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Eighties dance music blasted through the Yaris's speakers as Joey Miller flew down the passing lane of I-10, dancing in his car. A quick glance at the clock on the dashboard put a little hitch in his rhythm, so he cranked the volume up even higher as if the vibrating beats per minute could make up for lost time.
Car-dancing kept him focused, the thump of the bass bouncing his gaze from mirror to mirror to windshield, so he was able to react quickly when it happened.
The cars in front of him slowed. The truck flying up behind him didn't.
A split second to react, and with the gift of clarity from the blast of adrenaline, Joey was able to squeeze his Yaris into the right lane, just as the truck barreled into the dark blue minivan that had been in front of him.
The brown pickup lifted the minivan, flinging it into the guardrail and over. Joey swung back, grinding to a halt on the left shoulder as the minivan flew across the opposite lanes, a final clip on the driver's side sending it rolling over the far edge, down an embankment.
He didn't think. Didn't wait for his heart to stop hammering all the way up to the base of his skull. He rode the adrenaline wave right into rescue mode.
Even as he started to sprint across the road, Joey had his cell out and was dialing 911. The driver of the pickup seemed conscious, and other people were stopping. But Joey knew he'd seen a kid in a car seat in that minivan, and he had to get there now.
He spat out the information to the dispatcher. "Three car accident. I-10." He even knew what exit, since he'd been clocking them to try to make up time. "I don't know how many injuries. There's a child involved."
He reachedthe minivan, which was now back up on its wheels, windshield gone, driver's window gone, back and front ends crumpled like paper. The driver's door wouldn't open, and the side curtain airbags were blocking his view so he leaned in the window.
The kid was about two or three, not even screaming, just making weird gasping sounds. The woman--mother?--was in bad shape. Unconscious, unresponsive. She had a pulse and was breathing, which he reported to the dispatcher still on the line as he checked.
"Hey, little dude, how're you doing back there?"
The kid took a shuddering breath. "Mommy?"
"Mommy's going to be fine."
"Mommy?" The voice got a little shriller.
"Hey listen, dude, Mommy's asleep because she doesn't feel too good right now. We don't want to get too loud, okay?"
The kid stopped mid-whine. "Oh, okay. Like when she has a headache?"
"Just like that." Joey hoped he wasn't lying too much to the kid. Part of the car's front end had become part of her right leg. On the left one, a huge gash through her jeans was pouring blood. Not arterial bleeding, he was pretty sure. The first-aid videos were kind of graphic on that subject. Feet lifting off the grass as he leaned in, he reached over and grabbed a fistful of napkins from the center console. He slapped the wad over the gash and applied pressure.
With his hands full, the phone was slipping out from under his cheek. He warned the dispatcher, not wanting to add too much about the bleeding in front of the kid. "I'm applying pressure but at this angle, I'm going to end up dropping the phone."
He managed to turn his head and lock eyes with the kid. The boy was a lot calmer than Joey felt.
A giggle escaped the boy's exaggeratedly pursed-shut lips. "Cotton candy."
"How's that, dude?" The blood had soaked through all of the napkins. Joey pressed harder, reaching up to check the pulse.
"Your hair. Yellow cotton candy."
Yeah. The kid had a point. When he'd changed jobs and towns, he'd tried to get the purple bleached out of it. He'd had to cut most of it off, and it did kind of look like fluffy cotton candy. Blue or pink would have been much more fun.
"How do you think it tastes?" he asked.
The kid giggled again. "Yech. Like hair. Is the car okay?" A little worry in the voice. "'Cause Mommy says we can't have a new one. I wanned one with a DVD."
"It's going to be fine. Don't worry about it. What's your name, dude?"
"Seth." Of course, it came out like Sef. But Joey could speak lisp.
"Where were you guys headed?"
"Do you know Gramma's other name?"
Seth thought about it and then shook his head. "Just Gramma."
"Okay. Do you know your other name?"
"Seth Nathan Thatcher."
Sef Nafan Fatcher. That was just cruel. With a name like that, he'd be in speech therapy for life.
"How old are you, Seth Nathan Thatcher?"
Joey should have guessed. He wondered if he lived on Thirty-Third Street.
"Do you know Mommy's names?"
The little brow squinched up. Not even a cut on him. Thank God for child seats and side curtain airbags.
"She's Emily. That's what Gramma calls her."
Joey had never been so happy to hear sirens in his life. He could feel the blood soaking into his hand, even as he pressed.
"I want to be dude again."
"Okay. So, dude, you ready to meet some firemen and policemen?"
Flashing lights, sirens and caffeine were near the top of Aaron Chase's very short favorites list. All three gave him a rush that was almost as good as sex--which took up at least the top five on that list.
He'd just finished his fourth coffee of the day, and the sights and sounds of the accident on I-10 sent a buzz through his veins. He swung the ambulance off onto the shoulder in the spot the firemen and cops had left. As he scanned the scene, he could see that the first responders were divided into three separate clumps.
"Remember the bet," his partner Hennie said as she climbed to the back.
"One shift. No f-words," Aaron said. He could do it. Probably.
"Not even in your head."
"And how the f--how will you know?"
"Because I will." She gave him that I-was-a-teacher-for-twenty-years-and-I-have-eyes-in-the-back-of-my-head look.
A cop stepped away from the nearest bunch and came toward Aaron and Hennie as they unloaded their gear and a stretcher.
"Truck driver's got minor cuts and bruises. He's coming with us. His blood alcohol's point one eight. Lady in the Lexus is fine. Seat belt, air bag. A little shocky, firemen are handling it."
Hennie set up the tank and back-boarding gear as they lifted the stretcher down. "And the minivan?" She jerked her chin at the mangled pile of scrap.
"Can't tell 'til we cut her out. Firemen wanted to wait for you guys in case she flatlined. She's still out. Shallow pulse."
As they started down the side of the grassy slope, Aaron saw a distinctly civilian and--hey, being at the scene of an accident didn't mean he didn't still have eyes and a working dick--distinctly f--Christ--doable round ass sticking out of the driver's window.
Bonus. All his favorite things rolled into one.
"What the hell's going on?" he asked the cop.
"Witness. Said he's trained as a first responder. Been keeping pressure on a bad bleeder."
The cop shrugged. "He's doin' okay. Calm. Keepin' the kid calm too."
"Kid?" Hennie's reaction echoed Aaron's. Dispatch hadn't said anything about a kid. Hennie scrambled back up the slope for a smaller collar and board. The cop lifted the stretcher end she'd abandoned.
"He's three. Not even a scratch as far as we can see. Witness says the kid's coherent. I can't understand him."
"We'll still take him," Hennie said as she ran back. "They'll want to check him over."
The firemen standing near the driver's side had a couple of pieces of hydraulic equipment ready. Aaron walked up until he was standing next to that bubble butt. "Okay, Do-gooder. Whatcha got?"
"I've had steady pressure on it since I got here. It seems to be slowing. No change in breathing or pulse."
The cop was right. Do-gooder stayed calm. Matter-of-fact. Almost professional. And pretty--he bit his lip and swore he heard Hennie laugh--damned competent. "Why didn't you put on a pressure bandage?"
"Aside from having nothing but my shirt for it, I didn't think it was worth trying to lift her pinned leg to slide something underneath."
The little ... do-gooder was right. And Aaron was even more annoyed. Probably because as focused as his mind was on that woman and her possibly severed leg, his dick was all too aware of that ass a few inches away.
Do-gooder was singing some song with the kid, probably something Aaron's baby sister Sheree would know, especially if it was based on one of those damned Disney cartoons. Aaron had let her watch too many Disney videos at an impressionable age, all the singing animals encouraging a happily-ever-after mentality, even after the crap Sheree had seen growing up.
So maybe he'd screwed up there. Sue him. He'd kept her safe, alive and sane right on up to the age of eighteen. She'd have to learn there were no happy endings in this screwed-to-hell world on her own. Of course, swallowing all that someday-my-prince-will-come crap meant that she was always trying to fix him up with some guy she'd decided was gay. At least avoiding that crap was easier with her off to Tulane.
The firemen pried open the side door, and Hennie climbed in back to hold the woman's head in line. Aaron reached over the guy's back, a nice-looking back under a painted-on red T-shirt, to fasten the cervical collar around the woman's neck, while one of the firemen slid the board between the seat and her back. Aaron's dick twitched as his body made contact. As soon as this shift was over he was going to start looking for that ass in every bar in Jacksonville. Aaron glanced back at the little boy who was still lisping along with Mr. Hot Ass.
"Okay, Do-gooder, here's what going to happen. When I give the word, you're going to back away and leave those napkins there. Davey here"--Aaron nodded at the fireman--"is going to pry open the door and see if we can get her out. You can go wash up and disinfect at the truck."
The guy broke off his song to ask softly, "What about the kid?"
"What about him?"
"Don't you think you should take him out of here before..."
"Before you cut his mom out of the car?" It was a husky whisper, completely different from the light singing voice he'd been using.
Aaron pursed his lips. "Fine." If this was the worst thing the kid ever saw in his life, he'd be doing a hell of a lot better than the rest of the world. He turned his head and spoke to one of the cops who climbed in around Hennie and started unbuckling the kid from his car seat. No point to a collar, the kid had been shifting his head side-to-side as he sang along.
As soon as the cop started to lift the kid out of the seat, the kid screeched like a siren. Finally, the kid added some words to the ear-bleeding noise. "No, no, no. Cotton-candy dude."
"Um. That's me."
Aaron lifted his head and looked. He could see where the kid had gotten the idea. A ridiculous pile of lemon yellow fluff floated around the guy's head. Lucky he had that ass.
"Okay. Go wash up and see if you can get the kid to stop screaming."
"C'mon, dude. I've gotta wash my hands. You get a ride with the policeman." When Hot-Ass-Unfortunate-Hair spoke to the kid, his screams stopped.
Sometime between the firemen getting the engine off her leg and Aaron and Hennie splinting the compound fracture, Aaron heard a song he recognized. Somehow the unoccupied police and firemen had been conned into singing "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" to entertain the kid. Which must have taken some doing, considering it was mid-March.
They carried her up the slope and popped her into the ambulance. Aaron turned to where the Emergency Workers' Choir was performing from the back of the fire truck and said, "Let's go. We'll take him in."
The toddler shook his head and clung to his cotton-candy dude. Despite the hair, candy was a good enough label for him. Eye candy. Freckles across his nose, big brown eyes, dark lashes, cheekbones in a perfect symmetry almost too pretty for a guy, but a broad, strong jaw. Face and an ass like that, Aaron bet Do-gooder didn't spend many nights alone. And then those lips. Yeah, the hair was a mess, but it would be fine for yanking on when--Damn, the rest of that sentence would definitely violate the terms of the bet.
"Wanna go wif him."
"But your mommy's in here, honey," Hennie called from the back of the ambulance.
"She's sleeping 'cause she hurts. Want cotton-candy dude."
One of the cops offered to take him. Then a fireman. Aaron would have thought the lure of riding in a fire truck would be irresistible to a boy that age, but the kid kept shaking his head. Aaron was pretty immune to tantrums from either adults or kids. He was about to grab the kid when Eye-candy shifted the kid to his other hip and dug out his wallet.
"Here." He handed an ID to one of the cops. "I work for the Department of Families and Children."
Disgust coiled like a rat snake in Aaron's gut, followed by the familiar crush of panic and guilt. The panic and guilt were stupid, a reaction from fourteen years of conditioned response. The twins and Sheree were adults now--free to screw up their own lives without the system's "help". All Aaron needed to do these days was drop some occasional cash in their bank accounts until they made it through college.
The DFC couldn't touch them now, but it was all Aaron could do not to sneer at the social worker, f--hot ass or not. "Really?"
Do-gooder looked over at the cop. "I work with Carmen Hernandez a lot. You can check in with her, or dispatch."
The cops were only too glad to have someone on hand to spare them the paperwork and the blown eardrums if that kid started screaming again.
"I'll bring him to the hospital and work on finding some family members."
The cop handed back the ID with a smile. "Thanks, Joey."
Davey the fireman went so far as to clap Joey on the back. "We'll put the car seat in your car."
"That would be great. Thanks a lot."
"His mother's stabilized." Aaron didn't know why he felt like he should tell Joey that.
Joey smiled. It almost made Aaron want to smile back, and then he remembered. DFC.
Like Joey was Aaron's supervisor. Like he needed the validation. Friggin' social workers.
That fugly hair barely moved as Joey turned to the kid on his hip. "See, dude? Your mommy's going to be fine." He looked back at Aaron. "I guess I'll see you at the hospital."
"Maybe." It was only a second, but as Aaron locked eyes with--Christ, what grown man called himself Joey?--he could see everything. Awareness, recognition, want, heat. All laid out right there. Joey's eyes told Aaron that ass was his if he wanted it, and despite Joey's so-called profession, Aaron still did.
As Aaron swung up into the driver's seat, he glanced into the mirror. His pants shrank around his dick at the sight of that ass swinging as Joey walked back to the car. Though Aaron could admit the swagger was probably due more to the fact that Joey was walking with a hefty three-year-old on his hip than an effort to show off.