His Burning Secret (Heroes of St. Louis Book 1)

She’s not sure she’s ready. 
He’s not sure he can trust her. 
Can their love last? 

After sparks fly when she photographs hunky fireman Joe Marinon for the Sexy Public Servants Charity Calendar, Taylor Krebs can’t resist this firefighter hero’s charm or his proposition. He’ll help her drum up clients for her fledgling photography business–that is if she helps him with his Burned Survivors Book. But after gettin hand on while teaching Joe camera skills hats things up beyond hot and steamy, Taylor knows she must guard her heart. 

With one crazy and possessive ex not far enough in the rearview mirror again causing trouble, will Taylor’s need for independence and Joe’s secrets tear them apart? Of can his hero end up winning Taylor’s love for all time?

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Excerpt:

Chapter One

Ten, no, twelve rogue pirates surrounded her, the hot, humid air one of the reasons for her flushed skin, the men surrounding her the other. She trembled, for there was one in the midst who stood out over the others, who captured her full attention, held a magical power. He was strong. Dashing. A cad. He’d sidetracked her mission, yet as an illicit thrill stole over her, she wanted him to swoop in, scoop her up, and carry her away, help her escape from all this. His lips would fall on hers, taking her to never imagined heights . . .

Taylor Krebs blinked. Focused. Cleared her head, fading the Walter Mitty fantasy world she created, one she’d gleaned from reading bestselling Lalita Crane’s latest historical romance novel. Last night Taylor had turned the pages until three a.m., a foolish choice in hindsight, as she’d had to be awake, dressed, and at the hotel by seven. 

Now midafternoon, she was tired, hot, and—finally—almost finished with the job she hoped would ignite her career.

She had to get her head out of the clouds, although fantasy was almost always better than reality. Case in point, she was surrounded by twelve of St. Louis’s sexiest bachelors and it was fast becoming her worst nightmare. She would much rather read about being surrounded by gorgeous guys, and hey, in her fantasy, maybe one of them could help her with the applied project due for her master’s degree, the other task constantly taking up brain space. 

She sighed, doubting very much that any of the sexy guys in front of her could help. And she needed the master’s degree, for if she couldn’t make it as a full-time photographer, a degree meant she could get a job teaching at the college level. As her mom kept harping, “You need a fallback plan, dear.”

As it was, Taylor was so far behind on getting her project approved that entering it in the college’s annual juried photo contest, the one with a thousand-dollar cash prize, would take a miracle. 

“No, no. He needs a more seductive smile.” Virginia Barker Edwards, calendar committee chair, clapped her hands until the poor man complied. “Much better,” she called. 

Taylor took the last shots and let the grateful man escape. She stifled a yawn. 

Where was a rogue pirate when you needed one?

She made an adjustment to the camera, readying it for the next frame. At first, being chosen to photograph the Sexy Public Servants of St. Louis calendar sounded delicious. Who knew that St. Louis had such a bumper crop of handsome men? 

There was Mr. December—cop Jack Donovan—in his Santa hat and low-rise jeans; Mr. January—park department’s Blaine Johnson—in hat, tails, and tuxedo pants that fit like a glove; Mr. July—former Navy Seal turned SLFD marine rescue, Brad Silverman—wearing a pair of swim trunks and a smile; Mr. April—assistant District Attorney Liam Rogers—the only male wearing a shirt, although the partially unbuttoned white oxford had the same effect as if he was posing without it. Some of the female onlookers had actually swooned.

But for Taylor, it had been Mr. September—Joe Marino—who’d turned her insides into gooey marshmallow. She hadn’t really paid much attention to the sexy firefighter. Not at first. Mr. Tall, Dark, Dangerous, and Brooding was so not her type. She liked them shorter. Blonder. Safer. More like ADA Liam Rogers, although the ADA hadn’t made her heart race, hadn’t made her do a double take like Joe Marino had. 

Why was it she dated shorter, blonder men when heroes like the long-haired Duncan MacGregor from Crane’s Burning for the Rogue Pirate kept Taylor reading until the wee hours, way past what was sensible? 

She frowned as she swapped out the dead battery, using a backup one she’d forgotten to charge fully and prayed it would hold. She had one more month to photograph—September.

Her initial heated reaction to Joe had happened right before taking the group shots, when she’d peered through the viewfinder and zoomed in on Mr. September’s eyes. Blue melded with light gray and a hint of green, forming a color that defied description. Which being without words kind of pissed her off, especially since she prided herself on description—it was part of being a photographer. 

Worse, as if sensing her perusal, he’d winked. She’d zoomed out, caught, feeling as if Joe somehow knew what she was doing. Impossible. Still, her insides turned to oatmeal-like mush, and an indeterminable moment passed before her erratic heart slowed.

For Mr. September’s portraits, Joe wore only his boots, turnout pants, suspenders, and coat—and a cheeky grin that well-intentioned mothers warned her about. Before Taylor had started Joe’s individual shots, his second blatant wink had sent raw heat scorching straight down to curling toes clad in black and white striped high-top Converse. 

Her tennis shoes were a concession to being on her feet all day, a downside to being a photographer. Camera settings adjusted, she was ready. Joe stood in the middle of the dance floor, in front of the bright green background. After the long day, his earlier cheekiness had vanished. She couldn’t blame him. 

“How much longer?” His impatient tone indicated his tolerance was wearing thin.

“Not too much. Just a few minutes more,” Taylor replied, grateful the other months were complete. Because of Virginia’s endless directions, each shoot had run over allotted time, and the men had ended up waiting around. 

“Only a few more shots, I promise.” She took them. “There. All done.”

“I want his coat adjusted,” the calendar committee chair called out as Joe began to move. He checked himself mid-step, turned back. 

“Well, maybe we’ll need a few more,” Taylor amended wryly as Joe scowled, those full, dark brows knitting together.

However, his surly frown was lost on Virginia Edwards Barker, the calendar chairwoman and the one who had everyone dancing to her tune. This was her pet project, and perfect silver hair remained frozen in place as her head tilted while she studied Joe over hot pink designer reading glasses. Her lips puckered. “He needs to show more chest. Definitely more chest.”

The six or seven inches already exposed had sent Taylor’s imagination into overdrive. The curly hair on Joe’s chest matched the thick layers atop his head, and those glossy untamed raven waves kissed the edges of his turnout coat collar—bad boy, rock star hair that he wore better than her favorite lead guitarist. 

“Taylor! Stat! Time is money. Let’s not delay the poor man further,” Virginia called. 

The loud series of claps she added jolted Taylor to attention, and her face flamed. Betty White’s younger doppelganger had awarded Taylor the assignment, so Taylor did Virginia’s bidding. No wasn’t an option.

Her fledging photography business desperately needed this break and the subsequent exposure the calendar would bring. Her bank account, drained from undergraduate and graduate school loans, needed the cash jolt. 

So she trotted dutifully out onto the brown parquet, the white soles of her Converse making nary a squeak. Joe waited in the last pose: right knee bent, boot planted on a wooden crate, hands on hips. She reached for the worn mustard-colored edges of his turnout gear and pushed the sections of the heavy fire retardant material toward his sides. Her fingertips grazed rock hard abs covered with those tempting silky strands and her breath hitched, causing her to emit a tiny hiccup. 

Twinkling blue—no, gray—no, blue eyes drilled into her. “Want some help?” Full, kissable lips inched upward, amusement clearly evident.

He was enjoying this! 

Sensing her hesitation, he covered her trembling hands with his and, with his touch branding her unsteady, shaking fingers, he eased the coat off his shoulders so that more of his perfectly sculpted torso showed. He moved her right hand to his bare chest, and Taylor’s mouth dried as her fingers resisted the urge to palm with abandon. She bit back the next threatening hiccup—her often-uncontrollable nervous reaction—and tugged her hands free from his firm grip. 

Laughter lined those wicked eyes. “Like that? That work for you?”

Oh Lordy. He definitely worked for her, and having turned into a silly, childish puddle, she could only nod because her normally loud voice had vanished. Being she stood five foot five, he towered over her by at least a foot, maybe more. He was tall, lean, ripped. With a body carved from real life, he shamed all the sex-on-a-stick men gracing the covers of the Lalita Crane historicals she devoured. 

Forget hot, he was smoking—a man’s man—the irresistible kind that gave women extremely erotic dreams.

“That should work,” Taylor finally managed, praying no one watching had heard her exhaled whoosh of edgy breath. She and Joe stood toe-to-toe—every one of Taylor’s nerve endings on high alert. She wasn’t a naïve teenager, but she’d never been so physically aware of a man—especially one like Joe. Her brain screamed run, but her feet clung to the ground. Her hands desired to fully feel his chest, test the texture for herself, curl her fingers into the silk.

“What about his hair?” Virginia called. “Don’t you think we should fix that? He has some hat head.” 

Joe reached up, dragged his hand through his hair.

“No, that’s not what I want,” Virginia returned, her lips puckered in clear disapproval. She held her hands up and wiggled her fingers in the air. “Muss it up. Make it sexier. Do you know what I mean?”

Unfortunately, Taylor did. She inhaled patience and composure and called back, “Yes, I’ve got it.” 

A sexy black eyebrow arched, curiosity evident. Joe’s lips moved, capturing her dormant libido’s complete attention. “You do?”

Taylor blew out a deep breath, which was followed by a hiccup. She winced. “Stand still.” 

She rose on tiptoes, her plain red T-shirt inching up to reveal a sliver of pale stomach. Threading both hands into Joe’s hair, she pushed the wayward locks off his forehead. “Sorry about this.”

The thick strands caressed her fingers—no grease or residual gooey product here. Just shampoo and natural waves.Her skin heated like an inferno. His breath hitched as she pushed his hair up and over, patting any loose pieces to make them stay. “There.”

“Am I good?” 

Uhhh, he was more than good. 

His eyes had darkened to blue steel, held a hint of something. . . . “Didn’t know we knew each other so well. Not that I minded. Was it good for you? If not, I could make it good.”

“I said I was sorry.” Taylor gave another embarrassing hiccup. 

His deep, suggestive voice caressed over her in a smooth wave. His lips twitched. “Don’t be sorry. I’m not. Who knew modeling could be so . . . hands on.”

“Uh . . .” Her tongue tied into knots. In her favorite novel, the hero would have kissed her now. He’d lower his mouth to hers and . . .

“That’s better.” Virginia’s voice broke the intimacy, reminding Taylor that she stood in a rented ballroom, in clear view of the others, making unprofessional googly eyes with her subject. 

“I’m much happier,” Virginia called out. “Very sexy Joe. Just what we’re looking for. Now get the shots, Taylor. Didn’t he say he had to leave? Why are we still keeping the man waiting?”

“Yes, let’s get this done,” Joe replied. Aware of their audience, his grin widened and he lowered full lips to whisper in Taylor’s ear. “But you just let me know if you need anything. I’m happy to oblige. Maybe we should explore what else those expert fingers of yours can do. I’m a very hands-on kind of guy. Comes with the job description.”

The seductive way his words rolled off his tongue made no secret that he meant the double entendre. “Yep, more than happy to help you.”