Hot to the Touch

Book 1 in the Brotherhood by Fire Series

May 7, 2019

Hot to the Touch

Book 1 in the Brotherhood by Fire Series

OLD FLAMES BURN WHITE-HOT

Firefighter Jackson Donovan doesn’t look back—as a rule. So when his past comes roaring back to life in the form of not-so-damsel-in-distress Becks Benning, the last thing he wants to do is relive old times. No matter how tempting she makes it seem…

Now thanks to his two interfering brothers, Becks is living with him while she looks for a new place and tries to pick up the pieces of her tattoo business that went up in flames. Which means a grown up, smokin’ hot Becks is in his house, digging up old wounds. And despite his better judgement, the more time he spends with this smart, artistic, incredible woman the more he wants her in his bed—and his future.

Becks always had it bad for Jackson. Unfortunately for her, not much has changed—he’s still honorable, hard-working, sexy as sin—and closed off. But there’s more than one way to get to a man’s heart and if Jackson doesn’t want to recall old memories, she’ll just have to help him make new ones. Because now that she’s found Jackson again, she’s not letting him go.

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Prologue
August 2005

They’d gotten separated from the rest of the group when the downpour started, but that happened sometimes. Jackson hoped the rest of them were okay in the tents. For tonight, it was just him, Rafe and Kal.

They’d been lucky to find this abandoned piece of junk house, so they could have a roof over their heads during the storm. Jackson was on lookout tonight, because you never knew who might be prowling for space, or the cops might come and bust them and the last thing they needed was to be dragged back into some shitty foster home worse than the last one.

Foster homes were a crapshoot. Sometimes you got lucky and they were decent. More often than not you got people who were in it for the money, or the system was so overburdened with kids you ended up shuffled from one home to another and you couldn’t even remember anyone’s names. They sure as hell didn’t remember yours. And then sometimes you got the mean ones. At fourteen, Jackson could handle himself. Rafe was getting there at thirteen, but Kal was only twelve. As the oldest, Jackson was responsible for looking out for the younger ones. His brothers. Not by blood, but they were still his brothers.

No, they were better off on their own where they had each other’s backs and no one could ever hurt them again.

Tonight they gotten lucky and had a place to sleep out of the rain. They’d scored a whole pizza some jerkoff had left uneaten on his back porch while the dude was inside having an argument with his girlfriend, so they had full bellies. Rafe and Kal were asleep on the floor in another room while Jackson stood watch. He gazed out the living room window of the old beach house, watching lightning arc across the Atlantic Ocean. The storm was a bad one tonight and the rain was coming down hard.

He walked away from the water view and made his way to the front of the house. He scanned the street out front to make sure it was still clear. Because of the rain, no one was wandering around, which made him feel more secure.

Not that you could ever feel completely safe. Not when you lived like they did.

He pushed off the wall to wander around. Lots of windows in this place. He’d bet it was killer when the sun was out. But tonight the rain made it cold, so they’d shut all the windows earlier. His boots creaked on the worn wood floor. As he moved from room to room he could imagine a family with a couple of kids and maybe a dog running this joint. They’d probably have nice furniture, some cushy-looking couch where they’d all cuddle together and read at night.

He could still remember what it was like to have a family, though that had been a long time ago and there was no point living in the past. He wasn’t gonna get that life back.

Anyway, this was a decent beach house, and maybe someday it would get fixed up. Or maybe torn down. But tonight, it was their shelter and they didn’t have one of those very often.

Having made a circuit of the place, he returned to the living room and sat down in the corner. He leaned back against the wall and settled in.

Jackson woke up coughing, something burning his lungs so badly he couldn’t breathe. He tried to open his eyes, but when he did they burned.

He fought to suck in air, found his voice so he could call out for Rafe and Kal. They didn’t answer. His stomach tightened as he saw flames lick up the wall across the room.

Oh, shit. Fire. He didn’t want to die. He didn’t want his brothers to be dead. Tears pricked his eyes as he tried to see through the thick, black smoke. He pushed himself onto his hands and knees, trying to remember where the door was, what room the boys were sleeping in. Had they been right next to him, or had he moved into another room? His brain was fuzzy and he couldn’t remember.

He coughed, the smoke entering his lungs with every breath he took. He pulled his raggedy T-shirt over his mouth, trying to stifle the smoke. He had to get to Rafe and Kal. He was the oldest. It was his job to save them.

He called out to them, rasping out a cough with every few words. But he kept at it. They had to hear him. If he could hear them, he could get to them. Then they’d figure a way out. Because no way were they dying in this piece-of-shit building today.

Finally, he heard voices. The sound was faint, but he wasn’t imagining it. He’d definitely heard it. It was them. It had to be them. Which meant they were alive. He crawled toward the sound, his own voice hoarse as he yelled out in response.

“I’m here! Hang on.” The smoke grew thicker and he could feel himself slipping away, but sheer determination kept him conscious. He was their brother. They’d been through so much together, had survived so much together. This fire wasn’t going to get them.

When he saw the light and the tall shadow looming over him, he thought maybe it was too late. He was dead and this was some dark angel come to take him away. But then strong arms scooped him up.

“It’s okay, buddy,” the dark angel said. “I’ve got you. You’re safe now.”

Jackson shook his head and gripped the angel’s arm, barely able to stay conscious. “My . . . my brothers.”

“They’re safe, too. They’re outside. Come on. Let’s get you out of here.”

Jackson sighed in relief and let himself fall into the darkness.

Chapter One
Present Day

Jackson Donovan was having the best dream of his life. It involved his favorite spot on the beach, a spectacular blonde in a barely-there bikini, and hot sex on a Jet-Ski. He was just about to maneuver her onto his lap while they were simultaneously bouncing across the waves, because, hey, in a dream anything was possible, when a loud noise sent him jolting off the sofa in the firehouse.

He’d thought it was the firehouse alarm, so he was instantly alert.

“Calm down,” Rafe said, not even looking up from the video game he was playing. “Just Rodriguez dropping shit in the kitchen.”

Jackson blinked, that sweet dream vanishing instantly. He rubbed his eyes and stretched. “Oh. Okay.”

“So, good dream?” Rafe asked, grinning as he kept his attention on the TV.

Now that he knew he didn’t have to gear up, Jackson leaned back in the chair. “None of your business.”

His other brother, Kal, laughed. “That means it was about a girl.”

Sometimes working with your brothers was great. Other times it was annoying because they knew him too well.

They’d been together for longer than Jackson could remember. Jackson had hit the streets at ten. It didn’t take long to grow streetwise when you were running from either cops or social services, or whatever other dangers lurked out there for kids. You found yourself a homeless community, which he’d done, and then found other kids. He’d hooked up with Rafe a few years later, then Kal. After that, the three of them had been inseparable. They might not be real brothers, but they had all shared similar circumstances. And all those years they’d lived on the streets they’d looked out for each other, had each other’s backs and had vowed to never be separated.

That had never changed.

Which didn’t mean his brothers weren’t a constant pain in his ass.

“You three intending to spend this shift sitting on your asses?”

Their father, Battalion Chief Josh Donovan, glared down at them. Off-duty he was loving and protective and fun. Everything Jackson had always wanted in a father. Off duty he was Dad. The guy who’d saved their lives that night in the house fire.

And the man who’d adopted them, along with his wife, Laurel. Their mom.

But on shift? On shift he was their battalion chief—demanding and strict. He expected a lot of every firefighter who worked at Station 6. His own kids got no preferential treatment.

“No, sir,” Kal said, giving their father the respect he was due.

“Good. Because the fridge smells like something died in there. Go investigate.”

“Oh, come on, Chief,” Kal said. “Let the probies do that.”

Dad shot Kal a look that said there’d be no argument.

Kal sighed. “Yes, sir. I’m right on it.”

But just at that moment the alarm went off, calling for both Ladder and Engine 6, along with the EMTs, who were at the hospital but acknowledged they’d be on their way. It looked like cleaning the fridge would have to be put off—at least until after the call they were headed out to.

They all ran out to the engine room. Jackson climbed into his bunker pants and jacket, grabbed the rest of his gear and scrambled into the truck. Despite having been on this engine for the past seven years, he felt a thrill every time he heard the sirens, every time the engine roared out of the house. The sounds and vibrations filled him with a sense of belonging, of knowing that this was right where he was supposed to be.

All those years he lived on the streets, he never thought he’d feel this way.

The night that firefighter Josh Donovan rescued him and Rafe and Kal from that house fire changed his life. Changed all their lives.

“Dude, you even listening?” Rafe asked.

He blinked. “What?”

“You dreaming about that girl again?”

Jackson shook his head. “No. Just thinking.”

“No wonder you looked so pained.”

He glared at his brother. “Fuck off.”

This was one of those times he was glad both of his brothers didn’t ride the same fire truck with him. One was bad enough.

They arrived at a strip shopping center a couple of blocks from the beach. Smoke poured out of the open door of a tattoo shop with a sign on the window that said Skin Deep. He didn’t see smoke rising from the second story.

Yet.

“No flames visible.” Jackson did a quick review as they pulled up in front of the building. Nothing shooting out of the roof, which didn’t mean the place wasn’t fully involved on the inside, or ready to burst into flames any second. Smoke was sometimes more dangerous than flame. It held secrets that could explode any second.

They’d have to be on guard.

Jackson gave out assignments, even though everyone already knew their jobs.

“Get up on that roof and check things out,” he said to Kal and Ethan Pressman on the ladder team. “I need a report stat.”

Kal and Pressman nodded, and they set off to get the ladder in place.

“Let’s get inside and see what’s going on.”

“Rodriguez, you and Hendricks get the hoses.”

They jumped out and immediately went to work, gearing up with their SCBA and regulators so they could breathe through the smoke. Jackson was first in, calling out to see if anyone was inside.

He hoped no one was in there. But he hadn’t seen anyone outside, and the door was open. Hopefully no one was in here.

But then he heard the sound. It was faint, but he heard it.

Coughing. That thick cough that came from breathing in smoke. He knew that sensation all too well. Even though it had been fourteen years, he could still remember what it had felt like to breathe in that smoke, to fight for air. He remembered the overpowering panic. He never wanted to experience it again. He never wanted anyone else to feel it, either, so he had to get to whoever was in here.

“Fire department,” he hollered. “Anyone in here?”

No answer, but he heard the coughing again so he followed the sound.

“Someone’s in here,” he said into his mic. “I’m heading farther back in to investigate. Still no sign of flames.”

“I’m right behind you,” Rafe said.

He knew his brother would have his back. One or both of them always did.

He was about to turn the corner into a room when he was met face to face with a short, masked . . . he had no idea. Woman, maybe? Yeah, definitely a woman. There were boobs and she was wearing skimpy shorts and a crop top and he saw a swinging ponytail. She had a bandana tied around the bottom half of her face and he wasn’t sure if she was the owner or if she was looting the place, because she had her arms filled with what looked like tattoo equipment.

“Fire department. You have to get out now.”

“Out of my way, Darth,” she said, then erupted into a heavy cough.

Darth? He frowned, then caught on when he realized she heard him breathing into his SCBA. Something she should be doing because it was smoky as hell in here.

He’d figure out the owner-versus-looter question after he got her out of there. “You have to vacate the premises.”

She shook her head and pushed at him to move him out of her way. “Screw you, Vader. I need to get my stuff.”

He wasn’t budging. “Nope. Out. Now.”

“I’m not—” She stopped, racked by spasms of coughing. “Leaving.”

He didn’t have time to argue with her, so he started to pull her toward the exit. She resisted, turning back inside. He tried to draw her in the right direction, but it was obvious they were going to play tug-of-war and the smoke was getting thicker back there.

He had no choice but to hoist her over his shoulder and carry her out. Everything she’d had in her arms clattered to the floor.

“What the hell are you doing?”

He didn’t bother answering her since what he was doing was obvious. He passed Rafe and Tommy Rodriguez.

“Found the source of the smoke,” Rafe said. “An electrical outlet short. We’ve got electrical turned off. They’re breaking into the wall now to make sure there’s no fire in the walls.”

Jackson nodded. “I’m getting her out of here. I’ll be back.”

“Okay.”

“Put me the hell down.” She was wriggling, which didn’t make his job any easier.

He also didn’t intend to let her win this battle no matter how much she fought him.

He made it outside and set her down. She started back inside again. He grabbed hold of her arm and dragged her over to the truck. He pulled his mask off and opened the door where the portable oxygen was located. The EMTs should be showing up soon, and then she’d be their problem. Until then, he needed to give her oxygen.

He put the mask on her face. “Breathe.”

“I’m fine.” But her body betrayed her with a spasm of coughing, and her voice was raspy from the smoke.

“Breathe.”

She took a couple breaths of oxygen, then pushed the mask away. “Okay. I’m good now.”

She tried to get up but his hand on her shoulder kept her on the bumper of the rig. “You’re not going in there.”

Her face was smudged gray from the smoke, but her angry blue-eyed gaze shot daggers at him. “And you can’t stop me.”

“Actually, I can. What the hell were you thinking not evacuating at the first sign of smoke?”

“I was thinking that everything I own is in there, and I was trying to get as much of it out as I could before the fire broke out. I would have run like hell if I’d seen flames. I didn’t see flames.”

She let out a series of deep coughs, so he put the mask on her face again.

“Smoke can kill you, too.”

She pulled the mask away and glared at him. “I’m alive, aren’t I?”

He shook his head. She was one hell of a smartass. But at least she was right about one thing.

She was alive.

Rebecca “Becks” Benning glanced in misery at her ruined shop. She was glad she didn’t own the building. Of course, if she had, it wouldn’t have had the faulty wiring, which had led to this massive disaster of a day.

She’d had three appointments for today, and, since it was Saturday, it was a beautiful day to be at the beach. Who knows how many walk-ins she would have gotten for ink or piercings? All that beautiful income literally up in smoke. Likely along with a lot of her inventory. She could already imagine how difficult it would be to clean the soot off her equipment. Her ink was closed tightly in bottles so maybe it would be okay, but the cleanup was going to be a nightmare.

And since she lived in the small apartment above the shop, chances were everything in there was also covered in that gray ashy crap.

She’d deal with it. Hadn’t she always managed with whatever happened to her? She’d find a way to come out of this. And if worse came to worst, she’d couch-surf with some friends until she could get back into her apartment again. It was the work that was going to be a problem. And where was she going to store all her stuff? Sleeping on someone’s sofa was one thing. Storing her equipment and finding a place to set up shop in the interim? That was going to be the big issue.

God, she had so much to deal with. Her mind was whirling and right now she felt a little dizzy. She leaned forward, letting her hands rest on her knees while she breathed in the oxygen from the mask that the EMTs insisted she keep on. She rested on the bumper of the ambulance while she watched the firefighters walk in and out of her shop. And with every minute she felt her livelihood slipping away more and more.

“You feeling better, miss?”

She gave a thumbs-up to the very nice EMT with the soft voice whose name tag said Acosta. His partner was a cute perky blond chick named Smith.

Grumpy Firefighter, the one who’d dragged her out of her shop as if he were some kind of caveman, seemed to be semi-in-charge of the other ones, because she noted that he pointed and gave instructions to the other guys.

She blamed a lot of her woes on him. She’d had nearly all of her tattoo machines and was on her way out of the shop with them when he’d intercepted her. Then he’d had the audacity to pick her up and toss her over his shoulder like she was some damn damsel in distress or something.

She knew what she’d been doing, and she had tied a wet bandana over her face to keep from breathing in the smoke. Or at least much of the smoke. And okay, maybe she’d been coughing—a lot. But she’d been on her way out the door. She wasn’t stupid. She knew breathing in smoke was dangerous.

She sat up and watched Grumpy Firefighter more closely. Hard to tell what anyone looked like under all that gear. He was nothing more than a yellow-and-red blob right now. But earlier, when he’d jerked off his mask, she’d gotten a glimpse of dark hair and extremely intense gray eyes. He had a nice mouth, too.

Not that she was interested in him or his very fine mouth. But he reminded her of someone from way back when. The old days. The bad days.

One of the other firefighters came up to her. “We need to get some information from you, ma’am,” he said.

She grabbed the clipboard and filled out the form, then handed it back to him, studying him as she did. This guy looked familiar, too. Hispanic, dark hair, tan skin, soulful brown eyes and the most amazing, thick long eyelashes. She used to tease Rafael about his eyelashes all the time. She looked at the firefighter’s name tag. It said Donovan. Not that they had ever known last names back then.

“Ma’am?”

“Oh. Sorry. I was just thinking you look a lot like someone I used to know.”

The firefighter smiled, his teeth bright and even. “Yeah? Who’s that?”

“A homeless kid I used to hang out with. I’d tease him about his long eyelashes. You have those same long eyelashes.”

He frowned, then looked down at the form and back up at her. “Rebecca. You ever go by Becks?”

Her stomach dropped. “All the time. Your name wouldn’t be Rafe, would it?”

“It would. But this can’t be. You sure look different. It can’t be you, Becks, could it?”

She knew who she was, but this had to be the weirdest coincidence. She and Rafe had been tight—like the closest friends. She couldn’t begin to hope. “We didn’t go by last names back then. You sure don’t look like a Donovan.”

He laughed. “I got adopted.”

Adopted. Something they’d all hoped for but knew would never happen. “You did? That’s awesome, Rafe. And Benning really is my name. Never adopted.”

“Damn, Becks, that sucks.”

“Nah, it’s fine.” She was having one hell of a surreal day. First the smoke-out, now running into a blast from her past. “Wow, I can’t believe it.”

“Neither can I. It’s really you, Becks?”

Tears sprang to her eyes. “It’s really me, Rafe.”

He pulled her against him, and a hug had never felt so good. It was like she’d just found her long-lost family.

“Hey, we don’t hug the victims, Rafe.”

A tall, well-muscled guy had come around the side of the fire truck. Becks looked at him, and damn if he didn’t look just as familiar. Skin the color of deep rich chestnut, eyes that mesmerizing green with golden flecks. She couldn’t see his hair because he was wearing his firefighter helmet, but she wondered if it was still long and curly. It didn’t matter. She’d know that face anywhere.

It was Kal. It had to be Kal. And if it was, she might be hallucinating.

“Kal, it’s Becks.”

Becks studied the guy as he removed his helmet and saw that his black hair was cut shorter than he used to wear it. They’d been the same age when they’d hung out. Last time she’d seen him he’d been a gangly preteen. He’d grown up. Filled out. Damn, he was handsome now.

“Kal.” She smiled.

He grinned. “Becks? Wow. You grew up.”

“So did you.” She couldn’t believe two guys she’d been so close to had rescued her today.

Rafe threw his arm around her. “Talk about kismet, huh?”

“Rafe, what the hell are you doing?” Another voice interrupted them.

Rafe pulled away. “Jackson, this is Becks. You remember Becks, don’t you?”

Becks turned to stare at Grumpy Firefighter. This was Jackson? The one guy who’d made her twelve-year-old heart go pitter-patter?

This could not be possible. All three of them had stayed together. And now they fought fires together.

Only Grumpy Firefighter’s—Jackson’s—brows knitted in a frown and he said the words that made her heart sink.

“No, I don’t remember her.”

Well, damn.

End of Excerpt

Hot to the Touch

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Hot to the Touch

Book 1 in the Brotherhood by Fire Series

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