Excerpt from Mr. September
Book #9 of the Heroes of Rogue Valley: Calendar Guys Series
"You did what?" Kylie Treadwell gaped at her older sister Cheryl, who'd stopped by Kylie's apartment with startling news.
Cheryl sat forward in the easy chair and beamed the way a mother would. Nothing new there. "That's right, I won a date with Ethan Goldberg at the fundraiser for struggling musicians. Can you believe it?"
That wasn't much of a stretch. Kylie's sister was beautiful—nearly five feet ten, with green eyes and dimples in her cheek, and blessed with a poise she envied. "Get to the part about transferring the date to me."
"I had to. After all, I'm a happily married woman with a four-year-old son, and I want to stay that way. So I substituted your name and phone number. You're welcome."
"You couldn't check with me first?"
Cheryl's clear excitement deflated like an air mattress with a nail hole. "I don't even rate a thank you? This is Ethan Goldberg we're talking about, Mr. September on the firefighter calendar that hangs in your kitchen and the sax player for one of the hottest bands in town. No available woman in her right mind would turn down the chance to spend an evening with him."
"I would. At the very least, I need to meet a man before I decide whether I want to go on a date with him. Anyway, a popular guy like Ethan would never look twice at regular old me, let alone ask me out."
"My life isn't exactly exciting. I go to work, I come home. I live a quiet, ordinary life, and I'm content. And you know why."
"Gordon Strand. Yada yada. That was three years ago."
"You weren't the one whose name was dragged through the news for weeks while the police questioned me and searched for him." Gordon, Kylie's live-in boyfriend at the time, had embezzled money from the bank where he worked and fled to Rio. There, he'd taken up with a redhead and blown through the money in record time. Forty thousand dollars, gone.
Her sister waved her hand. "Gordon's in prison and you were cleared of any wrongdoing."
"Yes, but the scars remain." Believing Gordon wanted the same things she did, to build a life together, then finding out otherwise in the most awful way had hurt. "And don't forget what dear old Mom pulled before that."
"Believe me, I won't. But you were ten, Kylie, now you're thirty. It's not like you're going to a drunken brawl. This is completely aboveboard. Ethan agreed to have dinner with you as a way to raise money for the fundraiser."
"Does that sound fun to you?"
"How will you know unless you go? You're wonderful and adorable, and he can't help but like you."
Five feet six with hazel eyes and flyaway dishwater-blond hair hardly qualified as adorable. Kylie rolled her eyes.
"Besides, you haven't had a date in way too long," Cheryl added. "Don't you think it's time?"
"That's up to me, not you."
Kylie gave her sister a dirty look, which she ignored. "A nudge in the right direction can't hurt."
With her traumatic past, who could blame her for being in a dateless rut? Her whole life was one big rut, which was what she wanted. Not really. As grateful as she was for her job as a claims adjuster at Coleman's Auto Insurance, which was stable and paid decently, there were times when she wanted to chuck it all and try something different. Even if the thought gave her hives.
She certainly wasn't going to talk to Cheryl about that. Knowing her sister, she'd probably run out and enroll Kylie in a seminar about finding your bliss without fear. Gag.
Since conquering her own fears through a similar seminar some years ago and subsequently starting a successful business with her own line of soaps, Cheryl was a firm believer in that kind of thing. No, thank you.
She gave Kylie a funny look. "The past few minutes your expression has changed from disgusted to scared to excited to nauseated. What in the world is going through your mind?"
"Dinner with Ethan Goldberg. You've already written the check to the musicians fund, right?" Cheryl nodded. "Then there's no need for the actual date. I'm going to give us both a break and cancel."
"Don't you dare. The details have already been set up. Saturday at seven p.m."
Kylie frowned. "But you and I made plans for a sisters' night out that evening. Dinner and whatever, remember?"
"We'll do it another time. You're keeping this date."
"Yes, Mom," Kylie grumbled. "Where are we supposed to meet for this meal?"
"He's picking you up here at your house."
"You gave him my address?"
"For goodness' sake, it's no secret. You're in the phone book."
Apparently, Kylie was stuck. She blew out an exaggerated breath. "Where are we going and what am I supposed to wear?"
"I have the information right here." After rifling through her gargantuan purse, Cheryl extracted a sheet of paper and read aloud. " 'The winner will enjoy a gourmet dinner with Ethan Goldberg at the Hearthstone Restaurant, located at beautiful Guff's Lake Resort.' "
That didn't sound half bad, and Kylie had always wanted to eat there. "I'll need something dressier than office attire," she mused, already running through the color-coordinated outfits in her closet in her mind.
"How about that gorgeous navy silk dress with the cream piping? The one you wore to Dad's third wedding."
Now, a scant fourteen months later, the marriage that was supposed to be "the charm" was in its last gasps. Kylie really liked the dress but hadn't had a chance to wear it since. "May as well."
"Do you want me to come over and help you with your hair and makeup?"
"Don't push it, Cheryl. This isn't a real date and I don't expect to enjoy myself."
"At least you're going."
After several hectic weeks battling summer fires and handling numerous emergency calls, the Guff's Lake Fire Department was having a slow day. The leisurely pace matched the oppressive end-of-August heat.
Ethan did his assigned chores. During mid-morning break he walked to Rosemary's Breakfast Nook a few blocks away and bought himself coffee and a scone. Later he worked out at the station's gym with several crewmates.
Mid-afternoon, they split up to do their own thing. Armed with a spiral notebook and the good-luck pen a songwriter friend had once given him, Ethan sat down at the table in the firehouse kitchen and worked on a new song.
Thirty minutes later he'd scribbled six lousy lines, crossed out four, and filled the margins with doodles of stick figures playing musical instruments. Frustrated, he capped the pen and shut the notebook.
What the hell was wrong with him?
What should have been easy—writing the lyrics for Rafe and Jillian's song, his wedding gift to them—had turned into one giant headache. A big waste of time and effort.
For the first time ever he'd hit a creative wall. The muse he'd always taken for granted had been AWOL for weeks, throwing a wrench into his plan to surprise his teammate and soon-to-be wife with something unique and really special.
Nothing, not relaxing with the guys outside work, dating, or playing the sax helped. He was beginning to think he'd never write a decent song again. Where had his inspiration gone and how did he get it back?
Daniel, Rob, and Liam sauntered in and joined him at the table.
"You look like you want to punch something," Liam said.
Ethan snorted. "I would if it'd help me write the words for Rafe and Jillian's song."
"What if you figured out the music part first?"
"I tried that too. It's always been easier for me to start with the words then write the music."
"The wedding isn't until early October. That's a ways off yet."
"Six and a half weeks to write the lyrics and the music, then record it—all between back-to-back shifts here and the concerts on weekends. That's barely enough time."
"You don't have a gig this weekend—unless you call your date Saturday night a gig. Hard to believe you volunteered again for the musicians fundraiser." Daniel shook his head. "After what happened last year, I'd be nervous."
Ethan wasn't the only man grimacing. "Gabriella Zoltana—who could forget her?"
She'd won the date and the evening had gone pretty much the same as each of the previous three years. But afterward, Gabriella had chased him like crazy, dropping in at the station, showing up at Rosemary's where he and other crewmates often went for breakfast Wednesday mornings at the end of their back-to-back shifts, and otherwise dogging him for weeks.
"I handled it," Ethan said.
"You only had to remind her a thousand times that you weren't interested." Smirking, Liam rubbed his shaved head. "She had a real thing for you. Nothing new there except that it took awhile before she got the message."
Ethan shrugged. "Can I help it if the ladies like me?"
His crewmates snorted. He hadn't always been this popular. Throughout high school he'd been puny, shy, and clueless. No girl, even the outcasts, had wanted to hang with him. Ditto with most of the boys. They considered him a dork, and rightly so.
The summer after graduating he'd grown a foot and filled out. When he entered community college in the fall, his fellow students looked at him differently, a real ego boost. Always interested in music, he'd started a band and for the first time girls sought him out. Trouble was, inside he was still the same dorky kid. Girlfriends were far and few between, their interest in him quickly fizzling out.
By the time he joined the fire department he'd learned a few things about relationships. Like how to avoid the sting of a breakup. He didn't get too close or too involved. When that happened, his inner dork took over and he said sappy things that turned women off. Why put himself out there again? His personal life improved tenfold, dork days and rejection banished to the past. He'd never looked back.
"You don't have to raise a finger and they throw themselves at you," Rob said. "Why go out with a woman you've never seen and don't even know?"
"Doing my part to raise funds for a good cause. I've been lucky—Mello is popular and we're making money. Meanwhile, there are plenty of decent musicians struggling to survive. Treating a woman to a dinner is my way of thanking her for her contribution. I show her a nice time, we get a decent meal, and she goes home happy. The next morning she gets a memento of the evening—a photo and an article in the Sunday paper, print and online."
"Do you know anything about her?" Rob asked. "What's her name?"
Ethan couldn't remember. Raising his hip, he pulled his wallet from his back pocket and extracted the form containing the information. "Kylie Treadwell. She's a thirty-year-old auto insurance claims adjuster."
Which was all he needed to know. They'd spend only a couple hours together before going their separate ways.
"Kylie Treadwell—where do I know that name from?" Liam rubbed his chin.
"Beats me, but it does sound familiar." Ethan checked his watch. "It's my night to cook and if you guys don't eat on time, all hell will break loose. I'd best get to it."