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Authors: Jennifer Bernard

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BOOK: Set the Night on Fire
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5

E
vie’s heart
was pounding so fast and furious, she was afraid it might trip over itself. She clenched her fists and dug her fingernails into the heels of her hands. This didn’t have to be a big deal. Everyone was expecting an endorsement. The downtown business owners certainly were. Brad definitely expected it. It was safe to say the entire town considered it a done deal.

Endorsing Brad for state representative was a no-brainer. He’d give the town a higher profile. Everyone would benefit, and he might even do a good job. His family owned the biggest bank in town, so he knew finances. He knew how to schmooze. He
loved
the spotlight.

She knew he was also a manipulative, cruel slime ball, but no one else knew that.

Just do it, Evie.

She opened her mouth to release the words she’d memorized.
Happy to endorse…excited about what this means for Jupiter Point…future is bright…

And then she made the mistake of looking in Sean’s direction. Instead of leaning against the wall, as he had been, he was standing bolt upright, staring at her with eyes that seemed to burn right through her.

Tremors ran down her body, from her scalp to the soles of her feet. Her toes curled inside her sandals and she gripped her sweaty hands together. A strange, surreal sensation took over her body, as if she was floating somewhere overhead. She dragged her gaze away from Sean’s and looked over the heads of the city council members.

The voice that came out of her mouth didn’t even sound like hers. “I regret to say that the Jupiter Point Business Coalition is unable to endorse Brad White for state representative at this time.”

After a stunned moment of silence, a noisy surge of questions assaulted her eardrums. Her vision swam, as if she might faint.

What had she just done? She never made waves. Never, ever. It wasn’t the McGraw way. She should take it back. Right now.

She opened her mouth but that wasn’t what came out.

“I’m sure Brad will do just fine without our endorsement. I have to go now.”

She slipped into the aisle and hurried toward the exit. The red letters blurred. Her face burned as everyone swung in their seats to watch her go.

What was wrong with her? One simple phrase—“I endorse Brad White”—and she couldn’t even spit it out of her mouth.

A
fter reaching
the hallway outside the auditorium, she stopped, clutching her stomach. Oh God, she was going to throw up. Yes, she’d vomit right here on the scuffed floor. Then she could march back in and explain that she was sick. That’s why she’d done such a stupid thing. Food poisoning or something.

She bent over, stomach heaving.

A warm hand settled on her back. A male voice, like molasses over gravel, resonated above her. “Are you okay, Evie?”

She straightened. Sean Marcus stood over her. This close, he was even more overwhelmingly masculine. His scent, sort of woodsy and clean, cleared her head.

“No. I’m not.”

“You did the right thing. How could you even think about endorsing that guy?”

Suddenly furious, she lashed out at him—physically. Actually thrust her hand against his hard chest. “This is
your
fault.”

He caught her hand by the wrist. The strength of his grip made her catch her breath. He seemed more amused than upset, which for some reason got her even more riled up. “How do you figure that?”

“I was
fine
before you showed up. The right words were on the tip of my tongue. I was about to say them but you were staring at me with that look.”

“Look?”

“Like I’m some kind of sellout. A coward.” She ripped her hand away from his and stalked down the hallway. “This is ridiculous. You don’t know anything, and why would you care anyway?” She had to get out of here and try to regain some kind of composure. She felt almost as if she’d just stripped naked in front of all of Jupiter Point.

Everyone
was going to be talking now. Everyone would want to know why in God’s name was she “unable” to endorse Jupiter Point’s own candidate for state representative.

And she couldn’t explain, not unless she wanted to get even more naked. Metaphorically speaking.

Sean Marcus was still pacing next to her, all sexy and rugged and confident. Just inside the big double doors that led to the front steps of the high school, she whirled on him. “Why did you even come back here?”

He leaned one hand on the door over her head. To open it? Keep her from opening it? Hard to tell. “Why shouldn’t I? I’m a good firefighter. You might need me one of these days.”

The wicked gleam in his eye gave her the shivers. “I won’t. I mean, I suppose the town might need you, if there’s a fire, but I don’t. I mean, for anything other than a fire.”

Apparently she’d temporarily lost all control over her own utterances. He was looking at her closely, as if he could see inside and see every little butterfly careening around her belly. “You’re worried I might say something. About that night.”

“I’m not a coward,” she blurted out. “I have reasons. Lots of reason. My mother’s been ill, she doesn’t handle stress well, and you know what my family’s like—” She pressed her lips together to stop the flow of words.

Enough was enough. No more blurting out things that should just stay locked in the past. Sean Marcus wouldn’t understand anyway. He was the embodiment of confidence. You might even say arrogance. He didn’t worry about what people said about him. He didn’t care about keeping the peace.

In fact he
disrupted
the peace. He was disrupting hers right now.

“Look, Evie.” The sound of her name on his lips sent an odd thrill through her. “I’m not here to make trouble, but I don’t mind trouble either. Hell, I’m used to it. If you need me to—”

The door of the auditorium opened and Mrs. Murphy stepped out. She scanned the hallway avidly then homed in on Evie and Sean.

“Uh oh,” Evie whispered. “That’s the entire Jupiter Point grapevine coming at us right now.”

“Go,” ordered Sean. “I’ll head her off.”

She nodded gratefully and pushed open the door.

“And Evie,” he called after her. “If you want some tips on keeping your head in a firestorm, come on out to the base. Happy to help.”

Without another glance at him, she ran across the dark parking lot. Screw Sean Marcus. Screw Brad White. This was exactly why she avoided men completely. She was going nowhere near that base, not a chance.

T
he drive
back to the base was one nonstop interrogation. Josh started in as soon as the door closed behind him.

“Who is that chick? Old girlfriend?”

“No.”

“New girlfriend?”

“For cripes’ sake, Marsh. Give it a rest. She’s the little sister of a friend of mine, Hunter. I lived with her family before I left Jupiter Point.” Truth to tell, he barely remembered that time. His head had been shrouded in a fog of shock.

“You lived with her? Was she already a babe back then?”

“Christ, she was maybe fourteen. I had other things to think about.”

“See, that’s the difference between me and you. No matter what else is happening, I always take time to appreciate the women in my life. Note the plural.”

Sean rolled his eyes. “Do I need to lock you up at the base to keep you away from Jupiter Point? My reputation’s on the line here.”

“What are you so worried about? Were you really such a bad seed? We call you Magneto because you look like him, not because you’re a villain.”

“Depends who you ask.” Sean steered onto the two-lane road that led to the base, which sat at the edge of a wilderness area. “I didn’t have a record or anything. I fought with my father a lot. I had a lot of anger and found creative ways to let off steam.”

“Hmm. I get it, you were the town bad boy. And that girl. What’s her name?”

“Evie McGraw.” Saying her name brought up an image of her face, and all the emotions churning behind her silvery eyes during that brief conversation at the high school. She fascinated him.

“Definitely more the town sweetheart type. This should be interesting.” Josh squinted into the distance, imagining God knew what.

“Nothing to see here. Move along.”

“Uh-huh. First he marries a stripper, then he goes for the town sweetheart.”

“Are you ever going to let that go? I was twenty-two and drunk off my ass.”

“Which is why I’m never, ever going to let it go.”

The old Army base—Sean still couldn’t think of it as a “fire and rescue compound”--seemed even more quiet and empty when Sean and Josh finally got back. It was a small outpost of modest, low-lying buildings painted standard beige on the outside, standard Army white inside. Standard being the theme. After the nearest ranger station had burned down, several state and federal agencies had joined together to take over the decommissioned base. They’d relocated the rangers and fire dispatch, set aside space for the hotshots, and planned to add a search and rescue crew. During the day the ranger station got a certain amount of traffic.

But for now, the compound was still mostly empty at night.

In the room they’d designated as a common area, Josh kicked back on a pile of blankets and cued up a Netflix movie on his laptop. The cots were due to arrive tomorrow. Until then, they were making do with sleeping bags and blankets.

Sean skipped the flick and went for a night run.

Never mind that he’d jogged five miles up and down hills just that morning. Running always cleared his thoughts and gave him energy. He chose a trail that wound around the outer perimeter of the base.

As he ran, filling his lungs with the crisp early March air, he kept looking up at the wide-open, star-studded sky above. He’d forgotten what the stars were like here. Jupiter Point prided itself on its magnificent stargazing. The way the air currents swirled around the promontory kept the smog at bay. City ordinances dictated that street lights be kept low, and most residents followed the same rules. The town even had a motto—“Remember to Look Up at the Stars.”

Sean made a mental note to make sure the hotshots respected the regulations. Just another detail he should be nailing down.

Instead, he couldn’t stop thinking about Evie McGraw.

And that night.

He’d come back from basketball practice and spotted movement inside Brad’s old beater Chevy. He’d never liked Brad—why was someone his age hanging around a fourteen-year-old? So he peered in the window and saw Evie’s terrified eyes flashing silver. Yanked the door open. Socked Brad in the face. While Brad moaned in agony and grabbed for his phone, Sean helped Evie inside the house. She was shaking so hard she could barely talk, but she made him promise not to say a word.

He left the house to make sure Brad was gone—but he wasn’t. Blood dripping down his face, he was busy telling a bunch of lies to a police officer. The officer started asking Sean some bullshit questions—wanted him to take a drug test, and asked if he was selling pot, as Brad had apparently accused. And just like that—Sean lost his head completely. Everything he’d been through over the past half year boiled over. He took a swing at the officer—landed a left hook on his jaw.

The officer’s partner, who had been questioning the neighbor who called them, came charging down the street. So Sean let loose on him too. He was so enraged it took both of them to get him in the police car and into the town lockup.

Not his best moment. Even now, he winced just thinking about it.

The next day, Evie’s father bailed him out and said the charges would be dropped if he attended counseling sessions. But Sean couldn’t take the disappointed,
concerned
look on his face. His whole world had fallen apart. He was teetering on the edge of an emotional cliff; he didn’t want to take anyone down with him.

So he left Jupiter Point that night. He didn’t see Evie again before he took off. But he did track down Brad at Barstow’s, where he was boasting about his brush with the law--like the tool he was. He warned him to stay the fuck away from Evie from now on.

Then he left, and it was a relief to put Jupiter Point behind him. After the crash, everyone kept giving him those horrible, sympathetic “you poor baby” looks. He couldn’t stand that. Even worse were the suspicious looks. The ones that said,
we know how much you fought with your pothead hippie father. We know the police think Jesse Marcus bought the flightseeing business to smuggle marijuana. We know the cause of the crash was never determined
.
We know something wasn’t right. Where there’s smoke there’s fire.

When he’d almost finished his starlight run, his phone rang in the pocket of his running shorts. The crazy thought that it might be Evie flitted through his mind. “Sean Marcus.”

“It’s Rollo.”

“Holy crap, Rollo Wareham the Third, it’s good to hear your voice. How’s the leg?” Rollo’s leg had been broken by a falling log during the burnover. He had screws in his knee and a metal plate in his femur.

“Perfect. I’m like Iron Man. And I want on your crew.”


What?
” He’d figured Rollo was done with firefighting after such a serious injury. He slowed to a jog to let his heart rate decrease slowly. “Why would you want that?”

“I’m getting a metric ton of pressure to join the family biz.”

“CPA, right? Like you said during the burnover?”

“Uh, not exactly. It’s a hedge fund kind of thing, office job. Suit and tie. I can’t do it, Magneto.”

Rollo didn’t talk much about his family, but Sean knew they came from big money. Old money. Rollo was a big-hearted, generous, live-life-to-the-fullest kind of guy who hated social bullshit. Sean would love to have him on the crew. The brotherhood of the burnover reunited.

He dropped his pace to a walk. The night air cooled the sweat on the back of his neck. “Are you sure this would be the right move for you? Maybe you should find yourself a nice debutante back east and settle down.”

“Did my family pay you to say that?”

Sean laughed. “I wish. Give them my number.”

“Look, Sean. I don’t feel like myself, you know? I’ve been working my ass off in PT. I want to get back into action. You can put me on probation, trial basis, whatever you want. You’ll see. I’m completely ready to go. Better than before.”

BOOK: Set the Night on Fire
7.69Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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