“Westfield Firehouse, Paul speaking.”
“Hi, um, is this the fire department?”
“Uh huh.” Paul rubbed lazily across his belly, feeling out the muscle there. Firefighters had a reputation for being fit, but it was hard to eat healthy at the firehouse thanks to all the junk food around the place. If one of the company wasn’t bringing in goodies, then ladies were dropping by with baked goods. Paul liked baked goods. He just didn’t like ladies.
At least, not the way they wanted him to.
“And you’re a firefighter?” The caller’s voice had a slight twang, as if he might’ve grown up down south but was trying not to let it show.
“I’m a firefighter,” Paul confirmed. “You got a fire?”
Calls were supposed to come in through dispatch, not to the office phone, but you never knew with people. They’d Google ‘fire department’ and click on the first link that came up instead of having the sense to dial 911.
“No, um, not a fire. A cat. A stuck cat.”
“Oh.” One of those calls. “We don’t really get cats out of trees, sir. That’s just a thing on TV. It’ll come down of its own accord when it’s ready.”
“But she’s a baby, and I only just got her. I wasn’t supposed to let her outside, but she ran out between my legs and went straight up a tree, and now I can’t get her to come down. She’s been up there an hour, and she’s so small.”
“She’ll be fine, sir.”
“What if she gets tired and falls? What if a branch breaks? What if an eagle thinks she’s a mouse and snatches her up in its talons?”
Paul held back a laugh. The guy on the other end of the phone was adorably frantic, but he wasn’t faking it. Paul could tell he was genuinely worried.
“What’s your name, sir?”
“Aaron. Aaron Leadbetter, 39 Elm Street.”
“Okay, Aaron.” Paul made his voice soothing, lowering it in pitch and volume to lure Aaron in the way he would a scared kitten. “Here’s the thing. The Westfield Fire Department doesn’t rescue cats, but I’m about to go off duty. How about I swing by? Maybe I can help.”
Aaron’s gratitude was so effusive, it made Paul swell up a little. It wasn’t like he had anything better to do anyway. Truth was, he was already off duty, but hanging out with the gang beat sitting in his apartment alone. The lounge at the firehouse was cluttered with people’s shit, and the kitchen looked like no one ever did more than take a quick sponge to the countertops—which was the truth—but he got bored at home, and his apartment wasn’t any nicer looking anyway.
He made his farewells, taking some ribbing from Charlie about playing hero for a cat, then drove to the address Aaron had given him. It was in a nice neighborhood only a few blocks from the park where the streets were lined with trees and all the houses were single family homes—not mansions, but cute two and three bedroom capes.
Aaron was waiting at the end of his driveway. Something about him had attracted Paul over the phone, but wow—real-life Aaron was all that and then some. He had medium-dark skin and hair like black lamb’s wool in short twists dyed blue at the tips. Wire-rim glasses framed inky brown eyes. Between the glasses and his smaller physique, he was the perfect embodiment of that techno-geek look Paul could never resist.
He shook Paul’s hand with a desperate grip, rattling on about how much he appreciated him coming, which made him swell up all over again. He’d come to rescue the cat, but maybe he could do something for the fair mamsel in distress while he was there.
Aaron tugged him over to a stately oak spreading its limbs wide. “That’s her,” he said, letting go of Paul’s hand to point out a black kitten with white feet who looked perfectly comfortable reposing in the crook of a branch about halfway up. “Mittens.”
“Aw, Mittens. What a cutie.” He meant that as much for Aaron as for the cat, but he could see that Mittens was the way to Aaron’s heart, because he beamed at the compliment.
“I’ve only had her a few days, but I love her already, and I feel like a complete failure for letting her get out when they warned me not to. What if she hadn’t gone up the tree? She could’ve been run over by a car or eaten by that Doberman next door.”
“That’s why she’s up the tree, I’ll bet. She’s scared. But we’ll get her down. How about treats? You got a bag of them somewhere?”
Aaron went inside to fetch the treats, giving Paul a chance to admire his backside. He was dressed in a pair of purple-and-black-checked madras shorts that hugged his ass, and his shoulder blades were sharp beneath the thin material of his t-shirt.
When he’d disappeared inside, Paul shifted his admiring gaze from the man to the house. It was a creamy tan with brilliant white trim, perfectly maintained. The lawn was a lush green, and flowers bloomed in the flowerbeds. The porch looked to be an add-on. It ran the full width of the house and was deep enough to hold a porch swing. It’d be perfect for listening to the rain in spring or hiding from the sun in summer.
Some of the tree’s longer branches brushed at the roof over it, making Paul wonder if they could be reached from the second floor windows, but they were probably too small to support his weight.
“I already tried these,” Aaron said as he handed Paul the bag of treats he’d brought out.
“Did you shake the bag? That always worked on my parents’ cats.” He rattled it while calling Mittens’s name in that high-pitched coo that meant come here. Mittens picked her head up, eyeing him curiously, but a passing bug took her attention away just as quickly. She followed it so far out onto a branch that Aaron sucked in his breath and clutched at Paul’s arm.
“She’s fine,” Paul assured him. “She can’t weigh much more than a pound.” Now, if it’d been him up there, the branch would be toast, but Mittens didn’t even make it bend. “Probably the best thing to do is ignore her. The more fuss we make down here, the safer she feels up there.”
“But you said you’d help.” Beautiful brown eyes turned up to him.
Well, all right then. He’d have to do something more heroic than shake a bag of treats if he was going to catch either the kitty or the cutie. Climbing the tree seemed to be his best bet. He’d done a lot of that as a kid—whenever his mother wasn’t around to catch him at it—and the first branch hung low enough for him to reach. It’d been a while though.
“I could climb up and get her,” he suggested, giving Aaron the chance to save his ass by shooting the suggestion down, but Aaron only looked hopeful, so he went on over to the tree and wrapped his hands around that first limb and did a chin up on it. Tree climbing was harder than he remembered, but he managed to swing his right leg over the branch and roll up until he was straddling it.
From his perch ten feet off the ground, he looked down to see Aaron watching him admiringly. Too bad he hadn’t thought to take his shirt off, really show off his build. There was no way to know if Aaron was gay, but the blue-tipped hair gave Paul hope. Not many straight guys put color in their hair.
“You think you can catch her?” Aaron asked.
Right. The cat. He tilted his head back and spotted Mittens at least ten feet above him, currently finding him more interesting than the bug. He hooked a hand around the next branch and started climbing, the flow of it coming back to him as he went, but however high he got, Mittens went higher, remaining well out of reach.
When he looked down at Aaron again, he realized he was higher than he’d ever meant to be. The trunk was getting thinner, starting to sway with his movements.
“Paul?” Aaron called up. “Maybe you’d better come down.”
Oh, thank God.
“You’re just scaring her higher.”
Okay, so Aaron’s concern was for the cat, not for him, but still. He was grateful for the excuse to retreat.
Unfortunately, going down turned out to be more difficult than going up, or at least it felt that way—harder to see where his feet were going, the bark slicker under his hands as he lowered himself. He was almost there when he slipped, his foot skating out from under him at just the moment when he’d let go with one hand. A second later, he was on his back on the ground, looking up at a kitten who was possibly laughing at him.
“Are you all right? Please don’t be hurt.” Aaron dropped down onto his knees—his prettily dimpled knees, which peeked out from beneath the hem of his shorts.
“I think so.” Since he was thinking about Aaron’s knees, he was probably fine, but he’d sure had the breath knocked out of him.
“Oh my God, your hand.” Aaron cradled his left hand with a concerned scowl. “You’re bleeding.”
“Just scraped it.” He liked Aaron holding his hand, though, so he left it there. “I’ll be all right. Just need a minute.”
But Aaron made him get up and come into the house, hooking Paul’s arm over his shoulder to help support him. Aaron was several inches shorter and a whole lot lighter. There was no way Aaron could hold him up if he fainted, but he went ahead and leaned on him anyway.
The house was as neat and pretty inside as it was outside—everything tidy, the surfaces clean and uncluttered, lots of plants and color. A place Paul could imagine calling home.
“I love your house,” he said from the table where Aaron had deposited him. Aaron had run off somewhere, mumbling about Bactine and bandages, so Paul raised his voice to follow him. “You live here alone?”
“Just me and Mittens,” Aaron said as he came back into the kitchen with a pile of first aid supplies.
“Doing all right for yourself, I guess.” Paul figured Aaron couldn’t be thirty yet, and already a home owner. “What do you do for a living?”
“I’m an engineer.”
The word engineer called up images of hardhats and blueprints that he couldn’t reconcile with the adorkable guy meticulously wiping down his palm with an alcohol swab without seeming to realize how much that fucking hurt.
“It’s a desk job. Code books and CAD software. I can design things, but if I want them built, I have to hire someone.”
“No shame in that. I do a little side work myself, so if there’s ever anything you need done around here, just let me know.” Didn’t seem like there was, though. Everything about the place was exactly how Paul would’ve made it if it were his, from the yellow flowered curtains to the gleaming white cabinets.
Aaron switched from alcohol to Bactine, so Paul didn’t have to put so much energy into trying not to cry. Then he wrapped him up in about a hundred yards of gauze which probably wasn’t necessary. It was just a scrape. But he was enjoying the attention and the chance to watch Aaron’s long lashes flutter as he bent to his task.
“Does it hurt?” Aaron asked with a concerned frown.
“It’s fine.” Paul opened and closed his hand, checking that the bandages weren’t too tight. The sting had faded already. “I get worse all the time. Don’t usually have such a nice nurse though.”
Aaron’s eyes jumped up to Paul’s, then he bit his lip and glanced away. “Now what, though? Mittens is still in the tree.”
“Like I said, the best thing to do is leave her there. She’ll come down when she’s bored.”
Aaron didn’t seem convinced.
“It’s going to be okay.” He cupped Aaron’s chin with his good hand. His thumb stroked over the soft skin just below Aaron’s lip, wanting to test the plumpness of it. The blue tips of Aaron’s hair suggested he might not mind, but his eyes told Paul even more. If only Paul could live up to what he saw there.
Be a good girl, he begged Mittens. Help a guy out.
“How about we leave a trail of treats right into the house, then hole up in here and watch. Guarantee you, she’ll come down on her own. And if she’s not down by morning, I’ll bring the ladder truck.”
“Yeah, sure.” Paul gave his fingers a mental cross. His co-workers would tease him mercilessly if he asked to bring the truck out just so he could get into a hot guy’s pants, but the ribbing might be worth it. And Mittens was very small. Even Charlie wouldn’t leave her up there to starve.
He and Aaron laid down a line of cat treats leading from the base of the tree all the way across the porch through the screen door.
“She came down a little!” Aaron reached out to grab Paul’s arm, the excitement on his face making him about ten times cuter. If Mittens would cooperate, maybe Paul would get to see excitement of a different kind fill those pretty brown eyes.
“See? She can come down any time she wants.”
“What if she doesn’t know where home is, though?”
“That’s what the treats are for. And if she heads in the wrong direction, we’ll nab her.” Not that he was all that confident in his kitten-nabbing skills. Cats could move pretty fast. Come on, Mittens. Be a pal.
Aaron nodded solemnly. “It might take a while. You don’t have to stay if you don’t want.”
“Oh. Should I …?” He’d thought they’d been working on something there, plus he was invested in the cat at this point.
“I mean, you could stay.” Aaron’s eyes were sly now, a definite invitation in them. “I have some gin. I could make mojitos, and we could drink them on the porch.”
“I’d really like that.” Everything about it sounded great. A nice evening, the sun still July-bright in the sky, a shady porch and a lazy swing. A cute guy to share it all with. He took a spot on the swing, keeping an eye on Mittens who’d ventured out far enough to make the branch she was on wobble beneath her.
“Is she still there?” Aaron asked, coming out onto the porch with a glass in each hand.
“Oh, yeah. Right where we left her.” He leapt up to help Aaron with the glasses, angling his body to block Aaron’s view of the tree so he wouldn’t see how far out Mittens had gone, and by the time they’d settled onto the porch swing, she’d moved again.
“Oh, she’s way up there now,” Aaron said.
“Just having fun.”
“You don’t think she’s scared? I would be.”
“Afraid of heights?”
“A little. I guess you can’t be with your job.”
“Nah, not really.” Paul stretched his arm across the back of the swing, all casual-like. The mojito was fantastic—as good as he’d imagined it would be. If only Aaron would scoot a little closer, maybe rest his head against his chest, it’d be pretty much perfect. “I always liked heights—roller coasters and sky scrapers. That sort of thing.”
“A thrill seeker.”
“I guess the department attracts people like me. It’s a charge.”
“You’re a hero.”
“Well.” He wasn’t exactly being heroic at the moment, his attempt at tree climbing aside. “I try. But I’m sure your job is important too.”
And Aaron’s job had bought this house. To have a nice house and a cute kitten seemed like a pretty good deal to Paul. He mostly hung out at the firehouse where there weren’t any other gay men, then went home to wish that the cleaning fairy had dropped in while he’d been gone. What he wanted was a sweet, cute guy like Aaron waiting for him in a place that felt like home.
“I enjoy my job,” Aaron said. “It’s like a puzzle—something to work out. And I like to draw, even the boring stuff like schematics.”
“Do you draw non-boring stuff too?”
Aaron ducked his head, apparently needing some prodding before he’d confess. Paul’s arm was right there along the back of the swing, stretched out above Aaron’s narrow shoulders. Well, he’d always been a daredevil, just like they’d been talking about.
“You can tell me,” he said, looking Aaron dead in the eye as he executed the drop. “I won’t laugh or anything.”
Aaron’s breath hitched, but he didn’t shrug away from Paul’s arm. “I do fan art. It’s stupid, not a big deal.”
“I’ll bet it’s great.” Paul squeezed the round cap of his shoulder, using it to tug him closer. “What fandom are you?”
Aaron started talking about Korean boy bands that meant absolutely nothing to Paul, but he was so animated with it that he didn’t care. He just kept saying “uh huh” and scooching Aaron closer and closer until they were exactly the way he’d imagined—hip to hip with their drinks in hand, just a touch of breeze and the sun slowly sinking.
“She’s still up there,” Aaron said.
“Sleeping, looks like.”
Mittens had nestled into the spot where a branch forked and was curled into a ball, nothing to her but a tiny ball of black fluff.
“What if she falls out?”
“She won’t. Even people have a sense of space while they sleep. That’s why we don’t fall out of bunkbeds.”
“Do you sleep in bunkbeds at the fire house?”
“Is it like …?”
“A porno?” Paul laughed. “No such luck. Everyone sleeps mostly dressed so we’re ready to go when the bell rings. And anyway, some of them are women.”
“In the same dorm?”
“Yep. Only got the one. I guess women can be in porn too. Just not the porn I watch.”
Aaron cleared his throat. “Not, uh, not the ones I watch either.”
“Yeah, I thought maybe.” Because they were cuddled together, for one thing. Their drinks were empty, the cat wasn’t coming down anytime soon. “I don’t suppose you have bunks.”
“No, just a regular old bed. On the ground. I could show it to you.”
Fuck, yeah. This day just kept getting better.
“I would love to see your bed. But first—” He dipped his mouth down to touch it against Aaron’s, a light brush of a promise. He would take good care of this sweetie, treat him as carefully as he would a kitten. Aaron was soft against him, trembling lightly, those plump lips delicious under his and open enough that he was able to slip his tongue between them to plumb the richness inside.
“You do this often?” he asked when their mouths separated so they could catch a breath.
Aaron shook his head, surprising him not at all.
“Then we don’t have to. You could give me your number, and I could take you out on a proper date first. I’m not sure kitten-stalking counts.”
He could be happy with just this—kisses on a porch. But Aaron clutched at his t-shirt with eager fingers and said, “I want to, though. It’s not every day I have a fireman in my house.”
That slight twang in Aaron’s voice told him he might appreciate gentlemanly manners, so Paul offered his hand to help him up. Aaron kept his hand as he led him through the house to the staircase. Great ass, nicely packed into those shorts, cheeks flexing with each step. The staircase didn’t go high enough for Paul’s purposes.
At the top of the stairs, Aaron headed for the bedroom on the right, a dormered room with a bookcase on the long wall and a bed tucked between the two windows. Like everything in the house, the room was clean and inviting, as if someone had written a storybook just for Paul and was flipping the pages to show it to him.
There wasn’t a lot of wall space in the room, but what there was held artwork he could guess was Aaron’s. Now he understood better what Aaron had been trying to explain about his style. Aaron lingered in the center of the room as Paul walked around it, nervous about having his artwork viewed or maybe about what else was about to go down.
“I don’t have any condoms here.”
Paul had a condom in his wallet, but that wasn’t that point. “We don’t need condoms. How about we make out a little, then cuddle? Or we could cuddle a little, then make out.”
“You don’t want to… ?”
“I don’t want to go any faster than you want to go. I promise you’re going to get more than one chance at this.” He swept a hand down his body, making Aaron smile. “I think you’re adorable.” He stalked in closer, careful not to spook his prey. “And smart. And have really nice taste in houses.”
“Also in cats.”
“I’m reserving judgment on that until I meet her.” He’d made it close enough to Aaron to touch him, so he put his hands on his hips to square him up, then leaned down for a kiss. Aaron obliged him easily, tilting up and back and bringing his arms up to cling to Paul’s neck. Paul lifted him off his toes and walked backwards until his knees hit the bed, then eased them down onto it.
They kicked their shoes off and readjusted until they were face to face, mouths feasting on each other and hands scrambling over each other’s surfaces, learning them for the future. But when Aaron started grinding up against him, he gentled him. Aaron’s body might be saying yes—and Paul’s was screaming yes—but he had a feeling Aaron would regret a hasty encounter. And maybe he would too.
Instead of taking advantage of Aaron’s pliancy, he used it to curl Aaron around him like he was a giant cushion and Aaron was a pampered pet, settling the both of them into sleep.
Paul jumped to his feet at the sound of a screech, immediately alert and ready to deal with the emergency. What was it? The fire bell? No, that’d been Aaron who’d screeched. He was still in the bed, sitting up with his arms wrapped around his knees.
“I heard something,” Aaron whispered, pointing to one of the windows.
The sun had set while they’d been napping, but silhouetted against the darkness of night, Paul could make out the darkness of Mittens. He opened the window, and she hopped nimbly over the sill to the floor.
“Mittens.” Aaron scrambled for her, scooping her up into an aggressive hug. “How did you get out there?”
“Jumped onto the roof from the tree,” Paul guessed. “She’s an acrobat.”
“Like you,” Aaron accused, as if Paul were Mittens’s father. “She’s supposed to be an indoor cat.”
“She’ll need a cat tree then, maybe one of those things where it runs all around the house with ramps and perches.”
“And who’s going to build that?” Aaron asked, making the answer obvious. “You already know I’m not good with tools.”
“You design it, I’ll build it.”
“Deal.” Aaron’s smile, half-hidden by a kitten’s worth of black fluff, said the rest of it.
“So, now that we know Mittens is safe, any chance we could go back to snuggling?”
“As long as you don’t mind company,” Aaron said. “I’m not letting this one out of my sight again.”
That was fine. Paul didn’t mind company. He didn’t mind at all.
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