First Chapter Sneak Peek
Sophie Carson smiled at her friends. They were sitting in the bar they liked to frequent—The Sloppy Cow. They tried to go out at least once a week, but sometimes, with their introverted natures, they didn’t quite make it.
When they’d met at the United States Army Institute of Surgical Research Burn Center, they hadn’t exactly hit it off. Autumn McCoy was forty-one and had been working at the Burn Center Annex in downtown San Antonio for years. She hadn’t been happy that her new coworkers were so much younger. Tory Brown was twenty-four. She’d received her PhD very young, and wasn’t exactly Ms. Social. Quinn Dixon was Sophie’s age, twenty-eight, and was gorgeous enough to be a model…except for the large birthmark on the edge of her face that went down her neck to her shoulder.
But as time went on and the women got to know each other, they’d realized that they all had similar concerns and fears about what others thought about them…and they became close friends.
“He seriously handed you twenty bucks and told you to have your boyfriend keep mowing his lawn and he’d pay for it?” Tory asked. “I would’ve died!”
Sophie nodded. “To be fair, I was just s-standing there gazing at him like an idiot.”
Autumn patted her hand. “Understandable, since you’ve had a crush on him since the day he moved in.”
Sophie could feel the blush in her cheeks. She hated how pale her skin was; anytime she was embarrassed, her cheeks flushed like a beacon, letting everyone know how uncomfortable she was. “It was ridiculous; I s-should’ve been able to s-say s-something.”
“Cut yourself some slack,” Quinn told her. “You’ll be better next time.”
Sophie shrugged. “M-maybe, m-maybe not. He isn’t around a lot and does his best not to m-make eye contact with anyone. Now that he thinks his neighbor is a m-mute freak, he’ll probably try to keep his distance even m-more.”
“You never know,” Tory said with a smile. “Maybe he’s intrigued now.”
“Because m-my nonexistent boyfriend cut his grass?” Sophie asked with a little laugh. “I highly doubt it.”
“We just need to think of something else you can do to get his attention,” Autumn decided. “What about going over and asking for a cup of sugar?”
“Right, because that wouldn’t be obvious or anything,” Sophie said with an eye-roll.
“He’s a fireman, and you work with burn victims…you could totally use the excuse that you want to talk to him about that,” Tory suggested.
Sophie was shaking her head before the other woman had finished speaking. “Even though we both work with fire, kinda, it’s not the s-same thing. That would be just as weird as asking for a cup of s-sugar when there’s a grocery s-store a block from where we live.”
“Well, shit…there has to be something you can do to talk to him again,” Quinn said, propping her chin on her hand on the table.
“I love that you guys want to help m-my pathetic love life along, but I think we have to admit that it’s hopeless. A guy like him isn’t going to look twice at m-me, no m-matter how m-much I want him to.”
All three of her friends protested at the same time, making Sophie smile. She held up a hand to stop their protestations and lifted her drink. “How about a toast to friends instead?”
As she expected, all three immediately held up their own cocktails.
“May Sophie be successful at bagging the hot fireman so we can all live vicariously through her sex life!”
They all giggled at Autumn’s toast and took sips of their drinks.
“Can I get you girls anything else?” their waitress asked. She appeared at their booth as if by magic.
“I think another round for m-my friends!” Sophie told her. “M-maybe s-s—”
“Shots? Something else? The same thing?”
“It’s rude to finish someone else’s sentences,” Quinn informed the waitress. “Just because Soph stutters doesn’t mean she’s stupid. And you looking impatient and irritated doesn’t make it any easier for her to get the words out.”
“Sorry,” the waitress said, not really appearing sorry. She looked tired, ready to go home and put her feet up more than anything else.
“It’s okay,” Sophie said with a smile, wanting to smooth over the awkward situation. She’d never been good at handling situations when someone was angry or upset with her. It had happened too much when she was growing up. Besides, she was used to people trying to guess what she was attempting to say. It was annoying, but wasn’t anything new. “How about a round of buttery nipples?” she asked, making sure to pick a shot that didn’t start with an m or s.
When she first began to speak, she’d stuttered over just about every word, but with speech therapy she’d conquered most, except those that started with the letters m and s. She’d been well on her way to not stuttering over those when her stepfather had decided to take her therapy to a new level…and failed spectacularly. Sophie had learned to instinctively choose words that didn’t begin with those two letters when she could. It made it easier for everyone, especially her.
“Got it. Anything else?” the waitress asked.
“A pitcher of beer. Whatever’s on tap,” Tory said.
“Not sure that’s a good idea,” Quinn told her friend. “We all drove here.”
“We can get taxis or Ubers home,” Autumn said. “It’s Friday night. We’re single and we’re here. Doesn’t happen all the time. Might as well live it up.”
Sophie nodded. “I’m in,” she said.
“Fine. I can see I’m outvoted,” Quinn grumbled, but they knew she wasn’t really upset.
“Four buttery nipples and a pitcher of Lone Star. I’ll be back.”
They all watched the waitress turn and head for the bar.
“Any bets on how long it’ll take her?” Autumn asked sarcastically.
“I probably s-should’ve just gone up to the bar and ordered s-straight from Erin,” Sophie said. “At least s-she likes us.”
The other women laughed and nodded. The part-time bartender did like them. They’d met the pretty bartender when they’d first come into The Sloppy Cow. Sometimes they sat at the bar just so they could talk to her. Erin taught at the university nearby in the kinesiology department, and had hilarious stories about some of the trips she’d taken with the students.
Once she’d asked if the four women wanted to join a camping and backpacking trip to the Guadalupe Mountains on the western side of the state—and had gotten blank stares in return. Sophie and her friends were not outdoorsy people. At all. They spent their time in libraries, behind microscopes, and in a windowless lab…they didn’t do hiking, heat, and sunshine.
While they were waiting for their drinks, Autumn put her hand on Sophie’s arm and said earnestly, “Don’t sell yourself short, Soph. You’re beautiful, and if your neighbor can’t see that, it’s on him, not you. You work hard, your heart is as big as anyone’s I’ve ever met. You’re a bulldog at work and you’d give the shirt off your back to anyone who needed it. Your stutter doesn’t define you, any more than Quinn’s birthmark, my age, or Tory’s shyness. You want your hunk of a firefighter neighbor? Go for it.”
“Thanks, Autumn,” Sophie said. “I appreciate it. But it’s not like I can force him to be interested in m-me if the attraction’s not there in the first place…a m-mutual one, that is.”
“But you can at least try,” Quinn said. “At least tell him you’re not taken. If he’s a good man, he won’t even look at you twice since he thinks you’re involved with someone else, and you’ll never have a shot at him.”
“That’s true,” Sophie mumbled.
“Of course it is,” Quinn said.
Wanting to change the subject to something other than her crush on her neighbor, and knowing her friends were enthusiastic about their work at finding new, better ways to treat burns, Sophie asked, “What is everyone working on next week?”
Thus began a lively discussion on the four women’s work at the best burn center in Texas.
* * *
Roman “Chief” Proudfit sipped the beer he’d been nursing for the last thirty minutes. He was sitting with two friends, Dean “Crash” Christopherson and Conor Paxton. Crash was a fellow firefighter and Conor was a game warden who worked for Texas Parks and Wildlife.
They were sitting in a high-backed booth at The Sloppy Cow, a bar they’d discovered when they were in the area fighting a fire and had decided it was their new hangout. It was a hole-in-the-wall kind of bar…dim and still slightly smelling like smoke from when smoking was allowed indoors. The clientele was mostly locals and there were few bar fights, making it an authentic and mostly relaxing atmosphere to hang with friends and have a couple beers.
Tonight, however, Chief couldn’t relax. He was sitting with his back to the only other booth in the bar, and he could easily overhear the conversation from the four tipsy women sitting in it. He hadn’t seen the women when he and his friends had arrived, but he knew without a doubt, by their conversation, one of the women was his next-door neighbor.
Chief hadn’t known her name before tonight, but they had most certainly been talking about him. He’d had no idea his pretty neighbor had a crush on him. Hell, he hadn’t even noticed her until he’d seen her outside and had paid her for mowing his lawn.
He now understood why she hadn’t said anything to him. He’d barged up to her, thrust a twenty-dollar bill in her face, and basically barked at her. If she did have a crush on him, that, along with her stutter, most likely prevented her from being able to speak right away. It wasn’t like he’d given her a chance, either.
Crash had told him more than once that if he didn’t start paying attention, the love of his life could be right under his nose and he’d miss out on his chance at happiness. He hadn’t thought much about it, but as he listened to how sensitive and caring his neighbor was with her friends, as well as her adorable little drunk giggle, he decided Crash had been right. Maybe it was time to introduce himself properly to his neighbor.
“What do you think?” Crash asked.
Chief looked up at his friend with surprise and a little guilt. “Sorry, what?”
“You haven’t heard a single thing we’ve said, have you?” Conor asked with a grin.
Chief shrugged. “Been thinkin’.”
“About what?” Crash asked.
“This and that,” Chief told him.
Instead of being irritated by the brush-off, Crash merely smiled. “Conor and I were talking about doing something different with the cop versus firefighter fundraiser this year.”
Chief’s eyebrow went up in question.
“We’ve done the softball game a couple of times now. What if we changed it up to another sport? I was thinking hockey. Conor thinks basketball.”
“No on the hockey,” Chief said immediately.
“But it’d be awesome. Women love hockey players…and men dig the sport,” Crash argued. “We’d make a killing.”
“We’d be killed,” Chief countered. “I don’t think any of us has ever played before. We don’t even know the rules, not to mention we’d most certainly hurt ourselves.”
“But think how funny it would be,” Crash said.
“No,” Chief said decisively. “I’m all for switching it up, but hockey is out.”
“Fine,” Crash grumbled. “But I think basketball is too boring.”
Chief tuned out his friends as the women in the booth behind him began to speak again. It wasn’t as if he was really eavesdropping, he reasoned, they were talking loud enough for him to hear them easily.
“I found the best candidate yesterday.”
“He was admitted recently. A teenager who was burned when his friends were m-messing around with lighter fluid and m-matches. They transferred him over to S-San Antonio Methodist Hospital from Nix M-Medical Center. He’s African-American and really poor. His dad isn’t around anymore. I guess he was in a gang and was killed when the boy was little. He lives with his m-mom, who works part-time for a company cleaning buildings. S-She doesn’t have the m-money for his treatments, s-so they’re perfect.”
Chief stiffened in his seat. It was his neighbor who was talking, that much was obvious from her stutter, but he wasn’t comfortable with what she was saying. He didn’t know exactly what she meant, but he wasn’t feeling very good about it. He did know where San Antonio Methodist Hospital was, as he’d been there many times transporting patients and visiting people he’d brought there in the station’s ambulance. He continued to listen in on the conversation.
“That’s awesome. Did she agree for the institute to pick up the tab?”
“Are you kidding? S-She practically begged m-me to let her s-son in.”
The women all chuckled.
“Soph, I don’t know how you do it. You always manage to find the most vulnerable people for our studies.”
“It’s a gift,” Sophie responded, the pride easy to hear in her voice. “S-Sometimes disadvantaged people are the easiest to convince. Honestly, s-sometimes I feel bad about pressuring patient’s families, but then I think about how it affects m-me and the institute, and the m-money it will ultimately bring in, and I’m perfectly okay with m-my actions.”
Chief chugged the rest of his beer, stood, and informed his friends, “I’ll be right back.”
He swallowed down the bile that had crept up his throat. He didn’t know his neighbor, but he was disappointed nevertheless. Growing up on the reservation in New Mexico, he’d experienced “do-gooders” first hand who’d tried to take advantage of his people.
They’d come in pretending to have their best interests at heart, when in reality all they’d wanted was a Native American body for whatever experiments they wanted to do. Drug trials, mental health counseling, magic pills to “cure” alcoholism…the list was never ending.
The fact that his pretty neighbor might be like the leeches he remembered from his childhood sat like a thick black ball in his gut.
Chief used the restroom and looked in the mirror as he washed his hands. The face looking back at him had been called handsome by more than one woman. He kept his hair long, but pulled back into a ponytail that hung down his back to honor his heritage. Being part Native American was as much a part of who he was as being a firefighter. It was literally in his blood.
Gritting his teeth as he dried his hands, Chief knew what he had to do. He’d promised himself when he’d moved to Texas and off the reservation that he wouldn’t stand by and let anyone take advantage of those weaker, poorer, or not as fortunate as him. Even knowing it would cause problems, since he lived next door to the woman, he couldn’t leave without confronting her and making her agree to lay off the poor teenager she had in her sights.
He left the restroom and saw his lovely neighbor standing at the bar talking to Erin, one of the bartenders. Realizing it was the perfect chance to talk to her away from her friends, and his, Chief went right up to her.
She turned in surprise and looked at him with wide eyes. To give her credit, she didn’t gape at him as she had in her driveway. “Yeah, that’s m-me. Hi.”
She held out her hand in greeting and Chief ignored it. He knew he was being rude, but he didn’t want to pretend he liked her when he was so pissed.
“It’s not cool to prey on the poor.”
“Pardon?” Sophie asked, dropping her hand and shifting uneasily.
“I heard what you told your friends. That the poor teenage boy with the single mother can’t afford treatment so you just happened to be there to jump in and offer to pay for it…as long as they entered your program. That’s not cool. Not at all.”
He ignored the cute little furrow in her brow as she looked at him in confusion. “I’m s-sorry, but I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”
“I’m talking about you offering to help the ‘poor black boy’ who doesn’t have any money. I’ve seen it time and time again when I was growing up on the reservation. You know they can’t afford to pay for the treatment they need so you play savior and offer to pay for everything…as long as they take the drugs you want them to and allow you to take his blood and do who knows what else in return. You make him a pin cushion and a human scientific experiment. It’s disgusting and vile. I know I can’t stop you from doing it, but I’m hoping I can make you at least think twice about it.”
“I think there’s been a m-misunderstanding,” Sophie insisted. “That’s not what I’m doing. I m-mean, I do look for patients who can’t afford treatment, but—”
“There are no buts about it,” Chief interrupted, thoroughly disgusted. “I’ve seen what burns do to people firsthand. They hurt, and when people hurt, they aren’t thinking right. They’ll sign whatever bullshit agreement you put in front of them if you say there’s a chance it’ll reduce that pain.” His lip curled in derision and he didn’t care that the woman in front of him saw it. “I think I’ll go to the hospital tomorrow and have a talk with that poor kid’s mom. Tell her what she’s really getting into.”
Instead of looking scared by his threat, Sophie put her hands on her hips and glared at him. “You do that. Ask for Traynesha Washington and her s-son, Diontray. And m-make s-sure you ask her exactly what S-Sophie promised her, too, while you’re at it.”
They glared each other for a heartbeat before Sophie shook her head and turned to Erin who had been standing on the other side of the bar shamelessly eavesdropping. “I just wanted you to know we’re gonna call it a night. We’ve called cabs and will be out of here in a bit. Thanks for the drinks tonight.”
“You all right?” Erin asked.
Sophie sighed. “I’m good.”
“Okay. And you’re welcome. You guys are easy compared to some people who come in here. We didn’t get to talk much tonight…next time?”
“Definitely,” Sophie told her. Then waved and turned back to head to the booth her friends were sitting in, ignoring Chief as if he didn’t exist.
“That was a dumbass move,” Erin told Chief as he glared at Sophie’s retreating back.
He turned to her. “You think it’s okay to prey on people who are down on their luck?”
“Of course not,” she shot back immediately. “But you have no idea what Sophie and her friends do. You accused her of something she’s not guilty of.”
Chief shook his head. “You don’t understand.”
“No, you don’t,” Erin insisted. “I get it. You’ve been discriminated against. Sucks. But so have lots of other people, including myself.” At his look of disbelief, she nodded. “Chief, just because you’ve been mistreated, it doesn’t give you the right to do the same thing to others.”
Chief looked at the pretty bartender for a long moment. She had on her usual tight, long-sleeve T-shirt, which hugged her body as if painted on. She had to be exaggerating about being discriminated against. She was skinny, cute, and there was no way she knew how it felt to be in his shoes. “She flat-out admitted to preying on poor people to get them to join her medical trials,” Chief told her between clenched teeth.
Erin shook her head in disgust. “You’re hot, Chief, but so stuck in your own head and beliefs about what happened to you and your people that you wouldn’t be able to see the truth if it smacked you upside the head.”
Chief looked over to Sophie and her friends, who were gathering up their things, then turned back to the bartender. “What do you mean?”
“Do it. Go to her hospital tomorrow. Track down that mother and ask her about her visit with Sophie. Ask to see the papers Soph was sure to have given her to sign. Read them. See for yourself what that family is getting and what they’re giving in order to have that boy’s treatment taken care of.”
Chief felt uneasy for the first time. Was he wrong? No, he couldn’t be. “I will,” he told Erin.
“Good. Then come back here and let me tell you ‘I told you so.’ It’ll be the highlight of my night.”
He stared at her for a beat before asking belatedly, “You’ve been discriminated against?”
She didn’t say anything, simply glared at him with a hostile look on her face. Finally, when he didn’t think she was going to answer, she said quietly, “Just because I’m white and skinny, doesn’t mean my life has been sunshine and roses. What you see isn’t always what you get. People change, Chief. Outward appearances can too. For someone who has probably spent most of his life fighting against discrimination, you can be awfully blind sometimes.”
Chief opened his mouth to respond, but she gestured toward the door with her head. He turned in time to see his neighbor and her friends heading out the door. On her way past a small table with an older man sitting by himself, Sophie put a bill on the table, patted him on the back, and left the bar.
“That man’s wife died three months ago,” Erin said softly. “She was in a car crash. Her vehicle caught fire and she had third-degree burns over seventy percent of her body. Sophie sat with him for a week straight while his wife fought for her life. But ultimately the burns were too bad and she passed away. He’s been coming here every night since then because he can’t bear to be at his house when his wife isn’t there.” Erin shrugged. “He doesn’t drink a lot, a few beers, but Sophie pays for them every time she’s here.”
Chief stared at the slumped shoulders of the older man as he stared down into his beer. The bill Sophie put on his table sitting where she’d placed it. An uneasy feeling crept over him like a wave. Had he misjudged Sophie? No, he couldn’t have.
“Later, Chief,” Erin said, then turned away from him and grabbed a wet rag and began to wipe off the wooden surface on the other end of the bar.
Chief wandered back over to his friends and sat heavily on his side of the booth.
“You and Erin were talking for a while,” Conor stated. He tried to be nonchalant, but failed miserably. “What about?”
“Nothing interesting,” Chief told him. “Just shooting the shit.”
It was obvious Conor liked the bartender, but he hadn’t acted on it. The man had better get on that before someone else moved in. Erin was cute. Outspoken, fearless, and pretty. Just the kind of woman any man would want by his side…except Chief.
He hadn’t ever been attracted to blondes, preferring women who looked more like he did…dark hair, dark skin. But even though he was upset at Sophie and her lack of remorse about taking advantage of people, he still felt a pull to her, and it pissed him off.
Chief tried to get back into the conversation with Crash and Conor, but knew he failed miserably. His friends were used to him not saying much, so he wasn’t sure they even noticed his unusual reticence. Thoughts of his neighbor, with her angelic blonde, almost white hair, wouldn’t leave his brain. His threat of going to the hospital to speak to the mother of the burned boy had been mostly talk, but with Erin’s words spinning through his head, he knew he’d be there for certain bright and early in the morning.
He’d had to move once because of discrimination in the neighborhood he’d lived in; he didn’t want to have to move again because he and his neighbor couldn’t get along.
Later that night, lying in bed, Chief reluctantly admitted to himself that he admired the way Sophie had stood up to him. She hadn’t cowered, had put her hands on her hips and gone toe to toe with him, daring him to show up at the hospital as he’d threatened.
But it was the sorrow in her eyes that got to him. He hated that his actions had put that look on her face…even if he thought he was in the right. Her mowing his grass had been nice. A kind gesture, just like her paying for the grieving old man’s drinks. Just like letting Erin know they’d called cabs. He couldn’t reconcile the woman who was as considerate as his neighbor seemed to be with the kind of person who could take advantage of others, as she apparently was.
Sophie’s house had been dark when Chief had gotten home and it bothered him that he’d wanted to go over and knock on her door to make sure she’d made it home all right.
He was a mess. Pissed one second and concerned about her the next.
Shaking his head and turning on his side, Chief closed his eyes and tried to sleep. It was a long time in coming, and when he did finally nod off, it was to dream of one of the elders he knew growing up, shaking his finger at him, as if reprimanding a small child, then an angel with blonde hair, who floated around him saying “told you s-so, told you s-so” over and over.
Shelter for Sophie
She’s shy, he’s stoic…not the hardest personality traits to overcome, but Sophie Carson and Roman “Chief” Proudfit definitely have their work cut out for them.
Sophie has a crush on the silent-but-studly firefighter next door. She’s been pining away silently while secretly helping the hardworking man by mowing his lawn—which he thinks is being done by her nonexistent husband and/or boyfriend. He’s definitely not big on neighborly chitchat, but with her stutter, that suits Sophie just fine. But now a misunderstanding at a bar has put him even further out of her reach.
Roman’s difficult upbringing on an Indian reservation is a sore spot, so when he thinks Sophie is taking advantage of poor people for medical trials at her workplace, he lets her know exactly what he thinks. But when he discovers he misunderstood, he’s man enough to admit it…and also admit he should have opened his eyes to his beautiful, sensitive neighbor sooner.
As the couple gets closer, each helping the other overcoming lifelong pains, for the first time in years, Roman has something to live for other than his job. And, as he discovers when Sophie puts herself in danger, something even bigger to lose…
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