Sawyer “Squirrel” McClay turned to look at his friend and fellow firefighter, Penelope. She was sitting on one of the couches in the fire station with her pet miniature donkey, Smokey, beside her. The creature had found her when she was in the middle of nowhere, searching for their friend Erin and the asshole who had kidnapped her. Smokey had been smoldering from the forest fire raging around them. Penelope had poured water on the suffering animal and apparently that was all it took for Smokey to decide she was now his human.
Squirrel couldn’t complain about the small donkey being around because he was obviously doing Penelope a lot of good. She was less jumpy, less likely to lose her temper with him and the others, and more relaxed.
Yup, it was unconventional to have a PTSD donkey, but what did he know?
Squirrel didn’t hear any censure in Penelope’s tone when she asked her question, so he nodded. “Yeah.” He’d been texting Blythe nonstop for the last twenty minutes or so. Sometimes she liked to talk, but most of the time she preferred to communicate with him via text.
“You have any luck getting her off the streets?”
Squirrel pressed his lips together and shook his head. “No. And it kills me. I hate that she’s out there by herself. Sleeping on the ground. Always having to watch her back.”
“You talked to Quint about her, right? He have any luck in finding her?”
“Beth could track her through the cell phone, you know. All you have to do is ask.”
Squirrel knew that. Hell, Beth had volunteered the second she’d heard about Blythe’s situation. He’d taken her up on her offer, but was keeping that information to himself for now. He knew without a doubt that if Blythe found out he’d interfered in any way with her life, he’d never hear from her again. And that thought hurt. He’d gotten to know the woman pretty well over the last few months, and he wanted to believe that she wouldn’t just disappear on him after all this time, but he couldn’t take the chance.
She was special. More than special. And it literally hurt his heart when he thought about her being cold, hot, hungry, dirty, and in danger. And he knew from talking with both Tadd and Louise that living on the streets was definitely dangerous. The older couple had taken Blythe under their wing when they were living in an abandoned building next to a hospital.
The night Doctor Shane Kingsley had set fire to the building—the night Squirrel first met Blythe—had been more than chaotic. Tadd and Louise had ended up in the hospital and Blythe had disappeared in the confusion.
Squirrel had inadvertently given her his cell phone; it had been in the pocket of the sweatshirt he’d changed out of in the back of the fire truck on the way to the fire. With no thought other than getting her warm, he’d given Blythe his sweatshirt that night. He’d been annoyed at first when she’d disappeared with his phone, but decided the vulnerable woman needed it way more than he did.
So instead of calling his provider to cancel the phone and number, he simply got another cell. And then he began to text his old number, knowing texts would show up on the home screen, and she could see them without having to unlock the phone.
It had taken two weeks of constant texts before she’d finally replied. He’d given her the code to unlock his phone so she would have complete access. Yeah, she could still read his emails, and she’d been able to read texts from people before they’d received his new number, but he had nothing to hide.
The first time Blythe had responded, Squirrel had felt inordinately pleased. Her text had been short and to the point, but it was a start. She’d merely written, You’re insane.
She’d only met him once, and even that encounter had been short. Squirrel knew giving her the phone and continuing to communicate with her was a bit odd, but it was refreshing to talk to someone who didn’t want anything from him other than a simple conversation.
It seemed as if his entire life, he was the guy women wanted to be “friends” with. They wanted help with their homework. They wanted him to help set them up with his firefighter friends.
He wasn’t an idiot. He knew what women saw when they looked at him. A tall, skinny guy with glasses. They judged him based on his looks alone without bothering to get to know him. He didn’t fit what they thought they wanted…namely a gorgeous, tall, buff hunk of a man who would fall at their feet and worship them until they were old and gray.
The irony was that Squirrel knew when he found someone to love, he’d most certainly bend over backward to make sure they wanted for nothing. However, he wasn’t the kind of man women normally looked at twice, so most often he never had a chance to show them he was more than the nerd they saw on the outside. When he went out with his firefighter buddies, all eyes were on them, not him.
It didn’t bother Squirrel…usually.
But Blythe wasn’t like that. Granted, she’d only seen him once, and it was in the middle of an intense situation, but she never asked him for anything, like the girls and women in college and high school had. Nothing other than his time to talk to her.
And that was what really got to him. For the first time ever, he wanted a woman to ask something of him, and Blythe steadfastly refused. He wanted to help her. Wanted to be the man she trusted to open up to about her hopes and dreams…and fears.
Squirrel knew Blythe was different than the women who wanted to use him for his knowledge or connections because she always sounded happy to talk to him when he called, always steering the conversation away from her situation. They’d had countless text conversations, and not once had she made him believe she was talking to him for any other reason than it pleased her.
He’d taken a screenshot of something she’d told him in a text once, pulling it up when he felt down or insecure.
Thanks for being my friend.
The thought of Blythe being his friend, and only his friend, was enough to make Squirrel’s palms break out into a sweat. He’d never felt for a woman what he felt for Blythe. Maybe it was the late-night text conversations. Maybe it was that he’d gotten to know her as a person before even remotely thinking about having sex with her.
Whatever it was, Squirrel wanted her. Wanted to scoop her off the streets and tell her that he’d always keep her safe. That he’d make sure she had whatever she needed so she didn’t have to sleep on the dirty ground anymore. It was similar to the feeling he remembered having when he saw his baby sister Emma for the first time, yet very different.
He didn’t feel brotherly toward Blythe Coopman. Not in the least.
Penelope cleared her throat and when Squirrel looked up, he saw her eyebrows raised in question.
“Sorry, what?” he asked.
She smirked. “Beth could find her for you,” she repeated.
Squirrel sighed. “I know. She already brought it up.”
“And?” Penelope asked.
Running a hand through his short dark brown hair in agitation, Squirrel tried to put his feelings into words. “It would be a breach of trust. I’ve only talked to Blythe about her being homeless once. She told me in no uncertain terms that she was doing her best, and that she’d gotten herself into the situation and wanted to get herself out of it.”
“But that’s silly,” Penelope said, her facial expression making it clear she didn’t understand. “I mean, if you’re willing to help her, why wouldn’t she take it?”
“I haven’t been in her shoes, but I’m thinking she doesn’t want to be pitied. And taking money or other kinds of help would make her feel indebted to me. And she flat-out told me she doesn’t ever want to be in debt to anyone else.”
“Why? What happened?”
“I don’t know. She wouldn’t say. But obviously something that had a profound effect on her. I don’t like it. Hell, I hate it. Every time I hang up with her or end a text conversation, I’m terrified it’ll be the last time I talk to her. Anything could happen to her on the streets. She could be beaten up, raped, killed…but she always reassures me that she’s being smart and safe.” Squirrel sighed and looked at Penelope. “But I have a plan.”
“A plan?” Penelope asked.
“Yup. I promised I wouldn’t offer her money to get her off the street, but I never said I’d give up trying to keep her safe and get her back on her feet.”
Penelope held up a hand, stopping Squirrel from saying anything else. “If you go behind her back and somehow trick her, and she finds out about it, you’ll lose your chance with her forever.”
“It’s not like that,” Squirrel protested, shocked at the absolute certainty in Penelope’s voice.
“If you’re going to be sneaky and somehow give her money, but don’t tell her it’s from you…it is like that. I don’t know her, but it’s obvious she’s a proud woman. She’s already told you that she doesn’t want your money. If you think doing something underhanded is going to get her to like you, you’re absolutely wrong.”
Squirrel tried not to get upset at his friend. But she totally had the wrong idea. “Is it so wrong to want to help her?” he asked. “Wrong to want to make her life easier? I don’t know what happened to put her on the streets, but it’s obvious to everyone who’s met her that she doesn’t belong there.”
“So others do belong there?” Penelope asked.
Exasperated, Squirrel shook his head. “No, that’s not what I meant.”
“Then say what you mean,” she insisted, absently petting Smokey’s head as she sat back on the cushions. As if the donkey could feel her agitation, he nuzzled closer, laying his head in her lap.
Squirrel wanted to laugh at the way the donkey was acting like a lapdog, but he was too upset. “It kills me that she’d rather sleep on the streets than accept my help. She means something to me. I’ve never felt about a woman the way I do about her. I want to get to know her better. Take her to dinner. Date. But knowing she doesn’t feel the same way about me…it tears me up inside. I’m not trying to trick her. But even if she doesn’t want my help, I’m going to do whatever I can to give it to her anyway.”
Penelope stared at him for a long moment. Squirrel sat still and let her silently analyze him. He hadn’t meant to blurt that out, but he wasn’t sorry he had. He liked Blythe, and not simply because of her looks. Hell, she’d been dirty and disheveled the one time they’d met. It was her. Her quirky sense of humor. The way she put everyone else before herself. Her compassion and stubbornness.
Every time he had a conversation with her, Squirrel felt more and more desperate to get her off the streets.
“What’s your plan?” Penelope asked softly, all traces of animosity in her tone gone.
“Tadd and Louise have moved out of Sophie’s house. They got an apartment not too far from there. I asked Sophie, and she said she had no problem with Blythe moving in. She said she’d do whatever I needed her to do to help convince Blythe to accept. She’d be safe there, Tiger,” Squirrel said, referring to the unoccupied home of their coworker’s girlfriend. “She wouldn’t have to worry about someone stealing her stuff. She wouldn’t have to worry about someone attacking her in the middle of the night or raping her. Sophie and Chief live next door; if she needed anything, they’d be there to help her. I have no idea if she’ll accept my offer, but I desperately want her to, even if she doesn’t want anything to do with me personally. At least she’ll be off the streets and safe.”
He waited, holding his breath to see what Penelope thought.
“Actually…that’s a good idea. Really good. Tadd and Louise took Sophie up on her offer for them to live there, and she seemed to be close to them. It’s not really charity since Sophie isn’t living there anyway.”
Squirrel let out the breath he was holding. “Now I just have to figure out how to bring it up in conversation, and how to get her to agree.”
“If you knew where she was, you could accidentally run into her. Or have Sophie do it.”
Squirrel shook his head. “No, that would be underhanded and sneaky. I just have to man-up and bring it up in conversation.”
“I do have a piece of advice for you,” Penelope told him.
“If you really like this woman, don’t let her slip through your fingers. Life is short. You never know when you’ll be minding your own business one second, and fighting for your life the next.”
Squirrel immediately wanted to get up, step over the coffee table, and take the slight firefighter into his arms, but he knew she wouldn’t appreciate it.
Penelope had come a long way since she’d been taken hostage by terrorists over in Turkey while in the Army. He wouldn’t do or say anything that would make her believe he thought less of her and the way she’d handled everything.
“I’m not exactly a woman’s ideal man. I might be a firefighter, and I know some women like to fantasize about a man in uniform showing up at their house and telling them they’ve come to ‘put out their fire.’ But if it was me who showed up, they’d be disappointed.”
“What? Why would you say that?” Penelope demanded.
Squirrel didn’t beat around the bush. He knew what he was and what he wasn’t. “Look at me, Tiger. I’m shorter than everyone else who works around here—and you don’t count. I’m skinnier, not as muscular. And I wear glasses. I’ve seen the covers of those romance books you like to read. Not one of those hunks is wearing glasses.”
“Squirrel, those aren’t real. They’re meant to sell books. They’re just fantasies.”
He arched his brows at her. “Yeah, that’s what I’m saying. I’m no woman’s fantasy.”
He cut her off before she could say anything else. “I’m not saying I don’t think I have a lot to offer a woman. I do. I have a steady job that I’m good at. I have a great family. I own my house, even if it’s not a mansion, and I would always put a woman first if she were in my life. I know women bitch about the media and the image of ‘beauty’ it portrays. Skinny, face full of makeup, high heels. But what about men? It’s the same thing. I don’t live up to—and will never live up to—the media’s idea of the alpha male. I’m as alpha as Sledge, Crash, Chief, or even Moose, but because I don’t look the part, most women won’t even consider me as a mate.”
Penelope nodded. “I understand.”
“I’d rather be Blythe’s friend, and have her in my life, than admit how I feel and hear her tell me there’s no way she’ll ever feel the same. I like her, Tiger. Really like her. I’m terrified of screwing this up somehow.”
“Just be honest with her. I understand where you’re coming from, but you’re right, you’re a hell of a man—and yeah, you’re overbearing, overprotective, and annoyingly macho, just like the others.” She smiled to let him know she was teasing. “Any woman, and especially Blythe, would be lucky to have you by her side. She’s lived a hard life, Squirrel. I’m guessing she couldn’t give a flying fuck about what a man looks like. She’ll be more interested in what he’s like on the inside. And you, my friend, are amazing. And from the little you’ve told me about her, exactly what she needs.”
“Thanks, Tiger,” Squirrel said. “I appreciate it.”
“You need anything, all you gotta do is ask,” she said.
“I know. And believe me, I won’t hesitate to ask if I need you.”
“Good. Now…did I tell you what Smokey did yesterday?”
Squirrel shook his head and didn’t even feel bad when he tuned Penelope out. All she ever talked about lately was her new pet and how amazing he was. He’d heard so many stories about how “Smokey did this…” or “Smokey did that…” that he was donkey-ed out.
All he could think about was Blythe. He liked her. She was funny and, based on the stories she’d told him about helping out others on the street, genuinely nice. Squirrel worried about her constantly. The sooner Blythe was off the streets herself, the happier he’d be.
Blythe Coopman never imagined she’d be homeless, but a series of events has landed her on San Antonio’s streets…hungry, tired, and scared. She clings to her most precious possession, a phone accidentally swiped from a local firefighter, who, instead of canceling the number, starts texting her. Soon, the man’s calls and texts are the highlight of her days, but she declines his frequent offers of help. Blythe refuses to be his burden—until a vicious attack takes the decision out of her hands.
When the woman he’s already begun to care for ends up in the ER, Sawyer “Squirrel” McClay is livid—and ashamed. He should have insisted she accept his help long ago. Now, he’s not taking no for an answer. While his friends rally round Blythe, Squirrel’s bond with her grows stronger by the day, until he realizes he’ll do anything to keep her safe, healthy, and happy…even as his own lifelong insecurities work against him.
But despite leaving the streets behind, Blythe and Sawyer discover old dangers still linger, threatening to end the couple’s new bliss before it’s barely begun.
** Shelter for Blythe is the 11th book in the Badge of Honor: Texas Heroes Series. Each book is a stand-alone, with no cliffhanger endings.
New York Times Bestselling Author
Shelter for Blythe
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