He was looking at her, into her, but she was good at building walls of self-preservation. Good at not letting people in. In the old days, she’d never been able to pull that off with him, had never wanted to, but in the years since, she’d learned new skills.
“We need rules for this,” he said.
It took a moment for the words to sink in, and then the relief made her weak. “So we’re going to do it?”
This didn’t surprise her. The big, built alpha loved his control, and he loved rules. Hell, his entire world was run by rules. Not for him, of course, but for everyone else. “Let me guess,” she said with a hint of amusement. “You don’t want me to wear green toenail polish?”
He shuddered. “Hell no. But we have things to work out, Leah.”
“Like the fact that this isn’t real.”
She absorbed the unexpected pang of the words. “Of course not.”
“So no hurt feelings.”
“No hurt feelings,” she said softly. “How do you want to do this in public?”
“There’s only public,” he said. “Otherwise we’re just…us.”
“Okay,” she managed, wondering why she was feeling raked over the coals. “So…in public. PDA. Are we going to agree on a level? Minimal? Moderate?”
He scowled. “PDA?”
“Public display of affection.”
“I know what it is. I just don’t know why we have to figure that out right now.”
“Moderate,” she decided. “Maybe hold hands, greet each other with a kiss, that sort of thing?”
He let out a barely there sigh, like this was paining him, and she started to get a little insulted. “How about the Fireman’s Picnic?” she asked. “Do I get to be your date for that or do you already have a blond bimbo planned?”
“The picnic’s not for another month,” he said with the horror of men everywhere when faced with a decision more than five minutes out. “Just how long do you plan to play at this?”
“It’s for your mom,” she reminded him.
“How long, Leah?”
She stared up into his dark-caramel eyes. “I don’t know.”
He held her against her car, making her lose her train of thought. “You really think we can pull this off?”
She wouldn’t have to pull off anything, not that she’d admit that. “Hey, I once took method acting for an entire semester. Piece of cake. And it’s not like you’re hard on the eyes. Dating the hottest firefighter isn’t going to be a hardship.”
He stared at her for a long beat, giving very little away. “You think I’m hot.”
“You have a mirror, right?” She paused, giving him a chance to say that maybe she wasn’t hard on the eyes either, but he didn’t, and she decided to get out while she was ahead. Squeezing from between him and her car, she slid behind the wheel. She had to give him a little push to shut the door so she could drive off. Glancing back in her rearview mirror, she found him watching her go, a pensive expression on his face. He was confused.
She touched her still-swollen lips and thought, join my club.
She was two blocks away when her cell phone rang.
“Hello?” she answered, breathless.
“I think you’re hot too,” he said. “Actually, you’re a knockout, Leah.”
She had to pull over and draw in some air. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Can you repeat that?”
“You’re a fucking knockout.”
“Thanks,” she whispered, but he’d already disconnected.
Jack pocketed his phone and looked at Kevin. “So a show of paws. Am I the biggest idiot on the planet, or the smartest?”
“Yeah, you’re right. Idiot.” His only excuse was that she’d made him dizzy as hell, kicking him a little off balance and a lot off his toes.
He loaded Kevin into the truck and slid behind the wheel. Kevin climbed into the back, but halfway home he claimed the front passenger seat again, leaning in to lick Jack’s jaw.
“Why do you smell like beef jerky?” Jack craned his neck and looked in the back. Yep, Kevin had gotten into and eaten his way through the emergency kit.
But at least Jack wasn’t thinking about kissing Leah. Much.
He pulled into the duplex that he and Ben had bought together five years ago now. It was a two-story Victorian and freshly painted thanks to Ben’s recent handiwork.
Ben’s side of the house was dark, so Jack let himself and Kevin inside, not bothering with any lights since his immediate plan involved some serious shut-eye. He went for just that, but instead he ended up with hot, restless, erotic dreams involving Leah, both in and out of her black bikini.
Leah let herself into her grandma’s dark house and ran right into a soft body.
“Oh,” Elsie said, startled. “You’re still up?”
Leah turned on the light. “Are you okay? Why aren’t you sleeping?”
“Oh, you know.” Elsie let out a little laugh. “My old bones creak and wake me up.” But Elsie didn’t look old. She looked…guilty. “Okay, so I was out. I…had a meeting.”
“Is it that late?” Elsie asked. “Huh.”
“Who did you meet?”
Elsie was on the Historical Society board with Max. She’d complained about him for years and years, calling him a liver-spotted, tight-lipped, tighter-assed renovation nazi.
The name fit. “Why did you have such a late meeting? You forget to pay your dues or something?”
Elsie grimaced and pulled her coat tighter around herself, but it didn’t miss Leah’s attention that Elsie was wearing her good “going out” shoes. Leah, once the master sneaker, felt her eyes narrow. “Grandma, what’s going on?”
“Okay, but just remember, this all started out with me trying to surprise you,” Elsie said.
“Yes. You’ve been working so hard and without a single word of complaint.”
“Grandma,” Leah said, both touched and irritated, “I love being here with you. I have nothing to complain about.”
“But you’ve taken over so beautifully, and the place is such a mess. I know it is, Leah; don’t even try to deny it. I just wanted to see what kind of renovations we could make. Cheaply, of course. Something to help you.”
“I’m good with how things are,” Leah said. “Other than wanting new ovens.” She meant this, one hundred percent. In fact, the truth was that she actually loved the bakery’s slightly antiquated setup. It made her work hard, made her think, made her concentrate. She liked having little brain power left over for anything else.
Like what the hell she was going to do in two weeks when the Sweet Wars finals aired and the gig was up? Or why she was happier here, back in the place that had once upon a time been the bane of her existence, than she’d been anywhere else.
Although she suspected this was because of a certain big, bad, gorgeous firefighter who, thanks to her own doing, was now her pretend boyfriend.
And a hell of a kisser.
“Well, you’re a doll for putting up with everything,” Elsie said. “Anyway, I wanted to see what I could do and ran the thought by Max first.”
“Oh, Grandma,” Leah said softly. “You give him way too much power.”
“And he said I was absolutely welcome to make any renovations.”
“Yes, because you have every right to,” Leah pointed out. “Grandma—”
“And so I was just having a drink to thank him, and he…invited me to the firefighter’s ball next month,” she ended in a rush.
Leah opened her mouth again, but Elsie cut in before she could speak. “No. Don’t say whatever it is that you’re going to say. I was wrong about him. Okay, yes, he can be a fuddy-duddy, but he’s also very conscientious about our town’s history and takes his job seriously. And actually, he’s a very nice man. I’m sorry if I let you think otherwise, especially because I know you don’t think all that highly of the male race in general. And maybe that’s my fault too, for not correcting your notion that they’re all temperamental horse’s patoots. That was just your daddy, honey.”
“Well, I know that.”
Elsie smiled a little sadly. “Do you? Because you’re quick to judge a man, and even quicker to cut one out of your life.”
This threw Leah off her game a little. “Of course I know it,” she said. “I like men, Grandma.” She’d been on her own a long time. Twelve years, actually, since the day she’d driven out of town at age eighteen and not looked back. She’d had relationships. Granted, nothing that had lasted, but as she’d told Dee, it only took one…
But did she really believe that? “I’ve had boyfriends.”
“Had? Past tense?” Her grandma’s eyes were sharp. “Don’t you have a boyfriend right now?”
Well, she’d walked right into that one, hadn’t she? “You mean Jack.”
“Do you have more than one?” Elsie asked with a laugh.
Jack woke up before his alarm thanks to a sensation of being crushed. Sitting up, he turned on the light.
At some point in the night, Kevin had climbed onto the bed with him. The dog lay on his back, all four legs straight up in the air as if he were roadkill, snoring loudly enough to rattle the windows.
He had nearly the entire bed.
“Hey,” Jack said and nudged him.
Kevin stopped snoring but didn’t move a single muscle.
“I know you’re awake.”
Kevin slit open one eye.
Jack pointed to the floor.
With a sigh, Kevin heaved himself up and stepped off the bed. He sent Jack one soulful look over his shoulder before heading out of the room. Two seconds later Jack could hear the sound of Kevin slurping water out of his bowl, and no doubt drooling everywhere while he was at it.