Rekindle the Flame, Chapter 1

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“Last Christmas, I gave you my heart ...”

Eyeing the crush of cheerfully wasted humanity as they sang along to the soppiest Christmas song ever, Beck Rivera let go of a frustrated sigh. It turned into a growl midway through.

“If one more idiot in a red suit breathes his fumes on me, I’m going holiday nuclear.”

His brother Luke laughed at Beck’s out-of-character dramatics. Normally the least excitable one in the family—except for their oldest, Wyatt, who wouldn’t know drama if it upchucked in his face—Beck was clearly teetering on the brink tonight. Three weeks to Christmas and the annual Santa Shuffle Pub Crawl, a staple of the Chicago holiday scene, had stalled in his bar.

Ho-dee-ho-ho.

“So how is holiday nuclear different from regular nuclear?” Luke asked. He pulled gently on the Guinness tap to complete the shamrock imprint in the stout’s foamy head.

“With holiday nuclear, I’ll go ballistic—with an elfish smile.”

Pint safely delivered to a thirsty customer, Luke laid a strong hand on Beck’s shoulder. “Stay cool, psycho. You’ll be back in bunker gear before you know it.”

Before he knew it couldn’t come soon enough. Put on leave after his recent brush with death and the brass at the Chicago Fire Department, Beck was itching to return to firehouse duty. Sitting around all day making an ass-shaped dent in his sofa was killing him slowly and, but for the fact he was pulling extra shifts at his family’s bar, Dempsey’s on Damen, he’d probably lose his mind. Along with the love of his foster siblings—three guys, one gal—who held no truck with his moodiness over the last month.

At least he was alive, for Christ’s sake. And so was the poor kid he’d managed to haul free before the roof of that South Side crack house caved in Old Testament style. So maybe he’d disobeyed his lieutenant’s orders—Beck’s MO had always been of the act-now-beg-forgiveness-later variety. But where usually the head honchos liked how the heroics looked for the papers, this time it had landed him in deep shit.

Now, with at least another month until his disciplinary hearing—because God forbid anyone at HQ make a decision over the holidays—Beck had plenty of time on his hands to brood and shine up a new rash of apologies.

“Hey, amigo,” Beck heard behind him. One of the red-suited troublemakers, a downtown professional type. With Puerto Rican skin darker than most of the pasty-faced Chicago Irish set who propped up the bar at Dempsey’s, Beck supposed he might look like someone’s amigo, but he sure as hell didn’t appreciate this stranger bandying the word about. Red Suit leaned forward and, in his eagerness for a drink, blindly elbowed a cute blonde out of the way.

So, not looking to get laid, then.

“Careful, now,” Beck said.

“What’s that, amigo?”

F’real, dude? “I said you need to be careful.” Beck enunciated each word, then turned to the blonde. “You okay?”

“Fine, thanks.” She shot a hostile look at Red Suit, who chose that moment to bare his teeth in an approximation of a grin that went thoroughly unreturned. Nice.

Beck directed his attention back to the loser. “What’ll it be?”

“Chivas, neat, twice over.” Red Suit glanced over his shoulder to where his rowdy friends stood, making a lot of noise. A spilled beer on a woman’s dress earlier had been the first hint these guys were trouble. Two more rounds until they were cut off, Beck estimated. “A bottle of Bud and a Goose Island. Whatever the holiday ale crap is.”

“Sure,” Beck said. “How about I add it to your tab and bring it along?” Red Suit blinked his acceptance, adjusted his padding, and loped off.

“Hey, Rivera, how’s life sitting around eating bonbons all day?”

Beck slowed while pouring the Chivas, then rearranged his expression and his bones to neutral for Frank Gilligan, a CPD detective with a mouth as big as his ego. He happened to be a friend, but more often a pain in Beck’s ass.

“Detective, the moment I met you I knew we’d get along.”

Gilligan smiled that crugly grin, the one he gifted drug dealers before he gifted them his fists in a pretty red bow. “I’m touched, Rivera. Really.”

“Yeah, because cops and firefighters have so much in common.” Beck worked the pause for a beat. “They both want to be firefighters.”

An oldie but a goodie, it pulled a guffaw from Gilligan, who enjoyed the semiserious rivalry between the city’s first responders. But the detective’s words had pinched a nerve all the same. Beck would be hard-pressed to think of a worse time to be sidelined than the holidays. Burst pipes, electrical fires, Christmas tree combustions, and hot girls in skimpy Santa outfits usually kept the team at Engine 6 busy, a state of affairs he was not alone in enjoying. Since their foster parents and brother, Logan, had died, the rest of the family preferred camping out at the firehouse over the holidays. Anything to feel useful and honor their loved ones’ memories.

Hard to feel useful kickin’ back on the sofa. Christ on a crutch, he wanted to hit something.

Raucous shouts whooped from the corner followed by a distinctly female complaint of “Hey, watch it, dickhead.” Beck sent up a brief acknowledgment to the Big Guy. Ask and you shall receive. In seconds, he was out from behind the bar and halfway toward the corner pocket of Santas.

“Beck,” Luke called after him in a voice edged with warning. Beck raised a hand to say he had this. Damn it, he needed this.

“Want help, Smokeater?” asked Gilligan.

Beck threw a smirk over his shoulder. “Watch and learn, Mr. Policeman.” As the saying went, God created firefighters so cops could have heroes, too.

His fists balled of their own volition, and Beck could almost feel the tape wrapped taut over his knuckles. Three-time winner of the Battle of the Badges, the charity boxing match between fire and police, he was as at home wearing gloves as not. But there was something eminently more satisfying about delivering a pounding glove-free. Definitely more primal.

“Boys, we can do this the hard way or the easy way.”

Red Suit turned, wearing the gaze of a man not quite so wasted that Beck would have reservations about kicking ass.

Cue elfish smile. Hello, holiday nuclear.

“But I’ll warn you, amigo,” Beck said. “The hard way is my favorite.”

 

*****

“It’s like the Justice League of hot bartenders.”

Mel’s hazel eyes shone as bright as the red-suited Santas on a zombified trail down Milwaukee Avenue. “And I’ve got my eye on Thor.”

Gingerly, Darcy planted her high-heeled boots on the treacherous sidewalk outside the wine bar where they had spent the night dishing. Soft, nonthreatening flakes melted as soon as they made landfall on her cashmere coat, but with five more inches forecast tonight, Darcy was unimpressed with the peaceful snow globe vibe. Native Chicagoans knew better.

“You have your superhero mythology mixed up. Thor’s part of the Avengers, not the Justice League. Maybe you’ve got your lusty eye on Aquaman or Green Lantern, both of whom are generally acknowledged as inferior in the superhero pantheon.”

“You would know that, nerdette.”

“It’s my job to,” Darcy said. “I get so many requests for bulging men in tights, I could write a thesis on it.”

Mel grasped Darcy’s arm so forcefully she almost hit the deck on her Michael Kors–covered butt.

“You’ve got to come with me! The last time I was there, Thor—”

“Or Aquaman.”

She waved the hand not death-gripping the sleeve of Darcy’s coat. “—made his interest very clear. I’m sure tonight’s the night. My womb’s feeling all tingly.”

“Might want to check that out with your doctor,” Darcy retorted.

Mel made a face beneath her dirty blond curls. Piqued looked super cute on her.

“Here I am,” Darcy announced as they drew alongside the ’96 Volvo jalopy her friend Brady had lent her for what was supposed to be a fleeting visit to Chicago. The month she had taken out of her life to shepherd Grams through her recovery from a stroke had stretched to three, but now the old girl was almost back to her crotchety, razor-tongued self. By the time the last New Year’s Eve firework had exploded over Navy Pier, the spectacular Chicago skyline would be perfectly framed in Darcy’s rearview mirror. Next stop, Austin, Texas, and that spanking new job.

Always be moving was her motto.

This town isn’t big enough for me and my father was a close second.

She would miss Mel, though, who had kept her entertained through the fall with dating horror stories that made Darcy laugh-pee every time. The woman was a magnet for every panty-sniffing mouth breather in Chicagoland.

Darcy hugged her girl. “Thanks for hanging and listening to me whine about my family.” The Cochrane holiday photo shoot that afternoon, first in a number of dreaded family events dotting her schedule over the next couple of weeks, had left Darcy more than a little on edge.

“Ah, those little shits I teach have primed me well. But you know what’s the perfect antidote to whining? Drooling. Panting. Moaning.” Mel squeezed Darcy’s arm tighter as she punctuated each huskily spoken word. “It’s hard to whine when your mouth’s filled with a sexy bartender’s tongue or other interesting body parts.”

Darcy considered her friend’s arguments. She had to admit that chilling with the walker-and-Jell-O set at Grams’s upscale nursing home had put a decided crimp in her love life. “My sex point average is at an all-time low.”

“Which is why you should be coming to this bar with me.” Mel linked Darcy’s arm like it was a done deal. “I can’t believe you’re all dressed up like a North Shore princess—”

“Watch your mouth, bitch. It’s Gold Coast. Higher property values,” Darcy said, referring to the tony Chicago enclave where she’d spent her formative years.

Her friend flashed a toothy grin. “And you don’t want to use those pearls to flirt with a little rough? Come on, help this J Crew–clad pleb out.”

“You know I only got trussed up like this so I wouldn’t scare Grams with my usual threads.” Actually, Grams would have taken Darcy’s biker chic threads and all they revealed in stride. Not so the rest of the Cochranes. The glare her father daggered her way a few hours ago was evidence enough that she was still a crushing disappointment to him. And as much as she would have loved to grace the shoot in ripped jeans and a tank, it would have smacked of a tad too much teenage rebellion for a twenty-five-year-old woman. Instead, she’d donned the designer twinset of boring to keep the peace.

“Just a half hour playing my wing girl,” Mel pleaded. “I can’t go in alone. What would that look like?”

Sighing, Darcy inched away from the car. In truth, she didn’t want the night to be over quite yet. With the holidays just around the corner, her chances to hang with Mel were diminishing rapidly.

“Lead the way to bartender nirvana.”

Holding on to each other as they walked a couple of blocks, they managed to remain upright on the slippery walk, no mean feat for women sporting weather-inappropriate footwear.

They were laughing so hard at the sight of yet another drunken Santa lurching down the street, this one with a healthy serving of chalky butt cheek on display—“Shrinkage alert!” yelled Mel—that it took Darcy a moment to realize they’d turned a corner. This bite of Damen Avenue was hopping with a steady stream of bar crawlers, suburbanites, and friends meeting for preholiday drinks. It was also achingly familiar. With each crunch of hard-packed snow underfoot, icicles of dread jabbed Darcy’s chest.

“What’s the name of this bar, Mel?”

“I dunno. Something Irish, Dennehy’s or Donnelly’s.”

What was the likelihood there were two Irish bars on the same block?

Oh, balls.

“Dempsey’s,” Mel announced. The muted strains of the Pogues’ holiday classic “Fairytale of New York” pulsed against the bar’s heavy oak door.

Dempsey’s. Darcy had driven by it a few times since her return, and on each pass she had floored it. Ridiculous, she knew. It was just a bar and he was just a boy. A man, now.

He might not work here.

It might be under new management.

But the kick of her heart to her ribs said nothing had changed. The Dempseys still ruled this little corner of green in Chicago just like the boy she once knew still took up valuable mental real estate. A spot that ignited whenever Darcy saw firefighters or boxers or Irishmen or ... damn ... Suddenly curiosity overruled her dread. Benevolent gods would ensure he had grown into a potbellied troll with a receding hairline and bad skin from a diet of Portillo’s hot dogs and deep-dish pizza. A girl could hope, anyway.

Didn’t she owe it to herself to find out? If he was behind that door, didn’t she owe it to herself to show him what he had missed by walking away from her all those years ago?

Bring it on.

Letting determination flavored with old-fashioned payback fuel her steps, Darcy reached for the wrought-iron handle. But before she could get a grip, the door crashed open and Bam! a large red blur filled her vision—and dropped her on her ass. Her ankle twisted as she hit the cold, punishing street.

The blur—more of a sack, really—rolled off her leg.

Then it spoke.

“Christ, I’m sorry,” it slurred through a beer-stained slash of white cotton. “I didn’t mean to—”

Whatever it didn’t mean to do, she would never know. Red Sack was violently wrenched aside. Huge hands settled on her shoulders and pulled her to a sitting position.

Oh, God. Time and space contracted with her heart, bringing an onslaught of sensation in its wake. He smelled the same—a clean, male spice that made her light-headed. Seven years, and he still smelled like the boy she had held tight inside her soul all this time.

He spoke, the exact words inaudible above the beat of her silly heart. The timbre of his voice was deeper, huskier, but its power to ripple through her and set her quivering with need had in no way diminished. Or perhaps it was just the frigid temperatures. Yes, that had to be it. Her coat had fallen open except for one precariously fastened button; her wool skirt had ridden up to midthigh. She looked ridiculous, and not just because she was lying on a snowy street thanks to what she realized now was yet another wasted Santa. Seriously, there ought to be a law against that sort of thing.

With a bolstering breath, she lifted her eyelids to meet the gaze of Beck Rivera.

Who was not looking at her.

His unstinting focus was on her limbs, his sure hands tracing over her extremities, seeking out injuries. Weaknesses. Her heart cranked out a few more beats than were safe. Her mind scrambled for Zen. While it was startling to have him touching her so intimately, at least the moment gave her a chance to examine him unnoticed.

Scimitar-curved cheekbones, a nose broken several (more) times, and, mother of God, a scruffy lumberjack beard. That was so damn hot and not in the least bit troll like. He looked as serious as ever, but the gravity seemed more intensified on his twenty-six-year-old face. That dark hair, formerly a wavy handful of sin she loved tunneling her fingers through, was now close-cropped and split, not by a parting, but by a scar. Recent, by the looks of its raw, pink anger. He had cracked open his skull.

“What an asshole!” Mel shot a death glare at the Santa who had fallen—or more likely, was pushed—on Darcy. A trio of men in red were hauling up the troublemaker as he muttered something about a lawsuit that’d “send your Mick bar back to the Stone Age.” Ignoring the threat, Beck kept up his thorough damage assessment, hot hands moving over soft knees and trembling thighs.

“Are you hurt?” he asked, now treating her to a full proton blast of the Beck Rivera gaze. More navy than blue, the shade used to shift often with his variable moods. But now those eyes registered distant, polite. Was she hurt? Not physically. Just incredibly pissed that the boy she had adored for two years in a previous lifetime had blocked her from his mind.

For God’s sake, the shit head didn’t recognize her!

“I don’t think so,” she said in a clipped tone.

“Can you stand?” He was already dragging her up with those arms as thick as her calves.

Agh! Sharp pain lanced through her ankle. He caught her as she crumpled, sweeping her into his arms and moving toward the pub in one sinuous, catlike movement. She had no choice but to loop her hands around his neck, his body heat the perfect counterbalance to her freezing butt cheeks.

“Should we call an ambulance?” Mel asked, concern coloring her voice.

“No,” he said sternly. “Get the door.”

Mel jumped forward and pulled the handle. A gush of warmth, spiced with memories, escaped the bar, and Darcy realized that she really needed to speak up.

“Beck, it’s Darcy.” She mentally cringed at having to reintroduce herself after all they had meant to each other, or as was now becoming painfully obvious, all she had not meant to him. Her face heated despite her best efforts to stay chill. “Darcy Cochrane.”

Staring straight ahead, Beck’s lips twitched.

“I know, princesa.”

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