Never Too Hot
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“Every summer I got to hang out with fifty of my best overweight friends. I could quote the calorie handbook to you verbatim.”
He hated everything about the idea of fat camp. Especially when there was nothing wrong with Ginger. Nothing at all.
“I still don't get it. Why would they have sent you to-”
No, he wasn't going to say the words. Not when they didn't fit her.
On the surface Ginger seemed so strong. She hadn't taken any of his bull, had come right back at him every time.
But now, for the first time, he saw a hint of the fragility she'd been hiding.
“I guess my parents thought life would be easier for me if I were prettier, if I could wear the same things everyone else did. But like I said, I'm over it.” She held out her arms. “After my divorce, I figured it was time for a new approach. To say this is me. Take it or leave it.”
Jesus, she didn't get it, how badly he wanted to take it. Take her. Rage rushed through him at what that prick of an ex-husband had said to her, at the way her parents had belittled her beauty; he forgot his vow to stay in neutral territory.
“The first moment I saw you standing on the porch in your cutoff shorts and tight little shirt, I wanted you.”
Ginger pushed her chair back so fast the loud scrape of the chair echoed all through the porch. She grabbed their plates.
“I'll clear this up.”
But the kitchen wasn't far enough away, didn't give her the space she needed to pull herself back together.
She'd been about to throw herself at him, about to beg him to make love to her, to shove the plates and food off the dining table and pull him down over her as a thank-you not just for saying something so incredibly sweet, but for getting her art in a way few other people ever had.
Only, she'd just told him her whole sob story. If anything had happened just then she would feel like it was out of pity.
He walked into the kitchen holding the rest of the dishes, his large presence seeming to suck up all the air in the room.
“I was out of line. Right now and last night.”
Knowing they were both trying to stay above the waterline tonight, she simply said, “Don't worry about it, Connor. Not any of it.”
Pulling from a past that involved plenty of small talk, she purposefully shifted to a more innocuous subject.
“I'd love to know what the lake was like when you were a kid. I always dreamed of coming to a place like this.”
He moved over to the sink, turned it on to wash the dishes by hand. “I learned to swim when I was three and my brother shoved me off the end of the dock.” At her gasp, he said, “Don't worry. He wouldn't have let me drown.
That's what he says, anyway. The rest of the summer I barely came out of the lake at all, except to crew with my grandfather in his Sun Fish.”
“What about when you were a teenager, was it still as much fun?”
“Sure,” he said, his voice more easy than she'd yet to hear. “Sam and I spent one summer rebuilding a busted-up party boat from scratch with some buddies. Did donuts in the middle of the lake until the ranger came out to give us a ticket for reckless driving.”
“How could you stay away for so long?” she asked “You obviously love it here.”
His hands stilled in the soapy water. “I already told you. I had a job to do.”
“Of course firefighting is important,” she agreed, “but what about the rest of your life? You can't be a superhero twenty-four-seven. Surely the Forest Service doesn't expect you to give up everything for the job.”
“No one forced me to keep going out there.” He was defensive now, the sponge scraping at the already clean plate. “It was my choice. I've never wanted another life. Never wanted anything else.”
“Seriously? There's nothing else you want? Nothing?”
After last night, she'd told herself she wasn't going to push him so hard again, but she couldn't help it. Not when she couldn't fully grasp what he was saying.
“You don't want a family? Kids? Something beyond your job?”
“After the fire I saw how fast it could all go up in smoke. How damn easy it would be for me to walk out the door one morning and not come back. I would never want to leave a family behind. And I can't live without fire. So, yeah, I've made my choice.”
Now it was her turn to apologize. “It's very commendable. Choosing firefighting over everything else. I didn't mean to make it sound like your choice is wrong. I'm just not sure I could make the same one.”
He slammed a plate into the drying rack. “Don't you think I've gone over this a hundred times? That maybe if I'd taken some time off, gotten more sleep, spent some time with someone who wasn't also living and breathing fire, that I could have outrun the flames?”
“What happened in Lake Tahoe wasn't your fault, Connor.”
“One of our guys died in that fire. Jamie. He was just a kid. A rookie thrilled to be working his first couple of fires for the summer.”
She wanted to put her arms around him, but after last night touching him seemed like the worst possible option.
Not unless she wanted to end up in his arms again.
Which she did.
She gripped the dish towel tightly. “I'm sure you and your crew did everything you could to save him.”
“They were down one man. Me. I should have been out there with Jamie when the bomb went off. Maybe I could have seen that something wasn't right and got him out in time. Instead he was out there all alone, without a chance in hell. I should be grateful to be able to stand here and wash the dishes. I can run and swim, get back out in the woods whenever I want to. But all I can do is complain about my hands, about not being allowed to do my job.”
He left the room and she wanted to go after him, to force him to see that he was doing the best he could, better than most, and that he needed to stop beating up on himself for being human.
But something told her he wouldn't hear her. Not tonight.
Not yet. Maybe not ever.
She wasn't surprised when she heard him start up his truck and drive away.
The phone rang and she'd been so deep in her thoughts she nearly dropped the plate she'd been holding. “I'm sorry to disturb you tonight,” a man said, “but I was wondering if my son was there by any chance?”