Authors: Stef Ann Holm
Natalie conceded that he walked away as good as he approached, his behind just as great a view as his face. No question about it—her neighbor was the type of man who could make a woman lose her mind and every bit of common sense she possessed.
"I'm happily married, but a man like that…" Sarah said, blinking out of her stupor. "He's incredible."
Natalie couldn't deny that. She also couldn't deny he was very much a married man and, as tempting as he was, he was off-limits.
However, he did attract her attention whenever she caught a glimpse of his silver Dodge Ram pulling into the driveway across the street. She had a vague notion about his schedule; he seemed to work one day on and then was off for two.
She'd never conversed with his wife—very attractive, of course—and wasn't sure what the woman did for a living, but assumed it was something out of her house. She was usually at home during the day.
"He's just a guy who lives across the street from me," Natalie finally replied.
"He's not just any guy." With a slow, secret smile, Sarah added in a soft tone, "He's the real thing. The romance hero in the books I read."
Natalie tucked her hair behind her ear, recalling the dozens of books Sarah had loaned her after the divorce. They were meant to give her hope that she'd have a second chance in love. Instead, they'd depressed her. "Those books you read are made-up fluff. The men in them don't really exist. When I'm ready, I just want a normal guy."
"I don't think there
any normal guys. Steve bought bikini briefs the other day and I had a fit."
"Why would he buy those?"
"He said it was a mistake, but I think he wanted to see my reaction. And I gave him one—I told him if he ever wore them I'd have to revert to the granny panties I wore when I was pregnant."
The sisters traded glances, then laughed at the absurdity of their banter. The instructor gave them a frown and they didn't say anything further for the rest of the class.
When it was over, Natalie felt inspired. "I'm going to buy a screw gun so I can get to work on that closet remodel. You know, I think we had one of these cordless jobs but Greg took it with him."
"I saw Greg the other day," Sarah said, walking next to Natalie toward the check stands.
"Is he still dating that woman—Renee?"
"I figured he'd get remarried sooner rather than later. He's had two years on his own, and statistics say he should have been on his second wife by now. I hate to admit it, but I didn't think he could take care of himself for this long."
"Leave it to Greg to go against statistics." Sarah gave her a hug. "I've got to run. The girls are home alone and, at their ages, anything could be going on when they're not fighting over the phone."
Waving, Sarah said, "I'll talk to you before Thanksgiving."
"What do you want me to bring?"
"Your smile," Sarah called over her shoulder. "And that good-looking fireman if he becomes single between now and next Thursday."
Good-naturedly Natalie shook her head and smiled.
She walked the giant warehouse and went down the power-tool aisle filled with numerous boxes of testosterone-enticing equipment. The very idea that she was going to buy something in this store was amazing.
As she read about the features on different types of screw guns, she became aware of someone behind her. Normally she wouldn't have paid much attention, but whoever it was pulled at her subconscious like a blip on a radar screen.
Turning slightly, Natalie casually glanced over her shoulder to see who'd come down the aisle.
All she saw was his sweatshirt-clad back and the bold letters Boise Fire Dept. That, for some inexplicable reason, snagged her heartbeat and kicked it up a notch.
Standing in close proximity to him, she realized just how tall a man he truly was. Glancing at him from across the street was far different from being next to him.
Facing forward, she forced her breathing to remain calm. Should she say hello? She did, after all, know him—even though she'd never spoken to him and didn't know his name. Maybe he wouldn't recognize her. Then the moment would be awkward.
Natalie burst into a smile about her ridiculous thinking. My God, he was simply her neighbor. Her
This was so incredibly stupid!
Somewhere between the smile and the thought "stupid," she must have laughed out loud because a masculine voice spoke to her.
"Hey, how are you?"
Turning around, she thought she was prepared to make small talk, thankful he knew who she was. But the moment she looked into his face, she grew distracted by his powerful masculinity.
Natalie practically melted.
His mouth was incredible, his teeth were slightly crooked but very white against his lips. He had the nicest dark brown eyes and his face was more handsome than any one man should be entitled to.
"Hi," she returned. "How are you?"
"Pretty good. Haven't seen you outside lately."
Socializing in Boise came to a semi-standstill in the winter. Days were short, the air was a frigid thirty-some degrees and snow lingered on the ground. Mail was quickly collected from the boxes, half the time from the car before pulling into the garage; garbage cans made it to the curb in record time if one was dressed in office wear. Aside from that, nobody was in their front yard for conversations unless they had to shovel snow.
"Bad weather." Natalie couldn't stop staring at his mouth. "I don't do well in the winter."
"You're not a native?"
"Born and raised. I just never get used to the cold."
"Neither do I."
A momentary silence fell and Natalie became a little nervous. He unnerved her in a way she hadn't anticipated, and she thought it silly that she, a woman of her intelligence and age, was breathlessly affected by him.
"My name is Natalie," she said several seconds later, opting to take charge.
"Tony," he replied. "Tony Cruz."
He extended his hand and she hesitated briefly, then accepted. His fingers were strong, almost viselike, but without crushing her small hand in the slightest. He knew just the right amount of pressure to apply. His skin was warm and felt firm, his grip solid; maybe there were calluses on his palm. She couldn't be sure.
"Nice to meet you," he responded. His deep voice resonated through her every nerve ending.
She combated an annoying blush. "Thanks. Now I have a name to go with your face. I've only thought of you as 'the fireman.'"
"And I've only thought of you as 'the neighbor,'" he countered with an easy smile, making her feel comfortable because he played along with her comment and turned it back on her. Folding his arms over his chest, his eyes fell on the Makita. "Good choice."
"I can't believe I'm buying it, but I'm doing a little renovation work. I'm in the process of opening my own flower shop in the North End—Hat and Garden."
"I know where that is. I saw the sign go up." His voice had a deep timbre. "My wife would probably say I should visit a florist more than I do."
"My grand opening is on the first. I'd love to have you stop by, and bring your wife, too."
"Maybe I will."
Natalie struggled to say something without thinking about his wife and how Mrs. Cruz must look forward to this man coming home to her each day—with or without flowers.
"Well, in case I don't see you again," she said lightly, "have a happy Thanksgiving."
"You do the same. Hopefully we'll have a white Christmas this year."
"That would be great. My daughter's coming home from college for Christmas." As soon as she'd said it,
Natalie instantly cringed. Saying she was old enough to have a daughter in college—she might as well have waved her driver's license in front of him and declared she'd probably been in middle school while he was entering kindergarten!
"That'll be nice to visit with her. I don't think I've seen her around."
"No, she's been away since the summer." Changing her stance, she commented, "I noticed you have a little girl. She's very cute."
"She's my stepdaughter." His brown eyes softened, a smile hooking itself on the corners of his mouth. "But I love her like my own."
. The man was utterly endearing and heroic… Natalie shrugged off further wayward thoughts. "Well, I have to get going."
"Me, too. See you later."
After he'd gone, Natalie's heart ached for reasons she couldn't begin to explain. She was unable to move, her feet planted to the concrete floor while she tried to make sense of what had happened. She had
been attracted to a married man—wouldn't even consider it. But Sarah was right—there was something about Tony Cruz. His male confidence exuded without effort.
Unwillingly, she found herself responding to him, knowing full well he was married.
Then it hit her.
He was safe. Unlike a single man who she'd have to put herself out there for. With Tony Cruz there wasn't any emotional investment. It was just plain lust.
Of course. That was it.
She wanted him because she couldn't have him.
* * *
"Someone in the city just shot himself with a .45," Tony said as he unloaded Station 13's dishwasher.
The bells had just gone off through the station, a female dispatcher's voice relaying the information on the radio speaker. Every Boise Fire Department was hooked into the same system so they could hear where the other engines were being sent.
Station 5, the busiest in Boise, was being called to the scene. It was a morbid thought, but Tony thought it just the same: Now,
would be a good call.
One thing about the holidays, shit happened 24/7. The fact that it was seven o'clock in the a.m. didn't mean anything. If someone was going to harm themselves, they didn't necessarily do it when the bars closed. The guy had probably been up all night contemplating shooting himself; he just now got the courage—or someone found him and tried talking him out of it, and that alone was all the catalyst he needed.
"Number five," Captain Rob Palladino commented over the open newspaper on the table. "Those guys never sleep."
The blades of a blender spun, churning through the words of Jim "Wally" Walcroft as he said, "Toss me that aspirin from my food locker, Captain."
The captain tilted back on his chair legs, reached for a small plastic bottle and threw it across the kitchen. Wally swallowed two tablets, then kicked up the speed several levels and blended his protein shake.
Hoseman Tony Cruz, Captain Rob Palladino and driver Jim Walcroft were coming off A Shift as sunshine tried to break through the gray winter sky. Their three reliefs from B Shift gathered with them in the kitchen.
The six heavily built men wore blue pants and blue button-down shirts with the IAFF logo.
With the dishwasher unloaded and having already taken out the trash, Tony leaned his backside into the countertop, his big arms folded across his chest. He lowered his right hand, laid it flat on his belly and thought about eating a slice of the half-eaten pumpkin pie on the table—food had been coming in steadily since Thanksgiving. Citizens had this need to feed firemen and the doorbell to the station house was always ringing with someone bearing food—especially during and after the holidays. The guys were committed to doing Atkins after the first of the year.
While coffee brewed, Tony talked with his relief, Doug Frye, and filled him in on the calls they'd taken during the last twenty-four hours. All of them had been medic calls. People didn't understand that firefighters didn't fight many fires. Whenever the bells sounded for that, they were in their turnouts faster than they could think, but, usually, they were sent out to be EMTs.
Rob Palladino glanced at Tony. "How many carbs do you think are in beer? I've got a wedding to go to on January fifth."
A rough calculation was made by one of the reliefs and Rob's expression became contemplative as if he were figuring out how many he could drink without blowing his diet five days into it.
The conversation moved away from Atkins as pie was dished up by two of the firemen.
Wally drank his shake in several long gulps, taking a breather to say, "Yesterday we got a call when Tony was making an omelet. Had it pretty nice—cheese, mushrooms, salsa. We get back and half of it's eaten."
Tony frowned, still pissed as he recalled the care he'd taken cooking that damn omelet, only to get a nursing-home call and having to leave his masterpiece on the plate—uneaten. His voice tight, he clipped ins words while explaining, "Station 3 thought they'd come over for a visit while we were out."
Rob continued the story with a grin. "We get a call to Spring Brook and when we get back—Tony's omelet is half gone."
One of the reliefs laughed. "Gable. You know it's gotta be him."
"I know it was Gable," Tony said, crossing his booted feet over one another in a casual stance. "He's that kind of guy."
The phone rang. The incoming captain snagged the receiver. His eyebrows lifted. "Gable. We were just talking about you."
Tony's mood darkened. So it was only an omelet, but he wasn't much of a cook and he'd really taken his time on it. Perfection didn't come easily and that damn omelet had been perfect. Pranks were always happening between the firehouses, and Tony had participated in many. But this time he wasn't laughing.
With the receiver next to his ear, the captain gazed at Tony. "You really want me to ask him that?"
Lifting his chin a notch, Tony asked, "What?"
"He wants to know what kind of cheese you used."
"Give me the phone." Tony took two long strides to reach the captain who was holding out the receiver and laughing. "Gable, you shit. I'm going to get you back."
Several choice f-bombs were traded, the call ending with Tony good-natured and planning his revenge. He was thinking an open can of tuna taped somewhere discreetly beneath one of Station 3's kitchen cupboards. In a couple of days, they'd be wondering what had died.
Fifteen minutes later Tony was in the fire-station garage helping Doug wash the engine. If he had time he usually pitched in with the daily duty. It was sort of therapeutic. A wind-down from the adrenaline surges that were always ready to go full throttle while he was on a twenty-four-hour shift.