Fierce at Heart (Kincaids of Pine Harbour book #2) comes out on January 26, 2021. Here is an advance look at the first chapter.
Please note that minor editorial revisions may happen before publication.
Something about the way the man strode through the crowded mezzanine caught Isla Petersen’s attention. She had just sold another box of bake sale treats to a customer when the shape of him caught her eye, and for a moment she panicked. But when she swallowed back that fear and took a good look, she knew it wasn’t her former husband she had spotted in Toronto’s St. Lawrence Market. Adam Kincaid was taller than her ex, and broader, too. Brawny now, in a way he hadn’t been four years earlier when she saw him last—at an airbase a few hours away, both of them having just returned from Afghanistan.
A lifetime ago.
She blinked, ready for him to disappear, be replaced by someone who just looked like him, shared the same thick golden brown hair and square jaw, who walked with a cocky confidence she knew he didn’t always feel.
But even after shaking her head, he was still there, and getting closer. His eyes twinkled as he took in the sight of her, and she knew he was having the same moment of hey, I recognize you, but wow, you’ve changed disconnect. Except in her case, that change wasn’t so clearly for the better.
“How much are the cookies?” he asked, pointing to a sign that clearly said 25 cents each. She’d missed his gentle teasing, the way he followed the question with a smile that warmed his eyes. “No way they’re only a quarter.”
Laughing, she rounded the table and launched herself into his embrace. He squeezed her back.
“Master Corporal Kincaid,” she whispered as she stepped back and bounced.
“Captain Petersen,” he echoed, setting his hands on her shoulders and holding her still so he could get another good look at her. “Look at you.”
“It’s just Isla now.” She swallowed hard. “I got out.”
He grinned. “Me, too. I bet that’s no surprise to you.”
She let out a relieved breath, and he laughed with her. “I guess it’s been a while.”
His gaze raked over her, lingering on her hair, which was loose and wavy now, quite different from the bun she always wore in the army. Then he glanced behind her at her hand-painted sign, the touch of whimsy that hopefully conveyed what her stall was all about. An old-school Bake Sale!, just like people remembered from high school. When Adam nodded approvingly, something tight in her chest eased a little. “You’re a baker now?”
“It’s a long story.” She grabbed at his hands and laughed again. “This is such a surprise. Are you living in the city?”
Adam was a self-described country boy, born and bred, from a small town called Pine Harbour on the Bruce Peninsula. “Temporarily. I came here for school. How about you?”
“Same. I just graduated from a culinary academy. This is part of our segue into the working world. We do these pop-up events at markets to test our wares.”
“Then I really do want a cookie. And two of everything else.”
She got a white box from behind the table and picked out a selection for him. “Two of everything,” she repeated, her curiosity getting the better of her. “Are you sharing these with someone?”
He winked. “Nope. They’re going to be my rewards for getting through my final week of training. I’m a few weeks away from finishing firefighter school.”
“Oh, Adam. That’s amazing. Well done.” Her lips twitched in amusement. “I was going to say that you looked good, like you’d put on some muscle, but didn’t want to make it sound like…”
“Like the last time you saw me I was verging on malnourished?” He gave her a rueful smile. “You ran us into the ground, and I mean that with all due respect.”
Her smile softened, went bittersweet. “That was a hard tour.” She thought of his best friend, a fellow reservist from Bruce County who had experienced some of the darkest moments of their time overseas. “You still keep in touch with Stevie?”
Adam nodded. “Yeah. We worked together for a while, as house movers. He’s hanging in there. He moved out to B.C. this year to work at a ski resort.”
She watched him intently as he talked, wishing the market wasn’t quite so noisy, wanting to hear everything about how he’d gotten on after he got out of the army. “Good. I’m glad—”
Another customer approached, and Isla had to cut herself off.
Adam stepped to the side, then came back when she’d completed that sale. They tried again, but the next lull in traffic didn’t last long, either.
Isla’s heart sank when he gave her a look that said, what are you going to do?
“It was really good to see you—” he started.
“How long are you—”
They both stopped and tried again, at the same time—again.
Adam gestured for Isla to continue.
She hadn’t known how much she’d needed to reconnect with someone from her past until this moment—someone not toxic, someone who maybe understood what she was going through in starting a new career from scratch. Someone who was going through it themselves and knew a little bit of where she came from. “We should catch up, if you have time?”
“Absolutely. I’m going to be around the market for a while, so…if you’re free when you’re done here…give me a shout.”
She grabbed a business card from the table. “Text me so I’ll have your number.”
He pulled out his phone and did just that, then lifted his gaze again. “It was really good seeing you.”
It felt like he was studying her face, and something warm and unfamiliar softened in her chest. “Same.”
After strolling around the downtown market, Adam found a table on a patio a block north of the market, with an oversized umbrella to protect him from the scorching hot summer sun.
He’d been living in the city for a year. A year of living on ramen and frozen veg, of sharing an apartment with three other college students, most of whom were almost a decade younger than him.
For the first time in his life, Adam had felt like the old man, and he’d loved that part of the experience. The rest had left a lot to be desired. Every weekend he tried to get away from school and the basic, cramped apartment.
He was looking forward to moving home again.
Being away was not for him. This wasn’t the first time he’d test that theory, either. He’d done a tour in Afghanistan with the army, with a full year of training on a base in Petawawa before he deployed.
Toronto was better than Pet, that was for sure.
Adam’s relatively short career in the army had been generally miserable, but there were a few bright spots. Serving under the brief command of Captain Petersen had been one of those highlights.
The last time he’d seen her, they’d both been in uniform, on a base six hours away.
Now she was a baker.
A student, starting over, just like me.
His phone lit up. Speak of the devil.
Isla: Hey, are you still around?
Adam: I sure am. Just sat down at a patio.
Isla: I’m nearly done here. A big group came through and I sold out! So I’m free.
Adam: Can I buy you a drink?
He texted her the address.
Under the table, his leg bounced. He shoved his heel into the ground to make it stop. It had been a while since he’d talked to anyone from his days in the army, other than his friend Stevie, who would never bring it up—his ghosts being worse than Adam’s by a country mile. And Isla wasn’t just another buddy. Her leadership had helped him through a miserable, scary time overseas. He didn’t feel like that same man at all. He’d grown and matured, and was making different choices now. Following his own dreams instead of that of his brothers. But that didn’t mean he didn’t still have echoes from the past that affected him to this day, and Isla was one of the few people who knew that about him.
While he waited for her, Adam texted Stevie and told him about bumping into the captain, then he dove into the group chat his brothers were having around visiting the city for Adam’s graduation.
Seth: What’s the plan for Adam’s graduation ceremony? I can fly south and could collect folks on the way, shorten the trip? Let’s coordinate.
Adam: Countdown is ON.
Josh: We can’t wait. I’m coming down early to party.
Will: Seth, can you pick me up? Unlike Josh, I have a full-time job with responsibilities.
Josh: Hey, I’m an entrepreneur with a million followers on TikTok.
Will: As I was saying…
Adam: Owen, what’s your plan?
Seth: Newlyweds don’t answer text messages this early on a weekend. We should all be so lucky.
Owen: My wife is still sleeping, thank you very much. I was making her coffee. I think we’ll drive down, though. Wouldn’t miss it.
Adam: Cool. Hey, do you remember Captain Petersen? We’re going to meet up for drinks.
Owen: I’m not sure if I know Petersen.
Adam: You’ve met her. Tall blonde. She was my boss on tour, worked in Meaford for a while.
Will: Rings a bell.
Adam: She’s given up the army life and is a baker now.
Josh: Is she hot?
Adam: Shut up.
Seth: Shut up.
Will: I was going to say, but they beat me to it.
Owen: I’m going to go wake up my wife now. We have a farmer’s market to get to.
Josh: Words I never thought I’d hear you say.
Adam: I was just at a farmer’s market!
Josh: What is happening to this family? What happened to our core value of being committed bachelors?
Will: I can’t tell if he’s being serious. Anyone?
Seth: Sorry, I can’t hear you guys over the roar of the farmer’s market I just arrived at.
Josh: He’s joking, right?
Will: We’re texting, you idiot. Yes, he’s joking. But I have to go, too. Farmer’s market single mingle starts in ten minutes.
Adam could have kept ripping on Josh for quite a while, but he didn’t like the way his brother had asked if Isla was hot, so he put his phone away just in case Josh looped back to that. He didn’t want anything to ruin the good mood he was in right now. It was silly, getting this excited about meeting up with a friend. On the other hand, his whole life for a year had been nothing but school. A real connection, something more than trying to keep in touch with a few people through the miracle of technology, was a gift at this point.
He liked his classmates well enough, but they weren’t close. A half-generation divided them. They all liked to party, but Adam was growing out of that—and suddenly.
Deep down, he just wanted to go home, so much that he was secretly counting down the days.
He’d never understood why he disliked being away from home so much—his demons were almost all in Pine Harbour, and it was a place that sometimes made him feel very small. But this time, he was heading back to a real career. His job offer had been confirmed the week before; he was going to be the newest member of the Pine Harbour Fire Department. Which would come with its own set of complications, in the form of over-protective older brothers worried about him stepping down the same career path their late father followed.
Adam wasn’t worried about that, though. He was going into this eyes wide open about the health risks, and knew how to protect himself, both physically and mentally.
“You’re deep in thought,” a lovely, laughing voice said, dragging him back to the present.
He shook his head and stood up. Isla gave him another hug. The blue apron was gone, but the faint scent of sugar remained. “Good job on selling out of your food today.”
“Thanks.” She slid onto the chair across from him and flashed him a smile. She’d put lip gloss on, something pink, and it was distracting in a good and unexpected way. “You weren’t waiting long?”
“Nope. Got caught up on messages. I texted Stevie, told him I bumped into you. Then I had to deal with some logistical stuff with my brothers around my graduation. We have a group chat that gets out of control sometimes.” His lips twitched. “Do you remember Owen? The oldest?”
She laughed, and her lip gloss glittered in the sun. “Vaguely, yep. Bossy and overprotective?”
Adam told himself to stop noticing her mouth. It was hard, though. Captain Petersen had gone and transformed into a very pretty woman. Of course, she’d always been beautiful, but it used to be in an off-limits, she-could-charge-him kind of way. Now she made cookies and they were both civilians. “That’s him. But actually, he’s a bit of a work in progress. He got married. She’s good for him.”
Isla nodded politely. “That’s lovely.”
But she said it in a way that said she thought otherwise. Adam frowned.
“I’m sorry, that was rude of me. I’m a bit…jaded. How long has it been since we saw each other last?”
“Maybe four years?”
“Yeah.” She cleared her throat. “Long enough for me to get married and divorced.”
“Holy shit.” Adam blinked in surprise. “I missed hearing about that through the grapevine.”
Isla shook her head. “It’s okay. I’m glad to hear that it wasn’t gossip fodder, to be honest. It was a bad idea from the start. My ex was always anti-PDA, including online. Turned out, that’s because he had a couple of things going on the side, among other…problems.”
A jolt of anger shot through Adam at the injustice of that. Why get married if you weren’t all in? “I’m sorry.”
She shrugged it off. “I’ve done my turn in therapy. I know it wasn’t about me, and I’m focused on living my best life now. I won’t make that mistake again, don’t worry.”
He was relieved that she hadn’t let that asshole get the better of her. He leaned in and braced his forearms on the table, feeling vaguely guilty for thinking too much about her mouth and not enough about what had been going on in her life. “Good. And you look happy now.”
“Oh good, that means the stress is all on the inside.” She winked. “No, I’m kidding. Mostly.”
He could relate to that, and he told her as much. “I know the feeling. Some days are better than others, and some scrape along barely better than survival mode.”
She tilted her head to the side, her brows pulling together. “Yeah?”
Adam shrugged. Nodded. Then laughed. “Yeah.”
Isla sighed. “Sometimes I think I should have stuck it out with the army, you know?”
“I thought you would have for sure. Woulda bet money you were a lifer.”
“That was the plan.” She shrugged. “But plans change.”
Adam wondered if her ex was in the military. It would track for some of the asshole behaviour he’d seen, but people were dysfunctional all over the place. And before he could ask, while he was still mulling over if he should ask, the waiter returned to take Isla’s drink order. He had menus in his hand, too. “Do we want food?”
Isla gave him an uncertain look. “Do you have time for lunch?”
“For you, I have all day.” And he meant it, too. His plan when he’d come downtown was to do some shopping, because it was one of his last weekends living in the city. It was, in hindsight, a lonely, boring way to spend the day, especially when the alternative was an afternoon on a patio, catching up with an old friend.
There was something else, though. A tiny, whispering thought that if he hadn’t headed to the market to get a coffee first, if that hadn’t been the only parking garage that had spots big enough for his truck, he might not have seen Isla’s bake stand at all. Could have left the city behind and gone back to Pine Harbour without knowing his former commander was out there doing something similar to what Adam was doing—starting life over again in a new career.
They took their time eating lunch, and while they didn’t order any more drinks—both of them switching to lemonade with their meal—Isla still found herself pleasantly buzzed in a way as they lingered over the last few bites. The conversation had gone in every different direction, from funny to serious and back again, and it felt so effortless after more than a year of feeling very alone in this world.
“Funny that we both went back to school this year, eh?” Adam paused as their plates were cleared away, then nodded that they’d like to see the dessert menu. “How did you find it?”
“A necessary evil.”
“Same!” He chuckled. “I worried I was being ungrateful.”
“Not at all. It was so hard to start over as a trainee who really didn’t know what she was doing,” she confessed. “The most humbling thing I’ve ever done.”
He couldn’t keep the shock off his face.
She waved her hands. “I know, after Afghanistan, that probably sounds awful.”
“Not at all,” he said, wiping the corner of his mouth with a napkin, and shoving his empty plate away. “But I worry about who the hell is teaching pastry chefs if it’s that traumatic.”
“My own stubbornness might have been a part of it.” She shuddered. “I forced myself to be the best, even at things I wasn’t naturally good at.”
“My knife skills aren’t that great.”
“You can’t do the…” Adam mimed a perfect rapid chop, his fingers curling precisely.
She shook her head. “I like to grab a cleaver and just get it done. Whack.”
They both burst out laughing as someone at the next table obviously caught the wrong part of that conversation.
“It’s not that hard, it’s just muscle memory and practice. I just…” She leaned in conspiratorially. “I don’t care, you know? And it turns out, that’s actually pretty important for me.”
“Life is too short for perfection?”
Exactly. And she’d wasted four years on a lying narcissist.
“So can you run a pop-up bake sale with only so-so knife skills that are probably secretly spectacular?” His eyes danced, and she didn’t miss how he turned the tease into an unexpected compliment.
A stark contrast to how she’d minimized her own abilities. “They’re secretly not unspectacular,” she admitted. “And I hope so. It’s an uphill climb to get the business going, but once I have all the pieces in play, I think it has a pretty profitable business plan.”
They were still talking when the bill arrived. Adam grabbed it before she could stop him. She pulled out her wallet anyway, but he shook his head. “This is my treat.”
“Thank you. This was really nice.” That wasn’t the right word at all. It had been so much more than nice. There was something about Adam that set her at ease now, and in a way it felt like a full-circle turn on their friendship in the army. He’d leaned on her experience then; it had been her fourth tour, and his first. But there had always been a goodness to him, and she wasn’t surprised he’d turned into this thoughtful, caring man now. Even when he’d been frightened and unsure, he’d had his buddies’ backs. As soon as she saw him this morning, all those memories had flooded back.
And then over lunch, she’d discovered a whole new Adam Kincaid. A man on a mission. Unlike her new career, which was fragile and precarious—literally and figuratively, depending on what she was doing with sugar—he had found something deeply meaningful and stable. She was impressed, and found herself wanting to know even more. That aching curiosity inside her, that clawing feeling like she should reach across the table and touch him again and again, was probably more about herself than him. But she couldn’t just say goodbye. “When do you move home?”
“End of the month.”
“Do you have exams next? What’s your schedule like?” She paused, not wanting to overstep, but fuck it. She might never see him again if she didn’t say something. “Do you want to catch up again?”
“I’m pretty busy during the week.” He hesitated, too, and she wondered if he’d blow her off. “But I’m free next weekend.”
“Me, too.” She would have cancelled any plans even if she had them, which she didn’t.
He grinned. “Then it’s a date.”