Sparking the Fire CHAPTER ONE
Five years later . . .
“You can go right in, Lieutenant Fox. He’s waiting for you.”
Wyatt Fox nodded curtly at Kathy, the firehouse’s perky admin, as he stood outside the cap’s office contemplating his next move. The going-in part was a foregone conclusion—he had been summoned, after all—but how he would handle what lay behind that door was still up in the air. Normally he would have knocked. Raised his right hand, curled his fingers into a fist, and rapped his knuckles on the door. But he had a pass to just waltz in, so mercifully he didn’t have to complete even that simplest of motions. He didn’t have to be reminded that the tendons in his shoulder were shredded like Mini-Wheats after he’d wrenched it during a tricky rescue two weeks back. It was either that or let that shithead—sorry, citizen—take a header off the LaSalle Street Bridge.
Suicide attempt averted. Three months off squad his reward.
Unless he could persuade the cap that it wasn’t as bad as all that.
He gripped the doorknob with purpose, ignored the wince even that small action produced, and strode in like a man without a care in the world.
Captain Matt “Venti” Ventimiglia lifted his gaze from a file on his desk. A pretty cool cat, he wasn’t one for small talk, which Wyatt appreciated, especially as his own family could talk the hind legs off a herd of mules. Sitting at the dinner table with the Dempseys—his cobbled-together foster family—was like an episode of The Brady Bunch on steroids. And now that the rest of them had hearts-and-shamrocks happy-ever-afters to call their own, it approached Disney to the nth degree at every gathering.
Wyatt took a seat.
“At least three months, according to the doc,” the cap said.
Good, straight to it. “Docs can be wrong.”
“If you push it and make it worse, then you could be looking at six months or more.”
“I’m not good at sitting around.” As if that was a valid enough reason to put him back on active duty. It was a family trait, both Dempsey and the original. His biological father, Billy Fox, was never one for letting the grass grow under his itchy feet, always keeping Wyatt and his half brother Logan on the move. Needs must, when you’re trying to stay one step ahead of the law.
The cap sniffed. “You hear about Dave Kowalski?”
The subject change gave Wyatt pause, but as he wasn’t having any luck going against the tide, he figured he’d swim with it for a while.
“Hollywood Dave? Word’s out that he’s looking at ten weeks in traction.” Kowalski was the Chicago Fire Department’s designated consult for that TV show about firefighters, the one where the station bunk room looked like the Ritz (nope), fires broke out every ten seconds (hardly), and everyone was screwing their coworkers (if only). Years with his nose permanently wedged in the asses of his actor pals had apparently dulled Dave’s reflexes to mush because he’d neglected to step out of the way when a roof had caved in on him last week. If Venti was trying to compare their situations . . .
The cap smiled a crooked grin, knowing that Wyatt’s mind had crashed that particular gate and was hurtling down the track.
“They need someone to fill in for him.”
Wyatt scrubbed a hand across the two-week growth on his jaw. Usually he’d have to stay clean-shaven to ensure his mask retained the proper seal, so he was enjoying the only perk of rehab—the pleasure of ignoring his razor. Add a hunting rifle, a haunch of hog meat, and a cabin in the woods, and you had the makings of a profile worthy of the FBI’s Most Wanted list.
“Before you shut it down,” Venti continued when Wyatt remained silent, “let me tell you it’s not for the TV show. It’s an eight-week movie shoot, starts in less than a month, July through August. You know how the city is always looking for revenue and to up its appeal for production companies. Cade Productions asked for someone from Engine 6 to be the consult.”
Something pinged in his chest. As a firefighter—a rescue squad firefighter—Wyatt had learned long ago that his instincts were that guardian angel on his shoulder, keeping his ass in one piece. But the reason behind this hitch in his lungs was escaping him this second.
“Why Engine 6?”
Venti grinned and waited a beat until Wyatt got it.
“Because of Alex. They think they’ll get more play if they have an in with America’s Favorite Firefighter.”
Last year, his sister, Alexandra Dempsey, had made a name for herself slicing up the Lamborghini of some rich D-bag who’d insulted the family during a traffic accident run. And as if that wasn’t enough, she’d gotten herself involved with Eli Cooper, Chicago’s mayor, who proceeded to tank his campaign and subsequently lose his reelection bid to prove he loved her. The whole mess had Hollywood written all over it, but his sister had turned down offers to have her romantic shenanigans immortalized on-screen. Looked like the vultures were looking for another way to skin that kitty cat.
“Might be better to keep these movie people on a short leash, don’t you think?” Venti offered with a cocked eyebrow, reading Wyatt’s mind. Or at the very least recognizing that “Don’t mess with the Dempseys” was as ingrained in Wyatt as it was in the rest of his crazy motherfucking family.
Wyatt sighed. There was logic here, but hanging with Hollywood types and artistes was not how he wanted to spend his rehab. It was the kind of thing his brother Gage would enjoy, he of the billboards and firefighter calendars and all-around exhibitionist tendencies. Kid had never met a camera he didn’t want to bang.
He was just about to offer Gage’s services instead when something Venti had said poked his brain matter like a Halligan through termite-ridden drywall.
“Back up a sec. What’s that about production companies?”
“The city wants to encourage more production companies to come here—”
“No, the other thing. The name of the production company that asked for the consult from six.”
Venti squinted. “Cade Productions. Headed up by that actress who had all that trouble last year. The public divorce from Ryan Michaels, the hacked photos, the ‘I’m so exhausted’ rehab.” The captain was well known for spending more time reading People than Fire Engineering magazine. Anyone who dared touch the latest issue before Venti laid his eyeballs on it had better find latrine duty enjoyable. “This is supposed to be her big comeback.”
The ping now ratcheted up to a full-on four-alarm. “And is she in the movie? Molly Cade?”
That garnered more than a squint from Venti; it earned a skin-penetrating stare because Wyatt had sounded . . . animated. He didn’t do animated for anything or anyone.
Except for Sean and Logan, his foster father and biological brother, both long gone. For Roni, very much alive and vexing.
And once, for Molly Cade.
A smile spread slowly across Venti’s face. Asshole. “I believe she is in the movie. Fan of Ms. Cade’s work, are you?”
Big fan. Of how hard her tongue had worked when wrapped around his cock. How good her curvy body had worked his until every one of his atoms had exploded in the kind of pleasure he’d never experienced before or since. They had crossed paths at a strange time in Wyatt’s life. In the intervening five years, whenever he saw her on the screen, a cavalcade of what-might-have-beens marched through his brain. Ridiculous, for sure. Oscar-nominated actresses who commanded multimillion-dollar paydays weren’t exactly his usual diet.
But . . .
Molly Cade was in his zip code. Or soon would be. Dubbed America’s Sweetheart in all those dumb romantic comedies when she wasn’t playing a macho loser’s helpless love interest in the latest summer popcorn movie, her one step outside her wheelhouse had yielded that Oscar nod for some indie film. And then it had all turned to shit for her in the last year.
Not that he had kept track of her starry life or anything.
But before that, before she was the Molly Cade, she was the one woman who had snuck under his skin and burrowed in for the long haul. It would be mighty interesting to see if she had the means to make him itch like before. Come alive like before. Keeping her and her production company out of his sister’s orbit would be a bonus.
He met Venti’s gaze squarely, not caring what the cap might think about his sudden about-face.
“When do I start?”
“You have to admit, he has a great ass.”
Molly turned to the maker of that bald statement and gave her the slitty eyes. Calysta Johnson—bestie, gal Friday, and fellow ass connoisseur—remained oblivious to Molly’s glare, too busy ogling the ass-ets of Gideon Carter, costar on Molly’s latest movie venture, Into the Blaze. Molly followed Cal’s gaze to where Gideon the Idiot stood just as . . . sigh, he rang the antique firehouse bell affixed to the wall of the Robert J. Quinn Fire Academy on Chicago’s West Side. For the third time in ten minutes. At the clanking din, he whooped like a frat pledge and nudged the ribs of his right-hand dickhead, Jeremy.
“Sure, great ass. Pity it’s on his shoulders.”
Cal chortled. “If I was ten years younger—”
“Or had a brain injury.”
“—I’d be all over those perfect globes.” Cal was equal opportunity when it came to her dating interests. Men, women, and IQs below seventy were all fair game. Grinning, she aimed a glance past the hulking steam-powered engine in the lobby and checked her phone again. “Our contact is late.”
“You make it sound like a special military op. We’re just meeting the Pabst Blue Ribbon–drinking, potbellied hose hauler who’s going to make sure this movie is more authentic than a Ken Burns documentary.”
Cal squeezed Molly’s arm. She could always tell when Molly was nervous. “Hon, this is going to be a huge success. Your ticket back onto the A-list, into the fickle public’s hearts, and their big fat wallets.”
“I don’t care about being A-list or making bank on the first weekend. I just want”—Molly balled her fists and placed them on her hips—“I just want people to hear my name and not think ‘Ryan Michaels’s pathetic ex’ or ‘Her tits look bigger on the screen than they do in those hacked photos.’?”
“Well, they do look bigger. That’s the magic of Hollywood.”
Molly barked a reluctant laugh. Thank God for Cal, who always managed to shred the invites to the pity party.
“Speaking of photos, did you see them?” Cal jerked her chin to the west wall, where a battery of frames hung in a grid. They both moved toward them.
The Wall of the Fallen.
Feeling a touch ghoulish, Molly studied the pictures. Faces shone back at her, some smiling, most not, all of the men dressed in their CFD uniforms. Each of them someone’s father, brother, son, friend. Their courage and sacrifice enveloped Molly to the point that the shitstorm she had endured this past year paled in comparison.
With reverent slowness, she walked past the memorial until she came to the two she recognized: Sean Dempsey and his foster son, Logan Keyes.
Sean was that stereotypical hale and ruddy-faced Irishman with a twinkle that not even his grim official photo could dull. Beside him, Logan stared out from beyond the grave, a hint of a smile teasing the corner of his mouth. A real heartbreaker, no doubt. Nine years ago, they’d given their lives, spawned a legion of bar tales, and inspired a family of foster kids to follow in their footsteps. One of those kids, Alex Dempsey, was as well known for her on-camera and romantic exploits as she was for her bravery. Her story of fierce familial loyalty, headline-grabbing heroics, and a love for the ages—the movie poster was already designed in Molly’s mind—would add the human interest element to Into the Blaze’s pulse-pounding action sequences.
Unfortunately, Alex and the CFD had stonewalled Molly’s efforts to tell it. Months of no calls returned preceded a sternly worded letter from former Chicago mayor, now hotshot lawyer Eli Cooper, informing Cade Productions that Firefighter Dempsey’s story was not for sale.
Six months of fighting tooth and nail with Ryan’s lawyers for her rights and dignity had soured Molly on smooth-talking lawyers. While the movie would still get made, its success would be assured with Alex’s endorsement, which is why she was here.
The Dempseys, as the foster siblings were collectively known, worked at Engine Company 6, so she had requested to meet with one of the company when the usual CFD media affairs rep was injured. It was a long shot, but if she could learn more about the Dempseys, find a way to connect with them, maybe she’d find a way in with Alex. Time was nipping at her heels, though. The adapted script was ready to go and shooting started in under four weeks. It just needed the imprimatur of America’s Favorite Firefighter to varnish it with the sheen of authenticity.
This was to be Molly’s comeback, and it would be spectacular.
“God, they are positively smokin’.” Cal held up her phone to showcase the ripped-as-shit body of Gage Simpson, one of the Dempseys, posing in the charity firefighter calendar that had taken the city and Internet by storm last year. “Two of them in those beefcake calendars, one of them a cut boxer, the hot-tamale sister. Wonder what the mystery brother looks like.”
So did Molly. Four of the Dempseys were unafraid of the public eye, but the fifth—Wyatt Fox—remained a shadowy figure who shunned the limelight. To be fair, she hadn’t looked all that hard, but no clear photos of Mr. Mysterious had come to light. Not even on Facebook.
“Probably got thrashed by the ugly stick. But the rest of ’em . . .” Cal gave a low whistle. “Must be something in the Chicago water.”
As they were standing before a monument to the city’s finest and bravest, Molly opened her mouth, ready to admonish her friend for her crassness, only to find Cal gaping and her gaze directed to a point over Molly’s shoulder. “Or maybe it’s what they’re feeding them down at the firehouse,” she murmured.
A curious shiver thrummed through Molly’s body a split second before she heard a deep, bone-penetrating baritone. “Miss Cade?”
The shiver magnified in intensity, though that wasn’t quite right. It rocket-fuel-boosted every cell in her body to the level of a quake.
That voice. It couldn’t be.
Her brain tried to compute the vision before her. The same uncompromising blue-gray eyes, but more distant. The same fit body, but more space filling. The same rugged features, but more bearded. (Bearded!)
He was also in the wrong place at the wrong time, wearing the wrong . . . no, no, no . . . Chicago Fire Department T-shirt that stretched taut against chiseled pectorals, the sleeve hems pushed north by biceps she remembered gripping as he pistoned those trim hips into her over and over.
Five years ago.
Five years of climbing a pinnacle of fame to that coveted spot on the A-list. Well, four years. The last year had wiped out all that had gone before. Every high, every joyful moment.
But back in a simpler time, there had been a week—six glorious, sex-filled nights, actually—with the Marine. Who was not a marine at all, it seemed, or at least no longer was.
Cal, seeing that Molly had been struck stupid, donned her personal assistant hat and stepped forward.
“Hi, I’m Calysta Johnson. I’ve been emailing CFD Media Affairs about today’s meeting, and this is—” She motioned toward Molly.
“Miss Cade,” he grated.
Oxygen was suddenly hard to come by, the floor moving beneath her feet. A thundering sound had started in her head and now echoed in her blood—and it had nothing to do with that 90 percent juice diet her personal trainer had her on. The Marine said something to Cal, maybe his name, but Molly missed it.
She had never known that name, had never wanted to. That was their unspoken agreement. No names, no history, no future. Just six nights of scorching passion and inhibitions annihilated. He had done things to her no other man had ever dared. Plumbed the depths of her pleasure and scaled her to orgasmic heights she had forgotten existed during the icy wasteland of her marriage. She used to like sex. She used to like the person she was during sex, but Ryan had drilled it out of her—literally—with his all-consuming focus on himself.
“Mol?” Cal’s eyes were wide with concern. “You okay?”
Molly swallowed. “Yes! I’m fine!” Squeaky voiced, about to fall over, but otherwise okeydokey.
She met the cool gaze of the Marine. “Mr. . . . ?”
“Fox. Wyatt Fox.”
Hello, seren-freaking-dipity, it was him. Not just him from all those years ago, but him, the elusive Dempsey. How was it possible that the man who had lit her on fire, body and soul, was also the man who could get her closest to her heart’s desire—a straight shot at his sister?
Wyatt Fox. It suited him. Clean, masculine, not a syllable wasted. Like James Bond, if 007 included cowboy-marine-firefighter in his stable of personae.
Fox. Wyatt Fox. License to thrill—and send your panties plummeting.
A manic giggle bubbled up from somewhere deep, the same place where illicit laughter in church originated. The wicked, don’t-you-dare-Molly kind of giggle she had never been able to smother in front of her gran whenever Pastor Morrison delivered his sermon with a booger hanging from his nose—every Sunday, without fail, at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in New Haven, Missouri.
She held out her hand, and to distract from her tremble, she parted with that giggle. Wily move, she thought.
He stared, no doubt wondering if she had lost her mind. Don’t worry, Marine, that train left the station long ago. Only now was she starting to put the splintered mess back together again.
Drawing on Serious Molly, she cleared her throat, though she was quite enjoying this giddy version. It had been a while. “Mr. Fox. Thanks so much for meeting with us today.”
No reaction. What—so—ever.
This was priceless. The one guy on the planet who could probably map all her freckles and he didn’t remember a single one—or her! But that was their game, wasn’t it? Each night, they would circle each other in that hotel bar like predatory strangers, as though they hadn’t already memorized every inch of each other’s bodies, the pulse points, the weak spots, every breathy sound.
Could he be reverting to their previous dynamic? Is that why he was looking at her like she was nothing to him? Or had she truly made so little impact?
He dwarfed her hand in his giant one, squeezed once, and let go. As if her touch offended him.
She was reading far too much into this.
The third time he’d called her that. Something in his voice was hot-wired to the dampening center between her legs. “Molly. Call me Molly.”
The prickle of heat on the back of her neck could mean only one thing: Cal was staring at her and compiling a list of questions in her head to be brought out later over a bottle of Pinot.
“Hey, do you guys . . . know each other?”
Or, why wait? Just get it out now and clear the air.
Not a muscle moved in the Marine’s face, not even an eyelash, but then . . . then . . . yes! A slight rise of his eyebrow, like the ghost of a breeze fluttering practically invisible molecules. He did remember. The enormity of his reaction, and what it meant, smashed her to the ground.
He was feigning ignorance, allowing her the freedom to admit or deny.
For the past five years, her life had not been her own. A Faustian bargain she had made knowingly, of course. Hello fame, good-bye privacy. But those hacked photos infecting the Internet, that violation, had not been her choice.
Her heart clenched at this small gesture of gallantry. So perhaps banging Molly fifteen ways from Sunday before she was famous might not be worth bragging about, but any other guy would be salivating at the chance to compose a headline of “Hot Nights in the Sack with Molly Cade!” Instead, the Marine was giving her the choice whether to reveal their past affair.
Tears pricked her eyelids at the unexpected kindness.
All things considered, however, this prior connection could not get out. She was trying to rehabilitate her sorry rep, not create more gossip for the gutter rags. Which is why she really should not have said in answer to Cal’s question about whether they knew each other, “Depends on your definition of know.”
One razor-straight eyebrow shot up, hovered near his cocoa brown hairline, and lowered slowly. How gratifying to be able to throw him like that. He had always been so unshockable.
“We had some mutual interests once,” Wyatt said, a pagan gleam in those blue-gray eyes. “Bars. Shakespeare.” Sexy pause. “Elevators.”
Heat rose to her cheeks. Point to you, Mr. Fox.
“How long have you been with CFD?”
“About four and a half years. Signed up after I left the marines.”
So she’d been right about his military service, and he’d joined the family business after they’d met. It was strange to think of him with a family. With the Dempseys.
Inward mental shake. Did she think he sprouted fully formed from Lake Michigan, ascending in a seashell like a male Venus with maybe a fig leaf—or a Cubbies cap—over his manly magnificence? Toting a fire hose instead of a trident? No, that was Neptune. Or Poseidon. Whatever.
She savored the glorious image for a moment while another giggle gathered inside her. No man had ever exhibited the capacity to unhinge her like this, not even Ryan. With him she had been starstruck, but never man-struck.
Desperately, she turned to Cal with a helpless shrug of I think it would be best if you speak now.
Cal had witnessed several breakdowns from Molly in the past year, so this latest turn did not surprise her. Deftly, she picked up the conversational slack. “I understand our original CFD contact is injured, Mr. Fox. I hope he’s okay.”
“He’ll make it. And it’s Lieutenant Fox.” He crossed thick-as-oak-branch forearms over his immense chest, a move that made his biceps bulge indecently.
Directing his stark gaze back at Molly, he said, “This isn’t my usual gig, but as long as you do as I say, we should get along fine.”
Somehow, she found her producer voice. “Already bossing my crew around?”
“Who said anything about your crew?”
All the blood she needed to stay upright rushed to her face in remembrance. Back then, the man had held on to regular conversation as if every word cost a sliver of his soul to speak it. But he had been expressive in other ways. Throaty commands. Raspy instructions. Touch me. Suck me. Take it all, baby. Every order designed to maximize their joint pleasure.
A loud clanging sound cut through the sexual tension as thick as the lust fog in her brain. Gideon was at it again, playacting about thirty feet off near the museum’s entrance.
“Hey,” Wyatt said quietly, forcefully, and with what sounded like great restraint.
Gideon raised both hands, all innocence, because the brass bell had clearly rung itself. If he didn’t quit playing the part of a ten-year-old trapped in a thirty-year-old’s body, Molly was going to shove that bell in a very uncomfortable place. He was definitely not her first choice to play Macklin Chase, the heroic fireman who loses his best friend and has to deal with the soul-shattering consequences, but the studio refused to green-light the project without him. Apparently, some suit at Sony thought he projected the appropriate gravitas.
Some suit should have seen him mooning the cast and crew at yesterday’s meet and greet.
“He with you?” Wyatt asked Molly.
“Yes. One of the actors.” Just in case Wyatt cared if she and Gideon were together.
Which by the look on his face, he did not.
A bemused Cal shook her head at this exchange and cleared her throat. “In any case, Lieutenant, we appreciate you stepping in at the last moment. I’m not sure if Captain Ventimiglia told you, but our original plan was to spend a day at the academy observing the trainees, giving the actors a feel for the typical job of a firefighter. I understand that you’ll be meeting with our tech people tomorrow.”
“Uh-huh. So you want to learn the ins and outs of life in the CFD in two hours.”
“Well, we realize that we can’t cram years of knowledge into such a short time.” Molly offered her most persuasive smile, feeling on a more sure footing. That smile was her fortune. “But we were told we could watch a class and then maybe ride the truck from your firehouse for a day. At Engine Company 6.”
Ancestral seat of the Dempseys.
He didn’t take the bait. “Not sure watching the class is going to help much,” he said with another squint. He really had that Old West gunfighter thing down. “Doing will give you a better feel for the physical endurance and skill set needed to be a firefighter. Ladder drills, hauling equipment, the smoke box. How’s your stamina?”
Pretty damn good, if you recall.
There was that imperceptible eyebrow lift again, henceforth known as a Wy-brow. He did recall.
Before Molly could answer, Cal cut in. “There are insurance issues. We can’t let the talent climb ladders or enter smoke-filled boxes.”
Wyatt stepped forward, right up close, and addressed Molly. Of course he smelled incredible, because how hot he looked wasn’t already sending her hormones into a Wyatt-fueled frenzy.
“You want to make this movie as authentic as possible, feel what it’s like to come home with smoke pumpin’ out of your pores, grime in your hair, your muscles ragin’ and your body itchin’ to find release?”
Yes, yes, all of that. She blinked, swallowed, and nodded when really she wanted to ask more about the body-itching-to-find-release part. And those dropped g’s. She remembered that coming out more, how his vocabulary contracted, when he was losing himself inside her body.
“Well, you’d need to train for a year, then spend three more in a firehouse.”
She was glad to hear that humor as dry as the California brush in August threaded through his graveled voice. So laconic you had to rewind your brain to check for the joke.
“But if you let me do what you’re paying me to do, I can give you a damn good approximation of it. You interested in what I got to offer?”
“Yes,” she whispered, and then more forcefully, “Yes. I want to make it real.”
“Good.” Without missing a beat, he spoke to Gideon. “Touch that bell again and I’ll take an ax to your hand.”
Gideon stepped back, looking suitably chastened. Maybe he wasn’t such a bad actor after all.
“Don’t worry, Miss Johnson,” Wyatt said to Cal. “I’ll take care of your talent. With me. Now.” So decreed, he turned and strode toward the entrance to the academy barracks, housed next door to the museum.
Cal wagged her finger at Molly and gestured at Wyatt’s departing back with a murmur of, “Lucy, you got some ’splainin’ to do.”
I know, I know.
“But while we’re on the subject of Great Butts of Western Civilization . . .” Cal made a box gesture with her hands, composing Wyatt’s very fine ass in her imaginary viewfinder. “Cut that one out, frame it, stick it in the Met.”
“No. Bronze it.” And another more crucial part of his anatomy, Molly thought, before her manic giggles finally got the best of her.