Main Smoke: A Bad Boy Romance

Smoke: A Bad Boy Romance

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This is a work of fiction. Any names, characters, places, events, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons—living or dead—is entirely coincidental.



Smoke copyright @ 2017 by Paula Cox. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embedded in critical articles or reviews.



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TABLE OF CONTENTS

SMOKE

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Chapter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

FILTHY

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Chapter Twenty-Six

Chapter Twenty-Seven

Chapter Twenty-Eight

Chapter Twenty-Nine

Chapter Thirty

Chapter Thirty-One

Chapter Thirty-Two

Chapter Thirty-Three

Chapter Thirty-Four

Ch; apter Thirty-Five

Chapter Thirty-Six

Chapter Thirty-Seven

Chapter Thirty-Eight

Chapter Thirty-Nine

Chapter Forty

Chapter Forty-One

Chapter Forty-Two

Chapter Forty-Three

Chapter Forty-Four

Chapter Forty-Five

Chapter Forty-Six

Preview of Torched

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three





SMOKE





Chapter One


Darla



I look into the reflection of the espresso machine, using the gap after the frantic pace of the lunchtime rush, and try to fix my appearance.



I overslept this morning, something I rarely do. Usually, I’m all in when it comes to my work. Sure, people—ahem, my parents—can tell me that it’s just a barista job, I should try harder, I should have more ambition, etc., but I do things on my own terms. And right now, I love my job. I’m good at it . . . even if Tracey is the golden child and always gets the best shifts and I know she’s being considered for a raise. In fact, the only reason I overslept was because I was on the super-late shift while Tracey got to dance into the sunset at five o’clock, bobbing her pixie-cut head and grinning girlishly at me.



I hear my father’s voice now: You’re twenty years old. You should be at college. Don’t you want to be a doctor? A veterinarian? It’s strange, because at no point in my life have I mentioned that I want to be a doctor or a vet. It seems my dad, who up until now has been perfectly fine letting me make my own way, has suddenly realized that he has not paid enough attention to my hopes and dreams. Now he’s scrambling. I’ve been offered up too many ideas to count. Perhaps I want to be a pilot? Perhaps I want to go into the military? Fine, fine . . . but don’t I want to be a politician? What Mom and Dad don’t understand is that working here gives me something I want more than any of that. Independence. I get to live alone. I get to do my own thing. I get to be a grownup.



I come out of my brief reverie and look closer at the reflective metal. I had no time to put on makeup today and my face, while probably looking fine, seems strange to me. When you’ve put on my makeup almost every morning for the past decade, staring at yourself naked and bare is a disorienting experience. My shoulder length blonde hair, with a natural kink at the bottom, is unchanged. And so are my wide-set green eyes, but even they look odd when they’re not ringed in eye-liner.



I quickly apply as much product as I can, but I rush it as I hear Carl approaching. Shuffling, more like. Carl is thin, balding, with thick horn-rimmed glasses that would look more fitting on porn actor from the ’eighties than a thirty-something barista. I place my little makeup bag in the pouch of my apron and turn to him. The Coffee Joint, my fifty-hour-a-week home, is empty apart from a couple of students who sit in the corner, their laptops open, typing furiously. My age, I note. How angry that would make Dad.



Carl stops a few inches from me, too close, so close I can hear the rumbling in his chest from his strained breathing. “Darla,” he says. His voice is a whisper. But I don’t lean in. I don’t like thinking of Carl as a creep, but the fact remains that he stands too close to the girls, sometimes breathes on them, often makes inappropriate comments, and once at a work party tried to wrap his arms around Tracey’s midriff. Still, after everything, he’s just a guy, and sometimes guys can be odd.



“Yes,” I respond. I take a step back, showing him as kindly and gently as I can that standing so unbearably close to somebody isn’t normal.



He doesn’t get the message; he takes another step forward, closing the gap, perhaps thinking I’ve made a mistake by stepping backwards and he’s doing me a favor. “I just wanted to say . . .” He wheezes, licks his lips. I’m reminded of the time I caught him watching pornography on his phone in the storage cupboard. Not touching himself, thank God, but staring with dead, glassy eyes at the rutting figures onscreen.



“Yes?” I reply, suddenly aware that it’s just me and him until evening.



“I just wanted to . . . say . . . that . . .” He wheezes again, sucking in desperate breaths. And then he throws his words out in a great jumble, eager just to be done with them: “I just wanted to say that you look as pretty as a flower, a nice pretty flower and your makeup is perfect and you have a very athletic body.”



The words themselves are nice, kind, innocent enough. But his eyes are beady, naturally small, but magnified in his glasses so that he looks like a giant insect. He licks his lips when he’s done and his insectoid eyes roam down to my shirt, lingering on my breasts. Slowly, his eyes begin to glass over as they did when I caught him watching the movie.



“Uh, thanks,” I grunt.



And then I spin around and hurry to the opposite end of the counter.



Carl is about to follow when the Californian-sunbaked parking spot outside the Coffee Joint is filled in a mess of sirens, beeps, and hoots. I glance through the giant glass walls and watch as the firemen exit the truck, laughing and joking. My breath catches. There are two reasons for the tightening of my throat. The first is that the firemen usually come in on Tuesdays, not Fridays, and I haven’t prepared. Usually I pre-fill the coffee machines, arranges the cakes and pastries they like, make sure there’s enough ice and cokes.



And the second reason swaggers through the doors right now.



Brody Ellison, twenty-four years and two-hundred pounds of pure muscles, heartbreak, heat, passion, cockiness and arrogance. Look up Arrogant Prick in the dictionary and Brody’s face will appear. Tall, with a handsome face, the kind of face that draws a girl in without even trying to, short, sandy-brown hair and stubble on his strong jaw that looks almost red. His eyes are dark, hazel, and gorgeous.



My heartbeat scatters in my chest.



Why didn’t I put on that last smidge of lipstick!





Chapter Two


Brody



“Hey, look,” Marco says, as we climb down from the truck, “it’s that girl. What’s her name? Lila?”



“Darla,” I reply.



Immediately, the guys let out a cheer. Marco, Jonny, Steve, and Cliff hold their arms in the air and start whooping. “He knows her name!” Steve laughs. “He’s in love! He wants to marry the girl!”



“Can it,” I grunt, with a small smile on my face.



Marco sidles up next to me as we enter the coffee shop. The place is empty, but for a couple of kids in the corner, the thick-glasses man who always hides behind the coffee machine when we come by, and Darla. Darla is a hot chick, make no mistake. With her cute green eyes and smoking body, she’s the sort of girl any guy would be drawn to. She also has a way of holding herself that’s interesting. She’s a barista, but she holds herself like a princess. The general message she communicates is: Don’t mess with me. I’m tougher than I look.



It’s attractive, I’ve got to admit.



The guys babble on all around me, the usual fireman talk. This and that girl, this and that conquest, locker room talk transported from the locker into the Coffee Joint.



Maybe it’s time to make a connection with this girl, I think.



But that’s making it sound way more romantic than it is and I know it. Truth is, I’m an arrogant, cocky sort of guy. I’m not one of those assholes who go around being arrogant and cocky without realizing it. I know I’m arrogant and cocky. And, what’s more, women love it. No clue why. Maybe they just like my body and so let the rest slip. But I don’t think that’s it. I think it’s got more to do with me being so different from the needy, oh-so-gentle guys they usually come into contact with.



So I swagger up to the counter as the boys find a table.



“Afternoon, beautiful,” I grin.



She nods shortly, not giving anything away.



“Good afternoon, sir,” she says, staring down at her notepad. “What can I get for you?”



“How about a kiss?” I smile.



She doesn’t laugh, but her lips, set in a stern line, twitch, as though she wants to smile but forces herself not to. “I’m afraid we don’t sell those,” she says. “Can I help you with something else.”



I give her my order, coffees and cake and cokes, and then, on a sudden burst of inspiration, I reach into my jacket pocket. I have two-hundred dollars in cash from overtime. Perfect. I take it out and slide it along the counter, smiling all the while.



“What’s this?” Darla says, eyeing the envelope.



“That’s a tip, gorgeous. Maybe use it to buy some sexier clothes. Maybe some makeup. You know, make an effort.”



I say this in my jokey voice. It’s meant to come off as cocky, charming, but I see it fall flat on her face. Finally, she turns her eyes up at me. Her bright green eyes. They’re not so bright anymore. They’re as cold and hard as steel.





Chapter Three


Darla



Is he kidding me? My heartbeat was rapid before; now it’s positively racing. It bounces around my chest as though searching for an exit, bumping up against my ribcage and then rebounding. Is this a joke? Maybe it is a joke. Maybe he is trying to be funny.



But the truth is, if every person has at least one Sore Spot, a spot so sore you capitalize it in your mind, this is my Sore Spot. I had a boyfriend, once, called Charles (pretentious ass wouldn’t let you call him Charley) who criticized my appearance almost endlessly. My foundation was too dark, too light, I was wearing too much or too little eyeliner, my body was too thin, too childish, but then I was too fat. The straw that broke this camel’s too-thin too-fat too-pale too-dark back was when Charley (let’s see him stop me now) flirted with Tracey right in front of me.



I broke it off with him, but the damage had been done. My self-esteem, never my strongest feature, took a hard, brutal hit and now I’m in a constant state of near-paranoia when it comes to my appearance.



I look down at the envelope, which is actually stuffed with cash and labelled conveniently with $200, and then I turn away from it and look up into his face. He must see something in my eyes; his cocky smile falters, but only for a moment. It’s like a shield being lowered—and then lifted again. The smile returns.



Out of the corner of my eye, I see his friends watching. I know one. Marco Rodriquez. Bronze-skinned with dark opal eyes and the whitest teeth I’ve ever seen, a self-proclaimed ladies’ man who hits on everybody indiscriminately. He’s loving this, if his snow-white smirk is anything to go by.



Slowly, I push the envelope back across the counter, never letting my gaze leave his. “Why don’t you take this back?” I say, hoping my anxiety doesn’t show on my face. “I think it’d be better spent buying you some flirting lessons.”



Brody’s eyes widen and he looks at me as though seeing me for the first time. From his friends’ table, everybody laughs. Marco claps his hands. “She got you, my man! She got you good!”



Brody watches me for a long moment, and then shrugs as though it’s no big deal.



He turns on his heels and swaggers away, thumping Marco in the arm and dropping into his seat like a man without a care in the world.



I go about making their order, setting out the cakes and pouring the coffees, and I tell myself that I wasn’t, in the least, excited by that exchange.



But one thought keeps recurring, no matter how much I fight it: At least he’s actually seeing me now.





Chapter Four


Brody



Many people still think that a fireman’s job is all blaze and glory, charging into crumbling husks of buildings and emerging, triumphant and proud, onto the street to the sound of cheering and clapping.



I talk to people all the time who ask me how many fires I’ve defeated (their word) today. I always laugh. Sometimes it’s one, sometimes two, but often it’s zero. Well, then, they ask me, arching their eyebrow as though they’ve caught me in some lie, what do you do? I tell them. We give talks in the community. We promote fire safety. We fill in paper work. And we hang around the station, playing pool and working out, waiting for the siren to ring. And when it’s a fire, sure, we put it out. But if it’s backup for a paramedic that needs help getting someone out of a difficult situation, we do that, too.



Today, the Monday after our trip to the coffee shop, I’m in the gym room, on my back doing the bench-press. Marco sits across from me, squatting. And Jonny, the newest of the guys, a short wide bulldog of a kid with a tuft of red hair and a tattoo of a snake up his right arm, sits on the rowing machine, sweating onto the tiled floor.



“You’ve ruined any chance with that girl, you know,” Marco grins, for about the hundredth time.



“You take some sick pleasure in that, don’t you?” I say, muscles tensing as I push the weights into the bracket and lean up. I take my towel from the floor and wipe at my sweaty face. “It really gives you a hard-on, don’t it, Marco?”



“It was just pathetic to watch,” Marco chuckles. “In you go, all swagger and cocky and cool, and I gotta say, me and the guys were already thinking you had it in the bag. Say what you want about Brody, but he’s got this. That’s what we were thinking, weren’t we, Jonny?”



“Damn straight,” Jonny grunts.



“And then you go and slip her your overtime money like a man trying to pay for sex!”



“I don’t need your advice, Casanova.”



I stand up from the bench and make my way over to the dumbbells. As I pass Marco, I kick him in the leg. He grunts, grinning like a wolf, and just manages to stay on his feet, the weights piled heavy behind his head.



“That’s not funny,” he says. “Could’ve killed me.”



“Then stop grinning at me.”



He laughs.



I pick up the dumbbells and begin curling.



“So why didn’t you want to go to the coffee shop last Friday, my man?” Marco goads. “Gone off coffee and cake all at once? That’s interesting.”



I keep quiet, partly from the effort of curling seventy pounds per dumbbell, but mostly because Marco’s comments are a little too on the money. Truth is, he’s right. I am embarrassed about the whole thing. I had it all planned out in my head. I was going to march in there and charm her and by the end of the day she’d been in my car, on the way to dinner—and we’d skip dessert. Now, every time I close my eyes, I see her face, her wide-set green eyes, her cute smile, her brown hair with a kink in it. I keep thinking about that kink in her hair, which makes her look playful, wondering if she does it herself or if it’s natural.



But you couldn’t help going about it in your usual asshole way, could you, Brody?



I reckon I have Julia to blame for that. That’s not fair. You shouldn’t speak ill of the dead. True, I suppose. But when you marry your sweetheart straight out of high school, only to discover she’s been cheating on you for almost that entire time, it tends to make a man defensive. Tends to make a man cocky and arrogant. Tends to provoke a man to build himself some armor nobody can break through. But then she died, didn’t she, years later? A shiver runs down my back, despite the close heat of the gym room. She was killed in a break-in and I never patched things up. Always meant to, but my pride and the pain she caused me got in the way. And what if I open myself up again? What I drop the cocky routine?



But the thing is, it’s not a routine, not anymore. Maybe at the start. But once I saw the rise I could get out of people just by being an arrogant prick, I couldn’t resist it. People take shit so seriously. People get so involved. People think life is the most serious, boring, mundane thing in the world. No wonder it’s so damn easy to get a rise out of most of them.



But Darla . . .



Dammit, I can’t get her out of my head, and that’s a stone-solid truth. I close my eyes at night, she’s there. I wake up, her face is imprinted on my vision. I work out, I see her watching me. Her pert body, her strong, self-willed expression, the way she holds herself. My mind fills with a thousand dirty images, each one harder to get rid of than the last.



“Brody?” Marco says.



I realize I’ve been curling nonstop for almost five minutes. My biceps ache comfortably. I drop the dumbbells and they clang on the tiles.



“Yeah?”



Marco waves a hand at the air. “The alarm, man.”



“Oh,” I laugh.



The alarm screams through the station.



Jonny, who left when I was lost in thought, pokes his ginger-haired head around the door.



“It’s the Coffee Joint,” he says. “You know, the place where that girl works . . .”



I don’t stay and listen. I charge from the room, down the hallway, and toward the truck.



The Coffee Joint . . . on fire . . .



Darla!





Chapter Five


Darla



Tracey, as always, finds out about the meeting with Brody.



She always manages to find out about everything that happens at the Coffee Joint. It must be Carl, I reflect, as I wipe down the tables. Carl reported back to her and now she knows about the entire ordeal. When it comes down to it, though, it doesn’t matter how she found out. Only that she did—and she loves ribbing on me for it.



The Coffee Joint is all glass windows, so that when the sun is shining, it’s like standing inside a reflective cube. Sun glares into your eyes, but the customers seem to enjoy it and so the owner never lets us use the blinds. The place is half full, many of the customers sitting by the window and watching the cars and pedestrians drift lazily down the road. I collect some discarded trays and return to the counter.



This afternoon it’s me, Carl, and Tracey. As soon as I reach her, Tracey grins.



“Hey, lover girl,” she smiles.



It’s been almost a week of this. She says it lightheartedly and I joke back, but often I think there’s a little devil hidden somewhere in Tracey. She certainly looks the part, with her slender body, her deceptively charismatic face, and her devilish pixie cut, tinged hell-red at the ends. I think of Tracey as an almost friend, one of those people with whom a true bond never forms, but who you tolerate, sometimes even like, because circumstances force you together.



“When are you going to drop that?” I sigh, as I place the trays in the washing up area. Carl turns his big beady eyes to me, squinting, and grins at Tracey’s words. Spider’s legs crawl over my skin when he looks at me like that. It’s like he’s looking inside of me. Probing, searching. He licks his perpetually chapped lips and grins again, showing his wonky teeth.



I turn away from him swiftly and go back to the counter. Tracey busies herself with the coffee machine, cleaning or pretending to clean it, and I stand at the counter, awaiting customers.



“So,” Tracey says, voice bubbly, “do you think you’ve ruined it with him then? I mean, he’s hot stuff, isn’t he? I’m sure you’ve noticed.”



“Nope,” I say.



Tracey giggles. “Oh, come on, Darla. He’s tall, strapping, handsome, charming.”



“Charming?” I cough out a laugh. “What part about handing me a wad of cash and telling me I should take more care with my appearance is charming?”



“Well . . .” Tracey joins me at the counter and continues in a soft voice: “You know, maybe he has a point. Guys really like girls who care how they look.” She holds her hands up. “I think you look gorgeous, babe, really gorgeous, but I’m not a guy and maybe I can’t judge it as well as he can, you know? I’m not saying you should take his advice, but . . .”



She lets it hang and then dances back to the coffee machine.



Customers enter, customers leave, the clock tic-tic-tics down the afternoon.



About two hours later, Tracey appears at my shoulder. “I wasn’t trying to be mean earlier, you know,” she says. I can’t tell if the unadulterated horror in her voice is feigned or real. I can’t tell if she really means what she says or if she’s just saying it. That’s the main conundrum with Tracey. She’s one of those people who often sound sarcastic when saying something sincere.



“It’s fine,” I reply shortly. “Don’t worry about it.”



But it’s not fine, I think. It’s not fine at all. There’s nothing fine about it.



I sense something on my other side. I turn. It’s Carl, standing far too close, a snake’s gummy smile on his lips. A devil and an angel on my shoulders . . . more like an insect and a sociopath. But that’s cruel and I keep the thought to myself.



I take a step back from Carl, genuinely afraid that he might reach out and grab me. He has that sort of aura around him, an I’m-capable-of-anything aura, the aura of a man who’ll one day snap and try and force his lips on you.



“It was a little funny,” Carl says, his voice a monotone. He says funny as another man would say death.



“You see, even he agrees!” Tracey claps her hands together, looking like a fairy princess gone bad. “So, what’s your plan of action, Darling Darla? That’s if they ever return. Maybe you scared him off forever.”



“Good,” I say. “I don’t want anything to do with him anyway.”



A lie, but a lie designed to protect myself. I won’t tell Tracey how Brody has made a home in my mind—and other parts of me—over this past week. I won’t tell her how often, when I’m in the shower, I imagine that the blast of the hot water is actually his hand, roaming over me. I won’t tell her that twice now I’ve almost allowed my hand to slide down between my legs with his muscular image in my mind. I won’t tell her that I’ve replayed our meeting a dozen times, wondering how I could’ve handled it differently. I won’t tell her that the idea of squeezing his ripped arms makes me gasp with longing for it.



No, I won’t tell her any of that.



“I’m going to go and sort that shipment,” I say, after a pause.



“Be my guest,” Tracey shrugs.



The shipment arrived this morning and is sitting in the cellar. I’m glad for a chance to get away from Tracey’s nonstop talking and Carl’s nonstop leering.



I go into the back, past the boxes and old chairs and tables and even a twisted and gnarled umbrella, open the cellar door, and descend.



Alone in the single-bulb half-darkness, I begin emptying and organizing the shipment, taking bottled drinks from boxes and stacking them up. Piling up the big cases of coffee, putting the perishables in the humming freezer. And as I empty the boxes, I try and empty my mind. Of sharp-tongued but possibly well-meaning Tracey, of insect-eyed Carl, and most of all of ripped, muscular, handsome, cocky Brody.



I succeed with the first two; with Brody, I fail miserably.



I’ve unpacked shipments hundreds of times. It’s rote. Like anybody completing a rote-learned task, my mind wanders. Sometimes, it wanders to the next book I’m going to read—supernatural romance, thriller, or the occasional King horror, that’s my jam—but today, Brody takes a dominant place in my mind.



I’ve watched him for a long time, and for a long time I imagined what it would be like to have an interaction with him which was longer than two coffees, three cakes, three cokes. But when the chance came . . . No, I tell myself. I was about to think I blew it. But I didn’t blow it, did I? He did.



I’m going over and over this in my mind when the room begins to fill with smoke.



At first, my mind tries to rationalize it away. Maybe it’s just steam from the coffee machine. But after half a minute, the room is so filled with smoke I struggle to see the stairs.



What the—



The fire alarm screeches from above, a sound which ricochets around the cellar. Fire!



I lurch into action, all thoughts pushed from my mind, as I charge at the cellar stairs. My legs pump and I draw in frantic breaths. But all that achieves is sucking more smoke into my lungs. I take the steps two at a time, stretching my legs, eyes watery, hazy, bloodshot and painful. Finally, I reach the top. I press my hand against the door—stuck! I press it again and manage to hold it open an inch. Peeking through the smoke-filled air, I just manage to make out a chair blocking the door, wedged between a collapsed table. Today of all days! No! No!



I try to scream. Useless. “Heell—”



Smoke clogs my lungs, blocks my voice. Fear lances through every part of me. My heart beats weakly, growing weaker and weaker, and this terrifies me more than anything. I’m scared. Shouldn’t my heart beat fast, not slow? But then my eyes begin to close, heavy like I haven’t slept in days. More smoke spills into my mouth.



Get down! a voice, far back in my mind, shouts. It’s dim and faraway and I barely hear it.



Time stretches, bends, and sometime later—minutes, hours, days?—I am curled in a ball on the cellar floor, knees to my chin, sucking in the scant air from the damp carpet. Breathe, I tell myself. Just breathe.



But it’s like there’s a quota on the air; the more I inhale, the less I have to inhale next breath. I breathe shallowly.



And then my eyes grow so heavy that I can’t help but close them.



Time passes. Hours, months, years, centuries . . .



Then, a noise, crashing and banging. Brody? I think, numb and only semi-conscious. Brody, have you come to save me? Brody?



I manage to peel back my smoke-crusted eyelids long enough to see not Brody, but a giant machine. Clad in the thick armor of a fire-resistant jacket which extends all the way down to its knees, wearing goggles and a gas mask, with gloves which look like they’re crafted from metal, the machine charges into the room.



“I’ll get you out of here,” the machine says, but its voice is contorted by the mask.



The machine kneels down and picks me up in its arm.



“Are you . . . a . . . robot . . .”



“Don’t talk,” it says. “You’re low on oxygen. You might be seeing things. It’s okay. I’ll get you out of here now.”



Who are you, robot? I think, my body numb, my mind paralyzed, as the strong arms carry me from the cellar.





Chapter Six


Brody



I carry Darla through licking flames and thick smoke and finally onto the street, where ambulances and fire engines clog up the road.



The men blast the building with hoses. I glance at the building. My training tells me the fire will be out in a minute at the most. The rest of the employees, and the customers, are sitting on the curb or with paramedics. I carry Darla to the closest stretcher and lay her down.



Then, looking down at her, I take off my mask, revealing myself as the man who just saved her life.



The moment is stolen from me. Darla’s eyes are closed and the only sign she’s alive is the shallow movement of her chest. “Paramedic!” I bark. “This woman needs help, now!”



A paramedic rushes over at my booming voice and begins poking and prodding at her. I don’t have time to watch. I rush back to the building and help the men put out the fire. It licks at the rafters and with a mighty crash the roof caves in. But, after a while, the water wins and the fire peters out, leaving in place of the Coffee Joint a blackened mess of charred wood and shattered glass.



After we’ve checked that nobody’s inside, Marco walks over to me. His face is not his usual, joking mask. His forehead is creased and his lips are twisted in worry.



“Got everyone?” I say.



“Yeah,” Marco nods. “But I was just in there and it’s strange . . .”



“Strange, how?”



Marco looks over the people gathered outside of the used-to-be coffee shop. “The fire had multiple points of origin. Brody, man, I think somebody set fire to the place. At the very least, it’s suspicious.”



“Arson,” Jonny says, wandering over. “It’s textbook arson.”



“Arson,” I mutter, looking around at Tracey, Carl, and then the customers, all of whom look startled and awed with shock. “Arson,” I repeat. “But who?”





Chapter Seven


Darla



One moment I am staring at the hulking machine; the next I am sitting up in bed, rubbing at my tender throat.



Smoke inhalation, the doctor tells me. I should be fully recovered in a couple of days. I look around my hospital room. It is midday—the fire was yesterday—and the sun is high in the sky. It slants down through the blinds of my window, glowing yellow. A pile of magazines sits to my left. Fresh clothes are folded over the back of a chair. I’m wearing a thin, paper-like gown which crinkles every time I move. I switch on the TV and go to the local news. The Coffee Joint comes on after a report of an old woman’s untimely death. It is a husk, blackened wood and crystal glass, a shattered mess.



I turn it off and bury my head in my hands, but I can’t cry. I’m too numb with shock. Silly, perhaps. It was just a coffee place. But it was my coffee place. I only worked there, sure, but it felt like mine. I knew every nook and cranny. I knew that you had to crank the cappuccino refill a certain way to make sure it didn’t jam, I knew about the sticky handle on the staff toilet, that the hot water tap worked, but only if you turned it all the way.



Now . . . nothing.



I’m stewing over these thoughts when a man arrives. He wears a plain blue polo t-shirt and has the hurried appearance of a courier. The bundle of flowers he holds blocks most of his face.



“Miss Castle?” he says.



“Uh . . . yeah?”



He places the flowers on my bedside table, beside the magazines. “These are for you,” he states. “Sign here, please.”



Feeling as though I am outside of my body, as though all this is happening to somebody else, I sign his e-signature machine and watch as he marches from the room. A moment later, I grab the envelope which sits propped up between two rose stems. I tear it open and there, in cash, is two-hundred dollars, along with a note: Give it some extra thought, gorgeous. You’re beautiful as you are, but you’d be a hell of a lot more beautiful if you put some real effort in.



That son of a bitch, I think, crumpling up the letter in my hand. Does he think this is a joke? Does he think this is time for stupid jokes?



“Nice flowers,” Tracey says, as she skips into the room. She is completely unharmed. Looks positively healthy, in fact.



“Thanks,” I mumble, thinking: Who saved me? Was it Brody? But I have no clue. The masked machine gave nothing away. “Tracey, the Coffee Joint . . .”



Tracey nods. “We’re out of work,” she says. “For now, at least. No idea how long the insurance company is going to take. You know what they’re like.”



I glance at the crumpled note, the flowers, and then into Tracey’s too-calm face. Can this day get any worse?





Chapter Eight


Darla



Leaving the hospital, I take a deep, long breath, savoring the sensation of fresh air swimming down my throat. It’s cool and refreshing, despite the heat of the day. I smile up at the sun, closing my eyes, and let it rest upon my face. Three days in the hospital and if I ever have to eat another congealed mass of something for desert again, it’ll be too soon.



I catch a cab to my apartment and drop onto the couch, staring up at the ceiling. My apartment is a small one-bedroom with an adjoined kitchen-living area. Books and clothes are strewn across the floor, but not so many for it to become overly messy. Each dropped item reminds me of the Coffee Joint. Invariably, they were dropped before or after a shift. I was reading a book, it was time for a shift, so I placed it on the floor for later. I was returning from a shift, bone-tired, and so I stripped down to my underwear and left the clothes on the floor. It annoys me. I spend a few minutes tidying and then return to the couch.



I trail my finger along the edge of the envelope, undoubtedly from Brody. That jerk, I think. But there’s a shiver along my spine, a good shiver, a warm shiver, a shiver I find myself imagining is Brody’s forefinger. I am imagining him sitting behind me, shirtless, muscles tensed as he restrains the urge to jump on me. And as I imagine, my body betrays me. I want to be angry, and yet my heartbeat thumps like mad and my pussy cries out to be touched.



Screw this, I think. He thinks I can be bought, does he?



I shower, I change, and without giving myself time to contemplate what I’m doing, I catch a bus down to the fire department, envelope in my pocket.



The fire department has big wooden double doors, like a barn, and when I walk across the stone floor, my footsteps echo all around me.



A few yards away, there is a gym room; I hear men grunting and laughing.



I take a deep breath, trying to steady myself, but then I can’t hold it in any longer.



“Brody!” I scream.



All at once, the laughing and the joking stop. For a moment, there is silence. And then the noise of squeaking sneakers on the stone floor.



Three men poke their head around the door. One of them is Brody. A fine layer of sweat covers his forehead and his arm muscles almost bulge from his t-shirt. I can tell he’s just been lifting weights. Several of his veins are large and well-defined.



Brody steps out of the room and waves his friends away. “Some privacy, fellas?” he smiles, all easygoing, like nothing in the world is wrong. He walks with his usual swagger, and that infuriates me even more. He has a cocky smile on his face and his steps echo even louder than mine did. Each step provokes a powerful beat of my heart, until it is like a drum in my chest.



Finally, he reaches me, taking his sweet time.



I reach into my pocket, take out, the envelope, and thrust it into his chest. “There,” I grunt. “You can take your tip and go to hell.”



He reaches up reflexively and catches my hand. “Whoa, what’s all this about?” he says, in a projecting voice, meant for the four ogling eyes still peeking from the gym room.



“I’ll tell you what it’s about,” I say. I try to pull my hand away, but he holds it securely. It’s like trying to dislodge my hand from a vice. “It’s about you trying to buy me, and being damn rude in the process. What’s all this shit about telling me to improve my looks? Who the hell are you to tell me what to do? Who the hell do you think you are? You can’t treat people like this, Brody. You just can’t. Do you have any idea how stressful these past few days have been for me? And then I wake up, my throat sore and my job ruined, to a mean, small note.”



I stop, gasping for breath. My anger got ahead of me.



I watch his face. For a moment, something flickers across it, something human, something real. Then his arrogant mask returns and he grins sideways at me. “Listen, beautiful,” he says. “You’ve lost your job. I don’t think coming down here and trying to pay me for sex is the best course of action right now.”



Is he serious?



I’m outraged, I’m angrier than I’ve ever been, and yet . . .



No, don’t think it! Don’t you dare!



But I can’t help it. He holds my hand tightly and I sense the power of him, massive and awe-inspiring. I try again to pull my hand away, but it’s playacting. I really just want to feel the power of him, to feel how strong he is, to feel how easily he can hold me. He tightens his grip and stares at me with his dark hazel eyes. Stares into me. That’s what it feels like.



I’ll show him. I’ll give him a taste he’ll never forget.



I pull myself into him, stand on my tiptoes, and plant my lips upon his. I kiss him deeply and for what feels like a long time. He’s caught off guard, but it doesn’t take him long to come to. He returns the kiss. Our mouths open; our tongues brush up against each other. Tingles spread through my body and I hear myself moan, can’t help it. When Brody makes to reach up and wrap his arm around me, I step away. Face burning, lips aching, body screaming, I take another step back.



The envelope, forgotten, drops to the floor.



“That’s all you’ll ever get out of me,” I breathe. What did I just do? I wonder. That’s not like me. God, he drives me so crazy! One minute I feel one way and the next—God!



Brody touches his lips, as though wanting to savor the taste of me. The way he brushes his finger along his lip makes me want to kiss him all over again. But I fight the urge. I have to remember who he is, what he did, how he treated me. But when you have a tall, muscular, handsome fireman looking down on you—when the taste of him lingers on your lips—it is difficult to remember all that.



When he darts forward, I don’t move. I tell myself I’m too stunned. But that’s a lie. The truth is, I want him to be close to me.



He leans close to my ear and when he talks, his warm breath caresses my skin. “If we were alone, I’d tear off your clothes, lift you off your feet, and fuck you right here, Darla. I’d fuck you like you’ve never been fucked before. I’d fuck you so hard and for so long that by the end of it you’d be gasping for breath, paralyzed by the pleasure. I’d give you the deepest, longest orgasms of your life. I’d make you mine.”



He takes a step back.



My lips tremble. My hands shake. My knees quiver so madly they almost knock together. He speaks with such confidence. I don’t doubt for a moment that he really would do all those things. My mind fills with images of him, naked, on top of me and thrusting, his muscles and the heat and the passion and . . .



I swallow, trying and failing to force the images from my mind. “I’m leaving,” is all I manage to say.



I turn and pace away before he can say anything else. If he did, I don’t know if I’d be able to leave. He’s hot as sin and his words just make him harder to resist. I came here with the intention of telling him to shove it. Instead, what did I do? Wake both our bodies to the idea of each other. Wake both our bodies to the prospect of becoming lost in the pleasure.



It’s only when I’m halfway down the street I realize I forgot to ask which fireman saved me. But then, none of that went exactly to plan.



I decide to walk by the Coffee Joint to take one last look at it. When I reach it, I feel a stab in my chest. Tape surrounds it and it’s not recognizable as the stylish, cozy place it once was. It’s nothing but a soot-black mess now.



“It’s a shame, isn’t it?”



I turn at the voice, leaping away; it spoke directly into my ear.



Carl stands with his hands in the pockets of an oversized jacket, a jacket which reaches right up to his neck and almost down to his feet. He isn’t wearing his glasses and his eyes seem small, set deep within his head.



“A shame,” he repeats, licking his lips.



Before I can reply, he walks down the street, whistling unevenly under his breath.



This is the strangest day ever, I think as I watch him go.



I take one last look at my home-away-from-home and then I head toward the bus stop.





Chapter Nine


Brody



I get Darla’s address from her friend, Tracey, the rocker chick who Marco thinks he’s going to get his hands on one of these days.



When I ask her for the address—over the phone—she giggles and says: “Why, want to check up on her? I saw you, Mr. Strong Man, carrying her out like a real hero.” I know the giggle well, along with the flirtatious tone of voice. She’s trying to pull me in, trying to direct my interest toward her. Useless. Darla’s the one who’s been plaguing my mind all day and all night.



I get the address and I head to her apartment the day after she came to the station. Goddamn, she’s a minx, coming down like that. And that kiss . . .



I’m not usually the sort of man to go all creamy and soft over something as simple as a kiss, but the way she kissed me was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. It wasn’t just a kiss. It was like her whole body was screaming out for me—and mine for hers. I felt it. Little electric impulses all over her skin, touching me, drawing me in, sparking against me. And the way she moaned. That’ll be in my dreams forever, and then some.



I knock on her door.



When she answers, her face is conflicted. It’s as though she can’t decide whether to slam the door in my face or throw it open. In the end, she leaves it half-open, watching me with those bright, perfect green eyes.



“What do you want?” she says.



“It’s six o’clock,” I smile. “Have you eaten yet?”



“No—what do you want?”



“Good. I’m here to take you on a date.”



She looks me up and down; I’m wearing a suit with a black tie. “And what makes you think I’d want to go on a date with you? Didn’t I make myself clear yesterday?”



I can’t help but chuckle. She’s so fiery, like a firecracker that explodes again and again. I don’t think I’ve ever been around a woman with so much passion before.



“You’ve got bills to pay and no job at the moment. Why not think of it as charity?”



She bites her lip. “Do you always have to be such a jerk?”



“More often than not, yeah.” I nod.



I smile again, wider. I love seeing her squirm. Maybe that makes me cruel. Sure, but it’s hot as hell. Just the way the corners of her lips twitch, like she wants to smile but she thinks it’d be bad.



“You’re a jerk,” she sighs.



But she doesn’t slam the door on me. She steps back and lets it swing open.



“I’m getting changed,” she announces, and paces toward the bedroom.





Chapter Ten


Darla



What am I doing? I think, as I close the bedroom door and go to my closet. I still don’t know why I let him in even as I sift through my dresses and find one which will match his suit. I take out a sparkling green dress that matches my eyes, strip down, and change into it. All the while I’m thinking: Why did I let him in? What’s come over me?



But when it comes down to it, the answer is simple. My body is overriding my mind, my sense. I know that if I sat down and reasoned it out, I’d stop this. I made my point yesterday. I told him point blank I wouldn’t see him again. If I go back on that now, I’ll look week. I know all this, but I feel the exact opposite. I want to go on a date with him. That’s the truth. My body aches just from the thought of it.



I emerge from the bedroom a few minutes later, wearing my green dress, green heels, and shiny green earrings. My face is covered in makeup and despite the strange circumstances, I’m excited. It’s been a long time since I was taken on a glamorous date. Charley rarely took me out, and if he did he’d spend more time commenting on my appearance than enjoying the evening.



Brody doesn’t need to say anything; his face says it all. He looks at me like a wolf who hasn’t seen a female in a long time, eyes wide, lips parted, teeth bared. He draws in a quick breath and jumps to his feet.



“Wow,” he says. “Just . . . wow.”



I incline my head. “Thank you, Mr. Ellison. Shall we go?”



Around half an hour later, we are sitting opposite each other in a fancy restaurant. A rose sits in an ornate vase in the center of the table and the waiters all look like they could’ve dropped out of a regency drama. Art hangs from the walls, landscapes and portraits, and candles burn in sconces set into the walls.



“Champagne,” Brody says. It’s not a question and in a quick moment, a glass of champagne is being poured for me by a stern-faced waiter.



“Thank you,” I mumble, feeling disoriented.



We sip our champagne and then Brody says: “You look amazing, Darla. Really amazing.”



“That’s it?” I say, voice sharper than I intend. “No clever comment. No smart rebuke. No comments about how I need to make more of an effort?”



He laughs, adjusting his cufflinks, which are silver and glisten in the candlelight. “I don’t think you could improve on that look if you tried.”



We drink more champagne, we order food which we barely look at, and soon we’re on our second bottle and my head is swimming.



“Anybody would think you’re trying to get me drunk,” I say. A smile spreads across my face despite myself. He looks dashing. That’s the word for it. Dashing. Like James Bond only way hotter. I find myself tracing the curve of his muscles through the fabric of his suit. Damn, I think. I’m getting hot. Hotter than hot. I’m boiling. Damn, has he cast a spell on me or something?



“I’d never do such a thing,” he grins. “I’m really not the asshole you think I am.”



“Really?” I laugh. “You could’ve fooled me. “You swagger into my work, hand me a wad of cash, and tell me I need to work on my appearance. What part of that doesn’t scream asshole?”



His smiles come easily, unthreatened, the smiles of a man who is completely at ease with himself. It’s a far cry from Charley, who always seemed to be on edge and anxious, finding his only solace in constant criticism of my looks. Maybe I should tell Brody that’s why I was so upset, I think. But that’s the alcohol talking and I ignore it. First date—date!—mustn’t overshare.



“I find that women like assholes, anyway,” he says. He waves a hand at me. “You’re here, after all.”



“You’re wrong,” I retort. “I just like champagne.” With that, I take a long sip of my drink. My head spins and my body feels hot, the air close, cozy.



“Ah, so you’re using me, eh?” He arches an eyebrow. “I should’ve known.”



“I’m a complete user,” I say. “You’re my fifth date today. I’ve had twenty glasses of champagne and five free meals.”



“Ha-ha-ha,” Brody grunts. “If that was true,” he goes on, “I’d be forced to find these four men and do something about it.”



“Do something about it?” I giggle. “Since when are you so protective of the woman you take such pleasure in criticizing?”



He rolls his eyes, and then grows serious. “Maybe I do want to protect you,” he says. “Maybe you’re so damn beautiful and hot—maybe that kiss was so damn hot it got me thinking—maybe it’s taking all the strength I have not to throw myself over the table and take you right here.”



The more he talks, the more passionate he becomes, until his eyes are fixed on my face with so much intensity I feel as though I am under a microscope. But the sensation is not in the least uncomfortable. It’s more like he’s properly seeing me, for the first time. And now he’s seen me, he can’t look away. I try to tell myself it’s the champagne which causes me to stare back at him, to lick my lips, to tilt my head and draw his attention to my bare neck. But it’s not the champagne; it’s the burning desire inside of me.



“Well,” I say after a long pause, my voice breathy, “you certainly know how to put a lady on the spot. I’m surprised, though, that you’d say something like that to an ugly duckling who needs to spend more time on her appearance.”



“Tonight,” he says, “you couldn’t change a damn thing. And that’s the truth.”



“Maybe you’re just trying to get into my pants.”



“Maybe?” He laughs. “There’s no maybe about it.”



“Easy,” I say. “I might get offended and leave.”



He grins. Is it a confident grin or an arrogant grin? I wonder, trying to read him. But it’s too difficult. The line between arrogance and confidence isn’t so well-defined as I might hope, especially when it comes to Brody.



“You won’t leave,” he says.



He’s right, I think. But I don’t respond. I nibble on my food, drink another glass of champagne, and then face him again.



“I’m done,” I announce.



“Me, too,” he says, voice husky. He waves for the check. “We’ll get a cab.”



“Two separate cabs, you mean?” My voice is playful.



He laughs. “That depends.”



“On what?”



“On if you want the best night of your life or not.”



I swallow. He means it. He really means it. Brody, the hot as hell fireman I’ve had a crush on since he started coming in to the Coffee Joint, wants me. Tonight. I swallow again. Despite the champagne, my mouth is dry. My head is a whirlwind spinning around and around. Suddenly, surprising myself, I blurt: “You know I had a crush on you, don’t you?”



Brody nods shortly. “I had an idea,” he says.



“A major crush,” I go on, aware that I might be embarrassing myself but too drunk to care. I stop, think: I can’t let him win! “But that was before I got to know you,” I add. “I don’t have a crush anymore.”



Brody nods again, the same nod someone gives when told a blatant lie. “Sure,” he says.



He pays the check, walks around to my side of the table, and pulls my chair back for me.



“Quite the gentleman,” I laugh. “I’m impressed.”



The restaurant is just above first floor level; steps lead down to the street. I know I’m drunk, and yet I also know I can conquer these steps without assistance. I grip onto the handrail and make to climb down them—and I fall.



I seem to fall for a long time. I’m going to cave in my skull, I think numbly. What an end to the date that’ll be!



I’m about to smash into the sidewalk when Brody’s strong arms envelop me. He lifts me off my feet as though I weigh nothing. For a moment, the embrace feels familiar. I try to think where I’ve felt it before—



But then his lips are on mine and I am lost to the world. I moan. I bring my hands up and grip the strong muscles of his back.



Asshole, jerk, it doesn’t matter. I can’t fight it anymore.





Chapter Eleven


Darla



I have never kissed somebody so passionately and unreservedly in my life. It’s like our bodies have a mind of their own.



We kiss on the street; we kiss in the cab; we kiss on the stairs on the way to my apartment. My hands move over his muscles, squeezing, feeling the hardness of them. They’re like steel. They’re like rock. They’re like wood. They don’t give an inch. There is no layer of fat, like with Charley, just solid, immovable muscle.



Stopping the kiss long enough to take my keys from my handbag is horrible. Brody moves from foot to foot impatiently and I rustle around in my bag. Then I unlock the door and throw it open and Brody pounces on me. I squeal, a mixture of shock and delighted surprise, as Brody lifts me off my feet and carries me into the apartment, kicking the door closed behind him.



He drops me on the couch and stands over me, staring down with dark, brooding eyes. Eyes brimming with passion. I glance down at his pants. His cock is clearly outlined in the fabric, huge and urgent. He reaches down, grabs my hand at the wrist, and presses my palm down on his cock. Then, maneuvering me like a mannequin, he begins to rub himself, using my hand. I should be outraged. How dare he handle me like this! I should think. Who does he think he is! But I don’t. There’s something animalistic about him, as though we have been thrown back in time and he’s a caveman and I’m his woman.



Then he lets go of my hand. “Rub it,” he says, in a commanding tone of voice.



I would never normally let a guy talk to me in that tone of voice. I wouldn’t stand for it. But with Brody, it’s different. He’s so big, so muscular, so in charge. Let’s face it, I think. He’s hotter than the fires he fights for a living, and that’s that.



I rub his cock up and down, up and down, feeling the immense length of him.



Then I can’t take it anymore. I grab at his belt, unclasp it, and slide it from the loops. Then I unbutton his pants and pull them down. His cock springs up, huge, intimidating. At least nine and a half inches, maybe ten. A huge, rock-hard rod of pleasure.



I don’t know what’s come over me, but I’m not about to stop long enough to ask myself. Brody reaches down and slides his fingers through my hair, and then directs my mouth to his cock. I allow him to move me. And that’s what it is, I reflect. Being moved. I open my mouth and he pushes his cock inside of me, letting out a low, guttural grunt. His cock fills my mouth, the tip hitting the back of my throat. I’d never let a man do that! I’d never let him treat me so roughly.



But fuck it. This is Brody, the man I’ve had a crush on since I first laid eyes on him. I don’t care if he’s a jerk. He’s a jerk with a muscular body and a huge cock.



I suck his cock eagerly, taking pleasure in his moans. I force my mouth down all the way to his balls, my nose pressed against his ab muscles, and then pull away, spit and pre-come spilling from my mouth. As I suck, I reach down between my legs, bring my hand up under my dress and touch myself.



“Fuck,” Brody groans, as he watches me touch myself. “Fuck, fuck. I need you. Now.”



In a jumbled series of quick movements, he pulls his cock from my mouth, kneels down, yanks my arm away, and slides his hand between my legs. He presses his middle finger down on my clit, through the thin fabric of my underwear, and stares into my eyes as he rubs me. “I want you to come before I fuck you,” he says. “You’ll do it for me.”



It’s not a question.



He rubs faster and faster, arm pumping, and all at once the only thing that exists is that single hot spot of pleasure. He presses down so hard on my clit he lifts me slightly off the couch. But he doesn’t stop. I brace my hands on his shoulders, biting down on my lip with so much pressure I taste blood in my mouth. I don’t care. The pleasure builds, higher, fiercer, hotter, until I am standing on the edge of a precipice and all I want to do is topple over.



“Come for me, Darla,” he says. “Come for me now.”



As if his final word is a trigger, the pleasure releases in a great wave. It surges through me. I clamp my eyes shut and let the pleasure rock through me, floating on it, vibrating upon it. Wave after wave crashes through me and my panties get so wet I can feel it, the wetness pressed between his hand and my lips. Then, with a long, sighing breath, the orgasm is over and I lean back, panting.



“We’re not done yet,” Brody says.



He grabs my hips and turns me over as easily as another man would handle a bag of sugar. He places me on my knees. He’s going to fuck me, hard, from behind, I think, mouth dry, pussy aching for it. Oh. My. Fucking. God.



He grabs my panties, pulls them down, and then lifts the hem of my dress up around my back, revealing my bare pussy.



“You’re so damn sexy,” he moans. “Fucking hell, Darla. I’m going to fuck you so hard. Can you take it hard, baby?”



“Mm-mm.” The only sound I can make; words are too difficult right now.



He kneels down beside me and brings his cock to my pussy, pressing the head against my clit.



Fuck! I need him inside of me! Now!



He toys with me, circling my clit with the hard tip of his cock, pushing it down to my lips, close to my hole, and then withdrawing it.



I let out a groan of frustration, of lust, of urgency. A groan that tells him all I need is his cock inside of me. It’s a groan that reveals my true desires to him. I can’t play the disinterested, uncaring woman when I’m groaning like this. I groan louder.



I’ve never wanted a cock more in my entire life. Sex has always been something that just happened at the end of a date or something you did with your partner. This is something else. It’s like a giant’s invisible hands have gripped me and are now shaking me around, sending pulsations through my body. Lust brims over inside of me. I realize I’m sticking my tongue out, panting. I must look like an animal, I think. But that doesn’t seem to matter. Maybe we are animals now. Maybe that’s what we’ve become.



I push my ass back, brushing my pussy firmly against his cock.



He reaches down and grabs my ass cheeks, pressing them together. I twist my neck and see that he’s staring down at my ass with wide, captivated eyes. It’s like he’s never seen a woman before or—



“You’re the most perfect thing I’ve ever laid eyes on,” he whispers.



“Fuck me, then,” I moan.



He grins his cocky grin, and then with one quick thrust, he pushes himself inside of me. I bite down a scream. His cock is thick and long. As he pushes it inside of me, I feel my pussy stretching to fit him. It’s easily the biggest cock I’ve ever had inside of me. It forces my lips open, pushes deeper and deeper, until the tip of his cock is pressed right up against my sweet spot, a tingling point of pleasure inside of me.



“God, yes,” I moan.



“Fuck,” he grunts.



Then he pulls out, and I feel every tiny movement of it, the lips of my pussy stretching around him. Then he thrusts back in. And in a few moments, we are lost in the rhythm of it. He pounds into me, gripping my hips and thrusting hard, again and again. I grip the couch cushion in my hand, tearing away pieces of fabric underneath my fingernails. I push back in time with his thrusts, bouncing my body, eager for his cock to touch my sweet spot again, now, please!



He spanks my ass. Something I’d normally want to be asked about beforehand with any other man. But Brody isn’t any other man. Brody is . . . well, Brody. And when he spanks my ass—slap!—and I feel the redness, the pain, the cool sting, I open my mouth and let out a high-pitched moan of pleasure. He spanks me again with complete confidence. He doesn’t hesitate. That’s what makes it captivating and lustful instead of rude, I decide. The confidence of him. The way he just does it. Another man would tap me lightly before spanking me like Brody does.



His cock pounds into my sweet spot like a jackhammer, continuous repetitions which build the pleasure inside of me. I imagine my sweet spot as a small pinprick of heat; with every thrust, the pinprick grows larger until it touches my entire pussy. It fills me up and he keeps fucking me. I think: This is Brody. Brody is fucking me from behind. Brody has me bent over and he’s fucking me. Brody, the man you’ve had a crush on for such a long time, is pounding into your pussy right now. Brody is taking you. Fuck, fuck, fuck—Brody is taking you!



The circle of heat grows until I can’t feel anything else, just a burning deep inside. I clamp my eyes shut. I moan. But the moan comes out soundlessly, strained and breathless. I push back even harder, with even more force, and the longer I moan, the closer the orgasm becomes. Finally, sound enters my voice and the room is filled with the lost-in-pleasure moans of a woman. She doesn’t sound like me. I’ve never moaned like that. I’ve never experienced such all-encompassing pleasure.



“You sexy bitch,” Brody sighs, pounding into me even harder. The continuous slap-slap-slap of our flesh hitting each other and his spanks drives us on. Bitch, he called me, I think, but it’s a dim and faraway thought. Brody is dominant. Brody knows what he wants. And the mood I’m in, he could call me any name under the sinful sun and I wouldn’t complain. “Come for me, Darla,” he moans. “Come for me. Come for me. Come for me.” On the last word, he thrusts into me so ferociously I’m surprised he doesn’t break me. I tumble forward, head slamming into the couch cushions, biting down.



He is dominating me.



Oh, fuck, yes . . . dominate me, baby! Make me yours! Fuck, take me! Fuck, fuck, fuck!



“I . . .”



“I . . . am . . .”



“I . . . am . . . coming!”



I close my eyes, clamp my teeth, and focus solely on the gyrations of his immense cock.



The orgasm takes hold of me. Hands grip my entire body and I’m thrown about as the orgasm hits me. I don’t know where I am. All I know is the gigantic circle of heat inside my pussy, moving through my body and touching my fingers and toes, my breasts, my face. Everything is red. Everything is hot. I bounce on his cock and I come and squirt on him.



“Oh, fuck,” I pant. “Oh, fuck, fuck . . .”



“Thank God,” Brody groans. “You’re too damn sexy.”



He thrusts into me one final time—and then he falls away.



After a while, when the panting and the desperate breaths have passed, we face each other, both smiling like fools.



“So,” Brody says, “when can we do it again?”





Chapter Twelve


Brody



I’m a prick, an asshole, a jerk, a piece of shit, a player. I’m dog, a wolf, a lion, a hunter.



I’m all these things and more, all the things women say they don’t want but secretly do. Maybe Julia broke something inside of me. I’ve considered that before. I remember the man—boy, really—I was when I found out she cheated on me. A pathetic mess. Snotty like a little kid. Lost as though my relationship with the proverbial High School Sweetheart was a raft and suddenly it was gone and I was floating through an ocean, no land in sight. And I floated, and I was lost, and all of that shit. But I didn’t wait for land. I made my own land, crafted it out of cockiness and arrogance and all those things women say they don’t like. And then I got a taste for it. And then I became it. I never had a problem with that.



But over the next week and a half, Darla and I spend a lot of time together, and I don’t go to meet her as the prick, the asshole, the jerk, the piece of shit, the player, the dog, the wolf, the lion or the hunter. I don’t change, don’t become somebody else. Not yet, at least. But we meet for more than sex. It’s been a long time since I met a woman for more than sex.



Over eleven days, we go on four dates, which must be some sort of world record for guys like me. We have sex, of course, mind-bending, dirty, nasty, hot, passionate sex, but that’s not all we do. If I thought that Darla Castle would be content to be a fuck buddy, I was wrong.



One lunchtime whilst Darla is patrolling the streets looking for more work we meet for lunch at a small Italian place on the corner near the fire station. Marco gives me a damn hard time about it. “You going to meet your little lady, man? You going to make sweet love to her, man? Shall I get you a ukulele, man? You can sing a sweet song and serenade her, eh? You are a romantic lover boy now. I can see it in your eyes.” I tell him where to get off and walk down the street.



A strange thing happens when I lay eyes on Darla. Not just the time at the Italian place, but every time I see her. I smile a lot, but usually it’s an arrogant smile, a smile I’ve placed on my face. Whenever I see Darla, I feel a genuine smile spread inexorably across my face, like two puppet strings are tugging at the corners of my lips. She turns to me, looking sexy and vibrant and full of life, with her kink in her hair making her look different to all the other girls. And as she turns to me, I smile.



“Any luck on the job hunt?” I ask.



She shakes her head. I order us a couple of slices of pizza and some coke and we take a seat on the benches outside the restaurant, opposite each other, our legs touching. And even that gets me thinking, even the simple touch of her knees get me thinking, make no mistake.



“The world is full of baristas,” she says. “But I’m good at what I do. I have good references. I’m sure I’ll find something. I wish they’d start rebuilding the Coffee Joint, though.”



“Insurance,” I mutter, with a shrug. “How are you for money?”



“I have some saved,” she says. “I should be okay for at least a month.”



I nod. Why do I care? I ask myself. But not just about the money. I ask myself this question countless times every time we meet. Why. Do. I. Care?



We go to the movies to see some blockbuster and I notice that Darla’s trying to stretch her legs out in the tiny space between her seat and the seat in front of her. None of my business. What do I care if her leg is aching or cramped? And yet I find myself swapping seats with her, giving her my aisle seat, so that she can stretch her leg out. Or when I’m at her place and we’re in bed together and it’s late at night, pitch-dark outside, and she’s fast asleep. I’ve only done it once, but still, once is enough . . . Sitting up, propped on one elbow, looking down at her sleeping face and just watching.



It’s like this woman, with her charm and her sex appeal and her independence and her no-bullshit attitude is changing something inside of me.



Don’t be a fool, I tell myself. A woman can’t change you in eleven days.



Maybe not, not completely, but I can’t deny that I’m starting to care about her. And more than her body, more than the sex.



We go to a ball game and as we’re walking to our seats some guy says something about Darla, about her ass, about what he’d like to do it. He turns to his friends and starts laughing. I face him, arms wide, fists clenched, and stare the bastard down until he mutters, “Sorry,” in a terrified voice.



Darla tells me not to start a scene. “I don’t need a knight in shining armor,” she says. “I can take care of myself.”



I just nod. I’m sure she can take care of herself. But she should tell that to her face. When I stare the guy down, she has a small smile on her lips, and her cheeks are red and flushed just like they are before we have sex. Despite what she says, she likes it. It makes her horny, makes her feel protected, makes her want me even more.



And if there’s one thing I’ve learnt about myself this past week and a half, it’s that I want Darla to want me even more.





Chapter Thirteen


Darla



I sit cross-legged on my bed, my mirror in one hand and my foundation pad in the other.



Brody is due to arrive any minute and I want to make sure I look good. I think about how I stood in the reflection of the coffee machine a couple of weeks ago, doing the exact same thing, and wonder at everything that’s changed.



Then, I had a job I loved, a life I was content in, and I had never talked to Brody for longer than thirty seconds. Now, I prepare my face for him, wanting to make sure I look beautiful. I know that the makeup will come away later and that he’ll see me without it, as he has seen me without it a few times now. But still, it’s nice to make the effort. And it’s good to know that I’m making the effort because I want to, not because I’m being criticized. After that first surprise date, Brody hasn’t said a thing about my appearance, other than to tell me I look hot, beautiful, or sexy.



I think of the dates we’ve been on, the sex we’ve had, the moments we’ve shared over this past week and a half. An odd feeling comes over me, a feeling unlike anything I experienced with Charley. It’s a potent mixture of affection and lust, as though I want Brody to hold me in his arms by candlelight, but not before we fuck like animals. I don’t know what’s happening to me. All I know for certain is that when I think about seeing Brody, my body gets warm and butterflies flutter around my belly, doing flips and ducking and diving, causing me to grit my teeth in anticipation.



Once the makeup is applied, I jump from bed and place the mirror on my bedside table. Then I hurry around the apartment, picking up discarded clothes. Before the fire, the clothes were sigils of my time spent coming to and from the Coffee Joint. Now, they represent my time spent coming to and from the streets, roaming them with my résumé in one hand and a paper cup of coffee in the other. No luck yet, but at least when I’m turned away I can get a supportive dose of caffeine.



I just finish tidying the apartment when the buzzer sounds.



I press the intercom button. “Hello.”



“Excuse me, ma’am,” Brody says, doing his best Southern Sheriff impression. “This is fireman Brody Ellison. I am sorry to disturb you at this time of evening, but we’ve had complaints of heat coming from your apartment. Apparently there’s some hot as hell woman up there, making the whole block burn up. Do you know anything about this? If you like, I can take out my hose and dowse the flames.”



“You, sir, are disgusting,” I reply, doing my best Outraged Aristocrat impression.



Brody chuckles, but I’m sure there’s something behind the laughter. “Are you letting me up or not?”



“Once you stop being a jerk, yeah.”



He laughs again, and again there’s an undertone I can’t identify. “You should know by now that that isn’t going to happen.”



“Hmm, maybe I won’t let you up then.”



“Maybe I’ll have to leave then.”



He’s joking—I think—but I press the button anyway.



“See you in a sec,” he says.



I unlock the door and go to the couch. After around thirty seconds, the door opens and Brody marches in wearing his fireman’s uniform and holding a duffle bag. I turn to him, expecting to see his usual cocky smile, but his face is marked with spots of black soot and his eyes look tired. He yawns and drops next to me on the couch. Now, I think, he’ll lean across and ravage me. But when he leans across, it’s just to plant a kiss on my cheek.



“Evening,” he says, rubbing his hands together. The knuckles of one hand is cut and grazed.



“What happened?” I say. He smells like the Coffee Joint did after the fire, embers and charred wood and acidic air.



“A fire,” he says. “A bad one. Downtown. A veterinary office. Lots of . . . well, there were animals in cages and a fire, so you can guess the rest.”



I swallow. He doesn’t look vulnerable—I don’t think Brody could ever look vulnerable—but he looks more vulnerable than he ever has before. He stares down at his knuckles but it’s like he doesn’t see them. It’s like he looks through his hands, his legs, the floor, the entire building, and sees whatever happened at the veterinary office.



He needs someone to take care of him, I think.



“Right,” I say, standing up. “First, you need a shower. Are there spare clothes in the bag?” He nods. “Right, so number one. Shower. Number two. Change. Number three. Relax and forget about the whole nasty day.”



He turns to me, the shadow of a smile on his face. “Are you babying me, Darla?” he says.



“You’re damn right I’m babying you,” I say. “Take off your clothes. I’ll run the water.”



“Miss Castle,” he says, when I’m almost at the bathroom door.



I turn to him. “Yeah?”



He winces, as though what he’s about to say is a struggle. But then his face relaxes and he mutters: “Thank you.”



I turn on the shower and by the time Brody comes into the bathroom, naked and covered in grime, the room is steamy. He walks past me and straight into the shower, stands beneath the blasting water and lets it drip down his naked body, over his muscles. He looks wounded. I try to imagine the horrors he’s seen today, but my mind revolts against them. Animals in cages . . . fire . . . It couldn’t have been pretty.



I return to the living room.



He comes out ten minutes later, the soot and the grime cleaned from his body, a towel around his waist. He towels himself off, reaches into his bag, and takes out a t-shirt and some pajama pants.



“You’re tired,” I note.



He nods slowly. “I am,” he admits.



The prospect of us having sex is more than an elephant in the room; it’s a gargantuan mammoth, huge-tusked and waving its trunk around like a weapon. I stand up, go to him, and place my hand on his shoulder. “How about bed and a movie?” I say. “I’m tired, too.”



“Are you?” I can tell he’s relieved.



“Yes. Come on. You can wrap me in your arms and we’ll lose ourselves for a little while.”



“Sounds good.”



Brody slumps onto the bed and stares up at the ceiling. I get the sense that he’s still not taking in his surroundings. His hazel eyes have a faraway look about them, as though the apartment is mist and true reality exists somewhere behind it. I imagine him hearing the screams of dogs and the frantic screeching of cats. I swallow, kneel down, and start sorting through my DVDs.



“What are you in the mood for?” I ask.



“Anything,” he says. “Just get over here quickly or I might go to a bar. That’s what we usually do, you know, after a day like today. Go to a bar and get so shitfaced we end up fighting each other. Chipped Marco’s tooth, once. But I told the guys—told them straight up—that I was coming here. Got an ear full for it, but I don’t care. I’m glad I’m here.” His voice is filled with exhaustion. He talks in the same tone of voice as a person talking in his sleep. His tiredness has let his defenses slip, I realize. I’m seeing the man beneath the armor.



I grab a DVD at random—The Reader—shove it in the player, and return to Brody.



I climb into bed and as the affair begins on screen, the pain and the heartache, I roll into him. He wraps his arms around me and holds me close. He holds onto me tightly and it’s like I can feel the pain of the day through his arms. I grab his forearm and hug into him. I kiss his grazed hand. Then I roll over so that we’re face to face. He watches me with half-closed eyes, barely seeing.



“I’m glad you came here instead of getting drunk,” I whisper.



“Me, too,” Brody says, voice quiet as sleep tugs him toward unconsciousness. “Don’t think this makes me a pussy, though. I’ll fuck you until you can’t breathe next time.”



“Is that a promise?”



He trails his hand through my hair, tendrils of warmth, tingly and causing me to shiver, moving through my body. “It’s a promise,” he says. “But now, I need to sleep.”



“Sleep, then.” I kiss him on the forehead. “And dream that we’re somewhere exotic, me and you, somewhere safe and warm.”



With a smile, he closes his eyes.



We are, both of us, letting our guard down. Something is happening here. Something is beginning.



I close my eyes and fall asleep in his arms.





Chapter Fourteen


Brody



When I wake up, I am alone in bed. I sit up and listen. From the living-kitchen room, I hear somebody bustling around. I glance at the clock. Forty-five minutes until my shift begins, which means I need to haul ass in the next ten minutes if I don’t want to be late.



I go into the living room and watch for a few moments as Darla walks around, picking up clothes. She stops and turns to me, a bundle in her hands. “I don’t know how it happens,” she says. “When you came over, the place was clean. I swear there’s a fairy or something which comes by just to drop clothes on the floor.”



I grin. More and more, I’m grinning genuinely with Darla, not arrogantly. And last night . . . It was like no other night with a woman. We didn’t have sex. Maybe with some guys that isn’t such a big deal. But usually when I go to a woman’s house, we’re having sex. But last night I didn’t even want to. More than that, I came over here with the knowledge that I wouldn’t want to. So why did I come over here? The answer shocks me. I came over just because I wanted to be close to somebody.



Darla tilts her head at me. “You okay, Brody?” she says.



I force out a laugh and swagger over to her. “I’m fine, gorgeous,” I say. “Fine and dandy.”



“Fine and dandy?” she giggles. “Since when did you start talking like that?”



“I’ve always talked like this. You just never noticed.”



She shakes her head, goes into the bathroom, and drops the clothes. I hear the thmph sound the bundle makes. When she returns, she’s holding my fireman’s uniform. “Washed and dried,” she says. “Don’t ever say I’m not a good girl—” She stops, face stricken. She was about to say girlfriend, I think, panic gripping my chest. Girlfriend! She giggles, but it’s forced, just like my laugh was forced. “Don’t say I’m not good to you,” she finishes, and then hands the clothes to me.



I take the bundle and strip down to my briefs. “Thank you,” I say.



She turns her back to me and goes to the kitchen, leans down into the refrigerator, takes out a carton of OJ.



“Thirsty?” she asks.



I nod. “Sure.”



Girlfriend! Is that what’s happening? Damn, how can I handle that? After Julia? After all these years?



I swallow, forcing the thought deep down inside of me. Darla’s pouring a glass of OJ when two sharp raps come from the door.



“Strange, I didn’t hear the buzzer go.”



Darla shrugs. “Might be the landlord. Hang on.”



I pull on my pants as Darla answers the door. I’ve just fastened the button when Tracey, Darla’s pixie-cut friend, skips into the room. “Halllooooo—” She cuts short when she sees me, shirtless, on the other side of the room. “Oh, Darling Darla, I didn’t know you had company.”



“I’m going now anyway,” I say. I pull on my t-shirt, find my bag, and pack my clothes into it. Then, the ladies watching me, I go to the kitchen and drain the OJ. Darla watches me with affection and a silent message: Thank for you last night. I hope my reply is clear on my face: I should be thanking you.



Then I kiss Darla on top of the head and leave the apartment. When I close the door behind me, I hear Tracey say, in a too-loud voice: “I didn’t know he would be here, you lucky girl!”



Shaking my head, I make my way down the stairs.





Chapter Fifteen


Darla



“How did you get up here?” I say, annoyed that my time with Brody was cut short by Tracey’s entrance.



She’s dressed like a character from a post-apocalyptic movie, jeans with one leg cut at the knee, high, pink socks, a vest with little skulls on which clearly shows her bra, and multicolored paint smeared down her neck. Like she’s going to a festival, I think. Who dresses like that on a normal day? I realize I’m being rude and unfair. She made the effort to come here, I tell myself. The least I can do is be polite. Then another voice counters: or you can kick her ass outta here!



“Someone let me in,” Tracey says. “I hope I’m not being a nuisance.”



She says it in her usual, semi-sarcastic tone of voice, but she seems more genuine that she does most of the time. “No,” I say. “No, come in. Want something to drink?”



A minute later, we’re sitting side by side on the couch, two glasses of orange juice placed upon the coffee table. The Californian morning sun slants in through the windows, motes of dust dancing in the air. Tracey smells potently of perfume, as though she bathed in it this morning. She’s so kooky and alternative and cool I can imagine her doing something like that.



“So,” she says, nodding at the door, “you had yourself a dish last night, didn’t you, you naughty girl? I came here expecting to see you getting résumés ready, but it seems you were working on something else! Bad girl! Meow!”



Sometimes, entering into a conversation with Tracey is like running the gauntlet. No sooner have you found your footing than another strike comes. And as you’re recovering from the second—a third. Her speech rushes on as though it has a mind of its own, her words overriding each other. She’s as pixie as her hair, flying here and there but rarely settling.



“What was it like? You have to tell me all the juicy details!”



“You seem surprised,” I say, dodging the question. “But it was you who gave him my address in the first place, wasn’t it?”



“Oh! Don’t ask me what I have and have not done!” she cries, waving her arms dramatically. In her mind, Tracey is a theater star. “How am I supposed to remember what I did two weeks ago when I can’t even remember what I did yesterday? Search for jobs, I’m sure, but if you were to ask me where I went and when I went there and what I did when I got there I wouldn’t have the faintest clue. I just dance from coffee shop to coffee shop, hurling my résumé at them and dancing away. No jobs, no jobs, no jobs. That’s all I hear!”



“It is frustrating,” I nod. I sip my orange juice. “I’ve been turned down a lot, too.”



Tracey waves a hand. “Yes, yes, yes, but tell me about Brody. Is he everything you dreamed? Is he the Hunk of the Month? Is he the Man who Can? Is he the . . . oh, I can’t think of anything clever to say.” Her forehead creases. “Well!” she blurts. “Is he?”



“Well, I have to admit, I don’t know what’s come over me these past couple of weeks. I feel different, changed, somehow. It’s . . . I don’t know . . . it’s like we’re getting closer. Sometimes, anyway. And then other times it’s like we’re strangers who just enjoy being with each other.”



“Fucking, you mean,” Tracey says.



“Yes, that’s what I mean. But last night was different. We didn’t even have sex. I felt close to him. But then this morning I almost called myself his girlfriend.” I wince at the memory, cringing hard.



“Oh, sister, that’s turning the heat up before the water’s even in the pan.” She does a little dance with her eyebrows. She’s incessantly bubbly. “Anyway—and I don’t mean to offend you, baby doll, I would never dream of doing that—I’m surprised he’s even attracted to you.”



Don’t mean to offend me . . . I feel like I’ve just been slapped across the face. But not by a hand. A honey-coated bat, a thousand bees buzzing over its surface, has just been smashed across my jaw. A thousand stings puncture my skin. I remember the way Tracey and Charley flirted in front of me. The pain of it. But this sting is even worse.



“But you were the one who told him where I lived,” I say, failing to keep the anger out of my voice. I place my orange juice back on the table before I shatter the glass with my tightening fist. “Surely you must’ve known he had some interest in me.”



“I just thought he was coming to check up on you,” Tracey says, squinting at me as though I’m missing something obvious. “You know, doing his job. Being a good fireman. I didn’t think he’d . . . well . . . no offence, hon.”



“What do you mean, check up on me? Why would he be the one to check up on me? I was at the hospital, wasn’t I?”



Tracey’s squint grows narrower. “You don’t know?” she says. “You really don’t know?”



“Don’t know what?”



“Brody was the one who saved you from the fire, Darla. Didn’t he mention it?”



If I looked outraged or bemused before, I must look positively stunned now. I feel my mouth opening in an idiot’s O of surprise, my hands grip my knees, and a slow, long, “Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” leave my lips. I watch Tracey for a few moments, trying to figure out if she’s lying. I have no clue why she would lie about something like this, but it’s Tracey, pixie-like, playful, infuriating Tracey. But she looks back at me plainly, nodding.



“It was him,” she goes on. “You’re clearly besties now. Didn’t he mention anything?”



“No,” I mutter. “No, he didn’t. I was going to ask, but I got . . .” Distracted, I think. Distracted by Brody’s body and the passion and his strong hands and the way he dominates me during sex. And his softer side. His softer side I’m only now starting to see. “Brody saved my life,” I say, voice numb.



“Yeah, we all saw him. Wow, that’s crazy. I mean—and I would never intend any offence, not on my life—what I mean to say is, if I had been saved by some mysterious man, I’d make it my business to find out who it was. You know? No offence, hon.”



“No offence taken,” I whisper.



I think of the strong hands of the armor-clad man, comparing them with Brody’s hands. Yes, I realize. They’re the same. When he caught me on the street outside the restaurant, it was that which I recognized.



Brody, I think. Why didn’t you tell me?





Chapter Sixteen


Brody



I remember the moment I caught Julia cheating on me. I remember it so well sometimes I think it will stay etched on my mind forever, an imprint of past pain and rage, a mark which will never be erased, the driving force behind most of my adult life.



I remember when, as a nineteen-year old man, I approached our apartment with a bunch of flowers in my hand. I was training to be a fireman and she was in college, studying literature or some other highbrow subject which, when she talked about it, often made me feel slow. I remember how the December air was unusually crisp, my breath fogging around me. I remember the feeling of my knuckles, nipped at by the icy air, as I held the flowers in one hand and rooted around in my pants pocket for the keys with the other. I remember thinking: She’ll love these. And I felt soft. And weak. I felt like the sort of man I’d come to hate. But I didn’t know it then.



Julia had been getting more involved with her college culture. I encouraged her to do it, dumb asshole that I was. She’d sometimes spend four nights a week at the campus, studying, having coffee with friends and talking about books, generally consuming everything college had to offer. But I saw myself as her rock, timeless and secure, always waiting for her when she returned.



This was one of her in-nights and I’d bought the flowers on a whim on the way home. I couldn’t wait to see her face light up when I presented them to her. Me being only a trainee firefighter and her being a student, we were piss-poor back then and I rarely bought her flowers. But screw it, I thought. I’d treat her. I’d show my appreciation. Later, the image that would make me cringe most is of me walking up the stairs of our apartment building, a slack-jawed grin on my face, looking like the biggest moron I ever saw. Pointlessly optimistic. Unbelievably trusting. Barely more than a boy. Even the guys at the fire station called me Kid back then. After the mess with Julia, they never called me Kid again.



I opened the door. I’ll surprise her, I thought. I was meant to be staying late that night and Julia had told me that morning how much she wished I could be with her tonight. She perched up on my chest, kissed me on the nose, and said in a cute and sweet voice: “Oh, I’d love if you could come home, baby. I miss you so much.” This from the woman I’d been dating since my fifteenth birthday. A real, true, proper, genuine, sincere High School Sweetheart. Did I really ever think like that? I often ask myself. Was I really so naïve?



I unlocked the door and I walked in.



I dropped the flowers.



I stepped back and tears—tears! I cried for this woman!—began streaming down my face in twin rivers.



I never dreamed the guy would be a threat. His name was Benjamin Schmidt and he was a bookworm. He was such a bookworm that he even looked like an actual worm. His arms and legs and even his neck were thin, wriggling and wormlike. He wore thick glasses and his fingers were ten wriggling worms. Only now they were ten wriggling worms which were sliding over Julia’s naked body.



Back in those days, I had a favorite chair. It was an old beat-up thing my father gave me when I moved house. A large, kingly armchair, the green fabric flaking away like pieces of leaf crisping to brown in the autumn time, but the cushions still plush. I had sat in that chair my entire childhood and when I sat in it at nineteen years old, I felt as comfortable as I did back then.



Julia was bent over my childhood chair, completely naked, sweaty breasts rubbing against the cushion. For a moment, it looked as though she had four hands. And then I looked closer and saw that the illusion was created by Benjamin reaching underneath her and cupping her breasts. He stood behind her, deep inside of her, grinning like a madman. Julia bounced on him a couple of times and let out a moan before both of them turned to me.



“Brody!” Julia screamed.



She immediately got up, tried to approach me. That killed me. She jumped up and walked across the room, still naked, still covered with sweat and saliva—it looked like eager Benjamin had spit in her hair—and looked at me with her old, loving expression. “I—I thought you were going to be gone until late.”



“No,” I said, voice sounding distant. “No, I was going to surprise you. I got you flowers.”



I spoke coldly. My eyes looked over Julia and Benjamin, who rushed around scooping up his clothes. Now, if I caught a man with my woman, there would be blood and spitting and fighting and pain. But I was a boy then and I didn’t have the heart to fight. I hadn’t even fought any real fires. I was green. I was barely out of high school. And my heart was breaking.



“No,” I repeated.



I took a step back when she tried to touch me, turned around, and left the apartment.



I crashed at Marco’s place for six months and I didn’t talk to Julia ever again. She tried at first, but after about a week I heard through a friend that she’d invited Benjamin to move in with her. I had sent for my clothes and some of my belongings, but not my furniture. I knew that one night their passion would probably take them to my childhood armchair again. But, strangely, I didn’t feel much at this. I swallowed down any feeling, pushed it away. She wasn’t worth my feeling.



When I heard that she’d transferred with Benjamin to the east coast, I was happy.



“You tripping or something, man?” Marco says, punching me in the leg.



I snap out of the memories and give him the finger. “Go to hell,” I grunt.



“I second that,” Jonny says, walking into the breakroom. He goes to the refrigerator and takes out an energy drink. “I reckon hell is exactly where Marco belongs. There isn’t no place better for him. He should be on all fours, getting Satan’s poker right up the ass.”



“Since when did the new kid think he could talk shit?” Marco grins. He leaps across the room, grabs Jonny in a headlock, and begins rubbing his tuft of ginger hair with his knuckles. “Come on, new kid,” he laughs, when Jonny drops his drink and starts squirming. “Where’s that new-kid fight, eh? Come on, new kid!”



“Asshole!” Jonny breathes, trying to dislodge himself. But he can’t.



Finally, Marco lets go and dances to the other side of the room before the Jonny can retaliate.



“Asshole!” he wheezes, rubbing his neck. He bends down and picks up his drink.



I laugh along with it, but in the back of the mind, I’m thinking of Darla. Darla’s what prompted me to lose myself in memories of Julia, I’m sure. It’s the same all week. We’ll be working out or giving community speeches or demonstrations, even putting out fires, and Darla is always lurking at the back of my mind, watching, waiting. I don’t consciously take a break from seeing her, but all the same, I don’t call her and I only text her to tell her I’m busy.



She was going to say girlfriend, I think, all throughout the week. She was going to call herself my girlfriend.



I’m not usually an emotional sort of man. I see emotional men, crying men and unsure men, and I don’t envy them one bit. Why should I? Where they umm and ahh about what they’re going to do with a woman, I just do it. I never hesitate. I’m never unsure. But now . . .



It’s like there are two camps inside of me. One is manned by my old self, the man I’ve been since I walked in on Julia being railed by the wormlike kid from her college course. This man wants nothing more than to distance himself from the closeness, than to get the hell out of dodge before things start to get really complicated, to sprout goddamn wings and fly out of the state if that’s what it takes. This man wants nothing to do with love, affection; he’s all about the passion of pressing his naked body against a woman’s, hearing her moans of pleasure, losing himself in her in the act—and then leaving.



But there’s another camp and the man in this camp is more conflicted. This man remembers the solace he found with Darla after the hellish day at the veterinary clinic. This man remembers how good it felt to have a woman take care of him for the night. This man remembers the closeness fondly. And for this man, the idea of Darla calling herself my girlfriend isn’t such a big deal. So what if she’s my girlfriend? We’re close enough, aren’t we? Why shouldn’t she be?



I am neither of these men, not completely, and that’s where the complications arise. I can’t decide if I want to remain cold or if I want to open myself up to Darla, if only a little bit.



I’m in the gym room six days after I last saw Darla when Jonny walks in. He sits down on a leg machine and looks across at me. I’m leaning up on the bench, massaging my muscles after a heavy lift.



“Brody,” he nods.



“Jonny,” I nod back.



He glances at the door, angles his head so he can see into the hallway. “You know,” he says, voice low, “I don’t think it’s such a bad thing to be close to a woman. I know the guys give you a hard time about spending time with the woman from the coffee place.”



“You do, too,” I note.



Jonny winces, then grins. “Yeah, I guess I do. But that’s just ribbing. What I’m trying to say is, I don’t think you should worry too much about what we think. We might make fun of you, we might all make fun of each other, but when the fire is lashing at us and the roof is crumbling, we’ve all got each other’s backs. You know what I mean?” He pauses, thinking. And then adds: “Anyway, it’s not such a bad thing to have a woman.”



Jonny starts his exercise.



I lie down on the bench and start mine.



But Jonny’s got me thinking and by the time my shift is over, all I can think about is seeing Darla again.





Chapter Seventeen


Darla



Over the next week, I double my efforts to find a new job.



My meagre savings are dwindling and rent looms on the horizon like a storm. Sooner or later, I’ll be out of cash and I’ll need extra income. So I go to the local library, use their printer to make another fifty résumés, and I roam the streets.



I leave the apartment at nine o’clock in the morning and return just after five. I make a job of finding a job. But it seems that every place I enter already has a stack of résumés knee-high and I know it’ll be some time before they get around to mine, if they ever do. But I’m confident. I have the experience and the enthusiasm and I like to think I make a good first impression.



Brody is too busy with work to see me this week, or so he says. I would be superhuman if I could somehow believe that this had nothing to do with my almost accidently calling myself his girlfriend. I read it on his face. He was terrified. He looked at me as though I’d just produced an engagement ring, claimed he’d given it to me, and slipped it onto my own finger. He looked at me like I was insane. He looked at me like I was pushing him way too far and he didn’t know how much longer he could take it. Every time it comes to my mine, I cringe so hard I gouge crevices into my stack of résumés with my fingernails.



Why did I say that? I ask myself. Why?



I search for an answer to this question and I come up with nothing. It wasn’t a premeditated mistake. I didn’t plan on saying it. It just almost came out. Word-vomit of the highest caliber.



I don’t text him for a couple of days, wanting to keep my distance. I don’t want to scare him. That’s one reason. But there’s another reason that has very little to do with him and everything to do with me.



I’m shocked by how quickly I’m starting to fall for him. Above all, I value my independence. That’s why, instead of running to Mom and Dad and asking for a handout, I search doggedly for a new job. That’s why I won’t admit defeat in the face of the fire. That’s why I won’t slink away with my tail between my legs. Independence; that’s the thing.



And if I let myself fall for Brody, I will lose my independence. It can’t help but happen. It was the same with Charley. But Brody isn’t Charley, Brody is different.



That’s true, but it doesn’t do much to stop my internal war. If I fall for Brody, I will stop being a free, independent woman and I’ll become one half of a couple. I remember what being one half of a couple is all too well.



I remember one evening when Charley and I were going out on a date to a local restaurant. It was a fancy place—the fanciest place he’d ever taken me—and so I wanted to make an effort. We were at his apartment and I went into my bag and took out a dress I’d packed especially. It was similar to the dress I wore on my date with Brody, green and sparkling to match my eyes. I was grinning with excitement as I slipped into it, grinning even wider as I stood in front of the mirror and applied my makeup, and by the time it came to strap up my green high heels, I was grinning so widely the corners of mouth almost touched my ears.



Charley was in the living room, drinking a beer and watching TV.



I danced into the room, feeling like an angel, feeling more attractive than I had in weeks. Thinking back, it was foolish of me to expect any kind of reaction from Charley than the one he gave. But at the time I was full of hope. I danced in, strutted into the middle of the room (blocking the TV) and did a twirl.



“So,” I said, “how do I look?”



He took a swig from his beer and grunted. “You look like a prostitute,” he said absentmindedly, moving along the couch to try and see the TV. When I didn’t move, he snapped, “What the hell do you want from me? You come out here looking like a woman who should be standing on a street corner and now you’re blocking the goddamn TV. Can you move?”



He didn’t say any of this viciously. That was the worst part. He spoke in a matter-of-fact voice and I truly believed, as he said it, that I looked like a prostitute. It was strange to me, because moments ago I had truly believed I looked glamorous and beautiful.



I marched back into the bedroom and changed. I actually changed for that piece of shit. I came out a few minutes later with less makeup on my face, wearing stylish jeans and a top with frilly bits around the edges. He glanced at me, shrugged, and muttered: “You’re a bit underdressed, aren’t you? We’re going to a fancy place.”



It wasn’t until I broke it off with him that I realized what the problem was.



I wasn’t independent. I had tied my self-worth to another person and that other person could be kind, prop me up, make me feel better about myself, or they could crush me just as easily. It was all the same to Charley. He didn’t seem to take delight in putting me down. He went about it like it was the normal course of things.



After I dumped him—when he flirted with Tracey right in my face—I underwent a transformation. When I dressed up and looked at myself in the mirror, it was no longer to try and impress somebody else. I was the only person I had to answer to. I was the only critic that mattered. I had finally gained my independence. Mom and Dad could complain that I should want to do something more than working at a coffee place, they could goad and chide, they could play the Disappointed Parents all they wanted. It didn’t matter, because I didn’t have to answer to anybody when it came to my self-worth.



That’s the other half of my uncertainty about Brody. Right now, I’m falling for him, hard. But what about the future? It’s only been a few weeks. What if, lurking somewhere inside Brody, is a Charley just waiting to come out, his tongue ready for caustic criticism, his eyes ready for a disinterested glaze. I don’t believe it, not really, but when you’ve been with a man like Charley, the idea is difficult to dismiss out of hand.



At the end of the week, I walk zombie-like into my apartment. Exhaustion grips every part of me and I can’t help but feel disheartened. One week of searching and still no luck. And still no Brody, I think. Maybe he’s done with me. Maybe that’s a good thing. I get to keep my independence. But what use is independence if you can’t use it to go after something you want? And I want Brody, that’s the truth. I can’t deny that. But is he worth my independence? Yes, yes, yes! No, no, no! Why can’t dating be simple?



These thoughts whirr around in the back of my mind incessantly without resolution.



I shower and as the water caresses me, I think about Brody’s caressing hands. But it’s different now, because I know what his hands feel like. The fantasy is more real. I close my eyes and I can bring to mind all the times we’ve fucked, the way he looks at me with his hard hazel eyes, the passion in his twisted lips. I can feel his hand on my breast, squeezing until the flesh turns red, and hear the guttural grunt he makes as he does it. A dominant, passionate man, a knows-what-he’s-doing-in-bed man. In that way, he’s completely at odds with Charley, who was a clumsy, fumbling lover. Perhaps that was one of the reasons he was so mean.



I step out of the shower and stand in front of the mirror. I stand there for so long that the steam evaporates from the glass and I look myself in the face. Who are you? I ask the reflection. What do you want from life?



My cheeks are flushed and I imagine they’re flushed from being with Brody, beetroot-red from our sex. Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve stood in front of this mirror a few times with a face just as flushed as mine is now, but with Brody standing behind me, hands on my shoulders or belly or ass. “You’re so damn sexy,” he’ll say. Or: “You’re the hottest thing alive, Darla.” Gone are the days when he criticized my looks. His cock—always rock-hard when I’m even half-naked around him—can’t lie.



I dry myself off and get changed into a t-shirt and some pajama bottoms.



Then I sit on the couch, a glass of wine in one hand and my cell in the other. It’s been six days since Brody and I have seen each other and part of me wants to text him, ask him if he wants to come over. But another part of me is aware that I’ll be opening myself up to him, something I already did when I almost dropped the G-bomb.



I’m oscillating between decisions, sipping wine and gazing out of my window. The blinds are open, the window cracked, and the sounds of the street filter up to me. Horns honk and people laugh and footsteps click-click across the sidewalk. I still haven’t decided what to do when I hear a voice, raised in frustration. “What the hell are you doing out here? You worked at the Coffee Joint, didn’t you? Why the fuck are you hanging arou