Length: 250 pages
Heat Level: 2
eBook Price: $.99
Print book: $10.99
Length: 250 pages
Heat Level: 2
eBook Price: $.99
Print book: $10.99
With her strict no-dating-within-the-department rule, Firefighter Lina Standish has a nickname in the Salem Hills Fire Department: Lina 'Standoffish'. And she likes it that way. Things on the job could get too complicated too fast when co-workers dated. So she embraced her nickname and kept everyone at arms' length.
But Firefighter Kevin Daly has had his eye on Standoffish ever since a locker room incident nearly a year earlier, and now he plans to break all her rules. With the help of his niece and a hot-air balloon, he gets Lina's attention and she agrees to "hang out" with Kevin as friends off duty, to take it slow and see where things go between them.
Then Lina's life is turned upside down by a surprise miracle who doesn't even have a name. Kevin's ready to step up, but is Lina?
The balloon seems to stand still in the air
while the earth flies past underneath.
~Alberto Santos Dumont
“May I have a large lemonade, a funnel cake with strawberries, and a large vanilla ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles, please?” The little girl staring up at Lina couldn’t have been more than ten. A gust of wind toyed with the curly brown hair outlining a petite heart-shaped face and ruffled the crisp twenty-dollar bill she held in her hand. She tightened her grip.
Lina glanced over the crowded midway but saw no sign of an adult accompanying the little girl. Normally, it wouldn’t have been a problem. After all, the girl obviously could pay for her order. But in the last hour or so the child had presented herself three times to the Sweet Treats kiosk Lina manned for the Salem Hills Fire Department, and she began to wonder if the little girl was lost.
With the location of Sweet Treats in the center of the Salem Hills, Virginia Founder’s Day festivities, Lina had a good view of the entire fair. To her right, the entrance to the rides, and to her left, the hawkers with their game booths. Behind her stood more concession stands with variations on fair food; popcorn and snow cones, cotton candy, hotdogs and fries. But Sweet Treats had the best place, right at the center of the midway, the first of the food kiosks. And they had the most popular delicacies, too; the fresh-squeezed lemonade, the funnel cakes with fruit and sugar, the elephant ears, the deep fried Oreos, and the hand-dipped ice cream.
Lina speculated the Sweet Treats kiosk alone was probably responsible for more stomachaches and incidents that shut down rides for cleaning than all the other food concessions combined. It amazed her to see this little girl making her third purchase of junk food in less than sixty minutes. That just might qualify her for a cast iron stomach award. Lina placed her elbows on the counter and assessed the girl. She seemed okay so far.
So with a shake of the head, Lina filled a cup with lemonade, dished up a funnel cake with strawberries, and scooped vanilla ice cream into a waffle cone then added chocolate sprinkles to the top. She accepted the twenty and handed her young customer the order and her change.
“Thank you,” said the little girl, taking a sip of lemonade.
“You’re very welcome. I hope you’re having a good time at the Founder’s Day Fair.” Lina smiled but the little girl had already scampered into the crowd.
From the corner of her eye, Lina caught sight of paramedic Greg Fiskar taking tickets at the giant Ferris wheel. He lifted a hand in a casual wave, and she smiled back. She was well aware he was interested in dating her, though he had yet to ask her out. She hoped he never did. Greg was a great guy, but Lina felt no chemistry with him beyond friendship.
Besides, she didn’t date within her unit. Dating always changed everything. It was hard to go back to being friends after dating. Impossible to be taken seriously as a fellow firefighter after playing tonsil hockey with a coworker. And so what if her rule had earned her a slightly unflattering nickname? She wanted to keep her assignment, so the fact that the Salem Hills Fire Department frowned upon fraternization only made sticking to her no-dating-coworkers rule easier.
And anyway, if she was going to break that rule — not that she was going to — someone else had piqued her interest from the first day they’d worked together.
The cheering petered out over near the petting zoo. The piglet races must have ended. A roar and a splash from somewhere behind her told Lina someone had scored in the Dunk-A-Clown booth. A line of customers began to form in front of her again; fair-goers who needed to re-hydrate and re-fuel so they could get back to the serious business of having fun. Lina greeted them with a smile and got busy with the task of taking and filling orders.
Just as the last customer stepped up to the window, Lina’s eyes were drawn to a swatch of nylon in stripes of blue, red, and green rising into view over the bleachers at the baseball field. Soon a giant Smiley face joined the hovering rainbow, and then a blue and white behemoth resembling a stuffed Greek flag floated upward. The hot-air balloons were going up for the first flights of the day. She had no idea why anyone would want to ride in a basket suspended beneath a bag of hot air. Not just because they glided so high off the ground but the very thought of how they rose into the air at all, using an open flame to heat the inside of a flammable nylon bag, was too risky in Lina’s opinion.
Still, when they rose, all silent and majestic, for some reason, Lina always felt compelled to stop and watch.
Her customer cleared his throat in a subtle reminder of his presence. More people had lined up behind him while she’d been distracted.
“Sorry,” she murmured. “How can I help you?”
She took the next several orders on autopilot, her attention primarily focused on the floating bubbles of color floating up over the ball field. By the time the balloons had melted into the distant horizon, the line at Sweet Treats had dwindled to nothing, and Lina picked up a sponge to wipe the counter.
“Excuse me,” said a familiar child’s voice. “I’d like a deep fried Oreo and a large vanilla ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles, please.”
Lina bent over the counter and looked the little girl in the eyes. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough junk food? Maybe you should consider a hot dog or at least some nachos.”
“No, thank you.” The little girl spoke in a solemn tone, as if she placed the most important order of her life. “Just the deep fried Oreo and large vanilla ice cream cone with chocolate sprinkles, please.”
Lina considered the little girl. Once again, she came alone and clutched another crisp twenty, something else that struck Lina as strange. But the girl wasn’t in apparent danger and hadn’t done anything wrong. Lina set about filling her order.
This time when she handed the little girl her change, the child didn’t run off. Instead, she stood regarding Lina with a steady stare.
“Can I get you something else?” asked Lina. “A napkin maybe?”
She noticed the girl had started to nibble on the deep fried Oreo but the ice cream remained untouched.
“I have an extra ticket for the hot-air balloon ride,” said the little girl. “Would you go on it with me?” Her voice lowered to a whisper and she leaned forward. “I’m a little scared.”
Lina’s heart gave her a hard kick to the chest. “Um, I…” She hesitated, not particularly willing to admit her own fears to the child. “I really can’t leave the booth right now.”
The child sucked on her upper lip. “But the other girl will get here at three o’clock, and the balloon ride is at four o’clock, so you can do it then.”
Lina blinked and took a step back. How did this little girl have such a good grasp of her schedule? The Founder’s Day Festival had been open for four days, and Lina had worked the same shift at the Sweet Treats kiosk since the festival had opened, but she didn’t recall seeing the little girl before today. She was being silly, of course. It wasn’t like the girl posed an overt threat. Still, it made Lina feel a tad weird, because apparently someone had been watching her.
She had no intention of going on a balloon ride in any case, but she could let the little girl down easily. “Maybe your mom or dad would go up with you.”
The little girl shook her head and heaved a heartfelt sigh. “They’re in the navy, and they’re both deployed. I’m here with my uncle.”
Lina’s heart sank. To be without one parent was tough, but for both parents to be gone had to really hurt. She glanced out at the midway again, but didn’t see anyone who looked like he might be the girl’s uncle, so she returned her attention to the child.
“My name’s Lina.”
The little girl grinned. “I know. You’re Lina Standish. My uncle told me. Are you really a firefighter?”
“Yes, I am,” said Lina absently. How did the girl’s uncle know her? Lina drew her brow up tight. As she concentrated on figuring out just who this mysterious uncle could be, she almost missed the little girl’s next words.
“My name’s Amelia.”
“Hi, Amelia. It’s nice to meet you,” Lina said with a smile. “I’ve got an idea. Maybe your uncle can go up in the balloon with you.”
Kay Springsteen makes her home in Virginia near the Blue Ridge Mountains. In addition to having written five full-length contemporary romance novels and one Regency romance, she works as an editor. When she's not editing or writing, Kay is busy with her hobbies of reading, photography, gardening, hiking in the mountains with one of her rescue dogs, spending time with her terrific family. She is a firm believer in happily ever after endings and knows one is out there for everyone; it just may not be exactly what was expected.