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Excerpt for Playing with Fire by
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Published by EVERNIGHT PUBLISHING ® at Smashwords


www.evernightpublishing.com




Copyright© 2018 Sam Crescent and Stacey Espino



ISBN: 978-1-77339-681-1


Cover Artist: Jay Aheer


Editor: Karyn White



ALL RIGHTS RESERVED


WARNING: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.


This is a work of fiction. All names, characters, and places are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.


PLAYING WITH FIRE


Dirty Filthy Men, 1


Sam Crescent and Stacey Espino


Copyright © 2018


Chapter One


What the hell were you thinking, Eva?

She looked up at her apartment building one last time. Well, it wasn’t hers anymore. Her apartment had been rented out to someone new, and her furniture and belongings had been sold to a liquidator. Giving it all up felt like the right decision at the time, but now she wondered if it had been PMS doing the thinking. She’d let her apartment go, sold everything she’d owned, and was ready to get in her little Honda Civic and just drive. What could go wrong? She had no fucking clue. This was supposed to be her grand adventure, a complete one-eighty from her mundane heartbreak of a life. But with the late afternoon clouds rolling in and a bitter chill in the air, part of her wanted to settle into her safe haven for the night—only no such place existed.

She got into her car and took a look at the map unfolded over the passenger seat, tracing her finger along the main roadways. Where should she go first? Maybe somewhere warmer? In the end, she chose to wing it and just hit the highway south. Her haphazard plan involved driving, working temporary jobs to pay for food and gas, and seeing where the world took her. It would either be a journey of self-discovery or an epic disaster.

A month ago, she’d never have contemplated such a haphazard plan, but a month ago her long-time boyfriend hadn’t drained their joint bank account and run off with a girl ten years younger than Eva. Her forever fantasies were quickly squashed. It was all surreal. At first, she didn’t think she’d make it on her own. With no close family, and a shitty job at the grocery store, she had relied on her asshole ex for his half of the rent. After hitting rock bottom, feeling like shit that Mark had left her for a younger, thinner, more beautiful woman, she’d made the conscious choice to pick herself up. She could either think of herself as a thirty-one-year-old reject or a woman in her prime who’d been given a second chance. Eva quickly realized it was no simple task to stay positive.

She’d been driving for hours, feeling a sense of renewal the farther she got away from everything she knew. When it was past midnight, she parked in an abandoned lot off the highway and climbed into the backseat with the small patchwork quilt she’d packed. She curled up on her side, feeling the chill creep in, but she was too tired to care. Eva had done everything she’d set out to do, left her shitty life to start fresh—so why did she feel so empty?

Tears came out of nowhere. She sniffled and wiped her eyes, refusing to break down completely. Why was she so unlovable? What was the point of dreams when they were always out of reach? Mark was supposed to be the love of her life, but now that he was gone, she realized they had just been going through the motions. There’d never been passion, not the kind she imagined.

Eva decided it was better to be single than live with a man like Mark. There were no good men left in the world. They were all cheaters or assholes. Eva fell asleep, knowing the only person she could count on was herself.

She woke up in a panic, a loud rapping pulling her from her dreams. When she finally got her bearings, she noticed a gruff-looking man knocking on the rear car window, and she was still lying in the backseat.

Lady! You can’t be here!”

She was in the middle of a construction site. Workers in orange reflective gear were walking around everywhere, and the beeps of dump trucks reversing competed with guys cursing.

Eva climbed into the driver’s seat and started the car engine, rolling down the window a couple inches. “Sorry, I thought this was a parking lot. Can you point me in the direction of the highway entrance south?”

“Where you heading, sugar?”

The construction worker had to be old enough to be her father, so her stomach soured when she noticed him staring at her chest. She adjusted her t-shirt and pulled on her seatbelt. “Heading home.”

She ignored his other comments and the curious workers moving in, reversed into the clearing, and started driving. Eva turned on the radio and settled in for another long drive. It had only been one day and she was already tiring of the nomad lifestyle. The whole idea had felt right at the time, but now she wasn’t so sure.

Yee-haw! Looking for seasonal work?”

Eva turned up the volume on the radio. Apparently, there was a big rodeo about fifteen hours away and they needed short-term staff. It was exactly what she needed, and she hoped there were still spots available when she arrived. She had to earn some cold, hard cash. A night in a cheap motel would be heaven compared to the cramped back seat of her Honda again. Eva wasn’t a little girl, and she needed her space.

She stopped for a takeout coffee at the next stop, freshened up a bit, and then hit the road again.

****

“You think there’ll be a lot of women there?” asked James.

Dalton’s younger brother only had one thing on his mind, day and night. “I doubt it. The rodeo will be mostly cowboys, and the type of women that do hang around the ring aren’t the kind you want to take to bed,” said Dalton.

“That’s what you think.”

That’s what I know.” He pushed his chair back and set his napkin on the plate. He liked to come home for breakfast at least twice a week. It made his mother happy, and it was better than burnt toast.

He rolled his shoulders and took a deep breath. It would be a long day for him and the rest of the fire department. They needed to ensure Hope Springs was secure from troublemakers and potential disasters during the annual rodeo in the neighboring city. Their motels and bed-and-breakfasts were already fully booked. There wasn’t an available place to stay for fifty miles, not to mention their grocery stores were already cleaned out.

James got up and grabbed his reflective jacket off the wall hook. “I guess I better get to work before the foreman rides my ass.” He picked up his hard hat and let the screen door flap shut behind him. James had turned thirty-five a few months ago, and since Dalton was pushing forty, their mother had been nagging one of them to settle down. It was easier said than done. James was a perpetual playboy, and Dalton … well, he wasn’t going to settle down with just anyone.

Dalton had a certain type of woman in his mind, and since he was yet to find her in Hope Springs, all he could do was focus on work. There were only six firefighters in town. He had three more nights left on his rotating shift, and then he’d turn his focus to the gym. Sitting idle didn’t suit him. It gave him too much time to reflect, and most of the shit in his head needed to stay locked away.

He put on his black boots and grabbed his truck keys off the ledge near the door. With the early morning sun beating down, he was glad he wasn’t fully suited up. They’d been having a heat wave, and it wouldn’t let up. He wore his standard-issue navy uniform pants and t-shirt with the Hope Springs Fire Department insignia. It was a career he was proud of and took more seriously than anything else in his life.

Dalton! You were supposed to meet us at the bar last night, you bastard.” Ethan pulled his truck to the side of the street, a cigarette hanging from between his lips.

“I was busy,” he said.

Ethan and Gabriel worked at the lumber camp to the north of town. They’d been his friends since elementary school. Dalton’s mood just wasn’t where it should be lately. Last week, he’d been to a wedding for one of his cousins. Then he came home and looked in the mirror, wondering where the fuck the past twenty years had gone. At thirty-nine he expected to be married with a few kids, but he’d only had one-night stands over the years. The longest relationship he’d had lasted a few months.

Bullshit,” said Ethan. “Don’t blow us off tonight. We’re meeting at the pub around nine.”

He exhaled, not ready to argue. “Fine, see you there. You’re paying.”

They turned up their music and hit the gas, disappearing down the road. Dalton boarded his truck and headed down to the station. He needed to pick up supplies for the roadblocks around town. Every year Hope Springs was thrown into chaos because of the fucking rodeo in Vespera City. It put him on edge because the potential for violence and petty crime was higher than any other time of year. Last year they’d had to deal with half a dozen wildfires because of tourists lighting camp fires along the sides of the road when motels were full. Dalton wouldn’t let anyone get hurt on his watch.

He hauled truckloads of plastic and concrete roadblocks with Luke for half the day. They’d set up temporary roadblocks in dozens of locations around town. By the time lunch hour came and went he was ready to call it quits. He was starving and wanted to get some food in him before they had to secure the utilities and go over their safety protocols with the other firefighters, police, and paramedics.

“You heading home to eat?” asked Luke once they arrived back at the station.

Not today. Heading to Mrs. Cooper’s. You?”

“I’ll join you.”

They walked over to one of the local bed-and-breakfasts. It was on the same street as their station and the owner had adopted all six of them, taking their nutrition to heart. He could always expect a good, home-cooked meal whenever he paid a visit. Dalton considered Mrs. Cooper his second mother.

Luke tugged off his t-shirt as they walked, using it to wipe his brow, the afternoon sun beating down on them. “Fucking heat. If I won the lotto, the first thing I’d buy is a pool.”

It wouldn’t do you any good during work hours,” said Dalton. He couldn’t wait to hit the shower when he got home tonight.

Well, I’m ready for this week to be over with,” said Luke. “It takes me twice as long to get home with the damn tourists flocking to Vespera.”

You should move back to town,” said Dalton, pushing open the front door of the bed-and-breakfast, the small bells jingling when they entered.

“I like my privacy. Town life isn’t for me.”

He heard some kind of argument in the other room. Luke turned to him and shrugged.

“Is that crying?” he asked.

Luke walked to the corner and peeked around. “Get your clothes on, young man. You know the rules.” Mrs. Cooper ran a tight ship, and his friend quickly tugged on his shirt.

Dalton joined Luke in the dining room and noticed a lone woman sitting at a far table. He’d never seen her before. She had long waves of brown hair falling down the sides of her face as she leaned forward, holding a mug with both hands. She tucked her hair behind one ear and briefly glanced in their direction. Her eyes were so dark, dominant against her pale skin. He was instantly hypnotized.

When Luke nudged him hard in the shoulder, Dalton snapped back to the present. “What?”

“You want to eat or not?” asked Luke. “Shit.”

They sat down at their usual table, and Dalton still couldn’t take his eyes off the mystery woman. There was something about her, something sad and vulnerable that brought out his protective instincts.

When Mrs. Cooper came to take their order, he couldn’t keep his thoughts to himself. “Who is that?” he asked.

Poor thing’s looking for a place to stay, but everywhere’s booked solid.” She poured them each a coffee. “God knows I would have rented her a room, but I have absolutely nothing.”

“I’ve never seen her before.”

Mrs. Cooper shrugged. “She has a job in Vespera for the week, said she’s from a city up north. If any of you boys hear of a room for rent, you let me know.”

Can I get my usual with extra potatoes?” said Luke.

Dalton frowned at his friend. He gave his order, and once they were alone he snapped. “What’s your problem?”

“What the hell do you mean?” asked Luke.

I’m trying to find out about that girl, and all you can think about is food.”

Luke suddenly paid attention, glancing over at the table by the window. “Is she even your type?” he asked.

“Obviously. Look at her.”

“Then go over there. Shit, you’ve been single for a little too long, Dalton. I’m starting to wonder about you.”

“Fuck off,” he said, playing with the sugar packets. “I can’t just waltz over there. She’s already upset.”

Her eyes were red-rimmed. What was a beauty like her doing working at the rodeo with no place to stay? No way was she a buckle bunny, like the ones he’d warned James about time and time again. It didn’t make sense. She couldn’t have a boyfriend, certainly not a good one, if she was wandering through life alone.

“Don’t be a pussy.” Luke took a sip of his black coffee, looking too pleased with himself.

Dalton took a deep breath and made his move, hoping he didn’t crash and burn.

He took his mug with him and walked over to the far table. She still hadn’t looked at him, so he pulled out the chair opposite her and sat down. “Hello there,” he said, feeling like an idiot.

She looked up then sat straighter, running her hands through her hair to push it back.

“Hi.”

I work at the local fire department. I heard you were having trouble finding a room,” he said. Dalton figured it would be safer to play a concerned professional in case she wasn’t interested. What he really wanted was a miracle; for this woman to feel the same pull that he had for her.


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