The monster SUV behind her was riding her butt. Lu‘s tattered nerves frayed even more as she concentrated on the curving highway ahead. The VW Beetle beside her sped up and her tailgater zipped behind it and cruised on by. The red-faced, balding driver shot her a disgusted look and swerved in front of her only to stomp on his brakes. She jammed on her own, barely controlling her sliding tires. His chubby hand shot out the driver‘s side window with his middle finger prominently displayed before he gunned his gas and sped away in a gray cloud.
Lu almost didn‘t recognize the symptoms. It had been a while. The warm tingle at the base of her skull should‘ve been her first clue. Then the headache building. But the taste of ashes and smoke inside her mouth left no room for doubt.
She‘d better catch up to that asshole. It would probably take about three minutes before he‘d notice. Her ‘89 Chevy shook as she pushed it above its normal cruising speed. She scanned the cars ahead trying to glimpse the massive SUV. Good. It was stuck behind someone else. A little more pressure to the gas and she gained some ground on him. Surely he must be noticing the flames by now.
She passed a couple of cars until she was behind him again. Smoke rose in his back window. The fire seemed limited to the last row of seats but with the amount of crap in his vehicle, she couldn‘t be sure. She blared her horn and pointed to the side of the road.
He ignored her. What the hell was wrong with the jerk? She honked again and he merely waved that oh-so-endearing finger at her. Her car shuddered ominously and Lu realized she‘d have to slow down or she‘d have her own troubles to deal with. Hell, she‘d catch the jerk when he finally realized the problem and pulled over.
About three miles up the highway she finally saw him at the side of the highway frantically throwing things out of the back of his vehicle. She stopped a ways ahead in case his tank blew up and walked back to his car.
“Need a fire extinguisher?” She held the mini-canister up before he made some smartass remark that would make her change her mind.
“What? Yeah.” He grabbed it and sprayed the white foam into the dwindling flames in the back seat. Then he turned the extinguisher on the smoking items he‘d thrown by the side of the road. Once everything was totally enrobed in the creamy white foam, he stopped spraying and scratched his head. “What the fuck? Huh?”
Lu took the empty can from his limp hand and walked back to her car. He could call someone else if he wanted a ride to the next town. She tossed the extinguisher in the backseat so she wouldn‘t mix it up with the new ones in her trunk, hopped into the driver‘s seat and pulled away. No harm, no foul.
“Can I help you?” The grizzly older man with an impressive potbelly peered over the top of his tabloid.
Lu tried not to notice he wasn‘t talking to her. Anyway, she didn‘t think her breasts would answer the man. “I‘m supposed to see Captain Reynolds?”
She glanced around the entrance to the fire hall. It amazed her that regardless of the city, all fire halls seemed the same. The office board with the bright colored names indicating who was on shift that day, filing cabinets, the computers and fax machine.
Because the occupants were always rotating duties, no one left any personal stamp on the general areas.
“He‘s in his office.” A slight incline of his head indicated the general direction.
Lu steeled her back and walked past the guy. She heard his chair squeak and felt him eye her butt. Creep.
Captain Josh Reynolds. The plastic black-and-white nameplate was slightly off center on the dirty cream door. How could people obsessive about cleaning their bloody fire trucks be so blind to dirt on places that weren‘t on their to-do list? She rapped sharply on the door. She hated people who tapped quietly on doors as if somehow it made them less intrusive. I‟m outside your door, I want in, so let‟s not pussy-foot around the bloody issue.
She pushed open the door. “Captain Reynolds? I‘m Lu Dawson. I‘m starting tomorrow and thought I‘d come by and introduce myself.”
“Lucinda Dawson. The whiz kid from Springfield, Oregon.” He didn‘t sound impressed. “Have a seat. I was looking over your resume earlier.” He pulled a folder from the side of his desk and flipped it open.
Lu watched him glance over her file. If the guy outside wouldn‘t have made the fireman‘s calendar, the man in front of her could‘ve been the main feature. Thick ebony hair framed his tanned, chiseled features. His dark brown eyes were fringed by long eyelashes most women could only dream of possessing. She glanced at the lush lips tightening slightly as he perused her file. Despite the perfection of his features, he still emanated a machismo that sent her hormones racing. She mentally shook herself and prayed she wasn‘t drooling. This was her new boss, damn it.
She eyed the rest of his office to cool her libido. The room was clean with a well used but not abused oak desk, matching bookshelves filled with training manuals and reference books, and several pictures of the fire hall over the last century. Other than a signed baseball on his desk, Captain Reynolds didn‘t seem to have imprinted much of himself on his work environment. Either he was new at the job or he was hiding something.
“You seemed to be well liked down there,” he said. “What‘re you doing up here in Seattle?”
“I wanted to live in a city with more than just yogurt for culture.”
“Quick. And how—” The phone rang and he glanced at the caller I.D. “Excuse me.”
He picked up the phone. “Byron Morgan, to what do I owe the pleasure of your call?”
The sarcasm edging his words belied their sweetness. He listened for a moment and then he said, “Well, we‘re all short-staffed since the last round of budget cuts … Uh huh. Yup … Your guys said that was an accident … True … I‘ll have Ace fax that report over to you later today … Same to you, Byron.” He hung up the phone and glared briefly at it. “The only thing worse than an ex-smoker is an ex-fireman turned cop.” He turned back to Lu. “Back to business. I run a tight operation. We cover our community and assist with the neighboring Bellevue and Sea-Tac precincts when needed. We respond to medical emergencies to offer remedial care until the parameds show up. There‘s no room for prima donnas and I won‘t tolerate disrespectful behavior from anyone in this department. I expect to be informed if there are any issues, professional or personal, before it becomes a problem.” He sighed, as if dreading his next comment. “You‘re the only female employed here at the moment, but with the number of sensitivity and interpersonal management training classes the entire precinct has taken, I can‘t see that anyone would dare step out of line. However, if someone does offend you, myself included, I expect you to try to deal with it within the precinct before complaining to the human resources board or press.”
“Of course, sir.” Great, nothing like sensitivity training to make a bunch of guys resent you before you even start.
“That said, we don‘t give anyone special treatment here.”
“I‘m not looking for special treatment, sir, just a job.”
“This isn‘t a job.” His eyes took on a hardened glint as he paused to emphasize his next words. “It‘s a commitment.”
“Where I come from if you perform a duty and someone pays you for it, it‘s a job.” Lu prayed her bravado would work. “I work hard and am totally committed. That‘s why I‘m here.”
“We‘ll see.” He sounded less annoyed. Maybe her strategy had worked. “The schedule is on the board in the hall. Check with Ace – he‘s probably at the desk – for your gear and locker and I‘ll see you oh eight hundred tomorrow.” He looked back at the computer screen.
“Thank you, sir,” Lu muttered as she exited the office. Wow, this was one bitchy workplace. The women from the gym had nothing on these guys in attitude. She walked back to the guy at the desk now bent over a Sudoku puzzle.
“Lu Dawson. The captain said to see you for my gear and locker.”
“Lu? I assumed it was a guy.” He didn‘t look too pleased with the difference.
“Well, you know what they say about assuming.” She smiled slightly to make it seem less of an insult.
Ace pulled open a drawer and rooted around. With a grumble he switched his search to the second drawer. “Shit.” He rolled his chair over to the filing cabinet and rifled through the files. “I think Archie must‘ve taken his key. We‘ll get you another one. You can use the supply closet for now.” He handed her a key.
“What about when someone needs supplies?”
“There‘s plenty of keys for the cabinet.” His grimace implied it was a stupid question.
“So what‘s the point of locking up my private shit if everyone else has keys to it?”
“Strangers, of course. And Captain doesn‘t take kindly to swear words.”
“For one thing, everyone in this damn precinct is a stranger to me, and for the second fucking thing, you said the exact same word not five minutes ago.” Control your temper, Lu. This guy isn’t worth it.
“Look, young lady—”
“I‘m a co-worker, not someone you‘re going out for tea with.” The words streamed out of her mouth before he could interrupt. “My name is Lu and we‘ll get along a lot better if you treat me with the same respect you show your other coworkers. If everyone swears, I can curse with the best of ‘em. If this is a sanitized precinct, I can play that game too. Just give me a few days to prove myself before you judge me as some fragile female foisted on you by some stupid equal opportunity bullshit law.”
“Huh, you ain‘t no shrinking violet.‖ A slight smile crossed his lips. “I‘ll get the locksmith in today so you should have a locker for tomorrow. Schedule‘s in the hallway and your gear‘s hanging in cubby five.” Again his head indicated the general direction.
“Thanks.” She found the schedule and copied down her hours. God, she hoped Ace wasn‘t going to be indicative of the rest of the guys‘ attitudes toward her. She‘d worked so hard to pass the fire fighter entrance exams, then the fire fighter training, and she sure didn‘t need a new bunch of insecure macho males trying to fuck her up now.
The gear in cubby five looked fine with boots size 9 and a jacket and trousers that looked oversized but not outrageous. At five eleven she was used to towering over her petite female friends, but at the fire fighting training she had felt normal, if not delicate.
Tomorrow should be interesting. Fire halls were tight communities, so if her coworkers resented her, there wouldn‘t really be anywhere else to turn. A quick last look at her gear and Lu turned to leave. There was no point worrying about if she‘d fit in; she‘d find out soon enough.
Driving back to her motel room, Lu stopped to buy some groceries and a newspaper. She‘d have to look into a rental place soon and then figure a way to move her meager possessions from Springfield. She could‘ve driven up with a trailer but she hadn‘t trusted the Chevy. Maybe she could fly back and rent a small pickup truck? Aside from the family photos though, how much of that crap mattered? She‘d never been one for nesting. If she had a TV, a microwave, and a bed, that sufficed. Then again, why pay for storage if she wasn‘t going to use the stuff she‘d left behind?
The small corner store was fairly well stocked. She grabbed some instant coffee, breakfast bars, and a prepackaged Oriental salad reduced for quick sale. She‘d gotten so used to the healthy eating and excessive exercise that she‘d almost forgotten what fast food tasted like. Then again, she couldn‘t afford to let herself go here until she‘d proven herself in the job; then she‘d race Ace to the donut shop.
Thinking of donuts, she picked up a chocolate bar at the cash register. With reluctance she put it back. In one month she would treat herself with a binge at Godiva‘s if she could just hold off until then.
The cashier gave her a sympathetic smile, the braces seeming inappropriate on her chubby but wrinkled face. “It‘s difficult, isn‘t it? I hate it that they put all the goodies where you have to look at them while you wait in line. It‘s like an extra test of your willpower, and who needs that?”
“Yup.” Obviously the cashier hadn’t been winning the battle with hers. Be nice, Lu reminded herself, you‟ve been there, too. Lu thought with a groan of the days she‘d spend lounging around the fire hall with nothing to do but eat. It almost made her want to take up smoking again, but after the struggle to quit last time that was not an option.
“Have a nice day.”
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