The phone jarred Franny awake. She reached over her head to the wireless on the table at the end of the sofa. “Hello?”
“How's it going?” Even across the phone lines, Aaron's deep voice caressed places within her that hadn't been touched in years.
She raised on her elbow and smiled. “Fine. Tiny and I are snuggled on the sofa. Are you back at the station now?”
“Yeah. Just finished cleaning my equipment and thought I'd give you a quick call. Make sure you found everything you needed."
"I did. Thank you."
“Look, Franny...ah...there's something I need to know. I mean, I think I know since you didn't have anyone to call after the fire, but..." He swore softly, his unease obvious. "Are you involved with anyone?"
She smiled and ran a hand over Tiny's head. “No. Not anymore.”
“Then I'm going to need your cell number. Now that I've found you again, I'm not losing touch.”
Oh no. She couldn't give it to him. Would he recognize it? She'd requested the number a year or more before she'd met Wesley. One of her dark moments of defeat, of wishing for things she could never have. Still, they'd been out of high school for so long. No doubt he wouldn't make the association. "Sure. 555-2239." She crossed her fingers and winced.
There was a long beat of silence. "2239? My high school locker number?"
So much for luck. What's it gonna be? Feign innocence or act like it's some odd coincidence? "Yes. I guess it is, now that you mention it."
"Franny." A long sigh wafted over the phone line. There was longing in the way he spoke her name. “Get some rest. I’ll see you after my shift.”
After ending the call, Franny sat on the edge of the sofa and ran her fingers through her hair. What exactly was going on between her and Aaron? She rotated her shoulders and stretched. “I need to get my life together, you know that?” The dog whined. “What was it Aaron said to the cab driver? He said, ‘We learn our true strength when we suffer a loss.’ Sometimes we have no choice, but to be strong. Now’s not the time for me to be weak and needy, is it?” Tiny licked her hand. “I know what you want. More t-r-e-a-t-s. Me? I just want a life. Guess I better make a list, huh? Where did I put my handbag?”
Her leather shoulder bag sat on the bottom step of the stairway. The expensive bag had been her Christmas gift from her parents last year. Now it was literally all she owned. Now’s not the time to be maudlin, Frances. Now’s the time to be strong and organize your life. She took two more Tylenol and began making a list. People she needed to call. Places she needed to go. Forms she needed to fill out. Satisfied with her plans, she snuggled under the afghan once more.
Tiny’s whining and a key in the lock woke Franny. She glanced around the darkened room. How long had she been asleep? Rubbing her eyes, she sat and blinked when the lights came on.
“There you are. How’s my pretty guest feeling?” Aaron shrugged out of his leather coat and threw it over the back of a chair. “How’s the foot?”
Her mouth went dry; even so, she forced out “okay.” She’d seen him earlier, but his heavy fireman’s uniform had concealed the hardened, developed muscles beneath. The man evidently had a serious work-out routine. His black sweater stretched over broad shoulders, solid pecs and flat abs. My, my, didn’t skinny Aaron Brenner grow up mighty fine?
He strode over to the Christmas tree, squatted and reached to plug in the lights. Jeans stretched tight over thick thigh muscles. “How did you and Tiny get along?” He glanced over his shoulder, his eyes twinkling with humor. “He didn’t con you out of any treats did he?”
At the mention of the “t” word, Tiny barreled out of the living room. Aaron shook his head and chuckled. “That pup’s a mess.”
“Pup? How much bigger do you expect him to get? You know naming him Tiny was a dirty trick.” She aimed a pretend scowl his way before a smile overruled.
Tiny pranced back into the living room, the handle of the treat bucket clamped in his jaws. His tail wagging in a happy-to-be-me signal. The dog set his treasure next to his owner, sat and watched with expectation.
“Two.” Aaron held up two fingers.
Tiny growled and barked.
“Okay. Three. But only because it’s Christmas.”
The dog licked his owner’s chin.
“Yeah, yeah, I love you too.” Aaron removed three treats before snapping the lid on top of the container. “Take this back first.” Tiny trotted off with the bucket.
“I don’t know who has who better trained.”
“Yeah, I wonder that myself sometimes. He’s a shelter pup. We kind of saved each other after I got back from Iraq a couple years ago.” Aaron settled on the sofa next to her, the treats fisted in his large hand. “I see Jenna was here with some clothes.” Tiny trotted back into the room and rested a paw on Aaron’s knee until he slipped him a treat.
“Yes. Her son was one of the patients I read to at Children’s Hospital. My favorite, in fact.”
“Well, you’re Drew’s favorite, too. He still talks about you. You were a big help to him emotionally. I used to watch you read to him.”
“Are you the one who took the picture of him on my lap? The one upstairs in the blue bedroom?”
He tossed the second treat to Tiny. “Yeah. I was shocked to find you reading to my nephew. It was the first I’d seen you since high school graduation. I had you tucked away in my mind, living in the mid-west, or someplace far away, married with a passel of kids.”
“No marriage. No kids. A few guys here and there. One I dated for a long while, but it didn’t work out.”
“Let me guess. A professional man? One your daddy put his stamp of approval on?” Bitterness tinged his voice.
“So why didn’t you speak to me at the hospital? Drew was in and out quite often. I’m only there two days a week to read, but still you’d have seen me from time to time.”
He lobbed Tiny’s final treat across the room into the hallway. “I had a big crush on you back in the day. I won’t deny it. Eight years is a long time for a normal man to carry a crush.” A quick smile animated his serious features. “But then no one ever said I was normal.” He leaned forward, his hands clasped between his thighs and his gaze focused on them when he spoke. “I was dealing with a lot when I first saw you at the hospital. I'd just gotten back from Iraq and was adjusting to regular society again. Nightmares. Mood swings. I basically communicated through grunts and one-word responses." His fingers entwined and clasped so hard his knuckles whitened. "I went through counseling for PTSD. Was a hellacious rough spell of healing. One step forward, two back. You know how that goes. I was worried sick about little Drew, which helped in an odd way. Got my mind off me and focused onto someone else's pain." He lifted a shoulder in a sad form of expression. "Then Dad got sick, which threw me further off balance. He’d always been so strong." His dark eyes pinned her. "I guess I figured I still wasn’t good enough for you with all my baggage.”
If he had approached her and reintroduced himself, how would she have reacted? Would she have given him a chance? Or would she have clung to her hope of a future with Wesley? Perhaps it was true what people said, timing was everything.
“I’m sorry to hear about your dad. Losing a parent must be very rough.”
He leaned against the back of the sofa and rubbed his hands over his face in a scrubbing motion. “Yeah, it was…is… The holidays have been…” He exhaled a long audible sigh. Tiny came over and laid his chin on his owner’s knee as if to offer comfort. Aaron cleared his throat and petted the dog.
Franny said nothing, allowing him to process his thoughts.
“Listen, about tonight. Jenna’s pretty excited. I’ve already gotten three texts from her and one from Mom. You should be forewarned.” He glanced at her with a sheepish grin. “The matchmaking brigade will be out in full force. I hope they won’t make you uncomfortable.”
“You’re all very close, aren’t you?”
“Yeah. I owe them a lot after putting up with my rebellious teen years and my obsession with music. I was a snot-nosed brat focused on one thing.” His gaze flicked to hers. “Well, maybe two.” Standing, he strode to his jacket and shoved his hand into a pocket. “I didn’t know how important this was to you. I retrieved it when I scooped you out of the tub.” He returned to the sofa and handed her The Fireman’s Flame before he sat.
Her heart did a backflip into love. “You saved this for me?” She clutched the beloved paperback to her chest. How did he know?
A faint blush fanned across his cheeks. “You always did treasure your books. At least you did in high school. I presume that hasn’t changed.”
Her fingers caressed the frayed edges of the romance she read at least twice a year. “No, it hasn’t changed. This is my all-time favorite.” She leaned in and inhaled his leather and pine scent before kissing his square jaw. “Thank you. You…you have no idea what this means to me.” She swiped a tear. “Silly, I know, to be so emotional over a book.”
His muscular shoulder lifted again. “I don’t find it silly at all. I have sheet music I’ve collected that I value highly. Some is sentimental because of who it reminds me of.” He cleared his throat as if he wanted to change the subject. “Ah…so what all did you do this afternoon?” He jerked his chin toward the tablet on the coffee table. “Looks like you’ve been making a list.”
“Yes. Weighing my options. Taking charge of my life. I’ve got three areas that need a total redo.”
His dark eyebrows rose. “Oh?”
“I need a place to live obviously. I’m thinking of finding a roommate on Craig’s List instead of another tiny apartment in an old building. Rents are just too high to live alone.”
“Just make sure you have someone do a thorough background check on whoever you want to move in with. Lots of crazies out there.”
“Don’t worry, I plan to.”
“Your second area?”
“A new job. I’m thinking about getting a temporary waitressing job. My hours were cut at the pre-school where I work, so I’ve decided to go back to school once my insurance money comes in. It won’t pay for everything, but it’ll get me started. The tips will help, too.”
“I thought you went to college after high school. At least that’s what I heard whenever I asked about you. It was like you’d dropped off the face of the earth. I looked for you in all your old hangouts.”
“Dad sent me to Grandma’s in New Jersey after graduation.”
His finger trailed over her hand, creating all kinds of fluttery feelings just as he had so many years ago on the rare occasions he’d touched her. “I joined the Army when I couldn’t find you. Just as well. I didn’t have anything to offer. Back then I was too angry at the world.”
“You were never angry with me.”
He entwined his fingers with hers. “How could I be angry with the sweetest person in my life? You’d planned on going to college at City University of New York. Did you?”
“No.” She shook her head, recalling the awful arguments over her choice of school. “Dad insisted I go to Fordham. He wanted me to major in pre-law, but I switched my major to early education my second semester, much to his displeasure.”
“Bet he threw a bitch of a fit. He liked to control your life.”
She nodded and exhaled a spurt of laughter. “Oh yeah, to say the least. He told me I wouldn’t be happy teaching pre-school. Turns out he was right. Now I realize my heart yearns to be a nurse.”
He slipped his arm across the back of the sofa and fingered her hair. “You’d be great at that, especially if you were able to get into pediatrics. I watched you with Drew and the other kids in the ward. You’ve got a knack for making them forget their pain.”
She smiled. Wasn’t that nice of him to say? “Thanks.”
His hand cupped her cheek and his dark eyes searched hers as his thumb caressed her bottom lip. “And the final thing?”
Her hand settled over his heart. “I might want to get reacquainted with people I went to high school with, back in the day. Especially a certain musician.”
The sofa shifted as he turned toward her, enveloping her in his arms. Humor twinkled in his eyes and the corners of his mouth twitched as if they wanted to smile. His head inclined and warm lips found a sensitive spot beneath her ear. Trembles skittered over her skin in response. He kissed her jawline. “Did I tell you what I told Santa I wanted for Christmas?”
She rolled her eyes. “Next thing you’re going to tell me you’ve been a very good boy.”
“Oh, sweetheart, you have no idea.” His lips softly covered hers, and she was home.~~~~