Hooray! YOU FOUND IT! If you’re here, then you must have gotten the bookmark with the special QR code. Here are the first four chapters of BRAVE THE HEAT….I hope you’ll fall in love with Gavin and Jordan’s story….
Amber flames flickered swiftly along the faded walls of the old broken-down barn and lit up the June evening like a macabre bonfire. The heat from it seeped through Gavin’s gear, making him feel as though he was wearing nothing at all. Anger and determination shimmied up his back while he and the men in his squad worked to squelch the intense blaze.
It was burning too hot.
Gavin McGuire had experienced all types of fires during his years on the job, and the ones that moved with this kind of superheated intensity usually had some help.
He’d bet his life that this was no accident.
His face mask was meant to protect him and feed him life-giving oxygen, but it practically smothered him tonight. The sound of his own heavy breathing rushed in his ears, along with the crackling and creaking of the dry wooden planks. The haunting groans of the barn as it was devoured almost sounded like a cry for help. The death wails of a structure engulfed in flames were eerily similar to the cries of a human being. Those were the shrieks and screams that tormented his sleep.
The voices of the past rarely fell silent for long.
Dark memories—the ones that simmered beneath the surface and had driven him to this profession in the first place—threatened to bubble up and consume him. But Gavin stuffed them down. Fear was a self-defeating emotion and not one he could afford, especially while leading his team. These men depended on him to make the right call every time.
There was no room for error.
Sloppy mistakes, foolish choices, or unnecessary risk got people killed.
Dirt and gravel scuffed beneath his heavy boots and he grunted with effort, directing the thick hose and its powerful stream of water onto the flames. It was a beast. Fire was a mindless, insatiable, and relentless creature that consumed anything and everything in its path.
If Gavin didn’t stop it, the monster would keep on coming.
“Chief.” Rick’s voice came through the headset loud and clear, pulling Gavin from his thoughts. “We’ve got it contained, but this old barn ain’t gonna make it. She’s gonna come down.”
“Copy that.” Gavin nodded and focused on the flames that lingered along the western wall of the barn. “Have engine twelve’s pumper keep on top of the surrounding area and continue dousing the field. It was a wet spring, but we don’t want to take any chances. We’ve got four homes on the other side of this property that aren’t empty. Stay on top of her.”
“You got it,” Rick said, his radio cutting out with a crackling snap.
Gavin adjusted his stance and blinked the sweat from his eyes, while steam and smoke drifted up from the almost burned-out building. He moved in closer and continued his unyielding attack on the flames that struggled for life, gasping for air but getting little.
The beast wouldn’t win tonight.
“Pulling the fire alarm not only was foolish, but also put people in danger and wasted everyone’s time,” said Gavin McGuire, the fire chief in Old Brookfield, as he adjusted his heavy fireproof coat, the sweat trickling down his back. “What would have happened if there had been an actual fire in town and we couldn’t reach it in time because we were here dealing with your prank?”
The moment he had pulled into the parking lot, Gavin had known this would be a false alarm, and he went from concerned to angry in a blink. Mrs. Drummond, the principal, was out front with that look on her face, the one that hovered between furious and embarrassed.
The sandy-haired twin brothers shrugged and stared sheepishly at the floor. Dressed in flip-flops, baggy shorts, and graphic T-shirts, they looked like they’d stepped out of an ad for Old Brookfield’s summer tourist industry. Gavin loomed over the high school juniors. They squirmed beneath his inspection, to say nothing of Mrs. Drummond’s intense gaze.
His mind went to the suspicious fire call he’d been out on late last night, and anger shot through him. The arson specialist was supposed to take a look at the site today, but he was busy in a neighboring county and probably wouldn’t get to Old Brookfield until later in the week. Frustration nagged at Gavin. Damn it. These two kids had no idea what they were screwing around with.
The darkness in Gavin—the part that drove him into burning buildings without a second thought—demanded that the pair of mischief-makers be taught a lesson. He knew that suspending them wouldn’t do much good. Hell, they’d probably spend the day playing Xbox. But a couple days working around the station might make them think twice before pulling a stupid stunt like this again.
“I’m sure Mrs. Drummond has plenty of ideas about how to punish you for this incident.” Gavin cleared his throat and squashed the voice of the teenage boy in his head. The one that said they were just boys being boys. Bullshit. He stuffed down the flicker of sympathy. Kids or not, this crap wasn’t funny. “But in case she’s not feeling particularly creative, I’d like to offer up a weekend of cleaning the engine and the ladder truck. And we could use help reorganizing some gear at the station house.”
“Aw, man,” Robert moaned. “It’s gonna be gorgeous out this weekend and school’s over next week. Jeez. We were gonna take out the new boat.”
“I could suspend you,” Mrs. Drummond said in a deceptively sweet voice. “But given that school is almost over, I’m willing to make an exception. I’m sure your parents would be less than pleased with an end-of-the-year suspension on your records, to say nothing of the colleges you’ll be applying to. Although, if you were to volunteer to help out at the firehouse for community service hours, well, then I imagine they’d be quite proud. Wouldn’t they?”
She folded her arms over her plump torso and smirked wickedly. Her hair, once jet-black and now streaked with white, was styled in her trademark bob haircut. The ends swung by her chin and framed her round face as she peered at the twins.
“Your choice, gentlemen.”
“Okay,” David said quietly. “We’ll take the community service hours.”
“Dude?” Robert whined and threw up his hands in defeat. “What the—”
“Shut up, Robert.” David elbowed his brother. Robert slumped back in the bench and mumbled something under his breath. David turned to Gavin. “We wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt. Y’know? We were just screwing around. I’m sorry.”
“Me too,” Robert said in a practically inaudible tone. He lifted one shoulder as his cheeks pinked with embarrassment. The kid stared at his flip-flops again. “Sorry.”
After finalizing what time the boys would show up on Saturday morning, Mrs. Drummond escorted Gavin out of the main office. They started walking down the long hallway, and when they passed the brown bench outside the office, Gavin recalled sitting there more than once awaiting a lecture of his own. A funny feeling of nostalgia tugged at him. He didn’t consider himself a sappy guy or nostalgic.
He found looking back on his past too painful, for more reasons than one. No, it was better to look forward and keep moving. But walking through these familiar halls made it next to impossible for him not to look back and remember. The pale yellow walls were decorated with various construction-paper concoctions, everything from fire trucks to families, and Gavin couldn’t help but smile.
Even after all these years, the kindergarten-through-twelfth-grade school still felt like his second home.
“It’s all still so familiar, isn’t it?” Mrs. Drummond said. “Red construction-paper roses and haphazard clouds painted with pudgy little hands. You and your brothers had plenty of artwork up on this wall over the years. You McGuire boys left your mark on this school in more ways than one. Everything from football heroes to the occasional graffiti incidents.”
“True.” Gavin wiped sweat from his brow. “If memory serves, we volunteered for plenty of community service hours of our own.”
“Yes, well. There were five of you. I only have one boy, and he’s responsible for every one of my gray hairs. Five boys,” she said almost reverently. “I still don’t know how your mother did it.”
“Neither do I. If you were to ask her, I think she’d tell you it was a combination of luck and love.” Gavin nodded. “She and my dad sure do have plenty of both.”
His parents had been married for almost forty years, and he still caught them kissing in the kitchen. Usually he’d tease them and tell them how grossed out he was, but truth be told, a part of him was envious. Envious that they’d found someone to love so completely.
A partner and friend to share their lives with.
Years ago, Gavin had thought he’d have that, but after getting his heart stomped on, he realized what his parents had was rare and probably not something he’d ever experience. The station was his home, and the guys on his squad were his extended family.
Brothers in arms, if not by blood.
“They have a big anniversary coming up, don’t they?”
“Yes, ma’am. Forty years, and between you and me, I don’t know how they did it either. They’re a special couple. I haven’t met many other people who have what they do.”
“Your mom told me the same thing the other day at bingo—luck and love.” Mrs. Drummond waved at a pair of pigtailed little girls as they quietly headed toward the lavatory. One of them clutched a giant wooden pass with GIRLS emblazoned on it. “That statement was quickly followed by her complaint that not one of you boys has gotten married and given her any grandchildren.”
“Right.” Gavin removed his helmet and swiped a hand over his sweaty head while avoiding the principal’s inquisitive stare. “Well, not all of us can be as lucky in love as my parents.”
“I guess you’re right.” Mrs. Drummond sighed heavily as an awkward silence settled between them. “They are lucky indeed. My Homer and I had twenty-five good years before he passed. Can’t complain though. I have a wonderful son, to say nothing of the six hundred children in this building.”
They stopped by the glass double doors that led into the vestibule at the main entrance of the school as the end-of-the-day announcements echoed through the halls on the PA system. A bake sale flyer dangled precariously from the glass window of the door, and Gavin taped it back up before it could go fluttering to the ground.
“We good to go?” Rick’s voice crackled from the radio on Gavin’s belt and his lieutenant sounded less than enthusiastic.
Rick leaned against the gleaming red-and-silver engine in the hurry-up-and-wait mode that all firefighters were accustomed to. They were in an all-or-nothing business but always had to stay on their toes. Gavin waved at him and snagged the radio from his own belt.
“We’re all clear, Rick. You and Bill take the engine back to the station, and I’ll see you in ten.”
“Ten-four.” Rick’s voice came through loud and clear as he climbed into the engine. “Don’t forget you’re cooking tonight—unfortunately. Which of your three delights will we be graced with?”
“Keep it up and I’ll make ’em all.” Gavin secured the radio back on his belt but didn’t miss the expression of amusement on Mrs. Drummond’s face. “I guess I shouldn’t have cut so many of Mrs. Beasley’s home ec. classes, huh?”
“Yes, if only you could have glimpsed your future, perhaps you would have picked up four or five recipes. After all, don’t you boys do a lot of cooking at the station?” she teased.
“Yes, ma’am, but lucky for me, the guys aren’t too picky.”
“Your mother is such a fine cook, I can’t believe you didn’t learn a thing or two.”
“She tried to teach me, but cooking never was my thing.” Gavin tapped his fingers on the helmet as he slung it under his arm. “Every time my mother comes out to my cottage, she rummages through the fridge and makes sounds of disgust. I only cook three different meals and the guys are sick of them. I’m a bachelor to the core.”
“You see?” Mrs. Drummond patted his cheek quickly. “That’s where you and I disagree.” She winked at him and lowered her voice to conspiratorial levels. “I think if anyone was meant to be a husband and a father, it’s you, Gavin. You’re protective by nature and looked out for your brothers ferociously,” she said through a chuckle. “And you’re from one of the most close-knit families I’ve had the pleasure to know. Sounds like husband and father material to me.”
“Me?” Clearing his throat, Gavin shook his head slowly.“Marriage and kids aren’t in the cards for me. Besides, the guys at the station can be immature enough to count as kids, and I work so much that you could probably say I’m married to the job. No, ma’am. I think that ship has sailed.”
“Mmm-hmm.” She folded her hands in front of her “That ship wouldn’t have been named Jordan Yardley, by any chance, would it? You two were caught under the bleachers by the football coach on more than one occasion.”
At the mention of Jordan’s name, a deep, hollow ache he’d all but forgotten bloomed in Gavin’s chest. Mrs. Drummond had inadvertently unearthed more pain from his past. Gavin shifted his weight as memories of Jordan flickered through his mind. More memories that he’d worked hard to forget, to shove aside as though they’d never happened. Why think about bittersweet moments from his youth when they would have no bearing on his future?
Yet in spite of his silent denials, images of Jordan filled his mind and memories of her fresh scent—lilacs and Ivory soap—lingered in his senses like a ghost. Haunting him with her sweet beauty. Sun-kissed skin; a lean, lanky body; honey-blond hair to her shoulders; and a toothy, white smile that could blind a man.
At least, that’s what she looked like the last time he saw her—fifteen years ago.
“That’s ancient history.” His face heated and he cleared his throat, hoping Mrs. Drummond wouldn’t see right through him. “Besides, she’s married to some big Wall Street fat cat now. At least that’s what my mother told me,” Gavin said with a dismissive wave. On the outside he was playing it cool, but his gut was twisted in knots. Mrs. Drummond had hit the nail on the damn head. “Has a couple of kids too, I think. Girls. Maddy mentioned something about it,” he added.
Maddy was the only friend Jordan had stayed in touch with and consequently Gavin’s only connection to her. He used to think about Jordan all the time, but as the years passed, his thoughts of her lessened in frequency if not intensity. Would Mrs. Drummond buy the act he was putting on and think that he didn’t gobble up every crumb of information he could get?
One night a few years ago, after one too many beers, he’d even contemplated getting one of those stupid Facebook accounts to see if he could find her, but that seemed creepy and he’d let the idea go.
Best to leave the past in the past.
“Yes.” Mrs. Drummond nodded slowly. “Two girls. Seven and five.”
“Besides, I’m too set in my ways,” he said quickly. “And in case you hadn’t noticed, the dating scene around here isn’t exactly hopping.”
“Fair enough.” Casting a quick glance out the windows, her grin broadened. “Looks like my next appointment is here. It’s been good seeing you, Gavin, though I’m sorry about the reason. Now, you make sure those two Heffernan boys do some real work at the station this weekend.”
She patted him on the arm and headed back toward her office.
“Yes, ma’am.” He stood taller and adjusted his jacket. “I’ll see to it.”
“And, Gavin?” She stopped outside the main office door and shouted back, “Don’t get too set in your ways. You never know what might be right around the corner.”
Principal Drummond’s round form disappeared into her office, leaving him alone in the hallway that had once seemed so much longer.
Gavin stepped out into the warm sunshine and exhaled slowly. All this talk about Jordan had him feeling tense and off his game. The flag on the massive white pole fluttered in the June breeze. The tall, white steeple of St. Joseph’s Church and a few buildings from town peeked out from amid the trees, which were capped by a cloudless azure sky. Old Brookfield was a perfect New England hamlet, and Gavin had nothing but appreciation for his hometown.
Turning his face to the early summer sky, he stood on the paved walkway and allowed the warmth of the afternoon sun to wash over him. A balmy breeze wafted past, and with it came the salty ocean air. The school was a couple of miles from the shore, but even at this distance he could smell the sweet scent of freedom.
The warmer weather meant getting outdoors, and there was nothing Gavin hated more than being cooped up inside. Jordan used to say that she thought he was part dolphin because of the amount of time he spent in the water. She probably wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to hear he’d moved into the cottage on his parents’ property.
He had to be a glutton for punishment. The first thing he saw every damn morning was that freaking lighthouse. Their lighthouse.
The sound of a school bus engine rumbling as it turned into the school’s long, curved driveway pulled him from his memories. He let out a sound of frustration. Would he ever be able to forget and move on? He’d dated other women and slept with his share, but none of them had ever compared to her.
But what did it matter? She was gone. She had a husband, two kids, and a life that didn’t include him. Hell, his didn’t include her either. His job left little time for dating, and work was a lot more straightforward than romance or matters of the heart.
Fire might be tricky and unpredictable, but at least he knew how to put it out. He couldn’t say the same thing about love or a broken heart. That kind of beating stuck with you and stung like hell, and as far as he was concerned, it was not for him.
Feeling foolish for allowing himself to dwell on days gone by, Gavin rolled his shoulder and tried to shake off the uncomfortable feelings. He opened his eyes as the school bus pulled past him. He had to quit dragging his feet and get his ass back to the station.
He headed toward his four-wheel drive, the only car in the lot with red sirens on top. The town had offered to buy him a new vehicle when he was promoted to chief, but he was happy with his old Explorer from his volunteer days. He’d taken good care of it over the years and the damn thing still purred like a kitten. Why waste taxpayer dollars on something he didn’t really need?
As the tail end of the yellow behemoth went by and its puff of exhaust dissipated, Gavin came face-to-face with his past.
He stopped dead in his tracks. The years vanished. Gavin found himself staring into a pair of familiar brown eyes. Long, blond hair with golden honey-colored streaks drifted over her slim, tanned shoulders, and a yellow sundress fluttered around her legs. An ache bloomed in Gavin’s chest as those full pink lips curved into that devastatingly beautiful, familiar smile.
It was like getting a punch in the gut and having the wind knocked out of him.
In that moment, he wasn’t the fire chief of Old Brookfield. He was an eighteen-year-old kid looking at the girl who had stolen his heart…and broken it.
“Hello, Gavin.” The musical lilt of her voice wafted over him like cool mist and willed him closer, but he held his ground. Her eyes crinkled at the corners as her smile widened slowly, almost tentatively. It still blinded him. “I—it’s been a long time.”
“Jordan?” He licked his suddenly dry lips and squinted. Was he really seeing what he thought he was seeing? A million questions, peppered with angry accusations, filled his head. She looked exactly the same as she had fifteen years ago, still so strikingly and effortlessly beautiful. “When did you—?”
Before he could utter a word, a flurry of movement caught his attention and the present came crashing back with a vengeance. Two adorable little blond girls clung to Jordan’s skirt, one on either side of her. They had Jordan’s fair hair and her big, brown eyes—eyes that peered at him with more than a little trepidation.
The older one on Jordan’s right was casting a suspicious look Gavin’s way. “Where’s your truck?” she asked. “Why don’t you have a truck?”
“Lily, don’t be rude.” Jordan gently wrapped her arm around her daughter reassuringly. “He has one right over there.” She nodded toward his four-wheel drive. “See? It has the lights on top.”
“That’s not a fire truck, Mama. That’s a regular one that regular people drive.” Pursing her lips together, Lily looked over her shoulder at his truck and then back to Gavin. Squinting against the glare of the sun, she swiped a long strand of hair out of her eyes. She pointed at him. “You’re a fireman, aren’t you? So where’s your truck?”
“Yes.” Gavin found himself hopelessly charmed by the brazen questions from the curious little girl. He caught Jordan’s eye, but she quickly turned her attention back to her daughter. “I’m a fireman.”
Jordan and the girls stepped onto the sidewalk as she gathered their tiny hands in hers. He sensed hesitance from all three of them, but as always Jordan forged ahead. She hadn’t changed a bit. Stubborn and strong willed in spite of the awkward situation.
“Lily, is it?” Gavin slowly closed the distance between them before squatting down so he was eye to eye with Jordan’s girls. “Lily, you are absolutely right. I am a fireman, but I don’t have the engine here. It’s back at the station, which is where I have to be going. I was at home when the call came in, so I drove here in my regular truck. I don’t keep the engine at my house.” He lowered his voice to a conspiratorial whisper and winked. “Wouldn’t fit in my driveway.”
Lily giggled and flashed him a wide, gap-toothed grin before once again clinging to her mother. Gavin tapped his fingers on the helmet he held between his hands and rose to his feet. The instant Jordan’s soulful brown eyes clapped onto his, his stomach dropped to his feet. Had it really been fifteen years?
There was so much he wanted to say, but he had no damn idea where to begin, and based on her expression, neither did she. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to shake her and scream at her or hug her and kiss the life out of her.
Silence hung between them for a few more uncomfortable seconds before Jordan finally took the leap.
“Girls, this is an old friend of mine, Gavin McGuire.” Gentleness edged her voice. “He’s the fire chief here in Old Brookfield.”
Gavin stilled. She knew about his promotion to chief? What else did she know? Did she know he had spent countless nights dreaming about her and wondering why the hell she left town without a word? Why she’d left him.
“Nice to meet you,” Lily said sweetly. She grabbed the skirt of her floral sundress and curtsied for him in an adorable old-world gesture. “I’m Lily Ann McKenna, and that’s my little sister, Grace Marie McKenna, but she won’t talk to you ’cause you’re a stranger.”
“Well, it’s real nice to meet you, Lily and Grace. I’m Gavin, and now that we’ve been introduced, we’re not strangers anymore, right?” He smiled at the smaller one who quickly hid her face in the fabric of Jordan’s dress. He looked at Jordan and quietly said, “We’re not strangers at all, are we, Mrs. McKenna?”
Jordan opened her mouth as if she was going to say something, but quickly shut it again and shook her head. The gesture was shockingly familiar. She used to do it all the time when they were kids, like she was silently scolding herself for whatever she was going to spit out. Then she’d decide against it and say nothing. It was a habit she’d picked up from living with her old man. He was a mean, old son of a bitch, and Gavin had gotten into it with the guy on more than one occasion.
“My father’s been sick.”
“Right.” Gavin nodded. The guy had been sick in the head for years, and his body was finally catching up. He’d heard that the old bastard was in a bad way; couldn’t happen to a nicer guy. “Maddy told me.”
She nibbled her lower lip and sucked in her breath, as though debating what to say next. Just like she used to do when they were kids. The last two months of their senior year, he’d known she was holding something back, hiding it from him. She was constantly censoring what she told him until it was too late.
“Where’s the rest of the family?” Gavin looked around the parking lot, apprehension crawling up his back. “I’d sure like to meet the man who kept you away from Old Brookfield all these years.”
“He’s in New York,” Jordan said quickly. “In the city. Working.”
Gavin stilled. There was something about the way Jordan cut off her daughter that gave him pause. Maybe life with What’s-his-face was wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Just as well. Bumping into Jordan and her daughters was tough enough, but seeing the lucky son of a bitch who married her would be more than he could handle at the moment. He was keeping his cool so far, but meeting Mr. McKenna would probably push Gavin over the edge of cool and into “holy crap, this sucks” territory.
“Well, I heard he’s quite a guy,” Gavin said in an overly polite tone. “Big money man from Wall Street, if I’m not mistaken?”
Those dark eyes of hers grew stormy. They narrowed, and she met his challenging stare with one of her own. Fury settled over her as her jaw set and her shoulders squared, ready for a fight. In that moment, Gavin saw the feisty girl he’d fallen in love with. The one who got right back on a horse she’d been thrown from, determined to keep going at any cost. Nothing had ever stopped Jordan when she set her mind to something. Her tenacity was one of the qualities he loved most. She was as stubborn as she was beautiful, and obviously nothing had changed.
“Yes, quite a guy,” she said in a barely audible tone. “Listen, it’s been nice bumping into you like this, and I’d love to catch up, but the girls and I have to go see Principal Drummond.” She took the girls by the hands and headed toward the doors of the school. “Excuse me or we’re going to be late.”
Gavin’s gut clenched as he finally realized why Jordan was here at the school with the girls. He gripped his helmet tighter but remained calm on the surface. Hope, mixed with a healthy amount of fear, glimmered in the back of his mind.
“So you’re not only here for a visit?”
“No.” Jordan stopped in the open doorway, and time seemed to stretch on forever. So many unspoken words floated between them that Gavin practically drowned in the swell. “We’re home.”
The three vanished into the brick building. The sun flashed off the glass as the doors clanked shut behind them, and Gavin squinted to block out the light. Walking back to his truck, he shed his heavy fireproof coat and let the cold, hard reality of the situation settle over him like a lead blanket. Jordan, her daughters, and by all accounts, Jordan’s husband were moving back to town.
They would be here every single day reminding Gavin of what could have been…but wasn’t.
Jordan pulled to a stop in front of Mrs. Morgan’s flower shop. In the rearview mirror, she glimpsed the peaceful, sleeping faces of her daughters. The girls had dozed off almost the second they pulled out of the school parking lot. Given the past couple of days, Jordan couldn’t blame them. She was pretty damn tired herself.
Letting out a sigh, she stared at the lovely, little storefront without really seeing it. Who was she kidding? She hadn’t really seen a damn thing since running into Gavin in front of the school two hours ago. That moment, the one she’d dreaded for fifteen years, had finally happened—and it had been like an out-of-body experience.
For a split second, she’d had the urge to run up to him and jump into his arms. To bury her face in the crook of his neck and breathe him in, to inhale the scent of soap and firewood that was so distinctly his. All these years later she could still smell it if she closed her eyes. But when she saw that hurt, hard look on his face, Jordan had known it was too late. The damage had been done and there was no undoing it. She was the one who had run off, so how could she blame him for finding solace in the arms of someone else?
A few days after she’d left all those years ago, Jordan had finally broken down and called her friend Suzanne only to find out that Gavin had already taken up with Missy Oakland. That horrid, bitchy girl had been chasing him all through high school, and apparently Gavin wasn’t as uninterested as he always claimed he was. When Jordan heard that, the last thing she was going to do was come home. So she stayed in the city. Got a waitressing job and eventually a crappy apartment that was one step above the youth hostel she’d stayed in at first.
In her fantasies, the ones she let herself play out while falling asleep at night, she imagined Gavin pulling her into his arms and covering her mouth with his. Offering forgiveness without asking her for an explanation, even though he clearly deserved one. Telling her how sorry he was for betraying her and asking her if they could start over.
No. It was too late for apologies now.
The real moment—the one she’d survived and by some miracle hadn’t vomited in the middle of—had been far less romantic than her fantasy. She hadn’t been welcomed home by a boy who loved her, but by a man who was still painfully angry after all these years. Not even that charming, dimpled grin, the one that awakened a swarm of butterflies in her belly, could hide the hurt that edged his pale green eyes.
His thick, dark hair had been cut short and there was a whisper of gray at the temples now. That ruggedly handsome face had grown even more attractive with the years that had passed, but when his square jaw set and the smile faded, the hurt remained. And that pain she saw in his eyes, that was on her. It was one hundred percent her own damn fault.
It was no surprise that Gavin was still angry, both that she’d left town without a word to him or anyone else, and that she’d never come back. He wasn’t alone. She was pretty pissed off herself and easily recalled the pain of his betrayal. After all, she’d only been gone for a few days and apparently Gavin started screwing the first girl he could!
Nice. So much for true love, Jordan thought.
He’d obviously never really loved her, so why the hell was he so angry with her? Jeez.
Jordan scoffed and tapped the steering wheel with her fingers. Right. Fine. He could be furious with her, but he sure as hell hadn’t cornered the market on it. She was still pretty annoyed herself.
Eyes closed, she let the cool breeze of the air-conditioning wash over her, wishing it could wash away the mistakes she’d made. There had been so many.
That was the first time she’d run away.
Now here she was, fifteen years later, doing the same thing. Running. Starting over. Jordan looked over her shoulder at her sleeping daughters and fought the tears that threatened to fall. It wasn’t only about her anymore. They were all starting over.
Letting out a huff, she rested her forehead on knuckles wrapped in a death grip around the leather-bound steering wheel. What in the world was she doing back here anyway? Even when she was signing the rental papers for the cozy house on the beach, that voice in the back of her mind had questioned her decision. She had plenty of money from the divorce settlement; she could have gone anywhere. No matter what scenarios she ran through her head, she always came back to Old Brookfield…to Gavin.
A knock on the driver’s side window pulled her from her thoughts and had her yelping out loud. Hand to her chest, she snapped her head toward the window and came face-to-face with Maddy Morgan. Maddy, her oldest and dearest friend, grinned and waved like the bubbly, beautiful woman she’d always been. The familiarity of it made Jordan’s heart ache.
Putting a finger to her lips, Jordan pointed a thumb toward the backseat, praying the girls wouldn’t be woken up. They might need the sleep, but Jordan needed the quiet. Without making a sound, she got out of the car and closed the door. She’d barely turned around when Maddy gathered her up in one of the giggly, bouncy hugs that Jordan loved and had missed so much. Dressed in her signature casual style—a tank top, shorts, and flip-flops—her old friend was a sight for sore eyes.
“I can’t believe you’re really back,” Maddy said through an excited laugh. She pulled back and squeezed Jordan’s arms before releasing her with a playful huff. Pushing her sunglasses onto her head, she pursed her lips. “How the hell is it possible that you still look like you did in high school?”
“Hardly.” Jordan folded her arms over her breasts. “Actually, I didn’t think it was possible to feel this old. My poor daughters have an old woman for a mother and a son of a bitch for a father.”
“They have you and that’s what matters.” A warm breeze fluttered over them, making Maddy’s curly, dark hair whip around her head. Her light blue eyes flicked to the girls and her smile widened. “Did you get all settled in at the house? I left something for the girls in their bedroom.”
“Yes.” Jordan nodded, recalling the giddy expressions on their faces when they found the two baskets full of beach toys waiting for them in the pretty pink-and-white bedroom. “You must have spent a fortune on those. Do you always blow part of your rental commission on gifts for your clients’ kids?”
“You’re more than a client and you know it.” Maddy winked. “We’ve known each other for twenty years. Hell, when I moved to town in ninth grade, you were the only girl who would even talk to me.”
“Some friend.” Jordan’s throat tightened with emotion. “You’re the one who kept our friendship going.”
“Hey, life happens.” Maddy shrugged. “Neither of us is on Assbook or tweeting or whatever people do, so we weren’t gonna find each other that way, and I was still in Europe on exchange when you split. When I got home and heard you’d left, I tried asking your mom and dad where you were, but that went down like a fart in church. Thanks to my persevering nature and the handy-dandy Internet, I found you and here we are.”
“What would I do without you?” Jordan asked quietly. Her voice dropped to a whisper. “I honestly don’t know if I would have had the courage to leave Ted if it weren’t for you.”
“Stop.” Maddy grabbed both of Jordan’s hands.
Those fierce blue eyes were edged with the familiar grit and fortitude Maddy had always possessed. Those qualities made her a devoted friend and a fierce businesswoman. Between the flower shop she’d inherited from her mother and her real estate company, Maddy had become one of the wealthiest women in town. And despite the time that had passed, the second Jordan had reconnected with Maddy, it was like no time had gone by at all. They picked up right where they left off.
“Jordan, you stop that crap right there. We’ve already been through this, girl. I love you. You’re my friend and I’ve always got your back. You’re home and that’s what matters.”
“I sure am,” Jordan said through a nervous laugh.
“What are you doing here in town anyway? Not that I’m not thrilled to see you, but I figured you’d still be settling in at the house.”
“When we spoke on the phone the other day, you mentioned that you could use some help at the shop.” Jutting a thumb toward the store, Jordan sucked in a deep breath. “I could use a job, and you could use some help.”
“Oh my God!” Maddy clapped her hands together and pumped her fists in the air while she hooted loudly. Jordan giggled when an older couple passing on the sidewalk looked at them sideways. “Yes! I would love it. Cookie and Veronica have been going balls to the wall since March, and we desperately need someone to help man the counter. Between weddings, communions, prom, and all that other stuff, they’re going nuts. Hell, I would have asked but I figured you didn’t need the dough.”
Jordan hated talking about money; the subject made her incredibly uncomfortable. She never had any growing up, and then when she married Ted, she had more than she could have dreamed of. She’d quickly found that it didn’t fix everything. Not by a long shot.
“I don’t really. I mean, I get child support and I got half of the proceeds from the sale of the penthouse, plus a lump sum. I didn’t want alimony, even though my attorney told me I was an idiot for that decision. Anyway, the girls are going to be in camp all summer, and the last thing I need is to sit around with time on my hands.” Images of Gavin wafted through her mind. “I could work weekdays and—”
“Say no more.” Maddy held up one hand, stopping Jordan’s babbling. “You don’t have to explain yourself to me. The job is yours. How does Monday through Friday, nine to five, sound? Twelve bucks an hour? Do you need health benefits?”
“No, I have insurance for the girls and me. That’s perfect, Maddy. You really are a lifesaver. It will be so great to work again and really be on my own two feet. Ted never wanted me to work.” Her back straightened as she recalled his controlling nature. “Anyway, I’m on my own now and work will be good for me.”
“You’re free of that asshole, so I say, work all ya want. And for the record, it’s a good thing I never met him because I’d probably have punched him square in the jaw. I was thrilled when you told me you were leaving him, and when you called me about renting the cottage, it was a bonus. But I’ll be honest…I am sick about the reason. Ted sounds like a real SOB.”
“He’s something, alright,” Jordan scoffed. “Between his temper, the drinking, the drugs, and the other women—”
“Being abused isn’t limited to physical violence,” Maddy interjected firmly.
“I know.” Jordan sighed. Tears stung her eyes. She leaned back against the car and folded her arms over her chest, trying her damnedest to hold it together. “That’s why I left him. Thank God I have full custody and there were no limitations on where we could move. Ted signed off on it without blinking.” Her mouth set in a tight line and her voice was barely above a whisper. “Do you know he hasn’t seen the girls in six months? He’s barely spoken to them. Most times when I have them call him, he doesn’t even pick up or he rushes them off the phone.”
“What?” Maddy’s jaw fell open. “But you left the city this week. I thought you said you had an apartment not far from where you used to live with him.”
“I did, but it was always something with him, even when we were married. A meeting would come up or he would have some important client to tend to. Another bar to visit and another hooker to bang.” Jordan nibbled her lower lip and bit back the tears. But they weren’t for her; they were for her daughters who’d been robbed of a father. “I think the girls and I, the family, we were part of his image. So when I filed for divorce, that image was blown. We weren’t of any more use to him.”
“I’m so sorry, Jordan.” Maddy’s tone softened. “I didn’t know it was that bad.”
“How could you?” Jordan grabbed her friend’s hand and squeezed. “I had cut myself off from everyone. I was determined to make it on my own and then…well, so much time had passed, it felt like it was too late. When you and I actually had time to talk on the phone over the past couple of years, the last subject I wanted to bring up was my sham of a marriage.” She pressed at her eyes with the heels of her hands.
“It’s ironic, isn’t it? I ran away to escape my father, and I ended up marrying a man exactly like him. How pathetic. Ted may have more money than my father and look like a polished tycoon, but at the core he’s a mean, controlling, and nasty drunk too.” Pushing herself off the car, she sucked in a deep breath and squared her shoulders. “I stayed as long as I did because I didn’t want my daughters to come from a broken home.”
“What made you change your mind?” Maddy asked gently. “Why now?”
“Girl, this is a conversation that requires a bottle of wine and a couple of chairs on the beach.” She squeezed Maddy’s hand. “For now, let’s just say that it’s better to come from a broken home than live in one.”
“Ain’t that the truth?” Maddy murmured. “And I’m taking you up on that bottle of wine offer. You, me, and a bottle of wine on your deck. Deal?”
“I’ll bring the wine.” Maddy gathered her up in another hug and kissed her cheek. “You tell me when.”
“Hey, Jordan.” The gentle, hesitant tenor interrupted their conversation, and Jordan knew who it was before she even saw the man on the sidewalk. “When did you get back to town?”
Tommy Miller appeared much like he did in high school, and the sight of him was no less heartbreaking now than it was then. He was dressed in a dark gray uniform with his name stitched neatly on the front. His slightly stooped frame had filled out a bit over the years and his blond hair had thinned out to a dusty gray, but the burn scars that marred the right side of his face remained the same. They were a gruesome reminder of that fateful day from their childhood, one that haunted everyone in town, but Tommy and Gavin more than anyone else.
“Hi, Tommy. It’s so good to see you again.”
Jordan stepped onto the sidewalk with a wide smile. She gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek, and the poor guy almost dropped the two grocery bags in his arms. She stepped away and tried to help him secure the bag slipping from his right arm, the side that that had been weakened and scarred in the fire.
“Sorry,” Jordan said quickly. “I guess I was so excited to see you that I almost knocked the bags down.”
“That’s okay.” Tommy dipped his head and stepped back, obviously not wanting Jordan’s help. “I can manage.”
“Of course.” Jordan gave Maddy a sidelong glance. “Sorry.”
“Hey there, Tommy,” Maddy said with a wave.
“You back home to see your dad?” Tommy asked. He flicked his good eye up to Jordan before looking down at the ground again. Jordan’s heart broke. He was so self-conscious after all this time. “Or are ya here for good? I-I thought I saw you at the school today.”
“Yeah.” He adjusted the bags in his arms, and even though Jordan wanted to offer to take one for him, she resisted. “I’m the head custodian over there. I been workin’ there since we graduated, but last year I got promoted.” He stood a little taller. A hint of a smile played at his lips. “Anyway, I thought I saw you there today coming out of the principal’s office.”
“Of course. I think Principal Drummond mentioned that during our tour of the school. And, yes, we’re back for good. The girls and I are renting the Sweeneys’ old place out on Shore Road. I’d love for you to meet them, but they’re sleeping at the moment.”
“That’s okay.” Tommy lifted one shoulder and shuffled his feet. “I don’t wanna wake ’em up. I’m sure I’ll see ’em in the fall once school starts again.”
“Actually, if you work at the school, then you’ll see them all summer. They’ll be attending camp there.” Jordan squeezed his shoulder briefly. “It’ll make me feel better to know I have a friend there to keep an extra eye on them.”
“You bet.” Tommy’s grin widened. “It’s real good to have you back in town, Jordan.”
The sudden rumbling of an engine shattered the quiet of Main Street, and Jordan’s gut tightened at the sound of it. She didn’t have to turn around to know it was the town’s fire truck pulling around the corner and into the station on the other side of the street. Maddy inched closer and elbowed her in the ribs.
“See anyone else since you’ve been back?” Maddy asked, her dark brows waggling in an almost comical flurry. “Eh, Jordan?”
Gavin. Jordan swallowed the sudden lump in her throat and willed herself not to turn around. She folded her arms over her breasts while digging her fingernails into her palm so hard she’d probably draw blood.
“Well, I gotta go.” Tommy dipped his head in an abrupt good-bye and hurried away and around the corner. “See ya, Jordan.”
Tommy’s shuffling form vanished, and the warning beeps from the backing-up fire truck filled the air. Jordan stepped off the sidewalk and leaned down to peek in the window and check on the girls. Both were still sleeping. Thank God. She leaned back against the hot surface of the car and kept her back to the firehouse. Gawking at Gavin might be an intriguing and tempting idea, but it certainly wasn’t a smart one.
Maddy moved in next to Jordan and leaned on the top of the car, waving her arm furiously. “Hey, Gavin!”
“You are incorrigible.”
Jordan swatted at her friend’s waving hand and glanced at the firehouse before she could stop herself. Gavin and another man were standing by the front of the red and silver truck. Her entire body stilled and all the hairs on her arms stood on end. Even at this distance, one look from him made her belly quiver. Gavin waved back and Jordan got caught ogling him. Damn it. She spun around and pushed her hair off her face, wishing she could smooth her nerves as easily.
“And, yes, before you start the inquisition, I bumped into him at the school when I went to register the girls for the fall.”
“What?” Maddy gave her friend the stink eye. “You mean to tell me you’ve been standing here talkin’ to me all this time, and you failed to mention that you bumped into Gavin McGuire—the oldest of the five hottest brothers God ever put on this earth? Not to mention your first love. How did he react?”
“To say he was surprised to see me is an understatement.” She fought the urge to look back at the firehouse again. “It was a surprise for both of us.”
“Well, you did tell me not to say anything to anyone about you renting the Sweeneys’ place.”
“You didn’t even tell Rick?” Jordan asked with genuine surprise. Rick was Maddy’s longtime lover and one of the full-time firefighters in Old Brookfield. “I’m impressed.”
“Not exactly.” Maddy pursed her lips. “He overheard me on the phone with you, but I swore him to secrecy. If he ever wants to get laid again, he’ll keep his lips zipped. I told him he couldn’t say anything unless Gavin asked him about you directly. So? What happened?” Her expression twisting into a mask of anticipation. “Was it weird or awesome? Or weirdly awesome?”
“Let’s just say I don’t think Gavin will be asking me out for dinner anytime soon.” Jordan lifted one shoulder and kept her voice light. “We dated a long time ago and we were kids, Maddy. Whatever. He has his life and I have mine.”
“Yeah, well, now your life and his life are back in the same little town. Something tells me that old sparks might fly again.”
“No.” Jordan shook her head adamantly. “No romance. No relationships—and definitely not with Gavin. There’s too much history there, and aside from all of that, I need to focus on my daughters. I want to show them that a woman can stand on her own two feet. For goodness’ sake, their father has tossed them aside like they mean nothing to him. The last thing my girls need is for their mother to bring another man into their lives. None of us needs that kind of risk right now.”
“Gavin isn’t just any man.”
“All the more reason I should steer clear.”
“Mmm-hmm. Sounds to me like this also needs to be discussed over that bottle of wine…or two.” Maddy made sound of disbelief and started digging around in her enormous messenger bag. Pulling a huge chunk of keys from within, she hooted with delight. “Damn if this bag isn’t like a giant black hole. I am constantly losing shit in here. Like I said, wine and girl talk soon—and that most definitely includes chatting about Captain Hotty Pants McGuire.”
“Right.” Jordan quickly changed the subject and forced a smile. “So when should I report to work, boss?”
“Why don’t you take this week to get settled with the girls at the cottage? You can start next Monday morning.”
“Great.” Jordan nodded and fought the urge to turn around and see if Gavin was still outside. “The girls start camp then, so it’s perfect timing.”
Jordan kissed Maddy good-bye and slipped quietly back into the cool air of the car. She put her sunglasses on and waved before backing out of the space. She tried not to look over at the firehouse as she approached it, but the attempt failed miserably. The instant she pulled past the fire truck, Gavin’s tall, broad-shouldered form came into view.
He was hosing off the side of the truck, free of his gear and wearing only his summer uniform of a navy-blue T-shirt and shorts. His tall, muscular build was on full display. Jeez. The guy still had great legs—long, well defined, and strong. Some men had huge torsos and scrawny legs, but not Gavin. Oh no. He was perfectly balanced and didn’t look like he had an ounce of fat on him anywhere.
She looked back at the road in time to see the light turn red.
Jordan cursed under her breath. She was stopped directly in front of the firehouse driveway—and Gavin. Feeling him stare at her, she gripped the steering wheel tighter with both hands. Just keep looking straight ahead. Don’t look. Don’t look. Don’t do it. But even as the words flickered through her mind, her head was turning. A moment later she was met with those serious green eyes framed with dark lashes.
Sweet Mary, he was gorgeous. He’d filled out over the years, matured. The lanky body of a boy had been replaced with the sturdy, well-defined form of a man. There were dashes of gray in his hair. It was more than that though. Much more. Gavin’s inherent sweetness, the gooey center beneath that tough exterior, had been evident when he’d met her girls earlier. That tenderness had made her fall head over heels for him all those years ago.
When Lily grilled him back at the school, the guy didn’t miss a beat and squatted down, getting eye to eye with her precocious daughter. However, when he’d risen to his feet and met Jordan’s gaze, his green eyes had hardened. They were shadowed from all he’d seen over the years, and wariness lingered where she’d once seen eagerness.
Gavin shifted his stance by the truck and stared at her unabashedly, as though daring her to look away. Jordan’s breath caught in her throat and in that instant the world seemed to stand still. She could pull over. Jump out of the car and tell him how sorry she was for leaving the way she did. Tell him that she didn’t give a damn anymore if he’d slept with Missy Oakland and that all of that was ancient history.
Hug him. Breathe him in. Love him.
A horn blared behind her rudely and ripped her from her fantasies. She didn’t miss the annoyed expression on Gavin’s face as he snapped his head around toward the impatient driver behind her. Jordan hit the gas, not waiting for him to look back. Fantasies would get her nowhere. Dreams about an impossible future were what got her in trouble in the first place.
No. The time for dreams and childish fantasies was over.
She smiled when Lily’s sleepy face filled the rearview mirror. She had two bundles of adorable reality in the backseat, and they were her priority.
“We’ll be home in a few minutes, Lily.” Jordan turned her sights back to the road in front of her, leading down toward their new home by the beach. “It’s time to get settled.”
“To new beginnings,” Jordan said quietly.
Could she have a new beginning with Gavin? Damn it, no. She was not going to start pining over Gavin. Cut the crap, she thought to herself. Leave the past in the past and live in the present. Focus on the girls.
“Amen to that.” Maddy took a healthy sip of her wine. “Hell, if you like it enough at the shop, maybe you’ll buy the place.”
“Really?” Jordan’s eyebrows raised. “You want to sell your mom’s place?”
“To the right person, sure. I mean, my mom loved you, and I am racing around like a chicken with its head cut off trying to run both businesses.” She puffed an espresso-colored curly strand of hair from her face. “Especially this time of year. It’s freaking nuts.”
“Own my own business?” The possibilities ran through her head before she rolled her eyes and waved off the strangely appealing idea. “I don’t know the first thing about something like that. Besides, I’m not a florist.”
“Neither am I,” Maddy said with a snort of derision. “That’s why I pay Cookie and Veronica the big bucks. Anyway, buying businesses aside, the gig is yours with no strings attached.”
Jordan placed her wineglass on the table and pulled her feet up into the chair, wrapping her arms around her knees. The warm summer air was filled with the scent of the sea, and two gulls fought over an old fish head along the edge of the water. The sound of the television in the family room—a cartoon the girls were enthralled by—was mixed with the comforting rush of the tide.
How many times had she dreamed of a quiet evening like this? Her daughters in their pajamas, all bathed and sweet smelling and safe in the other room, and her dear friend by her side with a glass of wine in hand.
Dark memories crept in. Jordan had never thought a day like this would come.
Silence hung between them with only the sound of the waves and passing gulls, and Jordan could feel the weight of Maddy’s question coming before she even uttered it.
“So are you gonna tell me what happened?” Maddy sat back in her chair and tugged her white sweater closed. “What made you finally leave him?”
Jordan sucked in a steadying breath and dropped her bare feet to the ground. Curling her fingers around the stem of her glass, she fought the tide of fear, regret, and sadness that swelled up when she recalled that night.
“Hey.” Maddy’s voice dropped to almost a whisper, and she rubbed Jordan’s back reassuringly. “It’s okay. I don’t wanna push. I mean, if you don’t—”
“No.” Jordan shook her head and sat up taller in her chair. “It’s okay… About six months ago, after one of his drinking binges, he came home late. Three in the morning. I’d fallen asleep on the couch. I knew he’d come home sloshed, because he did it so often, and it was easier to manage him and keep him quiet if I could get to him right away. You know? I didn’t want the girls woken up by such ugliness. Until that night, the strategy had worked.”
Rising from her chair, Jordan went to the railing of the deck and looked out at the ocean, unable to face her friend. Shame and guilt clung to her. She couldn’t bear to look Maddy in the eyes because she was too worried she’d see pity there.
Jordan knew how pathetic she’d been.
“Ted came after me. He stunk of whiskey and woke me up out of a dead sleep. He tried to pull my pajamas off. I shoved him off me.” She let out a bitter laugh. “He was so wasted, he could barely stand so it wasn’t hard. After my rejection, he trashed the living room and screamed about what a cold fish I was.”
“It’s okay, Jordan.” Maddy had moved in next to her and wrapped her arm around Jordan’s shoulders.
“He came after me again. Groping me. Shouting hateful, ugly things and I fought like hell to get away. I knew then that if I stayed any longer, it would only get worse.” Her voice shook with a mixture of rage and disgust. “When I finally got him off me and turned around, I came face-to-face with my girls. They were crying and clinging to each other in the hallway outside their bedroom. Ted screamed something incoherent before stumbling past them to the bathroom.”
“Oh my God, Jordan.”
“I grabbed Gracie and Lily, went to a hotel, and filed for divorce the next day.”
“Son of a—”
“Yup.” Jordan swiped at her eyes and drained the last of her wine. “He sure is.”
“Hey.” Maddy took both glasses and placed them on the table. “You are one of the bravest women I know.”
“Brave?” Jordan could barely get the word out. “I’m a coward. I ran away fifteen years ago, and here I am doing it again.”
“Bullshit.” Maddy grabbed Jordan’s shoulders, gently forcing her to face her. To Jordan’s relief, she saw no pity there. Only resolute love and acceptance. “You survived, baby. You did what you had to do. That’s what you did then and that’s what you are doing now. You are a survivor—and don’t you forget it. Just because he didn’t outright hit you doesn’t mean he wasn’t abusive or controlling.”
Tears blurred Jordan’s vision as Maddy gathered her up in a warm, lingering hug. How long had it been since anyone held her this way? Comforted her? Too many years for her to count. She’d missed her friend more than she’d realized, and the generosity of such unconditional love cracked Jordan’s last line of defenses. The tears fell freely as Maddy embraced her tightly.
“Thank you,” Jordan whispered. Pulling back, she kissed Maddy’s cheek. “You really are the best friend I’ve ever had.”
“True.” Maddy gave Jordan a playful smack on the ass before pouring them both a bit more wine. She handed Jordan a glass and held her own up. “To good friends!”
“And surviving,” Jordan murmured.
Jordan’s first day of work at the flower shop reminded her of the first day of school. She was so busy learning the ropes and dealing with customers that the day went by in a flash. So fast, in fact, that she forgot to eat lunch and only caught herself from looking out the window for Gavin four or five times.
She was definitely a glutton for punishment.
With her stomach rumbling, she locked the front door of the shop and checked the time. She had a few minutes before she needed to pick the girls up from camp, and the delicious smell of fresh baked bread from the market called to her.
Checking the traffic and doing her damnedest not to even glance at the fire station across the street, Jordan headed over to the market and away from the station. The heat of the June afternoon had given way to a balmy early evening, making her long for sunset on the deck. She and the girls had made a habit of talking about their day while the sun went to sleep.
When Jordan tugged open the door to the market, the scent of freshly baked bread enveloped her. Forcing herself not to run to the bakery counter and gobble down an entire loaf, she snagged a small green handbasket by the register and smiled at the young woman behind the counter. Wearing a blue-and-white apron, the girl gave Jordan a brace-filled grin as she rang up an older gentleman’s sale. A feeling of contentment washed over Jordan as she strolled the aisles, and she realized she didn’t miss the city at all. Not the traffic. The honking horns. The rude pedestrians. The unsmiling waitstaff or the woman at her grocery store in the city with four nose rings and a chronic inability to smile.
Nope, she didn’t miss it one bit.
On her way toward the back of the store, Jordan picked up a few other items she needed, cereal and milk, and a couple she didn’t, like the bag of peanut M&M’s and a package of Kit Kat bars. If she wasn’t having sex, then she would have chocolate.
She rounded the corner and her shoulders sagged when she saw with the line at the bakery counter, four people deep. Pressed for time and hungry as hell, Jordan grabbed two of the white paper-wrapped loaves of sourdough that had likely been made earlier in the day.
The familiar voice raked over Jordan like fingernails on a chalkboard, and while it had been years since she’d heard it, there was no mistaking who it was.
“Hello, Missy.” Jordan deposited her bread into the basket and turned to face the only woman she’d ever really disliked. Forcing a tight smile, she said, “It’s been a long time.”
Missy’s ebony hair was tied up in a ponytail and her oval-shaped face with almost hollowed-out cheekbones was free of all wrinkles. She had to have had Botox, and Jordan wasn’t sure if she was jealous or disgusted.
Missy’s slender form was clad in a pair of white Daisy Duke shorts and a pink tank top that barely contained her chest. Basically, the woman hadn’t changed an ounce since high school. She was still va-va-voom sexy. Big boobs. Narrow waist. Full hips. Lips like Angelina Jolie. Jordan swallowed the sudden lump in her throat and pushed her hair off her forehead. The woman was a walking sexpot, and she always had been.
No wonder Gavin had slept with her. What red-blooded heterosexual man wouldn’t?
“Gosh. It has to have been like fifteen years.” Missy giggled the way a young girl would and slapped Jordan on the arm playfully. “But we don’t look a day older, do we? Say, I didn’t know you were visiting too. If I had, I would have suggested we get together for a drink but I’m heading home today.”
A drink? Jordan had thought this girl hated her in high school. Why would she want to go out for a drink?
“Uh. Well, I’m not visiting. I moved back.” She adjusted the basket because the metal handle was digging into her forearm and she was starting to sweat. “I mean, I moved back here with my girls.”
“Oh! You got kids?”
“Yes.” Jordan nodded. “Two girls.”
“Oh, that’s cool,” Missy said in a tone that was agreeable but not meaningful. “I was just here for a couple days visiting my daddy. He’s been after me to come home for like the past four years.” She snorted with laughter. “I always fly him to LA. This time I caved, but I can’t wait to get back to the Coast.”
Why did that sound so perfect for Missy?
“Well, it was nice bumping into you, Missy, but I have to be going.” Jordan plastered a tight smile on her face and fought the urge to back up. “I have to pick up my daughters from camp.”
“Sure, sure.” Missy popped a stick of gum in her mouth and pointed one well-manicured finger at Jordan. “Say, you know who I saw yesterday when I was driving through town? Gavin McGuire. The man looks as fine as he ever did. Better maybe.” She let out a sigh and stretched her arms over her head in a feline-like move. “Too bad I’m not staying longer. Maybe I could actually get that guy to take me up on my offer. He’s so gorgeous. I should let him know that my offer is still good.”
Jordan stilled but her stomach swirled almost to the point of nausea.
“Oh shit.” Missy’s face fell and she grabbed Jordan’s arm. “You two aren’t together, are you? I mean, I wouldn’t go after him if he were married.”
“No, Gavin and I aren’t—” Her head was swimming, and she clutched the basket almost to the point of pain. “But didn’t you—I mean, I thought I heard that you and Gavin dated after I left town—after graduation.”
“What?” Missy declared loudly. An older woman glanced at her disapprovingly in passing, but Missy didn’t notice. “No way. Oh, don’t get me wrong; me and every other girl in town tried to nab Gavin after you split, but the guy wasn’t interested. Your buddy Suzanne tried harder than anyone, but he didn’t bite. That fall when most of our class went away to college, he joined the military, I think.”
“Suzanne?” Jordan asked quietly, trying to keep her voice even. “You mean my friend Suzanne? She was after Gavin?”
“You didn’t know that?” Missy’s voice was laced with incredulity. “I guess you aren’t friends with her anymore.”
“No. Well, I lost touch with most people after I moved away.”
“Uh, yeah. Well, no great loss on that friend.” Missy let out an undignified snort of laughter. “She was all over his sexy ass like the day after you left. She played nursemaid to his broken heart. Bringing him cookies and shit.” Missy rolled her eyes. “Whatever. It was like a hundred years ago, right?”
The phone in Missy’s back pocket started ringing. Jordan barely heard her as she said a quick good-bye, made air-kisses, and hurried out of the store to take her call.
Shocked and increasingly furious, Jordan made her way to the register.
On the drive home with the girls chattering away in the backseat, she could not stop thinking about what Missy told her.
Suzanne had lied. Gavin never slept with Missy or anyone else. Suzanne lied to keep Jordan away so she could have him for herself. Tears pricked the back of Jordan’s eyes. How could she have been so stupid? How could she have believed that lie so easily and completely?
The weight of her mistakes and the choices from her past settled over her and threatened to crush her.
Jordan pulled the car into the driveway of the gray, saltbox Cape Cod cottage as the familiar and almost comforting urge to run pulled at her, called to her.
“We’re home!” Gracie exclaimed. “Home again, home again, jiggety jig.”
“I’m pooped.” Lily unbuckled her seat belt and let Gracie out of her booster. “Camp was fun but I’m glad we’re home.”
Jordan shut off the engine and squeezed her eyes shut.
No more running…they were home.
Gavin stirred the chili in the enormous steel pot on the stove and turned down the flame on the burner. He’d burned the bottom of it more than once, which of course led to endless razzing from his team. Having the fire chief burn food was ironic and more than a little sad—and happened more often than he cared to admit.
“Which of your culinary delights is it tonight?” Bill, one of his newest and best firefighters, leaned over Gavin’s shoulder and lifted the lid briefly before breathing deeply. “Ah! It’s the chief’s famous burnt chili.”
“Cut the crap,” Gavin said with a laugh. He sprinkled in more salt and pepper before stirring the chili again. “I only burned it once or twice.”
“Dude”—Bill scoffed and made a face—“once was enough.”
“Not all of us can be awesome cooks like Rick.”
“It’s true,” Rick said with a sigh. He grinned and laid his cards on the table in a fan shape. “Or as good at poker. A royal flush, boys. Read ’em and weep!”
Groans and a few swear words were tossed around as Rick swept up his winnings and laughed loudly. Gavin glanced over his shoulder at the guys who were playing poker at the worn, well-used butcher-block table. That old table served as the center of their world here on the second floor of the station. The common room and kitchen area were part of one large space that served as their hurry-up-and-wait room. How many days and nights had they all spent here together? Some of the guys were here more than at their own houses, and Gavin was one of them.
What did he have to go home to? An empty cottage. No wife. No kids. And that was done by design…or was it? Was that something he told himself to feel less lonely? Hell, until recently he hadn’t felt lonely at all. Not really. But now that Jordan was back in town, Gavin was starting to acknowledge that there was a hole in his life. Maybe it had always been there. A tiny gap, a space that could only be filled by her. Until a couple of weeks ago it was barely noticeable.
But not anymore.
With each passing day and every time Gavin walked past that damned flower shop or looked at the little gray Cape Cod on the beach, the hardly recognizable pinprick of emptiness grew larger. Lately it was feeling like the damn Grand Canyon.
“You know, Chief,” Bill said as he pulled out a chair and joined the other three guys. “For a guy who’s been in this house longer than any of us, I’m kinda surprised you don’t like cookin’.”
“Are you kidding?” Rick chimed in. He was Gavin’s best friend and the other veteran firefighter amid the youngsters and volunteers. “If he could get out of cooking, he would. But that would mean admitting defeat, and if there’s one thing Gav won’t do, it’s admit when he’s been beaten.”
Gavin went to the fridge and snagged the sour cream but didn’t miss the knowing look his friend gave him. Why did he get the distinct impression that Rick wasn’t talking about cooking?
“On that note, you get dish duty tonight, Rick.” Gavin slid the container onto the counter and tossed the dish towel to his friend. “Chili’s ready and it’s not burned. Next week I’m making meat loaf and potatoes.”
“Will wonders never cease,” Rick teased. He twirled the towel in the air. “You’re a regular Julia Child.”
“Ah, stick it in your hat.” Gavin shook his head and chuckled while he wiped down the counter. “Not all of us can be culinary wizards like you.”
“You want in on the next hand?” Bill shuffled the deck and nodded toward the empty chair. “We got room for one more.”
“No thanks.” Gavin glanced at the clock. It was almost closing time at the flower shop. “I have some paperwork to catch up on at my desk. You guys go ahead.”
“Chicken!” Rick shouted after him.
Gavin waved him off and made his way down the hall to his office. He did have paperwork. Plenty of it. He should put his butt in the chair and get to it, but he didn’t. Instead he slipped into his office and went to the window, the one that gave him a perfect view of the little flower shop across the street.
Gavin had spent the better part of the past two weeks trying like hell not to think about Jordan. Good luck to that stupid plan. What were the odds that she was going to start working across the damn street from the firehouse, so that he’d have to see her every damn day? He was starting to think that the universe was conspiring to make him crazy, torturing him for the fun of it.
“You want me to straighten out the gear, Chief?” David Heffernan asked, his squeaky voice interrupting Gavin’s private pity party.
The kid had liked helping out so much last weekend during his punishment that he’d asked if he could stay on and volunteer from time to time. He was too young to be a volunteer firefighter, but he wasn’t too young to start learning his way around the business.
“What?” Gavin snapped. He turned and went to his desk, trying not to look like he’d been caught staring out the window at the flower shop, hoping to get a glimpse of Jordan. Even though that’s exactly what he’d been doing. “Sorry, kid. I was thinking about something. What did you ask me?”
“The gear.” David jutted his thumb over his shoulder and shuffled his feet nervously. “It looks a little messy down there, and I figured maybe I could straighten it out. But I don’t wanna mess with it if—”
“Yeah, that’d be great.” Gavin gave the kid a reassuring smile when the boy bit his lip. Who could blame him? Gavin had practically taken his damn head off for no reason. “Make sure everyone’s turnout gear is in the right spot and ready to go in case we get a call. You can bug out after that.”
“Hey, kid?” Gavin’s voice stopped the boy dead in his tracks. “You really like this, don’t you?”
“Yes, sir.” David nodded enthusiastically. “What you guys do is about the most badass thing I’ve seen in real life. I mean, you see stuff like this in movies and video games, but, man, that’s nothing compared to the real thing. It’s a total rush. Way cool.”
“What about your brother?” Gavin glanced out the window again before cursing himself for his foolishness. “I haven’t seen him here since your official community service was up. He doesn’t share your enthusiasm?”
“Nah.” David shook his head and shrugged, an air of disappointment flickering over him. “He’s more interested in taking out our boat. He’s actually kinda pissed at me. We were supposed to do one of the local regattas this summer, but I bailed on him.”
“I’d rather do this.” David shrugged in the classic noncommittal teenager way and stuck his hands in the pockets of his shorts. “What you guys do is important. I dunno. He’ll get over it. Our cousin is gonna do it with him instead. Thanks, Chief.”
“You bet.” Gavin nodded.
“And I know I said it before, but I really am sorry about pulling that alarm.” He ran his hand through his hair. “I shouldn’t have let Robert do it. He’s always getting me into trouble one way or another. Ever since we were little. Anyway, I’m sorry.”
“We all make mistakes, David.” Gavin’s heart went out to the kid. He knew all too well that some mistakes were worse than others and not as easily atoned for. “Let’s consider it done. And if you’re hungry, get on in the common room and grab yourself some chili.”
“Thanks.” Backing out of the office, the kid promptly bumped into and bounced off of Rick’s barrel-shaped chest. Scurrying around him, David mumbled, “Sorry, sir.”
“That kid makes me nervous,” Rick muttered under his breath as the boy disappeared down the hall. Turning his tanned face to Gavin, he grinned wickedly. “But not as nervous as I make him.”
“You’re mean.” Gavin laughed and shook his head. Forcing himself not to look back out the window, he went to his desk and shut down the computer. “He’s been a big help this week.”
“Yeah, he’s okay.” Rick sat in the wooden chair across from Gavin and hoisted his boot-clad feet on top of the desk. “But I’m surprised you noticed.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Gavin sat down and busied himself with organizing the reports that were strewn across his desk. Paperwork was his least favorite part about the administrative position of fire chief. “I’m the one who gave him the job.”
“You know damn well what it means.” Rick’s voice grew serious. “Ever since she got back to town, you’ve had your head up your ass.”
Gavin stilled and slowly turned his eyes to meet Rick’s. They’d been friends a long time and the guy knew him about as well as his own brothers, but Gavin was still his boss.
“Is that so?” Folding his hands on the desk, he kept his voice even. “Even if it were true, I don’t see how it’s any of your damn business.”
“Well, your love life might not be my business, but you having your head up your ass sure is. It’s dangerous and you know it.” Rick dug a piece of gum out of his pocket and unwrapped it before popping it into his mouth. He crumpled the wrapper and tossed it at the wastebasket by the window, then put both hands in the air when it landed noiselessly in the bin. “Two points.”
“Duly noted.” Gavin rose to his feet and struggled to keep his temper in check. He wasn’t pissed at Rick for being out of line; it was exactly the opposite. “Anything else?”
Rick dropped his feet from the desk and stood up. He might have been shorter by a few inches, but he was as broad and didn’t back down from anyone or anything. He was a hell of a firefighter and an even better friend.
“When are you gonna stop being a stubborn dick and go over there and talk to her? Listen, I may not have been around when you two dated back in the Stone Age, but according to Maddy, you and Jordan were like peas and carrots until she split for New York.” Rick frowned. “Why did she split anyway?”
“Hell if I know,” Gavin said in a huff. “It was a hundred years ago.”
“Yeah, well, it might’ve been, but based on the way you’ve been acting since she got back to town, I’d say you still have it bad.”
“It’s ancient history.” Gavin lowered his voice. “Like you said, the Stone Age.”
“Don’t give me that shit.” Rick poked Gavin in the chest. “The only woman you’ve dated since I’ve known you was that crazy Suzanne broad. At the rate you’re going, you’re a regular candidate for the seminary. Here’s the way I see it. There are only two reasons why a single guy isn’t out prowling around for a date on a Friday night. One—his equipment don’t work. And two—”
“My equipment is just fine,” Gavin interjected quickly.
“And two—he’s hung up on a broad he thinks he can’t have.”
“Aw, come on, man.” Gavin made a scoffing sound and waved one hand dismissively. “Damn it, Rick. She left. Fifteen years ago, the woman split without a word and then she married someone else. What could I possibly have to say to her? She’s married. End of story.”
“No wonder you didn’t become a cop.” Rick leaned across the desk. A slow smile cracked his weathered face, and he slapped Gavin on the cheek playfully. “No she’s not, genius.”
“Not what?” Gavin’s head spun with a hundred questions as Rick strode over to the door of the office. A painfully cruel glimmer of hope tugged at Gavin’s heart. “Rick? What the hell, man? Not what?”
“If I tell you, you have to promise me that you’re gonna pull your head out of your ass long enough to go over there and talk to her.” Rick turned around slowly and leaned against the doorjamb. “Deal?”
“Fine,” Gavin said with pure exasperation. “It’s my mother’s birthday tomorrow, and I have to order flowers for her anyway. Now spill it.”
“Maddy told me and swore me to secrecy, but since you asked, I can tell you.” Folding his arms over his burly chest, he nodded toward the window and winked. “Jordan’s not married anymore.”
“What?” A combination of relief, fear, and hope shot through Gavin like fire. “When?”
“Divorced. About six months ago, I think.” Rick shrugged. “I dunno. Something like that. Apparently, the guy was a real piece of work.”
“And you planned on telling me this when?” Gavin moved across the room, slowly closing the distance between himself and Rick. Hands on his hips, irritation edged his voice. “How long have you known?”
“Maddy told me when I overheard her on the phone with Jordan. Not long before she came back.” He held up both hands. “And before you flip out, yes, I knew Jordan was moving back here, and, no, I didn’t tell you because, like I said, Maddy swore me to secrecy. I wasn’t allowed to tell you about Jordan’s divorce unless you asked.” He slapped Gavin on the shoulder. “Which you did. Kind of.”
“Divorced?” Gavin walked to the window and stared at the flower shop. “Why didn’t she tell me?”
“Have you given her a chance, or have you been sitting over here with your dick in your hand for the past two weeks?”
Gavin stilled as the weight of Rick’s question hit him. No, he sure as hell hadn’t given her a chance. All he’d done was give her a big, fat attitude along with the chip on his shoulder. Damn it all. Gavin turned to respond to his friend, but the doorway was empty and he was once again alone. Letting out a breath, he ran both hands over his face vigorously.
He peered out the window again and squinted against the glare of the sun that flashed off the shop’s glass door. He watched it close slowly behind a customer while the latest bit of news sank in.
Jordan was divorced and back in Old Brookfield to start over.
Maybe that was something they could do together.
Jordan’s first week at work had been busy, to say the least. At the moment the shop was empty, and the quiet was a welcome relief. Between weddings and graduation parties, they might have used up almost every flower in the state. Maddy had new deliveries coming in every day, and it didn’t look like business was going to slow down anytime soon. Luckily Jordan wasn’t there alone. The floral designer, Veronica, and her assistant, Cookie, ran the back room like the couple of pros they were. Jordan’s job was to handle the customers and keep the showroom area presentable.
At first the job was merely a way to pass the days and keep her mind focused, but she was quickly finding it was more than that. She really enjoyed working with the customers and being around the flowers. The offhanded comment Maddy had made about buying the store lingered in Jordan’s mind. Because they’d been so slammed, there had been more than one occasion when Veronica and Cookie were out on a job or buried in work in the back, leaving Jordan to handle any walk-in requests. It turned out she had a flair for floral design, and she enjoyed creating bouquets more than she had ever expected she would. Who knew? Certainly not her.
It was a good thing they’d been so busy because she barely had time to stare out the window and look for Gavin.
When she asked for the job, she hadn’t realized she’d be able to see the firehouse and all of the comings and goings.
Nope. That was a lie.
Somewhere in the back of her mind, she’d known damn well she’d be able to look over there any time she wanted. To get a glimpse of that tall, broad-shouldered frame and remember what it had been like to be held in those arms. After her marriage to Ted, Gavin’s tenderness had been even more evident. In hindsight, no one had ever made her feel as special and perfect as Gavin did. Hindsight was a cruel bitch. It made you realize you’d had something beautiful but pissed it away with childish impulsiveness and pride.
Jordan dusted off the display counter and shook her head at the stubbornness of her youth. Now, here she was, a grown woman with two small daughters, pining over her high school boyfriend and fantasizing about him like a silly girl.
It was a waste of time to keep thinking about a guy who obviously had zero interest in being around her. He knew she was in town, and she’d caught enough glimpses of him at the station to know that he was totally aware she worked nearby. But the guy had made himself scarce. When she ran into him at the market, he got out of there so fast that he practically left skid marks. Any notions Jordan had about a reunion with Gavin were quickly being squashed.
“I must have a screw loose,” she muttered under her breath. Satisfied the counter was clean, she squatted down and put the cleaning supplies away in the cabinet beneath the register. “Yup. There’s definitely something wrong with me.”
“Are you looking for confirmation on that?” Jordan’s heart lurched in her chest as Gavin’s familiar baritone filled the shop. “Or am I supposed to argue with you?”
She’d been so caught up in her own world that she hadn’t even heard the door open. Rising slowly to her feet, she clutched the edge of the counter and prayed that she would still be capable of speech. His handsome face came into view, those pale green eyes met hers, and a slow smile spread over his face. It set that swarm of butterflies loose in her belly. He looked as strong and sexy as ever, dressed in his blue uniform. The T-shirt with the white emblem molded over his sculpted torso like a second skin.
“Something tells me you would be more likely to confirm that statement than to argue with it.” Unsettled by his unexpected visit, Jordan adjusted the ceramic mug full of pens next to the register. Folding her hands on the glass counter, she forced herself to look him in the eyes again and stop being such a coward. Her voice remained surprisingly steady, but inside she was a quivering mess. “Can I help you with something?”
“Flowers,” he blurted out. Gavin stuck his hands in the pockets of his blue cargo shorts and shifted his weight. His six-foot-two-inch frame filled the space in the way that only he could. “It’s my mother’s birthday tomorrow and I want to get her some flowers. Since this is the only florist in town, I figure that you’re the only one who can help me.”
“The grocer has flowers,” Jordan said, tilting her chin and daring him to admit that perhaps he wasn’t merely here for a birthday gift. “If I’m not mistaken, they have a little display right by the registers. All kinds of assortments.”
“True.” His voice was soft but strong, and the sound of it tickled something inside of her. He took another step so he was only inches from the counter. It was close enough for Jordan to catch a whiff of that woodsy, soapy scent of his. “But they don’t have what I’m looking for.”
Silence, thick and full of unfulfilled desires, hung between them, and with each passing second, her heart picked up the pace. How could the sound of the man’s voice have a physical effect on her? Gavin was quiet, but an unmistakable strength lingered beneath the deep timbre. A tingling warmth simmered in her belly, a sensation she hadn’t experienced in years. She’d convinced herself she was no longer capable of feeling like this. Ted had reminded her time and again that she was a cold fish and terrible in bed, a woman incapable of orgasm or pleasure. And yet, here she was, standing in the middle of the store, about ready to jump over the counter and accost Gavin.
How was it possible to still be insanely attracted to someone so many years later?
“What exactly are you looking for?”
Her hands spread out on the smooth surface of the counter, the glass cool beneath her heated, sweaty palms. She found herself almost imperceptibly leaning closer to him. Meeting his challenge. For a split second, Jordan thought he might actually lean across the counter and kiss her.
“Roses,” he said abruptly, breaking the spell. Jordan blinked and immediately took a step away from the counter. “I know it’s been a while, but if you’ll recall, my mother loves roses. Yellow ones, if you don’t mind.”
The grin on Gavin’s face widened. It brought out that adorable dimple in his left cheek, the one that made him look like the little devil he could be.
“Yes, I remember just fine.” Jordan straightened her back and tucked a stray lock of hair behind her ear. “All of the roses we have available are right over here.”
That pesky chunk of hair never stayed in any ponytail she wore. It kept falling into her face, making her feel like a mess. As if she wasn’t flustered enough by Gavin’s visit, now she had to feel like a slob on top of everything else! She hurried out from behind the counter and strode directly over to the refrigerator that covered the entire right side of the store.
Jordan grabbed a pair of gloves from the hook on the wall and tugged them on without looking to see if he was following. She yanked open the large floor-to-ceiling door and shut her eyes when the cold air of the refrigerator hit her. It was a welcome relief for her overheated body. But was she all hot and bothered from embarrassment or lust?
It was probably both.
“Here you go, Mr. McGuire.” Holding the door open with her body, the cool glass pressing against her back, Jordan gestured to the flowers. She didn’t look at Gavin out of fear she’d lose her sense and jump him. “Take your pick.”
“Mr. McGuire?” Gavin’s deep voice drifted over her, and she didn’t have to look to her left to know that he’d moved in to stand beside her. The heat and presence of his body announced his arrival with tantalizing force and whispered over her bare arms in a seductive promise.
“Jordan?” His voice was gentle and pleading. The sound of it made all the tiny hairs on her arm stand at attention—or maybe it was the cold air from the fridge. “Look at me.”
Sucking in a deep breath, Jordan slowly turned her head. Nope. Definitely not because of the fridge.
She expected to find the same hard, unforgiving look she’d seen in his eyes ever since she got home. She didn’t. Her belly quivered—and not from the cold air. To her surprise, she saw empathy and maybe even a flicker of forgiveness. She stilled and studied him closely, worried that perhaps she was seeing what she wanted to see instead of what was really there.
When those intense green eyes peered at her from beneath thick, dark lashes, every coherent thought was driven from her mind. His mouth set in a firm line and the muscle in his jaw flickered. She was tall for a woman at five foot ten, but Gavin still managed to make her feel delicate and tiny, as opposed to tall and gangly. Around him, she felt womanly and sexy, a feeling she’d all but forgotten.
“I think we need to start over,” he rasped. “And I’m not only talking about today. We need a do-over.” His lips tilted. “Just like when we played kickball when we were kids, remember? A do-over.”
“That’s why I came back.” Jordan barely recognized the sound of her own voice. “To start over.” She was shaking now and that stupid hair fell into her face again. She swiped at it quickly with quivering fingers, but it refused to budge. Nervous, turned on, and totally unsure of herself, Jordan started babbling. “Me and my girls are getting a fresh start, and besides, my father’s ill, and I know my mother’s going to need help. I don’t think that—”
Her words were cut short when Gavin pushed the hair off her forehead and slowly tucked the wayward strand behind her ear. The sweet gesture totally disarmed her and wiped all the arguments from her head. How the hell could she ever have accused him of being like her father? Gavin was nothing like him or Ted. He was sweet, thoughtful, and protective—a far cry from her old man, to say nothing of the bastard she’d married.
Sweet Jesus, she’d screwed things up so badly. How on earth could they start over? She had no idea where or how to begin.
“Why did you leave like that, Jordan?” Gavin’s voice wavered and a shadow flickered across his face. “Can you at least tell me why you never called or told me where you were?”
A hundred different answers ran through her head. My father hit me. Suzanne said you were screwing Missy Oakland. I was angry and stubborn. I was scared. All of those reasons and several more rose to the surface, but what was the point of rehashing the past?
“Does it matter?” she asked quietly.
“It matters to me.” His dark brows furrowed and that stubble-covered jaw clenched. “I’m nothing like your father.”
His words slammed into her, making her recall her terrible accusation. Regret filled Jordan in an instant and practically choked the air from her lungs.
“I know that,” she whispered. “And I’m so sorry I said that to you, Gavin. I was childish and angry and hurt and—”
“And stubborn,” Gavin interjected.
“Fine, and like always, I was stubborn. But Gavin, too much time has passed.” Jordan sucked in a shaky breath. She held his heated stare, every fiber of her body coming to life as the pad of his fingers rasped over her flesh. Thinking was becoming increasingly challenging, and if he kept this up, she was going to jump his bones right here in the flowers. “It’s not only about me… My girls…”
“I know. I met them, and I have a feeling Lily, Grace, and I are gonna get along great. It’s you and me that I’m talking about. Please, Jordan.” The sound of her name on his lips was painfully sweet. Gavin inched closer while cradling her cheek. “Say yes,” he whispered. “Give us a do-over. I want to get to know you again. I’ve missed you. I miss my friend.”
She almost whimpered in agreement. God, how she’d missed him. She lay awake some nights with her eyes squeezed shut, trying to recall the feel of his hands on her, the deep lovely sound of his voice that surrounded her like a blanket, and the warm weight of his body against hers. Each year that passed made it harder to remember, but now here he stood, bringing all of those delicious memories to the surface.
He ran his thumb over her lower lip as his gaze skittered over her face. Jordan’s belly tightened in anticipation. He was going to kiss her. After all this time and all these years, it was really going to happen.
And she was going to let it.
Never mind that they were practically standing in a refrigerator or that they had about a hundred unspoken and unresolved issues between them. Gavin McGuire was going to kiss her, and the consequences could be damned.
Gavin leaned in and Jordan’s eyes fluttered closed as she waited for her fantasy to become reality.
“Hey, Jordan?” Cookie’s voice shot through the store and brought Jordan’s current reality screaming into focus. “Do you know what time the delivery is coming tomorrow morning? I think it’s usually at—”
Gavin swore and dropped his hand but didn’t take his eyes off Jordan’s.
“Oh man.” Cookie giggled from the doorway of the backroom. “Sorry.”
“It’s fine, Cookie.” Jordan smiled at her and then turned back to the fridge, avoiding Gavin’s heated stare. “We were looking for some yellow roses.”
“Yeah, well, you know all those flowers are gonna die if you keep that door open while you’re looking. The way you’re fogging up that glass it looks like we should be keeping hothouse flowers in there.”
“Did you need Jordan for something, Cookie?” Gavin asked with thinly veiled impatience. Hands back in his pockets, he took a step away from Jordan. “Or do you merely excel at crappy timing?”
“Sorry, Chief.” Cookie’s short purple-and-blue hair stuck out in a hundred different directions, and she winked when she peeked out from behind the swinging door. She reminded Jordan of a fairy from the stories she read to her daughters. Her tiny delicate frame, fair skin, and mischievous grin added to the girl’s fae-like appearance. “It’s a gift.”
“That’s not what I would call it,” he grumbled.
“The delivery should be here by seven or so.” Jordan shot Gavin a warning glance before grabbing the bucket with the yellow roses and heading over to the counter. Space, she thought. We need a little space to keep things clear. “Maddy’s been here to meet the deliveries most mornings, but I told her I can be here for the one on Sunday. The woman hasn’t had a minute to rest with all the summer renters coming into town this week. The girls don’t have camp on Sunday but they can come to the store with me.”
“Cool.” Cookie smirked and looked from Jordan to Gavin. “Way cool.”
“Bye, Cookie.” Gavin waved. “See ya later.”
“Right.” The girl stepped behind the door so Gavin wouldn’t see her and gave Jordan two thumbs up before it swung shut.
Jordan’s face heated with embarrassment. Gavin strolled casually around the store while she made quick work of wrapping up a dozen roses. A smile played at her lips; she did remember that they were Mrs. McGuire’s favorite flower. Gavin’s mom always had them around the house in the summertime. She used to tell Jordan that sunny blooms could pretty up even the darkest places. Not that the McGuire house needed any of that. It was the happiest, brightest, and most loving home Jordan had ever been in and one she wanted to emulate with her own daughters.
Even if she wasn’t a McGuire.
Gavin stared out the windows to the street, and a lump formed in Jordan’s throat because she wasn’t a McGuire—and she never would be. Divorced with two little girls and enough emotional baggage to sink a ship, she was not exactly a catch. She was not the kind of woman who would marry into that family. No way. Gavin deserved someone far less complicated than she was. That ship had sailed, and no matter how many do-overs they gave each other, nothing could erase the past.
“Here you go,” Jordan said without looking up. She placed the paper-wrapped bouquet on the counter. “A dozen yellow roses.”
Gavin strode over slowly, the sound of his rubber-soled boots on the tile announcing his approach. She saw that lopsided, dimpled grin out of the corner of her eye while she punched the sale into the register. Jordan didn’t look him in the eye even though she wanted to. The swirl of emotions and physical sensations she was feeling were fogging up her head the way they had fogged up the glass of the refrigerator door.
“Her birthday is tomorrow.”
“Oh, right. You needed these tomorrow. I suppose you’ll want them delivered.” Jordan’s cheeks heated. She grabbed the bouquet, but stilled when Gavin’s hand swiftly covered her own. Her heart hammered in her chest as the warmth of his skin spread over hers. Licking her lower lip, she whispered, “I-I guess I forgot to ask you that.”
“Things happen.” Gavin’s voice was tight and serious. Strong fingers curled around hers and squeezed, but Jordan slipped her hand from his. His features hardened when she took a step back. “Right. Well, maybe too many things have happened.”
“Maybe,” Jordan whispered. Folding her arms over her breasts, she met his challenging stare with one of her own. “Life isn’t a game of kickball, Gavin. We can’t yell ‘do-over’ and make everything go away. We’re not kids anymore. I’m not a kid. For goodness’ sake, I have kids and they have to be my top priority.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Gavin bit out. His jaw clenched again and his brows furrowed, casting a shadow over his face. “We aren’t kids anymore, but hiding behind yours won’t change anything either.”
Anger fired up her back, and her hands curled into fists. He could call her anything he wanted, but she would be damned if he would accuse her of using her children to avoid him. She was trying to protect them from any more upheaval in their lives, and jumping back into a romantic relationship with Gavin could be dangerous. They all needed some calm after the storm, and her feelings for Gavin were anything but calm.
“How dare you?” Jordan seethed. “I am not hiding behind my children. I am trying to do what’s best for them and give them some semblance of a normal life. You have no idea the kind of turmoil we’ve had in our lives.”
“Lots of people get divorced, Jordan.” Gavin’s tone softened. “It’s not the end of the world.”
“Maybe not.” Her mouth set in a tight line. She’d figured it was only a matter of time before he found out. Even though it shouldn’t, being divorced made her feel like a failure. “I’ve got too much going on right now and too many changes in my life to get my head all screwed up by getting involved with this.” She gestured back and forth between the two of them. “I have to focus on helping my girls adjust to their new home, to say nothing of what’s happening with my mother. It’s too complicated. I can’t afford the risk that would be involved.”
Silence hung heavily in the air, and for a second, she thought he was going to tell her to go to hell or call her out for being the coward she knew she was being. To her great surprise, he did neither. He studied her intently while holding his ground.
“How’s your dad doing?” Gavin asked in the mother of all subject changes. His cell phone beeped in his pocket, and after checking it quickly, he hit a button and turned his attention right back to her. “I heard he’s in bad shape.”
It took her a second to find her voice. One minute they were talking about them, and the next he was asking about her father. Jordan had been away for over a decade, but that wasn’t long enough for her to forget how much Gavin loathed her father. Not that she could blame him; she wasn’t too fond of her father herself.
“His body finally caught up with his spirit.” Jordan stilled, feeling off-kilter from the abrupt change in subject. She leaned on the counter, hoping it would keep her from shaking. She wasn’t sure if she was relieved or sad that Gavin had dropped the whole do-over conversation. “He was broken inside for years and now the outside finally matches it.” She nibbled her lower lip and let out a slow breath. “Anyway, tomorrow after I see to the delivery, I promised my mom I’d come out to the house with the girls.”
“You haven’t seen him yet? I’m surprised. I mean you’ve been here for two weeks.” Gavin stepped closer to the counter. “Have you seen your mom?”
“Yes. My mom’s been out to the cottage the girls and I are renting—”
“The Sweeneys’ old place.” Gavin’s lips tilted and a mischievous glint flickered in his eyes. “Out by the lighthouse on Shore Road.”
“Right.” Jordan’s heart squeezed in her chest. “By the old lighthouse.”
Their lighthouse. Her face flushed at the memory of the first and only time they’d had sex. Their lovemaking had been sweet, tentative, and driven by the eager passion of inexperienced youth. The only other lover she’d ever had was Ted, and even calling him a lover was generous. That night with Gavin was the only time she could truly say she had made love with someone.
Needing to do something other than simmer beneath his stare, Jordan cleaned up the bits of stem and paper that were littering the glass surface.
“Anyway, she’s been out to my place to visit with the girls. She can only come when the nurse is at the house with my father, but no, I haven’t been out to see him yet. I’ve been avoiding it as long as I can. Anyway, I promised her I’d come to the house tomorrow to see him.”
“What time?” Gavin took a step to the left and loomed in front of her, forcing her to deal with him.
“The delivery truck usually gets here at seven.” Jordan continued wiping down the counter. “But it’s a Sunday, so—”
“Not that.” Gavin’s hand covered hers, instantly bringing her cleaning to a halt. His thumb brushed along the edge of her palm, and a slow burn crackled in her belly as his flesh slid sweetly over hers. Jordan lifted her eyes to his, and that slow burn erupted into a full-on flame. “What time are you going to your mom’s place?”
As she held his stare, confusion and lust fired through her. She stood taller and reveled in the comfortable weight of Gavin’s fingers curled around hers. This time she didn’t pull away. It felt too good, too right, and achingly familiar.
His fingertips trailed along hers, sending shivers up her spine and making all the little hairs on her arm stand at attention. Licking her lower lip, Jordan sucked in a shuddering breath and fought to find her suddenly absent voice.
“So, how about if I meet you and the girls here around a quarter to?”
“You want to come with me to my parents’ house?” she asked with more than a little surprise and confusion. “What? Why?”
“You haven’t seen your old man in over fifteen years, and he’s still a son of a bitch. I don’t care how sick he is, I don’t think you and the girls should go there alone.”
“I’ll be okay,” she said through a nervous laugh, not even convincing herself. “The man is bedridden, for heaven’s sake. Besides, don’t you have to work?”
“I’m off tomorrow.” He grinned. “One of the benefits of being the chief is having Monday through Friday hours. But I’m always on call, so I’ll have the radio if a call comes in that they need me for.”
“He can’t hurt me anymore, Gavin.” Jordan’s voice wavered, and even she didn’t believe that was true. “He’s dying.”
“I know.” Bringing her hand to his mouth, he brushed his lips over her knuckles and kissed them gently. Her stomach flip-flopped from the brief contact that carried a wallop. “But he can still talk, can’t he?”
“Well, yes, but…”
“I’ve got your back, Jordan.” Gavin lowered her hand to the glass counter and squeezed her fingers before releasing them. “Regardless of what went down between us, you were my friend long before anything else. I’m not letting you and your daughters go there alone.”
Jordan stood behind the counter utterly speechless and feeling like a quivering pile of jelly. A combination of surprise and relief swirled through her. As much as she hated to admit it, even to herself, she felt much better knowing that Gavin was going to be there with her.
This man, the one she hadn’t seen or spoken to in over a decade, expressed more kindness and concern for Jordan and her daughters than Ted had in the ten years they’d been married. She was still shaking when Gavin put a twenty on the counter before scooping up the flowers and heading to the door.
“Gavin?” She stilled. “Why?” she asked quietly. “Why would you do this for me?”
“Why wouldn’t I?” he countered.
“Are you going to answer all of my questions with a question?” Jordan tried to squelch the grin that bubbled up, but to no avail. Gavin always could make her smile, even if she was annoyed with him. It was both charming and infuriating; at the moment it was charming as all get out. “The girls—” She stopped herself and said, “We’ve all been through the wringer and—”
“So why don’t you tell me about it?”
“It’s complicated, Gavin.” She let out a slow breath and her shoulders sagged, the fight going right out of her. “Far too complicated to rehash here in the store.”
“You’re right. There’ll be plenty of time for talking later. I’ll see you in the morning,” he said with a wink. “And tell Lily that I’ll have my regular-person truck. If she gets Gracie to talk to me, I might even let ’em turn on the lights.”
Flowers in hand, Gavin strode out of the store. He jogged across the street toward the station while Jordan stood there like a stunned sheep. Her body still tingled from the feel of his lips on her flesh, and her head swam from his unexpected and certainly undeserved kindness.
She had been prepared for him to hate her. That was what she’d expected, and in many ways that would have made her homecoming easier. If he hated her, then there wouldn’t be anything to talk about. He’d have his life and she’d have hers.
End of story.
Until an hour ago, she’d thought her future was clearly laid out, and there would be no escaping the mistakes of her past. It looked like she was wrong—again.
The future, unlike the past, was yet to be written.