Read an Excerpt
Santa to the Rescue
By Adele Downs, Kaleen Harding
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2013 Adele Downs
All rights reserved.
Jamey Tucker unfastened his helmet, lifted his facemask, and tugged off his fire retardant gloves before gulping half a liter of water. He could almost hear the liquid sizzle against his throat, much like the smoldering embers behind him turned to sodden ash.
He held out the cup to the volunteer rescue worker manning the drinking water. "More." That simple word was as much as he could manage. After chugging down a refill, moisture returned to his mouth and tongue. He licked his lips and released a satisfied sigh. All he needed was a hot shower and some chow to feel human again. "Thanks, man."
"No problem. Merry Christmas, Jamey."
"Yeah. You too." The last thing on his mind was Christmas.
He stunk like a chimney from fighting a fire 'till dawn. Dumb kids and their vacant warehouse rave had caused his team hours of grief and gut wrenching work. Luckily, no one died.
Though the crew decorated the firehouse with lights and garland and set up the tree a week ago, Christmas spirit had failed to find him. Loneliness could do that to the new guy in town, not that he'd admit it to anyone. He'd cut his heart out first.
Jamey pulled off his fire retardant hood and stuffed it into his helmet with his facemask and gloves. Aching fingers unfastened the closures of his turnout coat. Crisp December air wafted through the openings, brushing the tee shirt beneath with cooling fingers. He made his way on weary legs to Engine 54 to meet his partner and head back to the stationhouse for breakfast and debriefing.
Before he could climb up to sit shotgun, his mentor, Paul Gilles, called out to him from behind. "Hey, rookie. You drive. I'm beat." Paul's turnout boots made scraping noises on the asphalt with his approach.
Jamey couldn't hide his surprise. Paul treated bright red Engine 54 like his own child. The old timer must be dead on his feet to give up control of the wheel.
"Sure." Jamey moved to the driver's side. He and Paul put their gear in the back of the truck and then climbed in.
Paul ran a hand through his gray hair and rubbed the back of his neck as they headed toward Appleton Fire Station, set in the heart of Pennsylvania apple orchard country. "Maybe you can give her a bath and put her to bed later, too." Paul never fell short of his duties. He barked a lot, but kept up with younger guys, no problem.
The acerbic tone Jamey had gotten used to returned. "Sure, I'm all right. I'm just not twenty-four, like you, rookie."
"Ah. There's the partner I know and loathe. Welcome back."
They both chuckled, cracking the fatigue they'd brought with them into the cab.
"I decided to take advantage of having a young guy around. What's the use of training someone if you don't get perks?"
"Right." Jamey went along, but cast Paul a suspicious glance. Since he'd moved to Pennsylvania from Indiana three months ago to join the Appleton crew, Paul had insisted on driving. Jamey opted for the explanation he most wanted—maybe the older man finally saw him as an equal partner.
Jamey looked back at his teammate, whose typical scowl had returned as he hunkered down in his seat. Nah. Giving the new guy a hard time was more Paul's style.
"I could eat a dozen eggs and a loaf of toasted bread about now," Paul continued. "With real butter."
Jamey's stomach rumbled in reply. "Same here."
Paul turned to him with a Cheshire cat grin. "Remember, I like mine scrambled firm. Bacon lightly crisp. It's your turn to cook for the crew."
* * *
The entire team, including the captain, showed up for breakfast in the communal kitchen after they'd showered and changed. Just when Jamey thought chow duty couldn't suck any worse, he discovered a near empty refrigerator. A jar of strawberry jam stood beside a questionable container of cream, and a half-loaf of funky-looking raisin bread sat alone on a shelf.
Jamey put the bread, jam, and cream on the oversized kitchen table, set the table for ten, and got the coffee pot going. "You guys start with these until I make a supermarket run. I'll be back by your second cup."
A chorus of good-natured boos and jibes filled the room. Jamey laughed in return. The guys liked nothing better than to break balls. Especially rookie balls. Good thing his were made of big, mid-western stock. There were only weeks to go before his three-month trial period ended and he'd be a full-fledged Appleton team member. He could take whatever this crew handed out until then, or after.
Jamey pulled cash from the kitty and headed to his Jeep. Within minutes, he was cruising supermarket aisles, stacking crates of eggs, pounds of butter, and bacon into a shopping cart.
Christmas music played over the loudspeakers, punctuated by the occasional commercial interruption or cleanup request. A tune he remembered his parents singing to him as a child filled the air, and Jamey hummed along. Though the song reminded him of home, the lyrics brought unexpected comfort instead of homesickness. It was as if his family had sent him a message to chase away his loneliness.
Though he wouldn't spend the holidays with his parents or sisters for the first time in his life, the importance of duty to his new job, and the need to make personal connections in this great new town, bolstered his resolve to make the most of the holiday.
Jamey turned down the bread lane and tossed loaves into the cart as another Christmas song played. It sounded kind of girly and sexy, and he recognized Taylor Swift's voice singing Santa Baby in Country music style. His favorite.
When he looked up, a woman further down the aisle grabbed his attention while she sang along. She bent her knees, did a little dip, and then wiggled her butt, which, even beneath blue scrubs and a short winter jacket, looked incredible.
Jamey halted, dead in his tracks, hoping the gorgeous blonde wouldn't see him and become embarrassed. Or stop.
"Oh, oh, oh" she sang out, her voice smoky and hot. The subtle rasp in her vocals sent pangs low in his belly that ricocheted to his solar plexus and cranked up his heartbeat.
Her ponytail swung with her next dip and shimmy, and Jamey's mouth went dry. The woman continued on her way, oblivious to him behind her. After another sway of her ponytail, she turned the corner and disappeared out of sight.
Jamey swallowed. Holy crap. He wanted to follow her, but that would be weird. And if she noticed, she'd take him for a freak. Definitely not a good way to make a first impression.
Grudgingly, he headed toward the peanut butter and jam section, remembering the guys were waiting for breakfast. On his way, he glanced down each aisle, hoping to see the woman again, but having no luck. He finished shopping and headed to the checkout line.
A flash of blue cloth in the Express lane kicked up his pulse rate. Jamey headed toward the FIFTEEN ITEMS OR LESS sign and did a fast count of the packages inside his cart. One, two, three, four, five ... He'd probably be okay.
He picked up his pace to the checkout lane before someone else rolled in behind the beautiful woman with the blond ponytail, sexy voice, and adorable bottom.
"You have too many items," the cashier complained as the blonde stacked boxes of candy canes and tubes of cookie dough onto the counter. The heavyset woman with thick features lifted a thumb to the sign. "Fifteen items. You have at least twenty. Probably more."
The blonde blinked in obvious surprise, ran an index finger over the items, and did a quick air count. "I thought ... Sorry. Since they're all the same two products, I guess I lost track."
The cashier folded her thick arms under her small chest.
"Can you make an exception, this once? I have to get going. My kids are waiting."
"If I make an exception for you, I have to do that for everyone," the cashier replied tartly. She inclined her head in Jamey's direction. "It isn't fair to make our other customers wait."
The blonde turned and looked at him for the first time. Big blue eyes with dark lashes met his, reminding him of wildflowers under Indiana summer skies. The winter chill that had penetrated his bones vanished. Heat seeped through him, warming him like memories of home.
Jamey leaned over and took the CLOSED sign from the ledge beside the cashier and placed it on the checkout belt behind him. Then he scooped an armload of candy cane boxes next to his breakfast items and lined them up. "These are mine."
He laid his open palm on the belt between the blond woman's purchases and his. The women stared down at his large hand and long fingers, and then glanced up at him again. He threw the cashier a two-hundred-watt, farm boy smile. "I apologize for my mistake."
The cashier's mouth opened, her jaw clenched, and her nostrils flared, but she started ringing up candy canes and cookie dough with military precision. After a moment, she glanced over at him, and he gave her a wink. The cashier softened and returned a tiny smile.
The blonde glanced away, clearly stifling a giggle. A dimple appeared on her left cheek as she ran her teeth over her bottom lip in an effort to suppress her laughter. The sight of her working her mouth nearly lit Jamey's blood on fire. He'd met many women in his day, but this blonde had gotten to him like no one else. She looked over at him again and mimed the words, "Thank you."
He nodded back, cool as could be, though his foot tapped a telltale rhythm on the floor. What the hell was wrong with him? He'd never been this jittery around a woman he'd just met.
The blonde placed the bundles in her cart and waited at the end of the lane for Jamey to finish checking out. When he was done, he smiled at the cashier. "Thanks a lot. Merry Christmas." This time, the older woman grinned.
When he approached the blonde, she pulled cash from her wallet to pay for the candy canes he'd collected. Jamey handed over the boxes, but refused the money. "Didn't I hear you say you have kids?" He hadn't noticed a wedding band on her finger, but that might not tell the whole story. "Give them to your children for me."
She frowned and looked hard at him again, as if memorizing his face. "You don't have to do this."
"It's Christmas, right? Kids should have a good holiday, although ..." He smirked at the multiple boxes of sweets. "That's a lot of candy and cookie dough. Should I feel guilty for contributing to the corruption of minors?"
She laughed out loud this time, the sound of her voice pure and clear. He could listen to her for hours. "These are for my kids at the hospital. I'm an R.N. at County. We're decorating the pediatric ward. And spoiling the children, too, a bit. I'm baking cookies for our holiday party on Saturday." She held out her hand for a handshake. "I'm Heather Longhurst."
He took Heather's hand. Her skin felt soft against his palm, though her grasp conveyed confidence and strength. "James Tucker. My friends call me Jamey." He told her what he did and where he worked.
Reluctantly, he released her hand. "What kind of cookies?"
"Chocolate chip, of course. Is there any other kind?"
Jamey shook his head. He could almost taste melted dark chocolate and smell the aromas filling her kitchen. His mouth watered. He hoped she couldn't hear his stomach rumble. He hadn't eaten in over twelve hours. "No ma'am."
Heather returned a lopsided grin. "You're not from around here, are you?"
"Southern Indiana, born and raised."
She moved out of the way of an elderly couple trying to pass with their half-filled shopping cart. Jamey moved, too, and they strolled together toward the exit. "I'll make a plate of cookies for you, if you stop by the hospital to pick it up." She said.
Jamey smiled at her, his heart lifting at the turnaround in his day. "That's the best offer I've had since I moved to Appleton."
"You're new in town?"
"Been here almost three months."
"Glad to meet you, Jamey Tucker. Can you stop by about one o'clock?"
"I'll be there. Count on it."
"I will." She smiled and their gazes locked. His mood soared with the realization she was flirting with him. The day had definitely taken a turn for the better.
They separated outside the exit after trading cell phone numbers. Heather closed her jacket against the cold and hurried away to her car. Jamey loaded his Jeep, barely noticing the snowflakes that fell against his coat or clung to his dark hair, turning it white.
As he drove from the parking lot, he lifted a hand to Heather, who waved back. Heather Longhurst waved good-bye to the hunky firefighter and released a "squee!" as she started her car and headed toward the hospital. She hadn't met a man she'd wanted to see again in a long time. Too many of them were weak and self-centered. They'd say one thing and do another. She'd been burned by her share of unreliable jerks and liars. She'd rather go out with friends or relax at home alone than suffer in their company.
Not only was Jamey Tucker gorgeous, he'd been kind and generous, too. And decisive.
That winning combination had made her do something she'd never done before—ask a man for a date.
Well, not exactly a date. She'd offered him a plate of cookies so he would stop by and see her. Transparent, maybe, but harmless. If he turned out to be less interesting the next time she saw him, there'd be no damage done. The cookies would be a friendly repayment for his kindness at the supermarket, and that would be that.
After parking in the employee lot, Heather hauled her goodies into the hospital lobby, thankful to catch an elevator going up. She shuffled the bags in her arms and fought back the urge to laugh as she recalled the way Jamey had charmed the supermarket cashier. She must have worn a stupid grin, because the others riding with her kept glancing over and smiling back. Cafeteria workers, a technician, a doctor, and a volunteer glanced at the candy canes poking from the tops of her parcels and wished her a "Merry Christmas" as they exited onto their floors.
When she reached pediatrics, Heather spotted her assistant, Lilly, down the hall at the nurses' station, by her flaming red hair. Lilly saw her, too, and hurried in Heather's direction.
Lilly took half the bags and walked with Heather to the nursing staff break room. A few co-workers bustled in and out to store their personal belongings before starting their rounds.
"Clearly, you stopped at the grocery store, yet your expression says you've been somewhere waaay better. Where could that be on a Tuesday?" Lilly demanded. The sparkle in her eyes said she expected a juicy story.
"And what does my expression say, exactly?" Heather unloaded the boxes of candy canes and stacked them on the counter. She placed the cookie dough in the refrigerator with a mental note to take them home after her shift.
Lilly tilted her pretty head and studied Heather's face. "You have that dreamy quality that can only mean one of two things. Either you've had the greatest sex of your life, or expect to, very soon."
Heather waved a sign of dismissal. "You always have sex on the brain, Lilly. That's one of your more endearing qualities. Who could out-tell your stories?" Few men could resist Lilly's vivacious personality, curvy figure, and warm smile. She attracted men faster than a Sunday afternoon football game.
Heather tried to walk around her friend, but Lilly put an arm out to stop her. "Something's up. I know it. Spill."
Heather let out a low laugh of defeat. The women had worked closely together since they joined the hospital last year. They communicated almost as well with body language and facial cues as they did with speech. Their non-verbal exchanges were sometimes necessary to avoid disturbing young, fragile patients. "Okay, you win. I met someone at the supermarket. A firefighter."
"You met a firefighter?" Lilly's voice squeaked at the end like it always did when she got excited.
"Who met a fireman?" another R.N. on the floor asked as she entered the break room. Marsha's scowl said she couldn't have cared less, but Heather knew from experience that if Marsha found an opportunity to put Heather down, she'd take it.
"Heather met a hunk at the supermarket." Lilly's green eyes flashed, ignoring Marsha's chilly reception. "You know Heather, she's a man magnet."
"Do bring us his calendar," Marsha replied, deadpan. She snubbed the boxes of candy canes and went straight to the row of lockers to put her purse away. Marsha never helped with parties and claimed holidays were a waste of time and money. Heather had no idea what made Marsha so disagreeable. She was smart, capable, and attractive, but had the personality of a barracuda.
Excerpted from Santa to the Rescue by Adele Downs, Kaleen Harding. Copyright © 2013 Adele Downs. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.