“Don’t come any closer!” The greasy-haired man yelled.
Firefighter Alex Beckett kept his expression carefully neutral as he held his hands out and away from his body in a gesture meant to convey compliance. No way would he—or his coworkers, who were frozen beside him in the same stance—make any kind of move on this guy. Not with the bloody knife in his hand and the unfocused look in his eyes.
“I’ll jump, I swear!” As if to make his point, the man straddled the balcony railing.
They were on the third floor of an apartment building in the more dicey part of Reno, Nevada. If the guy jumped, he probably wouldn’t kill himself, but who knew? His pupils were completely blown. Whatever drugs he was on, he had no idea what he was doing.
“I swear I’ll do it!” The man waved the knife at them, and Alex flinched. Wigged-out druggies were one thing, but the knife took the situation to another level of crazy.
His gaze darted to the woman slumped against the railing on the far side of the balcony. She wasn’t moving, and there was blood smeared on the sliding glass door behind her.
The asshole had stabbed her—perhaps multiple times.
His coworker, Maizy Johnston, shifted beside him. “What’s your name?” she said.
The drug addict stared at her. “My name?” he said. “Who cares about my name? I don’t have a fucking name as far as you’re concerned!”
“Maizy.” Her partner, Lucas ‘Oz’ Osborne, spoke in his usual calm voice. “We need to wait for the police.”
“We can’t wait,” Maizy hissed. “She’s dying.”
Alex had the same gut feeling. As a firefighter, he’d seen his share of domestic disputes, but usually the cops were on scene when they were—followed closely by the paramedics.
What’s taking them so long?
“Oz is right,” he said. “Protocol says we wait.”
Maizy spared him the briefest glance. “The hell with the protocols. That woman needs help now.”
She took a step toward the wacko with the knife. “I know you didn’t mean to hurt your friend.”
“April,” the man said, his wild eyes darting to the brown-haired woman. “Her name is April.”
“I know you care about April,” Maizy’s voice soothed in the slight southern drawl that usually only made an appearance when she was trying to talk someone into something.
She took another step toward the man.
Alex tensed. “Maizy!”
His terse warning was ignored; she took another step.
The woman constantly did the opposite of whatever he wanted her to do. Just last week she’d double-rolled the hose even after he’d told her to single-roll it. He swore she did it just to piss him off.
But this was different; she could get badly hurt. He could feel the tension radiating off Lucas and knew he felt the same.
“I killed her.” The man’s eyes flooded with tears. “I deserve to die!”
“You didn’t kill her,” Maizy said. “We can still help her. But you have to put the knife down.”
“I… I can’t.” The man’s hand shook violently.
“You can,” Maizy said firmly. She took another step.
Sweat pooled at Alex’s lower back. He so did not want to get stabbed, but there was no way he was going to let this low-life hurt Maizy. His eyes met Lucas’s, and when his teammate shifted toward the balcony, Alex did, too.
The man lowered the knife, his eyes unfocussed. “I…” He swayed and nearly lost his balance. He dropped the knife as he made a grab for the railing.
Now or never.
Alex lunged for the man. Beside him, Lucas did the same. They both got a fistful of the man’s shirt and yanked.
The man went sprawling. Alex was about to jump on him when he heard the sweetest word in the world.
It was about time.
Alex backed away from the would-be jumper and looked toward the battered woman. Maizy was already bent over her, checking vitals.
“Get the paramedics in here!” he yelled.
Maizy Johnston jumped down from the truck and made quick work of shedding her bunker pants and boots. She headed for the commons locker room, doing her best to ignore the daggers Alex was throwing at her back.
Of course, the annoying man had to follow her. No doubt he wanted to harangue her a little more for her ‘stupidity’—
“You shouldn’t have engaged with that guy,” Alex said.
And there it was.
“He’d already stabbed her twice.” Maizy shrugged out of her uniform shirt. “I wasn’t going to give him the chance to do it again—or to off himself.”
“You should have waited,” he said.
Maizy pressed her lips into a thin line. “I can’t just drop my heart off at the locker each shift, and then pick it back up again after.”
“Yes, you can,” he said. “That’s the job.”
“Maybe you can,” she said.
Alex’s face flushed. “You’re dangerous, Maizy!” he said. “You’re gonna get yourself hurt, or worse—get one of us hurt when we go after you!”
Now it was her face that flared with heat. Sure, she took calculated risks from time to time—just like every other firefighter she worked with. The only difference was that she was a woman—and in Alex’s eyes, that made her weak.
She’d worked hard to master every skill in the firefighter manual until she could do it just as well or better than any man. Simply put, she knew her shit. If a man was intimidated by that fact, that was his problem, not hers. She couldn’t let any man undermine her hard-won confidence. “I didn’t ask for your help,” she said. “I don’t need you or Oz or anyone else to protect me. I’m a big girl.”
She yanked her undershirt up and over her head and tossed it in her locker. “Do you mind?” She gave him a pointed look.
Alex blinked, his gaze pinned to her bra. Then he threw his hands in the air and spun on his heel. His displeasure was evident in the growl that followed him out the door.
Well, that had worked like a charm; the man couldn’t get away from her fast enough.
She glanced down—and nearly groaned. She’d been out of clean sports bras that morning, so instead of the utilitarian garment, Alex had gotten an eyeful of her off-the-job feminine side.
She rolled on a new layer of anti-perspirant and yanked a clean shirt over her head before anyone else could enter the locker room, then headed for the back stairwell, hoping to avoid any further contact with her all-male coworkers.
Upstairs in the women’s sleeping quarters—an area that was empty save for her—she flopped onto her bunk. Adrenaline still coursed through her system; despite the front she’d put up with Alex, she’d been scared out of her mind (a fact that Lucas probably knew but was too decent to point out).
God, she missed Riley. In a nation where only four percent of firefighters were female, she’d been blessed to have another woman firefighter not just at her station but on the same shift for several years. She understood Riley’s transfer—it was against policy for her and Kade to work together—but Maizy could really use her calm logic right now.
She stared at the ceiling, trying to slow her heart rate. It wasn’t all from the confrontation with the crazy drug addict; a good portion was driven by Alex Beckett.
He was always trying to take her down a notch. Claiming she didn’t have the mindset for certain types of training (like the terrorist training that she’d passed with flying colors, thank you very much). Acting like she was the weak link whenever they had to carry an obese patient to an ambulance. Constantly second-guessing her decisions…
And why did he always have to look so good doing it, with his ice-blue eyes, spiky blond hair, and Nordic-God chiseled jaw?
Worse, he was right this time—at least partly. She might even be called into Chief Streich’s office for a reprimand.
She thought again about that woman’s bruised and bloody body—and the knife in that asshole’s hand.
If Maizy got her hand slapped for stretching protocol, then so be it. Saving a life was worth it.
“Give me a hand with these.”
Alex turned to find his team leader, Kade Phillips, holding an oxygen tank in each hand. Alex popped the cover on the rack compartment of Engine 43 and removed one of the tanks. They hadn’t used them on the last call, but it was standard procedure to check and replace the tanks every shift. He handed the ‘spent’ tank to Kade and took the ‘fresh’ one from him.
“I heard you talking to Maizy about that domestic call,” Kade said.
Alex grunted, the conversation—and that mint-green, laced-edged bra—still lodged in his consciousness. “She disregarded my directive and ignored her own partner.”
“Is that why you’re pissed?” Kade said.
“Maizy is the most infuriating, stubborn woman I’ve ever met.” Alex snapped the tank into place. “She could have gotten hurt!”
“Careful, Alex.” Kade chuckled. “You might get me thinking you care about her.”
Alex removed the other tank and handed it to Kade. Yeah, he’d gotten a little worried when he thought that crackhead might hurt Maizy—but he’d feel that way about any of his coworkers. “What I care about is knowing my mates will make smart decisions,” he said. “That they’ve got my back if I ever need it.”
“Maizy might be a little hot-headed—as are you, I might point out—but she’s not stupid,” Kade said.
No. If anything, Maizy was too damn smart—not to mention perceptive. She’d read that domestic violence situation in under thirty seconds, and she’d done something about it.
And she’d effectively shut down his little tirade in the locker room with that disrobing stunt.
Maizy was a strikingly sensual woman, with her slender body, long blond hair and intense hazel eyes. And now he knew exactly what her bra looked like.
He slammed the compartment door with more force than necessary.
“Like I said,” Kade said, a hint of amusement in his voice. “A little hot-headed.”
Kade headed for the oxygen bay, no doubt ready to clock out and go home to his daughter and his girlfriend.
When Alex entered the commons room a couple minutes later, Maizy wasn’t there—thank God—but his friend and partner, Dez Andrews, was.
“Hey, Alex,” Dez said. “You. Me. Tomorrow night. Roper’s.”
Roper’s nightclub was a good place to pick up women—which was no doubt Dez’s primary aim.
“You looking for a wingman?” Alex said. Not that the role didn’t come with nice benefits…
Dez clapped his hand around Alex’s shoulder. “Unless you’ve gotten some you didn’t tell me about, you’re overdue. Besides, what else do you have going on?”
Babysitting my dad.
Alex didn’t say the words out loud, although everyone on B Shift knew his dad was a drunk thanks to a certain incident a couple years ago. Half the time Alex felt like the parent, and he was only 27. He was supposed to go out partying. Hell, if anyone was going to get drunk, it should be him.
Too bad he had a three-drink rule.
“I do have a life outside of work and your man-whore needs,” Alex said.
“Like a hot date?” Dez said. “Bring her along.”
Alex sighed. Dez had a one-track mind. “What time?”
“I’ll pick you up at nine.”
Maizy’s cell phone buzzed, distracting her from thoughts of Alex Beckett.
She picked it up off the bed next to her. It was Lucas.
Meet me at the gazebo. I have something to show you.
The gazebo was across the back yard, and was technically part of the senior apartment building next door. Whatever Lucas had to show her, he didn’t want others to see.
She took the back stairs to the outer door and crossed to the white-and-green structure. “What’s up?”
Lucas shoved a glossy paper at her.
Her eyebrows shot up. “Is this…?”
“The first hot-off-the-press copy of the Nevada Firefighter Calendar,” he said.
She flipped through the pages, past Dez as Mister April, until she got to October. She gave a low whistle. “I know I gave you shit about the photo shoot, Oz, but you look amazing.”
Lucas had been the most reluctant calendar model she’d ever seen. In fact, the only way his now-girlfriend Hannah had gotten him to do it was with a little interference from Maizy (which she may not have done in the proper spirit, but oh well; it was water under the bridge now)…
Lucas’s cheeks flushed beneath his darker Native American complexion, and he ran a hand over the back of his neck. “I still feel like I did it for the wrong reasons.”
“To be close to Hannah?”
She thought about that for a moment; Lucas’s presence at the Calendar Gala had led to their first kiss…
“Not that I’m endorsing this sexist tradition.” She waved the calendar in the air. “But in the interest of being a supportive friend and partner, I’ll just point out that the sales of this calendar will help people.”
“Still.” Lucas frowned. “They should have put Kade in it. Or Alex.”
Had it been up to her, Alex would have been a shoe-in—strictly from a most-sexy-guy standpoint, of course; not on the basis of personality. She chuckled. “Alex was pissed.”
Lucas blew out a breath. “I know you don’t like the guy, but do you have to be so gleeful about that?”
She raised her eyebrows. “I don’t think there’s much that could put a dent in that man’s ego.”
“You’d be surprised what goes through a guy’s head,” he said.
“How about what goes through my head every time a man makes a comment about how women can’t handle this job?” she said.
He sighed. “You can handle this job, Maizy.”
“Damn right I can.” She’d worked her ass off to be as good as her male peers, and she liked to think she had their respect.
Other than Alex, that is.
Lucas shoved his hands in his back pockets and rocked back on his heels. “Hannah showed me your photos.”
She tried not to cringe. Yes, in a moment of weakness, she’d posed in her firefighter gear for his girlfriend’s photographer—a fact that only Lucas knew.
“They’re good, Maizy. Really good,” he said. “What are you going to do with them?”
What she’d done with the flash drive of photos (so far) was… stick it in a drawer. “Nothing.”
He pursed his lips in a gesture she recognized.
“Spit it out,” she said.
“The Fire Alliance wants to do an article about female firefighters,” he said. “They’re interested in your photos—and interviewing you.”
“What?” she said. “No. Wait—was this Hannah’s idea?”
He shrugged, and she knew she was right.
“The kind of article they’re talking about would reach thousands of women and girls who may not have thought that a career in firefighting was an option for them,” he said. “Haven’t you told me a million times that there needs to be more women firefighters?”
She swallowed. Just last week she’d quoted an article by researcher Michael Totty that cited the dismal number of female firefighters. “Yes, but—”
“And if there was something you could do to encourage girls to consider a career in firefighting, that you’d do it?”
“I know where you’re going with this, Oz,” she said. “But I have a reputation I’ve worked a long time to earn, and those photos—”
“Portray a strong female role model,” he interrupted.
Did he really think that? Maybe she’d better look at them again…
He pointed at the calendar. “It’s not any different than what I did,” he said. “I get that you don’t want more pressure, but if I can take a hit for the team, you can, too.”
Oh boy, he was using the guilt ploy.
The Gods had bestowed favor on her when she was partnered with Lucas. She respected him like no one else (except maybe Kade), and when he talked like that, she couldn’t brush him off.
“You won’t tell anyone else about this?” she said.
“You know I won’t.”
She did know. Not only did Lucas have her back in fires; he was a good friend, too. “I’ll think about it,” she said.
“That’s all I’m asking.”
Maizy followed Riley onto Roper’s balcony, which overlooked the Truckee River, and leaned against the railing. The place was packed—and it was only 10:30.
Even out here, the music was loud and the crowds thick. Deck chairs and low coffee tables used by patrons during the daylight hours were scattered around the deck; one couple was already seated, shoving their tongues down each other’s throats.
Maizy lifted her hair and let the night air cool the back of her neck as she ignored the appreciative looks from a group of guys several feet away. All it would take was one glance, and she and Riley have company the rest of the night, regardless of the ring on Riley’s finger—although the men were always disappointed when she bade them farewell at the end of the night (and turned down any requests for a date). Her sexual escapades were strictly what-happens-in-Vegas-stays-in-Vegas.
“Round three.” Riley grinned as she handed Maizy a dark brown bottle.
Maizy clinked her bottle against Riley’s and tipped it back—then froze when she saw a familiar face.
She nudged Riley. “What’s he doing here?”
Riley turned toward the object of Maizy’s ire. “I’m guessing playing wingman for Dez.”
Sure enough; Dez shouldered his way through the door behind Alex.
So much for a girls’ night out without the pressure of keeping up appearances around her coworkers. “We should have gone to Pixie’s instead,” Maizy muttered.
Riley rolled her eyes. “Just don’t engage.”
Don’t engage? Hell, Maizy was planning to flat-out ignore the man who constantly got on her case about every little thing she did.
Dez spotted them. “Maizy! Riley!”
Riley turned to greet Dez and, of course, Alex, who looked as sullen as usual—and as good as ever, in dark-washed jeans and an emerald-green polo shirt that clung to his chest and biceps.
Alex eyed Maizy.
She eyed him back.
“Is it laundry day?” he said. “’Cuz those jeans aren’t doing you any favors.”
Oh, for the love of—!
So much for ignoring the man; now Maizy was bound and determined to annoy the shit out of him. She turned her back on him and gave him a baleful look over her shoulder—complete with giant arched eyebrow—and wiggled her butt. “So you were looking at my ass.”
Alex’s eyes flicked downward.
Dez hooted a little too loudly. “She’s got you there, Alex!”
“I bet Maizy can shake her ass better than you can shake yours,” Dez said, clearly on his way to being a happy drunk.
Jeers rose from the guys Maizy had studiously ignored earlier.
“Uh-uh.” Alex held up his hands. “I’m not falling for that.”
“I think you’re deflecting,” Dez said.
Maizy almost laughed; even drunk, Dez still had command of his Ivy-league vocabulary.
“What the hell does that mean?” Alex said.
“It means you secretly like her ass, but you’re trying to hide it,” Dez said.
Alex sputtered, nearly spraying his drink.
“It is a nice ass,” someone muttered. Was it Riley?
Happy-drunk Dez was practically vibrating with energy, hopping around to the hip-rock/rock music. “Dance off! Here! Now!” he boomed. “Let’s see it!”
The hooting increased. Some oh-so-helpful soul pulled one of the low patio tables toward them, and everyone within a thirty-foot radius gravitated their way.
Fine; she would show Alex how great her ass was.
She grabbed the closest guy’s shoulder and used it for support as she yanked off her heels. She stepped up onto the table, then cricked her finger at Alex.