And I don’t know why.
Serena Wolfe blinked hard. She was surrounded by harsh light, light that was so white and pure it could mean only one thing. She had died. She closed her eyes again to contemplate this unexpected turn of events. A moment ago, she was alive.
She was at her cousin’s wedding on the eastern shore of Maryland, a welcome weekend break from her job on Capitol Hill. She’d been working as a legislative assistant for one of New York’s senators since graduation. “Since graduation” meant all of a month and already she was bored out of her mind.
“It will get better once you’ve settled in, learned the ropes, and met some people,” her mother said. Her father had said nothing. As far as he was concerned, there was nothing to be said. She had graduated from Princeton in May, now she was working on the Hill, in a year or two she would head off to law school somewhere. Columbia or Harvard—those were the only two options in his worldview.
Her life had been mapped out for her since before she was born. Boarding school in Connecticut, summer internships in Europe, the Ivy League and a respectable career until she married a nice young man, preferably one who worked in finance like her father. They would buy a co-op on a nice street on the Upper East Side, just like the one she had grown up on. Then she would pop out a few babies and join her mother on as many charitable boards as there were hours in the day.
Never mind that her mother had been utterly miserable for as long as Serena could remember. Her father was happier, but only because he distracted himself with alcohol and affairs. Not necessarily in that order.
So spending a weekend in some tiny waterfront town for the wedding of a cousin too minor for her parents to attend? Hell to the yeah. Serena RSVP-ed to that invite so fast she practically chased down the mail carrier before he got to the end of her tree-lined block in DC.
And so far it had been one glorious weekend off the radar of her usual life. She hadn’t felt this alive since … well, since never. So she couldn’t be dead!
I just met the most hot damn gorgeous man on the face of the earth. No way am I dying yet!
Oliver Wolfe was one long cool drink of tall hot fireman. And right before she had opened her eyes to that infernal light, he was rolling his eyes at her lame attempt to win a stuffed animal at the tiny town’s fireman’s carnival.
Yet ... it felt like such a long time ago, too. She tried to move her arm. Then her leg. Neither moved. She tried the other arm and leg. Nada. She opened her eyes just a hair. Yup. That awful bright light was still out there. She scrunched her eyes shut as tight as she could. Don’t go toward the light. Even though a snarky voice was telling her she was obviously already at the light. She tried moving again—and again, nothing.
So she really was dead. Maybe that part where Oliver Wolfe was rolling his eyes at her had been her life doing the proverbial last moment drive by. In that case, she was going to ignore the light for as long as she could and let herself sink back into the life she was enjoying a moment ago. Because Oliver Wolfe … mmm, mmm, mmm …
She turned to Kayleigh, standing next to her. Kayleigh was another distant cousin and one of the bridesmaids from yesterday’s wedding. She and Serena had hit it off at the reception. Plus, Kayleigh had been up for a night on the town.
“Do you have any more tickets?” Serena asked.
She didn’t care about winning some silly stuffed animal. She was almost twenty-two years old, way past that stage of life. And if she hadn’t managed to loop a plastic ring over one of the painted wooden stakes by now, a few more tickets weren’t going to make much of a difference. But she didn’t quite want to leave the presence of the hunky fireman manning the booth just yet. There was something just so … earthy and … primal about him. Unlike the guys she had gone to boarding school and college with, guys whose idea of dressing down was sporting Gucci loafers with bare feet. She couldn’t see what Hot Damn Firefighter was wearing on his feet, but it certainly wasn’t a pair of suede slip-on shoes. She’d bet the absolute last dollar in her promised trust fund on it.
“Here.” Kayleigh thrust her last strip of tickets at her. “This is how gambling problems start,” she laughed.
Serena was in a betting mood tonight. She peeled off three tickets. “Give me three more,” she said to the firefighter.
Hot Damn Firefighter took the tickets from her outstretched fingers and gave her three plastic rings in return. The skin on the back of his hands was a map of tiny scars, but his nails were neat. Not manicured and buffed like her father’s, but simply clean and precisely trimmed.
She twirled the rings on her fingers as she stared down the landscape of wooden stakes. Most of them had already rejected her advances. She narrowed her eyes, zeroing in on a target.
“Wax on, wax off,” Kayleigh bantered next to her.
“Oh hush. I am not leaving this town without a prize.”
She flicked her wrist and watched as the first plastic ring sailed over the stakes and … bounced onto the grass just like all its compadres that had gone before.
“And her first shot goes wide,” Kayleigh mimicked a golf announcer’s low, ponderous voice.
“First shot?” Then Hot Damn Firefighter pointed to a faded red stake. “I would try for that one.”
Serena coolly lifted one eyebrow at him. “You would, eh?”
“Yes, ma’am, I would.”
She zinged the second ring toward the red stake. It too bounced off and onto the ground.
“She has one more shot,” Kayleigh murmured.
The third ring sailed smoothly over the stakes but Serena immediately realized she had put too much spin on it. She’d be lucky if it hit any rings at all before sailing off into the sunset, so to speak. At the last minute, though, Hot Damn Fireman’s hand rose up and gently bumped the ring. It fell neatly onto the red stake. He looked across at Serena and winked.
“You didn’t see that,” he said.
“The crowd goes wild,” Kayleigh said in her golf monotone.
“But I get to pick the prize,” he added.
He turned to the pegboard behind him and scanned the colorful array of stuffed animals. His gaze settled on a row of white and black dalmatians near the top. As he stretched an arm up to grab one, his black fire department tee shirt rode up his back, revealing a slice of hard tanned back. Serena felt an overwhelming urge to lick his skin.
By the time he turned around, she had retrieved a pen from her purse and scribbled her room number on the back of a gas station receipt. She slipped it into the palm of his hand as he gave her the stuffed dalmatian. He glanced down at the receipt, then at her.
“Chesapeake Inn,” she said quietly.
“I’m stuck here until eleven.”
“I’ll wait up.” She smiled as he stuffed the crinkly slip of paper into his pants pocket.
“Did you just give him your room number?” Kayleigh asked as they walked away from the game.
“I did. Why not? He’s hot, don’t you think?”
“You think he’ll show?”
Serena shrugged. “Probably not.”
They wandered around the carnival for awhile, gorging on funnel cake and rating the hotness of the many firefighters working the game booths and rides. It looked like every last person in the tiny town was there, like it was the social event of the year. It was charming, in a way. And certainly more fun than the social events her parents went to in New York. Fundraisers for the private schools she and her brother had attended, museum galas for big money donors, dinner parties with people who looked like they slept in black tie.
Ugh. That lifestyle held no appeal for her, even as she knew her parents would probably be successful in roping her into it. They were successful in everything they did.
“Let’s get on the ferris wheel,” Kayleigh suggested. “I haven’t ridden one of those since I was a kid.”
“I haven’t ridden one of those since … never.”
Kayleigh’s head swiveled toward her, a look of disbelief on her face. “Never?”
Serena shook her head. “I’m not real crazy about heights.”
“Oh.” Kayleigh’s face fell.
“But I’ll get on it.” Serena looked up at the top of the ride. “This one doesn’t look that high.”
They bought another strip of tickets and boarded the metal car. As it slowly rose into the night air, Serena began to doubt the wisdom of her choice. But hey, she was off the grid for a weekend. If ever there were a time and a place to do wild and crazy things, this was it. Monday morning, she’d be back in her office, behind a desk, pushing paper while breathing in recycled air.
She took a deep inhale as the car reached the top of the wheel and they began going backward. The ferris wheel was a good bit higher than it had looked from the ground. But she refused to close her eyes, even as a prickly ball of panic started to take shape in her chest. She squeezed the stuffed dalmatian tighter. She could handle this. Besides, it was for a good cause. The carnival was raising money for … well, for something. The fire department, probably.
As they rounded the wheel a third time, the ride slowed and they stopped at the very top. The car swung gently back and forth. It was quieter up here. The shrieks and screams from the other rides sounded more distant. The tinny music playing from speakers hung up on poles around the carnival was fainter. She looked out over the miles of earth around them, marveling at the way she could see where the lights of the town ended and the black of the countryside began.
It was never completely dark in New York. She didn’t realize that until she went to Princeton. She took another deep inhale. The air here was clean—no toxic perfume of car exhaust and garbage. No noise pollution either—no sirens and car horns blaring all night long—unless you counted the squawking of birds first thing in the morning. Which she didn’t.
After another moment, the ferris wheel stuttered to life and their car began its slow descent.
“Well, that wasn’t too bad,” Serena admitted as they walked away from the ride, although her legs felt a little wobbly.
“How did you grow up in a city where every building is a skyscraper?”
“It was rough.” Serena laughed. “I always took it as a sign that I wasn’t meant to be a New Yorker.”
Up ahead, a small crowd was gathered around a dunk tank, jeering and catcalling the unfortunate fellow inside. As they got closer, Serena saw that it was Hot Damn Firefighter.
“Oh I am so doing this,” she said. “How many tickets do I need?”
“The sign says three.”
“Perfect. I have three left. Must be a sign.” She handed the stuffed animal off to Kayleigh and got in line. In the thick of the crowd, she was too short to see him get dunked every time. But over and over, she heard the splash of water, followed by loud cheering and shouts. His name was Ollie, apparently.
He didn’t look like an Ollie. What he looked like was the most gorgeous man she’d ever seen. Tall. Dark. Handsome. And when he had smiled and winked at her, her insides damn near melted.
At last, she made it to the head of the line and handed off her last three tickets to the teenaged attendant. The crowd quieted down, as she hefted the first softball in her palm. There was no way she could dunk him. She couldn’t throw a ball to save her life. She had just wanted to see him again.
Sure enough, her first throw sailed wide. Way wide. Her cheeks grew hot with embarrassment. At least at the other game, there wasn’t an audience beyond Kayleigh. But she couldn’t back out now. The teenaged boy handed her the second ball.
She took the third ball, keeping her eyes on the round metal target attached to the lever that should—in theory—dunk Hot Damn Firefighter in the water. She felt his gaze on her, felt its intensity flicker over her skin. There was no chance he was going to turn up at her hotel room that evening—not after this pathetic incident. Just as well anyway. It wasn’t like she was in the habit of picking up random strangers and engaging in one-night stands.
The crowd was growing restless. Conversations that had stopped were now resumed. She wiped her sweaty palm against her plaid Bermuda shorts, then cocked her arm and hurled the ball with all her might. To her surprise—no, to her complete and utter shock—the ball clipped the edge of the metal target. But not enough to trigger whatever mechanism governed the lever.
She stole an embarrassed glance at Hot Damn Firefighter just in time to see his arm reach behind the narrow seat he was perched on. A second later, he dropped into the water with a splash.