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He’s been saving her all her life, but can she save her heart from him?
Rayah Maynard’s loved her brother’s best friend for pretty much as long as she can remember, which unfortunately is the problem. He still sees her as the kid who he constantly needed to rescue whenever she got into trouble. J
onny Graham has devoted himself to his three children and his career as a firefighter 8 his wife died when his youngest was just a baby. When his best friend’s sister starts setting him up on dates, he realizes she’s not the fearless kid who hung around with them, but can he trust her to keep herself - and his heart – safe?
Rayah wants to prove to Jonny she doesn’t need to be rescued anymore. When an arsonist puts the safety of the small town in jeopardy, she might have to choose – the man she’s loved for years or her town. If she can stay safe enough to make that choice.
This steamy small town single dad, friends-to-lovers, firefighter romance is part of the Maynards of Severton series but can be read as a stand-alone.
- Single dad
- Older brother's best friend
Intro to Chapter One
Intro to Chapter One
Chaos was around five foot six, with silky, shiny fair hair and blue eyes that had caused more than one man to drown.
It also possessed the authoritative tone of an army sergeant and, on a bad day, needed no weapons to command every living thing in the surrounding area.
Chaos had a name; one that Jonny Graham knew well. One that he’d grown up hearing and occasionally yelling himself. A name that induced fear and terror into both men and small children alike. This clubhouse, the place where residents of Severton came to play sports, have barbecues, watch fireworks, was more than used to chaos. Jonny was pretty sure that there was a place reserved for a plaque to mark some of the more extreme moments.
“It’s Rayah, Daddy! Can I go and see her?”
Jonny looked down at the imp that was his daughter. Sadie Grace Graham had never known her mother, yet she had come already pre-programmed to manipulate the absolute hell out of any male, including her father and two elder brothers.
“Do I have any form of choice?”
Sadie shook her head, dark red curls bouncing around, her smile sweet, a clear giveaway that she was up to something. “I want to to tell her I’ve got a new reading book.”
Like hell she did.
The bottom lip came out and Jonny shook his head.
She slumped her shoulders and looked up at him through dark eyelashes. “I want to ask her about Charlie’s party.”
Jonny considered the sweet smile, one front tooth pretty much through, the other part way there. To the unsuspecting stranger, his daughter was the image of an angel, all cherubic innocence and goodness. To a resident of Severton, she was mischief incarnate. Much like Rayah Maynard had been.
“What do you want to ask her about Charlie’s party?”
Charlie was Jonny’s eldest son, ten going on thirty-nine. Sadie Grace was his tormentor, the tiny torturer who had him so under her thumb Charlie could barely stand up.
Just like someone else had been.
“I want to make sure she’s going.”
Jonny narrowed his eyes. “You know that Rayah will be there already.”
Sadie shook her head. “Of course Rayah will be there. It’s one of our birthdays. Rayah’s always there. But I need to ask her ask her about things.”
“What things?” Jonny hesitated, unsure what was about to come out of his daughter’s mouth. It could be anything. Sadie Grace had filters, just ones she chose not to utilise.
“Girl things. You wouldn’t understand.” Her last word was barely comprehensible. The slight lisp she’d always had masking the word, probably more than it should’ve, because Sadie knew the power of that lisp.
So did Jonny. And he was immune to it. He was also immune to feeling as if he had two heavy weights tied to his feet in a piranha-infested pool when it came to single-parenting. He’d already used up his quota of sleepless nights worrying about the fact that his three children no longer had their mother around. They had a village instead.
“Try me.” She was six. Girl things hadn’t started yet.
Her smile slipped. As much as Sadie was a master manipulator, Jonny was immune to her ways. It had been a case of survival, because if he’d been sucked in by her charm, the world would have no chance.
“Clothes. I wanted us to have matching party dresses.”
His heart melted a little. And broke. Grace, Sadie’s mother, would’ve done something like matching dresses. Before Sadie was born, before the hit and run that had killed her, Grace had bought a tiny baby-grow and a matching set of adult pyjamas. Jonny had kept them. Over the years he’d let go some of Grace belongings - clothes, books, her over-sized music collection - but the little baby grow and PJ’s had stayed wrapped up, never worn.
“Rayah might not want to have matching party dresses, baby.” Knowing Rayah, she’d be planning on a night out after Charlie’s party, so she could well be wearing leather trousers and some form of material around her chest. Jonny pictured her wearing a sack-like outfit, complete with rope belt, because anything else was asking for trouble on many, many levels.
Sadie gave a petite nod. “She said she would. She said we could go shopping. I had to ask you, but I wanted to check she still wanted to.”
Jonny stared at her, not really doubting what she said. Sadie didn’t tell lies; she might use the truth sparingly, but she didn’t need to make things up.
“So can I go and speak to her, Daddy?”
Jonny inhaled deeply and nodded. Sadie adored Rayah. Out of everyone in Severton who helped him with childcare, Rayah was Sadie’s go-to human of choice.
“You looking for me, Poppet?” Her voice was musical and low, containing something that was enough to capture the attention of the children that she taught and most people who met her.
“Rayah!” Sadie somehow ended up in Rayah’s arms, even though it was brief.
For months, Jonny had to coach Sadie to call Rayah ‘Miss Maynard’ when she was her reception class teacher. Pretty much straight after going into the next class with a different teacher, Sadie had been back to being on first name terms with Jonny’s childhood friend.
“You’re still jumping hippopotamus!” Rayah’s focus was solely on the little girl.
Jonny tried not to pay too much attention. It was late September, so the short shorts that summer had coaxed out of Rayah’s closet were no longer there. Instead she was wearing tight jeans and a sweater that did everything to cling to her curves. Not that he noticed. Because she was a childhood friend and his best mates’ sister and cousin. Permanently in the Friend Zone.
“Where’s your jacket?” That was what he chose to focus on.
Rayah put a hand on Sadie’s back as she clung to her legs. “In the car. I was only popping into the clubhouse to pick up Jake’s wallet. Yet again.”
Jonny laughed. Jake was one of his closest friends, always had been, probably always would be. He ran his family’s farm and had recently branched out into keeping alpacas, although no one was quite sure why. “Is that the second time in a week?”
Rayah rolled her eyes. “Third in two weeks. I’m waiting for the day when you have a chip programmed into your hand so Jake no longer needs a wallet. Although he’d probably manage to lose his hand instead.”
Jonny was pretty sure that would happen. Jake Maynard was known everywhere he went, mainly for his personality, which was larger than life and drew people to him. He was also known for leaving belongings everywhere, but because he was Jake, they were always looked after and returned. “Any reason he couldn’t pick up his own wallet?”
Rayah shrugged. “He’s been out in the fields from four in the morning ‘til nine most evenings, so I figured I could help out. It’s a big harvest this year.”
“I think I’ve been commandeered to help out at the weekend.” It was an autumn ritual: all hands on deck for the harvest on the final Saturday, followed by a party in the fields nearest the farmhouse. Ever since he could remember, Jonny had been one of the extra set of hands in the fields. When the boys had been tiny, he and Grace had still been there, helping where they could while the babies were looked after by the older town residents. After Grace had died, he’d still been there every year, because it was normality. Charlie was just about old enough to help out this year, even if it was picking up the apples in the orchard. Harry, Jonny’s middle child, was a year too young, but he would want to be where Charlie was.
“I think everyone is in on it this year. The extra land from Niall James’ farm was a good move, apart from the fact Jake’s more than doubled his land. If he suggests more alpacas, encourage it. At least they farm the fields themselves.”
“I want a pet alpaca. Can I have one, Daddy? It could live in the garden and I promise I’d look after it.” Sadie slipped her hand into his.
Jonny sent a quick prayer up to the stars for help. He was good at saying no, but he hated it. He wanted to give his kids everything they wanted, but that wouldn’t be good for anyone.
“Alpacas need to be in a flock.” Rayah had crouched down in front of Sadie. “But I bet Jake would let you choose one to adopt. You could pick a name for it and visit it.”
Jonny exhaled. That was a solution everyone could manage.
Sadie’s eyes had grown inextricably bigger. “So my alpaca could still have friends and be mine too?”
Jonny wondered if this was the start of a very important life lesson.
“Definitely. Shall we pick an alpaca this weekend when you’re at the farm for Mabon?” Rayah’s shoulders now had Sadie’s probably sticky hands on them. She had also given harvest its pagan name, part of the town traditions.
“Are you going to help make corn dollies like last year?” Sadie’s attention was stolen by something else, but Jonny had no doubt, she’d return to the alpaca request later.
“Yep. Are you going to join in?”
Sadie nodded excitedly and clung onto Rayah a little more. Rayah stood up, lifting his daughter.
His heart twisted. Six years had been enough time to understand that his children had lost their mother. He’d gone through the grief and the guilt in waves since then, and missed Grace, cursed her for not being there, in moments like this.
But it wasn’t his grief any more. Instead it was the pain of his kids that he wanted to heal, even if they didn’t feel that pain themselves.
“Do you need any help with Charlie’s party tomorrow?” Rayah put down the rather too-big-to-hold-for-too-long Sadie.
Jonny watched her fair curls bounce wildly about her shoulders. Rayah hated her hair. He remembered how she’d once ironed it, frustrated with the waves that were unfashionable at the time and not being allowed straighteners for fear she’d set the house on fire.
She’d been metaphorically setting things on fire ever since.
“I’ll take any help offered.” His response was his standard one. After a few months of trying to prove he could manage on his own with just his parents and Grace’s parents to help, three kids and a full-time job as a firefighter, Jonny had realised it was a choice between going insane or accepting help from certain people in the town. It had taken a village. The Maynards had stepped in: Zack always there when he was needed; Scott – even though he’d been sprayed with projectile vomit from Sadie – had been more than happy to cover the nights when the kids were in bed and Jonny was at work; Jake entertained them when Jonny had needed to catch up on sleep; and Rayah had been his constant. His kids’ constant.
“What do you want me to organise? Games? Parent drinks? Decorations?”
He thought about the balloons he’d ordered, and the other superhero things that had been delivered a week or so ago. He’d become fairly decent at decorating a room for birthdays and Christmas. But dealing with other parents was a skill he hadn’t mastered. Severton had its ration of single parents, like any other town. And non-single parents. Some of whom were keen to get a little closer to find out the length of his hose, and not the one he used for his job.
“Parents. I think a few are dropping their kid off, but some have mentioned staying around. That’s the beauty of having the party at the clubhouse – there’s a bar.”
Rayah nodded. “Which means it’ll go on for longer than planned. Is there a game on later?”
Jonny rolled his eyes. “Rugby starts at three. That might mean it’ll be the dads bringing the kids.”
Sadie wriggled free and bolted over to Alex Maynard who had just arrived with both of his dogs. She was obsessed with having some sort of pet, but however much she said – or screamed – that she would be the one to look after it, Jonny knew it would be one more favour he’d be asking of his friends.
Rayah gave him a grin that told him she was laughing at his discomfort because she knew exactly what he was hoping for. “You need to stop picking Sadie and Harry up from school in your grey sweatpants. Then you might stop being treated as meat by the mothers.”
“How I dress is not an invitation to be eye-fucked. I’m hoping Michaela Robbins or whatever she’s called gets lucky on some dating app, because I’m not sure how many more excuses I can make for not going out with her.” He’d thought at first that Michaela was genuine in needing her smoke alarms checking. Then there had been a fire evacuation plan she’d wanted him to assess, even though it was a three-bedroomed semi-detached. Shortly after, her cat had gotten stuck up a tree, although he had at the time thought she might’ve put the cat up there herself.
Rayah chuckled, her eyes glinting.
He knew that look. It was one that suggested she had plans, and not ones that were going to be at all helpful to him.
“You know; she could be a good move.”
Jonny raised his eyebrows. “I have no idea how you’ve come to that conclusion.”
“Which conclusion’s that?” Alex Maynard appeared without his dogs.
Jonny figured that they had probably been kidnapped by Sadie. Given that they were big enough to put a saddle on and ride, he wasn’t too worried.
“Jonny’s finding all the female attention he gets at the school gates overwhelming.” Rayah’s eyes didn’t leave his.
Jonny shook his head. “There are so few blokes there. It’s like I’m an endangered species or something.”
Alex Maynard chuckled. He was the understated one of the four Maynard men, preferring to watch and comment only when he deemed it necessary. He was also a detective constable and police dog handler and knew far more than what he ever told.
“I overheard Tracey Kennedy talking about what you were wearing in the bakers on Wednesday. She also mentioned three women that she knew were planning to ask you out for a date over Christmas.” Alex shoved his hands in his pockets and looked around, exuding calm.
“Can’t you start hovering near the school more?” Jonny wasn’t happy with this kind of attention. “Give them something else to perv over?”
He heard Rayah choke.
“The last time I did an after-school talk on safety we had a two hundred and thirty percent increase in call-outs with women alone in the house afraid there was an intruder.” Alex kept his tone matter of fact. “We started sending Prescott round to investigate. The calls stopped when word got round.”
Prescott had been a beat cop for as long as Jonny could remember. When Jonny was six, he remembered Prescott looking like a skinny Santa Claus. Not much had changed.
“Maybe you should both go on a few dates. You know, one’s that take place in Severton. Not the clandestine affairs you both have out of town.” Rayah’s words were cutting. Her glare even more so.
Alex shrugged. “I’m not the one complaining. And if I started taking dates out in Severton I’d make it look like I was available. Have you got Jake’s wallet?” He looked at Rayah.
“Just on my way in for it. Why?”
“He owes me twenty quid. I figured I’d intercept it before it found his hands again.” Alex shivered. “And then try to get my coat back off him.”
“Good luck with that.” Jonny knew that once Jake had taken possession of something there was little chance of reclaiming it.
Alex merely tipped his head to one side and strolled off into the clubhouse. He had never been seen flummoxed or rattled by anything.
“You should let me set you up with someone.”
Jonny’s head span back round to Rayah with enough speed to pull a tendon.
Rayah had folded her arms and her eyes were glinting dangerously. He knew that look; it was one that made him suppress a groan.
“If you go on a couple of dates you could buy yourself a little breathing space.”
He inhaled deeply, aware that Sadie was running around nearby with a couple of the other kids. “The kids…”
“The kids need to see you having a life, Jonny.”
It was a line he’d heard before. As much as he’d let the guilt go, it felt wrong to have his kids find out that he’d moved on.
“They need a stable parent. Or one who can pass as a stable parent.”
“Your boys need to learn that it’s okay to have different sorts of relationships with people. Romantic ones. Charlie really likes a girl in his class – it kills me to tell you this – but he won’t ask her out.”
“Because he’s ten.”
Rayah stared at him. It had been a long time since Jonny had felt like crawling under a desk and hiding, possibly back when he was in high school and his English teacher had caught him reading some inappropriate material while he should’ve been planning an essay on George and Lenny in Of Mice and Men. She had the teacher look down to perfection.
“Jonny, do you remember when you were ten?”
He tried to stare at her blankly.
“It was a long time ago.”
She laughed. “Well, there is that. You were going out with Jemma Martin. Until she dumped you for Scott.”
He felt his face heat up. “Charlie thinks girls are gross.”
“He doesn’t. There are three girls in his class that keep giving him sweets and at least two have their name and his surname scrawled at the back of their books.”
Jonny tapped his foot. His eyes focused anywhere Rayah wasn’t. “That doesn’t mean he’s interested in them.”
“You’re right. He isn’t. But he really likes Layla Wardle. He helped her when she fell over in the playground yesterday and he tries to sit next to her at lunch.” Her expression lost its tension. “It’s sweet. But you need to have a chat with him.”
“He’s ten, Ray. He’s…”
“Completely clueless about girls. Harry isn’t. He’s already broken two hearts since September. But then, he’s spent more time with Jake.” The snark was back.
Jonny looked around for Sadie and saw her playing with two of the boys in her school. She was demanding that they pretended they were various animals and obviously having fun. He did not want to think about her growing up. Any of them growing up. He and Grace had been young parents, only twenty-three when Charlie was born, and neither of them really had a clue what to do. He wasn’t sure he had a clue even now.
“Maybe I should curb their Jake-time.”
“Maybe you should go on a date. Show your boys how to treat a woman and give Sadie some expectations. Plus,” Rayah dug him in the chest with her finger, “you stop this competition to see who can get you in the sack first.”
Jonny gripped her finger before she could leave a bruise. “Seriously? There’s a competition?”
“Too right. Sadie’s six, so this has been a thing for two years.”
Jonny kept hold of her finger. Touching Rayah was something he hadn’t done for years. As kids, they had fought, she’d gotten on his nerves like the younger sisters of friends did, just like Sadie irritated Charlie and Harry’s friends, but he couldn’t remember when he’d touched her.
He wasn’t sure he didn’t like it.
“Who would I date?”
“Who would you want to go out with?”
Jonny looked around as if expecting some dating show contestant to appear with three possible choices. Nothing happened. “I don’t know. I don’t pay much attention to the women round here.”
Rayah’s eyes rolled far enough back to see behind her. It was a gesture he’d noticed Sadie had adopted. “I know. You take your hook-ups from fields further away. And I get that. But that’s made you more alluring to the single – and not-so-single – mum brigade.”
“But I don’t want anything serious. And you know the score, Ray, you don’t shit on your own doorstep. If I date someone locally then there will be expectations. From everyone. Especially Charlie and Harry.”
“Then you just have to be careful who you pick.”
The slight release of his fingers around hers gave her opportunity to jab him again in the chest. Rayah Maynard hurt.
Jonny thought for a moment. He didn’t want his sons to think that taking a woman out was a bad thing and hell, he wanted to make sure Sadie knew exactly how to be respected by a boyfriend – or girlfriend. It was a situation he’d been trying to avoid in much the same way as he avoided Gran and the potent moonshine disguised as gin that she sold. “Okay.” He looked Rayah straight in the eye. “But you have to set me up with someone. Someone who won’t get all hung up on having one date with a firefighter.”
Her expression was unreadable.
“One date. I set you up.”