â€śChange of plans, boys,â€ť Rick Gullotti announced from the shotgun seat of Ladder 37.
Gavin Boudreau sighed and kissed his plans for a sandwich stacked with about three inches of deli meats goodbye as the siren started wailing again. Theyâ€™d just finished an overhaul, making sure there were no hot spots that might flare up again, and he was starving.
â€śPDâ€™s requested possible medical assistance and EMS doesnâ€™t have an available truck yet. Weâ€™re closest, so we win,â€ť Gullotti continued because theyâ€™d been talking sports and he figured they hadnâ€™t been paying attention to the radio. And he was right.
â€śPossible medical assistance?â€ť Jeff Porter looked at Gavin and shook his head. â€śThey donâ€™t even know if they need help yet?â€ť
â€śA woman screaming somewhere in the building is all they know, although a second caller reports there is a very pregnant woman who lives on the third floor and it sounds more like pain screaming than fear screaming.â€ť
Chris Eriksson, who did the driving, pulled to the curb while the LT was talking, coming to a stop behind Engine 59. There were several cruisers there already, and Gavin could see a couple of officers standing in front of the building. The firefighters gathered, looking for an update, and Gavin rolled his eyes at Grant Cutter, who looked as annoyed by this lunch delay as he was. They were the two youngest guys in the three-story brick fire station that housed L-37 and E-59 so, even though they hadnâ€™t known each other before they landed assignments there, theyâ€™d become the best of friends. Theyâ€™d gotten pretty good at nonverbal communication.
They were held up at the front door until more information came through and the reason for the screaming was confirmed. Police officers had located a woman in labor in the hallway on the third floor and she was not happy about this detour in her birthing plan.
Gavin hustled up the stairs, the other guys on his heelsâ€”though some were closer than others. If they could get her down to the ground floor by the time EMS arrived, it increased her chances of giving birth in the hospital. Or at least in the ambulance, which wasnâ€™t ideal but was better than having her baby delivered on a floor by firefighters.
He reached the top of the stairs first, with Grant right behind him. Aidan Hunt and Scott Kincaid from E-59 were right there too, but Gavin had the most advanced and recent first aid training, so he took the lead.
The police officer who had been talking to the woman stood as the firefighters approached, the relief so plain on his face it would have been comical under other circumstances. â€śHer nameâ€™s Kelly. She wants us to take her to the hospital, but she canâ€™t move and she refuses to let us help her up.â€ť
The officer was young, and Gavin assumed he was still pretty fresh if he hadnâ€™t yet figured out that sometimes you couldnâ€™t let the terrified people in pain be the ones in charge. You couldnâ€™t make them do anything they didnâ€™t want to do, but there were ways of being persuasive and exuding calm and confidence helped.
Ignoring him, Gavin dumped his coat on the floor before kneeling next to the woman and taking her hand in his, giving it a squeeze. She looked at him, her eyes wide with fear and pain, and he gave her a warm smile. â€śMy nameâ€™s Gavin and Iâ€™m with the fire department.â€ť
â€śI should haveâ€¦more time.â€ť She could barely get the words out through panicked breaths. â€śFirst babies are supposed to take forever. My husband. Heâ€™s at work andâ€¦itâ€™ll take him almost an hour to get to the hospital.â€ť
He wasnâ€™t going to make it to the hospital in time. She probably wasnâ€™t even going to make it to the hospital in time, but he wasnâ€™t going to tell her that right now. He didnâ€™t need a cuff to tell him her blood pressure was jacked up, and that wasnâ€™t good for her or for the baby.
â€śI need you to calm down for me, Kelly.â€ť
â€śCalm down? I can feel this baby. Iâ€™m going to have my baby in this stupid, ugly hallway.â€ť
â€śYou can feel the baby? Try to describe exactly how that feels right now.â€ť He felt like an idiot saying it, but feeling the baby could mean she felt increased pressure, or it might mean she literally felt the baby exiting the birth canal and that made everything a lot more urgent.
â€śLike if I stop clenching my muscles, a bowling ball will fall out of me.â€ť
â€śOkay, so the good news is that means the babyâ€™s probably still in there, but probably not for much longer.â€ť
Her fingers biting into his arm so hard he expected her nails to perforate his skin gave him a few secondsâ€™ heads-up before she wailed again. Gavin winced against the sound and the grip on his arm, wishing heâ€™d kept the thick turnout coat on, but he did his best to keep his voice comforting and calm as he gave her breathing instructions she either couldnâ€™t hear or couldnâ€™t follow.
When the contraction passed, he led with the important stuff. How far along she was. No gestational diabetes. No preeclampsia, or any other complications anticipated by her doctor.
Then another contraction hit her and by the timing and the severity, he knew they were pretty much out of time. Kelly was probably having this baby on the hallway floor, and he needed to make sure things looked copacetic down below.
The wailing stopped, but the grip on his arm didnâ€™t loosen. â€śI need to push.â€ť
â€śPant through it and do not push.â€ť When she tried to look away, he moved his head to keep his face in her line of vision. â€śI need to look and see whatâ€™s going on first. If itâ€™s time, then youâ€™ll push. But we donâ€™t want to push before the little oneâ€™s ready.â€ť
â€śNo,â€ť she said, shaking her head. â€śI do not want a hot guy seeing my vagina like this.â€ť
He knew it would only be a matter of minutes before she didnâ€™t care if her vagina went viral on the internet as long as the baby came out. â€śI could put out a call for an ugly firefighter to assist and see who shows up.â€ť
â€śOh!â€ť Scott Kincaid snapped his fingers. â€śThat guy from Haz Mat. Whatâ€™s his name? You know, the one who looks like he did the Snapchat face-switch thing with an English mastiff.â€ť
Kelly actually managed a smile, which Gavin took as a good sign. The smile was a little pinched and he could tell by her eyes she was still in a lot of pain, but at least she wasnâ€™t in a full-blown panic anymore.
â€śI donâ€™t think we can wait anymore, Kelly.â€ť
She nodded, and in a matter of seconds, the other guys were lined up, facing away and holding their coats up in an effort to give her some semblance of privacy. Somebody tossed him a blanket and he was able to help her roll so he could spread it under her before pulling on a pair of gloves.
â€śDo you know if youâ€™re having a boy or a girl?â€ť he asked, trying to keep her distracted from the fact he was peeling her leggings off.
â€śNo, we wanted to be surprised.â€ť She snorted. â€śThis isnâ€™t exactly what we meant.â€ť
And, holy shit, they were about to be surprised. He looked up from between her legs, looking for back-up or help or anything. Some of the guys had kids already, so surely they were more qualified to deliver babies. Theyâ€™d probably cut umbilical cords and everything.
Where the fuck is EMS? He almost said the words out loud, but at the last second realized that wouldnâ€™t do much for Kellyâ€™s newfound and fragile calm, so he gave his mouthâ€™s filter a few seconds to kick in before addressing Gullotti. â€śHey, LT, can you get an updated ETA on EMS?â€ť
â€śTheyâ€™re one minute out.â€ť
â€śHey, try not to push any firefighters down the stairs this time, okay?â€ť
â€śIt was one time, Tony.â€ť Cait Tasker reached between the seats to get a couple of blue gloves from the dispenser mounted on the back wall of the ambulance cab and snapped them on as her partner pulled up behind a fire truck. â€śAnd that was an accident.â€ť
â€śSo youâ€™ve said, multiple times. Hell, Iâ€™m pretty sure you said it twice before he even hit the landing.â€ť
â€śFunny.â€ť She grabbed her bag and headed toward the door of the building, leaving Tony Colarussoâ€”her partner of four yearsâ€”to grab the OB kit since it sounded like theyâ€™d probably need it. Dispatch was also sending a paramedic, but it was going to be a few minutes.
A police officer was holding the door open for her and she nodded her thanks as she passed through. The first flight of stairs was no sweat, but she felt the weight of the bag by the time she reached the second. Another officer was standing there, and he pointed off to his right.
Not that she needed any help finding the commotion. The reported screaming had stopped, but there was a gaggle of firefighters in the hall. Or a herd or a flock or whatever youâ€™d call a bunch of guys holding turnout gear, standing around and doing nothing.
They parted to let her through, and she saw the back of the firefighter kneeling between the patientâ€™s legs. And his back was all Cait needed to see to know it was Gavin Boudreau.
That freaking cowlick.
They crossed paths occasionally, and there was something about the man that got under her skin. The first time theyâ€™d been on the same sceneâ€”a minor MVA involving a confused tourist going the wrong way up a one-way streetâ€”sheâ€™d gotten sucked in by his good looks and quick humor. Sheâ€™d been working up the nerve to ask him if he wanted to grab a coffee or a drink sometime when heâ€™d called her maâ€™am.
Not only had she not asked him out, but every time she saw him, she remembered the maâ€™am. It made her feel old and these days, she didnâ€™t need any help feeling older than her years.
Gavin glanced over his shoulder and as soon as he caught sight of Cait, he moved to the womanâ€™s other side and gave an updateâ€”including the patientâ€™s name and what vital info he hadâ€”as he moved.
Then Kelly grabbed a fistful of Gavinâ€™s shirt and pulled so hard, she almost yanked him down on top of herself. â€śDonâ€™t leave me.â€ť
â€śIâ€™m not going anywhere. I just need to get out of Caitâ€™s way so she can take over. Sheâ€™s better at delivering babies than I am.â€ť
He knew her name. Why that should stand out to her in their current situation, she didnâ€™t know, but she noticed it and was surprised. â€śKelly, he can stay by your head, but I need room for my partner.â€ť
â€śBy my head, like a husband,â€ť Kelly said with a short, breathless laugh.
â€śYou should at least buy me dinner first.â€ť He moved toward Kellyâ€™s shoulder without letting go of her hand.
Cait ignored him as she moved into the position heâ€™d vacated. It was baby time.
â€śI want my husband,â€ť Kelly said, and her face began to crumple as tears welled in her eyes. But before the crying could begin in earnest, her face paled and her eyes widened. Her sharp intake of breath held a note of panic, like a sour musical tone, and Cait blocked out everything but the baby crowning between her patientâ€™s legs.
Tony was next to her, ready to take and assess the infant. It went as smoothly as unplanned labor on a hallway floor could go, and by the time the paramedic arrived, Kelly had a squirming, fussy bundle of baby boy on her chest. Though it was a busy day for EMS and there were a lot fewer paramedics than EMTs, they always tried to transport newborns with them in case they needed advanced medical care.
Phil had a rookie EMT with him, but Cait and Tony stood back and let them take over since they had to take care of the OB kit and somebody had to bag the mess. Gavin was still holding the patientâ€™s hand as they put her on the stretcher, and Cait saw him smile at Kelly.
He really had a great smile.
â€śThatâ€™s a good-looking boy you have,â€ť he was saying. â€śIf you and your husband have trouble coming up with a name for him, Gavinâ€™s not too bad.â€ť
She laughed and said something Cait couldnâ€™t hear. Then Phil had the firefighters in motion, ready to carry mother, child and gear to the ground floor.
It was just Caitâ€™s luck that Gavin also lingered. She couldnâ€™t blame him for letting the other guys do the heavy lifting down the stairs, since theyâ€™d basically done nothing during the incident, but seeing him was a reminder she hadnâ€™t dated in a while and, considering how things were going at home, wouldnâ€™t be for a while. And that made her feel even older than the maâ€™am had.
â€śI feel like I should be handing out cigars,â€ť he said, and both he and Tony laughed.
Gavinâ€™s laugh made her even more tense. It was rich and deep and made heat curl through her insides. It was his laugh that had first turned her head, so every time she heard it, it reminded her of that day.
â€śNot gonna lie,â€ť he continued. â€śIâ€™m glad you guys got here in time for Cait to play catch.â€ť
Play catch? â€śAt least I took the situation seriously.â€ť
Heâ€™d been in the process of picking up her bag, and his head jerked up as if sheâ€™d slapped him. â€śWhat the hell is that supposed to mean?â€ť
â€śEmergency childbirth isnâ€™t playing catch.â€ť She took her bag and slung it over her shoulder.
â€śJesus, lighten up. It was a joke.â€ť
She was tired. She was hungry, and she wasnâ€™t in the mood. â€śLike I said, I take my job seriously.â€ť
â€śWhen I got here, she was laying on the floor screaming, and not just from the pain. She was in labor and in a full-blown panic. Her BP was through the roof and thatâ€™s no good for her or the baby, so I did what I had to do to relax her.â€ť
She headed for the stairs before the conversation could escalate any further. If she really pissed him off, Tony might feel obligated to intervene and that wouldnâ€™t be fair to her partner.
â€śAt least youâ€™re going down first,â€ť Gavin called after her. â€śI donâ€™t have to worry about you pushing me down the stairs.â€ť
â€śThat was an accident,â€ť she shouted over her shoulder, and she might have been tempted to go back and explain it a little better, but she heard both men laughing.
Gavin was pushing her buttons and sheâ€™d let him get under her skin. Again.
After helping load mommy and baby into the back of Philâ€™s truck, Cait and Tony took a few minutes to pack their gear away in their own ambulance before climbing into the cab. The firefighters were still milling around on the sidewalk, laughing and talking about who knew what.
Her gaze landed on Gavin because it always seemed to, whether she wanted it to or not. She wasnâ€™t sure how old he was. One of the younger guys in his house, but around her ageâ€”late twenties or so. There definitely werenâ€™t enough years between them to merit him calling her maâ€™am.
He was average height for a guy, but with a better than average body. Or maybe that was just her take on it. She liked guys who were in shape, but not such good shape they spent hours at the gym and expected applause when they flexed an arm. Physically, he definitely checked all her boxes.
And every time she saw himâ€”which thankfully wasnâ€™t that oftenâ€”she wanted to smooth that damn cowlick down. Maybe run her fingers through his hair a few times to help it stay. Then sheâ€™d invariably remember how close sheâ€™d come to asking him out, and why she hadnâ€™t.
He turned his head, looking straight at her, as if heâ€™d felt her staring. Which he probably had. After a few seconds, he lifted an eyebrow and she looked away.
â€śI canâ€™t stand that guy,â€ť she said, not sure if she was making a statement or simply reminding herself of the fact.
Cait opened her mouth, but then snapped it closed again because she didnâ€™t want to tell him the real reason why. â€śHe just rubs me the wrong way.â€ť
Tony gave her a sideways look before checking the mirrors and pulling away from the curb. â€śMaybe youâ€™re just mad because you want him to rub you the right way.â€ť
That was close enough to the truth so she wasnâ€™t going to discuss the possibility with Tony or anybody else. Gavin Boudreau was attractive, but the feeling wasnâ€™t mutual. Men didnâ€™t want to go on hot dates with women they called maâ€™am.
It was for the best, anyway. She was drowning in responsibilities and didnâ€™t have the time or energy to be fun and sexy with anybody, never mind somebody like Gavin.
â€śShut up,â€ť she told Tony, â€śor Iâ€™ll push you down the stairs.â€ť
He just laughed at her and took a left, heading toward their favorite coffee shop.
Usually, by the time the apparatusâ€”Engine 59 and Ladder 37â€”were backed side by side into the bays of the brick firehouse they called home, Gavin was starving. As the adrenaline rush faded, his appetite kicked in. Throw in being genetically blessed with a fast metabolism, and there was a reason the guys gave him shit about being a human garbage disposal.
Today, though, even the thought of the overstuffed sandwich heâ€™d been thinking about for half the day couldnâ€™t tempt him. Childbirth might be natural and awe-inspiring, but it definitely wasnâ€™t pretty.
But by the time theyâ€™d finished up checking and repacking their gear and gone up to the third-floor living quarters, he was starting to feel better. He figured heâ€™d start with some chips and, if those went down okay, heâ€™d follow up with that sandwich.
â€śWhat did you do to piss that EMT off?â€ť Grant asked, taking the bag away from him and shaking some chips out onto a napkin for himself.
â€śI donâ€™t know. I think it pisses her off when I breathe.â€ť
â€śYou guys have some kind of a history together?â€ť
He knew what Grant was really asking. Had he slept with her and then cut it off badly? â€śNo. The only time Iâ€™ve ever talked to her has been on the job, and it canâ€™t have been more than a dozen times, if that. She just doesnâ€™t like me.â€ť
â€śSheâ€™s pretty hot.â€ť
â€śYeah, she is. Not my type, though.â€ť
Grant snorted. â€śYou donâ€™t have a type, other than a women being susceptible to your so-called charm.â€ť
That wasnâ€™t true, and Grant knew it, since theyâ€™d been each otherâ€™s wingman for several years. He had a particular weakness for women who were soft and super feminine. It wasnâ€™t so much about makeup and manicures, but women who liked having doors held for them and needed spiders killed and had soft hands.
Cait Tasker was abrasive and tough and there was nothing soft about her. He doubted she was afraid of bugs, and sheâ€™d probably give him shit about being able to hold her own damn doors, thank you very much.
But an image of her popped into his head and he decided maybe she had some soft parts, after all. Like her lower lip, which was soft and full and his favorite kind of mouth on a woman. And it was natural, too, since she didnâ€™t wear makeup. More often than not when he kissed a woman with a mouth like that, he had to put up with the faintly burning tingle of those fancy lipsticks that made their lips look fuller. Maybe they did, but they tasted like shit.
But while Caitâ€™s mouth looked like a perfectly kissable mouth, the words that came out of it were a serious problem.
And sheâ€™d crossed a line today. She could be annoyed by him. She didnâ€™t have to get his sense of humor. She could think he was an asshole and tell him so, if it made her happy. But to imply he didnâ€™t take his job seriously? That wasnâ€™t okay.
â€śYouâ€™re thinking about her right now.â€ť
â€śOf course I am. Weâ€™re talking about her.â€ť
â€śNo, I mean like really thinking about her. You forgot I was even in the room.â€ť
â€śI guess I just canâ€™t figure out why she dislikes me so much.â€ť It was partly the truth, anyway. If he mentioned Caitâ€™s mouth, heâ€™d never hear the end of it.
â€śDoes she have any sisters? Maybe you hooked up with one of them and it went south and she has to hate you on principle now.â€ť
â€śI donâ€™t know if she does or not. I guess itâ€™s possible.â€ť At least that would be an explanation that made sense. â€śBut I doubt it. What are the chances somebody dating a Boston firefighter doesnâ€™t mention her sisterâ€™s with Boston EMS?â€ť
â€śGood point. I guess she just doesnâ€™t like you.â€ť Grant grinned and reached for the chips.
Jerking the bag out of his reach, Gavin was in the middle of telling him where he could shove that suggestion when Jeff Porter walked into the kitchen.
â€śItâ€™s like living with a couple of teenage girls around here,â€ť he said, shoving his hand into the chip bag.
Danny Walsh, E-59â€™s LT, was right behind him. â€śWeâ€™ve talked about this, Porter. Pour some chips onto a napkin or paper plate and stop groping around in the bag. God knows where those hands have been.â€ť
â€śMe? How `bout where the kidâ€™s hands were today.â€ť
â€śHey!â€ť Gavin pointed at the pile of chips heâ€™d shaken out onto the table. â€śI had gloves on. You could have helped but it takes an hour and half a bottle of baby powder to get gloves on those baseball mitts you call hands.â€ť
He ducked when Jeff tried to cuff him with one of those enormous hands because even in fun, those suckers hurt when they connected.
â€śThis coffee tastes like dish soap,â€ť Walsh grumbled.
â€śFor the hundredth time, LT,â€ť Grant said, â€śthe new dish soap is super concentrated, so youâ€™re supposed to use less.â€ť
â€śWhat was wrong with the old dish soap?â€ť
â€śCoupon from Mrs. Cobb.â€ť
Gavin snorted, knowing that would only escalate Walshâ€™s grumbling. Their chiefâ€™s wife got sick of him grumbling about grocery costs, even though they all had to contribute to the house fund, so sheâ€™d taken up coupon clipping. Now they had super turbo dish soap and a freezer full of Hot Pockets.
As they droned on about how embarrassing it was to hold up the entire line while the cashier scanned the coupons Cobbâ€™s wife had sent in to work with himâ€”all sorted into a pink wallet-type organizer with panda bears on itâ€”Gavinâ€™s mind wandered.
Straight back to Cait Tasker and that mouth of hers. He couldnâ€™t stop himself from wondering what her reaction would be if he cut off the attitude-loaded words coming out of her mouth by kissing her and maybe catching that soft bottom lip between his teeth.
Knowing her, heâ€™d end up in the back of her ambulance and she and her partner would stop for lunch on the way to the hospital.