WRAPPED IN FLAME
by Caitlyn Willows
Contemporary – Erotic Suspense Romance
Cover Artist – Scott Carpenter
Shed of the biggest mistake of her life, Erica is looking forward to starting over. Who better to help her explore her options than the man who’s been front and center in her fantasies. Mike thought hell was wanting Erica and knowing she belonged to another man. That hell was knowing the other man was a worthless son of a bitch who didn’t deserve her. Now she’s all his and he’s not wasting a single second. Nothing like being suspected of her ex’s death to destroy unfettered bliss.
Mike would to anything to keep her safe, to have her in his life now that she’s free, even if that means letting go when he wants to hang on tight. Erica’s determined to stop the monster preying on others. Giving over control isn’t so easy when you know doing so could very well cost the woman you love her life.
“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 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, 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. 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 Erica’s mood.
“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 hurt her.
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, 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 finally over.”
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 watching you—”
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 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 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.