Hot for the Fireman: Chapter 1

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“Jesus, Wolf, it’s a nightclub, not a funeral. Lighten up, will ya? No one wants to screw a fuckin’ grave digger.”

Erik “Wolf” Grady cut a look over at his best friend of seventeen years, Gavin “Dozer” Greer, and shot him a silent Fuck you very much, asshole as they sat at their table in the back of their regular hangout, Phoenix Club. “This whole situation is bullshit, and you know it,” he ground out.

Dozer shrugged a massive shoulder, letting him know the big man was no more concerned about Erik’s ire than hearing a call come through at the fire station for a “frequent flyer”—a civilian who was paranoid, lonely, or usually both, and repeatedly required the presence of first responders in non-emergency situations. “Nothin’ you can do about it now, man. Chief said his piece. The faster you get it over with, the faster you’re back at the house.”

Erik held back the dozen or so responses firing in his brain. His current predicament had nothing to do with Dozer. Built like a Sherman tank with rugged good looks, Dozer was like the poster child for the army’s all-American hero—albeit with a thick Boston accent. He was also a cocky, take-it-or-leave-it kind of bastard, but when the shit hit the fan, there wasn’t another man Erik would rather have on his six.

Trying to distract himself, Erik did a visual sweep of the scene. Pretty typical for a Friday night. The bass from the house music beat down on him from all angles and vibrated through his chest like a second heartbeat. Colored lasers shot through the darkness in rapid-fire succession from the ceiling over the dance floor, making it an epileptic’s worst nightmare.

If Erik had his choice, he’d rather sit in a local pub like Charley’s with the old townies, drinking tap beer and eating stale pretzels while watching a game or shooting pool with friends. At thirty-five, he felt too old for the dance club scene, which was part of the reason he rarely went out anymore. But the other four guys on his team—his brothers, for all intents and purposes—still liked the rave atmosphere that let them forget about everything else and just be for a few hours.

Erik tried to shake off the chip on his shoulder, but it was no use.

As a career soldier turned rescue firefighter, obeying his CO had been a part of his mental DNA for the last fifteen-plus years. Sure, there’d been times he pushed back and argued contrary points to his superiors—being a soldier didn’t mean he was a mindless sheep—but when it came down to it, he followed his orders and expected the same from every man under his command, whether it was back in the army or now as a lieutenant in the BFD.

But this…fuck! He’d never wanted to balk at an order so badly in his entire life.

He shook off the memory and tried to appear chill despite the turbulent rage crashing through his solid six-four frame like a rodeo bull in a cramped chute. Releasing a resigned sigh, Erik forced himself to relax—a physical oxymoron if he’d ever heard one—and sit back in his chair. He’d been sleeping like shit ever since he and his team had been on scene when a power plant exploded a few months ago. The deafening boom, the flash of light and curling flames, people shouting in distress as they ran for cover… It had taken him back to a time and place that haunted the darkest shadows in his mind and dragged the nightmare out into the light of day. Since then, it’d been a living, breathing thing he’d had to fight against. He knew he looked like he could use at least a week’s worth of rack time, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t still do his job.

Dozer took a pull of his Sam Adams and made a disgusted face at Erik’s drink choice. “Maybe if you weren’t sucking on a bottle of water like a pussy, you wouldn’t look like you’re already in the shrink’s office and ready to jump out of your skin.”

Erik had decided to drive his truck tonight instead of cabbing it. He knew that without the responsibility of driving home, inebriation and bad choices were a lot more likely given his current state of mind. So water it was.

“Thanks for the reminder, asshole,” Erik answered, shaking his head. “Last thing I need is a goddamn shrink to tell me I can do my job.”

“Apparently, our last psych eval begs to differ. And not for nothin’, Wolf, but don’t think I haven’t noticed the panic attacks at working fires lately.”

Erik scoffed and said, “You don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. If I have problems catching my breath, it’s because half the time we don’t wear our SCBA and it’s finally getting to me. I’m not the first jake to come out of BFD with leather lungs, and I certainly won’t be the last.”

“You’re right about that.” Dozer took a swig of his Sam Adams and narrowed his gaze at Erik. “But you’re the jake whose eval came back with PTSD stamped all over it in big, bold letters.”

Erik flipped him off while glancing around the bar again, not really seeing anything. Every day he seemed to lose more control over what went on in his head. Experiencing that power plant blast had caused breaches in the mental hull he’d buried his shit behind years ago. The tiny fissures had grown into full cracks over the weeks, letting his demons seep through to wreak a fuck-ton of havoc in his life.

But it’s not like he’d gone bat-shit crazy. Not yet, anyway. He still decided when, where, and how much of the darkness was released at a time. It was his method, and it worked. His control might be a little more strained than usual recently, but the added stress wasn’t anything he couldn’t handle.

No fucking way was he letting himself get axed just because his new shrink might not agree. He loved his job, and that went double for the men and women he served with in the BFD. He’d rather die than abandon them, and it would take permanent paralysis before he chained himself to a desk to push papers and play politics.

He’d known as much when he stood in front of the chief earlier. Erik took a long pull of his water as his mind replayed the earlier conversation. He’d looked his chief square in the eyes and asked, “Where do I need to go?”

Bill had let out a rush of air, like he’d been holding it, waiting for Erik’s answer, then grabbed a file off his desk and handed it over. Erik had opened it to find forms filled out on his behalf, along with information on a shrink whose name sounded like a cross between a breakfast drink and a character in Raiders of the Lost Ark. And because he didn’t know what else to say, Erik went with something totally inane. “Is that name a joke?”

“Pretty sure shrinks aren’t allowed to have a sense of humor,” Bill deadpanned. “You report at zero-eight on Monday. Don’t be fucking late, and don’t fuck this up. It’s your ass on the line.”

Erik had repressed the few choice words running through his head. “Yes, sir.”

“All right, get outta here, son. I’m sure you have plans with your crew. Go blow off some steam, and I’ll check in with you next week.”

He’d answered the chief with a curt nod and left to head home and get ready before meeting the guys at Phoenix. Home. Erik scoffed at the reference to the scant apartment that held all his worldly possessions. The Roxbury firehouse on Columbus Ave was his home.

Erik had lived for his job as a firefighter from day one. It gave him the chance to help people in his adopted community, and best of all, it kept him too damn busy to dwell on the past.

Or at least it had. “Fuck,” he muttered to himself as the noise of the club drowned out the memory. “I’m gonna need a damn hobby.”

“Listen,” Dozer said, “why don’t you grab yourself a baddie from that bachelorette party over there and get your mind off things. Just don’t open your mouth or you’re liable to kill the mood.”

True to the call sign he’d earned early on in the army, Dozer didn’t bother mincing words. The phrase “tread lightly” didn’t exist in his vocab, whether he was dealing with people’s emotions or delivering an ass-whooping to the enemy. No matter the situation, Gavin bulldozed his way through life and never bothered to glance back at the trail of carnage he left behind. Not because he was an insensitive prick—mostly—but he figured if something he said or did laid you out, there was a damn good reason for it. Only two people existed in the world who the man turned into a sentimental sap for, and that was his mom and younger sister, Gabrielle.

“Last I checked, Doze, I didn’t need any tips from you on how to get laid. And forgive me if I’m not in the best of moods after losing my fucking job.”

“Hey, what did I tell you?” Dozer demanded. “This is nothin’ more than some extended R and R until you can pull your shit together.”

“And I told you that my shit doesn’t need pulling together.” Much.

“Look, man, I get it. I do—”

Yeah, his friend did get it. As did the three other men on their team. They’d all done tours in Iraq and Afghanistan for the army before joining BFD. They’d all seen more than their fair share of nightmares during the war.

“—but you know they’re not going to budge on this. Go to your sessions, get the shrink guy to sign off, and get your ass back where it belongs.”

Erik grabbed his water up again and took another long pull.

“And make it snappy, will ya? Cap made me acting LT, and I’m not happy about the promotion. Too much paperwork and responsibility. You can keep that shit.”

Erik shook his head. “I’ll never understand that, man. You were a damn good ranger. Hell, you could’ve been a damn good regimental commander if you hadn’t kept turning down promotions to stay with the platoon. Now you’re content as my second again when you could easily make lieutenant yourself.”

“Then who’d be there to save your ass all the time? You’re lucky I like you enough to stick with you.”

Erik arched a single eyebrow. “Or maybe you just like being my bitch.”

“Yeah, okay, tough guy. Why don’t we get together at the courts for a friendly pickup game tomorrow night? Then we’ll see who the bitch is.”

“You’re on. And don’t forget about your tampon. You’ll have to remove that if you want a shot at beating me.” Dozer flipped him off, and Erik felt the first sign of a smile on his face since getting called into Bill’s office. Nodding at the three empty chairs at their table, Erik asked, “Where’d the kids get off to?”

The other three members of their unit—Ashton “Smoke” Donovan, Sean “Bowie” Evans, and Tyler “Preacher” Connelly—had a habit of squabbling and wrestling like actual brothers. Dozer and Erik had taken to calling them “the kids” as a joke. Then they kept doing it because the other three hated it.

Dozer pointed to a corner booth. “That’s Smoke over there with a pretty redhead sitting on his lap and sucking on his face like a goddamn Hoover.” Smoke was the token lady-killer of the group. The guys joked that if he notched his bedpost for every woman he fucked, it’d look like a termite playground. “Bowie and Preacher are somewhere in that mob on the dance floor, getting their freak on.”

Erik almost shot water through his nose. “I don’t think that’s an expression people still use. You might want to take a stroll through the Urban Dictionary, old man.”

Dozer made a face that clearly said as if I care. “So how ’bout that bachelorette party?”

Inwardly sighing, Erik contemplated whether he shouldn’t just take Dozer’s advice and find a willing woman to lose himself in. He used to be a skirt chaser like the other guys, but lately he’d been less than enthusiastic about hooking up with random women. There wasn’t any one thing he could pin it on, but somewhere along the line, the one-night stands had lost their appeal. The women all ran together in his mind with nothing distinctive or unique to set them apart from one another.

When he realized he didn’t even remember their names for the duration of their time together, he took a long look in the proverbial mirror and didn’t care for the man staring back at him. After that, he tended to burn off any extra adrenaline from the job with grueling workouts and training exercises.

But there were times when the workouts weren’t enough. They exhausted his body but never his mind. On the days Rescue 2 dealt with really bad calls—the kind that threatened to coax the ugliness from the depths of his soul—he turned to the only thing that could shut down his mental side long enough for him to push his reset button. Sex. The kind that’s quick and rough and dirty with the type of women who enjoyed it when the darker parts of him rose to the surface. But he did his best to keep those instances few and far between.

Erik made a decision and downed the rest of his water, then crushed the plastic bottle and dropped it on the wooden table. “You go ahead,” he said. “I’m not in the mood.”

That got Dozer’s attention like a five-alarmer. “The fuck, Wolf? You get the herp or something?”

Erik cracked a smile and shook his head. “Anyone ever tell you you’re a real prick, D?”

“Every day and twice on Sundays, my friend.”

“Sounds about right.”

“I’m heading out.” Erik rose and tossed a few bills on the table. “Get a round for you and the guys on me. Give me a call tomorrow if you want to put a game together.”

“Roger that. Later, brother.”

Pushing through the throng of bodies, he did his best to be civil and patient instead of barreling a path straight to the door, casualties be damned.

As soon as he reached the outside, he dragged the fresh air of the warm April night deep into his lungs and released it slowly. Grabbing his keys out of his pocket, he made his way to where he parked his truck. All he wanted to do was get to his apartment and end this shit show of a day with a bottle of Jameson and highlights on SportsCenter. First, he needed to make a quick stop for the essentials.

Twenty minutes later, he pulled up to a liquor store and parked his Dodge Ram 2500 behind a powder blue Mini Cooper. Climbing out of his truck, he chuffed at the difference in size. His truck looked like it could eat the tiny car in front of it. It was a wonder those things were even street legal. Erik would bet money it was owned by some bubbly college co-ed gathering supplies for a house party. It’d be nice if his biggest problem right now was as easy as which flavor of wine cooler to go with.

The bell above the door tinkled as he walked through. The older lady behind the counter glanced up from her magazine over the reading glasses perched on the edge of her nose and smiled in greeting. Erik answered in kind and started his search for the bottle of whiskey that would keep him company tonight.

The clicking of high heels on linoleum echoed from somewhere in the store, a staccato rhythm that contradicted the smooth jazz being piped in softly from the radio. Out of habit, he did a quick mental check of the place, determining any and all exits and using the large, round mirrors hanging in the corners to get a body count. He saw a flash of a blonde woman in a red dress as she clipped her way along the back wall, but she appeared to be the only person there besides the clerk.

He turned down the correct aisle and found the bottles of Jameson easily enough. The clicking got louder as the woman perused the wine selection in the next aisle over, eventually coming to a stop directly on the other side of the shelves he was facing.

“I don’t get it,” she mumbled. “It shouldn’t be this damn hard to find.”

If he wasn’t in such a sour mood, he’d offer his assistance. Instead, he plucked a bottle of whiskey from the shelf and turned to head back to the front. He’d send the clerk back to help her.

“I’m officially done with the dating scene. I should just have a hot one-night stand. Find some guy to screw my brains out and be done with it.”

He hadn’t gone farther than two steps when the woman’s words halted his hasty retreat. Feeling like a dog perking up at the sound of a command whistle, he waited in anticipation to hear what came next.

“I’m being serious, Angie. I’m so sick of all these failed dates.” She must be on the phone. He shouldn’t listen in, he knew that, yet he couldn’t bring himself to move, either. “I want a man who knows how to make me feel like a real woman. Is that so much to ask?”

The tone of her voice held dejection and disappointment that reminded him of when his sister’s boyfriend dumped her in high school. He didn’t know this woman, but part of him sympathized with her all the same. The other part of him—the one currently waking up behind his zipper—was still stuck on the hot one-night stand.

“I don’t know; it’s not like I have a list of qualities with checkboxes.” Her friend—Angie—must have asked for clarification. “Someone who doesn’t awkwardly fumble through a kiss or treat me with kid gloves like I’m a damn China doll would be a step in the right direction.” Glass clinked together as she finally pulled a bottle from the shelf. “A man who can make the past disappear and render the future immaterial. A man who makes it impossible to focus on anything but him and the wicked hot things he’s doing to me.”

Erik dragged a hand over his mouth and tipped his head back to look up at the water-stained drop ceiling. Fucking hell, the images her words conjured had his blood running hot. When was the last time he’d been with a woman? Two months? Three? It suddenly felt like years.

“Yeah, I’ll just proposition the next guy I see,” she said. Erik could almost see her accompanying eye-roll. “Okay, I’m going to let you go, chica. I need to buy my wine and get home to my pity party, party of one. I’ll call you tomorrow.”

Her heels striking the floor again as she moved toward the front of the store snapped him out of his daydreaming. Shit, she had to pass his aisle to get to the register. She’d know he heard her entire conversation and think he was some kind of creeper. You were being a creeper, dumbass. Countering his position to hers, he moved in the opposite direction and slid around to the next aisle just as she vacated it. He should wait until she was gone, but the desire to get a better look at her had his feet moving before he could think better of it.

Rounding the front of the aisle, he let his gaze rove over her body in profile as he made his way to the counter. Her sleeveless red dress scooped low over the swells of her large breasts and molded itself to her curves, hitting her at mid-thigh. He wondered if she wore matching red panties underneath, then noticed the absence of panty lines and wondered if she wore any at all. Christ. Images flashed in Erik’s head of twisting her long, wavy hair around one of his hands and pulling it back so he could devour her mouth, her neck— Shit. If he kept up those thoughts, he’d have a permanent zipper imprinted on his dick.

“Shit,” she swore, dropping her head back on her shoulders. “I think I left my purse at the bar.”

“I’ll buy your wine,” Erik said, stopping next to her and already retrieving his wallet.

The Lady in Red turned to face him, effectively trapping the air in his lungs. Her body might be a knockout, but her face was nothing short of stunning. Delicate features inside of a heart shape with creamy skin, high cheekbones, and hazel eyes. Her bold makeup—heavily lined eyes and candy apple lips—contradicted the vulnerability and hint of innocence in her expression.

“Thank you, but I can’t let you do that,” she said, her cheeks infusing with color. “I don’t really need the wine.”

“With the night it sounds like you’re having, I think you do.” Her eyes grew big and he realized too late she must think he meant her phone conversation, so he added, “Because you left your purse at the bar.”

Relief flowed out of her on an exhaled, “Oh, right. Still though—”

He held up his hand as he smiled. “Listen, if we were at that bar, I would’ve offered to buy you a drink anyway.” She hesitated, biting on the corner of her lower lip, which tightened his gut into a knot. “Tell you what,” he said, handing his credit card to the older lady behind the counter who’d been watching the exchange like it was a scene from one of her soap operas. “I’m going to buy the whiskey and the wine. But I’m only leaving with the whiskey. You can either take the wine with you, or gift it to…”

He arched a brow in question to the clerk. “Betty,” she responded with a smoker’s rasp and a yellowed, toothy grin.

“To Betty. Up to you.” Erik nodded to Betty who then rang up the two bottles of alcohol and placed them in separate brown paper bags. Red glanced awkwardly between him, Betty, and the bottle of wine.

“Don’t look at me,” Betty said with a wink at the woman. “Wine gives me a massive headache.”

Erik grabbed the Jameson and stepped into her space. Looking down at her, he spoke low, his mouth hitching up in one corner. “Enjoy your wine.” Then he strode past her and pushed out through the door, the jangle of the bell announcing his exit.

He only made it a few feet when he heard the bell again. “Thank you,” she called out to him.

Erik turned around to see her standing in the middle of the sidewalk, her phone and the bottle of wine clutched in her hands. It was an opening, an invitation to continue talking. She’d had the opportunity to wait until he drove away before leaving the store, but she’d rushed out after him instead.

On any normal night, he probably would have walked back to her and tried flirting. But she’d had a shitty night and he’d had an even shittier day. He honestly didn’t have it in him to pull out the full charm. Besides, he doubted she’d been even half serious about a one-night stand and he wasn’t looking to fix her bad dating streak. So instead, he gave her a nod and a farewell grin, then turned and headed for his truck, trying to ignore the odd feeling of regret prickling in his chest.

* * *

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