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Authors: Sami Lee

Erica's Choice

BOOK: Erica's Choice
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Dedication

First of all this book is for my editor Anne Scott. Without her insightful suggestions, it may well have languished on my hard drive unpublished, unread and unloved. Thanks for being the left brain to my right.

To my family, who allow me the space to write and love me despite my frequent bouts of distraction.

To the girls in my local writing group, the Romantix, who commiserated with me through two years of writer’s block and reminded me that I am never alone in the struggle.

And finally to the Divas, who commiserated with me through two years of writer’s block…then told me to suck it up and write a book already. Here are your bloody firemen.

Chapter One

The beveled glass doors of the Sovereign Hotel swung back with a
whoosh
as Erica Shannon shoved them open. Stalking through the breach, she was assailed by noise and light, the typically boisterous ambiance of Friday night revelry at an inner-city Brisbane pub.

She halted in the foyer, taking a moment to catch her breath. Glancing around, she realized no one had noticed her theatrical entrance. The crowd of mostly men stood in groups talking and laughing, drinking beer from brown-tinted bottles and arguing jovially over a game of rugby being played out on a massive plasma screen in the corner. Nobody turned to look at her.

Perhaps her arrival hadn’t been dramatic at all. It simply felt that way because she’d never come to a pub by herself, and her agenda was pounding in her ears like the rush from some illicit drug, amplifying every sound, every smell and every sight.

Or at least that was how Erica imagined the rush from an illegal substance would affect her. She—sensible English teacher, loyal niece, staunch obeyer of road rules—had never done anything taboo in her life, chemical or otherwise.

That was about to change. Tonight.

Heart pounding impetuously in her chest, she weaved her way through the crowd, heading for the area at the back of the establishment that housed the pool tables, dart boards and jukebox. This was the section of the Sovereign where her quarry tended to hang out, as though the tables were permanently reserved for the firefighters of Ashton Heights.

Through the throng, Erica easily spotted the familiar outline of Corey Wachawski’s wide shoulders and the dark swatch of hair on his head. His back was to her, but she knew his eyes were as warm and blue as the summer sky. She’d snagged his gaze once or twice in the past few months—or rather, Corey had caught her staring. If he’d detected the longing in her scrutiny, it had never prompted him to approach her.

Tonight, Erica was not in the mood to be dismissed. She would make a move on him, no matter the potential for embarrassment.

The very thought made her heart rate triple. Her palms grew slippery against the tweed fabric of her skirt.
Tweed.
Erica would have laughed if her lungs were capable of expelling air. She was the kind of woman who wore tweed and modest button-up blouses, who stayed home most nights rereading her favorite Jane Austen novels instead of venturing out to experience life. Was she out of her mind even to daydream a man like Corey Wachawski—local hero, calendar model, Adonis—would want to take her up on a sexual proposition?

Steeling her resolve, Erica relentlessly pushed forward. After all, she had little left to lose now.

A large hand clapped Corey’s back. The sound of the other man’s laughter moved through Erica like a fast-flowing tide, the sight of his lean, muscle-packed body in a navy-blue T-shirt and faded jeans made something wicked and needy pass through her erogenous zones.

Dale Griffin.

There were photos of him all over the pub walls. Some in which he wore his firefighter’s uniform, in others he was listed as a member of a local football team. One was a framed clipping from the newspaper which detailed his heroics in saving a local man from a fire. And on the ladies’ room wall, his picture from an old Queensland Firefighter’s Charity Calendar was pinned, right beside Corey’s more recent one.

Erica was both exhilarated and terrified to see Griff—whenever she’d heard one of his colleagues call out to him above the usual cacophony of pub noises, they always called him Griff—here as well.

There was nothing to stop her living out her ultimate fantasy.

Nothing except it required her to sexually proposition not just one man, but two. Twenty-eight years old and she’d never so much as initiated a coffee date with a member of the opposite sex.

That’s right, Erica. You haven’t been living at all, and now it could be too late.

The reminder refueled the anger and frustration that had brought her here. She could do this. There were worse things than being embarrassed.

Much worse things.

She wet parched lips with the tip of her tongue as she drew nearer to the back corner. She kept her gaze fixed on Corey Wachawski’s massive shoulders, focusing on them as she drew closer and closer…

Suddenly, her view was obstructed by one of the sharks.

Oh darn.

How had she not factored in the sharks? That was how her female colleagues, who often stopped in at the Sovereign on their way home from a hard day at school and who’d recently begun dragging Erica with them, referred to the beautiful, sexily clad women who routinely circled the group of handsome firemen. Hunting them like sharks on the lookout for their next meal.

Not that Griff, for one, seemed to mind being fish food. He’d left the pub with two of those women only a few weeks ago.

Two.

It was the event that had made Erica start thinking about threesomes. What was good for the goose had to be allowed for the gander, too. It was only feminist, and her Aunt Claire had raised her to be an independent woman, aware of her rights and willing to fight for them.

That was all well and good, until you had to battle a woman who looked like Miranda Kerr on a good hair day.

Erica’s steps faltered. The very blood seemed to drain out of her as she watched the tall, willowy brunette slide her arms around Corey from behind and whisper something in his ear. Whatever she said made Corey blush. The shark was stunning, flawless in looks and manner. And Erica stood there gasping, as graceful as a flounder that had been washed up on shore.

From the corner of her eye, Erica saw a couple work their way out of a booth in the corner. She made a dash for it, sliding into one of the olive-green vinyl bench seats before anyone else could claim the table. She hoped it looked natural, more natural than turning around and walking straight back out. Like her intent all along had been to find a table to herself and sit quietly.

Without a drink.

Dear Lord, she must look like an idiot.

Perhaps there
was
something worse than facing your most frightening demons. Being completely and utterly humiliated first.

 

Corey Wachawski watched as the woman of his dreams took a book out of her large black shoulder bag, opened it to a dog-eared page and began to read. It was a big book, the kind he’d never get through if he had a year to kill, which only reminded Corey how out of his league the pretty redhead with the big brown eyes truly was.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come out with us, Corey?” Madison purred the invitation into his ear while she stroked a fingernail up and down his forearm. “Vibe is the hottest club in the Valley right now. We’re going to have the best time.”

It was clear from her tone that the club wasn’t the only thing offering a good time. It would be easy enough to take Madison up on it, but Corey found girls like her a little intimidating—and a lot scary. He got the feeling if he went home with her he’d wake up naked, tied to a bed and minus the one credit card he owned. “No thanks. I’m going to have an early one tonight.”

Madison stuck out her bottom lip in an exaggerated pout. “They work you boys way too hard.”

Corey wasn’t about to tell her work had nothing to do with his refusal. He simply didn’t want to spend the night with Madison.

The woman he did want to spend some quality time with was sitting across the pub right now with her nose in a book, her sleek red hair sweeping down to conceal her face, as out of reach as the moon. She probably thought he was some kind of man-slut because every time she came in here some random woman slipped him her phone number, or even her panties. Jeez. What did girls think he was going to do with a pink satin G-string?

Madison finally gave up and left. Corey’s sigh of relief was audible and beside him Griff laughed. “That was piss weak.”

“She isn’t my type.”

Griff remarked with a lopsided smile, “With an ass like that she doesn’t need to be. Besides, you might as well dip your wick somewhere. You won’t do anything about the girls who are your type, either.”

Corey didn’t pretend ignorance. His gaze once again strayed to the corner booth and the woman sitting there. She wore an ordinary grey skirt, black heels and a plain white blouse, the collar trimmed in lace. Her haircut was of the sensible, I’m-not-the-type-to-primp variety, a chin-length bob that framed her high cheekbones and wide brown eyes. She exuded none of the glamour of a woman like Madison yet she fascinated Corey on a level that went beyond appearances. He wanted to get to know her better, had since the first time she’d come in a few months ago.

But the idea of approaching her made his palms sweat, so he’d settled for watching her from across the room, waiting for…
something
. A sign maybe. Some kind of magic that would make everything click into place.

He offered Griff his excuse. “She’s really into that book.”

“She’s
alone
. Nobody comes to a noisy pub to read. She’s probably dying for you to go over and talk to her, dickhead.” At Corey’s skeptical look, Griff insisted, “Look, she doesn’t even have a drink. Go buy her one before somebody else does.”

Corey scowled. “Who’s going to buy her a drink?”

“Maybe I will.”

Corey wouldn’t have been more surprised if Griff had punched him in the gut. “You wouldn’t.”

“Why not?”

“She’s not
your
type.”

Griff laughed. “And that means?”

Corey didn’t know how to express what he meant without dissing his friend’s usual taste in women. Eventually he settled for, “She’s delicate.”

Griff raised a brow. “I like delicate. I like soft women. Hell, I just like women. Matter of fact, I’m talking myself into it. I’m going over there.”

“No.” Corey stood at the same time Griff did. They met eye to eye, Griff’s hazel irises twinkling with amusement. Corey figured his own expression was less jovial. His voice came out sounding threatening, which surprised him more than it seemed to surprise Griff. “I mean it, Griff. Don’t you hit on her.”

“What’s to stop me?”

“The guy code,” Corey said. “I saw her first.”

Griff chuckled. “You’ve gotta actually do something about it in order to activate the guy code. Sitting here with your thumb up your ass does not constitute staking a claim, so stand back and start taking notes. I’m about to show you what a move is.”

Griff strode past him with ease. Corey was bigger physically but Griff was more brazen. Corey knew the second Griff introduced himself to the mystery woman his own chances would be all shot to hell. Females usually proved susceptible to Griff’s particular type of brash charm. And if Griff found out her name first, he’d probably insist the guy-code privileges reverted to him or something like that. Griff would find a way to get what he wanted. He always did.

Damn it. It was do-or-die time. Corey had to get over to that booth before Griff or he was going to lose his fantasy woman before he ever caught her.

 

“White wine and two beers—one light.” Griff flashed the blonde bartender the grin that usually procured good service. “Take your time.”

The woman returned his smile and gave him a quick once-over before moving off to fill his order. Griff returned the compliment, admiring the way the mounds of her ass were accentuated by the tight black pants she wore. Nice, but for some reason she didn’t stir his blood.

What did, however, was something, someone—okay,
two
someones—he was going to have to stay away from.

Griff slid a glance over to the corner booth. Corey stood beside the table offering his hand to introduce himself. He had finally gotten up the balls to approach Red, and all he’d needed was a mighty shove in that direction. Griff had never intended to make a serious play for his friend’s fantasy woman, but
something
had to be done. Griff couldn’t go through another night watching those two making hopeless goo-goo eyes at each other.

“There you go.” Griff turned back and took the change the bartender offered. He noticed the little slip of paper with a phone number written on it amongst the coins, and stuffed it all in the front pocket of his jeans. The woman held his gaze with blue eyes that sparkled flirtatiously. “My name’s Michelle, by the way.”

“I’ll be sure to remember it.” Griff winked and took his drinks, mentally putting Michelle in the
maybe later
column. She was definitely cute, and would no doubt make a fine Miss Right Now. But if things went south she had the power to do all manner of unhygienic things to his drinks, so Griff wasn’t sure he should risk it. Switching his regular watering hole would be a bitch.

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