Dangerous Beauty

Some Like It Hot

Roscoe James

 

Chapter 1

Stephanie Irene Noland, Sin to her hose mates, pulled on the leg of her spandex running shorts, cleared her throat, and hocked a big one on the side of the road like a dock worker. The sun beat down hard as Satan’s hammer and brought to mind flash temperatures in a closed room. She ran her bare arm across her forehead to keep the sweat out of her eyes and looked across the crowd of bystanders with a squint.

“So when’s this cattle call get started, Jack?”

Jack Johnson, JJ around the firehouse and Stephie’s partner, uncapped a bottle of water and poured it over his head. “Wha’da you care, Sin? You get off on this shit. This is right down your alley. You still think you’re some grunt Marine in Iraq shakin’ your pretty ass for the bad guys.”

Stephie kicked pea gravel along the berm of State Road 14 south of Medlin, Colorado and shaded her eyes against the hot August sun. She looked across the heads of the freakin’ assed tourists, affectionately referred to by the firehouse crew as FATs, gathered for this year’s annual Fire Bucket Brigade race. She wanted to find Tom Manning, prick extraordinaire, before he found her. The Fire Chief at Denver’s Station House 15, Tom had shown up after Stephie’s first appearance in Medlin’s annual fireman’s calendar. From day one Tom’s pick-up attempts had been laughable. As that year’s Brigade week had worked its way to the climactic ten-mile run, Stephie had continued to rebuff Tom’s come-ons but things had finally become nasty. When he’d accosted her outside Roscoe’s, a local watering hole and tourist trap, she’d promptly snapped his wrist without breaking a sweat. From that moment on the annual Brigade run had turned into a grudge match

“You’re a sexist pig, JJ.” Stephie sniffed in disapproval.

Jack obliged with a few rooting snorts and otherwise ignored her.

“Hell JJ. You’re just pissed ’cause I have more fans than you.”

Jack dropped to his knee and cinched his laces before retying his Nikes. “Yeah, well, I guess I could put on a helmet, red thong, turnout boots, and grab my nekkid boobs and get my fan base up too.”

Stephie laughed and stepped close, giving Jack a quick nipple pinch through his running shirt. “Just one problem with that, JJ.”

“Get off me, Sin. That shit hurts.” Jack knocked her hand away and feigned a pout. “So what’s the problem, tough girl?”

“You ain’t got no boobs to grab.”

They both laughed and Stephie snagged a bottle of water off a card table beside the road. Breaking the seal, she uncapped the bottle and poured the contents down the back of her white sleeveless running tee. Jeers and catcalls from the rest of her house followed seconds later.

Bob Sanchez, the number two ladder man, yelled, “Wrong side, Sin! S’posed to pour it down the front!

Stephie smiled. “You wish, Sanchez.”

Willy Axton, driver and hose man, smacked Sanchez on the shoulder. “Hell, Sanchez, if she does that, ever’body’ll be in front of her for the finish. Pourin’ it down her back like that, ever’body’ll be behind her. That’s how she wins every year.”

Stephie finally found Mr. Prick in the crowd and walked away, throwing Willy a bone as she did. “Damn, you guys are too smart for me. You’ve got it all figured out.” She gave her ass a wiggle before the crowd swallowed her up. Her audience applauded and whistled dutifully.

As an ex-Marine and Iraq vet, Stephie never hesitated to take the battle to the enemy. She balled her fist and hit an unsuspecting Tom on the upper arm hard enough that she knew it hurt. “What’s up, Dickhead?”

When Tom spun on his heel, ready to floor someone, Stephie smiled, daring him as she did. Tom recovered and tried for a casual smile. “Well, looky here, if it isn’t Miss December, come to wish us luck.”

The dicks from Battalion 15 jeered and a few slapped Tom on the back. Someone yelled for Stephie’s autograph. When she looked for the source of the request she saw one of Tom’s doofus minions sticking his hip out, a big hand shoving the side of his running shorts down so she could sign his bare right ass cheek. One bad apple does spoil the whole basket.

JJ showed up at Stephie’s elbow and said nothing. As her partner they didn’t need words. They both knew what the other was thinking before the thought even occurred.

“I just wanted to stop by and say hi before I beat your sorry ass again this year. I’m sure you won’t be talking to me later.”

“Hell, who’d want to? They sure got your month right. Frigid Miss December.”

Stephie stepped closer and looked down on Tom. At six-one she looked down on a lot of people, men included. Tom’s crew grew quiet. Killing would be too good for the little prick. “What can I say? I prefer men over little girls like you, Dickhead.”

JJ snickered as Tom turned fire-engine red. Before the prick could dig up a comeback Stephie turned on her heel and walked off with the sexiest wiggle she could manage. She smiled when Tom’s battalion started laughing their asses off. What no one in the crew knew was that they’d just made her day. Tom had provided the adrenaline rush that would make the first five miles of this year’s race a downhill walk-in-the-park.

JJ fell in beside her and, in spite of being shorter by six inches, matched her stride for stride. “You’re nuts, Sin. I’ve got a seventeen-year-old boy with more common sense than you.”

“Yeah, well, he’s probably getting laid on a regular basis, JJ. Ya gotta be careful around a woman that isn’t getting any. Makes PMS look like a walk in the park.”

“What the hell happened to Ed down at the barber shop?”

“Well, you know how the barber business is. Hair today, gone tomorrow.”

They made it back to the rest of the Medlin crew just as the mayor started calling the runners to the starting line with a bullhorn. Stephie grabbed another bottle of water and flicked the cap into a trash barrel as she walked past. One short swig and she poured the rest of the water on her head as she found a place at the starting line.

The mayor expounded on tradition and dedication while Stephie looked down the starting line. Tom was still as red as a lobster. Frowning as well. Which worked for her. Dumbass.

She threw the empty bottle aside and looked down the line one last time. She caught Tom turning away just as the mayor squeezed a round out of the starting gun. The runners surged and Stephie headed for the outer edge of the river of runners to let the FATs get it out of their system early. By the five-mile marker at Vulture’s Gully everyone but the serious contenders would be gone, she’d slide to the front, and listen to the rest fight for second and third as she breezed to victory.

Well, that was the plan anyway.

* * * *

Stephie counted her strides, a habit from boot camp, and focused twelve feet out on the rock-strewn hard pack road used by loggers, hikers, and fire crews. The five-mile marker had come and gone. The sun had passed its zenith and, surprisingly, the crowd of onlookers along the fire trail had not thinned. The mayor must be happy. As expected, no one was in front of her, but someone had been dogging her for the last five minutes and it was starting to annoy. Pride didn’t allow her to look over her shoulder to discover who it was but something didn’t feel right. The feeling was more in tune with a sweep in Bagdad than a competitor on her heel. She plodded on and focused on form and efficiency of movement. She was in the zone. The place where some part of her mind kept track of what her body was doing while the rest of her mind was free to wander at will.

She could hear a helicopter nearby. The mayor was on his way up to welcome the finishers.

When Silver Moon Lake slid by on her right at the six-mile point in the race she raised the pace and thought her pursuer would start to fade. She could hear the main pack of serious contenders further back. They’d fallen into a cadence that almost beat the ground as one. Two minutes later she realized her mind had drifted and her pursuer was even closer. Could it be someone from the crowd of onlookers?

Seven miles came and went and her pursuer had fallen in less than five strides behind her. His breathing was completely unlabored. The runner seemed to be loafing along. Watching my ass, no doubt. Could it be Tom?

Nearing eight miles a few others came up from the main pack to challenge. Stephie decided it was time to get serious. Not ready for a dash, she upped her pace again and was ticked off when the interloper matched her stride for stride. By the time they started up the other side of the small valley the pack and those that had split off had faded. She was alone with nature and some wise ass that was pushing her pace a little faster than she liked.

Stephie rounded a bend in the pines and caught sight of a few people in the crowd lining the road in odd spots pointing behind her. What? What the hell is the big deal? She upped her pace again as they both passed the nine-mile marker.

At nine-and-a-half miles the crowd of people on the right side of the road thickened and became noisy. An intrusion. To the left there was nothing but a two-hundred-foot drop off. Dead Man’s Drop. The runner on her back continued to match her stride for stride and she was more than pissed. She was furious. Stephie knew she had to be careful. The guy had already pushed her out of her zone and if she didn’t keep her head she could make a serious mistake. Glancing to her left she realized it could be a deadly mistake.

She stayed in the middle of the old dirt road running on the grassy knoll between the ruts to keep out of reach of the crowd that had started cheering and clapping.

With a quarter mile left, her chest on fire, her heart pounding, Stephie went in for the kill. Not an increase in pace; she broke out in a sprint and chanced a wicked smile, knowing that whoever was behind her would fade quickly. The crowd stopped cheering and started yelling. Her lungs were so tight she felt like she was running in a vacuum.

When footsteps hit the gravel-strewn rut off her left shoulder she nearly panicked. He’s going to pass me? Stephie couldn’t believe it. She could see the finish line and broke the cardinal rule of competition running. She glanced back and almost fell on her face. She didn’t see the face, just the shirt. A FAT? No way is a FAT going to beat me. A wide red ribbon at chest height strung between two wooden stakes waited, and she was determined to get there first. Her eyes fixed on the ribbon and she fell off the grass into the right hand rut and poured her heart into the last hundred yards. Her legs felt like lead and her arms burned with each swing. Mouth open, leaning forward, she lunged the last five feet for the ribbon.

People were yelling, the mayor had a strange surprised look on his face, and she grabbed for the red finish line as she leaned precariously. In a rush of noise and furious pats on her back it was over. Stephie had won. Again. Ensuring her place in the Medlin town library history book for the third year in a row.

She let her speed drop off in twenty strides and finally came to a stop still dragging the ribbon with her. Hands on her thighs, she stared at the hard pack around the base of the old ranger’s lookout tower and tried to catch her breath. When her heart settled and her knees stopped shaking she looked up just in time to see the pack she’d left behind come across the finish line. Stephie smiled when Tom was beat out for third by someone from another firehouse in the last five yards.

Then she looked around quickly trying to figure out who the other runner had been. The crowd closed in as about twenty runners came across the finish line and she had no way of finding the mystery man.

The mayor jogged up and raised her hand in victory. The crowd swarmed and JJ staggered over.

“Who…” JJ leaned on his knees, swallowed, and tried again. “Who the hell was that? Did you beat him?”

“Hell yes I beat him. No idea who he was. Never saw the guy.”

Someone showed up with bottles of water and she and JJ both uncapped and poured the contents on their heads. Jack was still gulping air when he managed to speak again.

“You almost got beat by a fucking FAT.”

Stephie spit and kicked the hard pack.

Yeah, I saw that.

* * * *

Stephie leaned against the tile wall of the shower and let the hot water pelt her back. Her body ached, her thighs and calves were tired and rubbery, and her arms still trembled. She didn’t care. She’d won. Her mother had called to congratulate her and ask who the great looking guy was that came across the finish line behind her.

“How did you know?”

“Oh, honey, you got two minutes on ESPN. They showed the finish. And you know, the guy had such a nice smile as he crossed the finish line. Who is he, dear?”

Yes, who is he? Long was all that was written in the official finish sheet. Never heard of him.

She shut the water off and grabbed a towel. In the bedroom of her modest bungalow Stephie dried off with one eye on the floor-length mirror on the back of her bedroom door. Thanks to the Marine Corps she’d grown out of being a gangly chubby girl with big feet into a hard body with big feet. Well, as far as she was concerned, big hands as well.

Stephie hated her face. Thanks to her mother’s Italian heritage her nose was too big with a prominent ridge. Her chin was too sharp and she thought it made her appear hawkish. She was happy enough with her eyes, but really didn’t like that they were such a dark brown they almost looked black. And of course, thanks to her father, a man she’d never known, she felt decidedly unblessed to have plain brown hair that looked mousy and dirty if she got hot enough to sweat.

But what she hated most about her face was the long scar that ran down the left side from ear to jaw.

The streets of Bagdad had been dark that night. The power plant hadn’t been restored since the initial bombing. She and six others from her unit were doing a sweep to enforce curfew when they’d been ambushed by about twenty hostiles at a deserted street corner littered with burned-out cars and rubble from blown-out buildings. Her struggle with two hostiles had been close quarters with no punches pulled.

The scar wasn’t deep and the red had faded a year after her return. The Colorado sun had helped even out her skin tone. But she still hated it. The guys down at the firehouse always played dumb if she asked for an opinion. Scar? What scar? But she knew better. She looked like a hard-ass who didn’t take any shit. And that had always been enough.

Stephie pinched the skin above her hipbone and inspected her other keepsake from Iraq. Caught in a crossfire pulling another Marine to safety that same night, a bullet had weaseled its way under the edge of her body armor and done a quick in-and-out, leaving her bloody and mad as hell. She’d decided there was absolutely nothing romantic about being wounded in combat. Being shot and slashed burned like hell and left scars that would be with her the rest of her life.

But she knew what men wanted. What drew them to her. She let her gaze run over the rest of her body. Her Golden Ratio was perfect. Her skin beyond the scar above her hip was flawless. The muscles beneath that same skin rippled. Not like that of an overbuilt bodybuilder. A graceful dance to draw the eye and captivate. The scar above her hip was an enigma that gave her a macho tough-girl aura that seemed to drive men harder to satisfy. The bottom line was no man ever looked at her face once her body was uncovered. Which was fine with her.

She turned away from the mirror and went to dry her hair. Something Stephie did with a vengeance. She always fluffed and brushed and tried to hide her face as much as possible. She passed on panties, deciding commando suited her mood. Take no prisoners. She had no expectations of anything other than too much tequila and a lot of very sweaty dancing, but there was nothing wrong with a little fantasy fest while the town was full of strangers. Who knows? Maybe I’ll find something better than casual sex. Could he be out there? Her favorite faded jeans, white cotton rib tank top that looked great against her olive colored skin—more of her mother’s Italian heritage—and cowboy boots.

Beeper on her hip and a cowboy hat complete with snakeskin hatband on her head, and she headed out the door. Stephie passed her Harley, deciding she might not be up to the task after a night of imbibing and kicking up her heels, and got in her old Ford pickup instead.

She backed out of her drive and headed for Main Street. Once again she wondered who the hell Long was and why the hell the name sounded familiar.