Excerpt from Mr. January
Book #1 of the Heroes of Rogue Valley: Calendar Guys Series
At the ungodly hour of five-forty-five a.m., Samantha Everett pulled into the delivery slot at Rosemary’s Breakfast Nook. In the dark, the twin beams of the hatchback’s headlights spotlighted the swirling snow. Well, it was early January in Rogue Valley.
“Please don’t stick,” she muttered under her breath, dreading the thought of putting on the tire chains.
Although so far, she hadn’t needed them. When she’d moved to Guff’s Lake six months earlier, locals had assured her that the usual winter temperatures tended to hover above freezing.
So different from the bone-chilling cold and frequent snowstorms in Enterprise.
“Look, Mom! Snow!” William chimed from the backseat.
At the age of five, he was delighted by almost everything—even at this hour. His joy was contagious, and Samantha’s irritation dissipated like smoke. “I see it.”
“Let me out.” He unbuckled his car seat straps and bounced in anticipation for her to open the door.
Yawning—thanks to only five hours’ sleep—Samantha exited the car. The building’s perimeter lights cast long shadows across the nearly vacant concrete lot, a large area shared by several businesses. The few cars here now belonged to Rosemary, the cook, and wait staff. Rosemary’s Breakfast Nook served the best breakfast in town, and snow or none, when the café opened at six, business would be brisk.
Despite the relative stillness, it was best to be safe. “Hold onto my coat,” she directed.
Her itching-to-be-independent son grumbled but obeyed. Samantha opened the hatchback and jockeyed a dolly cart to the pavement. William helped her unfold it. Then she carefully loaded it with today’s order—eight dozen still-warm cinnamon rolls, and six dozen each assorted muffins and scones. Her biggest order to date would net her more money than she’d ever earned as a baker in Enterprise.
Rosemary wouldn’t pay her until a week from Friday, but Samantha had already divided and earmarked every penny. Groceries and other household expenses, bakery supplies, and the savings account for attorney fees.
To date, Jeff had ignored every one of the financial and custodial obligations spelled out in the divorce decree. Not one penny of child support or money for the debts he’d saddled her with, and not one request to see his son. Good riddance!
After all this time, Samantha doubted she’d ever hear from Jeff. She didn’t need an attorney right now, but Betty Randall, her grandmotherly neighbor, believed that she did. Just in case. The woman had been so insistent Samantha had lost sleep over it. Mainly because Betty gave sound advice, unlike the unsolicited guidance from Samantha’s parents.
William helped push the dolly toward the delivery entrance. As always, the door was unlocked for her, and easy to shoulder open and back through. Pausing inside the door, she brushed the snow off her son’s parka and hat and then took care of her own coat.
The warmth, the fragrant aroma of freshly brewing coffee, and the haze from the sizzling vat of oil greeted her. A fragrant, smoky scent filled the air, and Samantha’s mouth watered.
“Good morning,” she greeted Rosemary and her longtime boyfriend and cook, José.
Round and perpetually cheerful, the forty-something restaurant owner greeted Samantha and William with her usual toothy smile. “Good morning.” She winked at William. “How are you, sunshine?”
His small brow furrowed. “My name is William Tyler Everett Jones.” Samantha had changed her last name back to Everett but had left her son’s name intact.
From the time he’d first formed sentences, he’d insisted that everyone use his given name.
“I know that, darlin’, but seeing you always makes me smile, and a true smile is as warm as the sunshine,” Rosemary said. “Do you two have time for breakfast this morning?”
“Say yes, Mom.” William gave Samantha the round-eyed, pleading look she’d never been able to resist.
Guff’s Lake Bed & Breakfast, her only other paying client so far, didn’t expect her until seven, and William’s half-day kindergarten wouldn’t start for several hours yet. She ought to use the time on housework—keeping the kitchen spotless was a constant chore.
But she really could use another cup of coffee and something to eat besides the bowl of cold cereal waiting for her at home.
“We’d love to have breakfast here,” she said. “Can I put in an order for José’s hash browns?”
José chuckled. “You bet. Bacon and eggs, too?”
“And cocoa?” William asked, going all round-eyed again.
Rosemary nodded. “I’ll bring it with your breakfast.”
As she filled a coffee mug for Samantha, Jana, one of the waitresses and Samantha’s best friend, entered the kitchen through the restaurant’s swinging doors.
“I thought I heard you in here. Can you believe it’s snowing? I’ll bet you love that, William. Let’s get the case loaded.”
Samantha wheeled the dolly to the counter out front, where bright walls and colorful posters added a homey, cheerful feel to the restaurant. She and William kept Jana company while she arranged Samantha’s baked goods in the case and placed the printed "Treats by Samantha" sign in plain view. What didn’t fit stayed in the delivery boxes for restocking the case until the restaurant closed at one.
Rosemary inspected the finished display with a satisfied nod. “You and William go on and make yourselves at home,” she told Samantha. “I’ll bring your food out shortly.”
Samantha let her son choose where to sit. He led her to his favorite spot, a booth in front of the big picture window that faced the door. With the restaurant minutes from opening, Jana and the three other servers bustled around, seeing to last-minute details. Then one of the waitresses unlocked the door and welcomed in the morning’s first customers.
Moments later, Rosemary delivered breakfast to Samantha and William. While Samantha enjoyed her food and coffee, her son chattered nonstop. During recess at Guff’s Lake Elementary, the school he proudly called his own, he would have a snowball fight and build a snowman with Douglas and Harper, his two best friends.
Customers steadily streamed in to eat at the restaurant or collect their breakfast and morning coffee to go, some alone, others in groups. The almost twenty thousand Guff’s Lake residents tended to be a friendly bunch, and even the people Samantha didn’t recognize greeted her with nods and smiles.
Sipping a second cup of coffee and staring out the window with relief as the snow let up, she watched an orange 4Runner pull into the lot. A solid-looking male slid out of the driver’s seat. Dressed in a leather bomber jacket, jeans, and a baseball cap, he wore a cast on one foot and a sling on his arm. A backpack swung from the other shoulder. Even with his arm injury and hobbling gait, he managed to move with a purposeful stride that for some reason reminded her of a big, sleek jungle cat. A tiger or a puma came to mind.
The sky had lightened a fraction, and between the approaching dawn and the perimeter lights, she easily made out his face.
And oh, what a face! The broad forehead, strong chin, and straight nose only added to his overall attractiveness. With a jolt of awareness, she recognized him. Adam Healey, aka Mr. January in the Guff’s Lake Fire Department calendar that had come out last month, just in time for Christmas, as part of an ongoing fund-raising drive for the fire department’s benefit fund.
The calendar featured twelve of the most gorgeous men Samantha had ever laid eyes on, and listed fascinating information, including height, weight, and marital status. She recalled that Adam was single.
Every female in town, along with a host of men and all the local businesses, had purchased calendars. At Rosemary’s Breakfast Nook, the calendar hung prominently in the display case, with Adam in his firefighter hat, grinning and shirtless under a deep blue sky. In the background, the snowy Siskiyou Mountains. Samantha glanced at it and blew out an admiring sigh.
Everyone knew that the guys from the Guff’s Lake Fire Department hung out here, since the station a was mere two blocks away. Ordinarily Samantha came and went before any of them wandered in for coffee and breakfast. But today…
Adam must have sensed her staring at him, for his gaze met hers through the window. Embarrassed, she turned her attention to William.
“—read more Charlotte’s Web to us today,” he said, still chattering about his kindergarten class.
“That’s such a great book,” she replied.
The door opened, and a gust of cold air rushed in. But the man who shut it behind him sucked the chill right out of the room.
Adam’s eyes were still riveted on her. She couldn’t seem to tear her glance away, either. Up this close, his pale-blue eyes were even more striking than they were in the calendar photo. The color of the sky just before the sun rose.
It had been a while since a man turned her head, and she wasn’t sure she liked that fluttery feeling of attraction. She’d moved here to escape Enterprise and the past and start fresh, and for the first time in more than three years, she was happy. Between taking care of William and supporting the two of them with her baked-goods business, socializing with friends and a weekly knitting class, she had filled her life to the brim. She didn’t have time to look at a man, let alone date.
Or so she assured herself.
Ready to leave, she pushed to her feet and stacked her breakfast dishes to make cleanup easier for Jana. Her friend sashayed toward Adam with her hips swaying and a longing look on her face.
Jana was dating someone, but she wasn’t blind. By the similar expressions the other waitresses wore, they were just as smitten. So were the other women in the café, who checked Adam out with approval.
“Hey there, Adam,” Jana said with a flirty smile. “I didn’t expect to see you this early in the morning. How are that wrist and ankle?”
“Getting better every day.”
“Adam!” Rosemary bustled over with a grin on her face. “You’re just in time to meet Samantha Everett, the bakery goddess behind Samantha’s Treats, the goodies that bring you back every morning. Adam’s a huge fan,” she told Samantha.
“That’s right. Hey.” He touched the bill of his hat.
He was a big man, a good six inches taller than Samantha and powerfully built. Even wearing ankle boots that added two inches to her five-feet-six-inch height, she felt small.
“Hi,” she answered, cupping her empty mug to her chest. As if it could deflect the mesmerizing warmth in his eyes.
“William, this is Adam Healey,” Rosemary continued. “He’s a firefighter.”
“For real?” Her son looked starstruck.
“How you doing, sport?” Adam asked.
“My name is William Tyler Everett Jones.”
“That’s quite a mouthful. Mind if I call you sport?”
This was a first, and surprised Samantha.
Adam sniffed. “I smell smoke.”
Right then, a waitress hurried out of the kitchen balancing several plates. Wisps of smoke followed her. The smoke alarm screeched, and people stopped eating.
“Everyone, clear out,” Adam ordered in a booming voice. “Keep an eye on this.” He handed his backpack to Samantha. On his way to the kitchen he pulled his arm from the sling, whipped out his phone and made a call.
“What’s that noise? Where is he going, Mom?” William asked as he and Samantha donned their coats and headed toward the door.
“To see what set off the smoke detector.”
“Why can’t we go with him?”
“We don’t want to get in the way. Besides, we need to get going.” But she had Adam’s backpack and she’d left her dolly behind the display case.
She would have handed the backpack to someone and come back later for the dolly, but her son dug in his heels. “I want to wait and see what happens,” he said, his breath clouding in the cold.
The stubborn set of his jaw reminded her of Jeff when they were still married. Before he’d walked away from her and William, just days before her twenty-seventh birthday. The last time William had seen his father, he’d been all of twenty-six months old. Yet somehow, he’d picked up that stubborn look.
Getting him into the car without a battle wouldn’t be easy, and Samantha didn’t have the energy for an argument. With a sigh, she nodded and waited out front with the other restaurant patrons.
A burner had caught fire, and thick smoke rapidly filled the kitchen. Adam grabbed the fire extinguisher and went to work. In seconds, he had the flames out.
“Open the back door and get some fresh air in here,” he directed.
Rosemary complied, and José swiped his brow. “That was close. I shouldn’t have set that towel so close to the flames. It won’t happen again.”
Adam nodded. “Hang on while I call the station.” He made the call then disconnected. “They’re coming anyway. It’s what we do.”
His sprained wrist hurt like hell. Should’ve been more careful when he’d hefted the extinguisher. But his focus had been on putting out the fire before something really bad happened, and he’d forgotten to think about himself.
He started to massage it, winced, and slipped it back into the sling. With any luck, it would continue to mend, and he could start light duty next week. Eight hours a day, five days a week, doing filing and other administrative work. Not his job of choice. He preferred working a pair of back-to-back, twenty-four-hour shifts, fighting fires, or serving as a paramedic. Still, light duty beat sitting at home, twiddling his thumbs, and trying to study. The two weeks he’d just suffered through was more than enough time off.
“When did you last have a fire and life safety training refresher?” he asked Rosemary.
“I’m not sure. Maybe a year? Do you remember, José?”
“I’d say more like two.”
This year, Nate was in charge of safety training, and Adam made a mental note to let him know to schedule something here. For all he knew, Nate might be on the engine today. Since Adam had been forced to take disability leave, he’d lost track of who did what this month.
“Let’s clean up this mess and get back to work,” Rosemary said.
José nodded. “I’ll toss everything I was cooking, and start over.”
“I’ll let our customers know,” Rosemary said. “Adam, how about coffee and a treat on the house?”
He couldn’t argue with that. “A scone and an espresso sound good. Make it a double. I need the extra caffeine. This studying is a real bear.”
Rosemary frowned. “What are you studying for?”
“The exam I need to pass so I can get promoted to lieutenant.” That was the next rung up from senior firefighter and one rank below captain. Adam already knew a lot of what he needed for the job, but the class he’d enrolled in focused on management skills, which he didn’t have. He’d made it more than halfway through the sixteen-week course, but there was still a lot to learn before the written test in late February. The class and the studying were rougher than he’d expected.
He returned to the restaurant and watched the diners file inside again.
In the midst of that, Rafe, Daniel, Hank, and Max strode in, just as Adam had known they would. Big men, decked out in fire gear.
“Like I told you, it’s been handled,” Adam greeted them.
“You know the drill,” Adam’s best bud, Rafe, replied.
Adam’s crewmates tromped into the kitchen to make sure the fire was out and check for fire within the walls.
Samantha and her kid returned to their booth. She handed him his backpack.
“Mind if join you?” Adam asked.
When the little guy grinned, she shrugged. “Okay.
Adam slid in beside him, putting him across from Samantha. He’d heard about her—divorced, moved to Guff’s Lake six months ago, house-sitting Lucy Marks’s place while the older woman wintered in Palm Desert.
She was a looker—short black hair, long, wispy bangs, big eyes, and a sexy mouth that made him think of pleasure. But he didn’t get involved with single mothers. He never had, mainly because most of them were looking for husbands. And judging by the relationships Adam had screwed up, he figured he’d make a lousy husband and father.
“Was it a big fire?” the boy asked. He had his mother’s eyes.
“It could have been,” Adam said. “But it’s all good now.”
William nodded somberly. “What happened to your arm and leg?”
Adam shrugged. “I hurt them fighting a fire.” With his wrist still screaming, he figured he’d set himself back. That really teed him off, and not only because he wanted back on regular duty. Until he healed, he couldn’t take the physical exam he needed to qualify for lieutenant.
Between the management class, the written and physical exams, and the interview, the whole process would take roughly four months. Time he couldn’t afford to make up later, not if he wanted his father to see him promoted.
To finally make him proud. Adam wanted that just about more than he’d ever wanted anything.
His buds returned to the restaurant, stopping at the booth where Adam sat.
Every one of them looked Samantha over.
“Hello. I’m Rafe Donato.” Flashing the twin dimples that had women falling all over him, Rafe shook her hand.
“This is Samantha and her son, William,” Adam said by way of introduction. “I just met them myself. Samantha makes all that stuff in the front case.”
“So you’re the talent behind those scones. I’m Max Meier.”
Max also shook her hand. Women said his brown eyes were soulful, and Samantha looked as if she bought that hook, line, and sinker.
Adam didn’t like it, but what did he care? “These two other guys are Daniel and Hank.”
Lanky Daniel grinned, and Hank, the station’s newest and most solemn firefighter, nodded.
Each of them shook hands with her kid, who was all eyes.
Other diners came over to say hello. Adam didn’t miss the looks women gave him and his buds. They were used to that.
A moment later, Rafe checked his watch. “We’re a little over an hour until the end of our second shift. We should go.”
The crew’s back-to-back shifts started at eight a.m. on Mondays and ended at eight a.m. on Wednesdays, when another crew took over.
“Good to meet you, William. Samantha.” Rafe nodded to Rosemary and the waitresses. “I’ll see you ladies for breakfast shortly.”
As they filed out, Adam swore he heard collective female sighs.
Although Samantha seemed immune to his crewmates’ charms. Adam wasn’t about to examine why he felt relieved.
“We should leave now, too,” Samantha said. “We still have another delivery to make, and then William needs to get ready for school.”
Already standing, the boy cupped his groin and danced from foot to foot. “Mom, I gotta pee.”
Samantha gave Adam a Kids, what can you do? look and then slid quickly from the booth. “Hurry, before you have an accident.”
“I don’t wanna use the girls’ bathroom.”
“Well, I can’t go into the men’s.”
“I’ll take him,” Adam offered.
Unsure whether she should trust this man she’d just met with her son, Samantha hesitated. “That isn’t necessary.”
“I gotta go right now,” William insisted.
“He’s a good guy,” Janna added from a nearby table, where she was pouring coffee.
Samantha relaxed. Anyway, there was no time to argue. Adam ferried her son toward the men’s room. “Sit tight, Sam,” he said over his shoulder. “We’ll be right back.”
Sam. Adam had called her Sam. Samantha sat back in the booth and sighed. She didn’t go by the shortened version of her name anymore, hadn’t since high school. Even her parents called her Samantha.
She kind of liked hearing it again on Adam’s lips. Not that she was interested in him. She wasn’t, she assured herself.
By the time he brought her son back, she was up and waiting with her coat on and holding out William’s.
“Thanks, Adam.” She helped her son into his parka.
“No prob. Be good, sport.”
“Hey, I’ll be back at work next week. If you ever want to visit the fire station, give me a call and I’ll show you two around.” Adam wrote his cell number on the back of his card.
“Really?” William looked as if it was Christmas morning.
Samantha preferred to steer clear of the firefighter she was attracted to, but she couldn’t bear to disappoint her son. “We just might take you up on that.”
A tour to please William, and that would be that. As they headed toward the car, she pushed the firefighter from her thoughts.