Never Too Hot
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“You're welcome. I wish I could help more, but without a kid of my own to practice on I'm pretty much just standing here blowing smoke.”
Knowing this was a touchy subject for her, Isabel said, “Oh honey, I shouldn't complain. It's just that days like this make me wish I had a partner in this whole parenting thing. Someone to share the decisions with. To make it all easier. I thought it was hard when Josh was a baby and I was up all night with him, then had to pretend to be a fully functioning human being the next morning. But I'll tell you what — this moody teenager crap is even harder.”
“And totally normal,” Ginger had to remind her.
Isabel nodded. “You're right. If I keep letting the little things get to me I'll be completely out of my mind by the time he goes to college. Remind me to get you five cents out of the tip jar later. Counseling session officially over.”
Ginger hesitated for a moment, even though that was her cue to go to the storage room to hang up her bag and change into her black pants and button-down shirt.
She'd hoped to chat with Isabel about Connor. But it was clear that her friend already had enough on her mind with her son.
No big deal. A lot had changed in the eight months Ginger had been at the lake. She'd learned to speak up. Not to let people steamroll her. She'd been clear with Connor. Poplar Cove might have been his house as a kid, but it was her house now. If any work was going to be done on it while she held the lease, she'd say when, she'd say how much.
She didn't need Isabel to tell her that.
The traffic was crazy on Main Street and Connor had to park on the far end of the street from the Blue Mountain Lake Inn. Main Street was only one block long, but even though he hadn't been to the lake in over a decade, it felt like stepping back in time. Some of the storefronts were newer, shinier than he remembered, and there hadn't been brick-paved sidewalks when he was a kid, but the huge flower baskets were still hanging from the old-fashioned lampposts and the hardware and grocery stores were right where they'd always been.
He caught sight of himself in the window of a yarn store. Jesus, he looked like he was hunkering down for a storm, hunched and tense. The five a.m. cross-country flight was taking its toll. Connor was used to constant movement, not being cramped in a tiny seat for so many hours. A long hard run would help burn off some of the aggravations of the day. But first he'd get a room at the Inn.
Just for tonight. By tomorrow he'd make damn sure he'd worked out a way to get back into his own damn lakefront cabin.
Walking around the front of the Inn, he remembered going to piano and popcorn nights in the oversized great room with a fireplace big enough that a half dozen of them could stand up inside it. Looking at it now, he could hardly believe it was the same place. It now sported weatherproof windows, a new wing off the back, and extensive landscaping.
He pulled open the door and was surprised to see his old friend Stu Murphy standing behind the front desk.
They'd both been big fans of superhero comic books and had spent endless hours up in the Poplar Cove lofts reading by flashlight.
But Connor wasn't in any mood for a walk down memory lane. He should have known better than to come downtown, to the Inn, where he would run in to all these people who knew him as a kid. In a small town where everyone knew everything about everyone else, they'd all want to know about his scars. About what he was doing out here.
“Connor MacKenzie. How long has it been?” Stu said. “Glad to see you back in the Adirondacks.”
Connor worked to cover his black mood as he shook his friend's hand. “You work here now?”
“Actually, I own it. Sean and I bought the Inn a couple years ago.” Stu did a double take at Connor's scars and paled. “I heard you were a firefighter out west.”
“Yup. Sam and I are hotshots in Lake Tahoe.”
“Sounds great,” Stu said easily, his relief at not having to go there palpable. Just as Connor had known it would be.
Putting street clothes on the day he'd left the hospital, Connor had made the decision that he wasn't going to hide his scars from anyone, even if most people probably wished he would. He'd always been more comfortable in Tshirts. He ran hot, even in cold weather, always had.
His burns weren't some sort of battle scars that he would forever wear with pride, but he wasn't ashamed of what had happened either. Firefighters often got burned. It was the risk of the job. But also part of the adrenaline rush, the reason they were all out there. Because there was nothing better than bringing a fiery bitch to her knees, nothing more satisfying than knowing he'd saved another forest, another house, another life.
Still, he hadn't realized just how uncomfortable most people would be with his scars. Even people he'd thought were friends.
Ginger was one of the only people he'd ever come across who hadn't pretended not to notice. Instead, she'd blurted the first things that came into her head.
Her reaction almost felt like a welcome change.
“So what are you doing out here?” Stu asked.
“Sam's getting married here end of this month. I was planning to take the next few weeks to fix up Poplar Cove.”
Once he got Ginger to grant him access to his own house, that was.
“I'm getting married too.” Stu backed away from the counter and poked his head into the office behind the front desk. “Rebecca, do you have a minute? There's an old friend of mine I'd like you to meet.”
A pretty brunette came out and shook his hand. “Hi there,” she said as Stu made the introductions.
“It's always nice to meet another one of Stu's friends. I'm sure the two of you got up to a lot of trouble as kids.”
Just then Stu's cell phone rang. “Shoot. It's the bride again. I swear this is the last wedding we're having here. Ever again.”
Stu's fiance lowered her voice, grinning as he walked away. “At least I now know exactly the kind of bride I don't want to be.” She cocked her head to the side. “Were you just coming by to see Stu, or did you need something else?”
“I need a room. Just for tonight.”
Her face fell. “Oh, I'm so sorry, Connor. I wish we had one, but this wedding has simply taken over. Every single room. Even the ones that we don't usually rent out. These people have practically moved into the supply closets. And all the local B&Bs are booked too for the next few days. But I can make a few calls to some of the nearby towns if you have a few minutes.”