Excerpt from Mr. July

Book #7 of the Heroes of Rogue Valley: Calendar Guys Series

Chapter One

     Nothing more exciting than waiting in the bar line after a wedding reception—except maybe reading through new tax regs. Summer Putnam had been inching forward for what seemed forever. She wanted a fresh glass of champagne, and keep them coming. Under normal circumstances she preferred a sharp, clear mind and a firm grip on her self-control. Tonight, she just needed to forget.
      Because wedding aside, this had been a rotten day. Don't think about that now. With determination, she raised her chin.
      The woman in front of her, who had dark brown hair and was much shorter—in four-inch heels, Summer measured nearly six feet tall—turned to her. "I've never been to a wedding on a Friday night. What a great way to start the weekend, and such a beautiful ceremony."
      Now there was something to smile about, and Summer did. The bride's dress, the vows exchanged, young William, Sam's son, beaming as he handed the rings to Sam and Adam… "It was awesome."
      "The Carlson Hotel is the prefect venue." One of a handful of hotels several miles from Guff's Lake, the hotel offered a large space for celebrations.
      "Very classy," Summer agreed. As a whole she enjoyed a wedding, as long as it wasn't hers. "I'm sure Sam and Adam will live a long and happy life together." Which put them in the minority of happily married couples Summer knew.
      "Are you a friend of Adam or Sam?" the woman asked.
      "Sam. I do her taxes. You?"
      "Also Sam. I met her in a knitting class when she and Adam were first getting to know each other. I had a hunchyou were Summer Putnam. I'm Becca Chambers."
      "How do you know who I am?" Summer asked after they shook hands. "I don't believe we've met." She excelled at remembering names and faces, a skill she'd worked hard to hone.
      "Your hair is white-blond and you have the body of a model. You're every bit as stunning as Sam described."
      Looks-wise, Summer didn't think she was half bad. But stunning? "Wow. Thanks."
      "Your hair is so smooth and sleek. Who's your stylist?"
      "Wanda Lipmann, the owner of Tommie's Hair and Nails. She's here—somewhere." Summer glanced around. "I don't see her, but she's wearing a fawn-colored dress, and she's with Gus Viggio. Big, handsome guy."
      "Oh, I know who Gus is." Becca fanned herself. "Mr. March."
      A color photo of the super hot firefighter appeared above March on the Guff's Lake Fire Department calendar. Each month featured a different man, twelve of the most gorgeous males on the planet. All proceeds went to the benefit fund, which provided monetary assistance to those who had lost their homes or possessions in a fire.
      "I really don't know Gus at all," Summer clarified. "We met for the first time when Wanda introduced us after the wedding."
      "I wouldn't want to bother her tonight. I'll give her a call her next week. I've been on the lookout for you. I need a CPA and you come highly recommended."
      Summer was proud of her degree and her career, despite what had happened this afternoon. But she wasn't going to think about that tonight, let alone tell anyone. Too soon and too embarrassing, even if none of it was her fault. "What kind of business are you in, Becca?"
      "Retail. I own Second Hand Rose."
      "I know that store. I've bought furniture there. I don't have any business cards with me." Why carry a card for a job that no longer existed? "Give me your contact information, and I'll call you."
      Becca gave her a card, and then, nearly at the front of the line, zeroed in on the bar. Summer tuned into the conversation behind her.
      "I can't believe Hallie Sawyer caught the bouquet!" said a woman with a perky voice. "She doesn't even need it. All she has to do is crook her finger at Owen and he'll marry her. Mr. April—I wish he liked me."
      "He doesn't even know you," her friend said. "Wish it'd been me catching that bouquet. I'd marry any of the available firefighters."
      Summer smirked at that one. She didn't trust easily, especially men. As a rule, they tended not to stick around. Her mother, aka Shelley, had never had a lasting relationship, not even the marriage to Summer's dad. Her sister, Rainy, also had been through the wringer with the fathers of both her children.
      Summer had been more careful in her selection of who to trust with her heart. She and Lee had been completely in sync, both ambitious to climb the corporate ladders of their firms. They understood the need to work long hours and had agreed to put off having children—if they had any at all—to attain their goals.
      He was everything she wanted in a man, hard-working, monogamous, and loyal—or so she'd believed.
      She cringed at the memory. For all they'd had in common, in the end he was no different than the other men she'd known. Love was unpredictable, and the consequences of falling in love painful.
      So, no thanks.
      The conversation behind her was still going strong.
      "Did you see how Sam and Adam looked at each other when they danced that first dance together as husband and wife?" Perky Voice commented. "I've never seen two people so ready to be married."
      "And little William, all smiles at having a new daddy," her friend replied.
      Having never met her own father—her parents' shotgun marriage had ended before her mom had given birth and her father had disappeared—Summer understood the little boy's joy.
      Perky Voice again. "Isn't it nice that Sam's parents are staying in town to take care of him while Sam and Adam honeymoon in Acapulco?"
      "Yes, and I'm happy they rented this space until midnight. We're going to party hearty!"
      Summer intended to take advantage of that, eating, drinking, and dancing her heart out. Then she'd go home and fall asleep instead of licking her wounds and facing the doubts and what-ifs. Plenty of time for that tomorrow.
      "I hope one of the single firefighters asks me to dance," Perky Voice said. "If not, I'll do the asking."
      "Who's your first choice?"
      "I wouldn't mind dancing with Tony Clark—Mr. July. He's such a hottie, and I've heard he's a very good lover."
      "Where did you hear that?"
      "From a friend who knows a woman who slept with him."
      "No way!"
      Unable to resist that one, Summer turned to them. "I know Tony." Sort of.
      The woman, who looked as perky as she sounded, widened her eyes. "You dated him?"
      "No, but we've met." Once. "His mother introduced us. I handle the taxes for her business." Correction: as of this afternoon, she'd formerly handled Mrs. Clark's taxes.
      "Way to get noticed. Are you interested in him?"
      Summer smiled as if she might be, and on a physical level, she was attracted. But as good-looking as Tony was, he didn't seem to have much ambition to rise in the ranks of the firefighters. She wasn't interested in a serious relationship, but she still preferred the men she dated to share her drive to succeed.
      A drive that pushed her to get ahead by climbing the corporate ladder. Being a plain-vanilla CPA had been all right for a while. But after seven years on the job and a promotion to first-level manager, she was eager to join the ranks of senior management, the next step to making partner, her dream since first joining Tillinger Morrison Evans, known by all as TME.
      Instead, to her shock, she'd lost her job this afternoon.
      Laid off!
      The taste in her mouth turned bitter with disappointment, anger, and yes, hurt. She stifled a grimace. "Enjoy your evening," she said, and stepped up to the bar. "A glass of champagne, please."
      "You bet."
      The bartender, cute and about twenty-five, some five years younger than she, eyed her with interest. She was used to that. Men found her attractive. In that way, she was like Shelley. They shared two attributes. Their looks—same fair skin, thick, white-blond hair, and nut-brown eyes—and a love of pretty clothes. There the similarities ended.
      Summer owned a house. She had an advanced degree, no unwanted children, and money in the bank, and thank God for that.
      And where had the goal-setting, discipline, and hard work gotten her? Two months' salary in severance pay and a promise to give her a glowing recommendation.
      "You look awful sad," the bartender said. "How about two champagnes, one on the house."
      Summer flashed a big smile. "I'll take it."
      Mello, the jazz fusion band hired for the evening—Ethan Goldberg, the sax player, was a firefighter and a musical phenomenon as well—had opened with the usual first husband-and-wife dance. Soon after, eager to catch their flight out, Sam and Adam had left and the band had taken a break. Any minute now, they'd start up again.
      Summer wanted to dance, but first things first. She'd take the drinks, then find a table.


     "You seem bummed," Nate, Tony's good bud and crewmate, commented as they ambled toward the bar after the wedding. "Bad date last night?"
      Tony shook his head. "I went for a run with Boomer and turned in early."
      "Man, your mojo with the ladies has been off lately."
      No kidding. Tony hadn't taken a woman out in months. He was tired of shallow relationships, and go figure. Lately, even sex bored him. Talk about weird, and hell if he'd admit it. He should probably get a physical.
      "You're awful good to that dog," Nate said.
      Tony was crazy about his boxer, who asked for nothing but food and affection. In return, he was a loyal companion who didn't whine, nag, or complain, and often made Tony laugh. "He's a great animal."
      "Who's going to walk him tonight?"
      "Jenny has him until morning. He loves her." And no wonder. She spoiled Boomer rotten. Tony boarded him at her place Mondays and Tuesdays while he worked a double shift, forty-eight hours straight, at the station.
      "Jenny's great," Nate said.
      Best dog sitter in town. She'd once been married to Rob, a fellow crewmate. The ex-spouses weren't exactly close anymore, but got along well enough to co-parent their twin daughters.
      "You never said what's wrong," Tony's bud added.
      Plenty. A few hours ago, Tony's mom had dropped a bomb. She sure knew how to pick the wrong time. He wasn't about to ruin the evening with bad news, or think dismal thoughts. He shook his head. "Tell you later. Nice wedding, huh?"
      Nate grinned. "Adam picked a good woman."
      "More like she chose him. Once she had him in her sights, he didn't stand a chance."
      Over the last year, half the crew had paired up. Several were talking about following Adam's lead and legally tying the knot.
      Seeing his crewmates pair up was both good and bad. Good that they'd found the right women for them. Bad that they were dropping like flies.
      "Mello should start their set soon," Nate said. "See anyone you care to dance with?"
      In serious need of a distraction from his mom worries, Tony looked around. Like a moth drawn to light, he homed in on the tall, willowy blonde at the bar. Summer Putnam.
      She wasn't his type—too aloof, too no-nonsense, and too thin. He liked women with soft curves, who knew how to have a good time.
      Summer leaned on the counter and chatted up the bartender, the flouncy skirt on her otherwise snug indigo dress hiking up the back of her thighs. And those silver, do-me stilettos…
      Tony couldn't look away.
      Also, she knew his mom.
      "I think I found my dance partner." He left Nate and sauntered toward her.
      She turned from the counter with a champagne flute in each hand, but seemed to be alone. "Is one of those for me?" he asked by way of hello.
      "If you want it, it's yours." She handed him a glass, her silver nails luminescent under the room's glittery chandelier.
      "Cheers." He downed a healthy gulp.
      Summer did the same. "This stuff is going straight to my head," she said. "I'd better eat something."
      "Ditto that. Let's grab a seat first." He nodded at a table for two in the corner. "That looks available."
      Seconds later, he hung his suit jacket on the back of one chair and draped a cocktail napkin over the other.
      They were on their way to a huge, food-laden table on the opposite side of the room when Mello returned to the stage. The popular band had a big, local following. Before they played a single note, people headed for the dance floor.
      "Do you want to dance first?" Tony asked.
      "I'd rather eat."
      After helping themselves, they returned to their table and sat down.
      Tony eyed her heaping plate. A woman her size couldn't possibly finish half of it. "That's a lot of food," he said over the band's high-octane music.
      "I haven't eaten all day," she replied in an equally loud voice.
      "All day? Are you watching your weight?"
      She raised her eyebrows. "Are you saying I should?"
      "Hell, no." He let his gaze travel over her. She could use a few extra pounds, but he liked what he saw. "You look good. There are times at the station when I don't get a chance to eat, but I always make up for it later."
      "I probably should have," she said. "But I couldn't."
      "Why not?" he asked, curious.
      Instead of answering, she stabbed a chunk of salmon and ate it with gusto. "This is delicious."
      He'd never seen a female enjoy her food as much as Summer did. The women he gravitated toward tended to be more restrained. He hadn't expected her to be any different, but then, he didn't know much about her.
      They'd exchanged maybe a handful of words when his mom had introduced them a few months ago. As usual, she'd wanted his okay before she hired a new tax accountant. Summer seemed serious and smart, and the firm she worked for had a decent reputation. He'd given his stamp of approval and then forgotten about her.
      Busy with her meal, she didn't say much for a while. Again, different from the women Tony knew, and a nice change. He followed suit. Next time he came up for air, both their plates were half-empty.
      "Do you always eat this much, this fast?" he asked.
      "When I'm extra hungry." She nodded at his plate. "You aren't exactly holding back."
      "Like you, I'm running on empty."
      There the conversation, such as it was, ended. "I'll bet you're relieved to have the tax season behind you," he said.
      "It's been grueling, but… I'd rather not talk about that."
      Okay. "Gonna take any time off?"
      She muttered something that sounded like, "More than I want to."
      "I scheduled my vacation for mid-June. A friend and I will be heading to Belize. We rented a bungalow near the beach."
      "I've never been there."
      "We went last year and had such a great time, we booked the same trip."
      Was her friend male? Not that Tony cared, but he asked anyway. "Going with your boyfriend?"
      "I don't have a boyfriend and I don't want one." She looked as if she'd tasted something nasty.
      Having suffered through a few breakups himself back when he was young and stupid, he understood. "Ah, you're traveling with a girlfriend."
      She nodded. "Dorie is my BFF. She's also a CPA, but at a different firm."
      "What do you two do down there?"
      "Sleep in, laze around, snorkel and swim, explore."
      Visions of Summer in a bikini filled Tony's head. Sunning in a beach chair, tanning those long legs… "I'll bet you meet plenty of guys."
      "Sometimes." She frowned at her fork and pushed the remaining food around her plate.
      Making him even more curious. He wanted info but didn't press. "By the way, I'm not dating anyone right now, either."
      No comment and not a flicker of interest. That shouldn't have bothered him, as he wasn't into her, either. Yet it did. Most women dug him. Why didn't she?
      "When you get back from Belize, then what?" he asked.
      "What is this, an interview?"
      "Making conversation, that's all. You do taxes, but I have no idea what a CPA does the rest of the time."
      "We're always working, but at a slower pace. In the summer months, we file corporate returns and late personal tax returns, and we focus on networking and bringing in new clients." She snorted. "A fat lot of good that does."
      "Not your favorite part of the job, huh."
      "The opposite—I enjoy talking with people and I'm good at it. Last year, I brought in more new business than any of my peers."
      She'd confused him. "You enjoy bringing in new business but for some reason, it didn't do any good?" She gave him a sharp look, and he shrugged. "That's what you said."
      "Do firefighters ever have slow times?"
      She didn't want to talk about her work. All right, then. "We're usually busy, if not with fires or medical calls, then with in-house training, conducting training for others, working out to stay fit, giving group tours of the station, conducting inspections… Stuff like that."
      "Do you like what you do?"
      "Yeah. The work is rewarding and I'm tight with my crewmates. Spending forty-eight hours straight together every week, putting ourselves in danger to save lives and structures, tends to bond people. They're like brothers."
      Summer nodded. "As I recall, you're an only child."
      "How'd you know that?"
      "Your mother told me."
      "She talks about me?"
      "Every time I see her."
      Tony wondered what else she'd said about him. Like that she wanted him to settle down, but never approved of anyone he dated? Not that he was ready by a long shot, if at all. "What about you—any siblings?" he asked.
      "A sister."
      "Is she a CPA, too?"
      Summer shook her head. "She manages an eye clinic. We're as different as day and night, but I love her dearly."
      She didn't say another word about her sister or anything else, for that matter. Most close-mouthed female he'd ever met.
      "Sitting at a desk isn't for me," he said. "I'm better with physical activities—fighting fires and growing trees."
      "Growing trees?"
      "I give them a good start, then sell them to nurseries." Tending the saplings relaxed him, plus he made good money. Thanks to his thriving enterprise he'd built up a decent savings.
      "So you work two jobs."
      "That's right."
      "I had you pegged as man who puts his feet up on his days off."
      People who didn’t know him well thought he was laid back, a façade he’d developed as a kid to mask his fear and anxiety. Back then, he’d had plenty of them. "I'm not wired to put my feet up and twiddle my thumbs, but I do my share of taking it easy." His flute was empty. So was hers. "Still feeling buzzed, or would you care for a refill on that champagne?"
      "I don't feel the alcohol at all. I definitely want another glass."
      Him, too. Hanging with Summer was exactly the diversion he'd sought. Thanks to the packed dance floor, the line at the bar had dwindled to a handful of people. When Tony returned with two fresh bubblies, the empties and both plates had disappeared. He nodded his thanks to the guys bussing the tables.
      Mello was still going strong. As soon as they emptied their flutes again, Summer pushed her chair back, stood, and smoothed her dress over her hips. "Now I'm ready to dance."
      No doe-eyed glances or waiting for him to invite her to the dance floor. She was a strong-willed woman, sure of what she wanted and going after it.
      That side of her made him wary. One overbearing female in his life was enough.
      Yet, unlike his mother, who'd pull just about anything to keep him tethered to her side, or had when he was younger and easier to manipulate, Summer didn't seem to care whether he danced with her or not.
      Independent and strong, and not the least bit interested in him. Tony was intrigued.
      Before he knew it, he was following her to the dance floor.


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