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Authors: Susan Stoker

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She giggled, and Crash knew he’d spend the rest of his life trying to make sure she always sounded as carefree and happy as she did right then.

It was insane. One date and he was already thinking long-term, but he knew a good thing when he saw it, and no way was he letting her slip away. No way in hell.

“Oh all right. You can pick me up.”

“Thank you. One more kiss and then we’ll head down.”

“Okay.”

The word was more a breath than an actual word and Crash’s head was already moving before it left her mouth.

He couldn’t see her very well anymore, could only feel her body against his, her lips against his, and her tongue brushing against his own, but it was as if he’d suddenly woken up from a long coma. He could see his future, with Adeline by his side, as clearly as if they were standing in the middle of a stage with every light focused right on them.

Reluctantly pulling away and licking his lips, getting one last taste of Adeline, Crash told her, “Cover your ears.”

She moved her hands up between them and put them over her ears.

Crash turned his head and whistled one long, loud note, and within moments the bucket started descending.

Adeline’s hands came down and wrapped around his waist once more, giving him her weight. Trusting him to help her remain balanced as the bucket jerked and bounced as they got closer and closer to the ground.

“Looks like y’all had a good time,” Moose drawled when the ladder reached the bottom.

The lights from the building shone on the truck and Crash could see the blush that bloomed on Adeline’s face. He ran his thumb over the apple of her cheek and smiled at her. “We did.”

“Thanks for letting Coco hang with us,” Taco told Adeline. “He’s a great dog.”

“I know,” she returned.

“Arms up,” Crash told her softly.

She did as he said and he unhooked the safety line from around her waist, then did the same with his own, removing the harness and storing it in a small metal box at their feet inside the bucket. “Come on, Cinderella. Time to get you home.”

Adeline ducked under the chain and took the hand Moose held out to her. He helped her to the ground and she crouched and greeted Coco, who acted like she’d been gone for weeks rather than only an hour or so.

“Thanks for your help,” Crash told his friends.

They nodded at him.

“Anytime.”

“No problem.”

The two men headed back into the fire station and disappeared.

Crash leaned over and helped Adeline to her feet. They walked to his car and he got her and Coco settled. The drive back to the parking garage in Southtown was done in relative silence. It was comfortable, and Crash held Adeline’s hand the whole way.

She told him what floor her car was on and he insisted on taking her all the way to it, rather than dropping her off at street level and having her take the elevator up to her car by herself. When she argued, saying it was silly for him to pay to drive up to the third floor, he shook his head.

“I don’t care about the couple of bucks it’ll cost me,” he told her sternly. “Your safety is way more important than saving money. Now hush.”

“You’re kinda bossy, you know that?” she asked as he grabbed the ticket and entered the garage.

“I am. And I’m sure there will be a lot of other things you find out about me that might irritate you,” Crash said easily, not worried in the least. “I’m not perfect. Not by a long shot. I could list a whole litany of things that my friends and ex-girlfriends found annoying about me, but I’d rather you found them out on your own.”

“You would?” Adeline asked, her head tilted with curiosity.

“Yup. Because I’m hoping by the time you figure out what they are, there’ll be a whole lot of other things about me you
do
like, so they won’t seem as bad.”

“Do you leave dirty dishes in the sink for days so the food has time to dry on them, making it impossible to clean them in the dishwasher?”

He chuckled. “No.”

“Do your feet smell so horribly bad that I’ll need to wear a gas mask when you take off your shoes and socks?”

Crash snorted. “No. Although I would recommend you take a few steps back if you ever see me right after a fire. Our turn-out gear can get pretty rank…not to mention the boots we wear trap heat inside.”

“Noted,” she deadpanned. “Do you kick small animals and sneer at children when you see them in the mall?”

He reached over and tugged on a piece of her hair teasingly. “No and no. Now hush. Stop trying to figure out all my secrets.”

“I know you’re not perfect, Dean. Neither am I. Aside from the obvious illness I’ve got, I take off my shoes as soon as I get inside my house so there are shoes everywhere, forget to open my mail for days at a time, I’ve never dusted a day in my life, and have a weird thing about making sure my toenails are always painted. As long as you don’t have any bodies hidden under your house, I’m sure I can deal with any other idiosyncrasies you might have.”

He smiled at her. “Good. But I’m going to remind you that you said that the first time I do something stupid.”

They continued up the ramps until they reached her car.

Crash got out, grabbed a small bag from the floor at his feet, and met her at the side of her car.

She let Coco into the car, put the bag with the purchases she’d made earlier that night on the floor, shut the door, then turned to him. “Thank you for a wonderful night, Dean.”

“You’re more than welcome. I can’t wait until next Sunday. I have something for you.” He held out a small bag with the logo from the glass-blowing shop on it.

Adeline looked up at him. “What’s this?”

“Open it and see.”

She reached into the bag and pulled out an object swathed in bubble wrap. She slowly unwrapped it, and gasped when she realized what it was.

“Told you it’d turn out to be a glass blob,” Crash told her. “But I thought it’d make a fun memento from the night. Not as impressive as the things you bought, that’s for sure.”

“Dean, I love it,” Adeline said, looking up at him with big eyes. “When did you get this?”

“I told Andres I wanted it before we left the store. He dropped it off at the hostess station at the restaurant while we were eating. When you were using the restroom before we left I picked it up.”

“How did I not notice you carrying a bag when we went to the car?” she asked, bewildered.

“It’s small enough I tucked it into the back of my jeans under my shirt,” he told her with a slight flush on his face. “I wanted it to be a surprise.”

“Sneaky. But I love it. It was definitely a surprise. It’s gonna go in a place of honor for sure. Maybe I’ll bring it to work so I can think of how much fun tonight was rather than my asshole boss. Thank you.”

“You’re welcome. I’m glad you like it. Drive safe. Text me when you get home so I know you got there all right.”

“I will.” She looked nervous. “Well, thanks again. I’ll see you in a week or so.”

“Come ‘ere, beautiful,” Crash said, pulling her into his arms.

Her chin came up at the same time his dropped and their lips met as perfectly as if they’d been practicing it their entire life. Crash tried to keep it short, but it was still several moments before he finally lifted his head. His fingertips had made their way under the tight corset at the small of her back and she was plastered to his front.

He chuckled. “Now
that
was a good-night kiss.”

“Yeah.”

He kissed her once more, a quick peck on the lips, and removed his hands from her and stepped back. “I’ll talk to you soon, beautiful.”

“‘Bye, Dean.”

He went back to his car and backed up, giving her room to get out of her parking space. He followed her out of the garage to the Interstate, where she turned right and he went left.

Crash smiled all the way home. A week ago he was bitching to Hayden that he hadn’t had a decent date in way too long. Now he knew he’d found the woman he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. He just had to convince Adeline that she wanted to spend the rest of hers with
him
.

It was funny how life worked out sometimes.

Chapter 7


S
pill
, sis,” Alicia demanded.

Adeline groaned and fell back on her bed. She squinted at the numbers on the ceiling projected by her clock. She’d bought it on a whim a couple of years ago and now couldn’t imagine not having it. It was heaven to only have to open her eyes and look up when she woke, and not have to crane her neck to see the clock.

Seven thirty-three.

“Really? It’s Saturday morning and you’re calling me this early? Why are you even up?” Adeline grouched at her sister.

“Because my only sister was on a date and didn’t need me to start Operation First Date Dud and I want to know more.”

Adeline smiled and closed her eyes, remembering. “It went good.”

“And?”

“And what?”

“I need details!” Alicia practically screeched. “What’d you do, where’d you go, did he kiss you, what’d you eat, when did you get home…you know…
details
!”

“I met him in Southtown, as you know. We first went to a glass-blowing demonstration. Then we ate at that little Belgian bistro down there. Then he drove me to his fire station and we watched the sunset from the top of one of the ladders on the back of a truck. We kissed. He drove me back to the parking garage so I could get my car, and I came home.”

There was silence on the other end of the line for a moment.

“What?”

“I met him in Southtown, then we went to a glass-bl—”

“Shut up, I heard you,” Alicia said impatiently. “A glass-blowing demonstration?”

“Yup. He arranged it.”

“Then you ate Belgian food?”

“Yes.”

“He took you to his fire station and you had to climb up the ladder to see the sunset?”

“No. We got in the bucket thing and his friends raised the ladder.”

“And you kissed.” It wasn’t a question.

“Oh yeah. We kissed.”

Alicia was silent for another beat. Then, “You like him.”

“I like him,” Adeline confirmed.

“If he hurts you, I’m kicking his ass,” her sister declared.

“Leesh, stop it.”

“No, I’m serious. You’ve been out on four thousand one hundred and forty-seven first dates and not once have I ever heard the tone of voice you used while talking about this one. If he does one thing to hurt you, I don’t care if he’s twelve inches taller and an MMA fighter, I’m kicking his ass.”

“He’s not an MMA fighter. And it was only one date,” Adeline protested, pushing herself up so she was sitting. Coco was sleeping at the foot of the mattress. He opened one eye at her movement, but closed it again when he saw she wasn’t getting out of bed.

“But you’ve got a second one planned, don’t you?”

Adeline felt herself blush. She wasn’t sure why. “Yeah.”

“When?”

“Next weekend.”

“Next weekend? Why wait so long?”

“He has to work. I have to work. Life, sis. It’s not like we can hang out every day. I’m not sure I want to. Yet.”

“I’m happy for you.” Now Alicia’s tone was soft. “You deserve to be with someone nice.”

Adeline smiled. “Well, I’m not sure I’m ‘with’ him yet, but it’s a good start.”

“Good. Okay, I’m gonna let you go…I’m going back to sleep.”

“You suck,” Adeline groused. “You’ve always been able to sleep anywhere, anytime. And you know once I’m up, I’m up.”

“Yup.” Alicia didn’t sound the least bit sorry. “Glad you had a good time. Later.”

“‘Bye.” Adeline clicked the phone off, but didn’t put it down. She thought about it for a second, then clicked on the text icon. She quickly shot off a note to Dean. It might be too soon, and it was definitely too early, but if he was sleeping, he’d get it when he got up.

A
deline
: Had a wonderful time. Thank you.

S
he’d put
the phone down and swung her feet over the edge of her mattress and was only halfway across the room when she heard her phone vibrate on the table next to the bed. Smiling, Adeline padded back to her phone and picked it up.

D
ean
: It was my pleasure, beautiful.

A
deline sighed with happiness
. God. He might insist that he wasn’t perfect, but so far she hadn’t had even a glimpse of anything that said otherwise.

* * *

C
rash’s lips
quirked up in a smile as he sent a return text to Adeline. He’d told her last night, but it was totally true. She didn’t play games, and he loved that. She hadn’t hesitated to let him know she’d had a good time. Didn’t play coy and wait for him to contact her. Seven forty-five in the morning and she’d reached out to let him know she enjoyed their date.

“That her?” Cade “Sledge” Turner asked.

They were standing around the kitchen at the station,

All of the other men stopped what they were doing to look at Crash.

Moose’s hand, holding the spatula he’d been flipping eggs with, was held above the pan, motionless.

Penelope turned from the fridge where she’d been reaching for a carton of orange juice.

Squirrel’s eyes were comically huge behind his glasses as he stared at Crash.

Chief and Taco stopped putting plates on the table and looked his way.

And Driftwood rested his hip on the counter, the silverware drawer open next to him, waiting for his friend’s response.

Crash could’ve blown off the question. Could’ve shrugged and said something sarcastic. He could’ve deflected and told his friends it had only been a first date and didn’t mean anything. But it was Sledge who’d asked. The man had recently found a woman he loved more than being a firefighter. And he’d almost lost her.

“Yeah. She wanted to let me know she had a good time last night.”

Smiles broke out on the faces of the men, and the woman, around him.

“I’m glad she’s not doing the whole wait-for-the-guy-to-text-first thing,” Penelope noted, the first to unfreeze and get back to what she was doing. “I don’t know why women in their thirties still feel the need to play high school games with their dates.”

“You mean, if they like someone they should just come right out and say it?” Moose asked softly.

Crash saw Penelope wince before turning her back to the room and grabbing some glasses from the cabinet. She didn’t respond to Moose’s question, simply pretended she hadn’t heard him.

“Looked like you guys had a good time last night,” Taco noted. “I take it the sunset thing went over well?”

Crash nodded. “I appreciate you and Moose helping out.”

“Anytime.” Taco waved off his thanks.

“You look happy,” Chief commented.

“I am,” Crash told his friend. “She’s funny, interesting, pretty, is gainfully employed, close to her sister, and considerate. What’s not to like?”

“She a good kisser?” Driftwood asked with a grin. “I mean, she might be all those other things, but if she’s no good in bed, I’m not sure she’d be a good long-term bet.”

“Fuck. You’ve been dating those online chicks so long I think it’s gone to your head,” Crash told him.

“Avoiding the question. So you either didn’t get in there or she’s a lousy kisser,” he retorted.

Crash had enough. He stalked toward his friend and didn’t stop until they were chest to chest. “You’ve got a fucked-up sense of women, Driftwood. It was a first date. She’s not a hooker I was looking to fuck for the night then never see again. She’s way too fucking good for me but for some reason she seems to like me. If you have to know, she’s a fuck of a good kisser. So good I wanted nothing more to spend all night with my lips on hers. I wanted to keep on hearing the little moans and sighs she made as I fucked her mouth. If the way she squirmed and rubbed herself against me was any indication, I could’ve done her in the backseat before I dropped her off at her car. Is that what you wanted to hear?

“But I respect her too much to treat her like that. The first time I ‘get in there,’ I want her to remember it years later as the most exciting, romantic thing anyone’s ever done for her. I want her more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life. I want her to meet my friends and think they’re good men. I want her to meet Beth and Penelope and to want to hang out and have girls’ night out with them. I want to see her ass in the stands when we have a cop versus firefighter softball game, cheering for me. So to answer your insensitive and jackass question, yeah, I kissed her. And she’s a fucking great kisser.”

The air around the kitchen was electric and tense. Crash gritted his teeth together and his breaths came out in sharp puffs through his nose.

“Sorry, Crash. I didn’t mean anything by it,” Driftwood said quietly. “I didn’t know it was serious.”

“It’s serious.”

“I’m happy for you, man,” Driftwood said honestly. “Seriously. Dating sucks. Online dating
really
sucks. Women hear what I do for a living and want to fuck me just to say they’ve banged a firefighter. She’ll get no disrespect from me. Swear.”

Crash inhaled a sharp breath and took a step back from his friend. He ran a hand through his hair and closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them and looked at Driftwood. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to lose my shit.”

“No,
I’m
sorry. I obviously haven’t been hanging around the right type of women lately.” He held out his hand.

Crash immediately took it and they shook.

“We good?” Driftwood asked.

“We’re good,” Crash reassured him.

“So…” Penelope asked from a chair at the large table. “When are we gonna meet her? If I’m gonna go out and get drunk with her and have a girls’ night out, I need to meet her so we can get on that.”

The men around the table chuckled.

Crash helped Moose carry the plates piled high with omelets to the table. When everyone was settled and started serving themselves, Crash turned to Penelope.

“Our schedules aren’t gonna mesh until next weekend.”

She whistled low. “You’re gonna let a whole week go by?”

Crash shrugged. “Before I see her in person again? Yeah. But to talk to her? No.”

“What about scheduling a softball game?” Squirrel asked without looking up from his plate of food. “It’s low-key and she could meet some of the other girls.”

“Yeah, good idea,” Sledge agreed. “I’d love to get Beth to one, but she needs reinforcements. Since no one else here is dating anyone, I don’t want her sitting with the enemy’s women.” He smiled to show he was kidding.

“I’m not sure Mack, Corrie, Mickie, or Laine would appreciate being called ‘the enemy,’” Penelope said dryly.

“Maybe not,” Sledge said, still smiling, “but when it comes to softball, they’re just as competitive as their men are.”

“God, ain’t that the truth?” Chief muttered. “Wasn’t it Mack who decided last time to bring air horns and set them off every time we went to hit?”

The men chuckled.

“Good point,” Penelope muttered. “So yeah, we need to get your girlfriend to meet Beth so we can have at least two women in the stands when we play.”

“You could always sit with them,” Moose suggested playfully. “You
are
a girl and all.”

Penelope threw a piece of bacon at him. “Whatever. You know you need me to play. Who scored the winning run last time?”

Everyone grinned, enjoying the banter between Moose and Penelope. She might be small, and a woman, but she was as tough a firefighter as any of them had ever met. The couple of months she’d been a prisoner of war over in Turkey had been the worst thing they’d lived through. Thank God she’d been rescued and returned in one piece.

Mostly
in one piece. As time went by, the men had noticed she’d been getting more and more withdrawn…so it was good to see some of the old Penelope back.

“True, your boobs are a good distraction,” Moose teased.

He’d said it as a joke, just as they’d all kidded around too many times to count in the past, but Penelope looked as if Moose had struck her before she pushed her chair out from the table and mumbled, “I gotta go check on something,” and fled.

“Fuck,” Moose swore, running his hand through his hair. “I was kidding. Sledge, you know I was kidding, right?”

Penelope’s brother looked at the doorway his sister had disappeared through and nodded. “I know, Moose. We’re good. I don’t know what’s been up with her lately. She’s not…she’s not the same.”

“Did you really expect her to be?” Moose asked quietly. “She went through hell over there.”

“I know. I do. But I’d hoped that being back with us, doing what she loves, would help,” Sledge said sadly.

“I think it is, but maybe it’s not enough,” Moose returned. He wiped his mouth with his napkin and stood up. “I’ll go talk to her.”

“Maybe I should—” Sledge started to say.

“I said I’ll go,” Moose repeated, his jaw tight.

The six men watched their friend stride out of the room after Penelope.

“Hell of a morning,” Squirrel observed. “Crash almost beat the shit out of Driftwood for dissing his woman, Penelope looked like she wanted to either cry or quit, and Taco managed to eat his way through twice as many eggs as the rest of us.”

The men laughed. Squirrel was normally quiet. He was tall and skinny where the rest of them were brawny and thick. But the man was observant as hell, and he frequently dropped funny zingers here and there. He might not be as strong as the rest of the group, but he was always the first one to read a scene, or fire, and know exactly the best way to approach it.

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