Melting Point, Chapter 1

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Well, hey there, Golden, how ya doin’?

Brady Smith practically melted at the sight of all that smooth, tanned skin pulled taut over Gage Simpson’s sixpack. The trickle of sweat down his chest, lazy as his pirate smile, turned Brady’s mouth to sand and legs to water. Michelangelo would’ve had a brain freeze if he’d seen that model of sculpted muscle in the flesh. Might even have tumbled off the Sistine Chapel scaffolding.

Gage was already a work of art, and there was no improving fucking perfection.

The low-hanging September evening sun threw a burnished radiance over all that gilded beauty, a vain effort by Mother Nature to enhance what did not need enhancing. It did, however, make the kitten nestled in Gage’s arms glow like a neon ball of—

Beeeeep!

The car behind Brady let him know in the noisiest terms possible that he was holding up traffic while he mooned over a sky-high billboard on Western Avenue.

Yeah, yeah, cool your jets, shithead. Brady stomped the gas and zoomed forward on his Harley Dyna Glide, leaving the billboard in his rearview. It was supposed to be a short-term deal, up for a month to promote a charity calendar with hot firefighters. Which would have the added bonus of putting the Chicago Fire Department in the good—or better—graces of the citizens. Gage’s foster brother Luke, a fellow fireman, had been caught on camera brawling with a CPD detective, so it was all hands on deck to make CFD look like choirboys.

Half-naked, golden-skinned, kitten-holding choirboys.

Six minutes later, Brady had reached his destination: Dempsey’s on Damen, the bar founded by Gage’s late foster father, Sean. A Celtic-lettered sign with clovers for the Es hung above the big oak door; Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys are Back in Town” pulsed the air. Your typical Disney-Irish nightmare. Brady sat on the bike for a few moments, psyching himself up for the happy fest ahead. He was only here for his tattoo artist, Darcy. Okay, his friend Darcy. Her guy, Beck, another one of the Dempsey brood of foster mutts, had popped the question. Now they were celebrating with family and friends. Not Brady’s scene at all.

Time to man up. Hauling a fortifying breath, he stomped around the side of the building to the backyard patio, site of the private party. With every leaden step, the buzz of alcohol-lubed cheeriness increased in volume, the thunder in his blood with it.

Fuck, he was nervous.

Twinkling white lights hung between the trees out back, illuminating smiling faces sitting at picnic tables, drinks in hands. Brady scanned the crowd, insisting that he was scoping it out for Darcy. He had no trouble spotting her, a pale, vibrantly inked arm slung around Beck’s waist, her raven-dark head resting on his chest. His survey included a man-to-man nod at Luke and a half smile for Luke’s girlfriend, Kinsey, the brains behind the Men on Fire calendar and those dick-hardening billboards.

Panic knotted in Brady’s chest when the one person he wanted—needed—to see didn’t immediately pop up in his vision field.

“Can I interest you in a Cock-Sucking Cowboy?”

Brady whipped around, realizing now that he’d walked right by the makeshift bar they’d set up to keep the party hydrated and sloppy. A trio of very giggly women leaned on the counter, their eyes—and other body parts—all pointed at Gage.

Who was wearing a fucking cowboy hat.

“Excuuuuse me?” one woman shrieked. She had a pair of tits that even Brady could acknowledge as spectacular.

“One of my finest cocktails, ladies,” Gage clarified with that heart-stopping grin. His T-shirt read: “Firefighter. Because badass isn’t a proper job title,” and he held a card that looked like a menu. “Peach schnapps and Baileys. Or maybe you’d prefer a Leg Spreader: tequila, vodka, rum, and gin. Hits all the main food groups and guarantees the good time your man can’t.”

The girls cheered that marketing strategy. Tits on Heels asked, “How about a Sex on the Beach?”

Gage gave a rueful shake of his head. “The sixties called, darlin’, they want their cocktails back. Next you’ll be asking for a Harvey Wallbanger and I’ll have to cut you off before you’ve even started. Don’t make me cut you off.”

“No, don’t cut us off!” More jovial/desperate pleas followed, punctuated with orders for three Leg Spreaders.

Covertly, Brady feasted on the easy, lithe grace of Baby Thor, the nickname Kinsey had given Gage. Brady didn’t usually go for blonds with silvery blue eyes that sparkled with dangerous invitation. Neither did smartass grins do it for him, or a strong jaw that hadn’t made acquaintance with a razor in a day or so. None of it normally appealed because Brady considered himself untouchable by the charms of a twenty-four-year-old playboy who could summon any guy he wanted with a click of his fingers.

None of it appealed until Gage.

When Gage walked into Brady’s kitchen at Smith & Jones close to four months ago, Brady’s brain had shortcircuited at seeing that kind of beauty in the flesh. Every new meeting since had only heightened his attraction, but that first time—Christ, it had been like climbing out of a deep, dank hole into blinding, cleansing daylight.

It was a Friday night in June, only the third month of Smith & Jones being open for business, and the kitchen had finally settled into a rhythm, that give-and-take that all great teams share. Reviews were good, revenues were better, and after a few lost years, Brady was finally starting to feel at ease. He was expediting at the top of the line and Javier, his sous chef, had just made a joke about raw chicken breasts and how they looked like ... well, you had to be there.

“Brady.”

Eli Cooper’s deep bass broke through the clink-and sizzle of the kitchen. Brady’s former second-in-command on his Marine unit in Afghanistan, Eli had been Brady’s savior then and several times since. Now the mayor of Chicago, he was used to getting his own way. Waltzing into Brady’s kitchen uninvited was a typical egocentricity.

“El jefe,” Javier muttered, and made a jacking-off gesture with his hand.

Brady turned, not expecting his world to change. After all, it was just a normal night on the line. A typical eighteen hour day doing what Brady loved best: creating joy with his hands.

But Eli was not alone.

Brady wasn’t given to flights of hyperbole, but the guy with Eli was simply fucking sublime. Blond with sexy jaw scruff. Muscles that weren’t gym-bought. Eyes like a blue streak of lightning across a stormy sea.

Brady walked over, his limbs heavy, every beat in his body amplified.

“Brady, this is Gage Simpson,” Eli said. “He’s a big fan. Mr. Simpson, meet Brady Smith, chef/owner of Smith & Jones.”

Mr. Simpson—Gage—thrust out his hand, no hesitation. Brady wasn’t big on physical contact. He recognized that faking your membership in the human race required he get with the social contract, so he’d usually do a quick pump-and-drop. But dread filled him. What if Hot Guy picked up on the weirdness or noticed that Brady had an aversion to being touched?

Right, because it isn’t already whacked that you’re just staring at his outstretched hand like it’s leprous.

He grabbed and shook. Gage’s grip was firm with a side of sizzle that shot right up Brady’s arm. Ink tracked circles around his biceps: a shamrock with the name Sean and a Celtic ribbon on the left, the entwined letters of CFD with Logan on the right. The names of two fallen firefighters, a fact Brady knew because he had seen the same ink on one other guy—Darcy’s boyfriend. Which meant the man before him was Beck’s foster brother, a Dempsey, and a firefighter to boot.

A hot, gay—please God, he had to be, or there was no justice—firefighter.

Slow your roll, Smith. Gay or not, quality guys like this did not sniff around charmless thirty-five-year-old Marine vets with a face that made them look like Freddy Krueger’s understudy.

Because he wasn’t already perfect enough, Golden God spoke in this gravelly tone that raised every hair on Brady’s body. “I’m here with my sister, and when we couldn’t get a table, we had an appetizer at the bar. The fried calamari with the bacon-herb aioli? It was genius. Fucking genius.”

The words spilled out a little fast, tripping over each other. Huh. Was that ... nervousness? Brady flicked a glance at Eli. Maybe Gage had a thing for the mayor, which wouldn’t be unusual, because Eli had freaking Tumblrs dedicated to his movie-star handsomeness. Eli merely watched the exchange, all cynical amusement. Prick.

Still grasping Brady’s hand, Gage spoke again. The way that mouth shaped words turned Brady rock-hard. “One day, I’ll come back and have the full tasting menu. Your food is a touch expensive for someone on a firefighter’s salary and I’d need to save up for a few months, by which time I might be able to get a reservation.” He laughed as if he’d said something funny. Had he said something funny? Fuck if Brady cared. He could listen to this guy talking forever. “From what I’ve had tonight, I know it would be worth it.”

Still Brady couldn’t come up with a single damn thing to say. Yes, you’re right, my food is excellent and expensive. But I use the best ingredients and pour every ounce of my soul into it so I don’t have to think about the shit I’ve done or the things I’ve seen.

Probably best to keep that witty repartee to himself.

Reluctantly, Brady let go of Gage’s hand. Eli was making some lame-ass joke about Brady loving to talk about his work and then asked Gage if he liked to cook. Gage kept his gaze pinned on Brady. It stripped three layers of flesh, acid-peeled his bones, and exposed his marrow.

“Love to.”

Holy shit, this guy with the face and the body and the voice of a fucking god was ... flirting with him? There must be a wormhole nearby, because while that might be possible in another universe, it sure as hell wasn’t in this one.

Eli was still talking. “... food ... fund-raiser ... Monday.” And then they were both leaving while Brady racked his brain for something, anything, that would communicate that he recognized some social cues even if he didn’t fully understand the why of them.

He’s going ... he is going ... he will be gone ...

Brady turned back to the line and on a huff of grasping desperation, gritted out, “Call me.”

If he’d completely misread the signals, he could pretend that he’d meant Eli. If the firefighter was really interested, then the ball would be in his court. Brady was a big fan of throwing the ball to the other end of the field and letting someone else fumble it. Hey, just look at his war record.

Twenty seconds and his visitors were gone, but the air was faintly spiced with a pinch of male and a dash of hope.

A week later Gage called.

One week after that Brady kissed him.

Five seconds after that, he panicked and told Gage to take a hike.

But Gage didn’t give up. He pursued Brady. He fucking wooed him.

And with every encounter since, it was like seeing Gage for the first time. His heart squeezed and his throat dried and his cock stirred.

More than stirred.

“Here we go, ladies,” Gage said as he finished up the third cocktail pour at the bar. “Now don’t do anything I wouldn’t do, which gives you a big-ass canvas to work with.”

Boisterous laughter trilled the air just as Gage’s eyes shifted up and clashed with Brady’s. Nothing beat the hunger in that man’s gaze, the carnal knowledge that pronounced he was used to getting what he wanted—and if he wanted you, just abandon all pretense at resistance and raise the white flag now.

Or that was what Brady used to see. But not tonight.

All levity fled Gage’s usually open expression on seeing Brady. Because Brady had fucked up this fragile thing building between them.

Their gazes held. Locked. And then he didn’t cut him dead like Brady deserved—this was sunny, amiable, happy-go-lucky Gage Simpson, after all. He just thumbed that cowboy hat and gave a not-unfriendly nod, like Brady was one of the bar’s customers.

Which made Brady feel a hundred times worse.

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