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Brooke was a virgin. Not in the classic sense of the wordthat status had changed on her seventeenth Halloween night when she'd dressed as an evil, slutty witch and given in to a very naughty knight in shining armor but that was another story.
She was a California virgin, but as she drove up the coast for the first time and into the small town of Santa Rey, she lost that cherry, as well.
Santa Rey was a classic West Coast beach town, mixing the best elements of Mexico and Mediterranean architecture, all within steps of the beach shimmering brilliantly on her left. There were outdoor cafés, shops and art galleries, skateboarders and old ladies vying for the sidewalks with surfers and snotty tourists, and if she hadn't been so nervous, she might have taken the time to enjoy it all more.
She took a last glance at her quickly scrawled directions, following them to Firehouse 34. Parking, she peered through her windshield at the place, nerves wriggling like pole dancers in her belly.
A new job as a temp EMTemergency medical technician.
One would think that after all the moves and all the fresh starts she'd made in her lifetime that new would be old hat to her by now, but truthfully she'd never quite gotten the hang of it.
The Pacific Ocean pounded the surf behind her as she got out of her car. The hot, salty June air brushed across her face as her nerves continued to dance. What was it her mother had said every time she'd uprooted them to follow yet another get-rich-quick scheme or new boyfriend or some other ridiculous notion?
It will be okay. You'll see.
And though her mother had been wrong about so many things, somehow it really had always been okay. Today would be no different. The azure sky held a single white puffy cloud hanging high over a dreamy sea dotted with whitecaps and a handful of sailboats. Three-foot waves hit the sand, splashing the pelicans fishing for their morning meal. Nice
if she had to make yet another new start, this didn't seem like such a bad way to go.
Hitching her bag up on her shoulder, Brooke started toward the station, a two-story brick-red structure with white trim and a yard filled with grass and wildflowers swaying in the breeze.
In the huge opened garage sat three fire trucks and an ambulance. One wall was lined with equipment such as hoses and ladders.
Surfboards leaned against the outside of the building. Oak trees dotted the edge of the property, and between the two largest, near the path to the front door, a man swung on a large hammock.
A man with broad shoulders, long legs and the unmistakable build of an athlete. His boots lay on the grass beneath him, as well as a discarded button-down shirt, leaving him in blue uniform pants slid just low enough on his hips to reveal a strip of black BVDs. His white T-shirt invited the general public to bite him. He had his hands clasped behind his head, and a large straw hat covered his face. His stillness suggested he was deeply asleep.
She slowed to a tiptoe, trying not to stare but failing. She was petite, and therefore constantly had to prove to people how strong she could be, but she'd bet he'd never had to prove anything; even from his prone position, he radiated strength and confidence. Of course that long, tough body didn't hurt, with all that aesthetically pleasing sinew defined even as he snoozed.
She envied the nap. She couldn't remember the last time she'd taken one. Or the last time she'd taken a moment to just lie on a hammock and soak up the sun.
Or even just to breathe, for that matter.
A lot of that came from being raised by a wild child of a mother, with little to no stability or security. And though Brooke had been on her own since high school, things hadn't changed much. She'd followed suit, living how she knew, moving around, bouncing from junior college to undergrad to working as an EMT, all in different cities. Hell, different states. Some habits died hard.
But she'd never landed in California before. She'd come to deal with her grandmother's estate, which included a great big old house and no cash to take care of the mortgage. Wasn't that just like an O'Brien.
It left Brooke with no choice but to sell the place off before it dragged her down in debt. Except she had to pack up some sixty-plus years of living first. And hell, maybe while the house was on the market, she could learn more about the grandma she'd never known.
In the meantime, she needed money for the immedi-ateslike, say, eatingand the temp EMT position was for six weeks.
At least on the outside looking in, which was pretty much how she lived her life. Someday she'd like to change that. Someday she'd like to find her niche.
Find where she really belonged
But for now, or at least the next six weeks, she belonged here. As she moved past the dozing firefighter, the sea breeze stirred her hair and tickled her nose. Then another gust of wind hit, knocking her back a step, and still the occupant of the hammock didn't move, breathing slow and deep, his chest rising and falling in rhythm. She kept tiptoeing past him, then pretty much undid all her careful stealth by sneezing. And not a dainty-girl sneeze, either.
The long body stirred, and so did something deep within her, which was so odd as to be almost unrecognizable.
Huh. It'd been a while since she'd felt such instant heat for a guy, especially one whose face she hadn't even seen yet.
His hand reached up to tip off his hat, revealing short, sun-streaked brown hair. When he turned his head in her direction, she caught a quick flash of a face that definitely matched the body, and more of that stirring occurred. He'd been blessed by the gene-pool angels, and freezing on the spot, Brooke watched as two light green eyes focused, then offered a lazy smile. "Bless you," he said.
He had a voice to go with the rest of himlow, deep and melodic. Uh-oh. Lots more stirring and a rise of instantaneous heat, because, good Lord, if she'd thought him virile with his eyes closed, she needed a respirator to look at him now. "Sorry to wake you."
"No worries. I'm used to it. Besides, you're a much prettier sight than anything I was dreaming about."
They were just words but they brought a little zing to her good spots. Good spots she'd nearly let rust. Whew. Suddenly, she was actually beginning to sweat. If someone had asked her before this moment if she believed in lust at first sight, she'd have laughed. No, she needed more than hot sexiness in a guy, always had.
But she wasn't laughing now.
Wanting to hear him talk some more, she asked, "What were you dreaming about?"
"We responded to a fire last night and lost a kid."
Some of that overwhelming lust relegated itself to the background of her brain, replaced by something far more real to her than mere physical attraction. Empathy. She'd lost people, too, and it never stopped hurting. "I'm so sorry."
"Yeah. Me, too." Shifting his muscular, athletic body in the hammock so that he lay on his side facing her, he propped his head on his hand. "So let me guess. You're the latest EMT."
"Yes. Brooke O'Brien."
"Hi, Zach Thomas."
His eyes warmed to a simmer, and a matching heat came from deep in her belly. Holy smokes, could he see the steam escaping from her pores? It was so strange, her immediate reaction to him. Strange and unsettling. "What do you mean latest?"
"They've sent us six EMTs so far." He smiled without much mirth. "No, seven. Yeah, you're the seventh."
Okay, that didn't sound promising. "What's wrong with the job?"
"Besides crazy twelve-hour shifts for the glory of low pay and little or no recognition?" He let out a low laugh, and she found that the butterflies in her belly were dancing to a new tune now. Not nerves, but something far earthier.
"No one mentioned that I'm the seventh temp, or that they'd had any problem filling the position."
"Did I scare you off?"
"Did you want to?"
He lifted a shoulder, not breaking eye contact. "If you scare easily, then it'd be nice to know now."
A challenge, and more of that shocking, undeniable sexual zing.
Did he feel it? "I don't scare at all."
At that, something new came into his gaze. Approval, which she didn't need, to go along with that undeniable awareness of her as a woman.
She didn't need that, either, but damn, it was good to know she wasn't alone in this. Whatever this was. Since she wasn't ready to put a finger on it, she forced herself to stop looking at him. "I don't actually officially start until tomorrow, but the chief suggested that I come by, check the place out." And, she supposed, meet the crew, who, it sounded like, were tired of meeting people who didn't stick.
But she'd stick. At least for the six weeks she'd been hired for, because if she was anything, it was reliable.
"Would you like the tour?"
Yes, please, of your body. "No, don't get up," she said quickly when he started to do just that. "Really. I'll manage."
"Door's unlocked," he said, watching her, gaze steady.
"Great. I'll just
" Try to stop staring at you. Jeez, it'd been too long since she'd had sex. Waaaay too long. "Nice meeting you."
"How about I say the same if you're at work tomorrow?"
"I'll be here." She might be nearly drunk with lust but she knew that much. She would be there.
"Hope so." His light eyes held hers for another beat, and more uncomfortable little zings of heat ping-ponged through her.
Whew. Any more of this and she was going to need another application of deodorant this morning. "I will," she insisted. "I always follow through." She just didn't always grow roots. Okay, she never grew roots. Turning away, she let out a long breath and, hopefully, some of the sexual tension with it, and headed toward the door, which stood ajar. "Hello?"
Utter silence, broken only by a gurgling sound. The front room looked like a grown-up version of a frat house, not quite as neat and organized as the garage, but clean. There were two long comfy-looking sofas and several cushy chairs in beach colors that were well lived in. Shelves lined one wall, piled and stacked with a wide assortment of books, magazines and DVDs. On the floor sat a huge basket filled with flip-flops and bottles of suntan lotion. Another wall was lined with hooks, from which hung individual firefighter gear bags.
She could see the kitchen off to the right and a hallway to the left, but still no sign of life, which was oddthey couldn't all be off on calls, not with the rigs still out front. "Hello?"
With a shrug, she headed toward the gurgling sound, which took her into the kitchen, and a coffeemaker, making away. "Who'd want coffee on a hot day?" she asked herself.
"A crew who's been up all night."
Turning around, she faced sexy firefighter Zach Thomas, and as potent as he'd been lying down, his hotness factor shot up exponentially now that he was standing, even with bed-heador hammock-head which was good news for him
and bad news for her.
Letting out a huge yawn, he covered his mouth, then grimaced. "Sorry."
He looked good even when yawning. She was so screwed. "Don't be."
He set down his boots and shirt and stretched. His T-shirt rose, giving her a quick peek at a set of lickable abs. He ran a hand over his hair, which only encouraged the short strands to riot in an effortlessly sexy way that might have been amusing if she hadn't been in danger of drooling.
She'd never been one to lose it for a guy in uniform, so she had no idea why now was any different, but oh my.
"We had seven calls last night," he explained. "Fires, an explosion in the sugar factory, a toxic-waste spill at the gas station on Fifth. You name it, we were at it, all night. None of us got more than an hour." Again he ran his hand over his already-standing-on-end hair. "We're wiped. Everyone's sleeping."
Beneath all that gorgeousness, true exhaustion lined his face, and suddenly Brooke saw him as a flesh-and-blood man. "I'm sorry I woke you. Especially after such a rough night."
He lifted another shoulder, not anywhere close to how irritated and frustrated she'd be if she'd had only an hour of sleep. "That's the way this job works. You wanted to meet the crew?"
"I'll come back."
"You want coffee first?"
She opened her mouth to say no thanks, but then she saw it in his gaze. His guard coming up. Here he was, overworked, the place obviously short-staffed, and in his eyes, she was just one in a long line of people that had flaked. That would flake. "You know, coffee would be great."
He turned to the cupboards while she took in the kitchen. The table was huge, with at least twelve chairs scattered around it. On the counter ran a line of mugs the length of the tile. "How many of you are stationed here?"
"We're on three rotating shifts, with only six firefighters and two EMTs each, which makes us
twenty-four? Down from thirty, thanks to some nasty cutbacks."
A medium-size station, then, but huge compared to the private ambulance company she'd last worked for, where there'd been only four on at all times.
She'd have to be far more social here than she was used to. The firefighters worked twenty-four-hour shifts to the EMTs' twelve, but it was still a lot of time together. She told herself that was a bonus, but really it just drove home that, once again, she was the new kid in class.
Zach eased over to the coffeepot. "Black, or jacked up?"
"Jacked up, please."
He reached for the sugar. Without her permission, her eyes took themselves on a little tour, starting with those wide shoulders, that long, rangy torso, and a set of buns that
He turned and, oh perfect, caught her staring. At his butt.
Arching a brow, he leaned back against the counter while she did her best imitation of a ceiling tile.