Bradley Griffin closed his locker at the
firehouse and breathed a sigh of relief that his stress-filled twenty-four hour
shift was finally over. After picking up his duffel bag, he waved goodbye to
the guys polishing the pristine red ladder truck. He hoped their shift would be
quieter than his had been, but he doubted it.
Unfortunately the Christmas season always
proved busy for firefighters. Fires and emergencies were always difficult, but
they just seemed much more so to him at this time of year, when good cheer was
supposed to prevail. In his mind’s eye he could still see the soot and
tear-streaked faces of the family whose house had burned last night. The
parents and two young children had made it out alive, thank God, but their home
and all their belongings, including the Christmas presents they’d stacked under
the tree, were lost, leaving them with nothing except each other. How many
times over the last seven years had he seen that same heart wrenching
combination of terror and desolate sadness in people’s eyes? Too many to
count. Yet, he still wouldn’t trade jobs with anyone. Wouldn’t trade those
moments when a life was saved, a loved one brought back from the brink. That
family last night...they’d clung to each other and the fact that they were alive
to rebuild. Unfortunately not everyone was so lucky.
He walked toward the open bay doors, the
sight of the bright morning California sunshine a welcome relief after the smoke
blackened dawn sky he’d stood beneath only several hours earlier. He pulled in
a deep breath, loving the smell of the fire house--the lemony cleaning fluid the
guys used to keep the place spotless, combined with a hint of what he called
automotive potpourri, mixed with a whiff of the salty breeze blowing off the
ocean. Through the doors he caught sight of the sparkling blue Pacific running
onto the sandy beach. Lots of skaters, walkers and joggers already out and
about today, he noticed. A beautiful sunny day like this always brought the
crowds to Ocean Harbor Beach, the laid-back surfing town where he’d lived his
entire life. And now that he had forty-eight off, he couldn’t wait to join
them. Two days to regroup. To put the pressures of the job behind him. To
concentrate on happier things. Like Christmas. Which was only a week away.
Which meant it was about time he started Christmas shopping.
Brad turned at the familiar greeting. His
best friend and fellow firefighter Jim Ballard exited the station’s kitchen and
loped toward him. According to the schedule, Jim had come on duty an hour ago
and clearly it was his turn to cook as he carried a spatula and wore an apron
that advised in bold red print: Firefighters Do It With Heat. Brad sent up a
silent prayer of thanks he was off duty. He loved Jim like a brother, but he
was the station’s worst cook.
He gave Jim’s black and red stain
splattered apron a skeptical glance. “Soot and...ketchup?” he guessed, hoping
it wasn’t blood. “Doesn’t bode well for the morning meal.”
Jim looked down at the apron then
shrugged. “Had a little mishap with the huevos rancheros. Nothing a few
handfuls of jalapenos won’t fix.”
Brad’s stomach clenched in protest and
sympathy for those poor bastards polishing the truck. “What’s up?”
“Been looking for you. Found out something
you might find interesting.” Jim lowered his voice. “About Antonia Rizzo.”
Brad’s entire body quickened at the mention
of her name--which totally annoyed and confused him--as it had from the first
moment he’d seen her three months ago, when her florist shop, Blooming Pails,
had opened in Santa Rey, the town just south of Ocean Harbor Beach, famous for
its seaside boardwalk. He’d stopped by on opening day, not so much to buy
flowers--‘cause really he didn’t need any flowers--but more because he was
walking right by the store and figured he’d be neighborly. Not to mention
scoring one of the free cannolis set on a huge ceramic tray just inside the
door. He’d taken one bite of the delicious, chocolate chip and cream-filled
Italian pastry and his eyes had glazed with sheer bliss. In the next instant
he’d taken one look at Antonia--or as everyone called her, Toni--Rizzo and
forgotten how to swallow. Damn near forgot how to breathe. Sure as hell forgot
how to speak English.
Holy smokin’ cannoli.
His stupefied gaze had tracked over a mass
of shiny dark brown spiral mess-with-me curls that loosely danced around her
shoulders. Her chocolate brown eyes sparkled as she wrapped a colorful bouquet
in green paper and chatted with the customer purchasing the flowers. Her
smile...damn, her smile was gorgeous and sexy all at once, her full lips glossy
with something dewy pink and flanked by a pair of shallow dimples. She laughed,
a deep, throaty sound, followed by a slightly husky voice that brought to mind
hot, sultry nights and tangled sheets.
His gaze skimmed lower and he knew that as
delicious as the cannoli was, it didn’t hold a candle to Antonia Rizzo’s
feminine form. Damn. Even her curves had curves. She was striking and vivid
and sexy as hell, and everything male in him went on red alert. In the space of
a nanosecond he fell totally, irreparably in lust. Which admittedly had
happened to him before--but never to this extent. Never to the point where he
actually forgot where he was. What he was doing. And what his damn name was.
Once he recalled he was Brad--or Bill--or
at least something that started with a “B”, he approached her. Smiled.
Complimented her on her fabulous cannolis. Flirted. She was polite, but didn’t
return any of the flirtatious lobs he tossed. He bought a bouquet of flowers,
which he immediately gave to her, along with an invitation to dinner. She’d
thanked him, handed him back the flowers and broken his heart by saying she was
Whoever he was, the guy was damn lucky.
Brad had departed the shop deflated, unable to shake the feeling that he’d lost
out on something really great. He’d never experienced such a strong reaction to
a woman, and she was unavailable. What kind of crap was that?
He told himself he was better off, that he
wasn’t looking for a girlfriend. Reminded himself of the ringer his last two
girlfriends had put him through--Sandy, who hadn’t been able to deal with the
dangerous aspects of his job. What had started out as concern for his safety,
which he’d appreciated, had eventually deteriorated into constant nagging to
quit the fire department, which he hadn’t appreciated. And then Janna, who’d
been Sandy’s complete opposite--she loved everything about the fire department.
Unfortunately she loved firefighters a little too much, as Brad learned when he
caught her riding a guy from a neighboring town’s hook and ladder company like
he was the winning horse in the Kentucky Derby. A guy Brad had considered a
Ever since that unappetizing scene four
months ago, he’d flown under the radar. He supposed he should have jumped right
back into the dating whirlpool, but his heart just hadn’t been in it. He wanted
another girlfriend like he wanted a gaping hole in his head. But for reasons he
couldn’t figure, even picking up one of the endless smorgasbord of bikini-clad
babes who frequented the beach and local bars and engaging in a few hours of
mindless, no-strings attached sex didn’t hold the allure it once had. After
Janna he’d indulged a couple of times, but both occasions had left him feeling
empty and filled with an unsettling loneliness.
Yet even before his last two breakups, he’d
felt the stirrings of this weird discontent, one he finally traced back to last
summer, when he’d served as best man at Greg and Tanya’s wedding. He’d never
seen his older brother so happy. As they’d watched Tanya walk down the aisle,
he’d said to Greg, “She’s beautiful.” And Greg had nodded. “Best thing that’s
ever happened to me.” And Brad had thought it was too bad Tanya didn’t have a
sister. A month later he’d seen Toni Rizzo and it was as if he’d been hooked up
to a nuclear reactor.
Even though she wasn’t available, he
couldn’t stop thinking about her. He kept comparing his reaction to other women
to his reaction to her. And every other woman came up short. It had quickly
turned into something of a quest--find a woman who turned him on and attracted
him the way she had. He hadn’t succeeded, and because he hadn’t, he’d spent a
lot of nights alone in his bed, tossing and turning, frustrated, lonely, and
wishing like hell he could forget her.
Unable to keep from doing so, he found
himself frequently stopping by her shop with the hopes that she’d catch one of
his opening conversational gambits, and that maybe he’d find her no longer
“involved.” No such luck. Toni was unfailingly polite, but her “I’m not
interested” vibe never wavered. And after three months of buying flowers and
plants he didn’t need, his small ranch house looked downright girly and his
mother had received so many bouquets from him, she was convinced he was up to
something. Or that she’d contracted some dread disease and he wasn’t telling
“What about Toni?” Brad asked, keeping his
“Good news and bad news.” Jim grinned.
“And you’re gonna owe me.”
“Fine. Good news first.”
“She doesn’t have a boyfriend.”
Whoa. That wasn’t good news--that was
freakin’ excellent news.
“Not only that,” Jim continued, “but
apparently she hasn’t had one for a while. Like six months.”
Brad’s eyes narrowed. “She told me she was
“Right. Obviously to blow you off. Which
leads to the bad news.”
“She doesn’t like firefighters.”
Brad frowned. “What do you mean?”
“She. Doesn’t. Like. Firefighters. What part
don’t you get?”
Great. Was she another woman who couldn’t
handle the danger his job entailed? As soon as the question entered his mind,
something told him the answer was no. Whereas Sandy had turned out to be a
needy, clingy sort of woman, Toni struck him as very confident. And far too
independent and smart to be unreasonable about a man’s job involving some
danger. There had to be another reason. “Why doesn’t she like firefighters?”
“Don’t know.” Jim shrugged. “If I had to
guess, I’d say she probably got her heart broken by one, but who knows? Who can
figure out women?”
“How do you know all this?”
Jim rolled his eyes. “Because I’m thirty
years old and in spite of knowing a lot of them, women are impossible to
This time Brad rolled his eyes. “I mean
how do you know she doesn’t have a boyfriend or like firefighters?”
“Oh. Bobby T told me,” Jim said, referring
to the bartender at Breezes, one of Santa Rey’s most popular beachfront bars.
Since Bobby’s last name contained about seventeen letters and was completely
unpronounceable, especially after a couple of beers, he was simply Bobby T.
“Toni and that gal who works with her went to the bar last night and had one of
those long, boring, involved chick chats. Since business was slow, Bobby
couldn’t help but overhear bits and pieces. They even drew him into the convo a
few times. I saw him this morning before I came on duty and he told me. And
now I’m telling you. Figured you’d want to know, especially if you plan to make
a move. Once word of this gets out, guys’ll be all over Toni like wet on
A sensation that felt exactly like jealousy
rippled through Brad. “Right. Except in case it’s escaped your notice, I’m a
“Uh huh.” He pointed his spatula at the
ladder truck. “Yeah, the big shiny red truck kinda gave it away. But I doubt
that’s gonna stop you. You’ve been panting after this woman for three months.
Keeping your distance because you thought she was involved. Now you know she’s
“I haven’t been panting,” Brad felt
compelled to object. “Breathing heavy, maybe.”
“Panting,” Jim insisted. “Dude, I’ve known
you since tenth grade and I’ve never seen you so...I don’t even know the word to
describe it, about a woman. Discombobulated. Stupefied. Like a deer in the
headlights.” Jim shook his head. “Maybe I shouldn’t have told you. I’m
thinkin’ this could only lead to trouble.”
Brad knew what Jim meant by trouble--a
serious entanglement. But who said anything had to be serious? He grinned.
“Trouble is my middle name.”
“Like hell.” Jim’s smile turned downright
evil. “It’s Theodore.”
Damn. There were definitely disadvantages
to having friends for years. Brad shot Jim a glare meant to deep fry him on the
spot. “Those will be interesting last words, should you make the mistake of
repeating them.” His nickname at the station was already embarrassing enough.
He didn’t need some derivative of Teddy Bear or some such cutesy crap to live
down. “Don’t you have eggs and toast to burn?”
Jim lifted his hands in an exaggerated
backing off gesture. “Yup. You wanna stay for breakfast?”
“Tempting as that sounds, I’m gonna blast
outta here.” He nodded toward the guys polishing the truck. “Don’t poison
those poor boys.”
“Are you kidding? They’d eat tire treads
if I poured melted cheese on them.”
“Do you know how to melt cheese?”
“Sure. That’s what blow torches are for.”
Brad wasn’t sure Jim was kidding. “Good
thing we’re fully equipped with fire extinguishers.” He clapped his hand on
Jim’s shoulder. “Hope your shift’s quieter than mine was.”
“Enjoy your days off. Got any plans?”
“Since Christmas is next week, figured I’d
better start shopping.”
Jim laughed. “Bet I know where you’re
Brad chuckled. “Oh, yeah. Got me some
flowers to buy. Wish me luck.”
“I wish you luck, dude. I have a feeling
you’re going to need it.”
Maybe he would. But he was determined. He
didn’t fear going after what he wanted--no one had ever given him anything so
he’d been doing that his entire life. And he wanted Toni Rizzo. In a way he
hadn’t wanted any woman in a long time. Yeah, he wanted her naked. In his
bed. Under him. Over him. Putting out the damn fire she’d lit in him the
moment he’d seen her.
Yet he wanted something more. Wanted to get to
know her. He didn’t have any doubt they’d get along in bed, but he also wanted
to know if they’d get along outside the bedroom, something he hadn’t been
interested in finding out for very long time. He couldn’t explain it, it didn’t
make sense, but there it was. So in his face he couldn’t deny it. She was at
the top of his Christmas list. At the bottom, too. And everything in between.
And now that he knew she wasn’t taken, there was nothing to stop him.
Well, except this crazy aversion to
firefighters. But he had every intention of changing her mind.
After all, how difficult could that be?