Alani O'Dwyer offered her heart to Ryan Connolly years ago, and he tossed it aside without so much as a backward glance. Though the town of Boulder Creek dubs him a hero,she vows she'll never again fall victim to his charms.
Ryan Connolly captains a raucous crew of firefighters at the Boulder Creek Fire Department, yet he's unprepared for the adventure of falling in love with beautiful and headstrong Alani O'Dwyer.
But when a meddling angel at the annual Fighters for Hire charity auction brings Ryan and Alani together, even regrets from the past can't thwart Ryan's plans to make her his own.
Alani O’Dwyer swept locks of trimmed hair into a pile on the tile floor as she hummed along to the melody of “White Christmas” that drifted from the salon’s surround-sound speakers. Outside the shop’s front window, snow flurries danced through the air as traffic eased along Main Street. With Thanksgiving a mere memory, December had pranced in and Christmas now perched nicely on the holiday horizon. The increase in clientele at Lani’s Styles and Smiles Salon over the past several days claimed proof of Boulder Creek’s excitement over the impending celebration.
“Here comes your five o’clock,” Chloe Connolly called from the wall-length front display window as she laced a strand of mini-lights around a showcase of upcoming advertised products. “And he looks like he can use a bit more than a trim and shave.”
“He?” Though it was not unusual for men to frequent the salon, Alani didn’t recall adding anyone of the male persuasion to the appointment register for this afternoon, nor did she remember penciling in any clients past the four-thirty slot. Friday evenings were usually light as far as customers went, and she could almost always count on closing up shop before dark. “Who booked him?”
“I did.” Chloe positioned the last of the lights around a pair of jumbo-sized color-shield shampoo and conditioner pump bottles and then turned from the window to face Alani. Her dangly earrings caught the overhead light, enhancing wide set eyes the color of faded denim. Dark, choppy bangs slipped across her forehead to frame an oval face. “He called in a few minutes ago, and I just couldn’t say no. He’s a hardship case.”
“A hardship…” Alani lifted her gaze to the glass and her breath caught at the sight of Ryan Connolly loping along the boulevard. Long limbs moved fluidly as he slanted his head slightly right, then left and right once more in a cursory check for oncoming traffic before he stepped from the curb and crossed over to the salon’s walkway. Midnight-black hair—a little too much on the longish side for Alani’s taste, peeked from beneath a toboggan that set off the electric-blue of his eyes. “Oh, no…you’ll have to take this one, Chloe. After all, he’s your brother.”
“No can do…not today.” She shook her head as she glanced toward the closest mirror, briefly studying her reflection. “I’m expected at the convention center in an hour to prep for the fundraiser tonight, and I still have to head home first to get glammed up.”
“But you can’t leave me in a lurch. I can’t…I won’t—”
“It’s a haircut and a shave, Lani.” Chloe shook her head as she lifted a hand to inspect the shimmery-red polish on her nails. “Good grief, I don’t know which one of you is more hard-headed than the next. You know Ryan has a thing for you. Why don’t you just give him a chance?”
“A thing?” Alani lowered her voice so as not to distract Mrs. Wexell, who was flipping through a magazine near the coffeemaker as her salty-gray hair adapted to the hairspray shield Lani had applied to ensure each strand remained in place until next week’s visit. Mrs. Wexell proved as steady as the morning sunrise; Lani could count on fixing her hair every Friday at 3:00 sharp. “I did give him a chance—once—and you know how far south that ship sailed.”
“That was years ago, Lani. People change.”
“I know, because I’ve changed, and I’m not going to fall for your brother—or any other guy—again. FYI…I’m not interested in a thing—or a fling—or anything of the sort. I’m…I’m…”
“Chloe…” Alani swept the tufts of clipped hair to the central vacuum panel as Mrs. Wexell glanced their way, grinning ruefully, as if drunk on every word of the conversation. Lani activated the vacuum motor with a tap of her foot, and the surge of a whirr sucked up the mess. As she caught a glimpse of her reflection in the wall-paneled mirror, she realized Chloe was right; a ribbon of crimson tinged both cheeks, rivaling the color of her hair. A slow-moving swath of heat merely punctuated her condition as, like a wave, it rolled up and crested the nape of her neck. She cleared her throat, searching for an even tone as the rush of her pulse betrayed her. She lowered her voice, turning her back to Mrs. Wexell’s prying eyes. “I wish you would give up your quest to play matchmaker—Ryan and I…well, it’s just not going to happen. Ever.”
“Ever is a very long time. And who said anything about matchmaking? It’s just a haircut, Lani…and it looks like my brother can use a bath, as well, but that will have to wait until later. Must have been a hard day at the office.”
Alani knew good and well Ryan’s office was the fire hall directly across the street. He’d volunteered there through high school, and had been hired on full-time the day he turned eighteen following graduation their senior year of high school. Now, nearly a decade later, he’d climbed the ranks to captain of the Boulder Creek Fire Department, overseeing a raucous and hardy crew of a dozen full-time and twice-as-many volunteer firefighters.
A bell over the door chimed as Ryan strode through. The woodsy scent of smoke followed him like a halo. His face was smudged with soot, and when he tugged the hunter green wool toboggan from his head, heat-singed bangs fell across his forehead to frame eyes as blue as cobalt.
“What happened to you?” Mrs. Wexell called from her seat near the drink station before Ryan could get a word in. Her voice rang with the aged rasp of someone who’d seen the downhill side of seven decades and carried the wisdom to prove it. “You look like something the cat didn’t even bother to drag in.”
Chloe covered her mouth with the palm of her hand to stifle a snicker as Alani pursed her lips. Mrs. Wexell would sure have something to talk about when her daughter returned from Jenkins Five and Dime down the street to drive her home.
“Brush fire over on Twelfth and Magnolia got a little out of hand, Mrs. Wexell. No worries, though. We got it under control.” Ryan nodded as if to emphasize the point. “You’re looking rather lovely this afternoon. Who did your hair?”
“Alani, of course.” Mrs. Wexell lifted her hand to pat the lacquered ’do as a smile spread across her face, enhancing deep laugh-lines at the corners of her rheumy eyes. “Thank you for the compliment, son. I wanted to look dapper for the gala tonight. It’s a mighty generous thing you and your crew have been organizing to help bolster this town. A community garden is a fine idea. God will surely smile on your giving heart.”
“It’s nothing.” Ryan stuffed the toboggan into the side pocket of his jacket. “My crew and I enjoy giving back to the people of our community. You’re the real hero, Mrs. Wexell…funding the lion’s share of the library arboretum last year. I’ve heard nothing but positive feedback concerning that project.”
“How did you find out about my funding?” She jabbed a finger his way. “It was supposed to be a secret.”
“Well, secrets don’t usually last long around here.” Ryan made a locking motion along his lips and then mimed tossing the key over his right shoulder. “But it won’t go any farther than me…and this room.”
“Fair enough. Now, I suppose Alani ought to get to work on you. It’s going to take an act of God to restore your singed hair to anything presentable and to scrape that…that sooty rug of fur from your face.” Mrs. Wexell nodded with one quick tip of her head and then made a flicking motion with her hand as if to brush off further conversation as she turned her attention back to the magazine. “Go on…get to it now.”
“Yes, ma’am.” Ryan’s soft laughter rumbled like the roll of a distant thunderstorm as he brushed snowflakes from the collar of his jacket. They swirled through the air before sinking and melting into the tile around his feet. His gaze drifted right, and a smile curved his full lips. “Hello, Lani. How’s business?”
The shortened version of her name slipped off his tongue like hot chocolate drizzled with rich fudge. Others called her Lani, but somehow, it never sounded quite as endearing as when Ryan employed the nickname.
“Good…fine.” Alani turned away as flames licked her cheeks. She placed the broom back in its spot along the wall at the corner of the station as she murmured, “Did you get hurt today?”
“By the brush fire?” She ventured a glance back over her right shoulder, chastising herself for even caring. She shouldn’t. Caring for Ryan would only lead to heartache. Oh, how she knew that firsthand. Even so, she continued. “Your hair…as Mrs. Wexell so aptly pointed out, is scorched.”
“Oh, that…” His hand went to the ragged strands. “No, I’m good…it’s nothing a long, hot shower won’t cure when I make it home. But, for now, I just need a trim and a shave, if you have the time.”
“Well…” Lani busied herself straightening product along the shelves that lined the wall. “As a matter of fact I was just about to—”
“Take care of you,” Chloe cut in, crossing the room to turn the faux-leather chair at Alani’s station to face Ryan. “Have a seat, big brother.” She used the endearment though Lani knew, as twins, Ryan stood merely twelve minutes Chloe’s senior. “Time’s not going to stand still for you. And it’s not going to stand still for me, either, so I’m out of here while you two do your thing. Catch you both on the flip side.”
“Bye, sis. Be safe.” Ryan settled into the chair with an exaggerated sigh. “This snow has the roads a little slick.”
“Of course.” She flashed a smile as she snatched her coat from a hook on the wall and slipped into it. Her purse, stashed in the bottom file cabinet drawer behind the check-out counter, came next. “Y’all have fun now. Play nice.” She positioned the purse strap over her shoulder as she nodded toward the drink station. “Keep an eye on them, Mrs. Wexell.”
“Oh…I am.” Mrs. Wexell glanced up from the magazine with a knowing smile. “And the Good Lord is, as well. No worries there. Trust me, dear.”
“Of course I do.” Chloe lifted the hood of her coat to shield her head from the snow as she made her way to the exit. The door closed softly behind her, bringing a jingle of the overhead bell to signal her parting.
“Well, all I have to say is that playing nice is no fun…no fun at all.” Ryan shrugged from his jacket, tossed it into the empty seat beside him, and stilled as Lani secured a towel around his neck. “Ahh…this is the ticket. Just take a little off the top, Lani, and trim it up. And the shave…”
She reached for the electric shears. “If you insist.”
“Oh, I do. I have to look my best tonight. The auction starts in a few hours.”
“You know…Fighters for Hire to raise money for the Boulder Creek Community Garden. It’s this year’s community service project.”
“Oh, right…of course. How could I forget?”
Her tone betrayed her, and Ryan’s slanted look told her he sensed the truth; the auction was all she had thought about for several days now…the better part of the week since the plans for the garden garnered final approval. It would be planted on the North end of the town center, midway between the fire hall and Styles and Smiles.
Since Ryan had become captain of the fire department three years ago, he led his crew in an annual Christmas holiday service project aptly named Fighters for Hire. Each member of the crew volunteered to be auctioned out for a day’s worth of hours during the coming year, completing a list of honey-do projects for the highest bidder. The fundraiser proved wildly popular, and its success was renowned across a five-county radius. Copycat auctions sprang up across the region, and news reporters flocked to cover the event, headlining it on all four local channels during the nightly eleven o’clock slot.
Three years ago, funds went to Children’s Hospital, two years ago they were earmarked for the local animal shelter, and last year the Boulder Creek Senior Center benefitted. This year the community would benefit from a community garden and greenhouse meant to supply vegetables to town residents via the local food ministry…if the funds proved to be enough to carry the project.
“Really…how could you?” Ryan winked. “I’m sure Chloe’s mentioned it at least a hundred times. She was on the planning board.”
“I know, and yes.” Alani could almost feel Mrs. Wexell’s stare burning a hole through her back as she worked to tame Ryan’s unruly hair. She lowered her voice. “She has mentioned it a time or two…or ten.”
“So you’re coming?”
“No…not this year.”
“Why not?” He frowned as disappointment shadowed his eyes. “You’ve never missed the festivities.”
“I know but this year I have…other plans.” Alani reached for the spray bottle and, with a few quick pulls of the trigger, dampened his hair. The extensive media coverage assured that, despite her absence from the gala, she’d get her fill of Ryan in his tux, his rugged good looks groomed to perfection while the cobalt tie and cummerbund his sister had described in detail to Alani enhanced the blue of his eyes. The camera loved him, and women flocked to him, falling over themselves in their attempts to garner undivided attention.
Face it—everyone loved Ryan Connolly. He rescued children and puppies from burning buildings on a weekly basis and had a smile that could melt ice off a snowman’s hat. Yet he’d stolen Alani’s heart, and then cast it aside without so much as a glance in the proverbial rearview mirror.
Even so, by all accounts Ryan remained the town sweetheart…an angel by popular decree.
But he wasn’t Lani’s angel...not by a longshot. And he’d never be, not as long as she had a breath in her. Once bitten, twice shy. And she remained a self-professed, virtual recluse when it came to Ryan Connolly.
So this year she’d put her foot down and stay far away from him on his night in the eye of the media storm. She didn’t want his attention. She’d had that sort of attention a handful of years ago, and it had brought only heartache.
“Other plans, huh? Well, is that so?” Ryan’s voice dipped and danced with the holiday music as he cocked an eyebrow and studied her reflection in the mirror. “What sort of plans…if you don’t mind me asking?”
“I do… mind, that is.” Alani took up a comb, tugged the close-set teeth through the thick waves of his Ryan’s hair with a little more force than necessary. Water dripped along the nape of his neck and his slight grimace brought a prickle of satisfaction. It was small compensation for the misery he’d caused her over the years. She’d trusted him once, with her heart and her future, and he’d shattered that trust; she wouldn’t again make the mistake of trusting him.
Even so, how could she begin to explain that for three years running at the Fighters for Hire auction her heart had faltered with waves of disappointment as she’d watched him go to the highest bidder? Last year the victor was some bleached-blonde in a low-cut sequined number who’d traveled from two towns over for the sole purpose of snagging Ryan’s handyman services. Alani could blame no one but herself—pride kept her from bidding because, after all, when it came to Ryan Connolly good sense dictated she would be best served by keeping her money—and her heart—tucked away deep in her pocket.
Nonetheless, Alani could use help with a few projects around the small, aging house that she’d inherited from her grandmother when Grandma Cora passed away a year ago; it was laden with character and warm memories, yet falling apart at the seams. But she’d have to figure out how to accomplish at least the most pressing projects on her own, because she’d never be able to pay Ryan—or anyone else, for that matter.
So, what was the point of going to the auction? She’d write a check for a modest donation to help support the community garden—an amount she could afford to part with—and call it a day. Spending the evening tucked away with a paperback and a cup of hot chocolate was the smartest move she could make…affording as much distance as possible between her and Ryan Connolly.