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Harley Cole stroked back tiny Stella Keys’s golden bangs. “Be sure you’ve got all your belongings, Stella.” She knelt and peered into the child’s big blue eyes. “Where’s your lunchbox?”
“Right here in my backpack, Miss Harley.” Stella held up her pink backpack, which had already gotten pretty grubby even though it was only the day before Thanksgiving vacation. But three- and four-year-olds were notoriously hard on their stuff, something Harley had learned after teaching at the Learning Tree Preschool for over ten years. The girl grinned at Becker Lange, who was standing next to Harley. “Bye, Chief. Thank you for the coloring book and the stickers! I love the polka-dot dog ones!”
With that, she threw her arms around Becker’s legs, where her cheek hit right above his knee. Attractive and distinguished in his River’s Edge Fire Department dress blues, Beck still managed to appear as uncomfortable as Harley had ever seen a man look as he grimaced, then hesitantly patted the child’s head. “You’re welcome. Um…” He glanced at Harley, looking hilariously bewildered. “The polka-dot ones are Dalmatians.”
Harley chuckled and stood up. “Scoot, little one. Grandma’s waiting.” She waved at Pam Keys, who was standing by the back door of her car. Harley smiled affectionately as Stella’s grandmother hugged her granddaughter and buckled her into a car seat, with Stella chattering the entire time.
When she turned back to Beck, his gray eyes were huge—the wonder in them tickled her. “Does it take this long to get these kids out the door every day?” He followed her back into the one-story building attached to St. Agnes Episcopal Church.
“Yup,” she said over her shoulder. “They’re fun and I love ’em, but by the end of the day… Well, let’s just say I’m ready to hand the little darlings back to their parents and grandparents.”
He shook his head. “I’ll bet. You up for an early dinner at the Riverside?”
“As long as it’s my treat.” She gave him a sidelong glance when he made an impatient sound. “I insist, Beck. You came here and talked to the kids, even though I know it’s not your favorite gig. Plus, you brought them coloring books and stickers and answered their endless questions and let them climb on your antique fire truck. Don’t think I couldn’t tell it hurt your heart to let them do it. It was written all over your face. I’m buying you dinner.” She stopped outside the classroom. “Besides, I haven’t had a chance to toast your new position at the fire department yet. No arguing.”
Beck shook his head. “Fine. Your treat. Hurry up and get your stuff. I want to get the truck back to the firehouse. Ben wants to take it to a birthday party this evening. You can ride along if you’d like. Bundle up, though. Riding in that open cab gets nippy this time of year.”
Harley smiled. “I’d love to!”
Her teacher’s assistants, Kari and Jimmy, were busy picking up toys, wiping down tiny tables, and hanging up dress-up clothes. Jimmy, his round face flushed, glanced up as he overturned chairs onto short-legged tables. “Is there some sort of cosmic signal these kiddos get when we’re about to go on a vacation? Seems like right before any holiday—Labor Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving—they’re squirrellier than usual.”
Kari pitched a straw hat in his direction. “You’re just anxious to get up to your brother-in-law’s in Indy and deep-fry a turkey.”
Jimmy caught the sailing hat expertly in one hand and hung it on a hook in the dress-up area. “Don’t knock it ’til you’ve tried it.”
Beck, who was leaning casually against the doorjamb at the entrance to the classroom watching, laughed. “One of the weirdest calls I went on when I was in Indy was a couple of guys who set their deck and garage on fire deep-frying a turkey. Believe it or not, they let the ’57 Chevy in the garage burn to a crisp, but they saved the turkey.”
“I totally get that. Deep-fried turkey is amazing.” Jimmy tore a scribbled-on sheet of butcher paper off the easel and held it up in front of Harley. “Whose masterpiece is this?”
Harley scrutinized it. “I think that’s Griff’s.” Taking it from him, she examined it closer. “Yup, there’s his G—the only letter in his name he’s mastered so far.” She rolled it up. “I’m going to Conor and Sam’s for Thanksgiving dinner; I’ll take it to him.”
She clapped her hands. “Okay, guys, we’re good. Let’s get out of here.” She took her coat, hat, and scarf out of the closet by the classroom door and handed Kari and Jimmy their winter gear. “I’m taking Beck to the Riverside for supper. You guys want to come along? He’ll let us ride on the fire truck.” She widened her eyes at Beck’s furrowed brow.
Jimmy was anxious to get on the road and Kari needed to brave the grocery store up on the highway since she’d forgotten cranberries for her traditional family feast the next day. “Dad will pout all day if I don’t have cranberries made from Grandmom’s old recipe,” she said as they all trooped out of the school building. “Oh, damn, I need to buy an orange, too, and I hope I have enough sugar…” Her voice dwindled away while Beck and Harley climbed into the ancient fire engine. The old truck was a novelty left from the nineteen-thirties REFD and the men of the department used it for school programs, parades, and other events. They’d babied it along for decades, and several years ago had built it a special garage on the empty lot behind the fire station. The antique truck was practically a town icon, but Harley had never ridden in it before.
“You’re having Thanksgiving dinner with the Flahertys?” Beck eased onto Main Street, wincing as a large SUV swooped into position right in front of him. “Jerk!” Beck tapped the horn.
“I am, after I go see Mom.” Harley sighed, wishing she was the one driving the fire truck. How typically Beck—he’d become an impatient, easily irritated driver and she didn’t remember that from when they were younger, and he’d been pressed into service as chauffer for his younger brothers, Rye and Max. She considered offering to take over the wheel, as a tease, but doubted he’d find the humor in it. Beck had changed a lot since he came back from Indianapolis a couple of years ago.
She eyed him discreetly as he drove the few blocks from the preschool to the firehouse. At almost forty, he was killer handsome with a strong stubbled jaw and dark, slightly curly hair. He was built—as her grandmother used to say—like a brick outhouse, an old colloquialism that Harley had googled once just to see if it fit the Lange brothers. And it did, all three of them were solid—muscular, strong, and lean. Beck’s eyes ran the gamut from icy silver to stormy leaden to warm, intense gray depending on his mood. Lately, she’d started seeing the warm gray now and again. She worried about his state of mind, though…his state of heart.
Sometimes, talking to him was like walking on the edge of a knife. When he first got home, his laugh had sounded like someone who had forgotten how to be merry, like he was imitating what he thought he should sound like laughing. Frankly, he needed to learn how to have fun again—to be taken in hand by someone who reveled in everyday life and brought back to the real world with all its joys and sorrows. He’d lived with that dark cloud over his head for too long.
She gazed at him as he pulled into the narrow garage behind the fire station, his brow furrowed in concentration. Becker Lange had always come at life like a prizefighter, ready to jump into the ring, at least as far as she remembered him. The five-year gap in age that existed between them meant that she’d been closer in age to Ryker, who’d graduated with her. Becker had always been Rye’s big, mysterious older brother, who’d left River’s Edge to go to firefighter school in Indianapolis and then never came back. Until he did. And when he did, he’d seemed older, sadder, and defeated.
Somehow, jollying him had become rather a game for her since she’d first seen him again almost two years ago, sitting alone in a booth at the Riverside Diner frowning at a bowl of chili. When she’d stopped, smiled, and welcomed him home, he’d lifted his head slowly and regarded her with misgiving. After an awkward silence, she finally said, “It’s me, Harley Cole.”
No response except that his granite-colored eyes had narrowed.
She’d tried again. “From Rye’s class? He and I…um…you know, dated for a while.”
One dark brow had quirked, and she couldn’t help noticing the dark purple smudges under his eyes, the gauntness of his bristled cheeks. Still, he didn’t say a word.
So, she’d simply blathered on—inane chatter about how nice it was to see him back in River’s Edge and did he like his job at the fire station and she bet his family was glad to have him home and… She recalled snapping her jaws shut when she realized she was doing what her English teacher mom had always referred to as ancient mariner syndrome. Harley chattered when she was nervous.
At last, the corners of his mouth had turned up almost imperceptibly and he’d nodded. “I remember you.”
When she realized that he wasn’t going to add anything to that, she’d simply given him another smile and walked away, wondering what had happened to him in Indianapolis that had left him even terser than she’d remembered him from before. His marriage had gone south, but details from the town grapevine were skimpy—respect for the three Lange brothers and their mom kept the usual gossip at bay.
That meeting at the diner had happened nearly two Christmases ago and since then, she’d made a point of seeking him out, even if only to offer him a kind word and a smile, and they’d developed a casual friendship. Because they lived a mere three blocks apart, a couple mornings a week, they met up on their daily runs along the River Walk. Although keeping their breathing even discouraged much conversation, it was good to have his company.
She loved to bake and experiment with new recipes, but she didn’t need the calories, and bringing her baked goods into the preschool only put her kids on a sugar high, so she’d drop by the firehouse with cookies or other treats for the firefighters when she went on a baking binge. He was always appreciative, friendly, kind, but hard to talk to. Slowly, they were becoming friends. At least she thought so. He’d picked up weight, the dark circles had disappeared, and he smiled more easily, but the grumpy exterior remained and she was longing to find the key to open up Becker Lange.
“What are you grinning at?” Becker turned off the fire truck’s engine and shot a quick glance at Harley.
Her smile got bigger, and it truly was a great smile. It always warmed Beck all the way down to his toes.
“I was remembering when you first got back to town.”
He shook his head. “And that made you grin?” He gave her doubtful look. “Not my finest days, Harles.”
Her laughter rang through the garage. She had the best laugh, too—clear, always full of joy. It made him happy when she laughed, which she did a lot. He couldn’t recall ever seeing Harley Cole in a foul mood. She had the best face, too—a wide, generous mouth and a straight nose with a smattering of freckles across it, long-lashed deep brown eyes that reflected her every thought and mood. She generally pulled her luxuriant chestnut-colored hair back into a ponytail or a clip, probably to keep it out of her way while she was working with the littles.
“I’ll bet you don’t even remember when I stopped by your table at Mac’s that first week you were back,” she challenged, her brown eyes twinkling.
He didn’t. If it was anyone but Harley, he’d have bluffed his way through. Instead, he confessed. “No, I don’t. I’m sorry.”
She patted his arm. “No need to be sorry, mon ami. You were in rough shape back then.”
He offered her a wry smile. “You think I’m better now?”
After giving the matter a moment of consideration, he said, “Well, I’ve fattened up and the crew have stopped tiptoeing around the firehouse.”
She raised her hands, palms upward. “Well, there you go.” Her expression became more thoughtful, and he could tell she had something on her mind. “Beck, I—” She stopped, her white teeth worrying her lower lip.
“What?” He stopped in the middle of reaching for the door handle.
She tipped her head and gave him an odd smile. “I’m hungry. Let’s go get some food.”
“Okay.” He opened the door. “Be careful getting down. It’s a drop.”
A brisk November breeze blew off the Ohio River and Beck could see his breath as he and Harley walked down Jefferson Street toward Main and the Riverside Diner, where he knew Mac Mackenzie’s chicken and noodles and mashed potatoes were waiting. It was Wednesday, Beck’s favorite day to go to the diner because Mac cooked pure Hoosier on Wednesdays. The biscuits would be hot, the butter creamy, and the green beans, onions, and bacon cooked to within an inch of their lives, exactly the way Beck liked them.
“I hope Mac has his salmon fillet on the menu tonight,” Harley said as Beck held open the steamy glass door to the diner.
The door was new, as was the huge picture window with the red painted lettering, the neon OPEN and CLOSED signs hanging in the window, and the shiny red vinyl upholstery on the booths, stools, and chairs. A tornado had hit River’s Edge at the end of April, and Mac had used the damage to his restaurant as an excuse to spiff up the place. Mac’s significant other, Carly Hayes, had even ordered red-and-white-checked paper placemats and napkins and new thick glass salt and pepper shakers to emphasize the diner vibe. Mac’s own take on retro remained as well, right down to the old jukebox that stood in the corner at the end of the long red counter.
Mac waved from the kitchen, calling, “Beck, Harley! You’re opening up the dinner hour. Sit anywhere.”
Sheila, the evening server, came out from behind the counter, carrying glasses filled with water, as well as placemats and napkin-wrapped tableware, and lifted her chin at Beck and Harley to indicate the corner booth. “Warmest spot in the joint right now since it’s closest to the kitchen.”
They shed their coats and Harley loosened her orange, red, and yellow knit scarf, leaving it around her neck and hanging down on either side of her yellow V-neck sweater. Nestled against the soft pink skin exposed in the V hung the sterling silver dragonfly she always wore.
“What can I bring you to drink?” Sheila asked.
“Coffee, a vat of it, please,” Harley said with a shiver.
“Okay, that’s a vat of coffee for the lady.” Sheila winked. “What about you, Chief?”
“Coffee.” Gently, Beck tugged away the menu Harley had opened and set it back behind the napkin holder. “And we’re having the special.”
“Um, excuse me?” Harley sputtered, reaching for the colorful menu again.
Beck grasped her wrist. “Harles, look at the board! It’s chicken and noodles tonight with Hoosier green beans and mashed potatoes and pie.”
Little frown lines appeared between her eyes. “Lovely. You have the special. I want to see what the fish is.”
“Mac, tell this stubborn woman that you make the best chicken and noodles on the river,” Beck called.
Mac peered through the pass-through from the kitchen and repeated obediently, “I make the best chicken and noodles on the river. Why am I saying this?”
Beck released her arm. “Now confess, are you ordering baked fish because you wrongly insist your butt is too big or because you’re truly dying for some dried-up, low-calorie cat food?”
“Hey! Hang on now.” Silver-haired, fit, and lean, Mac came out of the kitchen, hopped over the lunch-counter gate, and strode toward them. “The fish tonight is Poisson à la Meunière served with jasmine rice and sautéed green beans, which is not at all dry or even low-cal for that matter because, you know, butter. And for you, Harley, because the new fire chief here is being dictatorial, I’ll toss in the last crème brûlée I have back there in the fridge.”
Harley stood and hugged Mac, sending a startling arc of annoyance through Becker. “I’d love the Poisson à la Meunière,” she said, her French accent sounding perfect to Beck. “Merci beaucoup, Mac. You are a true gentleman.”
Mac hugged her back and then twirled her around like a ballet dancer. “You aren’t seriously worried about that perfect figure, are you, girl?”
Harley plopped back down in the booth. “Not anymore. Not now that I’m having fish for supper.” She stuck her tongue out at Beck.
“Real mature, Harles.” Beck chuckled. “Fine, bring her that fancy French fish since she’s the one paying for this feast. I, on the other hand, will have the special.”
“We’re celebrating his promotion.” Harley raised her water glass and tilted it toward Becker’s. “To the new fire chief of the River’s Edge Fire Department. Long may he reign.”
Heat rose from Beck’s collar. Blushing! At almost forty years old, you’d think he could accept kudos without embarrassment, and the fact that he was flushing at her words made his discomfort even more intense. He clinked glasses with her. “Thank you. I’m not sure reign is the word for what I’ll be doing, but between Frank, who hired me, and George, I have big shoes to fill.” A smart salute and heel-click from Mac before he headed back to his kitchen eased Beck’s discomfiture somewhat.
Harley took another sip of water. “I’ve been dying to know why George left after being chief for only a couple of years. Is it something that’s for public consumption or do you need to tell me to mind my own business?” Her eyes widened. “I won’t be offended if you do.”
Beck appreciated her circumspection, even if it wasn’t at all necessary. “No secret. He and Chloe are moving up to Dayton to be closer to their kids, and he’s going to teach at the fire academy there.”
“Cool.” She nodded. “I wish them well, and I’m very happy you are the new chief. You were the best choice.”
Beck’s ears burned. “Well, maybe not the best. The next in line, though, so…” He shrugged. He really hated compliments. His responses always made him feel either vain or self-deprecating. Both choices sucked. He opted for simplicity. “But, thanks.”
There she was looking at him peculiarly again, like he was an odd squirming cell on a slide under a microscope. Clearly, she had something big on her mind but wasn’t certain she should say it.
“Harles, what’s going on in that head of yours? Something you think you need to tell me?”
She took a deep breath, released it, then folded her hands on the table in front of her. “Beck, I think you need to start dating again.”
End of Excerpt