“I have a bucket list.”
Jack felt his heart stop. “You’re sick?”
“No. I’m healthy as an ox. I just want to get to my bucket list while I can still zip-line in Costa Rica and eat the spicy food in Thailand. And I want to be fit enough to walk through Scotland. There’s some castles there that someone in my life wants to visit.”
His mom. He was talking about Dee.
“I’m not asking your permission,” Ronald said. “But it’d be great if you didn’t object.”
“My mom isn’t in a good place, Ronald.”
“No shit. But she’s getting there. And I intend to help her. To be there for her. To love her. For real, Jack. None of this pretend bullshit.”
Jack grimaced. “You know?”
“I’m an investigator, as you’re about to be. And if you’re half the man I think you are, you’ll fix things up right with your girl. She’s a cutie, and she’s good for you. It’s been fun seeing you knocked off your high and mighty horse for a change.”
“What the hell does that mean?”
But Ronald had disconnected.
The next day, the town came alive as it prepared for the annual arts and crafts fair at the pier. Every year Leah’s grandma set up a booth and sold goodies for people to eat as they walked the fair and made merry.
This year, Jack’s mom had a booth right next to theirs to sell her scarves and blankets and other knitted wares. Knowing Jack was working and unable to help, and that Elsie wanted to run their booth and had Riley to help her, Leah went to be there for Dee.
“How are you?” Leah asked, always the first question of the day.
Dee smiled. “I’m better today.”
“Today?” Leah’s senses sharpened. “What happened?”
“Oh, it’s silly,” Dee said. “A few weeks back one of my meds got changed, and I like to read all the paperwork with each prescription. Anyway, one of the side effects was paralysis, of all things. And I swear to God, my legs and arms just stopped working.”
Listening to the story, Leah felt like her heart stopped working. “Oh my God. What did you do?”
Dee laughed softly. “Well, Jack has picked up my meds ever since, and now all the paperwork is always mysteriously missing.”
Leah’s throat tightened, even through the urge to laugh along with Dee. Jack…
As she worked on setting up Dee’s booth, she caught sight of him a few times in his uniform and dark sunglasses. He was standing in for Ronald today, walking the length of the booths and checking out everyone’s setup.
As if he felt the weight of her stare, he turned and met her gaze. They hadn’t spoken since she’d left his bed the other morning after the Jacuzzi event, and it most definitely had been an event. Even now, flashes of Jack holding her, his hands tight on her hips as he thrust into her, his head back, face in a mask of pleasure, gave her a hot flash.
Dee sighed dreamily. “You two are so romantic.”
Leah tore her gaze off Jack and went back to work setting up Dee’s canopy. It was a collapsible thing, and it did not want to work. “You’ve been reading too many romance novels,” she said, struggling.
“Careful with that. It’ll catch your fingers. And I like the happy endings. We should all get a happy ending.”
“Those are illegal in some states, you know.”
Dee laughed. “I’m serious. Would an HEA be so bad?”
Leah stopped and looked at her. “If you want one, all you have to do is get it.”
“Oh. Well.” Dee brushed that off with a wave of her hand. “I’m too old. But you’re not. Your HEA is right there in front of you.”
“Hmm.” Leah fought with the stupid canopy for a moment, then realized Dee was sitting there smiling widely at her. “What?” she asked. “Am I doing it wrong? Do I have toilet paper on my shoes? Something disgusting in my teeth?”
“No, you’re perfect. You’re perfect for him.”
“Perfect?” Leah laughed. “Dee, I’m just about as far from perfect as a woman can get.”
“You’re warm, caring, smart, and you always put him first.”
“You’ll make a great wife, you know.”
Oh boy. This had been all Leah’s idea, this whole her and Jack façade, but every day that it went on made her feel worse and worse. Now, with her heart pounding dully, it was hard to speak, but she knew she had to find the words. She had to tell the truth because she wasn’t going to be Jack’s wife anytime soon.
Or in this lifetime. “Dee.”
“I know, I’m just a silly old woman. But it makes my heart soar to see my son look so happy. It just seems like a wedding should be the next step. And then…” Dee laughed musically. “Grandkids.” She clapped her hands together. “Can you imagine?”
All too easily… Oh God, this was bad. How could she do it; how could she crush Dee and tell her that they’d only been pretending? The answer was simple.
“Look at you,” Dee said to someone behind Leah. “You look just like your dad. So handsome.”
Leah turned and came face-to-face with Jack.
Reaching above her, he took over her hold on the canopy.
“I could have gotten it,” she said.
“I know.” Then he locked it into place with annoying ease, smelling ridiculously amazing while he was at it. “Just trying to help,” he said, and leaned in and kissed his mom on the cheek. “You doing good?”
“Yes, sweetheart, I’m great. Thanks for the cookies. The nurses all think you’re the sweetest thing. They actually believe you made those cookies.” She flashed a smile at Leah. “Even though he can’t bake to save his life.”
“I can so,” Jack said.
“Yeah?” Leah asked. She’d never seen him cook anything. “What do you bake?”
“Frozen cookie dough.”
Leah burst out laughing.
Dee laughed too. “Well, now the nurses want you to make some for them, whatever they were.”
Leah eyed him. “You going to make the nurses cookies, Jack? Up the numbers of your fan club?”
“It’d help you out on that Facebook poll,” Dee said. “You’re still lagging behind Ben, Tim, and that TV cutie. What’s his name? Rafe?”
Jack swore beneath his breath, something about “damn options” before turning to Leah. He rubbed his jaw, looking a little unsure of his welcome. She sighed and gave him a smile. “You going to be in the firemen’s dunking booth today?”
He glanced in the direction of where the booth was being built just across the pier and grimaced. “I’m first up, actually.”
Leah pulled a ticket from her pocket. She’d gotten it with her entrance fee and could have used it to ride the Ferris wheel or play an arcade game. But she was saving it to dunk Jack. “I’m all ready.”
“Good thing you throw like a girl.”
“You’re going to eat those words,” she promised him.
He leaned in and put his mouth to her ear. “Make me.” Then he swatted her on the ass and strode off.
Oh, hell no. “Dee,” she said. “I’ve got to—”
“Go dunk him.” Dee nodded and handed over her free ticket. “Get him for me too.”
Leah stalked over there and got in line behind Ben.
He turned and looked at her, and his mouth quirked. He handed her a string of five tickets and then nudged her ahead of him.
“You don’t mind?” she asked.
“I’m only going to mind if you miss.”
She stepped up to the white line and met Jack’s gaze. He’d stripped out of his BDUs, beneath which he wore navy board shorts. His legs were so long that his toes nearly touched the water of the tank as he sat there looking relaxed and at ease, swinging his feet. Not a care in the world.
He didn’t think she could dunk him.
Determined to prove him wrong, she wound up and threw. The ball went wide.
“Shake it off,” Ben said from behind her, and she adjusted her stance.
From inside the dunking booth, Jack narrowed his gaze at Ben.
Ben didn’t look concerned. “You see the thing you want to hit, right? That round target that’s like fifteen feet wide?”
“I see it,” she grumbled. Jeez. “And it’s only a foot wide, max.”
“Pretend it’s your almost fiancé’s face.”
“Thanks, man,” Jack said.
But Leah did just that. And missed again. She went through two more balls, and then her last, and someone tapped her on the shoulder.
Leah narrowed her eyes. “You’re on my Do Not Acknowledge list after letting me go to Jack’s house inebriated.”
“You weren’t inebriated. You were shit-faced.” She handed Leah three more tickets. “Truce?”
“You let me go to Jack’s house,” Leah repeated.
“You did it for your own amusement,” Leah said.
“Well, of course I did,” Aubrey said. “It’s Lucky Harbor. It wasn’t like I had any other entertainment available. And how’d it work out for you?”
Leah met Jack’s gaze and sighed. It’d worked out pretty damn good. She used Aubrey’s tickets and…missed some more.
In the tank, Jack leaned back, hands behind his head now, definitely relaxed.
“Jesus,” Ben muttered, and pushed Leah up past the throwing line, halfway to the dunking tape.
“Hey,” Jack said, straightening up. “Cheating.”
The crowd behind her cheered. They didn’t care. They loved Jack, but they definitely wanted to see their favorite firefighter dunked.