The Fireman Who Loved Me (The Bachelor Firemen Of San Gabriel #1)(55)

By: Jennifer Bernard

When Melissa reached the lectern and gazed out at the sympathetic crowd, all the words she had written, memorized, and rehearsed flew out of her head. She went completely, totally blank. How had her father known? The chapel fell silent.

Silent as the grave, she heard Nelly say.

“Stop that! I’m trying to speak here.”

Well, get on with it then.

But still nothing came out of her mouth. She looked around, desperate, and caught Brody’s eye. He was scowling at her. Scowling. How dare he scowl at a moment like this.

Furious, she opened her mouth. Finally, something actually came out.

But instead of her speech, Emily Dickinson’s words filled the chapel. “ ‘Hope is the thing with feathers . . .’ ” Melissa recited.

Afterward, she barely remembered sitting back down, feeling her father’s comforting hand on hers, enduring the rest of the service.

When it was all over, she and Haskell stood in the chapel’s foyer while the mourners filed past with murmurs of sympathy.

“Teleprompter,” said Ella, helpfully. “Next time, try the prompter. And call me, we have to talk.”

“Nice dress,” said Melissa.

“Gucci. I liked your grandmother, even though she wasn’t exactly nice to me.”

“Well, she had a big problem with your fuchsia suit.”

“Really?” Ella frowned, no doubt pondering this beyond-the-grave fashion critique.

“Ella.” Melissa lowered her voice so no one else could hear. “Are you sure about . . . you and Everett?”

A strange look came over Ella’s face. Almost tender. “Sure, I’m sure. He’s a devil, but he suits me. And I won’t make your mistake.”

“What’s that?”

“I’ve decided not to work for him.” Ella winked. “I’ve got another plan in the works. I’ll let him be the boss in bed, that’s all.” And she tripped off.

Work for him. Melissa vaguely remembered another message from Everett, reiterating his on-air job offer. Should she leave San Gabriel, now that Nelly was gone? Melissa’s head began to throb. She closed her eyes and rubbed her forehead. When she opened them again, Rodrigo and Brody stood in front of her.

Brody. Brody had scowled at her when she’d blanked out on her speech. She wanted to yell and scream at him. Pound her fists into his broad chest. Tackle him to the floor. Instead she addressed the boy at his side. “Thanks for coming, Rodrigo. How are you doing?”

“A lot better. I got a new foster family. The captain knows them.”

“They’re good people,” said Brody.

“The captain came for dinner, and he told me about your grandmother, and asked me if I wanted to come today. I’m really sorry.”

“Thanks,” she said, managing a smile. While she’d been buried under the bedcovers, Brody had been watching out for Rodrigo. She made herself meet his eyes. “And thanks, Brody.”

“How are you holding up?” he asked, the warm gray of his gaze making her shiver.

“Pretty good. Except for forgetting my speech.”

“Beautiful poem, though.”

“I suppose it could have been worse. I could have set the lectern on fire.”

A crack of laughter from Brody sent heads turning. “It would have been a nice tribute.”

“Yes, and I would have been perfectly safe, with so many firemen here. That’s thanks to you, I hear.”

He shook his head. “It was their idea. Your grandmother made a big impression on us. She won’t be forgotten.” He bent over and kissed her cheek, and he and Rodrigo moved on. When Brody shepherded Rodrigo out of the chapel, it seemed as if the light suddenly dimmed.

As the endless procession of well-wishers continued, all Melissa could think about was that kiss. No, not a kiss. A peck on the cheek. What did that mean? Was it all Rebecca would allow? Was it a sisterly, friendly kind of kiss? Or did it mean he still had some feeling for her? He couldn’t exactly get passionate at a memorial.

The rest of the event passed in a blur, except for one cryptic comment from Ryan. He too kissed her on the cheek—his kiss left no tingle—and as he did so he whispered in her ear, “Happy days are here again. You-know-who is gone.”

She drew back, shocked. Was he referring to her grandmother? Ryan fumbled an apology. “That’s not what I . . . Oh geez . . . I was talking about her, you know . . .”

Vader elbowed him aside. Ryan wandered off, still mumbling under his breath.

Much later, when she was back home soaking in a hot bath, Melissa felt Nelly rapping her on the head.

Why don’t you listen to Ryan, if you won’t listen to me?

“What now? I’m trying to take a bath.”

Don’t you remember what I said back at the hospital? About the other one being gone?

The hospital. Nelly talking about Alice May. Saying how “the other one” was gone.

In a flash, the pieces came together. How had she been so dense? “The other one” was Rebecca. Nelly had gotten the names confused. She’d been talking about Rebecca. Rebecca was gone. So why hadn’t Brody come to her? Explained that she’d left? Taken Melissa into his arms and kissed her senseless? Thrown her on the bed and ravaged her? What was stopping him?

Everett. Was that Nelly talking, or her own brain? Didn’t matter. The answer was so obvious she didn’t know how she’d missed it. Her grief must have distracted her.

Don’t go blaming it on me.

“Sorry, Grans. Now shush, I’m trying to figure this out.”

How could Brody possibly think for one second that she would go back to that rat Everett? It was true that she’d never explained about Everett’s kiss. There hadn’t seemed any point, when he was back together with Rebecca. Besides, the kiss meant absolutely nothing.

But did Brody know that?

She went over everything that had happened since that kiss. Brody had helped her get Rodrigo to the ER. Found a new foster home for him. Carried Nelly away from the fire in the backyard. Helped Melissa during those agonizing hours at the hospital. Fixed her roof.

Don’t forget my memorial service.

Right. He’d called Haskell about Nelly’s service, and spread the word among his crew. And Brody had done all these things even while believing she was back together with Everett. He’d done them because he cared about her. Because she was grieving and couldn’t do them for herself. He’d done them quietly, in the background. Not for attention, or for glory. He’d only wanted to help her.

Maybe he didn’t write epic poetry or recite Tarantino films by heart, but Brody was the best man she’d ever known. And she loved him with all her heart.

What did he feel for her? Her father’s words came back to her. “Don’t go thinking you aren’t worth anything.”

She stood up in the bathtub, letting the water stream off her body. There was only one way to find out what Brody felt for her. One last time, she addressed her grandmother.

“Yes, I know, Grans. Time to go fight for my man.”

Chapter Twenty-six

But first she had to take care of a few other things. She visited Rodrigo at his new foster home and was thrilled to see how well he’d settled in. He looked bright-eyed and full of excitement about his new life—new family, new school, new friends.

He showed her his bedroom, decorated with posters of soccer players and death metal bands. The tidiness of the room seemed almost poignant, as if he was afraid he’d have to leave if he made a mess. In time, she hoped, he’d relax and finally feel secure.

She sat on the edge of the bed while he showed her his new Wii console. “Rodrigo, how do you feel about the story now? Maybe you’d rather let the past go, and focus on your schoolwork, and all your new buddies.”

“No,” he said fiercely. “I want to do the story.”

“Your foster mother’s been charged for what she did to you. The other foster kids have been taken away from that house. No one will ever be sent there again. I promise you.”

He thought that over. “It’s not enough. People should know about the bribes.”

“It might be hard for you. Reliving what happened. Having your friends know.”

He ducked his head, twisted his hands together. “If we don’t do the story, then I got beaten up for nothing. Are you backing out?”

“No,” she said quickly. “I’m not backing out. I’ve been a little distracted since my grandmother died, but I’m back now, and if you want me to do the story, I’d like nothing better. But I had to see how you felt.”

“That’s how I feel,” he said with a determined nod.

Her next stop was Bill Loudon’s office. She sat across from his desk while he eyed her with sympathetic, watery eyes.

“Melissa, if you want your job back, we have a lot of details to work out. I’ve already given your former title to Blaine, and we’ve had some cutbacks since you left. I know what Ella told you, and what she promised. No matter what she said, I can’t bring you back at your old salary, I’m sorry to say.”

“Loudon, you can take my old salary and shove it.”

“My, my,” he said, surprised. “Full of sass today, aren’t you.”

“Did Ella talk to you about the foster care investigation? ‘Innocence Betrayed: Fraud in the Foster Care System’? She’s pretty set on doing it. If I take it to Los Angeles, she’ll throw a fit like you’ve never seen.”