BY THE NUMBERS

 

One

 

THE SUN was starting to go down, but the heat from the day was lingering. The air wasn’t muggy or oppressive, and a breeze coming up from the ocean a mile or so away helped to keep Deuce from overheating as he rode his bike home. He’d be a lot happier after dark when his energy picked up. He was looking forward to going out for his evening walk with Q; walking the dog was a lot more fun than riding his bike in commuter traffic.

He turned onto a street a block from his apartment building and pedaled hard, working his way up an incline to his secret shortcut through an alley. He’d been doing this ride for months, and his body was showing it, finally. Deuce had been starting to wonder when his legs would show some definition, and then suddenly there it was. He was still working on his abs, but for the most part he was pleased with no longer looking like he sat at a desk all day.

In the alley he could go even faster, and he made a sport of zigzagging around objects while trying not to smell what they were. Sirens were drowning out the honking of horns behind him, and it took Deuce a moment or two to realize they weren’t screaming past, fading into the distance. He had no idea if they were police, fire, or ambulance, but whatever was going on had to be pretty big. Given the way the sound was echoing off the walls around him, he couldn’t tell where the commotion was, so he kept pedaling and hoped he wouldn’t shoot out into the middle of a bank robbery or something. As the thought occurred to him, he slowed down enough to come out of the alley onto his own street at a sedate pace.

“Jesus.” He braked hard and looked around, not even bothering to count the number of fire trucks. There were more than five, and that was all he needed to know. He spotted a couple of police cars too and an ambulance down at the far end of the street, past where his building was. Slowly, Deuce started to ride again, weaving through the gathering crowd and trying to see over the heads as he made his way home. He couldn’t make out what was going on, but given the ladder trucks and all the hoses out, he was willing to bet it wasn’t a car accident.

The crowd grew thick, and he had to ride up on the property across from his building to get around them but was stopped by cement steps protruding from the building. With a muttered curse, he got off the bike. “Excuse me,” he said, already moving between a woman clutching her shopping bag and a man standing with his hands shoved into his jeans pockets. “I said excuse me.”

The man reluctantly took half a step aside, and Deuce walked his bike ahead and then around a few other individuals. He knew people could be gawkers, but this was ridiculous. If they would just move, he could find a way around the trucks and into his own building, making one less person standing around and getting in the way. Besides, he needed to get to Q; she’d be going nuts with all the noise.

“Let me through, please,” he said again, and finally he broke through to the front line, right by the fire trucks. He started looking for a way to get to his apartment, but a big hand attached to a big cop stopped him.

“Sorry, sir. No one’s allowed past here. Let the fire department work.”

“I’m just trying to get out of the way,” Deuce said mildly. “One less person, you know. I live….” He trailed off, looking up. “Shit!” He dropped his bike and his mild manner at the same time, and the cop made a grab for him. “Let me go! Q! I need to get in there!”

Smoke was pouring out of windows, through doors, and Deuce’s vision narrowed until all he could see was his apartment. “Let me go!”

The cop was yelling at him, and then there were two holding on to him, demanding to know who was inside, what apartment. They wouldn’t let him go, and Deuce couldn’t make the words come out. He swore he could hear her barking. “Q! My dog. She’s locked in the bedroom. She’s pregnant!”

“What number?” He didn’t know who asked, didn’t care.

“Six. Second floor, on the right.” He made himself stop pulling at the cops, mostly because someone was going toward the building, someone in fire gear who could actually help, but also because the police weren’t going to be patient with him for very long.

“Stay here,” one of the cops, the second one, ordered. “You don’t move, understood? If you head to that building, I’ll put you in cuffs and throw you in a patrol car.”

Deuce nodded, not even looking at him. He was pretty sure the cop couldn’t do that, but he wasn’t about to find out. He just watched the apartment, his big front window that looked like it had maybe blown out or been smashed in. “Q,” he whispered. Then he made himself shut up and wait.

… and wait, and wait. It felt like a year had passed before he finally saw the firefighter emerge again, and by that time the building had become almost totally obscured by the thick, dirty smoke. Too many people were still in his way, and he couldn’t tell if the fireman had found his poor Q, her belly swollen with pups.

He craned his neck and stood on tiptoe, trying to peer past the police officer who was keeping him from dashing to his building. Had the firefighter gotten to her? And had it been in time? Deuce was just on the verge of saying fuck it and risking arrest, but suddenly the flock of people in front of him melted away and he confronted a pair of strong arms that cradled his pregnant dog.

“Q!” He reached out to take the squirming, panting mutt. “Is she okay? Are you?”

Q’s tongue lolled, and she whined and wiggled until he put her down. Holding on to her collar, Deuce crouched down next to her and looked up at the firefighter. “Thank you. God, I can’t even tell you.” He petted Q with one hand, made her sit, and held on tight. “Thank you,” he repeated.

The firefighter had already taken off his mask, and now he did the same to his helmet and wiped at his forehead. He nodded at Deuce and leaned down to give her a pat. “She’s a nice girl. Came right to me and let me pick her up.”

“She wasn’t real scared?” Deuce noticed his own hand was shaking, and he reached up to push it through his hair to make it stop. His knuckles hit his bike helmet, though, and he let out a shaky breath before undoing the snap and taking the helmet off. “I’m a mess. Thank you so much, again.”

“She was a little scared.” The man shrugged and petted Q’s head again, his gloves still on. “But not like some pets I’ve tried to grab. Got bit right through my turnouts once by some little yappy dog.”

“What’s your name?”

“Trey Donovan. And she is…?”

“Q. Well, her vet papers still say Cutie, but that’s a stupid name. I got her about two years ago, after a breakup, and took the liberty of cooling her up.” Deuce gently stroked her belly. “She got loose on me, though.”

The corner of Trey’s mouth lifted as he gazed at the dog’s stomach. “She wasn’t spayed, obviously. Don’t you listen to what Bob Barker tells you?”

Deuce didn’t blush, but he did nod contritely. “Lesson learned, for sure. It’ll be taken care of as soon as she’s ready. I’m not sure how long we have to wait after the puppies come, but the vet will tell me. I hope they’re okay.”

Q whined again and looked at them both, her tail thumping on the ground. She was still panting, and Deuce decided he’d have to find some water for her really soon.

Someone was yelling for Trey, who glanced over his shoulder and nodded. He gave one last pat to Q and shifted his helmet to under his other arm. “Good luck getting rid of the puppies.” He laughed. “My kid would love one.” Then he turned and headed back in the direction from which he’d come, presumably to do something else heroic.

“Your kid is totally getting one,” Deuce said, mostly to Q. “Right? Right.” He watched Trey talk to someone and then vanish into the smoke, but not before he saw the big “11” on Trey’s helmet. “We’ll track him down.”

He got up and held on to Q’s collar, stooping slightly as they walked. His bike was totally forgotten until a voice called his name, and he looked up to see the woman from across the hall waving at him.

“I’ll be right back,” he called back. “I need to find a bowl for Q.” And then he could start trying to figure out what the hell had happened to his apartment and how long it would be before he was allowed to go in for his stuff.

 

 

 

BY THE NUMBERS: ADDING IT UP

 

Chapter One

 

A LONG night was proving to be an even longer one by the conspicuous absence of Trey Donovan’s work relief.

His entire crew had been relieved by their counterparts on B shift. All except for him, of course. A quick check of the shift calendar online had shown that the firefighter due to relieve him was coming off an overtime day from a station across town, so of course he was late.

Trey made a face at the screen and prayed they wouldn’t get a call before Scott Halloran got there, but the way things were going, it was a faint hope at best.

“Still waiting,” Trey texted. He wondered if Deuce was still at home or if he’d given up and gone to work.

It was a couple of minutes before the reply came through. “Again? This is twice in the last four shifts.”

Trey sighed. He hated being held up in the mornings just for this reason. It made both of them cranky. “I know,” he typed back. “Can’t help it, sorry. :(” Maybe the sad face would adequately express what he was feeling.

The next reply took even longer to arrive. “I know. Going to work now, call me later. Dinner defrosting in fridge.”

Damn. “Okay, thanks. Call you when I get home.” Trey tossed his phone down on the desk and spun around in the swivel chair. Come on, come on, come on, he silently prayed. I just want to go the fuck home.

It was another twenty minutes before Scott showed up with a shrug and a “Sorry, man,” but Trey couldn’t really hold it against him. Trey had been on the other end before, and it was nobody’s fault. Just the way things were.

Deuce, however, seemed to need more convincing. Trey drove home with his window down and the radio up loud in the crisp winter morning. Well, as crisp as it got in Southern California, anyway. The cold breeze helped to make him a little more alert. It had been a rough night.

He finally arrived in his own driveway and hauled his gear bag out of the cab of his truck. A hot shower and a two-hour nap sounded like the best thing in the world right now. His only regret was that it wasn’t a weekend day and Deuce couldn’t do either of those things with him.

After dumping his dirty clothes on top of the washing machine, Trey opened the back door and whistled. Deuce would have put the dogs out there before he left for work, and sure enough, the two puppies came bounding over at once. Their mother, Q, followed at a more dignified pace, though her tail waved in welcome.

Pi and Six, tongues lolling, romped at Trey’s feet. They had grown considerably in the past six months. Deuce claimed they wouldn’t be full-grown for another year. Trey had apprehension about that, considering they were already weighing forty-five pounds each and had at least another fifteen to go. He bent down to give them pats and ear scratches, and they both whined with eagerness.

When Trey turned to go back in the house, all three dogs followed him. They were allowed more freedom now that they’d been housebroken, but the puppies were still chewers and had to be closely supervised. In this case, “supervised” would mean he’d shut them in the bedroom with him while he napped.

The shower could wait until later. Trey toed off his tennis shoes and shed his jeans in favor of comfortable sweats. He dropped onto the bed and picked up the phone on the nightstand, dialing Deuce’s work number by heart.

It rang three times before Deuce picked up, sounding harried and busy. Not a good sign before nine a.m.

“Good morning, this is Nathaniel.” Distracted, as well as busy. “How can I help you?”

“Hi, I’m home. And in bed. I wish you were here.”

“That would be nice, yes.” The distracted part was gone, and Deuce sounded like he was paying at least most of his attention to Trey. “How was your night?”

“Busy. You know those false chimney things on the side of a house? A cat fell into one and kept the family awake with its howling at one in the morning. Then there was some drunk who wrecked his car, but not himself.” Trey yawned and rubbed his eyes. “I’m about to nap with the dogs.”

“Tell Pi not to get on the bed. He’s being sneaky about it. He tries to get on in slow motion, like we won’t notice if he’s suddenly there.”

Trey eyed the dog that had already crept onto the bed and was lying with his head on Trey’s shin. Q and Six, being good dogs were in the corner where their pillows lay.

“I’ll tell him,” Trey mused.

“He’s on the bed already, isn’t he?” Deuce didn’t sigh, exactly, but he did sound resigned.

“Yeah. He looks pretty comfortable.” Trey grinned and reached down to pet Pi’s silky head. He didn’t mind if the dogs were on the furniture, but Deuce was forever shooing them off. “I’ll get him on his pillow instead.”

“All right.” Deuce laughed quietly. “Don’t forget that dinner is in the fridge, okay? I’ll be home on time tonight. You can make it up to me for not being able to give me my morning kiss.”

“I will.” Trey smiled into the phone. “See you later.” He put the cordless handset back on the cradle and shoved at Pi with his foot. “Off,” he ordered.

Pi sighed morosely and jumped off the bed. He made his way to the pillows in the corner but chose to share Six’s bed instead of taking his own.

“Fine by me,” Trey said. “I’d rather share too.” He turned over and hugged one of the bed pillows to him. It took about forty-five seconds for sleep to find him.

 

 

HIS INTENDED two-hour nap was closer to three and a half hours, and when Trey finally dragged himself out of bed and into the shower, he was still groggy.

Even a cool shower didn’t wake him up as much as he would have liked. He was hungry, though. Maybe food would do the trick and offer him some energy. Trey toweled off and dressed in clean, soft track pants and T-shirt. He made his way to the kitchen, with the dogs trailing behind. All three of them sat down at the back door and waited patiently to be let out.

Trey put them out into the yard, then managed to throw together a tuna sandwich with avocado. He sat alone in the quiet kitchen while munching it. Trey really hated days like this when work took so much out of him that he was practically useless. Hopefully he’d be more alert by the time Deuce got home.

Thoughts of Deuce reminded Trey that dinner was in the fridge. A quick check showed that chicken breasts were marinating, so Trey left them to do their thing. He’d grill kabobs for supper and put them over rice or something.

Trey chilled out in front of the television and thought about doing some laundry, but couldn’t quite motivate himself. He was tired and really just wanted Deuce to come home. Around four thirty he wandered into the kitchen and started chopping bell peppers and mushrooms for the kabobs. The dogs milled at his feet, sniffing the floor and waiting for scraps.

He didn’t realize how intently he was listening for the door until he heard Deuce’s key in the lock. Trey immediately dropped the knife on the cutting board and went to the front door, wiping his hands on a dish towel.

Deuce came in, looking almost as tired as Trey felt. Even so, he was still the best thing Trey had laid eyes on all day.

“Finally.” Trey grinned and stepped up to kiss Deuce.

Deuce kissed him back, and then again. “Hey, you.” His smile was warm, if a little weary. “How’s dinner coming along? Kiss me again.” He laughed as the dogs wiggled between them. “Hello, you three. Easy, I’m still dressed for the office. Paws off.”

Trey pulled the puppies back by the collar and shooed Q away with a foot. “I’d say I’ll undress you from the office, but you look like you could use a beer and food first. Right or wrong?”

“Right.” Deuce gave him another quick kiss and went to the fridge, followed by Pi. “Beer first. Some days are just longer than others. How was your day? Did you get some rest?”

“Yeah. Didn’t do much else, though.” Trey followed him into the kitchen and watched Deuce take a long pull from a beer bottle. “We can eat in thirty minutes. Are you hungry? Pi, leave him alone.”

Pi appeared not to hear him. He kept sniffing around Deuce’s feet, then bouncing up to rest his paws on Deuce’s thighs, only to be pushed back off.

“Oh, all right,” Deuce said, scratching Pi between his ears. “You’re a good boy. Well, aside from the jumping. Where’s your bone, Pi? Where’s the squeaky bone?”

Pi took off, followed by Six. Q watched but gave her humans a look that clearly said she was above such things.

“I drove today instead of riding my bike, so I’m not as starved as usual,” Deuce said. “Which isn’t to say I’m not hungry.” Deuce was pretty much always ready for food. “I want to get that new shelf up on Lacey’s wall tonight or tomorrow—I meant to do it last night, but I wound up watching TV.” He looked faintly embarrassed. “It was a documentary on hydro dams.”

Trey thought for a moment about asking Deuce if he was kidding, but he knew his cute little geek better than that. Deuce had probably DVR’d the show and would watch parts of it again. Trey loved that this was the kind of thing that turned Deuce on. As long as Trey in uniform was one of the other things, of course.

“We can do it tonight.” Trey returned to the counter and the abandoned vegetables. “I painted it over the weekend. She’ll see it tomorrow when Holly drops her off.”

His seven-year-old daughter was due tomorrow morning for three days of dad time. Trey’s days with her were precious, but there had been many an adjustment when Deuce had come to live with them. Trey’s ex-wife, Holly, had been one of those adjustments.

“What do you have planned for the day?” Deuce leaned on the counter and drank from his beer bottle, his other hand absently petting whichever dog wandered over. They had apparently lost interest in finding their missing bones. “I might be able to get home early, maybe.”

“It’s Friday, so she’s got school. I told her the last time she was here that if she got all of her spelling words right, I’d take her to pizza at that place. The bacteria farm.” Trey made a face. He was no germophobe, but all of those kids running around and touching everything made him shudder.

Deuce wrinkled his nose. “I might have to work late, maybe. Kidding. I’ll be brave and go with you. We can all be sick together.”

“And the pizza isn’t even decent.” The things a man did for the love of his daughter. “But I’ll take you through the drive-thru on the way home.”

“Will you help me unclog my arteries later?” Deuce grinned at him and walked close enough to kiss Trey’s mouth. “I’m going to change. I smell like office worker.”

“Better than smelling like dog.” Trey eyed the three mutts who were sitting at his feet, still waiting for a crumb of food to fall. “Guess who gets a bath this weekend? One, two, three.” He pointed to each one in turn, and they wagged their tails.

Trey heard the shower go on and considered joining Deuce there, but his own stomach rumbled and he knew Deuce would be just as hungry. He set up the rice cooker, finished the vegetables, and prepared the chicken for grilling, then moved to the back patio where the barbecue grill lived. The dogs trailed him, naturally.

He had just sliced open one chicken breast to check for doneness when the kitchen door opened, and Trey caught the faint smell of shampoo and aftershave.

“That’s a world of good food right there.” The dogs, clearly agreeing, barely glanced at Deuce as he came out. “Feed me, and then we can catch up properly.”

“Deal.” Trey forked the chicken onto a clean plate and collected the vegetables from the foil on the top grill rack. “Get the rice on the table for me and we’re good.” He brushed past Deuce with a kiss on the way and brought the chicken to the counter to cut into pieces. Once again, the dogs followed.

When they were sitting and the dogs were a step away from the table, watching intently, Deuce said, “I’ve been thinking. We should have a vacation sometime soon. Just the two of us, not at home.”

“I can’t remember the last time I went on a real vacation.” Trey speared a mushroom and ate it. “Wait, yes, I can. It was my honeymoon.” They’d been happy too. Holly and he had gone to Hawaii and spent nine days on different islands. Then they came home, and eventually Trey realized that being married was more than just living with a woman in the same house. There were… obligations.

“Well, no offense, but Holly isn’t invited this time.” Deuce winked at him and took a bite of his dinner. “She can watch the dogs, though.” That had to be a joke. “Where should we go?”

Six rested his chin on Trey’s thigh and looked mournful. Trey fed him a small piece of chicken, although he knew Deuce would give him the familiar “please don’t feed the dogs at the table” look. “Good question. Somewhere tropical? Historical? Informational? I don’t care. I’ve never been to Disney World.” Considering they were only an hour’s drive away from Disneyland, though, Trey wasn’t in any hurry to see the same place on the opposite coast. “Where have you always wanted to go?”

Deuce shrugged one shoulder and gestured with his fork. “The mountains might be nice. Tropical is always good, though.” He gave Trey a lazy smile. “Isolated would be nice.”

“It would be,” Trey agreed. “Some private bungalow somewhere. Or a cabin. We could go up to Tahoe and spend a week in the snow. I know a guy at work who commutes from there; want me to ask him if he knows of a place?”

“Skiing and snowboarding?” Deuce nodded slowly. “That would be great. Maybe a bit of hiking? And then a nice fire in the fireplace, a bearskin rug….” He trailed off and wiggled his eyebrows at Trey.

Trey snorted. “You’re not subtle.” He gathered up his and Deuce’s plates and dropped a kiss on Deuce’s head. “But it sounds good to me too. I’ll ask Benji if he knows of something.” He brought the dirty dishes to the sink to soak and dropped another bit of chicken to Six, who had followed. “We don’t have anything for dessert except slice-and-bake cookies. There might be ice cream to go with them, though.”

“I was kind of hoping for something a little less sweet and a lot more you, actually.” Deuce gave him a wide grin and stood up, looking far more predatory than he had before he’d gotten cleaned up and been fed.

“Well, now.” Trey turned to face Deuce and leaned against the sink. “Who says I’m not sweet?”