Ashton Heights Fire, Book 2
Two things woke Rob McConnell at 3:46 in the morning. The sound of a woman screaming and the acrid smell of smoke.
He shot out of bed, his firefighter instincts on full alert. Yesterday, he’d spent the better part of a ten-hour shift working with his crew and several others to dampen a factory fire before it spread to the surrounding industrial area. They’d managed to douse the flames without any loss of life, but they weren’t always so lucky. Screaming and smoke tended to make Rob spring right into action.
He was yanking on a pair of jeans in two seconds, bolting out of his bedroom in three. He stopped in the darkened hall, listening for the roar of flames. It took him a moment to realize there was no roar, and that the woman’s screams weren’t the come-and-save-me-I’m-burning-to-death kind. They were more of the Oh-God-baby-yes-I’m coming-I’m-coming variety.
Rob groaned and rubbed at his eyes with the heels of his hands. His housemates were at it again. Blair Bowman and Leo Chatfield—otherwise known at the fire station as Blue and Chats—were working their way through all the women in Ashton Heights and a few surrounding suburbs who were willing to take both of them on at the same time. Unfortunately, there were a lot of women to choose from.
Ordinarily, Rob wouldn’t care what his two workmates did in the bedroom. He wasn’t a complete stranger to the delights of three-way action himself. But the walls in the old Queenslander the three of them shared were paper thin. The noise was affecting his sleep.
Pushing out a sigh, Rob walked into the kitchen to grab the milk from the fridge. Just as he was about to lift the carton to his lips, he detected that scent of smoke again. The screams might have been nothing to worry about, but that persistent smell was a concern. He followed it to the open kitchen window, which faced the kitchen window of the neighboring house. Through the glass, he saw a telltale orange glow emanating from inside.
Rob dropped the milk carton, spilling the contents all over the linoleum floor. Ignoring the mess, he yanked the fire extinguisher off its wall bracket and bolted toward the sliding glass door that led to the back patio. He ran down the stairs three at a time, vaulted over the fence between the two properties and leapt up the back stairs of number nineteen. He banged on the glass of the house’s back door, trying to rouse the single mother and three kids who lived inside.
Through the glass, Rob could see the fire had already consumed the toaster on the bench. As he watched and banged furiously on the door, the flames leapt from the toaster to a nearby tea towel and set it alight.
Where the hell were their smoke alarms? Fuck it, he thought. He couldn’t wait for Cheryl to wake up. He lifted the fire extinguisher and rammed the base of it into the door. A crack appeared in the glass immediately. With only one more blow, the whole sheet exploded. Glass fell everywhere, leaving shards on the inside and outside of the house.
A woman screamed, the sound ear-splitting. Rob didn’t even look at her as he leapt over the broken glass and headed for the kitchen. He lifted the fire extinguisher and released the safety switch. Rob gave it a few good long bursts, spraying at the flames until he’d buried the small blaze in white foam.
When the noise of the extinguisher died down, silence fell. Outside, a dog barked. A few screen doors creaked as they opened. The commotion had obviously gotten the attention of the neighbors. Rob’s heart rate began to calm as the adrenaline eased out of his system.
It sped up again at the sound of one shrill question. “Why in the world did you do that?”
Rob’s head whipped around and he got his first real look at the woman who’d screamed earlier. A woman who was definitely not Cheryl, the forty-something mother of three who lived at number nineteen. This woman was not forty, probably wouldn’t be for at least fifteen years. And if her hips had born any children, they sure didn’t show a sign of it. She was trim and slender with long hair that fell in straight dark strands all the way to her tiny waist. Which wasn’t far because she was short.
She was short, cute and really ticked off. Which ticked Rob off. Fortunately, his annoyance distracted him from the other things he was feeling. His first glimpse of the woman had knocked the breath from him and he felt like he’d been sucker punched.
He turned around fully to face her. She’d put on the hall light at some point, and the illumination glanced off the shiny strands of her dark hair, creating a halo effect that was in direct contrast to the thunderous look on her face. Rob shook his head, as though that would help him make sense of her question. “Are you asking why I put out your fire?”
“No, I can see the logic in you putting out the fire. There were flames. And smoke. I’m glad the flames and the smoke are gone.” She gestured to the shattered glass all over the floor and the gaping hole where the back door used to be. “But why did you have to break the door, for Pete’s sake?”
“The fire was spreading fast,” Rob explained. “Would you rather I’d let it burn down the kitchen?”
“I’d rather you’d knocked.”
“I did knock.” Rob heard the exasperation creeping into his voice. “There was no answer. None of this would have been necessary if you had smoke alarms.”
“I do have smoke alarms. I mean, Cheryl does. I think. I’m just the house-sitter.” The petite brunette directed her gaze toward the ceiling, her brow furrowed. “What about that?”
Rob followed the line of her gaze toward the roof. There was an alarm fitted half way between the kitchen and the living room, but it was an old model and the red sensor light wasn’t on. “It obviously doesn’t work.”
“Working smoke detectors are really important.”
“So I figure.”
“A house can go up in a matter of minutes. If you’re asleep when a fire breaks out, the smoke could kill you before you’re even aware of the flames.”
“Or it could attract the attention of strange men in the area, who might break down your doors in their efforts to be heroic,” she drawled.
Rob turned back to face her. “I wasn’t trying to be heroic. I was trying to save Cheryl and the kids.”
“Ah. So if you’d known it was only me here, you wouldn’t have bothered?”
Stunned, Rob opened his mouth to refute the suggestion. The words died in his throat when he saw the glimmer of amusement in the woman’s eyes. They were hazel, more on the green side than the brown, and there was a playfulness in them that made Rob’s skin—and other parts of his anatomy—tingle.
That feeling of being sucker punched returned. Oxygen seemed pretty hard to come by all of a sudden. He wanted to answer I’d break down a hundred doors to save you, but he was too winded to speak.
His sense of being off-kilter only got worse when she smiled, a simple curve of her lips that was as devilish as it was cute. Whoa. Forget sucker punched. I think I’m being waterboarded. Although if he could do things over he wouldn’t alter his actions in the slightest, Rob found himself blurting. “I’m sorry about your door.”
“I’m sorry I yelled at you about the door,” she countered, her smile turning chagrinned. “I don’t do well when woken suddenly.
Rob returned her smile, feeling more than a little giddy. “I can understand that.”
“I was fast asleep, so if you hadn’t come along, things could have been a lot worse. What I should have said first up is thank you.”
Rob lifted a shoulder, a no-big-deal gesture. His face felt hot. Shit. Was he blushing? “It’s cool. I live next door, by the way. My name’s Rob. Robert, but it’s just Rob. McConnell. Rob McConnell.”
Oh my freaking God, man, buy a vowel why don’t you?
That smile spread. “It’s…interesting to meet you, Rob. I’m Sierra Lawson.”
She stuck out her hand. Rob enveloped it in his and an electric current strong enough to spark another fire passed from her flesh to his. Holy Guacamole. Where had Sierra been all his life?
Sierra’s hand felt singed. As for the rest of her, it wasn’t faring much better. If she hadn’t seen it happen with her own eyes, she might not have believed Rob McConnell had put out her kitchen fire at all.
Rob. He didn’t look like a plain old Rob. His name ought to be Zeus or Perseus or something like that. He was big, but there was a benevolence to his largeness, as though he was built only to protect, not to intimidate. He stared down at her, his soft brown eyes smiling to match the curve of his lips and the light glancing off his blonde hair in a way that lent him an almost golden glow. She stared back at him, doing her best to keep her eyes trained on his face and not on all the glorious shirtless muscle he was displaying.
“Sierra.” He repeated her name as though rolling it around on his tongue just for the sheer pleasure of it. “That’s pretty.”
Sierra blushed and let out a weird sound, something between a giggle and a sigh that she feared sounded like an asthmatic wheeze. Get a grip, Sierra. Trying to take a deep breath and failing, Sierra pulled her hand from within the enveloping warmth of Rob’s. At least at that she succeeded. He let her go easily, which disappointed her even as it comforted. Despite the way he’d come barging in here, he wasn’t a pushy guy, and Sierra couldn’t help but appreciate that. Especially as they were alone in the house at four in the morning, and he was not exactly dressed.
Again, she had to concentrate on keeping her eyes off his body. She looked down at the floor. “Well, I guess I’d better get this cleaned up.”
No, you should probably get out of here before I start drooling on your pectorals. Not that her mouth could really reach his pectorals. Any drool she expelled would probably land on his… “That’s not necessary,” she said hurriedly.
“Yeah, it is,” Rob insisted. “Where’s your dustpan?”
“I’ll get it.” Sierra dashed to the hall cupboard where the cleaning supplies were kept, glad of the chance to escape. It was four in the morning and she’d been caught off-guard, that was all. That had to explain her crazy physical reaction to Rob McConnell. Maybe she still had sleep in her eyes. No man could be that gorgeous.
When she returned to the living room carrying the long-handled broom as well as the dustpan and brush, she was struck speechless once more by the sight of the man standing there. He was looking down at the mess on the floor, so she was treated to a side-on view of his taut abs, which almost glistened in the dim light. His hands rested on his hips, seeming to emphasize the narrowness of them.
Sierra sucked in a breath. Yep, he’s that gorgeous. Figuring it was a good idea to get the place cleaned up so he could leave, Sierra handed him the dustpan. He bent to his haunches and started gathering the larger shards of glass while Sierra swept the smaller ones into a pile.
“So where’s Cheryl?”
“She took the kids to New Zealand for ten days to visit their grandparents. The lease on my old apartment ran out before I could move into my new place, so Cheryl said if I could house-sit while she was away. It worked out perfectly.”
“You live in Brisbane?”
He glanced up from his low position and smiled at her. “Good.”
That smile kicked her in the stomach, and Sierra struggled to catch her breath. “Good?”
“Yeah.” His smile broadened. “Glad you’re not going to disappear out of town any time soon.”
Sierra’s heart did a backflip. Was he flirting with her? The possibility was more exciting than it should have been. Her best friend, Tina, had been telling her she needed to start dating again, that she’d forget how to do it if she didn’t find someone to do it with. She was obviously right if Sierra couldn’t even gauge if a man was flirting with her or not. How would she know how to initiate sex? Would she recognize it if a man was initiating?
The thought of Rob McConnell initiating anything with her sent her heart rate galloping. She rushed to fill the awkward silence with words. “I work with Cheryl at the Department of Housing. We try and place families who can’t afford rent into government housing. It’s busy. There are a lot of people who can’t make rent and not enough places.”
Sierra swept up what she hoped were the last stray shards of glass into the central pile she’d made. Rob gathered it into the dustpan. She couldn’t help but notice how the muscles of his shoulders moved as he worked. “Sounds rough.”
“It has its moments. But it’s a good, steady job.” A safe job. Sierra liked safe. Safety was predictable. “How long have you lived next door?” And why didn’t Cheryl think to mention she was residing next to the biggest hunk of all time?
“Only a few months. I moved in with a couple of guys I work with to save on rent.” Rob let out a rueful chuckle. “Let’s just say it’s been interesting.”
“Oh no. They’re slobs, right?”
“Ah, that’s not it. They’re just…” He shook his head. “Never mind. Blue and Chats are good guys. Easy to live with most of the time.”
Rob stood with the full dustpan in his hand. When he sent her a questioning look, she indicated the cupboard where the rubbish bin was kept. He crossed to it, opened the cupboard door and dumped the glass into the bin. Sierra tried not to study his ass too closely as he bent over—tried and failed. His glutes were magnificent. That hot tingle spread through her again. Her nipples beaded, pressing against the silk of her pajama top.
Sierra gasped, comprehending for the first time since she’d been rudely awoken what she was wearing. Her pink silk PJ’s, consisting of a teeny pair of silk shorts and a matching top with spaghetti-thin straps. No underwear, no bra. There was little more than a sheer layer of pale pink silk between her and Rob’s prying eyes.
Not that he’d been prying. If he’d leered at her even once, she would have realized how scantily she was dressed before this. But no. Rob McConnell hadn’t even given her the onceover, while she’d been gaping at his bare-chested hotness like someone who’d never seen a fine set of abs before. Pathetic. You’re making a pathetic fool of yourself, giggling and blushing. He’s probably laughing at you. Flirting, my ass!
“Thank you for that,” Sierra said tautly when Rob returned with the dustpan. Time to remember he was a complete stranger and stop ogling him like a lust-struck idiot. “Don’t forget your fire extinguisher.”
“I’m not going anywhere,” Rob said, and had the audacity to laugh while doing so.
Sierra blinked. “Excuse me?”
“You have a gaping hole in your house.” Rob gestured toward the back door. “And it’s dark out. I’d better stay here for your protection.”
“For my what? I do not need protection.”
He chose that moment to finally give her body the perusal he hadn’t bothered with before. But all he took note of was her diminutive size, if the slightly patronizing tilt of his lips was any indication. “It can’t hurt.”
Sierra’s jaw flapped open. “Gee, you really know how to make a girl feel special.”
Rob’s eyebrows hiked. “What did I do?”
“It’s what you didn’t do,” Sierra muttered and then bit her lip, hard, before she begged the man to notice her as a woman. It had been far too long since anyone had, or at least since she’d wanted anyone to. It was refreshing to want it, and for now that would have to be enough, because Rob McConnell was obviously not attracted to her. “Forget it. I’m seriously fine. You can go.”
Sierra turned to leave, hoping that if she retreated to her bedroom, Rob would take the hint and disappear. He halted her egress with a hand on her arm. “Sierra?”
Like before, his touch singed her, sending that tingle through her body. She stilled, suddenly unable to take another step away from Rob. How did he do that? Make her freeze and feel unbearably hot at the same time? He moved closer to her, his body heat covering her back like an electric blanket. He bent his head and lowered his voice to a near whisper. “Do you believe in love at first sight?”
The denial came fast, too fast maybe. Sierra’s heart was palpitating and a strange panic gripped her. “No.”
“Neither do I.”
Rob turned her around then and eased her up against his body. Her nipples burned when they touched his chest—or rather his torso. Damn, he was big. Too big for her. If she wanted to kiss him she’d have to climb him like a kitten would a tree. The idea of kissing him at all made Sierra’s mouth dry out, while the other possibilities that ran through her head at the reminder of Rob’s size made everything below her waist grow wet and quivery.
She was a hot mess, and the way Rob was gazing down at her wasn’t helping. He studied her face, every line of it, leaving a scorching blush behind. When his focus sharpened on her lips, they parted involuntarily.
Rob groaned and traced the curve of her lower lip with his thumb. A full-body quiver moved through Sierra, making her tremble helplessly against him. If she was making a pathetic fool of herself, there was absolutely nothing she could do to stop it.
He looked into her eyes, and what he gave away with his made her realize that her insta-lust infatuation wasn’t so one-sided after all. “If we don’t believe,” he began, nearly whispering, “then what is this?”
He half lowered his head, half lifted her, until their lips met. Fire engulfed Sierra the instant contact was made. His lips were so soft, so hot she could practically hear the sizzle as they came together. She gripped his shoulders, hoping to God he didn’t drop her before she could understand what this was. Maybe it wasn’t possible to understand it, but she could at least enjoy it for a while. Surely she was entitled to a moment of insanity—glorious, seductive insanity? She hadn’t had a feeling like this in so long.
You’ve never felt like this, Sierra. It had never been like this with Eddie. They’d been friends first, for a long time, before anything happened. By the time they’d kissed, they’d known each other inside and out. There’d been no insanity there, no craziness. Everything between them had made sense.
This—kissing Rob McConnell twenty minutes after they’d met—made no sense at all. Yet it felt as right as anything with Eddie ever had. The thought seemed like a betrayal, and the pain she’d thought had dulled grew swiftly sharp, as though it had been ready all this time, waiting to pierce her the instant she felt something for someone besides her lost fiancé. Her heart seized and she gasped, wrenching her mouth away from Rob’s with a mixture of relief and intense regret.
Rob set her down right away. He kept hold of her shoulders with a gentle touch and searched her face. To her horror, Sierra felt tears sting. Her voice trembled. “I’m sorry.”
“No, I am. That was too much.”
“That was crazy.”
“Crazy good,” Rob said, his lips tilting. “Sierra, I’ve never felt…”
His voice trailed off when the flash of red and blue lights came into the house like a disco strobe. Sierra followed the line of Rob’s gaze to stare at it. Police lights. Sierra recognized them like she recognized her own heartbeat.
“The breaking glass before,” Rob concluded. “Someone called the cops.”
Sierra managed a wan smile. “I promise not to let them arrest you.” Unless that kiss of yours is registered as illegal weaponry—which it probably should be. She glanced down at herself. “I might go throw a robe on before I let them in.”
Rob’s gaze followed hers, trailing over her body with a slow, hungry look that turned Sierra’s knees to jelly. She realized the reason he hadn’t ogled her earlier wasn’t because he hadn’t wanted to, but because he was too much of a gentleman. Too bad she wasn’t a lady, because the thought only made her hotter for him.
Forcing her wobbly legs to move, Sierra dashed to her bedroom and hastily drew on the silk robe that matched her pajamas. It was ankle length and long sleeved, so all of her was covered, but when she caught sight of herself in the mirror, she realized the imprint of her nipples was clearly visible against the two layers of silk. Damn it. When her body decided to wake up, it didn’t muck around. She crossed her arms over her chest and hoped no one would notice.
By the time Sierra walked back out to the living area, Rob was chatting to the two uniformed officers like they were old friends. One of the officers was a woman, and Sierra couldn’t help but notice how she was smiling at Rob, concentrating hard on his face because she was probably trying not to ogle his chest. The man really ought to wear a shirt. Without one, he was dangerous to the sanity of any woman in a twenty-meter radius.
“Here she is,” Rob said when he saw her. “Everything’s fine now, right, Sierra?”
“Right. Thanks for coming, but we don’t need the police.”
Sierra turned to the second police officer, the man. She recognized his face instantly, and seeing him was like a punch in the stomach. Goosebumps rose all over her skin and the arms she had crossed over her chest tightened involuntarily. Her voice was a mere wheeze. “Jason, hi.”
“I can’t believe it.” Jason Earls shook his head as though to emphasize his words. “It’s been a while. How have you been?”
He asked it tentatively, as though he was afraid the answer she’d give would be accompanied by tears. Once upon a time, he would have been right. But she’d had eighteen months to get over Eddie’s death, and while over it wasn’t quite the phrase she’d use, she at least could talk about him now without sobbing. “I’ve been good. Thanks for asking.”
“Still working at Housing?”
“Yep. You’re still in the job, I see.”
Jason smiled. “It’s a tough job, but not enough people want to do it, so here I am.”
Sierra did her best to return his smile, but his words brought the old sadness with them. It was so close to what Eddie had used to say to people when they’d asked why he wanted to join the force. It’s a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it. More than once, Sierra had wished that someone hadn’t been Eddie. Then he wouldn’t have been the one called to that armed robbery in the dead of night. He wouldn’t have been the first to enter the darkened hotel. He wouldn’t have been struck by that stray bullet.
He’d still be with her.
“I’ve been meaning to call you again, but…”
Jason trailed off with an apologetic shrug. Sierra nodded her understanding. It was as hard for Jason to see her as it was for her to see him. Eddie Vargas had been Jason’s best friend since they were both in school. They’d grown up together, joined the force together, gotten engaged around the same time. The last time Sierra had seen Jason had been ten months ago at his wedding to Keesha Stanley. The four of them—her and Eddie and Jason and Keesha—had once been inseparable. But after Eddie died, it was like Keesha couldn’t stand to look at Sierra anymore. Sierra knew it was because she reminded the other woman of the risks her husband took on the job every day. She understood, but that rejection had still hurt.
The sense that she was being watched made Sierra glance over Jason’s shoulder to the other side of the room. Rob was studying her exchange with Jason, a vicious scowl marring his handsome face. What was that all about?
“Well, if there’s no complaint to be made, we don’t need to file a report,” the female officer announced, casting her eyes between Rob and Jason. Her gaze finally landed on Sierra. “There is no complaint here, right, ma’am?”
“No complaint,” Sierra confirmed.
“Are you going to be all right here, Sierra?” Jason asked, indicating the open back door.
“She’ll be fine.” It was Rob who answered for her. Then he sent Jason a look. Sierra could only describe it as territorial. “I’ll stay here ’til morning.”
Sierra planted her hands on her hips and glared at Rob. “I already told you that isn’t necessary.”
“It’s a good idea, Sierra,” Jason said. “I don’t like the thought of you being here on your own in an unsecured house.”
Men, Sierra thought. “I’ll be fine.”
“Of course you will.” Rob showed her a smug grin. “Because I’ll be here.”
The radio on Jason’s belt hissed with static. He pressed a button and the dispatcher gave him details of another job he needed to attend to. When he signed off, he smiled at Sierra once more. “Let him stay, Sierra. If you can’t have a cop standing guard, the next best thing is a fireman.”
Rob snorted and rolled his eyes at the next-best-thing remark. Sierra was familiar with the friendly rivalry between the boys in blue and the boys with the big red trucks. She knew about it because her fiancé had been a cop. And apparently, the only man she’d kissed since Eddie had died was a fireman.
She really should have seen that coming. The way he’d burst into her house wielding that extinguisher, all that talk of how fast a house could catch alight. Had she really thought he was simply a Good Samaritan? How foolish of her. Rob McConnell was a firey, which was a very dangerous job. Sierra wasn’t interested in danger any more. Danger got people killed.
No way would she care about anyone else who lived with danger every day. She’d done that once and wouldn’t do it again.
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