Hearts Afire November
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by Pepper Espinoza, India Harper
Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance/Romance
Description: To Heaven Resembled -Pepper Espinoza - Firefighter Lance Stuart is minding his own business when a man on the street stops him with a simple expression of gratitude. He falls into the conversation with the man, and learns that Jakob is far more than what one might expect from a busker. For starters, he's gorgeous. He's also funny, charming, and flirty. Lance immediately wants to get to know him better. Jakob Fox spends his days performing on the sidewalk and his evenings in various coffee shops and clubs, reading his poetry. But he always takes the time to thank firefighters when he sees them. He knows first-hand how much firefighters risk and what they sacrifice. His father was a New York firefighter, until he died in the line of duty. As a result, Jakob can show his appreciation, but he always keeps his emotional distance--from everybody. He also suffers from almost debilitating anxiety. He wants to be with Lance, but he can't handle the emotional stress of being with a firefighter. Jakob needs to decide if they have a future, or if he should just walk away. The Arsonist's Apprentice --India Harper - For Josh Brooks, firefighting is in his blood. Unfortunately for him, Dylan Anderson was working the other side of the fire, having served eight years in prison for arson. The two are thrown together against everyone's better judgment when Josh's role in the Philadelphia Fire Department's Fire Investigation Unit and Dylan's role as an insurance investigator bring them together to investigate a string of suspicious fires. Despite Josh's reservations and the long held belief that firemen and arsonists don't mix, he can't seem to keep out of Dylan's bed. But just when Josh starts to overcome his preconceptions, he becomes Dylan's prime suspect. Losing Dylan and his career are the least of Josh's worries. If he can't find the real culprit, he'll be following in Dylan's footsteps. To prison.
eBook Publisher: Atlantic Bridge/Liquid Silver Books, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: January 2010
31 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [217 KB]
Reading time: 135-189 min.
Lance stopped short and looked over his shoulder. The words had been clear and loud, and he was pretty sure they were directed at him, though he hadn't been doing anything except walking. There was nobody to his left, but when he swung his head to the right, he found a possible source for the words. A scruffy young man with the most stunning blue eyes Lance had ever seen leaned against the wall, one foot crossed over the other as he idly strummed a guitar. His other hand moved over the fret, like he was picking out chords, but Lance couldn't tell what. At his feet lay an open case. Brown hair hung over his forehead, like he was a week overdue for a cut, and he had the type of body that always made Lance pay attention.
After several beats, he realized he was staring, quite openly and rudely. He had been staring so long that he couldn't just turn around and walk away like nothing happened. Even though he was pretty sure a red flush was starting to creep up his neck. He was just grateful for the shades hiding his eyes. "Excuse me?"
The young man used his guitar to gesture at Lance's chest and the Los Angeles Fire Department initials on his blue shirt. His fingers were still moving, strumming out a tune Lance could barely catch, and didn't recognize. Lance couldn't help but notice that his nails were neatly trimmed.
"Thanks. You know, for all your hard work."
"Oh." Lance smiled a little self-consciously. It wasn't the first time somebody had stopped him on the street, but it always made him feel a little awkward. It wasn't as though he became a fireman because he wanted to be a hero, but he had to admit, it was a nice perk. Especially when good-looking guitar players stopped him to express his gratitude. "Well, you're welcome." He might have left it at that, but the stranger's eyes were like magnets drawing him forward. "I thought you might have been sarcastic."
He tilted his head, his fingers moving along the fret like they had wills of their own. "Why?"
"Because I just kept walking and didn't, you know..." Lance gestured at the case. Coins and bills littered the bottom, but it was by no means a great fortune. Or any fortune at all, really.
The man smiled. His smile was almost as captivating as his eyes. "No, I find that sarcasm doesn't actually encourage people to give me their money."
Lance returned the smile. "I guess it wouldn't."
"You been a fireman for long?"
"Five years now."
"Five years? I thought you were younger than that."
Lance took a step towards him. "Nope. And I'm getting older every day. What are you playing?"
"Nothing right now. I'm just making sure it's in tune."
"You can do that while we talk?"
"Sure. You can do two things at once, can't you?"
"I did try to walk and chew gum at the same time. It wasn't pretty."
The man looked up from beneath his lashes, his eyes dancing with amusement. "You'd expect firemen to be a little bit more coordinated than that."
"No kidding. Actually, I'm not a fireman. They just let me hang around the station as a sort of mascot."
The man arched his brow. "I thought that's what Dalmatians were for."
"I'm cuter than a Dalmatian."
"A Dalmatian?" He shook his head. "No, but maybe an English Bulldog."
"Were you fishing for compliments?"
"No, but I wouldn't have complained if you had given me one." Lance touched the open guitar case with the tip of his boot. "Besides, English Bulldogs aren't ugly."
His grin widened. "I never said they were. For all you know, I love English Bulldogs and I have one of my own."
"No, but I'd like one."
Lance snorted and held out his hand. "I'm Lance Stuart, by the way."
"Jakob Fox." He stopped playing long enough to take Lance's palm in a firm grip. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
"Do you play around here usually? I'm sure I've seen you here before." Which was a lie, but Lance figured it was forgivable, since his intentions were good. Now that he was standing a little closer, he noticed small details. Like the fact that Jakob's shirt was clean, and the scruffy beard wasn't actually scruffy at all, but neatly trimmed.
"Yeah, I usually play on this block. Sometimes Devin lets me play inside for tips."
Lance looked up, dragging his gaze from Jakob. They were standing outside Cafe Muse. Lance had never been inside. The name itself was enough to put him off. He didn't really get the feeling it was the right place for firefighters who preferred Budweiser to lattes. "That must have been where I've seen you before."
Jakob inclined his head. "Must have been. Though it doesn't really seem like your sort of place."
"It doesn't? Why not? I like coffee."
Jakob's smile changed slightly, and his eyes glittered with amusement. "The coffee is okay, but I meant because of the atmosphere. This place is usually full of beat poets and old hippies...and other eccentrics."
"Oh, yeah, I know." Lance offered an easy smiling, wondering if he should just cut the conversation short while he could still escape with his pride intact. "I like eccentric people. They keep life interesting."
"If you're not on your way to any fires or anything, I'd love to buy you a coffee."
"I'm not even on my way to the station. Today's my day off."
"Mascots get days off?"
"Oh, there are two. We trade shifts."
"You and the Dalmatian, eh?" Jakob lifted the strap of the guitar over his head and knelt to pluck the money out of his case. "You're sure I'm not keeping you from anything?"
"Positive. I think the grocery store will wait for me."
"Do you live in the area?"
"Yeah. About a mile from here."
Jakob snapped the case shut and straightened. "I'm surprised I haven't noticed you before."
Lance followed him into the small coffee shop. It was exactly what he expected. Some sort of strange chanting played over the speakers. He wasn't sure if he could call it music, and it was more than a little grating. Pictures he didn't understand covered the walls. Were they supposed to be shapes or just blobs of paint and ink? There were more couches than tables, and the corner had a microphone stand with cushions surrounding it. Did people sit there? Or was it meant only for some sort of weird decoration?
The girl behind the counter smiled at Jakob as though she was genuinely happy to see him. "The usual?"
"Yes. And..." He looked over his shoulder to Lance. "What would you like?"
They both stared at him as though he said a word they couldn't understand.
"Regular," Lance provided, hoping that would help them.
They continued to stare.
"He'll have the house blend. Tall."
"Coming right up," she chirped, everything from her ponytail to her smile perky. Lance didn't have anything against perky girls, but this one was starting to wear on his nerves. Possibly because of the strange, monotonous chanting.
"You can go ahead and sit down," Jakob invited.
Lance nodded, though he would have preferred it if Jakob had chosen where to sit. Would a couch be too intimate? Did Jakob expect him to choose a table? He was pretty sure Jakob had been flirting with him, which made a couch an appropriate choice, but then, what if he was just trying to be friendly?
In the end, Lance chose a table by the window in the front. He sat in the tiny chair--he never understood why such narrow chairs even existed--with his legs spread in front of him, his fingers hooked in his pockets. He watched Jakob chat with the girl, pay for the drinks, and carry them over to the table. He kept looking for a single flaw, but he couldn't find one. Lance supposed it was possible he had horrible scars beneath his clothes. Or maybe he was just plain crazy. Normal people didn't try to make their money singing on the street--for good reason.
"Thanks," Lance said as Jakob set his cup down.
"Do you usually invite strange men out for coffee?" Lance tore open two packets of sweetener and dumped it into his drink.
"Not strange men, no."
"Strange firemen?" Lance asked.
Jakob shrugged. "I guess it depends on who the fireman is, and if we're standing outside a coffee shop at the time."
"Do you usually stop firemen on the street?"
"Yes, actually." Jakob sipped from his cup before adding, "My father was a firefighter."
Lance sat up a little. "Really? Here in LA?"
"No, no. I grew up in New York."
"Does he still live there?"
Jakob sat the drink down and glanced out the window over Lance's shoulder. He caught his lip between his bottom teeth before finally saying, "No...no. He died when I was thirteen. On the job."
Lance stared. "Oh my God. I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have...brought it up."
"You didn't know." He offered a comforting smile and shook his head. "But I understand how much you give up for the job. What you sacrifice. So I promised myself that any time I see a firefighter, I'd thank them for the job that they do." He held up his cup. "The coffee is a bonus."
Lance took a tentative sip from the house blend coffee--whatever that meant--and blinked with surprise. It was really tasty. Much better than the coffee he had at the station. "It's a good bonus. So...how did you make it all the way out to Los Angeles?"
"The usual way. I took a bus."
"Sure." He reached for a pink packet of sweetener, idly running his finger over the edge. "I had some money after I graduated and I wanted to see a bit of the country, so I hopped a bus and ended up here."
"I thought maybe you came out here for your music."
Jakob shook his head. "I'm actually not a musician. Not really. I'm a poet, but I found that when you shout poetry at people from a street corner, they tend to call the cops. But the general public isn't nearly as freaked out by a guitar, so I taught myself how to play."
Lance didn't even know poets still existed. He wasn't sure why, but he thoughts poets went out of fashion with cobblers and stagecoach drivers. "Oh, really? I love poetry."
"You're full of surprises."
"I like to think I have many layers."
"Like an ogre?"
Lance blinked. "What?"
The smile never left Jakob's face. "Never mind. Just a dumb joke. So what kind of poetry do you like?"
Lance licked his lips. "Live?"
"Friday nights are open-mic nights here. You should come on by."
"Will you be reading some of yours?"
"Yes." Jakob abandoned the sugar packet, tossing it aside to swirl his cup. "Actually, I do my poetry almost every night."
"No. All over the city. Do you write any?"
The answer flew out of Lance's mouth before he could stop it. "Yes. A little."
"You should consider reading it here on Friday. Everybody here is really supportive."
Nice work. Why don't you tell him you're a rebel billionaire while you're at it? "Thanks, I'll...I'll think about it."
"So are you from Los Angeles, or are you a transplant, too?"
Lance released the breath he had been holding. Finally, safe ground. "I'm a born and bred Angelino. I wouldn't know how to live anywhere else. Though I have been to New York. It was nice."
Jakob snorted. "Nice is one word for it."
"You're not homesick?"
"Nope. I love it here. It's warm year around, I can go to the beach any time I like, and the most beautiful people in the world live here." His eyes glittered. "Or is that a shallow reason?"
"I think it's a perfectly cromulent reason."
Jakob laughed--a surprising and warm sound. Lance felt himself flush with delight at being the cause of his amusement. "You're a Simpsons fan?"
"I don't know many people who can work a reference into a sentence so easily."
"You're hanging around the wrong sort of people."
Jakob laughed again. "I might be."
The weird chanting stopped and the room was plunged into silence. Blessed, wonderful silence. Just as Lance was beginning to enjoy the peace, a whole new CD started up. At least, Lance thought it was a new CD. It might have just been a new track of the same crap.
"But about Friday night...they don't play this sort of music then, right?"
Jakob shook his head. "No, no not at all. Cyn only plays this during the day to encourage people to sit out on the patio."
"Why would she do that?"
"So they're listening to me instead."
"Oh, that's a clever plan."
"I appreciate any help I can get around here."
Before Lance could respond, his phone erupted with fire sirens. Jakob jumped, and Lance grimaced apologetically. "I keep it loud so I won't miss it."
"Yeah, I guess you definitely can't miss that. Do you have to go?"
Lance took the phone out of his pocket. A quick glance at the screen gave him his answer. "Yes, I do. I'm sorry I got to cut this short."
"No problem. I understand."
Lance could see he actually did understand. He touched the back of Jakob's hand without thinking, a thrill running up his arm at the contact. "So, about Friday...what would be the best time to come by?"
"Eight. That'll give you enough time to get your drink and find a seat."
"Friday at eight." Lance stood and slipped the phone back into his pocket. "It's a date."
Jakob stood as well. "Sounds good. I'll be looking forward to it."
"Me, too," Lance promised. A night full of poetry wasn't exactly his idea of a good time, and he would have to wrangle with the chief to get a few hours free on Friday night, but he thought Jakob was worth the effort.
"You're going where to do what?" Charles asked, knotting a towel around his hips. Steam still wafted around them, though they were the last two in the locker room. Lance had lingered behind so he could talk to Charles, just because he wanted to tell somebody, and Charles seemed like the most obvious choice.
"I'm going to Cafe Muse to listen to open-mic night," Lance explained, for what might have been the tenth time.
"Why are you doing this?"
Lance abandoned the towel in favor of his boxer-briefs. "Because I met a guy."
"A guy who hangs out at Cafe Muse and reads poetry?" Charles shook his head. "I know you're getting desperate, Lance, but come on. There's got to be an easier way to get a bit of ass in this town."
"I didn't tell you so you could give me a hard time," Lance said, more than a little annoyed, though he had expected a response like this from Charles Hill. They had been friends for over seven years, with added benefits for the past three. Lance like Charles--and he liked fucking Charles--but neither one of them had ever been interested in anything more than that.
"Then why did you tell me?"
"I wanted to let you know where I was on Friday night. Unless anybody asks. And then I'm visiting my sick mother."
Charles stared at him. "You used Alma as your excuse to get out of work?"
"Could you think of a better one?"
"Fuck, you should have just told Chief the truth. He would have been so amused at the thought, he would have given you the time off with his blessing."
"It's not that funny," Lance muttered.
"It is that funny. How far are you willing to take this? Are you going to read some poetry? Roses are red, violets are blue, I've lost my fucking mind, what about you?"
Lance rolled his eyes. "Real mature. And even if I did read poetry, there's nothing wrong with that. Lots of men write poetry."
Charles pulled his shirt over his head. "Name one. And not your new boyfriend."
Lance had the feeling he should know this one, but he drew a blank. He had slept through most of his high school English classes, and it never occurred to him to seek out poetry on his own. Other than a few magazines, Lance didn't have a need to seek out any literature. "What about that guy who wrote Romeo and Juliet? He wrote poetry, right?"
Charles snorted. "You mean Shakespeare?"
"If you really want to impress this guy, you should mention that factoid."
"So...what does he do?"
"He...look, it doesn't matter what he does. All that matters is that he's hot, and we had a good conversation. We had fun."
"Come on, Lance." He rolled deodorant on, his eyes shining with barely contained amusement. Like he was waiting for a good joke. "I know you're keeping something from me."
"Right. You were all eager to spill the details before, and now I want to know something about the guy, and you clam up? What is he? Homeless or something?"
"I'm sure he's not homeless," Lance muttered.
Charles stopped short, his hand half in the locker as he reached for his socks. "You're sure he's not homeless because you've seen his home? Or what?"
"Don't laugh, okay? But...he's a street performer."
"He's a beggar?"
"He wasn't begging." Lance concentrated securing his belt in place, keeping his eyes averted from Charles's face. "He was playing his guitar."
"So people would give him money?"
"On the street."
Lance sighed. "Yes."
"That's begging for money, man. Look, if you can't even find somebody with a home, I'll help you out. I know lots of guys. And every single one of them has a job."
"I told you, I don't think he's homeless. His clothes were clean and he didn't look, you know, unkempt."
"So all you need in a man is clean clothes?" Charles slammed his locker shut, and settled on the bench, resting one foot over his knee. "Since when do you have such low standards?"
"Look, I'm not saying that I'm going to date him or anything. I'm just going to spend a little bit of time with him on Friday and listen to his poetry."
"I hope you at least get lucky, man. I think a night of poetry is at least worth a blowjob. But don't take him back to your place."
"You trust a homeless person in your house?"
"Charles, seriously, for the last time. He's not some bum I picked up off the corner. He's a very intelligent, creative person."
Lance knew he sounded more than a little defensive about Jakob, but he didn't like his judgment questioned. He especially didn't like it when Charles made him question his own judgment. He felt himself wavering, but then he remembered Jakob's vibrant smile. He had the feeling Charles would change his tune once he saw Jakob--not that he wanted Charles to meet Jakob any time soon. Who knows? Maybe Charles would never have any need to meet Jake.
"Whatever you say. Hey, do you want to go get a drink? I'll even read some poetry, if that's what you need."
"I'm not going to go anywhere if you keep riding me about this," Lance said.
He began lacing his shoes. "Don't sulk. I was just playing with you."
"So...you remembered Shakespeare's name. Do you know anything about poetry?"
"Are you serious?"
"I don't want to make a fool of myself."
Charles looked up from tying his shoes. "You're serious about this? I mean, you're serious enough about this guy that you want to actually know about poetry?"
"Like you've never done anything to impress a guy?"
"Oh? Really?" Lance shut his locker and pulled the comb from his pocket. He planned to go straight home, or else he would have used his gel, too. "What about the month you became soccer's biggest fan?"
"That wasn't as crazy as learning about poetry."
He leaned forward, studying himself in the mirror as he carefully parted his damp hair. "Help me out, or I'm going to pass around that mp3 I have of you."
A beat passed, then, "What mp3?"
"You know what mp3 I mean. The one with the show tunes."
Lance patted the back of his head, confirming all the hair was appropriately flat. "I would, though."
"I was drunk."
"Do you think anybody around here will care about that? All they'll know is that you apparently know the whole score to My Fair Lady."
"One song," Charles corrected. "I know one song. And it's the one everybody knows."
"By the time the story makes it around the house, it'll be the entire score." Lance turned around and folded his arms. "Trust me on this one."
"You are such a bastard."
"And you're going to tell me about poetry."
"Fine, but you have to buy all the rounds tonight."
"And the next two times we go out."
"Tonight and the first round next week."
"Tonight and all the rounds next week."
Lance nodded. "Fair enough. Shake on it?"
Hill took his hand and shook his head. "Why do I have the feeling this is going to be one long-ass night?"
"Hey. I resent that. I'm not completely stupid."
"Oh, yeah? Besides Romeo and Juliet, what did Shakespeare write?"
"Poetry. We already established that."
"Give me a name."
Lance released Charles's hand with a sigh. "Well, you know I can't. But that's why I need you. You're going to change all that."
"Yeah, right. Don't go expecting any miracles, is all I'm saying."
"Do you think getting through Friday night without making an ass out of myself is a miracle?"
Charles looked him up and down. "Yeah, I'd say it is. But come on, I'll do what I can."
Lance didn't think that would be much, but even Charles's meager store of knowledge was better than the absolute nothing Lance was currently working with.