The Fireman Who Loved Me (The Bachelor Firemen Of San Gabriel #1)(13)

By: Jennifer Bernard

“I’ll just have to try to persuade him,” cooed Ella in a tone that made Melissa want to wring her neck.

“Sure, I bet he’d talk to you. You’re even more beautiful in person, and you’re the hottest anchor on TV.”

Nelly gave a dry little cough. “I’m awfully thirsty.”

“Oh sure, ma’am, my bad. I get kinda carried away sometimes. I’ll show you more about the rigs later. Come on and meet the others!”

They followed him down a narrow hall, then turned left toward a large common room.

“That’s the training room up ahead,” said Stud. “At least that’s what it’s called officially. We call it the TV room. Workout room’s around the corner. This is where we sleep during our shifts. We work twenty-four hours on, twenty-four hours off, twenty-four on, then get four days off. Sometimes it feels like we live here. ”

Looking back over her shoulder, Melissa saw a series of small, cell-like rooms with beds. Did Brody sleep in one of those? The thought made her shiver.

The training room contained comfortable couches, armchairs, and an enormous TV set mounted on the wall. It gave on to a large kitchen with a long table lined with two benches. Several firemen were kicking back watching a football game—what else? thought Melissa. One man stood at the stove, cooking, and another was busy laying out paper plates and handing out sodas.

The excitable Stud burst out talking as soon as he stepped into the room. “Look who came to dinner, guys!”

A roomful of heads turned and then snapped in a general double take. The firemen who were sitting down leaped to their feet. Everyone gaped at the fiery beacon of Ella. She was red meat before a pack of hungry dogs, a red flag before a herd of bulls. It wasn’t just the fact that Ella was a semi-celebrity, thought Melissa, watching the scene. It was the way she’d dressed, like a cartoon figure of lust, created to appeal to the most primitive part of the male brain.

“Ella Joy! . . . From Channel Six . . . We watch you every night . . . The Sexy Side of the News! . . . You are the bomb . . . You read the news better than anybody . . . Can’t you get rid of that jerk who’s always talking over you . . . It’s Ella Joy, dude! Right here, in our station! Wait’ll the 5s hear about this.”

Ella Joy stood laughing, soaking it in like a hummingbird feeding on sugar water. This was the kind of moment she lived for, and she looked so delighted, Melissa didn’t begrudge it to her at all. Nelly, on the other hand . . . Nelly quivered with fury, muttering a word Melissa sincerely hoped was not “tramp.”

She scanned the group with superhuman speed, her heart racing.

No Brody. Disappointment formed a hard lump in her throat. So maybe she had been counting on seeing him here. It was better this way. She could concentrate on her secret mission of getting the Bachelor Firemen to come on the news. As soon as the noise died down a bit, she broke in. “Hi everyone, it’s so nice of you to invite us. This is Nelly McGuire and I’m her granddaughter, Melissa. Is Ryan Blake here?”

“Hoagie! Get your butt out here!”

A vision stepped out of the kitchen. Melissa went actually, literally breathless as he ambled with a loose-hipped, relaxed stride toward them. Those eyes . . . bluer than a sunny summer sky . . . those perfect features . . . that sexy walk. It felt as if time had stopped . . . as if the world slowed down to admire him as he passed. Dazed, Melissa watched him make his way along the benches, and suddenly she felt deep sympathy for Fred. If she had a hose, it would have slipped right through her fingers. The closer he got to them, the more breathtaking he looked, and when he finally stood before them, Melissa could have sworn she heard a chorus of heavenly angels crooning overhead. But wasn’t she supposed to be mad at Ryan, who had refused to show up for his date with Nelly?

Ryan took Nelly’s hand in both of his. “I’m so pleased to meet you, Miz McGuire, and I want to say how sorry I am about the other night. I just hope I can make it up to you tonight with some home cooking.”

“Well, aren’t you the sweetest thing. As a matter of fact, I was feeling sickly myself that night.”

“The captain told me. Is this your beautiful granddaughter?” His summer-blue eyes smiled into Melissa’s.

That did it. She was going to faint at this gorgeous man’s feet. She opened her mouth, hoping something would come out, anything, but it took Nelly’s fierce hand squeeze to get the words flowing.

“Hi, I’m Melissa.” And that was the end of the flow.

“So you’re the granddaughter.” He cocked his head at her, a speculative look in his eye. Her mind raced. What had he heard about her? Had Brody said something? What? And how could she find out?

Ryan turned back to Nelly. “Would you like something to drink, Mrs. McGuire?”

“A glass of water,” she said firmly, with a venomous glance toward Fred, who was lost in the crowd around Ella Joy.

“Coming right up. Why don’t you come sit down over here.” He led Nelly and Melissa to a place on the bench that had obviously been prepared specially for Nelly, with a dusty-looking cushion and a bouquet of daisies in a plastic cup.

“My, you boys think of everything. I hope you’re going to sit here next to us.”

“Of course I will. You tell your granddaughter to save me a seat.” Ryan winked at Melissa. “I’m going to go finish up this stew. You like lamb stew, Miz Nelly?”

“I’m sure it’ll be just wonderful.” Nelly patted his hand. As soon as he was gone, she turned on Melissa.

“Melissa, you’re embarrassing me,” she hissed.

“I know. I’ll be okay, I promise. He just . . . took me by surprise.”

“Didn’t I tell you he was something else? Look at Miss Trampy-Pants. She wants all the boys to herself.”

Melissa glanced over at the anchor, who was surrounded by eager firemen. The mob included a big fellow with a belly, Fred the Stud, several men in their twenties and thirties. They were all fit, rugged, muscular guys (except for the big-bellied one), and attractive as hell. But Melissa had to admit, Ryan was in a class by himself.

“I’m going to make sure Ryan stays right next to me.” Nelly cackled. “I’ll turn the fire hose on Ella if I have to. I bet you’re sorry now that he was sick.”

Surprisingly, “sorry” didn’t come to mind. Ryan was gorgeous, but she couldn’t imagine feeling comfortable with him. Not the way she had with Brody. Even though she’d yelled at Brody and he’d yelled back, there still had been a feeling of ease with him. Maybe that was why, come to think of it. He hadn’t backed down, and he hadn’t gotten offended. She hadn’t worried about what to say, clearly. And as much as she admired Ryan’s appearance, somehow she had no interest in being kissed by him. When he’d taken her arm to guide her to the bench, she hadn’t felt a flicker of that electric jolt she’d felt with Brody.

Where was Captain Brody? He must have known about this dinner—captains knew that sort of thing, didn’t they? She wondered if he was avoiding her. Fine. She’d just have to enjoy herself with Bachelor Number One.

When Ryan returned, Melissa gave him a beaming smile. He handed them blue plastic cups filled with water, and then sat down, swinging one leg over the bench so he straddled it. Melissa searched for a topic of conversation. It was time to prove she knew how to speak words in a coherent sequence.

“So Fred was saying this is one of the most sought-after fire stations . . . do you like working here?”

Bingo. Ryan’s face lit up. “Love it. We work hard but we have fun too. We play jokes on each other. A couple weeks ago we put Double D’s boots in the freezer, you shoulda seen his face when he stepped into ’em. He jumped around like his socks were on fire. All kinds of shit like that. Cap doesn’t mind, he says it’s good for morale. He says when you’re dealing with life-and-death situations, you have to let out the pressure somehow or other.”

“I know exactly what you mean,” said Melissa. “It’s the same way in the newsroom. Once we moved our anchor’s clock forward, so when he came back from dinner he thought he’d missed the news.”

Ryan threw his head back and laughed. In a dispassionate way, Melissa admired the strong, clean line of his throat. “Good one. I like that. Reminds me of when we sent Vader out for takeout, and when he got back we were all gone. Hiding behind the station, but he didn’t know that. He thought it was invasion of the body snatchers.”

Nelly chimed in and told a story about an April Fool’s prank she had once pulled on her husband, Leon. Before long, the three of them were happily exchanging stories, and Melissa felt as though she’d found a long-lost brother. She even felt comfortable enough to bring up Loudon’s favorite topic.

“So I heard you guys are called the Bachelor Firemen of San Gabriel. What’s that all about?”

For the first time, Ryan looked uncomfortable. The man they called Double D leaned over. “Look around you. All these young studs? Single. I’m the only married one here. Me and a guy on the C shift. Everyone else is ready, willing, and available.” He winked.

“The captain hates it when people talk about it. But it’s true,” said Ryan. “We don’t have a lot of married guys. Cap was, but not anymore.”