Cassidy Marcel gazed at the firehouse with trepidation. She loved her job, but she also knew firefighters. They loved to razz each other over everything, and her appearance on the reality dating show, Who Wants to Marry a Cowboy, would be no exception.
She’d gone on the show at the urging of her mother who was begging for grandkids, but Cassidy couldn’t deny her biological clock was ticking as well. And it had come on suddenly. One day, she’d been content to be a single woman focusing on her career as a firefighter and the next, a desperate need to start a family had erupted within her. She’d begun dating again, but none of the men she had been out with fit the bill of what she was looking for – stable, self-sufficient, and a man of God.
So, when she’d seen that Tyler, the cowboy bachelor for this episode, was one, she’d re-considered her initial refusal and asked God for clarity. While she hadn’t heard a loud voice in her head, she’d felt a sense of peace about it, and so she’d done the audition. And been chosen. And even felt a connection with Tyler. Until it became obvious that he had eyes for someone else. Now, she was back with a wounded ego, a bruised heart, and a feeling of confusion as she wondered if she’d been following her own will instead of God’s. And she knew there would be teasing from her fellow firefighters.
Plus, she wondered how Captain Fitzgerald was going to react. The stony-faced Captain hadn’t been her biggest fan before she took three weeks off; she assumed she would be even lower on his list now.
Inhaling deeply, she pulled her shoulders back hoping she appeared more confident than she felt. Then she opened her car door, tucked her dark hair behind her ears, and walked into the lion’s den.
“Marcel, so glad you could grace us with your presence again.” Billy Campbell, or Bubba, as everyone called him stood before her, a giant smile on his face. He was one of her favorite people in the firehouse. Originally from Texas, he had a heart bigger than his smile and was more like an older brother than a co-worker. “I didn’t want you to feel like we didn’t want you, so I thought this might help.” From behind his back, he brandished a miniature black cowboy hat and held it out to her. Though small, it somehow sported sequins that caught and shimmered in the light.
Cassidy rolled her eyes good naturedly as she shook her head. She should have expected something like this, especially after the sugar incident last year. When Cassidy first joined the firehouse, they had celebrated by taking her out to a local dive that served decent food and boasted a karaoke night. None of her favorites had been available though, and Cassidy ended up singing Def Leppard's “Pour Some Sugar on Me.” The next day, the guys had all presented her with bags of sugar throughout the day. Sugar wouldn’t have to grace her grocery list for another six months at least.
“Haha, thanks, Bubba. I missed you too.” She grabbed the hat knowing several more of these would be in store before the day was through. “Did I miss any excitement while I was gone?”
Bubba pushed open the door to the common room that doubled as a living room and the kitchen area. “Only if you count Luca’s boycott of Deacon’s Paleo meal plan.”
“It’s not a meal if there are no potatoes in it,” Luca said, speaking up from the couch. Luca was a Southern boy as well, and he believed every meal should include meat and potatoes. And chocolate. The man insisted that every meal come with a dessert which explained the extra twenty pounds he carried on his frame. Somehow though it didn’t hinder him in his job. He was strong and agile and quicker than almost all of them. His eyes flicked up briefly from the television he was watching. “Oh, hey, Marcel, welcome back.” He launched something at her without ever taking his eyes off the screen.
She knew what it was before it landed a few inches from her. Another miniature cowboy hat. This one was brown and had a tiny feather. Cassidy picked it up and flashed Luca a crooked grin. “Thanks, Luca. I missed you too.”
“Forgive him. He didn’t like the brownies I gave him with dinner last night, and he’s still sour about it,” Deacon said as he stepped around the island in the kitchen and toward her and Bubba. Strong and dark skinned, Deacon was the epitome of an oxymoron. His bulging muscles gave him an intimidating presence, but inside he was the biggest teddy bear. He pulled her in for a hug before brandishing his own miniature hat.
Cassidy chuckled as she took the hat though she had no idea what she was going to do with all of these. Though she had received a hat every time Tyler chose her to stay, the producer’s took them back afterwards to have for the next show. They had allowed her to keep the final hat as a souvenir, and though Cassidy wasn’t sure she wanted to remember the show, she kept it as a reminder to never do something like that again.
“Brownies don’t have prunes in them,” Luca spoke up from the couch.
Cassidy lifted a brow at Deacon. “You made brownies with prunes? Things really have changed in a month.” It wasn’t that prunes were completely out of the norm for Deacon. He regarded his body as a temple and rarely put anything processed in it, but he also wasn’t one for sweets generally. He focused more on macronutrients and desserts rarely fit in his plan.
Deacon shrugged. “I thought I could slip some healthy desserts in on these guys. Keep them a little trimmer in the middle if you know what I mean.” He patted his rock-hard abs.
“Might have worked too, if you hadn’t eaten them as well,” Bubba said with a deep laugh. “That was clue number one they had to be healthy. You really couldn’t taste the prunes though, but man did they wreak havoc on my insides later.”
“Okay, enough of that,” Cassidy said, shaking her head and squeezing her eyes shut. The image of a run on the bathroom was not the visual she wanted to have of her fellow firemen.
“Cassidy, oh my gosh, I’m so glad you’re back.”
Cassidy would have recognized Ivy’s voice anywhere. Not only was she the only other woman in the firehouse, but her voice held just the slightest valley girl twang. On anyone else it might have been annoying, but Ivy was wholesomely sweet, down to earth, and as cute as a button. Her blond hair perfectly framed her heart-shaped face, and big blue eyes sat above a perfectly-shaped nose that contained no trace of freckles, unlike Cassidy’s.
Because Fire Beach wasn’t a huge city, it made more sense to have the paramedics and the firefighters housed in the same place, so Ivy was often at the firehouse when Cassidy was. Dispatch usually sent both a firetruck and an ambulance to most calls though medical only calls were increasing which sent Ivy and the other paramedic out at other times as well.
Ivy attacked her with a hug before Cassidy was ready and the gesture jostled her full arms sending the tiny hats flying to the floor. Ivy’s eyes widened as she released Cassidy and her petite hand flew to her mouth. “I’m so sorry. I was just so excited to see you. You don’t know how awful it’s been being the only woman here for the last month.” She dropped to the floor to help Cassidy pick up the hats.
Ivy was teasing. Mostly. But Cassidy had been at the firehouse before Ivy arrived, and she remembered how hard it was being the only female. The guys didn’t try to make her feel uncomfortable, but men and women were different. She’d been glad when Ivy joined to have another woman to talk to. “Don’t worry about it. They’re just silly hats, and I’m sorry I left you high and dry.”
“Marcel? Is that you?”
Cassidy froze at the stern sound of her captain’s voice. Having been recently promoted, Captain Darryl Fitzgerald was now all business. Every rule needed to be followed to the letter and the teasing shut down when he was around. She snatched the hat and stood. “Good morning, Captain, what can I do for you?”
“You can follow me to my office. We need to have a chat.”
“Of course, sir.” Cassidy fought the anxiety clawing at her throat. Captain Fitzgerald was intimidating, but she had just returned. She couldn’t have done anything too bad. Maybe it was about the hats. She would explain that the guys were just razzing her a little and then take them to her car so they were out of sight.
Cassidy’s anxiety increased when Captain Fitzgerald shut the door to his office behind her. Closed door meetings rarely held a good outcome. Her hand rubbed the back of her neck. “Have I done something, sir?” She hated the slight tremble in her voice, but he controlled her future, and she loved her job.
“Sit.” He pointed at one of the chairs opposite his desk and then walked to his own chair and sat down. Cassidy sat in the indicated chair and crossed her legs, then uncrossed them and sat straighter.
“I know that you had time saved up for this trip, but I need someone I can rely on in this firehouse.” His steely eyes held hers as if daring her to challenge him.
Cassidy swallowed the knot in her throat and lifted her chin, hoping it came across as confidence and not sass. “I understand, sir, and I have no intention of going anywhere else anytime soon.”
He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “That is good to hear, but to be sure, I am giving you some extra cleaning duties. You’ll be in charge of cleaning the truck for the next month, and I want it sparkling at the end of every shift. Is that clear?”
Cassidy’s mouth fell open, and she hurried to close it. She had no idea if he had the power to do that since she technically had done nothing wrong, but she wasn’t going to argue with him. She loved this job and this house. No way did she want to go back to being a floater, so if he wanted her to wash the truck every day, she would do it. If he wanted to put her on kitchen duty, she would do that too even though her cooking left a lot to be desired. “Crystal clear, sir. I promise I am committed to this job and will do whatever it takes to prove it to you.”
“Perfect, now we should discuss the mail situation.” He steepled his fingers and regarded her with another cool stare. She was definitely on his list.
She furrowed her brow, confused as to what he could mean. “I’m sorry, the what?”
His eyebrow inched up his forehead. “You don’t know?” Cassidy shook her head. “It appears you garnered a few fans while you were gallivanting on your show, and as they didn’t know where you lived, they dropped your mail here.”
Cassidy winced and bit the inside of her lip. No wonder he was angry. Captain Ferguson hated it when anything from the outside encroached on the sanctity of the fire house. “I had no idea, sir. I’m so sorry.”
He waved a hand dismissing her. “It is what it is, but I want them gone from the firehouse at the end of your shift.”
“Of course, sir. Um, where are they?”
He nodded to the corner of the room, and Cassidy turned, spying a large brown bag that she hadn’t noticed when they entered. Roughly the size of a burlap sack, it bulged and protruded as wide as appeared possible. “All of that is for me?”
“Yep, letters, gifts, you name it. I suggest you find a better place for it.”
“Yes, sir.” Cassidy pulled her shoulders back as she faced the mountainous bag. Since shift had just started, she might as well take it to the bunk room and go through it while there was time. She didn’t need all of this cluttering her small apartment either.
The bag proved unwieldy but thankfully just enough extra sack remained at the top that she was able to drag it down the hallway and into the bunk room. Meant generally for sleeping when they worked long shifts, the bunk room held rows of two beds separated by half walls. A small table that contained only a lamp sat between each two-bed section.
She and Ivy shared the section at the very back of the room, and sweat rolled down Cassidy’s spine as she pulled the bag to the bunk she normally slept in. With a sigh, she plopped down on the bunk and opened the bag. If Santa had been real, she would know exactly how he felt. She grabbed one of the envelopes and opened it.
“Dear Cassidy, I saw you on the show, and I think we’d make a great couple. I love horses and roller skating. You can call me at 555-1324. Signed, David. P.S. If a woman answers, it’s just my mom.”
Cassidy wrinkled her nose, shook her head, and laid the letter to the side. No need to keep that one. She wanted a man established enough that he lived on his own or maybe with a roommate. Rent wasn’t cheap in the city, but moms were a no go. She wanted a man who had a good relationship with his mother but who didn’t still live with his mother. She reached into the bag again. One down and only a few hundred to go. It was going to be a long afternoon.
* * *
Jordan issued his apology as he hurried into the office. “Sorry I’m late. We were helping with a drug bust.”
“Of course you were,” Graham said with a roll of his eyes.
“It’s no problem, Jordan, we were just getting started.” Mr. Keyes, their father’s attorney adjusted his tie before placing his hands on either side of a stack of papers. “I’m sure you know that I called you in today for a reading of your father’s will. Most of it is rather straightforward, but there is something I wasn’t sure you were aware of.” He picked up the top sheet of paper and scanned it before flipping it around to them. “Did you know your father owned a bar?”
“A bar?” Graham asked, leaning forward.
“That’s not possible. Dad was an alcoholic. Why would he own a bar?” Jordan asked.
“It hasn’t been a bar in a long time. In fact, it hasn’t been anything for a long time. I drove by the other day, so I would have current information for you both. It appears to be boarded up currently.” He pulled a picture from the stack and slid it across the table to Graham who glanced at it before handing it to Jordan.
“So, we should try and sell it, right?” Jordan asked. He had no use for a bar or the rundown building in the picture.
“No, we can’t sell it,” Graham said, shooting him an incredulous look. “Dad obviously kept the bar for a reason.”
A reason? Jordan doubted it. Their father had spent most of his life so drunk that he rarely had a reason for anything. “He probably forgot he owned it and therefore had no presence of mind to sell it. What would we do with an old building?”
Mr. Keyes said nothing but shifted his gaze from one brother to the next as they argued.
“What would we do?” Graham turned in his chair to face Jordan, his face a picture of contempt. “We fix it up, give it new life, take it back to how it once was.”
Jordan shook his head. Obsessed with focusing on the positive, Graham always wanted to fix things, even when the better option would be to stay out of it. “No way, I’m not opening a bar. I won’t encourage drinking and enable the same behavior that claimed Dad.”
“Fine, we’ll turn it into a family restaurant then. A place where cops can hang out and have a sense of community.” Graham had added that last part to try and persuade Jordan but he wasn’t biting.
“I have no time to fix up a restaurant. Nor do I know anything about running a restaurant. And what about the money? Did Dad leave any money to fix this place?”
“Your father left you the proceeds from the sale of the house and he had a few stocks and bonds, but it isn’t much.”
And there it was. Their father hadn’t kept the house in good enough condition to turn a profit and he hadn’t thought about his sons’ future either. He’d only thought about his next drink. “See? It isn’t much. Probably not enough to renovate an old bar and turn it into a restaurant.”
Graham folded his arms across his chest and turned away from Jordan. “I’m not selling. Dad could have sold the building years ago, and he didn’t. That tells me it meant something to him, so I’m going to restore it with or without you.”
Jordan turned fierce eyes on the lawyer. “Can he do that? Can he make me keep it?”
Mr. Keyes shrugged and offered an apologetic half smile. “He could offer to buy you out, but there is no stipulation that he has to sell.”
Before he could say anything else, Jordan’s phone buzzed. He swiped the screen, shook his head, and stood. “I have to go, but this isn’t over. We are going to discuss this, Graham.”
Where do you turn when you don't know who to trust...
Firefighter Cassidy Marcel thought appearing on a reality dating show would solve her relationship problems, but when she returns home to a stalker, she realizes her troubles are just beginning. She is used to rescuing people, but who will rescue her?
Detective Jordan Graves is racing to save missing children. He doesn't have time to search for a stalker. That is until Cassidy's case collides with his own, but when she goes missing, will he be able to save her before it's too late?
Find out in this gripping romantic suspense from best-selling author Lorana Hoopes. A story guaranteed to keep the pages turning, you won't want to put it down until you're finished. Includes book group discussion questions.
- Purchase the E-Book/Audiobook
- Receive Download Link via Email from BookFunnel
- Send to Preferred E-Reader and Enjoy!
Want a discount on the rest of the series: Check out the Bundles page