The Spark of a Kiss

Park City Firefighter Romance: Station 2

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Julia, a witty and independent public defense attorney, doesn’t need a man—but she does need to secure a boyfriend by her twenty-eighth birthday to keep her mother from setting her up, if only for that day. She has her eyes set on February, the gorgeous firefighter from the benefit calendar on her wall. Unfortunately, when Julia meets Dax, AKA February, and sparks fly, she learns he’s a self-proclaimed bachelor.

Dax, a Park City firefighter, is living his childhood dream of being a local hero. Masking his abandonment issues with surface romantic relationships, he finds himself conflicted when he meets Julia and sparks fly, but she won’t date him. His determination solidifies when he finds that Julia has a stalker. How do you protect and care for someone who wants to go at life alone? Dax is determined to figure it out, and that may mean a trip to Brazil to come to terms with his past.


Excerpt

Chapter 1

A nervous hush settled over the courtroom as Julia’s witness took the stand and raised her right hand, affirming her honesty to the court. Julia stood from her hard, wooden chair. For all the hours that people sat in those blasted chairs, you’d think that someone would think to cushion them. Her bottom, no matter how much it hurt, was not what she needed to focus on. This was her last witness. It was Julia’s moment to shine. If she didn’t, future generations would be impacted.

The stuffy courtroom air lodged in Julia’s throat, threatening to prevent her from speaking. She took a drink of water from her glass. With ten, caramel lacquered wooden benches on either side of the center aisle, the courtroom could hold up to a hundred observers. Julia referred to them as spectators. Her half of the room, the defendant’s side, only held a handful of spectators. The plaintiff’s half of the room, on the other hand, threatened to spill across the aisle. It was one strike for the defense. Julia had to nail this.

Julia turned from the spectators to the front of the courtroom. Judge Waite’s bench rested a considerable height above the rest of the courtroom; a means of intimidation and power. The judge’s countenance echoed her bench, rigid and stern, but her clear eyes smiled at the young businesswoman as she sat in the witness chair with a nervous exhale. Judge Waite demanded complete respect in her courtroom. She was a well-respected woman entering the golden age of her life—tough on the outside but soft on the inside, having shown more mercy than Julia herself would have granted repeat offenders.

As Public Defender, Julia was on. She cleared her throat before quickly moistening her lips. Cherry lip balm coated the inside of her mouth with a sticky film as she rubbed a sweaty palm down her pencil skirt to stave away the mounting nerves. She began, “Ms. Gray, how long have you known the defendant, Ms. Cortez?” Julia motioned to her client behind the desk. Her surroundings made Ms. Cortez, Maria, resemble a child at a formal dinner table, but it played in her favor. Maria’s small frame—coupled with her dark, lonely eyes, demonstrated a vulnerability and innocence beneficial in a cut-throat courtroom.

Ms. Gray straightened her back as she raised her eyes to the jury. Julia’s blood pressure spiked for a few seconds, until Ms. Gray ultimately diverted her gaze back to Julia. She had warned Ms. Gray not to make eye contact with the jury, but it proved all too tempting. The jury was, after all, the pardoner or the executioner.

“About a year,” Ms. Gray responded nervously. “We met at a social at church a few days after I moved into my apartment.”

Several jurors leaned forward and opened their torsos, offering their approval and trust in Ms. Gray. Through thousands of hours spent in court, Julia had learned to decipher body language. She clasped her hands together and said a silent prayer. She had become accustomed to losing court cases. Jurors almost always sided with the prosecutors. To take a case to trial, a judge had already deemed there to be enough evidence to move forward, and with evidence comes conviction.

It seldom bothered Julia to lose. The reality was most of her clients were guilty. But this case was different. Maria didn’t belong in prison; she was innocent. Those were the scariest cases to defend.

Julia tapped her thigh with her thumb. Luckily, the podium hid her nervous twitch from the courtroom. “And was Ms. Cortez pregnant at the time?”

“Yes.” Slow tears tumbled down Ms. Gray’s cheeks as her eyes locked with Maria’s.

Julia grinned inside. Excellent witness. “And was she excited about the pregnancy?”

Carl stood. “Objection, your honor.” A public prosecutor, Carl thrived on the kill. “Calls for speculation.” He nodded at Julia, as if tipping his hat to her. The nerve.

“Sustained,” the judge offered quickly.

Julia dismissively waved a hand in the air. “I withdraw my question, your honor.” She turned her attention back to her witness. “Ms. Gray, over the course of the past year, what type of contact have you had with Mr. Jones, the father of the baby?”

“Dinner, a couple of times, but I stopped getting together with them when he was around. I couldn’t stand how he belittled her in front of other people. He was down-right abusive.”

“Objection, your honor.” Carl stood, asking that the objectionable comment be stricken from the record.

Judge Waite agreed, striking the last part of the testimony that was highly prejudicial, but the jury had heard it.

Julia paused before the next question. “And did you assist with any of the plans or preparations for the baby?”

“Yes. I threw Maria a baby shower.” With every word, Ms. Gray’s voice grew increasingly more chipper. “She couldn’t stop talking about having this last chance at having a child, because she and her boyfriend were both in their late thirties. She cleaned houses to buy all the baby supplies, like the baby’s car seat, stroller, crib, formula.” She waved her hand. “The list goes on.”

“Thank you, Ms. Gray.” Short and sweet. Julia had given the jurors what they needed without exhausting them into doubt. “Thank you.”

“Cross?” Judge Waite addressed the prosecution.

Julia clenched her fists as Carl grasped the podium with a clank of his wedding ring, announcing his presence. The baby’s fate, and whether Maria would be convicted of child abandonment and attempted murder, would be determined shortly after his cross-examination.

Maria had been preparing dinner, chopping onions, when her boyfriend had stumbled into the apartment with a half-dressed young woman celebrating her eighteenth birthday. How did Maria know it was the girl’s eighteenth birthday? The girl’s birthday cake was baking in Maria’s oven when the two had banged through the door, literally, passionately tearing at each other’s clothing. Overcome with anger, Maria had chased them out of her apartment, knife in hand, shouting that he would never hurt her again. The baby slept through the entire ordeal in her crib, but Maria had left the baby alone in the apartment and chased after the stupid man with a knife in her hand.

Julia reviewed in her mind the objections she could counter with: speculative, hearsay. She needed to be ready the moment Carl faltered.

“Ms. Gray, so you say you didn’t like the way Mr. Jones treated Ms. Cortez. Have you…” He paused. “…ever…” Another pause. “… personally witnessed him abuse her?”

Ms. Gray wrinkled her lips as she raised her eyes to the ceiling and then back to Carl. “Physically or emotionally?”

Carl lowered his head with a sigh. “Physically.”

“No, but I can give you many examples of emotional abuse.”

Julia caught the steely eyes of the jury staring down the prosecution. Ire splashed across their faces. That was a good sign, but you never knew how a jury would side. That was a lie. She did know. They almost always sided with the prosecution, but she had a sliver of hope due to that one ill-thought-out question, and the confidence with which Ms. Gray had answered it.

As Julia forced her mind back to review the instances where she could shout out her objections, she reached over, took Maria’s shaking hand in hers, and gave it a little squeeze. The prosecution finished the cross examination with a few additional questions before Julia nodded to the judge, “The defense rests.”

After the closing remarks, the jury was excused with instructions. Julia was shocked when they returned a mere two hours later. It was one of the speediest deliberations in Julia’s career. She glanced back at Maria’s family, their faces lost in worry as the jurors filtered back into the room and took their seats. She took in a deep breath and held it. Maria’s family appeared to be doing the same. The jury foreman stood to deliver their verdict.

Not guilty.

Maria fell into Julia’s arms, weeping. No jail time and Maria would keep her baby.

Julia left Maria in the hands of her sister and bounced out of the courtroom with renewed hope for humanity. She would treat herself to a box of dark chocolate truffles and a long, hot bath. She said a prayer of gratitude as she stepped out of the courtroom and into the open hall.

Heavy heel clicks pounded against the hard floor moments before Julia’s shoulder brushed against a tall blonde. “Pardon me,” Julia offered, but the woman merely scowled and strode on. One guess, the blonde had sided with the prosecution.

“Julia, wait!” Carl approached quickly from behind.

She turned, a triumphant smile splitting her face.

“Great job today,” he said with a shake of his head, conceding her win.

Julia loved how, at the end of a court battle, she found friends in her counterparts again. “Thanks.”

“Why don’t you come to dinner tonight with me and Chastity and a few of our friends. We have reservations at the Grand.”

She shook her head as her pumps continued to tap across the slick floor to the elevator. “That’s sweet of you Carl, but I’m going to head home and relax.”

“On New Year’s Eve?” His eyes cried their sympathy.

“My choice.” She folded her arms as they entered the elevator. “Men are too much trouble.” She shook a finger at him. Man, were they too much trouble. Chase had been major trouble. She hadn’t planned on having a boyfriend during law school, but at six-foot-four, muscular and blonde, she couldn’t resist. He appeared out of nowhere and stayed dutifully at her side, to the point where he became so possessive that, by the end of the first year, he was her only friend. He had been a fabulous support to her, especially when she was sick, but she alienated everyone else in her life while they were dating, and after the nasty split, she had to rebuild those severed relationships.

“Come on.” He bumped his shoulder into hers as the elevator lowered. “We’re not all bad.”

“Maybe not, but I love my life and I don’t need a man to fill some void. I’m completely self-sufficient and happy.” She gave him a friendly wink as she exited the elevator on the main floor. “Besides, Chastity got one of the last good ones.”

“That’s kind, Julia, but the courts are tainting you.” He strained his neck to retain eye contact as the elevator doors closed. “I hate to see that. Happy New Year!”

As Julia reached the heavy glass doors, she stopped and studied the howling wind on the other side of the glass. An angry wind spiraled dusty snow up from the sidewalk, creating a snow globe-like affect. The flittering snowflakes sparkled in the last rays of sunlight which filtered through the ominous clouds. Julia paused to wrap her wool scarf around her neck and zip up her jacket.

“Let me get that for you.” A familiar voice caused her veins to shiver with a supernatural chill.

Frozen in place, she raised her eyes to her right. Walter reached out in front of her, pulling the door open as he motioned for her to exit.

“Walter?” she stuttered out her surprise. She hadn’t seen him in over a year, but she never could get that raspy voice out of her head. “What are you doing here? If I were you, this is the last place I’d ever want to be.”

“Are you kidding me?” he said with an innocent smile, showing off a set of silver braces. “Anyplace with you is awesome.” He pretended to shiver. “Even out in the bitter cold.”

Walter would be about twenty-two now. Five or six years younger than Julia. When Julia had been fresh out of law school, working for a year in the private sector as junior associate for a law firm known to take on capital murder cases, the lanky teenager had strolled in through the front doors and asked to meet with the lead council. The room grew dark and cold when he entered that office. He had explained to the law firm that he would likely be arrested for murder, but he was innocent.

The perps were always innocent. The evidence could be dripping off their hands and they’d still proclaim their innocence.

The cops don’t have anything on me, he’d bragged to the lead attorney.

Julia had only been privy to the conversation because she had been asked to sit in on the meeting and take notes. Walter was advised that, if arrested, the only words out of his mouth should be to contact his attorneys.

A few days later, the firm had sent the youngest, not to mention the most ill-experienced barrister, to deal with his subsequent arrest. Julia then wrote the Motion to Dismiss that was used at his preliminary hearing which argued a lack of evidence. Had the police had sufficient evidence, he would have gone on trial for several recent murders where the victims had all been found wearing a piece of unexplained jewelry. Julia’s firm won and Walter was set free.

“Do you have a few minutes to catch up?” His pale blue eyes pleaded. “I know a great fondue place up the road.”

“Walter, I appreciate the offer, but I’ve found it beneficial for my clients, as well as myself, to never socialize outside of work.”

“Just one meal.” He gave a pained expression, appearing like the lone kid who didn’t get a lollipop. “I never thanked you for helping me out.”

“No. Please don’t ask me again. I was only doing my job, Walter. We were your retained law firm, and I was given the mandate, as your council, to advise you.” Her Subaru was now only two cars away, but she didn’t want him to know which car was hers, or maybe he already knew. She should have parked in the underground parking like Carl, but there had been a spot right out front and her assistant kept watch on the meter. “You don’t have to thank me.”

“But I want to.” He held his hand out to her.

“No. I can’t,” she said pointedly, sticking her hands in her pockets. But he remained at her side. She was left with no other option than to be the authoritative person he most likely loathed. “Not tonight and not any time in the future. Please do not contact me in the future or a restraining order will be placed against you.”

“Fine.” His eyes narrowed. “The suit should have never invited you to dinner.” A naughty smile played across his lips. “And you’re right, men are too much trouble.”

Julia’s eyes widened. Fear took control of her chest, making it difficult to breath. How could he have heard her conversation with Carl? Walter turned his back to her and stomped off, leaving deep boot impressions in the fresh snow.

Icy wind whipped across her face, waking her from her nightmare. She had been so wrapped up in the disturbing conversation with Walter that she hadn’t noticed the increasing snowfall. Fresh powder poured down from the sky as if it were being sifted like sugar through the dark clouds.

She waited a few minutes after Walter had rounded the street corner before she ran to her midnight blue Outback and jumped in the driver’s seat, cautiously watching the street he had entered. She turned the car on and reached down to remove her heels, allowing the cool air from the foot vent to dry her frosted toes. From now on, she’d park in the underground parking. No wonder there had been a vacant spot out front.

With a push of her thumb on the steering wheel, Julia activated her phone. “Call Abi.”

After two rings, Abi answered, “Hey, sis. How’s the trial going?”

“Great. We won.”

“Congrats! Come celebrate with us tonight. February will be there.”

“Ah … I’m beat.” Julia wasn’t interested in watching Abi and her boyfriend, Stone, kiss on each other all night. “I could use a bath and an old movie to help me unwind.”

“Sounds divine. Time off?”

“Yep. A week until my next case.”

“Ooh, perfect. Backcountry skiing?”

“Oh yeah.”

“Got a call from Mom today. She and Daddy are sad they missed Christmas with us and want to know if they can come spend your birthday here?”

“My birthday?” Julia wasn’t much for birthdays, and twenty-eight seemed so final. “Why would they want to spend Valentine’s Day with us? They’re always on some exotic cruise for Valentines.”

“Don’t get mad…” Abi’s voice thinned to a high squeak, “but I think they want to set you up. Mom said they met the perfect guy in Israel who is back here at the U working on a PhD in Middle Eastern Studies.”

“Argh!” Julia wouldn’t mind visiting Israel—to walk where Christ walked would be amazing. But the Middle East as a whole? No thanks. She couldn’t understand why women had zero rights, not to mention no religious freedom for anyone. Julia had a conversation earlier that week with a woman who had been involved in humanitarian work in Iraq the year before. The woman had friends who had crossed the border into Turkey to be baptized into a Christian faith. When they returned, their entire family was beheaded. The PhD student they wanted to set her up with was probably a great guy, but she had no interest in finding out. “How do I tell them nicely to please not set me up?”

“Not possible. Grin and bear it. I have a steady boyfriend now and they still hound me.”

“One more reason to dislike my birthday. Hey, how are the roads up there? I’m ten minutes to the base of the canyon.”

“Changing the subject?”

“Yep.”

“Not bad yet, but it’s supposed to dump tonight. Drive safe.”

“Love you.” Julia pushed the button on her steering wheel to end the call.

An hour later, Julia pulled onto her glistening driveway. She adored her heated driveway—a shovel-free zone. She entered her house through the mud room off the garage to absolute silence; too quiet for her taste. “Computer, turn on main lights and play soft jazz.” The kitchen lit as a deep trombone piped through the in-wall stereo system.

Julia loved the Jeremy Ranch home she and her sister had remodeled last year. To mitigate future inheritance tax, her parents had partially sold/partially gifted the home to them before buying a small place in St. George two hours from the Las Vegas airport; the perfect place to embark from for their various world adventures. Julia hoped to do the same someday—raise her kids, then travel around the globe with her husband, providing she still had her health and energy.

Located ten minutes from central Park City, Jeremy Ranch, an affluent golf community, was closer to Salt Lake City. Julia didn’t mind the drive to and from work most days, but her drive home this evening should have only taken her thirty minutes, not an hour.

She rolled her shoulders back, stretching her spine as she walked to the bathroom. Dang that wooden chair and long commute. She dropped her heels next to the luxury whirlpool tub. She and Abi had added a second water heater solely for that tub, but it was so worth it. With its thirty powerful jets, teak headboards, mood lights, and continual heating—it was pure nirvana.

Julia turned the faucet to hot, checked the temperature, then hung her dry clean only, starchy skirt and jacket back in the walk-in closet attached to the bath. It would take a good fifteen minutes for the tub to fill, allowing her time to pick out a holiday romantic comedy flick on her iPad to watch while she relaxed in the bath.

With a sappy romance movie waiting in the cue, Julia sprinkled a few drops of hydrogen peroxide into a scoop of baking soda. The ingredients for her facial scrub were stored with all other essential natural remedies in her bathroom cabinets. She leaned over the white porcelain sink, perusing herself in the mirror as she gently massaged the deep cleanser into her face. After a few seconds, her face tingled. She gave her skin a thorough rinse, patted it dry, then applied her organic honey mask with its therapeutic red-raspberry and carrot seed oils.

She closed her eyes, concentrating on her breathing as the warm, sweet scent of honeybees conquered her senses, transporting her to a field of wildflowers. When she opened her eyes a few minutes later, the pin-up calendar on the wall behind her filled her vision. Tacky would be the word to describe a calendar like that in her up-scale master bath, but the buff guy on the cover was Stone, Abi’s hot firefighter boyfriend—who Abi had had a crush on since elementary school.

Julia pulled the calendar off the wall. As much as she mocked them for stripping off their shirts and allowing themselves to be objectified, it was for a good cause. And, from what she had heard, those firefighters were top-notch guys. Proceeds from the calendar had been donated to the IRC, International Rescue Committee, to aid with the relocation of refugees. She scrutinized Stone. He was a super buff, mega-hunk, but too ripped for Julia’s taste. She preferred a toned man she could still cuddle her cheek against, not someone with a chest like a dry, rocky, cobblestone creek.

She smiled at the thought of ruffling Abi’s feathers as she flipped the calendar to February. Abi preferred to do her hair and make-up in Julia’s bathroom due to the more natural lighting. As Julia was preparing for work one morning about a year earlier, Abi entered her bathroom, pinned the calendar to the wall, and started doing her make-up like it was just another day. Julia freaked, nearly ripping the calendar off the wall, but they ended up laughing hysterically on the floor a few minutes later.

Julia allowed the calendar to stay because every time she looked at it, it reminded her of their intense bond and friendship.

Flipping the calendar soon became a running joke between the two. It all started one night when Julia was brushing her teeth. A brilliant idea came to her mind. She took the calendar off the wall and reviewed the other firefighters. They were all handsome, but one guy caught her attention, February. She had always been a good judge of character, and this guy had something about him that rang out hero. From then on, the calendar continuously flipped between June and February. Abi had offered to set Julia up with February and his beautiful amber eyes and olive skin, but every one of Julia’s blind dates in the past had ended in a train wreck. Every. Single. One.

Setting the honey facial jar on the edge of the tub, Julia gingerly stepped into the steaming water. “Ah…hh…hh,” she let out at the initial searing of her legs and feet. She grabbed the decorative wide-mouth bottle containing sugar lemon body scrub—another Julia Newell original, and opened the lid. Starting at her shoulders, she rubbed the sweet citrus goodness down to her toes. Time for the jets.

Julia reached for the button to activate the bubbles but was interrupted by her phone. She sighed at her mother’s ringtone. “Computer, answer Julia’s phone.” She and Abi had programmed Alexa to answer to Computer. Each time Julia said computer, it evoked a sentiment of adventure, as if she were captain of a starship headed toward an uncharted galaxy. “Hey Mom!”

“Hello, sweetheart. What’re you up to on this New Year’s Eve?”

“Relaxing in the bath.”

“Alone?”

Julia raised her fists in the air. “Of course, alone, Mom. Like I would allow someone to take a bath with me, and if I did, like I would answer the phone.”

“Sweetie, I’m just concerned about you.”

“I know.” Julia took in a deep breath to combat her irritation. The honey mask dripped down her face and into her mouth. At least she had a sweet treat to calm herself with. “You don’t need to worry about me. I’m completely independent and blissfully happy.”

“But you could be so much happier.”

“I know plenty of married couples who would disagree with that notion.”

“Well you’re not talking to one of those. Daddy has brought me more joy than I could ever express.”

“Daddy’s great. They just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

“I found someone…” Her mother’s voice jumped up an octave, “you have to meet. I’ve already arranged it. It’s time you found a good man.”

Julia’s bath heated instantly by ten degrees. “Actually, Mom. I have started dating someone.”

“Are you making that up to get me off your back?” her mother whined.

Julia imagined the scowl on her mother’s face. “No,” she lied. Lying to your own mother; that would keep her out of heaven for sure.

“Then tell me about him,” her mother countered with attitude.

“Well.” Julia grasped the honey jar and held it up to the calendar on the wall. The color of February’s eyes matched the color of her honey mask. “He’s my perfect match.”

“Go on.”

“His eyes are the color of the piece of amber you brought me from Russia and he fights fires alongside Stone.”

“Really?” Her mother’s voice softened. “That’s so exciting! I was worried you had passed your prime.”

“Passed my prime?”

“Yeah. You know, we all reach the height of our beauty, then our boobs sag and cellulite takes control of our upper thighs. I noticed changes in you after your twenty-eighth birthday. You’ve got to get that man when you still have it.”

“Mom!” Julia raised a leg out of the water to examine her thigh. “I can’t believe you’d say that.”

“Love you, pumpkin. Happy New Year.”

Disheartened, Julia responded, “Yeah, Happy New Year.” The phone went dead. Oh, how she needed a pick-me-up after that conversation. “Computer, play Harry Connick Jr. New Year’s Eve song.”

Julia leaned forward, planting her face in the water to remove the remaining honey. She blew bubbles out of her nostrils, imagining Harry, dressed in a black suit and tie, singing her that song.

Why, yes, Harry, I’d love to, but can it wait? I have a party to crash, and a boyfriend to catch.