Veronica.

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24. A complete knockout.

I follow him towards a door that’s just off the main area. There are a few recliners scattered around, all facing a large, flat-screen TV that has been mounted on the brick wall. A pool table has been pushed against the far wall out of the way. This must be where the firefighter’s hang out when they aren’t on call.

Once I’m through the door, Mason shuts it and turns to me. I’m staring down at the floor, unable to look him in the eye out of embarrassment for earlier. He was completely right in everything he said. I’m afraid. Too scared to live, to be outside of my comfort zone. I’m scared to be happy with him. I know just how quickly it can be taken away from someone.

I clear my throat, “Did I ever tell you why Joel left me?”

“I don’t think so.” he rests himself against the back of one of the recliners and waits for me to say something.

Here goes everything.

“He came home after the twins were born and told me he’d changed his mind. Without so much as a warning. I had him to pack his bags and leave that night and I didn’t see him for a long time afterwards. I was so fucking depressed, to the point of wanting to hurt myself for an escape. The man that wanted a family with me decided that I wasn’t good enough for that. That his newborns weren’t good enough to know him. I hated him for leaving them... I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I... I was happy with him and he left me. I don’t want that to happen again.”

Mason is good. So, it doesn’t surprise me that despite everything that was said this morning that he stands up to approach me. I watch his black boots cross the carpeted floor keeping my eyes low. He stops in front of me and holds out a hand for me to take. I don’t know what comes over me, but as I reach out to touch him, I begin to cry. Softly at first, as though I’m testing the waters. When the floodgates break, my face is buried deep against his chest and I shudder through the sobs.

I let him hold me until I can take a whole breathe. His warmth takes over my senses. With just a single touch of his, my body is on high alert. I raise my eyes to find him already staring down at me. Hazel ones melting my hard shell, like they have been since we met.

“I would never change my mind about us, Veronica. You have me, whenever you want me.”

“I’m not good enough for you.”

“You don’t get to decide that. I see a future with you, darling.”

I’m going to hyperventilate, I really am.

“You’re kind, intelligent and a... well, a complete knockout.” he gulps, “Whenever I see you I think my heart is going to burst out through my ribcage and whenever I don’t see you, I want to. I can’t stop thinking about you. The way you say my name drives me insane. It must be that accent of yours. Veronica, you’re the only woman I’ve ever felt this way about and I’ll be damned if I let you talk yourself out of this,” he points between us.

“You really mean all that?” I ask. Sucking in a breath, I watch him intensely.

He wipes away the tear that rolls down my cheek, "I do. Hey, don't cry."

"I'm sorry, Mason."

"Don't apologise for trying to protect yourself. Not to me. Not ever. Actually, I need to apologise. For not asking you if you were okay this morning. That bruise looks painful." his eyebrows knit together, "I should have acted better than I did the other night. I'm sorry that I lost my temper and didn't take care of you."

His hands usher their way to my face and he cups my neck, dipping his head to kiss me. Softly. Sweetly. Appropriate for the situation. I cling to his hands and exhale. Just like that, my worries disintegrate.

"That was losing your temper?"

"Yeah?"

"You're incredible," I smile, "I'm sorry too, for being a bitch. I don't want to change you at all."

"What I said about your job-"

"We need to talk about it. In private. But right now," I press forward and kiss him again.

My eyes snap open when an ear-piercing alarm blares throughout the station. Mason sighs, pressing his lips to my forehead before he steps away.

"That's me. If you've got nowhere to be, Darla is in the kitchen with the baby. I'm sure she'd like to see you."

At the mention of Henry's wife and newborn, I grow excited. It will be lovely to see her too.

"Of course!"

✖✖✖

"He's the cutest baby I've ever seen!"

I'm sat on one of the chairs in the kitchen, snug against the large dining table, with Maddox in my arms. He's sleeping soundly, his tiny fingers wrapped subconsciously around my scarff.

Darla laughs, placing the mug of coffee down in front of me, "After your own, I take it?"

"Oh, of course! I can't believe he has a full head of hair."

"Takes after his dad in that respect. I think he's going to be the spitting image of him when he's older." she pulls out a chair to my right and sits down, wrapping her hands around her own mug.

"I mean, he could look worse. Like Tom Hardy or something? Imagine," I fake a look of disgust.

"I know right. God knows where Henry got his looks from. His mother and father, in all honesty, didn't get much luck in the look's department."

I grin, "Do all the men who work here look like they belong on a calendar?"

"Ain't that the truth! Come to think of it, I think they did a calendar one year."

"Seriously?"

I can just imagine Mason and the other guys posing with kittens or something like that. The thought makes me like him even more if I'm honest.

"I'll have to try and dig it up for you! I kept a copy at home."

"Yes please!"

We share a laugh, shushing each other with silent hand gestures as baby Maddox begins to stir. I hand him back to his mother and he settles down against her chest.

I take a sip of coffee, "The perks of being a mother, huh?" I gesture with a nod of my head to her son. He's completely calm in her arms.

"This is actually a rare event. He usually settles with Henry and cries his eyes out with me."

"I wouldn't worry too much about that. He'll be a mommy's boy before you know it." I say.

"Oh, I'm sure. So... You and Mason are getting pretty serious then?"

I blush slightly, dipping my head to take another sip of the delicious drink she brewed up. "That man, Darla. He's something else entirely."

"He sure is a sweetheart. For as long as I've known him, I've never met anyone who is as calm as he is. Such a gentleman."

"He amazes me. Just the sheer fact that he deals with my outbursts makes him special... There is one issue though."

Darla nods her head, knowingly. The issue is an obvious one then?

"Han." she says.

"Han." I repeat. "Mason says she's dealing with some issues, and that he needs to be there for her. I get that, I do. It just-"

"Sucks that another woman has his attention?"

"Yeah. Does that make me a bitch? I know women should be building each other up and not knocking each other down, but... Uh, I don't know. It's hard, you know?"

"Mhm, I know."

"She clearly still loves him."

"I think that comes with dating someone new doesn't it? Exes can be hard work, but I'm sure you and he will work it out."

I sigh, "I hope so!" I glance around the kitchen, "This has all the mod cons huh?"

The counters are black marble, the doors a shockingly, clean white. They have everything from an espresso maker to what looks like some sort of vegetable dicer propped up near a pile of boxes of cereal.

"I prefer this kitchen to the one I have at home. You should really try some of the things Ben whips up. Better than sex I tell you."

"Oh really? I think I've only ever met Ben once."

She stands up and makes her way towards Maddox's pram to place him gently inside. "Let me see if there's anything in the fridge we can have."

I watch as she searches through container upon container of food before finding the one she wants.

"This is the best lasagna you'll ever taste."

She shoves it into the microwave and ten minutes later, we're digging into it with forks. It's cheesy, creamy and delicious.

"Oh, wow. Ben made this huh? I would kill for this recipe." I hum appreciatively.

"He'd die before handing it over. It's so good though, right?"

The two of us polish off the whole lot, working our way through the jug of ice tea that she also dug out of the fridge. We talk about everything and anything, keeping our voices down so baby Maddox gets his beauty sleep.

I don't realise how long we talk for until I check my phone. We've been sat down for an hour and half already.

"How long does a call last?"

"It depends on the severity of the fire."

"So, they're probably not saving a whole load of cats from trees then?" Joking, I sit up in my chair, stretching my spine.

"Probably not, no." she laughs. "As lovely as that picture seems. It can be really hard sometimes to hear what Henry's done at work."

"I can imagine. It's one hell of a job."

She grimaces, "Henry loves what he does, but sometimes I wish he were an office worker or something. I wouldn't have to worry about him as much then."

"How long has he been a firefighter?"

"Eighteen years this May. He loves it."

"Oh wow."

"Yeah, it's a long time to worry about someone every day."

"The two of you have been together for quite a while, I take it?"

Her eyes light up, "Since we were fifteen."

"That's amazing, Darla!"

"Thank you. I don't know how I put up with him sometimes, but hey, he's good looking so that helps."

"Oh, I'm sure!"

The heavy sound of a fire-engine approaching notifies us that the men are back. I stand up to stretch my cramped legs.

Darla gestures for me to head down, "I will be down in a second, just going to wake this one up. I'm sure you want to see Mason."

"I really do," I grin and head off towards the noise.

When I reach the open area of the station, I spot Henry jumping down from the engine. Sebastian too. The young kid from the twin's party looks completely knackered if I'm being honest. I approach them, eyes searching behind them for Mason.

Henry seems surprised to see me. He blinks rapidly, "Veronica. Hi."

"Hey! You all look like crap, no offence."

"It was a hard call."

I wait for Mason to appear from somewhere. Anywhere, but he doesn't. The engines are soon empty as his fellow employers scatter out.

"Where's Mason? Did he go home? I told him I'd wait for him."

The smallest cry from behind me tells me that Darla has reached us with Maddox.

"Henry, what's wrong?" she asks, stepping forward.

His eyes drop to the ground in front of him. Sebastian runs an ashen hand through his damp hair, avoiding my eye too.

Darla clears her throat, "Henry."

"What happened?"

I don't know why or how, but I know something has happened. Dread fills the pit of my stomach, working its way up my throat.

"Henry, just tell her. Now." his wife says.

"Mason was in an accident."

I draw my hands to my chest, my heart hurting suddenly. It's as though someone has come along and winded me.

"What? How? What happened?"

"The fire was much worse than we first thought it was. Mason went in to find a casualty. He was in the building for quite some time before we found him and has suffered major smoke inhalation. He was rushed to the hospital. I'm sure the doctors are doing all they can."

I repeat his words back to myself in my head.

"Is he going to be okay?"

"I don't know."

Darla puts her free hand around my shoulders.

"Let's take her to the hospital. Okay, Veronica? We're going to take you to see him."

I nod, unable to speak.

She hands Maddox off to one of the other firefighters and leads me to their car. The entire ride there, I cling to her hand like it's my last grip on reality. Silent. Afraid of what I'm going to find waiting for me.

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