Wife for Fire

By: Amy J. Fetzer
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River Willow Plantation Aiken, South Carolina



She had a rubber chicken stuck in the grillwork of her car.

The webbed feet flopped with every bump, the chicken looking as if it was being strangled and fried for supper, with all the smoke coming from the exhaust.

Nash Rayburn's lips twitched with amusement. "At least she has a sense of humor," he muttered to himself, then glanced down at his daughters. They were grinning widely. A good sign, he thought, nudging his hat back and bracing his shoulder on the porch post. He hooked his thumbs in his belt loops.

This was his wife for hire?

The dust-covered car rattled to a stop about twenty yards away and choked for a full twenty seconds after she shut the engine off and climbed out. Nash felt an instant pull in his gut the moment shapely bare legs first appeared and touched the ground.

Strike one. She was pretty. No, downright adorable, reminding him of a fairy in a story his mama told him when he was a kid. Her eyes hidden behind dark sunglasses, she had gleaming short dark-red hair and a body that was graceful and voluptuous. That pull tightened in places he didn't want to acknowledge.

Strike two.

He'd told the agency he didn't want anyone who'd distract the ranch hands. Now a petite full-breasted slim-hipped woman was coming straight toward him. And her Cadillac walk was so sexy he had the urge to cover his daughters' eyes. Damn. A scoop-neck navy blue T-shirt, a short denim skirt and a pair of high heeled sandals had never looked that good on his late wife.

"Oh, goody, she's not old," Kim said as if it was a crime to be over ten. "She can play games with us."

Nash glanced down at his twin girls. "Mrs. Winslow plays games."

The two made faces at him. "Board games and stuff. She just watches us mostly," Kate said, looking at the woman. "She looks nice, huh, Daddy?"

Breathtaking, he thought, and hoped his voice didn't show it. "Yes, peanut, very nice."

Ten yards away, the woman's steps slowed to a stop, and Nash felt suddenly uneasy, a sense of familiarity hitting him. His gaze swept over her, searching for a connection.

"Nash?"

His blood froze and he straightened. He'd know that voice anywhere. Hayley Albright. His Hayley. "What are you doing here?"

She cocked one hip, her fingers tightening on the strap of a beat-up leather handbag slung on her shoulder. "If this is Katherine's idea of a joke, I don't like it."

"Me, neither." Nash's insides twisted, his heart pressing against his ribs. Seven years ago he'd loved this woman. And seven years ago he'd betrayed that love and married another. He could never tell her why. Never. Yet one look at her and every cell in his body reacted, screaming for her. His blood grew hot and heavy in his veins as he stepped off the porch, walking toward her. It had always been like that, so good it was almost painful to be near her. She was the kind of woman who made heads turn as much for her confidence as for her beauty. The kind who made you smile just because she smiled.

The kind he'd wanted to marry.

Hayley felt memories of her past flow back as he neared, meshing with the old pain. She tried to push them aside, tried to gather her composure, but he was looking at her the way he had years ago. As if he wanted to devour her whole. It made her knees weak. She wanted to turn back to her car and drive away to avoid opening this part of her past again. It hurt too much. When he approached and stopped directly in front of her, the urge to throw herself into his arms made her eyes sting. It made her see that even if she told herself she was over him, she wasn't. Not by a long shot. Out of sight didn't mean out of mind—or heart. And if she stayed, she'd be in trouble.

Then he plucked off her sunglasses.

She snatched them back and met his gaze head on, searching for the man she once loved.

"You're working for Katherine's company?"

"A girl's got to make a living."

His lips flattened to a thin line. "What about your dream to be a doctor?"

She hitched up her handbag and said, "Still there. I just finished my internship. After a two-week break, I'll go back to St. Anthony's Hospital to begin my residency."

"That's great." His smile was slight, bitter, and Hayley felt as if she'd been kicked in the stomach. Her need to be a doctor and his need to have her abandon her goal in order to be his wife had torn holes in their love and sent him into the arms of another woman.

"Somehow I don't think that's what you really mean," she said.

His gaze narrowed. "I never wanted you to fail, Hayley."

"No, just dump my dreams for yours."

His features yanked taut. This conversation was just too difficult for public discussion, for what he was feeling, what he wanted to say to her. What he wanted to do with her. He caught the scent of jasmine, feeling it sing through his veins and make him ache to hold her. "It is good to see you."

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