Lovestruck Fire Department Captain Jason McBride lingered in the tool aisle of the mom-and-pop hardware store on Main Street, staring blankly ahead at the hammer display.
Why had he come in here on the way back to the station from his doctor’s appointment, again?
He pressed hard on his temples in an effort to force his careening thoughts back on track. There’d been a reason for this errand. He was certain of it. He just couldn’t remember what it was.
Calm down. It wasn’t the worst news. You’re not dying or anything. Everything’s going to be fine.
He squeezed his eyes closed and tried not to think about the look of concern on Dr. Martin’s face or the intimidating words printed at the top of the brochure the doctor had handed him. NIHL—Noise-Induced Hearing Loss Accompanied by Tinnitus.
It wasn’t a brain tumor, as he’d feared. That was the good news, and Jason was grateful for it. He truly was.
But the bad news was indeed bad. NIHL was permanent, as was the tinnitus. How was he supposed to live—and, more importantly, do his job—with a constant roar in his ears? Just yesterday, he’d missed an entire conversation over his headset. Luckily, it was nothing dire. But what would happen next time? Make no mistake, there would definitely be a next time. Jason occupied the top spot in the LFD. His career was so integral to his life that he didn’t even go by his own name anymore. His men called him Cap, short for Captain. It had been his nickname for so long that everyone in town called him Cap.
Cap’s own son had thought it was his actual name until he’d gotten old enough to read the label on his subscription to Firehouse magazine. “Who’s Jason McBride?” he’d asked, wide-eyed in a pair of footie pajamas decorated with tiny fire trucks and Dalmatian puppies
Cap had just laughed. “That’s me, bud. Your daddy.”
He didn’t feel like a Jason anymore, though. He hadn’t in a long, long time. The fire department was in his blood, as much a part of him as his limbs, his lungs…his heart. He liked being Cap. He liked giving back to the community he loved in such a real and tangible way, and he cared about the younger firefighters in the department as if they were his own. If the LFD was a family, then Cap was their patriarch.
He wasn’t ready to give that up. He couldn’t even fathom it.
“Caulk,” he said to the rows of hammers. That’s what Cap was supposed to be buying—caulk for the firehouse showers.
The hammers uttered nothing in response. Still, it took Cap another full minute to stop staring into space and get moving. He really needed to get his head in the game. He’d have plenty of time to worry about the brochure in his pocket later—after his shift, or tomorrow after Eli’s junior varsity lacrosse game, post-game pizza and the ongoing misery of Eli’s calculus homework.
Cap turned toward the sealants aisle, but just as he rounded the corner, a woman with waves of tumbling strawberry blond hair and striking green eyes pointed a sledgehammer at him.
“You,” she said.
Cap glanced around, certain she was talking to somebody else, but they were the only two shoppers in the aisle. “Me?”
“Yes, you.” She thrust the sledgehammer toward his chest. “You look like you know how to use one of these.”
For reasons he couldn’t being to contemplate, Cap obediently took hold of the sledgehammer. “I do, yes. But…”
But who the heck are you and why are you shoving tools at me? He looked more closely at her emerald eyes, the graceful curve of her neck, the jaunty little tilt of her chin. There was something vaguely familiar about the hammer-wielding woman, but Cap couldn’t seem to place her.
Then again, he’d been going out on emergency calls in rural Vermont for more than two decades. Cap met a lot of a people. Something told him he would have remembered her, though.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Have we met?”
“Melanie Carlisle. It’s a pleasure to meet you.” She stuck her hand out.
No wedding ring. Cap fumbled with the sledgehammer and nearly dropped it in an attempt to shake Melanie Carlisle’s delicate hand. “Cap McBride.”
He could feel sweat breaking out on the back of his neck. Cap wasn’t accustomed to making small talk with beautiful women in the hardware store. Once upon a time, maybe, but that had been a while ago. He hadn’t even been on a date in almost a decade.
People didn’t date anymore, though, did they? That’s what Eli told him. They hung out. They hooked up. They Netflixed and chilled. Cap hadn’t done many of those things, either. But he was fairly certain none of those activities began at the intersection of the hammer and adhesive aisles.
“So, you’ll do it, then?” Melanie Carlisle nodded as if they’d just agreed on something.
Cap pressed the heel of his free hand against his ear, muffling the irritating roar in his head. Had he missed a crucial part of the conversation?
He squinted. “I’m sorry?”
“I’m new in town and I need someone to tear down my white picket fence,” she said as if it were the most normal thing in the world.
“Oh. Well.” Cap looked around, again expecting to find a handyman standing right behind him. When one didn’t materialize, he offered the sledgehammer back to Melanie. “Good luck with that, and welcome to Lovestruck.”
Why in the world would someone want to tear down a picket fence? They were all the rage in Lovestruck. Cap was pretty sure the mayor was on a not-so-secret mission to get one in every yard in the historic district.
Melanie didn’t so much as flinch. Nor did she take the tool from him. “It would be really great if you could do it.”
“Me,” he said flatly. “But why?”
Why, indeed. Why was he still sticking around for this bizarre conversation? He should just put down the hammer, grab his caulk and go. He had work to do, a teenage son to contend with—all on his own, thank you very much—and a potentially career-ending medical diagnosis to absorb. Cap had no intention of making firewood out of this strange woman’s white picket fence. Zero.
“Because I can’t, obviously. Don’t get me wrong—I totally would, but…” She waved a graceful hand in the vicinity of her midsection.
Was this a trick? Cap knew he was old-fashioned. Eli and the guys at the fire station never failed to mock his fondness for dad jokes, even though Cap thought they were just jokes, period. Cap also liked to look women in the eye as a matter of basic respect and decency. But Melanie seemed to be guiding his attention elsewhere.
She raised her eyebrows at him, and he reluctantly took a closer look at her stomach. There, beneath the gathered pleats of her breezy gingham dress, he spotted the unmistakable outline of a small baby bump. Something inside of him softened.
“Right, of course, you can’t,” he heard himself say.
“It’s all settled then. You’ll do it. Right now would be great—perfect, actually.” She beamed at him, and for a second, Cap forgot all about his doctor’s appointment, the caulk at the firehouse and Eli’s failing math grade.
Pregnant women glowed. That’s what everyone always said, anyway. This felt different, though. Melanie Carlisle’s smile seemed to burrow into Cap’s chest and make itself at home there.
A man could lose himself in a smile like that.
Not him, obviously—a different man. A younger man. A man who didn’t feel like he was on the verge of losing everything he held dear.
Day by day, brick by brick, Cap had been building a wall around himself. He’d been doing it for months, without telling a soul about the symptoms he’d been dealing with. Today he’d finally begun to face the truth, and now fate had tossed a beautiful woman in his path. His walls were going up, and for some crazy reason, Melanie Carlisle wanted Cap to tear hers down to the ground.
The irony of it was unmistakably bittersweet, and just too damn tempting to resist.
He rested the sledgehammer on his shoulder. The caulk could wait. “Lead the way.”
(c) Teri Wilson, Harlequin Speical Edition, 2021. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.
She could teach him to turn lemons into lemonade
All her life, Melanie Carlisle knew how to succeed in the face of failure. So when she finds herself pregnant—and her ex-boyfriend bows out, claiming he’s not the “picket fence type”—Melanie is on her own. Now she has a house—with a picket fence she wants gone. Cap McBride is dealing with his own problems, what with a potentially career-ending hearing loss and his surly teenager. So the last thing he wants to do is get involved with a single pregnant woman. As for fences? The only thing he knows how to do is put them up!
Will this fence make good neighbors into something more in the latest installment of award-winning author Teri Wilson’s Lovestruck, Vermont series?
From Harlequin Special Edition: Believe in love. Overcome obstacles. Find happiness.
Book 1: Baby Lessons
Book 2: A Firehouse Christmas Baby
Book 3: The Trouble with Picket Fences
About Teri Wilson
USA Today Bestselling Author Teri Wilson writes heartwarming contemporary romance with a touch of whimsy. Three of Teri’s books have been adapted into Hallmark Channel Original Movies by Crown Media, including UNLEASHING MR. DARCY (plus its sequel MARRYING MR. DARCY), THE ART OF US and NORTHERN LIGHTS OF CHRISTMAS, based on her book SLEIGH BELL SWEETHEARTS. She is also a recipient of the prestigious RITA Award for excellence in romantic fiction for her novel THE BACHELOR’S BABY SURPRISE. Teri has a major weakness for crowns, cute animals and pretty dresses, and she loves ballet and Audrey Hepburn films.