Excerpt from Mr. December
Book #10 of the Heroes of Rogue Valley: Calendar Guys Series
Grace Camry was in the back room scrutinizing digital photos she'd taken at a silver wedding anniversary party when a faint buzzing sound signaled that someone had opened the door. Unexpected—for professional photographers, the day after Thanksgiving was typically dead, a brief calm before the flood of business from those who waited until it was almost too late to get photos for their Christmas cards. A surprising number of people procrastinated. With smart phone cameras, it was a wonder anyone still hired a professional, but they did. And thank goodness.
"Anyone here?" a man called out, his gruff voice permanently imprinted in her brain.
Liam Gibson. For a split second her heart lifted, but her flip-flopping stomach quickly overpowered that. They hadn't spoken since shortly after her father's death nearly sixteen months ago. Her choice, but she'd done what she had to.
What was he doing here?
"Coming," she answered, doing her best to hide her nervousness as she entered the front office.
He'd planted himself near the artificial Christmas tree, in front of a wall of photos, his large frame making the space seem even smaller than it was. Muscular, with a shaved head and the usual narrowed eyes and near snarl on his lips, he looked more like a World Wrestling Federation star than a firefighter. A worn leather jacket and a black bike helmet under his arm added to the "Don't screw with me" badass 'tude. Must've ridden the Harley today.
At one time that fierce expression had intimidated her. She knew now that underneath, Liam was a great guy, that when he liked and trusted someone enough to smile, his whole face lit up. He was also a fantastic lover. Remembering, her body perked up and started to tingle.
That was then, this is now.
He nodded, the furrows between his brows deepening. She fought the urge to wince. She deserved his scowl and more. "It's been awhile. Are you interested in a portrait?"
He shook his head. "The holiday party at Auntie's Place is in three weeks."
"You didn't have to stop by and remind me—I am the Guff's Like Fire Department photographer." The position had been offered to her when the fundraiser calendar she'd photographed and put together, featuring a different firefighter each month, had been a smashing success, going back to print twice and selling out every time.
She'd landed that job thanks to Liam's recommendation, back when life had been simpler. The higher-ups at the fire department had used her since then to photograph promotions, commendations, retirements, and other events. Yet until now, she'd managed to avoid Liam.
"Auntie's Place is a great organization," she added to cover the awkwardness. The community center served kids from low-income families. It provided child care and a safe place for teens to hang out, with after-school tutoring, nutritious snacks, and counseling services. "I volunteered to be a secret Santa to the kids in one family. I drew the names of two brothers. I have their wish list and I promised to keep my identity a secret forever."
"I do that every year. Anonymous works best, in case for some reason a problem arises."
Although Grace hadn't invited Liam to sit down, he shrugged out of the jacket, set it and his helmet on the low-slung table between the loveseat and chairs, then made himself comfortable on the loveseat. "How have you been?"
His eyes flitted over her pullover and pants, standard work attire in cold weather. She stifled the urge to tug the sweater over her hips. As if it mattered, when he knew every inch of her body intimately.
"I'm all right." She sat down across the table and nudged the candy bowl toward him.
If you didn't take into account her late father's betrayal and deception, and the consuming anger she felt toward him.
Acutely uncomfortable and needing to collect herself, she jumped up again. "Would you like a cup of coffee?"
"Well, I would. Excuse me."
She headed into the small kitchen adjacent to the back office and thought about the past. Fifteen months ago, a mere three weeks following a devastating diagnosis of advanced pancreatic cancer, Robert, as she'd referred to her father since she'd discovered who he really was, had passed on.
On his death-bed he'd apologized for his mistakes and wrongs. Thinking he felt bad for not letting her help him run RC Photography—he'd always been a bit of a control freak and claimed he wanted her to focus on honing her photographic skills—she'd said there was nothing to apologize for.
Little did she realize.
Knowing the business would soon be hers, he'd also extracted her tearful promise to protect his forty-year legacy as one of the top photographers in Guff's Lake. That had been easy. Robert was the best in the business, at least in the town of almost twenty thousand. People claimed Grace was just like him, with his eye and talent. She'd basked in the praise, her whole identity tied up with his. Such pride and respect for him.
Soon after his death she'd unearthed the mistakes and wrongs he'd alluded to, dark secrets neither she nor her mother had suspected. Debts, including a second mortgage on the house where Grace had grown up and where her mother still lived. He'd forged her mother's signature, which had forced her to take a second job or face foreclosure. The funds borrowed from a loan shark that had to be repaid within weeks or Grace would lose the business.
But his worst sin by far had been committed against Gil Booker, a widower and respected former firefighter who'd died an untimely death when his truck crashed head-on into a concrete wall. Alcohol had apparently been involved—a lot of it. Photos later found of Gil with a male lover suggested blackmail and possible suicide, but the police were unable to discover a money trail or determine the identity of the blackmailer. If they had, Robert would've gone to prison, and rightfully so. Grace had the negatives proving his culpability. Why he'd targeted Gil would remain a mystery forever.
"You okay?" Liam called out.
Hardly. "Still waiting for the coffee. I'll be there soon."
The driving force behind Robert stooping to such awful depths? The father Grace had worshipped for as long as she could remember, the man she'd trusted implicitly and completely, had turned out to be a gambling addict.
In hindsight, she wished she'd gone to the police immediately with the negatives. At the time, the shock of discovering he'd led a secret life for years had obliterated her judgment and doubled the pain of losing him, as well as shaken the foundations she'd built her life and career on.
And destroying her relationship with Liam.
Grace pulled her mug from the microwave. Coffee in hand, she returned to the front office. Liam was sucking a candy cane from the bowl, shifting it in his mouth with obvious relish, which for some reason made him very attractive. But then, everything about him was.
Returning to her seat, she cupped the mug between her hands and blew on it.
Gil Booker had been Liam's mentor and friend, and although he'd died well before Grace had met Liam, she couldn't tell him what her father must have done. The very thought of his reaction to the vile truth made her sick to her stomach. So she'd broken up with him and locked Robert's away dirty secrets where they belonged—in her heart.
Except for her mother, no one else knew and never would. They both agreed on that. Her promise to Robert aside, Grace was too ashamed.
Shame didn't stop the guilt that continued to eat at her.
She despised her father, yet missed him terribly. Harboring two conflicting feelings at the same time was confusing and upsetting, but she'd learned to live with that.
After a sip of coffee, she realized she didn't really want it and set it on the table between them.
The candy cane went still, and Liam fixed her with a probing but inscrutable expression. Unnerved, she helped herself to a candy cane. "How was your Thanksgiving?" she asked, peeling the cellophane back. "Did you spend it with your grandpa?" And maybe your current girlfriend?
He nodded. "Rafe and Jillian wanted to celebrate their first Thanksgiving as a married couple with a party. We ate there."
"They got married?"
"In October. Were you at your mom's?"
"For the entire day. Just us. We made a turkey and all the trimmings." Despite their shared anger and grief, they'd managed to enjoy themselves.
Enough with the small talk. She folded her hands in her lap. "I know you didn't come here just to say hello."
Liam sat up straight, his eyes slightly narrowed. "It's time we talked."
Since Liam had last seen Grace, she'd lost weight and was too thin. He remembered the first day he'd laid eyes on her. The company where he moonlighted as a safety training instructor had hired her to take photos for a brochure advertising his class. Along with every other male in the room he'd noticed her long legs, big amber eyes, and curves. What had drawn him most was the openness that seemed to come easy to her, a rare thing in most people he knew, especially women. That and her can-do attitude had pretty much cinched his decision to ask her out.
Sitting across from her today, she looked like a different person. Circles under her eyes, gaze lowered, jittery foot.
Facing her wasn't any picnic for him either.
"Sixteen months ago, you said you needed time to grieve. I gave you the space you wanted. You took it and never looked back. You broke up with me on voice mail, for God's sake. 'I'm sorry and please don't contact me again' doesn't cut it. You ignored my voice messages and texts asking for an explanation, and you didn't answer when I stopped by your apartment building." He'd dropped by the studio too, but she never seemed to be in. "I deserve to know the truth."
The foot jiggled faster and she tugged a lock of her hair, another sure sign she was uncomfortable. "After all this time?"
He'd needed to wait until he was in a less emotional place so that he could face her calmly. "You owe me. Plus, I want the kids and families at Auntie's Place to have fun, a few hours without unnecessary tension. We're both reasonable people, and we should be able to talk to each other like the adults we are. Let's clear the air so that we can relax when we're in the same room."
For the second time in fifteen minutes she pushed to her feet, as if she couldn't sit one more moment. She dropped the remnants of her candy cane in the trash, but remained silent.
It looked as if clearing the air was up to him. He stood to face her. "I thought we had a good thing going," he said softly. "You did too."
They'd been together five months—a record if you didn't count his short-lived marriage at twenty. In general, the women he'd been involved with tended to be less than candid about a whole host of things, some as insignificant as their natural hair color. Others, more serious, from hiding their true marital status to eating disorders. One had been a pathological liar.
Hell, his own mother had lied to him and his dad when she'd run off with "Uncle" Joe, a so-called family friend.
But Grace? The openness between them had been a breath of fresh air. Natural and comfortable, nothing phony. They didn't have to try to make their relationship work, it just did. She made him a better man, made him happy.
He'd always wanted a relationship based on trust and honesty. With her, he found it.
Within their first month together, he'd known he wanted to spend his life with her, build a family with kids, several of them. An only child herself, Grace wanted that too. She'd come with him to visit his grandpa several times, and Liam had eaten dinner at her parents'. They were good people, straight shooters like his grandfather, their love for each other and Grace a beautiful thing. Role models for the future he wanted with her.
Liam assumed they'd be together forever. But life had thrown him a curve ball. As determined as he was to forget Grace—and he'd dated several women since she'd walked away—he was still smarting from that. "I deserve to know what went wrong."
She stared at the floor. "Grief and running the business, which I'd never done before, while I worked with my own clients and Robert's, didn't leave time for anything else."
"You're calling him by his first name now?"
Okay. Liam understood grief and the need to lose himself in something—for a while, booze, partying, and a marriage that had been a mistake from the get-go. "I've been there, remember? Both my parents died within a six-month span. Then my grandma, and a few years after that, Gil." Liam's mentor and friend had encouraged him to become a firefighter when he'd been aimless and lost.
Grace flinched as if the mention of so much loss hurt her physically. "I don't know how you survived." Biting her lip, she finally met his gaze. He saw pain and sorrow and a flash of anger. Then tears. "You never said how much it hurts."
He was also familiar with the outrage that followed the death of a loved one. Not long after his mother had taken off with Joe she'd changed her mind and ended the affair. On the drive back to Liam and his father, she'd died in a car accident, denying them the healing they all needed. So yeah, he knew about anger.
He reacted without a thought, pulling Grace close to comfort her just as he had when her father lay dying, and later, during and after the funeral. Holding her next to him felt good, like she belonged there. No other woman had ever fit him so well.
For the first time in way too long, he drew an easy breath. He kissed the top of her head, smelled the familiar sweet scent of her shampoo. She hated her unruly hair and spent a good deal of time straightening it most mornings, but the wayward curls weren't easily tamed.
They tickled his chin. He almost smiled, but didn't. Too many unanswered questions. Like why she'd grown distant within days after the funeral and dumped him.
He pulled away but Grace held on, her arms tight around him. "Please, Liam."
Warmth shimmered in her eyes, and her mouth… Soft lips, lush and inviting. God help him, she was as impossible to resist as ever. "Please yes, or please no?" he growled.
He kissed her. More than once. The chemistry they'd shared from the start was alive and well, heat flaring and her lips as demanding as if she'd never ripped his heart in half.
He tore his mouth from hers. "We cool now?"
Blinking and looking anything but cool, she nodded.
He swung away from her, shrugged into his jacket, grabbed the helmet, and split.