“Here’s to you, Jo-Jo. Wherever you are.” I hold up a shot of Jameson in a silent salute to my fallen brother. A year ago today, we held his wake here at Pat’s Irish Pub. The local bar and grill is a second home for the crew at Station 49. A quick ride from our building, the family-owned establishment embraced us eagerly years ago. Coming to Pat’s is a rite of passage among the newbies. With their easy smiles, quick wits, and boisterous spirits, the Collins clan embraced us, providing us with indispensable moments of sanity in a world of constant danger and change. Their close bond and the pursuit of the American dream remind us frequently of why we put our lives on the line.
“They say the problem begins when you start drinking alone.” I would know that voice anywhere. Her alto is similar to a smooth, honeyed whiskey on the rocks. Aged to perfection, this light brown alcohol would hit all the right notes. Fire, bite, potency, and the hint of sweetness it possessed would create a blend tailor-made for the palate. Such an excellent beverage would prove irresistible for a whiskey lover like myself. Noble Schaffer is that mythical brand in human form. Her full, pink rose-petal lips turn up at the corners slightly.
Sadness darkens her almond-shaped, sienna-colored eyes. Jovan Schaffer may have been my brother spiritually, but he was hers via genetics. Standing at the end of the bar, she’s a blazing light in the midst of darkness. From the off the shoulder, black, cable knit sweater to the dark denim pants accenting her shapely thighs, she’s everything I didn’t realize I wanted in a woman until I got to know her and fell for the one woman I could never have.
Her knee-high black boots make me think indecent thoughts. I force my gaze down at the bar top, disgusted by my ability to lust after the golden-brown skinned beauty at a time meant for reverence. Get over it, Wild. Her oval-shaped face, button nose, and prominent cheekbones are a more refined feminine version of her older brother’s. The family similarity usually brings comfort. Tonight, it carries shame. If I meet her gaze, she’ll see all the things I work so hard to conceal. That’s the problem with developing feelings for your best friend. Best friend is the only word I can use to accurately describe the relationship we’ve developed. Ironically, she’s filled some of the holes her brother’s passing left behind.
Jovan and I made a pact when we graduated the academy together―if anything happened to either of us, the one left behind would look after the other’s family. Tomorrow isn’t promised. No one understands that sentiment better than a first responder does. Planning is a part of the job. I knew that going into the agreement with Jo-Jo. It was an honor I had no problem upholding. Still, I never expected to be called on to endorse it, at least not so soon. He was only thirty-three.
“You started without me.” Noble points her finger at me accusingly.
Swirling the alcohol around in the short glass, I sigh. “Pre-gaming felt necessary.”
“I know.” Riddled with pain, her voice tears at my heart. Her shoulders slump and the bravado from moments before disappears. There’s no need for pretense between us. It’s why we arranged to arrive before everyone else and take a moment to be open and honest. She slips on to the stool beside me and bumps my shoulders with hers. Her weight rests against me. The side of her breast brushes against my arm.
I cast aside the urge to pull her to me and kiss her, easing some of the pain with a reminder that good still exists. She’s not mine.
Sean smiles over at us solemnly with understanding. “One for you, too, love?”
She nods. “Please.”
He pours her a shot. “First one’s on the house.”
“Thanks, Sean,” I say.
“Least I can do for two of my best customers.”
He walks away to check on the other patrons.
“It doesn’t feel right that it’s been a year since we buried him.” Her voice wavers.
“I know. There are times I expect to see him coming toward me with that big grin on his mug.”
She laughs. “He used to make me so mad growing up. He’d spend hours agitating me to no end, riling me up, and I could never return the favor properly. No matter what I did in retaliation, he always had that smile.”
I chuckle. “That sounds like him.”
“I regret leaving to attend school in New York. It’s wasted time with my family I can’t get back.” Her words are a rushed admission.
“Hey. He was proud of you for following your dreams. You got a full scholarship, Noble. No one turns that down.”
“Yeah? Maybe I should’ve.” She tosses back her shot before I can respond.
I do the same, and take a moment to gather my thoughts. Angling my body toward her, I place my hands on her thighs. “Look at me.”
She shakes her head.
“Yes.” I release her thigh, and grab her chin with my thumb and forefinger, forcing her to meet my stare. “Jo-Jo was so proud of his baby sister for getting that academic scholarship at Clarks University and making a career for herself. He never shut up about you and your accomplishments. We knew you as the little scientist around the station.” The memories make me smile.
“Why did I have to stay there so long?”
“Because you were offered a great job right after graduation and an internship where you wowed their socks off. Why wouldn’t you say yes after all the hard work you put in?” She shakes her head. “You have to stop beating yourself up about this, Noble. He wouldn’t want that for you.” I squeeze her thighs. “Okay?”
She sniffs. “Yeah. You’re right. I know you are …” Her voice trails off.
“Doesn’t change the way you feel though, does it?” I whisper.
She shakes her head.
“Come here.” I wrap my arms around her shoulders, and pull her to me, savoring the contact. Placing a kiss on her forehead, I inhale the airy scent of flowers and rain. “We’ll get through this you and I. The same way we have everything else.”
She pulls back and angrily wipes away the droplets of saline running down her cheeks. “No. I wanted to be here for you tonight.”
“I didn’t realize it had to be all or nothing.”
“You know what I mean, Zeke. You’re always taking care of me and Mom.”
“Is that a bad thing now?” I arch an eyebrow, unsure where she’s going with this.
“No, it’s an amazing thing. But it’s been a year. I don’t want you putting your life on hold indefinitely because you made a promise.” She bites the bottom of her lip.
Ahhh, I get it. Guilt I understand. Even if it is misplaced.
“Hey. I don’t do anything I don’t want to. You know that.”
She huffs. “This is coming out all wrong.”
“With what you’re saying, I’m not sure how it could come out right.”
“I just— You don’t always have to be the rock. I was a mess a year ago.” She shakes her head. “I leaned on you so heavily.” This situation is spiraling out of control like a plane with one engine. I can’t seem to get a hold of it to steer out of the crash course we’re set on. Is she going to Dear John me and sever our relationship, or announce a move? My stomach twists itself into knots.
“That’s what I’m here for.”
“Yes, but I don’t want you to feel beholden.” She twirls a strand of the thick, curly hair that frames her face and brushes her jawline.
“You’re my best friend, Noble.”
Her eyes widen. “I am?”
“Don’t you know that?”
Her face turns sheepish. “I wasn’t sure if I was maybe assuming or reading into things. You know I try not to do that.” She trips over her words.
The left-brain rears its head.
“You don’t have to assume when you can ask.” I tap the end of her nose. “Give your big brain a rest, and have a beer with me before everyone else gets here. Is Mom still staying home?”
“Yes, she’s not ready. I tried to stay home with her, but she insisted I come out and represent our family. I think she wanted the time alone, so I didn’t press her.”
“You’re a good daughter.” The devotion she’s shown her mother is one of the things I admire most. Family is everything. The minute she heard about her brother, she put in her notice and arranged to uproot her life in New York, and come back to Baltimore. She’d moved into her mother’s home and helped the sweet woman weather the storm of grief. The three had always been close. After her father left when they were little, they’d rallied together, so losing one of the trio was a near death blow for Jenna Schaffer.
Jenna sank into a deep depression the first six months after losing Jovan. It’d taken us a long time to help her dig her way back out. With the aid of counseling, a stubborn daughter, a grief support group, and the Red Hat Society, she’s slowly showing signs of life once more.
“It’s the least I can do. My mother worked two and three jobs to provide Jovan and me with a good life. This isn’t a fraction of paying back all she’s put in.” She shrugs the compliment off. “I just hope this doesn’t send her into a regression.”
“She’s strong. It may shake her, but it won’t break her.”
“What would I do without you, Zeke?”
“Luckily, you’ll never have to find out.”
“Promises, promises,” she grumbles.
“How are you really?”
She shakes her head. “I miss him. They say it gets easier, but it doesn’t. In some ways its worse because he’s not as fresh in my mind. I struggle to remember the exact way he smelled and the expressions he made. I feel like he’s slipping away from me little by little.” Her breath hitches. “And I hate myself for that.”
I reach over and grab her hand. “You’ll never forget him. Memories may become a bit blurred around the edges, but the important things linger.”
“Do you really believe that?” she asks softly.
“I know it. You don’t realize how much you resemble him in actions and temperament. Believe me. He’s still around.”
She sniffs. “That might be the nicest thing anyone’s ever said to me. My brother was an amazing guy. If I’m even a little like him, I’m doing okay.”
“You’re amazing in your own right.” I clear my throat. We’re drifting into dangerous territory. Grief has me sentimental and careless.
“Another round?” Sean asks.
I glance down at my watch. People will be arriving soon and looking to us to lead things.
“Yeah. On second thought, make them doubles.”
“We can’t let this become a maudlin event. He’d want it to be a celebration of his life. When the others get here, we have to set the mood.” I can see Noble don her armor. Her face becomes closed off, and her body grows rigid.
I place my hand over her, already missing her warmth. “I’m in this with you. Don’t forget that. You aren’t alone.”
She pierces me with her dark gaze. The air between us grows thick. Her tongue darts out and moistens her lips. I want to follow that path with my mouth. I lean in closer. Her breath quickens.
“Two doubles.” Sean sits the shots down in front of us.
I jerk and pull away. “Down the hatch, Schaffer.”
After saluting one another, we throw back the drinks. The liquid burns its way down my throat into my belly.
A group of men from the station walk in. I wave them over. And so it begins. We’re both locked into our roles for the night.
“Starting early?” Banks asks. “Hey, Noble.” He kisses her cheek.
“Hey, Banks, Conway.” She stands to deliver hugs and chat with the boys.
“I’m taking advantage of my days off. You know how sparing they can be.”
Banks laugh. “Yeah, I do. You good?”
I run my hand through my short-cropped hair. “As good as I can be. We really want to focus on life. Jo-Jo was full of that, and this should be about celebrating him. Last year we mourned. This year we move forward, keeping the very best of him alive.”
Banks pats my back. “I like that idea, brother.”
“We should move it to the back. We have food and beers set up there,” Noble says.
“So, how’s baby Schaffer been?” The pretty boy blond throws an arm around her shoulders, and I scowl.
“Still holding a flame for her, huh?” Banks asks. He arches a dark brow, and I shrug.
“I don’t get it. Why not let her know how you feel? The two of you are close. It’s obvious in the way you interact. I like Noble, but she can be a bit standoffish. Never with you, though.”
“It’s complicated,” I say as we move over to the area set aside for us tonight.
“Why? ’Cause of Jo-Jo? After he threatened to kick your ass if you ever hurt her, he’d think this was hilarious. I mean, if you play your cards right you’d be family. How could he not love that?”
“I’m not going to take advantage of her. She was grieving, and I was there—”
“I thought you said today was about moving forward and celebrating life,” Banks says.
The bastard is using my words against me. Unable to form a quick rebuttal, I close my mouth.
“You know as well as I do that we never know what’s going to happen on a run. Do you want this missed opportunity hanging over your head?”
“That right there’s the other reason. She already lost her brother. You think she’s down to risk losing the man she’s dating? It’d be cruel to even ask it.” I scoff.
“Seems like you should let the lady make that decision.”
Caught up with the others, I can’t give an honest reply. I watch McFadden shrewdly, as he chats Noble up. He’s always been a ladies man, and while there’s an unspoken code among us about dating family, she doesn’t have Jo-Jo there to look out for her anymore. McFadden moves in closer, and my patience evaporates. I stalk over and stare him down.
“What I miss?” I ask, standing close enough to Noble to feel the heat from her body.
“I was just asking her if she played soccer. We’re getting an indoor league together … me, a few other guys, and some of their wives and girlfriends.”
“You want to join up?” Any excuse to be near her without raising a red flag works for me.
“It could be fun,” she says.
“Sign us up tentatively. We have to make sure it works with our schedules.” I stare him down.
“All right.” He nods and takes a step back.
“Hey, Wild. I was just telling the rookie about that time you and Jo-Jo had an apartment together, and you threw that Halloween party.” A friendly voice gives a welcome distraction I need to break the tension flowing between McFadden and me.
I laugh. “It was the party to end all parties, Beckerman.”
“You mean to end all leases,” Beckerman retorts.
“Wait. What happened?” Noble asks.
“Nothing,” I say quickly.
The crew laughs. They all start talking at once, and begin to piecemeal together the wild adventures of two twenty-somethings fresh out of the academy.
“And after the fire alarm goes off, we get the call down at the station, because once it’s triggered, we have to go out and investigate.”
“You got the fire department you worked at to come over to your house?” Noble bursts into laughter.
“It could’ve happened to anyone,” I mutter.
She laughs harder, clutching her waist. I don’t mind being the butt of her joke. Laughter is what we all need tonight.
“Her cool off that burn with a beer.” Williams fishes a cold one out of a bucket and hands it over.
“They like to tease me about it, but no one ever forgot that party. That’s all I’m saying.” I pop the top and take a long draw.
“Sounds like they’d never let you forget either,” Noble teases.
I narrow my eyes playfully as someone else chimes in with another memory. We whittle away the time with drinks and recollections.
Our good-byes are bittersweet at the end of the night. The vibe is lighter than the one from the previous year. I enjoyed focusing on the Jo-Jo highlights and clinging to the good times versus dwelling on the end of his life. After an evening of remembrance, I find myself missing my brother more than ever. Noble leans against me as we make the walk toward her front door. She imbibed more than her usual amount tonight.
“You okay?” I ask as we climb the steps to her porch.
“That’s a tough question to answer. I’m not sure if I’ll ever truly be all right again. If you’re worried about me falling apart, don’t. I’ve got a handle on it now. I’m solid.”
I flash her a skeptical look.
“Ish. I’m solid-ish. Last year I was still shell-shocked. This year, I’m just sad. I miss him. With that initial blown worn away, the permanence has settled in. It gets harder with every important moment I experience.” Her voice warbles.
I pull her into a hug. She rests her head on my chest, and I tighten my hold.
“He should be here. I can hardly think because my head is full of all the things he’s going to miss,” she says softly. I run my hand up her back and massage the tension from her neck. I kiss her crown. “It’s the bleakness I hate most. It stretches out like an abyss.”
I rest my head on top of hers. “Today is a bad day. We knew it would be. That doesn’t negate all the good days we’ve had.” I rock her back and forth, as she melts into me.
“You listening?” I ask. Her response is muffled by my chest. I lean back, sink my fingers into her hair, and tug lightly, forcing her head back so I can meet her gaze. Her eyes are soft by the porch light. “Did you hear me?”
“Good. Now let’s get you inside so you can crash and sleep this off.”
“Pshh. I’m buzzed not drunk. You think I’m a lightweight?” Her slight pout makes me chuckle.
Her spine stiffens. “With my B.M.I and the amount of alcohol I’ve consumed thus far, I could ingest at least two more drinks before I reach the level of intoxication you’re insinuating.”
“You’re so cute when you sling those big words and scientific facts about during a debate. Keys.” I hold my hands out as she rummages in her purse, muttering. She plops them in my hand.
“You don’t believe me?” Her chin tilts up in challenge.
I smirk. “I didn’t say that.”
She sniffs. “Well, you didn’t have to. Not with that tone.”
“What tone?” I push the door open and guide her inside.
“The one that says while you may be humoring me, you don’t actually believe a word I say.”
I scan the darkened house. It’s nearly two in the morning. I can see her mother curled up under blankets on the couch. A small garbage can and a box of tissues tell the story of how her night went.
Steering Noble through the living room and down the hallway, I respond quietly, “This is my ‘I know better than to argue with such an intelligent woman when she feels so strongly about a topic’ voice.”
“And now you’re buttering me up,” she says, clearly unimpressed.
“Maybe. Is it working?” I ask as we stop in front of her door.
Her lips twitch up. Her mother left the light in the bathroom on for her to see by. The light spilling out highlights her tired face. “Possibly. You’re always so good to me, Zeke.” She sighs. “It makes things difficult.”
I frown as I open her door and flip on the light. “I’m not following you, No.”
“To remember what we have is platonic.”
Her words are a sucker punch to the gut. I feel like she’s knocked the wind out of me as I peer down. I suck in a breath. “Is that a bad thing?” I ask cautiously.
She tilts her head and gives me an appraising once-over. “I’ve been asking myself that very question for months.”
“And what have you come up with?”
“The jury is still out. I’m not sure trying to figure things out will be worth the risk of ruining what we have.”
“Do I get a say?” My restraint it threadbare at best. Knowing she’s interested has me ready to push the boundaries I swore to keep.
“Did you want one?”
The open curiosity in her eyes breaks me. I walk her backward until her back hits the door, and place an arm on either side of her body, boxing her in. I press my lower body to hers, and she whimpers. The sound of pleasure goes straight through my body and settles in the organ rapidly filling with blood. I move closer until I can see the flecks of gold in her brown irises. Our lips are millimeters apart. “Do you want this, Noble?”
She nods her head.
“I need to hear it.”
Her eyes dilate. “I want it, Zeke.”
I trace her lips with the tip of my tongue. The sweet flavor dances on my taste buds. I moan.
“How can you taste like chocolate?”
I suck her full bottom lip into my mouth and release it with a pop. “Delicious.” I continue to lick, nibble, and tease. Her lips part in silent invitation. “You want more, baby?”
“Yes, please.” The submissive response has me straining against my jeans. I thrust my tongue into her wet mouth and grind my bulge against her. She opens her legs wider, and I sink between her thick thighs. Her heat sears me through the layers of denim. She tentatively responds, curling her tongue around my own while she explores my mouth in return. I squeeze her hips as we part to breathe.
I rest my forehead against her and leash the beast inside of me chomping at the bit to get out. “Not like this. I need you sober.”
Her shoulders slump.
“Right now you’re raw and vulnerable, baby. I won’t be the bastard who takes advantage of that.”
She looks down. Grabbing her chin, I tilt her head up.
“Don’t think it’s about lack of wanting. I need you to have a clear head. ’Cause once I have you there’s no letting go.” Her eyes widen. “You’re not the only one who’s wondered if we should try for more. So, I need you to think about it. Okay, baby?”
She swallows hard. I run my thumb across her jawline.
“I need to go now before we rush into things you’re not ready for. You good?” I study her carefully.
I kiss her forehead and step back. The ball’s in her court now.