Always On My Mind
Saying that she went to the annual Firefighter’s Charity Breakfast for pancakes was like saying she watched baseball for the game—when everyone knew that you watched baseball for the guys in tight uniform pants.
But this time Leah Sullivan really did want pancakes. She also wanted her grandma to live forever, world peace, and hey, while she was making wishes, she wouldn’t object to being sweet-talked out of her clothes sometime this year.
But those were all issues for another day. Mid-August was hinting at an Indian summer for the Pacific Northwest. The morning was warm and heading toward hot as she walked to the already crowded pier. The people of Lucky Harbor loved a get-together, and if there was food involved—and cute firefighters to boot—well, that was just a bonus.
Leah accepted a short stack of pancakes from Tim Denison, a firefighter from Station #24. He was a rookie, fresh from the academy and at least five years younger than her, but that didn’t stop him from sending her a wink. She took in his beachy, I-belong-on-a-Gap-ad-campaign appearance and waited for her good parts to flutter.
For reasons unknown, her good parts were on vacation and had been for months.
Okay, so not for reasons unknown. But not wanting to go there, not today, she blew out a breath and continued down the length of the pier.
Picnic tables had been set up, most of them full of other Lucky Harbor locals supporting the firefighters’ annual breakfast. Leah’s friend Ali Winters was halfway through a huge stack of pancakes, eyeing the food line as if considering getting more.
Leah plopped down beside her. “You eating for two already?”
“Bite your tongue.” Ali aimed her fork at her along with a pointed don’t mess with me look. “I’ve only been with Luke for two months. Pregnancy isn’t anywhere on the to-do list yet. I’m just doing my part to support the community.”
“By eating two hundred pancakes?”
“Hey, the money goes to the senior center.”
There was a salty breeze making a mess of Leah’s and Ali’s hair, but it didn’t dare disturb the woman sitting on the other side of Ali. Nothing much disturbed the cool-as-a-cucumber Aubrey.
“I bet sex is on your to-do list,” Aubrey said, joining their conversation.
Ali gave a secret smile.
Aubrey narrowed her eyes. “I could really hate you for that smile.”
“You should hate me for this smile.”
“Luke’s that good, huh?”
Ali sighed dreamily. “He’s magic.”
“Magic’s just an illusion.” Aubrey licked the syrup off her fork while managing to somehow look both beautifully sophisticated and graceful.
Back in their school days, Aubrey had been untouchable, tough as nails, and Leah hadn’t been anywhere in the vicinity of her league. Nothing much had changed there. She looked down at herself and sucked in her stomach.
“There’s no illusion when it comes to Luke,” Ali told Aubrey. “He’s one-hundred-percent real. And all mine.”
“Well, now you’re just being mean,” Aubrey said. “And that’s my area. Leah, what’s with the expensive shoes and cheap haircut?”
Leah put a hand to her choppy auburn layers, and Aubrey smiled at Ali, like See? That’s how you do mean…
Most of Leah’s money went toward her school loans and helping to keep her grandma afloat, but she did have one vice. Okay, two, but being addicted to Pinterest wasn’t technically a vice. Her love of shoes most definitely was. She’d gotten today’s strappy leather wedges from Paris, and they’d been totally worth having to eat apples and peanut butter for a week. “They were on sale,” she said, clicking them together as if she were Dorothy in Oz. “They’re knockoffs,” she admitted.
Aubrey sighed. “You’re not supposed to say that last part. It’s not as fun to be mean when you’re nice.”
“But I am nice,” Leah said.
“I know,” Aubrey said. “And I’m trying to like you anyway.”
The three of them were an extremely unlikely trio, connected by a cute, quirky Victorian building in downtown Lucky Harbor. The building was older than God, currently owned by Aubrey’s great-uncle, and divided into three shops. There was Ali’s floral shop, Leah’s grandma’s bakery, and a neglected bookstore that Aubrey had been making noises about taking over since her job at Town Hall had gone south a few weeks back.
Neither Ali nor Leah were sure yet if having Aubrey in the building every day would be fun or a nightmare. But regardless, Aubrey knew her path. So did Ali.
Leah admired the hell out of that. Especially since she’d never known her path. She’d known one thing, the need to get out of Lucky Harbor—and she had. At age seventeen, she’d gone and had rarely looked back.
But she was back now, putting her pastry chef skills to good use helping her grandma while she recovered from knee surgery. The problem was, Leah had gotten out of the habit of settling in one place.
Not quite true, said a little voice inside her. If not for a string of spectacularly bad decisions, she’d have finished French culinary school. And not embarrassed herself on the reality TV show Sweet Wars. And…
Don’t go there.
Instead, she scooped up a big bite of fluffy pancakes and concentrated on their delicious goodness rather than her own screwups. Obsessing over her bad decisions was something she saved for the deep dark of night.
“Jack’s at the griddle,” Ali noted.
Leah twisted around to look at the cooking setup. Lieutenant Jack Harper was indeed manning the griddle. He was tall and broad shouldered and looked like a guy who could take on anything that came his way. This was a good thing, since he ran station #24.
Fire Station #24 was one of four that serviced the county, and thanks to the Olympic Mountain range at their back, with its million acres of forest, all four stations were perpetually busy.
Jack thrived on busy. He could be as intimidating as hell when he chose to be, which wasn’t right now since he was head-bopping to some beat only he could hear in his headphones. Knowing him, it was some good, old-fashioned, ear-splitting hard rock.
Not too far from him, leashed to a bench off to the side sat Kevin, a huge Great Dane. He was white with black markings that made him look like a Dalmatian wannabe. Kevin had been given to a neighboring fire station where he’d remained until he’d eaten one too many expensive hoses, torn up one too many beds, and chewed dead one too many pairs of boots. The rambunctious one-year-old had then been put up for adoption.
The only problem was that no one had wanted what was by then a hundred-and-fifty-pound nuisance. Kevin had been headed for the Humane Society when Jack, always the protector, always the savior, had stepped in a few weeks back and saved the day.
Just like he’d done for Leah more times than she could count.
It’d become a great source of entertainment for the entire town that Jack Harper II, once the town terror himself—at least to mothers of teenage daughters everywhere—was now in charge of the latest town terror.
Another firefighter stepped up to the griddle to relieve Jack, who loaded a plate for himself and stepped over to Kevin. He flipped the dog a sausage, which Kevin caught in midair with one snap of his huge jaws. The sausage instantly vanished, and Kevin licked his lips, staring intently at Jack’s plate as if he could make more sausage fly into his mouth by wish alone.
Jack laughed and crouched down to talk to the dog, a movement that had his shirt riding up, revealing low-riding BDUs—his uniform pants—a strip of taut, tantalizing male skin, and just the hint of a perfect ass.
On either side of Leah, both Ali and Aubrey gave lusty sighs. Leah completely understood. She could feel her own lusty sigh catching in her throat, but she squelched it. They were in the F-zone, she and Jack. Friends. Friends didn’t do lust, or if they did, they also did the smart, logical thing and ignored it. Still, she felt a smile escape her at the contagious sound of Jack’s laughter. Truth was, he’d been making her smile since the sixth grade, when she’d first moved to Lucky Harbor.
As if sensing her appraisal, Jack lifted his head. His dark, mirrored sunglasses hid his eyes, but she knew he was looking right at her because he arched a dark brow.
And on either side of her, Ali and Aubrey sighed again.
“Really?” Leah asked them.
“Well look at him,” Aubrey said unapologetically. “He’s hot, he’s got rhythm—and not just the fake white-boy kind either. He’s also funny as hell. And for a bonus, he’s gainfully employed. It’s just too bad I’m off men forever.”
“Forever’s a long time,” Ali said, and Leah’s gut cramped at the thought of the beautiful, blond Aubrey going after Jack.
But Jack was still looking at Leah. Those glasses were still in the way, but she knew his dark eyes were framed by thick, black lashes and the straight, dark lines of his eyebrows. And the right brow was sliced through by a thin scar, which he’d gotten at age fourteen when he and his cousin Ben had stolen his mom’s car and driven it into a fence.
“Forever,” Aubrey repeated emphatically. “I’m off men forever.” Leah felt herself relax a little.
Which was silly. Jack could date whomever he wanted, and did. Often.
“And anyway,” Aubrey went on, “that’s what batteries are for.”
Ali laughed along with Aubrey as they all continued to watch Jack, who’d gone back to the griddle. He was moving to his music again while flipping pancakes, much to the utter delight of the crowd.
“Woo-hoo!” Aubrey yelled at him, both she and Ali toasting him with their plastic cups filled with orange juice.
Jack grinned and took a bow.
“Hey,” Ali said, nudging Leah. “Go tip him.”
“Is that what the kids are calling it nowadays?” Aubrey asked.
Leah rolled her eyes and stood up. “You’re both ridiculous. He’s dating some EMT flight nurse.”
Or at least he had been as of last week. She couldn’t keep up with Jack’s dating life. Okay, so she chose not to keep up. “We’re just…buddies.” They always had been, she and Jack, through thick and thin, and there’d been a lot of thin. “When you go to middle school with someone, you learn too much about him,” she went on, knowing damn well that she needed to just stop talking, something she couldn’t seem to do. “I mean, I couldn’t go out with the guy who stole all the condoms on Sex Education Day and then used them as water balloons to blast the track girls as we ran the four hundred.”
“I could,” Aubrey said.
Leah rolled her eyes, mostly to hide the fact that she’d left off the real reason she couldn’t date Jack.
“Where you going?” Ali asked when Leah stood up. “We haven’t gotten to talk about the latest episode of Sweet Wars. Now that you’re halfway through the season and down to the single eliminations, the whole town’s talking about it nonstop. Did you know that there’s a big crowd at the Love Shack on episode night?”
Yes, she’d known. At first she’d been pressured to go, but she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t watch herself if anyone else was in the room.
“You were awesome,” Ali said.
Maybe, but that had been the adrenaline high from being filmed. Leah had pulled it off by pretending she was Julia Child. Easy enough, since she’d been pretending that since she’d been a kid. After the first terrifying episode, she’d learned something about herself. Even as a kid who’d grown up with little to no self-esteem, there was something about being in front of a camera. It was pretend, so she’d been able to break out of her shell.
The shocking truth was, she’d loved it.
“And also, you looked great on TV,” Aubrey said. “Bitch. I know you were judged on originality, presentation, and taste, but you really should get brownie points for not looking fat. Do you look as good for the last three episodes?”
This subject was no better than the last one. “Gotta go,” Leah said, grabbing her plate and pointing to the cooking area. “There’s sausage now.”
“Ah.” Aubrey nodded sagely. “So you do want Jack’s sausage.”
Ali burst out laughing, and Aubrey high-fived her.
Ignoring them both, Leah headed toward the grill.
Jack flipped a row of pancakes, rotated a line of sausage links, and checked the flame. He was in a waiting pattern.
The status of his life.
Behind him, two fellow firefighters were talking about how one had bought his girlfriend an expensive purse as an apology for forgetting the anniversary of their first date. The guy thought the present would help ease him out of the doghouse.
Jack knew better. The purse was a nice touch, but in his experience, a man’s mistakes were never really forgotten, only meticulously cataloged in a woman’s frontal lobe to be pulled out later at her discretion.
A guy needed to either avoid mistakes entirely or get out of the relationship before any anniversaries came up.
This from Kevin, trying to get his attention.
“No more sausage,” Jack called to him. “You know what happens when you eat too much. You stink me out of the bedroom.”
Kevin had a big black spot over his left eye, giving him the look of a mischievous pirate as he gazed longingly at the row of sausages. When Jack didn’t give in, the dog heaved a long sigh and lay down, setting his head on his paws.
“Heads up,” Tim called.
Jack caught the gallon-sized container of pancake batter with one hand while continuing to flip pancakes with his other.
“Pretty fancy handiwork,” a woman said.
Jack turned and found her standing next to Kevin, holding a plate.
Jack gave Kevin the stay gesture just as the dog would have made his move. Great Danes had a lot of great qualities, like loyalty and affection, but politeness was not one of them. Kevin lived to press his nose into ladies’ crotches, climb on people’s laps as if he were a six-pound Pomeranian, and eat…well, everything. And Kevin had his eyes on the prize—Leah’s plate.
Jack gestured Leah closer with a crook of his finger. She’d shown up in Lucky Harbor with shadows beneath her forest-green eyes and lots of secrets in them, but she was starting to look a little more like herself. Her white gauzy top and black leggings emphasized a willowy body made lean by hard work or tough times—knowing Leah, it was probably both. Her silky hair was loose and blowing around her face. He’d have called it her just-out-of-bed look, except she wasn’t sleeping with anyone at the moment.
He knew this because one, Lucky Harbor didn’t keep secrets, and two, he worked at the firehouse, aka Gossip Central. He knew Leah was in a holding pattern too. And something was bothering her.
Not your problem…
But though he told himself that, repeatedly in fact, old habits were hard to break. His friendship with her was as long as it was complicated, but she’d been there for him whenever he’d needed her, no questions asked. In the past week alone she’d driven his mom to her doctor’s appointment twice, fed and walked Kevin when Jack had been called out of the county, and left a plate of cream cheese croissants in his fridge—his favorite. There was a lot of water beneath their bridge, but she mattered to him, even when he wanted to wrap his fingers around her neck and squeeze.
“You have any sausage ready?” she asked.
At the word sausage, Kevin practically levitated. Ears quirking, nose wriggling, the dog sat up, his sharp eyes following as Jack forked a piece of meat and set it on Leah’s plate. When Jack didn’t share with Kevin as well, he let out a pitiful whine.
Falling for it hook, line, and sinker, Leah melted. “Aw,” she said. “Can I give him one?”
“Only if you want to sleep with him tonight,” Jack said.
“I wouldn’t mind.”
“Trust me, you would.”
Coming up beside Jack to help man the grill, Tim waggled a brow at Leah. “I’ll sleep with you tonight. No matter how many sausages you eat.”
Leah laughed. “You say that to all the women in line.”
Tim flashed a grin, a hint of dimple showing. “But with you, I mean it. So…yes?”
“No,” Leah said, still smiling. “Not tonight.”
Jack spoke mildly. “You have a death wish?”
“Rookies who come on to Leah vanish mysteriously,” Jack told him. “Never to be seen again.”
Tim narrowed his eyes. “Yeah? Who?”
“The last rookie. His name was Tim too,” Jack deadpanned.
Leah laughed, and Tim rolled his eyes. At work, he reported directly to Jack, not that he looked worried.
“I’ll risk it,” he said cockily to Leah.
Jack wondered if he’d still be looking so sure of himself later when he’d be scrubbing down fire trucks by himself. All of them.
Leah yawned and rubbed a hand over her eyes, and Jack forgot about Tim. “Maybe you should switch to Wheaties,” Jack said. “You look like you need the boost.”
She met his gaze. “Tim thought I looked all right.”
“You know it, babe,” Tim said, still shamelessly eavesdropping. “Change your mind about tonight, and I’ll make sure you know exactly how good you look.”
Jack revised his plan about Tim cleaning the engines. The rookie would be too busy at the senior center giving a hands-on fire extinguisher demonstration, which every firefighter worth his salt dreaded because the seniors were feisty, didn’t listen, and in the case of the female seniors, liked their “hands-on” anything training.
Oblivious to his fate, Tim continued to work the grill. Jack kept his attention on Leah. He wanted her to do whatever floated her boat, but he didn’t want her dating a player like Tim. But saying so would be pretty much like waving a red flag in front of a bull, no matter how pretty that bull might be. She’d give a stranger the very shirt off her back, but Jack had long ago learned to not even attempt to tell her what to do or she’d do the opposite just because.
She had a long habit of doing just that.
He blamed her asshole father, but in this case it didn’t matter because Leah didn’t seem all that interested in Tim’s flirting anyway.
Or in anything actually.
Which was what was really bothering Jack. Leah loved the challenge of life, the adventure of it. She’d been chasing that challenge and adventure as long as he’d known her. It was contagious—her spirit, her enthusiasm, her ability to be as unpredictable as the whim of fate.
And unlike anyone else in his world, she alone could lighten a bad mood and make him laugh. But her smile wasn’t meeting her eyes. Nudging her aside, out of Tim’s earshot, he waited until she looked at him. “Hey,” he said.
“Aren’t you worried you’ll vanish mysteriously, never to be seen again?”
“I’m not a rookie.”
She smiled, but again it didn’t meet her eyes.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Always.” And then she popped a sausage into her mouth.
Jack got the message loud and clear. She didn’t want to talk. He could appreciate that. Hell, he was at his happiest not talking. But she’d had a rough year, first with the French culinary school disaster, where she’d quit three weeks before graduation for some mysterious reason, and then Sweet Wars.
Rumor had it that she’d gone pretty far on the show, outshining the best of the best. He knew she was under contractual obligations to keep quiet about the results, but he’d thought she’d talk to him.
Jack had watched each episode, cheering her on. Last night she’d created puff pastries on the clock for a panel of celebrity chefs who’d yelled—a lot. Most of Leah’s competition had been completely rattled by their bullying ways, but Leah had had a lifetime of dealing with someone just like that. She’d won the challenge, hands down. And even if Jack hadn’t known her as well as he did, he’d have pegged her as the winner of the whole thing.
But she wasn’t acting like a winner.
Had she quit that too?
Because the truth was that she tended to run from her demons. She always had, and some things never changed.
She met his gaze. “What?”
“You tell me. Tell me what’s wrong.”
She shook her head, her pretty eyes surprisingly hooded from him. “I’ve learned to fight my own battles, Jack.”
Maybe. But it wasn’t her battles he wanted to fight, he realized, so much as he wanted to see her smile again and mean it.