Chapter One



LEE STANTON sat in the station living area watching television during the evening shift. He’d just returned from a call, and he could hear the captain in his office working on the call report. The station was unusually quiet. If the television weren’t on, the place would feel closer to a morgue than a fire station. “Find something to do,” the captain called from his office, and then Lee heard heavy footsteps on the floor. “Go check on the drying hoses,” he barked a little harshly, pointing at one of the men. “The showers need to be cleaned,” he said, pointing at another of the guys. Lee jumped off the sofa and headed downstairs to the engine garage. He certainly was going to keep himself busy so he didn’t get one of the shit jobs. Finding a soft rag, he got to work polishing the brass and chrome on the pumper they’d bought recently. The yellow engine was the first piece of new equipment the company had been able to purchase in almost five years, and they’d been raising money for most of that time. Lee looked around the garage and reminded himself that he’d meant to ask if there were funds in the maintenance budget for paint and supplies. The inside of the garage could use a fresh coat of paint, as could the entire building, for that matter. Actually, what the building needed was a renovation. The showers and bathrooms were old and really showing the wear, and the kitchen needed updating. Not that any of it was Lee’s responsibility exactly, but he had eyes and he could see it, the same as anyone else. The captain had told him that once they got the pumper they needed, the plan was to raise funds to redo the building. Others worked around him, doing the same thing Lee was—keeping busy and staying out of the captain’s way.

No one talked like they usually did. Instead, the same tension and quiet seemed to hang over the entire building. Greg Martin, who was working on one of the older engines, dropped a wrench, and the clang resounded through the building like nails on a chalkboard. Lee could feel the tension that had crackled around all of them for hours begin to sizzle. There wasn’t a person in the station who wasn’t balancing on a knife edge, and when the alarm rang, Lee practically jumped out of his skin before leaping into his gear and getting on the truck. The others rushed around with trained efficiency, and in a matter of seconds, they were ready to leave. Never in his life had he been so grateful for an emergency call. The vehicle began to move, and the siren sounded as they pulled out of the firehouse and turned onto Hanover Street.

Lee’s heart pounded like it always did, and his mind shifted from worry to what he was trained to do. The tension that had been building for most of the evening receded, and he focused on the job ahead of him. By the time they arrived at the house with smoke billowing from the windows, Lee was in his normal work frame of mind and ready. The fire engine had barely pulled to a stop and the men were jumping to the ground, pulling out hoses and getting equipment ready. “There’s still a boy in the house,” the captain told Lee as he pulled on his breathing equipment. “First floor toward the back of the house, according to the mother.” Lee nodded and walked through the spray of water already being poured on the house. He often got assignments like this, both because he was levelheaded in these situations and because of his size. Lee was massive and strong as hell. A few weeks ago, he’d been in a burning building and part of a wall had fallen, trapping a man under it. Lee had simply lifted the wall, shoving it away, and carried the man to safety.

Entering the front door of the small house, Lee was surrounded by swirling smoke and very little light. The smoke seemed to be heaviest in the area of the house that appeared to be the kitchen, and he heard crackling and sputtering from that direction, but he didn’t stop, continuing down the hall of the typical ranch-style house, pushing open each bedroom door and peering inside. They all appeared empty, and the smoke was definitely getting thicker. Lee could also hear fire building in the kitchen. Through his radio, he called his position to the crew and told them what he thought was happening. “We’re on the kitchen,” he heard in response. “Find the kid.”

“Roger, on it,” Lee said as he approached the final door. It seemed to be locked, and Lee backed up before using his weight to break it in. The door flew open, and a kid who looked to be about twelve and who wore nothing but underwear jumped up out of the bed, screaming at the top of his lungs. The room appeared momentarily clear of smoke, but it billowed in through the open door, so Lee slammed it shut behind him. Lee rushed to the bedroom window and threw it open. “I’m sending the kid out the back bedroom window. Have someone there!” Lee called through the radio, and he heard an affirmative response. A loud whoosh sounded from behind him, and Lee immediately felt heat through his fire suit. Fire had erupted somewhere in the house, and the door to the bedroom blew open. Grabbing a blanket off the bed, Lee wrapped the kid in it and threaded him out the window. He felt someone take hold, and then the kid passed out of his hands. Lee grabbed a chair from the corner and used it as a club to break out the rest of the window. Making sure the opening was free of glass, Lee climbed sideways through it and felt the guys helping him out and onto the ground.

“Get the hell away!” came through the radio in his headgear, and Lee grabbed the kid, lifting him off his feet as they ran a safe distance away. Then the house exploded in a fireball that knocked them all to the ground.

“What the fuck was that?” Lee asked out loud as he turned back toward the house, trying to stop his heart from leaping into his throat. A few more seconds and he would have been toast. “We’re okay back here,” Lee said, looking around at the other firefighters and the kid, who were all slowly getting to their feet. Catching his breath, Lee pulled off his breathing equipment and lifted the barefooted kid into his arms before walking around the neighboring house to the street where numerous fire, police, and ambulance vehicles now sat with their lights flashing.

“Juan!” A woman ran to where Lee was carrying the boy, tears running down her face, two small children in tow. Lee set the boy down, and he was immediately engulfed in what Lee assumed were his mother’s arms. She cried and began speaking rapidly in Spanish. Lee understood every sentiment, because her relief and the expression in her eyes when she looked at him told Lee all he needed to know.

“What happened, Cap?” Lee asked once he’d stepped away. One of the guys handed him a bottle of water, and he gratefully took it. The last portions of the house standing collapsed in a hiss of smoke and steam as the flames died down.

“They were storing gasoline in cans in the basement. If I’d known, I would never have sent you inside like that.” The usual lines on the captain’s forehead deepened. “We didn’t find out until we were able to get someone in here to translate.”

“There must have been quite a bit, judging by the size of that fireball.” Lee gulped from the bottle, watching as more water was poured onto the pile of wreckage that had been a house. A man rushed across the front yard and joined the family, the five of them all looking at what had once been the center of their lives. Lee sat down, his heart still racing as he finished his water. Then he threw the bottle in a trash can and helped the guys police the area and make sure the fire was completely out. The laborious task of cleaning up and moving out equipment began.

The entire time, Lee didn’t allow himself to think about what could have happened if he’d have been a little later getting out of that house. Sixty seconds had meant the difference between life and death. It took a while, but they eventually certified that the fire was out. The ambulances left—empty, thank God—and some of the fire trucks loaded up and headed back to their stations. The Red Cross arrived to help the family, and eventually Lee and his fellow firefighters headed back to the stationhouse.

When they arrived, Lee took care of his equipment, checking it over carefully before cleaning it and getting it ready for the next call. Once that was taken care of, he headed upstairs and into the showers. He heard other men doing the same thing, but just like before the call, no one was speaking, laughing, or recalling the fire the way they usually did. They’d had their respite, but the tension was back almost instantly, just like they’d never left. The water felt good, but Lee didn’t linger, mechanically washing himself before rinsing and drying off. Then he dressed, walked back out to the living area, and sat on the sofa.

“Stockton, you did real good,” Cap told him with a pat on the shoulder as he walked past and into the kitchen. Other men wandered in, all sitting around looking at each other and then at Cap, each asking the same question: how could that happen? “I don’t know,” Cap said with a shrug before heading to his office. Lee knew he’d have one hell of a report to write up after that fire.

Footsteps reverberated like a herd of elephants on the stairs, and everyone looked up at the same time as some of the men from the other shifts wandered in, taking chairs, each of them hanging their heads. Lee watched for Dirk Krause, his boyfriend, who was the last one up the stairs. Lee knew exactly how the borough council meeting had gone by the anger and resentment that shone in his lover’s eyes. “Okay,” Cap said as he joined them. “Let’s get this over with so we can get some work done.”

“Council decided to reduce the number of fire stations in town from three to two,” Dirk said from between gritted teeth. “All they talked about was the potential for saving money that some consultant came up with.” Dirk was fuming, and for once the man’s temper seemed to come in handy, because the others all echoed it. “It looks as though the one to close will either be Goodwill or us.”

Lee glanced at the others, who all nodded their agreement with Dirk’s assessment. “Did they make a decision?” Lee asked.

“No,” Carter, one of the other captains, answered. “They seemed to go back and forth between one and then the other. I think we have two or three council members on the side of keeping us open, and there are an equal number in favor of keeping Goodwill open. I think the only reason they didn’t decide to close us tonight is because we’re the oldest fire company in town, and there are enough historic preservationists on council and in town that we got a reprieve, but I don’t know if that will save us in the end or not. They kept saying that they weren’t talking about cutting personnel, and that all firefighters would have a job at one of the two remaining companies.” Lee knew Carter was trying to put the best face on it he could. “They did agree to decide in three months because of other issues that are before the board, so we can expect visits from council members.”

A groan came up from everyone in the crowd. “Is it okay to accidentally spray them with water?” one of the guys asked, and some of the others chuckled as Captain Carter rolled his eyes.

“Not if you want to keep this place open,” he answered with a bit of a smile. “We also need to figure out how much we have in the maintenance budget, because among the things cited were the age of the building and the need for renovations.”

Lee watched Carter look around, and they all did the same. It was funny how he seemed to see things he’d never noticed before: the old carpeting, the scratches in the walls, places where hundreds of hands had turned the areas around the light fixtures oily and dark, the furniture that was dated and rough from heavy use. Lee sighed softly, tired and a bit defeated. He moved over when Dirk sat next to him, and though he wanted to lean against him for a bit of comfort, he couldn’t do that here.

The guys knew they were a couple—that had been made plain last fall when Dirk had rescued him from the flooded spring run and kissed him in front of half the company. However, both of them had been circumspect about their behavior at work, conscientiously keeping their behavior professional. “You look beat,” Dirk told him quietly, and Lee nodded.

“My shift is over in half an hour,” Lee supplied, waiting to see how Dirk would react. Most nights they spent together either at his place or at Dirk’s, but sometimes Dirk needed his space. Lee was fine with that, usually; he just hoped tonight wasn’t one of those nights.

“I’m going to take off. There isn’t anything any of us can do tonight. I’ll see you at my place?” Dirk asked, and Lee nodded, trying to return his attention to what the captain was saying.

“The captains will compile a list of projects we believe we can get done to help spruce up the place and post it on the board in the private quarters. That way if we get a visit, it’ll be less conspicuous.”

“Cap, do you really think spruce-up projects are going to help?” Gerald, one of the younger firefighters, asked.

“I think the council’s on the bubble. We need to move them in our favor, and every little bit could help,” Captain Carter answered.

“If you say so, but this place needs new bathrooms, a new kitchen, roof, tuck-pointing of the brick. There are lots of things that haven’t been done in years because the borough never allocates enough money, and we’re paying for their cheapness now,” Gerald said in a huff, and most of the other men grumbled their agreement. Lee knew he was probably right but refrained from commenting. All he wanted to do was get to Dirk’s so he could forget about houses exploding and borough councils that might shut down the station. He needed some quiet time and a chance to get out of his head for a while.

“All we can do is what’s within our power,” Captain Carter explained, and the session broke up as the men who weren’t on shift began to head out. The others looked dazed, and most of them sat or stood alone with their thoughts, while others drifted away to get their assignments for the day completed. Lee gathered his things together, praying there wasn’t another call as he waited for the next shift to arrive. After turnover, he headed to his bike and rode through the lighted streets to Dirk’s house. He parked in front of the house and entered through the front door without knocking.

Dirk met him in the living room, and Lee dropped his bag, yanking Dirk to him without a word before crashing their mouths together. Lee took possession of Dirk’s mouth, devouring him as he tried to let work go, needing something intense to push away his day. Luckily, Dirk was up for it, and Lee got as good as he gave. “You need to eat?” Dirk asked once the kiss broke, and Lee shook his head, lifting Dirk into a fireman’s carry before turning to start climbing the stairs. “Okay then,” Dirk said, knowing that words weren’t needed.

Lee bounced Dirk on the bed and then began pulling off his lover’s clothes. A few buttons on his shirt may have come off; Lee couldn’t quite tell, and fuck if he really cared. His vision and his needs centered around his lover, and once he was naked, Lee tugged off his own clothes before climbing on the bed and sucking Dirk’s cock down his throat. The nearly strangled cry Dirk made was all Lee needed to hear. They could be tender and careful with each other, but tonight Lee needed rough, and all of Dirk’s signals told him he was ready and willing. Vacuum cleaners had nothing on Lee when he got going, and the room filled with Dirk’s cries and groans as Lee tasted and damned near devoured his lover. “Lee, coming!” Dirk cried, and Lee sucked harder, feeling Dirk explode and swallowing every drop before kneeling and flipping Dirk onto his belly without waiting.

“Need you bad, Dirk,” Lee grunted, his brain completely fogged with lust and need. He had the presence of mind to find the bottle of lube from the stand, slicking his fingers before burying them in Dirk’s ass. He wasn’t soft or gentle, and he heard Dirk cry out as he squirmed beneath him. Then he slicked himself as he gave Dirk a few more finger thrusts before pulling out, then sinking his cock into Dirk with what he knew was a fast, eye-popping, breath-stealing movement. And only once he was buried in Dirk did some of the urgency fade away, as the feeling of Dirk’s body around him helped to ground some of his nearly out of control emotions.

Lee pulled out and drove into Dirk’s body, using all his weight, and then stopped, wondering if he was hurting Dirk. “Fuck me like you mean it!” Dirk growled from under him, and Lee felt the strings that held his control begin to stretch and break. His hips snapped and pounded into Dirk, the bed bouncing, Dirk’s body gripping him hard and strong. “That’s it!” Dirk encouraged, and Lee snapped his hips again, giving Dirk everything he had.

Without warning, Lee pulled out and flipped Dirk onto his back like he was a rag doll. Shrugging Dirk’s legs over his shoulders, he drove back into his lover, meeting his gaze as Dirk growled, and Lee returned it with another snap of his hips. “Not… hurting… you… am… I?” Lee grunted between thrusts, and Dirk gripped him tighter.

“No fucking way!” he answered, meeting each of Lee’s thrusts with a cry. “You’re an amazing stud!” Dirk grabbed him by the shoulders and tugged him forward, their lips crashing together in a bruising kiss of lips, tongue, and teeth that left Lee breathless.

“I fucking need you,” Lee growled as his hips continued moving. Dirk’s expression told Lee he fully understood and would give him whatever he needed. Lee pounded into Dirk, fucking him to within an inch of both their lives. The room got hotter and hotter, sweat pouring down Lee’s chest, but he didn’t pause or let up. His mind still threatened to go in a million different directions, and when he couldn’t take any more, he screamed as his climax slammed into his chest like a body blow. He heard Dirk cry out as well, seeing his mouth hang open as he came, shooting in high arcs onto his chest.

The last of Lee’s flagging energy left his big body, and he collapsed onto Dirk’s chest, breathing like a chugging freight train. Floating on waves of endorphins until his heart slowed, he barely registered Dirk encircling him in his arms. “Do you want to tell me what that was all about?” Dirk asked, and Lee nodded but didn’t say anything. “If you’re not ready, I understand.”

“Can’t… talk,” Lee grunted, and continued waiting to catch his breath. Once he could remember his name again, he slowly began to tell Dirk about rescuing the kid and how the house had blown up right behind him. “They were storing ten gallons of gasoline in their basement. The entire place could have gone up at any time, and we were all fucking lucky to get out alive.” Lee had found out that the others, who were in the kitchen, had gotten out and were knocked over by the explosion but hadn’t been hurt. “Those kids were lucky they didn’t get blown up or poisoned in their sleep.”

Dirk shifted, and Lee rolled onto his side. He could feel Dirk shaking next to him. Dirk wasn’t a big one to talk about his feelings, but Lee had always been able to read him like a book, and that shaking combined with the way Dirk tightened his grip conveyed his lover’s fear better than any words could ever have done. “We all know that danger is part of the job,” Dirk told him, “but it sucks when the danger comes so close.” Lee saw Dirk’s eyes close and felt him quiver. “It’s okay for it to get to you.”

Lee grunted softly, because he could almost hear Dirk’s thoughts. “It’s okay for you to feel scared as well. I know I would if our positions were reversed.” Lee rested his head on Dirk’s shoulder, listening to his lover’s heartbeat as he wrapped an arm around his chest. He needed to feel close to someone. Lee had come close to death before. The danger came with the job—everyone in the company knew it, and so did he. But when it happened, it brought the fear and sense of mortality closer to home. “I’d be scared of losing you.” Lee tilted his head up so he could see Dirk’s expression, and he saw a slight smile and felt Dirk’s arms squeeze him for a few seconds. “It’s okay to talk, Dirk.”

“I don’t want to lose you either,” Dirk finally whispered.

“Was that so hard?” Lee taunted with a smile before shifting so he could kiss him. “I figure I need to start rewarding you for opening your mouth and talking to me. It may come as a surprise to you, but I can’t actually read your mind.” Lee tugged Dirk into a harder kiss. “I think we’d better shower before we go to bed, otherwise we’re going to end up stuck together.”

“There are worse things I can think of than being stuck to you,” Dirk told him sweetly, and Lee tried not to make too much of it even as he realized what Dirk was saying in his own way. Lee got up and waited for Dirk, who went into the bathroom. Lee heard the water running as he slowly followed behind. He was both tired and sore. Stepping under the water, Lee felt his muscles relax, and when Dirk stepped in behind him, Dirk stroked and massaged his shoulders. Lee groaned softly as the tightness and tension leached out of his muscles. Then Dirk stepped closer, his chest pressing to Lee’s back as Dirk wrapped his arms around his chest. “I do love you, Lee,” Dirk said from behind him. “I know I don’t tell you as often as I should, but I do.”

Lee turned in Dirk’s arms, the water running down his head and then pounding on his sore back. “I know you do. And no, you don’t say it that often, but you show it, and that’s what counts, most of the time.” Lee pressed Dirk back against the tile, kissing him hard.

Dirk hugged him tight, and Lee continued pressing, his skin sliding against Dirk’s. He needed to feel close to Dirk for a while, and once their kiss ended, Dirk reached for the shower gel and began soaping his hands. Lee closed his eyes and let Dirk soap and care for his big body. There were times when Dirk could be one of the most caring and thoughtful people Lee had ever met… and then there were other times… Lee pushed those out of his mind as Dirk carefully washed his cock and balls, prolonging the process. Lee knew Dirk was playing with him, and that was another of the things he liked. Sometimes for no apparent reason, Dirk would act like a wide-eyed kid, as he appeared now. It didn’t happen often, but when it did, it was special and rather endearing. “Feels good,” Lee said softly, and Dirk answered with a lopsided grin.

“It’s supposed to,” Dirk said before turning him. Lee parted his legs and closed his eyes as Dirk stroked his hands over his skin, slick, smooth, and intimate. When Dirk had finished, Lee rinsed off, and Dirk stepped under the water for a quick rinse before turning it off.

“Don’t you need a wash?” Lee asked, a bit surprised.

Dirk shook his head, opening the shower door and reaching for towels. “This was all for you. I’m good.” Dirk stepped out, and Lee followed. They dried themselves, and Dirk did Lee’s back for him. He loved that. Dirk had a special touch, and Lee reveled in it. When they were done, Dirk hung up the towels, and the two of them climbed back in bed.

“You’re awfully quiet,” Dirk said after a few minutes, and Lee shifted, not really sure this was the right time to bring up what was on his mind, but he decided to do it anyway.

“Do you really think they’ll close the station?”

“They might. We’re the oldest company in town, but the building is in rough shape. They could close it and keep the museum portion in the original firehouse open. I don’t think you have anything to worry about. If they do, we’ll move to one of the other two companies, and it’ll be fine. They said over and over that they weren’t looking to cut personnel.”

Lee shifted until he was lying on his side, resting his head on his hand. “You believe them? They’re doing this to cut costs, and with fewer companies, they won’t need as many firefighters. They’ll cut positions. Maybe not right away, but you know that’s what they’ll do. And I’m one of the newest hires, so that means they’ll cut me. I worked hard to get this job, and I’m good at it. I put my life in danger every day, and more often than not, I’m the one they send into the burning buildings, like today. But I’m the one who’s going to pay the price if they close the station.” Lee could feel the tension he’d worked off earlier already beginning to return. “You know that, Dirk.”

Lee saw Dirk’s eyes darken, and then he sighed loudly. “I suppose you may be right, but there’s nothing we can do about it.” Dirk tugged him closer. “We’ll figure it out when it happens, but we can’t do anything right now, so go to sleep.” Dirk wrapped his arms around Lee’s chest after he’d settled on the bed. Lee knew Dirk was at least partially right. They might not be able to do anything about it tonight, but he wasn’t giving up a job he loved without a fight. Ideas flew through his head as Lee closed his eyes and tried to sleep. But even with Dirk holding him, he found it difficult to turn off his thoughts.