Award-Winning Author of Romantic and Erotic Suspense
  Jo Davis  
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Excerpt from HIDDEN FIRE

Copyright © Jo Davis, 2009
All Rights Reserved, Penguin Group USAHIDDEN FIRE

The scorching hot firemen of Station Five are known for cranking up the heat. Sexy rogue Julian Salvatore is no exception… He’s more than earned his reputation as a ladies’ man, but chasing women has also been a way to outrun a terrible secret from his past. Then he meets defense attorney Grace McKenna, a beautiful ice queen who’s more than willing to give Julian her body, even if he can’t seem to melt her heart.
In the blazing heat of their passion, Grace and Julian start to let down their guard—just as a series of grisly murders rocks Nashville and Julian is targeted by the killer. As the firefighter comes face to face with his demons, he and Grace must race to uncover the terrible truth—or become the next victims.

 

Chapter One

Julian Salvatore sprayed a steady stream of water at Station Five’s ambulance, rinsing off the soapsuds and gyrating around the vehicle to “Life in the Fast Lane” blaring from the radio just inside the bay.

Nothing like the Eagles to make a boring task bearable.

Using the nozzle as a microphone, he lip-synched a little Don Henley, punctuating the heavy downbeat with blasts to the bubbles. Watching them slide away. Thinking, yeah, he could relate. He enjoyed life a bit too fast.

Too bad he was on shift. He craved some action, and not the type to be found here, working with four guys he couldn’t quite call pals. Not that he hadn’t made an effort—no, screw that. Friendship shouldn’t come with a set of conditions, and God knew his best was never good enough.

Forcing down the old disappointment, he conjured an image of feminine curves, toned thighs. Long, white blond hair draped over his chest, violet eyes holding him captive, while their slick bodies moved in time to the pounding music—

Which abruptly lowered several notches, poofing his fantasy to dust.

“Jeez, man. You selling tickets?”

Julian glanced toward the door to the bay. Zack Knight, A-shift’s fire apparatus operator—aka engine driver—straightened and turned away from the portable radio, cell phone to one ear. Knight leaned against the grille of the big quint, cooing into the phone like a frickin’ turtle dove.

“. . . know I don’t care, beautiful,” Knight was saying, face glowing with happiness. “Whatever color you want me to stain it is fine.”

Yep, totally whipped.

Rolling his eyes, Julian made an exaggerated gagging noise. Knight shot him the finger and a big grin, and Julian couldn’t resist smiling back as he shut off the water. So, the geek had grown a big, steely pair after all. Love must do weird shit to a guy.

He wouldn’t know. Nor did he care to.

“Salvatore!”

He started, stifling a curse. Cristo, the captain had a way of lying low, then leaping out of nowhere to lop off an unsuspecting victim’s head like some sort of damned ninja assassin.

Julian turned, pasting on his most innocent expression—a stretch, even on his best day. “Hey, Cap. What’s shakin’?”

Sean Tanner got in his personal space, vibrating with anger from head to toe. He rested his hands on his narrow hips, green eyes snapping. Hoo-yah, this was gonna be a scream.

“I’m going to say this once. The prepubescent shit is getting old. You’re done.”

Julian stared back. What the hell? “Am I supposed to know what you’re talking about?”

“The tampon prank was funny the first time, although inappropriate. You’re lucky Eve didn’t make an issue of it before, but this? Stringing them across the ladies’ restroom door is going too far.”

Knight closed his cell phone, slid it into his pants pocket, and watched with interest. Julian laughed. He couldn’t help it.

“Man, you need to lighten up. Eve’s cool and you know she dishes out as much as she takes.”

Tanner’s face hardened. “I’m fed up, Salvatore. Knock that crap off before you wind up with a formal complaint in your file.”

Julian’s humor fled. “Why don’t you look into the mirror, amigo, say that three times, and see if you land in Kansas. You’re not the only one who’s fed up.”

Color flooded Tanner’s cheeks as he sputtered. “What the fuck do you mean by that?”

“Want to make me spell it out? Fine. You’re not doing such a great job yourself, but you don’t hesitate to shout and bitch at everyone who doesn’t meet your impossible standards.” Julian sighed, shaking his head. “You know what? Forget it, I’m not doing this. The point is, I’m not the one who pulled the stunt, I don’t have a clue who did, and frankly, sir, I don’t give a rat’s ass. If you’ll excuse me, I have work to finish.”

For the first time in his career, Julian gave his back to a superior. And it hurt a helluva lot more than he’d have thought.

Because in that moment, in a startling burst of clarity, he realized Tanner had lost his respect.

Everyone went through rough times, Tanner’s rougher than most. But the captain wasn’t the only one who’d faced total devastation and lived to tell.

Are you hurt, hijo?

No, mamá.

Oh, no. Not going there. Grabbing an old towel, he shoved the memory into its tamperproof compartment and began to dry the ambulance. He longed to get in Tanner’s grill, set him straight. Tell the uptight bastard he didn’t have the market cornered on pain and suffering. Tell him—

“Damn, you should’ve seen his expression,” Knight remarked quietly, coming to stand beside him.

“He’s gone?” Julian wasn’t about to give Tanner the satisfaction of looking.

“After he gave about two seconds’ thought to ripping your head off, yeah.” Knight paused, blinking behind his wire-rimmed glasses. “You shocked him. I mean, I’ve gotten pretty good at not letting him get to me, but nobody stands up to him like that except Six-Pack.”

“And Eve.”

“True.”

Lieutenant Howard “Six-Pack” Paxton was Tanner’s best friend, Eve Marshall their sole female firefighter. Six-Pack was six and a half feet of towering muscle, Eve whipcord lean but tough. Neither of them took crap off anybody.

Julian started on the windshield, keeping his voice low. “Has the intervention been scheduled?”

“I was on my way out to talk to you about it when Cori phoned. Six-Pack needs to meet with all of us first so we’re on the same page with how to proceed. Everyone else is free Friday afternoon. We were thinking around three, at Six-Pack and Kat’s new house. Work for you?”

“I’ve got a date later, but sure. I’ll be there.”

Knight clapped him on the shoulder, then wandered off. Julian tried to imagine Tanner’s reaction when he realized what they’d planned, and winced. No man wanted to listen to the people closest to him air his drinking problem in a public forum. He had a feeling this giant group hug was going to backfire something awful. For the record, he’d warned them.

Still, something had to be done before Sean killed himself.

Three loud high tones over the intercom system scattered his thoughts. The pleasantly creepy computerized voice announced a kitchen fire at one of Sugarland’s few high-end restaurants.

Pitching the towel into the bay, he sprinted for his gear, almost relieved for the distraction.

Almost. If he’d learned anything in all his years as a firefighter, it was that complacence on the job was usually followed by unmitigated disaster.

He might get a dark thrill out of tempting fate, but he wasn’t stupid.

#

Julian grabbed a hose and jogged for the rear entry of the restaurant, Tommy Skyler at his back. Displaced diners milled around the front and side of the building, and Julian spared them a glance as he and Skyler approached the kitchen door.

Most of them appeared to have departed, but a few onlookers watched the proceedings with avid interest. As always, his roving eye zeroed in on the women, some dressed business casual, but a couple in classy power suits. Including a tall, willowy blonde who seemed to be staring right at him.

Recognition zapped him like touching a live circuit, charged his libido. He stopped so abruptly, Skyler plowed into his back with a curse.

Grace McKenna.

Five feet eleven delectable inches of cream-your-boxer-briefs temptation. The violet-eyed beauty of his lusty fantasies, the Ice Princess who’d ignored every one of his advances. Well, except for that one toe-curling kiss all those months ago.

And Six-Pack’s off-limits sister-in-law.

He couldn’t have Grace.

Which, of course, only made him want her more.

“What’re you doing, man? Go, go!” Skyler yelled.

Shaking it off and breaking eye contact, he ran. What was he doing? A split second of inattention on the job could get a firefighter killed. He wasn’t ready to die today, and certainly not over a woman.

A woman who wouldn’t suffer a moment of remorse if something bad did happen to him.

Focus. The kitchen was almost fully engulfed in flames, but he and Skyler managed to wrestle the blaze under control with relatively little difficulty. The stove provided the worst problem, since the extinguishing system in the vent hood overhead had apparently failed. The unit, covered in grease and equipped with a vat for frying, had gone up like a torch, but was quickly subdued by Eve with chemical foam.

The heat was a nasty bitch, though, boiling his skin through the heavy protective clothing. He’d reek of smoke and sweat and he hoped they had a long enough reprieve from the calls later to sneak a shower.

Through the kitchen entry into the restaurant’s dining room, he saw Eve join Six-Pack to do a walk-through of the premises. Six-Pack gave him a thumbs-up for an all clear, so they had to concentrate only on the kitchen area and make sure no hot spots remained.

Leaving their buddies to handle that part, Julian and Skyler shut off the hose and exited the way they’d come in. Skyler took charge of helping Knight put the hose away, and as Julian removed his mask to let it dangle around his neck, he observed that the younger man had really started to mature in the past couple of months.

Julian shook his head with a rueful laugh. Yeah, he was such an expert on maturity.

Then he didn’t have time to think about Skyler anymore because, Dios mío, Grace was striding toward him purposefully, lovely expression cool and composed as ever. If he didn’t know better, she might have been marching forward to serve him with a subpoena. After months of her ignoring his phone calls, he couldn’t imagine what on earth she had to say to him.

But it couldn’t be good.

And yippee, here he was caught off guard and out of his groove. With her crisp blouse under her tailored suit jacket and hair in an elegant twist at her nape, the woman looked like she’d just stepped out of the pages of Vogue. An equally sharp-dressed man trailed in her wake—her lunch date?—while Julian was a stinky, sooty old gym sock. Shit. Feeling self-conscious and hating it, he raked his fingers through his wet hair, pasting on a grin.

Querida, you picked a fine time to accept my dinner invitation. As you can see, I’m a bit underdressed.”

Grace stopped in front of him, huge eyes softening the merest fraction. “I had to stay and make certain you were all right,” she said, her soft, melodic voice edged with a tiny hint of concern.

Just like that, his knees went weak. His heart thudded madly in his chest and for once in his life, he could think of nothing clever to say. The armor of his sarcastic wit deserted him, leaving him naked and squirming.

“I . . . I’m fine, Grace,” he said, shrugging.

“And Howard?” She squinted toward the smoldering restaurant, worry for her sister’s husband plain.

“We’re good. Just another day in the jungle. How have you been?” Why haven’t you acknowledged my existence?

Clutching her purse, she favored him with a polite smile that seized his lungs. “Busy. Half the population needs an attorney.”

“And they’re all innocent, I’m sure.”

“Of course. Those are the only ones I defend.” As though suddenly reminded of her lunch date, she glanced to the man standing behind her and waved him forward. “Oh! Gentlemen, I apologize. Derek, this is an acquaintance of mine, Julian Salvatore. He works with my sister’s husband. Julian, this is Derek Vines.”

The name slammed into him, a double shot to the head and gut. His gaze swung toward the man’s good-looking face. Fifteen years older, but the same face that haunted his nightmares, his every waking moment. One he’d never thought to see again in this lifetime, or the next.

He couldn’t breathe. Was being held underwater. Vision graying at the edges.

Drowning.

“Julian? Are you all right?”

He blinked at Grace, fighting to breathe, the fog clearing some. He’d never fainted and he wasn’t about to now, in front of her.

In front of the man who’d nearly destroyed him.

This must be cosmic punishment for his most terrible mistake and the promiscuous life he’d led since. Hadn’t he suffered enough simply struggling each day to rise above the past?

“Julian?” She turned to Vines. “Get one of the others—”

“No!” He gave her what he prayed was a reassuring smile, when what he needed to do was find a restroom and be sick. “No, I’m fine. It’s just . . . all of this clothing and gear is hotter than hell. Vines, nice to meet you,” he said.

Because that’s how a normal person greeted another. A normal guy would shake the man’s hand, too, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it. Not even under torture.

Before Vines could open his mouth, Julian took Grace’s arm. “I need to speak with you in private.”

Vines wore a puzzled frown, not a spark of recognition in his eyes. Thank God. He steered Grace toward the back of the ambulance, aware of the captain’s disapproving scowl and the other guys’ curious stares. He ignored them all, getting right to the point.

“What the fuck are you doing with a slimeball like Derek Vines?”

Score. That damned irritating chilly sophistication slipped several notches, and she gaped at him, bristling. “Derek Vines is my client, not that it’s any of your business.”

“Really? You called him Derek, not Mr. Vines,” he pointed out, struggling to remain calm. And losing.

“Derek is a family acquaintance, which is also none of your business. If you’ll excuse me—”

“Cut that asshole loose. Trust me on this.”

“Let go of my arm,” she hissed, jerking the limb in question.

Blinking, he uncurled his fingers from her sleeve. He hadn’t realized he’d grabbed her. “I’m sorry. But please listen,” he entreated, injecting his voice with all the sincerity he possessed. Where Vines was concerned, it wasn’t difficult. “Vines is extremely dangerous, Grace. You have no idea.”

She obviously wanted to leave, but hesitated, anger tempered by curiosity. “How would you know this?”

Oh, God. “Just . . . trust me.”

“Not good enough. I don’t know you.”

“Yeah? Well, you don’t know Vines, either, or you’d never have accepted him as a client. You only defend the innocent?” He gave a bitter laugh and wiped a hand down his grimy face. “Jesus Christ, Grace. Even you can’t be right in every case, about every person, and you’re not right about him.”

“How so? Throw me a bone, Salvatore, or I walk.”

Salvatore. The pervert is “Derek” and I’m “Salvatore.” Great.

What could he tell her when he was shaking apart inside, trying to keep from hitting his knees?

“I grew up in San Antonio, Texas, same as Derek. Suffice it to say he’s trouble for everyone unfortunate enough to cross his path. Do some research.”

“All right,” she said, nodding slightly. “I can do that much.”

“Then drop the bastard like yesterday’s bad news, because that’s what he is.”

Anger animated her face again, and he knew he’d never seen a more gorgeous woman. Sucked to have her fury directed at him, but better for her to be aware of the viper in her midst.

“Thank you for the information, however vague, but I’ll be the one to decide which clients to take on.” A strange expression clouded the anger for a second as she held his gaze; then it vanished. “Good-bye, Julian.”

Good-bye. At least she’d used his first name again. Wasn’t that a positive sign?

And she’d never actually turned him down, had she?

“Why haven’t you just said no?” he blurted, inwardly cursing himself for an idiot.

Grace paused, looking over her shoulder, violet eyes cool as ever. The irritation was gone, a ghost of a smile hovering on those plump lips. “Perhaps I just haven’t said yes.”

Jaw clenched, he watched her walk away, small round butt swinging in her tight skirt. Damn her for stringing him along.

A hand clamped hard on his shoulder. “Oh, boy. Our Latin lover’s got it bad.” Six-Pack stepped in front of him, shaking his head. “I’ve tried to tell you, forget about her. Grace is as elusive as the wind.”

“You’re just afraid I’ll break your precious sister-in-law’s heart.”

The lieutenant’s expression sobered. “Not anymore, my friend. I’m afraid she’ll break yours.”

Six-Pack strode away and Julian watched, relieved, as Grace and Derek Vines left in separate cars. Even if she wasn’t his business, he cared for her safety. She was representing a monster, and he couldn’t make her truly understand.

Not unless he told her everything.

And that was never going to happen.

Just like Grace accepting his dinner invite.

He had to let go of this fixation on her. It boiled down to lust. Infatuation. Nothing more.

There were plenty of women who wanted him, even if Grace didn’t.

Problem was, giving up and moving on had never hurt so much.

 

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