An emotional new life-after-divorce, second chance romance—featuring a wedding planner single mum and a sexy firefighter who comes to her rescue, the very same man who caused her to swear off love years before—is out this week from Jeannine Colette, and I have the whole first chapter for you.
All I wanted was a Coke.
“Miss, you need to step aside now! This is an active scene, and you’re going to get hurt.”
I scrunch my nose at the fire captain who’s attempting to usher me away from the hotel where I’m staying … well, was staying until it was lit ablaze by a raging inferno.
My slippered feet try not to trip on the thick hose snaking from a hydrant as I follow the fire captain. Sirens blare from an ambulance rounding the corner. The deep, grumbling honk of a fire truck echoes from where a convoy of engines has descended. It’s a madhouse of a scene, and while everyone is running away from the blazing hellfire, I want to go into it.
I tap on the fire captain’s shoulder and smile as he turns around with an exasperated expression, which I ignore.
“Excuse me, sir, but if I could just get inside for one moment and grab something—”
“Are you serious?”
“Deadly,” I state with a point of my finger up toward my hotel room window, which is just below where a fireman is standing on a ladder. “My phone, computer, wallet, car keys … my clothes are all up in that room.”
“Are you a guest at the hotel?”
I look down at my attire—a plush white robe, matching slippers, and the metallic-gold ice bucket I’m holding like a teddy bear. His eyes do a double take, clearly answering his own question. My free hand clasps around the folds of my robe that are threatening to open from a gust of wind barreling down the small-town avenue. The fact that I’m not wearing underwear is plaguing me big time, yet I’m trying not to harp on that detail.
“Please,” I beg with the kindest, most pleading voice. After all, my mother always says you get more with sugar than vinegar. “Just two minutes inside. I can pop right in, grab my phone, which I’m certain is on the nightstand, and my purse, which is definitely on the desk. Oh, there’s also the box of monogrammed favors for the brunch. I need to get those too.”
Seriously, at this rate, I don’t even care about my clothes. My phone, car keys—so that I can hightail it out of here—and the favors my business partner, Melissa, made for our clients are all I need. A bra wouldn’t hurt, but in the grand scheme of things, I can forgo modesty for necessity.
“The building has been evacuated,” he yells as two firemen run toward the building, forcing me and the captain to step back. He gives me a stern warning. “Get out of here before you get yourself injured.”
His name is called, so he turns around to answer someone’s question.
Despite the breeze in the air, the heat radiating from the building is toasting my skin and doing nothing to calm the urgency inside me. I clear my throat and keep the plastered, closed-mouth smile on my face and tap on his shoulder.
He turns around, looking quite displeased. “You’re still here?”
“Perhaps I’m not explaining myself correctly. I’m a wedding planner with an event in the morning, and all of my contacts are on my phone. You’re not looking at a woman who wants to log on to social media. This is business, and it’s imperative I get into my room, which isn’t even on fire. I’m looking at it now. It’s below the smoke and barely touched by flames. I just need to slip in and get my car keys at the very least.”
No sooner are my words spoken than a loud popping sound rings out as the fireman on the ladder uses an axe to break the window to none other than my hotel room.
I let out a whimper.
“The elevators are down. The building is closed to everyone, except the Walden Fire Department.”
My desperation rises to the surface. “Maybe you can walkie one of your men and have them zip into room 519 for me. Like that man right there on the ladder—”
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Mildly,” I answer, straight-faced, because at this moment, I have no clothes, communication, way home, money, or dignity.
The breeze picks up, and my eyes widen as it threatens to lift the hem of the robe. My free arm makes a desperate attempt to keep my robe from opening around the crotch area. I must look like a deranged woman despite my failing attempt to maintain decorum.
When I checked in to the Walden Hotel, it was to have a decent night’s sleep after being on my feet all day. It wasn’t to stand outside on the windiest night of the year with nothing but an ice bucket and borrowed cotton as I watch plumes of smoke billow out the room above mine.
“There’s a waiting area set up in the restaurant across the street. Stay there. Get yourself something warm to drink.”
“Do I look like I have money on me?”
“I’m pretty sure it’s free. Call a family member.”
I take a deep, cleansing breath and pinch the bridge of my nose. “I don’t have my cell phone on me. It’s up in my room.”
“I’m sure someone will let you use their phone.”
“If it were that simple, I would have asked to use yours by now!” Another bout of wind dances in the air, kicking the flaps of my robe apart. I push the ice bucket into his arms and grip my robe with both hands.
He looks down at the bucket like I just handed him a grenade that’s about to blow. “Miss, please, you can spectate from across the street.”
“I don’t want to stand over there.”
“We need the area clear.”
“And I need to get into my room and get my things.”
“I can’t let you do that.”
“I have to.”
“Because I’m not wearing any underwear!” I yell entirely too loud, as I’m pretty sure everyone heard me over the sounds of engines roaring, water gushing, flames blazing, and people scurrying.
How is that I, Jillian Hathaway—loving mother, fierce wedding planner, friend extraordinaire, and someone who does the right thing, lives a proper life, crosses her t’s and dots her i’s, and avoids all things troublesome—have found myself in the biggest pickle of a lifetime?
I squeeze my fists and scrunch my face as I beg the universe for a solution to this nightmare of a situation.
My heart, which is already thumping a million beats per second, goes into overdrive as my name is said by a man behind me. The voice is deep and gravelly—that low, sexually charged frequency that makes the hair on your arms rise and your chest quicken.
I turn slowly, wondering who could know me in this town three hours away from my home of Greenwood Village and say my name with such potent familiarity.
Then, I see him.
Tall. Broad-shouldered. Dressed in heavy firefighter equipment, sweaty and covered in the faintest amount of soot. Despite the helmet casting a shadow on his face, I can see his eyes clear as day. They’re hypnotic, soul-searing eyes. Dark blue with sparkles of gold and tiny crinkles on the sides. They’re the kind that ooze charisma as they flirt and sizzle and make you drop your panties … if I were wearing any, that is.
My jaw falls to the pavement, and my stomach plunges as my heart lands right in the pit of my belly.
“Luke,” I utter in disbelief.
Three swoonworthy days, one sinful night, and a ghosting that could frighten a vampire. It’s been years since I saw this man, and here he is, on the streets of Walden.
“What are you doing here?” He assesses my robe, which I’m still clinging to for dear life.
“Oh. You know, just, um … work.” I swallow the lump in my throat.
He appears just as stunned to see me, and I scowl, wondering how on earth it is that, of all the firemen in all the world, the one I met over a three-day wedding and then threw myself into bed with like a whore in church is standing here. Here. In Walden. In front of the Walden Hotel as I wear nothing but a damn bathrobe with my hooha feeling the midnight breeze.
“How did you know it was me?”
He hesitates before replying, “Your auburn hair. Only woman I know with that shade of red and who pulls it back as tight as you do.”
I lift a hand to my head, as if needing to make sure it is indeed pulled back.
“Can you handle this, Incendio?” The fire captain hands Luke the ice bucket. “I need to attend to matters on the ladder. Get your friend here to remove herself before she gets trampled.”
Luke nods as his eyes remain on mine.
The captain leaves, and we’re still standing here, entirely too close to a burning building.
He’s looking at me like I’m a mirage in the desert. Since he blocked me from all forms of communication, I’d have assumed I was the last woman on earth he’d want to run into again.
To make matters worse, while I look like a wild woman, he’s all gruff and handsome with his dark, arched brows, high cheekbones, and full mouth that quirks on the side in a permanent smirk, dressed in a fireman’s uniform, looking like a wet dream.
“Jillian …” He pauses, shifting his feet as his lips purse and a deep V forms on his brow. “It’s been a long time.”
His comment is enough to snap me out of my haze.
I blink rapidly and shake my head. “Nope. We are not doing this. And by this, I mean, reminiscing. You are going to treat me like I’m the stranger you forced me to be, and we’ll pretend this meet-cute never happened.” I start to walk away and then realize the bastard owes me, so I spin on my heel and march right back and look up into his ridiculously attractive face. “Scratch that. I need you to get me into that building.”
“No chance. I won’t let you risk your life.”
“Then, risk yours.”
A small smile lifts on his face and disappears just as fast. “Why don’t you tell me what’s going on, starting with why you’re standing outside in nothing but a robe? Are you even wearing anything under that?”
I let out an unrefined growl. “I was in the lobby when the fire alarm went off.”
He lifts a brow and looks down at the ice bucket in his hands. “Naked?”
I grab the bucket from him, albeit forcefully, and clench it tight in my arms. It’s my lifeline and the only thing I own in this moment.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but I was about to get into the bath when I remembered there was a vending machine down the hall. I really, really wanted a Coke, and wouldn’t it be nice with some ice? I thought I deserved that, you know? A nice cup of ice-cold soda while taking a long soak in a bath after working an eleven-hour wedding sounded like heaven. Should have reconsidered leaving the room in just my robe, but getting dressed merely to walk down the hall was a waste of time. I’m seriously regretting my decision.”
Why I’m sharing these details with this man is beyond me. I suppose it’s easier to talk about soda and ice than tell him I was completely unprepared to see him since he had broken my heart and ruined men for me for the past five years.
“When I stepped into the hallway, the door locked behind me, and I realized I’d forgotten my room key, so I went down to the lobby to get a new one when the fire alarm rang. They wouldn’t let me back upstairs, so that’s why I’m standing in the middle of the street in nothing but a robe with an ice bucket—and I didn’t even get my darn soda!”
I want to slap the amused look off his face. I would, except my hands are busy holding on to the damn bucket and making sure I don’t flash all of Walden.
A woman in a red windbreaker walks by with a tower of plastic bags in her arms. Luke stops her and grabs one off the top of the pile. He pries the plastic off and unravels a dark blue wooly blanket, weaving it over my shoulders and wrapping me in it.
“It’s too cold for you to be standing out here.”
His kind gesture is disarming.
“I wasn’t planning on being outside, half-naked.”
“Well, there’s no way you’re getting back inside for at least a couple of hours—possibly ever. What’s your plan?”
“You speak as if there’s one to be had. I couldn’t even call someone if I had the means. I don’t have a single number memorized, except for my parents’ home phone—and trust me, they’re the last people I want to call right now. Besides, it’s after midnight, and their ringer is definitely off. My business partner, Melissa, is probably awake, but I’m so used to clicking on a name in my Contacts list that I haven’t memorized a number since the year 2004.”
He lifts a shoulder in agreement as he places a hand on my back and gently steers me away from the burning building. “Do you have anywhere to go?”
“I have a car, but my keys are upstairs. I can’t even check into a hotel if I tried. My credit card, money … everything is in my room. And while my personal needs are pretty dire right now, the absolute worst part is, I have a farewell brunch I’m hosting tomorrow and a couple who is counting on me to close out the best weekend of their lives. Now, I won’t be there because I have no clothes, no car, no money, and every contact is currently in a raging inferno.”
I would cry. I should cry. I want to cry. But I don’t.
I am not a woman who sheds tears easily. In fact, I’ve only cried three times in the last decade. The birth of my daughter. The death of my grandmother. And when Luke left me, afraid and alone on the worst day of my life.
“Incendio!” someone shouts, and Luke looks over with a nod but gives his attention back to me.
My pulse beats erratically at the concern in his gaze. It stirs something in my belly, and the thought makes me uncomfortable.
“Jillian, you can’t be outside like this. Let me take you to—”
I hold a hand up and halt that statement. “You know what? I’m good. There’s a restaurant across the street. I’m going to wait there with the other hotel guests until this blows over.”
There’s a hardness to his stare, and his brow furrows with concern. I think he wants to add more to whatever he was going to say but appears to think better of it.
Part of me would love to see him fall to his knees and grovel for the pain he put me through. Another part wishes he’d just walk away.
I look to the side because I can’t stare at him any longer. He takes the cue and fearlessly runs toward the burning building as I stare at the letters on his back and the name that I’ve thought of more times than I can count.
Turning on my toes, I spin in my wooly blanket cape and take myself and the stupid ice bucket to the restaurant across the street.
By two o’clock in the morning, most of the guests have left the restaurant. There are a few stragglers here with me, presumably displaced travelers with nowhere to go.
Apparently, Walden is so small a town that there are no vacant rooms. I know for certain that the wedding I planned and worked last night had sold out the hotel the reception took place in. The only other hotel is currently under an arson investigation. The closest motels are in neighboring towns about thirty minutes away, and a bus is on the way to bring people there.
I just want to go home.
I managed to borrow someone’s cell phone to email Melissa, letting her know what happened and the number to the restaurant. She’s clearly sleeping—rightfully so—as she hasn’t called to rescue me.
I asked a Walden police officer if I could get a ride back to Greenwood Village. Because the drive would take an officer out of duty for six hours round trip, he didn’t have anyone at the moment, but would try to send someone sometime in the morning. Taxis won’t drive that far, and I can’t even Uber without my phone.
My head is down on the table, and I’m inhaling the linen of the tablecloth, feeling rather desolate and depressed when something cold brushes up against my forearm. Startled, I bolt upright and look curiously at the offending object. I’m bone-tired and slightly delirious, so when I see a red soda can on the table, I question my sanity.
Blinking a few times, I run my hand over my eyes and confirm there’s a can of Coca-Cola on the table, then roll my head over to the man standing intimidatingly close to me.
Luke has changed his clothes, no longer in his firefighter ensemble. He’s in sweatpants and a T-shirt with his ladder number on it. Skin sooted and hair dirty and mussed up, he still looks far more put together than I feel.
My mouth opens to ask him what the hell he’s doing here, but he just stares at me … strong, commanding, imposing.
My words fail me.
Those dark blue eyes glare down at me, looking sinister and sexy at the same time. His stance is one of a man who spent the evening being heroic in a fire, and his job isn’t close to being done.
As his lips part, I swallow, wondering how on earth he could now rescue this redhead in a robe.
“Let’s go, Jillian. You’re coming with me.”