All Wrapped Up (A Pine Mountain Novel) (20 page)

BOOK: All Wrapped Up (A Pine Mountain Novel)
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Ava, who had come right over when he’d called, no questions asked. Ava, who had just shuddered and screamed beneath his hands, who’d made him shudder and scream right
back.
Ava, who had just looked at him with nothing but pure, sweet honesty as she’d asked
what about you?
“I don’t know,” Brennan admitted, balancing his words against the emotions flinging themselves around in his head. “I get that most people think what I did at Joe’s is heroic.” He countered her brows-up shock with a shake of his head. “And yes. In a way, it is. But I didn’t become a firefighter
for the recognition. All the fanfare feels unnecessary.”
“Hmm. So for you, even something big like risking your life to save someone else’s is all just part of the job.” Ava tipped her head, her nearly black bangs sweeping down over one eye as she processed his words and watched his movements at the cooktop. She took in both with such natural interest that the words just kept tripping out of
his mouth.
“Exactly. It’s important, but it’s also what I was trained for.” He grabbed a carton of milk from the fridge, bare feet
shushing
over the floor. “I mean, wouldn’t you feel weird if people made a huge deal every time you wrote a story? It’s what you do.”
Ava laughed. “Come on, Brennan. Saving Matthew Wilson from a burning grocery store is a far cry from me writing about the Riverside
Turnip Festival. It’s not even apples and oranges. More like apples and . . . well, turnips.”
“On the surface, maybe. But let me ask you this. Do you ever think twice about a really difficult story? Or did you treat the Turnip Festival the same as you did the story on the fire?”
“Stories are stories. They’re all important,” she said, emphatically. “It wouldn’t be right to pay attention to
only the big ones.”
“Right.” Brennan cracked a few eggs into a bowl at the counter, adding just enough milk and some salt and pepper before passing it to Ava. “Being a firefighter is the same. Whether I’m running into a five-alarm fire or pulling a kitten out of a neighborhood oak tree, it all matters. And it’s all part of the job.”
“Have you ever been to a five-alarm fire?” she asked, and
God damn it, he’d waltzed right into that one, hadn’t he?
He yanked the refrigerator door open, willing his hand to stop shaking.
Breathe. In. Out.
“Once.”
Ava clutched the bowl to her chest, her delayed realization obvious. “I’m sorry. That was a really stupid question. What, um, what do you want me to do with this?”
She plunked the bowl to the countertop in front of her and started rummaging
through his utensil drawer in a clear bid to divert the subject, and a flare of guilt twisted behind his sternum.
“It’s okay. You’re kind of programmed to ask questions,” he said, his arm brushing against hers as he reached in to scoop a fork from the drawer.
Ava paused for only a second before taking it from his fingers. “Just like you’re kind of programmed to dodge them, huh?”
The words
held no accusation, and hell, it wasn’t as if she was wrong, anyway. Firefighters rarely got loose lipped about the darker parts of the job, with each other or anyone else.
When the shit hit the fan, Brennan had been able to count on the firefighters at Station Eight for two things. To always have his six, and to never say a single syllable after a tough call.
He hadn’t spoken to Cole or Alex
in nearly two and a half years.
“There are parts that are hard to air out, yeah,” Brennan admitted, the rest of his past grinding to a stop in his throat.
“I understand,” Ava said. “None of my friends here in the Blue Ridge know about my parents. Nadine was the only one, and even then, we never talked about it before she moved. I don’t think either of us quite knew what to say. But . . .”
She broke off, shifting her weight from one bare foot to the other before exhaling in a wordless
here goes nothing
. “Just because the past is painful doesn’t mean it’s all bad. Don’t get me wrong—growing up with abusive parents was pretty horrible. But if I forgot my past completely, I wouldn’t be who I am. As crappy as it was, my past makes me stronger in the present. Sharing the truth with you
made me realize that. So I guess what I’m trying to say is, sometimes stories are worth telling. Even if they’re difficult.”
For a second, Brennan stood completely poleaxed on the linoleum. Yes, he’d give anything to forget that fateful, awful night that he’d climbed into the back step of Engine Eight for the last time. But it had never crossed his mind that stuffing back the past also meant
forgetting who he’d been, things that had been sewn into his very fabric, not just as a firefighter, but as a person.
Losing the past would mean forgetting Mason. And
fuck
. Brennan was supposed to have had the guy’s back. He owed his best friend so much more than that.
Even if it meant Brennan would have to spill his secrets in order to man up.
“I got hurt in an apartment fire,” he said,
the words tasting rusty in his mouth. Brennan reached for the bowl Ava had set on the counter, desperate for something to focus on other than the memory welling up in his mind like a gut-wrenching wound.
Ava nodded, passing the fork back over as if he’d broadcast his need for control, even over something as inconsequential as scrambled eggs. “Sounds like a big call,” she said.
“The fire started
out small enough, but the building was old.” Christ, the speed with which the flames had rolled over every surface, unrelenting and eerily graceful, had damn near stunned him into place in that first hallway. “We had to get everyone out before we could even think about containing the flames. Even with squad on scene too, it was rough. The building was one of the biggest in Fairview. Plus, it
was the middle of the night, so nearly everyone was home and in bed.”
Brennan stopped, measuring his breaths along with the soft
clink-clink-clink
of the fork as he whisked the eggs. His heartbeat slammed in his chest, pushing a rush of white noise through his ears while the muscles in his back knotted over, one by one. But Ava stood firm beside him at the counter, and her quiet presence sent
more words fumbling past his lips.
“We do searches in pairs, but visibility was nil after only a few minutes. A lot of tenants managed to get out on their own, but some needed help, especially as the fire spread.”
“I’m sure they must have been frightened,” Ava said, and he nodded in return.
“That’s an understatement.” The sharp sound of a mother’s voice, desperately begging him and Mason
to find her son, echoed through his mind, and damn it . . . he couldn’t do this. If Brennan unleashed the entire story, he wouldn’t be able to control his anger, his grief.
His guilt.
Above all, have each other’s backs.
Ava slid the bowl from his unsteady hands, allowing him to laser in on both his waning calm and the skillet he’d left perched over the dormant burner. He cleared his throat,
grabbing the butter he’d taken from the fridge along with his resolve.
“Everyone inside the building was pretty much in a full panic. No one could see, and even getting from apartment to apartment was tough going after a few minutes,” he continued. “But when the rubber meets the road, that’s when we’ve got to be the most calm. It’s against human nature to want to run
into
a burning building.
But I was trained to do the things that scare the hell out of most people. And everything I’d ever trained for came down to that call on that night.”
“God, Nick. I can’t even imagine how hard it must’ve been.” The honesty glinting in Ava’s bright green eyes hooked directly into Brennan’s chest, pulling the memories from his mind to his mouth.
“To be honest, even with the countless calls I’d
been on before that, and all the rescue squad training on top of it, I couldn’t have imagined it either. For every person we got to safety, two more popped up in their place needing help. Between the smoke and the darkness, we might as well have been blindfolded and shoved inside a pressure cooker. Keeping accurate track of which spaces we’d already cleared was damn near impossible.”
Brennan
had never admitted out loud how gut-twistingly overwhelming that fire had been—it wasn’t like there was room to show fear or, hell, anything other than balls to the wall certainty when a call got really hairy. But Christ, the fire that night had slashed into them with a thousand razor-sharp teeth. There hadn’t been time for hesitation, let alone fear. Not until after, and then it was too late.
“But you still helped those people get out. They wouldn’t have been able to escape that fire without you,” Ava said. She reached out to brush her fingers over his forearm, and the touch was so simple and strong and downright vital that it steadied him despite the gut reactions ricocheting through his veins.
“Yes.” All of them save one, and of course that one would stick in his ribs for the
rest of his life. Damn it, he really
couldn’t
tell Ava this part. As much as Brennan wanted to respect Mason’s memory, the impulsive decision he’d made to lead his best friend up to the third floor to look for that little boy was Brennan’s burden to bear. He didn’t deserve to lessen the load by airing it out.
He needed to carry the weight, forever. End of fucking story.
“Anyway, I got hurt
when part of the floor collapsed. The injuries were a career-breaker, and you know the rest.”
Brennan waited, mentally doubling down for the detail-seeking questions Ava was sure to launch in his direction.
Only, she didn’t. “I’m really sorry you were hurt,” she said, capping off the words with a no-nonsense dip of her chin. A second later, she reached for the bowl on the counter, picking
it up like business as usual, and damn, she couldn’t have thrown him for a bigger loop if she’d started belting out show tunes right there on the linoleum.
Scooping up the fork, Ava started whisking the eggs, but her lack of kitchen experience sent a splash of the mixture over the edge of the bowl and onto the hand he’d planted over the counter.
“Shit,” she whispered, her gaze yanking up to
his. “Sorry.”
The flush on her face, so natural and sweet, smoothed out Brennan’s emotions. “You really weren’t kidding about making a mess in the kitchen, huh?”
“At least I warned you,” she said, biting her lip as she grabbed a paper towel from the counter to help wipe up the spill.
“You did.”
For a minute, the only thing that passed between them was the click of the burner and the heady
scent of butter melting in the skillet, and the quiet allowed Brennan to recalibrate. He might not want to stitch his entire heart all over his sleeve, but talking to Ava about his past, even if only a little bit, hadn’t been as bad as he’d expected.
He slid her a glance, and yeah, still freaking sexy, even in his T-shirt. “So do you want to try again with the eggs here?”
“Seriously?” she
asked, although the question was oddly devoid of her trademark sarcasm. “You don’t have to humor me to save my feelings. I’m clearly not chef material.”
Damn, she was tough. More on herself than anything else. Too bad for her, Brennan had her number. “It’s scrambled eggs, Spitfire. Not rocket science. So are you going to do this or not?”
Ava chirped out a laugh that shot all the way through
him, ushering away the last remaining scraps of his unease. “Did you just
dare
me to cook?”
It took every ounce of Brennan’s self-control not to turn off the stove, chuck the eggs, and have Ava for dinner instead, right here on his kitchen counter. “Yup.”
She plucked the spatula from his hand, pointing it at him with a sassy, sexy smile as she took his challenge head-on.
“Careful what you
wish for, Nick Brennan. You just might get it.”
Chapter Twenty
Ava stared at the screen on her laptop so hard, it was a wonder the damn thing didn’t cave in from the pressure. The pages of her faded blue notebook were crammed with so much information that the notes spilled over into the margins, bursting with ideas and quotes and Web site references on first responders. Layla had eagerly pitched in by looking for photos to back up Ava’s
findings, cherry-picking the best ones to go with Ava’s notes. Ian had offered up the name and number of a lieutenant friend of his in Bealetown when she’d reluctantly admitted to him that she’d been working on the piece, and even Gary had essentially left her alone while she poured herself into all things hero.
She’d spent the last six days up to her chin in research on firefighters and rescue
squads, determined to write Nick Brennan’s story in a way that would show the entire Blue Ridge how deserving he was—how deserving
all
these men and women were—of praise and respect.
Because the minute he’d told her the heartbreaking details of how he’d been hurt in that apartment fire, it had hammered home what she already knew. Brennan
did
have a story beneath his dark and broody exterior,
and it was one worth telling. Ava was dead-set on showing him how worthy he was despite the damage that had been done.
The best way she knew how to do that was with words.
“Wow.” Ava’s sister-in-law Lily’s voice snagged her out of her work-induced twilight zone, bringing her back to the soft lights and mouthwatering smells of the Sweet Life. “That must be one hell of a story. You haven’t even
touched your cookies, and those linzers are your favorite.”
Lily gestured to the side table at Ava’s elbow, where a plate brimming with delicate jam-filled sweets gleamed up at her like tiny stained glass windows.
“They are,” Ava agreed, her chest twingeing with remorse as she slid a cookie from the plate. The flaky, rich butter cookie combined with a hint of strawberry tartness on her tongue,
and holy cow, her brother was a culinary rocket scientist. “I guess I lost track of time.”
“That’s what Sunday afternoons are for. Especially around here.” Lily’s gaze swiveled over the cozy interior of the empty dining room as she plopped down next to Ava on the well-cushioned sofa. “So, tell me about this article that’s got you all wrapped up.”
“Uh.” The ungraceful grunt was all Ava could
manage around the sudden trepidation boomeranging through her veins. Yes, she was certain her rescue squad story deserved to be told, and double yes, she knew beyond any and all doubt she could tell it poignantly, with an emotion that would impact everyone who read it.
But Ava had spent a week’s worth of nights chasing away the chill of winter in Brennan’s bed, and her sex life wasn’t the only
thing getting hotter by the millisecond.
Which was more than a little problematic, seeing as how she’d kept her jaded, cynical heart locked in an ice age for the last seven years.
“I’m writing a personal interest piece,” Ava said, dipping her toes back into the conversation with care. As much as she wanted to keep her story under wraps until it ran, right after Christmas, putting Lily off
altogether would be rude.
“Ooooh.” Lily’s eyes sparked with interest, and she rubbed the tiny baby bump over her apron with one hand. “Better than the holiday pageant? Because those kids were really cute.”
Ava bit back the urge to wince at the mention of her last assignment, turning the expression into a smile over Lily’s genuine enthusiasm. “Yeah.” She hesitated, not sure if she should say
more, but oh, screw it. Brennan’s story was going to save her career, and the truth was, Ava was two degrees from exploding with excitement over writing it. “Actually, I’m putting together an in-depth article on firefighters.”
“Wow. That story you did a couple of weeks ago on the fire at Joe’s must’ve really sparked your creativity, huh?”
Biggest. Euphemism. Ever.
“Ahhh, yeah. I’d say that’s
pretty accurate.”
“Ava.” Lily drew the word out like warm saltwater taffy. “This wouldn’t have anything to do with your exclusive peek at a tall, dark, and totally secretive bar manager, would it?”
“Why would you think that?” Heat prickled all the way to Ava’s temples, but Lily offered no quarter.
“Because he’s completely good looking, your blush matches those poinsettia plants over there,
and you just answered my question with a question. I know you’re a reporter and that makes you naturally inquisitive, but come on, sweetie. I didn’t just fall off the apple cart. Plus”—Lily paused to nudge Ava’s knee with her own—“if I’m not mistaken, you’re covering up yesterday’s shirt with a Double Shot hoodie that’s three sizes too big for you.”
Well, crap. Ava should’ve known her meticulous
sister-in-law would notice her idiot blush and her best-effort stab at recycling her couture. But really, it wasn’t Ava’s fault that Brennan had seduced her into staying at his place all weekend long. A girl only had so much willpower.
“Okay, okay,” Ava said, ducking her chin into the ocean-scented black fleece, and great—now she was grinning too. “Brennan is the key to the article I’m writing,
and he and I have been spending a lot of time together lately. But it’s not that big a deal.”
“Oh yeah, I totally got that from your Cheshire cat impersonation.” Lily snorted, although the gesture was more playful than rude.
“Just because I’m enjoying myself doesn’t mean things are serious,” Ava said, sliding the plate of cookies between them on the couch. “Let’s face it—I’m not exactly a
shining example when it comes to stellar relationships with the opposite sex.”
Lily picked up a cookie, nibbling the edge. “Do you want to be?”
Ava’s pulse took the slingshot route through her veins. “What do you mean?”
“You just seem happy, and I’ve never seen you grin like that over a guy before.” Lily popped the rest of the cookie into her mouth before adding, “Being serious about someone
you really like isn’t such a bad thing. Even for cynical you.”
Ava paused. She’d never made any bones about her views on relationships, and it wasn’t like Lily was wrong about her current state of happiness. At least her sister-in-law had nailed two of the three.
“My hanging out with Brennan
isn’t
really a bad thing,” Ava finally said. “But we’re keeping things casual. Also, let’s face it”—she
aimed a pointed glance toward the door leading back to the Sweet Life’s kitchen—“Pete is just a smidge overprotective as it is. If he finds out I’ve spent every night this week at Brennan’s place, his response would be anything but laid back.”
“Please.” Lily bit into another cookie, pausing for only a minute to let a blissful
mmm
eke out before she added, “You can take my word for it. Pete’s
no saint in that department. He may mean well, but he has no room to get uppity.”
“Argh!” Ava barked out a laugh, even as she resisted the urge to jam her hands over her ears and start belting out
la-la-la
to block out the image parading across her brain. “Look, I get that you two didn’t get pregnant via Immaculate Conception, but come on. That’s my brother.”
“Exactly,” Lily flipped back,
shifting against the oversized leather couch cushions to pin her with an I-mean-it stare. “He’s your brother, not your keeper. He’s protective of your well-being, and he’s got good reasons for that.” What her words lost in edge, they picked up in emotion as she gave Ava’s hand a quick squeeze. “But you’re twenty-nine. If he can’t handle the concept of you having a little hot, mutually exclusive sex
with someone you like . . .”
“Jeez, Lil. You’re not pulling any punches, huh?” Ava hooked her arm over the back of the sofa, making triple-sure her brother wasn’t around to overhear them. She should’ve known matter-of-fact Lily would throw it all out there as is.
“I’m sorry,” Lily said, her expression telling Ava she meant it. “I didn’t mean to embarrass you. Or pry.”
Ava paused, fiddling
with the zipper on her borrowed hoodie. Ah, to hell with it. “You’re not prying. And you’re also not wrong.” The admission tasted decadent on her tongue, spurring her to share more. “But you and Pete are all I’ve got, and the last thing he needs right now is to worry about my relationship status.”
“And your relationship status is . . . ?”
A pang unraveled in Ava’s belly, but she couldn’t deny
the kernel of truth nestled tightly beneath it. “My relationship status is pretty freaking enamored with Nick Brennan.”
In hushed tones, she offered Lily the story of how she and Brennan had originally met. Being well versed in both Pete’s and Ava’s past, Lily’s gaze flashed with understanding as Ava explained her hasty departure from Sapphire Island, then lit with sisterly happiness as Ava
copped to how seamlessly she and Brennan had gotten reacquainted over the last couple of weeks.
“Oh my God, sweetie. You really
do
like him.”
“I don’t know,” Ava said, going for the full-on confession even though her defenses were screaming at her to toughen up and go the no-big-deal route. “I mean, okay. I do like him. But as amazing as I feel when we’re together, the whole thing scares the
crap out of me too. I don’t want it to get serious.”
Lily’s blond curls bounced off her shoulders in an adamant head shake. “Ava, listen to me. You have a good heart. I understand why you’re feeling wary, but don’t run just because you’re scared this thing with Brennan might not work out.”
“But what if . . .” Ava stopped, her heart pounding an unsteady rhythm as the rest of her words rushed
out on a whisper. “What if I’m scared things
will
work out? I fell in love with him once, Lily, and I screwed it up enough to lose seven whole years. What if I fall for him again and I lose even more than that? Or worse yet, he does? I just can’t risk it.”
“Yes, if you take the risk, you both might lose everything,” Lily said, sending a streak of shock between Ava’s ribs.
“What?” Was she serious?
“I love you, honey, but your brother taught me a long time ago not to bullshit a bullshitter, so I’m just going to give it to you straight. Deciding to be with somebody
is
a risk, and with a past like yours, it’s a pretty scary one. Sometimes, relationships don’t work out and hearts get broken.”
Ava dropped her forehead to her hands. “If this is supposed to be a pep talk, we need to work on
your rah-rah skills.”
“I’m not done,” Lily argued, albeit without heat. She scooped up Ava’s fingers, looking her directly in the eyes. “You wouldn’t listen if it was
all
hearts and giggles, now would you?”
Ooookay. So Lily had a point. “I guess not.”
“I know not. While some relationships don’t work out, some do. I get that I’m about to border on total sapdom here, but I’m a firm believer
that if you take the leap for the right person, they’ll catch you. Even if you surprise them by jumping.”
All the deep breaths in the world couldn’t temper the
holy shit
coursing through Ava’s veins. “Did Pete catch you?”
Lily’s face broke into an ear-to-ear grin. “Right after I was done catching him. We kind of padded each other’s landing.”
“And you weren’t afraid he wouldn’t?” Ava asked,
but Lily’s total lack of hesitation squashed the flare of doubt lurking in her brain.
“Maybe at first. But once I realized how I felt, I knew I’d do whatever it took to show him what he meant to me.”
On second thought,
holy shit
didn’t even begin to cover this. Ava hadn’t thought twice about diving into Brennan’s story—she’d known all along how much it deserved to be told.
But diving into
his arms—to stay this time——felt like a whole different ball game.
“Did you ever think putting yourself on the line like that with Pete might be the biggest risk of all?”
“Hell yes.” Lily’s laugh echoed between them, strangely knocking Ava’s tension down a notch. “I tried to beat him in a widely publicized TV baking competition, remember? But it was
how
I tried to beat him that made the difference.”
“I’m sorry,” Ava admitted, and really, there should be a handbook for all this relationship stuff. “I don’t understand.”
“I stayed true to myself, and I did what was in my heart. If you do that, everything else has a way of falling into place.”
Ava blinked in a desperate effort to tame her swirling thoughts. But the longer she sat there, the louder and more insistent her gut instinct became.
If she stayed true to herself—deep down true to her roots—she’d jump into Brennan’s arms just as fast and as sure as she’d jumped into his story.
No matter how vulnerable it made her. No matter how uncharted the territory.
No matter what the risk.
 
 
Brennan was up to his elbows in an unremarkable Monday post-dinner shift when his cell phone started doing the jump-and-jangle in
the back pocket of his jeans.
“What the hell?” he murmured, sliding the thing from its usual hiding place. Less than a half dozen people had the number, and nearly all of them were sharing the same space with him right at this very moment.
Except his sister, whose smiling image greeted him like a gut punch from the screen of his caller ID. Brennan’s eyes did a quick tour of the Double Shot’s
bar area, merrily lit with strings of tiny colored bulbs, and he reluctantly sent the call to voice mail.
Christmas—and Ellie’s wedding along with it—was five days away. Less than a week from now, he’d be lurking in the shadows of Saint Mark’s Church, watching his sister rehearse her way down the aisle and trying like hell not to think of the last time he’d been in the place.
Damn it, he missed
his best friend.
“Hey. You okay in there?” Ava’s voice threaded past the sudden squeeze of both his memory and his back muscles as she emerged from the hallway leading to the restrooms, and he stuffed his phone back into his pocket with a nod.
BOOK: All Wrapped Up (A Pine Mountain Novel)
10.12Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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