Authors: Jennifer Bernard
I owe thanks to several highly skilled professionals who helped me with this book. First, as always, my gratitude to Fire Captain Rick Godinez for sharing his firefighting expertise. Captain Mike Mac Innes and Los Angeles Fire Station 88 “A” Platoon showed me the ropes of USAR techniques. K9 search specialist Deresa Kenney and Huck were kind enough to demonstrate how rescue dogs do their amazing work. Any mistakes are mine, not theirs. Thanks also to members of my Facebook page who gave invaluable feedback about the challenges of being married to a firefighter. Thank you to Lizbeth Selvig and Tam Linsey for being such wonderful beta readers. I'm so fortunate to work with Tessa Woodward, who is both brilliant and kind. Alexandra Machinist, I'm so grateful to have you in my corner.
Most of all, this is for Scott, who makes everything magic.
o woman could help but notice the two men who strode into the City Lights Grill just after midnight. Not with that amount of pure, knockout maleness walking through the door. One had the broken-nose look of a boxer, the other a more fresh-faced appeal, along with a slight limp. Both moved as if they knew exactly what to do with their bodies at all times.
The two, who happened to be off-duty firefighters, didn't register the influx of feminine attention, maybe because they were used to it. Or maybe because the rougher of the two firemen was too busy lecturing the other.
“The problem with you, Fred,” said Mulligan, “is that you're tooâ”
“If you say ânice,' you'll be on your ass in two seconds.” Fred Breen was at the tail end of a rough night. “And you know I can do it.”
I know, since you finally let me in on your big secret. But check it out.” He reached for the trophy Fred dangled from one finger, as if he didn't even care about it. “Second place, it says here. You know who second place is for? Nice guys. Guys who don't have the killer instinct. Guys who give kittens CPRâ”
“Don't start with the kittens again. They lived, didn't they?” Fred flung himself into a chair at a table in the corner, then winced. He'd just spent the evening getting the crap beat out of him at the Southern California Muay Thai Championships. Every bone in his body ached, and his muscles had gone into some sort of traumatic shock. “And did you happen to notice the guy who took first? Jet Li couldn't have beaten that guy. He's like a sixth-generation master.”
“Excuses, excuses. My point is, I've noticed a theme in your life, Freddie-boy. Take Courtneyâ”
“Don't finish that sentence, Mulligan.”
Even Mulligan, instigator that he was, backed off from the feral glare Fred aimed at him. “Pitcher?” he asked innocently.
“Yeah, sure.” Beer or a full-body transplant, either would do.
Mulligan headed for the bar while Fred, nearly comatose, slumped further into his chair. He knew that no one at the firehouse liked his ex-girlfriend Courtney, which was
why he hadn't told anyone they'd broken up. He was tired of everyone's opinions on his life. Including Courtney's. She insisted on calling their current breakup a “trial separation.” Getting beat up by Muay Thai masters was easier than ending things with Courtney.
He flexed his left elbow gingerly. It seemed to still function, and apart from the bruises on his rib cage, he'd gotten off pretty easily. His face showed nothing worse than exhaustion. He didn't ever notice the pain during a bout. But afterward . . . that was a different story. That was why he trained only during his four days off from his firefighting duties. It took time to recover.
Why, he asked himself for the thousandth time, did he insist on throwing himself into that ring? What did he get out of it besides bruises and stiffness? Well, and the secret knowledge that he could disable every guy in the San Gabriel Fire Department. After all his training, he could probably even beat his brothers, who were all in various branches of the military.
He planted the trophy, a brass-plated karate figure mounted on a square base, in the middle of the table and glared at it.
Never mind that second place was the highest he'd ever ranked. Never mind that Namsaknoi Yudthagarngam was essentially unbeatable. Never mind that his brothers wouldn't take him seriously even if he had won. Was Mulligan right, and he was doomed to second place because of hisâ
His thoughts were interrupted by the sudden whisking away of the trophy. He looked up to see a girl in a bridal veil brandishing it in the air. Under the veil she had masses of wild dark hair and looked like big trouble.
“Cindy Barstow is hereby awarded the title of Most Bodacious Bride!” She mimicked a trumpet call to the women crowding around her, one of whom, a curvy blonde, raised her arms in a victory gesture and made a “gimme” gesture at the trophy. The dark-haired girl in the veil then bent to whisper in Fred's ear. “Sorry, it was a dare. You can't deny a bride during her bachelorette party.”
Temporarily stunned by the sudden onslaught of femininityâand the clean, rosewater fragrance of the girl's hairâFred warily surveyed the women surrounding him. Four of them, all dressed in skimpy party dresses and sparkly tiaras. All seemed seriously buzzed.
With perfect timing, Mulligan reappeared with a foaming pitcher of beer. “Ladies,” he said in greeting. “If you're here to celebrate, welcome aboard.”
“What are we celebrating?” an Asian girl in a hot pink tube dress asked. “I mean, besides the tragic loss of an exceptional single lady to the enslavement known as matrimony?”
“I like your style, babe.” Mulligan gave her a once-over. “You busy later?”
“Oh, I plan to get busy later.” She flipped her hair. “But probably not with you.”
“Ouch.” Mulligan mimed a shot to the heart. Then he plucked the trophy from the dark-haired girl's hands and transferred it to the Asian girl. “There you go. Prize for best putdown.”
“Hey!” The girl in the veil squawked and dove after the trophy. “I stole that fair and square.”
The girl in hot pink held on tight to it. “Back off, Rachel. I earned it with my outstanding bitchiness.”
Laughing, the two girls pretended to tussle over the silly prize.
, thought Fred.
Her name is Rachel
. The other two girls took sides, raucously rooting them on.
Oh yes. Seriously buzzed
Fred, watching their antics, heaved a sigh, which hurt his ribs. He was too sore for this. But he'd been carrying that trophy and he knew how cheaply it was constructed. He knew what would happen next. He rose to his feet, wincing all the way, and stationed himself strategically behind the girl in the veil. Sure enough, the thing flew apart, the statuette in the hands of Hot Pink, its base in the hands of Bridal Veil.
Rachel stumbled backward, right into Fred's arms. He absorbed the impact of her petite body and sputtered against a mouthful of bridal veil.
“Oops! I'm so sorry!” The girl righted herself, pushing away from him. Suddenly his arms held no silky, warm presence. He swiped the veil out of his vision and found himself looking into wide, concerned eyes of an unusual deep indigo color. Two spots of pink burned in her cheeks. “Are you okay?” she asked him. “Did I hurt you? You look like you're in pain.”
“I'm fine,” croaked Fred, whose ribs were throbbing. “Are you okay?”
“Just embarrassed.” She leaned toward him intimately, a little wobbly. He caught that fresh fragrance again, like morning rain in a rose garden. “I really shouldn't ever, ever drink. And usually I don't. But it's a special occasion, you know. And Cindy made me wear the veil, which means I have to do what she says. According to her rules. 'Cuz she's the bride.”
Mulligan came over and clapped a hand on Fred's shoulder, harder than he had to. “Freddie can take it. He's a stud. That's what we call him, actually. Stud. Not just any guy can win this.” He hoisted the trophy high in the air. “Champion in the Betty Crocker Bake-off.”
Fred shot him a baleful look.
“That doesn't look like someone baking,” pointed out the curvy blond girl, Cindy the bride. “Unless that's a rolling pin in his pants.”
“Fred,” Mulligan whispered loudly in his ear, “I'm in love. Can we party with these girls for a while?”
Rachel overheard. “No,” she said. “Absolutely not. Right, girls? Bachelorette parties aren't supposed to have
“Unless they're strippers,” said the fourth girl, whose short hair looked like a spiky red dandelion. “Are you guys strippers?”
“Something could probably be arranged,” said Mulligan. “Wouldn't be the first time.” He jerked his head meaningfully in Fred's direction. “You should get him to tell you about it.”
True, Fred had once taken part in a bachelorette party strip show. Never to be repeated, he'd vowed. “Mulligan, sit down and shut the fuck up,” he told the other firefighter.
“Ooh,” said Hot Pink. “Are you going to let him talk to you that way, big guy?”
Fred shot Mulligan a warning look. He was nearing the end of his tether. Sore, bruised, and he hadn't even had a sip of that beer yet. Plus he was hungry. True, the dark-haired girl, Rachel, had felt wonderful falling into his arms. If it were just the two of them, alone, maybe with a hot tub and a bottle of ibuprofen . . . some Tiger Balm . . . massage oil . . . Not that he was thinking
, no way, not with Courtney still calling every few days. He wanted out, but he didn't want to hurt Courtney.
“Yes, I am,” said Mulligan, dropping into a chair. “He's more of a badass than he looks. Nice seeing you, girls. Best wishes on your upcoming nuptials.”
“Nuptials!” the redhead shouted. “Someone said ânuptials.' You know what that means. Everyone do a shot!”
The other girls groaned and they all fluttered away toward the bar.
As she left, Rachel flipped her veil over her shoulder, catching Fred in the corner of his eye. He clapped his hand over it, while she muttered a horrified apology, then fled.
Fred sank into his seat.
“You owe me big-time,” said Mulligan grimly. “Those girls are hot.”
“Just pass me the beer.” But even as he drank, Fred couldn't help watching the girl in the bridal veil choke down her shot. She really shouldn't be drinking. With a tiny frame like hers, she probably couldn't handle more than a teaspoon of tequila. Maybe he should keep an eye on her. Which would be easier if his eye weren't throbbing from getting nicked by her damn veil.
“Here's what we're going to do,” Mulligan was saying. “We're going to organize a firehouse fight club, and take bets. I'll put all my money on you and say I'm rooting for the underdog, and . . .”
Fred tuned out the other firefighter as Rachel slid off her stool, steadied herself, then set off across the bar. She seemed to be headed for the door in the far corner, the one with the red exit sign. Maybe she'd decided to go home. Not a bad idea, in his opinion, except the path to the exit took her right through a game of darts, to which she seemed completely oblivious.
Abandoning Mulligan, he dashed across the room and whirled the girl out of range of the flying darts.
“I . . . I was going to the bathroom,” she stammered, looking bewildered.
“Bathroom's this way.” He spun her around so she faced the other direction. “Darts are the other way. Can you manage it or do you need an escort?”
She bristled. “I'm not going to the bathroom with some strange guy I don't evenâ”
“Not me. One of your friends.”
“Oh.” Her face flamed. “You must think I'm a total ditz.”
“Not at all,” he said politely, which made her face turn even more crimson. She tore her arm from his grasp and headed for the bathroom, indignantly muttering something about overprotective men.
Well, if that was the thanks he was going to get . . .
Shrugging, he returned to Mulligan, who drained his mug and eyed him with amusement. “At least she didn't whack you this time. So back to fight club. It's not a bad way to prove up. Show the crew you're more than a kitten lover. Let that pretty face of yours fool them, then bring down the hammer. If I hadn't seen you in that ring, I wouldn't have believed it, Fred.” His cell phone rang. As Mulligan muttered into his phone, Fred watched the dart players finish a game, then start another, then finish that one.
Mulligan ended his call. “I might have to hedge my bets, though, in case you decide to pull your punches. It's that nice guy thing again. How do I know you aren't going to wuss out and . . .”
Rachel had been gone too long. He just knew it. Leaving Mulligan in mid-sentence, he hurried to the dark hallway where the men's and women's bathrooms were located. Sure enough, there she was, a silvery sprite in the dim fluorescents, bending over a guy who knelt on the gritty, sawdust-covered floor. His chinos and stained crewneck sweater screamed vomiting frat boy.
“Are you all right?” Rachel was asking him in a concerned voice, seemingly oblivious to the fact that she was alone in a dark hallway with a drunk.
“Awesome.” The guy swiped a hand across his face. “Hey, you're pretty. Gimme a kiss.”
“Uh . . . no thanks.” She started to straighten up, but the guy latched on to her arm.
“Come on, baby.” He sang, “You can leave your veil on . . .” and tugged her so she lost her balance and started to fall on top of him.
Fred didn't wait another second. He strode to her side, swooped her out of the drunk guy's reach, and whisked her down the hallway. Her rosewater scent teased his nostrils; he resisted the urge to bend closer to sniff her hair, a move that might shift him from rescuer to stalker.
With her dark curls falling back over his arm, she tilted her head back to glare at him. “I had the situation handled.”
“You're welcome,” he said grimly.
She seemed to puzzle over that for a second. “I guess I was supposed to thank you.”
“Some people would at least consider it.”
Her quick shimmer of a smile cast sparks of light into their grungy surroundings. “Who are you, anyway? Why do you keep”âshe gestured wildly, bonking him on the chinâ“popping up like this? Did my father hire you?”
“What?” The throb in his chin distracted Fred from her odd question.
“He insisted on hiring the limo driver, but he didn't tell me about hiring anyone else.”
He had no idea what she was talking about, but she seemed to forget about the subject anyway. He headed down the hall, toward the bar. Surprisingly, she didn't ask to be put down, and he didn't offer. She needed to be with her friends. And for some reason, he needed to make sure she was safe. Besides, it felt good, holding her in his arms, so good he sort of lost track of time. The hallway seemed to go on forever, and yet end too soon.