Chapter 2

1593 Words
Chapter Two Parker toweled his damp hair before tossing the scrap of terry cloth into a pile on the locker room floor. A shower often helped take the edge off the adrenaline surge that inevitably came after a job. It didn’t matter how beat he and the other guys were. If they weren’t injured, there was always a period of up, before the inevitable crash into exhaustion and mindless sleep. He left the locker room and headed to the rec room in search of his team. The place smelled like chlorine, sweat, and adrenaline. Parker chuckled. They were living the firefighter’s dream here in Hutchinson. At least the Y had showers. The forest fire he’d worked in Wyoming last summer was so remote, they’d had to make do with tents and latrines. It had taken a week to wash out the stench of sweat and smoke that had followed him home on the transport vehicle back to Kansas. “Anyone heard from Cass?” Parker asked as he approached the foosball table where the rest of the team stood gathered. In spite of the relief he’d felt when they came off the line, Parker’s stomach remained a tight knot of worry, muscles tense and tired from exhaustion. He hadn’t spoken with Cassidy since his crew had arrived on site three days ago. Granted, she was flying with the National Guard, but she was still part of his team, and he wouldn’t rest until she was accounted for. “You mean your girlfriend?” Johnny shot a sly grin in his direction. Heat raced up Parker’s neck. So what if his interest was more than casual? He and Cassie had started something years ago that he aimed to finish now that she was back in town. But that was his business. Not theirs. He shook his head. “Just keeping track of everyone. It’s my job.” “Bullshit,” Tony coughed into his hand. “You need to go to bed, Tony. And no midnight prowling this time, either.” It was futile to stand here and talk with his buddies. Maybe a square meal would settle him. “I’m heading for food.” Hell, who was he kidding? He wouldn’t settle until he knew for sure Cassie was safe. Two heaping plates of spaghetti and a salad later, the tightness in his muscles began to unwind as exhaustion hovered at the edge of his awareness. The knot in his belly unraveled the rest of the way as the contingency of pilots sauntered in, still in their flight suits, Cassidy the sole woman among them. A tug of awareness quickly replaced anxiety as she stopped and scanned the room, face lighting up as they locked eyes. A slow smile tilted her mouth, and she gave him a little wink before turning to one of her colleagues. Damn if he didn’t need another shower. This time a cold one. “Better make your move, Hansen.” Mike slid into a chair next to him. “Yeah,” Tony added, flanking him. “You’re gonna get your girl stolen right out from under you.” “Shut-up, Cruz. What do you know about women?” Tony chuckled. “I know not to piss around when it’s time to make a move.” “She’s not my girl,” Parker grumbled. She never had been. She’d always been a pal. He’d always thought of her as one of the guys until the night before she’d left for basic. Only then had he realized, too late, that she was far, far more than one of the guys. And now that she’d moved home to Prairie and joined the fire department, he wasn’t sure how to pick up where they’d left off. Or even if she wanted to. “You two’ve been circling each other for weeks. Time to piss or get off the pot, Hansen.” Mike raised an eyebrow and stroked his beard. “Or, you know… I might have to ask her out.” “f**k you, McAllister. Go back to your brew cave.” “Women love a man who pursues his passion. And I bet a woman like Cassie appreciates craft beer.” “Well, you’re not gonna find out,” Parker growled, a hot flash of jealousy spiking through him. Tony snorted, and Mike rolled his eyes, covering a laugh. “s**t or get off the pot, man. s**t or get off the pot.” Parker glanced in her direction. Her back was turned as she moved through the buffet with confidence. Except it was more than that. She moved with swagger. How had he never noticed that about her before? Her movements were no different than they’d always been. The tilt of her head as she scanned the room, looking. The way her shoulders rolled back, spine ramrod straight as she cut a path through the room. She walked like she owned the world. And he couldn’t tear his gaze away as she paused directly in front of him, eyebrow c****d in challenge. “Got something to say, Park?” He knew that glint in her eye. The glassy sheen from the adrenaline high. A look that said all bets were on the table. Tony cleared his throat and leaned forward, tilting his chin at Mike like he was giving him some kind of signal. “Yeah,” Parker answered evenly, holding her gaze, an ember sparking to life in his chest. “Cruz here was just leaving.” Her lips twitched, but she didn’t make a move to sit down. She stood there brimming with confidence, sexy as sin in her flight suit, eyes boring into him. She wasn’t going to make this easy, was she? Mike pushed back from the table. “C’mon, Tony. Three’s a crowd.” “I don’t know about that. I have a sudden hankering for popcorn.” Tony shifted, settling deeper into the folding chair. Parker didn’t have to look over to know Tony was grinning broadly. Still keeping his eyes locked on Cassie, he gave Tony a push on the arm. “It’s past your bedtime, Cruz. You’re not hitting the line tomorrow until you’ve clocked ten hours in the sack.” Tony grunted in disagreement but pushed away from the table. Cassie’s eyes flared briefly before she broke their staring contest. The loss of her attention left an empty spot in his chest where the ember had been glowing. She swept her gaze to his two closest friends. “Nice work on the line today.” “You too,” Mike answered appreciatively, covering a yawn. “It was a relief to have air attack save the day. Which ship were you?” A slow smile pulled at the corners of her mouth. There it was again. That swagger. How had he been blind to it all those years? She was sexy as hell when she smiled like that. A mixture of triumph and challenge. Daring Mike to act surprised when she answered. “Lead.” Cassie swung the weight of her gaze back to him, and just like that – the ember smoldering in Parker’s chest flared to life a second time in as many minutes. He shouldn’t feel this energized. His muscles screamed from exhaustion and the release that came with knowing his team was safe and complete. And yet… being in her presence had his muscles twitching with energy, ready to run until he dropped. “You gonna invite me to sit?” Shit. His mother would whale him for a bullshit move like that. Quickly, Parker stood, gesturing to the chair across from him. “Please. Sit. I didn’t mean to leave you standing.” She rolled her eyes, and let out a breathy laugh as she pulled out the chair across from him and sat. “I was just f*****g with you, Park. Keep me company?” “He’d love to,” Mike answered for him. “Don’t stay out too late kids,” he tossed over his shoulder as he dragged Cruz away with him, leaving the two of them alone. Even though the room was crowded with exhausted and hungry firefighters, and chatter echoed from the walls, silence settled between them. Cassie ate quickly, stuffing a forkful of meatball into her mouth and chewing thoughtfully. Her eyes sparked with energy and amusement. How was it that she wasn’t tired? “My job’s easier than yours.” A laugh escaped from his chest. “Did I say that out loud?” She smirked, fork stopping in midair. “Sure did. And nothing gets me excited like flying.” She popped another bite into her mouth giving him a wink. Except s*x, if he remembered correctly. All the blood in his body rushed to his balls in a heated rush at the thought of seeing Cassie light up. “You sure about that?” She stopped chewing, eyes narrowed, and slowly wiped her thumb across her plump lower lip. Parker shifted uncomfortably in his seat, the energy of attraction overriding exhaustion and common sense. She’d been home a little over a month, and while they’d hung out with the rest of Prairie’s first responders, worked together, trained together, and run into each other at the Trading Post, they’d never been alone. Not that he hadn’t thought about how to get her alone. He had. A lot. But this was Cassie, his former best friend. He should ask about her sisters, or whether she needed help fixing the beat-up motorcycle she always brought to him for repairs when they’d been young, not dream up excuses to get into her pants. But he couldn’t stop thinking about that. And he kept getting distracted by the damned zipper on her flight suit, mesmerized by the way her generous breasts pushed against the material. “Eyes up, cowboy.” He dragged his gaze away, a flush heating the back of his neck, and met her eyes. She was shaking with suppressed laughter. At least she wasn’t pissed she’d caught him staring. He flashed her a sheepish grin. “Sorry.” Not so much. She put down her fork and balanced her elbows on the table, leaning in. “So. When are you going to make your move?”
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