Authors: Hope Ramsay,Molly Cannon,Marilyn Pappano,Kristen Ashley,Jill Shalvis
Tags: #Fiction / Contemporary Women, #Fiction / Romance - Contemporary, #Fiction / Romance - Erotica, #Fiction / Romance / Collections & Anthologies
New York Boston
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I was so excited to be able to write another Christmas short for the Lucky Harbor world. Sometimes secondary characters make a place for themselves in my heart. They get really comfortable there and refuse to leave until I write their story. That’s what Ian and Melissa did, so really, you can thank them for this story. :)
Christmas is one of my favorite holidays. Some of my bestest family memories are attached to Christmas. Like getting bickering teenage girls to wrap presents for charity the year my arm was in a sling. You would have thought I was asking them to head out to the mines and do manual labor. But they did it; they wrapped all the presents, including the ones from me, holed up in their separate bunks so no one saw anyone else’s goods.
Then they played Santa for me as well. We didn’t get to bed until after 2 a.m. and still we woke up at the crack of dawn, excited, only to find that someone had left the sliding glass door ajar. Raccoons had come in and not only unwrapped everything but trashed it all as well. Complete Devastation. It took hours to clean up, and afterward, I expected bad moods. Didn’t get it. Instead we all made breakfast together and, over bacon and eggs, told each other what we loved about each of us. It was the gift of words, and I’ve never been so proud of the girls or loved them more.
Ian and Melissa have a few things to tiff about in their story as well. But never fear, the spirit of the holiday prevails. After all, this is a Lucky Harbor story…
Love and happy holidays!
Ian O’Mallery had been born a firefighter, but there were times when he wished he’d picked a career that didn’t interrupt his sleep. Times like right now, when the fire alarm went off in the middle of a really hot dream starring the sexy, love-of-his-life-though-she-didn’t-know-it Melissa Mann. She’d been right in the middle of blowing his mind—
his favorite body part—when the fire alarm pierced the dream and the vision scattered.
Damn. He listened as dispatch called out the engines required to respond. His, of course. Ian shoved on his gear, trying to push back the dregs of sleep. His dreams kept forgetting that he wasn’t seeing Melissa anymore, that after months of being “friends with benefits” and then slowly segueing into a real relationship—at least on his part—she’d dumped the “benefits” part. A crying shame since they’d been the best damn benefits he’d ever had. But Melissa preferred serial dating to getting in too deep. These days they were… friends? Maybe. Sort of. Or not. But whatever they were now wasn’t nearly as good as what they’d been.
The fire station was now ablaze with lights, everyone moving at a fast clip toward the rigs. Earlier, volunteers had decorated for Christmas with miles of garland and tinsel, and someone had left a CD of holiday tunes on repeat.
“Christmas is still two weeks off and already my ears are bleeding from that music,” Justin, one of the other firefighters, muttered.
“Maybe next year we can tell people we’d rather have a new flat screen.” This from Hunter, Justin’s partner.
Focused on the task ahead of them, Ian ignored the chatter. As lieutenant of the squad, he had the iPad with the info coming in from dispatch. As they all climbed aboard, he glanced down at the address and froze. From years on the truck, he knew every single nook and cranny of Lucky Harbor, the North Pacific coastal town nestled between the Pacific Ocean and the Olympic Mountains. For that matter, he knew the entire county. Hell, he could find his way through a wormhole all the way to Seattle if he had to.
This particular address was on the outskirts of town, in a neighborhood a few decades past needing a renovation. There were few single family homes. Instead it was mostly apartment buildings, built close together with yards that consisted of dead grass and litter.
This particular three-story building was a known problem. The third floor held a group of party animals who regularly had the police called on them by the other floors.
But that wasn’t his biggest issue right now. Nope, that honor went to the fact that Melissa lived on the second floor, and according to dispatch, the building currently had flames shooting out of the top windows and roof.
As they continued to race toward the scene, Ian yanked out his cell phone and called her. His call went straight to voicemail. “Tell me you’re out of the building,” he said. “Call me. Text me.
.” He shoved the phone back in his pocket and willed the truck to go faster as he remembered the last time they’d been out together. It’d been six months ago. He’d picked her up from the beauty salon she managed and had taken her to dinner. They’d gone to a seafood place a few towns over, on the water, and she’d hand-fed him lobster, laughing when butter had dribbled down his chin.
“Whoops.” Leaning in, she nibbled it off, making sure to kiss one corner of his mouth, and then the other, holding eye contact with him the whole time as her hands traveled south down his chest
Without taking his gaze off Mel, he handed a passing waiter his credit card.
She laughed as they got the rest of the food to go.
They didn’t make it to either of their places. Instead they went to a secluded beach, climbed up the bluffs by starlight until they found a private little plateau that overlooked the water, and had a picnic that had nothing to do with food.
When he finally brought her home, a police squad car was in her lot. One of the idiots on the top floor had let a party get out of control.
Ian held on to Melissa when she went to get out of his truck. “You need to move,” he said. Not a new conversation for them. “Closer to town, to a better neighborhood. I can help you find a place.”
“I’m working my way out of debt,” she reminded him. “You know I can’t put down a new security deposit and first and last month’s rent.”
There was a solution to that. “Move in with me.”
She sucked in a breath. Her bright green eyes went even brighter, but she shook her head. “Don’t be silly. I’d drive you nuts in a week, tops.”
“You drive me nuts now,” he teased.
She put a finger over his lips, stared at his mouth for a long time, and then looked into his eyes. “You, Ian O’Mallery,” she whispered, “terrify me.”
“Me? I’m a pussy cat.”
She laughed her wonderful laugh and kissed him. “Yeah. If a wild mountain lion counts as a pussy cat.”
Knowing she’d had it rough, that letting someone in was hard for her, his smile faded. “You have nothing to be afraid of with me, Mel.”
She held his gaze but didn’t respond.
“You’re still not ready,” he guessed softly.
“I’m working on it,” she said, just as softly.
Glancing at her building, he felt his jaw tighten, but nodded. What else could he do? “Work faster.”
Instead, she’d broken things off the next day.
The radio crackled to life, jarring him back.
“Victims trapped on the top floor,” reported the dispatcher.
It was midnight, ensuring that the building was filled with its tenants.
“Shit,” Justin muttered at his side.
They pulled into the lot. The police had beat them to the call and were out of their vehicles, holding back traffic.
The building was engulfed, and Ian’s heart stopped when he saw several terrified faces peeking out of the second and third story windows.
One of the cops jogged over. “Apparently the building isn’t up to code,” he said tersely. “A tenant told us the landlord had forbidden Christmas lights because of it, but that the idiots on the top floor had used them anyway. Someone up there had a party tonight, and their Christmas tree went up in smoke and caught the curtains. That was all it took.”
A few lucky people had somehow gotten out and were sitting on the curb in their pj’s, in shock.
Melissa wasn’t one of them, but her car was in the lot, which meant one thing—she was still in the building.
Ian leaped into the fray, barking out directions to the men in his charge, one word bouncing in his head on repeat.
Melissa clutched her ears, grimacing at the pounding in her head, which was pulsing in tune to the fire alarm still going off somewhere nearby. She’d awoken to it, and smoke so thick she couldn’t breathe. She’d immediately grabbed the blanket from her bed, wrapped herself up and crawled to the door.
Hot. Everything was so hot she felt like she was melting.
Panic had taken over for a moment but she reminded herself she hadn’t survived the things she’d already been through to go out like this. She pulled her t-shirt up over her nose and mouth and crawled to the window.
Stuck. Again. The damn landlord hadn’t gotten to it yet. Not that it mattered; it was too far to jump. Ian was right about moving. Ian… God. She’d made a mess of her dating life, always flitting from one man to the next without getting in too far. Without giving anyone a piece of herself.
But with Ian, she’d been incapable of holding back, of keeping her walls up. She missed his hard, chiseled body and the way he used it to take hers. She missed his sweet baby blues that were deceptively playful, and how they heated after he kissed her. She missed how he never let her hide, how he kept at her until he knew her secrets, all of them.
She coughed until her ribs hurt, and she looked around, wondering what the hell to do. The air was so thick and so hot that she couldn’t suck a breath into her lungs. There was too much smoke, and no viable exit. A second wave of panic consumed her, and desperate to make a smart move, she crawled into her bathroom and to the coolest spot she could find—her tub.
Smoke snaked under the bathroom door. She stuffed towels beneath it and waited for her life to flash before her eyes. She wouldn’t mind revisiting some of the good stuff about now. But instead, she thought about all her regrets, and there were many. Having grown up under the strict thumb of her parents, she’d rebelled early. They’d simply turned their backs on her. One strike and she’d been out. Fine. She’d gone on without them, living in the moment for years, never letting herself plan for the future. She’d been friends with the wrong girls, gone out with the wrong men, and made some wrong choices. Burned to the point that she’d changed her tactics to avoiding any real attachments—even when the man of her dreams had come along, never really believing he could be hers.
Anyone who knew her thought of her as wildly independent and brave. But the brave part was a lie. A big, fat lie. She was a chicken, too afraid to get hurt.
Above her, the ceiling started to collapse, and she thought how dumb she’d been because here she was, about to get really hurt. She was going to die here, and that pissed her off. She had a full bag of chocolate chips she’d not eaten so she’d be bikini-ready this summer. She’d spent her paycheck paying off the last of her credit card debt instead of going to Seattle for a shopping trip. She hadn’t had a chance to try out the new hair care products that had arrived at her salon yesterday.
And worst of all, six months ago she’d looked into Ian’s eyes and felt her entire heart melt, and she’d walked away instead of risking her heart.
And now she was going to die.
Over her own coughing, she heard someone yelling her name.
She clutched the side of the tub and strained to hear over the roar of the blood in her ears. Had she conjured him up, or had he really arrived? “I’m here!” she tried to yell, but her smoke-ravaged voice didn’t carry far, and yet another coughing spasm overtook her.
No one came. Not Ian, not anyone, and she hugged her legs in close and dropped her head to her knees with a little sob.
Then, from above her came a terrible creaking and groaning, as if the entire building was about to cave in. She screamed as a heavy piece of burning ceiling broke free. She dodged that one but the next hit her hard, and she screamed again.
The bathroom door burst open to a firefighter in full gear, looking like a vision with flames behind him.
“Ian?” she tried to ask past her ravaged throat, having to hold her aching head up with her hands.
He said something into his radio, which she couldn’t catch. She couldn’t hear a thing over the loud roaring around her. He dropped to his knees before her, and she nearly cried in relief. It
Ian. She could see his intent, urgent expression behind his face mask. He was saying something to her; she just couldn’t grasp it. Then he was scooping her out of the tub and into his arms, cradling her close, taking them both clear just as more of the ceiling crashed into the tub.
Oh my God… She clutched at him, even as her head spun and ached so badly she thought she was going to be sick. “You came for me,” she managed past her raw throat. Marveled. He’d literally walked through fire for her. For
. “No one’s ever done that…”
Tightening his grip on her, he turned to the door to get her out of there. She wanted to tell him she could walk, but she couldn’t. She couldn’t do anything but float in her own thoughts. When he’d asked her to give them a real shot at having a relationship, she’d dug in her heels and let her need for independence push him away.
That’s what she did. She pushed people away until she was alone. Her stubbornness and determination to make it on her own had always been stronger than her good sense.
But he’d never gone far.
Around them, the whole place was crashing in, and she cringed, clutching at Ian’s fire gear.
“You’re okay, you’re safe now,” he said, and she stared at his mouth, reading the words.
She was safe. Because he’d made her so. Usually she relied only on herself. Always, she relied only on herself.
But not this time.
“Mel, look at me.”
She was trying, honest to God she was trying to keep her eyes open and on him, but her head hurt like a bitch, and worse, everything was going dark. Her eyes were closing. Logically she knew this, and she attempted to open them again but her lids were too heavy…
“No, don’t you dare leave me,” Ian said firmly, voice low and gruff, muted by his gear. “Open your eyes, babe.”
Damn, she loved that tough, obey-me voice of his. When he spoke like that, she wanted to give him the moon.
But she’d never been able to give him what he needed, never, and she let the dark take her…