Seeing Red

Needing to keep moving, needing to get away from here, Summer headed toward the fire truck. The driver’s door was opened, so she came around and peeked in, and hello, found another fire official. This one sat behind the wheel, shirtless, his coveralls shoved low on his hips, holes torn in each knee, a tube of antiseptic in one hand and a fistful of band-aids in the other, eyeing Socks with a healthy mistrust.

From her perch on the passenger seat, Socks eyed him back.

Then the man craned his neck toward Summer and said the oddest thing. “Are you okay?” he asked in such an intimately low voice suggesting such intimacy and familiarity, that she blinked. “Sure,” she said, and shrugged.

He just watched her. She couldn’t help but watch him back. He was filthy, but he had an extremely nice chest. Sinewy, tanned, with a spattering of hair from pec to pec that wasn’t too light, wasn’t too thick, but juuuust right. The Goldilocks in her wanted to smile. After all, she loved men, all shapes and sizes, but this man . . . yum.

Unfortunately, all that extremely decent male flesh also sported a series of deep, nasty-looking scratches that appeared to be Sock’s doing. “Ouch,” she said in sympathy.

His light, light brown eyes, with the impossibly long, dark lashes met hers with . . . amused cynicism?
She went still. Wait. Wait. She knew that slashing scar above his eyebrow. She knew that dimple on the right side of his mouth. She knew that wry, slow smile, it had always made her day. “Oh my God. No.”

He just kept looking at her.

She took closer stock. Shaggy sun-kissed brown hair, still apparently untamable in thick waves framing his face. Light stubble over his lean jaw – lean jaw. That’s what was so different, besides the years that had turned him from boy to man.

He’d lost his softness, every single bit of it, coming out with a rangy, leanly muscled build that spoke of long days in physical labor. He looked liked he’d lived each of the twelve years that had passed, every single one of them, well and hard. There were fine laugh lines fanning out from his eyes, and laugh lines around his mouth too. The thought made her heart leap. He’d smiled, laughed, and often. Oh I’m so glad, she thought, and felt the grin split her face.

“Joe Walker.”

“So you do remember.”

“Of course I do.” She laughed, because just looking at him made her feel young and carefree, but the smile faded away when he didn’t do the same. “I can’t believe it’s you.”

“In the flesh.” Twisting around, he reached for a dark blue t-shirt hanging over the back of the passenger seat.

“Don’t you want to treat the scratches first?” she asked.

“Later.”

“But…” She thought of the herbal cream she always carried for blisters, cuts, and any other nasty surprises she encountered on a regular basis out on a trek, and reached for the little purse hanging off her shoulder. “I have…

“I’m good.” He pulled the shirt over his head, the muscles in his biceps flexing, his hard, ridged belly revealing a nice six pack as he sat up straighter to pull the material down to cover his torso. A firefighter patch now covered his pec, making him look official. Grown up. And then it hit her. He looked right at home here. He’d lost the haunted, hollow look that had plagued him all his childhood, and had found something for himself, a place he belonged.

So had she. Far away from here. Unfortunately, her basis for that distance had been a single tragic event, not a strong enough foundation she’d discovered. She’d lived free as a bird, yes, and had loved it, but a very small part of her knew she’d missed something by walking away from everyone and anyone who’d ever cared about her.

She just didn’t know what exactly.

And yet standing here, looking at the warehouse, seeing Joe, it was like a high speed internet connection to the single most traumatic event of her life, and without warning, her vision wavered. Oh, damn. The third and final warning.

“Summer?”

She blinked into Joe’s eyes. He had her wrist in a firm grip.

“Here.” He stood, then pressed her to the driver’s seat. “Sit.”

“I’m okay.” She went for a smile but couldn’t quite stick the landing as she continued to suck air into her lungs too fast. “It’s just . . . hard to be here.” She waved a hand in front of her face to fan it and gulped air like water.

“Yeah,” he said, watching her carefully. “And it’s going to get worse. You probably shouldn’t hang around for longer than necessary.”

“No.” Keep breathing, Summer. It took a few minutes to even it out, to gain control. Humiliating.

His mouth was grim as he waited, his eyes blazing with emotion. This was hard on him too, incredibly so, and yet she could still hardly believe it was him sitting there. “You look good, Joe.”

He laughed.

“What’s so funny?”

“Absolutely nothing.”

It was a shock that she couldn’t read him, not at all. “You used to wear your emotions on your sleeve.”

“Yeah, well, that never really worked out for me.”

She nodded and stood on legs she told herself were steady now. “Look, I’m sorry. I know I left things badly. I never said good-bye. I…”

“It doesn’t matter.”

He sounded as weary as she felt. Just yesterday she’d been in San Francisco, planning and organizing a hiking trip for a large group of businesswomen through the Sierras. Then her mother had called at two in the morning. An oddity in itself because in all these years Camille had been extremely cognizant of the fact Summer didn’t like to come back to Ocean Beach, and had never asked her to.

As a result, Summer’d had an amazing freedom to do as she pleased. And what had pleased her was to roam, far and wide.

But her mother needed her now, an event shocking enough that Summer had hopped in her car and driven seven straight hours to get here. She’d had no sleep and it was catching up with her. But looking into Joe’s eyes she could see that he’d had a long night, too. And probably an even longer morning. “I’m sorry,” she said again. After a hesitation, she reached past him for Socks. “Here, kitty, kitty.”

“Watch out, she’s still skittish.”

“I’ll be careful.” Her shoulder brushed his. Beneath his shirt, he was warm and hard with strength, but that wasn’t what struck her with an almost unbearable familiarity as she found herself in such close proximity to him. No, his scent did that because he smelled the same, and it took everything she had not to throw herself at him for a desperately needed hug.

But he sucked in a breath and stepped back.

To avoid her touch.

She stared at him, the hurt sneaking in and squeezing her heart. She wrapped her hands around the fat, scared cat, who came compliantly, even happily, pressing her furry face into the crook of Summer’s neck affectionately. “Mew.”

She hugged Socks close, feeling unusually awkward and out of her element. He didn’t want her here. Didn’t want to see her. “Did you fight the fire?” she asked.

“No, I’m a fire marshal.”

“So . . . you’re investigating?”

“Yes.”

That was somehow both unsettling and comforting. “It was an accidental last time. A terrible accident.”

His face softened. “I know.”

“Is it this time?”

“I’ll find out.”

He sounded so sure, so confident. So unlike the Joe she remembered. His radio squawked, and he reached for it, talking into it with a shocking, easy authority.

He bewildered her, this the man who felt both familiar and so much like a stranger. There was a lot to say to him, and yet nothing to say at all. Cuddling Socks, she turned away, giving him privacy, and taking a moment for herself as well.

The knowledge that the warehouse was probably a total loss dragged at her, fatiguing her all the more. She wondered if her mother and Aunt Tina would rebuild for a second time, and glanced back at Joe.

He was still talking into his radio, and didn’t appear to notice she’d left.

So she kept walking, surrounded by people and still somehow more alone than she’d felt in years. Utterly, completely alone.