“It will never work.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“You got lucky.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it. Wait and see for yourself.”
Flames thrashed at the charred walls. Time was running out. Pushing through the thick black smoke, Cole McIntyre made his way down the second floor hall of the small high school, checking and clearing each and every classroom along the way. According to the teachers huddled outside, there was one teacher and possibly two or three students trapped behind the fire line. Even in the few minutes it had taken them to weave through the afternoon traffic, the small fire had grown to engulf half the building.
Every thirty seconds this monster was doubling in size. Despite the protective gear, Cole could feel the heat beating at his back. What a mess. The snap of crumbling wood sounded overhead. A flaming beam came crashing down, sending him jagging left—fast.
“Cole!” His partner’s voice sounded in his ear.
Flashing a thumbs up, Cole pressed forward. Neither able to see more than a few feet in front of them, he’d counted doors and had to be approaching the chemistry lab at the end of the hall. A student who had escaped from the lab reported the flash fire had climbed instantly to the ceiling and rapidly traveled toward the back wall, trapping the teacher and whoever had been sitting nearby. Afraid to cross through the flames, the teacher herded the children to temporary safety in a storage room. He hoped to God the door was made of steel.
In an attempt to contain the fire, several teachers had pulled the doors closed behind them on their way out of the building. The chem lab had been no exception. Kicking the door down and staying low, he followed the wall around for reference. The outside team had been watering down this area but the lab was still a hot spot. Heart rate pounding, he came to the storage room and shoved the door open.
In the opposite corner, the teacher and one student lay close to the ground. Before he could reach them, the two crawled, one hand holding their faces, in his direction. They were alive. Now came the fun part—getting them the hell out of the building.
* * *
“I. Am. Not. Frustrated.” Lily Nelson blew a wisp of hair away from her face and slammed her fist into the gooey mound in front of her.
“Call it what you want.” Hands on her hips, Lucy, the family’s longtime housekeeper, cook, and avid Hello Dolly fan, stared at her with cool indifference. “I’ve watched you bake bread before and you don’t usually pound at the dough with quite so much murderous intent.”
Lily flipped and folded the dough, making a conscious effort to not hammer at it as if it were Danny Fluegel’s face.
“I don’t suppose you want to tell me why you’re baking bread here at this hour?”
“This kitchen is bigger than Mom’s.” The timer sounded and wiping her hands on her apron, Lily crossed the room, ignoring the woman standing guard like a drill sergeant at boot camp, and peeked into the oven. Perfection. Using her apron for mitts, she maneuvered the hot tray onto the cooling rack and spun back to the raw dough.
So what if she baked when she had too much on her mind? So what if Danny Fluegel went out last night with featherbrained—and stacked—Kathleen Barker? It’s not like they were in a committed relationship. Heck, after only three dates in three weeks she wasn’t even sure it counted as a relationship. And, even if he was perfect-picture- handsome, after two rather wilted kisses, she hadn’t even been sure she wanted a fourth date.
What she wanted was her own bakery. A place to create all the delectable flavors swirling in her head for the rest of the world to taste and enjoy. Or at least all of Lawford Mountain not staying at the Hilltop Inn. And Margaret O’Malley’s Boutique on Main Street would be the perfect spot. Just not this year. She punched the dough again.
“Oh, my.” Either not noticing or choosing to overlook the last act of violence on the innocent pile of raw dough, Lucy inched closer to the warm French breakfast fare, sniffed the air as though she were a blood hound on the hunt, and moaned softly. “I have no idea what has sent you into baker-on-steroids mode, but I do love your croissants. Is that extra butter I smell?”
Lily might have gotten a little heavy handed with the butter. But to her, butter was the basis of all great comfort foods. And tonight she felt like comfort.
Visiting from Boston, her cousin Violet stopped short in the doorway. “Do I smell croissants?”
“With extra butter.” Lucy snuck a pinch of the steaming warm flaky temptation.
Lily blew out a sigh and returned her fingers to the dough.
“You going to bake that or beat five pounds out of it?” Violet pinched a morsel of croissant for herself. A yoga instructor, her cousin had the calm Zen life down pat. “Cause if you need to get rid of some of that frustration, I could show you—”
“I am not frustrated.” Miffed. Disappointed, maybe. But not frustrated. Not really. Maybe. All right. Who was she kidding? Self-absorbed men like Danny were made for the Barbie look-alikes in this world. She should have known better than to let Lucy set her up, but with Heather and Jake looking so insanely happy, and her not having been on a single date in two years, she might have been a bit too willing to overlook Lucy’s track record. Being dumped—sort of—by him wouldn’t have bothered her at all if she didn’t see her biggest chance at her own bakery slipping away.
“Then tell me why you look like your soufflé fell?” Barefoot, dressed in comfy yoga pants and an oversized t-shirt, her cousin leaned against the counter, silently waiting for Lily to explain her late night baking marathon.
Heaving a sigh, she dropped the dough in a bowl, covered it with a towel, and turned to her audience of two. “Danny Fluegel is seeing Kathleen Barker.”
“The man has no taste.” Lucy stuffed another piece of croissant in her mouth as if she hadn’t been the one to set Lily and Danny up in the first place.
Violet frowned. “I thought he was a bad kisser?’
“Then I don’t understand.” The frown remained intact.
“It’s just…” What? Danny. No. That was a handy excuse. If only the timing wasn’t all wrong.
Shaking her head and smiling, Lucy came up to Lily and patted her hand before stepping away again. “If it makes you feel any better, we’ve got a few bookings coming up with new guests. Including a handsome fireman.”
“Lucy,” Lily practically groaned
“What?” Lucy’s not so innocent eyes opened wide. “You have anything against good looking firemen?”
“Of course not. But I don’t want you saying—or doing—anything that I’m going to regret.” Again. Lucy may think herself the matchmaker extraordinaire but there was no denying how terrible she was at it. Not only, like Danny, did her choices not pan out, her methods were questionable. Last summer the woman had actually tripped Amy Crowder at the Fourth of July barbecue so Lucy could insist the new—six foot two, blue eyed, good looking—EMT take a look at Amy’s not sprained ankle. She didn’t need Lucy arranging yet another date for her with a self-absorbed, too-handsome for his own good, member of the male species. Someone could get hurt.
“Me?” Lucy had the audacity to flatten her palm against her chest and look surprised at being called out on her matchmaking shenanigans. “I haven’t done a thing. A fire department representative will stay with us for a week to decide if Hart Land would be a good spot for the annual firefighter’s retreat. Between the lake views, my cooking, and your baking, there isn’t a snowball’s chance under the sun that the retreat won’t be held here.”
On the surface that seemed like a legitimate reason for having a firefighter in one of the rental cabins. After all, ever since his class reunion several months ago, her grandfather, retired Marine Corps General Harold Hart, had been practically living on the computer, strategizing new marketing efforts, the same way she suspected he would have planned the invasion of an enemy country. Both of which, she had no doubt, he would be successful at. On the other hand, this was Lucy.
Pulling apart another croissant, the housekeeper paused mid-tear and grinned. “Can you imagine all those good looking firemen scattered across Hart Land for days?”
“Luuucy,” Lily enunciated carefully.
The older woman swiped another croissant and turned away, mumbling, “Sometimes I think you girls are the baby boomers and your Grams and I are the younger generation.”
“Well, you’re both certainly young at heart, I’ll give you that.” And that was all Lily was going to say. Otherwise Lucy was capable of setting a cabin on fire so the big strong firemen could rescue her damsel in distressed self.
Waiting a beat for Lucy to be out of earshot, Violet cleared her throat. “Okay, it’s just the two of us. What’s really eating at you and don’t tell me it’s Danny because I’m not buying.”
“Okay.” Lily sank onto a stool and considered if half past eleven was too late to test a new recipe for butterscotch cookies she’d been thinking about. Oh just spit it out. “Margaret O’Malley is retiring.”
“Heaven knows she’s probably older than dirt.” Having grown up in Boston, Violet and her two sisters had spent every summer at the lake and knew all the locals as well as any resident of Lawford.
“She told Mom that without Herbie, running the shop just wouldn’t be the same. She’s going to close the boutique.” Lily reached for a croissant.
“That’s wonderful.” Violet leaped forward and stopped short at Lily’s expression. “Isn’t it? I mean, you’ve been dreaming of your own bakery on Main Street for years.”
Dreaming was the key word. Since returning from studying in France she’d scrimped and saved, moved in with her mom, and to save even more money, spent most of her free evenings on her grandparent’s porch playing cards with the retired generation and miscellaneous cabin guests. Getting out the last few weeks—even with Danny Fluegel—had been a nice change.
“I give,” Violet said. “Why isn’t this good news? The shops on Main Street never turn over. We all thought it would be years before you got your chance.”
Years. It seemed that might be how long it could take to find that one signature item to set her apart from the rest of the bakeries in the state. Seeking the elusive standout cupcake, cookie, cake, or bread recipe, this kitchen had been through more experiments than a high-tech chemistry lab searching for a cancer cure. With the cost of remodeling and no single standout marketable hook, she didn’t have enough savings to keep her afloat past the first year. If that. “It’s just not the best timing.”
“I’m not ready.”
“Ready?” Violet’s eyes circled round with surprise. “You do remember you’re a graduate of the best cooking school in Paris? You’ve been ready for this since you were eight years and old and got your first Easy Bake Oven.”
That made her smile. “Ten and my second Easy Bake Oven. I wore out the first one.”
“See. You can do this. If you want to.”
Yeah. She wanted to. Boy, did she want to.
* * *
“Man, that could have been so much worse.” Cole’s partner Payton guzzled a bottle of cool water.
Cole dropped hard onto the wooden chair in the kitchen. “What’s the point of the US Chemical Safety Board—a federal agency—warning against using methanol in laboratory and school demonstrations if the teachers aren’t going to pay any attention?”
Rolling the cool bottle across his forehead, Payton shrugged. “Don’t ask me, ask the school board.”
“At least she had the good sense to block the bottom of the door with towels.”
“Didn’t hurt any that they were breathing through…what was it?”
“A cotton slip.” Cole had to give the woman credit for staying calm in a situation that would have sent most people into a deadly panic. “She’d taken hers off and torn it in pieces for them to breathe through.”
Payton narrowed his eyes. “I thought only grandmothers wore those things.”
“Whatever.” Payton jumped to his feet and crossed to the stove. “My stomach is about to kiss my backbone. How much longer?”
Derrick, the firefighter in charge of dinner tonight, didn’t bother answering. He just shot Payton an annoyed glare, much like a big brother would to his nuisance younger sibling.
Swiping a slice of bread from the basket on the counter, Payton turned back to his partner. “So how did you get this sweet assignment?”
“What assignment?” Gabe, the charmer of the firehouse, came to a stop by the kitchen table.
Payton waived his thumb at Cole. “This one is spending an all expenses paid week’s stay on the Hart property by the lake.”
Gabe whistled. “I’m with Bruiser here. How’d you finagle that?”
“I didn’t finagle anything. Captain asked if I’d volunteer a day off to inspect all the smoke alarms on the property. Next thing I know, the old guy—”
“You mean the General?” Derrick asked.
Cole nodded. “That would be the one. Followed me around closer than my shadow. Any minute I thought the guy was going to tell me how to do my job.”
“You mean he didn’t?” Derrick looked surprised.
“Nope. He frowned, harrumphed a few times, might have cracked a hint of a smile a time or two, but refrained from critiquing my performance.” Before any of the guys could come back with a wise crack, he responded, “And no comments from the peanut gallery. My performance is just fine.”
“All I know,” Derrick pulled out the chair beside him, “is that when I did that inspection two years ago the guy was worse than white on rice. Questioned if I needed a different screwdriver—a screwdriver—then he questioned the accuracy of the meters. Anyone would have thought testing smoke alarms required a PhD in rocket science.”
Cole chuckled. “Maybe you have a dishonest face?”
Turning away from Derrick, Payton swallowed a grin. Cole would have expected him to be the first to jump on a line like that.
“Hardy har har,” Derrick flashed a toothy smile. “I haven’t heard of anyone ever getting invited back, never mind invited to stay for a week.”
“It’s not like he wants to play poker with me. Hart House wants the retreat business.”
“And what,” Gabe frowned, “would you have to do with that?”
Cole shrugged. “Honestly, I don’t know. I was just as shocked as you guys are when the captain called me into his office to inform me of the stay.”
“Isn’t it against department policy to accept gifts?” Derrick ran a hand across the back of his neck. “I mean, a week’s stay at a popular lakeside vacation spot, even between peak seasons, is one hell of a gift.”
Payton nodded. “He’s got a point.”
“Again,” Cole repeated, “I have no idea. For all I know there isn’t a fire chief in the state willing to go against the General. Whatever the reason, starting tomorrow, like it or not, I’ll be taking my vacation in Hart Land.”
“Do you get to bring a guest?” An impish grin teased at one side of Payton’s mouth. “A week on the water with a hot date could have its advantages.”
“Dude, the guy is going on the invite of a retired United States Marine Corps general.” Derrick waved a wooden spoon in Cole’s direction. “I don’t think the General’s looking for the guy to turn the cabin into party city.”
The sly grin slipped from Payton’s face.
Like Cole had said before, he was about to spend a long week of restful solitude on the lake, whether he liked it or not.
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