Rich Man's Fake Fiancee(4)

By: Catherine Mann

He scanned the dim cubicle and found Ashley—thank God—sitting, wedged in a corner by the sink, wrapped in a wet blanket. Smart woman.

Matthew wove around the fallen door toward her. He sidestepped a broken chair, the whole room in shambles. She’d obviously fought to free herself. This subdued woman apparently packed the wallop of a pocket-size warrior.

“Thanks for coming back,” she gasped out, thrusting out a hand with a dripping wet hand towel. “Wrap this around your face.”

Very smart woman. He looped the cloth around his face, scarf style, to filter the air.

Ashley rose to her feet, coughed, gasped. Damn. She needed air, but she wouldn’t be able to walk over the shards of glass and sparking embers with her bare feet.

He hunkered down, dipping his shoulder into her midsection and swooping her up. “Hang on.”

“Just get us out of here.” She hacked through another rasping cough.

Matthew charged through the shop, now more of a kiln. Greedy flames crawled along a counter. Packs of stationery blackened, disintegrated.

Move faster. Don’t stop. Don’t think.

A bookshelf wobbled. Matthew rocked on his heels. Instinctively, he curved himself over Ashley. The towering shelves crashed forward, exploding into a pyre, stinging his face. Blocking his exit.

His fist convulsed around the blanket. A burning wood chip sizzled through his leather shoe.

“The other entrance, through the kitchen,” Ashley hollered through wrenching coughs and her fireproof cocoon. “To the left.”

“Got it.” Backtracking, he rounded the corner into the narrow hall. The smoke thinned enough for light to seep through the glass door.

Ashley jostled against him, a slight weight. Relief slammed him with at least twice the force. Too damn much relief for someone he barely knew.

Suddenly the air outside felt as thick and heavy as the smoldering atmosphere back inside.

Ashley gasped fresh air by the Dumpster behind her store. Hysteria hummed inside her.At least the humid air out here was fresher than the alternative inside her ruined restaurant. Soon to be her entirely ruined home if firefighters didn’t show up ASAP and knock back the flames spitting through two kitchen windows.

The distant siren brought some relief, which only freed her mind to fill with other concerns. How could the blaze have started? Had one of the candles been to blame? How much damage waited back inside?

Matthew’s shoulder dug into her stomach. Each loping step punched precious gasps from her and brought a painful reminder of her undignified position. “You can put me down now.”

“No need to thank me,” he answered, his drawl raspier. “Save your breath.”

How could he be both a hero and an insensitive jerk in the space of a few hours?

Her teeth chattered. Delayed reaction, no doubt. The fine stitching along the bottom of his Brooks Brothers suit coat bobbed in front of her eyes. The graveled parking lot passed below. Now that the imminent danger of burning to death had ended, she could distract herself with an almost equally daunting problem.

Earlier she’d bemoaned the fact Matthew hadn’t seen her in the pink satin nightgown—and now she wished he could see her in anything but that scrap of lingerie underneath her soggy blanket.

“Matthew,” Ashley squeaked. “I can walk. Let me go, please.”

“Not a chance.” He shifted her more securely in place. The move nudged the blanket aside, baring her shoulder. His feet pounded the narrow strip of pavement at a fast jog. “You’re going straight to the hospital to be checked over.”

“You don’t need to carry me. I’m fine.” She gagged on a dry cough, gripping the edges of the slipping blanket. “Really.”

“And stubborn.”

“Not at all. I just hate for you to wear yourself out.” Except after last night she knew just how much stamina his honed body possessed.

She grappled with the edges of the wet afghan, succeeding only in loosening the folds further and nearly flipping herself sideways off Matthew’s shoulder.

“Quit wiggling, Ashley.” He cupped her bottom.

Oh, my.

His touch tingled clear to the roots of her long red hair swishing as she hung upside down.

Two firefighters rounded the corner, dragging a hose as they sprinted past, reminding her of bigger concerns than the impact of Matthew’s touch and her lack of clothing. Her restaurant was burning down, her business started with her two foster sisters in the only real home she’d ever known. The place had been willed to them by dear “Aunt” Libby who’d taken them in.

Tears clogged her nose until another coughing jag ripped through her. Matthew broke into a run. She gripped the hem of his jacket.