona yelled again, but at least she stayed at the front door. “Or should I find marshmallows?”
“I’ll be right back inside soon,” Em assured her. “See if you can find the marshmallows I bought at the store.”
Please, dear goodness, go inside.
Blessedly, with the promise of midnight marshmallows, her daughter went inside.
Deep breaths, Em. Deep. Breaths.
She hopped from foot to foot like she was a boxer getting ready for the ring instead of a new homeowner ready to put out a fire at precisely the correct moment.
“Oi! The fire brigade is on the way,” a man yelled from up the street.
Hopefully, that fire crew would not include her dad.
Dear God, let it not be my dad. It couldn’t be her dad. The universe wouldn’t figuratively screw her that hard.
Would fessing up to the situation be an admission of guilt? She should probably talk to an attorney before she made another mistake. Did divorce attorneys handle accidental arson via vibrator?
She should google the melting point of silicone. That’s what she should do. She had a few minutes of time. The average response to this neighborhood was three minutes and twenty-seconds. See? She knew her Denver fire trivia.
“Grab a hose, mate,” the guy hollered from down the road.
Was that an accent he had? Sounded sort of British. But not British.
A bit like those Hemsworth boys—the Chris and Liam guys.
“I have a hose,” she yelled back.
The hose she was prepared to use once the garbage was good and destroyed. Not one moment before.
“Then use it,” the man yelled, coming closer.
Nuh uh. Not yet.
“Why aren’t you using it?” the man asked, breathless from sprinting up the street and getting closer by the second.
Oh hey, he was a cutie pie.
“Use it,” he hollered again.
She pointed the fire extinguisher at the flames like the good little firefighter’s daughter she wished she was, and let it rip.
Well, hey now, this was actually pretty damn fun. Fire extinguishers were powerful.
She got it. Got why her dad and her brothers all enjoyed this. Heck, maybe she should set vibrator fires more often.
The flames died down thanks to the water and white powder burst. She double fisted it, the hose in one hand, extinguisher in the other. Even she wasn’t sure how she managed, but it involved her shoulder, some creative movement with her hand, and a bunch of badassery.
She let the hose work on the residual licks of heat as the wailing siren of a fire truck came closer.
“Y’okay?” the Australian accent guy asked, a touch breathy.
She looked at him and really wished she wasn’t wearing her Peppa Pig pajamas. The ones that matched her daughter’s jammies, which they both thought were super cute.
Because, ooooh, this guy was a good-looking one.
He was handsome, and she was single. She glanced at his left hand. No ring.
Bad. Bad Em. Focus on the issue at hand, not on the cutie pie.
Still, she couldn’t deny that this guy was a looker. Messy blond hair, dear-God-blue-eyes, and that freaking accent women all over the country wanted to tuck into a Sprite bottle and savor. He wore a white tank top that stretched tight across some nice muscles, with steamy swirls of tattoo ink all the way down his arms—though he wasn’t a gym rat. Pajama pants slung low on his hips, but she didn’t glance down past his waist because, about the time the flames started, she’d given up on sex in all forms.
“I’ll have a go.” He grabbed the hose. “Let me take it a tick.”
She let him. Mostly because he said it so cute with that accent of his and she was reconsidering her no sex manifesto.
“What a freaking disaster.” She rubbed between her eyebrows with her fingertips while he finished up with the flames. “I’ll never live this down.”
Even if it wasn’t her dad who came on the fire truck, he’d hear about it and then the holidays would never be the same. Thankfully, her brothers didn’t work at the fire station for her neighborhood. Yep, that’d been the requirement she gave the real estate agent when she’d begun her search.
This wasn’t her dad’s usual station, either.
Also, a requirement. But he floated between stations as one of the Division Chiefs so one could never really know.
“Ya did this?” Hot Blond Guy asked, still spraying the water into the dumpster even though the flames were gone.
She nodded. Willed her pulse to calm down a little. “Not on purpose.”
“I’ve started a load of fires,” he said, still spraying away. “Never intentional, either.”
This was sweet—the whole hey-I-also-start-fires schtick. And the way he said never like nev-ah. Freaking adorbs.
Wait a second. Was he flirting with her?
She slipped her glance to him and, oh yeah. He was checking her out.
Her cheeks heated at the blatant perusal.
“I’m sorry to interrupt your night,” she said it, she meant it. Now what were the odds she could convince him never to say anything, ever, about what happened at the dumpster tonight?
“You should probably go back to your girlfriend.” Was she fishing for personal details? Yes, yes, she was.
“No girlfriend, I’m afraid.” His grin could’ve melted those piggy jammies right off her body. “Not at the moment.”
The way he said that? Implied…oh, she’d been out of the dating game for a helluva long time, but even she remembered how it felt to do this dance with a new potential someone special.
This guy probably stole the show wherever he went.
Why did he have to be cute? Why couldn’t he be mediocre? Then she could totally flirt right on back.
Sirens up the street wailed, and her face heated. They were coming for her.
“Oh my God, this is going to be so bad.” She took in a deep breath of air.
“Nah, don’t let it get to you. It’ll all be okay. Fire’s out.”
She shook her head. “No, I…just… I’m something of fire department royalty in Denver.”
He looked at her like she’d lit the entire street on fire. Not just the dumpster. “You’re what? Like a flames princess?”
“My family. They’re all firefighters. This has the potential to be very…familial.”
“And you keep ’em in business, eh?” he asked with a tilted grin fit for the handsomest of handsome cartoon heroes.
She sighed internally but kept her expression neutral. At least she hoped it stayed neutral.
“Not usually. Just moved back.” She slid her gaze to her petite house that was perfect for her little family. “But I’m still never going to live this down.”
“Gotcha,” he said. “Family trouble is special trouble.”
While that nugget settled between them, things got busy super quick as the fire crew arrived to do their thing, even though the fire was already out. Seriously. Why they needed to hoist around those gigantic axe things? She didn’t know.
Thankfully, her dad was not among the crew.
Unfortunately, her oldest brother—James—stepped from the truck with a big ol’ axe.
Damn. Damn. Dammit. Damn.
The other firefighters sallied forth, but James paused when he glimpsed Emmaline. Then he frowned.
“Uncle James!” Fiona shouted, marshmallows in hand, running toward them in her matching Peppa Pig pajamas.
“Fiona?” he asked, his face screwing up with many questions and a heaping dash of happy-to-see-her. “What are you doing up so late?”
“Bringing the marshmallows for the fire,” Fiona responded, eyes bright, holding up the big ol’ bag of marshmallows. Then she took in the lack of flames and her expression fell.
“Fire’s out,” Em said, refusing to look at anyone but her daughter. “Head on home and we’ll have marshmallows when I get back.” They could roast them over a candle or something.
Though, that might not be the best idea. One fire a night already seemed like too much.
James evidenced this by clearing his throat. “I’d like a post-fire marshmallow, Fi. If you’re handing them out.”
“Yay.” Fiona grinned, pulling open the bag and handing one to her uncle. He went over the top taking it from her fingers and making ridiculous nom-nom noises.
Then, without even checking with Em, he handed Fiona one and she also made nom-nom noises while she ate it. Hers were, however, way cuter than his.
“Go on home now?” he asked Fiona with a wink.
Fiona nodded, and Em scowled while ensuring Fiona made it back to the house, the marshmallow bag swinging in her little hand.
“You can have two more before I get there,” Em said before Fiona went inside, loud enough for her daughter to hear. And not only because she was trying to one-up James, but also because Fiona was a good kid and a couple of marshmallows would be fine.
Unless she lit the house on fire roasting them…
“Em?” James asked in that big brother’s voice that was not awesome.
She glowered at him. “What are you doing here, anyway?”
He glanced at the smoldering dumpster, eyebrows raised. “This is my literal job.”
“I mean here.” She pointed to the asphalt. “This isn’t your station,” she clarified.
He shook his head like he always did when he didn’t want to answer her. An outright, not-worth-the-time dismissal.
She may as well have disappeared into the dark of night. Unnecessary, and all—
“Em, tell me you did not start this,” James said, with substantially more criticism in his tone than was entirely necessary.
Oh, now he looked at her like she existed.
“Knock it off, James.” His assumption got her hackles raised right up. “It’s not like I’m a serial arsonist.”
“It’s only happened a few times,” she assured.
Yes, she accidentally lit fires, and all of those times she’d been much younger. Not one of them involved sex toys.
James made wide eyes at her. “A few times? That’s not giving you full credit. Should I go through them all?”
“Only if you want to get kicked in the nuts by your sister,” Em countered.
“Not her fault, mate,” Hot Blond Guy said with that really yummy accent. He pointed to himself. “My bad.”
Was Hot Blond Guy seriously taking responsibility?
“Your bad?” James raised his eyebrows toward the guy.
“Yeah, the fire’s my bad.” Hot Blond Guy lifted his hand. “Name’s Ethan.”
Yes, yes, he did take responsibility. Em’s mouth fell open the slightest bit.
Okay, so, whoa. Coming to her rescue made him even sexier. Too bad he was so handsome, and probably super good at upstaging everyone in his vicinity.
“Ethan,” James confirmed, shaking the wonderful man’s hand.
She was going to make Ethan Rice Krispies Treats—her personal specialty. James, however, had practically called her a serial arsonist, so he was getting MiraLAX in his treats. Don’t eat the ones with the pink wrappers! Ha.
James did that thing again. The one where he seemed to forget she existed because his entire focus turned to Ethan. Yeah, this was the problem with charisma-soaked hotties.
“James,” one of the other firefighter guys called. “Check this out.”
As her brother walked away, she seriously hoped they found a crapload of drugs that would distract everyone from the real culprit.