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From national bestselling author Dakota Cassidy comes the latest in a series that "gets better and better with each book" (Bitten By Books).
Firefighter McAllister “Mick” Malone knows he has a protective streak, especially when it comes to his deceased best friend’s sister, Tessa. But after twenty-five years of verbal sparring, Mick can’t help but notice that their recent arguments have started to feel a lot like foreplay. And while Tessa knows exactly what to say to get him going, Mick is thrown for a loop when he actually starts breathing fire.
Antique-store owner Tessa Preston has loved Mick Malone since she was ten years old—not that she’d ever admit it. Fighting with Mick is the only thing keeping her from an embarrassing romantic confession, but when the sexy firefighter accidentally ingests some ancient dragon scales masquerading as powdered aspirin, Tessa finds herself handling something much hotter than long-simmering sexual tension...
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Dakota Cassidy is the national bestselling author of the Accidentally Paranormal series, including The Accidental Werewolf and Accidentally Dead. She lives in Texas.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
“Did you hear me, Tessa?” McAllister Malone asked, tamping out a pile of embers with his foot in his best friend’s sister’s store, Auntie Q’s.
“Oh, you were heard,” Tessa Preston replied, her full lips compressing, then thinning into a sharp slash of a line on her soot-covered, water-streaked face.
“I said I was sorry.” Sorry I set the store you work your ass off for on fire. On. Fire.
“Three times in the last three or so minutes. Noted and appreciated.”
Mick gazed down at her in concern, lifting what was left of one of his eyebrows. “You counted?”
Tessa waved a hand under her nose to ward off the stench of burnt electrical wiring. “I like numbers. They soothe me when I’m stressed. It’s a hyper-focus thing.”
“More appreciation.” Her response, still filled with rational words, held only a twinge of sarcasm.
That worried him. “Tessa,” he coaxed, looking for the usual signs her crank had officially been yanked. He knew she was angry. But right now, maybe due to her shock, her behavior seemed practically catatonic as she floated in and out of the clear need to give him hell and the inability to do so for the magnitude of what he’d done.
So he tried to get a rise out of her again. “C’mon—say something. Call me a slug—or what was that thing you screamed at me the other day? You said I was a—a—”
“An overbearing penis wielder,” Tessa provided with a scowl, clenching her fingers together in a fist. Then the haze she’d been nursing seconds ago clouded her bright eyes again, and her hands relaxed.
Mick nodded his head and gave her a thumbs-up with an encouraging grin. “Yeah. That was it. As always, clever comeback, T. So go ahead. Let’s get your scream on.” He rolled up the charred remains of his sleeves, almost the only bit of material left of his now backless shirt, and mimicked a boxer’s stance to try to get the kind of rise out of her he was accustomed to. His feet stuck to the sopping-wet floor as he got into position. “I’m ready. Let’s do this, Sugar Ray.”
Instead of reacting, Tessa took a shuddering breath. With her fingertips just resting on her bottom lip, she spoke in a hushed whisper. “Fire . . .” Her eyes, darting and wide-eyed, scanned her trashed antiques store, Auntie Q’s.
“Biiig fire,” Mick agreed, spreading his arms wide, still waiting for her to explode. “Like, bonfire. Five-alarm, maybe.”
She gave him a dazed, glassy-eyed glance instead. “Flames . . . so . . . many. Soooo . . .”
“Bet that pissed ya off, huh?” He poked at her verbally, hoping she’d respond like the crouching tiger she was.
But hidden dragon she remained. Though her feet did shift in the puddle of water she stood rooted in, as though she wanted to summon the wherewithal to clock him but couldn’t due to shock. “Die,” Tessa stated, dull and monotone, spitting out more water dribbling down her face.
“As in, once you catch your breath and get past the shock, I’m going to?” Mick inquired sweetly, letting a subtle taunt grace his words.
Tessa gulped, then breathed in and out. “Bloody. Very bloody. Entrails and organs everywhere. Promise.”
Mick chucked her under the chin and winked. “Excellent, my fine she-warrior. I wait with the kind of girlish anticipation only organ-riddled battles can bring. Until we don our swords, got any more full sentences in you?”
Tessa let her cheeks puff outward. When she gazed up at him, her eyes were wild with an unspoken rage, which meant she was warming to the idea of killing him.
Yet her words were still stilted and eerily wooden. “McAllister Malone. No. Words.”
Mick pondered that momentarily. Tessa out of words? Nah. She was just catching her breath before she spewed a mouthful of rude name-calling. Or maybe her lack of lung power had something to do with the coughing fit that had wracked her body just moments ago.
Undoubtedly induced by smoke inhalation.
At this stage of the fiery hell he’d created, he should be gearing up to argue a Tessa rant—loud and proud while he chuckled to goad her on. He hated to admit it, but he got a kick out of arguing with his best friend’s sister.
They’d been doing it for over twenty-five years. But today . . . well, today, if—or better yet, when—she blew her top, he’d have to get on board with “Team Tessa.” He deserved every rude comment about his genitalia and his big doofy feet she could creatively put together. Until then, Mick just didn’t know what to do with her freakish composure.
“You think you can put a time frame on when exactly I should prepare for your big windup? I’d feel much better if I at least knew it was actually coming,” Mick goaded her through a thin veil of smoke. “This rational, verbally challenged Tessa is like an extra in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.”
Tessa spread her arms wide, making small black clouds appear from under her armpits. For a second or two, Mick thought she’d come out swinging, guns loaded. Her throat worked, taking in gulps of air, and her mouth opened with a squeak.
However, rather than let fly all those heinous pet names she’d given Mick over the years, she bit the tip of her fingernail. That meant she was trying to keep from crying. Tessa would rather die than cry in front of him.
In what Mick knew was an effort of sheer will, Tessa managed to hold up her finger to indicate he should wait for it.
Mick winced, waiting.
She cleared her throat and smiled up at him. The phony smile she used when she was going to sink his battleship. “After this, I think I should be allowed an unlimited amount of time to build up my rage, Mick. I want to be sure it’s hot and fresh out of the kitchen when I finally let you have it. Until then, I have customers.” She tilted her head in the direction of the ladies who’d entered at the exact moment of his fiery impact.
The three stunned women who’d happened upon Tessa’s antiques store, Auntie Q’s—while on a road trip, if he’d overheard right—stood rooted to the floor, their mouths wide open with surprise on their soot-blackened faces. They’d remained silent until now.
But the pretty brunette with the singed wavy long hair who was dressed like a man in work boots, a red hoodie, and a sweatshirt that read I KNOW VIOLENCE ISN’T THE ANSWER. I GOT IT WRONG ON PURPOSE didn’t stay that way for long.
She slapped the arm of her jacket to put out a lingering flame. When she spoke, she, too, articulated with an eerie calm. “Goddamn it, Wanda. We can’t even go on an all-girls, no-damn-rug-rats flippin’ vacation anymore. Would you just look at this shit?” She swung around, her finger taking an accusatory position when she thrust it under a pretty blonde’s nose. “Marty? I blame you. I don’t know how many times I said I didn’t want to look for shit that has not just a fat-ass price tag but cobwebs, too, in stupid Vermont, while we sat by a roaring fire and drank hot chocolate with those mini-marshmallows I can’t even goddamned eat. We could have been snowboarding by moonlight, but nooo. Instead you have me picking through used crap from the Stone Age in a state that should have been named the Ice Age.”
The blonde shifted positions, taking a defensive stance that made her heeled brown boots with the still-smoking fur rub together. Her hair stood up on end as though she’d stuck her finger in a live socket, and her presumably once-white tie-waist jacket was what some would call well-done.
Yet she lifted her chin defiantly, her blue eyes blazing, the clink of her multiple gold bracelets making a racket as she shook her finger right back at her friend. “They’re antiques, heathen. If you had an ounce of culture in all that pissed off, you’d recognize their beauty.” She followed her statement up with an angry poke to the brunette’s shoulder.
The brunette grabbed her finger and twisted it, snapping her teeth together with a menacing crack. “This is fucking beautiful?” she crowed, stomping on a reprint of a melted Grandma Moses painting with her stained, soot-covered work boot.
In response, a puff of smoldering ashes in orange and blue rose and fell in fluttering flecks of color.
The third woman, chestnut-haired and elegantly dressed in a knit dress and dark shawl, pushed her way between the two women. She reminded Mick of Grace Kelly, her stature long and tall, her carriage willowy and reeking class.
Mick noted that somehow, in all the rubble surrounding her, and even with a burnt patch in her shawl the size of the black hole, this woman managed to look collected. “Ladies!” Then she hacked a cough—because, well, Mick conceded, the smoke had been thick.
She cleared her throat and straightened, cocking her chin upward. “We’re in a public place. Granted, that public place is experiencing some disharmony, but we’re still in public. Behave as such. And excuse me, but OMG, it’s almost like the universe sent us an engraved invitation, girls. Clearly,” she whispered, partially covering her mouth with her gloved hand and leaning into her friends, “I believe, after what we just saw go down, we have a paranormal crisis here.”
Mick wiped his mouth on his forearm to rid himself of the horrible aftertaste lingering on his tongue. It tasted like he’d eaten a fireplace whole. And apparently, he was “in” some kind of crisis. Whether it was whatever she’d labeled it was debatable. “You have a what?”
She dug inside her melted black purse and pulled out a gold business card while giving him a genuine smile. “You, sir, are in paranormal crisis. That’s what we specialize in. We’re sort of paranormal counselors, if you will. And aren’t you a lucky duck that we just happened to be here?”
The brunette snorted, tightening her tattered hoodie around her lean face. “Yeah. Lucky, lucky, lucky. I’m never fucking going on vacation with you two crazies again.”
The elegant woman slipped the twisted remnants of her mangled purse back over her forearm, where it dangled precariously, the balance of it now gone due to its untimely death by blowtorch.
Holding her hand out to Mick, she ignored the brunette completely, tripped on a broken stool, then righted herself. “I’m Wanda Schwartz-Jefferson. This mouthy abomination to your ears is Nina Blackman-Statleon, and this over here is her sparring partner, Marty Flaherty.” She waved a dismissive hand in the direction of the other women like she’d done this introduction a hundred times before.
Mick wiped the soot off his hands onto his jeans before shaking hers. “Mick Malone, and the store’s owner, Tessa Preston.” A black cloud of smoke followed his words, shooting from his mouth without warning. He frowned.
While Tessa shook Wanda’s and her friend’s hands with stiff fingers, Mick held up the card Wanda had given him, and by the glow of the one pile of burning antique armoire still not completely tamped out, read, “OOPS—an Out in the Open Paranormal Support group, serving all your paranormal crisis needs.” “Paranormal crisis?” His eyes shifted to Tessa, wary.
Hers returned a vacant stare in response, and she remained silent. But her puckered goldfish lips began forming. The same lips she’d used when he’d pulled her pigtails as a kid or, later in life, when she’d disapproved of his prom date, Francine Lewbowski.
Nina bumped his arm with her shoulder, making him, at almost six feet six and 234 pounds, jolt forward. “Yeah. You read that right. Now, here’s the short of it, and believe me, it’s gonna be short because I’m sick and fucking tired of repeating the same bullshit over and over. But first, you’re a dude, so do me a solid?”
Mick stared down at her, frowning, still stuck on the words crisis and paranormal. “A solid?”
“Yeah. A solid. Figures someone from the Ice Age—er, I mean, Vermont—wouldn’t know what that is. It’s like a favor. Here’s the favor. Shut the fuck up and don’t whine. Being a dude, you’re supposed to keep all your girly crap on the inside. I like it when you keep it on the inside. In fact, I like it so damn much, it would bring tears to my eyes if I could still cry.”
Mick crossed his finger over his chest, bewildered but still willing to adhere to the man code. “I’m not sure why you anticipate girly crap, but the girly crap stays on the inside. Swear it. But if you don’t mind my asking, why am I hiding my feminine side?”
Because a really small part of him wanted to whine as he surveyed the damage in Tessa’s store. From the blackened curtains now hanging in crispy clumps to the burned-clear-through-to-the-wiring walls, Mick figured whining would be a forgivable act after today’s events. You know, if he were to let his man guard down.
“Oh, you’ll see, Optimus Prime. Jesus, you’re big. Anyway, just remember you swore,” Nina warned with a cluck of her tongue, placing an elbow on what was left of Tessa’s glass checkout counter to lean back, clearly assuming a more comfortable position. “Okay. So here goes the spiel.” She swung her head in Tessa’s direction and wagged her finger. “You might wanna hear this, too.”
“Nina . . .” Wanda let out a warning growl, which struck Mick as odd.
The Nina woman rolled her eyes. “Just shut it, Suzy Sunshine. I’ve been streamlining this stupid speech so we can avoid all the minutia. It’s dragging us down, and to be honest, it’s as old and boring as Marty is. Plus, if you’ll fucking remember, we’re on vacation. So we don’t have the damned pamphlets to give him.” She turned back to Mick. “Anyway, no hand-holding, no bullshit poor babies. He’s a man. For the love of peaches, he’ll take this like one.”
Now, that statement brought cause for concern. He raised his hand. “Being the man here, what exactly am I taking?”
Tessa sucked in her cheeks, using an impatient hand to brush at her soggy hair. Hair he himself had dumped a vase of water on. So he could keep his knight-in-shining-armor status and save the distressed damsel’s hair.
Mick knew what that look meant. Her patience was dwindling. He should know. It did that all the time when he was around. Their love-hate relationship was an enduring one.
He brought out the worst in her, and she brought out the ten-year-old in him. His instinct to protect and look out for her had become fierce since her brother, Noah, his lifelong best friend, had died three years ago—and she didn’t like it. Which was what had led to their screaming match and then to the mess now surrounding them.
Tucking her burned turtleneck around her chin, Tessa spoke with a caution she reserved for difficult customers. “I’m not sure what minutia we’d be avoiding, and rude is the absolute last thing I want to be, but I think you can see from this mess, I have to go look on Craigslist under the heading bulldozer.” She gritted out the last word and finally shot the old glare of death at Mick.
Yep, from the way she was kicking at the slushy pile of blackened receipts she’d thrown the bucket of mop water on, Tessa was preparing for liftoff.
But goddamn it all. He’d lost his focus now. He couldn’t take pleasure in the potential verbal battle with Tessa, deserved or not...
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Book Description Berkley, 2015. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M0425268632