Authors: Jennifer Bernard
Hot for Fireman
A Bachelor Firemen Novel
For everyone who puts their own life in danger for the sake of others. Thank you.
yan Blake needed a drink. Preferably somewhere no one would recognize him. Finding such a spot in the sun-blasted town of San Gabriel on a summer afternoon didn’t come easy. The town had quaint little crafts shops up the wazoo, but so far he hadn’t spotted a single gritty, anonymous hellhole where he could prepare himself for his meeting with Captain Harry Brody.
Right on cue, he passed Fire Station 1, home of the famous Bachelor Firemen of San Gabriel and legendary for the heroics of its captain and crew. Time was, he’d been on the frontlines of those life-saving, death-defying deeds.
He slowed his pickup truck and willed himself to turn into the parking lot, drink or no drink. Lord knew, his Chevy had made the turn so many times it could probably do it without him. But this time, it drove straight past the squat brick building with the cheerful red geraniums planted out front.
Face it, Ryan wasn’t ready for his appointment with Captain Brody yet. Wasn’t ready to beg for his job back. He needed a goddamn drink first.
A green and white Starbucks sign caught his eye. Several cuties in sundresses gathered around the outdoor tables like hummingbirds around a feeder. In olden days he would have strolled right in and spent the rest of the afternoon flirting with one—or all—of them.
But unless Starbucks had started adding tequila to their iced mocha lattes, the girls would have to get along with him.
He scanned the street ahead with its Spanish-style stucco office buildings and parched palm trees. Too bad he’d never been much of a drinker. He had no idea where to find the kind of drink-yourself-stupid-on-a-Wednesday-afternoon, out-of-the-way, loserville place he needed right now.
And then, as if the word “loserville” had conjured it out of his imagination, the sign for the Hair of the Dog appeared on the left side of the street. Towns in the sunny California suburban desert didn’t have dark back alleys. But the Hair of the Dog did its best to inhabit one. Located on a corner, it seemed to cringe away from its only neighbor, a shop called Milt and Myrna’s Dry Cleaner’s, whose name was spelled out on a marquee along with an inspirational saying, “The bigger the dream, the bigger the reward.”
If the Hair of the Dog had a dream, it would probably be to wake up as a medieval tavern. Faced with weathered wood, it had black planks nailed at random angles across its front. Either someone had done a clever job making the Hair of the Dog look decrepit or it was about to collapse. It looked like the kind of place where old geezers spent their Social Security checks, the kind of place frat boys invaded when they felt like slumming, and pretty girls avoided like poison because merely walking in gave them wrinkles. The kind of place guaranteed to be serving alcohol at two in the afternoon.
Ryan pulled over and parked his Chevy as close as legal to a fire hydrant. Silly habit left over from his firefighting days, when he’d always wanted to be close to any potential action.
Time to get blotto.
When he pushed open the door, the dim light stopped him in his tracks. As did the hostile voice addressing him with an unfriendly “What do you want?”
“Tequila,” answered Ryan. “The cheap stuff.”
“I’m not the bartender, moron. I’m the bouncer.”
Ryan’s eyes adjusted enough to make out a slouchy, dark-haired guy about his age who looked too skinny to be a bouncer.
“This place needs a bouncer?” He surveyed the interior of the Hair of the Dog. Just as crappy as the outside promised. Everything was painted in shades of black ranging from soot to shoe polish, except for the booths, which seemed to be a formerly hunter-green color. Just as he’d expected, a motley collection of oldsters slumped on the bar stools. He squinted. Was that an oxygen tank? The old man attached to it gave him a snaggletoothed grin. He nodded back.
Yep, this place was perfect.
“My so-called job is to weed out the jerkwads,” said the bouncer.
“Yeah? What’s your name?”
The friendly question seemed to throw the dude off. “Doug.” He added a menacing frown.
“Hey, Doug, nice to meet you. I’m Ryan.” He shook the bouncer’s hand before the guy knew what was coming. “You’re doing a great job, keep up the good work. How ’bout I buy you a shot when you get off?” He breezed past Doug with the confidence of someone who’d been in too many fights to seek one out with someone who wouldn’t even provide a satisfying brawling experience. If Ryan wanted a fight, he knew how to find one. Right now, he just wanted a drink.
The bouncer seemed to get the message. Ryan heard no more out of him as he made his way into the darkness up ahead.
Was this a bar or a haunted house? Maybe the men on the bar stools were ghosts still hanging around for a last call that never came. A couple of them certainly looked ghoulish enough, although the intensely unflattering light provided by the overhead fluorescents might be misleading. Maybe they were captains of industry enjoying the tail end of a three-martini lunch. Maybe the atmosphere added thirty years and several age-related illnesses.
A girl rose from behind the scuffed-wood bar, her head clearing it by barely a foot. She fixed snapping black eyes on him, nearly making him take a step back. What had he done? Why did everyone seem irritated that a customer had walked into their bar? The girl had big dark eyes, straight eyebrows like two ink marks, and tumbled hair pushed behind her ears. She would have been pretty if not for that frown. No, scratch that. She was plenty pretty just as she was.
He gave her the smile that had made so many women his eager laundry doers, tax preparers, and back massagers. Not to mention other parts of his anatomy.
She scowled even harder at him. And geez, was that a snarl? Maybe she was some kind of creature of the night, hanging out with the ghosts.
“Well? Are you going to order or just smile for the security camera we don’t have?” Her throaty voice, though grouchy, set off a pleasant shiver at the base of his spine.
“Is that why you need a bouncer?”
“Because you tell everyone off the street that you don’t have a security camera?”
“Would you order? I don’t have all day.”
“Yes, I can tell this place keeps you busy.”
Could her scowl get any deeper? Ryan cocked his head and scanned her face, amazed that he still wanted to look at her anyway. Why, he couldn’t say. Stubborn-looking mouth, a nose that turned up at the tip, long eyelashes, flashing dark eyes that took up half her face. Small too, like those kittens who have no idea they’re half the size of the dogs they try to beat up. Probably a few years younger than he, maybe mid-twenties.
She shrugged and turned away.
“Shot of tequila,” he said quickly. Something told him this girl wouldn’t mind blowing him off and refusing to take his order.
With a sidelong look that told him how close he’d cut it, she folded her arms and surveyed the bottles lined up on the wall behind the bar. “We have Patrón Silver and Patrón Gold. The Gold’s a little dusty.”
All the bottles looked dusty to Ryan.
“What’s inside’s still good, right?”
“Got me. Any of you guys tried the Patrón?” She flung her question to the geezers at the end of the bar.
“Tried a glass back in ’92, Saint Patrick’s Day. Thought it said Patrick, not Patrón. Hit the spot.”
The first hint of a smile brightened the girl’s face. “You’re the man, Sid.”
“Any time, Katie, my love,” crooned Sid.
“He has the memory of an elephant when it comes to his liquor,” she told Ryan.
So that was her name. Katie. He liked it. A lot. It made her seem more human. He stared at her, fascinated by the change a whisper of a smile brought to her face. Good thing he caught it, because it disappeared in the next second.
“So? Silver or Gold?”
“Cheap,” he said.
“Excellent choice.” She gave him a sarcastic look and reached for the bottle of Patrón Silver. Up she stretched, high on her tiptoes, higher and higher. Ryan held his breath as her black top inched its way up, up, until it pulled away from the waistband of her jeans, revealing a sliver of gracefully curving, ghostly white flesh. It bugged him that his mouth watered at the sight, that he wanted to run his tongue from the soft tip of her lower rib along the delicious slope that led to her hipbone. This girl had serious friendliness issues.
But she was kind of hot, in her own particular way.
The view slammed shut as her heels hit the floor and she yanked down her top. She plopped a shot glass onto the bar and sloshed golden liquid into it. “That’ll be four dollars.”
“Can’t I run a tab?”
“No tabs at the Dog.” The old man with the oxygen tank cackled. “Case you croak before you finish your drink.”
Katie smirked, even though Ryan could tell she was trying hard not to smile. “It’s the policy of the Hair of the Dog to request payment with each drink. If you have a problem with that, you’re free to go down the street to T.G.I. Friday’s. They have that super-fun trivia game there.”
She wasn’t going to get rid of him that easily. “It’s Wednesday,” he said, pulling out a fiver along with his smile. “Wouldn’t be right.”
She snickered. Then looked so annoyed with herself that she turned away and headed for the cluster of men at the other end of the bar. He watched her every step of the way. Each line of her body radiated energy. She didn’t walk in the flirty way he was used to. He’d watched many a girl sway her hips back and forth on her way to the ladies’ room during a date. He always looked forward to the moment a girl would excuse herself and give him a show, a tempting promise of what was to come later on.
Not this girl. She had a direct and to-the-point stride, and was either unaware of her sexiness or in deliberate denial. Her odd choice of clothing—long-sleeved black top on a hot day—could go either way.
He tossed back his tequila. As the liquor entered his system, the dingy room acquired a lovely, blurry sheen. Just what the doctor ordered. And the doctor would definitely recommend another dose. He tapped the glass on the scuffed wood of the counter. Katie glanced down the length of the bar at him, pinning him with a look of disgust. “You aren’t planning to get drunk, are you?”
“Do you interrogate all your customers about their future plans?”
“Only the troublemakers.” She graced the geezer brigade with a glowing smile and headed back his way. For one moment, Ryan wished he’d brought his grandfather. Maybe this girl had a thing for older men.
“What makes you think I’m a troublemaker?” He motioned for her to refill his glass. “I’m all about peace and harmony. Kumbaya, my friend, kumbaya.”
She looked revolted.
“We have more in common than what keeps us apart,” he added wisely, after downing the second shot. He’d always loved a good affirmation, especially with a buzz on.
“You can stop now.”
Aha. He’d found a sore spot.
“A hand offered in friendship opens more doors than a fist raised in anger. You catch more flies with sugar than vinegar.” Okay, that last one wasn’t an affirmation, but he threw it in for free.
“Do you want me to kick you out of here?”
“Make friends with your anger.”
“Doug!” she called to the bouncer.
Ryan laughed. “You’re cute as a button when you’re mad.”
“I’m not cute. And I’m not a damn button. Doug!”
But Doug didn’t answer. Scuffling sounds came from the front door. Ryan turned on his bar stool, which wobbled a bit. Doug must be outside, because his bouncer stool was empty. Something or someone banged against the front door.
“Uh oh.” Katie didn’t sound irritated anymore. A quick look in her direction gave him a glimpse of dark eyes round with alarm.
“Sounds like your bouncer’s getting a chance to earn his pay.”
“Bouncer.” She snorted. “Doug doesn’t even know how to throw a punch. I gave him the job because he can’t tend bar. He’s no good with people.”
Maybe it was the tequila talking, but Ryan found so many aspects of that statement hilarious that he laughed out loud.
“What’s so funny?”
“Oh, I don’t know. A bouncer who can’t fight? Or the fact that apparently you’re the one who’s good with people?”
The Glare reappeared. This time Ryan was prepared. It even felt warm and fuzzy to him. Must be the tequila.
“Never fear.” He took the bottle, poured himself a shot, downed it, then stood up. “Sir Ryan to the rescue.”
“What? No, that’s ridiculous. Sit back down. Seriously.”
But Ryan was three Patrón shots past listening. Whether she wanted it or not, she was getting a goddamn act of derring-do. Or should that be derring doo-doo, considering where they were?
He chuckled. Yep, definitely the tequila. Not to mention the anticipation of a good knuckle-buster. He’d sworn off fighting as part of his effort to rehabilitate himself and get back on the force, but when circumstances demanded it . . .
He flexed his fists and opened the door. Doug fell into him. Ryan caught him and ducked the hard punch that came next. While the man with the flying fists regained his balance, Ryan propped Doug against the wall, out of the line of fire. When he stood up, two men faced him. Two tough-looking dudes in black leather and black beard stubble.
“Man, am I glad to see you guys,” Ryan told them with a big smile.
True, so true. Tequila was nice, but a throw down was even nicer.
He braced himself. The second man, who also happened to be the larger of the two, came after him first. Ryan lowered his head and caught him under the left arm. He lifted him up in the air and spun him around so his legs mowed down man number one, who stumbled to his knees. Ryan dumped the larger man on top of him. Painful groans ensued.
Ryan went into his fighting stance. It wouldn’t be fair to kick the men while they were down. He wasn’t fighting for survival here. This was strictly recreation. The two men scrambled to their feet. The larger one, who had so recently been twirling through the air, roared and charged him. The next few minutes passed in a blur of vicious punches and ducks and parries and all the tricks Ryan knew from his years as an impulsive hothead.