Games of Fire {Chapter One}


Photo of Milford Sound in New Zealand

Grandma Valdez had a saying, beware surprises that come with gloomy weather. Sophia had never put much stock in the prediction. Grandma was a ninety year old woman who thought tux wearing mice were giving her winning lottery ticket numbers. But during that rainy January, Sophia Valdez became a believer and it all started with the enormous white truck parked next door.
“We’ve got new neighbors.” Dishtowel wringing between slender fingers, her mother joined her at the living room window. They peered out over the quaint, cookie-cutter suburban neighborhood with its neatly trimmed lawns, soft, pastel tones and nosy housewives.
Sophie folded her arms and propped a hip against the frame. Rain splattered against glass, running like teardrops down the smooth sheet. It was just a drizzle, but the movers didn’t seem to mind getting wet. They trudged down the metal ramp, making a world of noise while balancing a cream-colored sofa between them. Her gaze dropped to their scuffed, mud encrusted boots and she nearly smirked. If the lady of the house was anything like her mother, she was no doubt having a heart attack at all the filth being dragged across her polished floors.
“We should go over,” her mother said decidedly. “I have a casserole in the freezer we can take. It’ll be nice.”
What her mother really meant was, let’s make sure our new neighbors aren’t serial killers or worse, salesmen.
“I’m good,” Sophie replied.
Her mother smacked her lightly on the arm. “Don’t be silly. Go get dressed.”
Sophie frowned down at her faded jeans and Green Day t-shirt. “I am dressed! Overdressed if you take half the girls in my school into account.”
But her mother was already walking away, back to the kitchen and the many casserole dishes stacked in the freezer.
No one pulled Suzy Homemaker off the way her mother did. Standing at the same height as Sophie in all her five foot five inch glory, with dirty blonde hair and green eyes, her mother was every Stepford Wife’s role model. The only thing missing was the ’60s hairdo and the fondness for words such as gee and golly. The woman did her own upholstery for crying out loud. Sophie couldn’t imagine the number of valiums her mother had to take daily to maintain that level of perkiness, but it was certainly working.
“Sophia!” Casserole dish in hand, her mother appeared in the kitchen doorway, dishtowel tossed neatly over one shoulder. “You’re not dressed.”
Sophie arched a brow. “I’m not naked, either.”
Her mother’s lips pursed, disapproval defining every line in her heart-shaped face. “I’m not taking you over there dressed like that. What will the new neighbors think?”
“That you have an average teenage daughter whose best friend went to a Green Day concert and brought her back a t-shirt?”
Eyes the green of polished emeralds narrowed. “Please put something pretty on.”
Sophie pushed away from the frame and turned to face her mother fully. “But I don’t want to go.”
“Of course you do!” her mother insisted, stalking across the room to stand over the coffee table. She nimbly whipped the towel off her shoulder, draped it over the gleaming sheet of glass and set the casserole down on top. She straightened, dusting her blouse for invisible particles. “They may have children your age and it might be nice if you could become friends. I’m sure moving isn’t easy for them and they might appreciate knowing at least one person when they go to school Monday.”
“I can just meet them Monday,” Sophie pointed out. “I even promise to wave to them in the hall, just please don’t make me go over there with a tuna fish casserole! That’s so humiliating!”
“Sophia Marie Valdez, I have not raised you to be so impolite!” her mother huffed, outraged. “Now march upstairs and put on a nice dress.”
Sophie did as she was told if for no other reason than to save herself a very long, very repetitive lecture. She let her feet drag with her ascent up the stairs, falling like bowling balls on each step all the way to her room. The door slamming behind her wasn’t intentional, but it was satisfying all the same.
It wasn’t as if she had so many friends she couldn’t use anymore. Had her mother been normal, she probably would have gone over to introduce herself. But her mother wasn’t normal. There was nothing normal about defrosted tuna fish casserole. Wasn’t it kind of bad manners to offer a dish that followed you around like one of Mary’s lambs for days?
Kissing goodbye to any potential friendships she may have built with the kid next door, Sophie threw on one of the two dresses she owned, a crocheted number in soft, navy-blue that had forearm-length sleeves and a modest U-shaped collar. She added a pair of black leggings and flat black pumps to complete it and twisted her long blonde curls into a messy French braid over her left shoulder. In the gilded mirror above the vanity, she checked her reflection. Her heart-shaped face with its pale complexion and speckle of freckles across the nose and cheeks, looked as ordinary as ever. She thought about adding some color to her lips and cheeks, but decided against it. It was the most she was going to do under protest. Considering it a success, she joined her mother downstairs.
Her mother beamed. “You look lovely!”
Sophie grunted.
She was passed the casserole dish of doom while her mother grabbed an umbrella and together, they started out the door and down the sidewalk. The umbrella protected them from the light mist spraying from the heavens, but it did nothing to guard from the chilling blanket of air whipping around them. Sophie wished she’d thought to grab a jacket. Fingers of ice crept through the loosely knitted dress and nipped at the bare skin underneath.
“This is a bad idea,” Sophie muttered through clenched teeth.
“Don’t be silly!” her mother scolded, bright, toothpaste-commercial smile already plastered into place.
She smiled and greeted the movers and ignored their bewildered gawking as she turned into the neighbor’s walkway, past the picket fence and neatly trimmed lawn. They ascended the two steps onto a white porch and stopped, facing the open doorway.
“Hello?” her mother called into the opening.
Sophie shifted anxiously from foot to foot. She turned her head to the side and peered longingly at her house, at the warmth and security of it. It was separated from her by a single white fence, but it could have been across the world. She exhaled wistfully.
“Yes?” A small, blonde woman with big blue eyes and skin as white as milk appeared in the doorway. She smiled at them prettily, crumpling a wad of newspaper in her hands. She wore a white, silk blouse and gold around her throat and wrists. When she politely tilted her head to the side in question, gold glinted from her ears. “Can I help you?”
Sophie’s mother beamed, thrusting out a hand. “Hello! I’m Mary Valdez. This is my daughter, Sophia—”
“Sophie,” Sophie corrected quickly, and was ignored by both as her mother went on seamlessly.
“We live next door and thought we’d stop by and introduce ourselves.”
The woman flashed straight white teeth in a blinding smile. “That was so thoughtful of you! I’m Jackie Rowth… I mean Jackie Stephenson.” She extended her hand, which Sophie’s mother accepted. “Won’t you come inside? The place is an absolute disaster, but I would love the company.”
Smiling as widely as the woman, her mother snapped the umbrella closed and hurried after her, saying, “We would love to!”
Sophie loitered a moment longer on the porch, weighing her choices. She could turn and run. Now would be her chance. Her mother may not even notice. Or she could stay and suffer through boring grownup bonding.
“Hey, girl, we gots to get through!”
Sophie jumped, whirling around. A hulking figure glowered at her from over a stack of boxes.
“Oh!” She leapt aside. “Sorry!”
The man grunted, ambling past her into the house. His two partners stomped after him, carting two lamps and an end table. They moved quickly; massive, hulking figures choking the narrow hall with their wide shoulders. Bits of dirt dropped in clumps from their boots, marking their progress to the opening at the far end where the smooth laminate washed into soft carpet. The leader grunted what she assumed was orders, caveman style, but it seemed to work, because the two men at the end grumbled, pivoted with impressive finesse that Sophie couldn’t help marvel at and marched back towards her. She started to dodge out of the doorway, but they twisted at the last second and ascended the stairs instead.
“Sophia!” Her mother appeared in the doorway. “What are you doing? Get in here!”
She should have made her escape, she realized, skulking into the small foyer. It branched off, she noticed, following her mother right. On the other side of the stairs, divided by a wall, was the kitchen, overwhelmed by a boggling number of boxes, all stacked nearly shoulder-high. There was a tight path from the doorway to the adjacent door on the other side, leaving no room for maneuvering left or right. It was every claustrophobic’s worst nightmare, Sophie decided, eyeing the cardboard walls.
Sophie blinked and turned to her mother to find the other woman already looking at her, hands outstretched. “What?”
“The casserole!” her mother said, opening and closing her fingers in a give me motion.
“Oh!” Hurriedly, she thrust the dish into her mother’s waiting hands. “Sorry.”
Giving her an odd look, her mother turned to their hostess. “This is for you!” she said, taking the dish over to Jackie, who had maneuvered her way quite effortlessly to the other side of the kitchen and the doorway leading into the dining room. “I know how hard it is to be in the middle of a move and find time to cook something.”
No you don’t! Sophie thought, barely repressing her eye-roll. Her parents hadn’t moved since before Sophie was born, seventeen years ago. Any memories of that surely should have faded by now, right?
Jackie gasped, clutching a hand over her heart. “You are just so sweet!” She took the casserole. “Thank you so much! It’s just me and my son here and you saved me from having to order pizza for the fourth time this week.”
“How many children do you have?” her mother asked.
“Three!” Jackie said. “But my oldest and youngest live with my husband … ex-husband. The youngest, my daughter Suzy, only stays with me on the weekends. My other son is upstairs, fixing his room.”
Whatever her mother was about to say was interrupted by the thundering of feet on the stairs and a very deep, husky, very male voice echoing from the hall.
“Mom? Have you seen my duffle bag?” The guy who rounded the corner and appeared in the doorway behind Sophie was clad in nothing but a pair of black jeans slung low over tapered hips. Black leather bands clasped his wrists, just under the scrawling black, gray and white sleeves inked into his toned arms, twisting up to narrow shoulders in a winding design. There were four jagged gashes tattooed into each of his pecs, as though he’d had his chest clawed by a large animal. A silver chain with dog tags on the end dangled down the center of his chest, drawing attention to washboard abs and the carved V disappearing into the waistband of his unfastened jeans. It took all of her willpower to coax her gaze away from that general vicinity and look past his shoulders to a chiseled chin, firm lips, high cheekbones and a hard nose. Hair a shade shy of platinum hung in shaggy wisps over a single arched eyebrow and curled at the nape of his neck.
He definitely won major hottie of the decade in her book. Sophie had never been so mesmerized by another person before and never to the point of openly gawking, but this guy was wrong in all the right ways. He practically had a your mother did warn you stamp on his forehead right next to the yes, I do taste as good as I look and it made her want to touch all the more.
Long arms lifted and folded over his pale chest. “Who are they?” The accusation didn’t stop in his tone, but seemed to burn behind his dove gray eyes as he studied her.
“Spencer!” Jackie set the casserole dish down on the counter, nudging aside a stack of magazines to make room. She forced a smile. “This is Mary and Sophia. Our neighbors.” Sophie didn’t bother trying to correct her. Somehow she doubted he cared if there was an e or an a in her name. He already looked bored, if not just a tad bit annoyed. “They brought over a casserole for tonight. Isn’t that thoughtful?”
Spencer cocked his head to the side. “Sophia,” he repeated slowly, tasting each syllable. “Interesting.” His gaze swept over her, leaving a hot trail in its wake that nearly made her want to whimper. “You’re like what? Twelve?”
That was a bucket of ice cold glacial water being dumped straight on her head.
Sophie stiffened. “Excuse me?” Surely she’d heard wrong.
Okay so she looked younger than she was, but twelve? Who taught this guy to count? Or speak, for that matter?
Only the left corner of his mouth tweaked upwards, but ice crystals seemed to drip from that single gesture. “No offense.” Oh there was total offense meant to be had! She could see it in his smirk. “You just look very … young.”
He was probably the only guy on the planet that could say young and make it sound inappropriate.
“At least I don’t look like … like … ” Words failed her when there really was nothing wrong with him. “I am not young!”
His eyebrow lifted in a very, very dirty gesture of interest and she realized he was silently mocking her. There was literally a red haze now curtaining her vision, shimmering with the hot temptation to beat him over the head with something blunt and metal, possibly encrusted with spikes. The desire to commit murder must have shown on her face, because he snickered. “Easy, Blondie. You might pop an artery.”
“Blondie?” she seethed, forcing the word through her teeth. “Look who’s talking? You’re blonder than I am and—”
Her razor sharp retort was cut off by Jackie’s giggle, a nervous tittering sound that amplified the unease swirling around the woman. “Spencer is such a kidder,” she said to Sophie’s mother, who looked stunned into silence by the argument unfolding like a sitcom before her. “He doesn’t mean anything by it.”
“Kidder is not the word I would use,” Sophie bit out, matching Spencer’s gaze unflinchingly. “Jackass comes to mind. Asshat. Pr—”
“Sophia!” Her mother seemed to come out of her shock instantly at the flow of cuss words pouring from her daughter’s mouth.
Spencer rolled his tongue over his teeth in a manner that suggested he was laughing at her on the inside. His thick, dark lashes lowered so he was peering very dangerously at her through them, as he tapped a finger thoughtfully over his bottom lip—a very firm, sexy lip, too. Then, in a tone that probably should have been illegal, he purred, “Down kitty.”
“What were you looking for, Spence?” Jackie quickly interjected before Sophie could open her mouth again.
Spencer, with a flick of his lashes, turned his gaze to his mother. “The black duffle with my clothes.”
Jackie’s hands fluttered up into the air. “Oh! Yes! Yes!” She turned towards the dining room, hands still fluttering, beckoning. “Over here. The movers left it on the table. I was going to ask you to come get it, but … ” she trailed off and did that tittering thing again. “You beat me to it.”
Spencer stole another glance at Sophie. The left corner of his lips twisted upwards again in that arrogant smirk of his, as he pushed into the cramped kitchen. It took Sophie all of two seconds to realize she was trapped in a narrow path with no way to dodge his approach, short of throwing herself over the mountain of boxes or crawling up on the table—both of which were looking extremely tempting just then. She scrambled back three steps and nearly tumbled backwards over a box. She might have made an embarrassing sound like a mouse being trodden on as her arms pin wheeled, her body fighting against gravity. She would have gone down had it not been for the blunt fingers that clamped down on her hips, making her wobble and latch on to the only solid object available, which turned out to be his shoulders. Sharp slivers of electricity spiked up through each fingertip upon contact, shooting up her arm and imploding somewhere deep inside her, showering her skin with goose bumps. It was a struggle not to succumb to the shiver working its way up her spine. She bit her lip to repress the gasp bouncing on the tip of her tongue, preparing to do a swan dive off her lips.
The heat beneath her fingers flexed, pale, taut and smooth and oh so distracting. Her near tumble was momentarily forgotten as she battled with the urge to follow the hard slope of his shoulders down to the ridged muscles of his arms. She bit back a dreamy sigh as her body was pulled forward, closer into his and steadied. It was so not fair that a body like that belonged to such a jerk. There should have been laws preventing such tragedy.
“Careful, Blondie.” There was no amusement in his words this time, no arrogance or mockery. It vibrated with something deep and primal. Sophie shivered before she could stop herself.
The ten fingers gripping her sides tightened, driving pressure into her already muddled thoughts as all her attention melted down to where he was touching her. His fingers. His thighs. His heat. His eyes.
Damn it! Damn it! Damn it!
“I can show you more if you like what you see,” he said in a whisper just for her ears.
Sophie blinked, walloped upside the head by reality. She bristled, smacking his hands away. “Hands off, pal.”
Straight, white teeth flashed in a knee-dissolving smirk. He dropped his head an inch so she was forced to hold her breath or suffer breathing in his delicious scent of spices, smoke and shampoo. “You only say that because you’ve never had my hands on you.”
Heat swept into her cheeks, propelling her to speak. “Which is perfectly fine! I’d rather swim in shark infested waters with a bloody leg.”
He snickered. “You already are.”
Amused by her stunned expression, he nimbly squeezed past her, somehow brushing every inch of her in the process. He sidestepped her mother and ducked into the dining room.
Sophie hissed through her teeth, her gaze swinging wildly around for that blunt instrument. But all that was lying around were boxes and crumpled pieces of newspaper and magazines. Nothing remotely violent enough. She caught her mother’s gaze and growled low in her throat when she was given a subtle shake of the head and a very clear, Be nice! warning. She glared at her mother before turning her attention back to the object of her distaste. She watched as he hooked his hand through the straps of a hockey bag, hoisted it over his shoulder and stalked back in her direction. It took all of her resolve not to crawl on top of the boxes in escape.
He paused midway between her and her mother and glanced back. “It was nice to meet you,” he told her mother with all the innocence and manners of a choirboy. Then he turned to Sophie and his face instantly morphed into one she wanted to either smack or … no, no or, she definitely wanted to smack. His dark eyes took her in from head to toe, somehow sending off all the warning bells throughout her body, before giving her that arrogant grin of his. “Later, Blondie.”
“It’s Sophie!” But he was gone and Sophie was left glowering at the empty air in the doorway, wishing she’d thought to trip him in passing.
“I am so sorry!” Jackie said in a rush, dainty hands wringing together in front of her. “I promise he’s not normally like that. This move and the divorce have been so hard on him.”
Her mother went into instant sympathy mode. She slung her arm around the other woman’s tiny shoulders and led her into the dining room. Sophie watched, slightly annoyed, slightly amused, as Jackie was guided into a chair. Her mother made quiet cooing sounds, like a mother trying to soothe a small, hurt child.
“Sophie, why don’t you bring us over some coffee?”
Jackie leapt to her feet. “Oh my, where are my manners? I am so sorry. Please, let me just get the pot together. I’m afraid I don’t have anything to go with it, but … ”
“Oh it’s perfectly fine! I made some double chocolate cake this morning. Sophie can run and grab it while we have a nice chat!” Her mother turned her green eyes on Sophie and smiled.
Having been given her orders, Sophie left the kitchen. In passing, she darted a quick glance up the stairs and started to find Mr. Gorgeous-Jerkface looming at the top, propped up against the wall with his shoulder. He had his arms folded, still bare chested, his duffle at his feet. He caught Sophie’s gaze.
She scowled. “Shouldn’t you be torturing kittens or kicking puppies?” she asked. “And why aren’t you dressed yet?” The last question really shouldn’t have been said out loud and she mentally kicked herself the moment the question spilled free.
The smile was slow, creeping across his face with such intensity that she had an unexpected understanding of how natural disasters took people by surprise.
“Am I distracting you?”
Concealing her flush by folding her arms, Sophie raised her chin defiantly. “I just don’t want to see that.”
“Is that why you’ve been undressing me with your eyes since we met?”
The heat was sweltering, practically coming off her in waves. “I was not! In fact, you’re not even my type. I don’t go for egotistical jerks.” Even if they are super hot.
He snickered. “Careful, witch, I might mistakenly think you like me.”
“Ha!” The barking laugh escaped before she could control it. “I’d rather pet a cobra!”
He looked like he was about to laugh. “I have something you’re more than welcome to come pet.” With a smirk that dared her to follow, he hoisted up his bag and sauntered out of sight.
“I will not commit murder! I will not commit murder!” she muttered, stalking out the door into the steady downpour.
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Protected by distance, shielded by stealth, a camera shutter snapped in rapid succession, immortalizing every motion of Sophie’s body, every flicker of her eyes as they swept over the neighborhood. It caught her in the act of pushing a curl behind her ear, of her lips moving in cuss words. Every moment, trapped, plucked up with greedy hunger. The hand wielding the camera remained firm, while inside he quivered with glee. His entire body ached, a thrum of anticipation for the day she would finally be where she belonged. Lips bowed into a satisfied smile. She was so absolutely perfect.

   Title: Games of Fire
   Series: Standalone
   Release Date: February 12, 2013
   Genre: Contemporary
   Pages: 476
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