Playing With Fire
One hot summer, Cassie Fitzgerald gave her virginity and her heart to Griffin Hunter. When he married her sister, Diane, she fled Stoneham, and, for six years, nothing could make her return. Not her sister’s murder, for which Griffin was and continues to be the only suspect. Not her father’s suicide, which the police chief wants to sweep under the rug.
But when her mother dies, Cassie has no choice. As the sole surviving family member, she must return to Stoneham, Texas. She plans to meet her responsibilities and get the hell out. But Stoneham doesn’t let go so easily.
And then there is Griff, the man whose hold on her heart has never slackened or eased. She wants to hold her hatred for him close to her, but he wants to hold her body close to his. And the fire between them flares to life.
Together, they unravel the mysteries surrounding her sister’s murder. With each layer they peel back, more secrets are revealed. Can she uncover the secret Stoneham’s hiding, the riddle of Diane’s murder, and the answer to her relationship with Griff without destroying herself in the process?
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The call came at seven thirty in the morning, as Cassie Fitzgerald was getting ready for work. She was hardly prepared for either the sound of Harley Graham’s voice or the information he was delivering. She hadn’t spoken to him in years, and his announcement hit her like a blast of cold air.
“I’m sorry to be the bearer of sad news, Cassie, honey, but your mother passed away just after dawn this morning.”
She clenched the receiver to stop the shaking in her hand, processing his words. Her heart felt as if a fist was squeezing it, and tears for a woman she’d wiped out of her life were like grains of sand behind her eyelids. Memories she’d kept barricaded in the closet of her mind sprang loose to assault her.
“Cassie? You still there?” Harley prodded, as the silence extended.
She swallowed hard against the sudden tightness in her throat.” “Yes, I’m here.”
How did he expect her to react? She and her mother had never been close, and the six years since she’d left home had stretched their relationship to a thread past the breaking point. Months had passed since they had spoken. Not even Diane’s death had brought her back. Especially Diane’s death, No, Diane’s murder.
Say it, Cassie. Your sister was murdered.
“I didn’t know she was ill,” she managed, wetting her lips with her tongue. She could picture Harley on the other end of the call, holding the receiver with infinite patience. As a young doctor, he had delivered both her and Diane, helped them through their father’s suicide, and now it seemed had tended the last of the Fitzgeralds who lived in Stoneham.
“She hadn’t been doing too well the last few months,” he said. “I wouldn’t exactly say she was sick, but it was obvious she’d been failing. I’ve been treating her for some heart problems, but, last night, I guess she just gave up the ghost.”
His words were edged with reproach, and his silent criticism hummed across the long-distance connection. Well, too bad. He wasn’t the one who’d had to flee to save himself. For six years, she’d been able to shut Stoneham right out of her mind—the only way she could save herself from emotional destruction. Now, damn it, everything was back and pouring hot saltwater into open wounds.
“I’ll have to make arrangements to take some leave from the office,” she told him. “But I can’t take more than a couple days. Let me give you my cell number.”
She would let them know right away she wouldn’t be gone for long. She had no desire to linger in Stoneham. The town held so many agonizing memories for her, had left so many emotional scars, that even a brief visit would strain all her emotional resources.
“I understand,” Harley assured her. “I sent the body to the funeral home, and Neil McCloud is handling all the paperwork for the estate. Your mother had him helping her with everything the last few months.”
“Handling? Estate?” Cassie puzzled. “What on earth could there be for Neil to take care of? My mother had nothing but the house and a small income.”
“I guess she just wanted to make sure everything was tied up nice and neat. She knew her health was bad. I’m guessing she didn’t want you to have any trouble with anything after she was gone.” He cleared his throat. “He left the funeral arrangements until you got there. Thought you’d like to take care of that yourself. That okay, Cassie?”
“All right.” There it was again, that slight accusatory tone. She pressed her fist to her forehead, trying to think. God, going back to Stoneham was like walking into the fires of Hell for her. But there was no way she could explain that to anyone without dragging all of her secrets out of the closet where she kept them hidden. “I’ll fly in to San Antonio and rent a car at the airport. Otherwise, it would take me two days to drive to Stoneham from here. I still have a key to the house, Harley, so I’ll go straight there.”
“You call me when you get in, honey. Okay?” He gave her his office and pager numbers, extended his condolences again, and she was left to her thoughts.
She hung up, her head pounding as she tried to assess her situation. If there was one place she did not want to be, it was Stoneham, Texas, a small town with big memories, none of them pleasant. Well, almost none of them. When she fled the town and her family, she left with the intention of never returning. She hadn’t even gone back for her sister Diane’s funeral. Or her father’s. She couldn’t. There was too much pain. Now, she had no choice. There was no one left now except her.
So, here she was, thrust into it again. She would have to arrange for the funeral and burial, have Neil take care of probating whatever estate there was. Sell the house, that was a definite. Putting it in the hands of a realtor would be the smartest thing to do. Maybe Neil could help with that, too. She didn’t want to hang around and deal with it. In fact, her preference would be to take care of everything she could from a distance.
She couldn’t stay, and that was that. Along with all the other memories she’d have to contend with, staying meant coming face to face with Griffin Hunter.
Just thinking his name made the heavy weight of memories slam into her. Yet, beneath the anger and pain that were still fresh after all this time, she felt the familiar stirring in her loins, the heat igniting low in her belly, and her nipples tightening. The mere thought of his name brought it all back.
No! She banged her hand on the counter. Griffin was out of her life, and he’d stay that way. No erotic memories were going to change that. She would do everything possible to avoid him, slipping in and out of town before he even knew she was there.
Cassie swallowed two aspirins, trying to take the edge off the headache, and called her editor. She already knew it wasn’t a good time for her to take leave.
After a year of struggle, The Sports Weekly had at last turned a corner. Florida was filled with sports teams. The Tampa Bay area, squarely in the middle of the state and with its own major league and college teams, was an ideal place for a sports publication. It had been a real coup to be hired on as the sole female reporter, a job she worked twice as hard as anyone else to keep.
They were approaching their next crunch in the schedule. Since they were two months into baseball season, with football looming, everyone would be working nonstop. Well, too bad but it couldn’t be helped. Death didn’t leave you many options.
Mike Rivard, her editor, listened without saying a word while she told him what happened.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know this is a busy time. I feel like I’m finking out.”
“Cassie, it’s always a busy time around here.” He sounded as if he was speaking from the bottom of a barrel. “Sometimes other things have to take precedence. This is one of them. Go and do whatever you have to. Your job will still be here. Just call me when you get there and give me a read, okay?”
“Thank you, Mike. I will. And you can always reach me on my cell if you need me.”
“No sweat, kiddo.”
She hung up, enormous relief sweeping over her. She and Mike had an excellent working relationship, but she knew how tough he was on people. He’d surprised her with his understanding.
It took most of the hour she’d predicted to take care of packing and give all her plants a good soaking. Last, she called her closest friend, Claire, who promised to keep an eye on her place, take in the mail, and field any questions.
“Do you want me to come with you, Cassie?” she asked. “Dealing with this stuff can be very stressful.”
She and Claire had been roommates in college. The friendship had gotten even stronger as they fought to establish themselves after graduation. Claire was now a paralegal for an attorney who did a great deal of estate work. When Cassie’s life had come unraveled so long ago, it was Claire who saved her, who talked her into moving to Tampa after graduation and looking for a job.
“No, thanks just the same. I plan to be there and gone before anyone realizes I was even in town.”
“Well, at least let me drive you to the airport,” Claire insisted. “Parking costs an arm and a leg there. Just because you say you’ll only be gone for a few days, doesn’t mean something won’t come up where you’ll need to be gone longer.”
“Okay, I’ll take you up on that. Let me go do my stuff.”
Grateful for the offer, she was packed and ready by the time Claire arrived.
“One suitcase?” Her friend raised an eyebrow.
“I meant what I said, Claire. I don’t plan on making this a long visit.”
By lunchtime, she was on a nonstop flight to San Antonio, Texas. Closing her eyes, she fought back the nausea at the thought of what faced her. Stoneham. The scene of so much pleasure, yet so much pain. And Griffin Hunter, who, despite her most determined efforts, had lived in her dreams every night for the past six years.
Six years before…
Summer in Central Texas. Hot, sultry nights beckoning with unspoken promise. The air redolent with the mingled scents of phlox and hyacinth and forsythia.
Cassie strolled along the sidewalk. Why did she decide to walk to the movies in this unbearable heat? Already, her skin was sticky with the humidity and her clothes hung limp against her body. It occurred to her that leaving an air-conditioned house might not have been the wisest thing to do.
But the house had closed around her, suffocating her. Diane, her older sister, was out living up to her wild reputation. Their parents, with Diane out of the house, were too engrossed in watching television to remember they had another daughter. No wonder she sometimes she felt as if she didn’t exist in their eyes.
They were such a study in contrast, she and Diane. Two years apart, they might have been two worlds apart. Her sister blasted through life like a comet, her wild gypsy looks beckoning to every man who laid eyes on her.
Cassie was so rigidly proper, so bright and self-sufficient, her parents had long ago decided she required no supervision on their part. Cassie won the awards and gold stars while Diane accumulated detention slips for her deliberate violations of rules. Cassie went to college. Diane stayed home to work and live life in the raw.
Diane was a flame, drawing unwary moths and burning those that got too close. To her parents, she was a bright star, vivacious, full of life, lighting up their universe. They were fascinated they could have produced such a child, captivated by the colorful aura surrounding her.
So, while Cassie labored in bland anonymity, Diane did as she pleased and made her parents love her for it. Cassie had long ago stopped raging about the unfairness of the situation. She was focused on two things: graduating and getting as far away from Stoneham, her parents, and Diane as she could.
Even if she hadn’t wanted company tonight and wasn’t in the mood for socializing, she still had the fidgets. Sitting shut up in her room didn’t appeal to her. A movie by herself seemed a good solution. Anything to get out of the house that felt more like a prison with every passing day.
The lone theater in Stoneham was just twenty minutes away; walking had seemed like a good idea when she started out. Now, as the moisture-laden air lay heavy on her skin and sucked at her breath, she wondered if she should just go back home and hole up in her room.
“Taking the night air, Cassie?”
The voice came out of nowhere, low, seductive, flowing over her like warm honey.
Cassie jerked her head around. Lost in her own thoughts, she hadn’t realized she was in front of Griffin Hunter’s house. “Griffin? Is that you?”
“It’s me, sugar. Come on up and have a beer.”
Griffin Hunter. Stoneham’s resident bad boy. Ten years ago, his mother had died and forever altered life in the Hunter household.
“I don’t know what you see in that boy,” Mrs. Fitzgerald whined, every time Diane flew out the door with him and the rest of the “wild bunch.”
“Griff Hunter’s got it all, Mother,” Diane would say with a laugh. “And he sure knows what to do with it.”
“When that boy’s mother died, his father fell into a bottle and never came out,” she said in a waspish tone.
“If it hadn’t been for Griffin, their landscaping business would have gone straight to hell,” Diane shot back. “That says something about him.”
No one argued he wasn’t an excellent landscape gardener, a hard and dependable worker. But when he wasn’t working, he was the acknowledged leader of the wildest crowd in the county, the ones who drank to excess and held wild parties. They were considered trouble. The police always had them on their radar.
If there was trouble to be had, Griffin was square in the middle of it. Although very bright, he barely managed to graduate high school with his class. He didn’t consider studying a high priority, finding himself in one scrape after another, always angry, always ready to brawl. His mother’s death and his father’s collapse into alcoholism seemed to give him more license to thumb his nose at society.
Nowadays, only the business made him focus. He balanced his time between landscaping, hauling his father home from some bar, and running at night with the crowd that made a hobby out of seeking trouble. A crowd Diane fit in far too well.
He was the guilty pleasure of every female in Stoneham. Like a forbidden prize, his wicked smile and sexy body charmed every one of them. Prepubescent teenagers, ripening adolescents, women both repressed and lusty—they all harbored secret dark fantasies about Griffin Hunter.
Say good-bye and keep walking, Cassie told herself, even as her feet ignored her silent direction and carried her along the path and up the steps to the wide front porch. Buried in her mind were her own secret fantasies about Griffin Hunter. The boys she dated, even in college, lacked any semblance of finesse, instead viewing sex as a competitive sport. How many nights had she lain in bed, wishing for Griffin’s hands on her body instead of on Diane’s, the pulse throbbing between her legs where heat pooled like liquid silver, her heart racing, her skin flushed?
“How come you’re not out with Diane and the others tonight?” she asked.
“Didn’t feel like it. How come you never come out with us?” He flashed a quick grin. “I’d show you a good time, sugar.”
“I’m not Diane.”
He lounged in the glider, a beer can in his hand, one foot rocking himself back and forth. Skintight jeans molded his muscular body, outlining a bulge at his crotch from which Cassie averted her eyes. His half-buttoned shirt exposed the crisp curls on his chest. Sun-bleached hair, worn just a little long and casually disarrayed, brushed his collar. Cassie couldn’t see his eyes, but she knew they were a piercing electric blue.
Griffin looked like an Adonis come to life. Except Adonis never had such a rough-carved look to his face or exuded such a sense of the dark side. She could see what Diane saw in him.
Her heartbeat accelerated, and faint heat gathered in her stomach. Danger! her uptight self shouted at her. Go to the movies. Go home. Go anywhere. Leave. But here she stood, her feet planted on the porch. She peered through the fading light at him, her breath quickening just at the sight of his dark angelic face.
“Is that a slam?” She leaned against the porch railing.
“Come on over here and sit with me.” He patted the section of the vinyl seat next to him. “Take a chance with the town bad boy. Come on, Cassie. I don’t bite.”
As if drawn by an invisible thread, she walked over and sat down at the other end of the glider. In the dim light of the street lamp, she could see Griffin’s wicked grin.
“Keeping your distance?” He laughed, a rich, deep sound. “No, you’re nothing like your sister.”
“I think this is a bad idea.” She started to get up, but his long fingers clamped on one arm.
“Don’t leave yet, sugar. We’ve had practically no time to get acquainted.” He reached to the table beside him and handed her a cold metal can. “Have a beer, Cassie. Just one beer. I don’t think that will ruin your reputation.”
“Well…all right. Maybe one beer would be okay.”
She sat stiff as a board, clutching the icy can in her hands, sipping from it, wondering what she was doing there anyway. And trying to ignore the tension coiling within her.
“Home for the summer?” Griffin asked, his tone of voice casual.
She’d just finished her sophomore year at college. In two days, she would be meeting her roommate, Claire, and four other friends for a week of whitewater rafting in Georgia. Then she would find a summer job that would keep her as far away from her parents and Diane as possible.
“How can you be sort of home?”
“Where’s your father?” she asked, changing the subject.
“Where else would he be?” His voice flattened to a monotone. “The Winter Garden, waiting for closing time and someone to haul his ass home.”
“So, you’re just whiling away the night, here alone on your porch?”
“Maybe I was waiting for you, Squirt,” he said, his tone soft and seductive, whispering to her of forbidden pleasures.
“Why do you always call me that?”
“Squirt? I guess because you seemed so much younger than Diane.”
“Because I’m not wild like she is? Because I’m dull and boring?”
Griffin chuckled. “Anyone who calls you dull and boring hasn’t bothered to take a good look.”
He was Diane’s lover. One of her many lovers. All the times Cassie had seen him waiting for her sister to come flying down the stairs, smiling that wicked sexy smile, exuding an unconsciously erotic air, she’d fantasized he was waiting for her.
Her shameful, dark desire for him, hidden in the deepest recesses of her mind, leaped to the surface. Cassie, the virgin, the ice queen, the nobody, hungered to have Griffin’s arms around her, molding her to him, touching her in all the mysterious places of her body. She ached to feel his penis inside her, his mouth on her breasts, his fingers tantalizing her clitoris that was swollen just from her fantasies.
All of a sudden, she realized she was no longer in her isolated corner. Somehow she’d moved across the glider—or Griffin had—and his arm draped around her shoulders, his face dangerously close to hers.
“What do think, Squirt?” His words slid out like hot molasses. His mouth was inches from hers. “Want to take a walk on the wild side?”
“Don’t tease me, Griffin.” The nickname made her feel small and unattractive.
“Oh, sugar, I’m for sure not teasing. Maybe I should call you Dewdrop.”
She blinked. “Dewdrop?”
“Mmhmm. Fresh as the early morning dew on a blade of grass. I’d love to pluck you and lick you all up.”
He bent his head, and she knew he was going to kiss her. Common sense told her to push him away, but she couldn’t make herself move.
He waited the space of a heartbeat for her to move away or object then his mouth came down on hers, hard, his tongue forcing her to open for him. She felt it sweeping into the dark recesses of her mouth, tasting her like a sweet dessert, flicking at nerves she didn’t even know she had. Tentative, she let her tongue meet his, twist with his, duel with his—and she was lost.