Strengthened by Fire is Available for Kindle
Lee Staunton and Dirk Krause have been seeing each other for a couple of months when they get the bad news: the firehouse they work at will be closed unless they can come up with the money to complete some maintenance and repairs. The union wants to stand and fight. There’s just one problem: the only suggestion for how to raise the money is Lee’s. And Dirk hates it.
Unfortunately, everyone else thinks Lee’s “Chicken and Beefcake” dinner—which they’ll attend in just their hats, boots, and fire pants—is a great idea, and Lee goes ahead with the organizing. But interference from the borough council and low ticket sales threaten to rain on Lee’s parade. If Dirk can’t put aside his pride and stubborn nature for one night, it could cost both him and Lee their jobs—never mind their relationship.
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“What happened, Cap?” Lee asked once he’d stepped away. One of the guys handed him a bottle of water, and he gratefully took it. The last portions of the house standing collapsed in a hiss of smoke and steam as the flames died down.
“They were storing gasoline in cans in the basement. If I’d known, I would never have sent you inside like that.” The usual lines on the captain’s forehead deepened. “We didn’t find out until we were able to get someone in here to translate.”
“There must have been quite a bit, judging by the size of that fireball.” Lee gulped from the bottle, watching as more water was poured onto the pile of wreckage that had been a house. A man rushed across the front yard and joined the family, the five of them all looking at what had once been the center of their lives. Lee sat down, his heart still racing as he finished his water. Then he threw the bottle in a trash can and helped the guys police the area and make sure the fire was completely out. The laborious task of cleaning up and moving out equipment began.
The entire time, Lee didn’t allow himself to think about what could have happened if he’d have been a little later getting out of that house. Sixty seconds had meant the difference between life and death. It took a while, but they eventually certified that the fire was out. The ambulances left—empty, thank God—and some of the fire trucks loaded up and headed back to their stations. The Red Cross arrived to help the family, and eventually Lee and his fellow firefighters headed back to the stationhouse.
When they arrived, Lee took care of his equipment, checking it over carefully before cleaning it and getting it ready for the next call. Once that was taken care of, he headed upstairs and into the showers. He heard other men doing the same thing, but just like before the call, no one was speaking, laughing, or recalling the fire the way they usually did. They’d had their respite, but the tension was back almost instantly, just like they’d never left. The water felt good, but Lee didn’t linger, mechanically washing himself before rinsing and drying off. Then he dressed, walked back out to the living area, and sat on the sofa.
“Stockton, you did real good,” Cap told him with a pat on the shoulder as he walked past and into the kitchen. Other men wandered in, all sitting around looking at each other and then at Cap, each asking the same question: how could that happen? “I don’t know,” Cap said with a shrug before heading to his office. Lee knew he’d have one hell of a report to write up after that fire.
Footsteps reverberated like a herd of elephants on the stairs, and everyone looked up at the same time as some of the men from the other shifts wandered in, taking chairs, each of them hanging their heads. Lee watched for Dirk Krause, his boyfriend, who was the last one up the stairs. Lee knew exactly how the borough council meeting had gone by the anger and resentment that shone in his lover’s eyes. “Okay,” Cap said as he joined them. “Let’s get this over with so we can get some work done.”
“Council decided to reduce the number of fire stations in town from three to two,” Dirk said from between gritted teeth. “All they talked about was the potential for saving money that some consultant came up with.” Dirk was fuming, and for once the man’s temper seemed to come in handy, because the others all echoed it. “It looks as though the one to close will either be Goodwill or us.”
Lee glanced at the others, who all nodded their agreement with Dirk’s assessment. “Did they make a decision?” Lee asked.
“No,” Carter, one of the other captains, answered. “They seemed to go back and forth between one and then the other. I think we have two or three council members on the side of keeping us open, and there are an equal number in favor of keeping Goodwill open. I think the only reason they didn’t decide to close us tonight is because we’re the oldest fire company in town, and there are enough historic preservationists on council and in town that we got a reprieve, but I don’t know if that will save us in the end or not. They kept saying that they weren’t talking about cutting personnel, and that all firefighters would have a job at one of the two remaining companies.” Lee knew Carter was trying to put the best face on it he could. “They did agree to decide in three months because of other issues that are before the board, so we can expect visits from council members.”
A groan came up from everyone in the crowd. “Is it okay to accidentally spray them with water?” one of the guys asked, and some of the others chuckled as Captain Carter rolled his eyes.
“Not if you want to keep this place open,” he answered with a bit of a smile. “We also need to figure out how much we have in the maintenance budget, because among the things cited were the age of the building and the need for renovations.”
Lee watched Carter look around, and they all did the same. It was funny how he seemed to see things he’d never noticed before: the old carpeting, the scratches in the walls, places where hundreds of hands had turned the areas around the light fixtures oily and dark, the furniture that was dated and rough from heavy use. Lee sighed softly, tired and a bit defeated. He moved over when Dirk sat next to him, and though he wanted to lean against him for a bit of comfort, he couldn’t do that here.
The guys knew they were a couple—that had been made plain last fall when Dirk had rescued him from the flooded spring run and kissed him in front of half the company. However, both of them had been circumspect about their behavior at work, conscientiously keeping their behavior professional. “You look beat,” Dirk told him quietly, and Lee nodded.
“My shift is over in half an hour,” Lee supplied, waiting to see how Dirk would react. Most nights they spent together either at his place or at Dirk’s, but sometimes Dirk needed his space. Lee was fine with that, usually; he just hoped tonight wasn’t one of those nights.
“I’m going to take off. There isn’t anything any of us can do tonight. I’ll see you at my place?” Dirk asked, and Lee nodded, trying to return his attention to what the captain was saying.
“The captains will compile a list of projects we believe we can get done to help spruce up the place and post it on the board in the private quarters. That way if we get a visit, it’ll be less conspicuous.”
“Cap, do you really think spruce-up projects are going to help?” Gerald, one of the younger firefighters, asked.
“I think the council’s on the bubble. We need to move them in our favor, and every little bit could help,” Captain Carter answered.
“If you say so, but this place needs new bathrooms, a new kitchen, roof, tuck-pointing of the brick. There are lots of things that haven’t been done in years because the borough never allocates enough money, and we’re paying for their cheapness now,” Gerald said in a huff, and most of the other men grumbled their agreement. Lee knew he was probably right but refrained from commenting. All he wanted to do was get to Dirk’s so he could forget about houses exploding and borough councils that might shut down the station. He needed some quiet time and a chance to get out of his head for a while.
“All we can do is what’s within our power,” Captain Carter explained, and the session broke up as the men who weren’t on shift began to head out. The others looked dazed, and most of them sat or stood alone with their thoughts, while others drifted away to get their assignments for the day completed. Lee gathered his things together, praying there wasn’t another call as he waited for the next shift to arrive. After turnover, he headed to his bike and rode through the lighted streets to Dirk’s house. He parked in front of the house and entered through the front door without knocking.
Dirk met him in the living room, and Lee dropped his bag, yanking Dirk to him without a word before crashing their mouths together. Lee took possession of Dirk’s mouth, devouring him as he tried to let work go, needing something intense to push away his day. Luckily, Dirk was up for it, and Lee got as good as he gave. “You need to eat?” Dirk asked once the kiss broke, and Lee shook his head, lifting Dirk into a fireman’s carry before turning to start climbing the stairs. “Okay then,” Dirk said, knowing that words weren’t needed.