Playing with Fire Excerpt

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The truck stopped in front of the main entrance to the home’s courtyard and cut the engine. A tall, sandy-haired man exited the vehicle and looked around the property.

Stella’s breath caught in the back of her throat. Matt Anderson? What was he doing here? Last year, when Adams Construction had hired him she’d only seen him a couple of times. Matt had come off as a ‘let’s just stick to business’ kind of guy who, for all practical purposes, avoided her.

However, now that she thought about it, she wouldn’t have put it past her brothers to pull the brown-eyed Texan aside and let him know in no uncertain terms that their baby sister was strictly off limits.

She went to raise her arm and shout a greeting, but he walked into the house. Stella dropped her arm and waited. From a distance, he looked the same as she remembered, and heat flushed her face as she recalled the details of when they first met. He’d shaken her hand after being introduced and Stella literally felt butterflies dance giddily in her stomach when their fingers touched. He looked at her, not like a lion sizing up a gazelle for dinner, but Matt really looked at her, before he uttered a word. And when he spoke, his voice flowed with a warm easy smoothness and a faint trace of a southern drawl.

She tidied up by finger-combing her hair, then straightened her blouse and dusted her jeans off. When Shawn, Matt’s partner, got shot, she rallied to Morgan’s side as she took him into her home and nursed him through his recovery. Since the two men were business partners, Stella halfway hoped that she would see Matt again. When it didn’t happen, she chalked things up to something that wasn’t meant to be and moved on.

Stella chewed her lower lip as she pondered why he’d shown up, and then the answer hit her like a gut punch. Stella sucked in a deep breath, crossed her arms against her chest, and mumbled, “Dad, what are you up to?”

Stella dropped her arms, stuffed her hands into her jeans pockets, and waited until Matt emerged from the house. Once outside, he glanced over at the barn and locked eyes with her almost instantly. “Here we go,” she murmured.

Stella waited as he walked toward her. Matt wore dress slacks, a white shirt, and tie. The man looked hot, seriously hot, and the butterflies dancing in her stomach returned. Matt looked every bit the part of a successful businessman. He probably didn’t spend much time, if any, outside of an air-conditioned office. Yet, there was something about how he moved, that hinted that he was comfortable outdoors.

As he drew near, Stella pulled her hands out of her pockets and smiled. “Hi Matt, what brings you here?”

He returned her smile and extended his hand. “I got a referral from a client that you might need some construction site security.”

Stella smiled. “Anyone I know?”

His grin faded. “Yeah, your father.”

So much for a verbal volley back and forth where he’d deny her father’s involvement. Matt’s direct, honest answer had been the equivalent of a tennis player serving up an ace.

Her smile faded and she locked eyes with him, “What did he say?”

“Nothing much, but I think he’s concerned about you.”

She exhaled and laughed softly, “He has a strange way of showing it. You should have seen him yesterday.”

Matt nodded. “I can imagine. Look, I’ll be straight with you. I have no intention of getting caught up in the middle of a family dispute. However, sometimes people want what’s best for you and despite their best intentions they screw things up.”

Matt looked at her. Stella couldn’t exactly peg where that comment came from but the expression on his face wasn’t the confident, “listen to me because I know better” expression that her father often had. It was something different. A mix of emotions, like regret mixed with a healthy dose of empathy.

“Really?” Stella asked.

“Let’s just say I’ve had some experience dealing with a well-meaning father,” Matt replied.

His expression shifted to neutral politeness. “Seriously, have you considered how you’re going to secure your equipment and materials?”

Stella paused. If there had been a connection about dealing with meddling fathers a few seconds ago, it had evaporated so quickly, she began to think she’d imagined it.

A light breeze pushed a lock of his hair forward onto his brow. For a second, the impulse to reach forward and sweep it away from his face flitted through her mind. Stella tamped down the thought and consciously returned her hands to her jeans pockets.

“I’ve decided to pass on using perimeter fencing. This property is five acres. The cost would be prohibitive. However, I’ll need to secure an area for a tractor and materials.” Stella said.

He nodded at the house. “What about that? I walked right in. If someone trespassed and got injured, things could become expensive very quickly, not to mention the vandalism possibilities.”

Stella nodded. “I’ll be boarding up the windows and doors for the time being.”

Matt’s jaw dropped slightly and she raised her hand before he could protest. “Look, you’re good at what you do and, frankly, I do need some security for this project, but I can’t hire you and have you reporting back to my father.”


She cut him off. “Did he tell you that he forbade any of my brothers from communicating, much less helping, me on this project? For all practical purposes, I’ve been excommunicated from the family.”

Matt leveled his gaze on her. “No, he didn’t. And for the record, I’m not here to report back to him. Hire me and I’ll work for you.”

Stella laughed and shook her head. “I can’t afford you.”

“Yes, you can. I’ll give you a discount. How about the new customer discount?”

Stella dropped her gaze to the dirt. This conversation had not gone as expected. Matt should return to his truck, report back to her father, and tell him that she had kicked his tail to the curb. But she wanted to hire him anyway. She peered up at him and he crooked a mischievous grin. Stella pressed her lips together tightly to avoid smiling back. She had spent the last twenty-four hours frequently praying for some sign as to what to do next. Was this it?

“If I find out you’re reporting back to him, I’ll fire you so fast you won’t know what hit you.” Stella said firmly.

Matt nodded, “Agreed. So tell me about this remodel. Show me what you plan to do.”

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