He’s the man she left behind, but never forgot...

Laurel Moore might have had to leave her prized job as an assistant chef in one of NYC's swankiest restaurants to take care of her brother and mother after her father’s death, but she’s not giving up on her dream. Nope. She’s going to turn her father’s debt-ridden, greasy spoon bar and restaurant into a destination gastropub that will bring life back to her small, struggling town. Laurel faces resistance on all sides, but it’s running into her first love, reformed bad boy Jonah Gardiner, that really throws her off her stride. Worse, he’s more tempting than ever.

Spurred on by Laurel’s rejection a decade ago, Jonah cleaned up his act and became an academic and psychologist, who helps everyone understand their feelings except himself. He can think of a million reasons why he and Laurel need to stay at arms' length, but when she shares her new recipes with him, it seems like foreplay. And that’s just the beginning…

Can he and Laurel seize a second chance, or will she destroy the peace he's worked so hard for?


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Despite her “new” position as head chef at her own restaurant, Laurel was still up early the next morning for another trip to the wholesaler. She hadn’t seen Brett for a day so she’d left a note on his bedroom door, but didn’t hold out a lot of hope that he’d show up the next morning, even if she had made two-bite apple pies.
She could maybe ask her other delivery man. When she drove past Jonah’s windows at seven-thirty, Laurel couldn’t help but look up, but she didn’t see any movement. It’s not his job. And what’s the point, when you two would be doomed from the start? A bar owner and an ex-alcoholic? It was about the worst idea she’d ever heard.
This time she was smarter about what she ordered and how she loaded the SUV, so she was more than half unloaded when a shadow fell across the tailgate at half-past eight.
“Hello.” She smiled, squinting up at Jonah in the morning sun that reflected off his apartment’s windows and down into her alley.
“Hi,” he said. “Can I help?”
“You don’t have to. See? I’m tomato-free today.”
“I’d still, like to.”
Was there a rumble in his voice when he said that? Or was it just Laurel’s humming body, indulging in a spot of wishful thinking? He looked, all kinds of edible today, in black jeans that emphasized how long his legs were, and a green shirt with a subtle check that contrasted perfectly with his red hair and beard. When he squinted back at her, he resembled some kind of hipster cowboy.
“Okay,” she said, hoping he wouldn’t notice her breathlessness.
As before, Jonah more than halved the time it took to unload the truck. And, as before, he hesitated for a moment the first time he approached the kitchen door. Not as long as before, but she noticed.
When they were done, she pulled the apple pies out of the warming drawer she’d kept them in, in case he showed up. His eyes widened as he followed the tray to the counter. “Laurel,” he said. “You can’t keep doing this to me.”
“Doing what?” she teased, getting two plates and a canister of homemade whipped cream out of the refrigerator.
He didn’t answer at first. What exactly was she doing to him? Was it just her food? He’d been happy with her before whether or not she fed him, but that had been a different Jonah. Who cooked for him now? As far as she could remember, cooking wasn’t his mother’s strong suit.
“Giving me this…” he said, his voice trailing off. “I haven’t had food this good in… years.”
“That’s very sad,” she declared. “Very, very sad.” She popped a tartlet out of the pan onto his plate and added a perfect swirl of whipped cream on top.
“It’s not sad,” he said, his hand already reaching for the plate. “It’s… necessary.”
She didn’t understand what he meant, but he’d already picked up the tart and, she wanted to watch him eat it, not make him talk more.
The cream got on his nose, which was funny, but the noise he made when he bit into the pie anyway was so sexy that Laurel had to clutch the counter behind her.
“Jeez,” he said, closing his eyes, his mouth full. “I don’t know how you do it,” he added thickly.
“Butter, sugar, eggs, flour.” She let go of the counter long enough to take a bite of her own mini pie. Completely as she wanted it—crumbly pastry giving way to firm-but-not-undercooked apple chunks in a light syrup that didn’t soak the pastry. She nodded. The perfect dessert for fall. “It’s science,” she added to Jonah.
He shook his head, pointing at the pie in his hand and rolling his eyes. “Nuh-uh. This is art.”
“I’m glad you like it,” she said, preening inside. She’d had Michelin-starred chefs praise her food with more eloquence than this, but it was Jonah’s reaction that mattered to her the most right now.
He finished the pie and licked his fingers. Laurel swallowed.
“Thank you,” he said. “I’m sorry I didn’t bring coffee over.”
His coffee was good, too, but right now Laurel was fixating on his hands, the long fingers of which were a little sticky. What would he do if she reached over, picked up his hand, and sucked on his fingers herself?
Oh, God. She was really losing it.
“Jonah?” she echoed, stalling.
Her problem was she didn’t have the kind of chest that sat quietly when she was breathing fast. He could probably see her desire all over her body. She was probably blushing, too, if the heat in her cheeks was anything to go by.
His blue eyes got darker while she watched. Yeah. He could see.
The cavernous kitchen suddenly seemed very close, yet the counter between them stretched for miles. She could hitch herself up onto it and reach him that way…
“You want another?” she asked, her voice strangled.
“Laurel,” he said again, his voice lower. “Stop tempting me.”
“A little temptation never hurt anyone.” She couldn’t believe she was saying this. A little temptation could hurt plenty.
“You are more than a little temptation to me,” he said.
You. Meaning her. Not her food. Her. He’d said it again. Laurel’s own attempt to resist temptation blew away like a handful of flour. “Then kiss me, you idiot,” she said.
Jonah put out one long arm, hooked a finger into the top of her apron and pulled her across the counter toward him. They met in the middle, his mouth covering hers gently at first, but quickly going deeper when Laurel put her hands on his shoulders and pulled him in.
God, he was better than she’d ever remembered. His lips were fine and warm, his beard softer than she remembered. He tasted of apples and sugar, and a hint of the coffee he must have drunk earlier. He moved over her lips as if getting to know her, but now that she’d said the words, Laurel needed more, and she opened her mouth and hitched one hip on to the counter at the same time, just as she’d imagined it.
Jonah groaned and leaned into her, his hand moving to the back of her hair, his fingers finding their way under her braid to massage her head while he kissed her with long, slow strokes of his tongue.
Now it was Laurel’s turn to moan; his fingers felt so good. When was the last time a man had had his hands in her hair? So much of her job was spent making sure her feminine assets were hidden away. Jonah’s hands seemed to say, I see you. I know who you are in there.
Laurel swung her knees up onto the counter so she could slide closer to him on one hip. So she could place a hand flat on his shirt and feel the muscles, the heavier build he had since the last time they’d been this close. It suited him, the extra weight. He was rangy and strong, and those words alone made her skin tingle.
He was almost holding her up, one hand in her hair, the other sliding around to her back so she could feel his arm against her breast. She used the hand that wasn’t touching him to press that forearm closer to her. She wanted him all kinds of closer to her.
But suddenly he was gone. He broke the kiss, backed away from the counter. Left her almost on her side, her hair mussed, her lips cool in the kitchen air. He put a handout, as though she were advancing on him, and said, “Don’t.”
She couldn’t handle the change in mood. What had gone wrong? “What’s don’t?” she said stupidly, sitting up on the counter and swinging her legs down so she faced him.
“Don’t… start this,” he said, running a hand through his hair, not looking at her. “This is a bad idea.”
At least his voice was as shaky as she felt. “Who said it had to be a bad idea?”
“It always was,” he insisted. If he would just look at her. “I was bad for you then and I’d be just as bad for you now. You have to forget me. Forget ‘us.’”
“Why? What’s so terrible about you now?”
“I can’t give you what you want—what you deserve”—and when she began to talk, he went on—“and I don’t want to.”
That made her close her mouth with an audible click. Then he did look at her, a brief glance that deepened his frown. “Look,” he said. She remembered he spent his life explaining emotions to people. How was he going to explain this to her? “The last time we were together, I was… immature. Overemotional. I was mad at the world and I didn’t care who I hurt while I railed at it. You got mixed up in that, and it hurt you.”
“I already said I—”
“I don’t mean that,” he said. “I’m saying that now I’m better. I don’t let my feelings dictate the terms anymore. I’m grateful for what I have. What I’ve achieved, despite doing all I could to derail things back then.” He sighed and began to stroke his hand down his beard as if it helped him collect his thoughts. “I can’t open it all up again, don’t you see? I don’t do well with emotions. They take over. I’m better—and I’m better for my clients—when I make my decisions based on logic. You…” And finally, he did look at her. “You are everything that would send me back there.”
Laurel’s mouth fell open. Her bewilderment changed to anger in a heartbeat. “So because I make you feel something, you’re rejecting me?”
“God, no, don’t use that word.” He flinched away from it.
“Okay, genius, you’re the one with all the ‘book-larning,’” she went on sarcastically. “You give me the word for what you’re doing when you were just offered on a platter something you and I both wanted.”
His cheeks reddened, but he said, “Don’t you see? I don’t want it. I don’t want to stir all that up again. My life is good now and I intend to keep it that way. I’m sorry, but—”
“I hate those words!” she exclaimed. “‘I’m sorry, but—’ means you’re not sorry at all. You’re just going to go back to your safe little world and not even acknowledge that ten years have gone by and maybe if you don’t start working on your social life a little, you’ll end up alone, looking around and wondering where all your relationships went.”
He winced again, but said, “That’s my point. I don’t have any relationships now unless you count the joy of listening to my mother complain. I still can’t go back to my father and tell him it’s water under the bridge, as you so kindly said to me. I can’t do it. You see? I would never let one of my clients get away with that, and here I am, doing it.”
That tempered Laurel’s anger a little. “Still? But what about Matt?”
He shook his head. “Same thing. Different reasons. He’s a freaking war hero now and whenever he comes home, I still won’t be able to welcome him with open arms, because of something that happened thirty years ago that he couldn’t even help.”
He stopped, his mouth tightening. “Sorry. TMI. I’m just trying to say… Thank you. God, thank you for even these few minutes we’ve had together these last few days, but no thank you to anymore.”
“Wait just a minute—!” she called, but it was to his back as he let himself out into the alley, leaving her pained and disheveled on her clean stainless-steel countertop.

When you love something, let it go...

To everyone in his hometown, Matthias Van Allen is a hero. Back from his posting as an army medic, he's welcomed with a party the whole town attends. Everyone's happy to see him – except his ex-girlfriend, Raya. First, Raya lost her father, and when Matt joined the army, she was left with no one.

Raya Piacenza's used to being alone now. She's made her way in the world and doesn't need anyone or anything except her jobs: an EMT captain and personal trainer. But now Matt is back, pushing her buttons in a way she thought she'd grown out of. Worst of all, she's now his boss.

As Matt settles back into the community and Raya is offered a chance to leave it, they will have to figure out if their lives have room for each other – or if they should set each other free.

Free Me: September 10, 2019


Raya had never been this nervous. This was worse than the day she’d found out she’d been appointed captain of Tanner’s first aid squad, the youngest ever to get the position—not without controversy. This was worse because she didn’t want to be nervous that Matthias Van Allen was coming home. She wanted to feel nothing.
Yet, here she was, at the airport, in a group consisting of Matt’s mother and seven or eight members of the squad, inside another crowd of people waiting for their loved ones. Except she wasn’t waiting for her loved one. She was waiting for Matt, who’d chewed up her heart, spat it out, stomped on it, and then joined the freaking army just to get away from her.
She wished she could just skip this touching reunion, but that was impossible. If she missed any part of it, she’d be labeled as petty, or worse, not over him. Raya had enough to do to keep people’s focus on her abilities, without giving them any reason to see a weakness in her armor. Now, she really couldn’t stand. She raised her chin and paid more attention to her surroundings. The passengers came into view, luggage in hand or trailing behind their outstretched arms like loyal pets. At lunchtime on a Saturday, most of them were parents with children jumping around them or grumbling in their arms. Raya sighed and tried to loosen the muscles across her shoulders. The rest of her group moved around impatiently, craning their necks to see behind the families. Raya kept her head down.
Suddenly, Dennis yelled, “There’s our boy!” at the top of his considerable lungs, and Raya’s head shot up, as did her heart rate. Cursing herself, she looked from face to face at the approaching passengers until she found him.
Dammit, he was even better looking than he’d been eight years ago. Black hair cut high and tight, though longer on top than she’d have thought the military allowed. Olive skin, dark brown eyes, cheekbones to make her weep, and a smile… goddammit, his smile. He was supposed to look haunted, wasn’t he? He’d seen stuff on his deployments that Raya couldn’t even imagine, but he looked as relaxed and happy as if he was coming back from two weeks in Cancun. He laughed aloud at the sight of his welcoming committee and ran toward them, his pack bouncing on his back.
His mother was calling the loudest, in Spanish and English, and when he’d thrown his pack to one side, it was her to whom he stood still and held out his arms. She disappeared into his embrace and the rest of the squad swarmed in. From senior members who’d trained her and Matt back in the day, to newbies who didn’t even know Matt but were infected by the mood, everyone needed a hug.
Well, Raya Victoria Piacenza wasn’t getting infected by nothin’ and nobody, even if his mother’s tearful words threatened to cause a lump in Raya’s throat. She held back from the knot of cheering fools—that was now blocking the exit, causing people to swerve around it, shaking their heads and grinning at the noise—and tried to lower her heart rate. But all she could see were Matt’s bare arms around his mother, his bicep flexed, his medic tattoo clearly visible on his brown forearm. Oh, God.
Finally, the knot began to unravel. Someone reached behind Matt to take his pack, joking about how heavy it was. Someone else mussed up his hair, teasing him about the short sides. His mother, Mariah, linked arms with him, chatting away about the party that was being thrown for him in town right now. Matt grinned down at her, used the hand she wasn’t occupying to smooth down his hair, and turned to the exit.
And somehow Raya knew that he’d known she was there all along. His smile changed, cooling, becoming more polite, though no less devastating. “Hey, Raya.”
A sheepish, apologetic smile would have been more satisfying, but at least he didn’t grin at her like a maniac. “Matthias,” she said, giving him a little of the ice in her heart.
“How’ve you been?” he said.
She was aware the rest of the group was watching them like a ping-pong game, even the ones who didn’t know Matt. Damn gossipers. Her and Matt’s story had ended years ago. His fault, not hers. “Fine,” she ground out. “Shall we go?”
“Hell, yeah!” Dennis shouted and grabbed Matt’s arm, turning him and breaking their eye contact. Matt allowed it and pretty soon, she and a couple of others—not Matt—were in her trusty old Ford, following another truck to the firehouse. The long-lost prince would be arriving at his party in style.
Raya stayed quiet, her jaw rigid, while the others chatted about how many they expected at the party and how much it would make. The new owner of the bar-restaurant in town where they held their weekly “meetings” had been great at sprucing up the place. She wanted a big crowd as bad as the squad did. But Raya wished there had been some other way to kill all these birds with one stone. Which genius had had the idea for the party in the first place?
Once they got into Tanner, the fire department met them with their vintage red truck and Matt was transferred to it. The beeping, honking mini parade stopped traffic for three blocks and before long, Matt was deposited at his party and Raya was able to blend into the crowd. She was on call that day, so she wasn’t able to drink her sorrows away, but hiding in a group of actual friends, getting the gossip of anyone but her, was just what the EMT ordered.
The bar owner, Laurel, had produced a ton of finger foods for them to try, to highlight where she wanted the restaurant’s new menu to go. Raya tried a few and they were delicious, but her constantly blipping radar, updating her every few seconds on where Matt was, took away her appetite. She heard some of her friends complain about the samples, waxing lyrical about the hockey-puck burgers and over-fried chicken pieces Laurel’s father had served. Well, these looked and tasted a lot better than that. Laurel had had some false starts with the new menu, but if she kept going in this direction, the first aid squad wouldn’t be finding another meeting place any time soon.
Sullivan’s had opened up a garden space in the back that Raya hadn’t even known was there, and she eventually found her way outside, sipping her cranberry and seltzer and standing closer to one of the heating towers in the garden to stave off the chill of early November. She lifted her face to catch more of its heat.
“Hello,” a too-familiar voice said from behind her.
How had he snuck up on her like that? She turned around. Matt was standing a respectable distance from her, and yet she still felt the heat coming off him as surely as from the heater behind her. He was wearing a jacket now, a leather motorcycle jacket, the bastard, that made him half-hero, half-bad boy, and wholly delicious.
She met his eyes, darkened in the deepening evening. She and Matt were about the same height, a fact she’d always used over him when they were in high school when their shoulders would jostle together as he tried to put his arm around her in the hallways and she would playfully push him away. Simpler times…
“Are you enjoying your party?” she said. Good; her voice wasn’t giving an inch.
“Course,” he said. “Laurel said you had a lot to do with it.”
“Laurel’s being nice. The others talked about it with her long before I got involved. I just got the word out online and fixed the schedule for tonight, that kind of thing.” She’d been there the night it had come up, and everyone had looked for her approval, but she didn’t want Matt to know any of this.
“Well, thank you anyway.”
“We could raise a lot of money tonight.” She narrowed her eyes at him. “That’s why I did it.”
“I get it,” he said, uncharacteristically serious. “Listen, Raya, could we go somewhere quieter and talk for a couple of minutes? I want to—”
“There he is! Raya quit giving him the death stare—it’s his party!”
The cry came from the entrance to the garden and made everyone turn around. The firefighters, who’d also been invited because they’d overheard the planning and would have killed Laurel if she hadn’t included them, muscled their way into the crowd and over to Matt. As Raya had known he would, he plastered the grin on his face as he turned to them. “I’m right here.”
“No fair, Raya, hogging him like that!” Sheri, one of the EMTs, wagged a finger at her.
“I’m not hogging a thing,” Raya protested. “You can have him.”
And she dodged them all and melted into a corner, where only the fairy lights lit her from behind and she could work on forgetting the smell of leather and sandalwood that Matt had always brought with him.
Matt allowed his friends to pull him out of the garden and back into the bar, where yet another drink was waiting for him and his mother ran hungry eyes over him as if anything could have happened to him while he was thirty feet from her.
He hid a sigh with another smile. “To fall in New England!” he shouted. “To temperate climates! To pumpkin spice!”
Everyone cheered and toasted with him, not noticing that he hardly sipped at his drink. Nothing against the drink, but he wanted to remember every minute of this afternoon, not have it fogged by generous friends.
His goofing did the trick. They all began talking at once about the recent weather, and Matt was left alone to regret that his attempt to talk to Raya had been interrupted.
He had more to say to her than could be covered in a short conversation at a party anyway, but he wanted her to know that he knew he had more to say. He’d had to brace himself as he came around the corner at the airport—but not to make sure he had his requisite giant grin on, or to see if his mother looked any older than the last time he’d seen her. No, he’d braced himself for the sight of the love of his life, now on the other side of a chasm, he could never cross.
Raya’s hair was longer and she’d laid off dying it black as she had all through their teens. It was almost black anyway and now lay in one long, straight, high ponytail down her back. She’d hung behind him when he’d been taken to the cars but he could just imagine it swinging as she walked. Her fawn-colored skin had lightened to a pale beige with the change in seasons, but she glowed with just as much energy as always.
Unfortunately, she also glowed with hatred of him, and he’d earned it.
If his father hadn’t asked him to come home, would Matt have stayed away longer? He didn’t have to call himself a chicken if he was serving his country instead of facing Raya. The decision was put off and put off again. But Peter’s last letter had contained a sense of urgency Matt wasn’t used to getting from his laconic, close-mouthed father. Neither Peter nor his mother had said anything when he’d called, but it was time to go home.
Peter wasn’t here tonight because he wouldn’t want their reunion to be so public. Mariah had no such qualms. She continued to find him every few minutes and hug him to her, asking him how he was doing in Spanish or English, putting her hand up to his face as if making sure he was still there.
The sounds of the party ebbed and flowed around him, music playing, people laughing, glasses clinking, while the evening closed in and the air flowing through the open bar from street to garden reminded him of the fall he’d just been toasting. Accepting that he wouldn’t be able to get another moment with Raya, Matt relaxed into a bench seat and joined in on conversations, learning stories about his team and the expansion of his town that had happened in his absence. Everyone wanted him up to speed; everyone wanted him to feel at home.
He did feel at home. The problem was, he’d fucked up the worst right here at home, and had lost Raya because of it, so he’d had to leave.
“So what are your plans now you’re home?” Bill, an African American man with glasses, one of the oldest of the crew, asked. He remembered Matt’s days with Raya.
“Get my mam├íto do everything for me for a few weeks.” Matt grinned. His mother swatted his arm. “Then get a job, get some wheels, get a place.” He shrugged as if planning the rest of his life was an afterthought. “You know, the usual.”
Mostly he wanted to see what the story was with his father and clear the air with Raya. Thank her for their breakup. Be glad that she’d made something of herself in this town, which didn’t offer many opportunities. Not pine after what they’d had.
“You don’t have to move out so soon,” Mariah said.
“Of course I do, Mom.”
“Mariah, he’s lived in the desert. You can handle him being a few streets away, can’t you?” Ellie, who was younger than Matt, said. “Unless you plan on moving out of town?” she added anxiously.
“No. You’ll come back to the squad, right?” August, a tall, muscled man with a scar down one cheek that hadn’t been there eight years ago, said.
“If the squad will have me,” Matt hedged.
The rest of them tutted and told him to get out of here with that bullshit. “Of course we’ll have you,” Dennis said, who had been captain when Matt had left.
“I’ll have to ask the captain,” Matt reminded them, nodding toward the door where he’d seen Raya.
“The captain can’t wait to have you back,” Ellie promised. “Like she’s going to turn down a volunteer with your experience.”
Matt just smiled. Dennis saw it. “You think she’s going to hold a grudge for this long?”
It was a hell of a grudge. He didn’t think he’d, ever forgive himself for what he’d done. “The army training doesn’t prepare you for civilian life the way you’d think,” he said, rather than address Dennis’s words. “I might have gaps in my training that you guys will have to help me with. I didn’t deliver that many babies while I was away, for a start.”
“Pssh.” Bill waved him off. “Like riding a bike.”
“Yeah,” Ellie added. “A slippery, screaming bike.”
The group laughed loud enough to shake the light above their heads, and the conversation returned to shoptalk. Matt joined in, but another part of his brain wouldn’t leave the question alone. What was he going to do now he was back? What kind of a job could he get locally and still volunteer for the squad? They were all volunteers, even Raya. The town paid for some of their costs but they still had to fundraise every year. If they ran out of volunteers, the town would have to pay an outside service to come, and then the people most in need would have to cover the costs of the ambulance themselves, just when they were at their most vulnerable.
No, being part of the squad, he hoped, was a definite. The bigger question was what kind of work he could get in town. What could he do that would be fulfilling? That would serve the most people possible? That was all he and Raya had ever wanted. He didn’t know what her paid job was now. He hoped it made her happy.
She hadn’t looked very happy tonight.
Matt was called back to the conversation and kept his mind occupied for a pleasant hour or so. But then, between keeping his focus on the people around him, keeping his friends from trying to make him drink himself under the table, and the constant knowledge that Raya was somewhere in the crowd, it took Matt a second to register that a tall, pale man with red hair and a beard was standing in front of his table.
Holy crap. Jonah had come. Matt would have bet his pension that his half brother wouldn’t be seen dead here today. Since their father had left Jonah’s mother to marry Matt’s, Jonah had carried a massive chip on his shoulder, and he hadn’t failed to take it out on Matt on the few occasions they’d been together as kids. Thankfully, Matt was four years younger than Jonah and hadn’t had to deal with him much at school. He’d also, he thought, stifling a sigh, had Raya in high school, and nothing and no one else had mattered.
But here Jonah was, giving him a serious look as if he expected Matt to turn him away. Matt hadn’t seen him in eight years. He hadn’t seen the beard before, or Jonah’s smartened-up look—he’d been milking the rejected rebel for all it was worth in high school and college—and Matt could tell, immediately, that more than Jonah’s wardrobe had changed.
“Jonah!” Matt said across the table. Which was huge, and he was hemmed in on all sides. Goddamn. He didn’t want to talk to his brother in front of everyone else, especially if Jonah’s appearance was a peace offering.
So he stepped onto the tabletop, walking over it to jump down in front of Jonah. Jonah had a good few inches on Matt. In fact, he looked just like their father, where Matt favored his mother’s side of the family. But Matt naturally had more muscle on him, so he didn’t mind looking up at his brother.
“Laurel’ll have your hide for those footprints,” Jonah said.
So Laurel knew Jonah? Matt had to remember what a small town this was. But that wasn’t the most important thing on his mind. “You came. Mom said you wouldn’t.”
“Yeah, well.” Jonah rubbed at his beard. “Someone had to come and make sure the big hero remembered he’s still someone’s dweeby little brother.”
Matt grinned. That was more like the Jonah, he knew, though dweeb was tame compared to some of Jonah’s epithets for him in the past.
Then Jonah said, “Hey, Matt,” and held out his hand.
Damn. This was different. Awesome different. Matt had never wanted to continue the rivalry between their two families. He’d totally gotten why Jonah hated their father. And, although once they were both adults, Matt would have liked to bury the hatchet, it would have to come from Jonah. And here it was. Maybe.
Matt took Jonah’s hand in a firm grip with both of his, his grin getting bigger. “Good to see you, Bro. What’s going on?”
“Um…” Jonah looked even more solemn. “Quite a lot, to be honest.” What did that mean? Again, Matt half-wished they had a different venue for this first meeting.
Then Jonah said, “It’s good to see you home safe, little bro.”
Okay, that was the nicest thing Jonah had said to him in his entire life. Even Jonah looked surprised that he’d said it.
“Thanks,” Matt answered. “It’s good to be back.”
There was a slight pause. To break the awkward silence, Matt said. “Nice beard. Hippy.”
“That’s the Marines, doofus. The term you’re looking for is ‘dogface.’”
“Dogface.” Jonah looked him over. “Perfect.”
They grinned at each other. The dimples they’d both inherited from Peter were revealed in Jonah’s beard.
“Well, I’ll let you get back,” Jonah said, his eyes flicking to the staring crowd among them.
No. This was too good. Matt didn’t want him to leave. “Don’t go away though, ’kay?” Matt said, shaking his hand again in emphasis.
“I’ll stick around for a while.”
“Cool. I’ll come find you before we leave. Hey,” he said, as Jonah turned to go back into the crowd. “Thanks for coming.”
“I’m glad I did,” Jonah said, his face solemn again, and disappeared.
Matt climbed back over the table to take his place. “Hey,” he said to Ellie, who was two or three people to his right. “Are you crying?”
“No!” she squeaked, but she wasn’t the only one with tears in her eyes. He guessed everyone knew the family history. He thought he’d kept his wish to have his big brother on his side more private.
“Okay, okay. This is getting sappy. Bill, what are we having at your place after this?”
The party was due to end at six, they’d told him, and Matt was being taken to another house for dinner and to continue the celebration. He’d also learned that Raya was on call, and knew she’d arranged things that way so she’d have an excuse not to attend the later gathering.
The crowd around him thinned as the sky darkened. He said goodbye to Laurel and thanked her for the party, then got stuck at the entrance, saying goodbye to a dozen people who just had to speak to him before he left. Raya went past his peripheral vision, not close enough to talk to, but close enough to make the hairs on his arms stand up.
Finally, they moved to the front door, which was actually an open wall where floor-to-ceiling windows had been drawn back to accommodate the crowd. There was a man sitting at one of the tables in the window, uncertainly outlined by the lights under the awning and those inside the bar. He was slumped over the table, his head on his crossed arms. Matt’s Spidey senses began tingling harder.
“Buddy?” Matt said, pushing through those around him so he could shake the man’s shoulder. “Dude? You okay?”
The other EMTs cottoned on to his tone right away, and before he knew it, two more of them were beside the man. A kid, really. College-age, maybe. Couldn’t hold his drink?
One of the other EMTs said, “Not waking up. Hey. Hey!”
“He’s ice-cold,” Matt said. “Better call it in. Who else was on the soda today?”
“Raya and Dennis. Bob can drive.”
“Okay, buddy, we’ll get you warmed up.”
“I have my kit,” Raya said. Matt looked through the crowd for a second and saw her reach behind the bar. When she straightened, her orange EMT kit in her hand, Matt took off his jacket and other coats were handed forward so they could cover the kid up before the ambulance—the real ambulance, not the vintage fire truck that Matt had driven in—got there.
“It’s Brett,” one of the EMTs said. “Somebody get Laurel.”
And that was when Laurel screamed.

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