Authors: Jennifer Bernard
The Fireman Who Loved Me
A BACHELOR FIREMEN NOVEL
ot Men for a Great Cause
The words on the poster were black, the background an orange fireball, and, front and center, a hunky fireman gripped his hose.
In the crowded lobby of the San Gabriel Hilton, Melissa McGuire stopped dead at the sight of the poster propped on the large easel. This couldn’t possibly be right. She and her grandmother must have gotten their wires crossed. On Nelly’s birthday, they usually gorged on hot butterscotch sundaes or the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet at the Bombay Deluxe. Had she misread “Hilton”? What else started with an H? Hooters? That seemed even more unlikely. But with Nelly, you never did know.
As she dug in her jeans pocket for the envelope on which Nelly had scrawled the directions, someone jostled her from behind.
“Hey!” she protested.
Oblivious, a pack of girls streamed past her, a blur of cropped tops and streaked hair. Now that she thought about it, the crowd was made up entirely of young women in their twenties and thirties. They were virtually stampeding in the direction of the ballroom. The last time Melissa had been here, she’d been covering the mayor’s victory party for Channel Six. This had to be a mistake.
The envelope, when she finally found it, said otherwise.
San Gabriel Hilton, five p.m. I’ll save us a seat at the front of the ballroom. Your loving grandmother, Nelly.
“Loving” was underlined twice. That meant trouble.
Melissa stumbled as a sharp elbow to her back nearly knocked her over. “Do you mind?”
“Oops, sorry,” said a girl in a glitter-sprinkled party dress. “But all the good seats are going to be taken if we don’t hurry.”
Melissa took a step back. “What kind of event is this, anyway?” Whatever it was, it wasn’t worth getting kneecapped over.
“Just get yourself a table up close and you won’t be sorry.” The girl disappeared into the crowd bottlenecked at the ballroom’s double doors. A hum of chatter filled the lobby, rising and falling like swallows on an air current.
What had she stumbled into? Rather, what had her “loving” (translation, bossy and interfering) grandmother led her into? There was more text on that poster, if she could just get close enough to read it.
Two bruised ribs and a stubbed toe later, she stood in front of the easel. The silhouetted fireman in the poster looked so . . . manly. So heroic. A dynamo captured in mid-rescue. An ode to testosterone. It took her a moment to tear her eyes away and read the rest of the text. When she did, it took another moment for it to sink in.
The San Gabriel County Firefighter and Law Enforcement Officers Fourth Annual Bachelor Auction.
elly McGuire sat triumphantly at a linen-draped table right next to the ballroom stage. Her quilted purse was planted on the chair next to her. Inside it nestled tonight’s program, which listed the bachelors who would be strutting their stuff that evening. She’d already underlined several names. The purse also contained a thick roll of hundred-dollar bills. It was a substantial chunk of her savings, but money well spent if it got Melissa a man before she, Nelly McGuire, kicked the bucket. Which would be sooner than—
“Excuse me, missy,” she snapped as a shapely arm clad in white spandex reached for the chair with her purse on it. “That seat’s taken.”
“Excuuuuse me! Aren’t you in the wrong place, Granny? Bingo’s down the street.” A smirk dented the girl’s glossy, pouting mouth. Nelly had to admit she was gorgeous. All the more reason to cut her down to size.
“I’m here at the invitation of my grandson. He told me to sit right up front, so I could make sure no worthless hussy bids for him.”
“Oh really? Which one is he?”
“We call him M&M. That stands for Marriage Minded. He just needs to find the right girl and it’s wedding bells for him.”
Game over. White Spandex’s eyes, in their nest of mascara, brightened. She backed off and took another chair, across the table. At her next eager question, Nelly put her hand to her ear in the classic deaf-lady manner, and the girl turned away. Being old sometimes had its advantages.
“Grans?” Melissa stood behind her, hands on hips, green eyes flaring.
“There you are! Just look at these seats I got for us. We’ll have the best view in the whole—”
“A bachelor auction, Grans? Have you lost your mind?”
“Now Melissa, that’s not a nice thing to say to an old lady.” Nelly sniffed, looking, she hoped, deeply wounded.
“Playing the age card. You should be ashamed.”
“Well, I’m not. It’s my birthday and you have to do what I want. This is what I want. Now sit down.” She tugged on her granddaughter’s slim wrist, but Melissa didn’t budge.
“I left work early to celebrate your birthday. Which means Ella Joy is going to write her own copy for the
Six O’Clock News
, and you know what happened last time.” Nelly remembered. Three slander lawsuits had resulted from the anchorwoman’s aversion to the word “alleged.” “So the least you can do is explain to me
you wanted to come here for your birthday.”
Nelly sighed. If Melissa wanted to be difficult, she’d have to play dirty. “I hate to point it out, but at my age, this could be my
birthday . . .”
“Oh geez, Grans.”
Worked every time.
Melissa picked up Nelly’s purse and sat gingerly in its place. “I know this is one of your crazy plans to butt in on my love life . . .”
“Oh, relax. Just try to enjoy yourself. You’re too serious.”
Nelly smiled at her lovely granddaughter. Melissa had forest-green eyes, deep chocolate hair that curled tenderly around her face, and, when she chose, a radiant smile. In this crowd, Melissa looked like a woodland violet in a field of flashy dahlias. Why should a beautiful, sweet, intelligent darling like her granddaughter have any problem finding the right man? Because—she didn’t know what to look for. She went for the artsy type, graduate students and wannabe film directors, the kind of man more interested in finishing his thousand-page novel than in knowing how to treat a woman.
Nelly didn’t want one more pair of wire-rimmed glasses showing up on their doorstep.
No, what Melissa needed was a prime, red-blooded, testosterone-loaded man. Someone like Nelly’s dear departed Leon. She could hear him even now.
You want some sugar?
Come on up here and I’ll give you a big old heapful
. That’s when she’d jump eagerly into his lap. Oh, the times they’d had . . .
“Look, they’re starting!” Across the table, White Spandex adjusted her top and leaned forward. Revved-up hip-hop music blasted through the ballroom and a buzz of excitement shot through the crowd.
The auctioneer, a blonde with a high-voltage smile, strode to the podium and tapped on the microphone. “
Ladies, are you ready to meet the man of your dreams?
” The roar of whoops and cheers was so loud it made the silverware rattle on the tables. “Let’s thank all the gentlemen who have agreed to participate tonight, and don’t forget, all the proceeds go to the Widows and Orphans Fund, so don’t be afraid to bid high if you see something you like! And I guarantee you will. They’re all single, they’re all sensational, and they’re all sexy as heck! If you make the winning bid, not only will you get a romantic evening alone with your man, but if you bid on a fireman, you’ll get an added bonus—a home-cooked dinner at the fire station! And let me tell you, some of these boys can cook. So let’s get to it!”
The auctioneer quickly went over the instructions. There wasn’t much to them. Bidders were supposed to raise their numbered paddles, shaped like fire engines, and yell out an amount. The crowd looked ready to rumble. Melissa, slouched in her chair, looked ready to disappear under the table. Nelly wanted to poke her.
“Drum roll, please!” shouted the woman. “Give a big hand to our first brave bachelor, his name is Dave, he’s one of the guys over at Porter Ranch Fire Station 6 . . .” Dave from Porter Ranch, eyes twinkling, strode out onto the stage in jeans and a tight SGFD T-shirt.
Nelly felt faint as he began gyrating to the hopped-up electronic beat of a remixed “Light My Fire.” Screams of approval rolled through the room like a fireball. He winked at the crowd, flexed his biceps, and turned to show off his muscular butt. Nelly gripped the table. The sheer energy in the room was overwhelming. Melissa, whose head could now barely be seen over the edge of the table, had a look of horror on her face.
“Bidding starts at one hundred dollars for a date with Dave. Did I mention he ran the marathon last year? This year he’s going for the Iron Man race. He’s fit, he’s strong, and he’s looking for someone to give him a nice backrub at the end of the day. Anyone here want to rub Dave’s back?”
White Spandex certainly did. “I do! I do! Two hundred!” Girls from all corners of the ballroom recklessly yelled out higher and higher amounts. Before long the bidding was at a thousand dollars, and White Spandex, crushed, sank down in her seat.
The auctioneer banged the gavel and shouted, “Sold, for fifteen hundred dollars!” Whoops and hollers filled the ballroom as the winner collapsed into the arms of her friends. Dave crooked his finger and the pink-faced young woman made her way to the stage, where he brought her hand up for a gallant kiss that made her hyperventilate.
“Lucky,” said White Spandex enviously. “But where that skank got fifteen hundred dollars, I don’t even want to know.”
“Grans, this is insane.” Nelly could barely hear Melissa over the buzz of excitement. “Bidding on a man like some prize bull at a cattle auction? It’s ridiculous.”
“Shhh.” Nelly decided to ignore Melissa for the rest of the show. “Here comes the next one.”
The beefcake parade of Southern California’s finest continued. All those powerful arms, those firm, flexing buttocks, those rock-hard stomachs. What about Vince from LA County Fire and Rescue, six feet seven inches of glorious sinewy coiled strength? Or José from Moorpark PD, with his laughing eyes and dance moves straight out of a strip show?
By the time Number Five was called, Nelly was ready. She’d circled and double underlined Number Five on her program. His name was Ryan, twenty-seven years old, a firefighter at San Gabriel’s Fire Station 1. He liked dogs, hiking, and old-fashioned courting. He had blue eyes and brown hair, stood six foot two, and weighed in at a muscular two hundred pounds. Number Five was perfect.
And he obviously knew it. He strolled onto the stage in what seemed like slow motion as the music shifted to a slow, sensuous beat. With lazy blue eyes, he looked the crowd over, and a slow smile spread across his perfect face. From his slight slouch to the thumbs hooked casually in his jeans pockets, everything about him looked relaxed, easy, unhurried. He didn’t need to dance or swivel his hips to get attention. All he had to do was stand in just that particular way. One sky-blue eye drooped in a slight wink, and a sigh swept through the ballroom.
The auctioneer could barely be heard over the din. “Meet Ryan from the most famous fire station in the country! You’ve heard of the smoking hot Bachelor Firemen of San Gabriel, now’s your chance to get up close and personal with one of them . . .”
Arms shot up, crazy amounts were shouted out, and still Number Five did no more than stand, head slightly cocked. Nelly had no idea what the auctioneer was jabbering about, but that didn’t matter. Oh yes, she thought.
This is the one.
The bidding became even more frenzied, but Nelly bided her time.
“Two thousand four . . . two thousand five . . . do I hear two thousand six? Come on ladies, don’t be shy . . . two thousand six in the back . . . how about two thousand seven?”
When no more hands went up, and the auctioneer was lifting the gavel, Nelly rose to her feet. “Three thousand dollars, cash!” she yelled, waving her purse in the air.
Across the table, she heard a choking sound as White Spandex, who’d given up at seven hundred, nearly swallowed an ice cube.
Onstage, Number Five’s eyes, blue as cornflowers, blue as a June sky, slowly drifted to meet Nelly’s. She could see, just for a moment, a shock shimmering under the calm surface of his gaze.
“Three thousand dollars, that could be a record! Anyone for three thousand and one?”
Nelly thought she saw Number Five’s eyes dart around the room, looking for someone, anyone, to counter her bid.
“Going once, going twice . . .”
The gavel dropped and the shout of “Sold!” echoed through the hushed ballroom. As a huge cheer went up, the fireman’s lazy lids drooped, and his chiseled lips curved. He gave Nelly the slightest nod of his handsome head, and then strolled off stage at a slow-moving pace that set hearts fluttering and pulses racing.
Nelly sank down in her chair and put a hand to her chest. White Spandex glared at her in outrage. “If that isn’t the biggest waste! What are you going to do, make him rock your rocking chair? Play solitaire with you?”
Nelly could still feel the adrenaline racing through her. Despite her skipping heart and shaking hands, she hadn’t felt this good in a long time. “No, dear, I plan to give him away. To the most deserving girl, of course. Someone polite and well-mannered.” She looked over to share her triumph with Melissa. But Melissa’s chair was empty. Her granddaughter had disappeared.
elissa pushed her way through the ballroom, transformed into a kaleidoscope of screaming faces and raised arms. She loved her Grans, but enough was enough. She’d wait in the lobby. If Grans came out, hauling a fireman behind her like a side of beef, she’d politely tell the guy her grandmother was suffering from dementia. Did Nelly really think she needed to buy Melissa a man? Didn’t a twenty-nine-year-old woman have the right to pick her own dates? Compatible, mentally stimulating men?
She’d almost reached the exit when an overenthusiastic bidder jumped up, sending her chair skidding into the aisle, right under Melissa’s feet. Crash! As she landed flat on her face on the ballroom floor, everything went dim, as if someone had fooled with the lights.
“You okay there?”
When she craned her neck to look up, she saw a man’s powerful body silhouetted against the light glowing from the lobby. She wondered dizzily if she’d gotten a concussion, because it looked as if the fireman from the poster had come to life. He reached his hand to her, exactly the way the fireman in the poster held his hose. She blinked. He was still there.