Excerpt from Playing With Fuego

Coming November

A few years ago, I wrote a short story called “Community Service” about a woman who was assigned to a Habitat for Humanity site to work off her debt to society. The premise lent itself to a full-blown novel, but I re-conceptualized the characters & setting to meld with another idea I’ve had rolling around in my head for years — a New Englander making her way in the exotic Latin city of Miami. This is my inaugural foray into writing first-person romance from a single point of view. Here’s Chapter 1 to wet your whistle.

Chapter 1

“Holy Jenko!”

Few things fire me up like a pair of cockroaches running in circles around my feet. There I was stomping and flailing about with the broom like a marionette, but it was all adrenalin. I just wanted to pulverize their gnarly innards and grind them into the concrete floor.

“You need to get over that woman!” That was our construction foreman Bo shouting at me from outside, where he was taking down the house’s hurricane shutters.

To the untrained eye, yelling out my ex’s name as an expletive probably seems a bit vindictive. That’s because they don’t know Emily Jenko like I do. Screaming her name helps squelch my lifelong impulse to swear, much like chewing gum keeps people from smoking and smoking keeps people from eating. Seriously, nothing says shit or fuck like a throaty “Jenko!”

“Palmetto bug or banana spider?” He took amusement from my aversion to Miami’s crawly things.

“Bugs—plural—and I’m leaving their guts in here for you to clean up.”

The kitchen flooded with light as he removed the last of the shutters with his power drill. The house didn’t yet have new window frames, so the corrugated aluminum sheets we screw onto the outside every night are meant to discourage squatters. That works fine until some enterprising thief unscrews them and carries them off for what they’ll fetch at the recycling center.

Other than his habit of laughing at my squeamishness over insects, Bo McConnell is one of the nicest guys I know. A towering African-American with more freckles than Howdy Doody, he respects women as only a father of three teenage daughters can. Underneath his ever-present Marlins baseball cap is a stripe of gray hair growing straight back from his forehead, which he blames on his girls. His soft hands belie three decades of construction work, but I think they suit his gentle soul.

Another reason I like Bo—and I’m fully aware this will make me sound like a xenophobe—is because he speaks flawless English, and without an accent. That’s rare in Miami, where two-thirds of the population is Hispanic. It’s not that I don’t appreciate diversity. I just don’t like being the one who’s different.

There are only a handful of non-Hispanics like Bo and me at the Miami Home Foundation, a non-profit builder funded by grants and donations from the community. Unlike Habitat for Humanity, which builds new dwellings on donated land, our mission is to renovate blighted homes to make them safe and attractive for families needing a hand up. Sometimes there’s little difference between us and Habitat. We gutted this house all the way down to its frame and concrete foundation because vermin infestations and water damage from a leaky roof rendered the structure unrecoverable. Like Habitat, we employ a small construction staff during the week but rely also on unpaid weekend help. Recruiting all those volunteers—and then herding them on Saturdays—is my job. MBA in human resources, Dartmouth. On the days my job drives me crazy, I comfort myself with the fact that at least I have one, which is more than a lot of people in South Florida can say.

“It’s a good day to paint…not so humid, nice little breeze. This feels more like March than May,” Bo said, passing his drill through the window so I could lock it in the toolbox. Things of value have a way of walking off the jobsite here in Little Haiti, which is why even the toolbox is chained to an eye bolt in the floor. “What’s our gang like today?”

“We’ve got the choir from the Morningside Church of Faith. Four men, eight women. Not too bad for a paint crew.”

“Any linebackers?” That was our code for volunteers who look strong and fit. “I need that pile of extra blocks out back moved up to the curb for pickup tomorrow.”

“Sorry. Maybe if we all pitch in for a half hour or so, it won’t take too much out of anybody.” The last thing we want is for one of our volunteers to keel over with a heart attack, so we’re always careful not to give people more than they can handle.

While he went off to lug the five-gallon paint buckets out of the storage shed, I counted out a dozen T-shirts in various sizes and took them out to the end of the driveway, where the volunteers were talking excitedly and sharing coffee from a giant thermos. I always like how happy everyone is first thing in the morning. Church groups seem to stay that way throughout the day. It’s usually the corporate types and teenagers who start groaning by the first break.

“Look, everyone. It’s Daphne, from the training session.” The woman attached to that exceedingly cheerful voice was Morningside’s music minister, a curly-haired cherub with lines around her mouth and eyes, probably because she smiles all the time. If I were a churchgoing songbird, I wouldn’t mind this jolly bunch, but I’m agnostic and can’t carry a tune in a pickup truck.

Unlike the music minister, I suck at remembering names, but then I have a new crew of names and faces every week. A quick rundown of the sign-in sheet identified her as Diana.

“Good morning! I’m so excited to see you all here. We’re going to have a fabulous day.” Meryl Streep has nothing on me. “Daphne Maddox, volunteer coordinator for the Miami Home Foundation. I’m sure you all remember me from the orientation last month. All right, let’s see a show of hands. How many of you slept through that?”

That always brought a few chuckles, and helped me segue into a repeat of my safety spiel, a harrowing litany of things like tetanus, blindness and paralysis that could result from carelessness on the jobsite. Diana offered to pray for our deliverance, which seemed like a good idea.

As folks bowed their heads, I noticed a white Porsche Carrera creeping slowly past the house, its tinted windows shielding the driver from view. One thing about blighted homes is they tend to be in blighted neighborhoods, and it’s all too common to see rich dudes in their sports cars and luxury SUVs trolling the streets of Little Haiti in search of a drug buy. Their brazen attitude always gets under my skin, but never more than when we have a church or youth group onsite. It pissed me off royally when the Porsche parked at the end of the row alongside vehicles belonging to our volunteers.

The driver made no move to exit, and when the choir members followed Bo around the side of the house for painting instructions, I considered calling the cops. It wouldn’t be the first time they busted up some action on this street at our behest. Instead I decided to make a show of jotting down the license number, figuring whoever it was would get spooked and drive off.

Then the driver’s door opened and a woman’s leg emerged clad in skinny jeans and red high-topped sneakers, the designer variety, not the kind you actually wear when you want to sneak somewhere. Like any good lesbian brain, mine went to work on conjuring what the rest of her would look like but something was off about the context. If she was a drug buyer, she wasn’t a very smart one. With everyone in the universe now holding a camera phone in their pocket, those guys never did more than crack the tinted window when they came by. Probably not a choir member either…just a gut feeling about rich camels not getting through a haystack in heaven, or whatever that saying was. And she definitely wasn’t from the foundation because none of us could afford a hundred thousand dollar car.

As I got closer, I could hear her talking on the phone—Spanish, of course, because that’s what nearly everyone in Miami speaks—and that’s when I saw the familiar blue slip of paper in her hand. All the privileged, arrogant, entitled, pompous pieces fell into place. She wasn’t a drug buyer, and she wasn’t with the church or the foundation. She was here under court order to perform community service for a crime against society.

“If you want—”

She swung her other leg out and without even making eye contact held up a finger to shush me. Not a good idea.

I felt the blood running to my face and was already savoring the power I had to make this woman’s life miserable. “If you want credit for today, you have ten seconds to hang up and get your butt over to the house. Otherwise just go on back to bed and we’ll start this little game over again next Saturday.”

I was already halfway back to the house when I heard her slam the door and scamper up behind me, but like a clueless twit, she continued to chatter away on the phone. I spun back around and whipped my hand across my throat as a sign for her to cut it.

She finally stuffed the phone into her back pocket, and by now was making eye contact, with a dark glare that must have rivaled my own—enormous brown eyes set between a deep V that bisected her perfectly sculpted eyebrows. Her angry look, no doubt, and I relished having put it there.

I shuffled the papers on my clipboard and thrust it into her hands. “Fill out the form and then come find me for your assignment.”

Not that I had anything urgent to do. I just didn’t want to dance from one foot to the other while she wrote, so I went into the house and pretended to sweep up squashed cockroaches while watching her through the window.

She stood about five-eight and had one of those slim figures that meant she could just go and pluck anything off the rack and have it fit perfectly. Makes me sick. Her long dark hair had tiny golden streaks all through it—like we don’t know that’s fake—and it was pulled back in a tight ponytail with two-hundred-dollar Jimmy Choo sunglasses perched on top.

“What do I put where it says Agency Number?” she called.

“I’ll fill in that part,” I answered gruffly, irritated to discover she had the sort of deep, husky voice I normally find very sexy. Not on this woman.
I stomped back down the front porch steps and snatched the clipboard from her hands.

“Follow me.” I led her past the paint crews to the back yard and pushed the wheelbarrow over to the blocks Bo wanted moved. The whole pile was about the size of a pickup truck. “We need these brought around front and stacked at the end of the driveway. Two fifteen-minute breaks and a half hour for lunch. Cleanup starts at three and that gets you eight hours.”

It was then I noticed her fingernails, finely manicured and painted a deep glossy burgundy, like she’d never done an honest day’s work in her life. I felt a small pang of sympathy, enough to offer my work gloves, which she took without so much as a grunt of thanks. In fact, she’d stripped all the emotion from her face, as if she didn’t want to give me the satisfaction of knowing how pissed off she was. Some people are too stubborn for their own good.

Maribel Tirado León, according to her paperwork. Thirty-three years old with an address on Brickell Bay Drive, one of the most upscale areas of Miami. No wonder I didn’t like her. Most of our community service workers were drunk drivers but they usually got fifty hours and her court order said thirty-two. Probably winked at the judge.

Or more likely, the judge was her uncle or an old friend of the family, someone they all knew back in Cuba. That’s how things work in Miami, and if you happen to be a fair-skinned, blue-eyed blonde from New England like me, whose command of Spanish goes only as far as no hablo español, forget it. Nearly every job in town requires you to be “bilingual,” which means you can butcher English all you want but not Spanish.

So far, Maribel León was the walking, talking personification of everything I hate about Miami, but my list is long and she couldn’t possibly hit all my hot buttons.

But then I watched her work, and over the course of the morning I developed a grudging respect as she whittled that pile of blocks down. No easy task because she had to balance them just right on the wheelbarrow, and it kept getting mired in the soft sand at the corner of the house. The second time it tipped over, I had to sweetly tell her of the No Cursing Rule we had on the jobsite. Good thing I hadn’t thrown her in with the church choir.

At eleven thirty, another gang from the church showed up with a gigantic spread of sandwiches and salads, but Miss Attitude declined their kind offer to share. Instead, she spent the entire lunch break leaning against her car chattering on her cell phone. From the sour look on her face, she was complaining about me. I liked that.

While the choir gathered across the street under a shade tree, Bo slid down the wall and stretched his legs out alongside mine on the porch. “I don’t know what you said to your community service worker, but I hope you’ve got a version that works on teenage girls.”

“She needed a little attitude adjustment and I helped her get it.”

“Looks like you made an impression. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one of our reluctant volunteers work that hard. I had to tell her twice it was time to knock off for lunch.”

I actually hadn’t intended to make her move the whole pile of blocks by herself. That was a lot of work even for a linebacker, which she wasn’t. But she seemed hell-bent to not complain or show any sign of weakness.

“I bet she’ll be taking your name in vain tomorrow when she rolls out of bed.”

As we got back to work, I had to admit I was feeling a lot less vindictive. She wasn’t nearly the princess I’d thought she was, though I still doubted she’d ever done physical work like this before. She had muscles, though…the sinewy kind women got from working out with a personal trainer two or three times a week.

If anything dampened my impression about her, it was how she’d ended up here in the first place. Even the volunteers who goof off are still volunteers, the sort of people who give up a Saturday of their own accord out of kindness to others. Court-assigned workers never glow with pride and satisfaction the way our volunteers do after a day’s work.

Miss Attitude wasn’t glowing with anything but sweat, so much that her tight gray T-shirt was soaked and clinging to her slender back. I got a good look at it when she brought another load out to the curb.

By this time, I figured she’d learned her lesson—we weren’t a bunch of pushovers—and Bo had left me feeling a tad guilty about how sore she’d be tomorrow. I started thinking if I pitched in to help, we could knock off the rest of the pile in an hour or so and she could finish up the day with something simple like pushing a broom through the house.

I was about to tell her that when Roberto Rodriguez pulled up in his building materials delivery truck and started chattering away with her in Spanish. “Abadabababa something-about-a-baño abadabababa.” Granted, I have a lot of trouble understanding Roberto’s English but it pisses me off when these guys don’t even try to talk to me at all.

“He wants to know how many bathrooms the house has,” Maribel said, her deep, sexy voice quite businesslike.

Uno,” I answered pointedly, which was a huge mistake because he followed that up with about two hundred more words in Spanish, making me look utterly stupid because I had to look to Maribel to translate.

“He has two matching medicine cabinets but one of them is broken. He’ll donate them if you’ll write him a receipt for both.”

One was all we needed anyway so that worked for me. “Tell him fine. I’ll go get the receipt pad.”

She was gone by the time I got back. Roberto jabbered a few more unintelligible words as I handed over the receipt, and then he drove off, leaving me to wrestle with getting the fifty-pound crate inside by myself. If I hadn’t been such a jerk earlier, I could have just asked Maribel to lend me a hand. But I’d taken a lot of pleasure in making her day miserable and slapping on a sweet face now wouldn’t change that.

I didn’t even get the chance. The next time the wheelbarrow rolled around front, it was Bo who was pushing it.

“Need a hand with that, Daphne?”

“What happened to Miss Attitude?”

“Mari? Her hand was bleeding so I bandaged it for her and told her I’d finish up. She’s out back holding a ladder for somebody.”

Mari? How sweet. Not Mary, but Mah-ri. So sah-ri, Mah-ri. Bet it rolled right off her lips when she batted her eyes at Bo and got him falling all over himself to fix her little boo-boo. Where did these people get off feeling so special?

I let Bo carry in the crate by himself and took a moment to get a grip on why I was so annoyed, since I’d been planning to go help her finish up anyway. The fact he’d done it first meant he looked like a knight in shining armor and I looked like a total asshole.

Make that a total Jenko.

My gloves, though folded neatly beside what was left of the stack, were shredded from the day’s work, and predictably stained with blood around one of the places that had worn through. In just the twenty minutes it took Bo and me to finish, I felt the start of a blister on my thumb in the same place. No wonder Maribel’s—Mari’s—hand was bleeding. I never meant for that to happen.

In fact, I never meant to make her whole day wretched either, at least not after I got over my initial hissy fit. Now that she was working with the others on the painting, she was all smiles and laughing about how she couldn’t sing a note. She liked everyone here but me.

When Bo called for the afternoon break I caught up with her as she walked back over to her car. “Hey, uh…Maribel?”

“What now?” When she spun around, it was like she was shooting daggers from her eyes. Sure, I needed to fix the part of her Attitude that was my fault, but I wasn’t going to kiss her butt to do it.

Nothing against her butt…no, I didn’t need to go there.

“I, uh…I was looking at my notes and realized you didn’t come to our orientation meeting last week. We usually require that for everybody, even the community service people.”

“Yeah, I know. The clerk told me when I signed up but I’d already missed it. I figured I’d come to the next one.”

“You didn’t really miss a whole lot. It’s just a basic rundown of safety rules, and I go over all of them again first thing every morning…which is kind of what you skipped by getting here late.”

“It won’t happen again,” she said curtly and started to walk away.

“Wait, I wasn’t trying to bust your chops. I was just going to say that I waive the orientation sometimes when it’s obvious people know what they’re doing. We give a couple of hours’ credit for coming, and I can go ahead and put you down for it. That gives you eight hours so you can call it a day if you want.”

“Seriously?” She gave me a sidelong look that I assumed was distrust. Better than contempt.

“Yeah, just try not to do anything careless next time you come.” Like tearing the skin off your hands because you’re too stubborn to let somebody know your gloves had worn out. “That would make me look bad.”

“So I can go?” This time I got a smile, just big enough to show off an adorable dimple on her left cheek.

“Beat it. I’ll see you next week.” I was trying to sound friendly for a change but it came off more like a mom giving in to her kids. Not exactly the image I wanted to convey, especially since my thoughts of her were anything but childlike as I watched her backside twist away in those skinny jeans.

Download it now from Bella Books!

One Response to “Excerpt from Playing With Fuego”

  1. Thanks so much for posting a preview!

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