“Let’s face it, Erica. I didn’t marry you for your looks.”
She stopped in her tracks. No, he hadn’t. That had been pretty clear very early in their marriage. Keith was after her money, not her looks, and not even her. She didn’t have a fortune. What she did have, she’d worked for every dime, saved pennies, cut corners. Then she’d married him, trusted him, and lost everything in less than six months. Pride had kept her from sharing the outcome of her folly with anyone. Brave face and all that. But the rift between her and Keith was apparent. Anyone who came to their house would notice the separate bedrooms. Hadn’t Trish Delaney even drawn her aside and asked her, more than once, why she didn’t dump his ass? Erica couldn’t tell her how close Keith’s spending had put them toward bankruptcy, how she barely had enough to pay the bills he’d racked up. She couldn’t lie either and say she loved the guy. She didn’t. Looking back, she never had. She’d done this to herself, and it’d been up to her to fix it.
A clean exit needed precise planning and money to back her up. If she’d told Trish money was an issue, the crew would have bent over backward to see she had it. Erica couldn’t let that happen. This was her mess. Hers to solve. She’d scrimped and saved until the moment was right. Then fate had stepped in with a whopper of a surprise. If Keith ever found out…
Erica shook her head. She’d keep that little secret close to her chest, even from her nearest and dearest friends. Oh, they’d eventually find out, but by then Keith would be history. Actually, him filing for divorce was perfect. He couldn’t accuse her of pulling a fast one. Well, he could, but…
One problem at a time.
Erica pulled in a much-needed breath and scrolled through the numbers on her cell phone while she paced the empty living room. The firefighter family was hers for now. All it would take was a call to any one of them, and she’d have all the help she needed to move tomorrow.
Her heart skipped a beat when she came to Mike Barnard’s number—the other reason she knew her marriage to Keith was a mistake. The man made her blood sizzle in ways she couldn’t describe. She’d met him when she’d met the rest of Keith’s crew. Something had kept drawing her and Mike together that night, like magnets. She should have known, should have realized. Keith proposed that very night after everyone left. Almost as if he felt threatened. Maybe he did. After all, he had an agenda of his own—her money.
Erica shook the memory away. Mike still did things to her that she’d never believed possible, and he never once crossed the line beyond friendship. Neither had she. He was her friend. If truth be told, her best friend. Logic decreed he be the one she called now. She called Trish Delaney instead.
“Hey, you. What’s up?” Trish’s bubbly greeting bolstered Erica’s mood.
“I could use a little muscle tomorrow, moving my things from the house into my new place.”
“Woo-hoo! You finally did it! You left the son of a bitch.”
Erica managed a small laugh. “Yeah, all about the planning. Unfortunately, things didn’t go as smoothly as I’d hoped.” She gave Trish the rundown of events.
“Bastard. The guys’ll go over there right now—”
“No. I don’t want any trouble.” Nothing could risk her bigger plan. “Keith’s spoiling for a fight. It won’t go well. He’s on-shift tomorrow. That will be the better time.”
Trish huffed. “Where are you now?”
“In my new place.” Erica gave her the address. “I was getting ready to head out for pizza and to find a motel room for the night.”
“Screw that. We’re coming to get you.” Trish disconnected without waiting for a response.
Erica didn’t have the energy to call back and argue with her. Hell, suddenly she wasn’t sure she had the energy to move. The luggage in her car disagreed. She had at least fifteen minutes before Trish showed up. Time she could use to unpack some of her stuff. An overnight bag would suffice for her stay with the Delaneys.
Anger and adrenaline had helped her carry the suitcases to her car. All Erica had going for her this time was determination, because those suckers were heavy as hell. She wouldn’t put it past Keith to have packed them with rocks. Relief sagged through her when she opened one up and found clothing, complete with hangers. It looked as if he’d grabbed everything from her closet and dumped it in. Fine by her.
She discovered a similar disarray in the other three suitcases. She did a quick inventory and found all her clothing and personal effects accounted for. At least he’d done something right. Maybe things weren’t going to be so bad after all.
Her breath caught at the sound of Mike’s voice echoing through the empty house. Nerves quivered along the surface of her skin.
“I’m in the bedroom. Be right—”
His body filled the doorway before she could finish the sentence. Damn, but he looked fine. His deep-blue eyes settled on her face. At six-four, he made Erica’s five-ten feel petite. It was one of the things she’d liked about him, one of many. Too many. She stood frozen by the closet, her body alive and fully aware this was a real man in front of her.
“I…I was expecting Trish.”
“She called.” A slow step brought him nearer. “I came right away.” Another step. “Is everything here?” He motioned to the bags. “Clothes, personals, papers, jewelry?”
“Clothes and personals, yes. My valuables are in a safe-deposit box Keith can’t access. I always carry my laptop in the car.”
“Did he hurt you? Hit you?” Fingers coiled into loose fists at Mike’s sides promised retribution if he had.
Erica shook her head. “No. You can put the guns away.” She pointed to his fists.
Mike glanced down. The hint of a flush rushed his face, then disappeared. He shrugged off the lapse and advanced again, slow, determined, until only inches separated them. She stared into his eyes, shaken by the unmistakable fire blazing there. Indignation over her circumstances, or something more?
“Good, because if he did, I’d have to hurt him.”
Erica managed a little laugh. “You wouldn’t have to. I could hurt him myself.”
“So you could.” His semblance of a smile didn’t quite make it. “But still, he’s a sneaky little bastard.”
“Tell me about it.”
“He’s hurt you here.” He pressed the pads of his fingers above her heart, right at the curve of her breast. Oh, how she wanted to push it into his palm, feel his grip mold around it.
“He definitely shook what little faith I had in him, disappointed me, but my heart was never his to break. If I’m heartbroken at all, it’s because I failed to trust my instincts in the first place and married him anyway. It was wrong from the start and only got worse.”
“Did I stay with him so long?” A year of her life wasted. There was no harm telling the truth now. She was financially back on her feet. “He robbed me blind. It’s taken me time to recover enough money so that I could leave him. I knew he’d never move out.”
“You know any of us would have helped you out.”
“My mess. My marriage, such as it was. I retook control I never should have relinquished and worked it out. No sense dragging the rest of you into it. I didn’t want you to have to choose sides.”
“We did that the minute we met you. The only reason we tolerate him now is because of you. There isn’t one of us who wouldn’t go to the mat for you, Erica.”
He said that now, and Erica knew he meant every word, but… “You still have to work with the guy.”
His scowl darkened the room. “Don’t remind me. I do my best to make sure we’re not on the same shift. He’s lazy, incompetent, and those are his good
qualities. He has no friends at the station. You aren’t the only one he’s screwed.”
“Well, technically speaking, he hasn’t been screwing me.” It was important Mike know that.
There was a hitch in his breath. “Yeah, we’ve noticed the his-and-her rooms. Berto cornered him on that one day.”
Erica could hear Berto. “What the fuck’s up with that, man?”
“Apparently I snore,” she said. “Or his hours make it easier for him to sleep without me dashing all over the place. Or I twist the covers. Or my body’s too hot.” She lifted her palms. “It was fine with me because at that point the last thing I wanted was him anywhere near me.”
“Keith is an ass. Always was, always will be. I’m glad it’s finally over.”
Mike closed that last bit of distance between them. Her hands came to rest on his hard chest while he slipped one hand around her waist. Long, thick fingers coiled around her neck, cradling it, drawing her closer.
“I know you had to live it, but we had to watch it. You have no idea how frustrating it was for us to not interfere. It’s been hell watching you—”
He pressed his lips together, rolling them, moistening them, tempting her with a taste. What would he do if she stretched up on her toes and kissed him? There’d never been a hint her attraction to him was reciprocated. He’d never crossed a line, never made a pass, never treated her any differently than anyone else. But then, she’d been “taken.” Now she wasn’t.
Mike cupped her head and drew it to his shoulder. “Someone needs a hug.”
“You or me?” She slipped her arms around his neck.
“Both of us?”
Mike did like his hugs. He was always tossing them around. Granted, he never gave hugs this close, but this circumstance was unique. Erica was glad she hadn’t tried to sneak a kiss. She felt silly even thinking he’d want her. A man this yummy had his pick of the crop. Women were always trying to cozy up to him. Beautiful women. She’d envied every one of them when he’d cast that dazzling smile in their direction. A smile that promised a night they’d never forget. She’d wanted to draw them aside afterward for a blow-by-blow account. Nothing like living vicariously.
But Mike was careful to keep his relationships clear from the crew. Few were allowed within the “family,” as they were called. He never spoke of them either. “Real men don’t need to kiss and tell.”
How many times had she heard him say that? And there was no doubt Mike Barnard was a real man.
One hand slipped to her lower back. There was the barest hint of pressure there, trying to pull her even closer than they already were. She felt the hardness between them. Hot and unmistakable.
She swallowed, her throat gone dry. Make a move or ignore it? A mistake now risked ruining their friendship. Erica couldn’t bear that. She left control in his hands, let him make the next move.
So why didn’t he make it? Her hopes fell. Because the erection pulsing between them meant nothing. Guys got hard-ons all the time for all manner of reasons. This was no different. She didn’t expect that knowledge to hurt as badly as it did.
“Let’s face it, Erica. I didn’t marry you for your looks.”
That knife thrust to the heart again, similar to words her own family had uttered time and again. Too tall, too big, too opinionated, too…everything that could possibly be wrong with a person. And she had the nerve to think a man like Mike would want her?
She was buddy material, not mating material. How many men had told her that
Tears welled up. She tried her best to fight them. The hurt was too much. Words slashed at her heart. The fantasy she’d carried with her crumbled to ashes around it.
“Oh, sweetheart, it’s okay.” Mike rubbed his big hands over her back. “I’ve got you.”
How she wished that were true.