Colliding In Free Fall
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by Vivien Dean
Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance/Romance
Description: At forty-three, Jay McGhee doesn't know how much longer he'll be able to withstand the physical rigors necessary for active duty in the Roseville, Indiana Fire Department, but that doesn't mean he's willing to be put out to pasture just yet. For most of his adult life, he's had to place his needs on the back burner, including the fact that he's a gay man in a small rural community. His career is not going to take the same route. When twenty-seven-year-old Frank Kaplan breezes into town, Jay ignores his immediate attraction to the younger man. After all, he's an old pro at pretending. The long-haired, tattooed drifter shouldn't even be his type, but the friendship they strike up satisfies a space in Jay's life he never realized was empty. Two men. Two lives in flux. No regrets.
eBook Publisher: Atlantic Bridge/Liquid Silver Books, 2009 2009
eBookwise Release Date: April 2010
39 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [162 KB]
Reading time: 103-145 min.
When the falling beam slammed into his shoulder, the first thing to go through Jay McGhee's head was, I'm getting too old for this shit. Danny Glover had had it right. And how much did he hate the fact that he was actually at an age now where he could empathize with a movie character he'd laughed his ass off at twenty years earlier.
He gritted his teeth against the new pain radiating across his spine and dragged the tarp over the packed dirt floor. It was the only part of the old barn that worked in their favor. Overhead, the roof blazed away, showers of sparks falling around him as the rest of his crew worked on extinguishing the blaze. The dry timber had gone up fast, faster than any of them had anticipated. Jay should've been in and out before it started coming down around his ears. He could only hope it hadn't spread to any of the nearby outbuildings. The Nemeth farm wasn't huge or even very profitable, but it was the family's livelihood. The last thing Jay wanted was to see old friends hurt by an unfortunate incident.
Beneath the protection of his uniform, sweat dripped into every available crevice of his body, plastering his clothes to his skin. The injured calf got heavier with every step he took. If he hadn't promised little Austin he'd save the animal, he'd abandon the tarp and get out to help the others with the flames. This far out from town, they didn't have the usual reserves. They needed every man they could get.
The sunlight pierced through his visor when he finally stepped free of the barn. Jay stopped and blinked, trying to get his bearings. Spots danced in front of his eyes. A drop of salty perspiration fell from his lashes, and he blinked again to try and clear it away. Why couldn't he focus right? Taking a deep breath, he started hauling the calf again, blind to where exactly he was heading, but within a couple feet, other men came rushing up to take it off his hands.
"What happened in there?"
With his helmet muffling a lot of the sound, it took Jay a few seconds to realize who had posed the question. He met his buddy Wendell's concerned gaze and shook his head.
"Nothing. Tell me where I'm needed most."
"It's not nothing. Your coat's ripped." A beefy hand came down on his shoulder and steered Jay toward the road where all the trucks were parked. "You've gotta get checked out."
What he had to do was help with the fire, but there was no breaking Wendell's grip even when he wasn't in pain and sticky with sweat. He stumbled once over an exposed tree root, but if Wendell noticed, he didn't say a word. He was too intent on getting Jay to the medic.
"It's not a problem," Jay repeated as they approached the truck.
Laci Gorham's cool gaze met his. She was the youngest medic Roseville had ever had on staff, barely out of nursing school, but she had a way of looking at a man that made him want to automatically go stand in the corner. "Let me be the judge of that, McGhee."
He scowled as he pulled his protective gear off. She was twenty years younger than he was. She had no business referring to him so casually.
As he turned his back to give her a chance to look him over, Jay got an equal opportunity to see what kind of damage had been done to the farm. Black smoke billowed into the cotton-ball sky. The roof of the barn was gone, engulfed in orange flames that already raced down the walls to the ground. The other firemen had created a containment periphery, however, blocking the fire in while they worked to put it out. As long as a stray breeze didn't flick sparks into the surrounding trees, everything should stay under control.
"You need stitches," Laci announced. "Get out of the rest of your gear and get in the van. I'll have to drive you into town to finish this."
Jay pulled away from her questing hands. "You can't go anywhere. What if somebody else gets hurt?"
"Somebody did get hurt. You. So I'm doing my job."
"No, your job is to patch up the men on site. I'll wait here until I can get a ride into Doc's."
"Don't be stupid. That could be hours yet."
"And I'm in danger of bleeding to death until then? I don't think so."
Her thin lips clamped together, her jaw tight as she glared at him. "Fine," she said after a moment. Her head jerked around, her gaze scanning the area. It wasn't until it settled on the people and neighbors who had congregated to watch the spectacle that Jay realized what she was doing.
Too late. She was already marching forward to the front of the invisible line that had been drawn, holding back the crowd.
Jay jogged after her, clueless as to how such a short thing could move so fast. Each hard step jostled his aching shoulder, and when he felt more wetness dripping down his back, he wondered if it was just the sweat he'd originally thought. Laci stopped in front of a young man he didn't recognize and jabbed a finger at his chest.
"You," she barked. "You have a car?"
The young man frowned. "Yeah," he said carefully.
Jay tried to grab Laci's arm and pull her away, but she wrenched free from his grasp. Damn it. He must've been worse off than he thought. She was outrunning and outmaneuvering him.
"You know where Doc Gorham's is?"
He still looked wary. "Next to Kroger's."
"Good." She finally looked back at Jay. "You got a ride."
Jay stared at her in disbelief. "You've got to be kidding me."
"Do I look like I'm kidding?"
"I don't even know who he is!" Which wasn't really the point, but it would do for now.
Laci turned back to the young man. "What's your name?"
"Frank. Kaplan." The last name came as an afterthought.
Gesturing between them, she said, "Frank, this is Jay McGhee. He needs stitches, and he's being a baby."
"Jay, this is Frank. Now you're not strangers. Get your ass in gear."
She marched away, leaving him dumbstruck and more than a little annoyed. He was about to go charging after her, or at least as charging as he could get, when he heard, "She's right, you know. Your back looks pretty bad."
Jay leveled his frustration at his new chauffeur. Frank didn't look like a local, or at least, not local to Roseville, Indiana. A sheet of long black hair was tucked behind one ear, exposing a diamond stud in his left lobe and the edge of a black tattoo snaking beneath his T-shirt collar. Sharp brown eyes met his beneath the fine, dark slash of his brows, and the slightly hooked nose was obviously the product of at least one badly timed fight. He was shorter than Jay, though not by much, and his body was bulkier, solid and hard under the straining black cotton and faded jeans. Another tattoo ran the length of his forearm. Words. No regrets.
Jay's only regret was letting Laci railroad him into this awkward situation in the first place.
"Laci's overzealous," he said. "You don't have to take me anywhere."
"I don't mind. Honest."
But Jay did. He didn't want to leave his crew behind, not when he might be able to do some more good.
"I appreciate the offer, but really, I'm fine."
"Isn't she the doc?"
"Technically, no, she's just a paramedic. Whose dad just so happens to be the town doctor."
"She also thinks you need stitches."
Why was this guy giving him such a hard time? Jay would've thought he would be relieved not to have to help a veritable stranger and get blood all over his car.
"What can you really do here now anyway?" Frank continued. He jerked his chin toward the burning barn. "They're all focused on getting it out. If you go back in, aren't they going to be distracted watching your back instead of paying attention to the fire?"
The more Frank said, the more annoyed Jay got, mostly because he had a point. Heat rolled in thick waves toward the road, making his eyes water again, but he could still see the way everybody was working together. Wendell had even taken care of the damn calf for little Austin Nemeth. He might be able to bum a spare jacket from one of the trucks, but Laci was never going to let him join the others. And if she did...
He sighed, the tension he'd been holding in his chest dissipating. "Fine. Where's your car?"
Frank turned around and led the way down the road. The fire trucks had barricaded a path, with a single police car trying to direct traffic around for those few people who might travel this way. Except the people who might've passed had apparently stopped, and now there was a line of cars pulled over along the shoulder. Frank stopped at an aged Suburban, and any fears Jay had had that he might be upset by the potential blood in his car vanished.
Though it wasn't locked, he had to wait while Frank tossed a stack of notepads into the back seat, along with an oversized book of state maps, a mobile phone earpiece, and a crumpled McDonald's bag. He didn't say a word as he climbed in, but when he tried to sit back, fresh pain shot down his spine.
"I told you it was pretty bad." Frank twisted around the seat to grab an old blanket from the back. "Here. You can put this behind you. It might be more comfortable than leaning against the vinyl."
Jay wadded one end of the blanket up as a pillow for his shoulder, and gingerly settled again into the seat. "Thanks. Maybe Laci was right about how bad it was."
Frank smiled as he did a three-point turn in the road. It softened some of the harder edges of his features and made him look even younger than he probably was. "Bet that hurt to admit."
In spite of his discomfort, Jay chuckled. "More than you could ever know."
Neither spoke as Frank navigated back into a straight path toward town. The Nemeth farm was five miles out, but the smoke beckoned people closer. They passed a dozen cars heading in the opposite direction. On the thirteenth, Frank shook his head.
"There really isn't anything else to do in Roseville, is there?" he commented.
"You must not have been in town long if you're only now coming to that conclusion." He frowned, looking Frank over a little more intently. "Unless you were just passing through and decided to detour for some local attractions."
"Nah, I've been here a couple weeks now. I'm staying with my grandma for a while."
"Who's your grandma?"
"Olive Elder." Frank glanced at him. "You know her?"
"This is Roseville. Everybody knows everybody." He regarded Frank with newfound curiosity. Olive had raised her whole family here, and though all six of her kids had been older than Jay, he knew enough to know their names. "Who do you belong to?"
"Dusty's my mom." And the second oldest, a good dozen years older than Jay. He had vague memories of a stocky girl with hair that always hung in her face. "Don't tell me you know her, too."
"Not really." That would explain, too, why the last name was different. It didn't do anything to explain why a guy who looked like Frank would settle for hanging around a rinky-dink town like Roseville, though. "Olive's okay, isn't she? You're not here to take care of her?"
Frank laughed, a rich, bellyful of sound that filled even the cavernous space of the Suburban. "Oh, God no. Grandma's going to see us all in our graves first before she even thinks about kicking the bucket. I'm just crashing with her for a few weeks while I finish up some work."
"Oh? What do you do?"
He shrugged. "A little bit of this, a little bit of that. Right now, I'm working on a book."
Jay might have lived his whole life in a small town, but he still recognized code for "slacker." Though he would never in a million years understand how someone couldn't have a steady address or income, he nodded like he did, and looked back to the road and the edges of Roseville in the distance.
"I'm sure Mrs. Elder is grateful for the company. She doesn't seem to get into town that much anymore."
"She hates the drive. Especially in the winter. I've been doing all her errands since I got here."
"Better late than never."
Yet, Jay couldn't say that he'd ever seen Frank around before today. Laci hadn't known him, either. And Frank didn't actually blend in. Slacker or not, he had a startling appeal, one Jay couldn't help but notice now that he wasn't distracted by the fire. He only noticed, though. No staring. No appreciating. Not in Roseville. And definitely not while he was bleeding all over the man's front seat.
The Suburban slowed as they entered town. When Frank turned into Dr. Gorham's parking lot, the speed bump Jay had always thought completely unnecessary jostled his shoulder, and he winced as Frank pulled into a spot.
"You need me to help you in?" Frank asked.
Jay already had the door open. "No, no, I'm good. Thanks for the ride and everything. And tell Mrs. Elder I said hi."
Though Frank nodded, he turned the engine off and climbed out anyway. "You're going to need a ride back to the station and your car or wherever it is it's parked." He pulled open the office door before Jay could reach for it. "I don't really think I want that Laci pissed at me, in case you skip out."
It was hard to fault his logic, not after the scene he'd witnessed back at the farm. They were both greeted by a flustered Dr. Gorham, who completely ignored Frank and hustled Jay back to one of the private cubicles, chastising him the entire way since it seemed Laci had called ahead and warned of Jay's impending arrival. He didn't stop talking the entire time Jay stripped down, or stretched out on the bed, or held still while the doc stitched him up.
"When are you going to start letting the younger guys do the more dangerous work?" he scolded. "You don't need to put yourself into these situations all the time. I'm sure there's plenty of work you can do around the firehouse that doesn't require you suiting up and then getting hurt. You're not as fast as you used to be, you know. This is certainly proof of that. And it's going to take you longer to bounce back. This one's going to scar."
On and on, he went, long enough that Jay closed his eyes and shut him out. He imagined his small house on the northern edge of town, and sitting out on the back deck that he'd built five years earlier, lounging with a cold beer and the sun beating down on his face. That was infinitely more relaxing, maybe with some Bob Seger playing in the background. Better than Doc's sewing. Jay probably should have accepted the local he'd been offered.
He'd probably be alone. He spent a lot of time alone when he wasn't at work. Company might be nice, though. Like ... Frank, maybe. Stretched out next to him, his skin bronzed under the sun. In Jay's fantasy, the T-shirt would be gone, and there would be more than the "No regrets" tattoo, and the one along his neck. Maybe there was even one that disappeared beneath his fly.
Except as soon as Jay started imagining what it might be, he couldn't get thoughts of Frank's cock out of his head. The young man wasn't Jay's usual type, but that didn't seem to matter. His body responded to the promise in his imagination, his prick stirring where it was trapped against the hard examination table. It had been a long time since he'd been with anyone, too long, a couple months at least. He was probably overdue for a weekend in Fort Wayne, something to take the edge off and get him to stop fantasizing about twenty-something grandsons of one of Roseville's most respected citizens. Because once the fantasy started, it wouldn't--
Dr. Gorham slapped his lower back. "All done. I'm writing you off duty for the next week. Stop doing a young man's job, or I'm going to write you off permanently."
Gingerly, Jay sat up. The tape along the bandage covering the stitches pulled at his skin. Showering was going to be a bitch. He hid his erection by holding his shirt loose at his waist, but Doc was too busy cleaning up to pay him any attention.
"I'm not that old. Stop making me feel like I'm ancient."
"And I'm in great shape."
"Yeah, for a forty-three-year-old. For a twenty-five-year-old, not so much."
Jay scowled, but held his tongue. This was an argument he wasn't going to win.
When he emerged from the exam room, he was both relieved and a little annoyed to find the waiting area empty. Obviously, Frank had decided against sticking around to drive him back to the station. Jay hadn't really wanted to take advantage of the offer, especially after his embarrassing reaction while getting stitched up, but it would've been nice to turn it down rather than have the option taken away from him. His arousal was gone, thank God. Getting hard even made a weird kind of sense. Everybody Jay knew in Roseville was straight. Guys online might get off on fantasizing about the straight people they knew turning gay, but Jay didn't have that vivid of an imagination. Frank was an unknown. A blank slate. Jay could project as much as he wanted to.
He blinked against the watery sunshine. He smelled smoke, but he didn't know if that was because it had reached town or because it clogged his nasal passages. The latter was entirely possible. Sometimes, it seemed like he would never be able to escape it. He took a deep breath and held it, letting it clear his head while he waited for his eyes to adjust. But they didn't need to adjust much to see the Suburban still parked out front, or Frank sitting on his fender, fiddling around with his cell phone.
"I thought you left," Jay said.
Frank stood and slipped his phone into the front pocket of his jeans. "And I thought I was your ride. I just needed some fresh air, that's all."
Jay wrinkled his nose. "You might have to go all the way to Fort Wayne for that."
"Man, have you ever been to Fort Wayne?" Frank laughed. "All the farmland around here is nothing compared to city exhaust."
"I actually meant the smoke." He went back to the passenger-side door. Clearly, there was going to be no escaping Frank at this point, or at least, not until he got back to the station. "The farmland is just ambience."
Frank was still smiling as he climbed in next to him. "You look better, though. Not too bad?"
"Nothing a couple of beers won't cure when I get home. You know where the station is?"
He pulled out and navigated expertly onto the street, heading in the right direction without being told. Jay focused his attention on the scenery out the window, scanning for any signs of smoke darkening the sky. They reached the station without another word said, and when he climbed out of the car, Jay didn't have to worry about Frank following this time.
"Thanks for the ride," he said, leaning back in through the window.
"Not a problem. It's just a shame you got hurt."
Jay laughed in agreement and slapped the roof. "You and me both. Tell your grandmother I said hi."
The Suburban pulled away as he walked carefully up to the station. Already, his mind was leaving the newness of Frank Kaplan behind. There were other, more pressing--though perhaps not quite as interesting--matters to occupy his thoughts. Like dealing with the crap of Doc Gorham's firm belief that a forty-three year old man was too old to be a fireman.
And that just maybe, he might have a point.