In the Heat of the Night

In the Heat of the Night

Katherine Garbera

May 2014 $14.95
ISBN: 978-1-61194-410-5

Book 2 of the O'Rourkes

Our PriceUS$14.95
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Back Cover Blurb

All it takes is a spark!

Meg Starling has come back to her small Florida hometown to start over. After spending five years in New York fighting to get her own TV show, she’s almost ready to admit defeat. Then a call from a producer changes everything. Now she’s got one last chance to make it big, and nobody’s going to get in her way. Not even a hunky, drop-dead sexy, absolutely irresistible firefighter . . .

Rory O’Roarke is new in town, but it hasn’t taken the new guy at the firehouse long to scope out what he wants—Meg, the gorgeous girl next door. But Rory has his own issues—an incident at his last fire has left him struggling with doubts. Can he still do the job? All he wants is to settle down and have a normal life. Unfortunately, the only woman he wants has no intention of staying.

It is the worst possible time for either of them to fall in love, but it’s hard to stop a wildfire once it’s burning out of control . . .



Coming soon!


Chapter One

MEG STARLING had often thought about how she’d return to the small town of Twin Palms, Florida after her big break. She envisioned herself with a police escort—hey, her dad was the police chief so why not? Maybe a parade or two in her honor, and, of course, she’d give talks at the local middle and high schools, sharing her gems of wisdom about life beyond the city limits.

Instead, she was sitting behind the Twin Palms Library booth selling lemonade and iced tea at the annual Memorial Day Weekend volleyball match, wearing the biggest tortoiseshell glasses she could find and a Twin Palms Police Department baseball cap. She’d been back in town a week.

Yeah, instead of a police escort into town, all she’d gotten was this baseball cap. The annual grudge beach volleyball match between the fire station and the police department was being played out on the sandy beach at Lake Aurora’s shores.

Everyone showed their colors, either red for the fire department or classic police department blue. Being home and working the refreshment booth wasn’t exactly part of her plan, but it did offer her a distraction from figuring out her next move.

Nothing ever changed around here. Well, except for maybe that new firefighter.

"Who is that?” Meg asked her older sister Anne, who was just finishing her shift in the booth. Anne was wearing a police department T-shirt. Like Meg, she had reddish hair and favored their mother in looks. But Meg always thought that Anne had their father’s stubborn jaw. Of course, that could have been simply because her older sister was always bossing her around.

Their mom, a librarian with a fierce love of books, had named her and her sister after literary characters. Anne was three years older than Meg and owned the town’s one coffee shop/diner.

"The hunky shirtless firefighter?” Anne asked, pushing her sun­glasses up on her head and forcing her straight, shoulder-length hair back.

"Who said he was hunky?” Yeah, like those rippling pectorals and large well-developed biceps hadn’t caught her eye. He was built and definitely worked out. And yes, she’d noticed him. Hadn’t she asked who he was?

She had a strict dating rule. Just one... well, okay, two. But to her, "no dating married men” was a given. The other one was no dating any small-town guys. There was only one reason anyone came to Twin Palms, and it wasn’t for the money.

Besides, she’d fallen in love once and had the scars to prove it. That was part of the reason she was back in Twin Palms, hiding out until she could figure out her next big move. Not that lust and love were exclusive, but she’d always had a hard time keeping the two separate.

"Are we pretending to be blind? Is that why you’re wearing dark glasses?” Anne asked, more than a tinge of sarcasm in her voice.

"The sun is a little bright today, in case you hadn’t noticed,” Meg said.

Sarcasm ran rampant in their family. Her mom had always been a master, but years of being married to a stoic cop like Butch Starling had honed it to legendary proportions. It was something she’d passed on to her daughters.

In Meg’s opinion, her sister was a big pain in the ass. Why did she put up with her? She could have waited until the men were done playing and asked her friend Paul, one of the firefighters.

"Ha. Just tell me who he is. Or maybe you don’t know. Would it kill you to say you don’t know?”

"It would. In this case, I do know.”

"Anne, I love you. But you know, you’re not all that important, really. Mom and Dad already have me and I’m beginning to think they might not miss you,” Meg said.

"Dad’s the police chief. I think he’d be able to figure out you did me in,” Anne said.

"Just tell me who he is,” Meg said. She and her sister could go on like this for days. As the oldest, Anne liked to be right and tended to dole out information as if it were gold bars from the treasury department.

While waiting for Anne to respond, Meg poured herself a glass of sweet tea. She took a sip and let the liquid cool her mouth and felt the iciness move through her body. She took another sip. Maybe it would be better not to know his name. Because there wasn’t enough iced tea in Twin Palms to put out the kind of fire he could ignite.

"I’m just saying you should be honest about what’s going on,” Anne said.

"You’re not talking about the firefighter, are you?” Meg asked.

Anne just stared at her.

She sighed. Her family didn’t know why she’d come back. It had been humiliating and the last thing she wanted to do was talk about it. "I just need to start over.”

Anne put her arm around Meg’s shoulder and hugged her close.

"His name is Rory O’Roarke. Parents could have been a little more creative, don’t you think? Or maybe it’s a nickname. He comes from South Florida where he’s part of a dynastic firefighting family,” Anne said. "He has only been in town for a couple of weeks and he eats at the diner just about every night.”

Meg almost sighed out loud with regret. A Florida firefighter. Not exactly the kind of man she should be interested in. Maybe if he was a carpenter or a construction company owner...

Anne reached over and picked up Meg’s iPhone off the table.

"What are you doing?”

"Something you’ll thank me for later,” Anne said, accessing the camera app on the phone and then zooming in on the firefighter. She clicked a quick picture of him and handed it back to her. "You’re welcome.”

"I don’t remember asking you to do that,” Meg said. But she glanced at the picture and wondered why she always wanted what she couldn’t have.

"I’ve got to get back to the diner. I’ll see you for brunch on Sunday at Mom and Dad’s,” Anne said, giving her a quick hug before leaving.

Every Sunday, they had a standing date with their parents for brunch. Meg tried not to dwell on the fact that it had been five years since she’d been to one. Or that when she’d left, she’d sort of been a bit arrogant about her plans to leave the dust of this small town behind.

"Who’s winning? Paul said that this year they were going to sweep the floor with the PD,” Jenny O’Shea asked as she walked over to the booth.

She and Meg had gone to high school together. And while they hadn’t been close—Meg had been too focused on getting out of town—they had been friends.

"Fire department,” Meg said, handing Jenny a sweet tea and taking the dollar bill from her. "Since it’s for charity, I’d like to say Dad won’t care. But you know how competitive he is.”

"How competitive you all are,” Jenny said.

"Nothing wrong with wanting to win,” Meg said.

The firefighter—Rory—spiked the ball, finally giving his team the victory. He high-fived the other firefighters including Paul and then shook hands with her dad’s team. She noticed he seemed to really fit in with the crew, even though he was still new to the area. Then again, Anne had mentioned that he came from a firefighting family.

She’d noticed that on the police force, people who came from a similar background tended to fit in better. It was as if they all knew the score. Everyone understood that the brotherhood—and she meant that to include the women on the force and on the fire truck—came first. They had a bond that nothing could break.

It was something she’d do well to remember. She tried not to let it bother her, but this stranger who’d spent barely ten days in Twin Palms seemed to fit in better than she did. And she’d lived her all her life!

Shake it off, baby. You’re only back here to regroup and move on. But moving on at thirty wasn’t as easy as it had been at twenty-five.

RORY O’ROARKE had been in Twin Palms for exactly three weeks. He’d worked twenty four hours on and forty-eight hours off and still hadn’t been called out to anything more dangerous than rescuing a cat that had gotten stuck under an old woman’s house. In fact, playing volleyball today was the most dangerous thing he’d done so far, if getting sunscreen in his eyes counted.

He didn’t think it did. He knew his dad wouldn’t think it did either. And as he noticed his tall burly brothers walking toward him, he knew they wouldn’t either.

"Rory, good game. Took it a little easy on them there at the end,” Liam said as he clapped him on the back.

"I’m new. Didn’t want to show off,” Rory said.

"Not showing off? You’re an O’Roarke. You can’t help but win. We always do,” Pat said.

The other guy in the group wasn’t technically his brother, but close. He was his brother-in-law. Tucker Fields had married Rory’s only sister and was his closest relative now that he was living in Central Florida.

"That sounds like a challenge that Andi and I would love to accept, Pat. We’ll make you eat those words,” Tucker said.

Tucker knew that Rory’s sister was even more competitive than the rest of them since she’d grown up trying to prove she was just as tough as the boys.

"Not today,” Rory said. "Where is Andi?”

"On duty. But she wanted me to drop by and make sure you were settling in.”

Andi was older than Rory. Ever since their mother died, she’d taken over the role. And he’d given her a lot more to worry about lately, with his divorce and return to the squad.

"I’m good. Come meet my crew,” Rory said. Anything to get the focus back on firefighting and off of him.

"Nice spike,” Paul O’Shea said, clapping him on the shoulder.

Paul was one of the lieutenants at the firehouse whose job it had been to show Rory the ropes when he’d first arrived. He was also the captain of the volleyball team. "You are a great addition. I’m sure the Cap didn’t know that when he hired you, but I’m glad of it.”

"Thanks,” Rory said shaking his hand. "This is my family. Brothers Liam and Pat, brother-in-law Tucker Fields.”

"Fields? Arson Investigator Fields?” Paul asked.

"One and the same,” Tucker said.

"It’s hotter than hell today,” Pat interrupted. "Where can a guy get a beer?”

"Not here,” Paul said. "We keep the charity events dry so that there won’t be any problems. You can get your fill of iced tea and lemonade though.”

"Point me to it.”

Paul gestured to a tent where a pretty little redhead and a blonde were working. There were two lines and the one in front of the redhead was twice as long.

"What’s the deal there?”

"Meg Starling’s the one with the long line. She left town to make it big and now she’s back. No one knows why and the gossips are dying to find out.”

He glanced over at her again. She had thick auburn hair that ended at her shoulders and the big glasses she wore hid her eyes but her skin was creamy and covered in freckles.

They got in the redhead’s line.

"The other is shorter,” Liam said.

"I want to see what’s so special about this girl,” Pat said.

His brother was a flirt and a bit of a charmer. And he was notorious for fixing things. Whether it was fixing problems or people, Pat was a pro. Rory suspected his brother was here today to do just that—fix his life for him.

Finally, they made it to the front of the line.

"Nice playing today, Paulie. Good thing you had this guy on your squad,” the redhead said with a smile.

"Rory O’Roarke,” he said, holding out his hand.

She took it. An electric tingle spread up his arm. It was probably just a muscle spasm from the game, he told himself.

"Meg Starling,” she said. "What’ll it be, boys?”

"Sweet tea all around,” Rory said.

She handed them the cups and he gave her the money, taking a moment to try to see the color of her eyes before he walked away.

"Want to join us over at Kebbler’s?” Paul asked after his brothers had taken their leave. They’d had to head to Auburndale, about twenty miles from Twin Palms, to have dinner with Andi.

"What’s Kebbler’s?” Rory asked.

"Only the best smokehouse BBQ in the county,” Paul said.

"Tempting, but not today. I’m still looking for a permanent place to stay and my realtor might have found just the property for me.”

"Good luck with that. But you are missing out on some good eats.”

Rory got on his Harley Davidson and headed out of town to meet the realtor. There was only one thing on his mind, and it wasn’t food or firefighting. It was the burning need to know what color were Meg Starling’s eyes.

MEG DROVE SLOWLY out of town toward the interstate. She’d had more than enough downtown Twin Palms action for one day. She needed to escape. And luckily, she knew just the place to go. She’d received a call yesterday from a producer friend of hers at HGTV. He’d mentioned that if she could find an old house and do a one-hour segment redoing it, he’d fast track her for her own show.

How many times had she heard that before? She knew she shouldn’t get too excited, but there was something about being back home that reminded her of all her old dreams. Dreams that hadn’t been tarnished by too many years in Manhattan being a production assistant and set dresser to someone else’s vision instead of going after her own.

She switched the air conditioner to full blast, then turned off on Old Twin Palms-Caldwell Road. It was the cutoff between the two cities and led to an area where there were lots of older places that had been homesteaded back in the early 1900s.

She loved the landscape here. Big scrub oaks heavy with Spanish moss and swampy ground covered in palmettos. She’d missed her home. She turned off the A/C and opened the driver’s window, letting the full blast of hot May air circulate around her.

Florida had been mainly held by the Seminoles until the late 1890s and settled by runaway slaves and prisoners from other states. Not that long ago, this area had been a huge citrus-growing center. But too many hard freezes and a bad spell of citrus canker had killed most the groves back in the 80s.

Now, places like Elias Clapham’s were all that was left. She turned off the paved road onto one that was mainly dirt and rock, then stopped and got out when she got to a rusted gate with a large C squarely in the middle. She reached into her car and took out her SLR camera then pushed open the gate. J.P. was meeting her out here along with the owner and the other bidder’s agent. She was determined to get the homestead. Steeling herself for whatever she might face, she got back in her car and drove up to the house.

The place itself was a sprawling two-story ranch-style house with a wraparound porch. In its heyday, the shutters had been pristine white and the clapboard had been painted a rustic red. Today, it was faded and the paint was chipping off. And the front porch was falling down in one corner.

But when Meg pulled her car to a stop in front of it, she saw it as her future. It was perfect.

It wasn’t lost on her that she had a knack for knowing how to make things better. Old buildings, broken-down relics of the past—she quickly saw the way things could be. Too bad she couldn’t do that for herself...

She got out of the car and walked around the perimeter of the house, taking pictures with her iPhone as well as her SLR. There was an overgrown rose bush near the kitchen door with one bloom in a net of thorns and she fiddled around with her angle until she was able to get the perfect picture of it.

Her phone rang and she saw the screensaver photo of Rory. She had to get rid of it... but not right now.

"It’s J.P. I’m running about thirty minutes late,” he said. "Have you seen the property?”

"I’m already here. It’s perfect. Do you think it will be okay for me to walk around?” she asked. It was one thing to do it in the five minutes before J.P. got here, something else to be trespassing.

Being the daughter of a cop and a devoted rule follower, she wasn’t about to do anything to get into trouble.

"I’ll call and let them know. I’ll text you if it’s not okay. Be careful. I know they are concerned about the roof in the barn,” he said. "Also, you might check with your dad. I thought I saw some evidence of someone sleeping out there and called it in.”

"Okay, I will,” she said.

She thought about texting her dad, but didn’t really want her family and friends to know what she was doing. She couldn’t bear to let them down again.

She hung up the phone and walked back to her car, getting in and turning up the A/C so that she could cool down. Keeping J.P.’s warning in mind, she locked the doors.

She looked over at the barn. It was in worse shape than the house, if that was even possible. It made sense to wait. Despite her past behavior, she was usually a very smart woman.

She heard the roar of a motorcycle and glanced in the rearview mirror as a big-ass Harley Davidson pulled up behind her. She shook her head as she recognized Rory on the bike.

She rolled down her window and looked over at him.

"You following me?”

"Not quite. I’m looking for a house,” he said, nodding toward the Clapham place.

Of course. She knew it had been too easy. The kind of house producers were looking to remodel, right here in her backyard. Nothing ever went that smoothly for her.

So hottie here wanted the house, too. "Why do you want this place? It’s going to be a lot of work.”

"I’m not afraid of work,” he said, flexing his muscles.

"Don’t be cute,” she said.

He took his helmet off and ran one hand through his short brown hair, leaving it disheveled. He had obviously taken the time to go home and shower. The scent of his aftershave drifted toward her on the warm breeze.

"Who said I was being cute?” he asked. "The truth is, I like hard work. It keeps me from thinking too much.”

"What could you have to worry about?” she asked. "You look like you have it all together.”


"Um... I know you heard all those people ribbing me about being back in town.”

"I did. What’s the story?”

"Picture some big, bragging idiot telling everyone that she was going to be a star and then leaving town after throwing herself a big-ass goodbye party. Then um... nothing. That shot at stardom dried up.”

"Ouch,” he said. There was something in his eyes that revealed he’d dealt with humiliation as well.

"Yeah, ouch. This house... it’s sort of my future,” she said.

"That’s a nice story from a pretty lady, but it’s going to take more than big eyes to make me back down.”

"You think I’m pretty?” she asked. God, she wished she were better at flirting, but she never had been. She sounded awkward and like she was trying to be coy. "That sounded dumb, didn’t it? Can you tell I’m the world’s worst flirter?”

He arched one eyebrow at her. "I wouldn’t say worst.”

"Is that supposed to be some kind of backwards compliment?”

"Not at all.”

She noticed the afternoon clouds blowing across the sky getting darker and darker. She glanced back at the house. She wasn’t going to give it up without a fight. The humiliation of running back home with her tail tucked between her legs was one thing. But an outright challenge like Rory presented just spurred her to win. And she liked to win.

"That’s a shame,” she said.

"Why is that?” he asked, leaning down and resting his arm on the car roof above her head.

"I was hoping we could be friends. But now it looks like we’re going after the same thing.”

"I don’t see why that precludes us from being friends,” he said. "Unless you’re a sore loser.”

"Ah, honey, it’s so cute you think you’d win.”


Chapter Two

STRONG WORDS FROM the redhead with the big cinnamon eyes. He planned to pretend that all he felt was the tingle of excitement at coming across a new challenge, after weeks of sitting around the fire station cleaning everything in sight. This was definitely a good kind of excitement.

Damn it. He just noticed that her mouth was full and he knew he wanted to kiss her. But kissing the enemy... well, hell. Was there anything sweeter? Besides, it wasn’t as if they were truly at war.

"You’re cute. Deluded, but cute,” he said.

"Why do you want this property?” she asked. "A firefighter should be closer to town.”

"I’ve had my eye on this property for a while.”

"Really?” she asked sounding skeptical. "That’s odd. It’s just come on the market.”

A cooler breeze blew around him and he glanced up at the darkening sky. No need to look at his watch. He knew that the regular late afternoon thunderstorm was almost upon them. He needed to find a place out of the rain to store his bike until it passed.

"Well, honey, I bought the surrounding grove area about three years ago.”

"Please, don’t call me honey. My name is Meg,” she said.

"Sure thing, Meg. I’ve got to get my bike under some cover before the rain starts,” he said. "I guess this is goodbye.”

He noticed an overhang near the barn and started walking his bike that way.

"Wait up. I still have questions,” she said. He heard her close the window on her car, and then get out and follow him.

The ground was dry in most spots. Despite getting rain every day, the May heat sucked it all out of the land. The barn didn’t look exactly safe, but Rory reckoned if it had managed to survive for at least fifty years, it could make it one more day.

He parked his bike and leaned back against it as Meg followed him under the overhang. She crossed her arms and looked at him.

He could almost see the wheels turning in her mind as she tried to figure out a way to best him or to get him to back down. But he was an O’Roarke and the word quit wasn’t in his vocabulary.

"Tell me something, Rory. Where does a firefighter get this kind of money?” she asked.

The million-dollar question and one he could answer glibly, thanks to his ex-wife’s aversion to firefighters. "I’m good with numbers. I used to work for an investment banking firm.”

"Sounds like there is more to this story,” she said.

"How do you mean?” he asked, shrugging out of his leather jacket and putting it over the saddle of his bike. He caught her staring at his chest and hid a smile.

"Um...” She looked away from him, turning her attention to the land that surrounded the house. Then she took a deep breath. "So, why did you decide to become a fireman?”

"Have dinner with me and I’ll tell you,” he said.

"Dinner, really? We’re competitors,” she said. "Then again, I do believe in knowing my enemy.”

"I’m not your enemy, honey.”



She shook her head. "You think you’re charming, don’t you?”

He shrugged. The truth was, before Nat, his ex, he’d done all right with the ladies. And someone like Meg was easy to needle. He liked flustering her. "Dinner?”

"Is there anything I could do to convince you to walk away from this place?”

He shook his head. "Nope. But we can still spend some time together. Talk about my sordid past. And if you’re nice, maybe I’ll give you some flirting tips.”

She rolled her eyes at him. "Be serious. I just told you that your charms don’t work on me.”

Oh, he thought they did. But that was ego and this was fun. Still, he knew he wasn’t going to back down just because a pair of pretty eyes looked his way. He needed a project and this house would be perfect. Something to keep his mind off the fact that the last time he’d been in a fire, he’d lost a little part of his soul.

"Makes a lot more sense for a first responder to be in town.”

He cocked one eyebrow at her. "You’d think, but I work twenty-four hours on, forty-eight off, so it will be fine.”

"Of course it will. But don’t you think this place is a little big for a single dude?”

"Even bigger for a single lady.”

She bit her lower lip and he tracked the movement. He really wanted at least one kiss from her. One little taste of her sassiness.

"You know, I’ve just come back to Twin Palms, Rory. This county is my home. I need to find a way to feel like I’m part of it again... I have been searching for a place to call home.”

He started laughing.

She shook her head. "You know you’re being rude, don’t you?”

"Sorry, honey, but I can tell when I’m being conned. I have a sister and I’ve seen her do it all too often to her husband,” Rory said.

"I really need this place,” she said.

He heard the desperation in her voice. He understood it. He’d been backed into a corner before. "Have dinner with me. You can tell me why you need it.”

"Will it make you change your mind?”

"I won’t know until you tell me your story,” he said.

He crossed his arms over his chest and just stared at her. As the breeze kicked up, blowing more strongly from the west, the first droplets of rain fell over them.

It was still hot, but the wind stirred his hair. Meg’s hair blew in the breeze as well, tendrils escaping from her headband and dancing in front of her eyes. He wondered if those strands felt as soft as they looked.

"Crap,” he said as the first drops of rain fell around them.

The drops were cold after the heat of the day. The spray from the wind showered them in moisture. He glanced around the area, hoping for a place to escape, but there wasn’t any. Meg tipped her head back and let the droplets hit her face.

"I missed Florida,” she said. But it was clear she wasn’t talking to him.

He wondered what her story was. Dinner was definitely going to happen. She looked like a woman who wanted to let the rain wash everything away. But why?

THE RAIN SLOWED, but everything was soaked, including Meg Starling. She stood next to him, staring at the house with such longing that he was tempted to give in. But the last time he’d given up something because a woman asked, hadn’t worked out that well for him.

The homestead’s property contained a natural spring. Plus, going through it was the only way to get to the land he’d purchased almost ten years ago. It was funny that the property that had brought Nat into his life, his first big investment at Fidelity, was directly responsible for helping him start over here.

"Okay, I’ll have dinner with you,” she said at last.

"Well, thank goodness,” he said sarcastically.

"I’m being a brat, aren’t I?”

"Nah. Not any more than I am. I guess we’re both the type of people who go after what we want.”

"I am,” she said. "Unfortunately, when you want something nebulous, it’s easy to get distracted.”

"Is that what happened to you?” he asked.

She sighed. "Kind of. It was simply easier to keep doing what I was being asked to do instead of doing what I wanted.”

"I don’t understand.”

"I left here to star on HGTV.”

"Ah, I had no idea you were good at... what is it you do?” he asked.

"Take old things and upcycle them. When I went to Manhattan five years ago, I thought it was my big break. But the job I got wasn’t what I’d hoped it would be. Finding this house is my ticket back.”

"Why go back when you just got back here?” he asked.

She gave him a hard stare, and then shrugged. "I don’t know if I will go back. What I do know is that I need to prove to myself that I could go back if I wanted. That the potential I had at twenty-five is still a big part of me.”

"I get that,” he said. Big time. It was the same reason he had taken the job at Twin Palms Fire Department. He had to prove something to himself—prove that he hadn’t lost everything along with his ex-wife.

"Tell me your dreams,” he said, his voice low.

She tipped her head to the side. A tendril of wet dark red hair fell over her eye and she slowly tucked it back behind her ear. "My dreams? Honey, I don’t know you well enough to share them.”

"Really? Meg, please don’t call me honey,” he said with a wink.

She smiled at him and shook her head.

"How would you upcycle this place?” he asked. "What were your plans?”

The tendril fell forward again and she wrapped it around her finger, twisting it, then tucking it away again. For a moment, he saw truth in those cinnamon eyes. Then she looked away. They were strangers, still. He knew that he’d asked her for more than she was going to give him. At least, for now.

"Listen, if you want this property and want me to bow out, you’re going to have to give me something.”

"I don’t know yet. I have an image in my head, but it’s still hazy. That sounds dumb, doesn’t it?” she asked, glancing at him quickly. "It’s just that until I get inside and see what I’d be working with, it’s hard to know what I’m going to do.”

"That doesn’t sound dumb,” he said. He treated fires the same way. Until he got into the heat and saw where it was heading, how it was behaving, he couldn’t really know how he’d stop it.

She smiled at him—that sweet, almost sad smile that he was starting to like a little too much. She seemed confident—hell, she was ballsy to come back to town after she’d left the way she said she had. So she wasn’t a coward.

He liked that.

Hell, he liked her and her big kissable mouth. And he knew that if she had dinner with him and he got to know her... she might have the keys to beating him. But he wasn’t planning to back down.

"There are a lot of places like this one around here. Why do you want this one so badly? Why the Clapham homestead and not some other piece of property?”

She rubbed the back of her neck as she stared at the house with its wraparound porch and peeling paint. He wanted to hear what she saw when she looked at the house. Not her vision for what she’d do, but why this place was special.

She walked toward the edge of the overhang as the afternoon rain started to slow and looked at the ramshackle old house. "It’s unkempt but the structure is still solid. It looks like old Florida to me. So many of the houses in this area are all pink stucco. That’s not Florida. Not my Florida. I want the chance to show the producers something that’s a part of me.”

"That’s a nice sentiment. But I know of a few other places in the county that are pretty similar. I saw a nice Victorian in town. I think it’s across from the diner.”

"My sister owns the diner, so I can’t buy that house. She’s already got dibs on it. Besides, it’s not a real Victorian. It was built in the eighties,” she said.

"I’m still not convinced. You’ve given me reasons, Meg, but you haven’t shown me the passion that would make me realize I don’t have a chance.”

"You don’t,” she said, pacing over to him and putting her hand on his chest. "I’m not going to back down, and I’ll drive the price up if I have to. Granted, I was never an investor, so my pockets aren’t as deep as yours. But my roots are here and I know the planning commissioners, the realtors and even Elias Clapham. His granddaughter was in my class in school. So I have the home field advantage.”

"Good. I was hoping you weren’t going to go all soft on me.”

"Not likely. So what do you say to just letting me have it and save yourself the trouble?”

He shook his head. "Does that approach usually work with the men around here?”

"I’m just letting you know I won’t back down,” she said.

He stood up, towering over her. "Good. I could never resist a challenge.”

HE WASN’T THE first man to say that; Hollis had liked a challenge, too. Or at least, he’d pretended to.

She’d counted on Hollis to want the same things she had. That they’d work hard and make it big, that they’d share the spotlight and be the new darlings of home renovation. Only, Hollis didn’t want to work... and he didn’t want to share.

There were no similarities between Hollis and Rory except they were both male. Still, she wasn’t yet ready to trust this near stranger with the truth. That when she looked at the ramshackle house, she saw her future.

"So now that you know how badly I want the house, are you going to use it against me?” she asked.

"Not at all. I was testing myself to see how badly I want this place. Will you be selling it when you’re done making it over?” he asked.

She hadn’t thought about that. She doubted she’d ever sell it, but what did he want to hear? "I hadn’t planned that far ahead.”


"What?” she asked. "I just got back to town. I have no idea what I’m going to do next. I just want this house.”

"Me, too.”

"Why? What does it represent to you?” she asked, turning the tables on him.

She needed ammunition if she was going to battle him. Needed to figure out what made him tick. She’d spent a lot of time working with all sorts of different personalities. It was about time she put that experience to use.

He rubbed the back of his neck. "Like you, I like to fix the past.”

"I don’t fix it. We can’t do that, can we?” she asked.

"No. We can’t. But we can make the stuff from the past workable again.”

"Is that what you do?” she asked.

"Not with my own two hands. My older brother... I actually have four of them. But Pat is really good with refurbishing old things. So I’m going to have him help me.”


"Sorry, honey, that’s all I can tell you today,” he said.

"That’s hardly anything, honey,” she said. There had been a curious note in his voice when he’d mentioned his brother. It was something that she intended to look into. He wasn’t going to back down. She needed to regroup. Clearly, there wasn’t anything she could say to change his mind, but perhaps she could dig up some dirt on him. Once she figured out his whole story, she could use her contacts to find him another place to buy.

"Nothing wrong with that. Still, I’d feel a lot better if I could figure out what your end game is.”

"Happiness,” she said with a cheeky grin. She’d been revealing way too much today, and it was time to retreat. "What’s yours?”

He tipped his head to the side. "The same. Doesn’t everyone want that?”

"I suppose so. But I think we all define it differently.”

"Today, it seems we both see it in that house,” he said, pointing to it. As he stretched out his arm, his chest muscles rippled. He was seriously built. It would be so easy to get distracted...

She’d never been one to fall in lust at first sight. But being so close to him, with the rain falling on this hot summer’s day, tempted her to act on impulse, just this once.

She didn’t know him. It was a novelty to think of being with a guy whose family history wasn’t interwoven with her childhood. His stories would be different from hers. But there was something else about him that attracted her. Something she was afraid to define.

She wondered what forbidden fruit tasted like at thirty. At eighteen, any boy who needled her father would do. At twenty-five, she’d found a carpenter with rough hands and stars in his eyes. None of those men had done anything other than reinforce her belief that the kind of man she wanted—the heroes of all the books she’d read growing up—wasn’t a guy she’d ever find in real life.

Yet here she was, alone with a bad boy on his motorcycle and she was arguing about a house. She wished she was more versed in the art of flirtation. Then she could bat her eyelashes and he’d gladly bow out. But that wasn’t her. And it never had been.

"You are looking at me like I’ve just sprung devil’s horns and a tail.”

"I wish you had. It would make my life so much easier.”

He threw his head back and laughed, and she realized she was taking herself too seriously. It was another of her faults.

"I like you, Meg.”

She had to smile at him. "You have caught me on a rare day. Usually I’m not this interesting.”

Her clothing was starting to dry. The rain had slowed and the heat returned, causing steam to rise from the ground around them. She should go. Now that she knew what she was up against, she could just call her realtor and reschedule. So why was she reluctant to leave?



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