Author: Jill Shalvis
"Fine," Ali said agreeably. "Let's talk about Jack instead."
Leah slid her a wary look. "What about him?"
"How's it going?"
Leah squirmed a little bit and glanced at Aubrey, who was looking eager to hear her response. "Fine."
"Fine?" Aubrey asked. "You're dating the hottest firefighter in town, and it's going 'fine'? What's the matter with you?"
"I don't really want to discuss it."
Ali snorted and Aubrey divided a look between the two of them. "What am I missing?"
"Nothing," Leah said quickly.
Aubrey looked to Ali, who lifted her hands. "Not my tale to tell."
Leah sighed. "You're a big help."
"I want to hear the tale!" Aubrey said. "What is it? Does he wear women's underwear? Snore? Oh! Does he have a small d-"
"Oh my God," Leah said, and stood up.
"Hey, aren't you at least going to answer any of the questions before you storm out of your own place?" Aubrey asked.
Leah turned back. "No, no, and most definitely no." She picked up the tray of pastries and hugged it close as both Ali and Aubrey hooted with laughter. "You're both cut off."
"Aw, don't go away mad," Ali said, laughing.
"I don't care if you go," Aubrey said. "But leave the pastries."
Leah moved back to the table. "I have a question."
"No answers until you put down the tray," Aubrey said.
Leah set the tray down and bit her lip.
"Spill it," Aubrey said, mouth already full as she gave her a go-ahead gesture with her hand.
"Okay." Leah took a deep breath. "Have either of you ever secretly started to like someone, and then you sort of blow it, and I don't know, say, vanish for a while? Like for years. And then you come back, and it turns out you still feel something for him, but now he's over you and also a little wary. So you then blow it again by making it so you're together but it's pretend. Only you don't want it to be pretend…"
They were both staring at her, goggle-eyed.
"You know what?" Leah said. "Never mind." She started to turn, but Aubrey caught her and pointed to a chair. "Sit," she said.
"I'm such an idiot," Leah said, and sat.
"Yes." Aubrey patted her hand. "But the good news is that I know all about being an idiot."
"Me too," Ali said, raising her hand. "I'm quite the experienced idiot."
Leah's phone vibrated. Her grandma. "Hey," she answered. "I'll be out of here in just a few-"
"Are you listening to the kitchen scanner?"
Leah glanced at it. She'd turned it off as Jack had asked. "No."
"Town Hall's on fire."
Leah hurried down the street, Ali and Aubrey at her side. It was only a two-block walk, but they heard the sirens and saw the ominous plume of smoke the minute they'd stepped outside the bakery.
It was dark outside now, but commercial row was well lit. And if it hadn't been, the flashing strobes and the glare of headlights made it easy to see the scene.
The entire block was cordoned off, and yellow police tape stretched everywhere, holding the crowd back. Police officers were standing guard. Fire trucks and emergency vehicles were angled between police cars, lights flashing.
The spectators were multiplying, spilling onto the street and clogging up the sidewalk. Leah moved as close as she could and stood there in shock. Ali found Luke and came back to Aubrey and Leah with news. "It started as a car fire in the back lot," she said. "Possibly set purposely. The car exploded and the building caught."
"Oh my God," Aubrey said. Up until six weeks ago, she'd worked inside the building as an admin to the town clerk. "Did everyone get out?"
"Except for the firefighters," Dee said from right behind them, looking pale and shaken. "They're still inside, including Jack." She reached for Leah's hand and gave her a smile that didn't quite meet her eyes. "But it's okay. It's going to be okay."
She was talking to herself, and knowing it, Leah pulled her in for a hug. "Of course it's going to be okay. Hell, this is your crazy son's idea of fun."
Dee let out a watery laugh and hugged Leah so tight it hurt to breathe. "Oh, Leah, you're so good for him, you know that?"
Again she felt that now-familiar stab of guilt.
Dee held on to her. "You're just so much stronger than I could ever hope to be."
If only that were true.
Several hours later, the fire had been put out. There was still a police presence, but the crowd had dwindled.
Jack was supervising the cleanup and going through the scene with Ronald. Town Hall had been saved, though there was some fairly extensive damage to the second floor and the roof, both of which had caught when the car exploded
They'd found a few cigarette butts in the alley, which had an excellent view of the back of the Town Hall building. And beneath the burned wreckage of the car, the same incendiary device that they'd found at the auto parts store-a bucket of oily rags.
This was no vagrant.
It was 2:00 a.m. before Jack got back to the station. By the time dawn arrived and he dragged his tired ass-and Kevin's-home, he was gritty-eyed and exhausted. Far too exhausted to be surprised when he found his mom and Ben waiting for him.
They dragged him out to breakfast, and then they went with Dee to her doctor's appointment, where they got good news from the results of her last tests.
The treatment was working.
It was nearly noon by the time Jack got home, with bed firmly on his mind.
Leah was sitting on the top step of his porch in a sundress, another of her cropped sweaters, and strappy, high-heeled sandals that had a bow around her ankle. Kevin bounded over to her like he hadn't seen her in years. She gave him a full body rub that had the dog sinking to the ground in boneless ecstasy, rolling onto his back, with his legs straight up in the air, tongue lolling.
Leah smiled and shook her head at his antics. "You boys are all the same," she said. "You just want to show off your junk." She pulled a doggie biscuit from her purse, and Kevin wriggled like a beached whale trying to right himself in a hurry.
"Sit," she said firmly.
"He doesn't sit," Jack said.
"Good boy! Oh, what a very good boy," Leah said in that high, silly voice that all women used with dogs and gave Kevin another big, warm hug.
Kevin glanced back at Jack, who would have sworn the dog was grinning at him. "Careful," he said. "Or I'll let you adopt him."
"No thank you," she said. "I don't have big enough baggies."
Jack moved to the top step and sat next to her. He told himself it was because she always smelled so good and he wanted to get the scent of the fire out of his nostrils. And also because his legs were so tired he didn't think he could keep standing up. "So."
She pulled her bottom lip into her mouth. "So…"
"Where were we?"
She flushed. "I don't remember."
"Seriously," he said. "How is it that your nose isn't a foot long by now?"
She smiled and handed him a small white bag. "Happy birthday."
He should have known she would remember. She always remembered. "What is it?" he asked cautiously. And with good reason. One year, she'd gotten him a gift certificate for a spa treatment that had turned out to be for a male Brazilian wax. He'd never cashed that one in… Another year, she'd left him a pair of really huge women's underpants on his truck antenna out in front of the station along with a "love note" from a secret admirer. That one had taken a while to live down.
"Open it," she said, sounding far too innocent.
"Do I need insurance first?"
"Maybe it's just what you wanted," she said.
What he wanted was her in his bed wearing nothing but those sexy shoes. He started to open the bag, and Kevin moved in close, licking his chops hopefully.
"You already got yours," Jack told him.
"I'll tell you what," Jack told him. "If you sit, maybe I'll share."
Kevin offered a paw.
"No, I said sit."
Leah laughed, the sound going a long way toward reviving Jack. Shaking his head, he opened the bag. Cream cheese croissants. "I like the lack of public humiliation with this one," he said as he pulled the first one from the bag.
She smiled. "I figured it was time to grow up just a little bit. Aren't you going to go inside to eat?" she asked.
"Nope." He downed the croissant in two bites and pulled out number two. "Can't wait that long." He swallowed. "You made these when the cast from Sweet Wars guested on the Today Show."
"And you fed one to that host guy, whatever his name is."
They both knew damn well that he knew Rafe's name. Leah didn't respond, just pulled something else from her big bag. A thermos.
Milk, which as it turned out was gloriously, icy cold. He washed down the croissant, filling his stomach with something more than adrenaline and acid. "God, you're good."
"That's what they tell me." She waited until he'd taken a big, long gulp. "As for Rafe." She paused until he looked at her. "I did sleep with him," she said quietly.
The milk went down the wrong pipe, and he choked. When he could breathe again, he swiped his face with his forearm. "I didn't want to know that."