Four Weddings And A Fireman(5)

By: Jennifer Bernard

Nick chimed in. “Maybe he’ll make his pecs do a little jig for the camera.”

Vader clenched his hands into fists so tight, they could have broken through steel. Sure, he played the clown sometimes. He liked to bring a smile to people’s faces. That didn’t give them the right to—

A soft hand on his forearm interrupted his train of thought. “Ignore them,” Cherie whispered. The scent of lilac, her favorite, surrounded him, making him feel as if he’d just lain down in a spring meadow, with Cherie beside him. “They’re just being jerks. Because they can. Now come on, let me make it up to you. Twenty dollars for a photo.”

He pulled his arm away from her touch. “I don’t think so, Cherie.”

“Why not, for mercy’s sake? It’s for charity. Think of all those widows and orphans.”

He pulled her aside, well out of earshot of her housemates. “Why did you come here?”

Her lips parted, as if he’d taken her off guard. They were distractingly curvy, just like the rest of her. She studied him with serious gray eyes. They weren’t really gray, he knew. One afternoon, during a picnic, he’d spent a long time studying them, noticing concentric rings and identifying their colors. The shimmery green of dew-covered grass, the deep gold of an antique picture frame, the gray of evening fog over a lake. “Vader, please. I support the fire department just like everyone else here. I support you. And I wanted to see you. I . . . I missed you. Vader, you’re . . . well, you’re very dear to me. You know you are.”

He groaned out loud. No freaking willpower. “You turned me down, Cherie. Twice.”

“I thought we were going to erase all that. Besides, I wouldn’t put it like that. What I said was that I wasn’t interested in getting married. Lots of people aren’t.”

“Yes, but your eyelid twitched.”

“Excuse me?”

“Don’t you know that your right eyelid twitches when you’re not telling the whole truth? I’ve really got to get you to a poker table one of these days.”

Her hand flew to her right eye. “It does not.”

“Fine. Five-card stud, dollar a point.”

Just then Fred came back and flipped the sign back to “Open.”

“Hey, Cherie.” He glanced at Vader, clearly looking for a cue as to how friendly he should be to her. Vader shrugged, and Fred’s smile broadened. “Great to see you. Ready for your close-up?”

“You know it. Now, Stud, I’m paying extra for this baby, so make it good.”

He handed her a helmet. “Why don’t you put that on? It’d be cute.”

Vader knew plenty of girls who wouldn’t have wanted to mess up their hair with a clunky, heavy old fireman’s helmet. But Cherie was game for anything. She grinned at Fred, then gave Vader the helmet. “Hold it for a sec, please.”

She reached into her pile of hair and pulled out the pins that were holding everything in place up there. A torrent of spicy, sun-spangled hair came tumbling down over her bare shoulders.

Vader ground his teeth against the inevitable hardening of his body. Did she have to be so damn sexy? She planted the helmet on her head, and he lifted his eyes to the heavens, wondering just what he’d done to make the Almighty torture him like this. She looked . . . adorable. And he adored her. That’s all there was to it.

And that’s all there’d ever be. Him, adoring her. Her, back and forth about him.

He took a deep breath and stepped toward her. He could suffer a little more, for charity. Widows and orphans. Widows and orphans. “Come on. Let’s get in front of the backdrop.”

Cherie glanced at the sheet of plywood behind them. It featured dramatic flames and billowing smoke taken from a close-up of an apartment fire. “The photo’s going to show a fire raging behind us?”

Hopefully it wouldn’t also show the fire raging inside him. He wondered if she felt a fraction of the lust scorching through his veins.

Soren hooted with laughter. “That’s called the fire down below, babe.”

She shot her housemate a scathing look. “Shut up, Soren. You’re acting like an idiot.”

Instantly, the guy piped down. Vader rolled his eyes. Cherie loved to mother people, and in the case of her housemates, that included trying to correct their rude manners. Maybe he should let her boss him around too. But no. He had too much leader-of-the-pack, take-charge, tough-guy in him. He’d tried to tone it down, but what was the point? He’d never be the emo type. He’d never be Nick.

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