The First Time at Firelight Falls
Avon/HarperCollins
June 2018

Single mom Eden Harwood has a lively daughter, a blooming business—and a juicy secret she’s hung on to for ten years. She doesn’t mind a bit that there’s no room for romance in her whirlwind life . . . until six-foot-infinity, smoldery-eyed, bass-voiced Gabe Caldera reminds her of what she might be missing.

The principal of Hellcat Elementary is usually knee-deep in fawning PTA moms, but Gabe only has eyes for the fiery, funny, skittish redhead who barely knows he’s alive. But this ex-Navy SEAL never fails to get what he wants. And what he wants is to fan those sparks between him and Eden into the kind of bonfire you can see two counties away.

The passion is explosive . . . and the tenderness has them thinking about forever. But when Eden’s past waltzes into town for a reckoning, her secret blows them apart. Still, Gabe will never back down from a fight . . . especially if the ultimate prize is Eden’s heart.

 





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A little snippet of Chapter One....

"It's about a prostitute, Gabe."

Jan Pennington flung her handbag on the floor of his office, whipped her bright yellow sweater off and draped it over the chair with the flourish of a magician with a cape, then sank with such a chummy flop into one of the chairs opposite him that it scooted back on its wheels.

Gabe Caldera wasn't the least surprised that Jan was first person ever to say "prostitute" in the principal's office of Hellcat Canyon Elementary. He'd come to knew her as may things, among them a truffle pig (when it came to rooting out controversy) a whetstone (for his patience) and, as President of the PTA, an undeniable Asset to the School. Patton had never enjoyed his power more than Jan did.

The sweater fling, the chummy chair flop, the "Gabe" rather than "Mr. Caldera"-most days all the little strategies parents employed to assert dominance and declare territory amused him, even aroused his sympathy. He understood all of it was an attempt to corral life's uncertainty into some sort of manageable form. But every now and then he wanted to seize them by the shoulders and shake them and tell them all to lighten up, for fuck's sake, and just enjoy each moment. Every human was dealt a finite amount of them.

The woman already occupying the other chair across from him he knew only in terms of moments, all of them indelible for no rational reason: the time after a soccer game when he'd seen her walking with her ten-year-old daughter Annelise back to the parking lot, and they'd suddenly erupted into a goofy dance, complete with hip bumps and disco twirls. The time he'd seen her slip into his secretary, Mrs. Maker's, office and slip right out again, stealthy as a doe, her face alight with secret pleasure; he'd gone in and discovered she'd left a vase of fluffy geraniums and a birthday card.

And then there was that time she'd brought her daughter's forgotten lunch to school and she'd paused by the benches outside the cafeteria, watching a bluejay and a squirrel squabble over a stray french fry. He stood beside her in silence until the squirrel finally absconded with the fry, the thwarted, enraged jay squawking and strafing it all the way across the blacktop.

"I was rooting for the bluejay," she'd said to him, turning on him a smile of such dazzling, wry warmth he could swear it permanently changed his body chemistry. And then she'd pivoted and sailed off again, all slim quickness, red hair tossed and fluffed in the breeze, the ubiquitous giant handbag characteristic of moms everywhere thumping merrily off her hip.

She made him restless in a very primal way. As if his skin feel a little too tight. Which is was how he suspected a werewolf felt during a full moon in the minutes between the time he'd transformed from a naked human into a savage, lustful beast.

In short, he welcomed nearly any controversy that resulted in Eden Harwood sitting across from him now.

"It's about a prostitute, but it's a song from the musical Man of La Mancha,' Principal Caldera." Ms. Harwood's words had the soothing cadence of a hostage negotiator. But the knuckles curled into the handle of her handbag perched on her knees were bloodless from a death grip. "It's quite a famous musical. The one featuring that song everybody knows? 'The Impossible Dream?' Annelise heard the soundtrack at my mother's house and fell in love with it."

Speaking of impossible dreams, Gabe's was for Eden to really see him, not not just part of her busy life's scenery, like the parking lot or a tree, but as everyone else did, which was-how had his friend Mac Coltrane put it?-a "conspicuous bastard" who was usually "knee-deep in fawning PTA moms."

He was pretty sure Eden's spine wasn't quite touching the back of the chair. Her posture in fact suggested a runner prepared to bolt at the sound a starting gun. Her pale pink sweater was exactly the color of her lips. They both looked distractingly soft.

"It's still a song about a prostitute, Gabe." Jan's big dark eyes glowed with injured self-righteousness. Her foot began a sort of spasmodic pendulum swing and light bounced from the polished toes of her pumps. Ironically, given today's complaint, her perfume was making his office smell like a bordello.

"As it so happens, I'm familiar with the song. It's called 'It's All the Same,'" he said idly. Finally. The first words he'd said to either of them.

Eden's eyebrows shot upward.

This seemed to give even Jan pause.

"A navy SEAL and a musical theater aficionado," she purred finally. "You are a true renaissance man."

"Ex-navy seal," he amended modestly. "And I'm hardly an aficionado. You...pick up a thing or two by osmosis." He waved a hand, as if the air was simply full of songs one could intercept if only they had the right antenna.

Gabe had in fact reluctantly absorbed every word to every song in "Oklahoma" and "Rent" as well as a few others thanks to a long-ago musical theater major roommate. The one about the surrey with the fringe on top was his secret go-to shower jam. That, and Soundgarden's "Black Hole Sun."

"Anyway," Jan pressed on, "imagine my shock, Gabe, when I was in class on my parent volunteer day and heard my daughter Caitlynn singing that song about a prostitute with her friends! In front of the class! I'm sure you'll agree they're all much too young to sing a song so...so...so..."

She fanned her fingers in mute outrage.

"...sexually cavalier?" Eden finally supplied evenly.

That was definitely the first time anyone had said those words in the office.

The occasion was marked by stunned silence total except for the faint clunk of the second hand moving three places around the old wall clock.

"Rawly despairing, with just enough hope to be heartbreaking, depending upon who's singing it?" Eden continued, conversationally. "Impactful, without being the least explicit? Unforgettably catchy?"

The kinds of things Eden Harwood said out loud made Gabe yearn to know all the things she didn't say out loud.

"Inappropriate was the word I was looking for." Jan, who'd been watching Eden in unblinking astonishment for a wordless moment, sounded a little parched.

"Okay, so if I understand the issue correctly, Jan, Ms. Harwood," Gabe interjected pleasantly, "Ms. Harwood, your daughter Annelise learned a song from the famous musical Man of La Mancha, a song which on the surface seems rather racy, but isn't explicit. A sad and compelling song sung from the point of view of a prostitute, but one which could indeed seem startling when delivered by a ten-year-old. And during recess one day, she taught the song to all of her friends, including Caitlynn, whereupon they decided to sing it in an impromptu talent show rehearsal in front of the whole class, with the goal of singing it in front of the entire school for the talent show. And you are alarmed by this turn of events."

He found every bit of this-every bit of this-really, hysterically funny.

But he could teach a Master Class in even-toned neutrality.

Jan lowered her voice and stage-whispered: "A song which contains the words, 'I'll do you and your brother.' And it includes" -she paused at such length that even he began to feel a little caught up in the suspense "-the word 'breast.'"

Oh, for crying out loud.

Days like these made being a Navy SEAL seem definitely easier than being an elementary school principal.

He didn't so much as twitch an eyelash. Commenting on the appropriate context for use of the word 'breast' was landmine territory.

He benignly regarded Jan while silently consigning her to Hell.

Eden cleared her throat. "With all due respect, Jan, Principal Caldera, that isn't precisely the lyric. The singer of the song-the character Aldonza-says she'll 'go with' you and your brother. Not....'do' you and your brother. She never says what she intends to do with them. It's all rather euphemistic and dependent upon context. And the word 'breast' is used figuratively-as in she feels hatred in her breast for the men she goes with. She never says that men are feeling her breasts. Or anything of the sort."

Gabe's scalp tightened. He reached for his signed Joe Dimaggio baseball that he kept on a little stand on his desk and hefted its comforting weight once, twice. He tried hard not to think about the last time he'd felt a breast that wasn't his own.

Eden, he was pretty sure, was masterfully fucking with Jan.

And maybe even with him.

For the sheer entertainment of it.

His yearning, spiky liking for her dialed up another notch.

"As if a figurative breast is better!" Jan always stuck to her guns.

This was the kind of tenacity that made her a brilliant asset on the P.TA. And a stone-cold pain in the ass in every other way.

"When Annelise asked my mother where the singer intended to 'go' with the man and his brother, my mother told her it was to go ride the bumper cars," Eden offered mildly. "Annelise seemed satisfied with this answer. She loves the bumper cars."

Gabe bit down hard on his back molars so he wouldn't laugh.

Eden's expression seemed innocent. But that glint in her eyes had gotten a little dangerous.

Jan did not look amused.

"Gabe," Jan leaned forward and slid a hand across the polished wood surface of his desk toward him, almost beseechingly. The sun struck a glint from the big rock in her wedding band, "...you can understand why it makes me wonder what else Annelise Harwood is exposed to and might therefore expose my daughter to."

His expression, he knew, didn't reveal a thing.

But just for an instant a rogue surge of fury stopped his breath.

This was infinitely petty and utterly groundless. While it was true that it was said that no one knew who Annelise's father was, except, presumably, Eden, Jan's implication was that even Eden might not know. That Eden Harwood might have 'gotten around,' so to speak, and heaven forfend a woman should get around, because that kind of thing could lead to ten-year-olds singing show tunes and other kinds of crimes against morality. Gabe didn't give a crap about any of that. He sincerely hoped Eden Harwood had thoroughly enjoyed every minute of her life. It was too damn short as it was.

Eden was frozen, too.

And then her finger twitched on her handbag.

It occurred to him that she might have kept a tight grip in order to clock Jan Pennington with it should an opportunity arise.

It was time to end this.

He put his baseball ball back on its stand.

And then he slowly leaned way back in his chair and stretched his arms up casually, leisurely, then crossed his arms behind his head, which made the wall of his chest expand beneath his practical yet manly polo shirt. He smiled warmly, inclusively, with great, chummy affection. "Aw, c'mon, Jan."

Just like that, Jan visibly melted around the edges like ice cream left in the sun.

"I know you love and worry about your daughter, Jan. As do you, Ms. Harwood. And worry can be this...ever-present free-floating thing-sometimes it just needs something to land on." he gestured with one hand, as if worry was indeed in the very air around it. Both women tracked it with their eyes. "But in the end, it's just a song, isn't it?" he said almost tenderly. "Far, far more controversial songs exist, and she's bound to encounter them one of these days on a car radio or a loudspeaker at the roller rink or who knows where, because no mom, as much as she wants to, can be everywhere. Right? You all work so hard and you're so busy as it is and no one can possibly expect you to be omniscient and omnipotent."

Jan nodded breathlessly, enjoying this interpretation of herself.

Eden seemed rapt, too. She wasn't blinking, anyway. But the corners of her blue eyes-blue as like a spring sky after rain, blue like a favorite pair of jeans, he'd entertained himself with metaphors for them practically from the moment he'd seen her- scrunched a little in what looked like...wry amusement? Skepticism?

And as much as he'd like to linger in the beam of her gaze, his job, which he took very seriously, was to distribute wisdom and sympathy equally among the two of them.

He shifted his eyes back to Jan. "You both love your kids, of course. Who wouldn't? They're terrific kids! They're both incredibly bright and hungry to learn. This school is lucky to have them attending. And you know, happy kids are going to sing and dance, especially if a song is dramatic. If Caitlynn is curious about what the song means, maybe you can use this as a teaching moment-an opportunity to make sure she knows that not only should a woman value herself, she deserves to be respected and cherished, which the poor woman singing the song in the Man of La Mancha patently was not."

It was quiet again.

Then before his eyes, rosy spots slowly bloomed on Eden Harwood's cheeks.

His heart gave a sharp kick-bam!-like a net taking a soccer ball. He stared at her, fascinated. What had caused that?

Jan was nodding along, sagely.

"Or you could just tell Caitlynn it's a song about a lady who's going to the go-kart tracks," he added, idly. "Save the rest of the explanation for when she's a little older."

Eden made a little sound and looked down at her lap swiftly.

Jan heaved a great sigh, which evolved into a little laugh. "You're very wise, Gabe,"

He shrugged modestly, with one shoulder. "That's why they pay me the big bucks."

Suddenly Eden pivoted abruptly in her chair toward Jan. Pennington.

"I'll have a word with Annelise to let her know it's not necessarily an appropriate song to sing at school, Jan. In front a mirror with a hairbrush microphone, maybe. But not at school."

"Thank you," Jan said beneficently, a wounded party making a noble concession. "That would be most appreciated."

And then Eden laid a hand gently on Jan's arm. "And please feel free to speak to me directly about anything that concerns Annelise. We both know how busy Principal Caldera is, and wouldn't it be lovely if we could make his job a little easier by not taking up more of his valuable time?"

She gave Jan a small but radiant smile.

Damn. Well played, Ms. Harwood.

Gabe could have interjected self-deprecatingly-'my time is your time! It's no trouble at all!' that sort of thing- but frankly, he wanted see how Jan parried this. Because Eden had just turned leaving the principal alone into a virtue, when bothering the principal was Jan's hobby.

And God only knew Jan wanted to be associated with the virtuous.

He could almost hear the fan blades powering Jan's brain whirring.

"Of course," Jan said finally. Rather creakily. "Thank you. I'll do that."

Eden's little smile evolved into a full-on beam. She turned abruptly back to Gabe. "Thank you for your time, Principal Caldera, and I apologize for the inconvenience of holding you after school for a meeting. Good to see you, Jan. I'm so sorry to rush out, but I need to get going or I'll be late to relieve my babysitter."

Whoosh. She was out of there.



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