Anna heard the sirens in the distance, their warning wail muted by blocks of wood framed houses. Instinctively she listened for the nuances in tone and pitch that would tell her if they were drawing closer or would pass by into another part of the city. The sound grew louder, overshadowing the muted TV and its unfunny sitcom. They'd turned off Geary, she decided, down Fillmore, or probably closer, Steiner maybe or even Scott. She strained to hear.
It was Steiner. The sound would have been harsher, more grating if the trees and hills of Alta Vista weren't between her and the engines to mute their wails. It was a big fire. By her count, at least three engines had already responded. She listened again.
San Francisco is a city obsessed with fire. It has good reason. It's a town made of wood. Building after building of frame crowd close to each other. Up and down steep hills they jostle for space. When one of them burns it's not just a question of whether you can save it, but whether you can save any.
She rested her head against the cool pane of glass and told herself she was being ridiculous. There was no reason to be concerned. Even if there were, she couldn't do anything about it. It was stupid to even think about it. She was just bored. Ben was right, she should take a class or something, anything to fill up the hours and keep her mind from dwelling on how lonely she was.
Anna sighed and turned from the window and went into the bedroom, kicking off her shoes as she went. Oops, not a good idea. She picked them up and stumbled over the dog as he tried to get to them before she did.
"No, you bad boy," she scolded as she rescued the high heels. Patrick growled in frustration at being denied his opportunity to chew.
"Tough!" She snarled back at him.
He'd already destroyed one pair this week. Sure they were old, but they'd been Caovilla's for god's sake. Bought in the good old days when crowding six roommates into one small apartment had been hell on your nerves, but great for your budget and the occasional splurge.
She'd really loved those shoes. So had Ben. Especially when she'd worn them with nothing but that black silk teddy he'd bought her on their first Valentine's Day. Oh well, she didn't even know where that was anymore. Probably packed away with the rest of the stuff she never used.
Did she smell smoke? She went to the window and opened it and breathed in deeply. It was there, the tang of wood burning, the aroma that had been so soothing in her childhood in Michigan and now made her heart beat faster in fear and...
The sirens stopped. The silence was almost worse than the noise had been, certainly more ominous because that abrupt cutoff of noise could only be heard when the engines were very, very close.
Anna grabbed her coat and keys and ran lightly down the stairs. Patrick whined at the top, looking at her with piteous eyes. Obviously he thought if Anna was going for an extra walk, the least she could do was include him. It would probably be a good idea, he'd been so bad lately, chewing and whining, nervously pacing for hours.
He wasn't like that when Ben was around. The dog had been his bright idea and from the start, he'd spoiled the little beast rotten. Patrick had gotten used to having him around all day and now he missed him. He wasn't the only one.
Don't, she stopped herself. It's not Ben's fault that he's not around all that much. He had nothing to do with the budget crunch that cut his department and made them so short staffed everybody was working doubles.
Anna looked at the begging dog. Looked like she and the pooch were both going to have to try to be a little more understanding. Of course that was easier said than done, especially when you went days without seeing your husband and then only to pass each other in the hall.
Anna tried to be the good wife, she really did. She just wasn't always very successful at it. The fight this morning was a prime example. It's just that she'd never envisioned marriage as a solo act. It would have been easier to take too, if when Ben was home he tried to at least pretend it was where he wanted to be. But as the temporary overtime stretched into weeks and then months he grew more distant, more anxious, obsessed with the job even when he was supposed to be taking a break.
Damn him, at least he could pretend to feel bad about spending so much time away from her. A lot of other guys still thought she was hot looking even if Ben didn't. The party tonight had been proof of that. When she showed up alone, she caused quite a stir among the married men - and more than one angry glance from their wives.
To hell with it. She reached for the leash and didn't get it off the hook before the dog was at her side, panting and standing on hind legs. She snapped the clip on Patrick's collar, opened the door and stepped outside.
She would only walk a few blocks, she promised herself, a little exercise before turning in. It would relax her. And while she was out she could make sure the fire wasn't too close, assure herself there was no personal danger. It was a lie, but it made her feel less foolish to pretend.
It took a while to figure out what direction to go and she made a few wrong turns. She finally knew she was walking in the right direction when a wisp of ash drifted by.
She caught it with her hand and watched it dissolve on the tips of her fingers. Anna leaned down and sniffed the harsh oily smell. As she did she could hear the shouts and screech of metal in front of her. It wouldn't be long now.
Patrick whined and for the first time stopped pulling on the leash. He knew better than to get too close to fire even his mistress didn't.
She ignored him and turned the corner, confronting a tableau from her nightmares. The street was blocked off, police tape and barriers everywhere. A crowd of people stood frozen on her side. Most were just passersby's caught up in the drama, but some showed signs of the déshabillé of a night at home interrupted.
A young man and a woman holding a sleeping toddler stood close together as they strained to see what was happening. An old lady with curlers in her hair stood in a quilted pink silk robe clutching a snakeskin purse. Her glasses reflected the fire and her lips trembled as she licked them excitedly - it was obvious it wasn't her house burning.
Two coatless men in jeans and shirts stood off to the side clinging to each other. One of them was barefoot and he shifted from foot to foot in an effort to keep from freezing on the cold pavement. The other held on to him tightly, gripping his shirt with white knuckled fists, bunching it between tense fingers and crying quietly into the soft folds of material.
As Anna watched, the young father approached the couple, awkwardly gesturing with his hands how sorry he was. The barefoot man acknowledged him briefly and then turned his attention back to his distraught lover. The neighbor melted back into the crowd, joining his wife and looking relieved that he'd done his duty.
Anna wiggled her way to the front of the mob of people. It had taken her a while to find the blaze, but the firemen hadn't wasted those 40 minutes. Their efforts had been successful and they'd contained the flames to just the one three-story Vic. But the cost to house had been high. Large, ugly slashes of splintered wood surrounded gaping holes in the front of the house. The firefighters hadn't bothered with doors it seemed.
She watched as one of fireman separated from the others. He swaggered as he moved, and the hose he carried seemed almost weightless in his strong arms. Anna couldn't see his face, but his movements caught her eye. She felt a rush in her belly as she studied the line of jaw just showing under the hard edge of his helmet. She knew she was acting like a freak, but god, he looked so hot.
He was big and looked bigger with the gear he wore to protect himself. His shoulders were massive and so were his legs. He needed to be judging from the size of the hose he was holding.
She watched as he braced himself then turned back and nodded to his crew on the engine. A second later, water spewed from the nozzle he'd tucked securely under his arm. He leaned back onto his heels and pointed the powerful stream in the direction of the roof of the house next to the fire. He wasn't a moment too soon. A small explosion in the burning house sent a plume of hot ash and tar in that direction.
The crowd spontaneously applauded and the tense mood of the minutes before suddenly shifted and took on the aura of a night at a circus. The parents smiled to each other in relief and the old lady laughed in delight as flames still reflected on the lens of her glasses. Only the two men were still sober. The rest of the crowd avoided them.
The fireman continued to ignore everyone, but Anna couldn't take her eyes off of him. She watched as he swayed slowly back and forth directing the thick stream of water over the roofs and wood frames of the houses near the fire. His hips mesmerized her. What would it feel like to feel them hard against her, right now, right here, covering her body, thrusting into her, making her slowly lose her mind. She took a step forward before she realized she'd almost walked up to him. Dammit, was she going insane?
Thank god he hadn't noticed as the massive pressure of the hose took all his concentration. Even through the thick rubber of his jacket you could sense the strain against powerful muscles. His legs were spread and braced in black rubber waders which was good because now the jets of water that he was directing at the house were making their way back towards him in streams of water that swirled down the curb and up over his sturdy ankles.
On and on he sprayed the buildings in front of him, sending up clouds of steam and streams of cold water down over the fire and the buildings in danger. A gust of wind blew through the gully of the street and changed the direction of the spray and the crowd jumped back, but too late and along with laughter you could hear bitching at the impromptu shower.
Still he kept on spraying the precious water. Although it had been a while since there'd been any flames, he methodically hosed the houses down again and again, checking for hot spots. And all around him other workers moved, doing mop up, gathering equipment, ignoring their fellow firefighter, trusting he'd make sure they hadn't missed anything.
Patrick was barking. Anna hadn't noticed until he started to strain at his leash. She looked down and saw him trying to escape in the direction of an alley that dissected the middle of the block. Her gaze followed his and she jerked in surprise as hot gold eyes stared back at her.
"Oh look," she said to no one in particular. "There's a cat."
The still crying gay man, not much more than a boy really, raised his head and jerked away from his partner. He looked wildly around him. "Felix?" He whispered, like he was afraid to hope.
At that moment the fireman manning the hose noticed too. He called to one of his co-workers who ducked under the spray of the arcing water and walked cautiously into the shadows of the alley. He disappeared for long minutes, but then he was back, his arms full with the writhing body of a wet and very pissed off longhaired yellow cat.
"Felix!" The young man shouted and ran to the fireman, arms outstretched.
The rescuer was glad to turn over his ungrateful bundle. For his part, the cat wasn't any happier to be held by his owner than by his savior. He hissed and spit and Anna watched as a long red scratch magically appeared on the boy's arm and bubbled up in beads of dark blood. The kid didn't even notice. He was crying again.
He walked back towards the crowd, smiling through his tears and once again people applauded. His lover, older than the boy by at least ten years, smiled indulgently at his young friend and opened his arms to welcome both he and the spitting cat back into his fold. It seemed to Anna that whatever losses the two men had suffered in this fire, they would be manageable.
Anna stared at them and wondered how that felt. What would it be like to know that all you really needed was what you already held in your arms? There had been a time when she'd thought she'd known the answer to that. Now she wasn't so sure.
There was a hiss of steam as the cold water found a hot spot and she looked up and into the green eyes of the fireman who stood in front of her. The air had turned cold and she was drenched from the earlier blasts, but she felt the heat of his gaze warm her in places that didn't show. That realization scared the shit out of her even as the heat in her belly flared into a bonfire of lust.
His eyes swept over her once, twice, passing judgment with a lift of one black eyebrow. Anna stood her ground and waited as he took a good long look at the ratty sneakers that didn't go with the oh so chic skirt she'd never bothered to take off after the party. The down vest was no match for either the skirt, or thin silk blouse she wore under it. Even her hair, she suddenly realized, was a study in contrasts. One side was still secure in the neat twist at the nape of her neck, while the other fell in a soft dark cloud to her shoulder.
His eyes were hard and as hot as the fire he'd just put out. They watched each other for long moments and Anna had to lick her lips to hide their trembling. Her cheeks flamed, she felt exposed even though she tried to tell herself he couldn't possibly know what she was thinking, could he? As if to answer her he narrowed his eyes, then deliberately, turned his back and went on with his job.
Anna felt the need to hold onto something as shaking knees and a slick wetness between her thighs made the act of standing almost impossible. And over riding it all was the feeling that she was a big fool to even think she could interest this man.
Go, she told herself. There's no reason to be here and you're just in the way. Patrick seemed to agree. He tugged again on his collar, trying to pull her back up the hill in the direction of home. It didn't matter. She couldn't leave. Not yet.
It felt like hours before the fire was completely contained. The pavement was black, oily streams of water ran down the steep grade carrying ash and debris from the hacked away front of the house. Hoses were everywhere, curled in piles or strewn haphazardly across curbs, soft now, spent but still dribbling out their last drops. Spotlights now marked the quiet efficient movements of men and women who knew the danger was past, at least here, at least for now. They stowed their gear and climbed into trucks, silently leaving the scene until only one truck remained to finish cleanup and assure the crowd their impromptu party was over.
Anna watched as the fireman who'd saved the roof earlier approached the barefoot man. He'd stripped off a lot of the rubber protective gear. Now he wore canvas and a heavy jacket, still rough, but not as heavy, she imagined, as the earlier garb. His helmet was gone too and dark curls clung to his forehead damply.
She saw his posture of apology as he pointed to the ruined house and the soft gestures as he patted the man's shoulder and smiled at the boy still cuddled in his lover's arms. A lifelong habit of good manners kicked in and the older man partially disengaged himself and offered the fireman his hand. They shook awkwardly.
As he made his escape, the two men stared after him. It was clear that it had finally dawned on them that unlike their neighbors, they wouldn't be going home and closing the door on the scene in the street. They stood there looking around awkwardly, unsure of what they needed to do next until the young couple with the baby walked up to them and gently guided them into the house next door to the burnt out ruin that had been their own.
By now, most of the people had drifted away. Anna knew she should be leaving herself; it had to be very late. She looked down at her wrist automatically, but her watch was on her dresser, six long blocks away. She looked around to see if there was anyone who could give her the time, but she was alone.
The fireman, her fireman as she thought of him, had gone back to his job. He was to her right now, standing in the alley where the cat had hidden, rolling hose that glimmered wetly in the red flashing lights from one of the trucks.
For a moment, Anna sucked on her lower lip as she studied his movements, then, making her decision, she pulled Patrick over to a house farther up the hill and tied him in a shadowy spot where he couldn't see the action and wouldn't be tempted to bark. Then she went back down the hill and approached the fireman.
"Do you have the time?" She asked quietly.
She'd startled him. He swiveled his head and swore softly.
Finally the man spoke, "Yeah, I have the time." But instead of looking at his watch, he moved backwards into the darkness.
"What?" Anna didn't understand where he was going and she stood there until he stepped out just far enough and long enough to take her arm and pull her in with him.
She stumbled as she entered the shadows and then he grabbed her hard and held her up only to suddenly pivot and push her back against the wooden wall of the house. She squeaked in surprise, but that was all because his mouth came down covering hers and the heat - the shock of it - silenced her. The kiss went on and grew, his lips moving over hers, demanding things they both knew weren't his to take. His tongue licked along the slit of her mouth and Anna knew she should pull away, stop this, but it felt so damn good all she could do was open to him.
His jacket was open and she slid in between the heavy lapels, wrapping her cold arms around his hot, sweating torso. The need for air made him break the kiss, she gasped and laid her head on his chest. He smelled like smoke and canvas and danger. His heart pounded under her cheek and when she slowly rubbed his back and pulled his tight tee shirt out of his pants, he groaned, then groaned again when her hands slipped under the coarse material.
"This is wrong," he whispered, but then he pulled her back and tipped her head so his mouth could reach hers again. One hand encircled her neck, the thumb sliding slowly up and down the delicate outline of her throat, while the other hand reached behind her head and roughly pulled at the loose pins that held up her hair.