Saturday, October 3, 2009

Provoking the Spirit by Crista McHugh

Remy sat on the couch and watched Ainsley as she wandered around the front parlor with a small hand-held device. Her thin cami-style tank top hugged the curves of her body the same way her jeans did, and the small nubs in the center of her breasts made it very clear she wasn’t wearing a bra. When did she get boobs? He was used to seeing her in the baggy pants and frumpy t-shirts she always wore in high school.

But he hadn’t seen her in over three years, and a lot had changed. When she showed up on his front porch wearing that outfit, he almost didn’t recognize her. Her hair was shorter than he remembered, just falling past her shoulders now, and she wore some kind of gloss that made her lips look deliciously kissable.

“What are you doing?” he asked, hoping to get his mind off her body before the bulge in his pants grew large enough to be noticeable. Hell, this was Nan’s best friend, after all. They would probably giggle behind closed doors later if she saw his erection.

“I’m checking EMF readings in this room.”

“EMF?”

“Electromagnetic fields. If I get a spike, it may indicate paranormal activity.”

“In English?”

She rolled her eyes. “If the number goes up on my meter, it may mean you have a ghost.”

“Anything so far?”

“Nope.”

“So you’re thinking I’m full of shit, aren’t you?”

“No, not yet.” She placed the device on an end table and pulled her hair up into a ponytail, revealing the back of her neck.

He always had a weakness for that part of a woman’s anatomy. He liked the way they responded when he kissed it. “Well, there’s something about the activity that I neglected to tell you about earlier.”

She crossed her arms as she approached him. “What?”

“The activity seems to pick up when I have women over.”

“What do you mean?”

He ran his fingers through his hair. Why did he feel embarrassed telling her this? “Well, the first time I brought a date over, that’s when the lamp broke over here.”

“What were you doing at the time?”

He grinned. As if she didn’t know. “We were on the couch—”

“Never mind; I get the idea. Did the room feel cold when this happened?”

“What does that have to do with ghosts?”

“One theory is that ghosts need to draw energy from the environment to make things happen. Heat is a form of energy, and when a spirit manifests itself, it leaves behind a cold spot.”

“I remember feeling a bit chilly since I was half naked.”

She looked like she had just bitten into a lemon. “Spare me the details.” She chewed her bottom lip, making it look more full and tempting than before. “Hmm… It sounds like your ghost is either a jealous woman or a religious fanatic.”

“Yeah, well, it’s really put a damper on dating, if you know what I mean. I can’t bring any women home with me without them running away screaming.”

“No, it’s put a damper on your sex life. And what makes you think it’s the ghost that’s scaring them away? It could be you.”

“Ouch, that was below the belt.”

Her eyes flickered to his crotch, and her lips twitched as she tried to suppress a smile. “Maybe you need to be knocked down a few notches.”

“Glad to know you haven’t lost your sarcasm over the years.”

She laughed, and his pulse raced. Why was he suddenly so attracted to her now?

Demon of Desire by Chloe Waits

“Are you having fun tonight?”

She jumped at the sound of the voice, spinning around. A man cloaked in black stood towering behind her. The same man who had caught her attention earlier.

“Good evening. I did not mean to startle you. I was enquiring whether you were enjoying the party.”

Sarah’s breath caught. His size was not the only thing that was imposing. Even masked, with his strong jaw and black hair, he was darkly attractive.

“Yes, I am having a good time. Th-the manor is beautiful.”

“Your dress...is beautiful. So is the lady wearing it.”

Sarah’s skin heated behind her mask at her confusion. “Thank you, you’re very kind.”

“I am anything but kind.”

Behind the mask, his eyes burned into hers. Black, fathomless orbs. The polite, innocuous words suddenly took on more meaning, hinting at danger. His voice had a trace of an accent that was hard to place.

“You caught my attention with your drink order. It’s one of my favorite vintages, Italian reds. I had to come over and see the lady who ordered it.”

“It’s my first time trying this wine,” she admitted.

“And––do you enjoy the taste?” The way he inquired sounded as though he was asking something else entirely.

Sarah cleared her throat. “Why yes, the wine is kind of smooth and mellow, maybe from the tannins.” Sarah cringed inwardly. Why was she pretending to be a wine expert? She was trying too hard. If he agreed he gave no clue. Instead, he smiled enigmatically, as though he expected her response.

There was a pause as the stranger continued to look deeply into her eyes. I feel so warm, Sarah realized.

“So, what do you do?” The question was a bit cliché, but she wanted to fill the silence that was stretching out. His formality and manner came straight from another era, yet were directly at odds with his open appraisal of her. He had moved easily into her space, much closer than polite acquaintances. It forced her to gaze up at him.

“My life is not what interests me. I would much rather know about you. Besides, this is a night for mystery and masquerade. It’s All Hallows Eve.”

“Perhaps then, I shouldn’t share my secrets.” Sarah smiled playfully at him.

“Oh, I don’t know. I have a feeling I know all about you.”

Sarah laughed lightly but felt stirred at this man’s claim of knowledge about her. He stared at her intently, and his dark orbs glittered. What color were they? Sometimes they flashed blue or green. Even amber.

This wine was potent. Too potent. She wrapped her arms around her waist. The stirrings of desire flickered like flames now, running throughout her body.

“Oh, do you? Okay, what is my favorite color then?” Her voice was a bit coy.

“You think your favorite is blue, but it should be yellow because that color is most becoming on you.”

“It is blue. Okay, you have my attention now. But blue is pretty popular. What else do you know about me?” she teased.

“This dress—” He touched the sleeve reverently, “Is meant to be worn by you. You have the build of a woman—lush, feminine, and yet you let society dictate what is attractive. Society that changes its whims based on fashions that come and go.”

Sarah lowered her gaze.

“I did not mean to embarrass you. It’s just you are a truly beautiful woman and I don’t sense you see it.”

That he saw her beauty made Sarah’s heart beat erratically. His voice became smoky as he continued. “I know you enjoy bubble baths by candlelight.”

Her neck snapped up.

“Many women do,” she said shakily.

“I am sure none look as you, though.”

Two In Two Out by G.A. Hauser

Blake Hughes could feel the perspiration running down his skin. There was nothing glamorous about being a firefighter in the boiling LA summer. The thick, beige, flame-retardant fabric turnout coat and trousers over his uniform shirt and work pants, the rubber boots, and the helmet with face shield made him feel like he was melting from within. The smoke was thick as the flames took hold of an old ratty sofa and litter debris. Blake was in charge of the irons; the solid steel pike pole weighed heavily in his hands. The tank of oxygen on his back pumped air into the mask, which was cloudy with condensation from his body heat and breath.

He stared at the back of his co-worker and, in the smoke and haze, could barely make out the ‘Rasmussen’ written in bold black block letters on his best buddy Hunter’s shoulders.

“Back out!”

Blake jumped at Hunter’s command. It was becoming impossible to get the house fire under control from the inside. He knew Hunter was right. The incident commander, Lt. Thomas Smith’s voice came over their radios ordering the same thing. “Get out, boys!” Blake wanted to make sure Hunter came with him. He spun around. The clear path to the front door was suddenly not so clear any longer. Blake raised the pike and smashed it against a wall repeatedly, opening an exit of his own. The heat from the fire, the outfit, and the physical exertion was brutal, but he had to get them out. Now.

Another powerful swipe of the pike at the plasterboard and it crumbled in a heap of white dust. “Hunter!” Blake grabbed his arm.

Hunter acknowledged him with a nod. Just as Blake was making his way to the exit, the two firemen outside, their personal rescue team, were about to come in and drag them out if they had taken any longer.

Once Hunter and Blake had moved clear of the residence, the firemen manning the hoses opened up the valves and blasted the blaze with their full force. With the valves wide open, five hundred gallons of water could pass through the hoses in three minutes.

Setting down the heavy pike, Blake pulled the shield off his drenched face and noticed Hunter leaning over his knees to recuperate. Blake helped him remove his mask, making sure he was okay. “You all right?”

“Fucking hot!” Hunter snarled, pushing his dark hair off his forehead as it stuck from his sweat.

Blake kept his hand on Hunter’s shoulder, for he was the more experienced and older of the two of them. He turned back to the blaze which was finally beaten back into submission. He checked the oxygen level in Hunter’s tank. The air support team was nearby if they needed to top up.

The inferno was an unoccupied dwelling that had been set on fire. Blake assumed it had to be arson. Either that or a careless vagrant who set his home ablaze.

Lt. Smith made his way over to them once the fire began to subside. “You two all right?”

Hunter stood straight, nodding, as Blake replied, “Yes, sir.”

“Hang tight until it’s no longer a working fire. It’s fully involved at the moment.”

“Okay, Lieutenant.” Blake watched the water turn the orange flames into white smoke. He craved shedding the suit and tank but knew it was premature. Hunter was still quiet. Blake touched his arm. “You gonna live?”

“Yeah. Christ, it’s hot.”

Blake shot the handsome young man a big grin. “If ya can’t stand the heat…”

“Shut up.” Hunter winked at him.

Blake adored him. They had only been working together a few months, ever since Hunter transferred from San Diego. They were on the C-shift, so they had the same schedule.

Spending twenty-four hours with the same crew, you learned a lot about a person, mostly the firemen you could stand and those you couldn’t. He could stand Hunter. They were two peas in a pod.

Blake heard the lieutenant’s voice over the radio calling out their badge numbers.

“Come on, Hunt. Our turn to play two out.”

Hunter gave Blake his impish smile, the one that made his blue eyes sparkle like a wicked little boy. “Yeah, Blake. Come out. Why don’t you just come the fuck out?”

“Shut up, Hunt-man, before I use this pike on your butt.” Blake picked up the heavy iron again.

Repositioning their face shields, they stood outside the smoldering, dripping building, acting as the Rapid Intervention Team for two other firefighters that had gone inside. Two in, two out. The standard safety tool in the fire fighting buddy system and the one phrase abused with the most homophobic jokes on the division.

Blake cut the chatter to listen. The last thing he wanted was for someone to need help and for them to not be paying attention. Even a wet, soggy residence could collapse unexpectedly.

In silent contemplation, Blake stood next to Hunter. Blake could hear the two firefighters inside smashing at smoking walls, making sure the fire was completely out. He couldn’t remember the last fire they’d been to. Most of their calls were medical in nature, or false alarms. He didn’t think they’d had more than a hundred fires during the whole year for his station.

He had forgotten how exhausting and hot gearing up was. Obviously Hunter was suffering as well. And it was early in their shift.

They had just come on at seven and were about to workout for an hour when the alarm came out. Christ, it’s only nine thirty.

Blake closed his eyes for a second to rest them. Fuck he was hot. A drip made its way down his chest. He could feel it running slowly between his pectoral muscles. He rubbed his gloved hand against it to stop its tickling progress. The movement caught Hunter’s eye. “Sweatin’ like a fucking bitch in heat,” Blake explained.

“Ditto. Christ, I’m thirsty. Could use a beer.”

“I’ll buy you one. Next day off.”

“Deal.” Hunter shut up, listening again.

Twenty minutes later the two inside appeared at the door. “It’s out.” Dwight Carter nodded to them. Beside him was the only woman firefighter on the scene, Hailey Barnet.

“Tell the lieutenant,” Blake instructed.

Dwight acknowledged him.

Blake tapped Hunter and tilted his head to their rig. They walked to where it was parked and began peeling off the heavy tanks and clothing. As Blake removed his turnout coat and boots, he heard Hunter groaning in pleasure as he did the same. Looking over his shoulder, Blake found Hunter’s uniform shirt and pants drenched with his perspiration. Hunter was a big man, six-three, two hundred and twenty pounds of solid muscle. It seemed to Blake that both Hunter’s blue shirt and slacks were burdened at keeping his bulk covered. Like the Incredible Hulk, Blake expected Hunter to explode from his garments one day. I’d like to see that. Blake smiled.

But he could never say it. If you even murmured you had a sexual preference other than the ‘norm’, you risked being murdered by your homophobic co-workers. The fire department was worse than the police. Firemen were a very macho bunch of males. You could kid, but didn’t dare come out.

Blake didn’t worry. He played it straight and he assumed Hunter was straight, though he truly had no clue what Hunter’s preference was. It didn’t mean anything that he enjoyed Hunter’s good looks, that he loved spending the shift with him, working out with him, having a beer on their days off. It was normal. They were good friends. No one had to know he imagined Hunter naked every time he saw him. It was no one’s business but his own.

* * * *

Piling his bunker gear inside the truck, Hunter was finally rid of his exterior garments. Once he had placed everything in the rig, Hunter fanned his shirt, unsticking it from his body to try and cool off. He’d have to change when he got back to the station. He was drenched. Blake moved in front of him, setting his own heavy coat and boots down next to his. Hunter could see the back of Blake’s shirt clinging to him as well. As Blake moved, Hunter caught his sweat scent, inhaling it deeply. Every sinewy movement of Blake’s back showed through the clinging fabric. Hunter chewed his lip as he stared. Blake was four years his senior. He idolized Blake for his skill on the job. Out of all the men he’d met while working as a fireman, Blake Hughes was the nicest of the bunch. Not to mention the damn best looking.

Hunter was surprised his body was reacting to staring at Blake that way. He was hot and tired, and that shouldn’t make him hot and bothered as it often did with a man as handsome as Blake around.

When the lieutenant appeared, Hunter tried to pretend he hadn’t been ogling his co-worker.

“The residence needs securing. Why don’t you two help out nailing some boards over the windows?”

“Yes, sir.” Hunter nodded obediently. After the lieutenant left, Hunter waited for Blake’s eye contact.

“Grab a hammer out of the toolbox, Hunt.”

“Okay.” Hunter pulled open a side panel of the rig, digging out a claw hammer. As he did he noticed Hailey and Dwight placing wooden panels under each broken window. Stuffing a box of nails into his shirt pocket, Hunter handed Blake the hammer, smiling adoringly at him. He got a sweet wink in return and followed Blake to the burned out shell of the building, staring at Blake’s sweat-stained slacks as he walked.

Working as a team, which came naturally to them, Hunter held the large wooden board in place as Blake secured it to the window frame with strong confident hammer strokes. With Blake wearing his short-sleeved uniform shirt, Hunter was able to admire his rolling biceps, wide flaring forearms, and engorged, roping veins. Blake was three inches shorter than he was, but that still made Blake a strapping, six-foot-tall, powerfully built male. Hunter wouldn’t want to challenge Blake to a fight. The man was extremely strong and fast on his feet.

Once the entire bottom access into the wrecked building was secured, Hunter noticed the investigation team had arrived. If he had to guess, he’d say the fire began with a smoldering cigarette on a dirty mattress on the floor of the upstairs bedroom.

Deliberate? Who knew? Most likely accidental and set by a street person who inhabited the vacant premises.

Hunter felt a hand on his shoulder. Seeing Blake’s warm brown eyes, he teased, “Yes, dear?”

“We’re done. Come on. Let’s see if we can clear.”

Blake swung the hammer at his side while Hunter walked with him to the incident commander, who was the lieutenant on the scene.

“Hey, Lieutenant,” Blake addressed him. “You still need us?”

“No. Clear and head back.”

“Thank you.” Blake looked at Hunter, expressing his relief.

Hunter climbed into the truck after putting the hammer back into the kit and making sure everything was secure on the engine. Blake dropped heavily into the driver’s seat. Once they had buckled up, Blake started the engine with a roar.

Hunter waved to the police officer who let them through the roadblock, which had been set up to keep traffic off the side street. Once they were on their way, he sighed. “I’m too tired to workout now.”

“I hear ya.” Blake steered the big rig confidently up to an intersection where he stopped for a red signal. “If we feel up to it, we can do it later.”

“Or not.” Hunter laughed.

Blake grinned at him knowingly. “We can miss a day. I won’t tell.”

“I’m already starving.” Hunter rubbed his belly.

“I did a food run. The fridge is stocked.”

“Good. Who’s cooking lunch?”

“You!” Blake laughed at him.

“Oh. Right. I forgot. You cook better than I do.”

“I do everything better than you do.”

Hunter shoved him playfully. “Shut up.”

“Hey. I’m drivin’. Behave.”

Smiling as he relaxed in the passenger seat, Hunter loved hanging out with Blake. Fucking loved it.