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Slow Burn

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“She sings, too,” Cale told her. “Presley, Sinatra and Buddy Holly are her favorites.” Maggie’s soft gentle laughter, combined with the sensual curve of her lips had him thinking some very nonplatonic thoughts about his newest roommate.

“Any other critters I should be aware of?” she asked before taking a sip of her tea.

Cale led her away from Gilda before the bird started swearing. When Gilda had a live audience, anything was possible.

“Only Frankie and Johnnie,” he said as he ushered Maggie back through the kitchen and into the living room. Pearl lay in the corner between the sofa and recliner on her bed, a large blue pillow stuffed with cedar wood chips.

“And they would be?”

“A pair of cats I got talked into adopting not long after I moved in here.” He set his tea on the pine table and snagged the bag holding her things, preparing to give Maggie the nickel tour and show her to her room. The doctor had insisted she get plenty of rest over the next few days, and Cale had no intention of ignoring those orders, especially if it would help her with the return of her memory.

“They’re all very lucky to have you.” An odd expression filled her eyes. A hint of sorrow, naturally, but something deeper, more empathetic, reminding him that for the moment, he was the only person in the world who cared about what happened to Maggie With-No-Last-Name.

He knew what it was like to feel alone, sort of. Sure, he’d had his brothers and his father when his mother had died in the line of duty at a time when women firefighters were extremely rare. And then his aunt had stepped in when his father had simply given up on life after Joanna Perry had died. Although Cale hadn’t been completely alone, he still had known a deep sense of longing for something familiar and comforting, something that remained elusive until eventually it faded with time. The perfume his mom used to wear when she was off duty, for instance, or the sweet, gentle sound of her voice as she read stories to her sons. Now he could barely remember the feel of his father’s firm hand upon his shoulder or the deep rumble of his laughter.

His intent only to offer consolation, he dropped the bag at his feet before taking the glass of tea from Maggie’s grasp. The moment he pulled her into his arms, she stiffened. A half second later, she let out a warm sigh and slid her arms around his waist. The heavy weight of her cast pressed into his side as he held her close. She smelled as warm and fresh as a summer day.

“You’re not alone, Maggie,” he whispered against her hair. “I’m here. I’m not going anywhere, and you’re free to stay until you decide it’s time for you to leave. Okay?”

He felt the slight nod of her head against his chest as he smoothed his hand down her back as if soothing a small child—except Maggie was no child. She was a full-grown woman with curves in all the right places. Curves he’d had the agonizing privilege of seeing when he’d walked in on her at the hospital. Curves he’d had the excruciating pleasure of touching as he’d helped her dress. Curves he was certain would haunt not only his dreams, but his waking hours, as well.

She pulled back to look up at him. Her eyes filled with moisture. “Cale,” she whispered.

“Shh,” he murmured, slipping his hand through her long cinnamon hair to cup the back of her neck in his palm. Comfort, that’s all he was offering. It was all he had to offer.

The lie stuck in his suddenly dry throat as he slowly lowered his head, bringing their lips within inches of touching. Her dark sooty lashes fluttered closed as she lifted her lips to his. Kissing Maggie might not be his smartest move, but he’d started down this road and there was no way he could turn back now, not when she was such a willing participant.

His lips brushed hers just as the beeper clipped to his belt vibrated. For the space of a second he considered ignoring it, but he was on call, as were most of the guys at Trinity Station during off time. There was no such thing as being truly off duty in his line of work. Taking into account the time of day, he suspected the emergency was a multi-vehicle accident rather than a two-or three-alarm blaze.

“I’m sorry,” he said as he released Maggie and reached for his beeper. The words “Six MVA on I-10,” lit up the LCD screen, confirming his suspicions. It’d take him a minimum of fifteen, maybe twenty minutes, to be on the scene, but with six vehicles involved, the extra hands would be welcome regardless of when they arrived.

Reluctantly, he let her go. A sense of male satisfaction filled him at her obvious disappointment.

“I have to leave,” he said, already feeling the rush of adrenaline creeping through his body as he anticipated the task ahead of him. “The guest room is downstairs. The lower level is pretty much under construction, but you’ll be able to find it since it’s the only room finished. Unfortunately, the working bathroom is upstairs at the moment. It’s just down the hall.”

He stepped around her and headed for the door.

“Is there anything I should do while you’re gone?” she asked, stopping him as his hand settled on the doorknob. “Feed your pets, maybe?”

“Pearl likes to run along the beach about an hour after she eats.” He checked his watch, knowing he had to get going. “Give her a couple scoops of dry food if I’m not back by seven. Her food’s in the tall cabinet next to the fridge. I can take her for a walk when I get home.”

He didn’t bother to say goodbye, just walked out the door without a backward glance. As he trotted down the steps and headed for his pickup, he was struck by the frightening thought that for the first time since following in his parents’ professional footsteps, his focus was on something other than just doing his job; it was on the woman who’d be waiting for him at the end of the day.


THEY GOT lucky this time.

Cale stepped beneath the hot, stinging spray of the locker-room shower. A six-car pileup during rush hour on any of Los Angeles’s many freeways could have easily meant several injuries and possible fatalities. The two most serious patients had already been removed by another team of paramedics by the time Cale and Brady had arrived at the scene.

Although still in serious condition, the driver of the second vehicle, which had been sandwiched between two cars, had ended up with nothing more life-threatening than a tib/fib fracture. From what Cale had gleaned from the highway patrolmen at the scene, the driver in car number two hadn’t even had a chance to apply the brakes before slamming into the lead vehicle, which had stalled in the fast lane, courtesy of a bad fuel pump.

The driver of the third car was a little luckier and only suffered a broken arm along with a couple of bruised ribs. The rest of the injured, including the driver of the lead vehicle, had been treated at the scene for contusions and lacerations before being transported to the UCLA Medical Center for further treatment or observation.

Personal experience and six years on the job told Cale the call could’ve been a whole lot worse. There’d be no rustling up the stress team to debrief the crews who’d worked the scene. No one had died. No one had been injured beyond recognition. The crew from Trinity Station could all go home and feel good about their jobs today.

A slow smile tugged Cale’s lips as he plucked the soap from the holder and started scrubbing the sweat and grime from his body. Home. Home, where a beautiful, intriguing woman waited for him. A woman with a sassy glint in her eye that had him nearly kissing her despite the hint of uncertainty and confusion banked there as well. The last thing he wanted to do was add to Maggie’s already confused state, but had he ever been tempted! So tempted the thought of kissing her hadn’t felt all that inappropriate, which probably should have bothered him on some level, except it didn’t. There were a thousand reasons for keeping his hands to himself, yet that didn’t stop him from wanting, and very nearly following through on the desire to taste her sweet, bow-shaped mouth. Those thousands of reasons even failed to quell the urgent need to trace his fingers over the gentle curve of her hip, to feel the small of her back against his hands, to urge their bodies closer together and allow nature, and his lust, to follow their natural courses.

The woman had temptation written all over her body, and that equaled trouble in Cale’s mind. But whoever said trouble was a bad thing obviously had never had a captivating woman sharing his living space.

“Hey, save some hot water for the rest of us.”

The bar of soap slipped from Cale’s fingers as he snapped his head around to find his eldest brother, Ben, standing in the shower area, a white cotton towel slung around his hips. He’d been part of the six-man engine crew called to the scene. It’d only be a matter of minutes before the rest of the crew filed into the locker room.

Cale offered his brother a sheepish grin. “Sorry. I was thinking.”

Ben’s left eyebrow rose, his expression filled with blatant curiosity. Well, as far as Cale was concerned, big brother could just remain in the dark on this one. Cale had no intention of sharing the status of his current living arrangements with either one of his brothers…yet. He knew he would eventually, but it’d be nice to have some privacy for a change, even if only for a brief period of time.

Although he had no reason to feel guilty, he sure as hell did, considering how defensive he’d sounded at being caught daydreaming. Still, it wasn’t as if he’d been in the middle of some erotic fantasy casting his own personal mystery woman in the leading role.

Okay, so he’d been close. Shoot him.

Ben said nothing as he stepped into the vacant stall next to Cale’s, slapped his towel over the bluish marble half wall and turned on the steaming spray. Although the eldest Perry brother tended to be the more silent of the three, when it came to his family, the still-water routine ended and became a steadily flowing river of overprotectiveness. Ben still believed it was his right to share his opinion on any situation, something Cale and Drew both dreaded.

With anyone outside the family, Ben pretty much kept to himself. Come to think of it, Cale had a hard time remembering the last time Ben had even bothered to join the guys at the Ivory Turtle for a beer or to attend any of the backyard barbecues one of the crew might have hosted. He wasn’t what Cale would call aloof, because Ben did have a good rapport with everyone at Trinity Station. He had a good sense of humor, too, and could always be counted on being included in any of the practical jokes they were all so fond of playing on one another.

Cale knew Ben had his reasons for being pretty much a loner. When their mother had died, Cale had been eight years old and Drew six, and Ben had stepped up and assumed as much of a parental role as a ten-year-old boy could handle. All of their lives had become drastically altered when they’d lost their mom, but in Cale’s opinion, Ben had suffered the deepest effects of their loss. Not only had he shouldered the responsibility of his younger brothers, Ben had dealt with their broken-hearted old man, and had done his best to shield Cale and Drew from the rapid decline of Alex Perry.

When their father had passed away less than two years later, the boys had gone to live with their dad’s sister, Deborah Perry. Instead of letting their aunt step in and take over as parent in their lives, Ben clung to his assumed role as the “man of the house.” As a result, he’d sacrificed more than any young man should have been expected to in order to keep the three of them together. There’d been plenty of times Cale and Drew had resented Ben’s interference in their lives, but Cale wasn’t stupid enough to believe he hadn’t become the man he was today in part due to his brother’s influence. He not only loved his brother, but he respected him, even when Ben did butt in where Cale or Drew felt he shouldn’t.

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