Rich Man's Fake Fiancee(3)

By: Catherine Mann

Timeless relaxing moments later, Ashley inhaled again, deeper. And coughed. She sat up bolt right, sniffing not lavender, but…


Staring out at the summer sunrise just peeking up from the ocean, Matthew Landis worked like hell to get his head together before he powered back up those steps to retrieve the briefcase he’d left behind at Beachcombers.He slid his car into Park for the second time that day, back where he’d started—with Ashley Carson. He prided himself on never making a misstep thanks to diligent planning. His impulsive tumble with her definitely hadn’t been planned.

As a public servant he’d vowed to look out for the best interests of the people, protect and help others, especially the vulnerable. Yet last night he’d taken advantage of one of the most vulnerable women he knew.

He’d always been careful in choosing bed partners, because while he never intended to marry, he damn well couldn’t live his life as a monk. He’d already had his one shot at forever in college, only to lose her to heart failure from a rare birth defect. He’d never even gotten the chance to introduce Dana to his family. No one knew about their engagement to this day. The notion of sharing that information with anyone had always felt like he would be giving up a part of their short time together.

After that, he’d focused on finishing his MBA at Duke University and entering the family business of politics. His inheritance afforded him the option of serving others without concerns about his bank balance. His life was full.

So what the hell was he doing here?

Ashley Carson was sexy, no question, her prettiness increased all the more by the way she didn’t seem to realize her own appeal. Still, he worked around beautiful women all the time and held himself in check. Something he would continue to do when he retrieved his briefcase—and no, damn it, leaving it there wasn’t a subconscious slip on his part. Matthew opened the sedan door—

And heard the smoke alarm beep, beep, beeping from inside the restaurant.

An even louder alert sounded in his head as a whiff of smoke brushed his nose. He scoured the lot. Her small blue sedan sat in the same spot it had when he’d left.

“Ashley?” he shouted, hoping she’d already come outside.

No answer.

His muscles contracted and he sprinted toward the porch while dialing 9-1-1 on his cell to call the fire department. He gripped the front doorknob, the metal hot in his hand. In spite of its scorching heat, he twisted the knob. Thank God she’d left it unlocked after he’d gone. The leash snapped on Matthew’s restraint and he shoved into the lobby. Heat swamped him, but he saw no flames in the old mansion’s foyer.

Through the shadowy glow, the fire seemed contained to the gift shop and his feet beat a path in that direction. Flames licked upward from the racks of clothing in the small store. Paint bubbled, popped and peeled on aged wood.

“Ashley?” Matthew shouted. “Ashley!”

Bottles of perfume exploded. Glass spewed through the archway onto the wooden floor. Colognes ignited, feeding the blaze inside the gift shop.

He pressed deeper inside. Boards creaked and shifted, plaster falling nearby, all leading him to wonder about the structural integrity of the hundred-and-seventy-year-old house. How much time did he have to find her?

As long as it took.

His leather loafers crunched broken glass. “Ashley, answer me, damn it.”

Smoke rolled through the hallway. He ducked lower, his arm in front of his face as he called out for her again and again.

Then he heard her.

“Help!” A thud sounded against the wall. “Anybody, I’m in here.”

Relief made him dizzier than the acrid smoke.

“Hold on, Ashley, I’m coming,” he yelled.

The pounding stopped. “Matthew?”

Her husky drawl of his name blindsided him. A gust of heat at his back snapped him back to the moment. “Keep talking.”

“I’m over here, in the powder room.”

Her hoarse tones drove Matthew the last few feet. The door rattled, then stopped. A handle lay on the ground. “Get as far away from the door as you can. I’m coming in.”

“Okay,” Ashley said, her raspy voice softer. “I’m out of the way.”

Straightening, he slid his body into the suffocating cloud. He didn’t have much time left. If the blaze snaked down the hall, it would tunnel out of control.

Matthew shoved with his shoulder, again, harder, but the door didn’t budge, the old wood apparently sturdier than the handle. He took three steps back for a running start.

And rammed a final time. The force shuddered through him as finally the panel gave way and crashed inward.