Author: Suzanne Winslow
Genre: Contemporary Romance
Not once did he doubt she was meant for him…
A fresh start. That's all single mother Jenifer Nichols has in mind when she moves into her new home. In the wake of her estranged husband's death, Jenifer has stopped believing in happy endings. Fate, however, has different plans when firefighter Matt Barnes saves her son's life.
Matt is patient, persistent, and no stranger to disillusion. He, too, has a past. Yet Matt knows that while his heart already belongs to her, winning Jenifer's heart will take more time.
Redefining family is complicated, and second chances take courage and commitment. But this time, the happily ever after could just go up in smoke.
A burst of laughter from outside caught Robbie’s attention. He cocked his head and looked out the door. “Is that your house?” He pointed to the big gray home across the street where three young girls rode by on their bikes.
Matt followed his gaze. “That’s where I live.”
Keeping his eyes on the girls, he asked, “Are you a daddy?”
Jenifer tightened her hand on her son’s shoulder. He had done this once before with his pediatrician. The doctor knew he had lost his father and understood the curiosity. This man did not.
Rocking back on his heels, Matt shook his head. “No, I don’t have kids.” He showed Robbie the forceps again. “Are you ready?”
Robbie pinched his lips and held out his arm for Matt. He squeezed Jenifer’s hand as Matt removed a stinger with the edge of the forceps.
Matt worked at a second stinger. “How old are you?” he asked in a warm, comforting voice.
“Do you like to play sports?”
“I play baseball.” Robbie slumped his shoulders. “And basketball, like my dad.”
Matt exchanged a brief look with Jenifer. His eyes dropped to the gold band hanging on a chain around her neck. After he removed the last stinger, he stood. “All done.”
Jenifer held out her hand. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome…” Matt paused as he took her hand.
Her face grew warm when he squeezed her hand. “Jenifer. I’m sorry, I should have introduced myself. My name’s Jenifer Nichols.”
He smiled. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Jenifer.”
Robbie blinked up at him. “Did you get stung, too?”
“No.” Matt held out his arms to show him. “I’m okay.”
Jenifer gave Matt a closer inspection. He wore a pair of brown cargo shorts with his T-shirt. The shorts were long and loose, the shirt untucked. The bees could have stung him almost anywhere, but from what she could see, there were no marks on his light-olive skin. “Are you sure?”
Matt stuck the forceps into one of the deep pockets in his shorts and picked up his bag. “I got lucky, I guess.”
Robbie’s eyes went wide when he finally noticed the fire department emblem on Matt’s T-shirt. “Are you a fireman?”
Matt grinned. “Yes.” The earlier detachment Jenifer noted in his eyes faded as he seemed to switch roles and become a neighbor.
“Do you drive the trucks?”
“No, but I ride in one. Does that count?” Jenifer smiled at the way Matt played along as Robbie gazed up at him with awe. Matt’s grin spread. “If you come by the firehouse sometime, I’ll show you around.”
Robbie’s mouth fell open. He looked at Jenifer with big round eyes. “Can we go?”
It was incredible to her how quickly Robbie had forgotten about the bee stings and nearly being struck by a car. Jenifer pointed to the stairs. “We’ll see. Right now, you need to get into the shower. I’ll be up in a minute.”
Robbie’s face fell. Halfway up the stairs, he stopped and looked at Matt. “Good night,” he said.
Matt waved and gave him a smile. “Good night, Robbie.”
After Robbie disappeared into the bathroom, Jenifer turned on the porch light and followed Matt out to the driveway. “Thank you again, for everything.”
“I’m glad I was home.”
So was she.
Matt walked across the grass to pick up Robbie’s baseball glove as the streetlights blinked on. He brought it back to her and then kind of waited there for a second without saying anything. Like Jessie, he appeared in his early thirties. He wasn’t quite as tall as Patrick had been, but he was easily over six feet. His dark-brown hair was cropped short, his light-olive skin smooth and unmarked. He had a long straight nose, a short scruffy beard, and he smelled a little like engine exhaust and sunblock.
“Are you sure I shouldn’t talk to your friend?” she asked.
“That’s not necessary.” The lines on his forehead creased. “Jessie’s okay.”
Jenifer glanced up to see Robbie watching them through his bedroom window. “What did she say when you told her what happened?”
Matt cleared his throat. “She understood. She’s upset with me, not you.”
She eyed Robbie’s glove in her hands. “Then I hope we didn’t cause any more trouble between you.”
“You didn’t.” And then, as if it were somehow important, he added, “There isn’t anything between Jessie and me.”
She heard the unspoken anymore in his voice. An uncomfortable sense of relief washed over her. Uncertain as to what caused the reaction, she tucked Robbie’s glove under her arm and watched Matt head home.
A little while later, Robbie was quiet as he changed into his pajamas and climbed into bed. She thought he was just tired until she caught him staring at the picture of Patrick she kept on his bookshelf. Was he thinking about his father? God knows she did. Patrick’s death often kept her awake at night. Watching her son grow up without him was the hardest thing she would ever do.
Robbie turned his head on his pillow and looked at her. “Why don’t I have a daddy?”
She lay down on his bed, wrapped him up in her arms, and rested her chin on top of his head. Filled with guilt and regret, she grasped for answers. “You have a daddy. He’s in heaven. And no daddy in the world ever loved his little boy more than he loved you.”
As to the love Patrick had for her, she was less certain. She wished their marriage could have been different. That she had made different choices. But she would never regret loving the man who had given her a son.
As she tucked Robbie in, he asked again if they could go see the fire trucks. She promised to think about it, but she wasn’t so sure it was a good idea. Matt seemed like a great guy. Her stomach fluttered when she thought about him, and that was bad. Falling for him would be worse.
One word came to mind when she even considered the possibility: punishment.
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Burned isn’t as much a firefighter story as it is a story about a firefighter. Who is this person, in this case a man, when he comes home? He loves, he hopes, and he fears. If he’s threatened with the uniform off, is he wired to save and not be saved? And how much strength and courage does it take to love this kind of man—especially in times of trouble?
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