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Playing With Fire [Stockland Firefighters Book 3] [MultiFormat]
eBook by Tonya Ramagos

eBook Category: Romance
eBook Description: For Lydia Caney, divorced and with a son to raise on her own, love is just a burning trap. Then she meets a new man and finds herself Playing With Fire. If someone had told fire marshall Lydia Caney she would grow up to move to a small town where one couldn't sneeze without the entire population knowing, she would have laughed in their face. Lydia, a trained smoke-jumper had once lived for risk. And if that person had told her she would become a divorced mother and a care giver to her handicapped younger sister by the age of thirty she would have said they were certifiable. Yet that was exactly how her life had turned out. So many plans, so many dreams lost, some due to irresponsible acts, others chalked up to the hand fate had dealt. Now she has a new job as fire marshall and is determined to put dangerous men and dangerous risks behind her. Too late, she realizes, she is playing with fire.

eBook Publisher: ebooksonthe.net, Published: 2004
Fictionwise Release Date: February 2005

22 Reader Ratings:
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Chapter 1

If someone had told Lydia Caney she would grow up to move to a small town where one couldn't sneeze without the entire population knowing, and live in a cookie-cutter house complete with a screened-in porch and a swing set in the back yard she would have laughed in their face. And if that person had told her she would become a divorced mother with dead parents and the guardian of her handicapped younger sister by the age of thirty she would have said they were certifiable. Yet that was exactly how her life had turned out. So many plans, so many dreams lost, some due to irresponsible acts, others chalked up to the hand fate had dealt.

As if her life were a game of gin, Lydia had been given good cards and bad. It was food for her challenge-oriented soul. She lived each day working to discard the bad, unneeded cards, slowly replacing them with good ones that fit with the pairs she held until one day she would have all her cards in line and call gin. At least she hoped that day would come.

Lydia had drawn another card with her decision to uproot her life and that of her eight year-old son and sister to move to the small town of Stockland, Tennessee. With any luck the card would mark the beginning of a new pair of cards in her hand, hopefully replacing oddball, unwanted ones she had tossed away when they left the city behind.

Humming softly to herself, Lydia lifted her foot from the gas pedal, applied increasing pressure to the brake and eased the rental truck with classic car in tow through the tight turn onto a narrow residential street. Though they couldn't hear her, she muttered a thank you to the residents of the block for not parking their cars in the street. Had there been one obstacle in her way of making the turn she was certain it would have been flat as a pancake by now.

"You're getting pretty good at that," a groggy voice praised from the passenger side of the truck.

"Well, if it isn't sleeping beauty awaking from her deep peaceful slumber," she teased, casting a quick glance at her sister. "Thanks for keeping me company for the last three hundred miles."

Annette straightened in the seat and rubbed her eyes with the palms of her hands. "Sorry sis. You should've waked me."

"You needed the sleep."

"No more than you do. I've gotten double the sleep you have in the last two days."

Though she would have liked to, Lydia couldn't argue. She was tired. Exhausted really. Tossing away her unwanted cards hadn't been easy. In doing so, it seemed she had discarded sleep as well. She had begun to prepare for the move nearly a month before, packing items they didn't use in their everyday lives and severing ties with bill collectors, her son's school and Annette's doctors, but she had still been buried in a mountain of work in the last forty-eight hours. So many chores had to be put off until the last minute, only a fraction of which included picking up the rental truck and trailer, packing the remainder of their belongings, cleaning the apartment they would be leaving behind and loading everything they owned into the twenty-five feet of space the truck provided.

"I'm sorry I haven't been more help to you." Annette stretched an arm over her sleeping nephew between them to lay a soft hand on Lydia's shoulder. "It's been rough on you and the work isn't over yet."

"It's okay," Lydia said, keeping her voice cheerful though she felt a lump forming in her throat. "You've done and will continue to do all you can. I know that. Just keeping Neal entertained has been an enormous help."

"I'm sure going to miss him," Annette whispered, softly brushing a strand of the boys ruffled blond hair from his forehead. "Is Daniel still coming to get him tomorrow?"

Lydia nodded, the lump in her throat growing as the dread of the quickly approaching day increased. It's only for a month, she silently reminded herself. But she knew that month would be the longest of the year. While she always looked forward to summer vacation and the chance to spend more time with her eight-year old son, she dreaded the month he would spend with his father more than anything life threw at her.

"Are we almost there? Should I wake him or do you want to let him sleep?"

Lydia contemplated that for a moment. The excitement of the past two days had left Neal nearly as exhausted as his mommy. So much so that they had barely begun the ten-hour drive to their new home when he had curled up on the bench seat between Lydia and Annette and fallen fast asleep.

"He's been sleeping for a long time," she said finally. "I'm afraid he's going to be up half the night."

"I'll stay up with him if he is," Annette said, though she knew her sister would never go to bed as long as her son was still awake, especially not when Neal would be leaving for his father's sometime the next day. "He'll probably wake up when the truck stops anyway. And besides, he can help us carry the things we'll need tonight into the house."

As if on cue, the house came into view. Lydia felt a mixture of excitement and a new feeling of nervousness at the mere sight of the country-style structure they would now call home. Surprise and confusion mixed with her other emotions as she watched two men move about in front of the porch steps. Could she be looking at the wrong house? She'd only seen it once--two weeks earlier when she had made a quick trip to town to finalize her acceptance as the new area Fire Marshal and secure a place for them to live--and it had been in the bright of day. Now, with the dimming sunlight of the quickly approaching late hour, she wondered if she could be mistaken on the exact house for which she had signed the lease.

Her eyes swept the cookie-cutter house and surrounding area. Two houses, nearly identical in size and build sat on either side of the house in question. Emerald green shutters hung on either side of the windows set against ivory painted wooden walls. There was a single car garage on one side and a screened in porch perfect for lounging around on a cool summer evening stretched the length of the front of the house. Perfectly manicured shrubs lined the outside of the porch and walkway. It was just as Lydia remembered it, inviting and cozy. She knew that the inside was complete with all the appliances they would need--microwave, refrigerator, dishwasher, washer and dryer, things she didn't own herself--as well as a fireplace and even a small Jacuzzi in the master bath that she couldn't wait to sink her aching body into. But for the life of her, she couldn't remember the sweet old lady that owned the house telling her that it came complete with two men!

She had almost decided she was mistaken about the exact house when her gaze landed on a stone statue about four feet tall that set several yards from the right edge of the porch. It was a statue of a mermaid intricately carved with unmistakable detail and precision. She clearly remembered admiring that statue during her one and only visit to the house. She clearly remembered that the house she signed the lease for was the only house on the street with anything even remotely resembling the statue. The largest piece in a young woman's collection of mermaid beauties, the landlord had said. The young woman was her daughter-in-law that had previously occupied the house. The statue had been too large and difficult to move so it had been left behind.

So it has to be the house, Lydia decided as she brought the truck to a stop on the side of the street in front of the yard. Glancing in the side mirror, she saw that the length of the trailer in tow stretched in front of the neighbors yard--her new landlord's yard--but wasn't blocking their driveway. Alarm made the hairs on her arms stand on end as she noted two patrol cars parked there. Had something happened to the sweet old lady? Had there been a break-in? Was that why two men appeared to be checking out the house she had rented next door?

"Mommy, is that our new house? Who are those men in our yard?" Neal's muzzy, deepening young voice brought Lydia from her thoughts.

"I don't know sweetheart," she answered, hoping he couldn't hear the apprehension in her voice. She darted a guarded glance at her sister before looking back to the house where the men now stood staring back at her. After a few seconds that felt more like days, one of them--a tall lanky looking man who reminded Lydia of Barnie Fife in his younger years--waved and began walking toward the truck. "I guess we're about to find out." Taking a deep breath to calm her nervously racing heart, Lydia shut off the engine, opened the driver door and slowly stepped out of the truck.

"You must be Lydia?" The man spoke in a slight southern drawl paired with a smile that was as bright as sunshine even in the dimming light of evening. He reached her in a few long strides and extended his hand. "I'm Bernard Presley. Most people call me Bernie."

Lydia stifled a laugh as she shook the kind man's hand. Guess his parents saw the resemblance to the old movie star too.

"I'm sorry I didn't get to meet you when you were in town last. My mother owns the house."

"Ah, so you're the Bernard she spoke of so fondly," Lydia said, as recognition dawned. He had been the only thing the older woman had talked about when she had looked at the house and signed the lease. She had learned that the man who now stood before her was single, a do-gooder, the youngest of three children and the town deputy sheriff.

Which also explains the patrol cars.

"My mother." Bernard laughed, his brown eyes squinting from a wide smile, and shook his head. "She does love to talk."

"She's sweet," Lydia said, remembering the way the older woman had made her feel welcome from the start. Though she had gotten the sneaky suspicion that the proud mother had been doing a little matchmaking-something in which Lydia was definitely not interested-she had found the mother's talk of Bernard and other members of the town quite entertaining.

Bernard dropped his hand to his side and shuffled his feet on the concrete separating the yard from the street. The awkward silence of first meetings settled upon them.

Unnerved, Lydia searched her mind for something to say but came up empty. It wasn't until she heard the sharp pounding of a hammer that she remembered the other man who she had seen in front of the house. Craning her neck, she attempted to look over Bernard's shoulder but he was too tall for her to see anything but the roof of the house against the darkening evening sky.

Determined to see what the other man was doing, she took a step to her right to peer around the Deputy Sheriff. What she saw nearly surprised her to tears. The man had moved away from the porch and walked toward her and Bernard but it was what he had left behind that made her heart swell. A shiny metal ramp stretched from the porch door to the walkway where concrete steps had once been.

Apparently realizing it was the ramp and not the other man who had captured her attention, Bernard cleared his throat and said, "Mother told me you asked permission to install something like that for your sister. We figured we would get it done before you got here so she wouldn't have any problems getting into the house."

"We also nailed a slanted piece of molding in the main doorway so she wouldn't have any problems getting her chair up that short step either," the other man added when he reached her. He was tall and lanky like Bernard but no Barney Fife there. No, this man was a bit more muscular, more attractive. "The rest of the doorways in the house are level."

"I-I don't know what to say," she stammered around the lump that returned to her throat. These people didn't know her any better than the man in the moon and yet they had spent their time and money making the house accessible for her sister's wheelchair. Thoughtfulness didn't even begin to describe the gesture.

"You don't have to say anything." The man smiled warmly. "By the way, I'm Clyde Russo," he said almost as an afterthought. "I'm the Sheriff in these parts."

"It's nice to meet both of you."

"Mommy, can I get out of the truck now?"

Startled, Lydia turned to find Neal poking his head out of the open door of the truck. In all the surprise of finding the men at her new house, she had completely forgotten her son and sister who were still in the truck.

"Of course sweetheart," she said, moving quickly to help him down the step at the bottom of the doorway. "I'll get your chair," she said, peering through the doorway at Annette who remained on the passenger side of the cab.

Annette nodded and pushed open the passenger door.

"Who are you?" Lydia heard Neal asking as she turned to walk to the car positioned on the trailer behind the truck. After careful consideration, she had decided to store her sister's wheelchair in the car rather than the back of the truck for easier access.

"My name is Clyde," she heard the Sheriff reply. "And what's your name?"

"I'm Neal. That's my mom over there."

"Stay with Mr. Clyde for a minute Neal," Lydia instructed as she continued toward the car. "I'm going to help your Aunt out of the truck and we'll be right there."

Ignoring her, Neal continued chattering away to the Sheriff. From a distance, she couldn't hear exactly what her son was telling the man but she caught a few words that sounded like trip, long, and sleep.

Yeah, you got plenty of sleep, she thought contributing to the conversation in her head. And now you're going to be wired and up all night.

Sighing from what she expected to be another long sleepless night, she unlocked the trunk on the '67 Shelby Mustang. In seconds, she had Annette's wheelchair unfolded on the ground and ready to roll. She wondered if she should ask one of the officers for help but quickly dismissed the thought. Annette was often embarrassed enough by her disability, asking a strange man to help while she struggled to get her unfeeling legs in a position where she could be lowered to her chair would only humiliate her.

Bernard rounded the front of the truck just as Lydia reached the passenger door. "Here, let me," he said, moving around the open door before she had a chance to object. He positioned himself between the truck and the wheelchair and looked up at Annette. For a moment he simply stood there. The night sky had darkened almost to the point of blackness leaving Annette's face bathed in the light of a nearby street lamp. Lydia saw her sister's face turn a deep red as she gazed down at the Deputy Sheriff.

"Maybe you should let Lydia help me," Annette said. Her voice shook and, although it sounded friendly enough, the embarrassment that laced her words was hard to miss. "She's used to doing this. It can be kind of tricky."

Bernard didn't respond. Instead, he stepped closer to the seat of the truck and slid one arm under Annette's legs, the other between her back and the seat. Without so much as a grunt or a bulged muscle, he lifted Annette from the seat and eased her out of the truck. "What's so tricky about it?" he asked. A sly grin unfolded across his thin lips as he looked down at Annette whom he still cradled in his arms. Their gazes locked and for several heartbeats they stared at one another in silence.

Holy shit! Lydia silently exclaimed as she watched the scene occurring before her. It had been years since she had seen that look in her sister's eyes. It was a look of attraction, longing, admiration. They were all emotions she was certain her sister hadn't felt since before the accident that had left her permanently disabled.

As if forcing himself to let go of something he so desperately wanted, Bernard turned with Annette in his arms and slowly lowered her into the wheelchair. The gaze they held on one another never faltered.

Annette swallowed hard and let out a short laugh. "Not exactly the way Lydia would have done it but thank you."

"You're very welcome."

Lydia hated to break the trance that seemed to have enveloped her sister and the Deputy Sheriff. She knew the slightest movement would remind them of her presence but she needed to get back to the other side of the truck where she had left Neal with Clyde. Just as she expected, the instant she turned to walk away both their heads snapped up to look at her. Her blush returning, Annette immediately reached down, placed her hands on the wheels and pushed the chair out of the way of the truck door. Taking his cue, Bernard shut the door. The loud smack of metal on metal clanged in the silence of the night.

"Mommy, can we go in the house?" Neal asked excitedly the instant Lydia stepped into view around the truck with Bernard and Annette close at her heels.

"This young man can't wait to see his new bedroom," Caleb informed her, ruffling Neal's already disheveled blond hair with the palm of his hand.

"Of course we can sweetheart," Lydia answered with a pleased smile. Less than a week before she had entered her son's room in their small apartment in the city to find him curled in the center of his bed crying his eyes out. He hadn't wanted to move. He hadn't wanted to leave his friends behind.

She couldn't blame him. She had been battling feelings of apprehension since she made the decision to uproot the three of them and move to Stockland. Though the job offer in Stockland promised to eliminate her need to work two jobs to support them, the thought of leaving everything that was familiar, everything she had worked so hard to build for the three of them had caused her blood to run cold. Still, deep down she had felt the move was necessary-a better job, a better home, a better life for each of them.

After much persuasion, bribing and coaxing, she had eventually convinced Neal their move would be good. "It will be fun," she had told him. "A new bedroom for you to make your own, new things to explore, new friends to make and more time for us to spend together."

And, with any luck, a new attitude for the both of us, she'd added silently.

The past few years had been trying to Lydia's nerves. So many bad luck-of-the-draws that had left her hand full of unmatched cards to get rid of. Neal had been three when she divorced his father. She had supported him with little to no child support or help of any kind since then. Well, truthfully until about a year ago when her ex-husband had finally started sending monthly child support payments, she amended in an attempt to give credit where credit was due. Life had never been easy for them but in the last two years-since the accident that killed her parents and left Annette in the wheelchair-her will had been tested to his limits.

"Let mommy get her purse out of the truck," Lydia said to her son who was now eagerly bouncing up and down beside Clyde. "Then we'll go in the house and you can pick out your new room."

"Really!" He squealed like a child who had just opened a toy he had always wanted on Christmas morning. "I get to pick out my room? Too cool!"

Lydia shook her head and laughed as she retrieved her purse from the cab of the truck.

"The truck will be fine parked where it is for the night," Clyde informed her. "It's too late to unload everything tonight but we'll gladly help you get whatever you need to make it until morning."

"We packed a couple of suitcases of necessities and stored them in the backseat of the car," Lydia explained as she dug in the bottom of her purse for the key to her new house. "We anticipated it being too late to do much unpacking tonight." She saw the slight nod exchanged between Clyde and Bernard before they began walking to her car and held up a hand in protest. "Please, you don't have to get the suitcases. I can get them in a few minutes."

"Nonsense," Clyde argued, good-naturedly. "You take little Neal and your sister inside. We'll get your bags."

The air inside the house was a bit warm for her liking but it smelled of a fruity potpourri that instantly made her feel at home. A light in the kitchen had been left on preventing the house from total darkness as she stepped into the entryway. She flipped a switch just inside the door, bathing the living and dining room areas in a rush of bright white light.

"Wow!" Neal exclaimed pushing past her only to stop a few feet in front of her. He turned, his eyes widening with each circle he made. "It's humongous!"

Lydia laughed. In reality, the rooms were a generous size but nowhere near humongous. However, to a small boy like Neal who was accustomed to a tiny two-bedroom apartment, she ventured that the house probably did seem humongous to him.

"Move you," Annette's voice ordered playfully from behind her. "Me and this wheelchair are not as skinny as Neal. I can't get past you like he did and I want to see too."

Lydia moved further into the entryway and stepped aside.

"Wow, it is humongous." Annette echoed Neal's words and excitement as she pushed her chair through the doorway with great ease thanks to the molding the men had installed for her. "Lydia, this is amazing!"

"I'm glad the two of you approve," Lydia said with satisfaction.

"I'm going to check out the bedrooms," Neal announced, bouncing away before Lydia had a chance to register his words.

"Be careful Neal," she called after him as he dashed down the hall. "There aren't any lights on in the back of the house."

"I'll go with him," Clyde offered as he stepped into the house. Quickly, he set the suitcases he had brought from the car against the wall and moved past her at lightening speed, to follow Neal down the dark hallway.

"Lydia, this is amazing," Annette said again, her face bright with awe. Then her expression turned serious as she gazed at her sister. "But are you sure we can afford it? I mean I know you wanted something bigger than what we had. Mostly for me and my chair but..."

"It's okay. The economy is different here. Believe it or not, we aren't paying much more for this house than we were for our apartment in the city."

"Really!" Excitement returning to her face, she spun her chair in circles. "I'll actually be able to move around without bumping into furniture at every turn."

"That's exactly what I thought the first time I stepped in here," Lydia walked to stand beside her sister. "You might have a bit of a problem in the kitchen because it's long and a bit narrow. The chair will fit but you will have to maneuver around a bit to open the lower cabinets around the chair. That should be the only challenging room."

"What about the bathrooms?" Annette asked skeptically, gazing up at her sister.

"The bath in the master bedroom is very large. I know you won't have a problem there. As for the one down the hall, I think you should have just enough room to move about freely with the chair."

"Mom and I discussed the kitchen after you left last time. It wouldn't take much work to knock out this bar," Bernard said, slapping a hand on the serving bar that separated the kitchen and dining room areas. "That would open up the space so you can easily get around in the kitchen. That's a pantry behind that door." He pointed through the windowed opening over the bar to a closed door on the far left of the kitchen. "There should be plenty space in there so you won't miss the cabinets you will loose when we take out the bar. And we can remove the door from the pantry and cover the opening with a curtain or something so you don't have to maneuver around it either."

"Oh, I don't want you going through all that trouble," Annette objected. Her short blond hair bobbed wildly from the motion of her shaking head.

"It's no trouble," Bernard insisted, moving to kneel beside her chair. "We're hoping the three of you will be here for a long time. The best way to make that happen is to be sure you feel at home."

Tears welled in Lydia's eyes. The kindness these men were showing her, and more importantly her sister and son, was completely overwhelming.

"Mom, I've found my room," Neal informed her, rushing back to the living room.

"No running in the house." Lydia raised a warning finger. Neal rolled his eyes. Usually she would have had something to say about that but she allowed it to pass for now. No need to embarrass herself and her son in front of strangers. "Now, which room did you decide is yours?"

"The biggest one," he answered with a sly grin. "You know, the one with the really cool bathtub."

Lydia laughed. "Not on your life sport. That's my room."

Neal crossed his arms over his bony chest and poked out his bottom lip. "No fair. Why do you get the biggest room?"

"I tried to tell him you wouldn't go for it," Clyde held up his hands palms out in innocence.

"Because I'm the oldest, the biggest, the Mommy and the one who will be paying the rent," Lydia answered without hesitation, ticking off the reasons on her fingers. "I think all of that entitles me to the master bedroom."

"Okay," the boy caved with only the slightest sound of disappointment. "Then I want the room next door."

"It's yours."

"But can I swim in the big tub sometimes?"

Lydia bent to wrap her arms around her son. "Of course you can."

"If there isn't anything else we can do for you this evening Lydia we need to get going," Clyde said after a moment.

"I wish I could offer you something to drink, or eat, anything. You've been so kind and I don't have anything to..."

"Don't worry about it," Clyde said and winked. "We'll hit you up for dinner one night once the three of you get settled in."

"It's a deal."

"Will ten o'clock be too early to come back in the morning?"

"Come back?" Lydia repeated, her brows drawn together in puzzled surprise.

"You can't unload that big truck by yourself," Clyde pointed out unnecessarily. "I'm sure it's packed with furniture and only you know what else."

"Well, yeah, but..."

"So you'll need help to unload the stuff. We'll be here at ten and have that truck unloaded and your house set up before you know it." His tone was insistent leaving no room for argument.

"Then I guess we'll see you in the morning," Lydia said with a click of her tongue. She followed the men to the door. "Thank you again for your help tonight and for installing the ramps for Annette."

"It was our pleasure," Bernard said with a quick wave to Annette before stepping out of the door followed closely by his partner.

"Can you believe them?" Annette said once the men had left. "They have to be the nicest men I think I've ever met."

"I certainly noticed how nice Bernard was to you," Lydia said, flashing her sister a teasing glance.

Annette squirmed visibly in her chair. "He's very sweet."

"And seemed quite taken by you too."

Annette offered no further comment. Lydia fought the urge to continue to tease her little sister. Making Annette blush was cute and fun but the last thing she wanted to do was make her feel uncomfortable about the first attraction she had felt for a man since her accident. Doing that would only serve as giving her one more excuse for ignoring the possibilities-something Lydia was afraid her sister would do anyway.

"Clyde is my favorite," Neil interjected. He plopped down on the living room floor, crossed his legs Indian style and gazed up at his mother and aunt. "He's really cool-like my Daddy. Do you think Daddy will like our new house, Mommy?"

I don't know and I don't care. "I'm sure he will, sweetheart," she said, keeping her grim thoughts to herself. "What's not to like?" she asked, adding a dribble of excitement to her voice. "We have three good size bedrooms, two baths, a cozy kitchen, and a nice living and dining room area. Tomorrow when the sun comes up you can check out the back yard too. There's lots of room back there for you to play."

And hopefully stay out of trouble, she added silently. She'd had to permanently ground him from playing on the playground directly outside their apartment in the city when he jammed sticks in the neighbors outside air conditioning unit when she wasn't looking. The neighbor had seen him though and reported him to the management who had in turn threatened to evict her if anything happened again. It had been the final straw in a string of bad stunts Neal had pulled while on the playground that had broke the proverbial camel's back. No matter how closely she or Annette had watched him he had always seemed to manage to get into some sort of mischief.

"I wish Daddy could live here with us," he said sadly, bowing his head. He toyed with the strings on his tennis shoes.

Lydia took a deep breath and counted to ten. Before she could reach eight, Annette spoke for her.

"You know that's not going to happen," her sister said as sweetly but firmly. "Your daddy has his own house with his new wife and their children. He's happy. And we're going to be happy, too. You, and your mom, and me-we're going to have loads of fun in our new house."

"I'm hungry," he complained as if he hadn't heard a word his aunt said.

"Come to think of it, so am I," Lydia said, grateful for the change of subject. It was a conversation they'd had far too many times to count and tonight was definitely not the night to add another one to the list. Instead, she chose to listen to the grumble in her stomach that had begun at the mere thought of food. "I'll go get the ice chest out of the car and we can make sandwiches."

"I don't want a sandwich," Neal crossed his arms over his chest defiantly. "I want pizza."

"We can't order pizza tonight," she said with practiced patience. "It's getting late and I'm not even sure there is a pizza delivery in town."

"This place don't have a Pizza Hut?"

"Doesn't have," she corrected. "And I'm sure they probably do although I don't remember seeing one. We'll do sandwiches tonight and tomorrow we'll have something better for lunch."

"Daddy will take me to eat pizza when he picks me up."

"I bet he will if you ask him to," Lydia said with exaggerated sweetness as she walked to the door. Daddy will do anything you ask him to, she thought bitterly as she stepped into the night. Anything at all to make me look like the bad guy.

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