Cora Wesley tipped her head back, the bottom of her ponytail brushing down her back as she laughed. The atmosphere in the karaoke bar vibrated with energy, with sound waves from the stage, with chatter and laughter and friendship.
She quieted, realizing she was the only woman at the table of firefighters. She’d been in Brush Creek for a year and had gotten used to the nearly female-free department, but she knew she sometimes stuck out like that one Christmas light that kept blinking when it was supposed to stay steady.
She picked up her strawberry lemonade and licked the sugary rim while the firefighter currently telling jokes started in on another one. A pause of silence in the music behind her alerted her to the change in singers, and the next song began. A horrible, nasally voice started on the lyrics, causing her to twist to see what poor soul had decided to take the mic and try to sing an Adele song—clearly out of her vocal range.
Not that Cora was a good singer by any stretch of the imagination. But she knew her limits and wouldn’t embarrass herself on purpose. The redhead on stage glanced around nervously, her eyes landing on a table of women a couple over from Cora and her squad of bulky firefighters. All the women had been eyeing their table the entire evening, and while none of her firemen buddies had made a move, they’d all noticed.
The amount of flexing and loud laughter testified of that. Cora couldn’t help joining in. She liked her friends at Station House Two, and if she didn’t come out on Friday nights with them, she’d be excluded in their camaraderie by more than her gender.
Plus, she liked going out with them. There were only so many hours in a day that she could run and lift weights. She drained the last of her lemonade, vowing not to order another. She wasn’t big by any stretch of the imagination, but she needed to meet certain physical standards to apply for the interagency hotshot crews. She wanted the Great Basin crew, so she could stay in Utah, Idaho, and Nevada. But Cora would take any crew that would take her.
So with a determination to put in another fifty pushups after she returned to her solitary, quite apartment that night, she tuned back in to Jorge’s joke about a duck and why he couldn’t cross the road.
As the other men broke into another round of raucous laughter, her phone blinked and vibrated the table in front of her. She swiped it into her lap to read her sister’s text. Helene was already married and settled in Vernal, where Cora’s parents lived. Where she’d been raised.
Mom wants to know if you’re coming to the family anniversary party.
Cora’s stomach twisted and her mouth felt sour—and not because of the lemonade she’d drunk. The family anniversary party was a celebration of the day the Wesley family had begun—the day her parents had gotten married forty years ago.
She started thumbing out a response when Helene added It’s a big one. Forty years.
Cora erased her rejection to her older sister. She couldn’t miss the forty-year anniversary. Thirty-nine, sure. Forty-one, definitely. But not this one.
She sighed, her mind far from the party atmosphere now. The waitress approached their table, and her friends ordered more sodas, but Cora waved her hand. Someone asked her something, but her thoughts lingered on what family functions used to be like for her. They were so much easier when she had someone to attend them with.
“Do you want to add your name to the list?” Charlie, the man seated next to her, asked.
“Yeah, sure,” she said distractedly, an idea churning in her head now. If she could take someone to the family anniversary party, things would be easier for everyone. No one knew what to say to her now, without Brandt on her arm. She glanced at the six men she spent most of her life with. Maybe one of them….
She banished the thought before it could truly take root. Her ex, Brandt, had been a firefighter, and she wasn’t interested in getting involved with another one. They were great friends. Great boyfriends. Not great husbands, at least in her experience.
She knew she was being totally unfair. There were several married firefighters and their wives seemed happy enough. It was just a bad match, she told herself, signaling for another lemonade despite her promise to herself.
Well? Are you coming?
Helene wouldn’t be put off, and if Cora didn’t answer her, she’d call. So Cora picked up her phone and said, Yes, I’ll be there.
At that moment, Charlie plucked her phone from her hand. “You’re missing out,” he said, placing it face-down on the table on his left, out of her reach.
“It’s my sister,” she said, panic rearing in her chest now.
“Kent asked what song you’re singing.” Charlie nodded to the man sitting next to Cora on her other side.
Confusion needled her. “Singing?” She scoffed. “I’m not singing.” Sure, she’d come to the karoke bar, but she never sang.
“You told Charlie to tell Sissy to put you on the list,” Kent said. “I thought it was weird.” He nodded toward the phone. “Let me see that.”
Cora made a lunge for her device as Charlie passed it over to him, both of them chuckling. She’d learned in the first day at the Brush Creek Fire Department not to keep anything sensitive on her phone. They got passed around like sticks of gum, and she sometimes texted her mates from someone else’s phone.
“It’s nothing,” she said.
“Family anniversary party,” Kent read, his dark eyes squinting in concentration. A whistle followed. “Wow, forty years.” He handed the phone back to her. “Are you going with anyone?”
No one in Brush Creek knew she’d been married before, and she wanted to keep it that way. She’d dated at least a dozen men in the year she’d been in town. Dated wasn’t really the right word. She went to dinner with a guy and then didn’t call him back. Or hung out with a man for a couple of weeks before settling into friend territory.
She’d met a few men that stirred her interest, but her goal of landing on a hotshot crew always kept her focus away from starting something serious. She simply wasn’t interested in serious.
“I don’t know.” Cora sighed out her answer. She looked at Kent and then Charlie, wondering if she could ask one of them to go with her. Kent probably would. He’d been one she’d eaten burgers with and then brushed off.
Kent flipped her ponytail like an annoying older brother. “Still no boyfriend, then?”
Cora snorted, all the answer that question required.
The conversation at the table quieted, and Cora glanced around, wondering if her disgust at Kent’s question had really been that loud.
“Go on, then,” Jorge said, folding his giant arms and making his biceps bulge. It was a miracle the women a couple of tables over didn’t faint at the sight.
“Go on where?” Cora asked, reaching for her refilled glass of lemonade.
“They just called your name.” He nodded toward the stage, and Cora whipped her attention behind her so fast her neck sent a shock of pain down her spine.
Kent nudged her out of her seat and Charlie pushed her toward the steps amidst her protests. Along the way, she passed a table of men, all of them with sandy hair and light eyes. They smiled at her in what she was sure was meant to be encouragement.
She knew who they were; everyone knew the Fullers. But she didn’t know any of the men by name, only reputation, and when one nodded at her, his grin fading to the natural strong set of his jaw, she paused.
All noise fell away, leaving just a silent conduit from her to this handsome Fuller man seated furthest from her.
Somehow, her feet took her up the steps to the stage, and it seemed like everyone in the bar had suddenly run out of things to say to one another. With sixty pairs of eyes on her, she gripped the mic and pointed to the song she wanted to sing.
The music started, a slow ballad of a childhood song she’d grown up belting out with her brother and sister. She closed her eyes just before starting on the first line, really losing herself to the moment and hoping with everything in her that she didn’t make a complete fool of herself.
“Lying in my bed, I hear the clock tick and think of you.”
She opened her eyes, her gaze locking onto the man watching her intently now. One of his brothers elbowed him, but he didn’t look away from her.
Cora didn’t need to look at the screen to keep singing. She belted out the chorus with accuracy, putting on a good show as she became aware of her firefighter crew yelping and whooping their encouragement.
But she absolutely couldn’t look away from the mystery man who’d captured her attention in a single moment of time.
He got up and went over to the table where she’d been sitting with her back to him, leaning down to say something to Charlie. Kent joined the conversation, and Cora’s blood boiled because no doubt they were talking about her.
“Time after time,” she sang into the mic. “Time after time.” One last big breath, and she ended with another, “Time after time,” in the best breathy Cyndi Lauper voice she could muster. The 80s music faded, leaving only her, alone on the stage in her tight black jeans and flowing black tank top, her hand dropping to her side as if the mic were too heavy to hold up for another moment.
She handed it to Sissy and stumbled toward the steps, at the bottom of which Kent and Charlie were now clapping. Before she’d even gotten both feet on solid ground, Kent pushed her toward the man who’d singlehandedly gotten her pulse racing and said, “Here’s your next date, Cora.”
She fumbled into him, her hands landing solidly on his chest. His very solid, wide chest.
Cora swallowed, righted herself, and glared at Kent. “I’m not looking for a date.”
“Sure you are,” Charlie said. “To your parent’s party.”
Humiliation crept up Cora’s back and down her arms. “You guys—no.” She met the Fuller man’s eyes and nearly drowned in the beautiful depths of them. “No offense,” she managed to squeak out.
My, he was handsome. Tall. With loads of sandy hair that would surely glide right through her fingers like silk. And those hazel eyes that looked dark as chocolate in this dim bar lighting.
“I’m Brennan Fuller,” he said, extending his hand toward her to shake. “I don’t think we’ve met.”
That same floaty feeling that had happened the first time they’d looked at one another happened again. Kent’s voice faded. Charlie’s body behind her, trapping her close to Brennan, disappeared.
There was just this Brennan Fuller man wearing half a coy smile, and Cora. The two of them breathed in and out together, and Cora found herself saying, “I’m Cora Wesley. How do you feel about stuffy anniversary parties with dozens of married people?”
, the next Fuller family novel in the Brush Creek Brides series, coming on June 19.