As a firefighter, Captain Ken Cavanaugh knows his way around dangerous situations–but he’d rather run into a burning building than help plan his 25th high school reunion in Barefoot Bay. Unfortunately, it’s his best chance of finally putting things right with Beth Endicott two and a half decades after they ended so badly. But the instant they see each other again, the years blow away like ashes in the heat of their combustible chemistry. For one single night, they let their incendiary passion consume them…but in the morning, they’re still left with the smoldering wreckage of a relationship that ended in tragedy.
Raised under the thumb of a rich and controlling man, Beth has spent her adult years craving freedom. Now that she’s finally managed to carve out an independent life, is she ready to risk her heart on the first man she ever loved–a man who blames her family for his father’s death? With so much painful history between them, Beth can’t see a way to have a future with Ken. But one stunning surprise will turn everything they ever believed upside down, and send them straight into each other’s arms.
Ken is willing to put everything on the line for the family he’s always wanted, but Beth knows the past that ruined them could flare into heartache again. It will take all her newfound courage to prove she would walk through fire for this second chance with the love of her life.
Ken Cavanaugh charged into burning buildings on a routine basis. He faced life-threatening emergencies, unforeseen crises, and potential disasters almost every day with titanium nerves and steady hands. He led a crew of fearless, tough, muscle-bound mavericks who turned to him for wisdom, guidance, life-or-death decisions, and changes in their shift schedule. And, icing on his résumé cake, Captain Cav was the fan favorite to lead the fire station tours because women and children loved him.
So why the hell did his feet feel like he was wearing iron boots? Why did his pulse thump as though he was seconds from stroking out? All he had to do was walk across a banquet hall in the middle of a high school reunion and talk to a woman, but he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
Because Bethany Endicott had frozen him out this week no matter how hard he’d tried to thaw her. Of course, he might have had that coming, considering their past.
But twenty-five years had passed since he’d been a grieving, angry eighteen-year-old who wanted to hurt anyone named Endicott…including his girlfriend.
All he really wanted to do was put that dark day—all those dark days, in fact—in the past and clear the air.
He had to talk to her before this week went up in smoke and he could do nothing but watch his chance burn to the ground.
For the past week, during the interminable “planning” of this reunion, they had yet to have a substantive conversation. There was plenty of eye contact, all kinds of accidental brushes, and a low-grade simmer that stretched his nerves—and libido—to the limits. He’d caught her gazing at him on more than one occasion, but any time he’d initiated a conversation, she managed to be suddenly pulled away or busy.
Who could blame her? He could rationalize what happened between them all those years ago for the rest of his life, but the fact was he’d said hurtful things, and now he just wanted to apologize.
Wasn’t that what high school reunions were for?
Time was running out, though, leaving tonight, the night of the all-class Mimosa High reunion at Barefoot Bay’s swanky resort, for Ken to make his move. After this, they’d go back to their regular lives, and another twenty-five years might pass before they saw each other again.
This was his last chance.
“Come on, Cav. Tap that powder keg.”
Ken didn’t even turn to give Lawson Monroe a dirty look when the man sidled up next to him. Law was a few years older, and they hadn’t known each other in high school—though Ken knew of Law’s reputation for trouble—but this week the two men had had no choice but to hang out together at the various reunion-planning sessions. In the process, Ken grew to appreciate Law’s irreverent sense of humor and signature sarcasm.
He’d let Law and Mark Solomon, who’d rounded out the trio of Y chromosomes on the planning committee, think his interest in Beth Endicott was physical—which wasn’t a lie. She still got him fired up with one look. But there was more to his need to get Beth alone. Much more.
“Seriously, Captain Cav, what are you waiting for?” Law needled. “A kick in the ass? A glass of courage? I’m so pleased to provide both.” Law offered a glass of beer. “For you, since I don’t drink.”
Ken took the beer and sipped, letting the man think all Ken wanted to do was hit on a pretty woman. He couldn’t tell Law the truth. He could never tell anyone the truth, but that was something he’d accepted years ago.
Looking around, he considered his next opportunity to get Beth alone. There would be desserts and after-dinner drinks back on the beach following this. Could he talk to her there?
“When is this dance contest thing over?” Ken asked, checking out the last couple participating in the Dance of the Decades on a stage at the far end of the banquet room. This pair was decked out in a poodle skirt and rolled-up jeans, celebrating the decade when they graduated from Mimosa High.
“It’s over when the thousand-year-old couple keels over,” Law said.
Ken smiled, taking in the married seventy-seven-year-olds surrounded by several generations of their family cheering them on. “They met at Mimosa High, class of 1956,” he mused. “Married forever.”
Law grunted like the very thought pained him. “Damn, that’s a long time to ride the same love boat every night.”
“How does a guy get so lucky?” Ken asked, his genuine question getting a cynical look from Law. Across the hall, the crowd broke enough for Ken to get a glimpse of the short, flared white skirt that showed off Beth’s heart-stopping legs and killer red and white high heels. She loved her high heels and short skirts and wore them just as well now as she had in 1991.
She was watching the show, checking her phone, and occasionally glancing at the exit to the deck behind her.
He had to move.
“Are you nuts? Boredom sets in fast,” Law said. “I need variety.”
“Variety gets boring, too,” Ken replied. “I’d rather have something steady.”
“Shoot me now,” Law moaned. “Two-point-five and a minivan in the driveway is my idea of hell on earth. Anyway, I hate to burst your bubble, but I heard your Beth is the poster girl for I Am Woman, Hear Me Roar.”
His Beth. If only. Ken’s gaze drifted across the room, catching her checking her cell phone for the sixtieth time that hour. Who the hell was she waiting to hear from?
“Weren’t you a freaking Navy first responder before you became a firefighter?” Law demanded. “Failure isn’t an option for you life-saving types.”
No, failure wasn’t an option. Not in his line of work, not in his life. But where Beth was involved? Fail all around, even tonight.
“Pretend the place is on fire and you have to evacuate her to the nearest…bedroom.” Law took the beer back. “Don’t make me show you how it’s done, son.”
Ken checked out the couple on the stage, twirling—slowly—for their big ending. Everything in his gut told him Beth would never stay for dessert on the beach. She’d been half checked out all week long, barely showing up for any of the committee crap he’d agreed to do when he saw her name on the list.
Maybe it wasn’t a man who had her glued to the phone. Maybe it was work. Maybe it was…him. Ray Endicott. He knew only that she was in some kind of housing and real estate business, so it was more than likely she worked for her father.
An old, familiar metallic taste filled his mouth when he thought of the coldhearted bastard responsible for shattering Ken’s world. No conversation with Beth would ever change the truth of that, but she wasn’t responsible, and he wanted her to know he didn’t blame her.
“All right,” he said. “I’m going in.”
“Get ’er done, Captain.”
Ken gave a quick nod and made his way across the room. Being six-two made it easy to see over most heads, but the crowd was thick with huggers and dancers and drinkers. To avoid them, and the possibility that someone would stop him to talk, he swerved toward the perimeter of the room. Staying locked on that golden hair spilling over bare shoulders and a sleek red halter top, he was steady and sure now.
Beth’s gaze drifted over the crowd and settled on the spot where Ken had been standing with Law. Blue eyes narrowed, and a slight frown creased her forehead. She angled her head a bit, and her shoulders dropped as if she’d sighed.
As if…she was disappointed that he’d left.
Buoyed by that, he powered forward, slipping between two people with a quick, “’Scuze me.”
“Oh no, you don’t!” A woman’s fingers snagged his elbow and squeezed, jerking him to a stop. “Ken Cavanaugh, if you don’t remember me, my heart’s going to break into a thousand pieces.”
He turned quickly toward a petite woman with frosted-blond curls and glasses, with zero recognition of her face. “I…uh…sorry…I’m—”
“Chrissie Bartlett!” she exclaimed, her voice rising along with her wine glass. “Spanish 1? Freshman year? Señora Norton’s class?”
Oh yeah. He remembered the name. Remembered that she hadn’t given him the time of day in Spanish class back then. “Hi, Chrissie.”
She came a little closer. “You’ve changed, Kenny.”
Kenny. The only person who’d ever gotten away with calling him that was…inching closer to the exit. “It’s been a long time,” he said, trying to move away. “We’ve all changed.”
“Well, you’ve improved with age,” she added.
Another woman joined them, a three- or four-drink gleam in her eyes. “I don’t think we ever talked in high school,” she said. “I’m Marta Burns.”
Marta Burns? No, they’d never talked, because Ken worked construction jobs after school to help support a struggling family while these two were busy with clubs and crap to pad their college applications.
“I hear you’re a firefighter. And the captain, no less.” Chrissie added a squeeze to his bicep, blocking Marta from getting any closer. “Impressive.”
“Yeah.” He glanced back to Beth, catching her making a quick scan of the room as she moved toward the door. Was she looking for him?
“Excuse me, Chrissie, but I—”
“Hey, ladies, why’d you slip away?” Another man approached, much shorter than Ken and with way less hair. He threw a look at Ken, who gladly stepped away to let him flirt with the women. The whole thing took two seconds, long enough for him to lose sight of Beth.
Damn it. He made a few comments, shook a hand, threw out one more excuse, and finally got away, muscling through the rest of the crowd to reach the side exit that led out to a large wooden deck.
But it was empty, with no sign of Beth.
Swallowing a dark curse, he took a few steps toward the railing, and then spotted a pair of red and white high heels tucked by the stairs that led to the sand.
He couldn’t help smiling, because, hell, this was better than Cinderella.
All he had to do was follow the footprints in the sand.