Rich Man's Fake Fiancee(5)

By: Catherine Mann


A second rig jerked to a halt in front. With unmistakable synergy, the additional firefighters shot into action. Oh God. What if the fire spread? A wasted minute could carry the blaze to the other historic, wooden structures lining the beachfront property. Her foster sister Starr even lived next door with her new husband.

The fire chief shouted clipped orders. A small crowd of neighbors swelled forward, backlit by the ocean sunrise.

“Ashley?”

She heard her name through the mishmash of noises. Turning her head, Ashley peeked through her curtain of hair to find her foster sister Starr pushing forward.

Ashley wanted to warn Starr to get back, but dizziness swirled. From hanging upside down, too much gasping, or too much Matthew, she couldn’t tell. Lights from fire trucks and an EMS vehicle strobed over the crowd, making Ashley queasy. She needed to lie down.

She wanted out of Matthew’s arms before their warmth destroyed more than any fire.

He halted by the gurney, cradling Ashley’s head as he leaned forward. She should look away. And she would, soon. But right now with her head fuzzy from smoke inhalation, she couldn’t help reliving the moment when he’d laid her on her bed. His deep emerald eyes had held her then as firmly as they did now. His lean face ended in a stubborn jaw almost too prominent, but saved from harshness by a dent dimpling the end.

In her world filled with things appealing to the eye, he still took the prize.

“Please, let me go,” she whispered, her voice hoarse from hacking, smoke and emotion.

Matthew finished lowering her to the stretcher. “The EMS folks will take care of you now.”

His hands slid from beneath her, a long, slow caress scorching her skin through the blanket. He stepped back, the vibrant June sunrise shimmering behind his shoulders.

Already edgy, she looked away, needing distance. Her burning business provided ample distraction. Smoke swelled through her shattered front window, belching clouds toward the shoreline. Soot tinged her wooden sign, staining the painstakingly stenciled Beachcombers.

What was left inside their beautiful home inherited from their foster mother? She and her two sisters had invested all their heart and funds to start Beachcombers. She raised herself on her elbows for a better view, sadness and loss weighting her already labored breathing.

“Ashley.” Her sister—Starr—elbowed through to her side. She wrapped her in a hug, an awkward hug Ashley couldn’t quite settle into and suddenly she realized why.

Starr was tugging the wet blanket back up. Damn. The satin nighty. Maybe no one else had seen.

Who was she kidding? She only hoped Matthew had been looking the other way.

Her eyes shot straight to him and…His hot gaze said it all. The jerk who’d walked out on her had suddenly experienced a change of heart because of her lingerie, not because of her.

Damn. She wanted her white cotton back.





Two



“A shley?” Matthew blinked, half certain smoke inhalation must have messed with his head.

He blinked again to get a better view in the morning sun. Ashley was now covered back up in the blanket. Except one creamy shoulder peeked free with a pink satin strap that told him he’d seen exactly what he thought when the soggy covering slipped. Ashley Carson had a secret side.Something he didn’t want anyone else seeing. He angled his body between Ashley and the small gathering behind them.

A burly EMS worker waved him aside. “Back up, please, Congressman. The technician over there will check on you while I see to this lady.” The EMS worker secured an oxygen mask over Ashley’s face, his beefy, scarred hands surprisingly gentle. “Breathe. That’s right, ma’am. Again. Just relax.”

Vaguely Matthew registered someone taking his vitals, hands cleaning his temple and applying a bandage. He willed his breathing to regulate, as if that could help Ashley. She needed to be in the hospital. He should be thinking of that, not last night.

A light touch on his sooty sleeve cut through his focus. Ashley’s foster sister stood beside him—Starr Reis. He remembered her name from other political events hosted at Beachcombers. Long dark hair tumbled over her shoulders, her eyes crinkled with worry.

“Congressman? What happened in there?”

“I wish I knew.” How had the place caught on fire so quickly? He hadn’t been gone that long.

“If only I hadn’t overslept this morning, maybe I would have heard the smoke alarm.” Starr shifted from one bare foot to another, her paint-splattered shirt and baggy sleep pants all but swallowing the petite woman. “I just called David. He’s on his way home from an assignment in Europe.”

“I’m glad you could reach him.” He recalled her Air Force husband worked assignments around the world. A photographic memory for faces and names came in handy on the campaign trail.