Tiffany Brooks avoids Steve Knights’ advances, because there is no way he'd find her attractive. Steve can’t stop thinking about Tiffany Brooks and wants a relationship with her. Also, he must capture a deranged arsonist.
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Tiffany Brooks believes the fireman was mocking her when she catches him staring at her. Though she tries hard not to acknowledge her feelings, she’s infatuated. But what’s the point in allowing her feelings to blossom? There was no way he found her attractive.
Fire marshal, Steve Knights is smitten by the woman at the hospital, but she averts his advances. He knows he shouldn’t get involved with another woman, after all he is engaged to be married. But there’s something about this woman. Could she be the one to heal him from an earlier loss? Steve also has something else to occupy his mind. A deranged arsonist is on the loose, and if not stopped, will eventually maim or kill. Steve, Tiffany, and the arsonist eventually collide in a fiery encounter that can cost Tiffany her life.
Patrick studied the shoreline as his boat lay at anchor a quarter-mile off the coast of the Atlantic. A light fog floated above the surface of the water, and the cold, misty morning air seeped through his jacket, making him shiver. The ocean’s briny taste and aquatic scent overwhelmed his senses. Today was the best day for boating, according to the weather man. A cold front was scheduled to move in, bringing with it a possibility of snow. Nothing unusual for late January. He needed to get this chore done and then get out of here. The water was the best place to see what he needed to see without being spotted or questioned. It was now or never. Patrick pulled his hoodie tight around his thick wool sweater, zipped it up, and tied the hood. He wished he had worn a heavy raincoat and gloves.
A nice hot fire was what he needed to warm not only his body, but his very essence.
Patrick closed his eyes and imagined a house on fire and the feel of the blaze’s warmth on his face as it ripped through the night sky, creating sparks and flames, and spewing colors of yellow, orange, red and sometimes blue. As the crowd gathered, he stood with them, keeping his face hidden in the shadows so he wouldn’t be seen by the fire officials. He remembered that familiar rush. Oh man, how he missed it! It had been close to a year since his last fire and he’d almost got caught. Had to get out of town, come here. He’d stay under the radar for a few months and then… He sucked in a quick, deep breath. Then he’d get another chance.
He reached for his binoculars to peer again at the shore homes. Rushing, blue-gray waves splashed against the sides of the rocking dinghy, and Patrick leaned against the port bow to steady himself. He ignored his nauseated stomach as he noted the homes’ doors, windows, garages and places where he could enter and make a quick escape. The empty, two-story yellow house at the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay caught his eye. A rental, no doubt-- his kind of place. He enjoyed setting homes on fire, but he was not a murderer. He didn’t want to kill anybody. That’s why he chose unoccupied houses.
Patrick smiled slowly. No one did it better than he. By the time the firefighters put out his fires, nothing usually remained but charred remnants and fragments of leftover memories and dreams.
“Nice day for fishing.”
Patrick jumped at the voice and turned to his left to see two older men drifting thirty yards away in a larger, more expensive boat. Boat? Heck, it was more like a small yacht. Rich, old retired guys with nothing better to do with their time and money. Patrick held on to the strap as he dropped his binoculars to his side. “Yes it is.” He nodded hello to the other man in the boat.
“Didn’t mean to sneak up on you.” The first man grinned. “Sometimes we like to drift along, especially if the boat traffic isn’t too thick out here.”
Patrick cleared his throat and swung his binoculars behind him. “Caught anything?”
“Not yet. The fish don’t appear to be too hungry today.” The man studied Patrick. “What are you fishing with? I don’t see a rod.”
“I’ve been out here a while. I’m just taking a short break. It’s laying here in the bottom of the boat.” Patrick pointed to the floor. “You’re right about the fish not biting.”
“I saw you with the binoculars. What are you looking for?”
“Dolphins.” Patrick shifted his weight off his left foot.
“I haven’t seen dolphins here in months. Don’t waste your time looking for them. Well, I guess we’ve drifted enough.” The man turned to his colleague. “Why don’t we check out the bay, John? Maybe our luck will change over there.”
John agreed with a nod. “Good idea.”
The first man looked back at Patrick. “Enjoy your day, young man.”
“Thanks.” Patrick waved as the man started his motor and sped away.
Better get out of here and let the old geezers forget they’d seen him. He had his house. Patrick started the outboard and made his way back to the shore. He had to get to work at the high school and start cleaning the place. A bunch of idiots ran the facility, and the kids; those stupid, dumb kids who thought they knew everything! Patrick scowled. He had grown tired of their taunting and teasing. He’d torch the place if he didn’t need his job so bad, and he wouldn’t hurt Becky. It was her first teaching position, and she’d smiled at him the other day. She didn’t treat him like he was a moron, like the rest of them. Now he thought about her day and night--beautiful Becky, innocent and pure--just like his fires. If he had the nerve, he’d ask her out.
By the time Patrick got to his car, he was shivering, and the nausea had a vice grip on his stomach. A cold sweat broke out on his forehead, and he held onto the door handle as he vomited onto the damp sand. He got in his car, turned the heat up to full blast and hoped he didn’t catch a bad cold from being out so long in the nippy weather. Becoming ill could delay his plans. He wasn’t like most people. Little things caused him to get sick. He’d soak his feet and take an antibiotic when he got home tonight.
He kept staring at her. Tiffany Brooks stood before a table full of mail that she’d pulled from the wall of small and large metal compartments behind her. She’d been redistributing the hospital’s mail when she spotted the tall figure dressed in a black fire department uniform. His dark eyes captured her attention first as he stood in the hallway, and she noticed that he neither blinked nor stirred as she gave him a quick look over. Tiffany’s face warmed. She hung her head and brushed her curly, shoulder length hair from her face. Why didn’t he just look away if he was that horrified? She acknowledged the fact that she wasn’t the skinniest or the prettiest woman in the world, but staring at her was demoralizing and the last thing she needed.
Her quick look had been long enough to determine that he was well above average in looks. His dark complexion and perfect physique were enough to make her stare back, but men like him didn’t find her attractive. She’d learned that back in high school. No, they wanted the blonde cheerleader type with the perfect model figure. From the corner of her eye, she saw him still standing there, and she strained to give the envelopes her undivided attention. Why couldn’t the mailroom staff get this right? If they didn’t recognize a name, the mail ended up in her slot and then she had to take the time to redistribute it. When she looked up again, the fireman was gone.
His gaze haunted her as she made her way back to her office. What was that all about? She sat at her desk, picked up a stack of invoices from her inbox and put them beside her keyboard but couldn’t concentrate on the numbers. To clear her mind, she stared at the partition that separated her from the others. A lot of folks worked in the finance department, and she liked being in the last cubicle. There was no traffic and less noise, only the sound of clicking and muffled voices which gave her a sense of solitude. She glanced at the pictures of her mother, brother and herself that covered the small wall behind her computer, mostly from when she and Tommy were children. Under the pictures, the certificate for her degree in Business Administration hung in a frame. She leaned forward and wiped dust from the glass. A single grapevine wreath decorated the wall on her left and a bulletin board on the right wall was thickly pinned with paper in careful rows. Tiffany groaned at her surroundings. When and where had she gone wrong in her career? She exhaled. This job was just a stepping stone. She needed to pull herself together and pursue her dreams. Perhaps she’d even buy her own business someday.
Tiffany couldn’t stop her mind from wandering as she picked up the stack of statements again. The fireman’s face appeared on every invoice that she thumbed through. She threw the statements back in her in-box and rubbed her forehead. What had he been thinking when he gazed at her? He couldn’t have found her attractive, but maybe he did. She recalled her impression of him. That guy was good-looking! But why would such a fine looking man find her appealing? There were way more attractive women working at the hospital, and Tiffany knew them all--if not by name, by looks. She wondered how the fireman would have reacted if he had seen one of them. He probably would have whistled or something. Tiffany rolled her eyes. But why did he have to stare at her? That was so rude and embarrassing. She glowered. How dare he! And why didn’t she speak up to defend herself? Warmth surged up her neck and face. In reality she hadn’t seen that one coming, but next time she’d be prepared and say something like, Take a picture next time. It’ll last longer. She gritted her teeth, snatched up an invoice and pounded the company’s name and the amount into her computer.
“What are you doing back there?” Pam Jacobs, her coworker and best friend yelled from the cubicle in front of Tiffany’s. “You’re making such a ruckus I can’t concentrate.”
“Sorry. I’m trying to recover from a mailroom incident.”
“Did you run into some snobby manager?” Pam appeared in the opening of Tiffany’s cubicle.
“I don’t want to talk about it.”
“Suit yourself.” Pam shrugged and turned to go back to her office.
“A firefighter stared at me in the mailroom.”
Pam stopped short and faced Tiffany. “What did he do that for?”
“I don’t know.”
“Sounds like an interesting story.” Pam arched her brow. “What did you sense? I bet he thought you were attractive.”
“Oh, sure.” Tiffany sighed. “I didn’t sense anything. I really don’t want to talk about it now. Besides, I have more work than I can get done today.”
“You felt something, because your face is as red as a beet, girl. Well it’s more like a strawberry. Why do people say beet when a strawberry’s redder? Ever think about that?” Pam leaned against the divider and folded her arms. “That’s one of those things that make you go umm. A beet isn’t even red. It’s more like maroon. They stain your hands or whatever touches them. I understand they used to make dye from beets.”
Tiffany bit her lip. When she couldn’t hold it in any longer, she started laughing and Pam joined her. “I’d swear sometimes that you have Attention Deficit Disorder.”
Pam ignored her remark. “I wonder if that fireman’s still in the building.”
“Probably. You know the fire department conducts an inspection here every year.”
“Everybody inspects us. The city, the state, the federal government, Joint Commission, some lab people, some food people, some psych people, you name it. I’m surprised we’re not all crazy just from the inspections alone.”
“Is that what happened to you?” Tiffany laughed harder.
Pam grinned. “Nah. I was crazy before they hired me. You know, if he’s here doing an inspection, he isn’t a firefighter, Tif. He’s a fire marshal or a chief.”
“Chief of what?’
“I don’t know. I just know they got lots of chiefs over there and probably not enough Indians.” Pam giggled.
“More than likely he’s a fire marshal.” Tiffany pursed her lips and nodded. This man had clout.
“Did he do anything other than stare?”
“Nope.” Tiffany shook her head. “He just stood there and looked at me. It was so weird.” She frowned. “He didn’t blink either. It felt like he was boring a hole through my skull.”
“He didn’t blink?” Pam puckered her brow. “That’s a good way to get an eye infection or something. Did he say anything?”
“Not a word.”
“That was weird. Stay away from him. The last thing you want is to be associated with a weirdo. I guess heroes can be weirdoes too.”
“Make that the least of your worries.” Tiffany giggled. “I heard they pull a lot of twenty-four hour shifts in departments like that.”
“I think the firefighters do; the men and women both.” Pam nodded.
“That could wreak havoc in a relationship.” Tiffany laughed. “I guess you had better trust your man.”
“And his coworkers and those night owls, if you know what I mean. That would scare me more than his rescuing and firefighting.”
Tiffany paused. “Do you think they ever get scared?”
“They’re people like us, Tif. Of course they do. Some of those fires and the rescues can get pretty sticky.”
“So why choose that profession? You’d think the risks would outweigh the benefits.”
“Maybe it’s the rush they get from putting their lives in danger.” Pam shrugged. “Some folks live off it, you know.”
“They couldn’t pay me enough.” Tiffany reached for the next invoice.
“Their jobs won’t make them rich, but some of them are adrenalin junkies. And some are committed to what they do and genuinely want to help people. That accounts for something. Either way, they get the job done.”
“It’s way too dangerous for me. I’ve always said I’d never marry a military man, a police officer, or a fireman.”
“Well, you just limited yourself big time. Virginia Beach is like a military haven and policemen are everywhere you look, except when you need one.” Pam rolled her eyes. “I don’t think fire marshals are exposed to a lot of danger though. They sit behind a desk and push a pen all day for the most part, I think. As for me, at this point in my life, I’ll take anything that walks.”
“He needs to have a job, Pam.”
“That’s true. And he needs to be able to make babies.” Pam leaned inside Tiffany’s cubicle and whispered. “That means he needs to be a stud. Meow!”
“I want a family, Tif.”
“Your standards are too low and mine are too high. We both need to find a happy medium.” Tiffany picked up an invoice, held it up, and shook it. “All right, let’s get back to work before you say something that really makes me blush.”
Pam tipped her head toward the invoice. “If the staff knew how much the hospital paid out to vendors in one month, it would blow them away.”
“I know. We spend eight hours doing this every day, and we don’t take breaks except for lunch. How did you manage to get it all done before I came?”
“I worked a lot of overtime. I was tired as heck, but I had a lot of money. Management caught on when they saw how much overtime I was making. I miss that money so much.” Pam pouted.
“But you have me instead.” Tiffany raised her brow. “That was a good thing, right?”
“What can I say?” Pam grinned. “Who knew you’d become my best friend?”
“Best friends who need to get back to work.” Tiffany began keying in numbers.
“Okay. I’ll leave you alone, but take it easy on the keyboard, girl. Don’t kill it. It’s your friend.” Pam disappeared around the partition.
Tiffany leaned back in her chair and stared ahead. She had to make another trip to the mailroom later. She wondered if she’d encounter the tall fireman again. She remembered his broad shoulders and strong arms that bulged beneath the short sleeves of his black golf shirt. She even recalled the silver belt buckle on his narrow waist. Dang! That man was fine! She liked his facial features the most--his extremely dark hair professionally cut and groomed, his clean shaven face and square jaw. She’d never forget those dark, penetrating eyes. Tiffany took in a deep breath as her fingers tapped her desk. How could she have remembered so much? Her glance had been fleeting at the most. It would have been nice if he had found her attractive. If he did, he’d certainly look her up. A smile creased Tiffany’s lips, but then she shook her head to clear her mind. What was she thinking? There was no point in wishful daydreaming. That had been a sneer and not an admiring ogle. She let out a breath and went back to work.