“How’d you get so lucky to live next to someone who looks like that? She’s smoking hot.”
Senior Firefighter Garret Peirce wouldn’t argue that point with his co-worker, Zach Santora, as he pointed to Garret’s sexy neighbor who unfortunately had been giving him the cold shoulder lately.
“Put your testosterone in your pocket. She’s way out of your league,” Garret said, taking the turn into his driveway a little too fast. The last conversation he’d had with Tabitha Nelson had gone worse than the first time he tried to kiss a girl and he missed her lips and got her nose.
It was not a good kiss, to say the least.
“Oh, she’s in my league all right, but the question is why haven’t you asked her out yet?” Zach asked.
Garret and Zach had been working together for close to ten years. They had started off as junior firemen when almost all of the Fire Protection Specialist Team he’d been assigned to had been single. Now, about half were married, and collectively they had eleven kids.
That’s more than a kid a year.
Garret wouldn’t mind adding to that number someday in the near future. Zach often teased him about his desire to settle down and yet, since they’ve known each other, Garret had had only four girlfriends, and none of them lasted more than a year.
Zach, on the other hand, wanted nothing to do with long-term relationships, much less having a family. Only two years younger than Garret, he had plenty of time to change his tune on that.
Garret, however, at thirty, was looking for the right woman to settle down with and have a bunch of little rug-rats. Hell, he’d even resorted to babysitting for some of his buddies because he loved kids that much. His mother joked that he had a biological clock that taunted him as it ticked away in the back of his heart.
His mother was right.
“Why don’t you mind your own business.” He slammed the truck into park, doing his best to avoid the glare of his neighbor. They’d only been neighbors for a couple of months since he’d recently moved from an apartment to this house, and he thought they had hit it off.
Well, as best he could with a beautiful, smart woman that had the kind of confidence most people strived for, but never achieved. The first time they talked at any length one morning by the garbage cans, not three minutes into the conversation, Garret had not only become enamored by her, but intimidated as well. It had been her who initiated their first date, if you could call a stroll around the block a date.
After a few evenings of walks and the occasional drink on one of their back patios, he’d gotten up the nerve to ask her out on a real date.
Then her brother died the following day. That had been two weeks ago, and he’d done what he could to offer support, but it wasn’t the time or place to pursue a romantic relationship. He figured that could wait until she’d had some time to get through the shock.
Five days ago, she had shown up on his doorstep, asking if he could take a look at the report she’d been given regarding the fire.
She didn’t like his answer, and she’d barely spoken to him since.
Garret glanced in his rearview mirror as his buddies, Noah and Gunner, the EMTs, parked their car on the street.
Noah had been with the team for five years and Gunner six. Both good men.
Carter and Mason, the newest and youngest firefighters, having only been with the team for the last year, should be pulling in any second.
The team had just gotten off a twenty-four-hour shift. In the last year, the single men on the team had developed a habit of coming back to Garret’s rented house near the beach for breakfast. They’d hang out and unwind for an hour or so, enjoying the warm ocean breeze.
Garret snagged one of the bags filled with breakfast sandwiches from the back seat since it had been his turn to pick up the tab.
“Because I’m the dude that has your back.”
“She’s had a tough time. Can’t be easy to have lost your parents to a car accident and then a few years later, your brother to a fire.” Garret cringed. He’d tried to lend her an ear and a helping hand.
But she wanted someone to tell her that she was right. That someone had killed her brother. Not that all the evidence showed that her brother died after a fire had been started in his bedroom after he’d shot drugs into his veins.
She didn’t want to believe her brother had fallen off the wagon. He could understand that, however, the autopsy showed more than one drug in his system. Going through life with blinders on about her sibling wasn’t doing her any favors. The evidence that Garret had seen was indisputable.
And he told her as much, which meant he’d probably never get a second chance to even have one date.
“What does that have to do with you and her between the sheets?” Zach closed the truck door and carried a couple of trays of coffee and soft drinks. “And if you’re not going to tap that, then step out of the way for me.”
“That doesn’t sound like a man who has my back. Maybe a man who would stab me in the back.” Garret glanced over his shoulder, stepping onto the back patio. Tabitha stood in her side yard, watering her plants as she did every morning. Her frayed jean shorts hugged her slender hips and round ass. She wore a white tank top, and her shoulder-length, dark hair brushed against her bare shoulders. A sexy tattoo dotted her right shoulder. It was of a halfmoon and the side of a woman’s face where the hair reached around the moon as if they were arms. She’d said it had to do with having overly vivid dreams. Whatever the inspiration, the tatt had to be one of the coolest ones he’d seen on a woman’s body.
He waved with his free hand, but she just turned her head.
Like she had ever since she’d asked him if he could look into the fire report that had killed her brother.
“Are you dating her?” Zach asked.
Garret shook his head.
“Then watch a real man at work.” Zach set the tray on the patio table before Garret could warn him. Then again, it might be fun to see Zach come running back with his tail between his legs. Didn’t happen often, so this would be a real treat because no way would Tabitha ever say yes to a guy like Zach. She was too smart not to see through his charm. It was too bad, because Zach really was a good man; he just couldn’t stay with a lady longer than a couple of months. And even that might be pushing it.
Garret did his best not to stare as he watched his buddy approach Tabitha. She barely smiled but glanced in Garret’s direction with narrowed eyes.
He shrugged, wishing he could hear the conversation, but as soon as Tabitha waved her one hand dismissively, Garret knew the conversation had abruptly ended.
Zach turned, stuffing his hands deep in his pockets, sporting a scowl just as the rest of their buddies stepped into the backyard.
“Did he just go hit on your neighbor?” Mason asked, slapping Garret on the back. Mason wasn’t even twenty-five yet, but he had an old soul with a wicked sense of humor. “That’s rude considering you had wanted to first. Did she turn you down? Or did you just never get up the nerve? Really, I have no idea why you’re so shy. You’re tall, okay, maybe a little too tall, but if I were gay, I’d be interested.”
Garret laughed, shaking his head. “You’re too short.” At a little over six four, he struggled to date any woman under five nine. Tabitha had to be close, give or take a half-inch. “I had more than a chance had I told her the cops and fire investigator were wrong about her brother, but when I couldn’t do that, she pushed me away.”
“Shit, I forgot about her brother.” Mason shook his head. “That really sucks.”
Garret decided to turn his attention to Zach who scuffed his feet on the concrete patio. Zach didn’t believe there wasn’t a woman he couldn’t get in the sack. So, to watch Tabitha blow him off was a tad more enjoyable than it should be. “What did she say?” Garret asked.
“That I wasn’t her type.” Zach rolled his eyes. “Something about not being tall enough.”
“Har har, you’re a funny guy.” Zach might be six foot on a good day, but Garret knew Tabitha hadn’t cut him off at the pass based on his height. Garret caught Tabitha’s gaze. She paused, holding the hose over her rose garden. She tilted her head and if he wasn’t mistaken, her lips curved. It wasn’t a scowl, nor was it even a hint of a smile.
More of an acknowledgement that at one time, they had the beginning of something sweet, but her focus now was solely on proving someone killed her brother. Until she did that, there would be no room for Garret.
Or anyone else.
“I heard she told a reporter that her brother said he was working on a story and that if something happened to him, it wouldn’t have been an accident,” Gunner pulled back one of the chairs, taking a coffee and pulling off the top, Mason following suit.
“I heard her brother didn’t even have a job.” Noah opened the bag, emptying the contents on the table. “How could he be working on anything?”
Garret focused on the smell of bacon, cheese, and sausage filling the air, reminding him it had been at least four hours since he’d had a single bite to eat, ignoring the chatter about Steve, Tabitha’s brother. He’d gotten a lot of bad press that wasn’t entirely accurate. “That’s not true.”
The sound of a car in serious need of a new muffler echoed down the street before stopping in front of Garret’s driveway. Carter’s truck always needed work, and everyone thought he should replace it. Even though he was only twenty-three, he could afford a new one, or at the very least to fix the damn thing.
“He wrote articles for online magazines and worked part-time for a local television station,” Garret corrected. While Steve didn’t make a lot of money, he did work, and his goal had been to work as an investigative reporter for a major news program.
At least that is what Tabitha had told him.
Garret had never met Steve and had no idea what he had really been like, but it did seem odd that a thirty-two-year-old man had yet to carve out his career, and he had a past criminal record for possession and the sale of illegal drugs.
“What I’d miss?” Carter asked as he strolled into the backyard with his blond hair perfectly styled in something he described as an edgy undercut with it trimmed short on the sides, but long on the top.
“We were just discussing the lack of Garret’s love life and the object of his affection’s brother,” Zach said, turning a chair and straddling it with a shitty-ass grin.
“Before I left my house—”
Gunner interrupted Carter. “Why do you always go home and shower? We smell your stench all damn day at the station. So why take the time when we’re all still covered in soot?”
“I like to be clean before I eat breakfast.” Carter snatched a sandwich, tossing it in the air before settling on the steps that led to the kitchen. “As I was saying, while I was getting dressed, the morning news interviewed the chief of police about her accusations that someone planted the drugs in her brother’s house. He said there is no reason to believe that any foul play had been involved in the case. Then they brought up some old charges from a few years ago.”
“Tabitha said he’d been clean and sober for the last few years.” Garret took one of the cups of coffee and pulled off the top, inhaling the rich aroma of the best morning brew known to man. “She brought over the report from both the fire department and the police, and I couldn’t find anything that seemed out of the ordinary, but she’s not going to stop until someone listens.”
“And you think she’s wrong?” Noah asked, leaning back and folding his arms. He always enjoyed playing the devil’s advocate.
“I honestly don’t know,” Garret admitted.
“What about the autopsy report?” Gunner asked.
“Says he was jacked up on heroin and ecstasy. The fire was started in the bedroom by a candle. No accelerant of any kind had been used. Case closed.”
“Then maybe she’s going to need to let it go and accept her brother was using drugs,” Zach said. “It sucks, but it’s reality.”
Garret watched Tabitha as she coiled the hose and carried it toward the garage. She used to have a bounce to her walk and a twinkle in her eye. All she had now was slumped shoulders and a deep sadness lined with a ring of fire filled with anger. She pulled her cell phone from her back pocket.
Two seconds later, his buzzed.
Tabitha: When your friends leave, could you stop by? I won’t take but ten minutes of your time.
He sucked in a deep breath, taking the salty air deep in his lungs before letting it out slowly. He lived only one block from the beach because of the ocean breeze and the sounds of the waves crashing against the sandy shore. There was nothing more calming than the blue waters of the sea.
Garret: Sure thing. It will be about an hour. Is that okay? I could come over now if necessary.
What the hell did he mean by necessary? What a dumb fucking word to use. She probably just wanted to ream him out for letting his buddy go hit on her, and considering all that she had been through, that had been an asshole move on his part. Though, he couldn’t have stopped Zach if he’d tried.
Tabitha: No. Enjoy your friends. I’m working from home today, so whenever.
Garret: OK. Won’t be too long.
He tucked his phone back in his pocket and snagged an egg sandwich. He didn’t care if it had sausage, turkey sausage, or bacon, as long as it filled his stomach and got his mind off his neighbor.
Her dead brother.
And the fire that had killed him.