Playing with Fire, Chapter 1

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“So, America’s Favorite Firefighter?”

Across the table in the farmer-chic restaurant Smith & Jones, Alex Dempsey blinked at her thirty-fourth date in ten months and pondered a suitable response. Perhaps the smartass retort, which she could manage in her sleep. Or the bitch-slap, which would be eminently more satisfying.

“I have good people on my PR payroll,” she finally said with a deferential smile.

Ah, ye olde classic, the minimizer.

So it didn’t feel like her, Alex Dempsey, kick-ass firefighter. That Alex could blitz a fifty-foot ladder propped against a burning building and haul a metric asston hose bundle up multiple flights of stairs. But that Alex’s love life was less breathtaking fireworks and more damp squib. She had officially earned the title of Chicago’s most successful serial first dater.

Something had to give.

Tonight she was unveiling Alex Dempsey 2.0 with a test-drive of a few new tools. A slinky dress that left little to the imagination. Smoky eyes that were more emo panda than sex kitten, along with a pair of inadvisable heels—inadvisable because she was already too tall at five ten. On the plus side, courtesy of an uncharacteristically successful bout with a hair iron, her usual rumpus of chocolate curls now knew who was boss.

She didn’t crave excitement—she got that in her line of work. She just wanted someone who wasn’t a complete dick and could stand up to her occasionally abrasive personality. All the men she had dated in the last year enjoyed the novelty of breaking bread with a female firefighter, but once the honeymoon was over—usually by dessert—doubts scudded like petulant storm clouds across their faces, the forecast always the same.

How can I be the man if you’re being the man?

Tonight’s victim opportunity was a Chicago police detective who she hoped had enough self-confidence to handle hers. In his off-time, he bashed a hockey puck around a rink with her brother Gage, which was what had led to this setup in the first place.

Detective Michael Martinez, are you the one?

“Remind me not to get on your bad side,” date number thirty-four was saying, still stuck on the America’s Favorite Firefighter thing. “Plenty of nights on the sofa in my future, right?”

No nights, if he didn’t quit being such a jackass. But then wasn’t she a magnet for jackasses?

Five months ago, she had made headlines all over the country when she took the firefighter’s equivalent of a chainsaw to the Lamborghini of one of Chicago’s wealthiest and most influential men. Mega mogul and Trump wannabe Sam Cochrane had drunkenly crashed his car and miraculously not injured himself or others. When he wasn’t extracted quickly enough, he leveled a chauvinistic, racist, and homophobic rant against Alex and her family.

Oh, she extracted Cochrane from that car all right—through the large opening left by the sawed-off door. There was also the two-foot gash she’d carved (unnecessarily) into the roof. Pretty.

Also pretty stupid. So not her finest moment, but anyone who messed with her family risked her wrath. Growing up Dempsey meant all other considerations fell by the wayside.

“Good thing someone filmed it,” Michael continued. “Got the women and the gays on your side. Put the mayor in a difficult spot.”

Yeah, yeah. Alex had escaped with her job, a rap on the wrist, and damp toes from her dip in the fifteen-minutes-of-fame pool. Now she saw no reason why that unfortunate incident should have any effect on her professional or love life.

Except that everyone kept bringing it up.

“You know how the news blows stuff out of proportion,” she said, adding the half shrug Alex Dempsey 2.0 would use. That Alex was more dateable. More lovable. Less likely to use the Jaws of Life on the personal property of anyone who pissed her off.

She leaned in, a tip she had read today on HuffPo’s Love & Sex section. Boobs out, smile wide, voice low. Being sexy was exhausting.

His gaze fell to her cleavage. Spectacular stuff, she knew, but rarely did the girls get this much air.

“Do you like the squash blossoms?” Alex asked with a drop to bedroom-husky as she tried to redirect the date.

“The what?” Eyes still at nipple level. Possibly thinks squash blossoms is a euphemism for tits.

She gestured to the dish of tempura-fried goodness between them. Chef Brady Smith, who was currently groping Gage on a regular basis, had sent it over with his compliments.

“Oh yeah, they’re good.” He shrugged, looking a little embarrassed. “These flashy places don’t really do it for me. Overpriced food, undersized portions. Gimme a burger any day.”

She laughed, feeling at ease for the first time tonight. New and improved Alex would have let her date choose where to eat, but Michael had told her to pick a place, and Brady was an awesome chef. “I know. Gage is a big foodie, so he’s always dragging me to restaurants with stuff like veal cheeks and charred orange and—”

“Seaweed and shit.”

“Yes!”

He chuckled and she joined in. Three days before the new year and the restaurant was cheerfully festive with beautiful wreaths adorning the antique mirrors. It was also packed with Prius-driving, cigarette-pants-wearing, Wilco-ticket-stubs-in-the-pockets-of-their-ironic-bowling-shirts hipsters.

“Gage is all loved up with the chef,” she whispered to keep her traitor talk out of the hearing range of Brady’s server spies, “so I thought it might be a good place, but ...”

“Next time, we’ll get a burger.”

Next time? Score! But she needed to rein in her runaway thoughts. It ain’t over till the ginger bread pudding has made an appearance.

His phone pinged—again—and his expression morphed to cop-serious. “Got to take this, sweets, back in a sec. You choose whatever you want off the menu.”

Gee, thanks, mister.

He headed off toward the restrooms, and her heart sank a little. Had he designated a buddy to dial in for rescue at a certain point into the date? Like “call a friend,” but in reverse.

Time for her own check-in. She conference texted her posse: Gage, who was on shift at Engine Company 6 where they both worked, and her friends/future sisters-in-law Darcy and Kinsey. Otherwise known as Team Get Alex Laid.

He’s left the table 2X in 10 mins. Either his gun’s digging into his tiny bladder or he’s on a “coke” break in the can.

Five seconds later from her brother: stop looking for faults.

He keeps staring at my tits.

Darcy chimed in with: That’s what they’re fucking for!

Touché.

Next up on deck was Kinsey, who could usually be relied upon for a healthy jolt of common sense. Bring out your inner sexpot. Suck on a straw.

Real subtle, Alex texted back.

Subtle does not lead to man-made orgasms! Gage again.

Alex found it rather priceless how people channeled the love child of Yoda and Oprah the second they bagged a regular sex partner. But after twenty-six years on this planet, she wanted what they had with a heady desperation that sometimes left her breathless.

She wanted to be smugly in love.

The next buzz had a smile tugging her lips at the prospect of more oh-so-sage advice. But the new message wasn’t from her best peeps.

Her pulse rate skyrocketed as it always did when she heard his name or saw him on TV or spent a single moment in his presence. Of course he had no idea how much he affected her. She planned to keep it that way.

Try the quail, the text said. It’s excellent.

He was here. In the restaurant. Either that or he had surveillance trained on her, which, given her past behavior tainting the good name of the CFD, might not be so far-fetched. Another message came in.

Check your six.

If she ignored him, it would look like she cared, and yet the idea of turning her head because he issued an order was equally as galling.

Deciding that following his “suggestion” sat with her better than letting him think his presence bothered her, she twisted her shoulders and met the raw blue gaze of Mayor Eli Cooper. He was seated alone in a booth near the back, paperwork and an iPad laid out before him, long fingers curled around a tumbler of scotch.

He didn’t smile. She wouldn’t have believed it if he did. There was something silkily predatory about him, like a lazy python lying in the sun ready to uncoil and strike at any moment. Before he straightened to his full six two, she just knew he would come to her table.

Hell and damn.

Watching him walk over, Alex mused that Eli Cooper was the sort of man who knew how to use his physicality. Beneath his handmade shirts and tailored suits, a street fighter hummed through every loose-limbed motion. But that impression did not extend to his face, which was structurally perfect. Skyscraper-high cheekbones. Superhero jaw. A mouth that should have a government warning. There were no signs of past trouble with a jealous husband or an abandoned girlfriend. No one had ever broken his nose. No one had busted his lip.

Strange, because her first instinct on seeing him was to roundhouse kick him into the next millennium.

“Alexandra,” he drawled. It was never Alex with him, which everybody and their aunt called her, but her full name. Just another dig that ensured her XX chromosomes would not be forgotten.

“Mr. Mayor.”

He sat without invitation. “How’s your date going?”

“Fabulous. Probably won’t appreciate a threesome, though.”

The words were barely spoken, and she longed to bite them back. That well-worn smirk, like a stray comma at the corner of his full-lipped mouth, activated.

“No one would like to share you, I imagine, Alexandra. However, you’re so difficult you’d probably need several CPD officers to handle you.”

Passing over the fact he knew her date was Chicago blue, she blew out a bored sigh.

“Slow night on the campaign trail? I would think you’d want to get out there if your latest approval numbers are anything to go by.” She tsked. “Less than two months to the election and you’re hovering under forty percent.”

“All that matters are the numbers on the night.”

“Still, I’m sure you have babies to kiss, MILFs to ogle.” Donor dicks to suck. “Don’t let me stop you.”

“Given your recent popularity, I should have you stump for me, but there’s no telling what might come out of your mouth from one second to the next.”

Alex raised her fruity Cab to her unpredictable mouth and took a ladylike sip instead of her usual gulp. Now would be a fabulous time for her date to reappear.

“You never fail to bring out the worst in me, Mr. Mayor.”

“Oh, it doesn’t take much to get you riled, Alexandra. All that passion looking for an outlet.”

There he went again. Alexandra. But this time, it didn’t feel like a dig. It felt like ... a caress. She lowered her glass of wine to the distressed mahogany table and stared at it accusingly because that was just, well, loco.

Done blaming the alcohol for that ludicrous flight of fancy, she lifted her chin and thought she saw his gaze snap up as if he’d been looking at her chest. Not likely. Except to disapprove. Every fiber of Eli Cooper’s exalted being disapproved of her, from his perfectly pedicured feet to his overly produced hair.

So the man was an exceptionally good-looking son of a bitch. The gods had been generous, giving him a strong brow beneath that wavy black hair. Ice-blue eyes that hinted at secrets and numerous ways of uncovering hers. A dimple, too. Not that she’d ever seen it up close because he had never smiled at her, not a real smile, anyway. But she’d seen it on TV, a sunshine pop in the hard plane of his cheek. Practically every woman in Chicago had a lady boner for him, even the ones who hated his politics. Put her in the latter camp—not the lady boner part, just the politics-hating.

“Feel free to call me Firefighter Dempsey or plain Dempsey. That seems more appropriate for a boss-employee relationship.”

His brows rose. “You consider me your boss?”

“I consider you an asshole.”

He laughed, a deep, rich bass that corkscrewed down her spine with a pleasurable thrill she resented. Fascinating how an essentially nice person like herself could turn nasty so suddenly, but then she always felt slightly unhinged around him.

“Ah, but you put it so much more colorfully before when you called me a patriarchal woman-hating asshole. In this very restaurant. Over there.” He pointed to the booth where he’d been sitting. His regular table, she supposed.

Twice in the last six months she had crossed swords with Mayor Eli Cooper. The first time, he had made it clear that firefighting and breasts were incompatible. The second time he was pissed to all hell at her and she was woman enough to admit he might have had good reason. That foul-mouthed big shot with the Lamborghini? Only Mayor Cooper’s preeminent donor, another guy who thought his dick had its own zip code. After her luxury car slice-and-dice, the mayor had summoned her to his townhouse in Lincoln Park—by text, which is why he now had her number—and proceeded to ream her ass. For a long time. The guy did not like Alex or her family or the CFD.

Goes both ways, Mr. Mayor. Alex did not like a man who had no respect for what she devoted her life to, day in, day out.

“My opinion of you hasn’t changed,” she gritted out. “Putting aside your caveman pronouncements about what women can and cannot do, during your reign of terror, you’ve managed to cut funding to libraries, drive city pensions to the brink of bankruptcy, and reduce social services to a fraction of what they were before. All so we can beautify the tourist traps of our fair city and fete George Lucas for the Star Wars museum.”

Because a man like Eli Cooper was undoubtedly used to the blows from the opposition, her words had no discernible effect on his ice-compacted heart. “Hard decisions are made by people in charge every day. Someone in your profession should know that.”

She imagined she heard a compliment in there, but her passion rolled right over it. “And don’t think I’ve forgotten how you fired your press secretary for taking my side and almost ruined everything between her and my brother.” Thank God Kinsey had come to her senses and returned to Chicago, though Luke had been ready to up sticks and move to California to be with her. Eli Cooper’s megalomania had almost lost Alex a future sister-in-law and her brother.

“The course of true love never did run smooth,” the mayor said quietly. “Firing Kinsey was the best thing I could have done. Made them face what’s important. And I still haven’t received that thank-you card.”

“Is there anything you won’t claim credit for?”

Eying her speculatively, he took a sip of his scotch, likely something expensive and triple-distilled from the tears of Scottish virgins. Everything about him screamed privilege, from his monogrammed cuff links to his Wall Street suspenders.

“I even paired off Gage with Brady. Perhaps I should add that to my campaign ads.” He swiped a hand across an imaginary billboard. “Vote for Cooper, the Matchmaking Mayor.”

She snorted. “Well, you can forget the Dempsey vote.”

His steely stare penetrated to the blood boiling beneath her skin. “Oh, I know,” he murmured. “In fact, you and your family seem to take great pleasure in doing what you can to make me look bad.”

“Believe me, when I was cutting up Cochrane’s car, you were the last thing on my mind.”

“Exactly. You don’t think.”

She tamped down the growl fighting to escape her throat. Do not engage.

He flicked a glance over his shoulder. “I must say your date is taking an awfully long time. Perhaps he’s a little intimidated by all this passion of yours and he’d rather risk a twisted ankle by escaping through the restroom window. Getting on your wrong side could be costly for any man.”

Unavoidably, her gaze traveled toward the restrooms just as Detective Martinez appeared, ankles none the worse for wear. Praise Jesus.

“Looks like this one is brave enough to stick around and take me on, Eli.”

Shit, she had called him by his first name.

The dimple did a jig.

“Beware of men who claim to be able to handle you, Alexandra. While I’ve always found our exchanges extremely provocative, I doubt others will be as entertained by you as I am.”

“I’m not here for your entertainment.” Covering a fake yawn with her hand, she picked up her phone. “I’m going to delete you from my contacts list. If you text me again because you’re bored, I won’t know who you are. As I was raised to never speak to strangers, it’s unlikely we’ll be chatting again.”

The dimple quickstepped into a samba. “I’m in your contacts list?”

Double shit, another damning admission. So what if she’d kept his number from when he’d called to chew her out all those months ago and had even gone to the trouble of completing an entry in her contacts? Forewarned is forearmed.

Discombobulated by that dumb dimple, she turned the phone to him, grasping for the upper hand in this unnerving conversation. “There you are. BFT.”

As he leaned in, the smokiness of the whiskey and something indefinably male struck her nostrils. Her stomach gave a treacherous flutter.

“Best Friend Totes?”

“Big. Fucking. Tool.” Plastering on a saccharine grin, she added, “But I don’t need a contacts list entry to remember that.” She went ahead and deleted it, each tap more indignant—and gratifying—than the last.

“Want to know what I’ve called you in mine?”

Her heart rate spiked at the notion he had worked up an entry for her as well. “Dying over here.”

He tipped the screen toward her to reveal “Splinter” in the contact name field.

Splinter?

“Short for Splinter in my Side. I was going to call you Thorn, but you’re not worthy of a thorn, Alexandra. You’re a minor annoyance.”

“Glad to hear it. Would hate to think you’re wasting valuable mental real estate thinking about me and my family and all we do to make you look bad.”

The detective arrived at the table, his expression curious. Eli—no, Mr. Mayor—uncoiled to a stand. Just running her eyes over all that slickness made her shiver, but neither could she help comparing his physique to that of her date. Eli Cooper had a couple more inches in height on Michael and maybe, just maybe, slightly more girth on those biceps. She would think with all his fancy tailoring he could find a shirt that fit him properly instead of one that outlined his bull-like shoulder muscles so obscenely.

“Enjoy your meal, Alexandra. As I said, the quail is excellent.” He nodded curtly at her date. “Detective Martinez.”

As he walked off toward the restroom, three things stuck with her.

One, the jerk’s personality did not improve on acquaintance.

Two, in under five minutes, he’d managed to sour the most promising date she’d had in months.

Three—and how she hated herself for even going there—those gray pinstripe pants shaped his ass really, really well.

***

In the mirror of the restroom at Smith & Jones, Eli Cooper took a long, assessing look. At thirty-six years old—the last four as leader of this great city—he should be seeing telltale streaks of gray by now, but his jet-black strands refused to show any sign of surrendering to the stress.

If only he could say the same thing for his sputtering reelection campaign.

Gripping the sink, he hauled a deep breath. Was he ready for four more years? Chicago was buckling under crippling debt. Gang violence was at an all-time high. The municipal pension system was close to bankruptcy. Solutions were hard to come by—not even Caroline Jenkins, his most dogged opponent in the election, had a good answer to appease the police and firefighter unions on that.

Everyone felt they were entitled to something. A piece of the city. A piece of him.

Opponents and allies alike accused him of being overly passionate. Better that than apathetic. Eli couldn’t stand apathy. And as someone who was passionate and disdainful of the apathetic, he really shouldn’t be giving Alexandra Dempsey such a hard time.

He did enjoy getting her riled, though. But that did not mean he approved of her in any way. Eli’s passion was always tempered by reason, unlike Alexandra, who had allowed a few drunken insults from that bigot Sam Cochrane to tip her from professionalism to certifiable insanity. But the citizenry had rallied to her, and Eli risked jeopardizing the upcoming election if he fired a woman for defending her gender, her family, and her fellow firefighters. So he’d let her stay.

Number-one lesson learned in his time as mayor: listen to the fucking voters.

But how he had longed to punish her and rein in that dangerous impulsivity of hers. A firm hand, splaying her across his knee, might teach her a thing or two about humility. He suppressed a groan. Keeping her in line would be a pleasure, but Christ Almighty, what a dangerous path for his mind to travel. Control was his watchword, and it was constantly tested in her presence. She was a singular woman who continually exhibited poor judgment.

Nowhere was it more obvious than with that form-fitting dress, her perfect olive-skinned breasts barely contained, the cleavage an announcement that she was on the market. Next, that pert mouth, just as saucy at rest as when she spoke. And don’t get him started on those shamrock-green eyes, flashing her quick temper. The only domesticated part of her tonight was that long, sleek hair. Not her usual unkempt chestnut with those flame-red streaks like Christmas gift ribbons—this evening it looked like hair that took work. She had clearly primped and preened for this date with Michael Martinez, a man who was not worthy of her efforts.

Last year, the detective had applied to be on the mayor’s security detail, and unsure on the why, Eli had taken an instant dislike to him. Eli’s instincts were usually spot on. Of course, it didn’t hurt that his gut was currently being vindicated by Detective Martinez’s exceptionally big mouth.

This was at least the third time the detective had left his date alone at the table. Very bad manners. Now he was on the phone in the hallway outside the restroom, loudly advising a colleague to follow up on a suspect interview before the night was through. The former lawyer in Eli winced as the name of the person of interest was bandied about with no care to privacy. Good Christ. Looked like Eli would be chatting with the police commissioner tomorrow.

With a rueful shake of his head, Eli reached for the door, then pulled up short at the detective’s next topic of conversation.

Alexandra Dempsey.

“Yeah, I thought she was a dyke, too.” A pause as Martinez listened to whoever was on the other end of the line. “She was on TV last summer for cuttin’ up that big shot’s car. Got a temper on her for sure. You know what that means?”

Martinez’s buddy must have answered correctly because he laughed, the sound grating on Eli’s last nerve.

“Aw, yeah. Probably scratches, as well. And, Jesus, her tits. She’s poured into this dress. Great fucking body.”

Eli watched as his knuckles popped chalk-white on the handle of the door. He had been right about that dress. He was invariably right about a lot of things.

“Dyke or not, she’s up for it tonight. Keeps leaning in to give me a good view, y’know. She’s a bit chunky, but they’re usually the most grateful ones.”

More laughter. More volcanic heat making Eli dizzy with fury.

And still the man would not shut up. “Yeah, I’m already fantasizing about Alex Dempsey on her knees.”

Eli threw open the door and stepped outside. Martinez looked up, colored, and ended the call with a muffled, “later.”

“Mr. Mayor,” he said with a nod as he edged tentative steps back toward the dining room.

At the far end of the hallway, Tom Kincaid, the head of Eli’s security detail, made eye contact, ready to intervene if necessary. Eli shook his head imperceptibly and turned his attention to Martinez once more.

“Detective Martinez, it’s been far too long. Step into my office.” He gave the restroom door a gentle push.

“I’m kind of busy,” the detective said, rather churlishly.

Eli had a smile for every occasion and every little prick who got his goat. Now he dialed up his I know-you-don’t-want-to-fuck-with-me one. “Won’t take more than a few minutes.”

It took less. Moments later, Eli watched from a shaded position near the kitchen as Martinez trudged back to the table where the entrées he would be paying for—but not eating—had just been set down by a server. Typically contrary, Alexandra Dempsey had gone with the steak instead of Eli’s recommendation on the quail.

Out of the corner of his eye, a multimuscled thug with ink-saturated skin settled in for the show. His snowy chef’s jacket gleamed in sharp contrast to all those tattoos, fitting companions to the angry scar tissue on the right side of his face.

Brady Smith, chef/owner of Smith & Jones, a Marine brother, and Eli’s sometime conscience, asked, “Whatcha doin’?”

“Just taking out the trash.”

As much as Eli enjoyed being right, he didn’t always enjoy the fruits of his accuracy. Even from his distant vantage point, he could intuit that Alexandra’s melted moss green eyes had grown wide at whatever the detective was saying. Her shoulders drooped in disappointment. She fidgeted with her napkin. Quickly she stood, five ten of total irresponsibility, and holy shit, she had killer legs to complement those gorgeous breasts. Well shaped, golden brown, a mile past eternity.

She placed her hand on Martinez’s arm, clearly expecting a signal that the date had gone well but its premature termination couldn’t be helped. So when he practically recoiled in horror at the slight incline of her head, her shock was palpable. It rippled through the room, hitting Eli like a toxic wave.

Brady grunted his disapproval beside him.

“Trust me when I say this was for the best,” Eli muttered. “And not a word to your boyfriend.”

“Ain’t mah bo-friend.” When Brady got agitated, or uttered anything close to an untruth, his accent tended to revert to its Bayou origins. He would make a terrible politician.

“Whatever gets you through the night. Oh, wait, that would be your boyfriend.”

“Fuck you,” was Eli’s reward, but he had already checked out of the conversation because Martinez was hightailing it to the exit like he really did have an urgent crime to solve. Bravo, Detective.

Eli stilled, his heart poised on a cliff at what would come next. A trip to the restroom to compose herself? A sixty-second wait for her dud date to be on his way before she made a similar move? Maybe she would seek Eli out, ask if she could join him.

Not. Of all the possibilities, that was the least likely, but strangely the most pleasurable result that could occur here. She was entertaining, he’d give her that.

The impossible-to-predict Alexandra Dempsey did none of those things. Instead, she shook her head ruefully and ... laughed. A joyous, passionate, inappropriate laugh that drew all eyes in the vicinity and a look of concern from her server.

Then she sat, filled her glass of Cabernet to the rim, and chugged.

All the way down.

Just as he thought. This maddening woman couldn’t help but attract the attention of every person in her magnetic orbit. If it wasn’t her second-skin dress or her troublesome breasts, it was her terrible taste in men. She was a woman of incredibly poor judgment.

And she needed saving from herself.

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