Going Under by Tonya Ramagos

Going Under by Tonya Ramagos

Going Under

The Heroes of Silver Springs, Book 9

by Tonya Ramagos


Ebook ISBN: 1-62242-278-4
Print ISBN: 978-1622425532

[ Romantic Suspense, MMM ]

For a man who vowed never to fall in love, how can it be possible Cameron Stone managed to fall for two? When he finds himself in Silver Springs, hometown of Adrien Bingham and Thaddeus Carter, emotions run wild and attraction explodes. Can the self-proclaimed playboy hold onto his resistance?

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Chapter One

Adrien Bingham sat at his desk long after most of the other agents in the Silver Springs branch of the DEA had gone home, reading and rereading the scant bit of information they had managed to drag out of Darius Shaw before he died. The report told him more about Darius than the man or men they were after.

Name: Darius Dijon Shaw, Adrien read, starting from the top of the report once more. Height: 5’5”, Weight: 117, Race: African American, Eyes: Brown, Hair: Blue, Age: 17.

Seventeen freaking years old. Adrien closed his eyes as sorrow for a boy he had never known beyond the statistics in the report filled his heart. The boy had barely begun to live before his life had been taken away. All because of a drug you thought you took off the streets.

Darius Shaw had been the victim, and the cause, of a two-car accident last week that had sent a mother and her young daughter to the hospital, thankfully with only minor injuries, and put himself fighting for his life. He had lost that battle less than twenty-four hours later, leaving behind only a name known on the streets and vague description of the man responsible for supplying him with the grams of liquid opium that had been recovered from his wrecked vehicle.

Blackjack. Given Darius’s description of his supplier—tall, black hair with a gook complexion—Adrien knew the guy wasn’t African American, and he seriously doubted his real name came anywhere close to being Jack. Given the definition of the nickname on the street, however, it fit in a way that chilled Adrien to the bone. Blackjack, ergo, injecting opium.

This is going to be worse than the last time.

Adrien and a team of other agents in the DEA, along with the SSPD and Waterston branch of the FBI, had spent two and a half years working their way up the chain of pushers and suppliers until they had finally nailed the kingpin behind it all. The notorious Cambodian drug lord, Veng Kim Phay, had been taken out right here in Silver Springs barely a year ago. With the loss of the kingpin and other key players, the Phay Cartel had crumbled, and the supply of pure grain liquid opium being smuggled into the Gulf Coast, along with the tablets being manufactured in Silver Springs, had become next to nonexistent.

For all of six freaking months. With a click of the mouse, Adrien pulled up the reports on the three other pushers that had been apprehended since by the SSPD on unrelated charges only to be found in possession of the drug that had become the bane of Adrien’s existence. All of them were still behind bars tonight, and none of them were willing to talk.

A knock at his door pulled his attention from the computer. “Yeah?” He rolled his neck in an attempt to stretch his aching muscles as the door crept open and his boss, sometimes partner, and friend, Michael Cosmos poked his head inside.

“You’re still here.” Michael walked into the room, thumbing the screen of his cell phone before he shoved it in his pocket. “I guess there’s no need to call you at home.”

“I haven’t made it that far yet.” What good would it do him if he did? The fatigue and confusion that had set up permanent residence in his mind and body wouldn’t allow him to do anything more than lie in his bed, staring at the ceiling while he thought about things he wished he could change, desires he couldn’t sort out, and emotions for not one, but two men, he couldn’t seem to separate.

“Yeah, I had a feeling you hadn’t.” Michael didn’t close Adrien’s office door, stopping instead with one hand still gripping the knob as if he didn’t intend to stay long. “I used to do this, too, you know? I used to stay here until all hours of the night, day in and day out, staring at the same information again and again. I told myself it was because I wanted to take that bastard out. Veng Kim Phay,” he clarified though he probably knew he didn’t need to. “That was true, of course. I wanted him so bad I couldn’t see anything else.”

“Except for Rhonda.” Adrien met Michael’s gaze and saw a world of knowledge and understanding in the other man’s exotic blue eyes. He remembered those days, the many times he had poked his head into Michael’s office late at night to find the man sitting behind his desk as Adrien was doing now. It had actually been around the same time that Adrien’s confusion had begun, not long after joining forces with FBI agent Cameron Stone in their efforts to take out the Phay Cartel.

Cameron. Pure temptation in a six-foot package of hard-toned muscles and sea blue eyes wrapped in hormone-rocketing sex appeal. Adrien’s cock stiffened just thinking about the other man. And to think, at the time, he hadn’t been sure Cameron was gay.

“Except for Rhonda,” Michael confirmed. “For me, it all made a full circle. I couldn’t catch Phay, and I couldn’t have Rhonda.”

“But in neutralizing him, you got her.” For Adrien, the emotional chaos in his mind and heart had nothing to do with Phay, Blackjack, or any other slimeball poisoning the citizens of the Coast. That didn’t lessen his need to catch the bastard even though it wouldn’t solve his personal problems.

Michael nodded. “I did and, if I could, I would still change how it happened. I would do anything to have gotten Phay before he involved her.”

Before Phay kidnapped Rhonda to get to Michael the way he had done. Before Rhonda had been shot and nearly killed in the final moments when Phay had been gunned down. Adrien leaned back in his chair. “I know you would. We can’t change the past, but we can be grateful for what we have now. Which has me wondering why you’re standing here talking to me instead of being at home with your pregnant wife and stepson?”

“I went home for a while.”

Adrien realized that as Michael said it, noting for the first time that the other man had ditched his usual black Armani suit in exchange for a pair of worn jeans and a green polo T-shirt. His dark hair was charmingly tousled as if Rhonda had ran her fingers through it in the throes of passion a short time ago.

“Rhonda sent me back.”

Adrien lifted a brow. “She sent you back? Sweetie, what on earth did you do?”

Michael’s lips twitched. “I didn’t leave work at the office. She can always tell when I come home and my mind is still here.”

“So you came back to retrieve your brain and now you’re headed home again?”

“Something like that. I had some things to wrap up, a call to make, following up on a gut feeling. Whether or not I’m headed back home now depends on you.”

“If you’re asking if I want to go grab a beer, thanks, but I’ll pass.” The idea of getting drunk held a certain amount of appeal, but it wouldn’t help. Adrien could just see himself having one too many and turning into a babbling crybaby on his boss’s shoulder. Christ, how had he ended up here, wanting a man that had point blank come out and said he couldn’t have him, while craving another man he could have but was too afraid to commit to because of his desires for the first man?

Talk about confusions ‘r’ us.

“Going out for a beer was Rhonda’s suggestion, provided you were still here. The action going down on MLK redirected those plans.”

“Martin Luther King Boulevard? What action?”

Michael’s gaze flicked pointedly to the scanner on Adrien’s desk. “You haven’t been listening tonight?”

“I turned it off. The chatter was getting to me.” And the last thing he’d wanted to hear was firefighter/engineer Thaddeus Carter’s smooth, soft baritone coming through the air waves. No, it was the last thing he needed to hear, no matter what he wanted.

The scanner enabled him to listen to the transmissions between the police and fire departments. Thaddeus would be on shift tonight at the fire station. It was bad enough that Adrien sat here wishing his phone would ring, that Cameron would call for one of their hours-long late-night conversations. Sitting here waiting, hoping, to hear Thaddeus’s voice over the frequency scanner only made things worse.

“SSFD got called out about a half hour ago,” Michael told him. “Harris responded to the call, too.”

Ford Harris was a narcotics detective with the SSFD. Adrien sat up straighter at the name.

“Shortly after, Harris called me,” Michael continued. “There’s an apartment fire on MLK. The building has been evacuated, occupants are safe. From what I understand, there were only a few minor injuries, but several vials of our stuff were found in the apartment. Not enough to indicate a dealer, but definitely a user or two.”

“Who can lead us to their supplier, who we can then hopefully flip this time.” Adrien got to his feet, grabbed his suit jacket, and shrugged it on.

“With any luck, yes.” Michael raked a hand through his already-mussed hair, proving Rhonda may not have been the cause of his ruffled look after all. “Whoever is behind putting this shit back on our streets is picking his guys carefully. They’re loyal. Flipping them, offering to let them go in exchange for the name of the next in command, hasn’t worked so far.”

“It worked before. It will work again.” It was how they had uncovered Phay’s stateside operation the last time, starting with the little guy, getting him to talk in exchange for his freedom, and gaining the information to go after the next higher-up. They had repeated the process until they had hit the gold mine. The technique put the users and smaller dealers back on the streets, yes, but taking out the big man was always the ultimate goal.

Michael smiled. “Always the optimist. You realize it’s highly likely the only reason Darius Shaw flipped for us is because the kid knew he was about to die?”

“Let’s hope the next one won’t be so close to death.” Or so young. Damn it, Michael just said the PD and FD had found several vials at the scene of the fire. That meant the drug was being distributed in its pure, liquid form, not morphed into tablets as it had been before. People were injecting the shit and most likely mixing it with other drugs to make the high more intense. And more deadly.

“I’ll go if you want me to.”

Adrien rounded his desk, stopping in midstride at Michael’s offer.

Michael held his gaze, warning evident in his eyes and his tone. “B-shift is on duty at the fire department tonight. Engine 1 is on scene.”

Which meant that, yes, Thaddeus, as the firefighter/engineer of Engine 1, would be there. Michael didn’t have to spell it out for Adrien to pick up the hint. Adrien knew Michael wondered about what had happened between Adrien and Thaddeus. His boss had seen Thaddeus lay a steamy kiss on Adrien in the middle of a movie wrap-up party. It had happened seconds after Adrien had told Thaddeus he didn’t think the other guy was an issue, but he needed to know for sure before they took what was between them any further. The “other guy” had been Cameron Stone, a man that Michael, with his keen observation skills and highly intelligent mind, had figured out already held a part of Adrien’s heart.

Geezus, what a fucking mess.

Adrien shook his head and started walking again. “I’ve got this, sweetie. You go home to your wife.” It wasn’t like Adrien had anything to go home to except that blasted ceiling he knew he would be staring at until sunrise. And, okay, that sounded really, truly pathetic. And yeah, okay again, he couldn’t blame anyone but himself for the position he was in. He had put himself here.

Now, how the fuck do I get out of it?

He patted Michael on the shoulder as he briskly walked past him. “I’ll let you know what I find out.”

“Hey, Adrien,” Michael called out.

Adrien was already halfway down the hall, heading for his motorcycle in the parking lot, but he stopped and tossed Michael a glance over his shoulder.

“You keep calling me sweetie and my wife is going to kick your ass.”

Adrien chuckled. He and Rhonda had become close friends. He could actually hear her threatening that very thing with a wide, toothy grin on her angelic face framed by long, naturally blonde wavy locks. He waggled his brows at Michael, purposely being playfully suggestive. “You’re hot, sweetie, but Rhonda knows she has nothing to worry about from me. Even if I wasn’t gay, you’re her man.”

Michael nodded once, pure confidence steady in his tone when he said, “That I am.”

* * * *

Thaddeus Carter stepped carefully across the drenched living room floor of apartment 2A, his gaze meticulously following the beam of his flashlight as he scanned his surroundings, looking for hot spots that posed the chance of reigniting. To his left, his fellow firefighters, Jason Graham and Bailey Barrett did the same. The fire hadn’t been bad. Not that any fire was good. This one had held the potential to be a real doozie. Thankfully, it hadn’t turned out that way.

His attention swept over the now-empty, battered coffee table and down to the contents strewn on the floor. Boxes of over-the-counter pain meds, cold and cough meds, diet pills…From the quick look he had gotten of the occupants of the apartment—a couple of white guys with shaved heads and more tats than he could count on both hands, and a Hispanic female with sunken eyes and matted hair—they all could have passed for sickly and none of them needed to be on a diet. The slender vial laying among the stash presented evidence that the residents ventured beyond the counter with at least one drug.

Should’ve stuck with the pills, kids.

Not that those were any better, but, if that vial contained what he was pretty certain it did, that drug had been turned into pills that had become a high commodity on the streets of Silver Springs not so long ago.

“Kitchen’s clear,” Max Jasper, hazmat engineer and B-shift’s lieutenant, said over the open radio waves.

The fire had started in the kitchen. That wasn’t surprising considering most house fires began in that room. Thaddeus supposed, given the neighborhood, the discovery that the residents had been attempting to cook up their own little drug in the kitchen shouldn’t have come as a surprise either.

No need to stereotype, he told himself as he thumbed the button on his radio that would open the communication between him and the rest of the firefighters on scene. Just because someone lived in a not-so-great part of town didn’t mean they were druggies. He knew several people that lived in the area who were complete law-abiding citizens that simply couldn’t afford a place anywhere else.

“Living room is, too,” he said into the mouthpiece attached to his SCBA. He angled his flashlight toward the wall dividing the living room from the kitchen. The wall had been compromised, the flames licking through it from behind the stove on the opposite side to venture into the living room. The still-murky air made it a challenge to see, but it was apparent they had managed to contain the fire before it had fully spread.

Max Jasper appeared in the hallway, shaking his head. “When are people going to learn?”

Thaddeus didn’t bother to answer. There was no answer. The war on drugs was a never-ending battle that put people’s lives on the line every second of every day. It didn’t just endanger the users, but the men and women of the various agencies and departments fighting the fight to protect and save them.

Max stepped into the living room with Kyle Shannon and David Karlston at his back. The three firefighter’s attention sliced the area as Thaddeus’s had done.

“I guess we should be grateful this one wasn’t booby trapped like the last place,” Max said. “I can’t believe this shit is hitting the streets again.”

Barely a year before, B-shift had been toned out for a structure fire in what was supposed to have been an abandoned beach house near the docks. The house had turned out to be a methamphetamine laboratory. More, it had been riddled with booby traps, triggers ready to detonate into a sizeable boom further igniting the ether, iodine, and red phosphorus stored inside. Investigation into the fire had deemed the place to be a superlab under the control of the Phay Cartel, one the cartel had wanted to be found with the intent of taking out as many emergency personnel as they could.

As B-shift’s engineer to Engine 1, Thaddeus hadn’t been in the structure that night. His job had been back at the engine, manning the pump panel and making sure his crewmates had the operational hoses at the pressure they needed. Even from his distance, he had still smelled the toxins polluting the air, the sick, sweet aroma that undeniably came from the production of drugs.

Tonight, lead nozzle man of Engine 1, Ryan Magee, had swapped places with him, staying behind with the engine to give Thaddeus some time in the action. Thaddeus didn’t doubt, if he were to remove his self-contained breathing apparatus now, he would smell that scent here in this apartment. It would be far less potent, of course, but it would be there, contaminating the air and reeking of potential death.

“You called in the PD, right?” he asked Max. “Got narcotics on the way?”

Max headed for the door. “The captain did. Probably called in the DEA, too.”

Thaddeus’s gut flip-flopped as he followed Max and the other firefighters out of the apartment building. As if on cue, he heard the unmistakable, low rumbling purr of a motorcycle engine the instant he stepped outside. His heart slammed into his rib cage as the burgundy Victory Cross Roads came into view, expertly weaving through the scattering of squad cars, fire trucks, and the rescue until it eased to a stop near the rear of Engine 1.

Adrien Bingham pulled off his helmet, simultaneously nudging the kickstand into place before he slid off the bike. He ran a hand through his blond hair as he hooked the helmet on the handlebars and paused to scan the crowd of onlookers and emergency personnel.

Thaddeus paused, too, in midstride, scanning Adrien from his head to his feet. Did the man always have to look so impossibly gorgeous? He wore a suit tonight which, given the late hour, meant he had still been at DEA HQ.

Or on a date.

No, it might have been months since Thaddeus had managed to connect with the other man, but he didn’t believe that option for a minute. Adrien always dressed to the nines, but when he slipped out of full-agent mode, he slipped out of the suit, too.

Naturally, the thought of Adrien slipping out of his suit drew Thaddeus’s attention down. The man’s suit jacket stretched across his broad shoulders, tailored to fit beyond perfection to his lean, muscular frame. His pants hugged his trim waist and, as he turned slightly, obviously spotting who he wanted to talk to, Thaddeus got a glimpse of his mouthwatering ass.

Thaddeus followed Adrien’s pursuit with his gaze, spotting Captain Dean Wolcott who stood near the sidewalk talking with SSPD Narcotics Detective Ford Harris. He removed his helmet and SCBA as he watched the three men shake hands. From the distance, he couldn’t hear their conversation, but their stances and expressions told him they had immediately gotten down to business.

Max had stopped a few feet in front of Thaddeus and turned to speak to him as he took off his own helmet and SCBA. “Looks like your guy was spending the night at the office. I didn’t expect him to be here so soon.”

His guy? If only. All of his coworkers on B-shift knew he and Adrien were acquainted. He and Adrien had talked several times outside the stationhouse in full view of everyone. Then, there had been that one time when Adrien had kissed him at the movie wrap-up party in front of half of Silver Springs, Ryan Magee and Adrien’s boss included. In a sense, Thaddeus had “come out” to the guys on B-shift with his on-again, off-again relationship with Adrien. Not that he had intentionally been hiding that he was gay. He had simply been living by the motto that if no one asked, he didn’t tell. Sure, he had been concerned about how his fellow firefighters would take the news, but he had learned real quick they didn’t care. They might rag him now and then, give him hell if they caught him checking out another guy, but they had taken it in stride and hadn’t allowed it to alter their view of him in any way.

Thaddeus saw Ford Harris point in the direction of his squad car where another uniformed officer stood guarding the back doors, then to the rescue where Cory Nox and Terri Vega were attending to those with injuries. Two figures were silhouetted in the backseat of the squad car, no doubt the occupants of apartment 2A. Thaddeus saw the third occupant, the female, with Cory at the rescue. Ford pointed next at Max and motioned the man over with his hand.

“Looks like he wants to talk to you,” Thaddeus said.

“Come on. You were second in tonight. He’ll probably want to talk to you, too.”

Max started walking, not giving Thaddeus a chance to argue. Thaddeus closed his eyes as he took a deep breath to steady his racing heart and followed.

* * * *

Movement out of the corner of her eye caught EMT Terri Vega’s attention. She flicked a glance up and spotted Thaddeus walking with Max toward…

“Oh, you poor thing.” Adrien Bingham stood with the captain and Detective Harris and, given Thaddeus’s stiff stride, it looked as though Max was all but pulling Thaddeus to the group.

“Excuse me?”

A raspy voice close to her face drew her focus back to the man sitting on the bumper of the rescue. The man—mid-forties with thick dark hair, deep brown eyes, and a face like a movie star—was looking at her with both brows winged up in question.

“I’m sorry. What—” Terri broke off when the sudden urge to sneeze hit her, and she turned her head, not wanting to spew Mr. Tall, Dark, and Handsome with sneeze-spray. She pulled away, leaning her head back to take a deep breath of the not-so-fresh air after the smoke from the apartment fire, and found it marginally easier to breathe.

“Do you have a cold?” Dr. TDH, whose name was actually Owen Banks—Dr. Owen Banks, he had been quick to inform her—touched her lightly on the upper arm.

So much for finding it easier to breathe. That single touch made her feel dizzy, intoxicated, as if his fingers came equipped with tiny needles that penetrated her flesh and injected her with a heavy dose of erotic desire.

“No, at least I didn’t before I got here tonight.” But she had sneezed a dozen times in as many minutes and was getting a pretty good idea why.

“It must be something in the air. Look, I told you I don’t need medical attention. I have a bit of smoke inhalation, yes. My throat is going to be sore for a while, and my voice is a bit off. I don’t usually sound like a three-pack-a-day addict. But it will pass.”

Terri glared at him, finding it intriguingly difficult not to get lost in his deep brown eyes. Damn, the man was scary handsome. She dropped her gaze, which didn’t help a bit because now she found herself staring at his torso. He wore a tie loosened around a pale blue shirt with thin black pinstripes. The top button of the shirt was undone and the long sleeves were rolled halfway up his forearms giving her a peek at both the springy dark hairs on his upper chest and the corded muscles of his arms.

“And I told you I intended to make sure you didn’t have any other injuries before I let you go,” she said, ignoring the urge to slip her fingers beneath the material of his shirt so she could see just how much of that springy hair covered his chest.

A lot of men shaved their chest these days for reasons that completely baffled her. She found little more attractive than a man with thick chest hair covering well-toned pecs that thinned and narrowed as it traveled down his abdomen to create a perfect path heading south. Judging from the way Dr. TDH’s broad shoulders, wide biceps, and impressive chest stretched his shirt, she could easily guess she would find pure satisfaction beneath the garment.

“I realize you’re a doctor, but stop being one for a few minutes so I can do my job. I swear, doctors always make the worst pa—” She broke off again, sneezing again, this time twice in a rapid succession before she could finish her sentence. “Patients. Do you have a dog?”

He blinked at her swift change of subject, but rolled with the flow. “No, but my sister does. Her name is Yazzi. She’s a cocker spaniel.”

“And did you spend time with Yazzi tonight?”

“I did.” He nodded once. “Just before I came here to check on my patient.”

Terri pulled her rubber gloves off her hands, reaching past him to put them in the disposal can just inside the rescue doors. Unfortunately for Dr. TDH, her reflexes weren’t fast enough. The next sneeze came so quickly she didn’t have a chance to jerk back or turn her head before it escaped.


“Don’t mention it,” he said mildly. “I needed a shower tonight anyway.”

Terri rolled her eyes. “Ha-ha, funny man. So what, do you have a private practice or something? Since when did doctors start doing house calls again?” She had assumed he lived in the building. Though, yeah, the fact that he said he was a doctor made her wonder why he would live in this part of town.

“I work the ER at Silver Springs Memorial.”

“Really? I’m surprised we haven’t run into one another before.”

“I’ve only been in town a few weeks. I transferred here to be closer to my sister. I’m also putting in some volunteer hours at the clinic when I can. One of the patient’s cases I took over there is a little girl who lives in that building. She has leukemia. Her parents have broken their bank account paying for her treatments and have to depend on the state for assistance. Sometimes, she’s too sick to leave the house. The doctor who was treating her before I took over made house calls.”

“House calls you make now that she’s your patient.” Stunned, Terri stared at him for a full three seconds before she spoke. “That’s, um, very heroic.”

“I’m not a doctor because I want to be a hero.” His still-raspy voice turned stern. “Nor am I in it for the money. I’m a doctor because I want to help people. Our professions aren’t that different. I guessed that is why you are an EMT, or am I wrong?”

“No, you aren’t wrong.” But he had knocked her down a notch or two. She had met so many men in their line of work, excluding the guys on B-shift, that were hero-junkies. Doctors, cops, firefighters, it didn’t matter. Every profession seemed to have its handful of guys who were only looking to be worshiped and, naturally, her poor judgment when it came to men made her a magnet for them all. “The patient you came here to see tonight, the little girl, she didn’t live in the apartment that caught fire, did she?”

How horrible would that be? From what he had just told her about the girl and her parents, she had gotten the impression that her parents loved the girl very much, that they had moved to this part of town because it was all they could afford after strapping themselves thin to pay for their daughter’s medical treatment. But what if her assumption was wrong?

“No, she lives upstairs in apartment 6B on the second floor. I was leaving, coming down the stairs when I smelled the smoke. I heard screaming coming from 2A, cries for help, then the door burst open, and two men came running out. The girl over there”—he glanced at the female Cory Nox was examining several feet away—“was still inside, trying to crawl across the living room floor to the door. They left her there.” He made a sound of pure disgust. “They just left her.”

“But you didn’t.” Terri looked at the female. She couldn’t have been more than twenty-two at the most. She would have been a pretty young woman of Hispanic descent if not for her matted hair, sunken eyes, and the bandages Cory had put on her left hand and right cheek. Apparently she had been the one mixing whatever concoction they had been cooking up in the kitchen that had caused the fire.

“I wasn’t trying to be a hero.” His steely gaze returned to her. “But no way in hell would I leave anyone, man, woman, or child, in a burning apartment like that.”

“I get it.” Terri dared to touch him, to let her hand glide slowly down his arm. Electricity zinged through her fingertips and ricocheted through her body. “You did what anyone with half a heart would have done.”

“At least I wasn’t the only one here tonight with half a heart.” He tipped his chin toward the squad car where the two men from the apartment were detained in the backseat. “Someone caught them. I don’t know who or how, but that girl won’t be going down for this alone.”

“No, she won’t, and maybe after what happened tonight, she will be willing to get some help. Hopefully tonight was the first step toward turning her life around. A wakeup call, so to speak.”

“It’s sad how it takes a near-death experience to get through to most people.” He sighed, shook his head, and the rigidness in his expression slowly diminished. He let the subject drop, placing his hands on the bumper of the rescue on either side of his hips, curling his long fingers around the metal. “Why did you ask about Yazzi?”

“Who?” Terri wrinkled her forehead in confusion. “Oh, your sister’s dog. She’s the reason I’m sneezing my head off.”

“You’re allergic to dogs?” The corners of his too-kissable lips actually twitched as if he found the fact amusing. “For most people, it’s cats.”

“Yeah, well, I like to be different.”

“I can see that.”

Terri met his gaze. Had his voice really just softened? It was still rough, yeah, but it had a different timbre to it that set off her internal flirt alarm. The siren rang louder when he delved his fingers in her hair just below her left ear, hooked a finger beneath a ringlet, and let it slide down until the strands hung free.

“Fashion statement or personal preference?”

Amusement lit his eyes and Terri found herself completely captivated. “I lost a bet.”

In a moment of drunken stupor, she had weaseled Thaddeus into a wager over a game of pool. If he lost, he had to pick up the phone and keep calling until someone answered. Adrien Bingham or Cameron Stone, she hadn’t been specific on which man he had to call. She had only known it had been weeks since he had talked to either of them, and it was driving him insane. If she lost, she had to dye a pink streak in her otherwise blonde hair. Simple enough, except Thaddeus knew she hated pink.

“It’s cute.”

Cute? Great. Just what she wanted, for a TDH like him to think she was cute. Terri scowled.

“I bet the guys give you hell about it around the station, though. Kind of hard to fit in with a head full of blonde ringlets and a pink stripe, huh?”

Which was exactly why Thaddeus had made the stake. He knew the guys on B-shift would rag her about it to no end. “I fit in at the station just fine.”

“I’ve heard women in the fire service have it hard. What, with it being considered a male profession and all.”

“Some do.” Terri shrugged. “I got lucky. I work with a great group of guys. They treat me like one of them.”

“I guess it helps having a boyfriend on the same shift.”

Terri studied him, the bridge of his nose, the angle of his jaw, the dimples that made an appearance every time even a hint of a smile formed on his lips. Oh, yeah. Mr. TDH was definitely flirting. He was slick. She would give him that. But you’re not slick enough, handsome. “What makes you think I have a boyfriend?”

He shot a pointed look in Thaddeus’s direction. “I saw the way you were watching that firefighter over there.” He lifted a shoulder. “I figured the two of you had something going.”

“He’s a close friend.” She didn’t add that she’d had the hots for Thaddeus way back when, before she discovered he was gay. She drew her bottom lip between her teeth, wondering how Dr. TDH would take that news. “He’s gay.”

Owen didn’t flinch, and his next words definitely earned him a truckload of brownie points. “You’re right. You do work with a great group of guys. It sounds like they treat everyone as their equal, just as they should.”

“Told you. We make a hell of a…a…” Her words stumbled as she sneezed yet again, narrowly missing his arm. “Team,” she finished and nearly wiped her nose with the back of her hand before she caught herself. “There’s something in a dog’s saliva that sets off my allergies. What do you do, let your sister’s dog lick you all over or something?”

Oh, dear God, wrong question to ask. Now she had an image forming in her mind of a tongue traveling over every inch of his tanned flesh, starting with those dimples and ending where the sun didn’t shine. Her tongue, not some overly affectionate dog’s.

Moisture pooled between her pussy lips as the image took flight right off the erotic scale. She saw herself straddling his thighs, her upper body bent forward as she licked her way down his hairy chest, ripped abdomen, and flat stomach, following the narrowed path of springy curls until she reached his cock. She saw herself curl her fingers around his rigid shaft, dip her head farther down, and swipe her tongue over his cockhead before swallowing his full length down her throat.

His chuckle snapped her out of her reverie. His lips stretched, making his dimples more pronounced, and her insides started a please-do-me meltdown.

“Not quite, but she is very friendly. She has a habit of greeting me with a great big lick to the cheek when I go to visit. I push her down, of course, but then she tends to lick my hands, wanting me to pet her.”

“Well, you’ve apparently got her saliva all over you.” Christ, even her voice was starting to melt. It got breathier, softer. No matter how many times she blinked, she couldn’t get that image of him naked beneath her, his rock-solid body her personal buffet to sample and explore as she wished out of her mind.

“And yours, too, since you got me with that sneeze a minute ago,” he pointed out, his gaze moving slowly over her face until it settled on her lips.

Thaddeus had told her when a guy looked at another guy like that it was the equivalency of an air kiss. Apparently, it worked when it came to men versus women, too. Damn if her lips didn’t start to tingle as if Dr. TDH had just laid one on her.

Terri swallowed, reflexively licked her lips, and watched as acute desire moved through his dark eyes. “Then you should probably go home and take a real shower.” Oh yeah, that helped. Flip the page in her mental image album, and now she had one of him in a shower, standing beneath the spray as water rained down his corded muscles. The shower curtain opened, and she stepped inside with him, pressed her naked body against his, and lost herself in the erotic bliss of being skin to skin. “You’re right, you don’t have any injuries beyond a little smoke inhalation.”

“Thanks for making sure of that for me, Miss…” He lifted one brow in question and waited for her to answer.

“Vega,” she whispered and had to clear her throat before she added more loudly, “Terri Vega.”

“Terri.” He slid down from the bumper of the rescue.

She should have stepped back, given him more room, but her legs suddenly felt laden, her feet glued to their spot on the pavement. His body grazed hers as he straightened, and she felt the heat and enthralling testosterone pumping off him in waves.

“Maybe I’ll see you around sometime.”

Yes, his voice was definitely softer now, smoother and dripping with heady promises of rumpled sheets and hot, sweaty bodies. “Maybe.” She barely heard herself speak over the pounding in her ears.

He held her gaze, drawing out the moment before he eased from between her and the rescue and walked away.

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