Piper Denna


                             A Fireman for Christmas

Every fireman knows the value of a controlled burn...

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She yanked the stubborn door and all but lost her balance when it gave. And looked up into the scowling face of Clay Jones.
“You always open the door without looking to see who’s standing outside first?” Snow swirled in icy gusts past his big body and into her cabin.
Her knuckles were probably white from gripping the door so hard. Maybe she’d slam it shut in his face. If she thought for a second it would make him go away, she’d try it. “This resort has the lowest number of ax murderers per capita in the Midwest.”
He didn’t so much as crack a smile. The lower edge of his blond hairline peeked out from under his fleece hat. “Good one. What are you doing up here all alone on Christmas Eve? Going Scrooge this year?”
“Sure. Scrooge. That’s me. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got things to do.” Her fingers fluttered a farewell wave.
“Don’t think so.” He shoved his considerable parka’d bulk past her, ducking slightly under the jamb, and looked around. The cabin suddenly seemed crowded instead of cozy.
Whoa, he was even bigger than the last time she’d seen him. Was he going for a Mr. Universe title or what, pumping so much iron? Could just be the thick coat.
Well, he was in. She might as well shut the door on the blizzard raging outside. If she gave the right answers to his questions, he’d be on his way. With award‐worthy effort, she held back a sigh. Hopefully he wasn’t there to try luring her back to holidays with the family. One more repeat of Christmases past, and she’d go bonkers.
“Things to do, huh? Like what?” He stood with his legs set, arms crossed over his chest, like a bouncer in front of some exclusive nightclub. “You’re obviously not up here with a boyfriend, like you told your Grammy Martha.”
“If I tell you I’ve hated Christmas with my family for the last five years, will I have to listen to a lecture about how they all love me and they’re just worried? Which one of them sent you, anyway?” Probably Eddy. Clay and her oldest brother had been tight as two slats on a beer barrel since Kindergarten. Leave it to Eddy to pawn off the dirty work and stick his only single friend with keeping tabs on Little Timi.
Clay turned red around the neck. “Uh. Who said anything about sending me? Maybe I just heard from a little bird that you were traipsing off for a romantic holiday with a fictional boyfriend. Maybe since you have a history of being…” He shrugged and scrubbed the back of his neck. “…you know…lonesome?”
“Unstable? Geez, Clay, go ahead and say it. My family always does. One stupid teenage mistake and I’m unstable for life. Well, guess what? I’m fine.” She spun around for effect. “See? All better. Amazingly, many screwed up teens go on to become fully functioning members of society fifteen years later. You can tell whoever sent you, just because I don’t want to be with them doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me.” God, would they ever let the past rest? Sure, her family meant well, but she was over it now. When would they be?
“Look, I’m sorry.” The flush on his neck wasn’t going away; it was getting darker. “You’ve never taken off like this before, on Christmas. And you lied about it. People worry.”
She just couldn’t do it again. Being the only sibling who wasn’t married and didn’t have a steady relationship, let alone a brood of kids, had been okay for a few years. But now it was an ongoing joke. Her brothers simply did not get that it wasn’t a funny topic for a woman who was thirty and single by choice. Well, mostly by choice. Besides, they all treated her like a silly baby who’d never grown up, instead of a successful businesswoman who put her career first. And once in a while, a person just needed a break. From everything.
“It was the only time I could get away from the restaurant. And I didn’t like lying, but it was the only way—hey! Wait a minute. How’d you know I lied?”
He looked down, where his boot toe was scuffing the floor. Hmm. No way would he protect Eddy…
“Grammy. Grammy sent you?” Of course. Nobody interfered in people’s lives the way she did.
“Well, not exactly, but—”
“Geez. You can go back and assure her I’m fine.” And totally over my crush on you, for like, a thousand years now. “I’m gonna spend a couple days drawing, enjoying the peace and quiet around here.” Couldn’t get much quieter than Green Mountain Lake at Christmas.
He gave her a half‐nod and smirked. “Okay then. Well, Merry Christmas.” Which should have meant he was leaving, but he remained still. Only his eyes moved. Checking out the whole the room. What was he looking for?
Oh! “You don’t believe me?” Fury came on fast, just as fast as the sadness used to hit back in high school. “Here!” She picked up her duffel and dumped its contents on the green plaid couch. Two changes of clothes, a sketch pad, the tin with her drawing stuff, and her toiletries bag.

“Wanna check my makeup bag and make sure I don’t have a giant bottle of Tylenol in there to off myself with?” Mascara and lip gloss thudded on top of the heap. “See? No illicit drugs, either. No gun, nothing.”
Clay stood silent, hand on his chin. The look in those blue, blue eyes she’d drawn countless times during her junior year enraged her. Because they’d stopped looking at the stuff she’d dumped out and were now staring at her right wrist.
“Okay, you win. You think my head’s still not on straight. Why else would I bring along a Lady Schick for a weekend alone? Here, take it with you.” She shoved the razor at his chest.
One big hand closed around it…and kept it.
Creep. “Bye!” She would not cry in front of him. Trembling, she jerked the door open. Snow swirled in angry arcs across the front porch as he strode past her.
She didn’t wait to watch him get in his truck, but slammed the door shut instead. Leaned against it, willing her breaths to slow.
“Dammit.” How could she let him get to her like that? Once upon a time, she’d rather have shared her deepest secrets with him than anyone else in the world. Now, she’d rather die than have him look at her one more time as if she were an emotional wreck. Like he had that night…


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