Read an Excerpt
"Rise and shine, Dillon. Time to get up and get dressed for school. Regular oatmeal or cream of wheat?" Aisha Miller stood in the doorway of her ten-year-old son's Spider-Man-decorated room and started their morning ritual. She knew that she would probably have to make at least one more trip back there before he dragged himself from bed.
He made an indistinguishable groaning sound, but he didn't move.
"Dillon, don't make me have to come in there. Get up. We don't want to be late. I'm going to start the oatmeal. By the time it's done and I come back here again, you better be washed up and getting dressed. Your clothes are on the chair."
He made another groaning sound. But this time he moved and sat up, pulling the Spider-Man sheets from over his head. "Cap'n Crunch," he uttered before flopping back down.
Instead of the bargaining-for-more-time-to-sleep battle he was starting with the bargaining-for-sweets-to-eat battle. Aisha grinned. Her son certainly kept her on her toes.
"Cream of wheat," she countered.
He got up from bed and did a slow-dragging walk to the bathroom. "Corn Pops."
"Umm… no… Oatmeal or cream of wheat?
He gave a resigned sigh. "Cream of wheat."
"Okay, get washed up and dressed. We need to be out the door before seven-thirty. I'm taking my morning class on a trip to the fire station today and I need to get to school a little early in order to handle some paperwork. Paperwork that needs to be turned in to Principal Gibson today. So stop dragging those little feet and let's get rolling."
He groaned again and half dragged on down the hall. She couldn't help but chuckle. He reminded her so much of herself when she was a kid. She'd never liked getting up in the morning for school and always tried to negotiate with her mother for an extra five minutes. In fact, if she didn't have to get both herself and Dillon ready, she would have hit the snooze button a few times and would just be crawling out of bed herself.
When she got the cream of wheat going she took a trip back down the hall and saw that Dillon had made it to the living room and was watching morning cartoons while he put on his clothing. Really, he was staring at the screen and punctuating the long stretches of viewing by placing one item of clothing on his body at a time. At the rate he was going, he'd be dressed by the time the afternoon talk shows came on.
She walked over and turned off the television. "This is why you don't have a television in your bedroom, Dillon. And what did I tell you about coming in here and turning on the television before you get dressed? If you got up on time and got dressed quickly, you'd have a couple of minutes to catch some cartoons before it was time to go."
"Don't aww mom me. Hurry up before your breakfast gets cold."
Dillon moved considerably faster without the distraction of the television and soon he was fed and they were out the door, in the car and on their way.
"I have the coolest idea, Mom." Dillon literally bounced with excitement in the passenger seat.
"Really, I can't wait to hear it. What's your cool idea?"
"You can write my teacher a note and take me to the fire station with your class today. That would be so cool. I've never been to a real fire station. I wonder if they'd let me slide down the pole?"
"I can tell you the answer to that. They wouldn't because you won't be going to the fire station. You can't miss class to go on someone else's trip. And you wouldn't want to hang out with my little darling kindergartners."
Dillon got a pensive expression on his face as if he was considering the merits of getting out of school versus spending the morning with kindergartners. He frowned. "Well, it seemed like it might have been a cool idea. But now that I think about it…"
"Mmm-hmm…" She pulled into the parking lot. Before getting out she leaned over and offered her cheek to her son. He had reached the age where any public displays of affection from Mom would embarrass him to no end. So she always made sure to get her sugar before they got out of the car.
Dillon offered only one "Awww, Mom" before giving her a quick peck on the cheek and dashing out of the car to the school building.
She got out, grabbed her bags and supplies and followed closely behind. "And you stop that running once you get in the building. You don't want Principal Gibson to give you detention."
"Okay, Mom." Dillon slowed his pace when he reached the big blue doors of Public School #21. He pulled the door open and held it for her as she walked in.
"Thank you, sweetie."
"M-ooo-m. No 'sweetie' in school—somebody might hear you."
She laughed. "Keep it up and I'm going to give to give you a big hug in front of all your friends."
She watched her son walk up to the second floor of the building for his before-school math tutoring. Ms. McCloud was kind enough to see him before school to help him with his math.
The building was still somewhat quiet. But soon it would be bustling with the sounds of children learning and playing. PS #21 was a kindergarten through eighth grade elementary school in the heart of Paterson, New Jersey, on Tenth Avenue. She'd been lucky to get a job teaching in the same school district in which she lived, at the school closest to her home and the one her son attended. Dillon probably didn't think so, but it worked for her.
Once she'd finished her paperwork and returned from the principal's office, her teacher's assistant, Toni, had arrived.
Aisha smiled. "Well, well, look who's on time today."
Toni grinned and waved her off. "Girl, please, of course I'm on time today. I can't wait to take these little rug rats to the fire station. My future husband might be waiting for me as we speak. I can't keep my hunky fireman husband-to-be waiting. How do I look?" Toni did a little spin and showed off her latest trendy outfit. The bold splash of orange and purple in the blouse refused to be outdone by the orange skirt, dark plum tights and purple patent-leather boots. But with Toni's wild personality the outfit worked.
Aisha knew she could never pull off something like that—not that she would have any desire to. Just give her a pair of neutral slacks and a nice sweater twinset any day. Maybe some gold jewelry.
"You look… nice…" Aisha started. Toni really did look nice—not Aisha's personal taste, but nice nonetheless.
Toni cut her eyes. "You don't like the outfit. I can tell. But my future fireman husband is going to be all on it. You watch and see. Plus, everyone can't pull off prissy-priss-chic like you. Some of us need flair."
"Prissy-priss?" Aisha feigned indignation. "That's Ms. Priss, thank you very much. I can't help it if I'm a little more reserved.…"
"Ummm… Reserved isn't going to snag you one of those hot firemen. You'll see. Watch me work it, girl." Toni did a little spin and shook her head so that the blunt edges of her stylish haircut moved with sassy precision.
Aisha just laughed. She wasn't looking for a hot, sexy fireman as a future husband, boyfriend or anything else. The only man she had time for in her life was ten years old and upstairs being tutored in math. Being Dillon's mom and being the best kindergarten teacher she could be was more than enough for her.
One by one the students started showing up, and soon she had an entire classroom full of kiddies. After a brief morning lesson, they'd take the six-block walk to Fire Station No. 5 and get a tour and a lesson in fire safety.
Aisha grinned in anticipation. She liked taking class trips almost as much as the kids did. She couldn't wait.
Patrick Hightower eyed his squad as they lined up in the apparatus room for roll call. Of the five men on duty on any given shift, his position as fire captain never changed.
He was the officer in charge.
He took note of his men. All of them were present and accounted for, uniformed and ready to roll at the sound of an alarm. Reggie Smith, the rookie, was there and Patrick had a special assignment for him today. They had a group of kindergartners coming through later, and the rookie could give them a tour.
"Jones, you're the driver today." Patrick went down his list. "Carter, you're position three. Stone, you're position four. And Smith, you're position five, waterman and general helper."
"No big surprise there," Reggie grumbled.
"Awww…the rookie's getting tired of playing his position." Lennie Stone playfully ribbed Reggie.
The other men laughed, and Patrick was tempted to join them. But he had one more surprise for the rookie. Holding back his own grin, he added, "And we have a tour today. So you can show us what you know, rookie, by leading the tour and giving a presentation to the group of kindergarteners we have coming in."
"Kindergartners?" A look of horror crossed Reggie's face. "Couldn't my first time leading a tour be with some older kids? The small ones scare me." Reggie offered a fake shiver.
"Hey, if you can face a fire you can face some five-year-olds," Patrick said.
"I don't know. I think I'd take my chances with the fire anytime." Bryan Carter winked, shaking his head in mock sympathy.
Patrick went over the rest of the schedule for the day, knowing that one call would set his entire carefully planned schedule off for the day. Once he set out the schedule, the men went about checking the fire engine and equipment to make sure that everything was fully operational.
There were two other firefighters who were also certified first-responder and emergency medical technicians on this shift besides himself, and Patrick knew that the men would also check the medical equipment and verify that all medications were there.
Patrick went back to his office/bedroom to log personnel and equipment on to the computer and wrap up a few other administrative ends.
The room that he spent more time in than he spent in his own bedroom at home housed a desk, a twin bed, a couple of chairs, a computer and printer. The décor probably left a lot to be desired for most folks. The beige-and-brown comforter on the bed and the cream plaid chairs didn't exactly scream high-end. But it was sufficient for the work he needed to get done.
His cell phone started ringing and he glanced at the caller ID before answering.
"Yes, Aunt Sophie?"
"How's my favorite nephew this morning?" Her voice was way too pleasant for the time of morning and for her demeanor in general.
Something was up. She was that pleasant only when she was trying to hook him up with some woman she thought would be perfect for him.
Been there, done that and got the divorce papers to prove it.
There was no way he was going to allow her to reel him in and hook him up. Plus, if he weren't at work it would be too early for his aunt to be calling him anyway. She must be trying to catch him when he was sleepy and groggy and liable to agree to anything.
"I'm fine, Aunt Sophie. But I'm at work and I can't talk now. I need to run the guys through a drill and we have to handle chores at the station before a group of kids come through for a tour in a few." He almost felt guilty rushing her off the phone. Almost. "So how about I give you a call later this week? In fact, I'll try and make time to take my favorite aunt out to lunch. Okay? I really have to go now."
"Well… okay… I guess I can run some things by you over lunch. I just think you've been single too long and it's time for you to just—"
"Yeah, this is definitely a lunchtime conversation." Not. "I'll give you a call later this week and we can set up a time. Love you, Aunt Sophie. I'll talk with you later. Bye-bye."
"Well…fine…bye, Patrick. We will talk later—I have some ideas. I'm concerned about your happiness. I don't think you've ever gotten over Courtney. And—"
"Sorry, gotta run, Aunt Sophie. I'll call you. Bye."
Yeah, he had to cut her off before she went there. Bringing up the ex-wife was a good enough reason for the dial tone. Sophie was lucky he had respect for his elders. He hung up the phone. The last thing he needed this early in the morning was a reminder of the biggest mistake of his life.
Shaking his head, he got up and started the drill exercise for the morning. They had just enough time to run through it before the kiddies came through.
People had these outrageous images of firemen just sitting around the firehouse playing cards and dominoes and waiting for the alarm to ring. Those images went out with Ward and Beaver. Today's firemen were constantly learning and growing on the job, with multiple drills performed daily, as well as video training and lectures. They also had to clean the firehouse, cook and perform community outreach by going to schools and offering tours to students. The job was multifaceted and he loved that part of it, almost as much as he loved running into a blaze and saving lives.
He put the team through a drill of working the hose while on the ladder. And soon the little ones were coming through the door. He fully intended to greet them and then get the heck out of Dodge.
"Welcome to Fire Station No. 5, girls and boys. My name is Fire Captain Patrick Hightower." He paused and gave them a chance to settle down a little. They were clearly hyped from the walk over, and some of them seemed literally ready to bounce off the walls. He scanned the crowd of munchkins, then sought out their teacher.
Good, he thought; there are two of them. They should be able to keep the kids corralled. His eyes skimmed right over the young woman with the weird boots, even though she did look familiar.