USA Today bestselling author Jennifer Bernard is hotter than ever with a sexy new series about the wildfire fighters of Jupiter Point.
The town bad boy is back to clear his name.
Firefighter Sean Marcus left Jupiter Point thirteen years ago in disgrace, but now he’s coming home to set the record straight. As the leader of the new Jupiter Point Hotshots wildfire crew, he’s out to prove he’s no longer the troubled boy who fled after a night of shocking violence. He’s returned for one reason only--and it’s not to fall in love. But that plan goes up in smoke the minute he sets eyes on Evie McGraw, all grown up and gorgeous.
The town sweetheart has a secret.
Evie has never spoken about the night that changed her life. But she can’t escape it, especially now that her brother’s wild friend Sean is back. Rugged, sexy and impossible to ignore, he’s the only one who knows what truly happened. Evie gave up everything to protect her family, but now, she has to make a choice. Keep silent…or put her heart on the line and let Sean help heal the past?
More from Jupiter Point: The Jupiter Point Hotshots Box Set (Books 1-3) is on sale for a limited time!
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Burn So Bright ~ Chapter 1
Also by Jennifer Bernard
About the Author
Seven months earlier
Sean Marcus had a knack for impossible situations. So far, he’d survived—usually by the skin of his teeth. But right now, in the Big Canyon Wilderness with the entire world seemingly on fire, he wasn’t worried about himself. Only one thing mattered: keeping his crew alive.
He squinted over his shoulder at the towering plumes of black smoke. This wildfire moved like nothing Sean had ever seen. Two minutes ago, he thought they had at least a half hour to get to the black. But the way this thing was eating through the forest, the Fighting Scorpion Hotshots didn’t stand a chance of outracing it. Especially when they were already exhausted from three days of backbreaking line work. They’d saved an entire subdivision of two hundred families. But if they didn’t get out of here fast, this would be his last impossible situation.
He gave a quick glance at the terrain around them. A thickly wooded ravine to the east, a sheer rock face to the west. The cliff face could provide some shelter against the blast of oncoming flames. This was it. Their best chance, right here. Quick head count. All twenty members of his crew here and accounted for.
“We’ll deploy here,” he called. Panic flashed across the grimy faces of his fellow firefighters. None of them had ever been in a situation like this—trapped behind the line with a forest fire marching toward them. It was every hotshot crew’s worst case scenario. They trained for it, of course, but the fear, the dread, the relentless advance of towering black smoke, the particulate matter swirling through the air, the animal need to flee—how could you ever really be prepared?
“Get those shelters out,” he shouted over the rumble of the approaching firestorm. Josh Marshall, his best friend on the crew, stood staring at the monstrous blaze as if he were hypnotized. Sean had never seen the team jokester speechless before. He reached for Josh’s pack, unzipped the carrying case that held his shelter, and gave him a shove. “Go, Marsh. Now.”
At the sound of his nickname, Josh snapped out of his trance. He shook out the thin aluminum shelter, stepped into it, then dropped to the ground.
His voice hoarse, Sean yelled to the other firefighters, “Stay as close together as you can. Get your face down on the ground. Pin your shelters with your elbows and knees and whatever it takes.”
Within seconds, all the hotshots had disappeared inside their silvery tents—except for one.
Finn Abrams—the rookie—backed away, his eyes wild with terror. “No way in hell,” he yelled at Sean. “I’m not gonna sit here and get burned up!” He turned and bolted for the ravine, which was already smoking from the first licks of flames.
“Finn! Get back here!” Sean started after him. He’d heard of this happening. Firefighters panicking when faced with the prospect of trusting your life to a thin piece of fabric. He’d tackle him to the ground if he had to. Pin him and force that shelter into place.
But Finn kept going as if a demon was on his heels. And maybe there was—Sean felt it nipping at his back with hot bites of sparks.
Something snagged his leg as he passed a shelter. Josh was half in, half out of his tent, arm stretched to grab him. “Get the fuck in your shelter.”
A blast of hot air blistered the back of Sean’s neck. He took one last look at Finn, who was still running, stumbling toward the edge of the ravine, and gave a quick prayer that he’d make it somewhere—anywhere—before the fire hit.
He stepped into his shelter and dropped down. He pressed his face against the earth where the air would be the coolest and pulled the material over his head. To fend off the wind generated by the fire, he used his feet and elbows to pin the fabric to the ground.
He was still shifting around when the most intense sound he’d ever heard swept over him. It sounded like the flapping of ten million batwings pummeling the fabric that encased him. Wind shrieked and roared. Sean closed his eyes against the heat, which felt as if it could melt his eyeballs.
“Holy fuck!” Josh shouted from his shelter.
Amazing that they could hear each other over the din of the forest fire. They were trained to pack their shelters close together to reduce exposure to the heat. Being able to communicate with each other was an extra benefit.
“I gotta get out! I don’t want to die in here!”
Sean couldn’t tell who said that, but he read the panic loud and clear.
“Nobody moves!” Sean shouted. “You leave that tent, you will die!”
Not that he didn’t understand the urge to move. To lie here like this—unable to do anything, trapped inside a claustrophobic cocoon while a fire raged on the other side of it—was excruciating. He understood why Finn had run, because every muscle in his body tensed with the need to do the same thing. Go. Run. Do. Action. That’s what he wanted. That’s what he always wanted. But right now, the only possible action was—none.
Well, not exactly none. He could still help his crew.
“When we get out of this, I’m treating everyone to barbecue!” he yelled. “Extra crispy.”
Josh, good man, picked up on his lead. “When we get out of this, I’m asking Emma Watson for a date.”
“The Harry Potter chick?”
“Yeah. She’s hotter than this fire, man.”
“When we get out of this, I’m gonna quit this shit and be a CPA!” Rollo yelled. “Damn, something just landed on me.”
Sean felt it too. Chunks of flaming debris rained onto his body. He shifted his body to knock the embers off. “Get that shit off if you can but keep your edges tight, guys.”
A whoosh of sound stopped him cold. “What was that?”
“Tree exploded!” Rollo shouted. “This is fucking insane!”
“Just hang tight!”
Sean listened in awe to the tornado of noise outside. If the fire weren’t trying to kill him, it would be spectacular. So much sound, so much heat. Was this the closest thing a person could experience to being inside a ball of gas? Inside the sun?
His mind drifted as the moments ticked on. He thought of the Yarnell burnover, in which all except one crew member had died. If he died now, he’d be one more Marcus family fuckup. The troubled kid who never got it together. The angry rebel who left Jupiter Point in disgrace. He would never get a chance to clear his name. Never get a chance to prove himself.
When we get out of this, I’m going back—
But Hughie forestalled him.
“When we get out of this,” he yelled, panic edging his voice. “I’m gonna propose to Cindy.”
“Good,” Josh called back. “Because if you didn’t, I was going to.”
“Yeah right, you might as well propose to your tent.”
For some reason, that inspired Josh to sing. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…”
“To get through this thing called fire.” Rollo finished off the line. The firefighters laughed, and Sean’s heart clenched with pride. Hotshots were tough. Who else would quote Prince while the world was burning down around them?
When we get out of this, I’m going back to—
“How long can this last?” someone yelled.
Sean honestly had no idea. In the Little Venus fire, the burnover had lasted fifteen minutes. That didn’t sound like a long time, but right now, he had no concept of time whatsoever.
“I think I can reach my phone. Anyone dare me to take a selfie?” Josh again. “I want proof for when we get out of this.”
When we get out…
“Know what I’m going to do?” Sean said out loud this time. He startled at the realization that he could hear his own voice now. The roar had faded. The heat had lessened, too. It no longer felt like a convection oven on high. Was it safe to look outside? Would a blast of heat suck the air from his lungs?
After waiting for what felt like another eternity, he stuck his head out of the opening.
It looked like night out there. Was it night? Or was it simply the thickness of smoke blocking the daylight? The only illumination came from the flames that still flickered in the charred, smoking wasteland. Tree stumps still burned and sparked, hot sap running down their trunks. Chunks of debris smoldered everywhere. Smoke lay thick on the ground, in the air, drifting, swirling.
But the fire had moved on. And it wouldn’t be back—there wasn’t enough fuel left.
Using his elbows, Sean pulled himself out of the little shelter. He scanned the other tents and saw that everyone had stayed inside. Thank you, Lord. Please let Finn be okay too, wherever he is.
“Everyone alright?” he called, his voice hoarse. “You can come out now.” One by one, his crewmates poked their heads from their shelters. Streaked black with soot, red-eyed, some tear-streaked.
“What a bunch of beauties, you are,” he said. “They should make a calendar out of us.”
From the shelter next to him, Josh let out a raspy laugh. “Damn, Magneto. Are we even alive? Or is this hell?”
“Good question.” The decimated woodland could certainly pass for hell. Sean turned onto his back and let his head rest on his folded arms. The earth beneath him was warm to the touch. Overhead, twisting masses of gray and black smoke roiled, as if the sky didn’t even exist anymore.
Sean vowed never to take the sky for granted again. Assuming he ever saw it again, of course. They still had a long trek to get out of here.
As he watched, the clouds of smoke shifted to make a hole. Through it, he saw a patch of pristine early evening sky, so perfect it snatched his breath away. And there, right there in the middle, he saw a star twinkling.
No, not a star, he realized. It was too bright to be a star. It was a planet. He recognized it from all the nights he’d spent camping on the fire lines, and from the stargazing app on his phone.
That was Jupiter. The biggest, boldest planet in the sky.
“When we get out of this,” he said, mostly to himself, but also as a kind of public vow, “I’m going back to Jupiter Point.”
Evie McGraw had barely turned the Sky View Gallery’s sign to “open” when the day’s drama came pouring into her little sanctuary.
“Have you heard about those firemen coming?” Mrs. Murphy bustled through the door first. She ran the bookstore next door, Fifth Book from the Sun, but didn’t ever seem to worry much about sales or customers. Today she had that look in her eye—the one that meant she had big news and intended to share it. Like it or not.
For a moment, Evie considered turning her wooden sign, the one painted with a sun on the “open” side and a moon on the “closed” side, back to moon. “Moon” was so much quieter and more peaceful than “sun.”
But a girl had to make a living.
“You’re going to be amazed, Mrs. Murphy, but I actually have heard that news already. We’re getting one of those hotshot crews that fight wildfires. It’s a good thing, with all the fires we’ve had the last few years.”
“No, no, that’s not the real news.”
Obviously preparing for something extra juicy, Mrs. Murphy settled onto one of the high chrome stools at the espresso bar and dropped her tote bag onto the floor next to her. “Honestly, Evie, these are the most godawful chairs. You should tear all of these out and put in some nice old-fashioned booths. My rear end gives me hell after I get back from here.”
Evie drew on the politeness that had been drilled into her since birth. “I’ll have to look into that.”
“You do that, and you’ll see that I’m right.”
Evie checked the espresso machine, which was still new to her. Just recently, she’d added the espresso bar in the hopes that it would bring in more customers to her little gallery. She’d opened the gallery as a way to channel her love for photography while still having time to take care of her mother. But now that selfies were all the rage, no one wanted landscape photos anymore. They wanted duck faces and cleavage shots.
“I just turned the coffee on, so it’ll be a few minutes. Can I get you—”
“Oh, I’m not here for coffee.” Mrs. Murphy adjusted her position on the stool and leaned forward to spill her big news.
But before she could say a word, the door opened again and Brianna Gallagher burst in. With her gingery-sunburst hair, wearing her usual work clothes of grubby overalls, she looked like some kind of comet streaking into the gallery. “I just heard the news, Evie, and I rushed right over!”
Mrs. Murphy bristled like a porcupine ready to defend its territory. “I was just getting to it.”
“No offense, Mrs. Murphy.” A worried frown drew Brianna’s eyebrows together. “But I feel strongly that this should come from a friend.”
Evie stared at her best friend. What news could possibly be this momentous? Nothing big ever happened in Jupiter Point. Their little town’s only claim to fame was its stargazing, and stars didn’t generally change much from night to night.
When the door opened yet again and her cousin Suzanne waltzed in, Evie gave serious consideration to simply closing down for the day. She could spend the time preparing for the dreaded city council meeting, an event that had been giving her nightmares for the past week.
“I can’t even believe it!” Suzanne exclaimed, swinging one leg over a stool. She was so tall she made it look easy. “The nerve of that man!”
“Someone better tell me what’s going on soon.” Evie packed espresso grounds into the portafilter. “I’m starting to fear the worst. Are the firefighters going to take over the city? March naked down Main Street?”
“I like that idea.” Brianna cocked her head in a dreamy way, as if picturing it at that very moment.
“You wouldn’t find me complaining,” Mrs. Murphy agreed.
Evie gave a double-take.
“I can appreciate a fine male specimen,” Mrs. Murphy sniffed, then pointed at Evie. “You, my dear, could learn a thing or two from me in that regard.”
“I can appreciate…” She trailed off, shaking her head at herself. Why should she have to defend her personal life? Everyone in Jupiter Point thought they knew Evie McGraw. But Evie wasn’t sure any of them really did. Not even Brianna, her best friend from the age of four.
“Speaking of fine male specimens,” Brianna said, stepping into the awkward moment, “let’s get back to our news.”
“Nice segue.” Suzanne reached over for a high five.
“Sean Marcus is coming back to Jupiter Point,” Mrs. Murphy blurted.
The tamper dropped from Evie’s fingers and thudded onto the floor. “What?”
Brianna glared at Mrs. Murphy. “You didn’t have to say it like that.” She bounded around the counter and picked up the tamper. “This is exactly what I was worried about.”
“She was going to find out sooner or later. I find it’s usually better to spit things out.“ Mrs. Murphy gave Evie an apologetic glance. “I didn’t mean to upset you, honey.”
Brianna put her arm around Evie and squeezed sympathetically. “Are you okay, Evie? I couldn’t believe it when I heard. Of all people to put in charge of the new firemen. Why him?”
Evie gathered her wits together. Sean Marcus. Oh sweet heavens, Sean Marcus was coming back. She wasn’t ready for this. Of course she was. No she wasn’t. Oh God.
She focused on tamping down the espresso grounds. “Listen, all of you. I know there was lots of talk when Sean left, but I promise you, he didn’t do anything wrong. He has every right to come back here. In fact, I’ll be glad to see him.”
“You always see the best in everyone, Evie.” Mrs. Murphy scolded her as if that quality was a bad thing. “But Sean Marcus was the biggest troublemaker in Jupiter Point. He spent more time in the police station than he did at home.”
“I know; he was such a bad boy!” Suzanne bounced on her stool. “So broody and moody, especially after his parents died. I had a huge crush on him.”
Evie could imagine that easily. Not that she’d ever had a crush on Sean Marcus—not exactly. But he knew secrets about her no one else knew. And now he was coming back? She had a very bad feeling about this. “Is he a firefighter now? I hadn’t heard about that.”
“Yes, and he’s practically famous.” Suzanne tucked her long blond hair behind her ears. “He was in that fire last year, the one where they had to get into those little shelters while the fire burned over them? I heard they’re making a movie about it.”
“A movie about Sean Marcus?” Evie asked faintly. How far back would it go? Would it talk about his history with Jupiter Point? Would filmmakers be roaming the streets? Asking questions? Panic rippled through her.
“Well, he’s part of it, but just a small part.” Suzanne shook her head in Evie’s direction. “I can’t believe you didn’t hear about all that. It’s like you live in a cave.”
Some days, like today, she wished that were true. If she lived in a cave, she wouldn’t have to get up in front of the city council tonight and endorse the one person in the whole town she despised. It would take everything she had to pull that off. The return of Sean Marcus was just a coincidental blip.
“Anyway, thank you all for letting me know.” Relieved to find her hands steady, she inserted the espresso holder into the machine and pushed the button to start the brewing process. “Although we probably won’t see the firefighters much. They’ll be out at the old Army base, right?”
“Yes, but Sean is coming to the city council meeting today.” Brianna gave Evie one last little comforting squeeze before heading back to her stool.
Evie jerked and knocked over a canister of espresso beans. Her first city council meeting, and Sean Marcus would be there? It was going to be difficult enough without that added twist. This was a full-on, flat-out disaster.
“Yup, he’s going to tell us what to expect from our hunky new firemen.” Suzanne grinned. “From what I hear, half the guys in town are going to apply. Everyone wants to be a hotshot now.”
“Women can apply, too, you know,” Brianna said. “Think about it, Suzanne. You’d be surrounded by hotness. And I’m not talking about the fires.”
Suzanne flipped her long hair over her shoulder. “Sweaty men are not my type, you know that. Unless they’re sweating over whether or not I’m going to go out with them.”
Evie had never been so grateful for her friends’ chatter. She let it flow over her as she fixed her gaze on the dark brew dripping from the expresso machine into two little white china cups. The news about Sean coming back reverberated through her in waves.
Sean had been her older brother’s friend, not hers. After the plane crash that killed his parents, Sean had come to live with the McGraws so he could finish high school in Jupiter Point. But he was so withdrawn and distant that she never got closer to him than the dinner table.
Until the Incident happened.
In the chaos and confusion, Sean had lost his cool and gotten thrown in jail for the night. The next day, he disappeared, even though he wasn’t the one who had hurt her.
That was Brad White, only Brad. But no one knew that. She hadn’t said anything, not when it counted, and now…
She picked up one of the espresso cups and took a sip for strength. “Are any of you actually ordering anything? This is a business, you know.”
The three women looked at her blankly.
Evie sighed. “In that case, I have to prepare my statement for tonight’s meeting. I’ll see you all later.”
“It should be a juicy one.” Mrs. Murphy slid off the stool. “Brad White’s in town, I hear.”
Evie’s heart nearly stopped. “What did you say?”
“Brad White. He’s back from all his campaign la-di-da. Everyone says he’s walking around with an entourage. They all have Bluetooths and smartphones and—”
The buzz in Evie’s ears drowned out everything else. If Brad was in town, he’d definitely be at tonight’s meeting. He would want to hear her official endorsement in person.
Brad White and Sean Marcus would both be there. This was an even bigger disaster than she thought. Oh sweet Lord above. Where was that cave when she needed it?
As Mrs. Murphy slid off the stool, her skirt snagged on a chrome rivet and rode up her backside. “I’m telling you, Evie, these stools are a menace!”
Suzanne reached over and tugged down her skirt.
Mrs. Murphy pretended to swat her hand away. “Hands off, unless you’re a hunky fireman.”
“I’ll see if I can line one up for you.” Suzanne winked. As Mrs. Murphy sailed out the front door, Suzanne looked at her watch.
“Darn it, cuz. I have to get to work. But I’ll see you at the council meeting.”
Evie shook herself out of her trance. “You’re coming to the meeting? Don’t you have a date or something? You always have a date.”
“I’d skip anything for dreamy Sean Marcus. I bet he’s even more of a babe now. Oh, and of course to see my cousin’s first starring role as president!” She waved her fingers as she vanished out the door.
Brianna turned to her as soon as they were alone. “You sure you’re all right, Evie?”
Evie hauled in a deep breath and called on a lifetime of McGraw tutelage. McGraws kept their cool. They didn’t lose their tempers. In fact, they avoided conflict at all costs. It was safer that way.
“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be? I don’t even know why you’re worried. I barely remember Sean. Honestly, you’re being ridiculous.”
Brianna fixed the strap of her overalls, which had fallen down one freckled arm. “Evie, I know that you’re always calm, cool and collected. I know you don’t like drama and you hate making scenes and you want everything to float along smoothly like a nice, calm, stagnant river. You like peace and harmony, and I love you for that. But I will still love you if you lose your shit for once. It’s okay to be upset and it’s okay to show it.”
Evie stared at her friend for a long moment. She wasn’t upset. Okay, maybe she had been, for a short moment. But she was already over it. “Rivers don’t stagnate,” she muttered.
Brianna rolled her eyes. “Fine.” She hopped off the stool. “Just so you know, I’m here for you. No matter what. And I’ll see you at the council meeting.”
“You’re coming to the meeting too? They’re deadly dull.”
“I have a feeling,” said Brianna, “that this meeting isn’t going to be dull.”
As far as Sean could tell, Jupiter Point had barely changed in the past thirteen years. The police station certainly looked the same, though he noticed a few flowering shrubs that hadn’t been there before. Interesting touch. Were they going for a soothing vibe at the old JPPD? He probably could have used that back in the day.
Funny how that wild kid felt so far away and long ago now. Now he was the superintendent of the brand-new Jupiter Point Hotshots crew, in charge of setting up the whole darn thing. He’d first heard about the proposed crew last year, but hadn’t thought to apply until the burnover. Getting run over by a fire had changed a few things in his life.
He’d been back in town for two days, but he and Josh, who’d come with him as crew captain, had spent that time at the old Army base. They’d met with the fire ranger and dispatch staff and started organizing the part of the compound where the hotshots would be located. Tonight would be his first chance to face the actual residents of Jupiter Point. After all the dangerous situations he’d faced, you’d think this one would be tame. But he was nervous as hell.
In the passenger seat of the Ford Super Duty crew cab truck, Josh Marshall had been grumbling since they’d left the base. “Honestly, I’d rather go through another burnover than get dragged to a city council meeting.”
“Man up, slugger. You’re about to become a superstar. If I know Jupiter Point, that meeting is going to be rocking. Not much happens around here. A new hotshot crew is going to be big news.”
“And rightfully so.” Josh preened, as he’d gotten in the habit of doing since the Miracle in Big Canyon movie was announced. “But I’m not the one in charge of this shindig. You’re the superintendent around here. I’m just the minion. Why do I need to strut my stuff for the locals?”
“Because,” Sean explained patiently, “I used to live here. They know me as a troublemaker with a chip on my shoulder. Now they’re supposed to welcome me with open arms as the guy standing between them and the next wildfire? They’d be more likely to believe I’d start a fire than put it out. I need backup.”
“Nevertheless, you’re the one they hired. You’re the hero.”
“Fuck that.” That was a sore point among the old crew. Sean didn’t think he’d done anything special. But another hotshot crew fighting the same Big Canyon fire had lost two members. The media had made a big deal out of that. Then Finn—who had made it to a gravel streambed in the nick of time—got his dad the movie producer involved, and now it had all turned into a nightmare.
“Hey, we survived, and it wasn’t because I was cracking jokes. It was because you picked the right spot and you made us stay put. I heard they want Theo James to play you. The one in Divergent.”
Sean took a corner a little too fast, leaving a streak of rubber. “I’m not talking about that fucking movie, I’m not cooperating with it, and you better not bring it up at the meeting.”
Josh laughed. “You’re no fun anymore. You’re too easy to rile up.” He glanced out the window. They’d reached the downtown business district, where the architecture had a storybook flair. Stores were either shingled in cedar or painted in ice cream pastels. Old-fashioned lampposts lined the sidewalks. “What just happened here? Did we drive back in time?”
“No, that’s Jupiter Point’s thing. It’s a tourist town. Big on the quaint and cutesy.”
“And this would be Main Street?”
“It would be, in any other town. Here, it’s Constellation Way.”
“Just go with it. And get a star chart.”
Josh was still grumbling as they cruised past the Rings of Saturn Jewelers and the Orbit Lounge and Grill. The Sky View Gallery, with its light blue awning trimmed in white, looked new. It probably catered to the honeymooners who wanted to take home photographic evidence of their trip.
Luckily, the downtown area also contained a Mexican restaurant called simply Don Pedro’s and a new 7-Eleven convenience store. The stargazing theme could easily be overdone, in Sean’s opinion.
He parked in the side lot of Jupiter Point High School, where he hadn’t quite completed his senior year. He drew in a deep breath, wondering how many of the people inside would remember him. And if they’d try to run him out of town as soon as he walked in.
Josh stepped out of the truck and stretched. “Looks like a full house, man. Maybe it’s the welcome wagon. Returning hometown hero, that kind of thing.”
“How do you know?”
“Because the last night I spent here was in the Jupiter Point PD’s lockup.”
Evie couldn’t believe how many Jupiter Point residents had shown up for the city council meeting. They actually had to move the gathering into the high school auditorium, which buzzed like a hornet’s nest of chatter. As she smiled and worked her way toward a seat, isolated bits of talk caught her attention. The new hotshots were definitely a popular topic. The other big news, of course, was Brad White’s campaign for state representative.
Brad White, who had asked for the Jupiter Point Business Coalition’s endorsement.
And which criminally stupid business owner had just run for president of the coalition…and won? Yep, Evie McGraw. Which meant that she would be announcing the coalition’s endorsement of Brad in just a matter of minutes.
How could she endorse the man who’d hurt her so horribly? But—how could she not? No one knew what had happened. Except Sean.
With her heart doing some kind of conga routine, she scanned the crowd carefully. No sign of Sean yet. Or Brad. Near the front of the auditorium, she settled into one of the old-fashioned bucket seats, which still smelled exactly the same as when she’d gone to Jupiter High—like pencil lead. She ran through the statement she’d written. Happy to endorse…solid leadership…
Would she have to talk to Brad? Even seeing him sapped her confidence and made her babble like an awkward toddler. Over the years, she’d trained herself to be okay in his presence. Not good, but okay. She could do this. This wasn’t about what he’d done in the past. It was about the future.
The usual small-town talk drifted around her. People were anxious about the new roundabout under construction. And then there was the fact that the Milky Way Ice Cream Parlor had shut down for renovations. Some people were saying it might not reopen, a horrible thought that was inciting full-fledged panic.
Maybe Evie should start serving ice cream cones at the gallery. Maybe she should start tap-dancing while she scooped them.
She was smiling at that thought when the fire chief, Doug Littleton, walked into view, with two tall male figures striding behind him. Heads swiveled to watch their progress through the auditorium. A few people stood up for a better look, which blocked her view. She craned her neck to see past them, but couldn’t get a clear shot.
Brianna dropped into the seat next to her.
“Yup, that tall, dark and broody man you’re staring at—that’s him.”
Evie’s face heated. “How could I be staring when I couldn’t even see him?”
“Well, take it from me, he’s even better looking than before. I don’t remember him being so tall. I wonder who the other guy is. Sweet Jesus, between the two of them…” She fanned herself with the meeting agenda.
“Get a grip. It’s not like we don’t have good-looking men in Jupiter Point.”
“But we know all of them. They’re all like brothers. How often do we get fresh meat here? Of the beefcake variety? Hardly ever, admit it.”
Evie snuck another glance in Sean’s direction, hoping to get a good look before the meeting started. She got a glimpse of the other man, who had blond-streaked, chin-length hair and a wide grin. A hottie, no doubt about it, but Sean was the one she wanted to see.
“Face it,” Brianna was saying. “Jupiter Point is a cute place to live, but when it comes to dating, it kind of sucks. Why do you think every single woman in town is packed into this auditorium?”
“Maybe they have business on the agenda. Like I do.”
“Is that why you’re giving yourself a neck cramp? Business?”
Evie didn’t hear a word Brianna said. She couldn’t have answered if she wanted to. The line of sight finally cleared and, suddenly, there was Sean Marcus.
Her chest tightened as if an iron band had wrapped around her. She couldn’t breathe. Her mind went blank.
He looked like a warrior, not the teenage boy she remembered. Every bit of him was hard-muscled and strong and fierce. His dark hair was still thick and unruly, the way she remembered it. But his face had hollowed out, all the youthfulness replaced by lean, rugged lines. He still had that “broody” look, as Suzanne called it, but Evie could think of a much better word.
The man was smoking hot, unbelievably sexy. She actually waved her hand next to her face to send more air to her lungs.
“Wow,” she said faintly. She meant to say it under her breath, but Brianna caught it.
“I’ll say. He looks like…I don’t know, Michael Fassbender, except even better looking.”
“The guy who plays Magneto in the X-Men. Or no, maybe the one who played the fireman in Magic Mike, I mean, the one who played the stripper who played the fireman. Joe something. Except Sean is actually a fireman, and if he strips or starts to dance or—”
“Brianna,” Evie said faintly.
“Sorry.” Brianna subsided as the city council members filed into their seats. “I’m just saying. It’s like Mrs. Murphy says, if you can’t appreciate the male form…”
Evie tuned her out. She was too busy appreciating the male form on display across the room to pay any more attention. And that was so not like her. She wasn’t a man ogler. She didn’t flirt. She didn’t date much. When she did, she hated it. She didn’t enjoy attention from men. It scared her.
But right now, she wouldn’t mind a little attention. Would Sean Marcus remember her? Would he remember that she hadn’t spoken up for him? Did he hate her?
She found herself biting her thumbnail, something she hadn’t done since her teens. Frustrated with her childish anxiety, she shoved her hand under her leg and sat on it.
When she glanced up, Sean was looking at her with those smoky green eyes and a groove had appeared in his cheek. He was smiling. At her. As if he recognized her, and didn’t hate her.
It took her right back to that night. Sean peering through the window of Brad’s Chevy Nova. Meeting her desperate, humiliated gaze.
All the confusion and fear from that night thirteen years ago crashed onto her like a flood that had been held back by a retaining wall. Brad’s hand reaching into his pants. His weird, hot breath against her neck. The helplessness of being pinned, the nasty, mean words spilling out of his mouth.
She snapped back to the present moment. Sean was still looking at her. This was now, not then. His expression held friendliness, not shock.
Smile. She forced her face to obey.
“Evie, are you all right?” Brianna touched her hand, which was clenched onto the edge of her seat. “You look a little ill.”
“I’m fine, I’m fine. You know how I feel about public speaking, that’s all.” She glanced back at Sean and saw that he’d moved. For a moment, she panicked, thinking maybe he was coming her way. But no—he and his friend were following Chief Littleton toward the stage where the city council members sat.
Relief flooded her. She wanted to bang her head on the back of the seat in front of her. Why on earth was she reacting this way to the sight of Sean Marcus? After the Incident, she’d built up a wall against the male gender. The wall helped her deal with seeing Brad around town. It allowed her to go on with her life in peace.
But for some reason, that wall was now shaking on its foundations. Sean Marcus had seen the Incident—or part of it, anyway. He was the only one besides her and Brad who knew anything about it. And she and Brad, by unspoken agreement, had buried it in the past.
Sean had expected some stony faces, maybe some glares from his old teachers and various members of the police department. He hadn’t expected the crowd to be holding up iPhones to snap his picture, or the high proportion of women packing the auditorium. He hadn’t expected…her.
He stared…and kept on staring while Josh eyed the seats full of women like a kid in a candy store.
“Is this turnout because of the movie?” Josh whispered.
“I warned you. Not much happens around here. We’re big news.”
Still, he couldn’t look away from the girl at the front of the auditorium. Her chestnut hair was pulled into a low, classic ponytail at the base of her neck. She was frowning intently at her thumb. Who was she? She reminded him of someone…he knew her…but she wouldn’t look at him so he couldn’t say for sure…
Josh followed Sean’s gaze and whistled under his breath. “Do you know her?”
As if she’d overheard, she finally looked in his direction. Her eyes met his in a punch of silvery sage-green.
Evie McGraw. Holy shit.
No wonder he hadn’t recognized her at first. She’d only been fourteen when he left. A skinny kid he’d paid no attention to—until the night when everything went to hell.
Now she was…wow, she was an absolute knock-you-off-your-feet beauty. She had the kind of face you’d see in a magazine or on a billboard, all luminous eyes and stunning cheekbones. Did she remember him? Or had she blocked out the trauma of that night? He wouldn’t blame her if she had.
Even though she had an air of “don’t touch me” vibrating around her like an invisible electric fence, he tried a smile. It took a few moments, but eventually she smiled back. Actually, it was more of a twitch of her lips, but he could read recognition on her face. Her eyes remained cool and wary, as if she was hiding behind a pane of thick, frosted glass.
“Seriously, who is that?” Josh asked again. “Someone you know?”
“I used to.”
He didn’t know this grownup, frosty Evie. The Evie he remembered was a bubbly, dreamy girl. Young enough so she still read Harry Potter nonstop and did her homework on the kitchen table. She seemed very different now, but then again, it had been thirteen years. People changed.
Chief Littleton nudged him toward the stage, and he pulled his attention back to the business at hand. The city council meeting had been called to order, and it was time for them to do their thing. He and Josh followed the chief onstage.
“This is a big moment for us,” the chief began. “I’ve been fighting for this for several years. Here in Jupiter Point, with our urban-wilderness interface, we’re sitting ducks for a wildfire. Every summer we get a few that come close. Last year the ranger station even burned down—we all remember that. Finally the bigwigs agreed with me, and we got ourselves a brand-new interagency hotshot crew based out of here. Some of you probably remember Sean Marcus; he’s the superintendent of this new crew. That means he’s in charge. He sure has come a long way, huh?”
Sean kept his face stony to hide the wince. Thanks a lot, Chief.
“Since he left Jupiter Point, Sean has racked up an unbelievable record as a smoke-jumper and hotshot. He’s a brilliant and respected leader, he’s saved many lives and homes, and word has it he requested this assignment. Let’s give him a big welcome home, hey?”
The crowd responded with generous applause. Sean finally cracked a smile and saluted the townspeople. He scanned the faces near the front, looking for Evie, but he froze when his gaze encountered the last person he wanted to see.
Brad White. Right in the front row. The guy had brass balls—he was grinning at Sean as if they were old friends. That cocky smirk made Sean want to deck him all over again, the same way he had that night.
In thirteen years, Brad had grown more polished, and his shock of sandy hair had been ruthlessly cut into what Sean thought of as “news anchor hair.” He wore a tan business suit and a royal-blue silk tie. To Sean, he looked like a kid trying on his father’s suit.
At least the idiot still had a bump on his nose from where Sean had broken it that night.
He stared the jerk down until finally he turned away and said something to the guy next to him.
Josh hissed in his ear, “Go, Magneto. It’s your turn to speak. Make it sing, baby.”
Collecting himself, Sean took a step forward. “Hi, I’m Sean Marcus, and it’s good to be back in Jupiter Point.” He paused until the applause died down. “My job is to put together the best crew I can hire, get us geared up, set up at the new Jupiter Point Fire and Rescue compound—what used to be the old Army base--and do it all by the time fire season comes around in May.”
He paused again for a wave of claps and whistles. Brad had a big false smile plastered on his face as if it were glued there.
“The completed crew will contain twenty firefighters. We’ll be bringing in mostly fire service veterans, but we’re also interested in locals who have their red cards—that’s a prerequisite for wildland firefighting. We may be hiring some local ground support from time to time as well. Local knowledge is always helpful. If you know anything about how hotshots work, you know we’ll be traveling wherever they need us. Most of the time, you won’t even know we’re here. And hopefully, when you do notice us, you’ll be glad we’re here. Any questions?”
A young man in a baseball cap got to his feet. “You said you’re hiring locals?”
“Yup. I’ll be setting up interviews in the next couple of weeks. Call this number.” He handed his card to someone in the front row, who passed it on. “Keep in mind, the hotshot training is extremely tough. You have to be in peak physical condition. You have to pass some pretty harsh tests. And I’m known for demanding the best from my crew.”
“Oh yeah.” Josh’s heartfelt agreement drew laughter from the crowd.
“When it’s a matter of life or death, you don’t want to be a step slower than the fire just because you slacked off on your endurance training.”
A perky blonde in a red tank top asked the next question. “Will you hotshots be living here year-round? Do you have families?”
Sean bit back a smile. Like all firefighters, hotshots tended to get a lot of attention from girls. “This is Josh Marshall, crew captain. Josh, do you want to take this question?”
“Sure. What’s your name?”
“Well, Serena, some hotshots have families that they leave behind to go fight fires all summer. Others of us are still single.”
“Really?” She batted her eyelashes at him. Sean could sense Josh plotting how to get her number after the meeting. “What about him?” She pointed to Sean. “Is he single?”
Josh snorted. “Yes, Sean is single, but to be totally honest, he’s a pain in the—”
Sean elbowed him in the ribs to make him shut up. He spotted Evie a few rows back. Her full lips were pressed together as if she was trying to hold back a laugh. Her eyes brimmed with amusement. Now that was the Evie he remembered. Teasing, fun, bright.
Was it hard for her to be this close to Brad White? Had he ever faced up to his actions? Apologized? Done time?
Time to wrap things up. “We’re going to be very busy over the next few weeks, but my door is always open if you have questions about the hotshots, fire safety, or how to apply. Thank you.”
He and Josh left the stage. Josh left to find the men’s room. Sean waited in the auditorium, willingly subjecting himself to more city council meeting agenda items so he could steal glances at Evie. Leaning against the wall, he ate up every detail. The graceful arch of her neck, the strand of hair that kept escaping her ponytail, the way her lush breasts pressed against her simple ivory blouse.
Evie was one sexy woman, but she didn’t seem aware of that fact at all.
It was a slight shock when he heard Brad White’s name announced. Judging by the way the crowd applauded him, he still had the charm that had worked on everyone except Sean.
“Thank you, neighbors, right back at you!” Brad applauded the crowd. What a fake. “I know you’ll all be happy to hear that the campaign is going great, and chances are good that Jupiter Point will have its first hometown representative in Sacramento!”
Big cheers answered that.
What the fuck? Was Brad White seriously running for office? Didn’t anyone here know what he’d done?
Sean looked at Evie. All the color in her face had leeched away.
He glanced at the girl sitting next to her, the redhead he vaguely remembered as Evie’s best friend. She was clapping for Brad too. Either she didn’t know or it didn’t matter to her.
Disgusted, Sean pushed off the wall to head for the exit when Brad’s next words stopped him cold.
“You all know and love Evie McGraw. As the new president of the Jupiter Point Business Coalition, and definitely the best-looking one,” more laughter, “she’s here tonight to make an important announcement on behalf of my campaign. Evie?”
As Sean watched, incredulous, Evie rose to her feet.
What the hell? Was she working with Brad? Had she completely forgotten what Brad did that night?
Evie’s heart was pounding so fast and furious, she was afraid it might trip over itself. She clenched her fists and dug her fingernails into the heels of her hands. This didn’t have to be a big deal. Everyone was expecting an endorsement. The downtown business owners certainly were. Brad definitely expected it. It was safe to say the entire town considered it a done deal.
Endorsing Brad for state representative was a no-brainer. He’d give the town a higher profile. Everyone would benefit, and he might even do a good job. His family owned the biggest bank in town, so he knew finances. He knew how to schmooze. He loved the spotlight.
She knew he was also a manipulative, cruel slime ball, but no one else knew that.
Just do it, Evie.
She opened her mouth to release the words she’d memorized. Happy to endorse…excited about what this means for Jupiter Point…future is bright…
And then she made the mistake of looking in Sean’s direction. Instead of leaning against the wall, as he had been, he was standing bolt upright, staring at her with eyes that seemed to burn right through her.
Tremors ran down her body, from her scalp to the soles of her feet. Her toes curled inside her sandals and she gripped her sweaty hands together. A strange, surreal sensation took over her body, as if she was floating somewhere overhead. She dragged her gaze away from Sean’s and looked over the heads of the city council members.
The voice that came out of her mouth didn’t even sound like hers. “I regret to say that the Jupiter Point Business Coalition is unable to endorse Brad White for state representative at this time.”
After a stunned moment of silence, a noisy surge of questions assaulted her eardrums. Her vision swam, as if she might faint.
What had she just done? She never made waves. Never, ever. It wasn’t the McGraw way. She should take it back. Right now.
She opened her mouth but that wasn’t what came out.
“I’m sure Brad will do just fine without our endorsement. I have to go now.”
She slipped into the aisle and hurried toward the exit. The red letters blurred. Her face burned as everyone swung in their seats to watch her go.
What was wrong with her? One simple phrase—“I endorse Brad White”—and she couldn’t even spit it out of her mouth.
After reaching the hallway outside the auditorium, she stopped, clutching her stomach. Oh God, she was going to throw up. Yes, she’d vomit right here on the scuffed floor. Then she could march back in and explain that she was sick. That’s why she’d done such a stupid thing. Food poisoning or something.
She bent over, stomach heaving.
A warm hand settled on her back. A male voice, like molasses over gravel, resonated above her. “Are you okay, Evie?”
She straightened. Sean Marcus stood over her. This close, he was even more overwhelmingly masculine. His scent, sort of woodsy and clean, cleared her head.
“No. I’m not.”
“You did the right thing. How could you even think about endorsing that guy?”
Suddenly furious, she lashed out at him—physically. Actually thrust her hand against his hard chest. “This is your fault.”
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