Authors: Kate Meader
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ast Christmas, I
gave you my heart . . .”
Eyeing the crush of cheerfully wasted humanity as they sang along to the soppiest Christmas song ever, Beck Rivera let go of a frustrated sigh. It turned into a growl midway through.
“If one more idiot in a red suit breathes his fumes on me, I’m going holiday nuclear.”
His brother Luke laughed at Beck’s out-of-character dramatics. Normally the least excitable one in the family—except for their oldest, Wyatt, who wouldn’t know drama if it upchucked in his face—Beck was clearly teetering on the brink tonight. Three weeks to Christmas and the annual Santa Shuffle Pub Crawl, a staple of the Chicago holiday scene, had stalled in his bar.
“So how is holiday nuclear different from regular
nuclear?” Luke asked. He pulled gently on the Guinness tap to complete the shamrock imprint in the stout’s foamy head.
“With holiday nuclear, I’ll go ballistic—with an elfish smile.”
Pint safely delivered to a thirsty customer, Luke laid a strong hand on Beck’s shoulder. “Stay cool, psycho. You’ll be back in bunker gear before you know it.”
Before he knew it couldn’t come soon enough. Put on leave after his recent brush with death and the brass at the Chicago Fire Department, Beck was itching to return to firehouse duty. Sitting around all day making an ass-shaped dent in his sofa was killing him slowly and, but for the fact he was pulling extra shifts at his family’s bar, Dempsey’s on Damen, he’d probably lose his mind. Along with the love of his foster siblings—three guys, one gal—who held no truck with his moodiness over the last month.
At least he was alive, for Christ’s sake. And so was the poor kid he’d managed to haul free before the roof of that South Side crack house caved in Old Testament style. So
he’d disobeyed his lieutenant’s orders—Beck’s MO had always been of the act-now-beg-forgiveness-later variety. But where usually the head honchos liked how the heroics looked for the papers, this time it had landed him in deep shit.
Now, with at least another month until his disciplinary hearing—because God forbid anyone at HQ make a decision over the holidays—Beck had plenty of time on his hands to brood and shine up a new rash of apologies.
“Hey, amigo,” Beck heard behind him. One of the red-suited troublemakers, a downtown professional type. With Puerto Rican skin darker than most of the pasty-faced Chicago Irish set who propped up the bar at Dempsey’s, Beck supposed he might look like someone’s amigo, but he sure as hell didn’t appreciate this stranger bandying the word about. Red Suit leaned forward and, in his eagerness for a drink, blindly elbowed a cute blonde out of the way.
So, not looking to get laid, then.
“Careful, now,” Beck said.
“What’s that, amigo?”
“I said you need to be careful.” Beck enunciated each word, then turned to the blonde. “You okay?”
“Fine, thanks.” She shot a hostile look at Red Suit, who chose that moment to bare his teeth in an approximation of a grin that went thoroughly unreturned. Nice.
Beck directed his attention back to the loser. “What’ll it be?”
“Chivas, neat, twice over.” Red Suit glanced over his shoulder to where his rowdy friends stood, making a lot of noise. A spilled beer on a woman’s dress earlier had been the first hint these guys were trouble. Two more rounds until they were cut off, Beck estimated. “A bottle of Bud and a Goose Island. Whatever the holiday ale crap is.”
“Sure,” Beck said. “How about I add it to your tab and bring it along?” Red Suit blinked his acceptance, adjusted his padding, and loped off.
“Hey, Rivera, how’s life sitting around eating bonbons all day?”
Beck slowed while pouring the Chivas, then rearranged his expression and his bones to neutral for Frank Gilligan, a CPD detective with a mouth as big as his ego. He happened to be a friend, but more often a pain in Beck’s ass.
“Detective, the moment I met you I knew we’d get along.”
Gilligan smiled that crugly grin, the one he gifted drug dealers before he gifted them his fists in a pretty red bow. “I’m touched, Rivera. Really.”
“Yeah, because cops and firefighters have so much in common.” Beck worked the pause for a beat. “They both want to be firefighters.”
An oldie but a goodie, it pulled a guffaw from Gilligan, who enjoyed the semiserious rivalry between the city’s first responders. But the detective’s words had pinched a nerve all the same. Beck would be hard-pressed to think of a worse time to be sidelined than the holidays. Burst pipes, electrical fires, Christmas tree combustions, and hot girls in skimpy Santa outfits usually kept the team at Engine 6 busy, a state of affairs he was not alone in enjoying. Since their foster parents and brother, Logan, had died, the rest of the family preferred camping out at the firehouse over the holidays. Anything to feel useful and honor their loved ones’ memories.
Hard to feel useful kickin’ back on the sofa. Christ on a crutch, he wanted to hit something.
Raucous shouts whooped from the corner followed
by a distinctly female complaint of “Hey, watch it, dickhead.” Beck sent up a brief acknowledgment to the Big Guy. Ask and you shall receive. In seconds, he was out from behind the bar and halfway toward the corner pocket of Santas.
“Beck,” Luke called after him in a voice edged with warning. Beck raised a hand to say he had this. Damn it, he needed this.
“Want help, Smokeater?” asked Gilligan.
Beck threw a smirk over his shoulder. “Watch and learn, Mr. Policeman.” As the saying went, God created firefighters so cops could have heroes, too.
His fists balled of their own volition, and Beck could almost feel the tape wrapped taut over his knuckles. Three-time winner of the Battle of the Badges, the charity boxing match between fire and police, he was as at home wearing gloves as not. But there was something eminently more satisfying about delivering a pounding bare-knuckled. Definitely more primal.
“Boys, we can do this the hard way or the easy way.”
Red Suit turned, wearing the gaze of a man not quite so wasted that Beck would have reservations about kicking ass.
Cue elfish smile. Hello, holiday nuclear.
“But I’ll warn you, amigo,” Beck said. “The hard way is my favorite.”
“It’s like the Justice League of hot bartenders.”
Mel’s hazel eyes shone as bright as the red-suited
Santas on a zombified trail down Milwaukee Avenue. “And I’ve got my eye on Thor.”
Gingerly, Darcy planted her high-heeled boots on the treacherous sidewalk outside the wine bar where they had spent the night dishing. Soft, nonthreatening flakes melted as soon as they made landfall on her cashmere coat, but with five more inches forecast tonight, Darcy was unimpressed with the peaceful snow globe vibe. Native Chicagoans knew better.
“You have your superhero mythology mixed up. Thor’s part of the Avengers, not the Justice League. Maybe you’ve got your lusty eye on Aquaman or Green Lantern, both of whom are generally acknowledged as inferior in the superhero pantheon.”
“You would know that, nerdette.”
“It’s my job to,” Darcy said. “I get so many requests for bulging men in tights, I could write a thesis on it.”
Mel grasped Darcy’s arm so forcefully she almost hit the deck on her Michael Kors–covered butt.
“You’ve got to come with me! The last time I was there, Thor—”
She waved the hand not death-gripping the sleeve of Darcy’s coat. “—made his interest very clear. I’m sure tonight’s the night. My womb’s feeling all tingly.”
“Might want to check that out with your doctor,” Darcy retorted.
Mel made a face beneath her dirty blond curls. Piqued looked super cute on her.
“Here I am,” Darcy announced as they drew
alongside the ’96 Volvo jalopy her friend Brady had lent her for what was supposed to be a fleeting visit to Chicago. The month she had taken out of her life to shepherd Grams through her recovery from a stroke had stretched to three, but now the old girl was almost back to her crotchety, razor-tongued self. By the time the last New Year’s Eve firework had exploded over Navy Pier, the spectacular Chicago skyline would be perfectly framed in Darcy’s rearview mirror. Next stop, Austin, Texas, and that spanking new job.
“Always be moving” was her motto.
“This town isn’t big enough for me and my father” was a close second.
She would miss Mel, though, who had kept her entertained through the fall with dating horror stories that made Darcy laugh-pee every time. The woman was a magnet for every panty-sniffing mouth breather in Chicagoland.
Darcy hugged her girl. “Thanks for hanging and listening to me whine about my family.” The Cochrane holiday photo shoot that afternoon, first in a number of dreaded family events dotting her schedule over the next couple of weeks, had left Darcy more than a little on edge.
“Ah, those little shits I teach have primed me well. But you know what’s the perfect antidote to whining? Drooling. Panting. Moaning.” Mel squeezed Darcy’s arm tighter as she punctuated each huskily spoken word. “It’s hard to whine when your mouth’s filled with a sexy bartender’s tongue or other interesting body parts.”
Darcy considered her friend’s arguments. She had to admit that chilling with the walker-and-Jell-O set at Grams’s upscale nursing home had put a decided crimp in her love life. “My sex point average
at an all-time low.”
“Which is why you should be coming to this bar with me.” Mel linked Darcy’s arm like it was a done deal. “I can’t believe you’re all dressed up like a North Shore princess—”
“Watch your mouth, bitch. It’s Gold Coast. Higher property values,” Darcy said, referring to the tony Chicago enclave where she’d spent her formative years.