This book may be unsuitable for people under 17 years of age due to its use of sexual content, drug and alcohol use, language, and/or violence.
“See?” Alex leaned a sculpted shoulder against the door frame, his cocky smile back in place and even brighter than before. “One hundred percent clean and sanitized, just like I promised.”
“Hmm.” She ran her fingers over the edge of the shelf in front of her, a ripple of shock working its way through her chest at the freshly scented air and the smooth, scrubbed surfaces. Ruler-straight rows of cartons and canned goods stood organized and ready to go, and as she dropped her gaze, even the buffed brown floor tiles seemed to gleam under her feet. “Well, it certainly looks up to code.”
“Wow, Zoe. Don’t oversell it.” Alex’s grin remained perfectly intact as he pushed off the door frame, gesturing grandly through the light shining down from overhead. “Come on. Don’t even try to tell me that the best you’ve got is ‘it looks up to code.’”
“It’s pretty clean,” she said, and damn it, that smile of his was infectious. Zoe knew better than to buy into his boyish charm—after all, sweet talk was Alex’s bread and butter, and he was clearly only trying to save his own skin.
Trouble was, he’d saved hers in the process. Her standards might be sky high, but she’d been so lean on man power lately that even before this morning’s rotten food debacle, the pantry had needed some TLC.
And Alex had given it a complete overhaul, all the way down to the baseboards.
“This pantry is a masterpiece,” he corrected, delivering her back to the snug confines of the shelf-lined space. “I bet you’d get perfect marks if the city health inspector walked through that door right this minute. In fact . . .” He broke off, sauntering to the center of the freshly scoured room. “I’d even go so far as to say you could serve a four-course meal, right on this very spot.”
Zoe bit back the involuntary laugh tempting the edges of her lips, her curiosity bypassing her caution filter as it made a beeline for her mouth. “Okay, I have to ask. How did you get it so clean in here?”
“Well, the main ingredient was elbow grease, but I wasn’t without help. You remember Tom O’Keefe, right?” Alex asked, and she did a quick Station Eight roll call in her head.
“Sure.” The paramedic had been with the FFD for the last few years. She didn’t know him quite as well as she did Alex and Cole and the other guys, but her father had always spoken highly of him, and in the handful of times she’d seen the guy at softball tournaments and department barbecues, O’Keefe had always seemed to live up to the praise. “But what on earth does he have to do with my pantry?”
Alex laughed in a low, butterscotch-smooth rumble, and the sound took another chip out of Zoe’s doubt. “As luck would have it, O’Keefe is really good at sanitizing small spaces. I guess you could call it a product of his occupation, with all those health and safety guidelines on the ambo. Anyway, I told him I needed a deep clean on the fly, so he walked me through a couple of tricks over the phone. And before you ask”—he paused to lift both hands in concession—“yes, I double-checked his advice against the food safety section of your kitchen doorstop, and yes again. Both the methods and the chemicals I used are all legit.”
“Oh,” Zoe said, the word a lame replacement for the already answered question she’d had preloaded on the tip of her tongue. But the last thing she’d expected was for Alex to come through, let alone hit a grand slam on the last-ditch curveball she’d lobbed in his direction.
“You didn’t think you could rely on me to get this cleaned up right, did you?” The question arrived without gloating or accusation, his smile turning wistful as he pushed his hands into the pockets of his broken-in jeans. Zoe tugged at the hem of her apron, smoothing the fabric even though it was already perfectly in place, but screw it. She’d never been a fan of dancing around the truth, and it wasn’t as if Alex didn’t already know the answer, anyway.
“To be honest, no. I really didn’t.”
One brow arched up toward his sun-bleached hairline. “I don’t believe in wasting time on anything other than honesty,” he said. “As for the rest, I’m glad I surprised you.”
She pulled in a deep breath to counter the bump in her pulse. Alex might be charming as hell right now, with that aw-shucks expression beneath the sprinkling of rugged stubble on his face, but he’d only helped her to help himself. Plus, she had bigger fish to fry—namely, that she had no fish, or protein of any kind for the rest of the day’s meal service.
“Well, a deal’s a deal. While I don’t expect you to repeat your mistakes, or make any new ones because you’re unprepared, this gets you off the hook for this morning’s mess.” Zoe shifted her weight over the floor tiles, her ponytail brushing over one shoulder as she tipped her head at the pantry door. “But if you’ll excuse me, I’ve still got to go figure out how to get through the rest of today’s meal service without the food we lost.”
Rather than taking a step back to let her pass, Alex straightened, keeping himself planted directly in her path. “No, you don’t.”
“I’m sorry?” She’d been scraping like mad for the last hour to come up with replacement options for the ruined ingredients, to little avail. Did he seriously think her job was so easy that she could work up lunch and dinner for a hundred hungry residents on a wing and a Hail Mary?
“You don’t have to worry about coming up with plan B. Not for lunch, anyway. I’ve got it covered.” Alex turned and jerked his chin at the pantry door in a clear request for her to follow, and the shock of his words had her so dumbfounded that she was powerless to do anything other than oblige.
“Okay.” She extended the word with the tone of a question as they crossed back into the brightly lit kitchen, coming to a stop by the stainless steel prep table acting as a makeshift island in the center of the room. “Meal service starts in an hour and a half, and we have nothing to prepare. Do you have access to some sort of magic food genie I don’t know about?”
“Something like that, yeah.” Alex pulled an iPhone out of the back pocket of his jeans, tapping the screen to life. After a handful of easy moves, he extended the phone in her direction, waiting silently as she took in the Web page he’d opened.
Zoe’s jaw unhinged. “You ordered pizza?”
“Look, I’m not even going to pretend I know how to make anything other than a mess in the kitchen, but you needed the food. I go skydiving with one of the guys who owns the pizza place over on Atlantic Boulevard, and he owed me a favor, so—”
“Wait.” She held up one palm in a wordless stop right there, although the free-for-all of questions flying around in her brain made practicing what she preached a complete and total no-go. She’d known he was slick, but . . . “You got twenty pizzas by cashing in a favor?”
“I got a deal on twenty pizzas by cashing in a favor,” Alex amended, propping one hip against the prep table and gesturing toward the swinging door. “But yeah. They’ll be here at eleven forty-five.”
Zoe handed his phone back over, unsure whether she should cry with relief or tread with extreme caution. “You know, if you’re not careful, I might actually start to think there’s a decent guy underneath all that attitude.”
Heat laddered up the back of her neck as she heard the implication of the words, but rather than take offense or trot out said attitude for a test run, Alex just laughed.
“Well. We can’t have that, now can we?”
Zoe’s smile appeared before she could stop it. “Is there anyone in Fairview you can’t fast talk into giving you what you want?”
“You mean besides you?” His blue eyes glinted teasingly, but it lasted for only a second before he said, “Listen, just because I don’t want to be here doesn’t mean I’m out to torpedo your kitchen, either. This community service thing might not be what either of us wants, but you gave me a second chance. And while I realize delivery pizza isn’t the meal you had in mind, I owed you one, and it really is the best I’ve got.”
An odd sensation twisted in her chest, welling up in a soft, involuntary laugh. “Was that supposed to be endearing?”
“That all depends,” Alex said, one corner of his mouth lifting into a dark and forbidden version of his all-American smile. “Did it work?”
If you love sexy, playful characters that have to work through some angst to get to their happy ever after, you should definitely pick up Reckless by Kimberly Kincaid. Oh, and hot firefighters. That, too. 😉