Authors: Chris Owen and Tory Temple
Tags: #Gay Romance
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental and beyond the intent of either the author or the publisher.
By the Numbers
An imprint of Torquere Press Publishers
PO Box 2545
Round Rock, TX 78680
Copyright 2011 by Chris Owen and Tory Temple
Cover illustration by Alessia Brio
Published with permission
All rights reserved, which includes the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever except as provided by the U.S. Copyright Law. For information address Torquere Press. Inc., PO Box 2545, Round Rock, TX 78680.
First Torquere Press Printing: September 2011
Printed in the USA
By the Numbers
Chris Owen and Tory Temple
The sun was starting to go down, but the heat from the day was lingering. The air wasn't muggy or oppressive, and a breeze coming up from the ocean a mile or so away helped to keep Deuce from overheating as he rode his bike home. He'd be a lot happier after dark when his energy picked up. He was looking forward to going out for his evening walk with Q; walking the dog was a lot more fun than riding his bike in commuter traffic.
He turned onto a street a block from his apartment building and pedaled hard, working his way up an incline to his secret shortcut through an alley. He'd been doing this ride for months, and his body was showing it, finally. Deuce had been starting to wonder when his legs would show some definition, and then suddenly there it was. He was still working at his abs, but for the most part he was pleased with no longer looking like he sat at a desk all day.
In the alley he could go even faster, and he made a sport of zigzagging around objects while trying not to smell what they were. Sirens were drowning out the honking of horns behind him, and it took Deuce a moment or two to realize they weren't screaming past, fading into the distance. He had no idea if they were police, fire or ambulance, but whatever was going on had to be pretty big. Given the way the sound was echoing off the walls around him, he couldn't tell where the commotion was, so he kept pedaling and hoped he wouldn't shoot out into the middle of a bank robbery or something. As the thought occurred to him, he slowed down enough to come out of the alley onto his own street at a sedate pace.
"Jesus." He braked hard and looked around, not even bothering to count the number of fire trucks. There were more than five, and that was all he needed to know. He spotted a couple of police cars, too, and an ambulance down at the far end of the street, past where his building was. Slowly, Deuce started to ride again, weaving through the gathering crowd and trying to see over the heads as he made his way home. He couldn't make out what was going on, but given the ladder trucks and all the hoses out, he was willing to bet it wasn't a car accident.
The crowd grew thick, and he had to ride up on the property across from his building to get around them but was stopped by cement steps protruding from the building. With a muttered curse he got off the bike. "Excuse me," he said, already moving between a woman clutching her shopping bag and a man standing with his hands shoved into his jeans pockets. "I said excuse me."
The man reluctantly took half a step aside and Deuce walked his bike ahead and then around a few other individuals. He knew people could be gawkers, but this was ridiculous. If they would just move, he could find a way around the trucks and into his own building, making one less person standing around and getting in the way. Besides, he needed to get to Q; she'd be going nuts with all the noise.
"Let me through, please," he said again, and finally he broke through to the front line, right by the fire trucks. He started looking for a way to get to his apartment, but a big hand attached to a big cop stopped him.
"Sorry, sir. No one's allowed past here. Let the fire department work."
"I'm just trying to get out of the way," Deuce said mildly. "One less person, you know. I live..." He trailed off, looking up. "SHIT." He dropped his bike and his mild manner at the same time, and the cop made a grab for him. "Let me go! Q! I need to get in there!"
Smoke was pouring out of windows, through doors, and Deuce's vision narrowed until all he could see was his apartment. "Let me go!"
The cop was yelling at him, and then there were two holding onto him, demanding to know who was inside, what apartment. They wouldn't let him go, and Deuce couldn't make the words come out. He swore he could hear her barking. "Q! My dog. She's locked in the bedroom. She's pregnant!"
"What number?" He didn't know who asked, didn't care.
"Six. Second floor, on the right." He made himself stop pulling at the cops, mostly because someone was going toward the building, someone in fire gear who could actually help, but also because the police weren't going to be patient with him for very long.
"Stay here," one of the cops, the second one, ordered. "You don't move, understood? If you head to that building, I'll put you in cuffs and throw you in a patrol car."
Deuce nodded, not even looking at him. He was pretty sure the cop couldn't do that, but he wasn't about to find out. He just watched the apartment, his big front window that looked like it had maybe blown out or been smashed in. "Q," he whispered. Then he made himself shut up and wait.
...and wait, and wait. It felt like a year had passed before he finally saw the firefighter emerge again, and by that time the building had become almost totally obscured by the thick, dirty smoke. Too many people were still in his way and he couldn't tell if the fireman had found his poor Q, her belly swollen with pups.
He craned his neck and stood on tiptoe, trying to peer past the police officer that was keeping him from dashing to his building. Had the firefighter gotten to her? And had it been in time? Deuce was just on the verge of saying fuck it and risking arrest, but suddenly the flock of people in front of him melted away and he was face to face with a pair of strong arms that cradled his pregnant dog.
"Q!" He reached out his arms to take the squirming, panting mutt. "Is she okay? Are you?"
Q's tongue lolled, and she whined and wiggled until he put her down. Holding onto her collar, Deuce crouched down next to her and looked up at the firefighter. "Thank you. God, I can't even tell you." He petted Q with one hand, made her sit, and held on tight. "Thank you," he repeated.
The firefighter had already taken off his mask, and now he did the same to his helmet and wiped at his forehead. He nodded at Deuce and leaned down to give her a pat. "She's a nice girl. Came right to me and let me pick her up."
"She wasn't real scared?" Deuce noticed his own hand was shaking and he reached up to push it through his hair to make it stop. His knuckles hit his bike helmet though, and he let out a shaky breath before undoing the snap and taking the helmet off. "I'm a mess. Thank you so much, again."
"She was a little scared." The man shrugged and petted Q's head again, his gloves still on. "But not like some pets I've tried to grab. Got bit right through my turnouts once by some little yappy dog."
"What's your name?"
"Trey Donovan. And she is...?"
"Q. Well, her vet papers still say Cutie, but that's a stupid name. I got her about two years ago, after a break up, and took the liberty of cooling her up." Deuce gently stroked her belly. "She got loose on me, though."
The corner of Trey's mouth lifted as he gazed at the dog's stomach. "She wasn't spayed, obviously. Don't you listen to what Bob Barker tells you?"
Deuce didn't blush, but he did nod contritely. "Lesson learned, for sure. It'll be taken care of as soon as she's ready. I'm not sure how long we have to wait after the puppies come, but the vet will tell me. I hope they're okay."
Q whined again and looked at them both, her tail thumping on the ground. She was still panting, and Deuce decided he'd have to find some water for her really soon.
Someone was yelling for Trey, who glanced over his shoulder and nodded. He gave one last pat to Q and shifted his helmet to under his other arm. "Good luck getting rid of the puppies," he laughed. "My kid would love one." Then he turned and headed back in the direction from which he'd come, presumably to do something else heroic.
"Your kid is totally getting one," Deuce said, mostly to Q. "Right? Right." He watched Trey talk to someone and then vanish into the smoke, but not before he saw the big '11' on Trey's helmet. "We'll track him down."
He got up and held onto Q's collar, stooping slightly as they walked. His bike was totally forgotten until a voice called his name and he looked up to see the woman from across the hall waving at him.
"I'll be right back," he called back. "I need to find a bowl for Q." And then he could start trying to figure out what the hell had happened to his apartment and how long it would be before he was allowed to go in for his stuff.
A week and a half later, Trey walked into work to find his usual captain had called in sick and he was now faced with spending the day with a guy he hated. Well, 'hated' wasn't really the right word, since Trey didn't hate anyone, even his bitch of an ex-wife. But this overtime captain was a real pain in his ass. Lazy, entitled, argumentative. Everything Trey loathed.
Trey hadn't slept well the night before, which wouldn't help matters. He grabbed one of the doughnuts from the box on the breakfast table before going straight to his bunk to put sheets on his bed. Once that chore was finished, he shoved his gear bag in his locker and sat down to eat his doughnut. At least the rainbow sprinkles on top were cheerful.
"You hiding, too? Smart man." Jim Weathers poked his head into Trey's dorm with a stony expression. "I'm going to kill Chance for calling in sick. He says it's the last overtime day that Thompson owes him, and he’d better be right."
A sprinkle escaped from the top of the doughnut and landed on his bed. Trey rescued it with his thumb and forefinger and sighed. "Whatever. I'll hide in here until I can't anymore. Did you start chores yet?" Every fireman in the station had jobs to do as soon as they reported to work in the morning. Medics had to check the drug box, engineers had to inspect the engine, and firefighters with no other rank, like Trey, were responsible for checking out their own breathing apparatus and the first aid kits. Then there was the station cleaning to do, but Trey usually put that off as long as possible. Cleaning bathrooms sucked no matter where you were.
"About to. I'll meet you out there." Jim saluted and took off, likely avoiding the kitchen where Captain Skeet Thompson was probably holding court at the table.
Trey lay back on his made bed, allowing himself five minutes of morning quiet. The damn phone call from Holly right before he'd gone to sleep had made for a restless night. He longed for the day when he and Holly wouldn't argue about whose turn it was to have Lacey so Trey wouldn't have to beg, steal, or borrow time with his daughter, but until then, he'd have to suffer through Holly's phone calls.
Knowing he couldn't put off chores any longer, Trey heaved himself off the bed and slipped out the station's side door to the big driveway that currently held one of Station Eleven's two fire engines and a fire truck. Checking out his equipment and space on the rig was most important, so he began with that.
He took his time about it. The other choice was rushing through it and then going back to hide in his dorm until a call came through, so might as well go slow and enjoy the sunshine while he was out here. As long as he was through by lunchtime, it wouldn't matter how long it took.
Jim came to the door of the garage and peered out at Trey. "Visitor for you, Donovan. There's a guy at the front door."
"What? Who?" Trey didn't move from his seat on the engine where he was going through the first aid kit.
"Dunno." Jim didn't look like he cared, either. "Rang the bell, asked for you. Doesn't look like a killer, but you never know. Hey, I think we're getting ready to go shop for food." He shrugged and disappeared back into the station.
Weird. Trey put the first aid kit back together and hopped down, making his way inside and heading for the front door of the firehouse. When he got there he found the promised visitor standing with one shoulder on a wall, his hands shoved into jeans that looked worn almost to death. He looked vaguely familiar, but Trey couldn't place him right away.
"Oh, hey." The man stood up straight and smiled at him. He had very white teeth or a very tanned face. He thrust one hand out to shake and the other pushed dark hair off his forehead. "Mr. Donovan. I'm glad I found you. I wanted to say thank you, again, for saving my dog."
His dog? Trey blinked. He had no idea what the guy was talking ab--
"Oh!" Recognition dawned in a rush. "The guy with the dog who got herself in trouble. Q, not short for Cutie." Trey grinned. "Sorry. I was busy that day." It occurred to Trey that although he knew the dog's name, the man in front of him was still nameless. "And you're...?"
"Nathaniel. Nathaniel Stoller." He got another smile. "Six puppies. Can you imagine? Six." He seemed completely in awe.
"Six? Holy cow." Trey hadn't even known dogs could hold that many puppies. Of course, if those fame-whore moms he saw on TV were any indication, there was clearly no limit to the number of babies a mammal could carry. "Congratulations, I guess. Uh... you want to come in? Take the school field trip tour?"
"Sure, if you have time." Nathaniel put his hands back into his pockets. "I mostly just came by to tell you that you've got the pick of the litter. You know, for your kid. There's girls and boys, and they're real cute. I think the father was a lab. Maybe a retriever."
Trey laughed. "That's a nice offer, but I don't have time for a dog." He gestured around him in a vague way. "Twenty-four hour shifts would leave a dog alone for too long. Got any nice goldfish babies I could have?"
"Sorry, Q doesn't like fish. Your wife, maybe?" Nathaniel looked hopeful. "Six puppies, man. Six."
He looked so earnest that Trey had to laugh again. "There is no wife." Thank God. "Can you, I don't know, raise a puppy for me until it's old enough not to chew stuff if I leave it alone overnight?"
For a moment Nathaniel looked like he was considering it but then he shook his head. "That's a pretty long term commitment. How old is your kid? Old enough to walk a dog?" This time it was more of a tease.
"Not one Q's size. She's seven, but kind of little. Was a preemie baby and just never really grew out of it." Why was he offering that much information about Lacey? He usually kept as quiet as possible about her. "I'd love a picture of the puppies, though. So, tour?"
"Tour." Nathaniel nodded and followed along. "You can come and see them, if you want. You're their godfather. They're really tiny right now and can't leave Q. They're driving me crazy." He was still smiling, though, his face soft. He looked puppy smitten.
"Godfather? That's a first. Did Q have any say in that?" He pushed open the door to the captain's office before remembering Chance wasn't there. Skeet looked up from the desk, clearly annoyed that someone had invaded his inner sanctum without knocking. "Whoops. Sorry. Just showing someone around." Trey pulled the door shut again and moved down the hall to where the computer printer was busily spitting out call sheets. "These are all the emergencies happening in the department right now."
"Holy crap." Nathaniel stared at the sheets. "And that's not a major city disaster or something?"
He picked up a sheet of paper and pointed to the typed words that said TRIPPED SPRINKLER ALARM. "Not so much. Anything that gets called into 911 is recorded. Remember that the next time you accidentally call 911 instead of 411 for Information."
"I hate 411. They make me feel dumb." Nathaniel looked around once more and nodded. "I suppose that every station is getting these printouts? Then what happens?"
"A lot of trees die for nothing." Trey put the paper back into its nice pile and left the computer alone to do its job. "If we get a call, no one looks here to see what it is. They'll tell us over the loudspeaker when the call comes in." The next room was the kitchen and Trey gestured to the three refrigerators with a large A, B, and C on them. "Food."
"Food is important. Very. Even more so when there's puppies, I'm finding. Q's going through a ton of it. Just in case you wanted to know I've got puppies up for grabs, I mean." Nathaniel grinned at him. "Are you an A, B or a C?"
"C, thank God. A shift is too uptight, and B... well, they call them B-tards for a reason." Trey winced internally as soon as the words were out. Nothing was off-limits in the firehouse, but he forgot that sometimes when there were other people there. "Anyway, garage next." He ignored the remark about puppies for fear of actually getting convinced to take one.
"This is the good part, right? The engines and trucks and dog-saving stuff? Which, by the way, I really am grateful for. And Q is, too. The apartment's trashed, did you know? It'll be another few months before we're allowed back in."
"Some people think it's the good part, yeah." Trey smiled and pushed open the door to the garage bay. "And shit, that sucks for you guys. Where are you living?" He'd actually kind of thought the building would be condemned, but somehow they'd managed to save it.
Nathaniel made a face. "I'm in my best friend's guest room. Me and the dogs. It's pretty crappy, but what can I do, right? The insurance won't come through until I'm almost ready to move back in. Assuming, of course, that the rebuilding and decorating and stuff gets done on time."
Trey strolled over to the row of wire-front lockers that held their gear. He usually didn't like giving the school tour thing, but it was kind of nice doing it for someone who asked smart questions. "That's some best friend. He likes dogs, I take it?"
"He likes Q. I think the puppies are going to be a bit much. He's been staying at his girlfriend's a lot." Nathaniel was sticking right with him, looking around at everything. "You need to keep your gear and stuff in here?"
"Yeah." Trey pointed at the colored tags on the lockers that indicated what shift and what rank of fireman had their gear in that particular locker. "Can't get mixed up this way. We used to just keep our gear in our seats on the rig, but sometimes overtime guys didn't do it that way and when there was a call, we'd have to wait while they fished their stuff out of the locker. Now we just keep it all organized in there." He kind of preferred it that way, anyhow. All neat and uniform. "Is this boring yet?"
"Hell, no. This is way, way more cool than where I work. The tour there would be more along the lines of, 'This is my desk. This is the bathroom. Oh, look, the break room. No one wiped the sink again, God.'" Nathaniel shrugged a shoulder. "Plus, who didn't want to be fireman when they were a kid? This is neat."
"Okay." Trey chuckled. "I live it, so sometimes pointing at my gear and refrigerators seems a little mundane." He turned to the engine and opened the side panel where the water discharge and intake valves were. "Hoses get hooked up here. Here's your lesson for today: fire engines have hoses, fire trucks have ladders." Trey pointed across the garage at the fire truck that held the enormous suspension ladder on top of it. "Don't mix them up." He winked at Nathaniel. "Test later."
"I test well." Nathaniel looked from the engine to the truck. "Which do you ride?"
"Engine." Trey nodded at it. "See the number eleven there? That engine's called 'double'. The two number ones, get it? And this engine" - he pointed at the other one in the huge garage - "that's engine one-eleven. 'Triple'. And the truck is just the truck. Truckers are lazy," he added in a loud voice as one of them walked through the garage. Mason didn't even look in Trey's direction; he just flipped him off and kept going through to the dorms.
Nathaniel snickered. "So, only one truck? Are there ever two? And you really work twenty-four hour shifts? That's crazy, man."
"Never two. Engines respond more frequently to calls. Trucks are usually only called out for fires or big car accidents, since they have the tools. This is a busy station, but the truckers usually sleep all night while the engine guys could get up two or three times." He rolled his eyes. "So yeah, we're here all night. Twenty-four hours. Or forty-eight, with overtime." This was a hell of a lot more information than Trey usually gave out on the tours.
"Wow. Makes it hard to have a social life, maybe?" Nathaniel was looking in the engine curiously. "Or to see your daughter, the poor puppy-less girl?"
"We're off for four days in a row. I find time to go out." He grinned but omitted the fact that "going out" usually meant to the video store to grab a DVD. "And I have Lacey with me for every other four-day break and one weekend day." Not without a fight from Holly, though.
Nathaniel frowned slightly. "That doesn't seem like a lot of time, but then I guess there's school and stuff to work around. You know what would help her get over having her daddy at work for all those nights?"
"If you say a puppy, the tour's over." Trey laughed and strolled across the other side of the garage where the dorms were.
"It's amazing how well you know me already," Nathaniel said as he followed along. "It's like a connection or something."
"Tell you what." Trey pushed open the door that led to their bunk area. "I'll give you my ex-wife's phone number and you can discuss it with her. If she says yes, I'll take a puppy."
"Is she scary?" Nathaniel grinned at him. "I mean to someone she wasn't married to. Generally scary, as opposed to ex-wife scary. And, you know, you can come see them anyway. Or at least let me take you out for a beer to say thank you for saving Q."
Trey considered that for a minute. They were probably cute puppies, and it wasn't like his social calendar was overflowing. Besides, who the hell said no to beer? "Okay," Trey agreed, sort of surprising himself. "Sure. Puppies and beer. And I plead the fifth on the ex-wife question."
Nathaniel smiled at him, showing his teeth and looking both pleased and surprised. "Awesome. No backing out. When's your next evening off?"
"Tomorrow. After that, Thursday. Uhhh... here." Trey grabbed one of the numerous shift calendars off the bulletin board in the dorm hallway. "I'm green." The dates on the calendar were colored in accordance with whatever shift was scheduled to work.