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Authors: Jennifer Bernard

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BOOK: Set the Night on Fire
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25

A
pounding
on her front door woke Evie up bright and early the next morning. Sean sat bolt upright in bed. “My boots. Where are my boots?”

“Shhh, it’s okay, Sean. It’s not a fire.” She slid out of bed and pulled on shorts and a Sky View Gallery t-shirt. “It’s probably Brianna or Suzanne.”

She hurried to her front door and peered out the peephole. Blinking, she tried to make sense of what she saw on her front stoop.

Men.

Extremely fit, very attractive men. Four of them. They didn’t seem to have a spare ounce of body fat between them. She recognized Josh, but not the others.

She opened the door and gazed in amazement at the selection of male hunkiness staring back at her.

“Hi, Evie,” said Josh finally. “Is Sean here?”

“Who…uh…who wants to know?” If this was some kind of firefighter gang after him, she didn’t want to give away his location.

“We’re friends of his.” A huge, bear-like man with a beard and the kindest eyes she’d ever seen answered. “I’m Rollo. This is Hughie and Baker.” He waved at the rest of the guys. “We’re part of his old crew back in Colorado.”

Sean stepped next to her, wearing nothing but jeans and mussed hair. He blinked at the group on the doorstep. “Rollo? Baker? What are you guys all doing here?” He whispered in Evie’s ear. “I’m not still drunk, am I?”

“No, I think there really are four hotshots at my door. Do…uh…you guys want to come in? I can make some coffee.”

Rollo grinned and scratched at his stocking cap. “Gorgeous and kind. You hit the jackpot, Magneto.”

Sean glared at him, but Evie didn’t mind. She already liked these guys. There was something unusually real and down-to-earth about them. “Remind me again what you’re all doing here?”

“Word got out that someone’s trying to smear the Fighting Scorpions. We couldn’t let that happen.”

“Not the crew, just me.” Sean rubbed the back of his neck. He looked so sexy with his morning stubble that Evie wanted to kick everyone out and drag him back to bed.

“Same thing.” Rollo folded his arms across his broad chest. The other guys backed him up with nods and expressions that said
don’t mess with us
. “Every guy here is ready to make a statement. The others couldn’t come, but I have a stack of faxes in my back pocket. We just want to know where to go and who to talk to. Then we’ll let you two get back to…whatever you were doing.”

Evie’s eyes welled with tears. No, she didn’t just like these guys. She loved them.

In a sisterly, friendly way, of course. There was only one man for her—the one standing next to her pretending he wasn’t moved to the point of tears.

W
hen he’d knocked
on her door the night before, Sean had intended to slow things down with Evie. But when he caught sight of her in that fluffy robe he forgot everything except getting her naked. Now that his buddies were here, he had to put the slowing down conversation on hold again.

While the guys waited in the truck, he pulled Evie back into the bedroom. “Sorry about this. I had no idea they were going to show up. Do you want to come with us?”

She smiled and touched his shoulder. “No. You’d probably like some time to catch up with them. And I have something to do this morning.”

“Your mother?”

After a micro-hesitation, she nodded.

“Okay then. I’ll…see you later.” He bent his head and pressed his lips to her sleep-soft cheek. “Last night…” The words to tell her about his decision refused to come out. He just couldn’t say them. Especially after a night like that. “Was totally hot. I’ll never forget it.”

She searched his face with those wide silver-green eyes, then smiled. “Go. Your friends are waiting. And I have to get dressed. Have fun.”

It was so good to be around the Scorpions again. He couldn’t believe they’d flown all the way out to California just to back him up. Every time he thought about it, he had to stop talking before he lost it.

He chased Josh out of the driver’s seat and steered the Ford Super Duty into town. He took them through the cute little downtown area to the Venus and Mars Cafe, which served the best coffee in town. They trouped in, talking and joking, drawing the attention of every other customer in the place. He was pretty sure the waitresses had a little tussle over who was going to serve their table. Smart move, because his hotshot crew made a point of tipping well. Good local relations were always important.

“Nice town you got here,” Rollo said when they’d worked their way through a basket of homemade raisin scones.

“It’s a great place,” Josh told them all. “I’ve been scoping out the female population and I give Jupiter Point a big thumb’s up.”

“How’s the hiring going? Are you all crewed up yet?” Baker asked.

“Just about. Still looking to fill some of the higher GS spots.” He indicated Rollo with his chin. “This guy’s got dibs on one of them.”

“That I do.” Rollo exchanged a glance with the others. “If you want some rock solid experience, you’ve got two more ready to transfer.”

“Excuse me?”

“We want to join the Jupiter Point Hotshots.” Baker spoke while Hughie, never a big talker, nodded along.


All
of you do?”

Baker nodded. “We’re with you, Magneto. You want strong overhead, right?” In fire-service lingo, that meant that the top positions on the crew—squad boss, captains (such as Josh)--had plenty of experience.

“Of course.”

“You won’t get better than us. You’re looking at over twenty years of experience right here.”

Sean scanned the array of faces, more familiar than his own. Bearded Rollo, with his stocking cap and favorite lucky sweater, hand-knitted by his sister. Baker’s mahogany face, always filled with laugh lines. Hughie had a new ring on his finger—he must have proposed to Cindy after all. They’d all cut line together, worked their asses off, then survived a face-off with hell. He knew them, he trusted them.

Then he remembered the one who hadn’t trusted him. The one who’d run into the ravine rather than stick with the crew. “Did Finn send one of those faxes?” He asked Rollo.

“He did.”

Again, that inconvenient surge of emotion kept him from answering. The brotherhood of hotshots hadn’t let him down. He hadn’t spoken to Finn since he’d told him to take his movie and shove it. But even Finn had come through for him in a crisis.

“I’ll run it by Vargas, the operations supervisor,” he finally said when he could squeeze out a word. “Jupiter Point, watch out.”

A
fter a breakfast
of catching up and a lot of joking around, the group of hotshots emerged into the sunshine of mid-morning. Rollo wanted to go straight to the police department to deliver their statements, but Sean nixed that. The burnover had nothing to do with the crash investigation.

As they walked down Constellation Way, past the pretty awnings and storefronts, Josh said, “Isn’t that Merry, Evie’s friend? The reporter?” He snapped his fingers. “A reporter! That’s exactly who we need right now. We can show her all the faxes of support. It’s a great news story.”

But Merry turned out to be in a huge hurry. Her brown eyes sparked with energy as she explained that she was on her way to cover a press conference. “I absolutely want to interview all of you, but we’ll have to do it later. Brad White is making a big announcement. Everyone’s saying he finally got the endorsement he wanted.”

Sean’s happy mood evaporated. So the dickface had won after all. Brad had gotten Evie ousted from the coalition and secured the group’s support. He’d done it in the most underhanded, backstabbing way possible. Sean couldn’t help but think that Jupiter Point deserved better.

Suddenly he remembered Evie’s hesitation this morning when he asked her what she was doing. He’d asked if it was about her mother, and she hadn’t answered right away. Was it possible it had something to do with Brad’s announcement?

“Wait.” Sean snagged her arm before Merry could disappear. “Where is the press conference?”

“Outside his campaign headquarters. Not far, just a few blocks away.”

“I’m coming too.”

“Suit yourself. The whole town’s invited.” Merry glanced at the guys still trooping behind them. “Them too, I suppose. Hotshot’s gotta have a posse.”

“You guys want a crash course on local politics?” Sean asked the group.

Rollo have him a thumb’s up. “We’re with you, Magneto.”

They all trooped down the street after Merry. At the foot of Constellation, they turned the corner and hurried past the 7-Eleven. Up ahead, a small crowd was already gathering.

“Damn, I hope I haven’t missed anything.” Merry sped up until she was practically running, her kitten heels slapping against the pavement, her messenger bag bouncing against her ribs.

“Here, let me.” Rollo shoved past Sean and scooped Merry into his arms.

“What the heck—” she yelped. “What are you doing? Who
are
you?”

“Champion running back in college. Third runner-up for the Heisman.” And Rollo was off, sprinting down the sidewalk with Merry still squawking in his arms.

The rest of the group convulsed with laughter as they followed the odd spectacle. Only Rollo could get away with something like that.

“I bow down to the master,” Josh said. “I’d be tripping over my shoelaces if I tried something like that.”

They jogged after Rollo and Merry until they reached Brad’s campaign office. A lectern had been set up on the sidewalk outside. A huge royal-blue banner with white lettering proclaimed that “Brad White will Fight for You!”

Yeah, right. Sean had a better slogan for Brad. “Brad White’s a Dickface Who Will Fight Only for Himself.” He squeezed through the crowd of reporters and curious town residents. Near the lectern, he spotted Brad, in a light gray suit with a bright blue tie to match his banner. He was chatting with the fire chief, Doug Littleton, which gave Sean an uneasy feeling. Littleton had kept his distance since the mud-slinging had started. He hadn’t taken a side one way or the other. Was Brad pouring more of his poison into his ears?

Even though Brad had gotten what he wanted, Sean was still a potential threat to him. And proud of it. Just to make sure Brad saw him, he maneuvered so the candidate couldn’t avoid him. He folded his arms across his chest and nailed him with a scornful stare.

He was happy to see Brad’s plastic smile slip, just for a moment.

Campaign volunteers wove through the crowd passing out flyers and buttons. Sean passed on the button, but took a brochure from a pretty young redhead. Something about her rang a bell, but he couldn’t place her. And then someone tapped on the microphone at the lectern and the press conference began.

26

B
efore heading downtown
, Evie drove to her parents’ house. She had to prepare them for what was to come. She found them in the living room. Her mother lay back in her recliner, an afghan draped over her legs. The Dean sat on a footstool while he trimmed her toenails. Light classical music played in the background and she sniffed the perpetual scent of chamomile tea.

The tenderness of the moment hit Evie like a crossbow to the heart. She was about to shatter their peace of mind into a million pieces. Was there any way she could avoid telling them? Allow them to stay in their protected bubble?

No. This was Jupiter Point. No one kept a secret for long. In fact, she probably held the local record for secret-keeping. Thirteen years of never saying a word—that was plenty long enough.

The Dean gave her a vague smile over his half-moon glasses as she knelt on the carpet next the recliner. She picked up her mother’s hand and held it to her cheek. Molly turned her head in Evie’s direction and her lips curved up at the corners. Molly’s smiles had changed as the Parkinson’s advanced—more deliberate, less spontaneous, as if they required thought—but they still warmed Evie’s heart like nothing else in the world.

She couldn’t bear to cause her mother pain. She couldn’t do this.

Closing her eyes, she rubbed her cheek against Molly McGraw’s fine-boned hand. To her surprise, those thin fingers uncurled so her mother cupped her chin. She felt her face being tilted upwards and when she opened her eyes, she was looking directly into her mother’s. They were alive with mischief.

“Never thought I’d see that,” she whispered in the raspy voice the Parkinson’s had left her with. “The Dean…pedicure!”

Evie chuckled. The Dean raised an eyebrow and graced them with an indulgent smile. They all shared a glorious moment of appreciation of the absurdity. And all of a sudden it hit Evie—her parents were pretty remarkable. They were dealing with
Parkinson’s
. Life challenges didn’t come much tougher than that. Maybe she was underestimating her family.

“I need to tell you both about when Sean left,” she began.

T
he press conference
had already started when Evie found a parking spot on Constellation Way. She sprinted down the sidewalk, which was nearly empty because so many people were clustered around Brad’s campaign office. Someone was already speaking. The feedback from the microphone echoed off the buildings. She didn’t recognize the voice, but it sounded like it might be Jack Drummond.

As she approached the crowd, she spotted Merry near the lectern, holding up a small recorder. If only she’d had time to talk this over with Merry first. Maybe Merry would have had a better idea about the best way to drop this bombshell.

Not a bombshell
, she reminded herself. Her parents hadn’t shattered under the impact, so why should anyone else? The Dean had been outraged, yes, but not with her. Molly hadn’t quite followed her story, and maybe that was for the best.

“You do what you need to do, Evangaline,” the Dean had told her. “I have only one request.”

“What’s that? Keep it quiet? Don’t go public? Keep the McGraw name out of it?”

“None of that, my dear. My request is that you not worry about us.”

On the far side of the press conference, closest to the building, Evie spotted Sean and his entourage of hotshots. They were hard to miss, with their easy confidence and rugged masculine magnetism. She wasn’t sure why they were there, but she was glad for it.

“I’m sure many of you have been wondering when the Jupiter Point Business Coalition would get around to issuing its endorsement,” Jack was saying in that easy, authoritative way of his.

Brad, standing just behind him, gave a comic “what, me worry?” gesture with his hands. Laughter rippled through the group.

Evie swallowed hard, anxiety washing away the confidence she’d gained from that moment with her parents. The spotlight was definitely not her comfort zone, but to Brad it was like a second home. Maybe a first home. He loved the spotlight, reveled in the attention. Was that why he wanted to run for office? Was it for the power? The status?

It definitely wasn’t to help anyone except himself.

That thought gave her strength. She put her hand to her cheek, where her mother’s fingers had ghosted across her skin. Her mother might be mostly silent these days, but her spirit was as strong and beautiful as ever. Just because someone was quiet didn’t mean they ought to be trampled over. Sure, Evie was an introvert who shunned the spotlight. But her experience still mattered.

She’d make it matter.

Jack was gearing up for the climactic moment of his speech. “If something’s worth doing, it’s worth doing right, you know? So we hope you’ll forgive our slow pace, Brad. All it means is that you and the California voters can be assured that the process was thorough. Doing things right is important to us.”

Evie took a deep breath. She couldn’t imagine a better moment than this. She raised her voice and called over the heads of the crowd. “I couldn’t agree more, Jack.”

Heads swung her direction. The attention felt like a flock of bats flapping around her head. She fixed her gaze on Jack’s surprised face. If she allowed her attention to wander, she might lose her nerve and flee.

“As the person responsible for the delay in endorsing Brad White, I’d like to explain myself. I know you’ve all been curious about it.”

Brad was whispering frantically in Jack’s ear. Jack bent to the microphone. “I’m not sure this is the right time, Evie.”

“I know it isn’t, Jack.” She walked toward the lectern. Curious bystanders stepped aside to clear a path for her. “The right time was thirteen years ago.”

A
fizz
passed through the crowd. The flapping bats had apparently transformed into buzzing bees.
Keep going
, she told herself.
One step after the other.
She reached Merry’s side. Her friend reached out and touched her elbow, but kept her recorder going. Questions filled her big brown eyes. Evie gave her a thumb’s up and a slight smile. She wanted Merry there with her recorder.

Brad spoke into the mic. “You had your chance to influence the coalition’s decision. You chose to resign. I’m sorry, Evie, but you have no say in it anymore.”

She reached the edge of the lectern and turned to face the crowd. Wide eyes, rampant curiosity, whispers, iPhones. She spoke to them, not to Brad or Joe. “I’m speaking as a private citizen of Jupiter Point. Everyone is welcome to dismiss what I’m about to say, or not. The coalition can still award its endorsement if it wishes to. I’m speaking up for
myself
, and what I went through with Brad White when I was fourteen. Brad thinks I’m afraid to speak out. And I was. I still am.”

She gave a nervous laugh. Brad grabbed the opportunity to drown her out with the microphone. “You’re interrupting a press conference, Evie. Security, can you take care of this situation?”

“Let her speak,” Sean called as he wound through the crowd. “What are you afraid of, Brad? I want to hear what she has to say, don’t you?” He addressed the second question to the crowd, which clapped and whistled.

Evie looked back at Sean and felt a current of strength flow from him to her. A security guard stepped forward, but didn’t get far. The group of hotshots blocked his path. Every time he took a step, a barrier of big strong firemen managed to be right in the way.

She probably didn’t have much time, she realized.
Do it. Now. Speak
.

“When I was fourteen and Brad was seventeen, he pretended to take me for ice cream and instead he assaulted me.”

The crowd went dead silent.

Behind her, she could feel waves of fury radiating from Brad.

“If he hadn’t been interrupted by Sean Marcus, I have no doubt he would have raped me. Afterward, he threatened, intimidated and manipulated me so I wouldn’t tell anyone. Not my parents, not my friends, no one. In many ways, that was even harder, because I couldn’t put it behind me.”

She couldn’t look at the faces arrayed before her. Instead she fixed her gaze over their heads, on the traffic light at the intersection of Constellation Way and Pine. Its steady pattern of flashing red, green and yellow grounded her.

“When Brad asked the coalition for its formal endorsement, I assumed that we’d grant it. Of course, why wouldn’t we? He’s a local boy, he’s one of us. He’s going places. But I couldn’t do it, because I know a different Brad White. I know the boy who didn’t care that I was terrified. The boy who wouldn’t stop until he got what he wanted—or until someone punched him.”

Her eyes flicked down to meet Merry’s. Her friend’s brown eyes shone with tears, but her recorder hadn’t budged. She was a reporter; she knew the best thing she could do for Evie was bear witness.

“If Brad had apologized to me, if he’d found some way to demonstrate that he knew what he did was wrong, I might be saying something different right now. But he didn’t do that. Instead, once again, he threatened me. He said nasty things in the newspaper. He tried to smear Sean Marcus, the only other witness to his actions. He’s still the
same Brad White
. He’ll still do anything to get what he wants. But this time…”

She took a quick glance in Sean’s direction. He was watching her steadily, sending silent support.

“I’m the one delivering the punch. You all know me. I’m a McGraw. Do you think I’d be standing up here unless I absolutely had to? I dragged my feet as long as I could. I rationalized. I delayed. I lost my position as president of the business coalition. All because I
didn’t
want to speak up.”

A murmur passed through the crowd. Her points were hitting home, she could feel it. She could also feel Brad about to explode behind her. The mic crackled as he snatched it up.

“That’s a very interesting story, but it’s
just
a story—completely unsubstantiated, slanderous and unsupported by facts.”

“I support it,” came Sean’s deep voice. “One hundred percent.”

Brad ignored him, maybe hoping no one heard. “It’s funny how a spurned lover will do anything to get revenge, isn’t it?” He tried a laugh, but Evie thought it fell flat. “If there was anything to these ridiculous accusations, why didn’t she file a report? Why come out with it now? My lawyer is going to laugh when he hears about this.”

Evie gripped her hands tightly together but held her head high. A
lawyer
. She hadn’t thought about that. Could Brad sue her for this? She didn’t have any physical proof. It was so long ago.

No matter--whatever the consequences were, she’d deal with them.

A pair of black boots stepped into her field of vision. The security guard had finally escaped the blockade of hotshots. He took her by the arm and guided her away from the lectern. She didn’t resist; she’d said her piece. She’d accomplished what she came to do. If she made trouble for the security guard, she might end up in jail.
That
might be a little much for the McGraws.

Brad talked into the mic as the guard led her away. “It’s a sad day when someone can sling mud like this. You know me. I grew up here. I went to Jupiter Point High. Won some football games. My family owns the bank. Does anything she said sound like something I’d do?”

“It does to me, you sleazy slimeball!” A young female voice rang out from the direction of the campaign office. Evie caught a glimpse of red hair and a furious face. Craning her neck, Evie recognized the intern who’d shown her to Brad’s office. Then the guard was hustling her away from the scene and she couldn’t see past the crowd. But the girl kept yelling while Brad’s microphone-amplified voice tried to drown her out.

“Oh my God,” she said out loud, realization striking hard. “I’m not the only one. Of course I’m not the only one. Oh no, that poor girl.” She started shaking from the adrenaline coursing through her body. It was a good thing the security guard had a firm grip on her arm, or she might be a puddle on the pavement by now. To ground herself, she kept on talking. “That’s the problem with not speaking out. You think you’re all alone. But you might not be. How will you know unless you speak up?”

“You’re not talking to me, are you?” the security guard asked. She recognized him as a retired member of the Jupiter Point PD. “I’m just doing my job here.”

“I know, I know.” She sucked in a deep breath, trying to stop her teeth from chattering from the aftershock. “I completely understand.”

They reached her parking spot on Constellation. A parking ticket stuck under the windshield wiper flapped in the breeze. Perfect. Ejected from a press conference and awarded a parking ticket in the space of an hour. What other damage had she unleashed on her life? She turned to the guard, who still held her by the elbow.

“This is my car. I’m not going to cause any more trouble, sir, and I’d be surprised if I actually broke any laws back there. It’s a public sidewalk, and I don’t think interrupting Brad White is against city ordinances. Not yet, anyway.”

The security guard snorted, but he released her arm. He watched as she unlocked her car and got into the driver’s seat. His expression was completely unreadable. Had he heard what she’d said at the press conference? Did he believe her? Did he care? Did any of it matter? If this one man represented all of Jupiter Point, how was her hometown reacting to what she’d said?

Based on the guard’s impassive face, she had absolutely no idea.

BOOK: Set the Night on Fire
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