Playing With Fire – Alison Bliss

He strutted past me as if he owned the place. A whole head taller than me, his height was nearly as intimidating as his broad-shouldered, well-muscled frame. The white straw Stetson he wore looked weathered from years of use, but the perfectly shaped hat fit his head as well as the name molded to the man. Cowboy. I couldn’t forget his name, even if I wanted to. No longer the cute sandy-haired boy on the cusp of becoming a man, his hair had darkened a little and his scrawny body had sculpted and toned itself proportionately in all the right places. But he hadn’t noticed me then, and he wasn’t about to now. Long-legged strides pushed him closer to the computer area, showcasing the power of his thighs as his muscles flexed against his jeans with every step. When he pulled out a chair, his biceps bulged under the navy blue, long-sleeved shirt he’d rolled up to his elbows. Then he flicked a glance my way. He held my gaze only for a moment—long enough to make my heart pound frantically against my rib cage—then focused on the pretty brunette reading across the room. As usual, he was on the prowl. It wasn’t much of a surprise, though, given his reputation with the ladies. In fact, I doubted he could pick his most recent conquest out of a crowd of…two. Even if one of them was a man.

And dead. Not that I knew from personal experience or anything. I mean, just because I’d met Cowboy before didn’t mean I had slept with him. Though I was probably one of the few women in the entire TriCounty area who could pronounce that with a clear conscience. Whatever. Didn’t matter. With a loud huff, I maneuvered around the circulation desk to the return bins, where I bent to gather a stack of books. Irritation coursed through my veins at the speed of light as I slapped one heavy hardback on top of another, forming a tall tower, until the weight of the last book smashed against my thumb. I winced and jerked my hand back, shaking the pain away. “Damn it,” I grumbled under my breath.

I closed my eyes and breathed out a sigh. Why was I suddenly so agitated over his very presence? It wasn’t like I should be surprised to run into him. After all, Liberty, Texas was his hometown. Then again, the public library wasn’t exactly the kind of place where a guy like him would normally hang out. If ever. It was, however, a place where someone like me would spend most of their time. When the library’s director had hired me two weeks before, I hadn’t bothered to mention I would have done the job for free. Even as a child, I’d always spent more time in a library than my own home. It was the one place I felt safe. A place where I could get lost in another world, and my parents couldn’t argue because they’d be forced to whisper.

No fights ever broke out in a library. And there was no shortage of love in one, either. Nope. Not going there. Arms fully loaded, I straightened and spun on my heel, bumping into a solidly built wall of…man. Strong hands shot out and grasped my shoulders to steady me as the books toppled to the floor. “Oh, I’m sorr—” Emerald eyes stared back at me. Oh God! It’s him. “Not your fault, darlin’,” Cowboy said, flashing me one of his signature charming grins I remembered so well. “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.

Let me help you with these, miss.” As I suspected, Cowboy hadn’t recognized me. Big shocker there. He kneeled and began gathering the pile of books easily into his muscular arms. The bulges in his arched back bunched and tightened with his every movement. Okay, so maybe I couldn’t blame the ladies for throwing themselves at him. He was nice to look at. “You okay, ma’am?” His words shook me from my thoughts, and I stared blankly at him as I twisted my fingers into the flimsy fabric of my black tiered skirt. I gave him a quick nod. He grinned, then allowed his gaze to travel lazily over my body, examining me up and down, until his eyes finally zeroed in on my breasts.

With a high neckline, my cream-colored silk top covered my chest fully, though it didn’t seem to matter to him. His green eyes twinkled with extreme confidence and blatant sexuality, which sent a familiar tingle skittering up my spine. “You seem a little rattled. You sure you’re okay, sweetheart?” My fingers knotted together, cutting off the circulation, while my breath caught in my throat. Not only was he speaking directly to me and eyeing me like a tasty piece of candy, but he was referring to me in terms of endearments that sent a thrill up my skirt. Then he flashed me a very male grin that damn-near melded my panties to my body. When I silently nodded again, he chuckled, straightened, and motioned to the books he’d retrieved from the floor. “Where do you want ’em?” I stood there and stupidly pointed to the circulation desk, as if I couldn’t speak. Which, at this point, was apparently true. Great.

Now he thinks I’m a mute imbecile. As he made his way to the counter, I followed, admiring his loose-gaited stride and the way his tight rear end filled out his faded Wranglers. The man was definitely a moving violation if I’d ever seen— My heel caught on the rubber-back entrance mat beneath my feet, propelling me forward until I crashed into his back. He stumbled, but managed to hold onto the books while firming his stance to keep us from falling. Pushing my palms against his stiff, muscular back, I quickly righted myself and regained my balance. But not before getting a whiff of his masculine, tangy scent. God, he smelled delicious. Thankfully, my 120-pound frame wasn’t enough to bowl him completely over. Maybe he wouldn’t even notice how clumsy I was. “Darlin’, if you wanted a piggyback ride, all you had to do was ask.

” He glanced over his shoulder with a teasing grin, then continued on his way. Mortified, I closed my eyes briefly and let out a slow, calming breath as I fought the urge to fan my heated face. Jeez, Anna. Get a grip already. When he reached the desk, he set the books down and turned to face me. “Maybe you can help me with something now. I’m looking for a book on fire accelerants. You know, like cleaners, paint thinners…that sort of thing.” “I know what fire accelerants are.” I’d finally found my voice, but the words spit out at him, sounding snippier than I meant them to.

Wordlessly, he raised one questioning brow. I bit my tongue and mentally cringed. What the hell was wrong with me? One minute, I’m checking out his ass, and the next, I’m being rude to him. Talk about mixed signals. Silently, I motioned for him to follow and led the way, not bothering to read the signs labeling each aisle. I stopped abruptly and reached for a book—the one with the red spine—on the bottom shelf and shoved it at him. I knew it was exactly what he was looking for. Before he could say anything, I hurried down the aisle, speed-walking away from him. Once I careened around the counter, returning to the safety of the circulation desk, I took a deep breath and stole a quick peek at him from a distance. Unfazed by our exchange, Cowboy sat at an unoccupied table and opened the book I’d handed him.

He glanced up briefly, but barely acknowledged me before focusing all his attention on the printed matter before him. Once he began reading, he didn’t look up again. Thank God. I went back to work, shuffling through the returned books and inspecting each for signs of wear before scanning them back into the system. Then I organized them into neat rows on a metal pushcart to ensure they ended up back on the proper shelves in their rightful order. A half hour later, Bobbie Jo appeared in the sliding glass doors of the library entrance, pushing a green stroller. Her shiny gold tresses and warm smile instantly brightened the room. She had been the one who introduced me to Cowboy all those years ago, and although she’d mentioned she might drop by, I hadn’t expected him to make an appearance. Apparently, neither had she. When her gaze landed on Cowboy sitting alone and reading, one eyebrow rose and a grin played on her lips.

But instead of moving toward him, she headed directly for me. I slid around the counter to give her a quick hug, then wasted no time lifting her precious bundle out of the stroller to get a better look. “Aww, Austin looks adorable today.” The light blue cap and romper set matched perfectly. Well, if you didn’t count the fair amount of drool wetting the underside of his chin, darkening the front. Bobbie Jo smiled proudly. “He does, doesn’t he?” “Yes, he’s quite handsome.” I bounced him in my arms and tickled Austin’s soft cheek. “By the way, thanks again for helping me get this job. I can’t believe your mom is friends with the library director.

” She waved me off. “Mom has been friends with Mary Duncan since kindergarten, but we didn’t have anything to do with it. You were perfect for the job. Even Mary said so. Just yesterday, she told my mom she could see you taking over the director position when she retires next year. Wouldn’t that be cool?” Sure. If I planned to stick around. But I didn’t. Actually, couldn’t was more like it. In six months, he’d be coming for me.

So I had to make the most of my time here…while it lasted. Alert and wide-eyed, the baby cooed at me, blowing spit bubbles and increasing his vocalizations as I made funny faces at him. Five-month-olds are so easily amused. Then a shiver ran down my spine, and the hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. Someone else watched me. Only his eyes were like lasers searing into my skin. I glanced at Cowboy and caught him grinning. My stomach dropped and my posture stiffened. I didn’t know why it happened, but my wires had always crossed around him. My normal friendly, chipper demeanor was now anxiety-ridden and laced with nervous energy.

The little guy in my arms must’ve sensed how frazzled I’d become because, although I tried to focus my attention on Austin, he whimpered and poked out his bottom lip. I spoke softly and rocked him back and forth, hoping to soothe away his tension, as well as my own, but it wasn’t working. “Sorry, Bobbie Jo. I didn’t mean to upset him.” “Oh, Anna, don’t worry about it. It’s not your fault. He’s been fussy since he started teething last week.” She rooted through the diaper bag and handed the baby a liquid-filled plastic teething ring to chew on. He grasped it in his tiny hand, took it straight to his slobbery mouth, and chomped on it. The teething ring seemed to be working until Austin hiccupped—hard enough to jolt his entire body —and startled himself.

The surprise on his cute little face tickled me, and I forgot all about my nervousness…and my voyeur. I threw back my head and laughed. Only after did I realize Cowboy still eyed me from across the room. And maybe it was the moronic way I always overanalyzed everything, but he seemed to be staring at me rather strangely. His eyes glazed over and the corner of his mouth twitched into a smirk, as if he were observing me with some sort of curious fascination or…interest? For a brief second, I may have considered stealing the baby’s soothing ring for myself. “Um, Bobbie Jo, why is Cowboy looking at me like that?” She peered in his direction and shrugged. “Who knows why that man does anything. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’s over there imagining you naked.” My mouth fell open. “What? That’s ridiculous,” I said as my face burned with the heat of embarrassment.

“I’m not the kind of woman men like him go for.” “Why do you say that?” “Simple reasoning. Don’t strapping young cowboys usually prefer their women how they like their horses—sleek, fast, and with a touch of wild?” She laughed. A lot. “You’ve been reading too many of those romance books of yours. Sweetie, you’re female and breathing. I’m pretty sure those are his only requirements.” I grinned at that, remembering my earlier thought about Cowboy’s most recent conquest. “Well, he’s not my type.” “What, you don’t like hot, well-built men?” “No.

Um, yes. I mean…” I shook my head to clear the confusion I was feeling. “It’s not that. I just don’t like men who regard women as sheep. And knowing Cowboy, I bet he probably lines them up and shears the clothes right off them.” “Can’t argue with that,” she said, nodding in agreement. “In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s already imagined you naked twenty different ways by now.” My stomach clenched tightly, and I frowned at the unwelcome sensation, making her laugh. I shook my head adamantly. “Well, it’s not going to happen.

Not with me, anyway.” “Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you’re immune to Cowboy. That would be a first. Most girls have to claw through the hoards of women just to get him to notice them. After all, he’s in the bachelor calendar, you know.” She giggled at that. “Bachelor calendar?” “The local newspaper runs a contest where men from Liberty County compete to be in next year’s calendar. Cowboy won a spot as May’s bachelor.” “Like a beauty contest for men?” “Basically,” she said with a grin.

“I mean, the winners get a photo shoot and everything. I’m surprised you haven’t seen them yet. The calendars were released yesterday and the whole town has been talking about them.” “I guess I don’t get out enough.” “Wait until you see what Cowboy… Uh-oh,” she said, glancing over my shoulder with a grin. “Speak of the devil. Look who’s coming.” Terrific. He sauntered across the room, smiling at his five-month-old godson still cradled in my arms. Cowboy leaned lazily on the counter, gave me a quick nod, and turned his attention to Bobbie Jo.

“Hey, beautiful. How’s the little turtle doing?” She heaved out an exasperated breath. “Would you please stop referring to Austin as a turtle?” “Sure I will. Just as soon as he grows some hair.” I wanted to laugh, but bit the inside of my cheek instead. Cowboy’s assessment of Austin’s bald head and bug eyes was quite accurate—he did look like a turtle. Though I wouldn’t dare tell his mother that. Bobbie Jo rolled her eyes. Apparently, she was used to the insulting nickname. “What are you doing here, anyway? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you in a library before.

You lose a bet or something?” “Very funny,” Cowboy said, though he wasn’t laughing. “No, Miss Nosey. I’m doing research.” He held up the book I’d helped him locate. “On household chemicals?” She shook her head. “Cowboy, when are you going to stop looking into that case? Don’t you think it’s time you let it go? It’s been months already. There’s nothing more you can do.” “Well, if I don’t investigate that goddamn fire, then who will?” My ears perked up. “Isn’t that what the fire marshal is for?” I said it without thinking, then looked down quickly, keeping my gaze from meeting his. It wasn’t like I couldn’t speak around him.

Basically, everything just came out sounding as awkward as I felt. Cowboy’s hand fisted on the counter. “I’m captain of the fire department, so that makes it my job. Besides, that jackass couldn’t find his balls with both hands. He damn sure isn’t going to solve this case.” Bobbie Jo touched his hand, offering him comfort. “I know you don’t feel like he’s doing enough,” she murmured. “But your department’s already so thinly staffed. And with the loss of your chief…” I cringed, realizing which fire they were talking about. “I hate to see you working so hard,” she added.

“You need to take a day off and catch up on your sleep.” I’d noticed the dark circles under his eyes, but had attributed them to late night bar outings I imagined he was accustomed to. But hell, what did I know? I also thought his nose looked a little more crooked than the last time I saw him. “Today is my day off, and it’s just now getting dark outside.” Cowboy rubbed at the back of his neck, then glanced at his watch. “When the library closes in half an hour, I’ll be heading home and hitting the sack.” Then he grinned at Bobbie Jo. “What are you doing here? Checking up on me?” “You being in a library is most definitely a newsworthy event, but no, I didn’t come here to make fun of you. That was just a bonus.” She smirked at me as she reached for Austin and pulled him into her arms.

No, Bobbie Jo, don’t say it! “I stopped by to see Anna. She moved here a few weeks ago.” Damn. She said it. Cowboy’s face warped with confusion. “Who’s Anna?” Bobbie Jo quirked a brow at his question, but gestured to me, anyway. His piercing gaze followed, and I gave him a fake, strained smile. Though he hadn’t recognized me, it still hurt that he hadn’t even remembered my name. “I didn’t know you were friends with Bobbie Jo.” He glanced back to her and said, “Your friend and I bumped into each other earlier.

Could’ve sworn I punctured her voice box or something. She barely said two words to me.” He turned back to me and grinned. “You must not like strangers.” I chewed on my bottom lip, not sure what to say. “Strangers?” Bobbie Jo laughed. “What, you don’t recognize her?” Her comment made Cowboy blink, and me wince. Damn it, Bobbie Jo. I wanted her to stop helping me. His glittery green eyes scanned up and down my slender body, and I could only imagine the shades of red my face turned.

“You know, you do look awfully familiar,” he said easily. “Did we sleep together?” Oh, good grief. Bobbie Jo was patting Austin on his back, but froze mid-pat. “Seriously, Cowboy?” She gave him a stern, motherly glare. “You don’t even know if Anna’s someone you’ve had sex with?” I cringed. Obviously, he thought sex with someone like me would be unmemorable. But did Bobbie Jo have to actually verbalize it? When he just shrugged, Bobbie Jo shook her head in disgust, then placed the yawning turtle back into his green stroller shell. “After dealing with Jeremy earlier today, I don’t even have the energy to smack you in the back of the head.” “You’re still dealing with that shit stain?” Cowboy snarled. “Guess I’m gonna have to kick his ass.

” She peered up at him in confusion. “For what?” “For being a dick.” “Yes, he is. But he’s also Austin’s father…even if only in the biological sense.” Bobbie Jo finished buckling her son into the stroller and straightened. “Look, I know he’s your long-time rival, but is there ever going to be a time I mention Jeremy’s name that one of Austin’s four godfathers don’t threaten to beat him up?” Cowboy grinned. “Nope.” “Fine. But I don’t want you or the other guys to do anything to him. I can handle Jeremy myself.

” Glancing at the clock on the wall, I realized it was almost closing time and noted that the people milling about had greatly dwindled in numbers. I still hadn’t even taken out the sack of garbage I’d left by the back door. “Excuse me for a moment,” I said quietly. “I need to take the trash out back before I close up.” That would allow me time to settle my nerves. After vacating the room I grabbed the bag of garbage, stepped out the back door, and tossed it into the big blue dumpster on the side of the library. I took a few deep breaths while fanning my hot face, then returned inside and rejoined Bobbie Jo and Cowboy just as she was about to leave. “You know, darlin’, you really do look familiar,” Cowboy said to me as Bobbie Jo stored the baby’s teething ring. “I just can’t place how we met.” Of course, he couldn’t.

I sighed. “I could just tell you.” “Aw, now where’s the fun in that?” Cowboy gave me a quick wink. “Oh, Lord,” Bobbie Jo said, rolling her eyes. She looked up at me. “Sorry I can’t visit with you longer, but I need to get Austin home and ready for his bath. I’ll call you tomorrow. Maybe we can go to dinner or something this week.” “Sure,” I replied. Bobbie Jo pushed the stroller toward the door.

“Let me know if you want me to stomp Jeremy’s ass into the ground,” Cowboy called out after her. She turned back long enough to give us a half-hearted wave, so I planted a smile firmly on my lips. But it was a ruse. The last few patrons had used the self-checkout scanner and had already vacated the library right before Bobbie Jo. That knowledge combined with the nervous energy zinging under my skin left me flustered. Deep inside, I was angst-ridden by the thought of being left alone in the same room as Cowboy. To busy my trembling hands, I stood at the desk with my back to him, fiddling with a stack of flyers for a chili cook-off to be held over the weekend. I straightened the lime green papers until they were all neatly aligned with the edge of the counter. Cowboy reached past me, brushing my body lightly with his, as he placed the book he held on the counter. “Mind holding onto this for me until tomorrow?” The scent of his cologne lingered in the air.

I turned toward him, carefully measuring him with my eyes. “You can check the book out.” “No library card.” “Oh. Okay, I can issue you one. I’ll just need your driver’s license and—” “Won’t work.” I paused, not entirely sure what he meant by his rude interruption. “All right. If you don’t have identification, then a utility bill with your name and address will suffice.” “Sorry.

No can do.” He smiled at the puzzled look I gave him. “I have identification, but very few people in this town know my real name, and I’d like to keep it that way. If I told you what it was, then I’m afraid it might be all over town by morning.” “Excuse me?” When he grinned at my surprised tone, I lifted my chin to portray my exasperation. “If you’re suggesting I’d speak to anyone about the library’s confidential records,” I said, my tone bordering on contempt, “then you’re—” He raised his hands in surrender. “Whoa! Hold up, darlin’. I wasn’t doing any such thing. Relax a little. Good Lord, are you always this uptight?” My eyes widened.

“I beg your pardon?” “Guess so. Judging by your clothes, I should have figured that.” Cowboy grinned and leaned one hip lazily against the counter next to me. Then he gave me a quick once-over and his eyes twinkled with shameless mirth, as if he were enjoying my exasperation…and proving his point.


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