Start reading this book:
The moment Asha parked her Mercedes SUV off to the side of the three bay doors of the Cornelius fire department, nervousness pulsed through her body. She stared at the brick façade that so many of the downtown buildings of the former mill town had, and then her gaze traveled up to the green roof, contrasting brightly against the North Carolina blue sky.
She could do this.
Though the afternoon was hot and sweat prickled at the back of her neck and under her breasts—despite the silky jasmine fragrant powder she’d sprinkled at her bra line—chills shivered down her spine.
She could do this.
Maybe if she said it enough times, she would believe it. Approaching Dhruv Narula, the bad boy example that for years Indian parents had dangled in front of their children to keep them in line, felt incredibly dangerous. And secretly thrilling. No one knew she was here—not even Shanti, and she told Shanti everything.
This wasn’t personal. She didn’t want to see Dhruv.
She was behaving within social norms. The Lemley Fire Station 2 crew had saved her parents’ kitchen. None of the structure had burned, and their quick arrival and action had kept the smoke damage to a minimum. Probably many people whose homes, businesses and family who’d been helped or saved by the fire department would later show up with some food or thank-you cards. Asha swallowed hard, not quite ready to look in the back seat because likely no one showed up with an entire meal for twelve to fifteen people stacked neatly in towers of matching Tupperware.
This had nothing to do with the fact that Dhruv had stripped her down to her bra and panties—red lace and sexier than any dress she’d ever worn—and rinsed her off with a gush of warm water that he angled in different places while quietly admonishing her to keep her eyes closed.
It had been the most intensely intimate thing that had happened to her in…well, maybe forever. And yet Dhruv hadn’t made one false, nonprofessional comment as he washed the chemicals off her skin and checked her for burns. At the end while she’d stood dripping, he’d wrapped her in a fluffy towel and then had turbaned her hair.
“No burns,” he pronounced. “And even more beautiful than ever, Asha,” and then he’d left the bathroom, waiting for her in the hall to rejoin her family.
But the spell he’d woven with his presence, his deep voice while he’d explained what he was doing, his care, his comments, remained unbroken.
So here she was with a lot of food because when she cooked, she didn’t go small.
Fire personnel were responsible for cooking their own meals. She knew that because she often saw them teasing each other in the grocery store as they filled up their carts. They’d be happy with a home-cooked meal. Right? Indian food was a good choice as masalas and chapatis were pretty mainstream by now, right?
She hadn’t cooked all of this for Dhruv because she was imagining his hands on her body instead of the directed stream of water.
But maybe she should have cooked something less…less…
“Me,” she muttered and closed her eyes.
She was making a big deal out of nothing. A gesture of kindness and respect. Her dawn shopping trip after a night on call and morning of cooking had nothing to do with the memory of Dhruv’s growling, sensual commands to keep her eyes shut, as he’d unwrapped her sari, peeled the clothes from her body and helped her into the warm shower after her sister Rani had doused her with the fire extinguisher last Saturday.
She had been in shock, embarrassed and chilled to the bone, and yet Dhruv’s voice had been like heated maple syrup, warming her inside as the water from the shower warmed her outside.
He had talked to her the entire time, his voice low, calm, and the sexiest thing she’d ever heard. It had made her wonder what he was like in bed. He’d always been such a mystery when he’d been young. Seething silences and unnerving glares. Cocky comebacks when he’d chosen to speak.
His hands had been gloved as they’d lightly touched her face, neck, and arms. Her tummy had heated, and her nipples had popped. Embarrassing when Dhruv was just doing his job, so she’d struggled to keep her reactions to him at a minimum and her mouth shut so she wouldn’t say anything stupid. Dhruv had then put some shampoo on her head and guided her hands to her hair.
“You want to get all the chemicals cleared from your body before you open your eyes, Asha,” he’d said.
Totally appropriate, but he made getting clean sound dirty, and she’d wanted to grab his hands back and have him wash her hair in the shower. No man had ever done that before, and she’d read about it in romances.
But of course he hadn’t.
Dhruv was doing his job. A frontline responder. A protector. And six years younger than she was. She had no right to fantasize about him.
“But fantasy’s all I got,” she murmured because she’d given up on love.
After waiting for love to strike in her twenties and early thirties as she studied and focused on her career and getting hit by nothing more than mild interest and friendships. Asha had thought Guneet would be the safe choice for marriage. They had similar backgrounds, families, and goals. He’d been the rational choice—a man who would have a thriving career in medicine and be a doting father to their two or three children. No fireworks or scarily intense feelings, but solid friendship and respect. It was what he’d said he wanted too.
Until…he’d contacted his college girlfriend, Anne Marie, to say goodbye, which became a hello again.
She was an idiot sitting here in her car, half skewed on the lawn in front of the firehouse so she’d be out of the way if they got a call. She was ruining the grass and likely looking suspicious. Reviewing her past was a waste of time. She could only go forward. Alone. But if Asha was being honest, she wanted to hear Dhruv’s deep, drawling voice once again before she put the memory behind her. One last chance for a fantasy because Dhruv’s rough, yet gentle voice and gloved hands barely touching her had for one breathless moment felt more intimate than anything she’d ever done with Guneet.
She’d felt fully alive and engaged in the moment.
Asha had finally understood why Guneet had left her two days before their wedding.
He’d known love and realized he didn’t want to settle for less with her.
Guneet had handled the breakup badly, but ultimately, he’d done the right thing.
And nothing he might say in the future, even if he changed his mind, would persuade her to ever put herself, her feelings, her reputation, her life in a man’s hands again unless she crazy-loved him.
She could do this. Tackle life alone.
Well, maybe not totally alone. She looked over at her sidekick, Bacon, a rescue dog her sister Shanti had improbably brought home for her over two months ago. She had imagined a dog in her life once she had the husband, the house, the tiny feet running down the hall. But here was Bacon, looking at her expectantly, tongue hanging out, eyes sparkling with enthusiasm.
She smiled. He was such an oddball, small for a cattle dog mix, stocky, huge ears and a tongue that seemed like it needed a much bigger mouth. But he was game for anything, and he didn’t like men much—having a tendency to charge them from behind and headbutt the back of their knees, which she knew, absolutely, she should train him not to do…someday.
Okay, someday soon.
Of course he was. She was the indecisive, suddenly nervous ninny, agonizing in her car, while the reason for this quick visit wafted temptingly.
Dhruv might not even be working today.
Or he might be looking through the window at her, his runway model features scowling through the open blinds of the upstairs living quarters, wondering why she was showing up uninvited. Asha had a feeling Dhruv had a lot of women showing up for him with one excuse or another that they might not need to invent, although she bet none of them were remotely like her.
The food is not for Dhruv.
With that bracing reminder, Asha snapped the leash on Bacon, and climbed out of the still new SUV she’d bought to prepare for the kids she was now never going to have. She tried to shake the feeling that she was being watched. She knew everything about her screamed ‘not a threat.’ She’d always exuded good-girl helpfulness, never fascinating femme fatale.
To put an exclamation point on her do-gooder persona, Asha retrieved the two reusable shopping totes filled with the results of her morning cookathon. As she’d started packing up her thank-the-firefighters-not-just-Dhruv meal, she’d felt like a screaming cliché, so in addition to rolling out a stack of chapatis, she’d baked two dozen zucchini and chocolate chip muffins and a lemon poppy-seed loaf.
The food was heavy, and she practically staggered toward the fire station entrance.
Overkill. She’d definitely cooked too much.
The door flung open while she was still yards away, and Asha stopped short. It was…what was her name? Risa. She’d arrived with Dhruv and had helped Shanti last Saturday afternoon.
“Dhruv’s not here,” Risa said flatly. She squinted at Asha and stood in front of the door like a club bouncer—not that Asha had ever been to a club.
“Oh. Um…” Her mouth dried. She swallowed and licked her lips, hoping for some moisture in the sudden desert. “I…I…” She straightened up and smiled. “Risa, right? I’m Asha Kapoor, and I wanted to thank you…your crew for coming to our rescue a few days ago,” she said, keeping her voice light, polite, friendly with a touch of formality because this was not about Dhruv at all. “I like to cook when I’m not working and…” Lord Ganesh, could she sound any less boring and traditional and stereotypical? Nope. “And I wanted to…” She broke off, feeling even stupider than she imagined she looked.
Risa’s arms were crossed, and her face was as open as a slammed door.
“Say thank you in my way.”
She wondered if she should tag on that the food wasn’t poisoned.
“If that’s okay,” she said. “Legal.”
Risa suddenly stumbled forward as two men burst out of the door.
“Hello, welcome,” one of them said. “Reese Connor.” He held out his hand to shake while the other man was already giving Bacon a treat and greeting him. Bacon, mouth busy with the treat, didn’t feel the need to headbutt these men. Good to know.
“To what do we owe this pleasure?” Reese’s face was so warm and open and the other man, Andrew Hill, also quickly took the two bags from her with a smile and a head bob of thanks. “Do you want a tour?”
Asha’s shoulders relaxed. Risa had stomped back inside. She was as surly as everyone claimed Dhruv was. What was her problem? Was it contagious or…the thought brought her up short. Risa wasn’t…no…she couldn’t be…jealous? A shocked laugh popped out. No. Risa couldn’t possibly think that Asha would be making a play for Dhruv. She was so much older. Boring. Conservative and…and everything Dhruv despised and had left behind. She wouldn’t have a chance.
Not a single one.
End of Excerpt