And the only thing she had to show for it was an extremely high tolerance for grunt work, and a standing prescription for antacids. Double strength.
“Whoa. What’s the matter with you?”
Ava blinked back to the reality of her tried and true Volkswagen Jetta just in time to catch the concern-tinged gaze of her coworker, Layla Ellis, as she turned toward Ava from the passenger seat.
“What makes you think something’s the matter?” Ava plastered a smile over her lips, her voice mired in cynicism even though she tried to keep it neutral. Layla
had been a photographer at the
for nearly as long as Ava had been a reporter. Or at least, Ava would’ve been a reporter if her tyrant of a boss let her out from behind her laptop to actually investigate a decent story.
One screwup four and a half years ago, and Gary had never let it go. All Ava had ever wanted to do was tell real stories about real people. Not in that overblown sensationalist
way so many other reporters adopted instead of digging deep to do their jobs, but respectfully. Truthfully. With power and emotion.
Instead, she was consistently assigned to cover events like the Riverside Turnip Festival, all because the source for her first big story had spun more fairy tales than Walt-freaking-Disney.
Layla lifted one white blond eyebrow over the rim of her glasses, rooting
through the camera bag perched across her lap. “Ah, let’s see. For starters, your sarcasm is thick enough to spread on a cracker. And secondly, no offense, but right now you’re wearing a face only a mother could love. So what gives?”
Ava’s gut gave up a healthy yank, but she lifted one shoulder in a bored shrug to temper it. She wasn’t about to admit that her mother hadn’t even loved her face
when she was born, and anyway, Layla knew all about Ava’s work-related misery.
Her personal life? Not so much. As in, not even a little, not ever.
Ava opened her mouth to deliver a tart reminder that they were on their way to cover the Pine Mountain Elementary Math Bowl, but a sudden blast of lights and sirens glued the words to her throat.
“Holy shit, hang on!”
Ava swung the Jetta to
the tightrope-thin shoulder of Rural Route Four just in time to avoid being sideswiped by a convoy of not one, but two fire trucks marked P
followed closely by an ambulance.
, they were hauling the mail. In the five years she’d lived in the Blue Ridge, she’d never seen anyone take the sharp twists of Pine Mountain’s main road so fast or so furiously.
much manpower, this emergency wasn’t a garden variety burned pot roast. Heck, even those barely happened in teeny-tiny Pine Mountain. Whatever this was had to be substantial. Gargantuan.
“You okay?” Ava asked, sliding a glance to Layla’s spot in the passenger seat.
Her friend nodded, although her knuckles flashed white over her camera bag from the sudden swerve. “Uh-huh,” Layla
said, but her acting performance sure wasn’t going to win her any Oscars.
“Good.” Ava stole a deep breath, taking a second to wrestle her pulse back out of the stratosphere before pulling back onto the road.
“Where are you going?” Layla pointed to the GPS that was currently squawking at Ava about her missed turn, but no way in hell was Ava going to the Math Bowl now. She gripped the leather-wrapped
steering wheel with enough determination to make her knuckles sing.
“I’m going to find out what that’s all about.”
Layla pulled back in shock, her shoulder thumping softly against the Jetta’s passenger door. “Are you sure barging onto the scene of an emergency is such a good idea?”
“I’m not barging. I’m investigating. I want a Pulitzer, not a spot with the paparazzi,” Ava said, tipping her
chin toward the stretch of road in front of them. She followed behind the ambulance at the rear of the convoy, calculating a respectable distance and then adding two car lengths just to be sure. While she had ambition to spare when it came to working a story, there were some boundaries she refused to cross. “But I’m not passing up a chance to prove myself with a first-rate story, either. Something
huge is going on out here, and it just fell into our laps. I’ll be damned if I don’t at least find out what it is.”
The red and white strobe lights cut a painfully bright path through the smudgy gray shadows of the bare trees overhead, and a quick, relentless chill rolled down Ava’s spine at the sight of the fire trucks rounding the bend ahead of her. The image of a dark-haired, darker-eyed
firefighter recruit flitted across her mind, knocking her heart against her ribs with an involuntary jolt.
Meeting a guy like Nick Brennan had been the last thing Ava had expected that summer after college, when she’d finally punched her one-way ticket out of Philadelphia and the upbringing she’d give anything to forget. But between his easygoing demeanor and his chocolate-smolder gaze, Ava’d
never had a chance.
On second thought, meeting Nick Brennan had been the second to last thing she’d expected seven years ago.
Letting herself fall in love with him? Yeah,
had been the first.
The ambulance in front of her let out a sharp
as it barreled into a particularly tight angle in the road, slapping Ava back to the here and now. This was no time for a sap-happy jaunt down
memory lane. As much as she might wonder what had become of the sexy firefighter-in-training, the past was meant to be left behind. Her parents were living proof that love could go as rotten as month-old milk, and no way was she going down that road.
She’d already walked away from it once.
“Do you smell that?” Ava’s senses sharpened over the pungent scent of smoke filtering through the vents
in the Jetta, and she swung her gaze from side to side, squinting to gather details from either side of the asphalt.
“Yeah,” Layla said, craning her neck to look out the passenger window. “Something is on fire, and whatever it is, it’s close.”
The thin, gray haze that Ava had chalked up to road dust was becoming unmistakably thicker by the second, and she did a mental tally of the buildings
in the immediate area. Nearly everything in Pine Mountain was located either at the plush mountain resort or on Main Street, where her brother’s bakery stood. The only three things on Rural Route Four large enough to require such a drastic response were that bar and grill she’d heard about but had never been to, the apartment complex where her brother Pete used to live, and Joe’s Grocery. Judging
by the amount of smoke clinging to the air around her car, whichever one of those was closest was the one on fire.
And Joe’s Grocery was just around the bend.
“There!” Layla exclaimed, pointing to a clearing in the thick trees lining the road. The fire trucks whipped through the near-side turnoff for the grocery store, and Ava jerked her car to the gravel-lined shoulder of Rural Route Four.
Slinging off her seat belt and shouldering her bag, she thrust her feet onto the thickly wooded side of the road. “Okay. I’m going to get as close as I can to figure out what’s going on, maybe see if I can talk to any witnesses to get a story.”
“Right. I’ll try to get as many shots as possible, but I’ll probably need to move around a bit. It depends on the barricades,” Layla said, already in
motion at Ava’s side.
“Just be careful. I’ve got my cell if you need me.”
Police cars blocked the far entrance to Joe’s, but they must’ve just arrived since the side where Ava had parked was still clear. Layla stopped to take a few quick photos of the outlying area, but Ava slipped through the snowy pine trees at the perimeter of the building, pulling her coat around her with a shiver. Her
pulse hopscotched through her veins as the smell of smoke invaded her nostrils, prompting an unbidden cough from her chest. She flipped her cell phone into her palm and flicked the microphone icon on the screen, intending to dictate the facts from the outskirts of the area.
But the scene was so utterly surreal, she knew in an instant that any words she’d choose would fail to capture it.
far side of the tall clapboard building was completely covered in black smoke and angry orange flames, and one of the freshly arrived fire trucks jerked to a halt in front of the blaze. Firefighters jumped down from both sides of the truck, scrambling to cover the scene with brisk, calculated movements. While the flames hadn’t seemed to reach the side of the store closest to where she stood, smoke
plumed from the windows and roofline in a way that said they were damned close. The telltale shimmer of extreme heat blurred outward from the building, and smoke lifted heavily from the roofline, rising up to paint the sky overhead with fat smudges of foreboding gray.
Sweet Jesus. This fire was
A heavy metallic
rattled in Ava’s ears, and the brisk back and forth between firefighters
as they readied the hoses and ladders for immediate use nailed her purpose back into place. She recorded a quick assessment of the scene, describing the details in her cell phone even though they were indelibly printed in her brain. A small group of bystanders lined the outer edge of the property, one of whom was a college-aged young woman who looked nothing short of distraught as she watched
the firemen prepare to fight the blaze. Ava’s heart squeezed against her ribs, and without thinking, she stepped closer and put a hand on the girl’s shoulder.
“Are you okay?” she asked, and the girl turned, her eyes brimming with tears that she was clearly trying to fight.
“Oh! Uh, yeah. No. I don’t know.” The tears wobbled on the girl’s dark lashes, and she tugged at the hem of her cheerful
red apron embroidered with the words J
We were just inside like ten minutes ago, and the fire seemed small. But now it’s really bad, and . . .”
“It’ll be all right, Michelle. I promise.” A pretty blonde in a chef’s jacket put her arm around the girl, squeezing tight, and Ava split her gaze between the two of them.
“My name is Ava Mancuso, and I’m with the
said to the older woman, whose damp brow and disheveled ponytail told Ava she’d probably been inside Joe’s when the blaze started.
“Bellamy Griffin,” the woman said with a nod.
Ava gentled her voice over her next words. “Can you tell me what happened?”
“I’m not sure, really. Everything went so fast. One minute I was grabbing some extras before work, and the next, the whole back of the store
was full of smoke.” Bellamy’s eyes skated over the scene, her shaky exhale puffing around her face in the cold. “I thought everyone got out, but then Kitty Wilson rushed out in a total panic without her son, and Brennan ran back inside—”
“Hold on.” The name pricked hard at Ava’s ears, but she shook it off in favor of the realization rocketing down her spine. “Somebody’s still in there?”
A little boy got separated from his mother. The manager from the bar and grill up the road went in to try and find him before the fire department showed up, but now they’re here, and”—Bellamy lowered her voice, turning toward Ava so the young woman still standing close by couldn’t hear—“no one’s come back out yet.”
Ava pulled in a breath, and the acrid taste of smoke landed hard in her mouth.
Instinctively, she narrowed her stare on the front of the store, her heart thumping a steady pattern against her sternum as she edged close enough to feel the heat churning off the building.
And then the main doors burst outward in an explosion of sound and movement, and a dark-haired man wearing nothing more than jeans and a winter jacket came flying out from behind the glass and steel with
a child latched firmly to his back.
In an instant, the scene erupted. Paramedics swarmed forward in a rush of rolling gurneys and portable equipment, while firefighters closed in on the front of the building, knocking out windows to create an escape route for the smoke and closing in on the entryway with the hose. Miraculously, the man who had rescued the child sat upright on the gurney, appearing
more irritated at the attention than injured from the fire. He fit into Ava’s line of sight for just an instant, leaning forward to look at the boy safely cradled in his mother’s arms.
Oh . . . God.
Absolute shock cemented Ava’s feet to the asphalt, and despite the pulse now going ballistic in her veins, she’d know that dark-eyed stare anywhere.
Nick Brennan, the man she hadn’t seen in seven
years but had once loved with every last cell in her body, had just become the story of the decade.
Although it took four hours’ worth of medical tests and some extremely creative evasive maneuvering to get around the knot of local reporters clogging the lobby at Riverside Memorial Hospital, Brennan finally managed to break free just in time to pick up his Trailblazer, courtesy of the Pine Mountain PD. The smell of smoke, still heavy in the air though the fire had long been put
out, had tugged at the back of his throat even from the far side of the parking lot, but he’d tamped it down with a controlled breath. The last thing Brennan needed was to linger on the past when he’d had such a crazy day, especially since he barely had enough time to clean up and get to the Double Shot for his shift.
As much of a pain as the doctors and reporters had been, they had nothing
on his boss.
“If you ever pull a stunt like that again, so help me God, they’ll be taking you to the morgue instead of the emergency department.” Teagan O’Malley jammed her boots into the industrial kitchen tiles in the back of the restaurant, planting her hands over the hips of her jeans as she flattened Brennan with a merciless scowl.
Pulling the side door shut behind him, he shot a look
at the huge man standing behind her in the narrow galley kitchen, meeting the chef’s storm-colored gaze with a silent
help a guy out
. But even though Adrian Holt was the closest thing Brennan had to a best friend in Pine Mountain, he was Teagan’s fiancé first, and the guy just held up his hands as if to say
Shit. Looked like Brennan was on his own for this one.
“Come on, Teagan,” he
said, shifting his weight from one Nike to the other. Christ, his back was screaming six ways to Sunday now that his adrenaline rush had trickled to a stop, and it took every ounce of his stoic willpower to blank the discomfort from his face. “You’re a paramedic. You treated me yourself on the way to the hospital, and Dr. Russell spent ages poking and prodding me within a half inch of my decency.
I’m totally fine. No big deal.”
Her auburn brows hiked up toward her hairline as she swiped an apron from the neatly folded stack by the pantry, and okay, maybe
wasn’t going to stick quite yet. “You almost passed out from smoke inhalation because you ran into an actively burning three-alarm fire without assistance or protection, Brennan! Where I come from, that doesn’t constitute fine.
It constitutes bat shit crazy.”
Of course she had to bring up that he’d gotten a little dizzy in the rig on the way to Riverside Memorial. But it wasn’t as if he could admit to Teagan and Adrian that he’d been in that particular driver’s seat before and he knew the light-headed thing passed quickly with a little O2. Eating a little too much bad air from time to time was just an occupational
Or at least, it used to be. Hell, he really needed to get a handle on this so they could forget about the fire and move on, stat.
Brennan grabbed the inventory clipboard from the shelf by the pass-through to the bar and scraped together a smile, because the alternative wouldn’t get him very far. “And yet I’ve been called worse. Look, I get that it was dangerous—”
“It was downright
insane,” Teagan interrupted. “You have no idea how lucky you are that the whole thing didn’t end up in disaster. All the guys at the fire house are ready to give you an earful. Don’t even get me started on the blue streak my captain was cussing over the radio in your honor.”
Not surprising, all things considered. But still . . . “There was a seven-year-old kid in there. What was I supposed to
This time, his unspoken bid for backup yielded a look from Adrian akin to
he might have a point
, and finally, Teagan’s irritation faltered.
“You’re supposed to wait for the pros,” she said, although the mention of the boy and the shared glance with Adrian took a whole lot of heat off her words. “I thought . . .” She paused, pulling in an audible breath. “I thought you were really hurt,
Shock rippled its way up Brennan’s spine, chased quickly by a swift shot of remorse, but he caged both behind a mostly neutral expression. “I’m sorry,” he said, softening his tone so she’d know he meant it. “I just got a little dizzy for a few seconds from all the smoke. But my pulse ox was nearly normal by the time we got to Riverside, and Dr. Russell even said I’m okay to work tonight
as long as I take it easy. So really, I’m fine.”
“You’re a pain in the ass, is what you are,” she grumbled, but the smile poking at the corners of her mouth was a dead giveaway.
“Thank you. Look, we’ve all had enough excitement for one day. What do you say I buy you a beer after our shift and we just get back to normal?”
But Teagan’s response was summarily cut off by their sous chef, Jesse,
as he entered the kitchen wearing a big old what-the-hell on his face.
“Uh, Brennan? A TV crew just pulled into the parking lot, and the upstairs phone has been ringing off the wall with people looking for you. Something about wanting the big story straight from the source?”
Brennan’s gut dropped low enough to turf his kneecaps, and Adrian lifted a shadowy brow, finally throwing his two cents
into the conversation.
“Better go somewhere else if you want normal, dude. Looks like we’re gonna be fresh out for a while.”
Three hours and a whole lot of avoiding the front of the house later, Brennan was out of options. Adrian and Teagan might’ve been able to get rid of all the nosy-ass reporters, but the Double Shot’s dining room was still brimming with locals wanting to get
a glimpse of their “hometown hero.” The waitstaff had been steadily turning tables since they’d popped the front doors open at four o’clock, and if the volume and intensity of Adrian’s gruff kitchen directives were any indication, they were headed for the weeds in both the back of the house and behind the bar, all before the dinner shift even got into full swing. Brennan’s servers needed all the
help they could get, and that meant he was going to have to take one for the team.
Brennan shifted his weight in a move he’d given far too much play tonight, his cross-trainers squeaking against the well-traveled kitchen floor by the door to the bar. His back felt like a team full of ringers had used it for batting practice, and he pressed a palm into the throbbing muscles under
his gray T-shirt with a grimace.
“Teagan catches you making that face, and pissed won’t even begin to cover it.”
. For a big guy, Adrian’s stealth was just not right. The fact that he didn’t miss even the slightest trick wasn’t lost on Brennan, either.
“I’m cool,” he said, dialing his expression to a nice, controlled easy-does-it. Brennan nodded down to the three plates in Adrian’s
grip, snapping the corresponding ticket from the queue. “These going out the door?”
“Table nine.” Adrian didn’t let go of the plates, and although his words were clipped to the quick like always, Brennan caught the concern hiding beneath them. “You had a helluva morning. You sure you’re straight?”
“Yup.” At least, he would be when all this hype died down and he could slide back into the woodwork.
Preferably with a heating pad and an extra PT session. “Absolutely.”
“Good.” The gravel in Adrian’s voice returned with a don’t-fuck-with-my-kitchen vengeance, and the thick, black tattoo on his forearm flexed as he passed over all three dishes in half as many seconds. “Because I’ve got six more just like ’em that need to go out the door on the fly. Let’s turn and burn a little, yeah?”
on it.” Balancing the plates over both hands and a forearm, Brennan shouldered his way past the swinging door to the dining room. The place was as packed as he’d ever seen it, with every available table occupied and standing room only two-deep at the bar. Teagan was a blur behind the stretch of mahogany and brass at the back of the restaurant, and whoa, even her father, Patrick, who owned the place,
had slipped in beside her to help out. The air hung thick with noisy chatter and the
of glassware and cutlery, the warm overhead light spilling down from the exposed wood beams of the ceiling just low enough to make the place cozy, even with the brimming crowd.
Brennan covered the hardwood beneath his feet in quick strides, sneaking in a breath of relief. If they were this busy all night,
he should be able to avoid too much attention over what had happened this morning.
“Brennan? Oh my gracious me! It’s
“Hi, Mrs. Teasdale. How are you tonight?” Brennan shifted to a stop in front of table nine, lifting up the plate in his left hand. “Tuna melt, as usual, right?”
The elderly woman’s hand fluttered up to her throat as Brennan distributed everyone’s dinner with
polite efficiency. “Look at you, so modest! As if you didn’t pull Matty Wilson out of a blazing inferno today.”
“It wasn’t nearly as dramatic as that. I’m glad Matthew’s okay, but really, I just got lucky,” Brennan said, hoping his smile didn’t look as ill-fitting as it felt. Mrs. Teasdale might mean well, but Pine Mountain’s small-town grapevine could withstand a nuclear apocalypse with a zombie
invasion on top. The last thing he needed was to fuel the rumor mill.
“That’s not what Kitty Wilson said,” replied the woman next to Mrs. Teasdale. “She said you saved Matthew’s life. Everyone down at the Main Street Diner has been talking about it. Why, you’re a regular hometown hero!”
Brennan barely resisted wincing. “That’s nice of you to say, but really, I’m just a regular guy.”
Mrs. Teasdale clucked, picking up a red and green paper shopping bag from the chair next to her. “We’ve made you a little something. It’s just some Christmas cookies and a bit of my fruitcake to get you in the holiday spirit, but . . . well, the three of us old biddies have lived in Pine Mountain for a lot of years, and Kitty Wilson was born and raised here. We’re just so grateful for what
you did for her, and for Matthew.”
“I’m just doing my job.”
The words were out before he could trap them, and
his deeply rooted instincts. Brennan ratcheted up his smile and gestured to the back of the restaurant. “I mean, I need to get back to the kitchen, ladies. Thank you for the cookies. It’s, uh, really nice of you.”
Before the hot seat he’d parked himself right smack in the middle
of could spontaneously combust, Brennan beelined back toward the kitchen. He tried to make steady work of running plates and helping behind the bar, but after the four-thousandth mention of the fire at Joe’s, he came perilously close to throwing in the towel.
“Another phone number for you, Brennan,” Teagan said, holding up a bar ticket smudged with red ink. “But I’ve gotta tell you, if these
girls start flinging their unmentionables around, I’m going to have to draw the line.” Her sarcasm fell prey to the ear-to-ear smirk taking over her face, and Adrian met it with a gravelly chuckle as he hauled a tray of clean pint glasses to the slim stretch of countertop by the service alcove.
“Come on, Red. He pulled a kid from a burning building this morning. Give the guy a little credit.”
“I don’t want any credit. And I definitely don’t want anyone’s number,” Brennan argued, snapping the caps off a couple of Budweisers and sending them down the bar. Damn it, he never put stuff like this to words when he’d been a firefighter. He sure as shit wasn’t going to get gabby now that he wasn’t. “In fact, don’t you need help breaking down the kitchen?”
“Nice try.” Adrian edged past him,
refilling the glassware shelves behind the bar only a hair faster than Teagan could empty them. “But we’re slammed out here. Jesse can handle breakdown on his own. Right now, we need all able bodies behind the wood. If I’m in the front of the house, you’re in the front of the house. You feel me?”
Well, hell. The guy had a point, and it wasn’t as if Brennan was a stranger to slinging drinks.
Plus, as antsy as the crowd made him, a steady stream of customers at the bar would keep him focused and busy and in control.
Provided that none of them mentioned the words
, he’d be money for the rest of the night.
“What can I get you?” Brennan placed a palm against the smooth wood of the bar, leaning in toward a middle-aged guy wearing a crisp button-down shirt
and horn-rimmed glasses.
“Perrier with lime would be great.” The guy paused, throwing a quick but thorough perusal Brennan’s way. “Are you Brennan?”
His gut took a swan dive into a giant pool of suspicion. “Who’s asking?”
. Got some questions for you, if you don’t mind.” The reporter whipped a recording device from his pocket, aiming it under Brennan’s chin
in a presumptuous thrust. “Tell me, what was going through your head when you ran inside that burning building today? Did you think you were going to make it out alive?”
Brennan dug deep for his calm, but damn, it took effort. “No comment.”
“Come on,” the guy tried again, closing in on Brennan’s personal space a little further with the recording device. “This is the biggest thing to happen
in Pine Mountain in years, and the public deserves to know the real story. Fire and Rescue hasn’t released the boy’s name to the public yet. Can you tell us if you know him?”
Brennan resisted the urge to pop off with a two-word directive a little harsher than
, but he lowered the man’s drink to the bar with a heavy
instead. “Will this be it for you?”
“The stunt you pulled today
drew some pretty serious speculation from one of my firefighter sources. Says that rescue you made is one in a million for a civilian. Do you have any training as a firefighter, Brennan?”
Adrian swooped in just as Brennan swallowed the bitter-edged
burning a hole through his mouth.