Authors: Stef Ann Holm
"Have you been busy with calls?" she questioned, but really meaning—"
Is everything okay at home
She wasn't sure how she was able to sense that something was wrong, but she was. Maybe it was because she had seen those same lines on her face while coming to the realization that her marriage was in trouble.
"No more than average." His eyes were a deep brown, not really an intense color, but very dark. "I've got to go. See you around."
Tony moved through the double-glass doors, feeling Natalie's gaze on his retreating back. He grew annoyed with himself by the transparency of his feelings—something she clearly saw, judging from the way she'd spoken to him. He never let his private emotions show on the job, yet here he was looking pathetic enough that his neighbor noticed.
The last few days had been hell, a chain reaction of events that left him numb. Kim hadn't denied her affair when he'd confronted her, and her subsequent admission of how long it had been going on was, in the end, inconsequential to him.
His marriage was over. The end had been a long time coming and now he was faced with a new set of uncertainties. Where was he going to live? What was going to happen to Parker?
For the past week, he and Kim set aside the chaos in their dissolved marriage for Parker's sake while Kim made arrangements to move out and in with her "boyfriend," a man Tony didn't know by name—didn't care to know by name. Kim would be taking Parker and the kitten with her. Tony had a hard time reconciling that. He had no legal claims on the little girl, but he loved her as if she were his own. He'd formed a bond with her, and yet the law said he had no rights. It was a hard truth to swallow.
He and Kim hadn't discussed divorce details. It was the unknown that unsettled Tony to a point of near distraction.
The down payment on their house had been made with his money, even though the title was in both their names. He regretted doing that; a stupid move of trust on his part. He was living in the home alone now, worried she would want her share of the equity, if not the entire house for herself. Tony knew he had to hire a lawyer, he just hadn't gotten around to it yet.
He filled the hours with overtime, taking shifts other than his own so the guys could spend the holiday week with their families. He hadn't told anyone at the station that his family had fallen apart.
Maybe in the deepest recesses of his mind he was in denial. At this point, even if Kim asked to take him back, he probably wouldn't. His reservations were too great. He could take the affair out of the equation and he'd still feel the same way. They'd just never been the right couple. He'd sort of known that from the start, but he'd turned a blind eye to his better judgment because he'd wanted to be married, to have a family. To be fair to Kim, he probably hadn't been there for her in the ways she needed.
Now he couldn't go back.
Tony climbed into the fire truck, flipped down the SCBA seat in the back and buckled himself in. Then he fit the heavy weight of the oxygen tank into his seat.
It was the dead of winter, the skies were a vibrant blue, not a cloud in them. The temperature was in the mid-forties and the parking lot was full of cars at the after-Christmas sales.
Tony slipped his headset on and listened to the captain talk into the microphone. Comments between the firemen were exchanged about the call, nothing significant for Tony to add to. He remained quiet, a rarity for him as he usually had a joke to tell.
As the driver turned over the engine, Tony rolled down the window. His skin felt hot in the turnout and he shrugged out of the coat and pulled off his fireproof hood.
The engine rolled forward, moving through the parking lot. The other two firefighters in front participated in a conversation while Tony gazed out the open window.
Little kids were getting out of a minivan, the mom smiling as the truck slowly drove past. A boy about ten years old waved with excitement; so did his siblings who were bundled up in winter coats. The mom joined in. They all waved and Tony waved back.
A part of him had always liked the attention, but public admiration wasn't what had made him want to be a fireman.
But right now, when he was filled with self-doubt, a part of him needed that assurance, needed to know he was a good guy.
"Now, don't come unglued—but Dad had a minor accident with the van," Sarah said, walking into the floral shed where Natalie was arranging roses for a twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.
She dropped her work shears. "He
"It's nothing and he's okay."
"He ran into the curb and all he did was puncture the tire."
Her breathing shallow, Natalie gasped, "What happened?"
"He swerved to avoid hitting a squirrel."
"Great! Better to hit the squirrel than to kill himself in an accident."
"But Natalie, he's all right. I'm heading out there and Steve's going to leave the office for a minute to go and change the tire."
"I should go."
"No, you stay here."
Sarah was walking back to the shop, Natalie following. The outside air was brisk with a bite to it. Once inside the cozy store, Natalie was picking up the phone.
"Don't you call him," Sarah cautioned, her eyes sending a warning glare. "I promised him you wouldn't."
"Well, I like that." Natalie set the receiver down. "He's driving my company van, and he's in an accident, and I'm concerned."
"He said you'd mother him and he wasn't in the mood."
Natalie was vaguely affronted and would have debated the issue if there hadn't been a modicum of truth to it. As the eldest daughter, and after Mom died, Natalie had taken on the role of making sure her father was nurtured and looked after—not that he needed her to do it.
She'd barely digested the bad news when a customer entered the shop, pulling Natalie's attention away from the accident.
And he wasn't just any customer.
In the midst of a crisis, Tony Cruz had appeared. She painted an instant smile on her mouth, all the while wishing he'd come at a different time—a time when she was mentally prepared and not under duress. She wanted to make a good impression.
Hat and Garden, with its charming atmosphere, had become the beat in her heart, the stride in her step, the first thought on her mind when she woke up each morning.
Letting Tony see that about her, knowing that this was a special place to her…well, she couldn't explain why, but it was important.
Instead of being calm, she felt the chaos building in her pulse as she greeted him. "Hi, Tony. I'm so glad you stopped by."
"Yeah, I should have done it sooner. But I've been working a lot."
Sarah was grabbing her purse and car keys from under the counter, giving Natalie a silent wave, when Meagan appeared from around a corner where the ladies' room and utility area were located. Meagan grabbed Sarah and mumbled something to her.
Natalie wondered what it could possibly be, but she had to tune out the two women. "I'm sure the fire stations are busier during the holidays."
"We had a pretty busy New Year's Eve a couple nights ago."
"Oh." Distracted, Natalie didn't like the look coming over Sarah's face as she and Meagan disappeared down the hallway.
Addressing Tony, Natalie remained pleasant, masking her distress. "Well, I'm glad you finally made it here."
Had she already said that
? "What can I help you with?"
"I need a bouquet."
"What's the occasion?"
Natalie smiled. He was a sweet man. "Well, there are all kinds of flowers you can choose from in the cooler here. We have an assortment from mums to daisies, roses to asters. I'm sure your wife will like whatever we come up with."
When Tony didn't readily respond, Natalie looked up at him, realizing he'd been quiet longer than a moment.
His expression darkened. "They aren't for my wife. They're for my mom."
The way he said it put a hitch in her heart. She couldn't find words fast enough.
He ended up continuing, "My wife moved out. We've split up."
"Oh," Natalie mouthed, adding nothing further for a few drawn-out seconds. "I'm sorry to hear that."
No wonder he'd seemed preoccupied when she and Cassie had run into him at the craft store. How could it have escaped her that his wife was no longer living across the street?
But with Cassie's visit, then departure, the shop, the craziness of the new year…
Her heart went out to Tony; she knew all too well what he felt like.
Sarah returned with Meagan in tow just as the shop phone rang. It was answered by Meagan, while Sarah said a brief hello to Tony. "Hi, I'm the sister—Sarah. I hate to interrupt, but I need Natalie for a second."
Natalie was steered away toward the exit porch, and the two of them stood just inside the doorway.
"What's the matter?" Natalie hissed in a lowered tone.
"The bathroom toilet flooded and the floor's all wet. We shut off the water, but I think it's a main water pipe or something. It's still trickling. I threw down a roll of paper towels to sort of keep it under control."
The pulsing knot in Natalie's head was tightened to a degree that she knew she'd need some aspirin to see her through. "Wonderful. Just what we don't need."
Still processing that piece of news, Meagan called softly to them, and when Natalie didn't respond, she said louder, "Natalie, phone call for you. It's Jonathon Falco."
Natalie smothered a groan.
Could things get any more complicated?
* * *
Natalie rang the doorbell, drawing in a deep breath of chilly air while she waited; her cheeks and nose were already cold. She hadn't thought to put her coat on— in fact, she really hadn't thought anything through.
She heard footfalls, then the door opened, and Tony Cruz's wide shoulders filled the opening.
"I brought you a bottle of wine," she uttered without preamble.
She recalled how yesterday, at the shop, he had seemed very restrained. She'd greeted him with her mind elsewhere and had been unable to offer her undivided condolences over his news. She thought this goodwill gesture might somehow make him feel better.
He put his forearm over the doorframe and leaned his body forward without speaking. Black lashes spiked his eyes. His eyes were darker than she recalled, a brown that was remote and distant.
"I'm sorry probably doesn't help…but I'm sorry." She tried to make her voice sound casual, nondescript. Understanding, yet not as if she'd come to be his confidante or therapist.
His gaze pierced the short distance between them, his mouth grim. Tired lines bracketed the corners of his eyes. He appeared as if he hadn't slept much lately. His clipped black hair was ruffled, and she fought a strange urge to smooth it.
The rich timbre of his voice enveloped her when he asked, "You want to come inside and help me drink it?"
She licked her dry lips, looked past him into the large, empty living room. Indecision caused her to hesitate. She hadn't really thought about drinking the wine with him. Or maybe she hadn't wanted to acknowledge the thought had crossed her mind.