Cookie seethed on my behalf. “I tell you, that girl would be fired if I had a say.”
“But you don’t have a say,” countered Wilma.
“Kayla thinks she can do whatever she wants because Jessy’s her aunt.” Cookie huffed and crossed his arms, metal spatula sticking out of his fist. “Ungrateful little sh– Oh, Lordy.”
My attention snapped to the diner’s front doors. In stepped Max and Jeremy, so fresh off work that Max still had a smudge of ash across the bridge of his nose and upper left cheek. Cookie fanned himself with a hand while whooping under his breath, “I’m so fucking jealous of you. If you don’t get some, I will.”
I laughed sheepishly as I approached, reaching up to wipe Max’s face off with a paper napkin. I just couldn’t help myself, and the fact that he didn’t pull away was a good sign. In fact, Max even leaned down so I could reach better. “What are you two doing here?” I asked.
Jeremy grinned. “We just got off work. Thought we’d give you a lift back.”
“It’s too dark to walk back alone,” added Max.
I smirked at the two of them, secretly giddy that they seemed to care so much. “Don’t tell me you two were worried about me,” I teased.
“Of course, we were,” Jeremy replied. “You’re tiny.”
“Am not,” I insisted.
“Stop,” Max grunted.
Jeremy shrugged his shoulders nonchalantly. “Anyways, can we take you home?”
I desperately wanted to say yes. After the busy day I’d had, seeing the two of them was like a breath of fresh air. There was just something about them that had my chest warming up, left my cheeks a little hotter than they normally were. They were really turning out to be a pair of gentlemen. Nevertheless, I still had a table to deal with, and I could just leave the restaurant short a helping hand.
“I’m sorry, I–”
Cookie yelled at me from the service window, “Just go already! Kayla just walked in.”
I giggled. “I guess I can. Just wait here a second, I’ll go grab my– Oh, never mind. I brought nothing. Um, shall we?”
Without skipping a beat, Jeremy stuck out his elbow for me to take. I easily slipped my arm through his and did the same with Max, even though he didn’t offer. Once again, he didn’t move away, which I took to meant he liked me –even just a little.
As we left the diner together, arm in arm in arm, Cookie whistled as I exited with the two firemen on either side.
I got off the phone with Chief Wilson and chewed on the inside of my cheek, uncomfortable. Max and I were right when we thought we smelled traces of gasoline at the site of the fire. The investigation that took place directly after found that the cause of the fire was indeed suspicious, with high levels of accelerant supporting the flames. I got a sinking feeling in my gut, a feeling that told me there was something much larger at play here. As I continued to stare at the floor, deep in thought, I leaned against the hallway wall and watched Alice and Max in the living room. They weren’t doing anything particularly special, just a friendly match of chess –though I was fairly certain Max was letting her win.
I cleared my throat, interrupting them.
Max glanced up at me and immediately frowned. Evidently, I didn’t hide my emotions as well as he did, so I was an open book for him to read. “What’s up?” he asked.
Alice turned in her chair, looking up at me with those big green eyes of hers that reminded me of Christmas and sprawling forests. There was so much life behind them, so much innocence and sweetness. I debated whether or not I should tell her, but the thought of upsetting her didn’t sit well with me in the slightest.
“Is everything okay, Jeremy?” she asked pleasantly.
I licked my lips. “That was the Chief.”
“And?” pressed Max.
“The fire. They’re almost completely sure it was arson.”
I watched the color drain from Alice’s face as the corners of her eyes began to turn red, swelling up with tears. It was like she’d just seen a terrifying ghost, something desperate and pleading flashing across her facial muscles.
“Oh,” she whispered shakily before breaking into soft sobs. “Oh, no.”
Max glared at me. If I could, I’d glare at myself, too, because I didn’t want to see Alice cry. I made my way over and crouched down next to her while Max placed a comforting hand on her shoulder.
“What aren’t you telling us?” he asked, speaking softer than I’d ever heard him speak before. It was touching, really, how gently he spoke to her.
Alice wiped at her eyes with the back of her hands and sniffled, doing her best to stay as calm as possible. After taking a heavy breath in through the nose, she spoke, “Kellan West.”