“Five bucks says she requested Ladder 37 when she called 911.”
Rick Gullotti glared at Gavin Boudreau, then shook his head. “That’s bullshit.”
They were back at the station after a run and, as the lieutenant of Boston Fire’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. “That’s the fourth time that woman’s needed the fire department in six months, Gullotti. Must be rough when all your emergencies happen while you’re still in your lace nightgown.”
“Maybe it’s you she’s after,” Gullotti called back.
“It wasn’t me she hugged with so much…gratitude.”
Yeah, that had been awkward. He didn’t mind being offered cookies or invited to stay for lunch, but the hugging he usually managed to avoid. Thankfully he hadn’t taken his bunker coat off, so the feel of a curvy woman in satin and lace hadn’t gotten through, but he was going to have to be more careful in the future.
“She was definitely grateful.” Chris Eriksson—who was one of the older guys in the house, but avoided promotions due to an extreme aversion to paperwork—paused in the act of wiping down L-37’s bumper to smirk at him.
Rick’s phone vibrated in his pocket, and he pulled it out, anticipating a summons from upstairs. It wasn’t going to take long for the story to circulate, and he knew they’d have to come up with a way to gently discourage the woman’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 he’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. He’d rented the third floor of Joe and Marie Broussard’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.
We’re wrapping up after a run. I can sneak over for a few mins.
I’ll tell them. Marie’s having tea and Joe’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.
“Tell me you didn’t give her your number,” Eriksson said, nodding at the phone in Rick’s hand.
“The grateful lady in the lace nightgown.”
“Hell, no. It’s Joe and Marie. They’re in the ER with Karen.”
“Damn. Is it serious?”
“Joe fell and she got upset, I guess. Nothing critical, but I need to tell Cobb I’m heading out and get over there. If a call comes in, bring my gear and I’ll meet you there.”
“Will do.” Chris snorted. “And we’ll leave you some of this grunt work to do, too. Trust me.”
The emergency room wasn’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 they’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.
“That was fast,” he said.
She was practically beaming. “Yeah, but when it’s right, it’s right. And we have a little incentive to make it legal.”
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 they’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 wasn’t totally sure what that meant.
“Congratulations,” he said, making sure she could see his sincerity on his face. “He’s a good guy.”
“He is.” It looked like she was going to get all misty-eyed, but then she put her nurse face back on. “Okay. I probably shouldn’t have texted you. Marie’s calmed down and it’s looking like Joe’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.”
“Always text me,” he said. “Where did he fall?”
“At 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 didn’t get all the Murphy Oil Soap wiped up.”
Rick sighed and rubbed the back of his neck. “The house is too much for them. And Marie won’t let me hire a cleaning service for them no matter how hard I push.”
“I hate to tell you this, but Joe’s doctor was here making rounds, so the ER doc pulled him in. They want to talk about elder care options.”
“It’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. They’re still in denial when it comes to their limitations.”
Karen hesitated, then exhaled. “The other nurses and I call you because we know you, but Joe and Marie haven’t updated their legal information. Dr. Bartlett already left a message at the last known contact for their son.”
“They called Davey?” Rick shook his head. “That douche bag probably won’t even return the call.”
“I just thought you should know before you see them.”
“Do they know? About the call, I mean?”
“I don’t think the doctor’s been in to follow up with them yet, so probably not.”
He should tell them himself, before the doctor did, so Joe and Marie wouldn’t be taken off guard. Their son was a painful subject and they were already having a shitty day. “We should probably make sure Joe isn’t making a break for it.”
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.
“They shouldn’t have called you,” Joe grumbled from the bed. Rick let go of Marie to put his hand on the man’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 wasn’t fifty anymore.
“If a call comes in, I’ll have to go, but we’d just finished a run. Pretty lady in a lace negligee thought she smelled smoke.”
“Same one as last time?” Joe asked, leaning back against the stack of pillows.
“You said she was pretty,” Marie said. “Maybe you should ask her on a date. She obviously likes you.”
“Jesus, Marie.” Joe scowled at his wife. “You can’t encourage that or half the women in the city will be setting their tablecloths on fire.”
Rick laughed and sat on the exam stool, leaving the visitor’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 who’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 wouldn’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 weren’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 she’d punched into the GPS and took a deep breath.
This was it. Her grandparents’ 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 hadn’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 couldn’t deal with it. The doctor wouldn’t speak to her about Joe and Marie Broussard, the grandparents she’d never met, because she wasn’t on the form. And, when she was tossing and turning at two in the morning, she wondered if it was because they didn’t know she even existed. The plan formed—seemingly brilliant as many insomnia-born plans were—to deal with her father’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 she’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 wasn’t one of her grandparents.
“Can I help you?” he asked, walked toward her.
“I’m looking for Joe and Marie Broussard.”
He nodded. “I’m Rick Gullotti. I rent the apartment upstairs. They expecting you?”
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. “No, they’re not. But I’m…their granddaughter. Jessica.”
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 man’s eyebrows before?
“I wasn’t aware they have a granddaughter,” he finally said, and she could tell he was trying to be careful with his words.
“To be honest, I don’t know if they’re aware of it, either.”
“Okay.” He dropped his hand. “Do you mind if I ask why you’re here? Is your visit related to the doctor calling Davey?”
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 didn’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.
“The 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.”
After a long moment spent staring at her as if trying to read her mind, he nodded. “I’ll introduce you.”
When Jessica stepped down to let him go in front of her, she realized how tall he was. She wasn’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 wasn’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. He’d thrown a hoodie on over it, but it wasn’t zipped—which meant he had to be crazy—so his body was well displayed. Very well.
“How can it be this cold already?” 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. “It’s that time of year. It’s going to be warmer the next few days—maybe back up to fifty—and then there’s snow in the forecast. Welcome to Boston in December.”
“Snow.” She’d gone on a ski trip once, during her college days. There had been a fireplace and alcohol and as little snow as possible.
“I hope you brought boots.”
“I won’t be here that long.”
He gave her a hard look she couldn’t quite decipher and then opened the front door without knocking. She followed him in, trying to block out her father’s voice in her head.
Crass. Alcoholic. Bad tempers. When she was eleven, she’d had to do a genealogy project in school. They’re just not our kind of people, Jessica, and you’re upsetting me. I don’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.
“Rick, is that you?” she heard a woman call from the back of the house, and Jessica’s stomach twisted into a knot. “Did you get the… Oh. You have company.”
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.
“Where’s Joe?” Rick asked, and Jessica was thankful he seemed to want them together because it bought her a few more seconds to gather herself.
“He’s in the kitchen. Come on back.”
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.
“I found Jessica outside,” Rick said. “She says she’s your granddaughter.”
Marie gasped, and Jessica felt a pang of concern when she put her hand to her chest. “What? She can’t be.”
“If her hair was short, she’d look just like you did years ago, Marie,” Joe said, and she wished she knew him well enough to know if the rasp in his voice came from emotion or not.
“I can’t believe Davey wouldn’t tell us he had a baby.”
“Davey hasn’t told us anything in almost forty years.”
“I’m thirty-four,” Jessica said, as if that explained everything, and then she immediately felt like an idiot. “I’m sorry. I should have called first.”
“Did Davey send you because that damn doctor called him?”
“I came because of the call, yes.” She couldn’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 kitchen—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 head—the part of her that had earned her a cushy corner office in her father’s investment business—wanted her to set up a time to speak with them about the doctor’s call and then check into the hotel room she’d reserved. But her inner eleven-year-old wanted to hug her nonfictional grandmother.
“It’s a long flight,” Rick said, stepping out from behind her so she could see him. “You hungry?”
His quiet words breaking the silence also seemed to break the tension, and Marie gave her a shaky smile. “Have a seat and tell us all about yourself. Rick, are you going to stay for a while?”
“I’ll stay for a little bit,” Rick said, and though his voice was even enough, the look he gave Jessica made it clear he wasn’t just a tenant in this house and he wasn’t sure what he thought of her yet. “I want to hear all about Jessica.”