Authors: Barbara Freethy
Only, this time was different. She wasn't leaving San Francisco anytime soon. But she would be leaving Burke's apartment, she told herself. And she probably wouldn't be hanging out with Burke after today.
Getting up, she used the bathroom in the hall to wash her face, brush her hair and change out of Burke's T-shirt, then she returned to the living room, folded up the blanket and tucked the pillow underneath it.
Grabbing her phone, she called her landlord's number again; it went to voicemail. She left another pleading message for him to return her call as soon as possible so she could straighten out her rental situation. She also called the number she had for Carter Hillyard, but it had been disconnected, which wasn't surprising.
Sighing, she set down her phone and debated her options. She needed to get to the bank and see if she could get her last deposit to clear, but she couldn't do that until nine. Maybe she'd make breakfast.
When she entered the kitchen, she felt immediately better. This was the one room where she always knew what to do and how to do it. Cooking had always been her therapy, her passion, her escape. It had been that way since she'd made her first batch of oatmeal raisin cookies after her sister got sick.
She opened up Burke's refrigerator and was happy to find eggs, bacon and vegetables. Within minutes, the air was sizzling with the delicious smell of coffee brewing and onions sautéing. She worked with quiet efficiency, enjoying every moment, slicing and chopping vegetables with a joy that reminded her that this was the place she needed to get back to.
She just had to find a way to get back into a kitchen and get paid to cook. While she would always cook for the love of it, she needed to live, to pay bills, to get her own place and to rebuild her life.
She would figure out how to do all that—just as soon as she finished cooking breakfast.
* * *
For a moment Burke thought he was back home in his parents' house, the smell of bacon tempting him out of sleep. As he blinked his eyes open, he realized he was in his apartment, in his bed, and the person cooking had to be Maddie.
He rolled over onto his back and stared at the ceiling. He hadn't slept much the night before. He'd been thinking far too much about Maddie, about their past, the girl she'd been and the woman she appeared to be now. However, the Maddie of today was as much of a puzzle as the Maddie of yesterday.
How did a smart woman not only get involved with a deadbeat boyfriend but also a fraudulent rental deal? Was she naïve or too trusting? Did she act too impulsively? She was smart, but sometimes she didn't weigh out the consequences before she acted. Whatever the reason, she'd certainly ended up in a mess.
She'd owned up to her mistakes, though. He liked that she hadn't offered excuses or been defensive.
That's the way she'd always been. She'd loved breaking the rules, but if she got caught, she took responsibility for her actions.
Of course, she'd have an easier time in life if she stopped breaking rules and making mistakes, but maybe she'd been right when she'd said if you weren't making mistakes, you weren't really living.
He rarely broke a rule and he rarely made a mistake. He'd thought that was a good thing, but sometimes he wondered what he was missing by keeping such tight control over his life.
Still, he preferred rules and structure to chaos, which made him Maddie's opposite. She loved chaos. Or maybe it was chaos that liked her, he thought with a smile.
Who wouldn't like Maddie?
She was beautiful, had a quick wit, a positive attitude, a friendly, warm smile. God knew that smile did amazing things to his body every time she turned it on him. He'd found it an annoyance in high school, because he didn't want to be tempted to do anything that didn't jibe with his plans for his life.
Since high school, on the few occasions that they'd run into each other, Maddie's smile had always given him an odd sense of regret, as if he'd missed out on something while they'd been apart. That was crazy, because they'd been apart more than they'd ever been together. They were barely friends. And it had been years since high school. They were both in their thirties now. They'd lived separate and very different lives.
But he couldn't help thinking that for the first time in fifteen years they were both in the same place and both single at the same time. Not that that meant anything. He wasn't going to date Maddie. She hadn’t been right for him as a teenager, and she wasn't right for him now. They were opposites, and while opposites might attract, they didn't last. In the end, they would drive each other crazy.
Still, he couldn't help thinking it might be fun for a while.
Hell, he knew it would be fun for a while. But then what?
A knock came at his door, and he jolted into a sitting position, his pulse taking a crazy leap. He'd been hoping for a knock ever since he'd said good-night, thinking that maybe, just maybe, the free-spirited Maddie would suggest they share his bed. But that hadn't happened—until now.
"Burke?" Maddie called. "Are you awake? I made breakfast."
He cleared his throat. "Yeah, I'll be right out."
"No hurry, but I thought if you're hungry, you might want to eat while it's hot."
"I'll be right there." Okay, so she was offering breakfast and nothing else. He'd take it.
He scrambled out of bed, threw on some sweats, and went out to see what Maddie had cooked up for him.
As he sat down at his kitchen table, in front of the most beautiful plate of eggs he'd ever seen, he was once again surprised. He had not anticipated an omelet stuffed with red peppers, mushrooms, onions, and spinach. Crisp bacon was layered across a piece of sourdough toast, and chunks of oranges, apples and strawberries made up a bright bowl of enticing fruit.
"This is amazing. Did you go to the store?"
"No, I just raided your refrigerator." She sat down adjacent to him. "I was thrilled to see you had vegetables."
"I try to eat healthy, but the vegetables usually go bad before I have a chance to cook them. And if I had cooked them, I definitely would not have come up with this."
"It's just eggs," she said lightly, but there was a gleam of pride in her pretty green eyes.
"They're really good," he murmured swallowing his first bite. "I haven't had more than cereal for breakfast in a while."
"Not even at the firehouse?"
"Unfortunately, our best cook got transferred about three months ago. Since then we have not been eating very well."
"You should make cooking part of your hiring requirements."
"Believe me, that's been discussed before."
"Tell me about your job. Have you been involved in any really scary fires?"
"A few, but I don't go inside the way I used to. I'm a battalion chief now, so I'm usually working the fire from the outside."
She nodded, a knowing gleam in her eyes. "I'm not surprised you're in charge, but I would have thought that battalion chiefs were older."
"I am one of the younger ones, but I worked hard to get my position. It wasn't because I'm a Callaway."
She raised an eyebrow. "I never thought that for a second, Burke. You've always held yourself to high standards. Even as a teenager, you were not susceptible to peer pressure. You knew who you were, and you didn't give a damn what anyone else thought about you."
"I don't think you cared very much about what other people thought of you, either, Maddie. You changed your hair color every week. You wore crazy clothes to school. Hell, you dyed the mashed potatoes in the school cafeteria pink."
She laughed. "I totally forgot about that. It was a Valentine's Day special. I figured not everyone was going to find candy hearts, carnations or valentines in their locker, so it was my love letter to the nerdy kids, the wallflowers, the people like me who didn't fit in."
He didn’t think she'd fit into any of those categories, either. She hadn't been a nerd or a wallflower, but she had definitely been one of a kind.
"I got in trouble for those pink mashed potatoes," she added. "I was barred from the kitchen after that, and I had to do detention for two weeks."
"So was it worth it?"
She grinned. "Totally worth it."
"You definitely marched to your own beat, Maddie," he said, popping a piece of toast into his mouth.
"I was actually trying to find my beat. After Dani died, I was lost. Being twins, we were super close. We'd shared literally every moment of our lives together. When she wasn't there anymore, I felt like half of me was missing."
"When did your sister get sick?" He knew a little about Dani's story since the Hellers had belonged to their church, but he didn't remember the details. He hadn't gotten to know Maddie until after her sister died.
"She was eleven when they discovered she had leukemia. She fought really hard for three long years, but it got her in the end. It's a horrible disease. Dani suffered so much, but she had an incredible spirit. She'd never get down for too long, which made it easier for us, for me especially. I used to feel guilty when I'd go to see her and she'd end up making me feel better. I was supposed to be the one cheering her up."
"I'm sure you did."
"She was an amazing person. I wish you could have known her."
He saw the moisture in her eyes, and he put his hand over hers. "You don't have to talk about her."
"No, it's fine. I like to talk about her," she said, squeezing his fingers. "And these days there are not many people in my life who even know I had a sister."
"It sounds like you and Dani were a lot alike," he murmured, thinking how right it felt to have her hand in his.
"In some ways, but not in others. Dani was more responsible than me. She was a little more like you. She liked to plan things out. During her chemo treatments, she would work on what she called her
scrapbook of dreams
. It was a really pretty bucket list, and it was filled with all the things she would do when she got better, when she got older. She'd put in pictures, blogs about places she wanted to see, recipes of things she wanted to cook. She had a whole timeline planned out. We used to spend hours dreaming up adventures, thinking about what the future would hold, what we wanted to do with our lives."
"What did Dani want to be?"
"She wanted to be a nurse. She wanted to take care of kids who were sick like her. It's too bad she never got that chance, because I think she would have helped a lot of people." Maddie paused. "When Dani died, it didn't feel real, and going out into the world was somewhat terrifying. For months, we'd been so isolated in Dani's illness that the outside world barely existed. I was behind in school, because I'd missed so many days, and when I had gone to school, I hadn't cared about learning anything. I just wanted to finish the day so I could get back to Dani. I was angry at anything that took me away from her, and after she passed away, I was angry with the whole damn universe."
He was beginning to understand what had driven Maddie through her rebellious high school years.
"In the end, Dani was the one who pulled me out of the dark sea of grief I was drowning in," Maddie said.
"How did she do that?"
"It was spring of my freshman year. We were being forced to go to all those seminars about planning for college. At the time, the last thing I wanted to worry about was college. One night my dad came into my room with Dani's scrapbook of dreams. He insisted that I open it. I hadn't looked at it since Dani died, and I didn't want to look at it then, but my father was more determined than I'd ever seen him. I told him that the book was filled with her dreams, but he reminded me that my dreams were in that book, too."
She took a breath, then continued. "Dani and I had planned a lot of our adventures together, and one of the first ones was to go to college. At first, Dani wanted to go back East, to an Ivy League school, but as she got sicker, she was always cold. She wanted sun and heat, so we started looking at universities in southern California. San Diego State was perfect—a school by the beach with plenty of sun and lots of parties." She smiled at Burke. "Suddenly, I had a goal. I started studying a little harder. I agreed to let my parents hire a tutor so I could get through algebra."
He smiled. "You might have agreed, but you weren't on board right away."
"I was still fighting against fulfilling dreams that Dani couldn't fulfill, but eventually I gave in and started to embrace my new plan. I would graduate. I would go to San Diego State. I would join a sorority, date a cute boy, play volleyball on the beach and go skinny dipping in the sea."
"You went skinny dipping?" he asked, his brain caught on the sudden image of Maddie running into the sea, her long blonde hair dripping down her naked back.
"I did everything we'd talked about. I had a great four years there. It was like Dani was guiding my way. She was with me on every adventure. It was fun."
"I don't doubt that."
"But I have to say that some of her bucket list ideas were a little out there. I almost didn't do a couple of them."
"Like zip lining across a Costa Rican jungle. That was pretty terrifying."
"But you did it."
"I screamed the whole way."
"And then you wanted to do it again."
She laughed, letting go of his hand as she sat back in her seat. He found himself immediately missing the warmth of her touch.
"You're so right. I did want to do it again. It was exhilarating. Have you ever zip lined?"
"I did it in Hawaii one summer, but it was a tourist attraction and very safe."
"Well, you probably don't need a zip line to get your heart beating, not with the kind of job you do, or used to do."
"Does your pulse leap every time the alarm goes off? Or are you used to it by now?"
"You never get used to it. There is always that moment of excitement and trepidation. When we first arrive on the scene, we never know what we're going to find, what kind of fire we'll encounter, if there will be victims, obstacles, chemicals."