Some Like it Hot
Dee S. Knight
“So, today’s the day?” Danny Cameron stared at Harm Reynolds, grinning.
Harm cast his best friend a questioning look and silently kept buttoning his uniform jacket.
“Yup,” Danny continued, “you’ve got the look all right. Hey, Casey! Harm’s pale, his hands are shaking, and he’s quaking in his boots. What does that tell ya?”
“No question. He’s off to see the Ice Queen.”
Tony, their ladder truck driver, slapped Harm on the shoulder. “Face it boy, you’d better take your flannel undies if you’re gonna be with that broad for long.”
“And be sure to wear your cup. She’s a nutcracker, for sure,” Casey added. Cat calls rang out.
“Y’all are just soooo funny,” Harm said, shooting Danny a fuck-you smile. “And honestly, it sounds like you’re ready to move up into third grade now. I’ll have a talk with the school board while I’m over at city hall.” He grabbed his hat from the top shelf of his locker and fit it on his head.
“Frankly, I think she needs to get laid,” said Danny, “but who’d want to take on the job? She’s plain looking. But even if she was beautiful, a guy’d probably end up with a frozen dick.”
John Markey, one of the EMTs, said, “Yeah, and I’ve heard she’s got a stick up her ass.”
“Y’all are just jealous you’re not the union rep.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s the problem,” Danny agreed. “I actually agreed to take two extra shifts a week just to get out of being the negotiator, but I’m jealous.”
Harm laughed. “Later,” he said.
Fifteen minutes after walking out to jeers, laughs and admonitions to bundle up tight, Harm dropped his briefcase onto a chair in a small conference room on the fifth floor of Woodfield City Hall. He was a few minutes early, not because being early was his habit—though it was—but more to give himself the chance to settle his nerves before facing the city’s assistant mayor over contract issues.
He was newly elected to the post of union liaison. The previous rep and the mayor allowed negotiations to implode because they’d run afoul of each other outside the talks. Harm had heard their bad feelings started with a dispute over a tree that separated their properties. A neighborly disagreement escalated to a lawsuit and then a shouting match three days ago in this very conference room. The next day, after an emergency meeting with union leaders, Harm was elected representative and told he’d be negotiating with the brand new assistant mayor. They added that the contract expired at the end of the week—as if he needed reminding—and that they expected him to knock out a fantastic contract, not a satisfactory one, with no strike. Great. Just great.
The woman with whom he had to reach agreement was a stranger to him. He might have seen her around town somewhere, but he wouldn’t have noticed. He hadn’t really “seen” any woman since his wife died eighteen months ago. Only now was he beginning to appreciate the sunshine again, hear birds sing, laugh fully at a joke. He had no desire for involvement, not when he was just finding himself.
He wandered the room, examining photos of the city from years ago. He’d grown up in the Shenandoah Valley, in a tiny town no one had ever heard of. But if he said, “It’s near Woodfield,” strangers recognized the area. In the overall scheme of life, Woodfield was a mid-sized Virginia town, but in the microcosm of Harm’s childhood, it had been “the big city.” This was where he’d always dreamt of living and when he finished firefighting training and he and Sally married, this was where they’d settled. Back then he’d never thought he’d have to live here alone.
He stopped before a sepia-tone picture of his fire station from the turn of the century. Even after renovations and repairs after its own fire—yeah, irony reigned—the building was recognizable.
The throaty, feminine voice couldn’t possibly belong to any Ice Queen. Slowly he turned to see a petite, brown-haired woman drop a stack of papers on the conference table. Danny—or whomever had said it—was right. Beth Edwards—if this was Beth Edwards—looked to be right out of an old Gunsmoke episode where the virgin schoolteacher was also the never-been-touched town librarian. Shining hair the color of copper wire formed a tight bun at the base of her neck. A white blouse with lacy touches on the collar covered her upper arms and buttoned under her chin, and her skirt hit mid-calf. Bright blue eyes hid behind glasses with simple frames to complement her hair, and if she wore any make-up, she used a light hand.
She looked up and stared directly into his eyes. There would be no coy pretenses from this woman. Thank God. The talks would be focused and with none of the normal, friendly chitchat that kept these things in order longer than necessary.
“Yes. You must be Lieutenant Reynolds.”
“Call me Harm, please. It’ll save time.” He smiled and she gave a short nod in return.
“Only if you’ll call me Beth.”
“Agreed.” Harm unbuttoned his jacket, then stopped. “Okay if I take this off?”
“Oh, absolutely. Are you prepared to get started? We have a great deal to cover.”
“Yes,” he said, hanging his jacket over the back of chair holding his briefcase. He sat and pulled the briefcase to the table and opened it. He removed his yellow lined notepad with one page of notes. She sat across from him and straightened her stacks. “Are we going to discuss all that?” He nodded toward what could have been a ream of paper, arranged in four neat piles.
She eyed his single notepad. “I hope not. But just in case Mayor Donovan’s secretary sticks her head in the door, this will at least look like I’m doing my due diligence.”
Unsure whether or not she was kidding, Harm murmured, “In that case…” He turned back to his briefcase and removed two hardbound books, the procedure manual for fighting fires caused by explosions and another notepad covered with scribbling from the last in-service he’d attended in Washington, D.C.
“Oh, you’re good,” Beth said with appreciation. “This might be fun after all.” And this time when she gazed at him a tiny smile curved her lips. Harm smiled back struck with what he saw—beauty. Real, natural beauty.
For the first time in nearly two years, his heart skipped a beat when looking at a woman. Even more telling, his dick stretched and thickened. What great timing for his body to realize he was still in the land of the living.
“Okay, you’re up.”
His eyes widened as he met her clear, blue gaze. God! Suddenly at full mast, his pecker ached. “What?”
“I said, you’re up first in our knock-down, drag out budget fight. Or would you prefer I go first?”
“Oh. Oh, right.” He lifted the top sheet of his legal pad. There was nothing on the second sheet, but it gave him something to do. He glanced up into her questioning gaze. “Why don’t you start and I’ll take the rear position?” His dick twitched. Shit. Bad choice of words. If they didn’t start talking business soon he’d be moaning.
Scrunching her brows and shaking her head at him, she nonetheless glanced at her notes and became immediately professional. “Let’s start with the local’s first demand. More personnel.”
At last, something he could think about besides his randy cock. “Right.” He consulted his notes. “In the past two years three of our stations have been caught short-handed in the administrative areas due to maternity leave and illness. We’d like four new staff members. Three as full-time additions and one to serve as a floater. Then, in the area of firefighters, we’ve seen a need for six placements.”
“An uptick in arson cases in the last few months, for one thing, means more calls. Then there’s retirement, injury. It’s a job that’s hard on a body. Attrition takes its toll.”
“I’ve examined the budget. I think we can swing two admin positions. If your stations want to use one as a floater, I think that might be a good use of personnel. As for the firefighters, if there’s an increase in arson, I think that means we should hire more police—something they’ve requested, by the way. But there’s money for three. Will that help?”
Would it help? Hell, it would more than help. He hadn’t counted on getting so much, so early. He’d hoped for one admin and two new recruits.
“It’ll be a stretch, but if the city’s doing what it can, we’ll meet the challenge.”
“Wonderful!” Her expression didn’t match the happy exclamation. Without even a look up, she made a check mark next to a line on the paper in front of her. Harm hadn’t expected a high-five, but a smile would have been nice, a real one this time. His cock stirred again, and he changed mental gears, getting back to his union’s work.
“I see you’re asking for an eight percent raise,” she said.
“We’ve gone without raises for the past two contracts. The city always poormouths it and being good citizens, we’ve given in. Eight percent might sound like a lot, but over four years, it really isn’t much to expect.”
“Maybe from your side of the table.”
“It should be from either side of the table.”
“This our first sticking point, then. Let’s move on to your biggest concern, your equipment.”
Beth looked up and played with her pencil, the first sign of nervousness Harm had seen. Too bad for her, this was the only item on the union’s list of demands he wouldn’t budge on. “The radios are crap.”
The pencil flew across the table, striking him on the arm and falling to the table.
“Oh my gosh, oh…I’m so sorry.” She reached for where the errant missile lay, midway between them.
Harm reached at the same time. His hand came down on hers. He grabbed a breath and held it. Her skin was soft and warm, very warm. Definitely not the skin of an ice queen.
Something stirred. Something more than his Johnson, that is, which stretched against his briefs. His gaze met hers. He saw the same confusion there that he felt. She blinked and then slowly withdrew her hand.
“Don’t forget this,” Harm said, holding out the pencil. She took it, careful not to touch his fingers.
“Thanks,” she all but whispered. Then, focused on her paperwork, she added, “I…um, I’m not sure if you are aware, but the city just purchased those radios a little over a year ago. The system cost us nearly one hundred thousand dollars.”
“That’s your opinion.”
“Mine and the thirty-nine other guys in my station. And then there are the other stations in the local. And the police—”
“Yes, I’m sure you think there’s a problem with—” She stopped and looked up, her brow crinkled. “What do you mean ‘the police’? I haven’t heard any complaints from Chief Warren.”
Harm hesitated only a moment. “I don’t want to speak for Chief Warren, but since you asked, the problem for them comes with distance. I know for a fact some of his men lose contact with dispatch when they’re more than fifteen miles out of town. Officers sometimes have to cover the whole county, which puts them out of range.”
She heaved a sigh. Not a big one, but enough to make her chest rise and fall. Enough to emphasize her breasts, which in his heated state he noticed. He tried not to be obvious. Not that it mattered. She’d hardly cast a glance at him since the pencil incident.
Damn! He had to get his mind on the contract and off Beth Edwards’ breasts. And the smoothness of her skin, or how her hair would look freed from that old-lady’s bun. Light from the window struck the crown of her head, turning plain, orderly strands into burnished copper.
He glanced at her hands, now fumbling with the papers in front of her. Her nails were short and manicured but without polish. As a firefighter he also acted as an EMT, and nails were one of the things he noticed to indicate health. Hers were pink, with nice white tips and defined moons. Funny that even Beth’s healthy looking nails turned him on. Good thing he couldn’t see her waist or hips or—God forbid—her legs. He’d be a doomed man. As it was, he hoped like hell there’d be no reason for him to stand anytime soon.
“I have a problem here, Lt. Reynolds.” She focused her blue-eyed gaze on him. “I’ve only been in office a short time.”
Harm knew that. She’d been brought in from a city on the coast when the previous assistant mayor took temporary maternity leave that turned permanent. She would face her first election this fall, adding pressure for her to perform in these negotiations.
“As such,” she continued, “I was given these negotiations without a great deal of background in the problem or, honestly, leeway in which to deal.”
“Lucky you to have me as your initiation into Woodfield.” Lucky me, too.
“Yes.” She glanced down, a slight blush tingeing her cheeks.
What woman blushed these days? He loved it.
“I don’t see the money in the budget to buy new radios again, after only one year. But I do want to be as fair as possible. Therefore, I’d like to suggest you give me a day or two to investigate your claims further. Then we’ll meet again…?”
Harm smiled. She did not, but her gaze was steady and sincere. What could he do but give her the benefit of the doubt? And besides…
“You know what? Another meeting is exactly what I had in mind.” They stood and gathered their things.
“I’ll be in touch with you, then,” she said.
“I look forward to it,” Harm replied, and he walked after her out the door harboring two thoughts: first, that after what felt like a lifetime of abstinence it was great to have met a woman he couldn’t wait to see again, and second, that Danny had been wrong. The Ice Queen didn’t need to get laid, but Harm sure as hell did.
* * * *
“Mary,” Beth said to her secretary as she hurried through the outer office, “do we have information from Chief Warren regarding problems with the department’s radios?” Dropping on her desk the stack of papers she’d clutched against her chest all the way from the fifth floor conference room, she took a relieved breath. If she’d stayed one more minute in there with that man, Lord only knew what would have happened. When his hand covered hers, it occurred to her that the table wasn’t so wide that she couldn’t crawl over it and kiss him. Thank God he wasn’t a mind reader. As it was, when he held the door for her and she turned to look up into his dark chocolate, Hershey kisses eyes, she’d barely escaped with her reputation intact, much less her virtue or self-respect.
“Here you are.” Mary Bates handed her a file and then stood back, her hands folded on her stomach and a funny little smile on her lips. “So, your meeting was with Harmon Reynolds.”
“Yes.” Beth liked Mary. She was an older woman with a thickening waist and graying hair. But she was patient and helpful and good at her job. And she knew everyone in the city. Or so it seemed.
Beth shrugged. “He seems nice.”
“Um, and dedicated to getting the most from the city for the contract.” Mary used a hurry up gesture to wave Beth to a new point. “And he’s…very…nice looking.”
Now her secretary beamed. “And he’s single.”
“Really? He wears a wedding ring.” That was the very first thing Beth noticed when his hand landed on hers. After she’d reminded herself to breathe, that is. She’d never had such a reaction to a man before. She’d prided herself on it. Romance was a chemical reaction that could be controlled if one tried, and love was something people fell into when they didn’t have a career and ambition to keep them focused.
“He was married. His wife died, poor thing, about a year and a half ago.” Mary walked to the loveseat against the wall, picked up one of the pillow, fluffed it and put it back. She picked up the second for the same treatment. “So young. And tragic in an ironic way.” Here, Mary turned to face Beth. “She died in a fire.”
Beth’s mouth fell open. “No!”
Mary nodded. Replacing the pillow, she sighed. She leaned on the back of a guest chair. “She was visiting her mother in Richmond when it happened. She and Harm had been married, oh, ten years or more. Yes, ten years because they married the same year the Ford dealership opened out on the highway.”
Though the interstate near town had been opened for decades, “the highway” still meant US Route 11 to the old timers in Woodfield. That tripped up Beth when she asked directions to anyplace in town.
“How awful for him.”
Mary nodded again. “It was. They’d been high school sweethearts. Dated all through college. His folks were my neighbors for nigh on thirty-five years before his dad took early retirement and moved to Arizona. Harm lives in the house now. Alone.”
Beth dropped her gaze and pretended to arrange papers on her desk. “Well, he must still love her if he wears his ring after all these months.”
“Men don’t realize how much they’ll miss a woman until she’s gone. Then they hang on much longer than they should. Women grieve and then move on. Oh,” Mary said, warming to the subject, “they might not marry again. If you’ve got your freedom, who would? But men? They tend to build the old days into a fantasy when what they miss is someone to fix dinner and wash the clothes. And warm their beds.” She gave Beth a pointed look.
Really. The woman had only been her secretary for a few months but already reminded Beth of her mother. “Oh, stop. I might concede the laundry and meals, but I’m sure Harmon Reynolds could find any number of women to warm his bed.”
“But he hasn’t. Not that I know of.” She peered over her wire-frame glasses. “And I’d know.”
Beth didn’t doubt that for a minute.
“He needs someone,” Mary persisted in saying.
Beth sat and opened the police complaint folder. “I’m sure he’d be happy to know you’re watching out for him.”
“Probably not.” With a whisk of her hand across the back of the chair, Mary headed for the door. “But I’m gonna watch out for him, just the same.” And with a final nod she closed the door behind her.
“It’d be nice to have someone watch out for me like that,” Beth muttered, and then she wondered. Someone who’d poke her nose in Beth’s business, who’d be at her back door at all hours, who’d make it her business to know what car she was considering, when she was dieting or what bills came in the mail?
On the other hand, there’d be someone who’d care if she had flu and couldn’t stay out of bed long enough to cook. Who’d be there if she had a flat in the driveway—or who’d come to get her if she broke down miles from home.
Above romance and love on Beth’s list of necessities was close friendships. She’d moved a lot as a child growing up in a military family. Then in college she’d changed roommates three times—not out of desire, but out of circumstance. She hadn’t minded too much, but after years of living in Norfolk, she had people there she could count on. Accepting the job in Woodfield, where her grandparents had lived, had been hard, though moving ahead in her career had taken precedence over remaining with friends.
A wave of loneliness washed over her. “Ah, hell. Buck up, girl.” She flipped open the file on the police radio usage and began reading. It didn’t take long to discover that Chief Warren had sidestepped the questions related to radio failure on the FTP—Follow-up To Purchase—form. She found the city phone list and picked up the phone.
“Chief Warren,” he barked.
“Chief, this is Beth Edwards. I was just wondering, how are those radios working for you?”
“Wonderful. That’s a relief. You might not know but I’ve started negotiating with the firefighters, and they’re making quite a fuss about the new system. If you’re not having trouble then I have leverage.” There was silence from the other end, silence that lasted a tad too long. “Well, that’s all I needed. Thanks so much.” She hung up.
So, what was Warren up to? If it came down to believing Harm—and how easily using his first name came to her—or Chief Warren, there was no contest. Warren’s voice held deception, Harm’s eyes held honesty. And warmth, and a touch of humor.
Not five minutes later, Mary announced Chief Warren was calling.
“Ms. Edwards, after we hung up I started asking around, just to be sure of what I told you, and wouldn’t you know, one of my men had a speck of trouble with the radios just last week. He was out past Simpson’s Point and couldn’t reach the station here. But you know what’s it like out in them hills. Hell, boy prob’ly just lost signal for a few minutes.”
“But just in case, I thought I better let you know. There isn’t anything here to worry over. Nothing that would affect those new cruisers I been talkin’ to Lucille about.”
So that was it. Warren was afraid if he made a fuss over the radios he’d risk not having Mayor Donovan’s support with this year’s wish list.
“I’m glad you did, Chief. Just in case you are having some of the same trouble as the firefighters, why don’t you have someone there prepare a report of every time the radio hasn’t worked as it should, regardless of hills, okay?”
“Yeah, I’ll get on it.” But he wasn’t happy about it. He couldn’t be any clearer if he drove up Main Street and shouted it on his speaker.
“Thanks, Chief. I really appreciate it.”
When they hung up, Beth turned to her computer. It was time she found out as much as possible about those radios before the next meeting with Harm. The thought of seeing him again made her smile.
Just how many meetings could she generate out of these negotiations? It might be worth a shot to find out.