“Michael, stay down.” Simon pushed on Michael Donovan’s broad shoulders, really wishing he could better restrain the big man. He breathed in the scent of ash and sweat, only to give a frustrated sigh. “There is nothing you can do now, and you need to let us check your vitals.”
The ambulance wove through the streets, the occasional bump causing Simon to tense in order to compensate and not fall on his ass. Working as a paramedic had enough difficulties without the huffy lieutenant from Firehouse Six putting up a struggle when all Simon wanted him to do was stay the hell still.
The ambulance sirens blared to free the way for the ride to the hospital. Deacon drove, and Bastian stayed in the back with Simon and Michael. Bastian had been at the job years longer than Simon, but even with Bastian’s seasoned experience, Michael continued to be a pain in the ass.
Michael jerked his oxygen mask off and snarled, “I’m fine.” There were streaks of ash across his face and gray soot in the white strands of his hair. He glared at Simon out of pale blue eyes from his spot on the gurney. “Radio the other ambulance. I want to know how Taber is doing.”
“You don’t run this show,” Simon stated, trying to infuse authority into his voice. “I don’t work under you anymore. This is my place of work, so shut it and let me do my job.”
Michael huffed and lay rigid as if waiting for Simon to electrocute him. “Get it over with. This is a waste of time, Simon.”
Simon bit back the snarky words that threatened to rise to the surface. He could see the fear and worry Michael hid beneath his animosity.
Simon wanted to smooth his hand along Michael’s face and promise everything would be okay, but he couldn’t let his old boss walk all over him. It had only been a month since he’d transferred from firefighter to paramedic, and this was the first time he’d had any real interaction with the man. At the various fires, he’d seen Michael from a distance and heard him over the radio.
Those crumbs were enough to keep his crush on Michael alive and well. He’d really hoped when he was away from Michael, the crush would fizzle and burn out. Being in the man’s larger-than-life presence now, he realized the distance just left a deep ache of longing to be near him again.
“Stop being so difficult and leave the mask on,” Bastian interjected and snapped it back into place over Michael’s mouth and nose. “Breathe in deep.”
Simon inwardly smacked himself into professional mode. He pulled down the neck of Michael’s shirt and flushed at the warm muscles that flexed beneath his fingers. With slightly unsteady hands, he checked Michael’s heartbeat and listened to his lungs. Michael’s skin felt firm, and the light dusting of hair tickled Simon’s fingertips. His body went straight from professional to horny, all kinds of kinky work scenarios floating about.
His gaze flickered down to take in the bunker pants and work boots Michael still wore. How could what were essentially rubber pants look so sexy? Knowing what was beneath amplified the effect. He’d seen Michael naked in the showers when he’d worked at the firehouse. Hot, steamy water sluicing down Michael’s broad shoulders and over his--
Ugh, I cannot get aroused now. No getting a hard-on at work.
It had been his personal mantra while employed at the firehouse, because every time he looked at Michael, he couldn’t help but mentally strip the man and play out every fantasy he’d had since he was fourteen.
Briefly closing his eyes, he called on his strength. He was a paramedic, not a hormonal teenage boy. Michael’s vitals were within normal limits, but he’d inhaled a great deal of smoke and suffered minor burns on his forearms. He was lucky his injuries weren’t more severe.
Simon and Bastian surveyed the red and tender skin that covered wrist to elbow. The burns didn’t extend around his arms.
Michael wouldn’t even look at him. That alone was telling. There was no way the big bad boss man would let Simon comfort him. He’d take the burden of the fire on his shoulders.
At the scene, Grey had shouted a concise recap of the event. From what Simon heard, a beam had snapped and crushed Taber, who was making his way out behind Dale. As soon as the collapse occurred, Dale had rushed out with the survivor he was carrying. Of course, Michael had broken every rule and run into the building to help Taber, not waiting on Dale’s assistance.
Michael had managed to pull the broken beam off Taber and hoist the man out before the fire consumed them both. Dale had gone back in, but Michael had already taken point. Unfortunately Taber hadn’t moved or been conscious by the time they all exited the house.
“Taber will be okay, Michael,” Simon offered in a soft voice.
Michael tugged off his mask again and turned his head to assess Simon. “You didn’t see him. So don’t go making statements you can’t back up.”
“It’s the job. Even if Taber had known this outcome, he would have still gone in.”
“I sent them in again,” Michael rasped out. “The fire was already too involved. I shouldn’t have--”
His jaw tensed, cutting off the words, and he looked away.
“This isn’t your fault,” Simon murmured. In all Michael’s time as lieutenant at Firehouse Six, none of the men who worked under him had suffered anything more than minor burns and sprains. It was a point of pride for the man.
Simon barely heard Michael as he whispered, “Then whose fault is it?”
“All right, guys, we’re pulling in,” Deacon announced from the front seat.
Simon looked up, and Deacon’s concerned eyes snared him.
Are you okay?
The vehicle came to a halt. Deacon got out and opened the back doors of the ambulance. “Let’s go.”
Simon helped as they maneuvered Michael’s gurney out and into the hospital.
While Bastian and Deacon gave the doctor the rundown, Michael tried to shuffle off the gurney. Simon concentrated on holding Michael in place with one hand to his chest. “Keep it up, and I’ll sedate you,” he warned in a low voice. He’d have threatened restraints, but with the burns on Michael’s arms, that wasn’t an option.
The hospital bay did not offer a soothing environment. With its whitewashed walls and pale yellow floor, it looked sterile. The space smelled of artificial vanilla air freshener. Yuck. Like that would cover the scent of chlorine and sickness that hovered over the area 24-7.
Michael hoarsely muttered, “I liked you better when you worked under me.”
Simon flushed. He’d like to be under Michael, but not in a boss-employee way. “Yeah, well, now you have to follow my orders. You’re going to be checked out, and while that’s happening, I’ll go see what’s going on with Taber.”
The desire to touch Michael was nearly impossible to ignore. On the guise of dusting away soot, he ran his fingers through Michael’s hair. “Just allow them to take care of you.” The soft feel of those locks tortured him. Why couldn’t life give him this one person?
Michael’s pale eyes flashed with something that looked like confusion.
“The more you fight, the longer it will take,” Simon admonished. He regarded the doctors and nurses who were waiting for him to get out of the way.
“We’re going to take good care of you,” Dr. Anderson said from beside Simon and assumed control of Michael’s care.
Simon gazed after Michael as Michael disappeared through the swinging doors of the emergency room.
Simon redirected his attention to Bastian and Deacon. Bastian was short, small, and toned, much like Simon, but that was where the similarities ended. Bastian had bleached-blond hair and dove-gray eyes. Deacon was tall and slender with shaggy auburn hair and dark blue eyes that were always sparkling, as if he knew something wickedly funny that Simon didn’t.
“I know what you’re going to ask,” Bastian declared, “and ambulance thirty-two rolled in a couple of minutes before ours, so you’ll have to sweet-talk the staff if you want info on Taber.” He shrugged, and Deacon gave Simon a one-armed hug.
“How many years did you guys work together?” Deacon asked.
“A little over two, but Taber helped with my training.” Simon glanced around the room at all the incoming traffic of worried, tear-stained faces and damaged people. He’d chosen his career to help lessen the pain. Men like the ones he’d worked with at the firehouse inspired him in that direction. His family used to.
A deep well of sadness opened inside him. He’d finally come out to them, and they’d freaked out.
“Earth to Simon.” Bastian nudged him.
“Sorry. What?” he asked.
“Want to talk about what put that sorrowful look on your adorable face?” Bastian queried. The man was a flirt but compassionate. It was compassion that filled his eyes now.
“Not really.” Simon exhaled loudly. “I’m going to sweet-talk Ronny and see if she’ll let me go see Taber, or at least tell me what’s going on.”
“All right, bud,” Deacon replied. “Your shift ends in ten minutes, so go check up on the guys, and we’ll take care of restocking the rig. Let me know if you need anything.” He patted him on the back and followed Bastian out the door.
Neither of the men had any idea how Simon felt about Michael. He was fairly certain only Mica and Grey knew. The two firefighters were great with the secret. Even if they occasionally gave him shit about it, they wanted him to be happy. Like most couples, the guys attempted to spread their joy, in love and willing to be open about it. Simon felt a pang of envy. Maybe someday.
The closest he’d come to admitting his feelings to Michael was to give him a Christmas gift. A leather-and-titanium bracelet. Michael had given him a first-edition copy of Simon’s favorite book. Then Michael had become more distant than before. Simon had left his job at Firehouse Six without Michael saying good-bye. From his office doorway, Michael had watched Simon say his farewells, his gift circling Michael’s wrist.
Frowning at the confusing memory, Simon sauntered over to the help desk and pasted a smile on his face, directing it at the graying, blue-eyed woman typing on a computer. She might look like an angel, but damn, she could mimic a battle-ax with the right motivation. Fortunately she had developed a softness for him. Her eyes warmed when he came near.
“Hey, Ronny. I had a friend come in, and I was wondering if--”
“You want to know about Taber or Michael?” She went back to whatever she was doing on the computer.
“Taber. I already know how Michael is doing.”
“Ornery and difficult to control? Belligerent? Yeah, I know how he’s doing too.” She cast him a firm look of annoyance.
“Right, so…?” He leaned on the desk and smiled sweetly at her.
“Save your charm, boy. All you need to do is ask.”
Draven St. James