Always on my mind, p.1
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       Always On My Mind, p.1

         Part #8 of Lucky Harbor series by Jill Shalvis
 
Always On My Mind
Page 1

 

  Author: Jill Shalvis Chapter 1

  Saying that she went to the annual Firefighter’s Charity Breakfast for pancakes was like saying she watched baseball for the game—when everyone knew that you watched baseball for the guys in tight uniform pants.

  But this time Leah Sullivan really did want pancakes. She also wanted her grandma to live forever, world peace, and hey, while she was making wishes, she wouldn’t object to being sweet-talked out of her clothes sometime this year.

  But those were all issues for another day. Mid-August was hinting at an Indian summer for the Pacific Northwest. The morning was warm and heading toward hot as she walked to the already crowded pier. The people of Lucky Harbor loved a get-together, and if there was food involved—and cute firefighters to boot—well, that was just a bonus.

  Leah accepted a short stack of pancakes from Tim Denison, a firefighter from Station #24. He was a rookie, fresh from the academy and at least five years younger than her, but that didn’t stop him from sending her a wink. She took in his beachy, I-belong-on-a-Gap-ad-campaign appearance and waited for her good parts to flutter.

  They didn’t.

  For reasons unknown, her good parts were on vacation and had been for months.

  Okay, so not for reasons unknown. But not wanting to go there, not today, she blew out a breath and continued down the length of the pier.

  Picnic tables had been set up, most of them full of other Lucky Harbor locals supporting the firefighters’ annual breakfast. Leah’s friend Ali Winters was halfway through a huge stack of pancakes, eyeing the food line as if considering getting more.

  Leah plopped down beside her. “You eating for two already?”

  “Bite your tongue. ” Ali aimed her fork at her along with a pointed don’t mess with me look. “I’ve only been with Luke for two months. Pregnancy isn’t anywhere on the to-do list yet. I’m just doing my part to support the community. ”

  “By eating two hundred pancakes?”

  “Hey, the money goes to the senior center. ”

  There was a salty breeze making a mess of Leah’s and Ali’s hair, but it didn’t dare disturb the woman sitting on the other side of Ali. Nothing much disturbed the cool-as-a-cucumber Aubrey.

  “I bet sex is on your to-do list,” Aubrey said, joining their conversation.

  Ali gave a secret smile.

  Aubrey narrowed her eyes. “I could really hate you for that smile. ”

  “You should hate me for this smile. ”

  “Luke’s that good, huh?”

  Ali sighed dreamily. “He’s magic. ”

  “Magic’s just an illusion. ” Aubrey licked the syrup off her fork while managing to somehow look both beautifully sophisticated and graceful.

  Back in their school days, Aubrey had been untouchable, tough as nails, and Leah hadn’t been anywhere in the vicinity of her league. Nothing much had changed there. She looked down at herself and sucked in her stomach.

  “There’s no illusion when it comes to Luke,” Ali told Aubrey. “He’s one-hundred-percent real. And all mine. ”

  “Well, now you’re just being mean,” Aubrey said. “And that’s my area. Leah, what’s with the expensive shoes and cheap haircut?”

  Leah put a hand to her choppy auburn layers, and Aubrey smiled at Ali, like See? That’s how you do mean…

  Most of Leah’s money went toward her school loans and helping to keep her grandma afloat, but she did have one vice. Okay, two, but being addicted to Pinterest wasn’t technically a vice. Her love of shoes most definitely was. She’d gotten today’s strappy leather wedges from Paris, and they’d been totally worth having to eat apples and peanut butter for a week. “They were on sale,” she said, clicking them together as if she were Dorothy in Oz. “They’re knockoffs,” she admitted.

  Aubrey sighed. “You’re not supposed to say that last part. It’s not as fun to be mean when you’re nice. ”

  “But I am nice,” Leah said.

  “I know,” Aubrey said. “And I’m trying to like you anyway. ”

  The three of them were an extremely unlikely trio, connected by a cute, quirky Victorian building in downtown Lucky Harbor. The building was older than God, currently owned by Aubrey’s great-uncle, and divided into three shops. There was Ali’s floral shop, Leah’s grandma’s bakery, and a neglected bookstore that Aubrey had been making noises about taking over since her job at Town Hall had gone south a few weeks back.

  Neither Ali nor Leah was sure yet if having Aubrey in the building every day would be fun or a nightmare. But regardless, Aubrey knew her path. So did Ali.

  Leah admired the hell out of that. Especially since she’d never known her path. She’d known one thing, the need to get out of Lucky Harbor—and she had. At age seventeen, she’d gone and had rarely looked back.

  But she was back now, putting her pastry chef skills to good use helping her grandma while she recovered from knee surgery. The problem was, Leah had gotten out of the habit of settling in one place.

  Not quite true, said a little voice inside her. If not for a string of spectacularly bad decisions, she’d have finished French culinary school. And not embarrassed herself on the reality TV show Sweet Wars. And…

  Don’t go there.

  Instead, she scooped up a big bite of fluffy pancakes and concentrated on their delicious goodness rather than her own screwups. Obsessing over her bad decisions was something she saved for the deep dark of night.

  “Jack’s at the griddle,” Ali noted.

  Leah twisted around to look at the cooking setup. Lieutenant Jack Harper was indeed manning the griddle. He was tall and broad shouldered and looked like a guy who could take on anything that came his way. This was a good thing, since he ran station #24.

  Fire Station #24 was one of four that serviced the county, and thanks to the Olympic Mountain range at their back, with its million acres of forest, all four stations were perpetually busy.

  Jack thrived on busy. He could be as intimidating as hell when he chose to be, which wasn’t right now since he was head-bopping to some beat only he could hear in his headphones. Knowing him, it was some good, old-fashioned, ear-splitting hard rock.

  Not too far from him, leashed to a bench off to the side, sat Kevin, a huge Great Dane. He was white with black markings that made him look like a Dalmatian wannabe. Kevin had been given to a neighboring fire station where he’d remained until he’d eaten one too many expensive hoses, torn up one too many beds, and chewed dead one too many pairs of boots. The rambunctious one-year-old had then been put up for adoption.

  The only problem was that no one had wanted what was by then a hundred-and-fifty-pound nuisance. Kevin had been headed for the Humane Society when Jack, always the protector, always the savior, had stepped in a few weeks back and saved the day.

  Just like he’d done for Leah more times than she could count.

  It’d become a great source of entertainment for the entire town that Jack Harper II, once the town terror himself—at least to mothers of teenage daughters everywhere—was now in charge of the latest town terror.

  Another firefighter stepped up to the griddle to relieve Jack, who loaded a plate for himself and stepped over to Kevin. He flipped the dog a sausage, which Kevin caught in midair with one snap of his huge jaws. The sausage instantly vanished, and Kevin licked his lips, staring intently at Jack’s plate as if he could make more sausage fly into his mouth by wish alone.

  Jack laughed and crouched down to talk to the dog, a movement that had his shirt riding up, revealing low-riding BDUs—his uniform pants—a strip of taut, tantalizing male skin, and just the hint of a perfect ass.

  On either si
de of Leah, both Ali and Aubrey gave lusty sighs. Leah completely understood. She could feel her own lusty sigh catching in her throat, but she squelched it. They were in the F-zone, she and Jack. Friends. Friends didn’t do lust, or if they did, they also did the smart, logical thing and ignored it. Still, she felt a smile escape her at the contagious sound of Jack’s laughter. Truth was, he’d been making her smile since the sixth grade, when she’d first moved to Lucky Harbor.

  As if sensing her appraisal, Jack lifted his head. His dark, mirrored sunglasses hid his eyes, but she knew he was looking right at her because he arched a dark brow.

  And on either side of her, Ali and Aubrey sighed again.

  “Really?” Leah asked them.

  “Well, look at him,” Aubrey said unapologetically. “He’s hot, he’s got rhythm—and not just the fake white-boy kind either. He’s also funny as hell. And for a bonus, he’s gainfully employed. It’s just too bad I’m off men forever. ”

  “Forever’s a long time,” Ali said, and Leah’s gut cramped at the thought of the beautiful, blond Aubrey going after Jack.

  But Jack was still looking at Leah. Those glasses were still in the way, but she knew his dark eyes were framed by thick, black lashes and the straight, dark lines of his eyebrows. And the right brow was sliced through by a thin scar, which he’d gotten at age fourteen when he and his cousin Ben had stolen his mom’s car and driven it into a fence.

  “Forever,” Aubrey repeated emphatically. “I’m off men forever. ” Leah felt herself relax a little.

  Which was silly. Jack could date whomever he wanted, and did. Often.

  “And anyway,” Aubrey went on, “that’s what batteries are for. ”

  Ali laughed along with Aubrey as they all continued to watch Jack, who’d gone back to the griddle. He was moving to his music again while flipping pancakes, much to the utter delight of the crowd.

  “Woo-hoo!” Aubrey yelled at him, both she and Ali toasting him with their plastic cups filled with orange juice.

  Jack grinned and took a bow.

  “Hey,” Ali said, nudging Leah. “Go tip him. ”

  “Is that what the kids are calling it nowadays?” Aubrey asked.

  Leah rolled her eyes and stood up. “You’re both ridiculous. He’s dating some EMT flight nurse. ”
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