Posted by Book Loving Pixies
Alex sat back against his bar stool, his mood in the shitter despite the cold beer in his hand and the warm smile of the waitress who’d brought it. But the ten hours he’d spent hitting the bricks in Hope House’s kitchen today had done their level best to kill both his stamina and his patience.
The grunt work, however, couldn’t even hold a flamethrower to his new boss.
Alex tilted his bottle to his lips, swallowing a long, smooth sip of pale ale to cover his frown. Yeah, he’d cop to the fact that he hadn’t come out of the gate with a stellar first impression, but it wasn’t as if he’d meant to drift off to dreamland while he’d waited for Zoe in the dining room. With the circadian rhythms that went hand in hand with Alex’s job, five minutes in the dark meant one of two things—either he was falling asleep or getting laid. He had to admit, when he’d first seen Zoe standing there in Hope House’s dining room, with those blazing brown eyes and jeans that showcased more curves than a Grand Prix racetrack, the option behind door number two had seemed awfully freaking appealing.
Until he’d realized who she was. But how the hell was
he supposed to know his captain’s only daughter had ditched out on her fancy career as an up-and-coming chef
to direct a small-time soup kitchen in Fairview’s projects? Or that she seemed to have been living on a steady diet of no-risks, all-rules since he’d last seen her five years ago?
Or that despite the fact that she’d pulled a Judge Judy on his ass over the way he’d landed his community service sentence, then met his cold shoulder with an equally arctic counterpart as she’d worked him into the kitchen tiles, he still found her unbelievably and unequivocally hot as hell.
God, he was screwed. And not even in a way that would leave a smile on his face.
“What’s the matter, Donovan? One day of plates and pots enough to send you around the bend?”
Alex blinked himself back to his usual table in Bellyflop’s bar area just in time to catch the good-natured glint in the eyes of his former squad mate Nick Brennan. If anyone knew the twists and trials of working in a professional kitchen, it was definitely Brennan. After suffering a career-ending injury two and a half years ago, the guy had spent his time doing exactly that before coming back to Fairview last month to teach at the fire academy.
After all, once a firefighter . . .
“Laugh it up, fry boy,” Alex said, giving up half a grin before sliding off his padded leather bar stool to shake his buddy’s hand. “I take it you heard about my disagreement with McManus.”
“Who hasn’t? The story’s all over the department.” Brennan tipped his darkly stubbled chin at their passing waitress, pointing to Alex’s beer bottle with one hand while holding up two fingers with the other as he parked himself across the table. “Gotta hand it to you, dude. When it comes to going all-in, you are definitely committed.”
Alex shrugged. He’d had the same philosophy for the last twelve years, and while it might’ve gotten him into a bunch of scrapes, his all-in, all-the-time mind-set was definitely better than the alternative. “From where I sit, there’s really no other way to be. After all, Cap’s not running a knitting circle. We either take risks or people get hurt.”
“You’re preaching to the choir. Believe me, I remember what goes down on shift.” Brennan plucked a specials menu from between the salt and pepper shakers on the table to give it a nice, long look-see, and even though his expression didn’t vary from its terminally easygoing status, guilt poked holes in Alex’s chest all the same. Brennan had been injured the same night they’d lost Mason in that gut-twisting apartment fire. One minute, they’d all been clearing the building, business as usual. The next, part of the third floor had collapsed, Brennan’s career had been shattered along with a pair of his vertebrae, and Mason was gone.
And wasn’t that one more balls-out reminder that life was short.
“Yeah.” He finished the last of his beer, the empty bottle finding the polished wood table with a thunk, and Brennan leaned in, his voice notched low against the music spilling down from the overhead speakers.
“Listen, Teflon, I get where your head is, but do you think maybe—”
“Well, well, look who it is! I heard this guy’s gonna be the next Martha Stewart.” Tom O’Keefe, one of Station Eight’s paramedics, arrived at the table, clapping his palm over Alex’s with a wry laugh. Cole followed behind him, sending a thread of relief beneath Alex’s breastbone. While he’d never disrespect Mason’s memory, giving his emotions airtime—especially in the middle of a moderately populated sports bar—wasn’t part of Alex’s game plan. The past was past. What mattered was the moment you were in, and not a whole hell of a lot more.
After all, if you weren’t busy living, you were busy dying, and no way was he going out with a fizzle instead of a slam-fucking-bang.
“You’re hilarious, O’Keefe. Really. Asshole,” Alex tacked on, but his buddy just lifted his brows in an exaggerated waggle.
“Oh, now you’re just flirting with me.” O’Keefe shrugged out of his dark blue quilted FFD jacket as the waitress delivered Alex and Brennan’s beers, and he twirled his finger in a tight circle over the table as he put in an order to make the round complete. “So,” he said, commandeering the bar stool across from Brennan and next to Cole. “All kidding aside, the house is too quiet without your mouthy ass. What’s the word with this community service thing?”
Alex rolled his eyes, suddenly grateful for the fresh beer in his hand. “The word is, the next four weeks are going to be an exercise in futility.”
“You’re actually going to do the whole four weeks?” Brennan’s dark brows winged upward, and as much as it burned, Alex met his buddy’s shock with a resigned nod.
“Don’t get me wrong. I’m not planning on any circle-oflove transformations while I log my time. But as far as the community service goes, I don’t have a choice.” Christ, this whole thing was such a waste of time and resources. He should be out there fighting fires, not serving up dry sandwiches in some cafeteria line because that idiot McManus was suffering from a bruised ass and an ego to match. “I’ve got four weeks before I go in front of the fire chief for my review. Until then, it looks like the department has got me by the short and curlies. I either do this community service as penance, or I lose my job. And I’m not losing my job.”
“Yeah, but if you do the whole four weeks, you’re also not getting paid,” O’Keefe said. “That’s got to sting.”
“I’m good there,” Alex replied, the words firing out just a little too fast. Ah, damn it. This situation was sideways enough without having to dig into the truth behind his statement. There were only three people at Eight who were privy to all of his sticky particulars, and Alex wasn’t about to bump the number higher, not even by one.
He forced his shoulders into their loosest setting, dialing his expression up to damage control status. “I’ve got some scratch saved up from my part-time gig. It’ll last.”
“Right. I forgot about that.” O’Keefe propped both forearms on the table, tilting his head as he thankfully switched gears. “Still. You spent all day at this soup kitchen place. You haven’t tried to sweet-talk the director into giving you a shorter assignment, maybe moving the whole thing along so you can get back in-house? This is you, after all.”
An image of Zoe with her hands locked over her lush, denim-wrapped hips as she ran him in circles around Hope House’s kitchen ricocheted through Alex’s brain, and he barely managed to cough out a humorless laugh with his answer. “Uh, yeah, no. As much as I want to trim some time off my assignment, sweet-talking the director isn’t going to be a viable strategy.”
Cole’s brows slid together, his gaze darkening in confusion under the low light of the bar. “Talking your way out of things is always your strategy. What’s so special about this director that makes her a game changer?”
“Well, let’s see. For starters, her last name is Westin.”
The stunned silence at the table lasted for a breath, then another, before O’Keefe finally broke it with a low whistle. “Ho-ly shit, Teflon. Zoe Westin is the director of Hope House’s soup kitchen? That’s the hush-hush project she came back home to work on?”
Alex’s sip of beer went down way more sour than smooth, and he made a face to match. “Unfortunately, yes.”
Kimberly Kincaid writes contemporary romance that splits the difference between sexy and sweet. When she’s not sitting crosslegged in an ancient desk chair known as “The Pleather Bomber,” she can be found practicing obscene amounts of yoga, whipping up anything from enchiladas to éclairs in her kitchen, or curled up with her nose in a book. Kimberly is a 2011 RWA Golden Heart® finalist who lives (and writes!) by the mantra that food is love. She resides in northern Virginia with her wildly patient husband and their three daughters.