GAVIN CLARK STEPPED from his pick-up and stretched. The muscles in his body ached from a twenty-four shift at Station 58. He massaged his right shoulder, fingering the ridges of the scar that started on his cheek, traveled down his neck, onto his arm, and across his side. It wasn’t a continuous scar, and it looked a hell of a lot better than it had three years ago, but it was still noticeable and every once in a while, the scorching in his skin flared to life.
An unpredictable reminder.
During the accident, he didn’t know which had been worse: the torture of being burned, or the smell of his flesh melting. He clenched his left fist, opening and closing it. No matter how successful all the surgeries had been, the skin on his hand always felt like someone had pulled it too tight across his body.
He bent over, letting his hands fall toward the ground before standing and leaning backward with his palms pressed on his lower back, tipping left, then right.
Making his way up the steps of the duplex, which was just a few miles from the station house, he tried not to peek into his neighbor’s window. He’d lived in this apartment for the last seven years. She’d moved in almost a year ago and they had maybe six conversations that consisted of her asking him to climb a ladder, fix her smoke detector, change a flat tire, and maybe three random musings about the weather, or a news article, in passing.
As he stuck his key into his door, right next to her office window, he caught a glimpse of his hot neighbor, Charlotte Harper. She had gathered her long, dark hair into a tangled mess on top of her head. Her laptop sat open on her desk, commanding her avid attention, while she nibbled at a pencil hanging from her plump lips, completely engrossed in whatever she was doing and totally unaware of his presence.
He once asked her what she did for a living and he only understood one thing from that conversation: she worked with computers and he’d never heard half the words that had come out of her mouth, which kind of turned him on. Not that he didn’t understand what she was talking about, but a smart woman was sexy as hell. Not to mention, how passionate she’d been when she explained her job to him. She obviously loved what she did, which was something he could relate to.
He pushed open his door, closing it gently as if it would disturb her, which just made him laugh. He’d like to distract her, but she always seemed so busy with her work and barely gave him the time of day.
After tossing his keys on the table by the door, he plopped down on the sofa, snagging his laptop. He opened up the internet browser and typed in the URL his buddy had given him for a local dating chatroom. His buddy had met his current girlfriend on the site, but Gavin had his doubts.
He’d been a shy kid and to some extent, socially awkward as a teenager. He hadn’t had many girlfriends since the last one, who left him a few weeks after he’d nearly died, leaving a deep emotional scar that was worse than any of the ones on his body.
He never understood if Lydia had left him because his, “rugged good looks,” as she put it, had been so damaged, or if she just had never loved him in the first place.
The rattle of knuckles against the wood made him jump. He glanced toward the front of the house and saw Charlotte standing on the porch.
Closing his computer, he made his way across the room and pulled open the door.
“Hey, Charlotte, what’s up?” He always tried to act relaxed and cool around her even though she tended to tie him up in knots.
She held up a small package. “This came for you late yesterday and they needed someone to sign for it. I figure signing means it’s important?” A few stray strands of her dark hair fell from her messy bun, dangling on the side of her face.
He had an urge to tuck them behind her ear. Taking the package from her delicate fingers, he glanced at the return address and smiled. “Thanks. I’ve been waiting for this.”
“What are neighbors for?”
He nodded. Small talk wasn’t something he was very good at. Get him on a subject he knew well and he might never shut up, but otherwise, he created long awkward pauses in conversations.
So did she, which made any chance of him even asking her in for a drink highly improbable.
She scrunched her face, wrinkling her nose as she nibbled on her fingernail, something she did every time she asked for a favor. “Can I borrow your microwave for a couple of minutes? Mine isn’t working.”
He glanced over his shoulder trying to remember if he’d left his laptop open to the dating chatroom. “Sure, no problem.”
She popped her finger out of her mouth and practically pranced on her tiptoes. “Let me just go get my bowl of fried rice.”
“It’s got an egg in it.”
He stood back in the doorway, watching her scurry across the shared front porch, mentally scolding himself for checking out the way her ass filled her yoga pants. His mother would smack him upside the head. His sisters, oh boy, they would go into a two-hour lecture about the injustices to women. He would agree his sisters were right on all accounts, but they took it just a little too far. Nice men, like himself, appreciated a woman’s body, respected it, and sometimes, it was impossible not to admire the plush, round curves.
Her front door rattled and she appeared with a large bowl in one hand and a plastic bag in the other.
He realized while he’d been in her house, she’d never been in his. “Same exact set-up, so you can go straight back to the kitchen.”
“Thanks. Here.” She shoved the bag at him, not looking him in the eye. “Home baked cookies for your trouble.”
“No trouble at all, but I won’t say no to cookies. Ever.”
She smiled and took off toward the kitchen like a skittish cat hopped up on caffeine.
“Would you like me to take a look at your microwave?” He leaned against the counter on the other side of the galley kitchen, soaking in her slender, but strong figure. She had to be close to five-ten and for some reason he could picture her in a bathing suit at the beach playing volleyball.
“That’s sweet.” She glanced over her well defined, tanned shoulder. “I won’t say no to the offer.”
He laughed. “Is the door unlocked?”
She nodded, peering over her black rimmed glasses hugging the lower part of her nose. She looked like a cross between a librarian and an executive guru. “This will only take another minute to heat up. I’ll be right over.”
Tearing his eyes from the gorgeous woman dressing up his kitchen, he made his way over to her apartment. Once on the porch, he glanced down the street at the row of almost identical duplexes in the quiet neighborhood of mostly young professionals, newly married couples or people just moving in together. He’d moved into this place when he’d been twenty-one, and he liked living alone, but at twenty-eight, he was getting tired of not having someone to share his life with.
As he stepped across her threshold and into her kitchen, he considered asking her out on a date. How hard could it be? He nearly burst out laughing at himself. His little fourteen-year-old cousin had more swagger than he did.
He stood in the center of her kitchen staring at the lights flashing on her microwave and oven. The word error displayed on the control panel. He’d seen this before at his parents’ house where the appliances had just gone off-line and all he had to do was turn the fuse off and on. Easy enough to fix as he went to the fuse box located in the storage pantry near the backdoor. He quickly found the correct switch.
“Wow, that’s great,” Charlotte said. He closed the door, taking in a deep breath. This was it. He’d either have a date one night this week, or he’d crash and burn.
“I can do that,” she said, holding the cell phone to the side of her head. “Sounds wonderful, consider it a date.”
Crashed and burned before he even took off.
“See you then.” She set her bowl and phone down, pointing to her microwave. “That error message is gone.”
“If it happens again, you just need to trip the fuse. It happens to my parents all the time when they lose power.
He nodded. “I best be going. I’m beat from work and haven’t slept yet.”
“And here, I thought my hours could be crazy.”
“You get used to it,” he said, taking a few steps toward the front of the house. “And I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
She curled her fingers over his biceps. “If no one has said it today, thank you for all that you do.”
The air in his lungs released with a swish. People said stuff like that to him all the time and he never knew how to respond. His job was his world. Even after being burned during a call, he couldn’t wait to get back. Being a firefighter wasn’t what he did, it was who he was.
Once back in the comfort of his own home, he settled into his plush leather sofa, resting his computer on his lap, and stared at the dating website asking him for a screen name. He certainly wasn’t going to give his real name, but wasn’t sure what name he should give himself. He glanced at the list of users currently on the site, which ranged from your average every day name like Julia, Steve, or Ronny, to occupational names, to sexual innuendos.
He’d avoid those.
He typed in Firefighter, but then noticed there were other firemen online, but they all used a second name with it. His fingers hovered over the keyboard while he contemplated what he might want to give away about himself. He could use his first name, or his last name which could be mistaken for a first name. He could use Dallas.
Or he could use something silly like…
Before he could think twice, he hit the enter button.
Charlotte sat back down at her desk, scanning the code she’d written early this morning, trying to shove Mr. Sexy Firefighter out of her thoughts, but that was impossible since his Ivory fresh scent lingered in the air, coating her senses like a warm blanket.
Every time she saw him, she acted like a jumpy animal that raced around in circles chasing her tail. She half expected to stutter and stammer every time she opened her mouth, but instead she spoke so fast that when he looked at her, his face contorted as if he were listening to a foreign language or something.
It didn’t matter. Based on their interaction, he’d never say yes to a date, not that she’d ask him for one, and even if she’d mustered up the courage, why deal with the humiliation of being shot down every time she saw him? She’d gotten enough of that in high school and college. Her mother used to tell her that being a genius would attract the finest of men. Ha! All it had done was intimidate the hell out of them.
The one man that had found her intelligence and quirky shyness attractive ended up marrying her sister. A fact that was tossed in her face at every family gathering.
Charlotte closed out her email after sending her boss the pages of code he’d requested. She opened up the browser to the dating site she’d found a little over a month ago. She told herself the only reason she went to the site was out of boredom and the chatter in the main room was highly entertaining. Better than daytime drama on television.
Well, not really, but it was one way to pass the time.
She had no idea why she’d googled dating sites, other than the last time she’d had male companionship, six months ago, it had ended with him telling her on the third date that he thought she was too uptight and introverted just because she didn’t want to go out and party every night. All she wanted was companionship. Someone to talk to, hang out with, maybe, over time, fall in love. Someone who enjoyed watching movies, hanging out at home with a bottle of wine in front of a fire.
And one that didn’t have a wandering eye.
She’d talked to three men on the site and they all had turned out to be whack jobs, only interested in sharing naked pictures, not actually getting to know one another.
Or phone sex.
The one who seemed open to chatting and possibly going on a date in the near future became needy in less than twenty-four hours, constantly begging for her attention and when she didn’t give it to him right away, he got nasty, only to apologize, begging for forgiveness, telling her how much he cared for her.
A private message came over. She clicked on the button and then rolled her eyes.
Charlie: how are you today? I’ve missed you.
“Can’t you take a hint?”
She quickly clicked block and deleted the message. She hated doing that, but Charlie wasn’t going to quietly go away.
Bored, she scanned the names on the list that had common interests as her. Some of the screen names were amusing. Of course, she thought hers was brilliant: AngelaBennett, the name of the lead character played by Sandra Bullock in the movie The Net. But it also pretty much described the type of person she was and what she did for a living, so not much of a stretch.
Thinking about her adorable neighbor, she typed fire into the search field and gasped when she saw someone by the name of Sexyfirefighter was on line.
And he was in her matched section.
What the hell? Why not?
Her heart pounded so fast it crushed her chest, making it hard to breathe. She leaned back, crossed her arms and stared at the blinking cursor after hitting send.
Sexyfirefighter: Hi back. How are you?
She couldn’t decide if it was cute that he didn’t use texting abbreviations, or if that meant he was older than dirt. She clicked on his profile, something she should have done beforehand, considering Crazy-Charlie.
According to Sexyfirefighter’s stats, he was twenty-eight, almost twenty-nine. He didn’t fill in his name. Nor did he upload any profile pictures. Many people didn’t give out personal information until after they’d had a chance to talk with a potential match. She had used an image from the movie The Net. But so far no one seemed to get it.
Also, according to his profile, he had just joined today.
According to the likes section he enjoyed hiking and playing pick-up basketball. He also enjoyed watching football and his favorite team was of course, the Dallas Cowboys. Score one for the fireman. He enjoyed movies and admitted to being addicted to binge watching on Netflix. Something else she loved to do. But the best was he loved country music and going to live concerts.
He was worthy of a conversation.
AngelaBennett: i’m good taking a break from work.
Sexyfirefighter: have you been chatting here a while?
AngelaBennett: about a month.
Sexyfirefighter: have any luck finding matches?
AngelaBennett: Honestly, no. Seem to attract whack jobs.
She didn’t think lying would be a good way to start a conversation with a potential date. Besides, maybe it would speed up the process to find out if Sexyfirefighter was a nut case as well.
Sexyfirefighter: what constitutes a whack job?
AngelaBennett: someone who doesn’t understand boundaries.
Sexyfirefighter: I understand and have my own.
AngelaBennett: good do u read the main chat room? I find the convos hilarious.
Sexyfirefighter: I know! Some of them are laugh out loud.
AngelaBennett: you mean LOL.
Sexyfirefighter: LOL. Yes.
AngelaBennett: Have you talked to a lot of people here? Find any good matches?
She had no idea if this guy would be honest, nor did she have a way of telling if he was lying, but it might give her an idea of what he was looking for.
Sexyfirefighter: You’re my first.
AngelaBennett: Why respond to me?
She sucked in a breath.
Sexyfirefighter: Two reasons: First, I just logged on and picked my screen name and then you said hello.
Sexyfirefighter: Second, I love the movie The Net, so I was intrigued by the name.”
That answer created a gentle wave in her stomach. She took it as he’d been honest about what he liked.
AngelaBennett: So, you know this isn’t my real name.
Sexyfirefighter: well, my name isn’t sexy, either.
AngelaBennett: LOL this isn’t your typical dating site.
Sexyfirefighter: is that what you are looking for? A man to date?
Boy was he direct. She bit down on her lower lip, contemplating how to answer that one.
AngelaBennett: For now, someone to have stimulating conversation with would be a good start. You?
Sexyfirefighter: I’m really not sure what I expected when I found this place, but interesting conversation sounds good.
She decided if he asked her what she looked like, or what her body type was, she’d end the conversation.
AngelaBennett: Are you really a firefighter?
Her mind drifted to her sexy neighbor, who happened to be one of Dallas’s finest first responders. The only thing she knew about him was that in all the time she’d lived in this apartment, she’d never seen a woman spend the night. He had men in and out…
Maybe Gavin was gay?
Nah. He didn’t send off that vibe. Did he?
Sexyfirefighter: I am. Going on eight years.
AngelaBennett: Dangerous job.
She touched the side of her face, remembering the scars on Gavin’s. She’d never asked him about them, nor would she ever.
Sexyfirefighter: It can be. But I love helping people.
AngelaBennett: that’s sweet.
Sexyfirefighter: Not sure it’s sweet, but thanks.
AngelaBennett: So, tell me. Did you actually know who Angela Bennett was, or did you Google it?
Sexyfirefighter: LOL. Movies are my past time. And what male doesn’t have a crush on Sandra Bullock. Though, I liked the movie Speed better.
Charlotte smiled. Sexyfirefighter could flirt without really trying. Well, the warm sensation rolling across her skin made it feel like flirting.
AngelaBennett: And what female doesn’t have the hots for Keanu Reeves. I mean, really. Good looking and seems like a nice guy.
Sexyfirefighter: I got no comment on Keanu, I was too busy checking out his co-star.
She laughed, shaking her head. This was more fun than she expected. Not that she’d had high expectations.
AngelaBennett: Do you have a favorite genre of movie that you like to watch?
Sexyfirefighter: Not really. I have eclectic tastes. You?
AngelaBennett: I tend to lean toward Action Adventure or Psychological Thrillers, but will watch almost anything except horror flicks and
Did she dare say it?
His response to that could tell her a lot about him, and if she wanted to continue talking to him with the potential of meeting him someday, this answer could make or break her desire to continue.
Sexyfirefighter: I like older horror movies, but things like Chuckie freak me out. And I don’t know many women who like porn or admit to watching it. I’m a guy. Of course, I’ve seen one…or two.
AngelaBennett: Men! You’re all alike and anything with a doll or a clown I can’t stand!
Sexyfirefighter: so, I guess I’ll avoid the clown emoji ☺
AngelaBennett: Use that sucker and I’ll log off!
Her computer dinged as an email from her boss popped up. She glanced at the clock and was surprised she’d been talking to this guy for almost an hour. She clicked on the message and frowned.
AngelaBennett: I’m sorry, but I have to get back to work. My boss just emailed me and he’s got a bug up his ass.
Sexyfirefighter: No problem. Maybe we can talk again?
AngelaBennett: I can come on tonight after seven, if you want. I like talking to you.
What the hell was she doing?
Sexyfirefighter: I can be on for a little while after eight.
AngelaBennett: That works.
Sexyfirefighter: Talk then. Now I’ve got a couple of cookies and a tall glass of milk with my name on them.
Her hands froze above the keyboard as she held her breath. Lots of men enjoyed cookies.