MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
THE NIGHT I became the youngest person—and the only female ever—to win the Austin Fire Department’s valor award, I got propositioned by my partner.
At the ceremony. In the ballroom. During dinner.
By my partner.
There we all were, the entire B-shift from Station Eleven, in our dress uniforms, using salad forks—and there I was, in my crisscross tie, getting more and more nervous at the prospect of having to walk up on that stage in front of all those people under all those lights. The winter before, a busload of schoolchildren had slid off an icy road into a ravine, and I had climbed inside to push the kids out through a window, one by one, as the water rose. That’s why we were here. The newspapers were calling me the School Bus Angel.
And Hernandez, of all people, chose this moment to hit on me.
Hernandez, my partner of three years. Hernandez, who I’d never once thought of that way. Hernandez, who was so perfectly, mechanically handsome that he didn’t even register as handsome anymore.
He was like a Latino firefighting Ken doll—so bizarrely perfect, he wasn’t even real. He lifted weights, and flossed, and preened, and he used his washboard stomach and perfectly aligned white teeth to snare more unsuspecting ladies than I could count. He wasn’t just in our department’s calendar—he was on the cover. Picture-perfect Hernandez, the last guy on earth I would ever think of as anything other than a health-food-eating, CrossFit-training ladies’ man, leaned over close to my ear, right there at the banquet table, and asked me to spend the night with him.
“Maybe tonight’s the night,” he said.
I kept chewing. I honestly didn’t see it coming. “Tonight’s the night for what?”
He looked at me like, Duh. “To finally do something about all that sexual tension.”
I looked around to see if the other guys had heard him.
He had to be joking.
Somebody had to be making a video, or taking a photo, or poised to jump out and start laughing. There was no way this was anything but an epic firehouse Candid Camera prank. I surveyed the rest of the crew. Pranksters all.
But everybody was just sawing away at their chicken.
I decided to call Hernandez’s bluff. “Okay,” I said. “Great idea.”
He lifted his eyebrows and looked delighted. “Really?”
I gave him a look like, Come on. “No. Not really.”
“I’m serious,” he said, leaning closer.
He gave me a look like, And who are you to judge?
I gave one back like, You know exactly who I am. Then I said, “You’re never serious about anything. Especially women.”
“But you’re not a woman. You’re a firefighter.”
“Yet another reason I’d never go home with you.”
“I think you want to.”
I shook my head. “Nope.”
“I could dare you,” Hernandez said.
I never backed down from a dare. But I shook my head, like, Not even that, buddy. “I don’t date firefighters. And neither do you.”
“This would hardly be a date.”
I tilted my head. “You’re like my brother, dude.”
“I can work with that.”
I flared my nostrils. “Gross.”
“Seriously. Why not?”
I squinted at him. Was he serious? Could he possibly be serious? I glanced up at the stage. In a few minutes they were going to start the awards ceremony. This was a big night for me. Huge. The biggest night of my career. Did we really have to do this now?
“We work together, man,” I said. I shouldn’t have even had to say it. Firefighters don’t date other firefighters. It’s not just against the rules, it’s against the culture.
He didn’t care. “I’d never tell.”
“That doesn’t change anything.”
He gave me a serious, evaluating look. “You need to let yourself have some fun.”
I shook my head. “You’re not my kind of fun.”
He leaned in a little closer. “You never date anybody. How is that possible? It’s such a waste of a good woman. Stop holding back.”
“I’m not holding back,” I said, like we were discussing the weather. “I’m just not interested.”
He glanced down at himself, approvingly, and then met my eyes. “You’re interested.”
I shook my head.
“You’ve thought about it,” he said.
“Pretty sure I haven’t.”
He lowered his voice. “You’re thinking about it now, though, aren’t you?”
“Not in a good way.”
“You need to stop living like a nun,” he said. “What if I’m the cure for all your loneliness?”
That got my attention. I stabbed a carrot in my salad. “I’m not lonely.”
He frowned like I was certifiably insane. “Guess what? You’re the loneliest person I know.”
To be honest, that smarted a little. I pointed at him with my fork. “I am self-sufficient,” I corrected. “I am independent. I am in charge of my own life.”
“You are also in need of some…” He gave a meaningful pause. “Company.”
I refused to take his meaning. “I don’t have time for company,” I said. I had my shift at the station, my second job as a self-defense instructor, ten hours a week of volunteering with Big Sisters, a marathon to train for, and weekends helping my dad build an addition to his house. I barely had time for sleep, much less “company.”
“Whose fault is that?” Hernandez asked.
Was that a real question? “‘Company’ is not a priority for me. I’m not romantic.”
“This is not about romance. It’s about warmth. Connection. Human closeness.”
“Sounds like romance to me,” I said.
“Call it what you want. You need some.”
What was happening? This was Hernandez. There was no way he could be serious. And yet his face looked so earnest. I kept scanning for some tell—maybe a little side smile, or a spark of mischief in his eyes—but all I could find was that intense, unwavering, weirdly earnest gaze.
I hesitated. “You are kidding, right?”
He had to be kidding.
Copyright © 2019 by Katherine Pannill Center