Flirting with Fire, Chapter 1

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So this was where jock straps went to die.

Kinsey Taylor’s nose twitched at the aromatic combination of sweat, dirty laundry, and an unhealthy abundance of testosterone. Three stinky brothers had inured her senses to the more disgusting habits of the male species, so she remained largely unfazed as she marched through the makeshift gym of Engine Company 6’s quarters on Chicago’s north side.

Judging by the slack jaws and horrified expressions of the men she passed, her composure wasn’t catching.

“Hey, lady, you can’t be in here,” a Popeye-gunned lug said as he reset dumbbells he’d been curling with ease.

Ignoring him and the supporting grumbles of his workout crew, she continued to her destination—the locker room of Chicago’s oldest firehouse—for a showdown with a man she had never met, but who had already pissed her off so much she was ready to set his head on fire. The guy might have a reputation as one of the bravest and most decorated firefighters in the Chicago Fire Department, but she’d like to see how Mr. Luke Almeida would handle that particular conflagration.

She rounded a corner with purpose and crashed through the swing doors at the end of a corridor flanked by gray, paint-peeling walls. The smell in here was slightly better, which Kinsey attributed in part to the scent of shampoo and soap, but mostly to the broad-shouldered specimen standing before an open locker.

He turned slowly, his eyebrows veeing over a face more weathered than handsome.

“This isn’t part of the tour, miss.”

Miss.

That word flicked across her sensitive brain like a fingernail over a raw wound. She should have been Mrs. David Halford for almost a month by now, and the painful fact that she wasn’t apparently still had the capacity to surprise her. Oh joy. Now she had to steel her mind against the word miss along with other nuggets like incompatible andnonrefundable deposit. Her vocabulary of not-words had expanded considerably since her cross-country move from San Francisco to Chicago four months ago.

“I’m here for”—the head of—“Luke Almeida,” she said to the man before her.

The slight twitch of his mouth acted like a lever for his eyebrows. “Luke. Visitor,” he called out in a tone that said Luke hosted a lot of visitors.

Kinsey had a truckload of reasons to dislike Luke Almeida. Any man who instigated a bar brawl involving half his firehouse and a vigorous complement of the Chicago Police Department was already at the top of her shit list. When that same man refused to return three phone calls from the mayor’s Media Affairs Office, he was on his way to carving out a special place in her affections for his about-to-be-reamed ass. Now that smirk from Tall, Dark, Whatever confirmed what she had suspected the moment Almeida’s file landed on her desk at city hall four days ago: he thought he was all that and a bag of chips.

“You must be lost, sweetheart.”

A low rumble spiked every fine hair on the back of her neck to attention. On four-inch heels she pivoted and encountered a plume of steam, which, like a magician’s cloud, dissipated to reveal a half-naked man.

Whoa.

The clearing mist had the opposite effect on her rapidly fogging brain. Bye-bye, Tall ’n’ Dark; this brute streak of male had that guy beat in the masculinity stakes six ways from Sunday.

Across his broad chest, the slogan of the U.S. Marine Corps, Semper Fidelis, formed a rolling script that joined forces with the tattooed cuffs on his biceps, the letters of which she couldn’t quite make out, short of staring.

And she wanted to stare because this just got better.

On lean hips, a towel draped threateningly low, highlighting cut indents on either side of his abs. Was there anything hotter than that V shape? As if the killer bod wasn’t enough, he had eyes so fiercely blue she wondered if they were natural. Surely those things had come out of a lab.

Then again, the whole picture was one of a genetically engineered firefighting machine. Or fighting machine, considering his fondness for hitting first and to hell with the consequences.

He rubbed a towel through damp hair, returning life to mink-brown waves that framed strong cheekbones and more jaw than was strictly necessary. The movement showcased the tattoo on his right bicep: Logan, combined with the intertwined letters of the CFD. She would bet the two-carat engagement ring she had hurled in her ex-fiancé’s face that the ink on his left arm spelled Sean, the name of Luke Almeida’s foster father. A renowned fireman who had been awarded every medal in the book, Sean Dempsey made the greatest sacrifice during a high-rise fire eight years ago. Logan, the oldest brother, had also died during the blaze.

A smudgy ocher bruise around Almeida’s left eye webbed out to his upper cheek. No need to inquire how he came by that. It was why she was here.

Snapping back to the reality of her mission, Kinsey held his now curious gaze. “What did you say?”

“I think you’re a little lost.” He enunciated each word as if she was some sort of dimwit who had never seen a man’s naked chest before. “Tours of the firehouse are every other Wednesday.”

“I’m not here for a tour of the firehouse.”

He streaked the towel he’d been using to dry his hair across chiseled pectoral muscles, then a meaty swatch of scar tissue covering his right shoulder.

“Okay,” he said, parting his lips to reveal straight, white teeth and a gorgeous smile. So the city dental plan was a winner. “Other types of tours can be arranged. How does tomorrow night sound?”

“Excuse me?”

“Well, I just got off my shift and I have forty-eight hours free ahead of me. Usually I sleep the first twelve, but if you need me sooner, sweetheart, I suppose I can rework my schedule.”

Kinsey didn’t hold much truck with cocky. Or with men who called women they had never met “sweetheart.” Luke Almeida seemed to be under the mistaken impression that ... Did he actually think she had crawled into this stink pit to get a date?

“You haven’t returned any of my messages. I called three times—”

Tall ’n’ Dark snorted. “Shit, Luke, they’re chasin’ you down now.”

“Who’s chasing Luke down?”

Another man had entered, wearing board shorts and a ripped CFD shirt, through which his extremely defined muscles played peekaboo. Tall and blond, with a fresh-faced Thor vibe, he looked like he’d stopped off at Engine 6 while on a break from his modeling gig for GQ. Truly, she must have missed the entrance to the hot-man laboratory on her way in.

“Luke’s takin’ a leaf from your book,” Tall ’n’ Dark said to Baby Thor. “As if we don’t already have enough of that with your castoffs showing up every other week looking to clean your hose.”

Baby Thor grinned, a little lopsided, a lot sexy. “Can I help it if I’ve broken half the hearts in Boystown?”

Boystown. Chicago’s gay neighborhood, which confirmed that Baby Thor played for the other team. The gorgeous ones always did, though in all honesty, it looked like there was gorgeous to spare. The other two members of the triple threat were still taking up all the space and sucking up all the oxygen.

Greedy.

Almeida stared at her, the cogs of his Neanderthal brain clearly working overtime as he tried to piece together when and where they had met, and exactly how much trouble he was in because the memory refused to take shape.

She decided to help him along.

“So you didn’t get my calls?”

He lifted a broad shoulder. “Sure I did, but I’ve been busy. Puttin’ out fires.”

More like busy leading a fistfight that had turned him and his firefighter brothers into YouTube sensations and prompted the mayor to action. Now it was Kinsey’s job as the mayor’s assistant press secretary to create solutions to a media nightmare. Almeida wasn’t even supposed to be on duty. He had been placed on presuspension administrative leave, but when he hadn’t shown up for a meeting with Media Affairs at city hall, she had called the number she had on file for him and left a message. And another. And another.

“Ignoring phone calls is incredibly rude.”

“Yeah, bro,” Baby Thor said. “You were brought up better than that.” He offered his hand. “I’m Gage. The handsome, sexy, interesting, and well-mannered one.”

Kinsey shook, enjoying the firm grip. According to his file, at twenty-four, Gage Simpson was the youngest of the Dempseys, a family of foster siblings who had all followed their late foster father into the service.

“And this is Wyatt.” Gage jerked his strong chin at Tall ’n’ Dark. “He usually only opens his mouth to criticize.”

Wyatt Fox, oldest of the brood at thirty-three, threaded burly arms over his chest and clamped his mouth shut. Kinsey supposed she should be grateful.

There was also another brother, Beck, and a sister, Alexandra, one of only 120 female firefighters in the CFD. None of the foster siblings bore the same last name or were related by blood, but their bond—the Dempsey bond—was strong enough to ensure they were all assigned to the same firehouse. It was unusual, but then so was the family.

“And you already know Luke,” Gage went on, amusement sparking his silver-gray eyes. “Though how well you know him is another story. Are we talking fluids exchanged or just phone numbers?”

Almeida eyed her with interest. This moron really thought they might have hooked up in the not-so-distant past, and that she had rushed down here at 7 a.m. on a Monday when he hadn’t made good on his sweetly worded promises to call.

At her pointed look, Luke spoke into the pause she had no intention of filling. “She knows me well enough to think she can walk into my firehouse and get results. Pretty ballsy, sweetheart.”

“Sometimes you have to take matters into your own hands, and after the other night ...” She twisted the toe of her pump, as if she was terribly, terribly unsure of herself. Time to kick this up a notch. “I thought we had something special.”

Those electric blues widened as he moved into her personal space, and while she wasn’t a small woman, she felt curiously diminutive in Firefighter Almeida’s mountainous presence. Her former fiancé, David, had barely three inches on her. He hadn’t liked when she wore heels that made her taller than him.

Neither had he liked when her five-mile runs came in twenty seconds ahead of his, or she beat him like a dusty rug at racquetball, or goddamn it, had three orgasms to his one. Though usually she had to help herself along there.

Competitiveness isn’t terribly feminine, Kinsey.

No, honey, but it sure as hell beats losing.

Luke pinned her to the spot with that ocean-sparkly gaze. “So the other night when we were—”

“Dancing.”

“We had serious moves.”

“You certainly thought so. My toes are all bruised, but you made up for it later.”

His lips twitched.

“With your scintillating conversation,” she continued. “I had no idea firemen knew so much about The Bachelor.”

“Lots of downtime in between runs.” He rubbed his chin. “And then we had that discussion about ... what was it again?”

She sighed her annoyance at having to remind him of the amazing conversational highs they had reached together. “The Cubs’ pitching roster. You were confident Arrieta could hold his form through the late season and I had worries about—”

“The rest of the bullpen.” His indolent gaze dropped to her mouth. “Or how deep it could go.”

“Yes,” she murmured, realizing a tad late that she might have waded in too far here. “You never really put me at ease about that.”

“Rest assured, sweetheart. It goes deep. Deep as you need it.”

Holy wow. She felt her stomach dip and roll at his provocative words.

About baseball.

“You’re a lot prettier than Vargas, Miss ... ?”

“Taylor.”

“Well, Miss Taylor, Commissioner Freeman is a good friend of mine, and Luis Vargas from CFD Media Affairs is handling this, so it seems we have it under control.”

Ha! So Luke Almeida knew exactly who she was—and that he had ridden shotgun with her game sent a rush of unexpected heat through her.

“Under control? Your four minutes of fame is already the subject of a Trib editorial, you made the national news on all the major networks, and the city council is calling a special meeting to discuss your situation this week. Sounds like the opposite of under control.”

She felt a chill emanating from Wyatt’s direction now that the true reason for her early morning visit was out in the open.

Luke narrowed those blue-on-blue eyes at her. “Your message said you were from the mayor’s office, Miss ...”

“Taylor,” she gritted out. “And it was messages. Three of them.”

“Right. And while the fire department technically reports to the mayor, we have our own way of handling things. Our own commissioner. Our own Media Affairs. I’m not sure why you’ve been sent here, but it would probably be best all around if you turn on those heels and toddle back to city hall.”

Huh, he did everything but tell her she should pop her cute little tush into the kitchen and fix up some biscuits. Get the hoses ready, boys, because any minute now, she’d be expelling enough steam from her ears to burn everyone in the immediate vicinity.

“I’m afraid that won’t be possible. You see, I have a problem, Mr. Almeida.” She infused her words with the businesslike tone she could usually manage in her sleep, but which wasn’t coming quite so easily today.

“Oh, it’s mister now? And I thought after the other night we had something special.”

Not bad, Almeida, not bad. Struggling to hide the burgeoning smile that she should not be surrendering to, she also tried to ignore the fact that he had moved closer to her on the utterance of the word special. She had to tip her head back to meet his gaze directly. No way was she having this conversation with his thick, muscle-corded neck, even if it meant putting a crick in her considerably less muscled one.

“My problem is this.” She poked a finger in his chest. A not unpleasant sizzle fizzed through her fingertips. “You’re. Still. Here.”

“Here is where I work.”

Irritation had the unfortunate effect of dilating her blood vessels and making her warm all over. Not his nearness. No, not that. “This is where you used to work. As of three days ago, you were placed on administrative leave pending a hearing on your boneheaded actions. You’re not even supposed to be on CFD property until your case is resolved.”

Visibly bristling, Luke cocked his jaw like a weapon. “I happened to be on site when a call came in. I’m hardly going to sit around while my men head to an incident. It was a tough run and we needed all hands on deck.”

Reluctantly, she admitted a grudging admiration at that, but it didn’t change the facts. He had already cast a pall over the entire CFD when a grainy video of his fisticuffs got a million hits on its first day online. She needed to get through to him, and coming down to his intellectual level was her best option. Men like this only understood threats: to their livelihood, manhood, and food sources.

“I’ve done my research on you, Mr. Almeida. You have the commissioner in your pocket, the unstinting support of the union, and a rather overweening sense of entitlement owing to your family’s contribution to the CFD, but the mayor is tired of his civil servants thinking they are above the rules.”

A number of scandals had recently rocked the foundations of city hall. Bribes for permits. Backroom deals. A CPD detective discovered with more vodka than blood in his veins—and a Baggie of coke in his glove box—right after leaving the scene of an accident. Almeida’s outburst might not relate specifically to endemic corruption, but it highlighted all that was wrong with Chicago’s local government.

“The city has a zero-tolerance policy for violence by its employees,” she continued. “You have five more days of leave and then if—and that’s a big if—you get out of the hearing with your balls still intact, you have work to do scrubbing the reputation of your firehouse clean. And I’ve been asked by the mayor to take charge of the cleanup.”

Thunderous rage stormed over his brow. “You?”

“Me.”

“I’ve already explained my side of the story in an incident report. I assume your meticulous research covered that.”

She reached back into her memory, mentally scanning the witness accounts of the bar fight. Mostly bland reports with little variation. A code of silence encompassing CPD and CFD had kept lips sealed tighter than bark on a tree. “One minute you’re serving drinks in your family’s bar. Next, Detective McGinnis is laid flat and several members of Engine 6 and the Third District are duking it out like it’s an episode of Real Housewives. All because he made a pass at your sister.” She tilted her head, taking his measure. “I would have thought an experienced bar owner would know how to handle boozy, grabby customers. Why do I feel like there’s more to this than the black and white of those reports?”

It was a long shot, but she knew immediately she’d hit pay dirt. His eyes darkened to navy, swallowing all that had-to-be-fake blue, and some shutoff in his brain checked what he was about to say. He flashed an unreadable glance at his brothers.

“Too much alcohol, tempers easily frayed,” he murmured. “And it was game seven of the Cup finals. I believe Detective McGinnis is a Rangers fan.” He punctuated that with a pressed-on smile. Still gorgeous, despite being a big, fat phony.

“So just a typical night of boys will be boys?”

He looked bored. “I’m not exactly clear on what you want from me, Miss—”

“Taylor,” she finished before he could drag out the annoying what’s-your-last-name-again thing.

“She wants you to shake hands with McGinnis,” Gage chimed in. “Preferably after you’ve both spearheaded a very public event that benefits the community. Maybe a block party where you grill the dogs and the detective squirts the ketchup. Would I be right, Miss Taylor?”

“No decent idea is off the table,” she said to Gage, “and please call me Kinsey.”

“We already do a lot for the community,” Wyatt murmured.

“Yes, the foster kids support program your father created. I saw that in your file.” And definitely something they could use to turn the tide of public opinion. “We have a lot of options here. A team sporting event, a chili cook-off, maybe even a calendar of all you manly men getting your manliness on.”

Gage snorted loudly, but not loud enough to drown out Almeida’s growl, a sound that signified his manliness would never be at issue. Yeah, she got it.

“I’m sure the Chicago taxpayers, especially the female ones, would love to see a scantily clad muscle factory carrying a big hose in one hand and a kitten in the other. With the proceeds going to charity, of course.” She was starting to enjoy herself now, so she winked. “Sweetheart.”

Wyatt rubbed his mouth, evidently concealing a smile. Gage grinned broadly. As for Luke? She may as well have suggested he wear a matching bra-and panties set while he stroked that fluffy lil kitty cat.

“Oh, this should be good,” Gage said, and Kinsey no longer bothered hiding her amusement. She’d found her ally at Engine 6.

Determined to have the last word, she leveled Luke Almeida with her most hard-nosed gaze. He opened his mouth to speak, but she raised a hand of “stow it.”

“Keep that silver tongue of yours for your hearing, Mr. Almeida. Once you’re in the clear, we’ll work on making you a star for all the right reasons.”

And then she dropped the mic and skedaddled out of that locker room before he could get a volley off.

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