Friends with the Hero

Chapter 1

Patience Martel snatched her hand back from the hot oven, shaking her fingers and biting back a word she normally would never even think of.

Funny how pain brought every bad word a person had ever heard to the forefront of their mind.

Even to good girls like her who, on a normal day, would never even consider saying a word like that.

But it was three o’clock in the morning, and she was supposed to have two cakes made and ready to deliver to customers first thing tomorrow morning. Scratch that. First thing today.

The first two cakes she’d made had been complete disasters. She’d gotten distracted with designing the finished product on her computer at her kitchen table, and she’d totally not even noticed the oven timer going off.

And, as what usually happened when she got in a hurry and forgot that God had had her parents name her “Patience” for a reason, she’d messed up even worse when she’d tried to slap two batches of cake batter together simultaneously rather than making them one at a time.

Turning the water on in the sink, she ran the cool liquid over her burning fingers. It soothed them for a little bit, but as soon as she shut the water off and started walking back toward the oven, they began burning again.

How had she gotten all four of her fingers and her thumb burnt so badly they were starting to blister?

Stupid question. She’d forgotten to use an oven mitt.

What professional baker in their right mind forgot to use an oven mitt?

It was her job to use an oven mitt.

But the baking wasn’t the part that she really liked about making cakes.

It was the artistic part that came later. Taking something that was a bunch of flour and sugar sitting in a heap and turning it into a beautiful masterpiece that made people gasp with pleasure when they saw it.

Made them take out their phones to snap pictures.

Made them text their friends and family, relatives they hadn’t spoken to in years, because they had to tell someone, anyone, about the unbelievably gorgeous confection that they’d just encountered.

That’s what she wanted her cakes to do.

Baking was just the means to get to where she wanted to be. Which was doing the decorating.

Her hand still burned, so she turned back and stuck her fingers under the tap water again. The cakes were in the oven. That was the important thing. Normally, she would adjust them so they sat in the middle of the racks, make sure they were perfectly centered, but she was tired, frustrated, and in pain.

No. She would not take the easy way out.

Shutting the water off, she dried her hand carefully, gently put two oven mitts on, and adjusted her cakes on the racks in the oven so they would bake evenly and perfectly.

As long as she took them out in time.

Thinking that maybe she needed a break, she set the oven timer and then her phone alarm to make sure she’d be back in time to take the cakes out since she didn’t want to have to make yet another try.

Then she grabbed her coffee in one hand and opened up the front door of her duplex, stepping out to the soft, slow drift of snowflakes.

With her non-burnt hand, she brushed off a little spot at the top of the steps to sit down.

There was just a light dusting of snow on the ground, and the last she’d heard, they weren’t forecast to get anything more than that.

Still, the little bit of snow felt good on her aching hand as she sat down and gently allowed her hand to hover just above the cement of her step, barely brushing the snow.

The coolness was instantly soothing—as were the glowing lights of the different shops of Freedom up the street in the distance.

Her parents’ house was several blocks away, so she couldn’t see it. But she’d grown up in Freedom, and it felt comfortable. Her dad was a science teacher at the school, and her mom was an accountant. She’d loved growing up in the safety of a small, close-knit community, back before it had become a great tourist destination.

With her best friend, Tuck, she’d roamed the streets, grabbing an ice cream on hot summer days and taking it down by the creek where they’d eat it and then wade barefoot in the cold creek, pulling up rocks and looking for crayfish.

The innocent days of childhood, back before she had problems and bills and heartbreak.

Freedom brought all those warm, comforting memories back even on a night like tonight where she wanted nothing more than to be able to go to bed and curl up under the covers but she couldn’t. Not until these cakes were finished.

If she wanted her business to be a success, she couldn’t not deliver what she had promised.

If only her business partner, Coleen, hadn’t had to travel back to New York.

Coleen’s mother was on her deathbed, and Coleen wanted to spend as much time with her as she could and also help her dad, who was losing his lifelong partner and love.

Patience didn’t blame her at all and wasn’t upset about it, but on a night like tonight, having a partner, someone to give her a hand, would be so helpful.

She’d been looking around to hire someone since she didn’t know when Coleen would be back.

But since she was still paying for her last lapse in judgment, she hadn’t been able to advertise it because she wasn’t willing to hire just anyone.

Just because one person burned you doesn’t make all people bad.

She had that thought in her head all the time. That she couldn’t stop believing in mankind’s capacity for good just because her ex had been…a thief? A jerk? A cheater?

The snowflakes fluttered down, soft and slow. Like they had all the time in the world to get where they were going. Like they had…patience.

She watched them with a smile, moving her hand lightly over the snow covering the step, easing the burn in her fingers, the snowflakes’ playful descending dance easing the sharp pain in her heart.

Freedom was a great town still—different than when she grew up, sure, but friendly and welcoming. And it was the best place in the world to be over Christmas.

The next six weeks would be fantastic and magical. The people of Freedom would make sure of it.

Suddenly, blinking red lights turned the snow blood red and cut through the darkness.

She looked around, hearing the rumble of an engine and wondering what in the world was going on. It was three-thirty in the morning. It must be some kind of emergency.

She watched in curiosity, a strange nervousness seizing her chest, as a fire truck pulled up her street, the red lights flashing.

Wondering where the fire was, whether she could help, she shifted her gaze up and down the street and saw nothing but dark homes, the lights of businesses flashing “closed” with darkened windows, and the blinking red light on the top of the fire truck casting an eerie feeling over everything.

When the fire truck stopped right in front of her steps, she stood up. Looking first at the man in the seat, she again scanned up and down the street.

Confused, she turned around and looked at her own place.

Nothing.

The light stayed on as the man’s head disappeared while he got out and strode around the front of the fire truck.

It shouldn’t have surprised her when he walked up the walk and stopped at the bottom of her steps, looking up at her, but it did.

“Ma’am?”

“Yes, sir?” she asked, her heart in her throat. Was there a fire she didn’t know about? Had her parents’ house burned down? Why would they bring the fire truck to tell her that?

“Do you live here?” He rattled off her address.

“Yes?” She called it a bakery, and she had a small shingle hung out, but it was really a duplex, and she lived in one side. Owning her own actual store was a dream that had been broken to pieces when her ex stole her savings.

“We had a notice at the fire station that your smoke detector had gone off. There were no calls, not from you nor any of the neighbors, so I drove the truck out myself. But I need to check it out.”

“Of course. You can come in and look wherever you want to. I’ve been here all night and didn’t hear any alarm going off.”

“Are you baking anything?”

Of course!

Her eyes widened, and she whirled faster than she meant to, grabbing the handle of the door, forgetting about her sore hand and yelping before she could close her mouth over it.

Her coffee splashed out, soaking her nightgown, which she’d changed into after she’d put the first two cakes in the oven, thinking she’d be done for the day. All her friends wore jammie pants or shorts to bed, but she loved her cute little nighties.

The sharp tone of the man behind her stopped her cold. “Don’t open it. Is it hot?”

“No. It’s not. I just…”

The man had already put his hand on the door handle. “It’s cool.”

“Yeah. I burnt my hand earlier and forgot about it when I went to grab the knob.”

“We can take a look at that burn if you like. I’m certified as an EMT, and burns are my specialty.”

He almost grinned, and as she looked up at him, there was something familiar about that almost-smile that stirred in her memories.

But she didn’t say anything because he had opened the door and said, “If you don’t mind, I’ll go in first?”

“Of course,” she said, grabbing the door and following him in.

According to her watch, her cakes should come out in three minutes.

“Nothing smells like smoke in here,” the man said as they turned left and walked into her kitchen.

“As far as I know, there’s nothing. But you’re welcome to walk through the house. Just to check things out and make sure everything is okay. Are you sure it was my alarm?”

“City code requires businesses to have their alarms connected by computer to the fire station. There could have been some kind of malfunction or possibly something you didn’t realize that would set it off. You did say you were baking?”

“Yes. I make cakes and need to have these two done for tomorrow morning.”

“You’re pushing it a little close,” the man murmured, finally turning and facing her in the bright light of the kitchen.

His jaw was square with just a shadow of stubble on it, his hair cut short, with none of it showing underneath his red hard hat. He was a good bit taller than she was, and although his protective clothing was bulky, he moved with grace that implied strength and coordination.

“Patience?” he said, and his teeth flashed again, triggering that memory.

“Tuck?”

“Holy smokes, kid. I didn’t expect to see you here.”

He stepped forward, and she almost thought he was going to ruffle her hair, but at the last minute his arms reached wide and he hugged her like it hadn’t been fifteen years since they’d last seen each other. Back when they’d graduated from high school.

“Man, it’s been a long time. How have you been?” she said, loving the familiarity and strength of his arms.

Not that they’d hugged each other much growing up, but he was one of those things from her past, like the town of Freedom itself, that represented fun and safety and no worries. He took her back to those carefree days of summer, and she wished the embrace would go on forever.

“I’ve been fine, but I just got better.” He pulled back, and she did too, and they looked at each other, smiling.

“Let’s go check out the house just to make sure that there’s nothing weird going on, and then we can sit down and catch up for a bit.”

“That sounds great,” she said, meaning it, as the buzzer went off on the stove.

Her hand was burning again although not quite as seriously as it had been before she went out and held it in the snow. Still, she’d irritated it by grabbing the doorknob, and she didn’t forget the oven mitt as she turned off the oven and opened the door.

She had the cakes on the counter cooling when Tuck came back in the kitchen, grinning.

That was something she’d always loved about him. He’d always been happy. Of course, as she considered it, she’d always been happy too. It wasn’t until she’d become an adult and been buffeted by the cares of being a grown-up that her natural tendency to laugh and be happy had become subdued.

She hoped the same thing hadn’t happened to Tuck.