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HER SEXY CHALLENGE (Firefighters of Station 1)
She might be the one fire he can’t put out…
Caitlin Tyler doesn’t do bridges—she just doesn’t know it until she lands her dream job and freezes halfway across her new town’s towering death span. Cue the cocky, infuriating fireman who goads her off the bridge. He’s hot, but he’s also exactly the kind of guy she wants to avoid…which she manages to do for a whole four hours.
Lt. Shane Hendricks is only two weeks away from leaving Dry Rock. He sure as hell doesn’t need to get involved with a woman he has to rescue twice in one day. The fact that she’s clearly annoyed by him doesn’t deter him from throwing down a challenge—one that proves hard to resist for all the wrong reasons.
They’re moving in different directions. Leaving should be easy, but falling for Caitlin might be the one fire he can’t put out…
Caitlin Tyler adjusted her glasses and immediately regretted relinquishing her grip on the bridge railing that kept her from plunging to her watery demise. Despite the periodic blindness caused by her wind-whipped hair smacking her in the face, she already saw herself going over the edge, the dark swirling water below stealing her last sputtering
She’d seen rivers before. Near her home in rural Wyoming, every roadside dip and swale had a sign naming the river or creek it marked. Sometimes they even had water in them.
Sometimes they were raging torrents of death.
This river was creeping up on the latter, agonizingly reminiscent of the flash flood that tore unexpectedly over dusty ground and swept away her family’s truck. She hadn’t seen water churn like this since that night.
And the bridge…it was really high up.
Why had she thought she could do this?
Because most people can cross a bridge? She had crossed this very one the day before, in fact, only tucked safely within the confines of a bus.
She’d traveled light, planning to start her new life in Dry Rock, Colorado—which, with its roaring river, was decidedly not dry—as proprietor of Shelf Indulgence, a used book store wedged between an old-fashioned ice cream parlor and a candy store in the trendy downtown district. She’d thought the location perfect for a brick-and-mortar bookstore revival, if a bit tough on skinny jeans.
The potential for perfection was still there…if she ever managed to get to the other side of this godforsaken bridge. Maybe she could put a cot in the back of the store and survive on takeout?
She should have taken the bus again. Or a cab. Anything that would have involved being forced across the span, the river comfortably out of view. Instead, she’d decided to tackle it head-on, big girl panties hitched to her neck, pride higher than those not-so-distant mountaintops. She wasn’t going to run away from her dream over a bunch of steel and concrete and a little bit of water.
Or so she’d told herself before she’d walked onto the bridge. Approximately halfway, she’d dared a peek down, and all of that flagging bravado took the plunge without her.
Ever since that moment, she’d had a death grip on the railing, her fingertips growing increasingly numb, every muscle fiber frozen by fear. Except her heart. Nope, that beat so hard the bridge shook.
The bridge actually shook.
Okay, so maybe giving up everything to run a bookstore in a random town she’d never heard of was crazy. She’d heard it a million times from just about everyone back home—her
best friend, her mother, the postman, the guy who couldn’t get her name right at the coffee shop. Even the neighbor’s cat had tossed a haughty, accusing stare her way when she’d packed up the treat bowl she kept out for him.
But that hadn’t deterred her. The cat could scowl all he wanted, because she was going to take that English Lit degree—the one they’d all assured her would be useless in life—and put it to work.
At least, that had been the plan ten minutes ago.
Now, she was almost certain she wouldn’t live long enough to hear everyone gloat. Which, come to think of it, might be an upside. One that didn’t make it any more comforting to find herself clinging to the cross-town bridge, life flashing before her eyes while a deluge of regrets flew past at a speed that far outpaced the steady, pavement-shaking pace of what had to be every vehicle within a thirty-mile vicinity.
She gnawed on the inside of her cheek, too tense and terrified to bite her nails or do anything that would ever, ever require her to let go again.
Passing cars churned exhaust in her face, sending road grit pinging against her legs. She tried to take a deep, steadying breath, but all she inhaled was road dust. She coughed, almost losing her grip and her glasses over the course of a single spasm.
Distant sirens cut through the shuffle of the traffic.
Before she could process what that meant, a motorcycle passed too closely, and she let out a high-pitched scream. A trio of big ugly birds that had been perched just a few feet away, staring down their hooked beaks at her, launched skyward. Another semi-truck roared by, sending a few brute tons of steel and concrete swaying beneath her feet.
“Nope, nope, nope.” Steel and concrete were not supposed to move.
A gust of wind rocked her, almost sending her glasses into the river again. She managed to smash them back against her face without fully losing her grip on the railing, though an unexpected draft suggested her skirt might have fluttered indecently around her thighs. Great.
The sirens grew louder.
Oh God. She literally couldn’t breathe. Her throat felt like a clogged vacuum hose, and the harder she fought for air, the more the world seemed to blur and spin around her. Hugging the railing felt like the worst idea in the world, but it was the only solid thing within her reach. Desperate not to fall into traffic, she edged closer to the barrier, almost grateful for the sparkly edges of her vision that kept her from seeing the rushing water.
The last time she’d seen rushing water, she’d nearly lost everyone she loved.
Her teeth started to chatter.
No one slowed to check out the woman frozen midspan. Apparently, pedestrians hung out on this bridge on a regular basis.
They could have it.
If she made it off that death span alive, damned if she’d ever touch toe to it again.
Lieutenant Shane Hendricks assessed the scene before him. The call had been for a jumper, and sure enough, a woman clung to the railing halfway across the span. Traffic ahead had slowed to a static crawl, which meant the wind whipping that mess of red hair had to come from the water. She didn’t look in imminent danger of going over, but he wasn’t one to take chances.
He radioed down to make sure the rescue boat was in place. Not a stretch there…after years of calls like these, the vessel docked near the pilings, but he received confirmation they were ready. The ambulance waited at the foot of the bridge, ready to maneuver in either direction.
Just another day at the office.
He didn’t know what it was about this span, but at least once a month since he’d signed on with the department nearly ten years ago, they had someone threatening to go over the side. Those who had followed through tended to be thrill seekers in their teens and early twenties looking for a good time, and most walked away unscathed.
People who wanted to jump just did it.
In his experience, people who made a huge spectacle—like the woman in question—rarely wanted more than attention. And they got it after effectively shutting down the only bridge between the suburban sprawl of Dry Rock and the downtown area, which was wedged between the mountains and the river. Almost everyone had to cross that river to get to work or shop or actually do anything, and even then, the pickings were fairly light. Dry Rock only pretended to be a city.
He hated it.
It was an odd place to be, knowing he helped people, but feeling like he would never measure up to what he wanted from his career as long as he was stuck there. Fighting fires,
outsmarting and outmaneuvering nature, was in his blood. He needed high rises and an urban hardscape—a place where they really needed him. Somewhere he could make a real difference, like his dad had.
His father had died a hero.
In Dry Rock, Shane helped cats out of trees and talked people off bridges. It wasn’t the most heroic of jobs, though that woman, who seemed to be alternately crying and talking to herself, might pose a bigger challenge than most.
Two weeks. That’s all he had left in this town. He’d accepted a job in Denver, fighting real fires. Continuing his father’s legacy in the city that had taken him. Going back would break his mother’s heart, but he had to go.
He was meant for it.
“What do you think, Lieutenant?” Matt Freeman was Shane’s closest friend, but on a call, they kept things formal. That didn’t stop Matt from filling Shane’s truck with pingpong balls when their shift ended, nor did it stop Shane from kicking his ass in retaliation, but there was a line.
On the job, they had the routine down.
Routine. Dry Rock in a nutshell.
Shane sighed and kept his eyes on the woman. Peripherally, flashes of red faded from traffic that had continued ahead while Matt brought the engine to a stop. Behind them, all lanes were blocked. “I need to get the hell out of this town.”
Matt’s soft laughter carried across the cab. “Before or after that woman does or does not jump?”
“She’s not going to jump. She’d need a step ladder to get over the edge.” Shane wasn’t exaggerating by much, if at all. The pedestrian railing was more than half her height. Throwing herself over would prove a challenge, and the neon-white of her grip on the rail suggested she wasn’t going anywhere any time soon.
He hopped off the truck, hitting the ground heavily in the turnout gear. He added the requisite helmet, kicking back the visor, and nodded to Matt. Show time.
The woman barely glanced his way as he approached. He wished he could get a better idea of her expression, but with a mess of red hair whipping into a tornado from the updraft, all he could tell was that her face had momentarily shifted in his direction, then back to the pavement.
His guys stopped traffic behind him, and by now the cars ahead had cleared the bridge. Red and blue lights flashed on the opposite side, suggesting the police had a barricade in place. The typically busy crossing had settled into an unnatural silence, over which he could hear stifled sobs that made whatever she mumbled between them indecipherable.
“Mind if we talk?” Shane asked the woman when he was close enough to be heard without yelling. The distance between them narrowed from twenty feet to fifteen before he eased his approach. He took in her cute, if prim, skirt and a blouse he was sure his grandma had owned back in the day and, weighing that with a set of healthy curves he probably shouldn’t have noticed, decided she probably wasn’t strung out on anything.
She looked at him in the same instant the wind died. Five seconds without her hair flying left him gut-punched. She was a redhead, all right, with killer green eyes. What he assumed to be mascara had fled the scene, having run to her neck in smears that stood vivid against her porcelain skin. Those same tracks had uncovered a smattering of freckles, and her tear-streaked face left her glasses without traction. He hadn’t even noticed them, clunky and retro, until that moment when she pushed them against her face, which really said something about the intensity of that shade of green.
“Do I look like I’m standing here waiting for a sweaty fireman to come by and engage me in conversation?” she asked, sounding…annoyed, if shaky.
Huh. He’d never gotten that reaction before. And sweaty? He might have been buried under a few pounds of gear, but the morning temps still hovered in the sixties, the air cool against his face. “We don’t have to talk. I’m here for whatever you might need.”
“That sounds like a line from a bad date.”
Some of the color came back to her knuckles. Either she was about to start climbing the fence, or her strange irritation over his presence made her forget whatever else had her clinging to the side of a bridge. When she didn’t make for the railing, he bet on the latter.
“Pretty sure I’ve never been a bad date, so I wouldn’t know,” he said cautiously, watching her body language. Sure enough, her grip loosened, and she actually turned away from the railing instead of just twisting to look at him.
Her eyes flashed. “You just happened by to talk about your dating situation?”
He’d managed to knock the distance between them to about five feet, and she hadn’t reacted to his proximity. Nor was she clinging to the bridge. He hitched an eyebrow and prayed he hadn’t misjudged her. “Do you want to talk about my dating situation?”
He tried not to notice the way the morning sun set fire to her hair, or how those eyes reminded him of hiking in the spring when the evergreens sported new growth. He tried, and failed, which made her combative tone almost welcomed.
Almost. Because he still had a job to do.
“Yes,” she said, like he’d asked the dumbest possible question. “That’s exactly what I wanted from this day. Right after I found myself stuck on this bridge, I thought, I need a guy to come talk to me about his dating situation.”
A grin tipped his mouth before he could stop it. He recognized the fear in her tone. Found her eyes swimming in it, but if turning fear into irritation toward him helped get her off this bridge the safe way, that was fine with him.
He was grateful Matt and the rest of his guys were at his back so as not to witness his facade splinter. Not that it was one. He was just doing his job, and if that meant goading her away from the edge, so be it. “Better me than the guy down there on the rescue boat. His dating situation isn’t one for polite conversation, not that that stops him from oversharing.”
Her eyes narrowed, then widened. She looked from him toward the direction of the fire truck, then toward the cops on the other end of the bridge, then back to him. “Wait. You think I’m going to jump?” Incredulity shook her small, curvy frame, and he noticed in every possible wrong way.
Eyes lit, she launched on the offensive. “I don’t want to be on the bridge. Do you really think I want to be under it?”
He studied her a moment, momentarily lost by the way the wind outlined her body through her clothes. Gawked was more like it. It was inappropriate and unprofessional, but damn, he wished he’d run into her at the diner instead. Or at the grocery store. Anywhere else, because under any other circumstances, he could think of a hell of a lot more interesting things for her to be under than the bridge.
To her question, he replied, “Well, ma’am, whether you ended up under the bridge would depend on the direction of the current.”
Her jaw dropped, then snapped shut. “Is that what you say to people who are about to jump?”
He kept his lips tight to hide another smile. “I thought you weren’t jumping.”
He was close enough now to invade her personal space. He could have easily grabbed her, but he didn’t see any signs that she was about to go over the side, nor was there an obviously abandoned vehicle nearby. He couldn’t imagine anyone taking the route by foot if they were afraid enough to freeze up, but this was Dry Rock. If she didn’t have a ride, she might not have had a choice about walking across the bridge.
The irritation twisting her expression did nothing to kill his gnawing—and yep, still inappropriate—attraction. “I’m not jumping,” she said, “so you can call off the fire trucks and the police cars.”
“And the boat. And there’s an ambulance, too.” He moved closer, and she reclaimed every inch he gained, shuffling backward, her hand only lightly touching the railing. She probably hadn’t noticed her own retreat.
“Please tell me you’re kidding. There’s really a boat?” She turned her head a fraction, then seemed to catch herself and jerked back toward him. The lull in momentum nearly had him tripping over himself not to walk right into her, though he wouldn’t harbor too many regrets. Not with a growing interest in this woman—one that turned more into an ache with every step away from emergency response territory. He tried to shake it. The last thing he wanted was an entanglement in Dry Rock. Not with everything he wanted waiting just two weeks away in Denver. He’d have plenty of time to twist a few bed sheets there.
Off the clock.
“We care about our citizens,” he said mildly. “That’s why we have this great big high bridge to keep you away from that little stream.”
“Little stream?” Horror blanched her face, and she took a few more steps back. “It looks like a dam broke down there.”
He glanced over the side and continued his forward press. “Nope, it’s calm today. You must not be from around here. It’s almost impossible to live here and not cross this bridge, and I don’t believe we’ve met.”
He’d remember if they had. Now that they were off the middle of the bridge, her hair had quit whipping all over the place. A light breeze lifted the strands, and those glasses he’d thought clunky with their dark frames now seemed almost cute. She definitely had the librarian thing going for her, but the rest of the package was far from that of the dowdy old woman who’d policed the school’s books when he was a kid. That woman had been about a hundred years old, tall and thin with the requisite bun. If Bridge Woman wore a bun, it would be the messy kind with a pencil stuck through it, the ends of her hair splayed like fire. Or a mad chicken.
That last thought made him grin.
Dropping his gaze to the rest of her wiped that smirk right off his face.
Everything suggested when the breeze had plastered clothing against her had been spot on. She was hot. Her button-up shirt gaped a bit unnaturally, exposing a nicely filled lacy black bra. Her skirt was probably knee-length but fluttered mid-thigh in the breeze as she continued to shuffle backward, revealing great legs. She wasn’t stick thin. Just soft, curvy, and a good foot shorter than his six-plus-feet.
He couldn’t remember such a flailing instant attraction to any woman, ever. The entire city of Denver could burn to the ground and the level of heat generated still wouldn’t touch her, and damned if he didn’t want to get his hands on her body.
One way or another, the next two weeks were going to be the longest of his life.
Second only to the next few moments. Because when she finally ran out of railing and the walkway made its subtle shift from bridge strata to plain old sidewalk, she didn’t express an ounce of relief.
Instead, she wore a fierce scowl that suggested she wanted him dead, and she might get her wish if he spent one more second drowning in those spitfire green eyes. Holding tight to that ounce of self-preservation, he smiled and asked, “Now that you’ve been properly rescued from that big scary bridge, is there anything else I can do for you?”
He figured he’d goad her one last time, but the move backfired. Yeah, she glowered fury, but he’d overshot by a mile. He’d managed to push her buttons, but he’d also done a number on his own.
Because she couldn’t be any less convenient, much less impressed by him.
And he couldn’t remember ever wanting anyone more.
Caitlin glared at the egotistical jerk with his stereotypical hero-complex, smirking at her because she’d been scared by a bridge.
Okay, so maybe his little trick deserved a smirk, but he was a first responder. Weren’t they supposed to be above reproach and maybe not staring at her boobs?
He might rank as some kind of wizard for his ability to get her off that death span without her realizing it, but that didn’t earn him the right to ogle her. Not even with those amazing whatever-color-they-were eyes. She bounced back and forth between hazel and chocolate before realizing she really didn’t—shouldn’t—care, and then wanted to kick herself for getting lost in his irises. But she could only see so much square jaw with the helmet in place, and height and broad shoulders meant nothing to a girl who couldn’t get onto a barstool without a boost. In short, he had nothing to offer her, so her rampaging ovaries could shut the hell up.
Or at least find someone who hadn’t enjoyed a front row seat to the most embarrassing moment of her life. “I’m fine,” she said, lifting her chin. “Thanks for your help.”
Maybe he’d go away and take his entire fleet of flashing lights with him. Now that she wasn’t in danger of falling in and drowning, she dared a look at the river. Yep, lights on the boat, too. And a crowd had gathered, some watching and holding up phones—great—with the rest staring at their devices in their hands, probably telling the whole world what they’d witnessed. Traffic jammed the business district behind the lane closures, and she imagined the other side looked the same. A couple of blocks down, she could just see the signage hanging from the tavern-style wrought iron arm that poked from the front of her bookstore.
If she could only get there and hide.
It was all she could think of.
Behind the smirking firefighter, an ambulance eased toward them. It, too, blasted light, but at least the siren remained silent. She didn’t need a ride—if anything, she needed to kick Mr. Hot and Bothering Her in the shin—but if she left in the ambulance, at least no one would see her walk directly to her store. Maybe she could avoid being that woman for a few more minutes, as if anyone could outrun the gossip of a thousand flashing lights and the dead stop of morning traffic.
Her fresh start was suddenly about as palatable as a gulp of lumpy milk.
Captain Ego glanced toward the guy who hopped from the ambulance parked a few feet away.
“Everything okay, Lieutenant?” the guy asked.
Okay, so Lieutenant Ego. She stood corrected. And she didn’t need him to answer for her. “I’m fine,” she said. “I had a moment on the bridge. It’s over.”
Ambulance Guy’s brow rose. “If you need resources—”
“I’ll make sure she knows who to talk to,” Lieutenant Ego cut in.
She hated both their pitying tones. Hands on hips, she fired back, “I don’t need resources. I’m afraid of the water. Deep, swirling, suck-you-under-until-you-die water.”
Both men stared.
Oops. She hadn’t planned on including the confession, and that left her flustered and seriously considering making a break for the mountains that backlit the city. Morning sun still dusted the peaks, where she knew, geographically speaking, there probably weren’t raging rivers. Even the mighty Colorado started as droplets up there. She could handle that. No flash floods, no terrifying moments trapped with her family in a truck swept away by dark churning water.
Nope. Not thinking about that.
The men exchanged glances like she’d just admitted to never having bathed. Lieutenant Ego was the one to speak. “There’s no water up here, ma’am.”
His voice sounded funny, like he was trying to choke back laughter.
“I’m afraid of the water under the bridge,” she clarified. And also heights, apparently, but no need to give them anything else to ridicule. “Either way, not going over the side, so you can stand down. With my thanks and apologies for disrupting your morning.”
“Yes ma’am,” Ambulance Guy finally said, backing off with a nod. But not before his eyes cut briefly, blatantly to her chest.
What was with this place? She scowled.
“You missed a button,” Lieutenant Ego offered helpfully.
She looked down at her shirt, saw the gaping hole, and snatched the fabric back together. “I appreciate your concern,” she said through her teeth. “If we could all go our separate ways now, that would be great.”
Ego Man reached into his jacket to dig through his pockets, shoving aside enough of the heavy gear to reveal some serious heat beneath those layers. Flat abs and a chest that strained at the dark blue T-shirt he wore underneath.
Annoyed, she blew at the hair that whipped her face. Double standards much? But that wasn’t even the problem. The problem was the surge of attraction that hit, and he was so not her type. Not that she had much of one. Her singular goal in dating was to avoid the overbearing men she seemed to attract back home. Showing up in a new town for a fresh start only to have her loins swoon over Mr. Overbearing himself was failure personified.
He removed his helmet and handed her the card he’d retrieved from his jacket. Lt. Shane Hendricks. Her fingers tingled where they’d brushed against his. “9-1-1 won’t do the trick?” she asked.
His gaze tipped lazily from where he’d zeroed in on that tremble of her hand—surely he hadn’t missed that—to her eyes. “This way’s a bit more direct and won’t bring the city to a grinding halt.”
She legitimately blushed when he uttered the word grinding. Probably innocently—maybe not—but regardless of how he meant it, her face blazed red with her interpretation. The hitch in his smile suggested he noticed. His eyes seemed darker now, a shade richer than her favorite mocha. Her knees actually weakened, like she was some dopey teenager and not a grown-ass woman.
One who needed a lieutenant in a shining fire truck to get her off a bridge.
With the entire city to witness it.
But it wasn’t the city that bothered her. It was a certain sex-on-a-stick firefighter who had the nerve to undress her with her eyes.
And her own traitorous body for responding.
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