â€śThe streetâ€™s probably going to be full of people, so try not to run anybody over.â€ť
Scott Kincaid ignored the helpful instruction from Simmons since driving the big-ass fire engine through the narrow back streets of Boston was hard enough without looking over to roll your eyes at the asshole officer riding shotgun.
Chemistry in a fire company mattered, and Engine 59 had it. Or they used to. And it wasnâ€™t a surprise theyâ€™d been a close group. Their lieutenant, Danny Walsh, was Scottâ€™s brother-in-law. Aidan Hunt, his best friend for years, was going to marry his other sister very soon. Even Grant Cutter, who was the kid of the bunch, had fit right in. And their pumper always rolled out with Ladder 37, and they meshed with that company, too, which was good since they shared the old brick fire station.
Things had gone south about six weeks ago, though, when Danny got hurt. Besides smoke inhalation, heâ€™d suffered a concussion, a busted arm and a leg broken in two places. Having guys fill in here and there wasnâ€™t easy, even short term, and then theyâ€™d heard the news Danny needed surgery on the leg. Theyâ€™d found a temporary lieutenant solution with Simmons, but it wasnâ€™t really working out.
Mostly because Simmons was such an asshole.
Scott turned onto the side street and rolled up in front of the function hall that had called in the alarm. He didnâ€™t have to worry about running anybody over because there was nobody on the street.
â€śDid the Rapture come and nobody told us?â€ť Grant asked, leaning between the front seats to peer out at the empty street.
Aidan snorted. â€śShit, the Rapture could hit and it would probably be a month before Boston noticed.â€ť
â€śHey, anybody seen Mrs. Broussard lately?â€ť Scott joked.
â€śMaybe we can save the stand-up routine for after we clear the scene,â€ť Simmons barked.
â€śDo you think everybody went home?â€ť Grant asked.
â€śDispatch said itâ€™s a wedding reception and they werenâ€™t sure what set the alarm off, so itâ€™s more likely theyâ€™re all still inside,â€ť Aidan said.
â€śI want this building cleared,â€ť Simmons said, and he gestured for Aidan to go first. Simmons was never first through any door.
Scott was familiar with feeling as if heâ€™d just stepped through a door into hell. But walking into the function hall was a special kind of hell.
Unable to silence the fire alarm, it sounded as if theyâ€™d simply cranked the music higher and kept dancing. For a few seconds he wondered how theyâ€™d managed to dim the lights more than the code would allow, but then he figured out some genius had plugged in a smoke machine.
â€śThey werenâ€™t sure what set the alarm off?â€ť he asked Aidan, watching fake smoke billow up from the dance floor to hover at ceiling level. At least the sprinkler system hadnâ€™t gone off, since it was triggered by heat.
â€śEverybody out,â€ť Simmons tried to shout over the music. Everybody ignored him.
Welcome to the party, Scott thought. As Aidan went to deal with the alarm, Scott sent Grant over toward the corner to pull the plug on the smoke machine. Theyâ€™d have to clear everybody out and do a quick sweep of the building, but it wouldnâ€™t take long.
The guys from Ladder 37 came in on their heels, with their lieutenant, Rick Gullotti, in front. Gavin Boudreau, who was only a little older than Grant, stood in the shadow of big Jeff Porter, and Chris Erikssonâ€”the oldest of all of them, barring Chief Cobbâ€”pulled up the rear.
â€śYou owe me ten bucks, kid,â€ť Chris said.
Gavin rolled his eyes at Scott. â€śI bet him it was somebody smoking in the bathroom.â€ť
â€śHell, half the people in here could be smoking right now and nobody would know.â€ť Scott shook his head. â€śSimmons wants us to get everybody outside.â€ť
Rick nodded. â€śI only saw one cruiser out there, so weâ€™ll have to send Cutter and Boudreau outside with them. As drunk as these people are, theyâ€™ll want to play with the shiny fire trucks.â€ť
Before they could move, a woman in a frilly hot-pink dress clearly marking her as a bridesmaid stepped up to Scott and ran her hand down the front of his bunker coat. â€śWell, hello, sexy.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m going to have to ask you to go outside, maâ€™am,â€ť he said, taking a step back.
Instead, she looked over her shoulder and waved at a friend. â€śI think theyâ€™re strippers!â€ť
It wasnâ€™t the first time theyâ€™d been mistaken for strippers, but it was the first time it had happened to Scott at a wedding reception. Who expected strippers to show up at a wedding? Luckily, the alarm and the music both cut off, and Simmonsâ€™s voice boomed through the speakers.
â€śEverybody needs to evacuate the building so we can do our jobs. The sooner we can verify thereâ€™s no threat to your safety, the sooner you can get back to your party.â€ť
It didnâ€™t take them long to sweep the building once everybody had cleared out, even with two of their guys tied up keeping drunk people from climbing on the trucks. Then they stood around while Simmons rounded up the people in charge and threatened them with all kinds of dire consequences if the smoke machine was turned back on.
â€śItâ€™s too bad you swore off women,â€ť Aidan said. â€śA drunk bridesmaid who thinks youâ€™re a stripper is just your type.â€ť
â€śWas my type.â€ť Scott snorted. â€śExcept the drunk part.â€ť
â€śLydia was just talking about how we should reconsider having a small wedding because there wonâ€™t be any single bridesmaids. Just Ashley as her matron of honor.â€ť
â€śOh, hell no. When the weddingâ€™s for your sister, you donâ€™t mess around with the bridesmaids.â€ť
â€śHow longâ€™s it been since you went on a date?â€ť
As his best friend, Aidan knew he hadnâ€™t been on a date in months. â€śNot long enough to tangle with a drunk bridesmaid.â€ť
After it had become clear his last girlfriendâ€”who heâ€™d actually felt something forâ€”had been chasing his benefits and even hinted she might get pregnant so heâ€™d have to marry her, Scott had decided to take a hiatus from the relationship scene. Seeing Aidan and Lydia together, as well as what Ashley and Danny had gone throughâ€”from their separation and reunion to his injuriesâ€”had just driven home that he wanted the real thing. Love, marriage and a baby carriage.
But he hadnâ€™t found the right woman and he didnâ€™t want to miss her because he was hooking up with women he knew werenâ€™t in it for the long run.
â€śWeâ€™re outta here,â€ť Rick Gullotti yelled to them, and they all headed for the door.
By the time they were backing the engines under the brick arches at the station, Scott was feeling the exhaustion set in. Even though they only worked two shifts per weekâ€”barring extra time to cover for somebody or events like the St. Patrickâ€™s Day parade last weekâ€”twenty-four hours was a long time. Hopefully, even though it was Friday night, heâ€™d have time to hit his bunk for a quick power nap.
â€śWho the hell gets married at the end of March, anyway?â€ť Grant asked while they went through the process of checking over the engines and putting their turnout gear on the racks for the next run. â€śItâ€™s too cold for a nice wedding, but not cold enough to be a winter wedding. Maybe you get a discount if you get married when nobody else wants to.â€ť
â€śJudging by the brideâ€™s extreme lack of sobriety, Iâ€™m going to guess it wasnâ€™t a shotgun situation,â€ť Aidan said.
Scott snorted. â€śShe was pretty near that tipping point where one drink makes the difference between the groom having the best wedding night ever or the worst wedding night ever.â€ť
They all laughed, which annoyed Simmons. They knew he didnâ€™t like chitchat when they were going through a procedure list because he thought things got missed when they were distracted. Like they werenâ€™t capable of lining their boots up in a neat row while telling a few jokes.
â€śIâ€™m going upstairs,â€ť Simmons said, disgust practically dripping from his voice. â€śIâ€™m so glad after tonight, you idiots will be somebody elseâ€™s problem.â€ť
Nobody was as glad as they were, Scott thought, though he wasnâ€™t so much an idiot that he voiced the thought out loud. He felt bad for the guys at Simmonsâ€™s usual house, who were stuck with him on a regular basis, unless they all had sticks up their asses, too.
Theyâ€™d just finished up and were ready to head up to the third-floor living quarters when a woman walked through the open bay door. Scott, whoâ€™d been just about to hit the button to lower the big overhead, dropped his hand.
For a few seconds, all his mind registered was an attractive brunette who was a little on the tall side and had a smoking body, and he assumed she was stopping by to see one of the guys or bring baked goods. Homemade cookies and muffins, and even the occasional pie, were definitely perks of the job.
Then he noticed the Boston Fire logo on her T-shirt, peeking out from behind her unzipped sweatshirt. The folded papers in her hand. The way she stood with her feet slightly apart and her back straight, her gaze sweeping around the engine bays in a way that didnâ€™t strike him as curiosity. She was appraising. Judging.
She stared at Engine 59 for a long moment, her gaze sweeping over the apparatus. And then she turned that same steady scrutiny on the guys, looking each of them in the eye for a few seconds before moving on to the next.
When she got to Scott, he looked into eyes that were a pretty shade of green and found himself surprised. He was expecting them to be brown. He grinned, a reflexive reaction to making eye contact with a pretty woman.
â€śIâ€™m looking for Chief Cobb,â€ť she said, and the truth of the situation hit Scott like a hydrant wrench.
Holy shit. The new guy wasnâ€™t a guy.
Jamie Rutherford knew that look, since sheâ€™d seen it a few times before. It was the look that said somebody hadnâ€™t gotten the memo that Jamie wasnâ€™t short for James, and that they were about to share their firehouse with a woman.
Sheâ€™d been in this situation before and, as long there wasnâ€™t a straight-up misogynistic jerk in the building, sheâ€™d be fine. The guys would be awkward and stiff around her for a few days, but once sheâ€™d been out on some runs with them and done her job, that would wear off.
And if there was a misogynistic jerk in the bunch, sheâ€™d deal with that, too.
Since there were still guys moving around on the other side of the truck marked Ladder 37, sheâ€™d guess these men in front of her were with Engine 59. While sheâ€™d probably crossed paths with all or some of them, there were almost fifteen hundred firefighters in Boston and she didnâ€™t recognize any of them. Sheâ€™d been sent some basic information ahead of time, though, so she knew their names and didnâ€™t have any trouble matching the photographs to the real faces.
â€śIs he expecting you?â€ť
It was Aidan Hunt whoâ€™d spoken, and she wasnâ€™t surprised to see he was standing to next to Scott Kincaid. Theyâ€™d been best friends for years, although the relationship had gotten rocky when Aidan started secretly dating Scottâ€™s sister. Scott and his sisters, Lydia and Ashley, were the kids of Tommy Kincaid, a retired firefighter who owned Kincaidâ€™s Pub, and Aidan was like a second son to Tommy.
None of that had been in the file sheâ€™d received, of course. But sheâ€™d been to Kincaidâ€™s a few times, with a group, and sheâ€™d heard some gossip. So she also knew that the guy whoâ€™d been hurt and whose job she was takingâ€”even temporarilyâ€”was more than just a coworker to these guys. He was literally family.
â€śHe said I could stop by tonight and look around,â€ť she said. â€śIâ€™ll be filling in for Walsh and I wanted to get the lay of the land before Tuesday. Jamie Rutherford, by the way.â€ť
They each said their name, stepping forward to shake her hand. Scott was last and maybe it was her imagination, but his touch seemed to linger for a few seconds longer than expected. â€śWelcome to E-59.â€ť
â€śThanks.â€ť Sheâ€™d heard he had a reputation for being a ladiesâ€™ man, but if he thought he could charm his way into her good graces, he was wrong. His thick dark hair and dark eyes, with a little sexy scruff on his jaw, would have put him squarely in â€śher typeâ€ť territory, but the E-59 logo on his T-shirt was like an electrified boundary fence.
The ladder company guys walked over and introduced themselves before heading upstairs, and Jamie was thankful sheâ€™d taken so much time memorizing the brief bios in the file. Sheâ€™d probably be overwhelmed as hell if she hadnâ€™t had a head start on putting names with faces.
â€śIâ€™ll take you upstairs,â€ť Grant said. â€śCobbâ€™s probably in his office.â€ť
After sheâ€™d met the older guy, whose job consisted mostly of running herd on a pack of firefighters while slowly drowning in paperwork, she was handed back over to Grant for the grand tour.
The narrow but tall brick station house was pretty typical for some parts of the city. The two engine bays and equipment and personnel lockers on the ground floor. The second floor was offices, a half bath and a small bunk room for the officers. The third floor was the living space. Two old couches and a couple of older chairs were in the main room, facing a big television. An open door led into a bigger bunk room, which was empty at the moment. There was a shower room and a couple of bathrooms in the back, along with a space for working out. The kitchen was big and she noticed right away how clean it was.
When she mentioned it, Grant opened the pantry door to show the sheets of paper tacked to the inside of it. â€śWe have a pretty strict checklist now because one of the other companies was slacking. It still says Walsh because so many different guys were filling in for him, but I can change it and print new copies.â€ť
â€śNo sense in wasting the time and paper,â€ť she said. â€śIâ€™ll just do the things with his name on them.â€ť
â€śOkay.â€ť He paused, and his eyebrows furrowed as if he was trying to figure out how to ask an awkward question. â€śWhere will you sleep?â€ť
â€śIn a bunk downstairs. Probably in Walshâ€™s until heâ€™s ready to take it back.â€ť
â€śWhat about the bathroom? Well, the bathroomâ€™s separate, but we just have a big shower room, like a locker room type because the buildingâ€™s so old and they had to make it fit.â€ť
She liked the way the younger guy laid his concerns on the table so she could address them, rather than whispering with the other guys when they thought she couldnâ€™t hear them. â€śIâ€™ll probably use the half bath on the second floor most of the time. But if I want a shower, Iâ€™ll make sure nobody needs it and then I have a hanger for the doorknob so you guys know Iâ€™m in there.â€ť
â€śOkay.â€ť He didnâ€™t seem to have any more questions. â€śAre you hungry?â€ť
â€śNo, but thanks.â€ť
Scott Kincaid walked into the kitchen, and looked at her before heading to the fridge. â€śWhat do you think?â€ť
â€śNot too different from any other house, except a little cleaner.â€ť
â€śHe show you the lists?â€ť
Jamie watched him pop open a soda and chug some of it, his throat working as he swallowed. Sheâ€™d worked in this so-called manâ€™s field a long time and had had her share of attractive coworkers, so she knew her body language and expression remained totally neutral. But inside, she felt a sizzle of sexual attraction that was strong enough she knew sheâ€™d have to be careful around this guy.
He lowered the can and grimaced. â€śI hate this crap.â€ť
â€śSo why are you drinking it?â€ť Sheâ€™d caught a glimpse of the wide variety of beverages in the refrigerator, so his choice had been deliberate.
â€śLooking for a caffeine and sugar double whammy. I was going to hit the bunk room for a nap, but thereâ€™s a fully involved commercial fire and if they strike more alarms, weâ€™ll have to go.â€ť
A sugar high wasnâ€™t going to sustain him long, but he already knew that and den mother wasnâ€™t the first impression she wanted to make. â€śI should probably get out of the way, then. I guess Iâ€™ll see you guys Tuesday.â€ť
â€śHowâ€™s your commute look?â€ť Scott asked after suffering a few more gulps of the soda.
â€śBelieve it or not, I found a place only a few blocks from here because the price was right. Bostonâ€™s not cheap, but I didnâ€™t want roommates, so itâ€™s just a studio. I had a bitch of a commute at my last assignment, though, so Iâ€™d live in a closet to be able to walk to work.â€ť
â€śBut just temporarily,â€ť Grant said. â€śDannyâ€™s coming back.â€ť
She didnâ€™t take any offense, since she knew he hadnâ€™t intended any. â€śThe rentâ€™s month to month instead of a lease, so if I end up back across the city, I can move again.â€ť
Scott rinsed out his empty can and dumped it into the recycling bucket. â€śGuess Iâ€™ll see you Tuesday.â€ť
â€śYeah. See you then.â€ť Because Scott was walking away and Grant was behind her, Jamie let her gaze drop to Scottâ€™s ass.
Fortunately, she managed to stifle the sigh of appreciation before it escaped, but she had a feeling sheâ€™d be giving herself a stern talking-to in the mirror later. Scott Kincaid might not mind being known around the neighborhood as a ladiesâ€™ man, but people tended to be harder on women. The only reputation she cared to have was the one sheâ€™d builtâ€”a damn good firefighter who showed up, did her job well and went home.