“I WOULDN’T ask, Peter, but you’re the only person who can help. Or help quickly, at least.”
Former paramedic Peter Morse muted his Bluetooth as he drove. Once his friend Theo Anderson couldn’t hear him, he cursed, banging the heel of his palm against the steering wheel. He’d say no, he decided. He was a thirty-five-year-old man who knew how to be assertive. He could say no to Theo. He would say no.
All Peter wanted to do was get home. He’d been on the road for months in his new role as an emergency response instructor, training firefighters and emergency medical technicians across northern California, Oregon, and Washington. He was so close to Seattle now that he could almost smell it.
That morning he’d woken up smiling, in a motel room just like all the others he’d slept in since starting this new job. Only instead of feeling disoriented—wondering which city he’d woken up in—he’d thrown back the covers, eager to plow though the final class standing between him and home.
Home, with his hot tub and big grill in the backyard.
Home, with his entertainment center, sports channels, and super-comfy beat-up leather couch.
Home, with Theo to watch as he worked up a sweat at the gym.
This quick favor Theo requested involved driving in the opposite direction of home.
Peter would say no. He absolutely would. Definitely.
“It’s just that Maggie’s beside herself with worry, Peter. Her brother won’t answer her calls—it’s like he’s dropped off the face of the Earth—and now that her kids are sick, she’s stuck at home.”
None of that was Peter’s problem. Maggie was Theo’s personal assistant, not his. Peter yanked the rearview mirror toward him, pulled off his Mariners cap, and shoved his fingers through his wavy black hair in annoyance. He’d been told that he had kind-looking eyes and a reassuring expression by more patients than he could remember. Reassuring wouldn’t cut it now. Kind wouldn’t either. Not against Theo. Checking that the road ahead was clear, he took a moment to practice. He watched himself squint in the mirror.
“No.” Excellent. That sounded like he meant business.
Theo’s voice crackled in Peter’s ear, asking if he was still on the line. Throwing a last quick glance at the mirror, silently cursing at the way Theo’s worried tone made him wince, Peter drew in a long breath before preparing to speak.
Theo spoke first.
“Morgan says that he’ll go find Maggie’s brother if you can’t do it. He’s volunteering at the homeless shelter tonight, but he’ll leave first thing tomorrow. I’d come too, but I’m right in the middle of more layoffs….”
Theo’s voice trailed away as Peter huffed out a huge sigh. Of course Morgan would do it. Theo’s hot younger boyfriend, who spoke six languages fluently, who volunteered, and who made Theo’s smile finally look genuine, was Mr. Fucking Perfect.
Theo filled Peter’s grudging silence. “Maggie says that her brother Sean is an act first, think later kind of guy. He hasn’t signed the papers relating to their late father’s will yet, and that’s holding up money. He won’t talk to her. I’m not even sure they get along.”
Great. A family feud.
“You’re working along the Oregon coast this week?” Theo didn’t forget a fucking thing.
“Yeah,” Peter sighed, sounding suspiciously like a man who was about to agree to something. He toggled his Bluetooth so Theo could hear him again. Channeling all of his assertiveness training, he said, “Yes, I’ll be done by five.” He left the “and I’ll be driving straight home” unspoken. Fucking coward.
This was ridiculous. He had no interest in Maggie, her dipshit brother, or driving the wrong direction down Route 101.
He was going to say no. He absolutely was. No doubt about it.
Theo’s voice was a warm rumble in his ear, making Peter squirm. “She needs her share of the proceeds of the sale of her father’s place to cover her own mortgage. Things have been hard for her and Mike.”
Peter scrubbed at his hair again, shrugging as tension made his broad shoulders tighten. He wished he was at home already, enjoying his hot tub with a cold beer in hand, wearing only a smile. Instead, he was just starting the day dressed in his Emergency Medical Technician instructor’s uniform. His GPS broke the silence, telling him that the station house he was looking for was at the end of the street.
“Look, I gotta go. I’ll call you later.” That was almost a no.
“Let me know when you can talk. I don’t know….” Theo’s breathing sounded so close, Peter could even hear him wet his lips before he spoke again. “I think she’s desperate.”
AFTER months of delivering the same suicide/domestic-violence training course to bored-looking men and women, Peter knew the best way to work the crowd.
First, he found the joker. Every station house had one. You needed a sense of humor to get through days when everything went wrong—days when people died, even after you did your best to save them. But patients who deliberately put their lives at risk—through suicide attempts or by staying in abusive situations—sometimes brought out the worst in the people dispatched to assist them.
The moment someone in Peter’s class joked about advising suicide callers—the jumpers, the wrist-cutters, the people who took too many pills and then called 911 for assistance—to quit wasting their time, Peter called him on it.
First, he’d get the joker to stand—his broad smile indicating that they shared a sense of humor. Then he’d wink as he tied on a blindfold, making sure that it was good and tight. When Peter helped his blindfolded volunteer stand up on a chair, he did so with a chuckle.
Only after he got everyone else to shove their chairs out of the way, and to lie down on the floor beneath the station joker, would all their smiles start to falter.
Peter went through the exact same scenario at least once a week. This time, his heckler was a giant of a man. He was good looking, with fair hair and wide gray eyes reminding Peter a little of Theo, and he had the kind of solid, tanned neck Peter could imagine sucking on for hours. When the volunteer tried to uncover his eyes, Peter set that thought aside, grabbing his hands to still them. Wobbling a little on his chair, the big man hung on tight when Peter made to step away again, his thick fingers wrapping around Peter’s wrists. Nice.
Peter gentled his voice, as if they were alone rather than being watched by a roomful of personnel. “You said that suicide callers should quit wasting time. What did you mean?”
His joker had a little trouble keeping irked-bordering-on-pissed out of his tone. “You know every call to a time waster could be spent saving lives. This is dumb. I’m getting down right now.”
Peter stage-whispered, “Time wasters? People who change their mind about suicide? Are they time wasters like people whose neighbors call 911, time after time, after domestic violence incidents?”
He waited a moment and then smiled as the big man sighed before offering a grudgingly voiced, “No.” Peter smiled a little wider as he heard a quieter, “I don’t know. It just pisses me off. We try so hard to save lives. People taking their own….” He shrugged those huge shoulders. “I’m getting down now.”
“If you jump, you’re going to crush someone. A big guy like you could really do some damage. You sure you want to do that?”
His volunteer frowned, licking lips that suddenly looked dry, but he sounded almost confident as he addressed the other EMTs. “Yeah, I’m done. I’m going to count to three. That’s your warning, so move your butts unless you wanna get hurt when I jump off this chair.”
Peter’s voice was cool and calm. Assertive. “You all stay right where you are.” No one moved an inch.
“I mean it. Get out of my way.” He moved again to yank off his blindfold. Peter moved faster.
“Hey, now. Don’t make me use restraints. Isn’t that how it feels for people who can’t see another way out—like they’re handcuffed to their problems? Yeah, that job they lost, the money they owe, the family who will hate them if they know the truth. All of that can feel like a huge set of cuffs there isn’t a big enough key in the world to unlock. Maybe they lost their kid, their home, their marriage. Perhaps it’s the wrong medication that makes the voices in their head sound really fucking loud. Who knows?” Peter shrugged, then stepped back, making his volunteer flail. This time he didn’t help him find his balance.
“I thought you said you were going to jump.” Peter waited a moment before adding, “A real man would jump. A real man would do exactly what he said, right? Stick to his word?” He always enjoyed the moment of silence that followed, stretching out long and thin like the telephone wires along which 911 calls traveled.
This time, the big man’s voice sounded so much smaller. “I don’t want to hurt anyone.”
Peter nodded at the cohort looking up at him from the floor. “Yeah, sometimes people realize that just a little too late. They want to jump, but they don’t want to hurt people. They call 911 instead.”
His volunteer nodded too. He got it now.
Peter spoke softly again. “Tell me what you need.”
“Help me get down?”
Later, over coffee, he heard stories about someone’s uncle, described as a selfish shit, who left four kids in a home about to be foreclosed on when he “took the easy way out.” Someone else’s cousin stayed with a violent asshole—everyone knew he was the one who helped her fall down the stairs so often—and he heard the frustration in both storytellers’ voices. In response, he told them a story he could recite in his sleep.
“I was fresh out of training when I got assigned to a truck in the city. Seattle wasn’t new to me, but I’ve got to tell you, I was still more worried about getting us lost than about pretty much anything else. I wasn’t too keen on seeing my first body either, but that’s part of the job, I guess. I told myself that I’d do my best to help, and I’d try not to do any harm.”
“That’s all any of us can do, man.” His former heckler passed him a donut. Peter took it, waiting to finish speaking before taking a bite. He’d learned that it still took a while before he could swallow past the lump in his throat, every single time he went through this.
“So,” Peter continued, “we get a call to a house in a nice neighborhood. You know the type—gated and exclusive, a late-model Escalade in the drive?” Everyone in the break room nodded. “The caller had taken an overdose. I learned a lot on the way in to the hospital. I was driving—back then I still loved the lights and sirens—but I could hear my partner shouting at our patient.” He paused to take a long, slow drink.
“My partner had no time for suicide attempts. He told our guy that maybe next time he should try a little harder. He said that a real man would face up to his problems. If he was going to kill himself, he should do it properly and quit wasting our fucking time.” He paused again and then shrugged. It wasn’t an unheard of point of view from jaded EMTs.
“Sometimes I still hear him when I dream, even though it happened years ago. ‘Just fucking do it properly.’” He set down his cup of coffee.
“Our guy did it properly, all right. He did it properly three days later, only it took him two shots to get it done. I don’t know how strong you have to be to shoot yourself once, fuck it up, and then shoot yourself again. His garage was a fucking mess, and the smell….” Peter felt a big hand, heavy on his shoulder. They’d all been there before, in one way or another. Still, he had to wait a moment before continuing.
“Beautiful house, gorgeous wife—at least I guess she might have been, but she was screaming when we arrived—and two boys still in school.” Peter shook his head, his gaze focused on the white knuckles of the EMT sitting opposite who’d talked about his selfish-shit uncle. “I can’t stop thinking that we’re in the business of helping people. Maybe if my guy didn’t feel judged, we wouldn’t have gotten the second call at all. The time between making a 911 call, our first response, and patient handover at the hospital is short but vital. I’ve checked your statistics. You guys attend over fifty medical calls a month. I know you need to hear about some different strategies.”
Around him, everyone nodded.
Now he could deliver his training.
“I SHOULD kick your ass.”
Turning and then slowly walking backward, Peter grinned at the big blond firefighter following him across the parking lot after his day’s training was through.
“Maybe you should.” The mirroring smile on his potential ass-kicker’s face didn’t have him too worried. Peter had wondered if the man had been interested in him, but he’d patched up too many men who’d guessed gay wrongly in the past to assume anything. Once his back was against his truck, he stopped, looking up—way up—before adding, “Or maybe I should kick yours.”
“Think you can reach it?”
That certainly sounded like an invitation to Peter. “Just how tall are you?” Tilting his head to one side, he considered logistics, wondering if he might have found the perfect way to celebrate the start of his three-week leave.
His classroom volunteer looked over his shoulder before leaning against Peter’s truck, almost close enough to touch, his eyebrows raised with amused suggestiveness. “I’ve heard that height doesn’t matter when you’re lying down.”
At five foot, eleven inches tall, Peter wasn’t short, but damn, this guy might be fun to waste some time with. He was just about to suggest investigating his height theory further when Peter’s phone rang, playing Theo’s ring tone. Shrugging his apology, he walked around the truck as he took the call.
“Hey. I’m sorry to call again, Peter. Are you done yet?”
Sighing, Peter unlocked his truck, then climbed in. He shook his head half regretfully at the firefighter, then answered Theo as he watched what might have been a great start to his vacation amble back to the station house.
“Yeah, I’m done.”
Theo had been on his mind all day. It had been months since they’d seen each other. In fact, the last time had been at Maggie’s house. He’d arrived early for poker night while Maggie and her husband, Mike, were still putting their kids to bed. All he really remembered about that evening was trying to chat normally while Morgan leaned against Theo. That was all he saw. No kissing. No new boyfriend territorially pissing on Theo’s leg. Just Morgan edging closer to Theo as they all chatted on the porch, until Theo reached an arm around his boyfriend, hauling him in good and close, taking his weight as Morgan leaned against him.
Jealous didn’t even come close to describing some of the emotions Peter had that night. What made him feel like a real asshole was that Morgan was a good guy. Hell, he’d escaped a shitty relationship himself, right when Theo was finally recovering from the death of his partner, Ben. They deserved each other—two broken men, putting each other back together.
“I’m sorry to ask you again. Maggie’s so worried. I’m not certain, but it sounds like her brother might be… volatile? This land-sale business has hit him hard. If you could just swing by and check if Sean’s okay? It’s less than ten miles south from where you are.”
Peter started the truck, putting the phone on its stand, switching it to speaker and grumbling under his breath.
“I can’t hear you, Peter. What did you say?”
“I didn’t say yes, Theo. I’m just going to drive for as long as you talk dirty to me. It’s up to you how close I get to this Sean guy’s place. What do you say? Seem fair?” Theo quickly agreed, his laugh a low rumble that made Peter grin in return. “Hey, now. Don’t you laugh at me, stud. Just hurry up and start with the sex talk. I’ve been all alone for far too long to be fussy. I’ll take whatever I can get.”
Wasn’t that the truth? Peter could have hooked up more while on the road, he guessed, but since leaving Seattle the last time, that anonymous deal hadn’t appealed to him. At least while Theo talked to him, he could pretend a little.
When he’d driven away from Seattle for the first time, nearly nine months ago, he’d hoped Theo would wait for him. Their one date had been Peter’s best in years. The way Theo made out with him the next day, as if jerking each other off was just the start, not the end, of a brand-new relationship, made Peter bitterly regret taking this instructor job. When weeks away turned into months, he couldn’t blame Theo for falling for Morgan. Not really.
Maybe if he’d been more of an act first, think later kind of guy, like Maggie’s brother Sean apparently was, he’d have gone home early and secured Theo for himself. He daydreamed that Theo was his boyfriend as he cruised along Route 101, calling him honey and baby just to hear his tickled laughter.
Peter guessed this was another benefit of their continuing friendship. Staying amicable, even after Morgan arrived on the scene, meant that his social circle in Seattle had grown so much wider. Theo talked about the friends they now had in common, while Peter silently told himself to see the bright side. Life with a little slice of Theo in it was a whole lot more interesting than life without him at all.
“Tell me about this Sean. What’s his deal?”
Theo hesitated. “Maggie says that he’s… um… difficult? He’s the baby of the family. I guess he’s still grieving for his dad.” Peter could visualize Theo’s grief-stricken expression. Lord knows he’d seen it enough last year. Before he’d gotten to know Theo better, he’d watched the man run at the gym like he was desperate to catch someone. Then he’d sag, almost puking, before heading to the showers. It took a while for Peter to figure out that Theo didn’t know whether to run away from his grief, or further into it.
“Maggie wants Sean to call her. She says to tell him that she wants him to be happy, and she’s sorry they have to sell their dad’s place. It’s just… I don’t know, Pete. I think the whole family is hurting. Mike’s only recently found some construction work, and more layoffs are coming at the office.”
Peter wasn’t paying full attention. Theo calling him Pete warmed him from the inside out, making the rest of the conversation hazy. One word: Pete. So ridiculous.
“Sean needs to do the right thing, Pete, and he needs to do it fast. There’s still time for him to get his act together.” Peter made small noises of agreement, only half listening, daydreaming that he was driving home to Theo.
“If you could just pass on the message, that would be enough. Maggie’s worried about him, but a phone call from him would make things a whole lot better. She’s tearing her hair out here.”
Peter could picture that. The last time he saw Maggie, she was sprinting across her backyard, screaming her fucking head off as her youngest child waved from the roof of a playhouse. Peter had been standing with Theo and Morgan on the back porch when Maggie ran past, her hair a long bright copper-colored flag streaming out behind her.
She’d climbed the playhouse like a monkey, scooped up her kid, and then carried her, flailing and tantruming hard, as if she weighed exactly nothing instead of being nearly half Maggie’s size. The woman was tiny but fierce, and looked kind of terrifying and awesome all at the same time, as a mom should.
“Let’s say that you manage to talk dirty long enough, Theo. How am I going to recognize Sean?”
“Oh, that’s easy. I’m looking at a picture of him right now. He’s the spitting image of his sister. She says they’re very much alike.”
Great. He had to find a furious miniature redheaded man who looked like a woman. Lucky him. He drove on, stopping only for gas. After giving up on getting any really dirty talk from Theo, Peter chatted until he thought he must be getting close to his destination.
“Where do I turn off?”
He didn’t hear Theo’s answer; he didn’t have time to listen. After coming around a sharp curve in the road, he slammed on his brakes, quickly pulling over. Several men were struggling with someone who was facedown on the pavement, possibly midseizure. After grabbing some latex gloves and throwing the cab door open, Peter ran, yelling, “Paramedic!”
In the seconds it took to cover the distance, Peter ran through possibilities. The patient wore running shorts and shoes—perhaps he’d been hit by a car and had suffered a head injury. Maybe he had epilepsy and had seized without warning while jogging. Peter started asking who-what-where-when questions the moment he dropped to his knees, pulling on his gloves, making a hands-on assessment.
Looking for signs of respiration wasn’t easy, given the face-down position and huge hoodie the prone runner wore. Peter looked up momentarily when none of his questions were answered—it would be helpful at least to know how long he’d been down—but the men were already back in their car. The squeal of tires as their car tore away gave him no answers.
Gently pulling the hood to one side, Peter’s fingers felt for signs of life as he reached with his other hand for his cell, realizing too late that it was still on his cab console. When the man on the ground shifted, then started to push up on his elbows, Peter urged him to lie still. His sudden roll caught Peter by surprise. Seizures usually resulted in a slow coming around, not sudden rolls and sitting up straight. If he had been knocked out after getting clipped by an automobile, it was even more important that he stay still.
As the victim struggled, Peter grabbed at his legs, holding them still as he spoke with his trademark calm smoothness. Peter listed all the reasons why the runner should just relax while he internally cataloged skinned, bloodied knees, and long, toned white thighs above them.
As his eyes traveled upward, noting road rash and the torn front of the runner’s shorts—whoa, fire crotch—he wondered if he was looking at the results of a collision, followed by a lengthy skid across the uneven pavement surface. He pushed up the lower hem of the hoodie, following the trail of grit and scuffed skin over one angular hip bone, assessing injuries until his patient struggled again, this time twisting until he was crouching.
Peter looked up as the runner’s hood fell back further, then stared into a face that was both familiar and completely fucking furious.
Pale skin broken up by freckles over an uptilted nose, and by road grit that grazed his left cheekbone. Wide hazel eyes ringed with bronze lashes. Full lips pursed as if ready for a kiss. Oh boy.
Hair darker than Maggie’s, but still copper-toned, escaped the hood, spilling over narrow shoulders, as Peter found his voice again. “Sean?”
Those familiar hazel eyes blinked and then narrowed. “I was taught never to talk to strange men.” Peter’s bruised and battered runner leaned close, growled, “Touch me again and I’ll fucking kill you,” and then sprang up and sprinted away, just as fast as his sister. As he slipped between trees into the nearby forest, his hair was a dark red flag streaming out behind him.