Burned by Love
Firefighters of Long Valley Romance Novel – Book 4
Nephew of the former fire chief of Sawyer, Troy was happy when no one looked his way to take over after his uncle retired. Troy appreciates his solitude, and just being a part of the background makes it easy to guard his secrets.
But secrets have a way of forcing themselves to the surface, no matter how hard one tries to hide them…
Burned by Love is the fourth novel in the Firefighters of Long Valley series, although all books in the Long Valley world can be read as standalones. It has some strong language, and oh my, sexy times. Enjoy!
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Troy Horvath had always been the quiet one of the bunch, and to be honest, he liked that about himself.
The way he saw it, it allowed him to sit back and take in the world, without being required to yack the ear off whoever was closest to him at the moment.
The way his aunt and uncle saw it, on the other hand, was that it allowed him to let the world pass him on by without even sparing him a second glance.
Actually, take that back – it made his aunt think it allowed the world to pass him on by without a second glance. His uncle had never said a word about the fact that Troy wasn’t on the chatty side, at least not within earshot of Troy.
But then again, Aunt Horvath was (not surprisingly) a woman, and as far as Troy could tell, all women ever wanted to do was talk about their feelings, dreams, and desires, preferably all at the same time, and if a man didn’t feel the same way, well then, there was something wrong with him.
Sparky was the only female Troy knew that didn’t fall into the Must Always Be Talking trap. She was content to just be, and didn’t need him willing to discuss politics, religion, or the price of bananas down at the Shop ‘N Go. Being the perfect female, all she wanted was for someone to pet her (preferably 24/7/365 if it could be arranged) and feed her doggy treats. He’d just adopted her a few days before but they’d already formed a bond between them that was unbreakable. She trusted him with all her heart and soul, and after all she’d been through, that meant a hell of a lot.
As if she could read his thoughts, Sparky stood up and stretched, her back arching as her mouth opened wide, showing off all her pearly white canine teeth, and then she snuggled up against his legs, looking up at him with her soulful brown eyes. She was unabashedly begging for some pettings, and of course, Troy was happy to oblige. It wasn’t hard to love on a dog that’d been through so much, but had somehow come out the other side sweet as pie. Her eyes closed in pleasure as her silky white tail began stirring up clouds of dust from the dirty cement floor.
He coughed a little from the dirt flinging through the air, but otherwise ignored it. He was used to working in dusty environments – his uncle’s mill had dust floating through the air so thick, he could practically swim through it – so the dirty fire station floor didn’t even rate a second glance.
No, what Troy was focused on was the Dance of Desire happening right in front of his eyes.
He was at the monthly training session for the Sawyer Fire Department, and all of the volunteers (and the paid fire chief, Jaxson Anderson) were gathered at the station to learn better firefighting techniques or safety procedures or whatever else their brave leader wanted to teach them this time. Back when Troy’s uncle was the fire chief, they didn’t do nearly as much training as they did now, and it was certainly something that Troy could begrudgingly compliment Jaxson for improving since he took over back in January.
This training meeting was nothing like any other training meeting, though, because this time, a female was here.
In her typical, Georgia-Rowland-is-always-in-charge style, Georgia had voluntold the whole department that they were to be interviewed by a local reporter about the wildfire that had blazed through Long Valley over the last couple of days; a wildfire where Moose Garrett had saved her ass by breaking every rule in the book, and no doubt some that weren’t written down, just for funsies.
Based on how Georgia and Moose were looking at each other right now, it seemed pretty damn clear to Troy that they’d done more than survive a wildfire together. Troy’s hand stroked down over Sparky’s silky fur as he watched the two pretend to be “just friends,” even as the sparks that flew between them were so blindingly bright, he probably oughta go grab his sunglasses from his truck. Did Georgia and Moose think they were being sneaky, that no one was noticing that they were sending glances to each other that were bound to set the dry grass outside ablaze and start up a second wildfire? He knew that people in lust were oblivious, but surely not that oblivious, right?
Idly, he glanced away from the couple mooning over each other and checked his phone. This reporter guy was supposed to have arrived five minutes ago. How long were they gonna sit around and wait for him to show up before they moved on with their evening? It wasn’t that Troy had anything he needed to go home and do – although it wouldn’t hurt to do a load of laundry, and his kitchen could use a good scrubbing, none of that was pressing – but if given a choice between hanging out at the fire station and watching two lovebirds simper over each other, or being at home in just his boxers, watching a game with a beer in his hand…
Well, that choice was pretty obvious.
He tugged at the collar of his button-up shirt, wishing he hadn’t bothered to change before coming to the meeting that night. Normally, getting dressed up in a collared shirt so he could go hang out with a bunch of guys in a greasy, dirty building for a couple of hours was not something he’d sign up for. But because of this reporter coming tonight – wherever the hell he was – Jaxson had put out the word for everyone to come dressed and cleaned up and ready for a photo shoot, just in case that was what the reporter wanted to do. Troy scrubbed at his clean-shaven jaw with a regretful sigh. He’d had a nice seven-day start on a beard going; now he’d have to start all over again.
Why Jaxson cared so much about what some dumbass reporter thought of them was beyond him. Uncle Horvath never would’ve stooped so low as to court the approval of the press. Chief Horvath focused on what needed to be done, and to hell with the rest of them. Jaxson seemed like a nice enough kid, but he sure had a lot to—
The air changed just then. The chatter of the men died away; even Georgia’s giggle over whatever amazingly brilliant comment Moose had just made disappeared. Troy’s head shot up as the crackle of electricity around him made the hairs on his neck stand straight up. Not a sound was heard in the cavernous fire station, other than the click of heels on pavement as the most gorgeous woman Troy had ever seen in his life came striding into the joint.
There were athletic, pretty women like Georgia Rowland. There were beauty queens like her cousin, Tennessee Rowland. There were cute, next-door-neighbor girls like Sugar Stonemyer down at the bakery, who Jaxson had started dating.
And then, there was this woman.
He rather felt like he’d been clobbered upside the head by a 2x4. Maybe a padded one, but there was definitely a 2x4 involved. As his gaze followed every slim curve of the woman’s body – her long legs, her strappy high heels, her tight skirt, her styled blonde hair, her ruby red lips curved into a self-confident smile – he tried to make his brain work. There was something…
Something wrong here.
Oh yeah, why is this woman here?
Supermodels didn’t tend to walk into a rural fire station on a Friday night just to hang out with a bunch of blue-collar guys and shoot the shit.
That just didn’t happen.
The roar of surprise and lust in his ears finally died down enough for him to hear what she was saying. “Hi, I’m Penny Roth,” she said as she shook hands with Levi Scranton, one of the guys on the force. “How long have you been a firefighter?”
He missed Levi’s answer, too stunned to hear anything but the roar in his ears again. There was only one reason for this woman to be shaking hands with all the men and asking questions about being a firefighter.
But that meant…
His brain staggered to a stop. Seriously? This was the reporter? This paragon of beauty and legs and sparkling high heels was a reporter for the two weekly rags in the area?
Sparky whined and nudged Troy’s hand, apparently not happy with the speed of his pettings. He looked down at her blankly for a moment, trying to remember what he was doing. Who he was. Where he was. Sparky whined again, and absentmindedly, he scratched her behind the ears, her tail resuming the rapid thumping of joy and pleasure at his touch.
His mind swam as he tried to put the pieces together – the reporter for the Sawyer Times and Franklin Gazette was a drop-dead gorgeous woman. No spare tire around the middle; no balding spot on the back of her head; actually, no male qualities whatsoever. She appeared to be as feminine as they came.
It wasn’t that Troy didn’t think that a woman could be a reporter; it’d just never crossed his mind that she would be. The stereotypical reporter that Troy had imagined…
Well, that image was nothing like the woman in front of him, that was for damn sure.
She’d reached Moose and was now shaking his hand, chatting easily with him as Georgia looked on and glowered possessively. Even as Troy was busy trying to accept the truth of what he was seeing in front of him, he also found his mouth quirking up a bit with humor at the territorial look on Georgia’s face. What, exactly, had happened up at Eagle’s Nest when Moose and Georgia had tried to stay safe from the wildfire raging around them? It sure looked like they’d practiced some mouth-to-mouth resuscitation on each other.
And then, Penny Roth was walking towards him, and his mind went blank.
How she’d noticed him over in the corner, sitting on the tailgate of the water truck, accustomed – and expecting – the world to walk right on by, he’d never know. He wasn’t used to being noticed. In fact, he counted on it, so her laser-focused gaze on him as she walked over…he just didn’t know what to think.
Or perhaps it was the aforementioned 2x4, padded or not. He’d been walloped but good, and he wasn’t quite sure he was breathing.
“Hi, I’m Penny Roth,” she said again, reaching her hand out to shake his. He was frozen on the tailgate of the water truck, Sparky leaning against his legs and trapping him there even though he should be rising to greet her but moving didn’t seem possible just then, except for his hand – thank God he could move it – so he raised it up and shook hers, and when their palms touched…
It was like grasping a bolt of lightning. Her gaze flared, as bright and brilliant as her smile, as they locked eyes. “Troy Horvath,” he got out, wanting to hang onto her hand for the next six months or so. Just until he got used to the feeling shooting up his arm. Then he could let go.
But not a moment before.
Somehow, though, she seemed to be immune to this overwhelming desire to keep their palms pressed together to feel the electricity arcing between them, and instead pulled her hand out of his, dropping to her knees in front of Sparky to love on her. “Aren’t you a sweetie,” she cooed to Sparky, letting his dog give her face a bath while Sparky’s tail swept up a storm on the dusty cement floor.
Troy was in shock. Moose was in shock. Levi was in shock. Every person in the room just froze, watching this unfold in front of them.
Sparky didn’t like anyone except Troy. Not even Moose and Georgia, who’d saved her from the wildfire just two days ago, were freely allowed to pet her. As best as they could figure, she’d been beat by some sadistic son-of-a-bitch and now chose who was allowed within ten feet of her very, very carefully.
She didn’t give out face baths easily. Hell, Troy’d just gotten his first one from her this morning. And here she was, loving on Penny like they were the best of friends.
His heart twisted a little at the sight.
Of course, it was good to see Sparky love someone else other than Troy. He was happy that it was happening. He was just in shock, was all. Nothing more than that.
“So, you’re the one who saved Georgia from the fire?” the reporter asked, looking up at Troy, her eyes intense as she studied him from her kneeling position on the dirty fire station floor. She didn’t seem to notice that Sparky was shedding white and black hairs all over her skirt and blouse, just like she shed all over everything else she came in close contact with. Troy had given up on being dog-hair free about an hour or so after he’d adopted her; it just wasn’t gonna happen. Was Penny gonna be pissed when she saw where Sparky’s fur was ending up?
He opened up his mouth to warn her, but decided to answer her question instead. This’d be a good test to see how much she really liked dogs; if she freaked out about having some stray hairs left behind, well, that’d tell him all he needed to know. Unlike Jaxson, Troy didn’t believe he had to bend over backwards to impress the press.
He balled up his fist where her hand had slid into his, pushing the buzzing electric feeling away.
“No, not me.” Troy finally managed a reply to her question – embarrassingly slowly but he got there – and jerked his head towards Moose, who’d followed Penny over to the water truck, Georgia trailing along behind him. “He did.”
“I thought the dog was found up in the fire,” Penny said, her brow knotted with confusion. “How did she end up with you, then?”
“She likes me,” Troy said simply, shrugging his shoulders. Just like she likes you were the unspoken words left hanging in the air. Sparky loving on someone else…Troy was pretty sure in that moment, he could’ve been knocked flat on his ass with a feather.
Sparky did another swipe across Penny’s face with her long pink tongue and Penny laughed. “How long have you been a firefighter?” she asked, continuing to pet Sparky as she looked up at him, ignoring the whole supposed reason for her being there – i.e., Moose and Georgia and the wildfire that’d burned hundreds of acres before nature had intervened and had kept the valley from going up in flames. Troy’d gone out on that call, of course, but by time they’d begun their work, nature had already taken pity on them and had reversed course.
You win some, you lose some, and sometimes, you’re just damn lucky. Georgia had been the one to name Sparky; perhaps she should’ve named her Lucky instead.
Troy forced himself to focus on Penny’s question. If he kept answering her ten minutes after she asked him something, she was gonna start to think he was slow in the head.
“All my life, it feels like,” he admitted. “My uncle used to be the head firefighter,” he was choosing his words carefully, as carefully as he ever had, landmines waiting for him at every turn as he did his best to hopscotch across them. “So I began young. But he retired, and Jaxson—” he felt his tongue wanting to seize up but he got the name out without making an ass of himself, “—took over in January.”
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Moose and Georgia move away, and he wasn’t sure if he wanted to thank them for it, or yell at them to come back. He wasn’t supposed to be the one talking to the reporter; they were. They were the ones who saved the dog. They were the ones who lived through a wildfire all by themselves up in the wilds of Idaho. Troy’d had as much to do with all of that as he’d had helping Santa Claus deliver presents this last Christmas. But telling Penny to go talk to someone else, to go pin someone else down with her sparkling eyes, intent on drawing answers out of them…
“Your uncle was the fire chief, but after he retired, they didn’t choose you to be the next one?” she asked, the surprise clear in her voice.
He laughed a little at that. “It isn’t a hereditary position,” he said carefully, choosing each word before speaking it. He shrugged. “Plus, I didn’t apply. I didn’t want the job.”
He heard Moose and Jaxson say something to the guys, and then everyone laughed. He hadn’t heard what they’d said, but he was sure – absolutely sure – that they’d been discussing the two of them. He felt the tips of his ears go red. He wanted to shoot them a glare and tell them to back off, but pretending deafness seemed like a much safer plan.
Less talking was involved, anyway, which always made it a safer plan.
“What job do you have that is better than fire chief?” Penny asked, finally standing and swiping at the hair and dirt all over her clothes. She didn’t seem pissed that she was filthy; she was just straightening herself out. Her curled blonde hair swung as she worked to clean up, and his mind paused on the idea of touching it. Would a curl wrap around his finger?
He forced himself to concentrate on her question.
Huh. What was her question again?
Job. She wants to know where you work, you dumbass.
“The Horvath Mill. The new one outside of town,” he clarified. Sadly, the old one had burned to a crisp this past January after the mayor’s son had thrown a cigarette butt into a pile of old rags and set the place on fire. Damn teenagers. That building was part of his family’s heritage, and his heart still hurt at the idea of it burning like it did, leaving a shell of blackened bricks behind.
“Horvath, eh?” She slid onto the tailgate next to him, seemingly oblivious to the dirt and grime encrusted there. She was settling into place before Troy could stop her, so again, he snapped his mouth shut. The damage was done now, and hell, her elbow was brushing up against his. He could no more warn her to move than he could chop off that elbow. “Is the mill owned by your uncle, the former fire chief? Or by someone else in your family?”
Damn, she was quick on the draw. Family relations and who owned what and who was related to who was a constant struggle to keep straight in a small town, but Miss Penny Roth was apparently up to the task.
“Uncle,” he said simply. It was the Horvath family mill, and as soon as Aunt Horvath could convince her husband to retire fully, it would be Troy’s. None of their three kids wanted it, and since Troy’d been working there for most of his adult life, it just made sense for him to take it over.
And most importantly, it was what he was supposed to do. He always did what he was supposed to do.
“Do your parents live in town, too?” she asked as Sparky laid her head on Penny’s lap and began begging for some attention. Troy sent his not-so-loyal dog a dark look of his own. It was good to see her feel comfortable enough that she would allow other people to touch her, of course, but did she have to go that far? Penny began absentmindedly stroking Sparky’s head, scratching right behind her ears just like the spotted setter loved, and sure enough, Sparky’s tail started flying again, dirt and hair going every which way.
“No, they live in Boise. I’ve lived here with my aunt and uncle since freshman year, though.” He tried to quickly come up with a question to ask her so he could just listen to her talk and he could be free to retreat into blessed, comfortable silence, but she beat him to the punch.
“Have you fought a lot of fires, then, since your uncle was the fire chief? Is it an old hat to you by now?” Her eyes were pinned on him, a mysterious dark blue color that matched her shirt. He’d never seen quite that shade before, and wondered for a moment if she was wearing colored lenses.
He laughed uncomfortably. “Firefighting is never an old hat to anyone. Complacency is a good way to get yourself killed. But I have fought a lot of fires – both house and wildfires.” He was surprised by how many words were rolling off his tongue effortlessly, as if speaking easily to a beautiful woman – or anyone at all – was something that he did all the time. Did she know how strange this was for him?
Looking at her – beautiful, smart, outgoing – he was pretty sure she had absolutely no concept of what it was like to be trapped inside a body that didn’t always cooperate.
“You guys are all volunteers, right?” she asked, bringing him back to the present. He nodded, and she continued, “I’ve always wondered if it was hard to find people to volunteer to risk their lives. Why are you willing to do this if you’re not even going to get paid?”
“Volunteer doesn’t mean unpaid,” he hurried to tell her. “We get paid every time we respond to a fire. We just don’t get paid otherwise. It is hard to find volunteers, though. People are busy with their own lives.” He shrugged. It was understandable, really. He’d been raised to focus on the fire department and making sure that every fire was responded to no matter what, but he wasn’t like everyone else, and that was okay. They didn’t need a hundred guys to respond to every call-out; just enough guys to make sure the people of Long Valley were safe.
Anything beyond that was a bonus.
“Is fire chief also a volunteer position?” she asked.
He flinched. Without meaning to, she’d hit right on that sore spot with a hammer.
Looking at her, really trying to gauge who she was, Troy hesitated. Penny was part of the press. The press could say whatever they wanted; could twist his words and make him out to be a jealous jackass or a real gentleman. It was all in how she wrote it.
Could he trust her enough to talk about how virtually the entire town had been up in arms over Jaxson being made a full-time employee from day one, when Uncle Horvath had been a simple volunteer like everyone else? Last month, after Jaxson had saved Gage and Sugar from the Muffin Man bakery fire, the town had settled down a whole lot, seemingly forgiving Jaxson for being an upstart kid from the big city, there to raise their taxes and tell them how it was done in a real town, but for Troy, it still smarted a little.
Finally, he settled on telling Penny the truth, but nothing more. Personal feelings didn’t matter anyway and certainly weren’t newsworthy.
“He’s a full-time employee,” he said simply.
Penny raised one eyebrow in response to that, silently asking him to tell her the rest of the story, but Troy sidestepped the unspoken request. “Are you from Franklin?” he asked instead. He was damn sure she wasn’t from Sawyer – if he’d ever laid eyes on her before, he would’ve remembered it.
Forgetting Penny Roth just wasn’t something that happened.
“Born and raised,” she said with a disgruntled sigh. Sparky let out a blissful sigh of her own as she snuggled deeper into Penny’s lap, looking like a poster child for relaxation. With her eyes closed, the dog missed the second dark look Troy sent her way. Did she have to appear so at home so quickly? “I graduated in 2006,” Penny continued, oblivious to the looks Troy was sending his traitorous dog. “You?”
“2000. Been here ever since. You?”
“Left town on graduation night.” She shot him a laughing look. “Yup, I was one of those kids – attended graduation with my car packed to the brim with my stuff. I couldn’t get out of here fast enough. Got my bachelor’s in graphic design from a university down in San Diego. I—” She caught the surprised look on his face, and grimaced. “Being a reporter is just a temporary gig.” She waved her hand dismissively. “I’m going to be leaving Long Valley soon, thank God, and heading back to civilization. No more living in a town where the most exciting thing that happens all year is the quilt auction, or when Mr. Cowell’s cows get out and block the road into town.”
Troy forced a polite smile onto his face, even as his heart sank. Of course Penny the Reporter wasn’t planning on staying in the area. What part of the elegant, gorgeous woman sitting next to him looked like it belonged in rural, mountainous Idaho? Not those sparkling high heels. Not the frilly blouse. And certainly not her bright red lipstick. There wasn’t a damn inch of her that fit in here, which would probably explain his overwhelming gut reaction to her. Of course he’d react that way. She was like no one else in the whole of Long Valley.
But now he knew she was leaving, and that meant she was untouchable. He’d be better off letting her walk away, no matter what the burning sensation in his palm where they’d touched was urging him to do.
He pushed off the end of the water truck. “Ready to go interview?” he asked, jerking his head towards the group of firefighters who appeared to be training on safety equipment. Georgia was still there, sitting off to the side at a decrepit desk covered with yellowed forms, patiently waiting around for Penny to ask her questions.
Penny pushed herself off the tailgate of the water truck also, a tight smile on her face, both of them ignoring the very humanlike groan from a disappointed Sparky. “Absolutely! I better get my job done, right?”
As they walked towards the knot of firefighters, Troy told himself that she wasn’t the only one there who had a job to do. His whole purpose in life was to take over the Horvath Mill, nothing more, nothing less.
Dating the local reporter who was on her way out the door just wasn’t in the cards, no matter how many 2x4’s were involved.