Burned by Love - Erin Wright - E-Book

Burned by Love E-Book

Erin Wright

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Beschreibung

He's a man of few words…
Troy Horvath doesn't need much outta life. His fellow firefighters, a good beer, and...well, one date with the most gorgeous woman in town couldn't hurt, right?
Penny is beautiful, sassy, and everything he doesn't need.
But she's exactly who he wants.
He knows from the get-go she isn't planning on staying in Sawyer. She just isn't a small-town girl. With those heels and her striking red lipstick, she's a firecracker, and destined for so much more.
But maybe, just maybe, he can make all of her big-city dreams come true – if only she'll give him a chance...

She may've friend-zoned him…
And now Penny's realizing that may've been a mistake. Troy is hot. Like, firefighter-calendar hot. 
She swore when she came back to Sawyer to care for her mother, it would only be temporary. So…maybe a relationship with Troy could be temporary, too? 
Except deep down, Penny knows Troy wants so much more, and there's a chance she does, too.
He's hiding something, though – something big.
Can she be the one to finally get him to open up? 

And if she does, will their relationship survive the truth?

Burned by Love i s the fourth novel in the Firefighters of Long Valley Romance series, although all books in the Long Valley world can be read as standalones. It has some strong language, and oh my, sexy times. Enjoy!

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Burned by Love

A Firefighters of Long Valley Romance Novel - Book 4

Erin Wright

Wright’s Reads

Contents

Author’s Note, Part 1

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Epilogue

Accounting for Love Blurb

Accounting for Love Preview

The Other Half of My Life

A FREE Story For You…

Stampede of Love Blurb

Stampede of Love Preview

The story doesn’t end…

Also by Erin Wright

About Erin Wright

Copyright © 2018 by Erin Wright

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be constructed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical articles and reviews.

To my family:

Your support and love means the world to me. I’m sorry I’ve run off to see the country and wasn’t at home for Christmas this year, but know that I was there in my heart.

And to Jasmine the Writing Cat:

Someday, I’ll love another being as much as you love me. Thanks for all of the snuggles and help along the way. I’m sorry I include so many dogs in my books. I’ll try to do better in the future.

Author’s Note, Part 1

Hi, y’all!

Burned by Love is the fourth novel in the Firefighters of Long Valley series, and there are another nine books currently published in the regular Long Valley series. I point this fact out because all of my books are written as standalones (the two main characters have a beginning, middle, and end to their love story, so you never have to buy a second book to find out how they work out their problems) but Burned, more than any other book I’ve ever written, brings in people from other books in the Long Valley world. You’ll soon see why that is, but I just wanted to say before you get started that:

Burned by Love is a standalone novel, just like every other book I’ve ever written; butIf you haven’t read all of the other books in the Long Valley world yet (both the Firefighters and regular series), some of the side characters may not have as much meaning to you. So, perhaps you should go back and read the other books in the Long Valley world. *hint, hint, nudge, nudge*

Last bit of warning: Burned by Love goes back in time (to May of 2018) so if you just finished reading the third book in the Firefighters series, Fire and Love (which concludes in the fall of 2018), you might be confused when suddenly, people who were already together as a couple aren’t together yet, or situations that happened long ago are now being repeated.

They’re not actually on repeat, of course – they’re just being told from Penny and Troy’s point of view this time, and if I’m not mistaken, I think more than a few of you are going to be pretty surprised by how different that viewpoint can be at times. This is to be expected – every person in Long Valley has their own hopes and dreams and backgrounds and things they care about. Their reactions to the same situation are going to be very different, depending on that background.

So with that, please enjoy Troy and Penny’s story. I hope it speaks to your heart like it did to mine.

Chapter 1

Troy

Quick Note: If you enjoy Burned by Love, be sure to check out my offer of a FREE Long Valley novella at the end.

With that, enjoy!

May, 2018

Troy Horvath had always been the quiet one of the bunch, and to be honest, he liked that about himself.

The way he saw it, it allowed him to sit back and take in the world, without being required to yack the ear off whoever was closest to him at the moment.

The way his aunt and uncle saw it, on the other hand, was that it allowed him to let the world pass him on by without even sparing him a second glance.

Actually, take that back – it made his aunt think it allowed the world to pass him on by without a second glance. His uncle had never said a word about the fact that Troy wasn’t on the chatty side, at least not within earshot of Troy.

But then again, Aunt Horvath was (not surprisingly) a woman, and as far as Troy could tell, all women ever wanted to do was talk about their feelings, dreams, and desires, preferably all at the same time, and if a man didn’t feel the same way, well then, there was something wrong with him.

Sparky was the only female Troy knew that didn’t fall into the must-always-be-talking trap. She was content to just be, and didn’t need him willing to discuss politics, religion, or the price of bananas down at the Shop ‘N Go. Being the perfect female, all she wanted was for someone to pet her (preferably 24/7/365 if it could be arranged) and feed her doggy treats. He’d just adopted her a few days before, but they’d already formed a bond between them that was unbreakable. She trusted him with all her heart and soul, and after all she’d been through, that meant a hell of a lot.

As if she could read his thoughts, Sparky stood up and stretched, her back arching as her mouth opened wide, showing off all her pearly white canine teeth, and then she snuggled up against his legs, looking up at him with her soulful brown eyes. She was unabashedly begging for some pettings, and of course, Troy was happy to oblige. It wasn’t hard to love on a dog that’d been through so much, but had somehow come out the other side sweet as pie. Her eyes closed in pleasure as her silky white tail began stirring up clouds of dust from the dirty cement floor.

He coughed a little from the dirt flinging through the air, but otherwise ignored it. He was used to working in dusty environments – his uncle’s mill had dust floating through the air so thick, he could practically swim through it – so the dirty fire station floor didn’t even rate a second glance.

No, what Troy was focused on was the Dance of Desire happening right in front of his eyes.

He was at the monthly training session for the Sawyer Fire Department, and all of the volunteers (and the paid fire chief, Jaxson Anderson) were gathered at the station to learn better firefighting techniques or safety procedures or whatever else their brave leader wanted to teach them this time. Back when Troy’s uncle was the fire chief, they didn’t do nearly as much training as they did now, and it was certainly something that Troy could begrudgingly compliment Jaxson for improving since he took over back in January.

This training meeting was nothing like any other training meeting, though, because this time, a female was here.

In her typical, Georgia-Rowland-is-always-in-charge style, Georgia had voluntold the whole department that they were to be interviewed by a local reporter about the wildfire that had blazed through Long Valley over the last couple of days; a wildfire where Moose Garrett had saved her ass by breaking every rule in the book, and no doubt some that weren’t written down, just for funsies.

Based on how Georgia and Moose were looking at each other right now, it seemed pretty damn clear to Troy that they’d done more than survive a wildfire together. Troy’s hand stroked down over Sparky’s silky fur as he watched the two pretend to be “just friends,” even as the sparks that flew between them were so blindingly bright, he probably oughta go grab his sunglasses from his truck. Did Georgia and Moose think they were being sneaky, that no one was noticing that they were sending glances to each other that were bound to set the dry grass outside ablaze and start up a second wildfire? He knew that people in lust were oblivious, but surely not that oblivious, right?

Idly, he glanced away from the couple mooning over each other and checked his phone. This reporter guy was supposed to have arrived five minutes ago. How long were they gonna sit around and wait for him to show up before they moved on with their evening? It wasn’t that Troy had anything he needed to go home and do – although it wouldn’t hurt to do a load of laundry, and his kitchen could use a good scrubbing, none of that was pressing – but if given a choice between hanging out at the fire station and watching two lovebirds simper over each other, or being at home in just his boxers, watching a game with a beer in his hand…

Well, that choice was pretty obvious.

He tugged at the collar of his button-up shirt, wishing he hadn’t bothered to change before coming to the meeting that night. Normally, getting dressed up in a collared shirt so he could go hang out with a bunch of guys in a greasy, dirty building for a couple of hours was not something he’d sign up for. But because of this reporter coming tonight – wherever the hell he was – Jaxson had put out the word for everyone to come dressed and cleaned up and ready for a photo shoot, just in case that was what the reporter wanted to do. Troy scrubbed at his clean-shaven jaw with a regretful sigh. He’d had a nice seven-day start on a beard going; now he’d have to start all over again.

Why Jaxson cared so much about what some dumbass reporter thought of them was beyond him. Uncle Horvath never would’ve stooped so low as to court the approval of the press. Chief Horvath focused on what needed to be done, and to hell with the rest of them. Jaxson seemed like a nice enough kid, but he sure had a lot to—

The air changed just then. The chatter of the men died away; even Georgia’s giggle over whatever amazingly brilliant comment Moose had just made disappeared. Troy’s head shot up as the crackle of electricity around him made the hairs on his neck stand straight up. Not a sound was heard in the cavernous fire station, other than the click of heels on pavement as the most gorgeous woman Troy had ever seen in his life came striding into the joint.

Holy

Shit

There were athletic, pretty women like Georgia Rowland. There were beauty queens like her cousin, Tennessee Rowland. There were cute, next-door-neighbor girls like Sugar Stonemyer down at the bakery, who Jaxson had started dating.

And then, there was this woman.

He rather felt like he’d been clobbered upside the head by a 2x4. Maybe a padded one, but there was definitely a 2x4 involved. As his gaze followed every slim curve of the woman’s body – her long legs, her strappy high heels, her tight skirt, her styled blonde hair, her ruby red lips curved into a self-confident smile – he tried to make his brain work. There was something…

Something wrong here.

It was…something.

Oh yeah, why is this woman here?

Supermodels didn’t tend to walk into a rural fire station on a Friday night just to hang out with a bunch of blue-collar guys and shoot the shit.

That just didn’t happen.

The roar of surprise and lust in his ears finally died down enough for him to hear what she was saying. “Hi, I’m Penny Roth,” she said as she shook hands with Levi Scranton, one of the guys on the force. “How long have you been a firefighter?”

He missed Levi’s answer, too stunned to hear anything but the roar in his ears again. There was only one reason for this woman to be shaking hands with all the men and asking questions about being a firefighter.

But that meant…

His brain staggered to a stop. Seriously? This was the reporter? This paragon of beauty and legs and sparkling high heels was a reporter for the two weekly rags in the area?

Sparky whined and nudged Troy’s hand, apparently not happy with the speed of his pettings. He looked down at her blankly for a moment, trying to remember what he was doing. Who he was. Where he was. Sparky whined again, and absentmindedly, he scratched her behind the ears, her tail resuming the rapid thumping of joy and pleasure at his touch.

His mind swam as he tried to put the pieces together – the reporter for the Sawyer Times and Franklin Gazette was a drop-dead gorgeous woman. No spare tire around the middle; no balding spot on the back of her head; actually, no male qualities whatsoever. She appeared to be as feminine as they came.

It wasn’t that Troy didn’t think that a woman could be a reporter; it’d just never crossed his mind that she would be. The stereotypical reporter that Troy had imagined…

Well, that image was nothing like the woman in front of him, that was for damn sure.

She’d reached Moose and was now shaking his hand, chatting easily with him as Georgia looked on and glowered possessively. Even as Troy was busy trying to accept the truth of what he was seeing in front of him, he also found his mouth quirking up a bit with humor at the territorial look on Georgia’s face. What, exactly, had happened up at Eagle’s Nest when Moose and Georgia had tried to stay safe from the wildfire raging around them? It sure looked like they’d practiced some mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on each other.

And then, Penny Roth was walking towards him, and his mind went blank.

How she’d noticed him over in the corner, sitting on the tailgate of the water truck, accustomed – and expecting – the world to walk right on by, he’d never know. He wasn’t used to being noticed. In fact, he counted on it, so her laser-focused gaze on him as she walked over…he just didn’t know what to think.

Or perhaps it was the aforementioned 2x4, padded or not. He’d been walloped but good, and he wasn’t quite sure he was breathing.

“Hi, I’m Penny Roth,” she said again, reaching her hand out to shake his. He was frozen on the tailgate of the water truck, Sparky leaning against his legs and trapping him there even though he should be rising to greet her but moving didn’t seem possible just then, except for his hand – thank God he could move it – so he raised it up and shook hers, and when their palms touched…

It was like grasping a bolt of lightning. Her gaze flared, as bright and brilliant as her smile, as they locked eyes. “Troy Horvath,” he got out, wanting to hang onto her hand for the next six months or so. Just until he got used to the feeling shooting up his arm. Then he could let go.

But not a moment before.

Somehow, though, she seemed to be immune to this overwhelming desire to keep their palms pressed together to feel the electricity arcing between them, and instead pulled her hand out of his, dropping to her knees in front of Sparky to love on her. “Aren’t you a sweetie,” she cooed to Sparky, letting his dog give her face a bath while Sparky’s tail swept up a storm on the dusty cement floor.

Troy was in shock. Moose was in shock. Levi was in shock. Every person in the room just froze, watching this unfold in front of them.

Sparky didn’t like anyone except Troy. Not even Moose and Georgia, who’d saved her from the wildfire just two days ago, were freely allowed to pet her. As best as they could figure, she’d been beat by some sadistic son-of-a-bitch and now chose who was allowed within ten feet of her very, very carefully.

She didn’t give out face baths easily. Hell, Troy’d just gotten his first one from her this morning. And here she was, loving on Penny like they were the best of friends.

His heart twisted a little at the sight.

Of course, it was good to see Sparky love someone else other than Troy. He was happy that it was happening. He was just in shock, was all. Nothing more than that.

“So, you’re the one who saved Georgia from the fire?” the reporter asked, looking up at Troy, her eyes intense as she studied him from her kneeling position on the dirty fire station floor. She didn’t seem to notice that Sparky was shedding white and black hairs all over her skirt and blouse, just like she shed all over everything else she came in close contact with. Troy had given up on being dog-hair free about an hour or so after he’d adopted her; it just wasn’t gonna happen. Was Penny gonna be pissed when she saw where Sparky’s fur was ending up?

He opened up his mouth to warn her, but decided to answer her question instead. This’d be a good test to see how much she really liked dogs; if she freaked out about having some stray hairs left behind, well, that’d tell him all he needed to know. Unlike Jaxson, Troy didn’t believe he had to bend over backwards to impress the press.

He balled up his fist where her hand had slid into his, pushing the buzzing electric feeling away.

“No, not me.” Troy finally managed a reply to her question – embarrassingly slowly but he got there – and jerked his head towards Moose, who’d followed Penny over to the water truck, Georgia trailing along behind him. “He did.”

“I thought the dog was found up in the fire,” Penny said, her brow knotted with confusion. “How did she end up with you, then?”

“She likes me,” Troy said simply, shrugging his shoulders. Just like she likes you were the unspoken words left hanging in the air. Sparky loving on someone else…Troy was pretty sure in that moment, he could’ve been knocked flat on his ass with a feather.

Sparky did another swipe across Penny’s face with her long pink tongue and Penny laughed. “How long have you been a firefighter?” she asked, continuing to pet Sparky as she looked up at him, ignoring the whole supposed reason for her being there – i.e., Moose and Georgia and the wildfire that’d burned hundreds of acres before nature had intervened and had kept the valley from going up in flames. Troy’d gone out on that call, of course, but by time they’d begun their work, nature had already taken pity on them and had reversed course.

You win some, you lose some, and sometimes, you’re just damn lucky. Georgia had been the one to name Sparky; perhaps she should’ve named her Lucky instead.

Troy forced himself to focus on Penny’s question. If he kept answering her ten minutes after she asked him something, she was gonna start to think he was slow in the head.

“All my life, it feels like,” he admitted. “My uncle used to be the head firefighter,” he was choosing his words carefully, as carefully as he ever had, landmines waiting for him at every turn as he did his best to hopscotch across them. “So I began young. But he retired, and Jaxson—” he felt his tongue wanting to seize up but he got the name out without making an ass of himself, “—took over in January.”

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Moose and Georgia move away, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to thank them for it, or yell at them to come back. He wasn’t supposed to be the one talking to the reporter; they were. They were the ones who saved the dog. They were the ones who lived through a wildfire all by themselves up in the wilds of Idaho. Troy’d had as much to do with all of that as he’d had helping Santa Claus deliver presents this last Christmas. But telling Penny to go talk to someone else, to go pin someone else down with her sparkling eyes, intent on drawing answers out of them…

He gulped.

“Your uncle was the fire chief, but after he retired, they didn’t choose you to be the next one?” she asked, the surprise clear in her voice.

He laughed a little at that. “It isn’t a hereditary position,” he said carefully, choosing each word before speaking it. He shrugged. “Plus, I didn’t apply. I didn’t want the job.”

He heard Moose and Jaxson say something to the guys, and then everyone laughed. He hadn’t heard what they’d said, but he was sure – absolutely sure – that they’d been discussing the two of them. He felt the tips of his ears go red. He wanted to shoot them a glare and tell them to back off, but pretending deafness seemed like a much safer plan.

Less talking was involved, anyway, which always made it a safer plan.

“What job do you have that is better than fire chief?” Penny asked, finally standing and swiping at the hair and dirt all over her clothes. She didn’t seem pissed that she was filthy; she was just straightening herself out. Her curled blonde hair swung as she worked to clean up, and his mind paused on the idea of touching it. Would a curl wrap around his finger?

He forced himself to concentrate on her question.

Huh. What was her question again?

Job. She wants to know where you work, you dumbass.

“The Horvath Mill. The new one outside of town,” he clarified. Sadly, the old one had burned to a crisp this past January after the mayor’s son had thrown a cigarette butt into a pile of old rags and set the place on fire. Damn teenagers. That building was part of his family’s heritage, and his heart still hurt at the idea of it burning like it did, leaving a shell of blackened bricks behind.

“Horvath, eh?” She slid onto the tailgate next to him, seemingly oblivious to the dirt and grime encrusted there. She was settling into place before Troy could stop her, so again, he snapped his mouth shut. The damage was done now, and hell, her elbow was brushing up against his. He could no more warn her to move than he could chop off that elbow. “Is the mill owned by your uncle, the former fire chief? Or by someone else in your family?”

Damn, she was quick on the draw. Family relations and who owned what and who was related to who was a constant struggle to keep straight in a small town, but Miss Penny Roth was apparently up to the task.

“Uncle,” he said simply. It was the Horvath family mill, and as soon as Aunt Horvath could convince her husband to retire fully, it would be Troy’s. None of their three kids wanted it, and since Troy’d been working there for most of his adult life, it just made sense for him to take it over.

And most importantly, it was what he was supposed to do. He always did what he was supposed to do.

“Do your parents live in town, too?” she asked as Sparky laid her head on Penny’s lap and began begging for some attention. Troy sent his not-so-loyal dog a dark look of his own. It was good to see her feel comfortable enough that she would allow other people to touch her, of course, but did she have to go that far? Penny began absentmindedly stroking Sparky’s head, scratching right behind her ears just like the spotted setter loved, and sure enough, Sparky’s tail started flying again, dirt and hair going every which way.

“No, they live in Boise. I’ve lived here with my aunt and uncle since freshman year, though.” He tried to quickly come up with a question to ask her so he could just listen to her talk and he could be free to retreat into blessed, comfortable silence, but she beat him to the punch.

“Have you fought a lot of fires, then, since your uncle was the fire chief? Is it an old hat to you by now?” Her eyes were pinned on him, a mysterious dark blue color that matched her shirt. He’d never seen quite that shade before, and wondered for a moment if she was wearing colored lenses.

He laughed uncomfortably. “Firefighting is never an old hat to anyone. Complacency is a good way to get yourself killed. But I have fought a lot of fires – both house and wildfires.” He was surprised by how many words were rolling off his tongue effortlessly, as if speaking easily to a beautiful woman – or anyone at all – was something that he did all the time. Did she know how strange this was for him?

Looking at her – beautiful, smart, outgoing – he was pretty sure she had absolutely no concept of what it was like to be trapped inside a body that didn’t always cooperate.

“You guys are all volunteers, right?” she asked, bringing him back to the present. He nodded, and she continued, “I’ve always wondered if it was hard to find people to volunteer to risk their lives. Why are you willing to do this if you’re not even going to get paid?”

“Volunteer doesn’t mean unpaid,” he hurried to tell her. “We get paid every time we respond to a fire. We just don’t get paid otherwise. It is hard to find volunteers, though. People are busy with their own lives.” He shrugged. It was understandable, really. He’d been raised to focus on the fire department and making sure that every fire was responded to no matter what, but he wasn’t like everyone else, and that was okay. They didn’t need a hundred guys to respond to every call-out; just enough guys to make sure the people of Long Valley were safe.

Anything beyond that was a bonus.

“Is fire chief also a volunteer position?” she asked.

He flinched. Without meaning to, she’d hit right on that sore spot with a hammer.

Looking at her, really trying to gauge who she was, Troy hesitated. Penny was part of the press. The press could say whatever they wanted; could twist his words and make him out to be a jealous jackass or a real gentleman. It was all in how she wrote it.

Could he trust her enough to talk about how virtually the entire town had been up in arms over Jaxson being made a full-time employee from day one, when Uncle Horvath had been a simple volunteer like everyone else? Last month, after Jaxson had saved Gage and Sugar from the Muffin Man bakery fire, the town had settled down a whole lot, seemingly forgiving Jaxson for being an upstart kid from the big city, there to raise their taxes and tell them how it was done in a real town, but for Troy, it still smarted a little.

Finally, he settled on telling Penny the truth, but nothing more. Personal feelings didn’t matter anyway and certainly weren’t newsworthy.

“He’s a full-time employee,” he said simply.

Penny raised one eyebrow in response to that, silently asking him to tell her the rest of the story, but Troy sidestepped the unspoken request. “Are you from Franklin?” he asked instead. He was damn sure she wasn’t from Sawyer – if he’d ever laid eyes on her before, he would’ve remembered it.

Forgetting Penny Roth just wasn’t something that happened.

“Born and raised,” she said with a disgruntled sigh. Sparky let out a blissful sigh of her own as she snuggled deeper into Penny’s lap, looking like a poster child for relaxation. With her eyes closed, the dog missed the second dark look Troy sent her way. Did she have to appear so at home so quickly? “I graduated in 2006,” Penny continued, oblivious to the looks Troy was sending his traitorous dog. “You?”

“2000. Been here ever since. You?”

“Left town on graduation night.” She shot him a laughing look. “Yup, I was one of those kids – attended graduation with my car packed to the brim with my stuff. I couldn’t get out of here fast enough. Got my bachelor’s in graphic design from a university down in San Diego. I—” She caught the surprised look on his face, and grimaced. “Being a reporter is just a temporary gig.” She waved her hand dismissively. “I’m going to be leaving Long Valley soon, thank God, and heading back to civilization. No more living in a town where the most exciting thing that happens all year is the quilt auction, or when Mr. Cowell’s cows get out and block the road into town.”

Troy forced a polite smile onto his face, even as his heart sank. Of course Penny the Reporter wasn’t planning on staying in the area. What part of the elegant, gorgeous woman sitting next to him looked like it belonged in rural, mountainous Idaho? Not those sparkling high heels. Not the frilly blouse. And certainly not her bright red lipstick. There wasn’t a damn inch of her that fit in here, which would probably explain his overwhelming gut reaction to her. Of course he’d react that way. She was like no one else in the whole of Long Valley.

But now he knew she was leaving, and that meant she was untouchable. He’d be better off letting her walk away, no matter what the burning sensation in his palm where they’d touched was urging him to do.

He pushed off the end of the water truck. “Ready to go interview?” he asked, jerking his head towards the group of firefighters who appeared to be training on safety equipment. Georgia was still there, sitting off to the side at a decrepit desk covered with yellowed forms, patiently waiting around for Penny to ask her questions.

Penny pushed herself off the tailgate of the water truck also, a tight smile on her face, both of them ignoring the very humanlike groan from a disappointed Sparky. “Absolutely! I better get my job done, right?”

As they walked towards the knot of firefighters, Troy told himself that she wasn’t the only one there who had a job to do. His whole purpose in life was to take over the Horvath Mill, nothing more, nothing less.

Dating the local reporter who was on her way out the door just wasn’t in the cards, no matter how many 2x4’s were involved.

Chapter 2

Penny

All right, so she knew she was being dumb, but inquiring minds wanted to know: Did knowing that upfront make her more of an idiot or less of one?

She sighed.

Yeah, getting dressed up in her cutest skirt and her tallest heels and her lowest cut blouse to go to a grain mill (of all places!) sure wasn’t a mark in her favor. Especially since the whole point of being there – a certain Troy Horvath – didn’t even like her. There for a minute at the fire station, she’d thought he did, and then…

After practically throwing herself at him at the firefighter meeting, he’d simply walked her over to the rest of the guys – well, and to Georgia – and had said she needed to interview them, then had slipped to the back of the group of men, leaving her with the unfortunate task of actually doing her job.

She’d interviewed Moose – who named their child Moose?!?! Seriously, Idaho, this is getting out of control – and Georgia as quickly as possible before making a fast exit, the stares all following her out the door. She’d worked hard on her piece back at the office, writing up an article with more heart and soul than she ever had before. Even Mr. Toewes, her boss and a normally unappeasable man, had told her it “wasn’t bad.”

She’d practically fallen over from such lavish praise.

Clutching a copy of this week’s Sawyer Times in her hand, hot off the press, she made her way over to the front door of the Horvath Mill, ready to deliver a copy directly to Troy. Just as a way of saying thank you for his help. Nothing more than that. She absolutely wasn’t hoping to get him to ask her out on a date.

Absolutely not.

She pulled the glass door open and walked into a wonderfully air conditioned office. She threw her head back and sucked in the cool air for just a moment, trying to bring her core temperature back down to normal levels. It was only May outside, but someone had forgotten to tell the thermometer on the wall. For a normally cool climate like Long Valley, the low-90-degree temps were an absolute killer.

“Can I help you?” asked an older woman sternly over the rim of her glasses, looking Penny up and down, clearly not believing that she belonged inside of a grain mill. She wasn’t too far off with that assessment, of course, but Penny wasn’t about to let that show on her face. Let the old woman think what she wanted.

“Yes, I’m here to talk to Troy Horvath, please,” Penny said in her most polite voice possible.

“Talk to Troy?” the older woman repeated in disbelief. “You better be ready to do all of the talking,” the heavy-set woman muttered under her breath as she pushed away from her desk and headed into the back, leaving Penny alone by herself up front.

Ignoring the dour woman, Penny walked around the clean, if totally plain, office that had all of the charm of a prison cell. Giving the place “that homey feeling” was not high on the list of priorities around here, that was for sure and certain. With nothing else to look at, she drifted over to the one picture someone had bothered to hang on the wall. In the center stood an older man, perhaps Troy’s uncle, holding an oversized pair of scissors, poised to cut a giant red ribbon. He looked painfully out of place in the staged event, grimacing what could…charitably be termed a smile at the camera.

If one was feeling really, really charitable.

Further down the ribbon with his own pair of ridiculous scissors was a younger version of Troy. Unlike his uncle, he didn’t even attempt to smile at the camera but simply stared at it levelly, waiting for the ceremony to be over so he could get back to work.

Looking closer, she was pretty sure they were inside of this office, although in the photo, someone had actually taken the time to decorate it with live plants and even a bouquet of flowers. This had to have been the grand opening of the new mill; nothing else explained an honest-to-God vase of roses on the front counter.

She wondered what made them move out here into the countryside to build a new mill, leaving the old one on Main Street to slowly crumble away under the onslaught of time. She’d seen the old mill on Main Street countless times as she’d driven through Sawyer on the way to Boise – she couldn’t exactly miss one of the largest buildings in town – and had been sad to see it burn back in January. Now it looked even more decrepit, just waiting for a bulldozer to come along and put it out of its misery.

“Penny?”

His deep voice caught her off guard and she spun in a circle on her heel, thanking her lucky stars as she did so that she wasn’t a klutz. Spinning on the spike of a 3-inch high heel wasn’t for the faint of heart.

“Hi, Troy!” she said breathlessly, the surprise of his appearance making her heart race. That, obviously, was the only reason her heart felt like it was going to thump right out of her chest.

Not because of the light blond stubble across his strong jaw.

Not because of the way his dark blond hair fell across his forehead.

Not because she could see the bulge of his biceps through the worn fabric of his dusty, dirty work shirt.

And absolutely not because even in her highest high heels, he was still taller than her.

It was a sad truthitude in Penny’s life that it was difficult to find a guy who wasn’t a midget compared to her – near impossible, really – and the height disparity only got worse when she wore heels. And since she loved wearing heels, she often went around the world feeling a bit like a skinny version of King Kong, towering over everyone around her, in danger of accidentally smashing the tiny people under her shoe without noticing.

Fine, that was a slight exaggeration, but only a very slight one.

And then, here was Troy Horvath. Even in her highest heels, she had to lift her chin just a little to look into his pale green eyes, eyes that were studying her intently, waiting for her to get on with it so he could go back to work.

Did she see a flash of interest in those gorgeous eyes? Or was she just wishing so hard for it that she was imagining things?

She took a deep breath and flashed her prettiest smile at him. It was now or never. “Hey, sorry for interrupting you at work. I didn’t know your home address, so this was the only place I could think of where I could give you your very own copy.” She pulled the newspaper out from behind her back and thrust it at him.

Slowly, he took it and unfolded it, studying the picture of him and Sparky in full color above the fold, Sparky’s loving nature perfectly captured as she snuggled against his legs, looking up at him adoringly. The Sawyer Times was usually printed in black and white each week, unless an advertiser was willing to pay the upgrade fee to spot for a colored ad. When that happened, the whole newspaper was printed in full color. Penny had been thrilled to see that this week’s newspaper got the color treatment – apparently some Dawson Blackhorse cowboy was wanting to advertise a breeding stallion, so he’d paid the hefty fee to make it happen.

But what Penny cared about was that Troy’s green eyes and dark blond hair and finely sculpted pink lips were going to be immortalized in full color for the rest of eternity, not to mention Sparky’s pink tongue hanging out of her mouth.

It really was an awesome picture, if she did say so herself.

“I even mentioned the fundraiser you guys did last week,” she said into the deafening silence when Troy didn’t say a word, “and included how to donate money to help improve the radio system you guys use. It was Moose who’d told me that the system needed upgrading. Hopefully you’ll get some more donations to help out…”

She trailed off miserably. Troy was still just reading over the article, standing there silently as she babbled on. She caught the smirk on the face of the older woman who’d sat back down at her desk, clearly giving her the “I told you so” look. Penny looked back up at Troy, confused. He had talked the other night. Not tons, but certainly more than just her name, which was all he’d said thus far today.

“It’s even printed in full color this week!” She pointed at the large picture of Troy, front and center, as if he was in danger of missing it. “It’s a lot cheaper to print in black and white, you see, so color is only used when an advertiser wants it for their ad, in which case they have to pay a lot more, and when that happens, then the whole paper gets the color treatment. It only happens maybe once a month, but I guess this week, a local horse breeder wanted to advertise his stallion in full color, so…there you go!”

This was going badly.

This was going very, very badly.

She’d told herself not to do this – not to throw herself at him and that was clearly what she was doing, wearing an outfit that would be more at home in a club on a Saturday night than in a mill, for hell’s sakes – but she’d also told herself that she couldn’t cover up her best assets, not if she was going to wrangle a date out of Troy, and now…

“Well anyway,” she said cheerfully, if talking through a closed-off throat that was filling with embarrassment and tears could be considered cheerful, “I better head out. Got that quilt raffle to report on, you know. Crazy quilt raffles – so exciting! Can hardly stand the excitement of living in a thriving metropolis like Long Valley.”

The sarcasm wasn’t so much dripping off her words as pouring off them in waves. She flashed him a completely insincere smile. “Best of luck with the mill, and taking it over from your uncle, and getting the radios for the firefighters. I’m sure I’ll see you around.”

She turned on her heel – even with her throat almost completely closed off at this point and her face stinging a brilliant red with embarrassment, she managed the movement effortlessly – and headed back for the glass front door and the unbearable heat outside.

“Penny!” Troy called out as her hand touched the cool metal bar of the door handle. “Will you go out with me?”

She wrapped her fingers around the handle, holding on for dear life, and turned slowly back to him.

Chapter 3

Troy

Shit.

He’d really stepped in it now. Out of all of the dumb things that he could’ve blurted out, asking Penny Roth on a date had to be in the top five.

And dammit all, he was Troy Horvath – he didn’t blurt things out. That wasn’t a thing that happened to him. Ever.

Glenda had gasped quietly when he’d practically shouted the question, but he ignored her. She was a gossiping old lady who’d be sure to spread the news all over the mill by time the afternoon break was over, but Troy pushed that out of his mind for now. Since he’d been stupid and blurted out a question he had no right asking Penny…

Well, now he wanted an answer to it.