Read sweet burn epub format

Authors: Anne Marsh

sweet burn

It’s supposed to be a quick wedding hook-up. She’s lonely. He’s available. After seeing Rio Donovan and Gia Jackson down the aisle, the sizzling sexual chemistry between Mimi Hart and Mack Johnson has this pair burning up the sheets in a night of no-holds fantasies. One night. No regrets. And no promises. As the resident bad girl and bartender of Strong, California, Mimi has earned every inch of her reputation. Tattoos, motorcycles and dancing on the bar—Mimi’s all in. She’s fun and she’s tough, a hot sex-on-the-pool-table woman—not a sunset-and-kisses sweetheart. Until her wedding hook-up turns her smoke jumper into a man on a sensual mission… and her heart into freefall even as her own past threatens to catch up with her.

Series List

 

Contemporary Romance – Smoke Jumpers

BURNING UP
(Smoke Jumpers, Book 1)

SLOW BURN
(Smoke Jumpers, Book 2)

BURNS SO BAD
(Smoke Jumpers, Book 3)

SMOKING HOT
(Smoke Jumpers, Book 4)

SWEET BURN
(Smoke Jumpers, Book 5)

 

Contemporary Romance – The Hotshots

REBURN
(The Hotshots, 1)

HOT ZONE
(The Hotshots, 2)

FIRED UP
(The Hotshots, 3, in HOT SHOTS)

 

Contemporary Romance – Men of Discovery Island

WICKED SEXY
(Men of Discovery Island, 1)

WICKED NIGHTS
(Men of Discovery Island, 2)

WICKED SECRETS (Men of Discovery Island, 3 -- Winter 2015)

 

Paranormal Romance – Blue Moon Brides

TEMPTED BY THE PACK
(Blue Moon Brides, Book 1)

PLEASURED BY THE PACK
(Blue Moon Brides, Book 2)

CLAIMED BY THE PACK
(Blue Moon Brides, Book 3)

 

Paranormal Romance – The Fallen

BOND WITH ME
(Fallen, Book 1)

HIS DARK BOND
(Fallen, Book 2)

SAVAGE BOND
(Fallen, Book 3)

 

 

Non-Series Books

ONE HOT COWBOY

THE HUNT

VIKING’S ORDERS

 

Join the Newsletter!

Want to be the first to learn about new releases and get access to special sneak peeks, review copies, and free stories? Join the newsletter at
http://ymlp.com/signup.php?id=geumewqgmgb

 

 

 

Sweet Burn

 

ANNE MARSH

Copyright © 2014 Anne Marsh

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including photocopying, recording or by any information storage or retrieval system, with the written permission of the author, except where permitted by law.

 

Cover design by The Killion Group, Inc.

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter One

 

Sinning had never smelled so good. Hair tickled his nose and, when he inhaled, the scent of coconut and freesia teased his senses. Woman and… yeah… tequila. Mack Johnson wished the tequila had been the reason for his downfall. A man could swear off alcohol easy enough. The woman he was wrapped around? Not so much. Mimi Hart was pure trouble.

His years in the military had taught him to wake up fast and, even before he opened his eyes, he was analyzing the situation: he was naked. She was also. So far, so good. Early morning sun painted his hotel room a hazy gold. He

d bet the winery outside his window was a pretty sight too—it had looked damned fine yesterday when Evan Donovan had exchanged his
I do
s with Faye Duncan in front of his fellow smoke jumpers. The entire team had come out to support Evan and to celebrate with him. Evan had found himself a hell of a good woman in Faye and he

d had been smart enough to hold onto her. He was a lucky dog.

Mack had witnessed the ceremony, raised a glass of celebratory champagne and been prepared for an early night and a quick retreat because parties weren

t his scene anymore. Mimi had had other ideas. The memories of last night flooded right back. She

d approached him at the bar. They

d danced, her ass rubbing naughty circles against his front. And then she

d propositioned him. He should have said
no
.

Instead, he

d kissed her and that was all the
yes
she

d needed.

The adrenaline rush of sharing a bed with Mimi just might be more addictive than any he

d experienced, either fighting for Uncle Sam overseas or jumping out of the DC-3 and into the heart of a forest fire. Clear a room of insurgents. Clear a runway of burning debris. Clear a fireline and halt the flames

advance. He excelled at taking charge and had never shied from a challenge.

Mimi had him rethinking that stance because, damn, she was a challenge like none he

d ever seen.

Her long blonde hair covered her face, his pillow, his arm. The stuff got everywhere and when he flexed his left hand working out the morning stiffness that was a souvenir from one of his last firefights with his Crash, Fire and Rescue unit, the silky strands ran through his fingers like liquid gold. Mimi was a damned beautiful woman and he wondered again what she was doing in Strong. He had no idea how old she was—that was just one of the many secrets she kept—but he wouldn

t have been surprised to learn he had ten years on her. She might be young in years, but she was an old soul.

“Mimi.” He crooned her name. She

d tried insisting he call her Ms. Hart the first time he

d dropped in at the bar she owned and ran in Strong, and he

d stared her down, silently demanding she rescind her order. Mimi liked playing power games; he

d seen her do it to more than one member of his jump team and he already knew those were hoops he had no intention of jumping through. Eventually, she

d laughed and asked him what he wanted to drink and she

d been his Mimi ever since.


Sleeping,
” she mumbled. Her voice was husky and low, a lushly feminine sound. He

d made her recite the bar

s entire drinks offering just to keep her talking that first night in the bar. She probably could have made a fortune doing voice-overs.

He didn

t believe she was sleeping however.


Sweet little liar.
” He ran a hand down her back, twitching the sheet away until the cotton fell to her waist. Her tattoo started there, at the small of her back, a rainbow-colored, swirling tree that traced the straight line of her spine and then branched to wrap around her ribs and the bottom of her left breast. Last night he

d explored her tattoo with his mouth and his hands. She

d encouraged him, too, all
More, Mack
and
Now, damn it, Mack
.

She didn

t move when he touched her, her breathing steady and even.
Playing possum.
He

d make her say his name, he decided, because when he flattened his hand on her ass the betraying twitch gave away her game. She was good. His mouth curled in a grin. But not perfect. Nope. There was nothing
perfect
about his Mimi at all. It was damned hard to have regrets when the cause of his backsliding was the one woman he

d lusted after for months.

The room slowly lightened, the dark less intense and details clearer. Mimi

s panties lay on the floor by the bed near a pair of ridiculously high four-inch heels. Even with those heels, she was no match for his six feet. The first time he

d taken her, the shoes hadn

t come off.

He pressed his mouth against base of her spine, rubbing his stubble-roughened cheek against her soft skin. He

d discovered last night that Mimi loved a small bite of pain with her pleasure. Her soft shudder of acceptance gave him the same feeling of anticipation he got when he was braced in the door of the DC-3 and waiting for the spotter

s slap on his shoulder, his signal to jump.

He kissed her again now, catching her skin gently between his teeth and nipping. The mood ring she always wore on her ring finger glowed a soft, happy pink. She didn

t mind his attentions at all.

Jump thousand.

He fell into familiar mental rhythm of the smoke jumper. He ran the chant through his head each and every time he jumped from the DC-3 and got ready to pull the cord on his chute, the familiar words centering him and reminding him of the steps he needed to take because fire was too dangerous to not play it safe on the way to the ground. A man jumped, and then he waited a handful of seconds, took stock, and pulled the cord before guiding himself down to the landing zone. Mimi was the same way. He

d jumped headlong into her arms and now he ran the risk of getting burned.

“You

re awake,” he whispered roughly. Two words weren

t much of a wake-up call. He should have told her how great last night had been. Should have asked if he could see her again. But this was Mimi. She

d danced with him, kissed him, and then threaded her fingers through his and dragged him off for a “walk” in the vineyard before the happy couple had even cut the cake. She

d made it clear that she wanted one thing only from him: a single night of hot, blistering sex.

When he touched her now, however, his morning-after reward was an almost inaudible catch of her breath. She

d make him work for it and that was fine by him. He

d never been afraid of work.

Look thousand.

He surveyed and she was a damned sight prettier than any open chute in the sky. He hadn

t seen much of her after they

d come back, because she

d told him to leave the light off. She hadn

t given him reasons or excuses—just made her straightforward demand—and that had bothered him. Not enough to change his mind, but he

d wanted her to
know
he was the one loving on her—and so instead of gazing into her eyes, he

d left his mark on her body. Her mouth was kiss-swollen and her pretty thighs reddened by the faint red marks of his whiskers. She might not have wanted to see his face last night, but she

d think of him all day today and probably tomorrow as well. He

d made sure of that.

“Mimi.” He repeated her name and again got no visible reaction from her. Bringing her back to his room had been a mistake. He didn

t do one-night stands and he

d given up casual sex a decade ago. While his decisions made him more of a monk than he liked, he also liked being able to live with himself in the morning. Looking at Mimi, her body slowly coming into focus in the watery light, he had an urge to hold onto her and the moment even though she

d made it clear he was supposed to let go. She

d decided he got one shot at having her and that shot ended in the morning—and he

d agreed.
Mistake
.

Wait thousand.

Fortunately for both of them, he was a patient man.

Pull thousand.

He slid his hands up her back, thumbs pressing into her muscles, working out the tension. She exhaled softly, but didn

t stop playing possum. He swept his thumbs along the sweet bottom curve of her breasts, reacquainting himself with her skin and her body

s soft, sexy give. The wide-awake woman would have thrown up
no trespassing
signs, but since she was pretending to be asleep…

“Stubborn,” he whispered, his voice loud in the room. It was early still. He

d bet most of the wedding party was still asleep.

Check your canopy.
And… he was out of condoms. That was a reality check all right. On the one hand, he hadn

t had a lover in a year and he

d always been careful. A high school scare had taught him that. On the other hand, he wouldn

t put Mimi in a position of having to trust him, nor would he take her at her word even though she had whispered to him last night that she was on the Pill and safe.

There was nothing
safe
about Mimi at all, and the two of them together were downright combustible. Mimi liked living dangerously. She also liked punishing herself with the risks she took and he wouldn

t be any part of that, even if he had wanted her since he

d come to Strong. She

d been with Rio then, and he hadn

t been about to sleep with his friend

s girl.
Look but don
’t touch
. That had been his rule, and that rule had worked just fine right up until last night when she

d made it clear that things were over between her and Rio and that he had an invitation to make a move.

There were plenty of things he could do for her, to her, even without a condom or getting inside her, but the decision felt right. For a million crazy, mixed-up reasons, he wanted more than the one night with Mimi. Wanted this to be a beginning and not an ending for the two of them. He

d learned to trust his instincts fighting for Uncle Sam and everything in him now urged him to fight for Mimi.

He

d been a wild child himself in his younger years. He was thirty-two now and felt older than the damned dinosaurs some mornings. He

d decided ten years ago that he needed to be able to look the man in the mirror in the eye in the morning, and that had meant he had to stop fucking up.

He recognized that lost
fuck you
look on Mimi

s face. She drank too much, danced too freely, and generally did whatever the hell she wanted. But the
I need someone
look
… that was what he hadn

t been able to resist. He understood not wanting to be alone—and wanting to punish yourself. She was gruff and prickly and, yeah, he

d pretty much kill to get underneath her skin, to coax her into sharing the pieces of herself she hid so carefully. Except she represented everything he

d put behind him. A wild child tempted you to fall and the falling was great. The best. Hot and raw and damned unforgettable, like the sex last night.

Nope, it wasn

t the falling that was the problem. It was the
landing
. He had no idea what she was running from, but going along for the ride was a bad idea.

All of which meant that Mimi

s original plan was actually the safest and best. They

d have a one-night stand and it would be over. He knew how it would work: one of them would get up and shower and the other one would sneak out. Since it was his room, she

d do the leaving. And yet… he wasn

t completely on board with the unspoken plan. Instead, he got out of bed and snagged a cold Coke from the minibar and a packet of Advil. He could practically feel her awareness against his skin, the silent laughter shaking her body and his bed. He had no idea what she found so funny, but Mimi loved to laugh.

He wasn

t having sex with her this morning.

He grabbed a pair of sweats and pulled them on, then round-tripped it to the bed, set his peace offerings on the table. She shifted slightly, giving him a better look at the tattoo covering the left side of her body. Her ink was gorgeous. His view from this side was some kind of fantastical bird and a whole lot of greenery and pink flowers. He

d bet that tattoo had hurt like hell, but then again Mimi never took the easy way out.

“I

m going to take a shower,” he said gruffly. He stroked a thumb along her jaw. “You can escape now.”

 

***

 

Busted
.

Mimi bit back her laughter as Mack cracked a can of soda and retreated to the bathroom. Of course, he

d known for ages that she wasn

t asleep. She

d simply wondered how far he would take their game. Mack didn

t usually play. He was always so deadly serious. Gruff, almost. And then he

d flash a quick smile when something really struck his fancy, a dimple winking in and out of existence in his cheeks. His eyes, though… he almost always had a smile lurking there when he watched her. And Mack did a lot of watching. Maybe that should creep her out, but somehow it made her feel safe. Protected. Neither of which were states she needed or wanted.

Or deserved
, she reminded herself.

But she didn

t roll over or open her eyes until the bathroom door shut and the water started. Okay. She peeked.
Once.
She was weak and Mack in a pair of low-slung sweats was pretty damned spectacular. She

d celebrated the Donovan wedding too hard—
what else was new?
—and now she had a hangover to go with her morning after regrets.

Sitting up, she took stock. Mack

s gifts tempted her, but she ignored the Advil. She needed the cottony mouth, the pounding in her head. She deserved it. Sleeping with Mack had pretty much screwed the pooch. He was a paint-by-numbers kind of guy, while she was more of a … Salvador Dali gal. He was a Boy Scout, a keeper. He

d fought shoulder-with-shoulder with her to keep the flames away from the bar when the firefighter arsonist had tried to burn down the bar and half of Strong last summer. Mack was a nice guy. Fucking with him was
not
nice.

Faye, on the other hand, was waking up this morning in Evan Donovan

s arms (if the man had let his new wife sleep at all), and no way the other woman was pulling Mimi

s secret agent routine and plotting her escape. Faye had made her promises to have and to hold and was all tied up in her happily ever after. Those kinds of strings weren

t her thing, but Faye was a good woman and Mimi wished her the best. At least Mimi hadn

t slept with
that
Donovan brother. And
… there it was. The familiar rush of self-loathing. Mission accomplished.

She got up and stole Mack

s hotel bathrobe, shoving her wedding clothes into the laundry bag the hotel had thoughtfully stored in the closet. Then, four-inch heels dangling from her fingers, she stepped out into the hallway.

Time to get my walk of shame on.

 

***

 

The door to his hotel room opened and then closed. If Mack hadn

t been standing on the other side of the bathroom door, listening, he would have missed it. Mimi didn

t slam out of the room, didn

t finesse the door so it shut with a barely audible click. She just went and there was a clear message for him in her leaving.

She didn

t want to hang around with him today and they weren

t going to be sharing breakfast or a morning after. She

d come to him for sex, he

d delivered, and that was that. Hell, half the single men at the wedding would have been ecstatic if she

d picked them and he certainly hadn

t done any complaining himself. Mimi had been fantastic in bed and he wasn

t looking for a relationship anyhow.

Was he?

Mimi had a reputation for loving and leaving. As far as Mack knew, her two months with Rio Donovan last summer had been the longest she

d stayed with any one particular guy. While she wasn

t indiscriminate in her hook-ups, she

d always made it plenty clear that she wasn

t in it for the long haul. Sex with no strings. For no particular reason, he

d believed he

d be different. The one to change all that and convince Mimi to come back for more.

For
him
.

And if that didn

t make him sound like a girl then he didn

t know what did. He hadn

t protested last night when Mimi had made her plans for his body clear, so he had no business feeling used this morning. He knew how Mimi operated. She

d never pretended to be anyone other than who she was and he admired her for that. A woman who enjoyed sex and who wasn

t afraid to ask for what she wanted in bed? Yeah, that pretty much topped the fantasy list. And yet he wondered how much she

d really enjoyed their night together. Not the sex—that had been great and he knew it—but the part that had come after. The part where he

d almost been able to feel her beating herself up, using their night together to… hell. He had no idea.

The tiny bathroom steamed up while he worked through the unhappy revelation that somehow feelings had snuck up on him while he hung out at Mimi

s bar. Pointless, not-going-to-be-reciprocated-so-don

t-waste-your-time feelings. Since he preferred doing to thinking, he stripped down and stepped in, soaping up with the hotel freebies. The body wash was floral, the scent from the green and gold bottle both sweet and slightly harsh. The little pint-size bottles were never quite enough, but he made do, dumping the contents into his palm and then tossing the empty into the trash.

He flattened his hands against the shower wall.

It had been good.

It was over.

And if he had no idea what
it
was, he wasn

t going to admit it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Two

 

The day after hightailing it home from Evan Donovan

s wedding, Mimi spent her Sunday afternoon at the bar, getting things into shape for the week. It was still her slow season, being March and not the drought-prone, heated-up months of summer, but business was decent even on the weeknights and she had more than enough work to keep her busy.

Because March in Northern California was plenty warm, she

d propped the front door open to take advantage of the heat. She had country music playing on the radio (louder than she should), but, hey, that was a public service, right? If the radio was loud enough, no one could hear her singing. She liked to sing and if she wasn

t particularly talented in the vocal arena, that was okay. She

d never claimed to be perfect.

Quite the opposite.

Right then, however, her nemesis was a temperamental soda gun. The son-of-a-bitch wasn

t working, either sending the soda dribbling out or attempting to drill a hole in the bottom of the glass. All or nothing, just like her life.

“Problems?” The rough voice behind her startled her enough to make her jump, and the soda gun flew out of her hand, hit the counter and launched a stream of brown cola at the mirrored display of booze bottles.
Great.
Now she could add cleaning to her to do list.

“Don

t sneak up on a gal.” She played off her jumpiness, glaring at the malfunctioning soda gun. Of course, if she hadn

t diagnosed the problem in the fifteen minutes she

d spent taking the thing apart and reassembling it, she probably wasn

t going to do so now. She was out of her league and it was time to call the repair guy and hope the bar

s bottom line could handle the hit.

“Uh-huh.” Not waiting for an invite (and she

d have made him wait a
long
time—they both knew that), Mack came around the far end of the counter. In the light of day, he didn

t look different than he had yesterday or the day before that—except that she now knew
exactly
what lay beneath the faded cotton T-shirt and jeans. She drank in the steady thud of his steel-toes over her floor as he came closer but, instead of reaching for
her,
he reached around her and
pointed out her phone vibrating like mad on the counter.

She didn

t give a damn about the phone.

He, apparently, did because he turned down her music and nudged the phone toward her. He didn

t have the decency to stare at her, color up, or even hesitate some. Instead, Mack acted like nothing had happened and that made her want to push his buttons some, force him notice her.

Right.

Wrong.

She swiped her phone from the counter and strolled to the open door, soaking up the sun like a lizard.

“Mimi Hart? I

m calling from the Oakland District Attorney

s office.”

And… there was the past she

d decided was the
past
and no part of her present or future. Like she was riding the roller coaster at the New York New York casino in Vegas, her stomach rattled around somewhere in the vicinity of her ribcage before dropping straight to her toes. She

d come to Strong with one plan: forgetting everything that had happened in Oakland. Two hundred miles clearly hadn

t been enough distance. This phone call proved that.

Hanging up would be pointless.

“That

s me.” She concentrated on inventorying the cars in the bar

s parking lot—and came up with Mack

s truck. Her own Harley was tucked out of sight alongside the building. There was nothing but asphalt and the dark blue pick-up with a coat of dust and odd nicks and dings from fire calls. Battle scars, Mack had told her when she

d asked why he didn

t fix those dents like he fixed everything else. The sun shone the same as before, but she felt cold deep in her bones. Damn it.

She shot a quick look over her shoulder, but Mack had his head bent over the soda gun. He enjoyed fixing things and he was good at it. If it was her lucky day—and it sure didn

t look that way—she wouldn

t need to call a repairman if he could work his usual magic. The too smooth, too chipper voice on the other end of the line kept right on talking.

“According to our records, you testified in the State vs. Martinez.”

The speaker paused expectantly and she used the break to calculate whether or not she could still plead ignorance.

“Ms. Hart?” Now the speaker sounded less pleasant and more determined. Evasion likely wasn

t an option.

“I did.” She dropped onto the bench by the door. She

d put the thing there for her smokers and resuming their habit suddenly seemed attractive, even though it had been two years since her last cigarette. She needed something to do with her hands. Since cigarettes and a lighter weren

t part of her immediate future, she fiddled with a loose thread in the frayed hem of her shorts, pulling strands free with the hand not holding the phone.

“Your testimony was critical in helping to convict Mr. Martinez, along with several of his associates.”

Probably. Maybe. She certainly hadn

t wanted to go to court and share what she knew, but even she had limits. She might have spent a lifetime running from her responsibilities, but testifying had been the right thing to do. The gang member had busted into a convenience store, cleaned out the register, and then shot the store clerk in the back. She

d known that because Sal Martinez had come into her street shop and asked her to tattoo the crime scene onto his left shoulder.

“Mr. Martinez is serving life in prison, but one of the gang members convicted on lesser charges came up for parole last month.” Another demanding pause filtered down the line, but she had no intention of filling up the silence. If the D.A.

s office wanted to have a conversation with her and had gone to all the trouble of tracking her down, then they could do the talking. She

d received a letter inviting her to attend the parole hearing and give her reasons for or against. She

d wanted to leave that life behind and she

d ignored it.

“Sol Herring was granted parole,” the professional-sounding voice continued and… damn it. Maybe she should have spoken up again. Said something. Protested. She just didn

t know what good it would have done, besides ripping the mental Band-Aid off wounds she preferred to ignore. Her last year in Oakland had not been a pleasant one.

“Got it,” she said, because maybe if she said something, this conversation would end faster.

“No one spoke up against it and since he was convicted of a lesser weapons charge and perjury, he served five years of a ten year sentence.” Now the voice sounded vaguely disapproving, familiar ground for Mimi. Clearly, she had been expected to register an objection with the court. As if
that
would have kept Sol Herring behind bars.

Drawers opened and closed behind her. She leaned around the door as the DA droned on, reprising the facts of the case. The way she

d seen it then, the good guys had won. The bad guys had lost. She hadn

t paid too much attention to the details beyond that. Mack, she was willing to bet, would have memorized every fact, every charge. His rifling through the bar stuff yielded gold as he discovered the stack of manuals she

d stashed in a bottom drawer.

As if he

d felt her looking, he lifted his head and stared back at her.
Great. Now she was imagining an invisible connection between them.
Mack was big and bad-ass with a side of sweet. No way did she want to get on his bad side, but he was also precisely the man she wanted standing beside her in a fight. A fire. Or anything life might throw at her.
No.
She

d had her taste and they were done. Kaput.
Over
.

He raised a brow, silently asking what was up, but this was none of his business. Hell, she didn

t want it to be
her
business. He frowned, but then started flipping through pages. Crisis averted. Mack savored manuals the way other guys got off on porn.

“Given certain threats that were made by the main defendant, we felt you should be made aware of Mr. Herring
’s parole.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.
The sentiment hadn

t been true in this particular instance. Martinez

s shouts as the bailiffs led him out of the courtroom after the jury had read their verdict? Yeah. His graphic threats had starred front and center in more than one nightmare.

“Good thinking,” she said sweetly.

“You should take sensible precautions. Watch out for unfamiliar cars, persons. Avoid situations that make you uncomfortable.”

Right. Like that was happening.


If Herring

s on parole, aren

t you watching him?”

There was another brief hesitation. Damn it. She
knew
she shouldn

t have gotten out of bed today.

“Mr. Herring failed to check in with his parole officer,” the District Attorney

s assistant admitted.

Great. “You lost him.”

“We

ll get him back.” Determination filled the other woman

s voice and, if good intentions were all that it took, Herring would have been back under lock and key. Unfortunately, Mimi knew all too well the difference between
good intentions
and
reality.
“Until then, we recommend that you be careful and keep an eye out for trouble. I can have the local police department send patrol cars past your place.”

She had to laugh at that offer. Strong was barely qualified as a small town since the place consisted of little more than a few streets and a handful of buildings. Strong also came with a historic firehouse, Faye Duncan-Donovan

s art gallery, and a handful of antique shops. The whole place was disgustingly picturesque, from the wooden sidewalks to the red geraniums sprouting from tin cans. Strong was the kind of old-time California place, part small town and all charm, that made drive-through tourists stop and take a second look.

What Strong didn

t have was much in the way of crime.

Mercedes Hernandez, the town

s lone deputy sheriff, doubled as the coroner and the fire marshal, backed up by two reserve deputies and a part-time dispatcher. Mercedes kept busy—Mimi had a fine collection of speeding tickets to prove it—but she could easily imagine the other woman

s reaction to be asked to take on what amounted to babysitting duties.

“I

m fine,
” she said, because the Oakland District Attorney

s office didn

t need the details of her life. And it was true. She was always fine.

“If you change your mind or you feel threatened in any way, let us know,” the DA

s assistant said and finally wrapped up their call.

Right. Like that was an option. Instead of answering—because, really, she

d said everything that needed saying—she tapped the Call End button. What did you do when the past refused to stay in the past?

 

***

 

Mack ran an eye over the manual

s diagrams as he teased the soda gun apart. Whatever Mimi had done to it, the thing was jacked as hell. He turned a page and discovered the mother lode of information.
Problem solved.
His hands continued to work on autopilot while he tried to hear what was going on just outside the bar

s front door. Eavesdropping wasn

t nice, but he didn

t mind as much as he should have. Mimi

s face had gotten just a little bit pinched when she

d seen the number. Given her attitude towards worrying—he was pretty sure she

d kick back with a margarita if and when the zombie apocalypse hit—he therefore inferred that the caller probably had extremely unwelcome news.

Secret babies. International political conspiracies. Neither was entirely outside the realm of possibility either. Or maybe she

d just outrun her credit limit. He wouldn

t know, of course, because Mimi didn

t believe in sharing information. Instead, he

d been reduced to hijacking her manual and fixing her soda gun. He was pretty sure that made him pathetic.

Whoever had called her, she wasn

t interested in a long conversation. She padded back inside in under five minutes and hopped up on the counter, crossing her legs, the better to watch him work. Ordinarily, he wouldn

t have minded. He liked looking at Mimi.

She

d worn a little black dress at Faye and Evan

s wedding (clearly, she hadn

t read the memo about not wearing black to a wedding or, more likely, hadn

t cared) paired with a pair of four-inch red fuck-me heels he was fairly certain would haunt his fantasies for decades to come. Today she had on a pair of cut-off shorts roughly the same length as those wicked heels, the soft denim fringe cupping her ass. She also sported a pair of cowboy boots and a faded T-shirt with the bar

s logo emblazoned over her very spectacular breasts.

She

d piled her hair on top of her head in one of those complicated messy up-dos women sported. The style defied the laws of gravity, sexy wisps clinging to her neck where he could just see the edges of her tattoo. Her wedding hair had been fancier and smoother, but this hair made her look like she

d just rolled out of bed and he loved it. And she was beautiful no matter what she wore. Her long, tanned legs begged him to run a hand up their silky length. Down again. Hell, over and over if she

d only let him because her legs weren

t doing the begging—
he
was. Mentally, because he had some pride, but still. She had him tied in knots and he didn

t like it. Mimi Hart was the kind of woman who ate men for breakfast and letting her know she had the upper hand would be a disaster.

There was a moment of silence as she looked at him. “Am I paying you to do that?”

She didn

t sound all that curious and he didn

t look up from his work. “Nope. Consider it a freebie.”

Over the past few months, they

d established a pattern. He came by and fixed little things for her or he BBQ-ed in the big kettledrum cooker she kept out back. They were almost…
friends
. And then he

d gone and screwed that up by sleeping with her last night. Of course, since she

d made it painfully clear she planned on ignoring the sex, perhaps the friendship avenue was still open to him.

He waited, but of course she didn

t volunteer any information about her call. Instead, she watched as he screwed the last bolt back onto the gun and tested. The soda shot straight where it should go.

He set the gun back in its holder and restored the manual to oblivion under the counter. “All fixed.”


Thanks.

He didn

t want thanks. He wanted information. He knew Mimi liked to take care of herself and, from all the evidence to date, she

d done a damned fine job of doing so. She owned her own bar, managing the books and the inventory as easily as she handled the occasional troublesome guest. He

d seen her show a mean drunk to the door, delivering the man to the parking lot and Sheriff Hernandez with smooth aplomb. Nothing fazed her except—he looked down at the soda gun—the odd mechanical issue and even then, he figured she was simply smart enough to let him do the heavy lifting there.

But something about that call had shaken her. She didn

t look quite as confident or certain as she usually did. Putting his finger on the
why
wasn

t easy. She was the same gorgeous bombshell of a woman, but her shoulders took on a vulnerable curve as she hunched in on herself and watched him. He didn

t want to guess. No, he wanted her to
tell
him what had upset her, to open up just a little. Funny how they could have sex, her body open to his in the most intimate way possible, but Mimi herself was further away, more closed off than ever.

“Are you in trouble?” He let the unspoken
again
hang in the air between them. Too bad if that particular truth pissed her off. He

d never known a woman who got into more trouble, so his guess seemed like a real safe bet.

She didn

t look away or drop her gaze.
“Are you listening to my phone calls now?”

That wasn

t a
no
. He narrowed his gaze. Which, in Mimi parlance, meant
hell yes
. Great. He stepped toward her, slapping his hands down on either side of her. She

d made a tactical mistake when she

d parked her pretty ass on the counter, because it meant she couldn

t get away from him without an obvious retreat—and Mimi didn

t retreat. Ever.

Sure enough, she glared at him and poked his chest with her finger. At some point between the wedding and now, she

d re-painted her nails. He had no idea when she found the time to do all these girly things, when he knew for a fact that running the bar singlehandedly had her working her ass off, but he liked the color. The red was a cheerful
fuck you
, with some kind of white flower with yellow centers. He hadn

t realized she had an artistic side, but that probably explained the tattoo.

“In my space, Johnson.” She snapped the challenge at him, but her eyes still looked lost. “Back off.”

He answered her by moving closer and putting a hand on her knee. Her skin jumped against his palm, because Mimi was ticklish. And sensitive. He

d learned that last night. He was taking advantage like this, but he didn

t care. That was the God

s honest truth. Mimi ate
nice
for breakfast and he wasn

t letting her walk all over him. Instead, he pushed gently on her knee, silently demanding she yield.


Too bad,
” he growled. “I asked you a question. And, yeah, I listened. Close the door if you don

t want an audience.”

Her naughty smile widened. “
I don’
t mind. Do you like to
watch
?”

A blast of heat hit him hard, blood surging to his dick as erotic images jolted through his head and derailed his train of thought. Mimi, laid out on his bed, touching herself. Her fingers easing beneath her shorts and underneath her panties while she showed him exactly how she liked to pleasure herself… But that was the point, wasn

t it? She wanted him off-balance and thinking with his dick rather than his head. Sex was a great way to control a man but, unfortunately for Mimi, Mack was used to being in charge.

He pushed again. Harder, until he could step right between her thighs. Her lips parted and he wondered what was going through her head as her tongue darted out to wet her lips.

Arousal?

Desire?

Or one hundred percent pure calculation?

He didn

t like that last one at all. The bar

s counter put her at the perfect height for his dick to press against her. Her bare feet pressed into his legs, the heat of her scalding him through those teasing denim shorts of hers. Despite their position, she didn

t look concerned. Instead, she leaned back on her arms, staring at him for a heated moment before she deliberately wrapped her legs around his waist.
Power play
.

Damn, she was good.

Or bad.

Both words fit her and yet he couldn

t help but look down. The move sent her shorts riding up further and that was the sexiest thing he

d seen since yesterday because she flashed him a lacy hot pink thong. Last night

s panties had sported a little bow right over the heart of her and that made him wonder what today

s looked like. Pink, yes. And barely there… hell, yeah. Mimi wasn

t subtle, which was fine by him. He

d never won any prizes for understatement either. He leaned over her.

“Talk,” he rumbled. “Tell me what

s up.

Unable to help himself, he rubbed a thumb over the creamy skin of her thigh, tracing the faint red marks there.
His
marks. He should have shaved yesterday before he

d taken her to bed—or she

d taken him—but he

d been too impatient and she

d been too demanding. She made him forget every rule he had.

So fuck it. He

d grab the bull by the horns and address the massive fucking elephant in the room.

Her naughty grin widened. “You didn

t answer my question.”

Right. The question where she

d asked him if he was some kind of voyeur. He thought about it for a moment, then gave her the truth. “I

d watch you.”

“Oh.” The small sound she made as she inhaled sharply hung in the air between them in the few inches of space he

d allowed her. Maybe she hadn

t expected that particular answer, but she got right back in the game, shooting him another come hither look as she did her best to distract him. “
I don’
t play those kinds of games.”

She paused, eying him as she considered her answer. “
Yet
.”

And… he had liftoff. His dick pressed against the buttons on his fly hard enough to leave an imprint. Which was what she

d been going for, he reminded himself. He liked the way she made him feel—hell, he flat-out loved it—but he

d asked her a question and she

d tossed him the pleasure bone to make him forget to care about her answer. That wasn

t happening.

“Are you in trouble?” he repeated.

She deliberately dropped her gaze down his body—more hardening on his part—and then her eyes snapped back to his. “One night,” she reminded him. “That

s my rule and
that
means that we were officially over and done with yesterday morning. Hands off and back up, smoke jumper. What I do with my life is none of your concern.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Chapter Three

 

Mimi delivered her bombshell and then she shoved him hard enough to make her point. He let her go since he wasn

t a total bastard (yet) and she hopped off the counter and strolled away like she

d given him a weather update or the batting stats for the San Francisco Giants

newest infielder. Granted, he had a great view of her ass sashaying away from him, denim cupping her curves as the sassy sway of her hips announced her ‘fuck you

attitude with each step she took.

An attitude he had a problem with.

He packed up the tools he’d grabbed from his truck, slotting screwdrivers and pliers back into their places while he thought about that. Mimi wasn

t his wife. She wasn

t his girlfriend. Hell, if he was being honest, she wasn

t even his lover. He

d been her booty call and she had every right to tell him to leave her alone. They

d had their one night fling and things were over. He had no business giving her shit about personal phone calls or even following her.

Mimi disappeared into the storage room. Right. Whatever phone call she

d received, she

d clearly decided it took backseat to inventorying her supply of maraschino cherries and pink parasols. He ran the various possibilities through his head while he snapped the lock shut on his toolbox. What he came up with, however, was she wanted him to
think
her call hadn

t mattered to her. Mimi didn

t just have one stubborn bone—she had an entire body full of them.

Nope. No matter how casual she played things, something was up.

He strode after her. She was bent over a box of restaurant supplies, digging out cocktail napkins. She straightened up with an armload of plastic packages when he came through the door and held her find out for him to take.

“Take these to the bar.”

Her Royal Highness needed to think again. Clearly, he

d given her the wrong impression by trying to help her out some. He wasn

t hers to order around. In fact, it was safe to say that the only orders he

d
ever
taken had been from Uncle Sam or the jump team lead. Instead of helping her out, he leaned against the doorframe.


Start talking,
” he said.

She glared at him, clutching the stack of napkins to her chest. He

d bet she was considering chucking the lot at him. “There

s nothing for us to talk about.”

Her storeroom was a disorganized mess. While he waited for her to give him his answer, he shoved off the wall and walked over to the nearest shelf. Mimi had stuff piled in lopsided heaps, including a rainbow of fucking straws, picks and stirrers. The same shelf also housed an entire carton of juice pourers, extra glassware, plastic beer pitchers, and five bottles of cocktail bitters, and that wasn

t counting the cases of booze stacked up around every wall. If Armageddon hit, she could stay in business for at least a year without resupplying. They could stay happily drunk off their asses while zombies took over the world.

Without saying a word, he started tucking straws back into the box from which they

d spilled. He let the silence stretch on. Mimi didn

t like quiet. Her bar said plenty about her.

Chaotic.

Colorful.

Closed for business.

“Mack.” His name came out half sigh, half sharp exhalation. He didn

t need a user manual to know Mimi was mad at him. He

d pushed her buttons and now she intended to make him pay. That was fine. They

d get where he wanted to go eventually. He was even more stubborn than she was.

“I

m listening.
” While he listened, he reached the back of the shelf and started stacking condiment trays.

“Don

t be difficult,” she ordered.

Mimi liked giving orders. She was good at it too, running the bar floor with the precision of dispatch calling in the coordinates for a fire. At night, she tended bar and had a couple of part-time girls serving on the floor. Ma

s was a smooth, tight operation beneath the happy discordance of too many people talking and too many tunes on the jukebox. She would have made a fine general or field team commander and, in that context only, he

d have been happy to serve under her.

He liked spending time with her, but that didn

t mean she ran him or his life.

“We had sex.” The scent of her perfume washed over him as she moved closer.
Not close enough
. “It was great.”

Now they were getting somewhere.

He turned his head and gave her a level look. “I

m not fishing for compliments.”

“And I

m not into repeats.” She propped her hands on her hips and stared up at him. He

d bet she hated having to look
up
. Being of the shorter persuasion, Mimi usually wore heels of some sort, but not today. Her cowboy boots gave her barely any lift at all.

“You made that clear.” He just hadn

t
agreed
with her.

She looked at him like she wasn

t sure what to say next. “Okay,” she said. “
So we

re both on the same page. We had a chemistry thing and we took care of it.”

“And then you snuck out.”

She didn

t so much as blink. “I left.”

“Without saying goodbye, and while I was in the shower.” Never mind that he

d gone in there to give her the space to leave.

She shrugged, Miss Nonchalant. “There was no point in making things awkward.”

He stuck a box of spare bar mats on the shelf next to the pourers. The items went together, even if he and Mimi didn

t have matching definitions of
awkward
.

“Maybe I wasn
’t done,
” he suggested.

He knew the rules of one-night hook-ups and part of him (a certain stand-to-attention part) was on board with that. Great sex. No strings. And yet… here he was, back in her bar and wondering if there was anything else he could do for her. With her.
To
her. Yeah, especially that part. He wanted to fix the sad, lonely look she got sometimes when she thought no one was looking. He wasn

t sure anyone else saw it but he

d been there, done that.

“One night,” she repeated firmly. “I thought you were good with that.”

He sure used to be, back in his younger, wilder days. The long-ago Mack would have jumped happily into—and then out—of bed with a woman like Mimi. That was then, though. This was
now
and their one night had been backsliding on his part. He’d made a rule for himself—
no casual sex
—and he

d done Mimi wrong treating her like she could be a casual thing. He

d done himself wrong, too, because he wanted more than just sex, no matter how good that sex was. Maybe that was just because was older and he

d learned more than a few things over the years, but he suspected it was more than that.

But Mimi wasn

t a keeper. She didn

t
want
to be kept. He

d dated a girl like that in high school. Fancy Jane had been wild to the bone, like a bird he

d discovered trapped in the garage one summer, banging and banging on the windows until it stunned itself enough for him to scoop it up, feeling the pitter pat of that heart about to burst with fear and need beneath his fingertips. He

d got the bird back outside… and it had flown straight back into the window. Fancy Jane, the high school bad girl, had had plenty in common with the bird. He

d taken his turn with her, enjoyed her, bought her beers and held her when she cried and raged. Eventually, she

d slept with someone else and that had been his cue to leave. And he had gone. He hadn

t asked why she

d done it and he hadn

t stuck around. Fancy Jane had been pregnant by seventeen, married by eighteen, alone again by nineteen and then he

d stopped asking. For Fancy, sex had been just one more way to beat herself up and he suspected Mimi would have recognized a kindred soul in her.

All of which meant he should let her take her box of cups or napkins or whatever it was she

d come in here to get and let her go back to the bar.

Alone.

The problem was, he didn

t seem to be able to do that.

 

***

 

“What

s wrong with my being concerned?” Mack asked his question like it was perfectly normal—and maybe it was in his universe. He also had that small smile on his face, the one that made her do far too much melting inside. Why did Mack have to be so
nice
? He was a big bruiser of a man, broad-shouldered and almost too large to jump out of the DC-3 the Strong smoke jumpers used. The first time she

d seen him, all she

d noticed was his hard face and the wealth of scars decorating his body. Now, she knew he had those marks because he was the kind of guy who rushed in to help out. He threw himself into the fight literally.

She didn

t need his help. She fought her own battles.

“I

ve got this.” She looked down at the stack of napkins in her arms. She always did. She took care of her own shit, stood and fell by herself.

He watched her silently for a moment, another one of his annoying habits. Instead of rushing to fill a silence or answer an accusation, he thought things over with methodical preciseness. “But I

d like to help. You don

t have to do everything by yourself.”

She

d done exactly that since she was twenty. So, no, she didn

t need Mack

s help. He was, in fact, superfluous and should get going.

“I

m not leaving until you tell me,” he pointed out. That was another thing about Mack. Not only was he a fixer, but he was stubborn. He didn

t give up easily. No. Scratch that. He didn

t give up
ever
. He was first in, last out, and that was saying something, given the overabundance of heroes working the jump team.

Something tightened in her chest. To her own surprise, she gave in. “That was the Oakland D.A. calling me.”

She slapped the stack of napkins into his hands. If he wanted to help, he could help. She definitely did
not
notice how deliciously hard his chest was or how good he smelled as she pushed past him and back out into the bar. She had no idea what it was about Mack Johnson that made her sit up and take notice, but she

d never been able to ignore him.

And she

d tried. God, she

d tried.

He followed, right on her heels. “Why do they have your number?”

She pointed to the counter behind the bar, indicating where he could drop his load. “Because we have history, okay?”

Maybe he

d leave it at that, jump to the obvious conclusion that she was every bit the bad penny, the bad girl and wild child that she was. He set the napkins down and gave her The Look. He was going to wear the thing out and she could have told him she was immune. She didn

t care if he was disappointed, upset or even in a raging tear over something she might or might not have done. That was just business as usual for her.

“I

ll rephrase. Why are they
using
your number?”

“I could have an arrest warrant. A record as long as your arm.”

“You could,” he said agreeably. “Why don

t you tell me all about it?”

“It wouldn

t bother you?”