â€śFive bucks says she requested Ladder 37 when she called 911.â€ť
Rick Gullotti glared at Gavin Boudreau, then shook his head. â€śThatâ€™s bullshit.â€ť
They were back at the station after a run and, as the lieutenant of Boston Fireâ€™s Ladder 37, he had to stay in the bay with the guys and take care of the gear. Even if they were being idiots. In the bay next to him, the guys from Engine 59 were doing the same. Stowing the gear, checking tanks and supplies. The ladder truck and the pumper engine that shared the three-story brick firehouse always rolled together, and the guys of L-37 and E-59 operated well as a team.
A team whose members loved to give each other shit, Rick thought as Scotty Kincaid yelled from the other side of the bay. â€śThatâ€™s the fourth time that womanâ€™s needed the fire department in six months, Gullotti. Must be rough when all your emergencies happen while youâ€™re still in your lace nightgown.â€ť
â€śMaybe itâ€™s you sheâ€™s after,â€ť Gullotti called back.
â€śIt wasnâ€™t me she hugged with so much…gratitude.â€ť
Yeah, that had been awkward. He didnâ€™t mind being offered cookies or invited to stay for lunch, but the hugging he usually managed to avoid. Thankfully he hadnâ€™t taken his bunker coat off, so the feel of a curvy woman in satin and lace hadnâ€™t gotten through, but he was going to have to be more careful in the future.
â€śShe was definitely grateful.â€ť Chris Erikssonâ€”who was one of the older guys in the house, but avoided promotions due to an extreme aversion to paperworkâ€”paused in the act of wiping down L-37â€™s bumper to smirk at him.
Rickâ€™s phone vibrated in his pocket, and he pulled it out, anticipating a summons from upstairs. It wasnâ€™t going to take long for the story to circulate, and he knew theyâ€™d have to come up with a way to gently discourage the womanâ€™s attempt to date via frivolous emergency calls. Not only was it a waste of time and money but, if it escalated, she could accidentally burn down her house.
But the text was from Karen Shea. She was a nurse heâ€™d dated for a while before she met a guy who had the potential to be the one she wanted to spend the rest of her life with.
They just brought Joe into the ER. Stable, but he took a fall and Marie got upset.
Shit. Heâ€™d rented the third floor of Joe and Marie Broussardâ€™s house for years, and the elderly couple had become more than just landlords. They were like family, and worry settled in the pit of his stomach.
Weâ€™re wrapping up after a run. I can sneak over for a few mins.
Iâ€™ll tell them. Marieâ€™s having tea and Joeâ€™s griping about having to wait for scans.
They were okay, then. And he knew Karen would keep an eye on them until he got there.
â€śTell me you didnâ€™t give her your number,â€ť Eriksson said, nodding at the phone in Rickâ€™s hand.
â€śThe grateful lady in the lace nightgown.â€ť
â€śHell, no. Itâ€™s Joe and Marie. Theyâ€™re in the ER with Karen.â€ť
â€śDamn. Is it serious?â€ť
â€śJoe fell and she got upset, I guess. Nothing critical, but I need to tell Cobb Iâ€™m heading out and get over there. If a call comes in, bring my gear and Iâ€™ll meet you there.â€ť
â€śWill do.â€ť Chris snorted. â€śAnd weâ€™ll leave you some of this grunt work to do, too. Trust me.â€ť
The emergency room wasnâ€™t busy, so he asked if Karen was free instead of asking for the Broussards. He wanted more information before he saw the older couple. About five minutes later, Karen came into the waiting room and smiled at him.
He gave her a quick hug because theyâ€™d stayed friends, but a flash of light caught his eye. There was a diamond ring on her left hand, and he took hold of her fingers to give it a look.
â€śThat was fast,â€ť he said.
She was practically beaming. â€śYeah, but when itâ€™s right, itâ€™s right. And we have a little incentive to make it legal.â€ť
It took a few seconds for her words to sink in, and he realized she was pregnant. Genuine happiness for her came first, but on the heels of that was a pang of regret. He really liked Karen and he wished theyâ€™d had whatever chemistry it was she shared with the lucky guy she was going to marry.
But how many times had he heard himself referred to as not the marrying kind? More times than he could count, even if he wasnâ€™t totally sure what that meant.
â€śCongratulations,â€ť he said, making sure she could see his sincerity on his face. â€śHeâ€™s a good guy.â€ť
â€śHe is.â€ť It looked like she was going to get all misty-eyed, but then she put her nurse face back on. â€śOkay. I probably shouldnâ€™t have texted you. Marieâ€™s calmed down and itâ€™s looking like Joeâ€™s going to be punted out as soon as the scans are done. But her blood pressure was up and she looked a little dizzy when they brought them in.â€ť
â€śAlways text me,â€ť he said. â€śWhere did he fall?â€ť
â€śAt the bottom of the stairs. He was trying to measure to see about putting in a stair lift so Marie can get upstairs to her craft room and he says his sock slid on the hardwood tread because she didnâ€™t get all the Murphy Oil Soap wiped up.â€ť
Rick sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. â€śThe house is too much for them. And Marie wonâ€™t let me hire a cleaning service for them no matter how hard I push.â€ť
â€śI hate to tell you this, but Joeâ€™s doctor was here making rounds, so the ER doc pulled him in. They want to talk about elder care options.â€ť
â€śItâ€™s probably time to start having those discussions, I guess. If he sets up a time, I can be with them and keep them honest. Theyâ€™re still in denial when it comes to their limitations.â€ť
Karen hesitated, then exhaled. â€śThe other nurses and I call you because we know you, but Joe and Marie havenâ€™t updated their legal information. Dr. Bartlett already left a message at the last known contact for their son.â€ť
â€śThey called Davey?â€ť Rick shook his head. â€śThat douche bag probably wonâ€™t even return the call.â€ť
â€śI just thought you should know before you see them.â€ť
â€śDo they know? About the call, I mean?â€ť
â€śI donâ€™t think the doctorâ€™s been in to follow up with them yet, so probably not.â€ť
He should tell them himself, before the doctor did, so Joe and Marie wouldnâ€™t be taken off guard. Their son was a painful subject and they were already having a shitty day. â€śWe should probably make sure Joe isnâ€™t making a break for it.â€ť
Recognizing the change of subject for what it was, Karen led him through the security doors and down the hall to a curtained-off room.
Marie stood when she saw him and held out her arms. Rick hugged her, some of his worry eased by the steadiness in her slim, tall figure. Even at seventy-eight, Marie was strong. Neither of them was as strong as they used to be, though, and it was becoming a problem.
â€śThey shouldnâ€™t have called you,â€ť Joe grumbled from the bed. Rick let go of Marie to put his hand on the manâ€™s shoulder. Taller and four years older than his wife, but not quite as thin, Joe had once been rugged as hell. Age and a stroke had taken a toll, though, and Joe was having trouble reconciling with the fact he wasnâ€™t fifty anymore.
â€śIf a call comes in, Iâ€™ll have to go, but weâ€™d just finished a run. Pretty lady in a lace negligee thought she smelled smoke.â€ť
â€śSame one as last time?â€ť Joe asked, leaning back against the stack of pillows.
â€śYou said she was pretty,â€ť Marie said. â€śMaybe you should ask her on a date. She obviously likes you.â€ť
â€śJesus, Marie.â€ť Joe scowled at his wife. â€śYou canâ€™t encourage that or half the women in the city will be setting their tablecloths on fire.â€ť
Rick laughed and sat on the exam stool, leaving the visitorâ€™s chair for Marie. Hoping it would be a few more minutes before the doctor came back, he listened to the familiar banter between the two people whoâ€™d come into his life as landlords and become like family. And he tried to figure out how to tell them the hospital had reached out to their son because Joe and Marie knew as well as Rick did that Davey probably wouldnâ€™t reach back.
Jessica Broussard parked her rental car at the curb and flexed her fingers because they practically ached from her death grip on the steering wheel. Driving in Boston was certainly no joke.
Having learned through previous experience that navigation systems werenâ€™t infallible, she squinted to make out the brass numbers tacked to the front of the tall blue house. Then she looked at the address sheâ€™d punched into the GPS and took a deep breath.
This was it. Her grandparentsâ€™ home.
The flight from San Diego to Boston had given her plenty of time to obsess about all the ways this trip made no sense. Whenever her father was unavailable, Jessica checked his voice mail in order to keep Broussard Financial Services running, but she hadnâ€™t known what to do about the call from the Boston doctor. Reaching out to her father had resulted in a brusque demand for her to deal with the problem before she even got a chance to tell him it was personal.
But she couldnâ€™t deal with it. The doctor wouldnâ€™t speak to her about Joe and Marie Broussard, the grandparents sheâ€™d never met, because she wasnâ€™t on the form. And, when she was tossing and turning at two in the morning, she wondered if it was because they didnâ€™t know she even existed. The plan formedâ€”seemingly brilliant as many insomnia-born plans wereâ€”to deal with her fatherâ€™s problem and to meet the people David Broussard had barely spoken of, and never kindly.
A curtain in the house twitched, and Jessica realized sheâ€™d been staring. It was time to get out of the car, or drive back to the airport and force her father to call the doctor.
She climbed out of the car, bracing herself for the blast of cold air, and walked toward the front door as a pickup drove past and then turned into the driveway. Jessica paused with one foot on the bottom step, but the man who got out of the truck definitely wasnâ€™t one of her grandparents.
â€śCan I help you?â€ť he asked, walked toward her.
â€śIâ€™m looking for Joe and Marie Broussard.â€ť
He nodded. â€śIâ€™m Rick Gullotti. I rent the apartment upstairs. They expecting you?â€ť
No, they most definitely were not. That two-in-the-morning plan had also included not giving the Broussards the opportunity to tell her not to come. â€śNo, theyâ€™re not. But Iâ€™m…their granddaughter. Jessica.â€ť
The man froze in the act of extending his hand to shake hers, and his eyebrows rose. He had great eyebrows, which was ridiculous because when had she ever noticed a manâ€™s eyebrows before?
â€śI wasnâ€™t aware they have a granddaughter,â€ť he finally said, and she could tell he was trying to be careful with his words.
â€śTo be honest, I donâ€™t know if theyâ€™re aware of it, either.â€ť
â€śOkay.â€ť He dropped his hand. â€śDo you mind if I ask why youâ€™re here? Is your visit related to the doctor calling Davey?â€ť
Davey? Not once in her entire life had Jessica heard her father referred to as anything but David.
She took her time answering, assessing her options. On the one hand, it would be easy to dismiss him as a tenant who should feel free to mind his own business. But on the other, he knew her grandparents well enough to call their son Davey and she didnâ€™t know them at all. When it came to moving them into a better living situation and getting the house on the market, he could be her strongest ally.
â€śThe doctor refused to talk to me and my father is unavailable. If Joe and… If my grandparents add me to their paperwork, I can help them navigate their options.â€ť
After a long moment spent staring at her as if trying to read her mind, he nodded. â€śIâ€™ll introduce you.â€ť
When Jessica stepped down to let him go in front of her, she realized how tall he was. She wasnâ€™t sure she had an actual type, other than a preference for men taller than she was, but circumstances had led to her last few relationships being with younger men. Judging by the hint of gray peppering his short, dark hair and scruff of a beard, Rick Gullotti definitely wasnâ€™t younger. His blue eyes were framed by laugh lines, and she got the feeling he laughed a lot.
Worn jeans hugged his bottom half, and a T-shirt did the same for the top. Heâ€™d thrown a hoodie on over it, but it wasnâ€™t zippedâ€”which meant he had to be crazyâ€”so his body was well displayed. Very well.
â€śHow can it be this cold already?â€ť she asked, trying to divert her attention away from the view before she said something stupid, like asking him just how many hours per day he worked out to look that amazing.
Rick shrugged. â€śItâ€™s that time of year. Itâ€™s going to be warmer the next few daysâ€”maybe back up to fiftyâ€”and then thereâ€™s snow in the forecast. Welcome to Boston in December.â€ť
â€śSnow.â€ť Sheâ€™d gone on a ski trip once, during her college days. There had been a fireplace and alcohol and as little snow as possible.
â€śI hope you brought boots.â€ť
â€śI wonâ€™t be here that long.â€ť
He gave her a hard look she couldnâ€™t quite decipher and then opened the front door without knocking. She followed him in, trying to block out her fatherâ€™s voice in her head.
Crass. Alcoholic. Bad tempers. When she was eleven, sheâ€™d had to do a genealogy project in school. Theyâ€™re just not our kind of people, Jessica, and youâ€™re upsetting me. I donâ€™t want to hear about this nonsense again. That was the last time she asked about her grandparents. Her project was entirely fictional and earned her an A.
â€śRick, is that you?â€ť she heard a woman call from the back of the house, and Jessicaâ€™s stomach twisted into a knot. â€śDid you get the… Oh. You have company.â€ť
Jessica looked at her grandmother, emotions tangling together in her mind. Marie was tall and slim, with short white hair and blue eyes. And Jessica knew, many years from now, she would look like this woman.
â€śWhereâ€™s Joe?â€ť Rick asked, and Jessica was thankful he seemed to want them together because it bought her a few more seconds to gather herself.
â€śHeâ€™s in the kitchen. Come on back.â€ť
When Marie turned and walked away, Jessica looked up at Rick. He nodded his head in that direction, so she followed. Other than a general sense of tidiness and a light citrus scent, she barely noticed her surroundings. Her focus was on her grandmother in front of her and an awareness that Rick Gullotti was behind her.
Her grandfather was sitting at the kitchen table, working on some kind of puzzle book with reading glasses perched low on his nose. When he looked up, he frowned and then took the glasses off to stare at her.
â€śI found Jessica outside,â€ť Rick said. â€śShe says sheâ€™s your granddaughter.â€ť
Marie gasped, and Jessica felt a pang of concern when she put her hand to her chest. â€śWhat? She canâ€™t be.â€ť
â€śIf her hair was short, sheâ€™d look just like you did years ago, Marie,â€ť Joe said, and she wished she knew him well enough to know if the rasp in his voice came from emotion or not.
â€śI canâ€™t believe Davey wouldnâ€™t tell us he had a baby.â€ť
â€śDavey hasnâ€™t told us anything in almost forty years.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m thirty-four,â€ť Jessica said, as if that explained everything, and then she immediately felt like an idiot. â€śIâ€™m sorry. I should have called first.â€ť
â€śDid Davey send you because that damn doctor called him?â€ť
â€śI came because of the call, yes.â€ť She couldnâ€™t bring herself to admit yet that her father had no idea she was here or why.
Silence filled the kitchen, and she became aware that the Broussards had a real clock hanging in their kitchenâ€”the kind with a second hand that marked the awkward seconds with a tick tick tick.
Jessica was torn. The logical analyst voice in her headâ€”the part of her that had earned her a cushy corner office in her fatherâ€™s investment businessâ€”wanted her to set up a time to speak with them about the doctorâ€™s call and then check into the hotel room sheâ€™d reserved. But her inner eleven-year-old wanted to hug her nonfictional grandmother.
â€śItâ€™s a long flight,â€ť Rick said, stepping out from behind her so she could see him. â€śYou hungry?â€ť
His quiet words breaking the silence also seemed to break the tension, and Marie gave her a shaky smile. â€śHave a seat and tell us all about yourself. Rick, are you going to stay for a while?â€ť
â€śIâ€™ll stay for a little bit,â€ť Rick said, and though his voice was even enough, the look he gave Jessica made it clear he wasnâ€™t just a tenant in this house and he wasnâ€™t sure what he thought of her yet. â€śI want to hear all about Jessica.â€ť