Never Too Hot
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The reproduction Coke-bottle clock behind the bar chimed loudly, three times, pulling Isabel from her memories.
“I can't believe I've kept you here for an hour, talking your ears off about ancient history.”
Ginger protested, saying no, of course she wanted to hear it, but Isabel could see the dark smudges beneath her eyes. Whatever had or hadn't happened with Connor the previous night, Ginger clearly hadn't gotten much sleep.
Pushing back her chair, Isabel said, “Let's get out of here.”
“But you haven't told me what happened yet, why the two of you broke up,” Ginger said. “I mean, it sounded like true love, like the two of you were meant to be together.”
“How about I give it to you in ten words or less?”
“He cheated on me. She got pregnant. He married her.”
“Wow,” Ginger said. “Ten words exactly.”
All Isabel could do was laugh. She'd long ago decided it was so much better than crying.
THERE WAS nothing quite like swimming for an hour in the crystal clear lake and yet Connor didn't feel nearly as loose and relaxed as he should have. Not after last night, after the things he'd said to Ginger, the fact that he'd practically had to chain her door shut to stay the hell away from her.
Thank God she was at work. It would give him a few hours to get a grip. To try to convince himself that just holding her hand hadn't rocked his world more than sex with any other woman would have.
He didn't have anything to give anyone else right now. Maybe if he'd met her two years ago they could have-Fuck. Why was he even going there? He'd never been a believer in love and marriage, not after watching his parents rip each other to shreds his whole life. He liked everything about women — the way they moved, smelled, came — but he'd never even come close to finding a woman special enough to make him want to rethink his take on relationships.
A beach towel around his hips as he walked up the stairs, his feet lightly dusted with sand, instead of continuing past Ginger's room, he stopped, absently rubbed one of the scarves hanging over her door between his thumb and forefinger.
He could still feel her, soft and warm, as he'd held her. And he could still remember the way she'd looked at him as she'd pulled his story from him, as if she'd experienced enough of her own darkness to understand his. No one, not his brother, not the rest of his crew — certainly not the psychologists hired by the Forest Service — had ever listened to him the way she had. Really listened without judgment, without any agenda of her own.
Wrenching himself away from her doorway, he shoved on some dry clothes and forcefully pushed Ginger out of his head. For the next hour, he walked through the house and made a long list of everything that needed to be done to get the place up to code.
With thousands of fires under his belt, he saw everything through a firefighter's eyes. His first task would be to redo the ancient electrical wiring and get a new stove in to replace the old two-burner stove and oven unit his grandmother had been so proud of when he was a kid. They needed fire alarms in every single room along with a fire extinguisher and escape ladders in the upstairs bedrooms and bathroom.
He needed to head to the hardware store to start buying supplies, but first it was time to get rid of the rental car. For the work he was going to be doing, especially when he got around to replacing the rotten logs around the living room, he needed a truck.
Picking up the phone, he called over to the only place in town where you could get a car. He was surprised when Tim Carlson picked up the phone.
Damn it, his old friends kept popping up around every corner. And he was even less in the mood for a round of catch-up today. Still, he needed a truck and ten minutes later he was pulling up outside a newly painted white farmhouse.
He was barely out of the car when a pretty little toddler with pigtails ran out to greet him.
“Hi!” she yelled, her chubby hand waving up and down.
Squatting down to her level, as he took in her one-toothed smile and big brown eyes, a smile won out over his dark mood.
“Hey there, pretty lady. I'm Connor.”
The toddler babbled something that he assumed was her name just as his friend, Tim, came and swooped her up into his arms. She giggled as he lifted her above his head, then handed her off to her mother who had just come outside to join them.
“Great to see you again,” Tim said, giving Connor a one-armed hug before introducing him to his wife. “Kelsey, this is Connor.” As they shook hands, his friend added, “Now you see why I waited until we were married to introduce you to this guy. Connor and his brother Sam made the rest of us look like sorry alternatives.”
Laughing, she shifted the baby to her other hip. “This is Holly.” Holly yawned and rubbed her eyes. “I'm going to put her down for her morning nap. When you boys are done playing with trucks, brunch will be ready.”
Connor quickly learned that Tim ran Carlson Construction and was now one of the main home builders in town. Five years ago he'd gotten married, chucked in his life in the city and started up the small-town business. On the side, he fixed up old trucks and when he'd gotten to about a dozen, his wife had told him he might as well buy the car lot too. So he did.
Considering the mood he'd been in when he'd gotten out of the car, Connor was surprised to realize he was almost relaxed as they walked across a newly mowed field where a trio of horses were feeding. It had been a long time since he'd hung out with a guy who wasn't a firefighter, who didn't constantly remind him of everything he wasn't doing.
“Nice looking family you've got there,” Connor said.
“Thanks. We're happy. And I'm glad Holly's playing outside in the grass and dirt, rather than on sidewalks and chain-link-fenced parks.” He shot Connor a speculative glance. “What the hell happened to your hands, man?”
Connor was starting to think he should get a shirt made that said, WILDFIRES ARE A BITCH on it.
“Gotta learn to run faster.”
“Sure,” Tim said, “you don't need to go into the whole deal. You must be sick of talking about it.”
But the truth was, he really hadn't talked about it to anyone. Not until last night with Ginger. Suddenly, Connor realized he was sick of acting like it hadn't happened when anyone with working eyes could see that it had.