Excerpt: The Firefighter's Match | Gordon Falls | Author Allie Pleiter

Excerpt: The Firefighter’s Match

Book 3: Gordon Falls

Gordon Falls, Illinois

1:48 a.m.

2:36 a.m.

3:14 in the why-on-earth-can't-a-soul-get-to-sleep morning and JJ Jones still lay as wide-eyed as if she had downed a quartet of espresso drinks.

Refusing to lie there one more minute under the false pretense of drowsiness, JJ reached for an elastic band. She pulled her long blond hair back into a resolute ponytail and stepped into a pair of jeans under her oversize T-shirt. Padding to the not-yet-familiar kitchen of her rental cottage, JJ let the summer evening breeze coming off the Gordon River soothe her annoyance.

It was a lovely place, even in the middle of the night. She could almost count her insomnia as a pleasantry here, the nights were so enjoyable.

She grinned at her brother's handwriting, still sloppy in his brief set of "Guest Instructions" taped to the refrigerator door. They were mostly useless items with a few wisecracks like "#6. Don't drown in the river," and

"#8. Go to the hospital if you get bitten by something you can't identify." Max ran his cottage and boat rental businesses like he ran the rest of his life: at breakneck speed with little thought to useful details. His talent at haphazard messes was one of the reasons she'd opted to stay in a rental cottage rather than Max's grubby house.

She addressed the list, stained in three spots and taped back together in one corner. "I've seen your house. I've seen your life. You'd have lasted eight seconds in my unit, Max. Six, tops."

It felt foolish to chastise an empty room, but since leaving the army a month ago she'd not yet learned how to be comfortably alone. That was why she was here: to reacquaint herself with the virtues of peace and privacy. To ease her way into settling down in Gordon Falls alongside her brother. And, if she was truly honest, to get the chronic knot out of her stomach and squelch the nonstop urge to look over her shoulder. Helping Max out by tending to his business for a month while he was off on yet another of his crazy schemes was just a temporary way to pay the bills while she got her life in order.

JJ laughed at her own thoughts. Who was she kidding? Picking up after Max's multiple fiascoes was a lifetime gig. Jones River Sports was just this year's verse to the same old song. She was amazed, actually, that he'd held on to the business as long as he had. The real surprise, though, was that she was actually enjoying the benefits that came with this particular scheme. JJ liked the location and thought she might really want to stay, even when Max pulled up stakes, as he was sure to someday do.

Pushing past the diet sodas on the fridge's top shelf, JJ found a bowl of grapes and was pulling them out to snack on when she heard a tune coming in the window. She turned, not quite able to place the melody or the instrument. It was an instrument being played outside, wasn't it? Not someone's nearby radio? A sour note, followed by a second attempt at a melody, confirmed her guess. It wasn't a guitar, and it wasn't a violin, either. A banjo? No, a ukulele. She set the bowl down on the yellow Formica counter and peered out the window. It was. It was a ukulele. People still played those? In the middle of the night?

She popped a grape into her mouth and squinted harder in the direction of the dock. Max had said something about a crazy renter, some guy who paid cash in advance through a broker and wouldn't give a name. She'd never have rented to someone acting that suspicious, but of course Max thought that was all great fun.

"Just don't bug him and he probably won't murder you." That had been Max's final instruction on the mystery renter. The creepy, nocturnal mystery renter.

Yet how creepy could a guy be who launched into a bad rendition of "When You Wish Upon A Star" at—she checked the clock with a grimace—3:21 a.m.?

Taking the big walking stick Max had given her as a parting gift, JJ slipped into her sandals to go find out.

She worked her way down the path toward the figure of a man sitting on the dock, his silhouette crisp against the yellow wedge of light thrown by the dock's single bulb. Given the circumstances, JJ couldn't decide whether to be grateful or annoyed that she gave the entire scene a military assessment before coming closer. Trying to ease up on the military vigilance didn't mean throwing caution to the wind. This could be a potentially dangerous situation. People were weird, even out here in tiny Illinois tourist towns. And let's face it—normal people don't croon…"White Christmas" now, at 3:30 a.m. in July.

She stepped on a squeaky board and the man turned, still strumming a chord. He was her age, which surprised her. His profile was rugged, with a tumble of sandy-blond waves that were overdue for a cut. He wore one of those high-tech outdoors-man shirts but a ragged pair of jeans, and an expensive-looking watch glinted from his wrist. Could murderous psychopaths afford fine timepieces? Her military vigilance answered that: people can make themselves look like anything.

"It's July," she said, not knowing how else to address this kook.

"It's snowing in New Zealand."

"That still doesn't make it time for Christmas carols."

He went back to "When You Wish Upon a Star."

"I'm sorry I woke you." He had a remarkably interesting voice—rich and deep, like a radio announcer but without all the theatricality.

"You didn't, actually. Wake me, I mean. I was up."

He shifted to face her and the light shone on his features. He looked like someone out of an outdoor magazine—handsome and carefree. "Another night owl?" She was startled by the friendliness in his words. He gave off the attitude of a man who played hard: rumpled, almost unkempt, but with loads of energy. A bit like Max but without the rough, destructive edges.

"Not by choice." She started to say more, about how being up at night was often an asset in the military, but stopped herself because she knew nothing about this guy. She shouldn't offer extra information to a stranger, even to make conversation. She wasn't used to even wanting to make conversation. It certainly wasn't the appropriate response to have to a potential sociopath.

He smiled—a dynamic, engaging smile that made it hard not to smile back—and switched to an ethnic-sounding tune she didn't recognize. An owl hooted from somewhere behind her and she heard a fish jump from the river beyond him. "Been up nights since I was in college, myself. Still, I can never sleep past the sunrise even if I do manage to doze off." He nodded toward the instrument. "That's a Himalayan lullaby. The lady who taught it to me swore it worked, but I've never had much success."

New Zealand, Himalayan mountains—the upscale gear was starting to make sense. It was easy to be carefree if you had the funds to play like that, especially at his age. He doubled back to a few bars of "White Christmas," evidently tiring of the lullaby. She decided to try an experiment—after all, this guy had no idea she knew any of the information Max had told her. "Who are you?"

He hesitated only a moment before answering, "Bing Crosby, of course."

"You are not Bing Crosby."

"I had an Amazonian tribal chief tell me I had the soul of a monkey, but I'm not that, either."

Given what she'd seen of his personality, she had a feeling it was actually a better guess than Bing Crosby. She ought to introduce herself, force his hand, but JJ found she didn't want to. It was part fear—after all, no one knew anything about this guy other than he was well traveled and had deep pockets—and part to keep things private. Gordon Falls was still a bit of a hiding place for her. She was new enough that almost no one in town knew her past. This dock was no place to start creating unwanted conversations about what the war was like and why she wasn't over there any longer. "Does that make me Judy Garland?" For as many nights as she stayed up watching television, she ought to have a better knowledge of old movies.

"Bing's" smile doubled, and the man's eyes fairly glowed. "Actually, I think that makes you Rosemary Clooney."

JJ laughed. It felt foreign but not altogether bad. "I could do worse."

He held her gaze for a moment before replying, "So could I." A few chords went by before he asked, "So, Rosemary, what keeps you up at night?"

There was one of those loaded questions she'd hoped to avoid. "Too much to think about, I suppose."

His sigh echoed across the water. "Oh, I know that tune. I suppose if we really were Bing and Rosemary, we'd be counting our blessings instead of sheep. Isn't that how the song in the movie goes?"

"I have no idea." She sat down on the little wooden bench that ran along the side of the dock. Being up in the middle of the night was always such a lonely thing; it was nice to have a little company.

He looked up and she followed his gaze. The summer sky was a sapphire blanket studded with stars, a glorious display. One of the benefits of being such a raging insomniac was that she got to see a lot of magnificent stars. It was nearly four; the first ribbons of pink sunrise were beginning to pour pastel colors into the night sky. The mystery man gave a little whistle of appreciation as if he'd had the same thought. "I gotta wonder, Rosemary, how many people slog through life never watching the amazing spectacle of the sun coming up?"

JJ laughed again. "Why, Bing, you sound like some kind of commercial."

He gave a soft laugh of his own, but JJ noticed an edge to his amusement. "It's sort of what I do. Or did. Or maybe still do."

It was crystal clear to JJ that whatever "Bing" really did, it was a sore spot. "Which is…?"

He shook his head. "Not here. The whole point of being here is to be far away from all that."

JJ could understand that longing to just get away from it all. Wasn't the bone-deep craving to disappear the whole reason she was here in Gordon Falls? This man wanted peace and privacy just as much as she did. It wouldn't be fair to call that a psychotic impulse, even if he was a bit odd. Intriguing, but definitely odd.

The first bird of morning called out across the water, and JJ stifled a welcome yawn. "Well, good night, Mr. Crosby."

"White Christmas" wafted across the water again, a joke for the fish in the middle of July. "Good morning, Miss Clooney. Sweet dreams." He turned back to the river and hummed softly as he played, as comfortable as if he'd lived there his whole life.

No one had said that to her in years, since being tucked into bed by her father back when she was small. It struck her in a close and unsettling way. "Yeah," she blurted out, absolutely unwilling to say "You, too," or any other such too-friendly reply. Now she was glad he didn't know her name. It felt like he knew too much already.

The next night, the Beatles song "Yesterday" came in through the window just as the sun was going down. While part of her resisted, another part of her yearned to accept the musical invitation to join him on the dock. This time on the river was the opposite of everything she'd wanted to leave behind in Afghanistan, and while she couldn't yet say why, "Bing" had become a part of that escape.

It reminded JJ of something she'd almost forgotten: that a good kind of scared existed. A person could be anxious about something good just as much as she could be terrified of something bad.

Just as she had that novel thought, the old cautions seemed to roar up with twice their strength. You know nothing about him. Clever strangers can seem all too friendly.

She stood there, listening to the music, trying to decide what to do, when she caught her reflection in the darkened window. JJ didn't like what she saw.

Are you going to go through life like this? On guard? Waiting for trouble? Or are you going to choose to heal?

"I could probably knock him out—or knock him into the water—if he tried anything." JJ startled herself by addressing her reflection aloud. She really was a little too freaked out at being alone these days.

Well, the music from the dock seemed to say that she should go make some new friends.

* * *

Alex Cushman stared at the path that led down to the dock, willing her to appear.

The goal of coming out here was to find some solitude, to spend time figuring out the new direction his life would take. Last night, that new direction had taken an impulsive detour.

He shouldn't have been surprised. Impulsive detours were, after all, an Alex Cushman specialty.

Tonight he'd brought a small clay fire pit out on the dock. The temptation of chocolate, graham crackers, two sticks and some marshmallows? Well, that was another classic Cushman impulse. It was one he'd wanted to share with his mystery lady. The anonymity they'd had last night transfixed him somehow. He didn't know her name, and she didn't know his. This trip was supposed to let him step out of Alex Cushman's skin for a while, to lay down the frustrations and complications of who he was so he could figure out who he was supposed to be. Now that he'd met her, he didn't want to escape alone. Come on, Lord, this had to be Your doing, so bring her back tonight. There's something about her.

Just as he was finishing the last bars of the Beatles tune and pondering how many s'mores a grown man could eat alone and not look pathetic, Alex heard footsteps. And there she was.

"Rosemary" wasn't anything like the kind of women who'd caught his eye back in Denver. He doubted most of his friends would call her pretty, but she had this extraordinary strength about her: a hardened, warrior quality. He found himself wondering if she softened her appearance by wearing makeup or jewelry during the day—after all, they had met in the middle of the night. Somehow, he doubted it. He got the sense that appearing soft or approachable was the last thing she wanted.

She was also way too lean—someone ought to hand her a few quarts of ice cream and coax her into gaining some pounds. Maybe that's where the stupid s'mores idea had come from. "Hungry?" he asked, putting down the ukulele and picking up one of the two small sticks.

She raised a skeptical eyebrow. "S'mores?"

"It sounded clever when I thought of it." Alex offered. "Now it's feeling a bit, well, dumb." He extended the second stick to her. "The only thing that will feel dumber is if I'm forced to eat these alone."

"Mr. Crosby," she said, narrowing one eye but taking another step toward him. "You're a little odd, you know that?"

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