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Cristina Lewis walked into the florist's shop with a tiny bit of an attitude, which, at least according to those who knew her best, was nothing new. Whatever. She rarely wasted time thinking about her demeanor, or what people thought of it.
Probably not the best way to make friends, but she wasn't out to do so. Not in her world, where she was the lone female firefighter at station #34 in Santa Rey, California, a surfer-boy beach town. Her attitude was her shield, which she backed up by being good at what she did. The best, actually, and as a result, she was respected and trusted. And maybe a little feared, which worked, too.
Give her a burning building or a wrecked car threatening to explode any day of the week and she'd handle it. Unfortunately, today's task was picking out a Christmas bouquet for the new chief and his wife.
Cristina wasn't a Christmas person. Hell, she wasn't a people person, so the fact that she was the one in here while her crew waited outside on the rig was fairly ridiculous. "I know nothing about flowers," she warned the clerk who came around the front desk with a welcoming smile. "And even less about the whole ho-ho spirit, so we can skip the sales talk."
"Good. I hate the sales talk."
Okay, the woman was tough and had a sense of humor. Perfect. "Can you get me a Christmas bouquet and make it painless?"
"I'm an expert in painless." The clerk's professional smile never wavered. "For a boyfriend? Husband?"
Ha. Cristina didn't have a husband. She didn't have a boyfriend, either. The closest she'd come lately was her vibrator, but that had broken a few months back and she hadn't yet replaced it. As for a real live penis, that honor had all toobriefly belonged to an extremely laid-back, easygoing, sexy-as-hell EMT named Dustin Mauer, whom she'd had to dump through no particular fault of his ownother than that he possessed the most baffling ability to make her want things. Things she didn't want to want. Things like a happily ever after, which she'd never believed in.
"It's for the new boss's wife." She slapped the seventy-five bucks the crew had all pooled together onto the counter. "In the name of sucking up to the powers that be, apparently."
"Well, you came to the right place."
"Great." Cristina just wanted to do this and get out, maybe fight a blaze or rescue someone. Anything but this. She knew damn well she was in here only because she had the lone vagina on the squad. Any one of those guys out there would have done a better job on this and they all knew it, but they were too busy cackling like little girls over making Cristina do it.
From some hidden speaker came a soft medley of Christmas tunes, and when she looked around, her senses were assaulted with a myriad of scents and colors. Flowers, plants, crafty stuff, it was everywhere, like a nightmare, all in green and red and silver and gold. Festive chaos.
It made her feel dizzy, and just a little like a bull in a china shop.
"Make sure it looks pretty," came Blake's voice over the radio at her hip. The radio issued by the fire department, the one supposedly to be used for emergencies only.
Cristina sighed. At the moment she didn't care that Blake had had an incredibly rough year and that she loved him like the brother she'd never had, she snatched the radio off her hip and snarled, "You sent me in here, you'll deal with what I pick."
So she wasn't a fan of Christmas, so what. She had no family to speak of other than the one she'd made at the station, and therefore didn't have a lot of happy yuletide memories. To her, Christmas was just another day at the firehouse, albeit with better goodies to steal out of the fridge.
"Make sure it has some red flowers on it," came Blake's voice again. "She loves red flowers, apparently."
Like she cared what some higher-up's wife liked. The last chief had been a serial arsonist. In her eyes, the new chief still had to prove himself. "You'll like what I pick," she informed him with plenty of her famed attitude. "Even if it smells like sh"
"Wow, somebody really needs to get laid." There was laughter in his voice now.
Yeah, okay, so she did need that, desperately, but she'd done the stupid thing and dumped Dustin after one fantastic night of amazing sex, and now he refused to have additional amazing sex without "more," whatever the hell that meant.
Not that that was any of Blake's business.
The clerk cleared her throat and held up some sort of floral arrangement with what even Cristina had to admit was a gorgeous mix of red flowers and greenery, and a silver bow that managed not to look obnoxious. "Okay, you are good."
The clerk smiled. "Oh, I'm better than good. Do you want to take it with you or have it delivered?"
"Delivered, please." And while she pulled out the address she'd written down and waited for the woman to handle the paperwork, she eyed the store again. With her chore now completed, she could take a breath of relief and admit that maybe the place had a charm to it. It did smell damn good. She eyed the small tree on the counter, filled with tiny red envelopes. "What are those?"
"A present-in-an-envelope. Donate twenty-five bucks that will go to one of several local charities, and you get a surprise donated from a local businessa spa treatment or a dinner for two, things like that."
Cristina didn't know what came over her but she dug into her uniform pants and pulled out a twenty and a five. Scrooge, her ass.
"Pick an envelope, any one," the clerk told her cheerfully.
Cristina debated a moment, then grabbed one.
Feeling a little silly, she exited the shop. On the rig, Blake was on the radio with dispatch and waving to her to hurry up because they had a call.
As she hopped into the truck she read her card: Good for one night's stay at Santa Rey's most romantic getawaythe Sweet Pea B and B.
Terrific. There was only one man she'd want to spend the night there with, but Dustin wouldn't do it, not unless she gave him his damn "more." She stared at the card, rolled her eyes at the irony, then shoved it in her pocket and did as she did with everything that disturbed her. She brushed it aside and let it go.
Dustin Mauer drove his ambulance with easy purpose, as always. As an EMT, he knew the drill. Get to the scene as quickly as possible without risking anyone's life, assess the victims, get them the necessary medical care. He'd been doing just that for nearly ten years, since graduating from Cal Poly. It hadn't been his life goal to be an EMT, it'd been merely a means to an end, a decent paycheck with which to pay off his education debt while he and his brother Jason had gotten their renovation business up and running.
But then Jason had gone into the military and their business had become a sort of side deal, as in, they got to it when they got to it, and Dustin had gotten comfortable being an EMT. Plus he was excellent at it, and until a few months ago, had truly loved what he did every day.
Then he'd fallen for the stubborn, gorgeous Cristina Lewis and she'd dumped him, and he'd been restless ever since.
He pulled up to the multicar pileup on Hwy 1. James, his new partner, was talking to dispatch, but he could see what they faceda big rig had hit the center divider, caught fire and then two other cars had impacted it, sliding beneath the trailer. It was a chaotic mess, and all units had been called to the scene.
The firefighters from his station were already there. Blake was working the flames, and Zach and Aidan were using the jaws of life to extract the people trapped in the first car, while Sam and Eddie rescued the woman in the second car.
And then there was the stubborn, gorgeous heartbreaker, Cristina. She stood right in the center of it all, surrounded by the blazing big rig and the smashed cars, feet firmly planted wide as she held a hose on the flames. She was in her fire gear from head to toe, including mask, so he couldn't see her face, but he didn't need to. Her expression would be calm, intense, determined as she concentrated on the job at hand.
Much as it had been when she'd dumped him after the best night of his life.
As he watched, a burning chunk of debris flew off the truck toward Cristina's head. Heart in his throat, he shouted her name even as he realized the futility of thatshe couldn' t hear him over the ruckus all around them. But she didn't need his help. She easily leapt out of the way with a casual agility, as graceful as a cat, never letting up on the flames she was drowning.
Sam and Eddie brought over the four victims from the first car, and Dustin tore his eyes off Cristina to do his job.
She'd be okay.
Hell, she always was. Like a cat, he reminded himself, always landing on her feet.
A talent he'd have to learn
Unbelievably, he wrapped only a few minor scrapes and bruises, nothing serious, and then the woman from the second car was brought to them.
She didn't have any injuries at all. But as they sat there, her car exploded.
Dustin's head whipped back to the scene, his gaze anxiously searching for
There. Cristina was there, still standing in one piece and he took a deep breath.
"My God," the woman said in shock ten minutes later when the flames were out. "I can't believe we're all still alive. It's a miracle."
"Actually, it's good firefighting."
They turned to the petite but toned firefighter who'd come up behind them. Except Dustin. He didn't have to look. He knew the sound of her voice, knew the sensation that hit him every time she was within a few feet.
"You okay?" Cristina asked the woman, pulling off her helmet.
"Yes, thanks to you. You got there just in time, I don't know how to thank you."
"It's my job. I'm glad to help."
Dustin knew she meant that utterly sincerely. Much as he'd like it to be otherwise, Cristina was the job. She lived and breathed for it, and little else.
As he'd learned the hard way.
She had a streak of dirt over one jaw, another across her forehead. She had her silky, long blond hair tied back as usual, hanging down inside the stiff collar of her protective jacket, though several strands were stuck to her damp, dirty forehead. She was a mess, and still drop-dead gorgeous.
Firefighter Barbie, her partner Blake had once dared joke.
Cristina had been so furious she'd tongue-lashed him for a week. Poor BlakeEeyore to those who knew and loved him had never made that mistake again.
To Dustin, Cristina was much more kick-ass warrior princess than Barbie, but he valued his life enough to keep that particular fantasy to himself.
"You really should take a ride to the hospital," he said to the woman they'd rescued. "Just to make sure."
"No, that's not necessary. I've called my fiancé, he's on his way." She whipped around as a man came running up to the rig, shouting her name hoarsely, in stark relief. The two of them hugged tightly. Dustin watched, trying to remain impartial, but he was a sorry sap, and these sorts of reunions got to him every single time.
"Are you okay?" the man demanded, pulling back to look the woman over for himself.
"Thank God." He hugged her tight. "You are my entire life, you know that, right? If something happened to you"
"I'm okay. I'm right here." She hugged him as though she never intended to let go, her eyes closed as she breathed him in as if he were her very essence. "I love you so much."
Dustin had seen such scenes dozens of times. Hundreds. It still got him. He looked at Cristina, who'd already turned away.
Typical. She was uncomfortable with public displays of affection or love. "Cristina."
"Gotta go," she said.
He followed her off to the side, away from the victim and her fiancé. "Right. Because messy emotions disturb you."
She went still, then turned and looked at him. Things were winding down behind them now. Several cops were taking statements and the tow-truck operators were working on hooking up all the disabled vehicles to pull them off the highway.
"Look," she said defensively. "It was just one night."
"And you had such a bad time that you can't bear to repeat it?"
She sighed. "Don't make me hurt your manly feelings, Dustin."
At that, he out-and-out laughed. There was nothing else he could do. "Are you going to tell me it wasn't good for you?"
Now she opened her mouth, then slowly shut it again. He arched a brow, waiting, knowing damn well she'd had a great night, too.
She rolled her eyes and took a step closer to him, so that their steel-toed boots were touching as she stabbed a finger into his chest. "Okay, so I came once or twice. Big deal, it'd been awhile and I was primed. It doesn't mean that I'd like to repeat the event. I can do that myself."
"Three times," he said much more tightly than he wanted to. He knew better than to take her bait and say anything, but when it came to her, The Most Irritating Woman on the Planet, he couldn't seem to help himself. "You came two times before, and then again when I was inside you. Can you give yourself that?"
He wasn't surprised when she spun on her heel and walked away.
A few minutes later, Blake clasped a hand on his shoulder, having come up behind him. "Not the smartest move, man, poking at the bear. You're going to get bitten."
Yeah. Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.
Things didn't go any easier that night for Cristina, who, along with her crew, worked in twenty-four-hour shifts, three days on, two days off. They were going to need both days off to recover after the three fire calls in quick succession between midnight and dawn. It was still dark when Cristina finally made it back to the station, exhausted, filthy and starving.
None of those things were new. It seemed that she spent most of her shifts in some variance of exhausted, filthy and starving. It was a way of life. Her life.
Normally she yelled "Shotgun" for the shower before anyone even got off the rig, but today she let the guys go ahead of her because she felt wiped.
The station was a comfortable, old, two-story brick building, decorated at the moment with Christmas ornaments made by various elementary schools in town, plus several small trees and what must have been an entire bush of mistletoe.