Lillian Banks’ career took off like a house on fire and she’s on top of the world. Great job that she loves, moved to a great city, into an opulent new condo, in one of the world’s premier smart buildings no less; all she was missing was the kind of romance to set her soul aflame. She thought she’d found it but instead, found herself burned.
Backdraft knows what it’s like to get burned and not just by fire. His ex, Torri, did quite the number on him recently by banging one of his firehouse bros behind his back. He’s sworn off love and dating altogether for the time being and is happier for it. He just wishes he could get the time he wasted with that crazy skank back again.
Out of the ashes, an unlikely friendship is formed. Backdraft and Lilli could find themselves rising if only they can get past their hurts and give things a chance. Of course, lasting happiness is no guarantee, no matter how much they might burn for each other. After all, sometimes what was doesn’t want to let go.
“Look, I’m sorry, I… I never expected things to go this far, but being with you… I’m sorry, Lillian; it just showed me how much I love her. Reminded me why I fell in love with her in the first place.”
The woman abruptly pulled her hands from his and put them in her lap, those wide, storm-chased blue eyes of hers finally letting loose, twin crystalline tears slipping over the careful makeup she’d put on before their date, tracking mascara down her cheeks.
“I can’t believe I’m hearing this,” she uttered, her voice hollow, and I knew that feeling, too. I put things together with lightning speed.
This guy was breaking up with his side chick and the side chick had absolutely no idea there even was a main.
That was a new kind of low, even for me.
“Did I just hear that dude say what I think I did?” Golden demanded, and I held up a hand and waved him off. Aly’s face was set in surprise as I abruptly walked away from the table. Yale held his girl practically in his lap, protectively, and I was struck by how this piece of shit should be doing the same to the petite little thing across from him. Instead, he was smashing her heart with a ball-peen hammer, and in one of the most humiliating ways possible, to boot.
The motion of my stalking away from our table caught those devastated blue eyes of hers and she made eye contact with me. I got the full brunt of the pain she was desperately trying to mask and god, wasn’t that a familiar ache?
My heart went out to her, and I read clearly the pleading in her eyes for me not to intercede, but chose to misinterpret it. I couldn’t ignore what was going on right in front of me. I wouldn’t. Some pains were indeed private, but she needed to get the hell away from this guy, like yesterday.
“I’ll be back later,” I muttered at Golden who’d kept pace with me, and with a shrug, he broke off and went back to his beer. He didn’t say a word; neither did Blaze, who I caught out of the corner of my eye, leaning back on his stool. They both knew better.
I stopped next to the woman and eyed the sleazebag. She was pointedly not looking at me, but I had to give her big ups. She wasn’t looking at the table, either. She was looking the douche right in his eyes, and I could see the high spots of color on her cheeks, even beneath her muddy makeup. She was angry, and she had every fucking right to be.
Who the fuck did somebody like that?
The guy was trying like hell to remain friends or some shit – I wasn’t really paying attention. I was all about the woman. She was staring up at me now, a spark of defiance in her eyes as the man tried to wave me off saying, “We’re fine right now; can’t you see we’re talking?”
“One, I’m not your waiter,” I said. “And two, are you all right, ma’am?”
“No,” she said, calmly and strongly.
“Is there anything I can do for you?” I asked.
“I would very much like to go home,” she said, evenly and politely.
“I think I can help you with that,” I said and held down a hand. She stared at it with only a moment’s hesitation, then took it, and I helped her to her feet. She dragged her little purse up after her and hung it off her shoulder and the dude’s hand flashed out, circling around her slender wrist.
Instant rage flared deep in my chest, just like my damn namesake, even though it wasn’t precisely what I was named for. A backdraft is when a fire starts in a sealed room and it damn-near burns itself out, right? Because it’s used up all the oxygen as fuel. Then someone, like a firefighter, like me, goes and opens the door. Suddenly, the fire is introduced to all of this oxygen ‒ its main food source‒ and it flares back to life, explodes, is meaner than it ever was and larger than life.
I felt that. All that pent-up anger and pissed-off at Torrid and what she’d done to me – to us, flared hot and dangerous and threatened to chew through this motherfucker alive.
I did what I did best. I fought the fire, poured reason on it like water, and went very still and controlled.
“Let her go,” I said, and I think he picked up on my tone because the cage of his fingers released and I drew her away from him, put her behind me, and squared off, facing the guy, looking down on him from all six-foot-four-inches of my height.
“Hey,” he said, and I was struck by how handsome he was. Vastly different from Mark, for sure. He was over a foot taller than me, for one, where Mark had only been around eight to nine inches taller. He was also built much different: broader through the shoulders and powerfully-muscled. Where Mark was fit in a runner’s build sort of way, Backdraft was more built to work, which, as a firefighter, I’m sure he did. I looked him over and silently appreciated. He wore his leather biker jacket open over a soft-looking, broken-in gray Henley that hugged his chest. Over the jacket was the vest full of patches and I swallowed hard, unsure about that part, but a little late to go back now; he was walking towards me.
“Hi,” I murmured back as he came out to stand with me, thrusting his hands in his jeans pockets the way I had mine thrust into my coats.
“You found the place,” he said with a warm grin, and I do believe he was as nervous as I was, which honestly didn’t help me feel any less awkward. Not in the slightest. Damnit.
“Look, I, uh… I really am thinking that this might have been a bad idea. I’m sure you’re a very nice man, Backdraft. In fact, I know you’re a very nice man, giving me a ride home like that, but I just don’t know that I’m ready to do this, I mean, date, anyone.” I shifted on my feet, squirming under his gaze as his smile grew wider.
“Oh, you thought I was asking you on a date?”
I froze and felt my face set into stone, my natural reflex when I thought I was about to take a hit on an emotional level that I just wasn’t prepared for. He put up his hands as if to ward something off, and he cried, “No! Shit! Bad joke! That didn’t come out right at all. That totally didn’t come out like I meant it to, I’m seriously just trying to say I’m not ready to date either. Please don’t take that the way it sounded, I’m begging you. I’m serious, I just invited you out to get to know you better. I was hoping we could, literally, just be friends.”
I sucked in a deep breath and when I let it out, it plumed in the cooling air. I took my eyes off of him and turned my head to stare up the sidewalk, trying to decide if he were being genuine or not or if this was a setup for a laugh at the rich bitch’s expense.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. I thought to myself. Five years ago, I would have said it was for a laugh at the poor girl’s expense. Truthfully, money didn’t change a whole hell of a lot.
“I really screwed that up, didn’t I?” he asked and he sounded genuinely rueful.
I looked back at him and sighed out. “No, I’m just having a really hard time trusting anyone right now.” I put a hand to my forehead and nearly drowned in my frustration and apprehension.
“Let’s try this again,” he suggested, walking our encounter back. “Hey, Lillian. Glad you could make it. This place has some really great food and I was hoping to get to know you better, you know, as just friends.” He even stuck out his hand, it was kind of adorable. I couldn’t help but smile.
I debated for several heartbeats and lowered my fingertips from my forehead where I’d looked at him past my hand. I took his offered hand, giving it a shake and said, “Hi, Backdraft, I’m glad I could make it, too.” I laughed nervously. “I could really use a glass of wine, do they have anything good here?”
He grinned broadly, his hazel eyes sparkling under the streetlight. He let go of my hand and turned, giving me the ‘after you’ gesture, hand palm-up in front of his body. I went to the door and he stepped up first, pushing it open for me. We stopped at the ‘Please Wait to Be Seated’ sign and he caught the bartender’s attention and held up two fingers. The bartender, a man in his fifties but still in good shape, with a thick head of salt-and-pepper hair and matching beard, craned his head on his neck to sweep the restaurant floor with his gaze. He held up seven fingers in return and Backdraft gave a nod.
He took me gently by the elbow and said, “Come on, this way.”
Text Copyright © 2018 A.J. Downey
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental.
All Rights Reserved