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.