Breath on Embers

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December 3rd

Christmas lights glinted on Thea Moretti’s black patent leather boots as she hurried along East Eighty-Sixth Street, across Park Avenue, heading for Madison. The night air held a damp chill that boded snow, and a few drops of borderline-freezing rain spattered her hair. She tightened the belt of her matching thigh-length trench coat and turned up her collar against the cold. If she stood perfectly still the coat and boots covered her from ears to toes, but based on the looks she’d gotten on the bus, any movement flashed a couple of inches of bare skin between the coat’s hem and the tops of her thigh-high boots.

Korn pounded her eardrums as she passed Demarchelier, crowded even on a Tuesday evening, and crossed Madison against the light when the uptown traffic broke. She ducked through The Croydon’s glass door as a man in a business suit exited and headed for Fifth Avenue. The doorman gave her a quick onceover.

“He expecting you?” She couldn’t hear him over the sounds of “Falling Away From Me” but she’d gotten really good at reading lips since she’d moved to New York nearly a year before.

He was Ronan O’Rourke, resident of apartment 9B, and the answer to that question was no.

“Don’t buzz him,” Thea said, keeping her own volume natural. “You’ve got your hands full.”

Rick, occupied with handing out packages to impatient residents while accepting a rack of dry-cleaning from a laundry and buzzing an apartment expecting a delivery of what smelled like Chinese food, took her at her word and gave her a grateful nod as he hit the security buzzer to open the second set of doors. Thea slipped through with the delivery man. The fury-filled music thundering against her eardrums contrasted starkly with the cream marble floor and potted ferns as she headed for the bank of elevators at the back of the lobby. She and the delivery man waited for a couple to exit the elevator, then rode as far as the fourth floor together. Thea trusted the aroma of Kung Pao chicken wouldn’t permeate her outerwear.

There wasn’t enough material under the trench coat to absorb the scent of Chinese food.

Apartment 9B was right off the elevator bank. Thea paused just outside the door and adjusted everything she wore, tugging down the coat’s hem, straightening the boot tops. She shook the few droplets of chilled rain from her hair and left the coat collar up, as a glance in the mirror opposite the elevator told her it added a sexy-spy overtone to the look.

Reluctantly she turned off her iPod, tugged the earbuds from her ears, and wrapped the cord around the device. Silence rang loud in her head until the canned laughter of a sitcom rerun rose and fell behind Ronan’s door. She slipped the iPod into her coat pocket with her MetroCard, then depressed the buzzer.

The deadbolt clicked, then the door opened. Ronan stood on the other side in his stocking feet, his blue eyes widening with surprise and a pleasure that made her heart jitter. He wore a dark blue uniform with the single silver bar of the FDNY’s Lieutenant insignia on the collar. The sleeves of a white thermal undershirt were pushed to his elbows.

“Hey, Thea,” he said. “Did Rick buzz? I didn’t hear it.”

His voice trailed off as his eyes narrowed with interest. In some distant part of her mind she noted the fine lines radiating from the corners of his eyes, a sign that his last stretch of duty at FDNY’s Battalion 10, Engine Company 22, hadn’t been uneventful.

So much the better. He needed this. She needed it, too. More than he knew.

The patent leather squeaked when she cocked her head and her hip; his gaze roamed from the top of her tousled hair to the tips of her shiny black boots, lingering on the way back up at the exposed skin peeking through the coat. The tops of her thighs. The hollow of her throat.

Her mouth, adorned in a matte red several shades darker than her natural lip color.


Silence stretched for a moment as heat bloomed on his cheekbones and in his bright blue eyes. One dark brow lifted. He cleared his throat, then braced one broad shoulder against the doorframe and let his gaze roam her body once more.

“Can I help you with something?”

Excellent. Ronan had a quick eye and a sharp mind, two qualities that nicely iced the cake of his muscular firefighter’s body.

“Santa sent me to help you, sir,” she said, her voice provocative but low in deference to the building’s other residents. The words felt a little ridiculous. She was a systems architect, not a…

Not a what? Not a flirt? Not a sexpot? Not alive?

His gaze flicked to her mouth again. “With what?”

Holding his gaze with her own, she reached for the trench coat’s belt and unbuckled it, then slipped the shiny black buttons free. The coat gaped open to reveal a red velvet Santa’s helper outfit. White fur trimmed the edge of the strapless bodice and the short skirt’s hem, dancing several inches above the tops of hooker boots straight out of Pretty Woman.

Subtlety wouldn’t hold back the emptiness. Filling the void required loud music and meaningless sex.

“Anything you like,” she said.

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