Authors: Jennifer Bernard
“He misses Z-boy. Says he’s a special dog. He told me his whole history. He was trained as a rescue dog for San Gabriel County Search and Rescue. Then he got injured in an earthquake rescue. Said he still has a limp, but I never noticed it.”
Pete mumbled an answer. He’d noticed the limp right away, but that was because he cared about Hagrid so much.
“Anyway, they retired him with honors, and that’s when Gonzalez adopted him. He has a plaque floating around somewhere. So I guess we have to convince Hagrid—Z-boy—to let us put him in a carrier. What do you say we go out and do it together?”
“No!” Pete burst out. “He doesn’t want to go to Colorado. Why do you think he ran away?”
“Aw, Pete. Don’t you think he probably misses Gonzalez?”
“No.” If Hagrid had been so crazy about Gonzalez, he wouldn’t have jumped out of the truck. Seemed obvious to Pete.
“Maybe you should talk to your mom about this. Maybe she has some good ideas.”
“Nah.” A lump of sheer resentment nearly choked him. “She’s too busy all the time.” He felt bad as soon as he said it. It’s not that he was mad at his mother exactly. It wasn’t her fault she was allergic to dogs. It wasn’t her fault Duncan was such a douche bag.
“Wedding plans keeping her busy?” Kirk’s voice sounded a little funny.
“No. They’re not getting married. That’s one good thing. He keeps calling though.”
“Really? The wedding’s off?”
“Don’t tell her I told you. It’s supposed to be a secret.”
“Oh.” A short silence followed. “So, about Hagrid. I told Gonzalez I’d try to deliver him to his friend tomorrow night. You want to go out to the warehouse tomorrow afternoon?”
“Um . . . I have to ask my mom.”
“Sure. Let me know.”
Pete hung up. Gonzalez didn’t deserve to have Hagrid back. What would Harry Potter do in this situation? Or better yet, his own hero, Robin Dareheart, who had just discovered a magic stalagmite in the Cave of Torment that gave him the ability to change into any living being at any given moment? He’d never just sit back while disaster struck.
Tomorrow afternoon Kirk would be heading out to the warehouse. That gave him plenty of time.
IFE AS THE
former fiancée of Duncan Geller felt very odd, as if Maribel had just shed an outer layer of skin. On the one hand, she felt raw and vulnerable. Her relationship with Duncan had been a shockingly huge part of how she saw herself. She hadn’t been just a waitress; she’d been the chosen one of the great celebrity photographer. It was as if her childhood blankie had been yanked away from her.
On the other hand, she knew she’d done the right thing. She felt lighter and more awake, as if her mind was filled with clear, sparkling water. She and Duncan were all wrong for each other. They had a certain amount of chemistry but nothing earthshaking. He patronized her, while she had spent countless hours listening to him, never admitting to herself how much he bored her. The only reason they hadn’t figured it out earlier was that convenient three thousand miles between them.
“So stupid,” she muttered as she refilled the cute little milk jugs of creamer that graced each table.
“What?” asked Mrs. Gund.
She hadn’t yet told Mrs. Gund she’d broken up with Duncan. That might unleash an onslaught of setup attempts with one or all of the Bachelor Firemen. Everything in her longed to run to Kirk, jump into his arms, tell him she was free and that the memory of his kisses hummed under her skin every moment of every day.
But she’d checked out a few books on breakups and knew the dangers of a rebound relationship. Better to give it some time, right? Let things settle down, let Duncan get all his over-analyzing out of his system, maybe do that therapy session by conference call he kept proposing. She felt awful hurting Duncan. She owed him a respectful breakup process, even if he did keep mentioning the shoot he had coming up with Lindsay Lohan as if that was supposed to make her jealous.
The door jingled open. Her heart jumped into her throat at the familiar sight of the dark blue T-shirts and suspenders of the Bachelor Firemen, even though she saw in an instant that neither one of them was Kirk. Ryan and the boyish-looking one they called Stud, but whose name was actually Fred, were walking toward the cash register. Her hands shaking, she put away the half-and-half and went out to take their order.
“Mornin’, gorgeous,” said Ryan with a wink.
“Back at you.” She smiled widely at him. Ryan sure was a sight for sore eyes even for someone like her, who couldn’t stop thinking about his quiet coworker.
“I’ll have an espresso with lots of sugar. But you already knew that, didn’t you?” He offered up his knee-weakening smile.
“Yup. And a cappuccino with cinnamon for you, Fred, right?”
Fred turned as red as the fire engine parked at the curb. “Right. Thanks.”
She turned to the espresso machine. Not that she was counting the days or anything, but she hadn’t seen Kirk in . . . well, since
. She hoped he wasn’t avoiding the Lazy Daisy so he didn’t have to see her. He’d told her not to feel awkward, but what if he felt uncomfortable?
“Should I . . . um . . . throw in a black coffee for Kirk? I mean, Thor? Or is he off-shift today?”
“He’s off-shift all right. His last day was Friday. Weird to see his locker emptied out.” Ryan shook his head. “It’s hard to see him go. He’s like a brother. But at least he’s . . .” He trailed off, as if he’d gone too far.
“Alive,” said Fred helpfully. “Close thing too.”
“Stud!” hissed Ryan.
Fred turned even redder. Maribel’s thoughts were wheeling like a flock of surprised swallows. Kirk had left the firehouse? He’d never mentioned anything about leaving the station.
“Did he quit or something? Transfer somewhere else?”
Ryan and Fred exchanged glances. “He’s leaving California,” Ryan finally answered. “Going to Alaska. For the climate. It’s a long story, but if you want to hear it, you’d better ask him.”
Maribel dropped the espresso cup onto the floor, where it bounced on the non-skid rubber mat. Black liquid spilled onto her sneakers. “He never told me. Why didn’t he tell me?” Was he really going to leave town and never say a word? “I’m going to strangle him.”
“Hey.” Ryan reached out a hand to her forearm. “Go easy on him, okay? He’s been through a lot.”
She shook him off and dashed from behind the counter, nearly tripping over the dropped espresso cup. “Be back later, Mrs. Gund.”
“What?” Mrs. Gund squawked.
“Don’t worry, we got you covered, Mrs. G.,” said Ryan. “Cap wants us back in half an hour, but until then, we’re all yours.”
Mrs. Gund clapped her hand over her mouth, though she was the only one in the room who had any idea what that meant.
Maribel flew out of the Lazy Daisy and into her car. She ripped off her apron and tossed it in the backseat—not making that mistake again. Too bad she couldn’t commandeer the fire engine. If this was a romantic comedy movie, the guys would drive her to Kirk’s, where she would tell him . . . something clever and touching, and they would hug and kiss and . . . dissolve to the next scene. Truth was, she didn’t know what to say. All she knew was she had to see him. The thought of him leaving the state was unbearable. Plain freaking unbearable.
She banged on his door, ignoring the unacceptable sight of the moving van parked in the driveway.
It felt like forever until the door opened and the sight of Kirk filled her vision. He looked harassed and tired, his hair mussed, his eyes shadowed. He wore a threadbare, long-sleeved, faded blue shirt with a smudge of dust across the sleeve. His feet were bare. He was the sexiest thing she’d ever laid eyes on.
“How could you?” Her hurt spilled into the question, making an accusation out of it. She flung her arms in the air, but he caught her wrist before she could accidentally make contact. “Let go.”
But he didn’t. He held onto her arm, his eyes burning. “How could I what?”
“Leave! Without telling me!”
But he didn’t look apologetic. If anything, he looked even angrier. “And you’re the honest one here? How could you break up with Duncan without telling me?”
“What?” Her mouth fell open. “How did you know . . . ? That’s different!”
Kirk pulled her inside and shut the door. He crossed his arms over his chest. “Different how?”
“It’s . . . it’s personal.” She wasn’t ready to explain about Duncan and her all-over-the-place feelings.
It was as if a wall of ice came down over his face. “So I’m not entitled to know things about your personal life. Fine. We’re even. Thanks for stopping by.” He put his hand on her shoulder and spun her around toward the door. She ducked under his arm and spun herself right back.
“That’s not what I meant.”
One of his eyebrows rose in a question. “Let me have it then. What did you mean?”
“I meant . . .” Oh God. Why was it so hard to say the important things? But for six years she’d avoided saying the important things to Duncan, and look where that had gotten her. “I meant . . .” He was leaving. A moving van stood in his driveway. Hurt lurked in his silvery eyes.
She loved him.
“I meant,” she continued in barely a whisper, “that I want to be with you. You’re like this pool of beautiful sunshine in my heart, and every time I think of you I get happy, and believe me, that’s a lot, I think about you all the time, but I didn’t want you to be a rebound guy, not that you would be, but I wanted to make sure. So I was sort of . . . waiting . . . but then Ryan said you were moving to Alaska . . .
, do you know how far away that is?”
“Maribel,” said Kirk, his voice rough, his eyes gone deepest gray. “I took a job in a small town up there that needs someone to train their volunteers. If figure I’ll be inside more and it’ll be easier to avoid the sun that far north. The UV level is lower. It’s still a risk. I’ll always have to be careful. The doctors say the cancer could come back.”
Tears clogged the back of her throat, tears at the thought of no more Kirk, at the thought that he’d nearly died, that he could still die. “I understand all that. But you would just leave without saying goodbye?”
“No.” He reached in his back pocket and pulled out a sheaf of paper covered with tiny writing. “Here’s my goodbye.”
“You know me. I’m not so good when it comes to talking. But it explains everything.”
His wobbly smile was too much for her, the icing on the cake of his irresistibility. She threw herself into his arms. Well, technically, against his chest, but he quickly wrapped his strong arms around her. His heart beat fast against her chest, a rapid patter that told her he was just as rattled as she was. Being back in Kirk’s arms felt wonderful, better than wonderful, like a miracle.
“I don’t want your letter, Kirk,” she murmured into his warm neck.
“I want you. Right now. And later on too.”
“You sure?” He leaned his head back to peer into her face. “What about the rebound thing?”
“Forget that. You’re not a rebound guy. You’re the guy I’ve had a crush on for years but never let myself admit it. The guy I want to make love to for the next twenty-four hours straight. The guy who’s kind to children and animals and women and total strangers whose houses happened to catch fire. The guy who makes my heart want to dance right out of my body every time you touch me. The guy who . . .”
He silenced her with a deep, spine-tingling kiss. “All right. Not that I don’t love listening to you, but is there any action to go with that talk?”
“See?” She rained kisses on his dear, tired, handsome face. “You love listening to me. I love that. That’s important, right? I’ve had enough of not speaking up for myself. No more of that, no way. If you want to be with me, you have to care what I think. And want.”
“Oh I care, all right.” He lifted her legs, one by one, so they wrapped around his waist. “Especially if you happen to be wanting me.”
“I am.” Her voice came in a rough whisper. “Oh Kirk, I am. So much. I’m sorry I didn’t come right away, as soon as I knew that I . . .”
“That you what?” He sounded distracted, maybe because he was trying to kiss her neck as he made his way past packing cartons down the hall to his bedroom.
“Well, as soon as I thought I might love you.”
“Might?” He kicked open the door to his bedroom, which, thank the lord, still held a bed. “Let’s see if we can’t do better than that.”
had Maribel where he wanted her, where he’d dreamed of having her for so long, no way was he going to drop the ball. He whisked her into the bedroom as if she weighed less than a pillow and flung her onto his bed. Her glorious auburn hair tumbled around her ears as she looked up at him, eyes wide with delight, mouth gaping adorably.
He stood over her, feeling like Tarzan and a Viking marauder rolled into one. He was practically beating his chest. “Mind if I rip your clothes off now?” he said with rough-edged courtesy, so as to distinguish himself from his pillaging Scandinavian ancestors.
“Feel free,” she laughed.
So he did. Off went the pale green T-shirt with the retro Cadillac printed on it. The bra underneath, which was some blurred shade of white that he’d never be able to identify again, seemed to melt under the intensity of his lust. Her lovely breasts—there they were, just as he’d remembered during his restless nighttime fantasies—the size of perfect new apples, just as juicy and perky as a man could want. His mouth watered at the sight of her hard little nipples, already erect before he’d even touched them. Her skin was so delectable, so smooth and faintly freckled here and there. After he lifted her legs to pull off her jeans and underwear—a vague shade of pink—he parted her legs in awe to find a fluffy patch of ginger curls simply begging for his tongue.
He obliged, of course, but not until he’d done a thorough taste test of the rest of her body. She was full of sensual puzzles. How could the skin over her bottom rib taste like vanilla, whereas the curve to her waist tasted like green apples? Why did she quiver when he swirled his tongue around her belly button, but flat-out moan when he explored the dip between her hipbones? He could swear that one nipple was slightly plumper than the other, but he had to keep switching from one to the other to make sure. That brought on a whole cascade of sounds from Maribel, every one of which acted like a shot of adrenaline to his rearing cock.