Lydia Kincaid could pull a pint of Guinness so perfect her Irish ancestors would weep tears of appreciation, but fine dining? Forget about it.
“The customer is disappointed in the sear on these scallops,” she told the sous-chef, setting the plate down.
“In what way?”
“Hell if I know. They look like all the other scallops.” Lydia had a hairpin sticking into her scalp, and it took every bit of her willpower not to poke at it. Her dark hair was too long, thick and wavy to be confined into a chic little bun, but it was part of the dress code. And going home with a headache every night was just part of the job. “Ten bucks says if I wait three minutes, then pop that same plate in the microwave for fifteen seconds and take it out to her, she’ll gush over how the sear is so perfect now.”
“If I see you microwaving scallops, I’ll make sure the only food you ever get to touch in this city again is fast food.”
Lydia rolled her eyes, having heard that threat many times before, and accepted a fresh plate of scallops from the line cook. The sous-chef just sniffed loudly and dumped the unacceptable batch in the garbage, plate and all. She was pretty sure the guy spent all his off time watching reality television chefs throw tantrums.
Three hours later, Lydia was in her car and letting her hair down. She dropped the bobby pins and elastic bands into her cup holder to fish out before her next shift and then used both hands to shake her hair out and massage her scalp.
She hated her job. Maybe some of it stemmed from the disparity between the cold formality of this restaurant and the warm and loud world she’d come from, but she also flat-out wasn’t very good at it. The foods perplexed her and, according to the kitchen manager, her tableside manner lacked polish. Two years hadn’t yet managed to put a shine on her. The tips were usually good, though, and living in Concord, New Hampshire cost less than living in Boston, but it still wasn’t cheap.
She’d just put her car in gear when she heard the siren in the distance. With her foot still on the brake, she watched as the fire engine came into view—red lights flashing through the dark night—and sped past.
With a sigh, she shifted her foot to the gas pedal. She didn’t need to hold her breath anymore. Didn’t need to find the closest scanner. Nobody she loved was on that truck so, while she said a quick prayer for their safety, they were faceless strangers and life wasn’t temporarily suspended.
And that was why she’d keep trying to please people who wouldn’t know a good scallop sear if it bit them on the ass and taking shit from the sous-chef. That job financed her new life here in New Hampshire, including a decent apartment she shared with a roommate, and it was a nice enough life that she wasn’t tempted to go home.
Her life wasn’t perfect. It had certainly been lacking in sex and friendship lately, but she wasn’t going backward just because the road was longer or harder than she’d thought. She wanted something different and she was going to keep working toward it.
Thanks to the miracle of an apartment building with an off-street parking lot, Lydia had a dedicated parking spot waiting for her. It was another reason she put up with customers who nitpicked their entrées just because they were paying so much for them.
Her roommate worked at a sports bar and wouldn’t be home for another couple of hours, so Lydia took a quick shower and put on her sweats. She’d just curled up on the sofa with the remote and a couple of the cookies her blessed-with-a-great-metabolism roommate had freshly baked when her cell phone rang.
She knew before looking at the caller ID it would be her sister. Not many people called her, and none late at night. “Hey, Ashley. What’s up?”
“My marriage is over.”
Lydia couldn’t wrap her mind around the words at first. Had something happened to Danny? But she hadn’t said that. She said it was over. “What do you mean it’s over?”
“I told him I wasn’t sure I wanted to be married to him anymore and that I needed some space. He didn’t even say anything. He just packed up a couple of bags and left.”
“Oh my God, Ashley.” Lydia sank onto the edge of her bed, stunned. “Where did this even come from?”
“I’ve been unhappy for a while. I just didn’t tell anybody.” Her sister sighed, the sound hollow and discouraged over the phone. “Like a moron, I thought I could talk to him about it. Instead, he left.”
“Why have you been unhappy? Dammit, Ashley, what is going on? Did he cheat? I swear to God if he stepped out—”
“No. He didn’t cheat. And it’s too much for me talk about now.”
“If you had been talking to me all along, it wouldn’t be too much now. You can’t call me and tell me your marriage is over and then tell me you don’t want to talk about it.”
“I know, but it’s…it’s too much. I called to talk to you about the bar.”
Uh-oh. Alarm bells went off in Lydia’s mind, but there was no way she could extricate herself from the conversation without being a shitty sister.
“I need you to come back and help Dad,” Ashley said, and Lydia dropped her head back against the sofa cushion, stifling a groan. “I need some time off.”
“I have a job, Ashley. And an apartment.”
“You’ve told me a bunch of times that you hate your job.”
She couldn’t deny that since a conversation rarely passed between them without mention of that fact.
“And it’s waiting tables,” Ashley continued. “It’s not like I’m asking you to take a hiatus from some fancy career path.”
That was bitchy, even for Ashley, but Lydia decided to give her a pass. She didn’t know what had gone wrong in their marriage, but she did know Ashley loved Danny Walsh with every fiber of her being, so she had to be a wreck.
“I can’t leave Shelly high and dry,” Lydia said in a calm, reasonable tone. “This is a great apartment and I’m lucky to have it. It has off-street parking and my space has my apartment number in it. It’s literally only mine.”
“I can’t be at the bar, Lydia. You know how it is there. Everybody’s got a comment or some advice to give, and I have to hear every five minutes what a great guy Danny is and why can’t I just give him another chance?”
Danny really was a great guy, but she could understand her sister not wanting to be reminded of it constantly while they were in the process of separating. But going back to Boston and working at Kincaid’s was a step in the wrong direction for Lydia.
“I don’t know, Ash.”
“Please. You don’t know—” To Lydia’s dismay, her sister’s voice was choked off by a sob. “I can’t do it, Lydia. I really, really need you.”
Shit. “I’ll be home tomorrow.”
* * *
“We got smoke showing on three and at least one possible on the floor,” Rick Gullotti said. “Meet you at the top, boys.”
Aidan Hunt threw a mock salute in the direction of the ladder company’s lieutenant and tossed the ax to Grant Cutter before grabbing the Halligan tool for himself. With a fork at one end and a hook and adze head on the other end, it was essentially a long crowbar on steroids and they never went anywhere without it. After confirmation Scotty Kincaid had the line, and a thumbs-up from Danny Walsh at the truck, he and the other guys from Engine 59 headed for the front door of the three-decker.
Some bunch of geniuses, generations before, had decided the best way to house a shitload of people in a small amount of space was to build three-story houses—each floor a separate unit—and cram them close together. It was great if you needed a place to live and didn’t mind living in a goldfish bowl. It was less great if it was your job to make sure an out-of-control kitchen fire didn’t burn down the entire block.
They made their way up the stairs, not finding trouble until they reached the top floor. The door to the apartment stood open, with smoke pouring out. Aidan listened to the crackle of the radio over the sound of his own breathing in the mask. The guys from Ladder 37 had gained access by way of the window and had a woman descending, but her kid was still inside.
“Shit.” Aidan confirmed Walsh knew they were going into the apartment and was standing by to charge the line if they needed water, and then looked for nods from Kincaid and Cutter.
He went in, making his way through the smoke. It was bad enough so the child would be coughing—hopefully—but there was chaos in the front of the apartment as another company that had shown up tried to knock down the flames from the front.
Making his way to the kid’s bedroom, he signaled for Cutter to look under the bed while he went to the closet. If the kid was scared and hiding from them, odds were he or she was in one of those two spots.
“Bingo,” he heard Cutter say into his ear.
The updates were growing more urgent and he heard Kincaid call for water, which meant the fire was heading their way. “No time to be nice. Grab the kid and let’s go.”
It was a little girl and she screamed as Cutter pulled her out from under the bed. She was fighting him and, because his hold was awkward, once she was free of the bed, Cutter almost lost her. Aidan swore under his breath. If she bolted, they could all be in trouble.
He leaned the Halligan against the wall and picked up the little girl. By holding her slightly slanted, he was able to hold her arms and legs still without running the risk of smacking her head on the way down.
“Grab the Halligan and let’s go.”
“More guys are coming up,” Walsh radioed in. “Get out of there now.”
The smoke was dense now and the little girl was doing more coughing and gasping than crying. “My dog!”
Aidan went past Kincaid, slapping him on the shoulder. Once Cutter went by, Kincaid could retreat—they all stayed together—and let another company deal with the flames.
“I see her dog,” Aidan heard Cutter say, and he turned just in time to see the guy disappear back into the bedroom.
“Jesus Christ,” Scotty yelled. “Cutter, get your ass down those stairs. Hunt, just go.”
He didn’t want to leave them, and he wouldn’t have except the fight was going out of the child in his arms. Holding her tight, he started back down the stairs they’d come up. At the second floor he met another company coming up, but he kept going.
Once he cleared the building, he headed for the ambulance and passed the girl over to the waiting medics. It was less than two minutes before Cutter and Kincaid emerged from the building, but it felt like forever.
They yanked their masks off as Cutter walked over to the little girl and—after getting a nod from EMS—put an obviously terrified little dog on the girl’s lap. They all smiled as the girl wrapped her arms around her pet and then her mom put her arms around both. Aidan put his hand on Cutter’s shoulder and the news cameras got their tired, happy smiles for the evening news.
Once they were back on the other side of the engine and out of view of the cameras, Kincaid grabbed the front of Cutter’s coat and shoved him against the truck. “You want to save puppies, that’s great. If there’s time. Once you’re told to get the fuck out, you don’t go back for pets. And if you ever risk my life again, or any other guy’s, for a goddamn dog, I’ll make sure you can’t even get a job emptying the garbage at Waste Reduction.”
Once Cutter nodded, Kincaid released him and they looked to Danny for a status update. They had it pretty well knocked down and, though the third floor was a loss and the lower floors wouldn’t be pretty, the people who lived in the neighboring houses weren’t going to have a bad day.
Two hours later, Aidan sat on the bench in the shower room and tied his shoes. Danny was stowing his shower stuff, a towel wrapped around his waist. He’d been quiet since they got back, other than having a talk with Cutter, since he was the officer of the bunch. But he was always quiet, so it was hard to tell what was going on with him.
“Got any plans tonight?” Aidan finally asked, just to break the silence.
“Nope. Probably see if there’s a game on.”
Aidan wasn’t sure what to say to that. He didn’t have a lot of experience with a good friend going through a divorce. Breakups, sure, but not a marriage ending. “If you want to talk, just let me know. We can grab a beer or something.”
“Talk about what?”
“Don’t bullshit me, Walsh. We know what’s going on and it’s a tough situation. So if you want to talk, just let me know.”
“She doesn’t want to be married to me anymore, so we’re getting a divorce.” Danny closed his locker, not needing to slam it to get his point across. “There’s nothing to talk about.”
“Okay.” Aidan tossed his towel in the laundry bin and went out the door.
A lot of guys had trouble expressing their emotions, but Danny took it to a whole new level. Aidan thought talking about it over a few beers might help, but he shouldn’t have been surprised the offer was refused.
He’d really like to know what had gone wrong in the Walsh marriage, though. He liked Danny and Ashley and he’d always thought they were a great couple. If they couldn’t make it work, Aidan wasn’t sure he had a chance. And lately he’d been thinking a lot about how nice it would be to have somebody to share his life with.
A mental snapshot of the little girl cradling her dog filled his mind. He wouldn’t mind having a dog. But his hours would be too hard on a dog, and he wasn’t a fan of cats. They were a little creepy and not good for playing ball in the park. He could probably keep a fish alive, but they weren’t exactly a warm hug at the end of the long tour.
With a sigh he went into the kitchen to rummage for a snack. If he couldn’t keep a dog happy, he probably didn’t have much chance of keeping a wife happy. And that was assuming he even met a woman he wanted to get to know well enough to consider a ring. So far, not so good.
“Cutter ate the last brownie,” Scotty told him as soon as he walked into the kitchen area.
Aidan shook his head, glaring at the young guy sitting at the table with a very guilty flush on his face. “You really do want to get your ass kicked today, don’t you?”
* * *
“Maybe I shouldn’t have called you. I feel bad now.”
Lydia dropped her bag inside the door and put her hand on her hip. “I just quit my job and burned a chunk of my savings to pay Shelly for two months’ rent in advance so she won’t give my room away. You’re stuck with me now.”
Tears filled Ashley’s eyes and spilled over onto her cheeks as she stood up on her toes to throw her arms around Lydia’s neck. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
Lydia squeezed her older sister, and she had to admit that coming back was about the last thing she’d wanted to do, but she was glad to be there, too. When push came to shove, her sister needed her and when family really needed you, nothing else mattered.
When Ashley released her, Lydia followed her into the living room and they dropped onto the couch. About six months after they got married, Danny and Ashley had scored the single-family home in a foreclosure auction. It had gone beyond handyman’s special straight into the rehab hell of handyman’s wet dream, but room by room they’d done the remodeling themselves. Now they had a lovely home they never could have afforded on their salaries.
But right now, it wasn’t a happy home. Lydia sighed and kicked off her flip-flops to tuck her feet under her. “What’s going on?”
Ashley shrugged one shoulder, her mouth set in a line of misery. “You know how it is.”
Maybe, in a general sense, Lydia knew how it was. She’d been married to a firefighter, too, and then she’d divorced one. But the one she’d been married to had struggled with the job, tried to cope with alcohol and taken advantage of Lydia’s unquestioning acceptance of the demanding hours to screw around with every female who twitched her goods in his direction.
That wasn’t Danny, so other than knowing how intense being a firefighter’s wife could be, Lydia didn’t see what Ashley was saying.
“He’s just so closed off,” her sister added. “I feel like he doesn’t care about anything and I don’t want to spend the rest of my life like that.”
Lydia was sure there was more to it—probably a lot more—but Ashley didn’t seem inclined to offer up anything else. And after the packing and driving, Lydia didn’t mind putting off the heavy emotional stuff for a while.
“I should go see Dad,” she said.
“He’s working the bar tonight. And before you say anything, I know he’s not supposed to be on his feet that much anymore. But you know he’s sitting around talking to his buddies as much as being on his feet, and Rick Gullotti’s girlfriend’s supposed to be helping him out.”
Rick was with Ladder 37 and Lydia had known him for years, but she struggled to remember his girlfriend’s name. “Becky?”
Ashley snorted. “Becky was like eight girlfriends ago. Karen. We like her and it’s been like four months now, which might be a record for Rick.”
Lydia looked down at the sundress she’d thrown on that morning because it was comfortable and the pale pink not only looked great with her dark coloring, but also cheered her up. It was a little wrinkled from travel, but not too bad. It wasn’t as if Kincaid’s was known for being a fashion hot spot. “And Karen couldn’t keep on helping him out?”
“She’s an ER nurse. Works crazy hours, I guess, so she helps out, but can’t commit to a set schedule. And you know how Dad is about family.”
“It’s Kincaid’s Pub so, by God, there should be a Kincaid in it,” Lydia said in a low, gruff voice that made Ashley laugh.
Even as she smiled at her sister’s amusement, Lydia had to tamp down on the old resentment. There had been no inspirational you can be the President of the United States if you want to speeches for Tommy’s daughters. His two daughters working the bar at Kincaid’s Pub while being wonderfully supportive firefighters’ wives was a dream come true for their old man.
Lydia had been the first to disappoint him. Her unwillingness to give the alcoholic serial cheater just one more chance had been the first blow, and then her leaving Kincaid’s and moving to New Hampshire had really pissed him off.
Sometimes she wondered how their lives would have turned out if their mom hadn’t died of breast cancer when Lydia and Ashley were just thirteen and fourteen. Scotty had been only nine, but he was his father’s pride and joy. Joyce Kincaid hadn’t taken any shit from her gruff, old-school husband, and Lydia thought maybe she would have pushed hard for her daughters to dream big. And then she would have helped them fight to make those dreams come true.
Or maybe their lives wouldn’t have turned out any different and it was just Lydia spinning what-ifs into pretty fairy tales.
After carrying her bag upstairs to the guest room, Lydia brushed her hair and exchanged her flip-flops for cute little tennis shoes that matched her dress and would be better for walking.
“Are you sure you want to walk?” Ashley asked. “It’s a bit of a hike.”
“It’s not that far, and I won’t have to find a place to park.”
“I’d go with you, but…”
But her not wanting to be at Kincaid’s was the entire reason Lydia had uprooted herself and come home. “I get it. And I won’t be long. I’ll be spending enough time there as it is, so I’m just going to pop in, say hi and get the hell out.”
Ashley snorted. “Good luck with that.”
It was a fifteen-minute walk from the Walsh house to Kincaid’s Pub, but Lydia stretched it out a bit. The sights. The sounds. The smells. No matter how reluctant she was to come back here or how many years she was away, this would always be home.
A few people called to her, but she just waved and kept walking. Every once in a while she’d step up the pace to make it look like she was in a hurry. But the street was fairly quiet and in no time, she was standing in front of Kincaid’s Pub.
It was housed in the lower floor of an unassuming brick building. Okay, ugly. It was ugly, with a glass door and two high, long windows. A small sign with the name in a plain type was screwed to the brick over the door, making it easy to overlook. It was open to anybody, of course, but the locals were their bread and butter, and they liked it just the way it was.
Her dad had invested in the place—becoming a partner to help out the guy who owned it—almost ten years before his heart attack hastened his retirement from fighting fires, and he’d bought the original owner out when he was back on his feet. Once it was solely Tommy’s, he’d changed the name to Kincaid’s Pub, and Ashley and Lydia had assumed their places behind the bar.
After taking a deep breath, she pulled open the heavy door and walked inside. All the old brick and wood seemed to absorb the light from the many antique-looking fixtures, and it took a moment for her eyes to adjust.
It looked just the same, with sports and firefighting memorabilia and photographs covering the brick walls. The bar was a massive U-shape with a hand-polished surface, and a dozen tables, each seating four, were scattered around the room. In an alcove to one side was a pool table, along with a few more seating groups.
Because there wasn’t a game on, the two televisions—one over the bar and one hung to be seen from most of the tables—were on Mute, with closed-captioning running across the bottom. The music was turned down low because Kincaid’s was loud enough without people shouting to be heard over the radio.
Lydia loved this place. And she hated it a little, too. But in some ways it seemed as though Kincaid’s Pub was woven into the fabric of her being, and she wasn’t sorry to be there again.
“Lydia!” Her father’s voice boomed across the bar, and she made a beeline to him.
Tommy Kincaid was a big man starting to go soft around the middle, but he still had arms like tree trunks. They wrapped around her and she squealed a little when he lifted her off her feet. “I’ve missed you, girl.”
She got a little choked up as he set her down and gave her a good looking over. Their relationship could be problematic at times—like most of the time—but Lydia never doubted for a second he loved her with all his heart. Once upon a time, he’d had the same thick, dark hair she shared with her siblings, but the gray had almost totally taken over.
He looked pretty good, though, and she smiled. “I’m glad you missed me, because it sounds like you’ll be seeing a lot of me for a while.”
A scowl drew his thick eyebrows and the corners of his mouth downward. “That sister of yours. I don’t know what’s going through her mind.”
She gave him a bright smile. “Plenty of time for that later. Right now I just want to see everybody and have a beer.”
A blonde woman who was probably a few years older than her smiled from behind the bar. “I’m Karen. Karen Shea.”
Lydia reached across and shook her hand. “We really appreciate you being able to help out.”
“Not a problem.”
Lydia went to the very end of the back side of the bar and planted a kiss on the cheek of Fitz Fitzgibbon—her father’s best friend and a retired member of Ladder 37—who was the only person who ever sat on that stool. She supposed once upon a time she might have known his real first name, but nobody ever called him anything but Fitz or, in her father’s case, Fitzy.
There were a few other regulars she said hello to before getting a Sam Adams and standing at the bar. Unlike most, the big bar at Kincaid’s didn’t have stools all the way around. It had once upon a time, but now there were only stools on the back side and the end. Her dad had noticed a lot of guys didn’t bother with the stools and just leaned against the polished oak. To make things easier, he’d just ripped them out.
About a half hour later, her brother, Scotty, walked in. Like the rest of the Kincaids, he had thick dark hair and dark eyes. He needed a shave, as usual, but he looked good. They’d talked and sent text messages quite a bit over the past two years, but neither of them was much for video chatting, so she hadn’t actually seen him.
And right on Scotty’s heels was Aidan Hunt. His brown hair was lighter than her brother’s and it needed a trim. And she didn’t need to see his eyes to remember they were blue, like a lake on a bright summer day. He looked slightly older, but no less deliciously handsome than ever. She wasn’t surprised to see him. Wherever Scotty was, Aidan was usually close by.
What did surprise her was that the second his gaze met hers, her first thought was that she’d like to throw everybody out of the bar, lock the door and then shove him onto a chair. Since she was wearing the sundress, all she had to do was undo his fly, straddle his lap and hold on.
When the corner of his mouth quirked up, as if he somehow knew she’d just gone eight seconds with him in her mind, she gave him a nod of greeting and looked away.
For crap’s sake, that was Aidan Hunt. Her annoying younger brother’s equally annoying best friend.
He’d been seventeen when they met, to Lydia’s twenty-one. He’d given her a grin that showed off perfect, Daddy’s-got-money teeth and those sparkling blue eyes and said, “Hey, gorgeous. Want to buy me a drink?”
She’d rolled her eyes and told him to enjoy his playdate with Scotty. From that day on, he had seemed determined to annoy the hell out of her at every possible opportunity.
When her brother reached her, she shoved Aidan out of her mind and embraced Scotty. “How the hell are ya?”
“Missed having you around,” he said. “Sucks you had to come back for a shitty reason, but it’s still good to see you. I just found out about an hour ago Ashley had called you.”
“She just called me last night, so it was spur-of-the-moment, I guess.”
“It’s good to have you back.”
“Don’t get too used to it. It’s temporary.”
She’d always thought if she and Scotty were closer in age than four years apart, they could have been twins, with the same shaped faces and their coloring. Ashley looked a lot like both of them, but her face was leaner, her eyes a lighter shade of brown and her hair wasn’t quite as thick.
Scotty was more like Lydia in temperament, too. Ashley was steadier and liked to try logic first. Scott and Lydia were a little more volatile and tended to run on emotion. Her temper had a longer fuse than her brother’s, but they both tended to pop off a little easy.
They caught up for a few minutes, mainly talking about his fellow firefighters, most of whom she knew well. And he gave her a quick update on their dad’s doctor not being thrilled with his blood pressure. It didn’t sound too bad, but it was probably good Ashley had called her rather than let him try to take up her slack.
Then Scotty shifted from one foot to the other and grimaced. “Sorry, but I’ve had to take a leak for like an hour.”
She laughed and waved him off. “Go. I’ll be here.”
He left and Lydia looked up at the television, sipping her beer. She only ever had one, so she’d make it last, but part of her wanted to chug it and ask for a refill. It was a little overwhelming, being back.
“Hey, gorgeous. Want to buy me a drink?” What were the chances? She turned to face Aidan, smiling at the fact she’d been thinking about that day just a few minutes before. “What’s so funny?”
She shook her head, not wanting to tell him she’d been thinking about the day they met, since that would be an admission she’d been thinking about him at all. “Nothing. How have you been?”
“Good. Same shit, different day. You come back for a visit?”
“I’ll be here awhile. Maybe a couple of weeks, or a month.” She shrugged. “Ashley wanted to take some time off, so I’m going to cover for her. You know how Dad is about having one of us here all the damn time.”
His eyes squinted and he tilted his head a little. “You sound different.”
“I worked on toning down the accent a little, to fit in more at work, I guess. Even though it’s only the next state over, people were always asking me where I was from.”
“You trying to forget who you are?” It came out fuh-get who you ah. “Forget where you came from?”
“Not possible,” she muttered.
He gave her that grin again, with the perfect teeth and sparkling eyes. They crinkled at the corners now, the laugh lines just making him more attractive. “So what you’re saying is that we’re unforgettable.”
She laughed, shaking her head. “You’re something, all right.”
Aidan looked as if he was going to say something else, but somebody shouted his name and was beckoning him over. He nodded and then turned back to Lydia. “I’ll see you around. And welcome home.”
She watched him walk away, trying to keep her eyes above his waist in case anybody was watching her watch him. Her annoying brother’s annoying best friend had very nice shoulders stretching out that dark blue T-shirt.
Her gaze dipped, just for a second. And a very nice ass filling out those faded blue jeans.