Get a Grip (A Bluewater Bay novel)
This title is part of the Bluewater Bay universe.
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If a tree falls in Bluewater Bay . . . could it be fate?
A year after his divorce, Shane Andrews isn’t interested in dating—not that he has time, between three kids and a demanding job as a grip. When a windstorm knocks a tree onto one of the Wolf’s Landing soundstages, Shane’s there to help with the mess . . . and so is firefighter Aaron Tucker.
A former smoke jumper, Aaron’s an adrenaline junkie and way too restless and reckless to be relationship material. As far as he’s concerned, monogamy is for penguins, and he’d rather be alone than tied down. Signing up to be a stepparent? No, thank you.
But after a scorching-hot night together, they’re hooked. Aaron is a taste of the excitement Shane’s been lacking, and Shane’s pushing buttons Aaron didn’t know he had. The more they’re together, the less Aaron craves wild nights with other men . . . but the more Shane wants to play the field like he never got to in his twenties.
This could be the love neither man knew he needed, but only if Shane gets his feet back on the ground before Aaron walks away.
This title comes with no special warnings.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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“So if a tree falls in Bluewater Bay and no one’s around to hear it, does it still make a fucking mess?”
Beside me, my coworker, Dan, whistled. “Yeah, I’d say it does.”
Standing there in the gravel parking lot with Jase, another grip, we surveyed the disastrous scene in front of us. Namely, what was left of Soundstage Two. Other buildings on the production studio property had been damaged as well: a branch had smashed through a wall, and one of the outbuildings had been squashed by another tree. My biggest concern was the soundstage, though, especially since I was pretty sure the water had made it past the sandbags that had been placed around the buildings before the storm came. We’d find out once Anna arrived and gave us permission to go in. She’d ordered everyone to stay out of the buildings for now.
The place was deserted anyway because all production had been canceled until tomorrow. The studio would probably have a conniption about it, but Anna had had the foresight to realize Bluewater Bay would be a mess after the storm, and she didn’t want people trying to make it in when the roads were a disaster. Plus people would have damage to their homes.
We didn’t have to go inside to see the soundstage was an unholy mess. It probably would’ve withstood the storm as well as the buildings next to it had, but it hadn’t been built to catch a hundred-foot cedar blown over by seventy-mile-an-hour winds.
Jase shifted his weight, gravel crunching under his boots. “So, what do we do?”
“Nothing until Anna gets here.” I tucked my hands into my coat pockets. “And, anyway, with all that water and electrical equipment in there, I don’t want to take a chance of the power coming back on.”
Dan grunted in agreement. “Isn’t like we need to rush inside. Anything that’s salvageable will still be there in an hour or two.”
Jase glared up at the sky. “Assuming it doesn’t rain again.”
I scowled at the thick gray clouds. They were swirling lazily and heading east; with any luck, they’d keep going and dump their cargo on Seattle. At least that would give us some time to get in and salvage what we could. Ideally before any electronics were fried or mold had a chance to set in.
But there was nothing we could do now except wait.
They’d called it a fifty-year storm. One of those massive almost-typhoons that whipped through the Pacific Northwest once or twice a century. And it might not have been so bad, or at least not done so much damage, if the Olympic Peninsula hadn’t been getting hammered by torrential rain for two solid weeks. With the ground saturated with water, this had been a disaster waiting to happen, and last night, it had.
That enormous tree had probably been there for a hundred years or more. Thanks to last night’s winds, coupled with waterlogged soil, it had uprooted and come crashing down through the roof. At least it had hit the soundstage and not one of the other buildings. A tree that big would have crushed anything smaller, like the production office, any of the storage sheds, or the houses on the lot that we used for certain scenes.
I’d gotten the call from Dan two hours ago. He’d come to the set to borrow a couple of tools to try to fix some minor damage to his house—not really something we were allowed to do, but nobody ever said anything when we did—and had discovered this mess. Right away, he’d notified me, Jase, and the higher-ups. Our key grip was stuck in his neighborhood thanks to another fallen tree, and that asshole producer Finn Larson couldn’t get out of his driveway, but Anna Maxwell was on her way. Jase and I both lived on streets that had been spared the brunt of it, so here we were.
Beside me, Dan and Jase started muttering about climate change, and I walked away. I wasn’t ignorant of the problem, but I wasn’t in the mood to hear about it this morning. It didn’t really matter right now if this was because of catastrophic global warming or if a butterfly had farted in the Amazon six months ago. The fact remained that a large tree was now reclining on the soundstage, and the mess inside . . . Well, we’d find out before too long.
While I waited for Anna to show up and call the shots, I took out my cell phone and speed-dialed my daughter.
“Hey.” Desiree sounded disinterested and barely awake. Typical fifteen-year-old.
“Hey,” I said. “Just wanted to check in with you guys. Is the power back on?”
“Figures. It might be a few hours—I didn’t see any utility trucks near the neighborhood when I left.”
“Your brothers awake yet?”
“Yeah. They’re outside playing in the mud.”
I laughed. That didn’t surprise me. “Keep an eye on them, okay?”
She clicked her tongue. “Dad, I’m—”
“All I’m asking is to check on them occasionally. There’s a lot of branches down in the backyard.”
“Thanks, kiddo. I gotta go. I’ll check in when I can.”
“You don’t need to. We’re just hanging out here.”
I suppressed a chuckle. I’d expected the teenage years to drive me crazy, but admittedly, her Dad, oh my God, stop being such a Dad tone amused me more than anything. “Okay. I’ll be home as soon as I can. Love you.”
“Love you too.”
After she’d hung up, I slid the phone in my back pocket. Over and over, I tried to remind myself the kids were fine on their own. It had only been a year since I’d started leaving them alone, and I was still kind of edgy about the whole thing. But she was old enough—hell, she’d been old enough—to supervise herself and the twins, and I’d get used to the idea sooner or later.
As I returned to where the guys were standing, I caught their conversation.
“When that chick said she was turned on by storms?” Dan grinned. “She was not kidding. She probably did more damage to my house than the wind.”
Jase high-fived him. “Nice, man. You gonna hook up with her again?”
“Eh.” Dan shrugged. “We’ll see. I’ve been messaging this other girl on Tinder, and she’s—”
I put some more space between us, pretending to be focused on my phone so they wouldn’t know I was trying not to focus on their conversation. Those two were always comparing notes on hookups or whatever they remembered from a night of partying.
And I . . . envied them. I wouldn’t trade my kids for anything, but sometimes I wished I could spend a weekend, or even a night, being like Jase and Dan. I’d missed out on being young and stupid. My very brief taste of youthful recklessness had made me an eighteen-year-old father, and I’d spent the last fifteen years being as close as possible to a responsible adult. What I wouldn’t have given to at least have some memories of sowing my wild oats, even if adulthood and responsibility meant I couldn’t keep sowing them.
Just once, can I go out and be stupid?
I’d been asking myself that for a decade and a half. And going out and being stupid totally sounded like the kind of thing a thirtysomething father of three with a damn mortgage would actually do. Yeah, right. Those wild oats were not going to get sown, and the sooner I made peace with that, the better.
A car pulled into the muddy parking lot and jarred me back into the present. The responsible, mature, doing-my-job present.
Anna got out and shut the door with her hip as she glared at the damaged soundstage. She didn’t have her bodyguard with her, which was unusual, but she’d sounded like she was in a hurry to get here. Maybe he was on his way. Or maybe she didn’t give a shit because a bodyguard wasn’t really necessary right now unless he wanted to help us move tree branches and wet equipment.
Hands in her jacket pockets, she glared at the scene as she walked toward us. “Well isn’t this nice?” Her lip curled. “So much for reshooting that interrogation tomorrow.”
I nodded mutely.
“What do you want us to do?” Jase asked. “I’ve got all day.”
“Me too,” Dan said.
“Same.” I glanced at the fallen tree. “What’s the plan?”
“Right now? We wait because the insurance company and the unions will have our heads if we touch anything.” She folded her arms across her chest and scowled. “The fire department is sending an engine and a crane when they can spare the bodies. The power’s out anyway, and I’ve got a call in to the utility company to keep it off until this is all cleaned up.”
“Good idea,” I said. “Is there anything we can do, though?”
Anna shook her head. “Not really, no.”
The guys and I exchanged uneasy glances.
“What’s the fire department going to do?” Dan asked.
“Anything they can.” She shifted her weight. “I called earlier to see if they can at least help us move the tree off the roof. With the power company as tied up as they are, the firehouse said they’re happy to help as long as they don’t get any actual emergency calls.” With a humorless laugh, she added, “Guess that’s one advantage to living in a small town.”
“Yeah. That means there’s no fires or anything in town, right?”
“Yep.” She nodded. “Sounds like it blew some trees down and fucked up some buildings, but there was only a small fire early this morning. No injuries that I heard about, either.”
“Nobody got hurt anywhere?”
Anna smirked, the first sign of humor since she’d arrived. “Well, not that I know of, but twenty bucks says one of the stunt guys did something stupid.”
I laughed. “I’m not betting against that. You know they did.”
“Mm-hmm. And they can answer to Natalya if they can’t work.”
I grimaced. “I think I’d rather be under the tree than piss her off.”
“Smart man. Smart man.” She let out a quiet laugh, then sighed. “Okay. I need to start making some calls. The insurance company is going to be thrilled.”
“Okay.” I motioned toward the other soundstage. “Should we check in there? See if anything’s damaged or wet?”
Anna pursed her lips.
“It looks safe,” I said. “We might as well at least see if there’s anything we can cover up to prevent more water damage.”
She blew out a breath and nodded. “All right. Take Dan and have a look, but if anything is damaged, don’t touch it unless you’re putting a tarp over it to keep it dry. You hear me?”
“I hear you.” I gave her a mock salute. While she walked away to make her calls, I gestured for Dan to follow me. We stopped by the tool shed to get an armload of plastic drop cloths from one of the set designers’ cabinets and took those, along with a couple of high-powered flashlights and some sturdy gloves.
Dan only had keys to one of the tool sheds, but I had soundstage keys, so I let us in. The instant the door opened, an “Oh, fuck my life” escaped my lips. The soundstages were usually alive with activity, even when someone gave the “Quiet on the set” order. The place was eerily still without the hum of machinery and constant activity, but it wasn’t completely silent—the distinct sound of dripping water turned my gut to lead. I shined my flashlight inside. From here, everything looked intact, but with an inch of standing water on the concrete floor and more dripping from somewhere, I had no doubt we’d find some damage.
“Glad I won’t be the one footing the bill for this shit,” Dan grumbled.
“Yeah. Me too.” I stepped carefully inside, thankful my boots were watertight.
He muttered something I didn’t understand. Cautiously, we picked our way across the wet floor toward the sets. The interior of Gabriel Hanford’s bedroom was currently set up, since a shoot had been scheduled here today before everything’d had to be canceled.
We checked the set, and aside from a few pine needles, it appeared to be unscathed. The wardrobes where the costumes were hung looked like they were fine too, but I didn’t have a key to be sure. All I could do was drape plastic drop cloths over the tops of the wardrobes. At least then if any more water leaked into the building, it wouldn’t seep through and ruin the costumes. Assuming it hadn’t already.
“Aw, shit!” Dan called out from twenty feet or so away.
My head snapped up. “What?” I started toward the sound of his voice.
“Found a branch.” He huffed sharply. “Lighting is gonna shit themselves.”
I came around a corner to where the jail set was ready to roll and grimaced. Didn’t need the flashlight here—the hole in the wall lit up the place well enough. The bedroom interior set was going to need some serious work too. Sections of Sheetrock that hadn’t melted in the rain like the Wicked Witch of the West would need to be patched where debris had punctured them. An armchair that was supposed to look stained and moldy was soaked and covered in pine needles.
The branch that had ripped through the wall was almost the size of a tree itself. It had to be at least six inches in diameter, and God only knew how fast it had been going.
And, like a well-aimed arrow, it hadn’t landed harmlessly on the floor. No, it had gone right through the glass and bulb of a floodlight, smashing through the middle like it was a bull’s-eye.
Dan cocked his head. “Just needs a little gaffer’s tape, right? Good as new?”
I laughed dryly. “Yeah. That’s it.” Gaffer’s tape was more magical than duct tape, but even it couldn’t put this mess back together.
Fortunately, I didn’t belong to the “all the king’s horses and all the king’s men” union, so putting it all back together wasn’t my job.
The rumble of a diesel engine caught my attention.
“That the fire department?” Dan asked.
I went to the door and craned my neck to peer outside. The distinctive red truck rolled across the parking lot. “Yep.”
“Good. Maybe they’ll get that tree out of there so we can salvage shit from Soundstage Two.”
We continued surveying the damage, covering what we could in case the rain started up again, then headed outside to report to Anna.
She was standing where I’d left her, arms folded as she watched the firefighters work. They were bracing the tree with cables and the good-sized crane that had arrived. Probably to keep it from collapsing completely and taking more of the roof down with it.
Anna turned to me, brow pinched. “How’s it look?”
“Well.” I tucked my gloves into my belt. “It’s not as bad inside as Two probably is.”
She groaned. “How bad?”
“At least one set’s going to need some serious rebuilding. The rest just have some pine needles and a little water damage.” I paused. “And a branch went through the wall and into a floodlight. I couldn’t see if any of the other lights were damaged, but that one is fucked.”
Anna buried her face in her hands and swore. “Oh, fuck my life. I do not need this.”
Her phone chirped to life, muffled by her pocket, and she cursed as she pulled it out. “I have to take this.”
“Sure, no problem.”
The other grips were standing near the fire truck, talking while they watched the firefighters working, so I headed their way.
I wasn’t ten feet away from my coworkers when two firefighters stepped around the end of the truck, and I halted so sharply I almost slipped on the wet ground.
Okay, so firefighters were gorgeous by nature—I was pretty sure it was a requirement, even for volunteers like these guys. And the one on the left was cute. A bit young, but cute.
He wasn’t the reason I’d stopped in my tracks, though.
The other guy . . . holy shit. He was easily forty, maybe a little older. Nobody in his twenties had that kind of faintly weathered look with salt-and-pepper hair. Only age sharpened somebody’s features like that. In his younger days, he’d probably been cute like the guy next to him, but now he was fucking hot.
And I . . . was . . . staring. Noticeably.
The younger one nudged the older guy. “I’m going to go see if they need any help.”
The older guy nodded. When we were alone, he extended his hand. “Aaron Tucker.”
“Shane Andrews.” I shook his hand, surprised I remembered my own name.
“You work here?” He had the voice of a smoker, not to mention the lines at the corners of his mouth.
And he’d asked a question. A simple one, right? Shit.
I cleared my throat. “Yeah. I, uh, work here. I’m a grip.”
He cocked his head. “A what now?”
“A grip. I, uh . . .” Know how to speak. Right? “I put up the rigging for cameras and lights. Stuff like that.”
His ears perked up a little. “Oh, so you know your way around the equipment inside, then.”
“Hmm.” He absently rubbed his scruffy chin with the backs of his fingers. “Now that the tree is stabilized, you might want to check inside to see if there’s any equipment we can move out of the way. There’s always a chance of branches snapping off, or the trunk breaking while we’re moving it.” He met my gaze. “Maybe you could come in with—”
“Oh, no,” Anna’s voice came out of nowhere, and I turned to see her approaching. “Nope. Can’t send any of my people in there.”
Aaron scowled but shrugged. “It’s your call.”
I cleared my throat. “Anna, he might be right.”
They both looked at me.
The double scrutiny was unsettling even though I normally wasn’t intimidated by her in the slightest, and I’d just met him. Ignoring both her gaze and the intensity of his—is it legal for a man to be that hot?—I motioned toward the soundstage. “Uh, it might not be a bad idea to go in there with him. If there’s any equipment that hasn’t been damaged yet, but could be when they go to move the tree, maybe we can still get it out of the way. Or at least away from the damaged wall in case more comes down.” I grimaced. “Some of that rigging is fragile as hell—even a piece of the roof or a small branch could mangle it.”
Aaron nodded. “The tree is stable, and the roof is only compromised on one side. It wouldn’t hurt to have one of them come in with us.”
Anna gnawed her lip. I knew exactly what she was thinking—my union and the insurance companies would hit the already damaged roof if they knew I’d gone into the building before it was deemed absolutely safe. As it was, going into the other soundstage could get us in trouble. But, at the same time, if that tree snapped and smashed another lighting rig or the camera cage, the bean counters would lose their minds. I wouldn’t put it past them to look the other way about putting people in danger if it meant salvaging valuable equipment. Given some of that expensive shit in there, it was probably worth putting a grip or two in some moderate danger.
“All right,” she said quietly. “Shane, go in with him and see what you can do. Don’t do anything stupid, okay?”
I nodded and didn’t try to make a joke about Who, me? Normally, I’d banter with her like she was another grip, but she was not in the mood today. And, besides, the only stupid thing I wanted to do right then had nothing to do with the soundstage and everything to do with the man I’d be following inside.
Holy fuck, Shane. What is wrong with you?
Cheeks burning, I cleared my throat and tried not to stare at the guy. Again. Still. Whatever.
“Let me grab a flashlight,” Aaron said. “Then we can go have a look.”
Anna made an unhappy noise. “I don’t like this at all.” She glared at the damaged building. To Aaron, she said, “At least get him a hard hat, would you?”
“Will do.” He disappeared around the side of the truck.
As soon as we were alone, she pointed sharply at me. “I’m not kidding, Shane. I shouldn’t even be letting you go in there, so if you get so much as a splinter—”
“I’ll be fine.” I put up my hands. “I’ll go in, give everything a quick look, and if we can move anything, I’ll tell him.”
She winced, probably envisioning all manner of catastrophes that could happen if the firefighters didn’t carefully handle some of that delicate gear.
Aaron reappeared and handed me a hard hat. “Let’s go.”
I hesitated, raising my eyebrows at Anna. You sure?
She pursed her lips, took a deep breath, and then nodded before turning to answer yet another call. I didn’t envy her the people she’d be dealing with today.
Gloves and hard hat on, I followed Aaron toward the soundstage. As I did, I reminded myself we had a job to do. That my place of work was a literal disaster, and Anna was counting on me to minimize the damage to expensive equipment before anyone tried to move that tree.
So stop drooling over the firefighter and get your head together.
As I fell into step beside him, I stared straight ahead. One thing was for sure—between envying my coworkers and ogling him, this was a clear sign it was time for me to get back into the dating game. Divorce number two had been final for six months, and he’d been gone for six months prior. That was to say nothing of the month or two we’d spent sleeping as far apart as our king-sized bed would allow. Which made it well over a year since I’d been laid.
It wasn’t that I hadn’t wanted to. There just never seemed to be time.
One look at Aaron, though, and I was already mentally shuffling my schedule around. Perhaps not the best timing in the world, given that there was a goddamned tree on top of my workplace, but terrible timing pretty much summed up my life, so why not?
Today, I told myself as I unlocked the door to the battered soundstage, I’d do as much as I could to help clean up this mess.
And tonight, the second I had a minute to myself, I was downloading whatever app everyone was using this week to get laid.
If this had been the scene of a fire or some massive earthquake damage, I’d never have even thought of taking someone into the building with me, hard hat or no. As it was, I kept an eye on Shane to make sure he stayed clear of the branches and the pieces of debris dangling precariously above us.
This structure was compromised, but not the way it would’ve been after a fire or a quake. With the tree braced and the wind relatively quiet, nothing was moving. Still, I kept an eye on it while Shane and I carefully made our way through the building.
A piece of the aluminum rattled, drawing my attention upward. It swayed a little, and some of the tree’s branches fluttered. The wind was picking up slightly for the first time since the storm had died down. Hopefully that wasn’t a sign that we were in for a second wind, so to speak. If it picked up even a little bit more, I was sending Shane out of here. No amount of equipment was worth injuring someone, even if property owners often seemed to think otherwise.
The damage was nasty, and I didn’t envy whoever drew the short straw for cleanup detail, but the building and its interior weren’t a total loss. Most of the structure was intact. The exterior wall had held up the tree, keeping it from crashing all the way down. A chunk of the roof had collapsed onto the sets and equipment below while the rest dangled over our heads. And there was standing water everywhere.
It was so weird to see the Wolf’s Landing set like this. I’d been here before when it had been all intact and fully active. There’d been a minor fire last year, and another falling tree had done some damage to one of the smaller buildings. We’d warned the production company the other trees might come down if the weather went to shit, but I’d heard later that they’d taken one look at the estimates for having them removed and decided not to bother. Way to go, idiots.
I was usually happy to come here because most of the time—today being an exception—they were filming. I’d get a little thrill because I’d get to grab an in-person eyeful of the cast. This job didn’t pay, but it sure had its perks sometimes.
And, somehow, I’d never noticed Shane.
I sure noticed him now, though. Holy shit. And, hey, part of my job currently meant watching him closely to make sure he stayed out of harm’s way while he inspected the equipment. Perfect opportunity to steal some decidedly unprofessional glances.
Shane’s hair was long enough for the wind to blow the odd black curl into his face, which he’d casually bat away just in time for another breeze to push it back into his eyes. It probably wasn’t as messy without the wind. Whatever—it was long enough for a man to really grab on to.
The thought made my breath catch, and I actually stumbled.
Shane turned around. “You all right?”
“Yeah. Yeah.” I coughed and gestured at the inch of standing water at our feet. “Just a little slick right here.”
He nodded. “Watch out for the cords too.”
“Thanks.” On the way in, he’d warned me about cords taped to the floor and hiding under the water near the sets. Damn. Could’ve used one of those as an excuse for tripping.
We kept walking—me a little more cautiously than before—and I stole another look at him. What was it about this guy? He was sure as hell easy on the eyes. He had two or three inches on me, so he was probably hovering around six foot. Shortly after we’d walked in, he’d taken off his jacket and walked with it under his arm while I checked out everything he’d been hiding underneath. He was slim like a runner, with arms and shoulders that said he didn’t only run. I could even forgive the Raiders T-shirt, and if it came down to it, I’d allow that awful thing on my bedroom floor.
The toe of my boot caught on something under the water—probably one of the cords he’d mentioned—but I didn’t stumble. I did, however, pull my attention away from Shane’s structure to focus on the structure we were walking through.
“So, anything that isn’t damaged now . . .” He looked at me. “What’s at risk? When your guys start moving the tree?”
I gestured to indicate an invisible line beginning a few feet from where we stood. “Anything from here back is most likely out of the way. The farther anything is from the tree, the safer it is, but there’s no guarantees once we start moving it or cutting into it.”
Shane scanned our surroundings. His shoulders sagged a bit, and he shook his head. “I don’t think there’s much to save that we can get to without somebody getting hurt.” Pointing over his shoulder, he added, “The camera cage is safe, so that’s a plus.”
“The camera cage. Where we lock up the cameras at night. Oh man, the studio would be pissed if those got fucked up. Bad enough somebody tried to break in once and . . .” He waved his hand. “Anyway. The cameras are safe. The lights are . . .” His eyes flicked up toward the ruined ceiling. “Well, the gaffers have been pushing to replace some lights and electrical, so I guess there’s a silver lining here.”
“Apparently there is.” I nodded toward the area with the most damage. “You see anything from here that might be salvageable?”
Shane adjusted his jacket under his arm and held up his flashlight. “There’s some lights over there.” He pointed with the flashlight beam. “I can’t tell from here if they’re intact, but it wouldn’t hurt to get them out of here.”
I clicked on my radio. “Tucker to Jensen. Over.”
“Go ahead. Over.”
“I’ve got some equipment inside the damaged structure. Lighting equipment. Looks like it’ll take three or four people to move some of this shit. Over.”
“Sending bodies in now. How soon until we can move this tree? Over.”
“Depends on how long it takes to get this equipment out of here. Over.”
As footsteps came in through the door on the other end of the building, I turned to Shane. “You stay over here. We’ll get it moved.”
He gulped. “Okay. Be careful, though. This shit’s expensive.”
I smiled. “We’re always careful. It’s what we do.”
He held my gaze, then managed a slight but knee-shaking smile.
Turned out he was right about the lights. One was smashed pretty badly, but three very expensive-looking rigs were intact, if a little wet and dirty. While we were moving those, we found some stands, what I assumed was audio equipment, and a few rolling cabinets marked PROPS and LIGHTING. It was all unscathed and reasonably dry, so we took those out too.
By the time all was said and done, we’d moved enough gear away from the tree to fill a shipping container. The woman in charge was visibly relieved, and so was Shane. God knew how much money had been crunched under that toppled cedar.
While Shane, Anna, and their coworkers started cataloging the rescued equipment, my guys and I started on the tree. We had to cut off the branches, then cut the trunk into pieces and carefully remove each chunk with the crane. Oh the excitement of a small-town volunteer firehouse. Safer than parachuting into a wildfire. Not nearly as thrilling.
Every once in a while, as we both worked on our respective tasks, I’d catch sight of Shane again, and my whole body would respond. What the hell? It wasn’t like I hadn’t been getting laid recently. I made liberal use of a premium membership on Grindr and a couple of other apps.
But Shane caught me off guard. Not only the first time I’d looked at him—every time I looked at him. There was something about him that fucked up my focus and nearly made me trip over my own feet. Good thing I wasn’t handling a chainsaw today, or I’d have lost a leg by now.
You’re being stupid. Concentrate before somebody gets hurt.
I pulled my gaze away from him for the millionth time and gathered some branches Jensen had cut off the tree. I carried them to the pile we were making off to the side of the lot. The production company could deal with them from there—I just needed them out of my crew’s way.
With the relatively safe task of moving branches, I let my mind sneak back to the gorgeous guy in the Raiders shirt. I tried not to read too much into the way he’d stopped and stared at me outside. He hadn’t even been subtle about it. There was no mistaking that he was looking at me and not Jensen, who would’ve kicked my ass in any kind of “Who’s hotter?” poll.
I hadn’t minded a bit, because I’d been staring right back at him. One look and my brain had been instantly full of impure thoughts instead of structural concerns and the best way to take down that tree without causing more damage.
I shook myself and dropped some more branches onto the growing pile, pretending my heartbeat wasn’t drowning out the sounds of voices, chainsaws, and the grumbling diesel engine.
This wasn’t like me. What the fuck?
Except I had been a bit of a horndog lately. Should’ve jerked off last night while I’d had the chance. Maybe then I’d be thinking with my big brain today instead of letting my dick lead me around.
Well, too late now. I had a job to do.
I know what I’ll be logging in to tonight, though . . .
* * * * * * *
By the time the day was over, I’d helped de-tree the soundstage, two houses, and the bank. I’d picked up more branches off more roads, cars, and mailboxes than I had in a long time. The whole town was a mess, especially the roads. Thank God for all the rain—the last thing anybody’d needed today was a damn wildfire.
Shuffling into the house at almost nine, I ached in places that hadn’t ached in ages. My left knee hurt like a son of a bitch, but that was normal. It didn’t even need a day of hard work for that.
Immediately, my dog and two of my cats came thundering into the kitchen. Jack almost bowled me over, wagging his tail hard enough to damn near dent the oven door, the wall, and the cats.
“Hey, hey.” I laughed, crouching down as much as my knee allowed and wrapping my arms around his neck. “Easy, buddy. I’m home.”
He whined and wiggled—typical boxer—as I patted his back.
“Did you guys miss me?” I asked as he tried to lick my face. “Did you?”
Obviously Jack had, and I wouldn’t have denied for a second that I’d missed them like crazy too. I’d been worried sick about them during the storm, so my neighbor had stayed over last night to keep them company while I was at the firehouse. I owed her a bottle of wine and a summer’s worth of lawn mowing for putting up with my constant texts to make sure they’d been all right.
As Jack settled down—sort of—the cats came closer. Snowball kept a wary eye on the dog’s tail, but Oreo trotted right up and rubbed against my leg, purring loudly.
“I know, I know.” I scratched behind Oreo’s ears. “I would’ve been home if I could’ve. I’m sorry.”
Snowball finally came closer, and she too rubbed against my leg and purred. By this point, Tiger had materialized, but she kept her distance—close enough to keep an eye on me and take any offers of food, but not so close I might pet her. She’d been a feral cat, maybe three or four months old, when I’d found her shivering in my shop. Though she’d mostly adapted to the indoor life, she still wasn’t what I’d call friendly yet.
I smirked at her. “You missed me too and you know it, cat.”
As if to assure me she hadn’t, she started licking her paw.
“Ungrateful bitch,” I muttered. “All right, guys. Let me get a beer so we can watch TV.” I rose slowly, using the counter for support and grumbling all the way up because my knee was not happy. Once I was on my feet, I gingerly rubbed my back. “Gettin’ too old for this shit.”
They patiently waited while I pulled a beer from the fridge and made myself a sandwich. When I headed for the living room, they followed as they always did—Jack on my heels with Snowball and Oreo avoiding his tail, and Tiger slinking a few feet behind.
Joints groaning, I eased myself onto the couch. “Definitely too old.” I put my beer and sandwich on the end table and reached for the coffee table to get my laptop, but of course, my dog picked that moment to throw himself across my lap.
“Really?” I said.
He looked up and tried to slurp me in the face, but I gently nudged his head away.
Across the room, Tiger eyed us all, refusing to come closer but not letting my turkey sandwich out of her sight.
Jack stayed in my lap with his chin on the armrest. I didn’t mind. At least when I had all eighty pounds of him sprawled across my lap, he wasn’t whipping me with that damn tail. The cats, on the other hand . . . well, if they were smart, they’d get out of the way.
After I’d eaten—sharing with the animals, of course—I took out my phone. I rested my forearms on Jack and pulled up the Grindr app like I always did in the evenings. I didn’t see myself going out tonight, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t look.
There were a few new profiles. Two right here in Bluewater Bay for once instead of clear out in Port Angeles. I had to give Wolf’s Landing props—for as much as people said the show had killed the small-town atmosphere, it had given rise to a thriving queer community. Some people complained about that too. I was not one of them.
I pulled up the first of the two new profiles. Meh. Cute, but I had twenty years on him. Not that twenty-five-year-olds were bad in bed, and God knew I’d had my fair share of younger men who dug older guys like me, but maybe not while I was sore and gimpy after a long day on the engine. When I didn’t feel quite so close to my age, I’d check him out again.
I moved on to the next profile and jumped enough to make Jack lift his head.
That wasn’t . . . was it?
I tapped the profile and looked closer at the picture.
Holy shit, yeah. That was him. Hell, he was wearing the same unholy Raiders T-shirt he’d had on this morning. That godawful shirt that suddenly had a slightly higher chance of winding up on my bedroom floor.
His profile was pretty sparse, but he’d filled in the basics at least.
33. Bisexual. Within 10 miles.
My heart sped up. Okay, so maybe I did have the energy to go out tonight if this guy was on the menu.
I gently nudged Jack off my lap. He flopped down next to me, and I absently petted his ears while I shifted around to get comfortable. Once we were situated, I continued through Shane’s profile.
New to the scene, looking to break a long dry spell.
A dry spell? Really? He didn’t seem like someone who could possibly be wanting for cock. If he was, though, I was more than happy to step up. If he was new to the scene, he might be fresh out of a relationship. Which meant he might be itching for some rebound sex. That, too, was a service I happily provided.
I kept reading. He wasn’t into BDSM and didn’t say if he was a top or bottom. Considering every guy I’d hooked up with recently had been a power top, I hoped that meant he was either a bottom or versatile. Not that I minded tops, but I did like to switch things around once in a while.
And the thought of topping him or bottoming for him . . . yes, please. So many possibilities. Plus there was that look we’d exchanged when we’d first seen each other this morning. Did that mean I had a shot?
Only one way to find out.
I tapped the chat function and sent him a quick message.
Hey, you look familiar.
Of course, immediately after I sent it and couldn’t take it back, I realized how stalkery and creepy that could sound, so I quickly added, It’s Aaron. From this morning.
No response. A moment later, his green light went dark.
Well, shit. Not much I could do about that. I’d tried. I’d failed.
I put my phone on the armrest and clicked on the TV. I had a few episodes of Wolf’s Landing that I hadn’t watched yet, but I didn’t have the focus for that tonight. I’d probably spend half the time thinking about one of the people behind the scenes, which meant I wouldn’t pay attention to the show at all since I already spent half the time thinking about the actors. Pity I hadn’t known Levi Pritchard was gay back before Wolf’s Landing. Back when I used to see him on the rare occasion he’d venture into town. Maybe I’d have worked up the balls to approach him.
The thought made me chuckle. A grizzled old actor and a grizzled old firefighter. Wouldn’t that have been a match made in geriatric heaven?
I continued browsing for something to watch. My Netflix queue was almost empty. Damn. Either some new seasons needed to start, or I needed to find some new shows, because—
My phone vibrated, startling both me and Snowball. She kicked the back of my head, then thwacked it with her tail for good measure.
Ignoring her, I picked up the phone. Holy shit—was that a message from him?
I opened the app, and sure enough, he’d responded.
Hi. Didn’t expect to see you on here.
I couldn’t tell if that meant he was annoyed or just surprised, so I sent back a benign, Never know who you’re going to stumble across.
LOL so I’m noticing.
I tapped my fingers on the sides of my phone, trying to come up with something else to say. This was a lot different from checking each other out at work. The fact that we were having this conversation on Grindr meant some very specific things were on the table, and I knew from experience how quickly a badly judged comment could torpedo everything.
He was the first to break the silence.
Sorry. Still figuring out how to use this thing. Never been on before.
Well, it was something to keep the conversation going. Yeah, you said you’ve been on a dry spell.
Yep. Long story. Longer dry spell.
I gnawed my lip, thumbs hovering over the keys as I debated my approach.
Shane beat me to it—Any chance I could talk you into a drink?
Talk me into it? I chuckled. Oh if he only knew.
But I didn’t let on and simply wrote back, When/where?
Disappointment tried to close in, but hey, I’d still get to meet up with him even if it wasn’t tonight. I doubted I had the energy to do much tonight anyway. As it was, the critters and I would probably fall asleep right here.
So I wrote back, Tomorrow night is great.
Perfect. 8? Friends & Neighbors?
See you then.
Great. Have to run for now. Looking forward to it.
You & me both. ;)
I sent the message, then rested my head against Snowball and scratched the back of Jack’s neck.
Tomorrow. Eight o’clock. I could wait that long.
Friends & Neighbors had opened downtown a few months ago. It wasn’t a gay bar per se, but it had unofficially become the hangout and hookup spot for Bluewater Bay’s thriving queer community. I’d been here a few times with friends, and it was one of those public places where men could be flirty and affectionate with other men without watching their backs. On paper, it had seemed like a good place to meet Aaron for a drink.
In practice, I wasn’t so sure. Especially now that I was here.
What am I doing?
I couldn’t say I was all that surprised he’d found me on Grindr last night, or that he’d found me so quickly. This was a small town. Even with the influx of queer people working on Wolf’s Landing, there were only so many of us.
Hell, I’d been on the app for all of an hour and had found two coworkers, a former neighbor, and someone I was pretty sure had been my daughter’s history teacher last year. There’d been a thumbnail of a gorgeous African American man with long braids, and I’d tapped because I thought he looked familiar even though I couldn’t see his face, and—oh hello, ex-husband’s tattoo.
So if two men in this town were on the app, the odds of them finding each other were pretty good. But, damn, what were the odds of me losing my mind at the sight of a gorgeous firefighter, only to have him ping me on Grindr that evening? I wasn’t going to spend too much time calculating it. I was more interested in waiting for him to show up for some drinks before we . . . Were we really doing this?
Did meeting on Grindr and coming here automatically mean we were going to wind up in bed tonight? I’d been pretty clear on my profile that all I wanted was to get laid. So had he. But what if he just wanted an actual drink? With someone he’d happened to bump into on the job, and then on Grindr? What if I made a move and he rejected me because, hey, Shane, you dork, this wasn’t that kind of meetup?
I closed my eyes and sighed. It was stupid to be this nervous. I wasn’t a kid, for God’s sake. I’d been on dates before. Blind dates. Internet meet-ups. First dates. Second dates. Third dates that never should have happened.
But I hadn’t done any of that for the last six years. And never one-night stands. Or casual hookups. Or any of this shit.
I gulped as I sat there in the booth, tapping my nails on a half-empty beer bottle while I waited for Aaron to show up so I could find a way to screw up my first sort-of-date with someone new in six years.
Six years. Wow. Had it really been that long? Man, it had. I’d spent a little under five of those with Leo, and somehow we’d wedged an entire life into that period. A first date, a second date, a weekend together, meeting the kids, moving in, getting engaged, getting married, moving here, drifting apart, falling apart, blowing apart, divorcing.
Now we’d moved on. In fact, with the divorce behind us, we were actually civil. The kids adored him, so when I’d asked if they minded staying at his place tonight, they’d jumped at the chance, and so had he. God bless the man—he’d treated them all like they were his own from day one, and that hadn’t changed when we’d split up.
“Got a date tonight, huh?” he’d asked cautiously when I’d dropped them off.
“How’d you guess?”
Leo had laughed, eyeing me over his glasses. “Because I know you, and I can see how nervous you are from here.” He’d gently nudged my arm. “Good luck. The kids will be fine here.” That last part had never worried me. Not even for a second.
So I’d left them with him, and now I was here. In a bar. Waiting for Aaron. Acting like I had one-tenth of a clue what I was doing.
It wasn’t like it was too soon. My marriage was cold in the grave. Leo had already had and broken up with a boyfriend. Why the hell had I even waited this long?
Oh, that was easy. From day one, I’d made all kinds of excuses for not getting back in the saddle. Needed to focus on my kids. Wanted to concentrate on my job. Didn’t feel like meeting anyone and going through the motions. Didn’t even care if I ever saw another person naked again.
And that was all true, but it really came down to one thing: I was terrified of failing again. Both of my marriages had ended in disaster. At least I was civil with my ex-husband and ex-wife. He still made an effort to be involved with the kids even though they weren’t his, and she did her best to see them as regularly as she could. That was more than I could say for Desiree’s egg donor, wherever the hell she was now.
I kneaded my forehead. Nothing made wild, unattached sex more appealing than a shitty track record of actual relationships. It was just . . . not something I’d done before. Did I want to? I had last night, especially when I’d made my Grindr profile and specifically stated I wanted sex, nothing else.
And Aaron’s profile was similar. Which meant that was where this was going—into someone’s bedroom. And . . . then . . . what? How the hell did this even work? Shit, maybe I should’ve asked Dan and Jase for a primer. Except that would have meant admitting I’d always been a wait-till-the-third-date kind of guy, and something told me I’d never hear the end of it if my (enviably) sluttier coworkers caught wind of that.
I groaned into the empty booth and took another swallow of beer. Aaron wasn’t due for another ten minutes, so I looked up his profile again, as if it might offer some magic piece of information I hadn’t already caught the first fifty times I’d read it.
46. Gay. Vers.
That last part had given me pause. He must’ve quit, then. Good. That was a plus. I had to admit, though, I liked what the old habit had done to his voice.
Prefer as few strings as possible.
Have pets — if you’re allergic to cats/don’t like dogs, my place won’t work.
If you don’t like kissing, don’t bother.
That last line made my heart race and my mouth water. I loved kissing, and I’d been married to a man who was both indifferent about it and not very good at it. At this point, if Aaron showed up and suggested we go make out in a movie theater like a couple of teenagers, I’d be putty in his hands.
My heart sped up. Shit, maybe I really could do this. Was it such a huge leap from making out in a theater—something I’d done during my brief period as a horny childless teenager—to getting naked in bed? Neither of us were virgins. We both presumably knew what we were doing. And, hey, no one was getting pregnant.
At that thought, I actually laughed out loud. Was that why I’d been more interested in men than women lately? Fuck. Seven years, and apparently I still didn’t completely trust that vasectomy. Eh, couldn’t be too careful.
And regardless of my phobia of another accidental pregnancy, the fact was Aaron would have turned my head no matter what. He was insanely sexy. According to his Grindr profile, he was also exactly what I’d been craving for a long, long time. All wrapped up in one hot package.
As surreptitiously as I could—though the booth I’d chosen was in the back and the place was pretty dim—I adjusted the front of my pants. Yeah, so maybe I wouldn’t want us to only make out, but it would be a damn good start.
I read over his profile again and zeroed in on one line in particular.
Prefer as few strings as possible.
I chewed my lip. He wanted the same thing I did—sex and nothing else. Question was, what came after that? How did this work? Did we shake hands, walk away, move on with our lives, and not do it again? What if we liked the sex? Was a two-night stand too much?
I was getting ahead of myself. We’d meet. We’d see where tonight went. And after that . . . I’d think of something.
And there he was.