Inferno of Love - Erin Wright - ebook
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A man of integrity…with a secret desireMoose Garrett just wants to do the right thing. Fulfill his duty. Honor his parents. Fix his neighbors’ tractors. Ignore the girl he needs to forget.Everyone in Sawyer expects Moose to woo and wed the town beauty queen – not Georgia Rowland. Hell, Moose’s parents have all but signed a marriage contract with the revered patriarch of another wealthy Sawyer family.So yeah, it’s true that Georgia’s been tempting him ever since he hit puberty and discovered the allure of the opposite gender, but that doesn’t mean he’s actually going to give into the temptation.Georgia is strictly off limits.Totally.But matters of the heart are about as predictable as a wildfire – a wildfire that comes straight out of nowhere…and changes everything.A woman who’s all business…with a secret crushGeorgia has spent a lot of years – roughly 26 of them or so – pretending Moose Garrett wasn’t the finest man in Sawyer. She pushes pesky thoughts of him clear out of her mind. She never pays a bit of attention to his powerful build, or how his blue jeans show off his lean and muscular body. And for the record, she barely even notices the way his slow, sultry smile makes her knees wobbly.Because that hardly ever happens.As the youngest branch manager of the Goldfork Credit Union, and the first female to hold that position, she’s too busy for any of that nonsense. Besides, everyone knows Moose is bound to marry Sawyer’s reigning beauty. Georgia is sure he’d never give a moment’s notice to…well, to someone like her.But when Miss No Nonsense sets out on a hike in the foothills of Long Valley and gets trapped amidst the flames of a wildfire, the only man she’s ever wanted swoops in to save her.So yeah, Moose is the last man she should dream about.But he’s the one man who will walk through danger and smoke and fire.Just to find her…Inferno of Love is the second 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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Inferno of Love – A Western Fireman Romance Novel

Firefighters of Long Valley – Book 2

Erin Wright

Wright’s Reads

Copyright © 2018 by Erin Wright

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be constructed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical articles and reviews.

To Handsome Hubby:

Thanks for being willing to walk through fire to save me, even if it’s just my attempt to cook dinner that set the kitchen ablaze.

Chapter 1

Georgia

Quick Note: If you enjoy Inferno of Love, be sure to check out my offer of a FREE Long Valley novella at the end.

With that, enjoy!

April 2018

Tripp popped his head around her office door even as he gave a light rap on it. “Hey Georgia, there’s a handsome cowboy here to see you.”

“Thanks,” she said lightly, trying to ignore the warning bells going off in her head. If it was Levi, this was going to become real awkward, real quick. Not that Levi exactly came strolling into her office every day, but it was possible that he—

And then Moose came striding in instead. Georgia’s stomach did the amazing trick of both dropping to somewhere around her knee caps, while also rising up in her throat. She was going to be the first human on record with a bifurcated stomach. Awesome.

Moose. Of course it was Moose. Someone she’d known since they were in diapers, someone she’d graduated with from high school, and…the one guy she’d always wanted but could never have.

He was here to torture her with his cologne and muscular chest and mmhmmm thighs and…

“How are you?” she asked, planting a bright smile on her lips. She came around her desk to do the awkward hug/handshake combo that always left her feeling like she needed to bust out with, “And that’s what it’s all about!” when she was done.

Except she was the youngest branch manager in the history of the Goldfork Credit Union, and a female to boot. Busting out with the lyrics from the Hokey Pokey in her office (or anywhere, really) was not going to happen any time soon.

It was easy enough to stay professional and distant from older, crusty farmers who’d been tilling up the land since Moses came down from Mt. Sinai with his arms full of stone tablets. It was slightly harder to keep that demeanor up around Moose.

He flashed his mouth full of gorgeous, straight white teeth at her and said, “Good, good, but if the farmers don’t quit bitching about the water year that’s in the cards, I think I just might lose my ever-lovin’ mind.”

“I’ve been hearing that around town,” Georgia murmured. She wasn’t about to get into the politics of lending to farmers in what was projected to be a low-water year, not even with Moose.

“Well anyway, I don’t know if you’ve heard that the spaghetti feed and donkey basketball fundraiser is coming up quick, but the fire department is sending all of us out into the community to ask for donations to auction off. Do you have anything to add to the pile?”

“Oh. Hmmm…” She tapped her finger against her teeth as she thought. As the branch manager for the only credit union in Sawyer, she got asked quite often about donations and prizes for local fundraisers, so they had their stack of branded t-shirts, pens, and notepads that they gave to anyone who asked. But with Moose giving her the “I’d love you forever if you gave me something great” look, it was hard to just brush him off with a pile of Goldfork t-shirts.

All right, so maybe he wasn’t actually giving her that look, and she was just projecting her own feelings onto him. That was totally a possibility…

One she was going to ignore, of course.

“Oh hey!” she exclaimed excitedly when inspiration struck, “what if we match a $50 deposit into a savings account – new or previously established – for anyone under the age of 18? Help a kid get started on saving for something important. Grandparents would love to give a gift like that to a grandchild.”

He sent her a huge smile, his eyes crinkling in the corners with happiness. Her stomach dropped further, hitting right around her shin bones.

This was starting to get ridiculous, really.

“I love it! Do you need to pass it by headquarters?”

“Nah, they give us some money every year to do community-minded stuff like this. If we end the year with money in that account, we get a talkin’ to about not donating enough to the local groups. Of course, that’s a pretty rare thing – usually we’re asked for more than we have the money for.”

He chuckled. “Yeah, Dad has the same thing happen, but he usually just gives away John Deere toys to auction off when he’s asked for donations.”

“‘Just’?” she echoed, one eyebrow raised. “I’ve seen the price tags on those toys. They don’t come cheap!”

“Nothing John Deere does comes cheap,” Moose agreed with a grin. “Quality all the way.” He flexed his muscles like a bodybuilder for a moment, and Georgia burst out laughing.

“I forget sometimes that your actual name is Deere,” she said dryly. “Your father is one dedicated John Deere dealership owner, you know that?”

“I’m pretty sure I know that better than anyone else alive,” he said, and there was something in his eyes for just a moment and then it was gone, his grin firmly planted on his face again. “Ever since I was a kid, I’ve wondered what I’ll name my oldest son. John, Deere the Second, or Green are pretty much my only choices.”

“‘Green’?” she repeated, laughing. “You’d name a child ‘Green’?”

“Hell, my father named me Deere. I’m pretty sure all naming conventions are thrown out the window at this point.”

“True enough.” They grinned at each other for a moment, and Georgia felt her stomach begin to do flips. Okay, this was really getting out of control.

Her brain knew, even if her stomach didn’t, that Moose Garrett was off-limits. He was so far off-limits, he might as well have a “No Trespassing” sign stapled to his forehead. In fact, she might just donate one to the cause, to help her stomach remember this information. Someday, when Moose was ready to settle down and pop out boys named Green, he was going to be doing it with Tennessee, Georgia’s cousin.

And nice human beings just didn’t daydream about stealing their cousin’s future fiancé, that was for damn sure.

“Well, I better get a move on,” Moose said, shifting from one foot to the other. He was constantly on the move, even when he was standing still. Georgia figured that must be how he stayed in such good shape, even as their former high school classmates were starting to develop spare tires around the middle. “I just stopped by to do a deposit and thought I’d check in with you on the prize thing while I was here. Would you mind getting the info over to Jaxson? This is his first fundraiser for the fire department, and he’s more nervous than a chicken in a henhouse full of coyotes. I don’t think trying to take care of Sugar after the Muffin Man fire has helped anything, either.”

“Yeah, I can see that. I keep meaning to bring a casserole by and see how Sugar’s doing. I heard she’s mostly got her voice back?”

“Jaxson’s been telling me that it’s come back just in time for her to start harping on him about how she isn’t an invalid, and that he needs to go back to work and leave her the hell alone.”

Georgia let out a snort of laughter at that. She didn’t know the new fire chief all that well – he’d only started in January – but she did know Sugar, and that sounded just like her. She was a pretty independent person, and if Jaxson was prone to hovering…well, Sugar probably wouldn’t take that real well.

“I’m glad that she’s at least feeling good enough to tell him to back off,” Georgia said with a grin. “I’m pretty sure that’s a good sign, and if he’s smart, he’ll listen to her.”

“Smart men listen to the women in their lives,” Moose agreed, “at least if they know what’s good for ‘em.”

He was looking at her a little too intently, and Georgia felt her cheeks flush under his gaze. It was…awkward. And weird. She coughed, then coughed again. Then cleared her throat. Because apparently a whole slew of frogs had taken up residence in it.

“I’m sure Tennessee would be happy to hear that,” she finally said weakly.

“Right. Tennessee.” And then he was walking towards the door. “Thanks for your help,” he tossed over his shoulder as he slipped through and her office door shut with a click behind him and she was left just staring at it.

“Yeah. Anytime,” she whispered into the quiet of her office.

Somehow, she’d messed that up and she didn’t even know how…but she did know she regretted it.

Even if she shouldn’t.

Chapter 2

Moose

Moose pushed his way to the bar at O’Malley’s and flagged down Steve, the owner and full-time bartender. “Guinness,” he shouted over the twang of country music. Steve jerked his head in response, pulled a dark brown bottle out from underneath the counter, and popped the top even as he was sliding it towards Moose.

A body didn’t own a bar for 25 years without getting some movements down into a smooth ballet, that was for damn sure.

Moose dropped two singles on the bar top and then turned around to lean up against it, sipping his beer while looking around the darkened bar. It was a Friday night, and it showed. Lots of people out on the town, ready to let their hair down and have some fun.

Levi was supposed to be there any minute now so they could hang out together. Moose would nurse his beer along; Levi would buy him a second one over Moose’s protestations; and they’d both ignore the fact that the heir to the richest guy in town was poorer than a church mouse.

So, you know, the usual.

Levi seemed to be taking his sweet-ass time about making his appearance this week, though, so Moose just settled into place against the polished bar top and slowly sipped at his beer. Several of the biggest customers of the Garrett Tractor & Implement Dealership were here tonight, which was both a blessing and a curse. Any face-time with customers outside of work, where they got to see him as more than just a salesman trying to upgrade them to the latest and greatest, was always a good thing.

Of course, his father letting him back onto the sales floor was only something Moose could wish for longingly at this point. He’d been stuck in the repair shop for a lot longer than he’d expected and was ready to move back to the showroom, where his natural talent for salesmanship could truly be a boon to the business.

He understood why his dad was having him work in every department at the dealership – as the future owner, having a deep knowledge of how everything worked together was key – but he was never going to truly love being a grease monkey. The sales floor was where he shined, and everyone knew it.

But tonight, here at the bar, he was the owner’s son, even if he was the son tucked away in the repair shop, and the dealership’s biggest, most important customers would expect him to buy a round or two for them, which…wasn’t necessarily doable. He did some mental calculations. If he bought a beer for three farmers, what would that mean for paying his cell phone bill next week? Could he squeak by until payday?

“Hey, brother,” Levi said, pretty much in his ear. Moose jumped, spilling a little of his Guinness on the scuffed wooden floor.

“Shit, Levi,” Moose yelped, laughing. “When’d you get here?”

“Just now, but you seemed off in your own little world. Trying to figure out who you can afford to buy rounds for?”

“Maybe.” He took another tiny sip of his beer. The smaller, the better. He’d taken nursing a beer to an Olympic level, really.

“You know I’d be happy to pay for the rounds,” Levi rumbled. His deep voice didn’t travel far, but Moose’d had 17 years of practice of listening to him, so he caught every word.

“It’ll be fine,” Moose said, waving the suggestion off. Customers expected the owner’s son to buy their drinks, not the dealership’s welder and repairman. “How was work today? I didn’t see you at closing time.”

“Your dad has me out doing repairs in fields right now. That damn wind today was colder than an ice slick in January, though. I’ll be glad when spring repairs are over with, and I can come back to working in the shop.”

Levi worked at the John Deere dealership, of course, although he made more money at it than Moose did. Everyone made more money than Moose did. In fact, he was pretty damn sure that the shop kid who pushed a broom around made more than he did.

He pushed the thought aside. “Are all of the farmers complaining to you about how dry it is this year? That’s all I’m hearing about right now at the dealership.”

“Yup. This past winter…I mean, sure, we had a few nice snowstorms but half the time, we were getting nothing but wind blowing the same damn snow around in circles. The snowpack up in the Goldfork Mountains just isn’t where it should be…I don’t know. I guess we’ll see. If we get a few late season storms in, we might be fine, but right now, all we’re getting is wind, wind, and more wind. Like living in a damn air tunnel. Drying out the fields like this ain’t exactly making the farmers happy.”

Moose took another metered sip of his beer. “Nope, it really isn’t. And if the farmers ain’t happy…”

“Ain’t nobody happy,” Levi finished, and they laughed. They lapsed together into a silence that felt as natural and comfortable as slipping on an old pair of jeans. Levi was his oldest and truest friend; the one who’d always had his back no matter what.

Moose may have a dick for a father, but Levi almost helped make up for that.

Almost.

Of course, Levi’s dad was no one to write home about either, although he was a dirtbag in a completely different way. While Moose’s dad was the richest guy in town and someone no one dared stand up to, Levi’s dad was the town drunk who didn’t care one bit about who or what he hurt, as long as he got alcohol in the end.

They may not appear similar on the surface, but underneath…

“What did your dad say when you told him you wouldn’t be bringing brown paper bags by anymore?” Moose asked, taking another tiny sip of his Guinness. Despite his best efforts, his beer was almost gone. Maybe he could pretend to drink out of an empty bottle; extend the illusion a little longer.

He was good at pretending.

Levi shrugged, looking out at the dance floor where a few rowdy cowboys were staggering to the beat of their own drum, since it obviously wasn’t to the beat of the country music thumping through the speakers. “Eh. He questioned my parentage. Told me not to come back. You know, the usual.”

Moose nodded. It was the usual. That didn’t mean it hurt any less, though.

“You think he’s ready to go to some meetings yet?”

“Nope.” Levi popped the “p” for extra emphasis, and then gave Moose a wry smile. “I reckon he’ll be ready for that about the same time I’m ready to strip down to my boxers and run down Main Street.”

Moose nodded again. Levi was right, of course. His dad was nowhere near ready to give up the bottle. Maybe someday he would be.

Today was not that day.

Hours later, Moose let himself into the basement entrance to his parent’s house and down to his bedroom, where he unlaced his boots and settled back on the bed with a huge sigh. He’d gotten away with only having to buy two beers for customers tonight, which he figured was some sort of win. People probably wondered why he still lived at home; why he drove a beat-up pickup truck; why he nursed the same beer for hours at a time down at the bar. He imagined the guesses ranged from he was a tightwad through to him being a lightweight with alcohol.

He didn’t imagine that the guesses were ever on the money, though (all puns intended) – that his father was hellbent on “toughening up his son” by paying him pauper’s wages down at the dealership. When Moose finally got to take over the business, he’d be rolling in the dough, but until then, he was the poorest rich kid this side of the Mississippi. It was something he’d told only Levi, and only because it was Levi.

Moose just had to make it through five more years of hell, and then it would all be his. He could totally do it.

Totally.

Chapter 3

Georgia

The silverware clinked in the awkward silence that was the Rowland Sunday Dinner.

Just because it happened every single week didn’t make it any less awkward. Unfortunately.

This week was at Uncle Robert and Aunt Roberta’s house, which meant they were eating on matching china plates and real silver and sipping $300-a-bottle wine out of delicate goblets.

It was exactly the kind of thing that made Georgia grateful that she was the daughter to the younger of the Rowland brothers – the one who’d inherited nothing at all and was now a high school biology teacher – because if she had to eat off real china using real silver every day, she’d probably be stark-raving mad by now.

Uncle Robert cleared his throat and looked pointedly at Tennessee. “What did your piano teacher assign to you this week?” he asked. “I haven’t heard you practice lately.”

Which was code for “In the last ten minutes.”

Georgia sliced off a small bite of her roast beef and popped it in her mouth as she waited for her gorgeous and super talented cousin to respond to her father’s probing.

Actually, eating off china and silver wasn’t such a bad thing, really. It was having Robert Rowland as a father that would do her in.

Tennessee took a small sip of her moscato. “He has me working on some Vivaldi pieces right now,” she said with a polite smile at her dad. “And I practiced earlier today. Perhaps you were outside and didn’t hear me.”

Virginia, Tenny’s younger sister, jumped into the fray, but whether it was to give a reprieve to her older sister for a moment or just because she was dying for some attention herself, Georgia couldn’t tell. You never knew with Virginia. “Did you hear, Father? My cello instructor said that if I keep it up, I might get into Juilliard next year, after I graduate. He said—”

“That’s nice, darlin’,” Aunt Roberta cut her off, “but we were talking about your sister’s musical career.” She gave Virginia a pointed look, who promptly slunk down in her seat.

“Yes, Momma,” she said into her goblet of ice water.

“And stop slouching.”

Virginia obediently sat up.

Georgia kept a stiff smile on her lips as she cut into her potato. She could feel her mom practically vibrating with anger to her left, but she too said nothing. It would only cause problems to try to point out to Robert and Roberta that their younger daughter had potential too; problems for everyone involved. They’d take it out on Georgia and her parents, sure, but they’d take it out even more on Virginia. It wouldn’t be kind to the teenager to stand up for her, as much as that reality sucked ass.

“Has Deere asked you to attend the fire department fundraiser with him?” Uncle Robert asked Tennessee, ignoring his younger daughter’s comment completely.

Georgia swallowed, hard, and a small piece of potato went down the wrong tube. She started coughing politely into her hand, desperately trying to pretend that everything was fine, but she soon gave into a full-body cough, huddled over in her chair, tears streaming down her face from the force of the coughing.

Her mom patted her on the back. “Are you okay, dear?” she murmured as Georgia struggled for air. Her face was hot with embarrassment, but finally the coughing fit passed, the potato unlodged itself from her airway, and she was able to breathe without lapsing into another coughing fit.

“So sorry,” she murmured into her goblet of moscato. “Eating sure is dangerous sometimes.”

No one laughed.

“He hasn’t yet,” Tennessee said, politely answering her father’s question as if nothing had happened. She gave a small shrug. “We might just meet there. Honestly, Father, I don’t think he’s ready—”

“Of course he is; he just doesn’t know it yet,” her father snapped. “He’s a typical male, is all. But his dad and I have talked, and it’s settled. As soon as Deere is ready, he’ll propose. His dad has made it quite clear that he doesn’t get the dealership until then, so I imagine he’ll be ready soon. His dad has him working as a grease monkey right now, helping with oil changes in the shop, and he certainly won’t want that job for long. He’s going to want to take things over, and he knows that marriage to you is how that’ll happen.”

Tenny nodded, her curled and styled hair falling forward to cover her face. “Of course,” she murmured into her dinner plate.

So yeah, maybe being the daughter of the high school biology teacher wasn’t such a bad thing after all. The principal didn’t demand that Georgia marry someone who would take over the English department; no one really cared who she married, honestly, as long as he was a vaguely decent guy. Her parents wouldn’t exactly get behind a pothead or a thief, but they also didn’t sit around the dinner table and grill her about her marriage prospects.

Thank God for small favors.

She shot a grateful smile at her parents, sitting side by side, politely working their way through the beautifully cooked food. After this week’s torture was over, her mother would gratefully throw on a pair of sweatpants, put her hair up in a ponytail, and get to work on her oil paintings. Her dad would put on his work jeans and go putter around in the garage; probably work on the lawn mower that’s been giving him fits. Get it ready for the upcoming season.

And Georgia would head back to her condo, home to her and her two goldfish, and read a book while curled up in bed.

It wasn’t an exciting life, but it was theirs, and compared to the rich branch of the family, Georgia couldn’t help but be grateful for it. If money turned a person into Uncle Robert and Aunt Roberta, she figured being middle class for the rest of her life was something she’d be happy with.

The topic of conversation turned to water – not enough of it, as always – and the wind – which was busy drying everything out like a nature-sized hair dryer – and Tennessee, grateful to have the spotlight off her for the moment, began picking at her food with a little more enthusiasm.

Another week, another Sunday dinner.

Georgia suddenly had visions of spending Sunday afternoon with her aunt and uncle when she was 72, the conversation just as stilted and awkward as it was now. A half century of dinners together would do nothing to bring them closer together as a family, that was for damn sure.

And then the idea of Moose sitting next to Tennessee entered into the daydream, and Georgia felt her heart squeeze at the thought. Someday, Tenny was going to marry Moose, and she’d probably want Georgia as her maid of honor, and Georgia would have to pretend to be happy even as her heart was being stomped to pieces…

“Are you okay?” Virginia’s voice broke into her thoughts, and Georgia’s head jerked up.

“Yes, of course,” she murmured, taking another sip of her moscato.

She was good at pretending. She had to be.

Chapter 4

Moose

“Six days left, guys,” Jaxson said, pushing his fingers through his dark brown hair. He had bags under his eyes and he hadn’t shaved for a couple of days. He looked like a guy at the end of his rope. “What’s left to figure out? Did everyone go talk to their assigned local businesses?”

“I talked to everyone on my list,” Moose said, “plus I chatted with Georgia over at the credit union.”

He felt Levi stiffen up next to him. “I was supposed to talk to Georgia,” he practically growled.

Moose lifted an eyebrow of surprise at his best friend’s surliness. “I was there making a deposit, and saw that her office was empty. I figured why not chat with her while I had the chance, right?”

“Whatever,” Levi mumbled, clicking his ballpoint pen as he stared down at the scarred tabletop. “What is she donating?”

“Ummm…bank deposits for kids,” Moose said, a little more cautiously. “If a parent or grandparent puts $50 into a child’s account, the bank will match it. She thought it’d be a good way to encourage children to save for college or whatever.”

“She’s already swung by here and filled out the paperwork for it,” Jaxson put in, oblivious to the sudden tension between Levi and Moose. “She’s on the done list. Luke, have you talked to Betty down at the diner yet?”

As the conversation shifted to less tension-fraught topics, Moose sighed to himself and tried to ignore Levi’s pissed-off demeanor. If he reacted like this simply because Moose had talked to Georgia, what would he do if Moose kissed Georgia?

Not, of course, that Moose would do that. He was going to marry Tennessee. Everything was practically settled except for the ring and a date. Her father wanted it, his father wanted it, Tennessee wanted it, and Moose wanted it.

Okay, so all of that was true except for the last part. “Want” was a strong word, honestly. Moose had…resigned himself to it. Marrying Tennessee was what he was supposed to do, and Moose always did what he was supposed to do.

As…uninspiring as Moose’s love life was, though, at least it wasn’t a disaster zone like Levi’s. Levi and Georgia had dated for three years, starting in high school and going through to the end of their first year in college, and their break-up hadn’t exactly been stellar, unfortunately. Since then, from all outward appearances, Georgia had moved on and was fine with her life.

Levi, meanwhile, was stuck deeper than a 4x4 buried up to its axle in mud.

Oh, he’d tell you that he’d moved on if you asked him, but Moose knew that was a lie, even if Levi didn’t. He hadn’t meant to step on Levi’s toes by chatting with Georgia about the fundraiser but in retrospect, it should’ve been obvious that this was how it would go down.

It was almost six years since Levi and Georgia had broken things off. Would it be another six years before Levi was fully over her? For Levi’s sake, Moose could only hope that wasn’t true.

Chapter 5

Georgia

She got out of her sedan and hurried across the blacktop to the high school gymnasium. Tripp should be here any minute now…she scanned the crowds headed into the basketball gym, hoping to catch sight of her assistant manager among the crush.

There he was. Leaning up against one of the columns outside of the row of doors leading into the gym, he already looked bored out of his skull. Attending social events to represent the credit union to the community wasn’t exactly Tripp’s strong suit. She’d tried to tell him that this was going to hurt his career long-term – the credit union president liked to see his employees out schmoozing with the locals – but…

Well, Tripp was Tripp. Trying to get him to change his mind on something was akin to trying to push a granite boulder up the side of the Tetons. He wasn’t going to budge, and you’d do nothing but wear yourself out trying. It really was a damn good thing he was such a good-lookin’ guy, and a lot of fun to be around. It helped when it came to forgiving him for his faults.

“Having fun?” she asked him with a straight face as he fell into step beside her.

“Loads.” The sarcasm was so thick, she had visions of scraping it off with a butter knife.

“Well, thanks for agreeing to come with me anyway,” she said as he opened one of the sets of glass doors for her. “How is Porky handling the strain of being left alone for the night?”

“She didn’t even have the decency to look disgruntled,” Tripp said with a disgruntled sigh. Georgia bit back her grin. “I fed her her evening can of dog food, and then she was off to sleep again. It’s like she only cares about me because I am her source of food.”

Georgia had to bite down on her lower lip even harder. Porky wasn’t exactly the most energetic dog on the face of the planet, and she rather figured that this was exactly how Porky viewed Tripp and every other human out there.

Before she could flip him shit about keeping his dog on a diet, the crowds were upon them and she had to get to work. There were community members aplenty to chat with and kids to hand lollipops to.

She glad-handed long-time customers of the credit union as she and Tripp wandered together around the silent auction area, checking out the donated items and the prices they were going for. Between discussions of planned weddings and birth announcements and the occasional complaint about a bank policy, Georgia scanned for items that hadn’t had a bid registered for them yet.

She had a soft spot for people who donated items that weren’t generating any interest, so she made sure to put down a couple of generous bids for otherwise ignored items. She wasn’t exactly sure what she’d do with an owl clock whose eyes ticked back and forth with every swing of the pendulum, but she’d figure something out. Maybe she could donate it to the senior citizen’s center. Or to someone who was blind. At least they would appreciate the aesthetics…

Georgia wasn’t the only one working the crowd tonight, she noted as she wandered around. Jaxson and Troy were too, but they were doing it with firemen boots in hand, selling raffle tickets for a set of kayaks donated by the local river club.

She was impressed to see Jaxson chatting people up and moving around the gym with ease. If she didn’t know any better, she would’ve guessed that he’d been in town all his life, instead of just a handful of months. When he’d first moved to town, people had struggled to get used to the idea of a “foreigner” being in charge of their fire department, but after he saved Sugar and Gage from the bakery fire…Well, people seemed to be singing a different tune. It was nice to see him fitting in so well.

Troy, on the other hand…he looked like he was in pain as he drifted around with the boot in hand, trying to pretend that he was enjoying himself. Georgia wondered for a minute who thought it was a good idea to put him in charge of schmoozing local residents. She’d known him all her life, and hadn’t heard more than a couple dozen words from him in all that time. He made a brick wall seem downright talkative.

“C’mon,” she said, grabbing Tripp’s arm and pulling him towards Troy. “I want to buy some raffle tickets.”

Tripp grumbled under his breath but followed along obediently behind her. Georgia ignored his protestations. At this point, he’d complain about a bikini-clad girl serving him a meal on a platter. He was bound and determined to be grumpy, and there wasn’t a damn thing she or anyone else could do about it.

It was one of the reasons why their relationship worked so well – she didn’t try to change him, and he didn’t pretend to give a damn.

“Hi, Troy,” she said with a cheerful smile, looking up at the blond man in front of her. He was handsome, as long as you went for the scruffy, blond, silent type. If Georgia ever saw some woman manage to get Troy to say more than three words in a row to her, Georgia’d know it was true love. “How much are the tickets this year?”

“Five for six,” he rumbled as he looked down at her intently. He had these gorgeous green eyes that she’d somehow never noticed before.

It really was too bad that the tall, silent, brooding guys just weren’t her style because objectively, even she could tell that Troy was handsome enough to grace the cover of a firefighter magazine.

“I’ve got a ten,” she said, rummaging through her purse and pulling the ten-dollar bill out triumphantly. He peeled twelve raffle tickets off the massive roll he’d been carrying around. Georgia looked at the roll with a laugh. “Y’all sure are an optimistic group,” she said dryly. There were probably a thousand tickets on the roll. Just how many raffle tickets did they think they’d sell tonight?

Troy just shrugged and smiled.

“Where do I put your half?” she asked, busily separating the duplicate tickets from each other. One numbered ticket would go into the prize drawing; the matching other half would go into her purse as proof in case she actually won.

“Ummm…” Troy said, and then turned to point at a large glass bowl up at the front of the gym.

“Thanks!” she said, and headed off to put half of the tickets into the bowl, Tripp trailing along behind her.

“Troy does speak, right? Not just grunts and shrugs, but real honest-to-God words?” Tripp asked no one in particular as they made their way across the gym.

“Only when he has to,” Georgia said with a shrug. “Not everyone is as loquacious as you.”

Tripp ignored that jibe and looked around, probably hoping to find someone to flirt with. He’d played dutiful assistant manager for long enough; now it was time for him to go have some fun.

“I think the Stephenson girl is here tonight,” Georgia said with a grin and a jerk of her head towards the blonde in question.

“Now we’re talking,” Tripp said with a cocky grin, and then he was gone, making his way across the crowded gym to do some flirting.

Georgia looked around with a heavy sigh. Even as snarky as he was being tonight, Tripp was still at least company. Without him to hang out with, she was going to be awkwardly by herself for the rest of the evening. Social events…they were the bane of her existence for this very reason. She didn’t mind hanging out with the Long Valley community – not like Tripp did, anyway – but doing it by herself was starting to get old.

Old like me.