Or at least he had been as of last week. She couldn’t keep up with Jack’s dating life. Okay, so she chose not to keep up. “We’re just…buddies.” They always had been, she and Jack, through thick and thin, and there’d been a lot of thin. “When you go to middle school with someone, you learn too much about him,” she went on, knowing damn well that she needed to just stop talking, something she couldn’t seem to do. “I mean, I couldn’t go out with the guy who stole all the condoms on Sex Education Day and then used them as water balloons to blast the track girls as we ran the four hundred.”
“I could,” Aubrey said.
Leah rolled her eyes, mostly to hide the fact that she’d left off the real reason she couldn’t date Jack.
“Where you going?” Ali asked when Leah stood up. “We haven’t gotten to talk about the latest episode of Sweet Wars. Now that you’re halfway through the season and down to the single eliminations, the whole town’s talking about it nonstop. Did you know that there’s a big crowd at the Love Shack on episode night?”
Yes, she’d known. At first she’d been pressured to go, but she couldn’t do it. She couldn’t watch herself if anyone else was in the room.
“You were awesome,” Ali said.
Maybe, but that had been the adrenaline high from being filmed. Leah had pulled it off by pretending she was Julia Child. Easy enough, since she’d been pretending that since she’d been a kid. After the first terrifying episode, she’d learned something about herself. Even as a kid who’d grown up with little to no self-esteem, there was something about being in front of a camera. It was pretend, so she’d been able to break out of her shell.
The shocking truth was, she’d loved it.
“And also, you looked great on TV,” Aubrey said. “Bitch. I know you were judged on originality, presentation, and taste, but you really should get brownie points for not looking fat. Do you look as good for the last three episodes?”
This subject was no better than the last one. “Gotta go,” Leah said, grabbing her plate and pointing to the cooking area. “There’s sausage now.”
“Ah.” Aubrey nodded sagely. “So you do want Jack’s sausage.”
Ali burst out laughing, and Aubrey high-fived her.
Ignoring them both, Leah headed toward the grill.
Jack flipped a row of pancakes, rotated a line of sausage links, and checked the flame. He was in a waiting pattern.
The status of his life.
Behind him, two fellow firefighters were talking about how one had bought his girlfriend an expensive purse as an apology for forgetting the anniversary of their first date. The guy thought the present would help ease him out of the doghouse.
Jack knew better. The purse was a nice touch, but in his experience, a man’s mistakes were never really forgotten, only meticulously cataloged in a woman’s frontal lobe to be pulled out later at her discretion.
A guy needed to either avoid mistakes entirely or get out of the relationship before any anniversaries came up.
This from Kevin, trying to get his attention.
“No more sausage,” Jack called to him. “You know what happens when you eat too much. You stink me out of the bedroom.”
Kevin had a big black spot over his left eye, giving him the look of a mischievous pirate as he gazed longingly at the row of sausages. When Jack didn’t give in, the dog heaved a long sigh and lay down, setting his head on his paws.
“Heads up,” Tim called.
Jack caught the gallon-sized container of pancake batter with one hand while continuing to flip pancakes with his other.
“Pretty fancy handiwork,” a woman said.
Jack turned and found her standing next to Kevin, holding a plate.
Jack gave Kevin the stay gesture just as the dog would have made his move. Great Danes had a lot of great qualities, like loyalty and affection, but politeness was not one of them. Kevin lived to press his nose into ladies’ crotches, climb on people’s laps as if he were a six-pound Pomeranian, and eat…well, everything. And Kevin had his eyes on the prize—Leah’s plate.
Jack gestured Leah closer with a crook of his finger. She’d shown up in Lucky Harbor with shadows beneath her forest-green eyes and lots of secrets in them, but she was starting to look a little more like herself. Her white gauzy top and black leggings emphasized a willowy body made lean by hard work or tough times—knowing Leah, it was probably both. Her silky hair was loose and blowing around her face. He’d have called it her just-out-of-bed look, except she wasn’t sleeping with anyone at the moment.
He knew this because one, Lucky Harbor didn’t keep secrets, and two, he worked at the firehouse, aka Gossip Central. He knew Leah was in a holding pattern too. And something was bothering her.
Not your problem…
But though he told himself that, repeatedly in fact, old habits were hard to break. His friendship with her was as long as it was complicated, but she’d been there for him whenever he’d needed her, no questions asked. In the past week alone she’d driven his mom to her doctor’s appointment twice, fed and walked Kevin when Jack had been called out of the county, and left a plate of cream cheese croissants in his fridge—his favorite. There was a lot of water beneath their bridge, but she mattered to him, even when he wanted to wrap his fingers around her neck and squeeze.
“You have any sausage ready?” she asked.
At the word sausage, Kevin practically levitated. Ears quirking, nose wriggling, the dog sat up, his sharp eyes following as Jack forked a piece of meat and set it on Leah’s plate. When Jack didn’t share with Kevin as well, he let out a pitiful whine.
Falling for it hook, line, and sinker, Leah melted. “Aw,” she said. “Can I give him one?”
“Only if you want to sleep with him tonight,” Jack said.
“I wouldn’t mind.”
“Trust me, you would.”
Coming up beside Jack to help man the grill, Tim waggled a brow at Leah. “I’ll sleep with you tonight. No matter how many sausages you eat.”
Leah laughed. “You say that to all the women in line.”
Tim flashed a grin, a hint of dimple showing. “But with you, I mean it. So…yes?”
“No,” Leah said, still smiling. “Not tonight.”
Jack spoke mildly. “You have a death wish?”
“Rookies who come on to Leah vanish mysteriously,” Jack told him. “Never to be seen again.”
Tim narrowed his eyes. “Yeah? Who?”
“The last rookie. His name was Tim too,” Jack deadpanned.
Leah laughed, and Tim rolled his eyes. At work, he reported directly to Jack, not that he looked worried.
“I’ll risk it,” he said cockily to Leah.
Jack wondered if he’d still be looking so sure of himself later when he’d be scrubbing down fire trucks by himself. All of them.
Leah yawned and rubbed a hand over her eyes, and Jack forgot about Tim. “Maybe you should switch to Wheaties,” Jack said. “You look like you need the boost.”
She met his gaze. “Tim thought I looked all right.”
“You know it, babe,” Tim said, still shamelessly eavesdropping. “Change your mind about tonight, and I’ll make sure you know exactly how good you look.”
Jack revised his plan about Tim cleaning the engines. The rookie would be too busy at the senior center giving a hands-on fire extinguisher demonstration, which every firefighter worth his salt dreaded because the seniors were feisty, didn’t listen, and in the case of the female seniors, liked their “hands-on” anything training.
Oblivious to his fate, Tim continued to work the grill. Jack kept his attention on Leah. He wanted her to do whatever floated her boat, but he didn’t want her dating a player like Tim. But saying so would be pretty much like waving a red flag in front of a bull, no matter how pretty that bull might be. She’d give a stranger the very shirt off her back, but Jack had long ago learned to not even attempt to tell her what to do or she’d do the opposite just because.
She had a long habit of doing just that.
He blamed her asshole father, but in this case it didn’t matter because Leah didn’t seem all that interested in Tim’s flirting anyway.
Or in anything actually.
Which was what was really bothering Jack. Leah loved the challenge of life, the adventure of it. She’d been chasing that challenge and adventure as long as he’d known her. It was contagious—her spirit, her enthusiasm, her ability to be as unpredictable as the whim of fate.
And unlike anyone else in his world, she alone could lighten a bad mood and make him laugh. But her smile wasn’t meeting her eyes. Nudging her aside, out of Tim’s earshot, he waited until she looked at him. “Hey,” he said.
“Aren’t you worried you’ll vanish mysteriously, never to be seen again?”
“I’m not a rookie.”
She smiled, but again it didn’t meet her eyes.
“You okay?” he asked.
“Always.” And then she popped a sausage into her mouth.
Jack got the message loud and clear. She didn’t want to talk. He could appreciate that. Hell, he was at his happiest not talking. But she’d had a rough year, first with the French culinary school disaster, where she’d quit three weeks before graduation for some mysterious reason, and then Sweet Wars.
Rumor had it that she’d gone pretty far on the show, outshining the best of the best. He knew she was under contractual obligations to keep quiet about the results, but he’d thought she’d talk to him.
Jack had watched each episode, cheering her on. Last night she’d created puff pastries on the clock for a panel of celebrity chefs who’d yelled—a lot. Most of Leah’s competition had been completely rattled by their bullying ways, but Leah had had a lifetime of dealing with someone just like that. She’d won the challenge, hands down. And even if Jack hadn’t known her as well as he did, he’d have pegged her as the winner of the whole thing.