FLAMES FROM ASHES
by Caitlyn Willows
Contemporary – Erotic Suspense Romance
Cover Artist – Scott Carpenter
Sandy knew from the second she laid eyes on Clint from across a crowded bar that he was the man for her. It didn’t take her long to realize that he was a keeper—a really great guy. It’s a fact he reaffirms with every second they are together. He’s there when she needs him most, holding her against the fears that plague her, loving her until they are too exhausted to move.
Sandy’s his gift for finally getting his life in order. Clint’s the one who keeps her calm, safe, and settled. Admittedly, both come with baggage. Now it’s time to help each other unpack. That’s when the skeletons of the past come out to threaten them.
It takes a really great guy man to love a strong woman. A man who isn’t afraid to let his woman be the hero. A man who isn’t afraid to unleash his dark side and take down anyone who dares to harm her. There’s little Sandy can’t do all by herself…including fighting for the man she loves—a really great guy whose arms feel like heaven.
Clint rasped his fingers over his morning whiskers. A wise man would have walked away and said to hell with it. But no one had ever accused him of being a genius. Few things were stupider than lying in wait outside a woman’s workplace, hoping for…
Hell, he didn’t know at this point. He sighed. Sandy Freeman didn’t owe him any explanations. In two months of dating, they hadn’t progressed beyond kisses and him feeling her up, despite the fact they’d spent every available moment together. Not that it mattered. He’d appreciated the buildup, and the kisses were hot enough to melt his brain. He knew they’d set fire to the sheets when they were finally together. At some point, his goal had shifted from wanting to get in her pants to wanting to keep her in his life. Now he knew the reason she was cautious, the reason why she’d put up shields two weeks into their fledgling relationship, and why sex had been off the table.
He wanted to kill the son of a bitch who’d hurt her.
All this time, Clint had wondered if he’d done something wrong. If only it’d been that simple. Instead, she’d been suffering and never said a word. No, he’d had to hear about it on the morning news. A gut punch had lesser impact.
Clint wanted to blame himself for not understanding the signs. But why would he, when the truth was so far-reaching, it never occurred to him that she’d been raped? The times when she was the most distant, he’d worried instead that old rumors from his past had resurfaced to turn her away from him.
He laughed at the irony. Here he was, pissed that Sandy didn’t talk to him, and yet he hadn’t bothered to talk to her, even though he knew one day he’d have to do so if their relationship developed as he wanted it to. He wanted time. Life in a bubble of bliss before the world intruded. He wanted Sandy in his arms, his bed, and his life. He wanted nothing to intrude. He wanted that slow build and the bonding that went with it.
It appeared that dream had been doomed before it really started. Six weeks of wondering why the light in her eyes had dimmed. Weeks of agony each time she pulled away from him and said good night, and he’d been left to beat off to the fantasy of what might have been.
If it were any other woman, Clint would have been out the door long before now. But he’d known from the second he saw her across the bar, shooting pool with her girlfriends while she sucked down 7UP and bitters, that Sandy Freeman wasn’t just any woman. There was a vitality about her that pulsed in waves to everyone who came into her orbit.
And that son of a bitch snuffed it out.
Clint did want to kill him, slowly and painfully. It was a wonder the other firefighters she worked with hadn’t done so already. That’s when he’d realized—Sandy hadn’t told them either. If she had, the man wouldn’t have still been working at the fire station. How could she have done it—continued to work with the bastard? Maybe she hadn’t. Maybe she’d changed her shifts. He shook his head. It didn’t matter. The son of a bitch was dead now. A victim of a house fire. Clint could see why the police considered the entire fire department persons of interest. They all had motive to see Keith Randall dead. It’d been all over the news too. The talk of their small town. And if Clint had known about Keith Randall’s attack on Sandy before this morning, he would have been a suspect as well. Proudly.
The thought of all she’d endured made him sick inside. His vibrant lady—because she was his lady even if they’d yet to seal the deal—had suffered in silence. Now this double whammy. This time he was making a stand. She would not deal with this alone, and he intended to make it very clear he wasn’t doing this as a friend. Sandy had friends—not that he’d met them or she his or even each other’s family. They’d been wrapped up in that bubble—private, happy, and building toward something awesome—until the real world burst it. He was doing this now as a man, one who wanted her beyond reason, one who planned to fight for whatever that something was that had drawn them together in the first place. She’d felt it too. Despite everything she’d endured, Sandy hadn’t completely shut him out. Yet. He’d been dancing around her for two months. No more. Pushing her now could very well blow up in his face. So be it. At least he would have tried, and that was a hell of a lot better to live with than sitting on the sidelines, waiting for life to happen.
All he had to do was get to her. He looked out his truck window. Hard to do when she was at work.
Clint studied the circus of reporters crowding the street across from the fire station. Going in guns blazing would be all over the news in seconds, followed by Clint getting his ass kicked out of said fire station if the firefighters perceived him to be a threat.
He pulled his phone from the console between the front seats and hit the speed-dial number designated for Sandy. She’d had the number-one spot since their second date, moving his best friend Danny down to two. Doubt flickered when three rings passed without a pickup. His rational side argued that she was at work. Just because the trucks were in the bays didn’t mean the firefighters weren’t busy. She’d given him a rundown of daily tasks that boggled his—
“Hi,” she answered.
“Hey.” Surely he could do better than that. “We need to talk. I don’t want to wait until you get off-shift.” It was day one of a three-day shift. Her schedule was posted on his calendar. He hated the long shifts. Hell, he hated any shift that put her out of his reach for twenty-four hours.
“Gina took my shift today. I’m not doing so good.”
“I know. I saw.” And heard and felt his heart rip from his chest. How the hell were they going to get past this?
“I’m sorry you had to find out that way.” Her voice trembled.
“I couldn’t… I didn’t…” She sniffed. “My stomach has settled, and I was about to leave but saw the reporters were still out there. I can’t deal with them.”
“I’m right outside. I’ll pull up to the side door, and you can hop right in. I’ll take you away from all this. We can come back for your car later. Surely they would’ve found something better than this to chew on by then.”
“Why aren’t you at work?”
“You were more important.” Now to make her understand that.
“Oh, Clint.” More sniffles. “I have baggage.”
“Don’t we all?” He was no exception. “I’m headed to the side door now. If you need me to come inside and help you—”
“I’ll meet you there.”
They disconnected simultaneously. By the time Clint pulled to a stop outside the side door of the fire station, Sandy was waiting. Her oversize blue-denim tote hung off one shoulder—her go-bag. He swore she could—and did—fit a week’s worth of stuff in the thing. She’d worn pink shorts and a tank top along with her sneakers today, always preferring to change into uniform when she arrived. Normally pink looked great on her. She was one of those dark-haired lookers with ivory skin. Today, though, it highlighted her pallor. She looked like death warmed over—dark circles under her eyes, ivory skin gone sickly pale, sweat spiking the short bangs across her forehead. Clint wanted to kick himself yet again. This wasn’t the first time he’d seen her looking unwell. He’d always passed it off as being tired from a long shift. Experience should have told him something was wrong. He should have asked, pushed her for answers instead of ignoring it. No more.
In one fluid motion, she was safe inside his truck. “My place or yours, or somewhere else?” he asked.
Sandy glanced at the reporters, some of whom were edging toward their news trucks, most likely to follow. “They already know where I live. I’d prefer to keep you out of this.”
“Obviously, since you didn’t bother to tell me in the first place.” He held up his palm when she drew breath to speak. It might be brutal to throw that at her right now, but he had to let her know how he felt. “We’ll deal with that in a bit because number one”—he held up a finger—“I’m pretty pissed about how I found out.” Another finger joined the first. “Two, I’m hurt beyond words.” Tears slipped down her cheeks. Clint put up a third finger. “Three, if he wasn’t dead, I’d find him and kill him, right after I cut off his dick and balls and shoved them down his throat.”
Clint pulled in a breath and cupped her cheek with gentle care, brushing his thumb over the tear tracks. “But right now, all I want is you safe and secure.” He wanted to kiss her so badly, to hold her and never let go, but the media’s presence prevented it. “Them learning where I live isn’t going to cut it. Feel up to a ride through the national park?”
The hint of a smile twitched her lips. She pressed her hand over his. “That would be great.”
“If those cameras weren’t pointed in our direction, you’d be in my arms.”
More tears. She plucked tissues from the box in the console to blot them away and blow her nose. “Just get us out of here.” She snapped her seat belt in place, closed her eyes, and leaned against the headrest.
Cameras followed their departure, but the news trucks didn’t move. He heaved a sigh of relief. As on edge and protective as he felt right now, Clint couldn’t trust his temper not to get him into trouble. The reporters’ very existence threatened Sandy’s peace. Him making a scene wouldn’t help either. He wondered how long it would take them to run his plates.
He glanced Sandy’s way when they arrived at the entrance to Joshua Tree National Park five minutes later. She was sound asleep and didn’t stir when he stopped to pay the entrance fee. More guilt. It wasn’t the first time she’d fallen asleep on him. Chances were she wasn’t sleeping well when alone, if she slept at all.
Clint took his time driving through the national park. It was one of their favorite places to go. A lot of their dates found them hiking the many trails. They’d even discussed signing up for rock-climbing lessons. He loved her strength and stamina, and that she could keep up with him. Of course, in her job, fitness was a priority—one she took seriously. She was solid without the bulk but not skinny. She had the body of a gymnast—well-muscled and tightly packed without an ounce of fat. He loved the feel of her in his arms. Loved the way she coiled against him when they kissed.
He shook off the memories and forced his attention to the scenery instead. Counted off the other trails they’d yet to explore. Wondered if circumstances would allow them to do so or pull them apart forever. Melancholy filtered in. He prayed for the right words and actions to guide him, knowing he had to support her, not judge. Her decision, not his. His heart broke a little more when he realized the turmoil she’d faced alone. No wonder she hadn’t slept. It said a lot about their comfort level that she felt secure enough to do so when she was with him. Humbled him, even. At least they had that. As for the rest, even he didn’t know.
Clint took his time driving through the park, turning a forty-five-minute drive from one entrance to the other into two hours and pissing off a lot of people who didn’t appreciate his leisurely pace. Cars whipped around him like the devil was on their tails. He couldn’t care less. Sandy slept the entire time. She stretched awake when he stopped at the ranger kiosk to check out, then turned a lazy smile his way right before he drove on. A smile he longed to see first thing in the mornings with her next to him. A smile that promised to light up her eyes the way it used to before it happened.
“Morning, bright eyes.” He pulled the truck over to the shoulder and twisted her way, draping his arm as best he could over the back of her seat. “Sleep good?”
“I did.” Her eyes—God, her beautiful, deep-blue eyes—smiled at him. The things that did to his heart.
She leaned against his forearm. “I think I am.”
“Anything in particular?” Considering her condition, it had to be her call.
“I’d kill for a cheeseburger, but I can’t stand going into any place to get one. The smell of anything greasy…” She left the obvious unsaid.
“Then let’s grill our own.” Her place or his, Clint didn’t care. He’d take her there, feed her, or tuck her into bed for some more rest—anything she needed.
“Sounds wonderful.” Another smile.
He released his seat belt and leaned over to drop a kiss on her lips. Her breath caught. She cupped his cheek, deepening the kiss and awakening his cock. It never took much. She could rouse him with a look. Clint reluctantly pulled away and reconnected his seat belt.
“We’ll stop at the store on the way home. Your place or mine?”
“Mine, but I’d rather pick up my car first. Suppose you could make a grocery run without me?”
“Whatever you’d like.” He meant it, but he couldn’t keep the hard edge out of his voice. Her sigh told him she’d noticed.
“What about what you’d like, Clint?” she asked softly.
He flexed his fingers around the steering wheel, judging his response. Skirt the issue, or be blunt? There was only so much dancing around a subject a man could do before he lost his breath. His anger built fast from that deep hole the morning news had burned in his gut. Somehow he managed to bank the force of it, to make his words slow and measured.
“I’d like to have you naked against me, to be under the covers and losing ourselves in each other. I’d like you to have told me the truth and not have my world ripped out from under me courtesy of the morning news. I’d like to think I deserved at least that much. I’d like to think I meant something to you after all this time, but—”
“You do.” Sandy touched his arm and leaned his way. “I’m sorry. There’s no excuse I can make. Could we please not do this now in the truck, on the road?”
“Fine. But I won’t be put off again.”
“You won’t be. I promise.”
She pulled her fingers away slowly. Tingles wiggled straight to his balls. He shifted in his seat, trying and failing to find a comfortable position. They said nothing during the twenty-minute ride back to the fire station. Reporters still hovered about. Cameras turned toward his truck when Clint pulled into the parking lot and stopped near her sky-blue Prius.
“I guess if they follow, they follow,” Sandy said with a beleaguered sigh. “They already know where I live, and my car is fairly obvious.” The pretty color made it stand out.
“They probably know where I live by now too.” Most definitely where he worked, since his white FURNITURE FIXERS sign was on both sides and the tailgate of his dark-blue truck. “But there’s nothing to say we have to make it easy for them. Turn south instead of north when you leave. I’ll block their exit. It might throw them off to think you’re headed somewhere other than home.”
“Not for long,” she said.
“Long enough for you to get in your house without being harassed,” he replied.
She nodded, released her belt, and started to open the door.
“Kiss me,” he said.
Sandy looked at him, eyes wide. Her gaze drifted from the reporters to the fire station, then back Clint’s way.
“Fuck them,” he said. “Kiss me, damn it. Kiss me like you mean it. No more of this behind-closed-doors shit. Kiss me like you own me.” Because she did, whether she realized it or not. If they could recover from this hell-of-its-own-making stumbling block. And it was hell, pure and simple.
He pushed his seat back as far as it could go, giving her full access to him. Her gaze dropped to the erection swelling his jeans. He watched her pulse flutter in her neck. It matched the hard beat of his heart. There was hunger in her eyes when she looked up at him, but Clint had seen it before and felt the walls she’d thrown up between them. Knowing why she’d done so had him second-guessing every move he wanted to make. The choice had to be hers. The action had to be hers. Oh, he’d lure and dare her, make her want him enough to work past her fear, tempt and gently push her, even, but in the end, the lead role would be hers. Unless she said otherwise. He prayed for patience.
She shifted in her seat, coming to her knees. He slipped his arm around her waist when she leaned over the console, and cupped her hip. Parted lips took his. Her tongue slid deep, torching his soul. There was another shift, and then she was cradled in his lap. He loved the feel of her in his arms—a strong woman with lean muscles.
Sandy clutched his neck, holding tight as she deepened the kiss, rolling into him. Clint’s heart leaped. He brushed his fingers down her thigh, paused, and eased his hand between her knees but no farther. They were, after all, in public.