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Faith Peligni felt as if she was being thrown right into the fire her first day. And that was just how she liked it.
Everyone on duty at the San Amaro Island Fire Department had gathered across the street from the station at the city-owned training facility. Captain Joe Men-doza, whom Faith had known in passing since she was three feet tall and running around in her father's too-big standard issue helmet, was currently explaining the drill. It was a two-person relay that involved dragging a hundred-fifty-pound dummy, climbing the four-story tower while carrying a heavy coil of hose, then rappel-ling down the outside wall. Each pair would be timed, with the fastest team the winner.
There was enough trash-talk going on between some of the guys to fill the Houston city dump. Faith had been introduced to a few of them, and so far, everyone was leaving her alone. On the one hand, she was grateful for the peace, but on the other, it meant she didn't fit in. She wasn't one of the guys. Standing by herself as Cale Jackson, one of the lieutenants, demonstrated each stage of the drill, she wondered if she ever would be. Did she want to be?
Maybe. What she really wanted was their respect. To be able to walk through the department and be confident that no one still believed she wasn't here on her own merit.
"Listen up, men. And women." Captain Mendoza sought out Faith's eyes with his coffee-black ones. "Sorry, Faith. Old habits. I'm going to pair everybody up and then we'll get started. Any questions?"
No one responded, so the captain began calling off names. Instead of worrying about who she'd be partnered with, Faith walked closer to the tower to scope it out, looking for any pitfalls, since she wasn't familiar with it.
"Peligni, you're with me," the captain said, finishing up his list.
Faith didn't glance at him, afraid she'd betray her annoyance. Was he putting her with him so he could "help" her? A charity case? She bit down on any protest and turned to face him.
"I have a reputation for winning this," Captain Mendoza said as he approached. "You think you're up for it?"
She studied him, searching for a hint of bullshitting. He was a big man, well over six feet tall and wide in the shoulders. His eyes were gentle, kind, yet he had a look about him that said you definitely didn't want to get on his bad side. His black hair was short, his face tanned. Strong. Handsome. The kind of face you wanted to trust. As far as she could tell, he was being sincere.
"I'll do the best I can," she said.
He likely thought the activities this drill involved put her at a disadvantage. The first two legs depended mostly on upper body strength, which, of course, women were lacking compared to men. However, Faith was confident that she was stronger than most people gave her credit for, thanks in large part to extra workouts every week. Even on her days off, she put in one to two hours of physical training. While it would never make her stronger than some of these guys, she could definitely hold her own.
The third leg, rappelling, was one of Faith's favorites. She loved the feeling of flying downward and bouncing off the wall. One of her brothers, Lou, had taken her skydiving once, and it had been just as fun but with less control. Lou teased her that she'd missed her calling, and had tried to get her to join him in the military.
She watched intently as the other teams took their turns, trying to pick up tips, spots where they lost time. The men watching paid attention in a general yelling and cheering way, but they'd obviously been through this drill numerous times and weren't worried about shaving off every possible second like she was. Of course, they didn't have the stakes she did. If they didn't win, it was just another day. If she didn't win, there'd be rumblings that she shouldn't have gotten the job, that a woman couldn't hack this career, and on and on. While she didn't want to let such talk get to her, she had no doubt it would. Maybe she was shallow, but she wanted her fellow firefighters' respect.
Captain Mendoza leaned in close to her and she caught a whiff of his masculine, sporty scent. "The last two stairs before the top are wobbly as hell. Watch your step up there."
She nodded, debating internally. She considered being stubborn and working things out herself. But that wouldn't serve the bigger goal of winning, would it? Though she didn't like the idea of getting help, she liked losing even less. "Any other tips?"
"You're asking for something I've never given away before," he said, watching her with those dark eyes.
"Not even to your teammates?"
"None of them has ever been smart enough to ask."
They shared a brief grin, and Faith said, "Well?"
"Avoid the handrails. They'll slow you down."
"Got it. Thanks."
"We're up next. You ready?"
"Ready as I'll ever be."
"I'll go first."
Faith nodded, and followed him to the starting line while the second-to-last pair finished up.
"Faith," the captain said, making her look up at him. "Show me what you've got."
With that, he turned around and started suiting up in full gear. Faith did the same.
"Time to beat," the official timekeeper called out as the man before themshe couldn't remember his namecrossed the finish. "Four minutes, fourteen seconds."
"Can we do that?" Faith muttered to Captain Mendoza as they continued to prep.
"Have to push it," he said. "I think we can."
She knew it was up to her to pull her weight. No sweat.
The captain finished putting his gear on, and the whistle blew for him to start. Most of the guys were loud in their support of him as he lugged the dummy over the ground, but Faith kept her cheering silent, willing him to make up for any time she might lose ascending the tower with the heavy hose.
She put her last glove on, transfixed by the sight of him. She'd guess he was around forty, based on the lines of his face, not the way he moved. He was one of the biggest men on this shift, all solid muscle, and yet his grace and speed mesmerized her. He made it look as if the hose weighed three pounds instead of thirty. When he got to the top, he quickly fastened the rappelling gear and went over the edge. Like the rest of the guys, he took the wall in four rhythmic bounces.
Faith's adrenaline kicked in as he ran toward her.
"Go for it," he said as he tagged her hand.
She took off in a sprint to the spot where he'd dragged the dummy. The thing weighed more than she did, but she was used to that. No excuses in her world. She toted it back to the starting line and then sprinted to the tower.
When she reached the coil of hose, she stumbled a bit and almost fell. Just what she needed. She caught herself at the last moment and avoided ending up on her butt, but lost a couple seconds. She heaved the hose up and took off, eyes on each step, focusing on balance, avoiding the handrails.
By the last flight of stairs, her lungs were screaming, and she wondered if the air was thinner up here, because she sure wasn't getting enough oxygen. She forged on, preparing herself for the last two wobbly steps before unloading the coil.
Now for the fun part.
She attached her rappelling equipment and, without hesitation, climbed on top of the wall and lowered herself over, her back to the group of firefighters. Instead of hitting the wall four times, she flung herself out and made it halfway down with her first release. Pushing off with her legs, she flew the rest of the way, hitting the ground hard but intact. She unfastened the rope and sprinted to the finish line, ignoring the burning in her lungs.
Joe nodded slowly to himself as he watched Faith's final approach. This woman was going to cause an uproar in the department, not only because of her looks but because she could teach several of the men plenty when it came to busting one's ass.
He didn't know if she'd make the time they needed to win, but she had nothing to be ashamed of, given the way she'd gone after it. Her rappelling was beautifulseemingly wild, yet she'd been in control the whole descent, pulling off the time-saving move. The woman could run, too. If this was how she performed in every aspect of the job, he'd be thrilled to have her working for him.
When she raced over the finish line, he held his hand out for her to slap again and praised her effort. His eyes were on the timekeeper as he hit the stopwatch, read the results to himself and then looked up with an unreadable expression.
"Let's have it, Olin," Joe said, caring too much about the results.
"Four minutes, eleven seconds. Congratulations, Captain. You and the new girl are the champs."
"Yes!" Faith whispered her response so most of the guys couldn't hear her, as if she understood celebrating would egg on some of them. She was youngonly twenty-sixbut Joe could tell she had a lot of street smarts and experience dealing with animallike males from her tenure in the San Antonio Fire Department the past few years.
Her glossy, sable hair was straight and reached below her shoulders. Her eyes were the brightest blue he'd ever seen, making him think of the Gulf of Mexico on the clearest day. She'd shown up to work that morning wearing no makeupshe didn't need any to highlight her striking features.
She met Joe's eyes, her blue ones overflowing with excitement and pride at their achievement. It was impossible not to catch some of her enthusiasm, regardless of how well she tried to hide it.
He nodded at her, grinned, then looked away, seeing her father's penetrating gaze in his mind and hearing his plea, just a couple of hours ago, for Joe to take Faith under his wing.
Joe wanted to see Faith succeed, not only because her father, Fire Chief Tony Peligni, was a good man. Not just because she was the department's first woman and had to carry that burden on her shoulders. Joe wanted her to do well because he liked her and felt lucky to have her on his team.
Professionally speaking, of course.
Faith absolutely, positively was not going to make coffee today.
Any other day, she'd do so willingly, because she was all about sharing duties, from meal prep to cleaning the rigs. But if she brewed coffee on her first day, it could be interpreted as a statement she didn't want to make. It'd be far too easy for one of the men to see her as the coffee girl, and who knew how long it would take to outgrow that derogatory title? Didn't matter that she'd been part of the winning team in training and had gotten a couple of compliments from the others about her rappelling skills. Some of these guys were Neanderthals at heart, she suspected. Lieutenant Ed Rottinghaus, for onethe man who'd fought to prevent her from being hired. There were likely others who felt the same. All it took was one moron following her around with the coffeepot. That wasn't the way to win respect.
The bitch of it was she was dying for a cup of hot, strong caffeine. She'd missed her morning dose in her rush to get out the door, and needed it even more than she needed the lunch she'd packed.
"Hey, new girl. Nice showing at the training drill."
She turned warily to look at the man with dirty-blond hair who'd just walked in. She'd probably been introduced earlier, but all the stacked-with-muscles bodies were starting to look the same to her.
"Thank you," she said. "I'm still trying to remember names."
"Derek Severson." He held out a large hand and she shook it. "Nicest guy you'll meet in this place."
"Is that right?" She laughed. "Good to know. I'll try to remember your face if that's the case."
"Hundred percent unbiased truth. So Awful big shoes to fill, being the chief's daughter."
At least he didn't beat around the bush or talk behind her back. "I'm not trying to fill his shoes. Just here to fight fires."
He picked up the dirty coffeepot and went to work cleaning it in the sink. Thank God. A second point in Derek's favor.
"How many scoops?" she asked, taking the bulk can of coffee grounds down from the cabinet above once he'd finished scrubbing. Helping was inherently different from making the coffee herself.
"You like it strong?" Derek asked. "Or girlie?"
She shot him a look and realized he was joking, not singling out her gender. "I like it to wake me the hell up."
He was married, she guessed. Or taken. Good-looking, if slightly shaggy, he had an easygoing, friendly manner and warm, blue eyes that put a person at ease. Impossible that a man like him would be single. Not that she was looking for someone. Not here.
"Five. Six if you want to screw with the others. They like it girlie."
Once the coffee was brewingwith six overflowing scoopsshe wandered around the kitchen, snooping absently, waiting for her pick-me-up to get done. Derek poured himself some health-nut cereal and added milk from a carton that had a Don't Use My Damn Milk sign taped to it.
She unwrapped her microwave dinner, started it cooking and then went to the coffeemaker to help herself.
Two more firefighters strolled into the kitchen. One had his eyes on the coffeemaker and the other made a beeline for the refrigerator.
"Hey," the dark-haired one on the coffee hunt said to Faith.
"Penn, right?" she asked.
"That's me." He smiled at her as he took down a coffee mug that said Never Do Anything You Wouldn't Want to Explain to the Paramedics on the side. "Welcome to the department."
"Ah," the second guy, a redhead, said, walking up to her at the counter. If she remembered right, his name was Nate Rottinghaus, the son of her not-so-favorite lieutenant. "You."
Faith tensed and met his eyes. "Me."
"You know, the captain would win that competition if he was paired with a three-year-old." He poured his coffee, walked to the long table that ran up the center of the room and sat down across from Derek.
"What the hell, Nate?" Derek said.
"Careful or she'll figure out what an ass you are," Penn added.
Faith moved to the end of the table to force Nate to look at her. "I like to know what I'm up against. Got anything else you want to get off your chest?"
He perused her with lazy, smug eyes, as if he was silently calculating how long she'd last in the department. She'd bet the idiot couldn't count that high.
"There are lots of jobs where your looks could help you get ahead. The fire department isn't one of them."
The microwave beeped and Faith spun around, her appetite suddenly gone.