Raging Fires

Jake

   Jake grabbed his keys and left the house. He wasn’t going to be late. That was the old Jake.  This was the new Jake, the man Pops would be proud of, even if his grandfather was no longer alive to see it.  New man. New team. New life.

Besides, if he was late, he’d never hear the end of it from Kelli. He could picture her, eyes narrowed with annoyance, hand on hip, which was cocked out in that way he used to think was sexy as hell.

   He decided to take the old Jeep instead of his SUV. Kelli had always hated that car—said it was too top-heavy for someone that took corners as fast as Jake did. It seemed like a fitting good-bye to freedom. He’d just pulled out onto the street when his cell rang. No Bluetooth in this classic, so he picked it up to answer, just like you weren’t supposed to. Did he live for danger or what?

   “Jake!” It was Kelli’s voice, and she sounded frantic.

   His heart jumped. “What? What’s wrong?” He could hear traffic noise in the background.

   “My car died,” she said, and he relaxed a little. She was just angry, that’s all.

   “Need a ride?” he asked smugly. He knew how much it burned her to have to call him for help.

   “Yes.” He could practically hear her teeth grinding. “I’m at the McDonald’s on Thomas.”

   “You stopped for a burger?”

   “No, I did not stop for a burger.” Yeah, she was pissed.  His lips twitched up at the corner. She went on, “Can you pick me up on your way to the Blue?”

   “Gee, Kell… I don’t know. It’d make me late, and I have orders to be there on time.” She growled, and he laughed.           “Yeah, hang on. I’ll be there in ten.”

   He made a U-turn, still grinning, and headed the other way.

   It took him a little longer than he’d said, which wasn’t his fault; he hadn’t known there was construction the way he came. His excuse was already in his mouth as he turned into the McDonald’s lot. Then he saw her, and everything left his head.

   Damn, she looked hot. She wasn’t overdone, of course; that wasn’t Kelli’s style. But her skirt was just short enough to show off her legs, and the soft sleeveless top let you know what was beneath it without clinging tightly. Her heels weren’t sky high, but they had those thin straps that looked like they might snap beneath your fingers. She was… enticing. Especially if you knew what she looked like when she took off those clothes. Used to, he was the only one that did.

   He frowned, his good humor leaving him, and stepped out of the car. “You’re still driving that old junker? You wouldn’t have to call me for help if you’d get a decent car.”

   “You should talk,” she shot back, nodding toward his Jeep and taking off her sunglasses so she could zap him with the full force of her glare. “And I’m regretting calling you more and more by the minute.” Her mascara was smudged beneath her eyes, the lashes stuck together.

   Had she been crying? Surely not. Why would you be in tears because your car wouldn’t start? Whatever Kelli was, she wasn’t the kind that was always crying all over you. Breaking something was more like her.

   She was holding a cardboard take-out tray with two big drinks in it. He knew what they would be—diet Sprite for her, regular Coke for him—and somehow that thought made his chest tighten. Kelli leaned into his car to set down the drinks, then turned back to her car and reached in to pull out something from the other side, giving him an excellent view of her ass, which, he noted, was just as firm and round as it had been.

   Apparently, his body reacted the same as it had back then, too, which annoyed the hell out of him. Jake got back into the car, and as soon as Kelli sat down, holding the jacket she had retrieved from her back seat, he slammed the Jeep into reverse and stepped on the gas.

   Which sent the two large drinks sitting on the dashboard flying through the air. Before Jake could react, they were doused with soda. Kelli let out a shriek, and he stomped on the brake, stopping the car with a jolt. “What the hell! Why did you set the cups on the dashboard?”

   “I didn’t know you were going to peel out before I could even fasten my seat belt,” she yelled back. “Look at this!” The drinks had hit her worse because the tray had been sitting on her side of the dash. Only his arm was wet, but the liquid had soaked her top and drenched her face and the front of her hair as well.

   “Well, if you hadn’t set them on top of the fu—”

   Kelli picked up the half-empty cup in her lap and threw it in his face. Cold liquid flooded down his front, and Jake’s words ended in a string of curses. 

   A car honked behind them, and someone shouted, “Hey! In or out, jerkwad!”

   A customer walking to his car helpfully added, “Not a parking space, dude!”

   Jake broke off his swearing monologue and pulled back into the empty space. Kelli shot out of the car and began sweeping ice and puddles of Coke from her clothes like they were sparks. “Damn it!  Damn it! It’s all over my jacket, too.”

   “Why the hell did you throw your soda at me?” Jake jumped out, too, wiping his face and pulling his wet shirt away from his chest.

   “Because it was your fault, and you’re just sitting over there, laughing.”

   “I was not laughing!”

   “Okay, sitting there shouting at me, and not a drop on you. Look at this!” She brandished her jacket at him like a weapon, shaking it. “It’s ruined! I can’t go to the wedding like this!”

   Her top clung to her wetly, outlining every curve. It was a damn good look on her, but she was right; it wouldn’t work at a wedding. “Don’t you have anything else you can wear?” 

   “No. No, Jake, I do not have anything else to wear. I’m not in the habit of changing clothes at McDonald’s.”

   “You go to the gym, don’t you?”

   “Yes. Okay, I do have a sports bra and shorts in my trunk. You think I should get married in a sports bra and old saggy gym shorts?”

   “It might start a trend.” He cracked a smile. Now that he’d gotten the ice cubes out of his shirt, he’d calmed down some. And Kelli in a snit looked… well, there was no other word for it. She looked cute. “You know, when you think about it, this situation really is kinda funny.”

   Kelli gave him a death glare and swung around to pop open the trunk of her car. Every movement was a jerk—she was probably imagining that she was pulling out his fingernails—as she slung her damaged jacket into the trunk, then pulled out a small duffle bag and unzipped it, yanked out a piece of cloth, and slammed the lid of the trunk shut. She stalked toward him, holding up a scrap of gray cloth.

   “This, Jake. This is what I have to wear. Aside from being, you know, underwear, it’s a crop-top. I am not getting married with a naked stomach and a T-back bra.”

   “Okay, okay, calm down. Let me see what I’ve got.” He ambled around to the back of the jeep and dug into it. “Hey! Here. I’ve got a box of something. T-shirts. There are plenty. We can both change.”

   He straightened, holding out a fluorescent green shirt with Kents do it in Tents emblazoned across the front.

   Kelli’s jaw dropped. “The old t-shirts from your family reunion?” Astonishment had driven the anger from her voice.         “What are you doing with t-shirts from five years ago in the back of your car?”

   “Shockingly, a lot of people ‘forgot’ to take theirs home after the reunion was over.” He shrugged. “I guess I just left them here. I haven’t driven the jeep in a long time.”

   She came over to him and took the t-shirt, looking uncertain. “Really? We’re going to get married again in matching t-shirts that say Kents do it in tents?”

   “You tell me.” Jake plucked the gray bra from her and held it up in one hand. “Sports bra.” He raised the t-shirt in his other hand. “Or matching t-shirts that make us look like a couple of jackasses.”

   Kelli groaned and grabbed both garments from him. “Well, at least I won’t have to go bra-less beneath the jackass t-shirt.”

   Okay. That was an image that would mess up his mind for the rest of the afternoon. Kelli climbed into her car to change, closing her door and turning her back to him. Like he was a stranger. That was irritating as hell.

   “You don’t have to hide,” he called. “I’ve seen it all before.”

   “Yeah, well, I’d prefer not to get arrested for indecent exposure outside McDonald’s. And just because you’ve seen it before doesn’t mean you’re ever going to see it again.”

   “Right. Thanks for reminding me. For a minute there, I forgot we hated each other.” She didn’t reply; he wasn’t sure she’d heard him. Probably better that way.

   Jake stripped off his shirt and pulled on the hideous green one. He could barely shove his head through the opening, and it was so tight he thought it might cut off his oxygen. He dug through the box, pulling out shirt after shirt. Apparently they were one-size-fits-all. He hadn’t been able to wear one-size-fits-all since he was fifteen. He pulled at the constricting neck, hoping to stretch it, then tugged at the hem, which barely reached the waistband of his jeans. He had visions of the shirt splitting apart like The Hulk’s in the middle of the ceremony.

   After a few minutes, Kelli emerged from her car wearing the baggy tee with her skirt. “At least I didn’t have to wear the fugly gym shorts. I had the jacket on my lap so my skirt only got a few spots on it.”

   She turned around and saw him in his too-tight shirt, and she burst out laughing. “You’re right. It is kinda funny.

Kelli

   They were silent on the drive to the Blue Shack. The open-air Jeep was too noisy to hear anything. And anyway, what was there to say? Kelli’s spirits, already low today, had severely dropped by the time they pulled into the bar’s front parking lot. There were only a few cars there, one of them Gran’s dinosaur Buick.

   “Geez, are they still letting Gran drive around in that thing?” Jake remarked as he pulled in beside the behemoth.           “She’s got to be a wreck waiting to happen.”

   “They?” Kelli asked sarcastically. “Exactly who do you think is going to stop her? Pops was the only one she ever listened to. She’d still be hauling around empty kegs in the back if he hadn’t been so insistent that she stop. Don’t know who can possibly do anything about her now.” Kelli’s eyes filled with tears again and she looked away from Jake, blinking until they subsided.

   “You have a point.” He gave her hand a quick squeeze. It was an innocent gesture, but the touch of Jake’s capable fingers still sent shivers through her. And her mind was now running through the other, decidedly not innocent, ways Jake had touched her. Kelli quickly pulled her hand away.

   Getting out of the car, she tried to finger comb her hair into something that didn’t look like she’d stuck her finger into an electrical outlet. She remembered now why she hated Jake’s Jeep. It was like being in a wind tunnel. On the positive side, the hair on the front third of her head was no longer in wet sticky strings. It was now in dry, sticky spikes. The Jeep had no handy mirror in the visor, of course, so she bent to peer into the side rear-view mirrors. She tugged and swiped, but her hair was hopeless. Nor could she completely wipe off the mascara smudges beneath her eyes from her stupid tears earlier. As if dealing with Pops’ death hadn’t been bad enough on its own, she’d had to call her ex for help, knowing exactly how much he would enjoy her humiliation at having to ask him to rescue her.

   Now here she was, looking like she just got off a rollercoaster, wearing a dorky t-shirt with her favorite skirt and heels. And she was late for her wedding. The only thing that could be worse was if she was having to re-marry the jerk she’d divorced four years ago. Oh, wait. She was.

   Why had Pops left the bar to her with this requirement? Why had she agreed? Was owning this stupid bar really worth it?

   Well, yes, it was. Because this stupid bar was her home, the place where she’d found a family, the place that had taken her in when she’d returned from Miami, licking her wounds. It was where her life was, and she couldn’t bear to think of giving it up, even if it meant marrying Jake. She’d already done that once; this time couldn’t be as bad.

   She squared her shoulders and started toward the front door. Jake walked around the car and came up beside her, resting his hand lightly on her lower back like he used to do, and it felt so natural that they were almost to the door before she realized what he’d done. She glanced up at him sharply, and he seemed to become aware of it at the same time because he pulled his hand back, shifting away from her into that side-by-side-but-not-a-couple walk.

   He opened the door for her, and Kelli entered the bar. She stopped so abruptly that Jake, coming in behind her, bumped into her. They stood there, frozen, staring in shock at the scene before them.

   Someone had been busy draping a lot of white ribbon around the place and putting candles, flowers and white tablecloths on all the pockmarked wooden tables. A white arbor trellis stood in front of the bar. But unexpected as the decorations were, they weren’t what made Kelli’s eyes widen. It was the people. All the people.

   It was supposed to be only the two of them and the justice of the peace, her bridesmaid Naomi, Jake’s best man Asa Jackson, and Gran, and maybe whatever relative or friend Gran badgered into coming with her. Those few were here, all right. But there were a whole lot more people than that.

   They were divided into two distinct groups. On one side of the room Gran sat at a table with her sister Lucy, and assorted cousins, aunts and uncles. Around them stood the Blue’s employees, as well as a number of the bar’s patrons, recognizable by their leathers, bandannas, and beards.

   On the opposite side of the room were several very large men dressed in crisp pants and button-up shirts, and their dates in dresses and heels. Asa and Jason Kowalski were among them, and Kelli recognized Neil Moran, the Pumas quarterback. So this group must be Jake’s new teammates.

   In the center, beneath the trellis, stood a small bespectacled man in a black choir robe.

   Jake turned to Kelli. “What the hell?”

   “I have no idea.”

   “I didn’t see—where were their cars?”

   She shot him a look. “Yeah, because that’s the important question.”

   “Sorry. I didn’t know there was a proper etiquette when you find out your ex-wife slash new bride invited a hundred people to your ‘small, quiet’ wedding!” Jake’s voice grew louder with every word until his voice was booming out like he had a bullhorn.

   “I didn’t invite them!” Kelli snapped. “And could you keep your voice down? You’re not on the field calling signals!”

   “Yeah, like you’re being reaaallly quiet.”

   She realized that everyone was watching them with faces that were as astonished as Kelli felt. Being dressed like crazy people and yelling at each other was probably not a good look for a couple about to get married. She straightened her shoulders and told Jake in a studiously calm voice, “Why don’t we try to at least look civilized?”

   He shrugged, and they turned back to face the crowd.

   “Um... hi, everyone,” Kelli said. “Sorry we’re a little late.”

   Jake lifted his hand in a half-hearted wave. “Kelli had car trouble.”

   Of course, he had to add that.

   “All of us parked in the back lot,” Asa helpfully answered Jake’s original question, not even bothering to try to hide his grin.

   Naomi, at barely 5’2”, was still able to push her way through the crowd of burly bikers with ease. She came to a halt when she saw Kelli. Her eyebrows shot up and she hurried over. “What happened to you? You look…” She stopped, apparently rendered speechless.

   “Long story,” Kelli replied. “What are all these people doing here?”

   “I’m sorry. It wasn’t me. I swear.” At least Naomi kept her voice low, but that only made everyone in the room lean in to hear better.

   “Gran?” Jake and Kelli asked at the same time.

   “Jinx,” Naomi said. At Kelli’s glare, she rushed on. “Right. Sorry. Not the time.” Naomi turned her back to their audience and whispered, “It was her.” She jerked her head toward the jock side of the room. “The one that looks like she just stepped out of one of Pops’ old movies.”

   “The blonde with the bob?” Kelli studied the tall, sleek woman in a dress that screamed designer standing between a beefy guy and Neil Moran’s wife.

   Naomi nodded vigorously. “She came in about an hour ago with all this stuff.” She waved her hand vaguely at the decorations. “Then she ran around putting it up—well, actually, telling these two workers where to put things. The tablecloths and flowers and candles. Even that wedding arbor thing. Do you know her?”

   “Never saw her before in my life,” Kelli replied. “What is she, the Wedding Fairy?”

   “That’s Pete Cherneski next to her,” Jake said. “He’s a linebacker. Kind of nuts.”

   “Yeah, well, I think she is too,” Naomi told him. “I mean, she looks normal—aside from the fact that her dress probably cost more than my car—but she keeps saying weird things. I’m not sure if she’s joking or not. And while she was doing the arranging, that Pete guy was over at one of the tables, and he kept pulling the tablecloth off. I mean, with the centerpiece and everything on it, and it would all fall off, and then he’d put it back on and yank it off again.”

   “Oh, yeah, he does magic stuff,” Jake explained. “The other day, he kept showing me this thing with a fake flower where he pulls the flower out of his jacket like it’s some big surprise. Only it never is because you just saw him stick it in there.”

   “Good grief!” Gran bellowed—no question where Jake got his voice from—and hauled herself up out of her chair. “Are you two going to stand at the door talking the whole time?” She stalked over to Jake, took his arm in a firm grip and tugged him forward. “Let’s get this thing started.”

   “Gran, come on,” Jake protested, trying to unobtrusively pull his arm from her grasp. “I can walk over there by myself.”

   His tone was so much that of a ten-year-old kid that Kelli had to laugh. Which was a mistake because Gran turned her attention to Kelli. “You, too.” Letting go of Jake’s arm, she went back to pull Kelli up beside Jake. “If you don’t get going pretty soon, Aunt Lucy’s going to fall asleep. She’s always in bed by eight o’clock.”

   “All right, all right,” Jake growled and grabbed Kelli’s hand. They marched up to the arbor to face the justice of the peace, who was staring at them, wide-eyed and slack jawed.

   Naomi took up her bridesmaid’s spot near Kelli, and Asa quickly positioned himself on the other side of Jake. Asa was trying to stifle his laughter, his lips pressed firmly together, but his shoulders were shaking. Obviously a number of other people didn’t even make the effort. Kelli could hear snickers all around them.

   “This is worse than that time you and I fell in the pond at the mayor’s fancy party,” she whispered to Jake.

   “Ha!” Jake let out a little reminiscent laugh. “That was crazy. And I wasn’t even drunk.”

   “And when you came up, there was a lily pad on your head.” Kelli couldn’t keep from grinning at that memory. “It looked like you were wearing a cloche!”

   “A what?”

   “You know, one of those flapper's hats that women wore in the nineteen-twenties,” Kelli explained.

   “How would I possibly know that? Only you would think a dude would know what a clonche is.”

   “Cloche. It’s not part sea-shell.”

   The judge cleared his throat to get their attention, and they turned to face the man.

   Jake straightened, jaw set, and said, “Okay. Let’s do this.”

   The robed man leaned in and asked in a quiet voice, “Are you two sure you’re okay with this?” He glanced warily at the bikers on one side, then at the assembly of jumbo-sized men on the other. “I mean, if someone is trying to force you or… well, it’s really better, you know, for a child to have a single parent than a mother and father who don’t want to be together.”

   Kelli and Jake stared at him until his meaning sank in. “I am not pregnant!” Kelli hissed. “This isn’t a shotgun wedding!”

   Jake let out a snort of laughter, and Kelli turned to glare at him and Asa, who had finally lost his battle with laughter.    “Would you two straighten up?” To be fair, Naomi was giggling too, but these guys were more obnoxious.

   “I’m sorry, I’m trying,” Asa got out between laughs. “It’s just… oh, man.” He managed to pull his face back to normal, though his lips kept twitching. “Okay. Sorry. I’m good.”

   The judge squared his shoulders and drew a breath to speak. At that moment, the door to the restroom hallway banged open, and a man’s voice said, “Geeze, it’s dark as a mine back there. Haven’t you people heard of lights?” There was a yap, followed by the man’s voice, “Shut up, Princess.”

   Asa burst into guffaws again. The justice of the peace heaved a sigh. Jake said, “Oh, God, Howard brought that freakin’ dog?”

   Kelli was numb to surprise by now, and she merely turned to look in the direction of the voice. Whoever the speaker was, he was too short to be seen behind the team, but there was a ripple through the group as he edged his way to the front.

   “Have they showed up yet?” the disembodied voice went on. “I heard he missed the team plane once in Chicago. Move your butt, Kowalski. You’re too damn big. I can’t see a thing.”

   Jason Kowalski, who had covered his face with his hands in a vain attempt to muffle his laughter, moved aside, and the speaker finally emerged. He was short and middle-aged, and he was carrying a Louis Vuitton purse. A purse?

   The man looked at Kelli and Jake, and his jaw dropped. “Good God, Jake. What the hell are you wearing?”

   A tiny face pressed against the mesh that covered one side of the purse, and Kelli realized that the bag was actually a high fashion dog carrier. Princess, Kelli presumed. She looked like a ball of fluff with bright black eyes, and as soon as she saw Jake, she burst into a paroxysm of barking.

   Asa, who had been gradually quieting down, let out a howl of laughter.

   “That dog hates me,” Jake muttered.

   “Good judge of character,” Kelli snarked.

Asa was now bent over, wrapping his arms around his torso. “You’re killing me, J. I got bruised ribs, you know.”

   “They taped them, right?” Jake asked.

   “Seriously?” Kelli asked. “You’re going to stand there and have a conversation about football in the middle of the ceremony?”

   Jake shrugged. “What ceremony? We haven’t even started.”

   The justice of the peace cleared his throat loudly. His face was turning an alarming shade of red, and Kelli suspected he wished he had his gavel so he could pound on something. She certainly would like to do that herself.

   “Silence!” The judge finally roared, and the voices died down obediently. Asa managed to straighten nearly all the way up, though he was still hugging his ribs, and his laughs had died to shallow breaths. Princess’ owner rolled down the flap above the mesh—to hide her from view, or, more likely, to hide Jake from Princess’ view—and even the dog had finally stopped barking.

   “Now.” The judge looked at Kelli and Jake with deep disapproval. “I assume you two have not written your own vows.”

   Jake snorted, and Kelli said, “Just make it short, and let’s get this over with.”