Reading Time: 109 Minutes
Title: Turning Tables
Author: Keira Marcos
Banner Art: Jilly James
Series Order: 1
Relationship: Evan Buckley/Eddie Diaz
Genre: Paranormal Romance, Alternate Universe, Time Travel, Magical Realism
Warnings: Canon-Level Violence, Discussion-Child Abuse, Discussion-Trauma, Parental Alienation, Homophobia, Dysfunctional Family Dynamics, Sexual Harassment, Temporary Character Death
Author Note: See series page for casting and additional information.
Word Count: 27,442
Betas: Jilly James & Ladyholder
Summary: Buck makes a choice and turns to the past seeking to save the life of a child and maybe along the way he can right more than one wrong.
* * * *
Evan Buckley didn’t remember the first turn. He only came to realize he must have turned as a toddler when he was told how his older brother, Daniel, nearly died from an infection that almost went undetected on the day he was due to get a bone marrow transplant. Buck was a year old when that took place. In fact, it was just a week after his birthday so, of course, he didn’t remember exactly. What he’d been told was that he woke up that morning inconsolable and pitched an unholy fit that caused his sister, Maddie, to drop him on her way down the stairs.
While his parents were getting him checked out at the emergency room, his brother developed a fever. A fever that hadn’t emerged until roughly four and a half hours after his scheduled bone marrow transplant. Maddie liked to say that Buck woke up mad at the world that day, and it saved Daniel’s life. Buck had believed that for years until shortly after his 12th birthday when his father had come home drunk and tried to beat him to death.
Buck had known all along that his parents didn’t love him, and they’d only put up a front for Maddie and Daniel. With both of his older siblings now in college, they no longer had to pretend. Still, he hadn’t expected to get hit. A switch had flipped inside him in that moment, and warmth gathered in his chest just as his father lunged at him again. Suddenly, he was standing in the kitchen watching Maddie pack a few snacks for her drive to school. The Jeep was already in the driveway, packed and ready to go. Daniel had teased her about all the sweets in her snack bag and tried to put beef jerky in her supplies, despite the fact that she hated it.
Buck was a smart kid; he understood something amazing had happened to him and that whatever the warmth was in his chest—it had saved his life. But he was just twelve and couldn’t really do much to change his circumstances without involving his parents. He didn’t want to get in the way of Maddie’s dreams to be a nurse. So, he’d looked up military schools online and found one far enough away that his parents would be relieved, and he would at least be close to Daniel.
Two days after Maddie was moved into a dorm for her freshman year of university, Buck was dropped off at a military academy in Massachusetts. Maddie had been furious, but Daniel had understood. He’d sent Buck a cell phone already programmed with his and Maddie’s numbers. It said something that his older brother hadn’t bothered to put their parents’ numbers in it.
The tenth time he turned on purpose, as far as he could remember, was when one of his dormmates hung themselves. He’d felt so guilty for not noticing that Terry was in a terrible state, so he’d turned almost without a thought and got the younger boy help. Terry had ended up going home, and Buck didn’t know if he tried to do it again. He’d done what he could and had put the situation out of his mind. He’d learned to accept that free will was a thing, and he couldn’t control everything no matter how much he wished it.
Sometimes the magic nestled in his heart didn’t allow him to turn, and those times were the most difficult to understand. Eventually, he accepted that the magic was protecting him from further trauma and that some things couldn’t be fixed.
His parents were killed in a car accident shortly before he turned seventeen, and Daniel became his guardian. It didn’t even cross his mind to try to turn to save them. Maybe one day, Maddie and Daniel would know about his ability and they would question him about their parents. He already knew what lie he would tell because neither really needed to know that their parents hadn’t been worth saving.
Daniel graduated from law school as Buck entered his junior year of college, majoring in civil engineering. His girlfriend had pushed him into the degree program, and by the time she was exiting his life like her tampon string was on fire, he’d completed all of the required classes for the degree. He finished up quickly, walking away with a broken heart and a bachelor’s degree. Despite Maddie’s misgivings, Buck took a meandering road trip through the Midwest after graduating, worked on a ranch for a while, and came back to Hershey just in time to sit behind her in a courtroom while Daniel’s law partner sued Doug Kendall for divorce.
Maddie fled to Italy to find herself, and Buck went to Los Angeles, where he eventually became a firefighter. It felt like a calling, and the magic that nestled against his heart agreed. Throughout his life, since realizing his gift, he’d been careful with the magic. He’d always known he couldn’t abuse it or be selfish with it. He also understood that fate was a real, tangible thing that he could not cross and could not fight against no matter how much he tried.
But as he stood at the foot of a tiny grave six months in the making, Buck knew he was about to take the biggest risk he’d ever taken with the magic he’d been gifted with.
He remembered her vividly. Her tiny body pressed against his chest as he’d ran down the stairs of that dismal building. He remembered her teenage mother—desperate and clearly abused. He’d been furious with her and furious with Athena Grant for putting the girl in the ambulance with the baby. Buck had made peace with Athena over it, eventually.
She’d been buried with the name that had been given to her in the hospital by a social worker. Buck had checked on the baby once because he couldn’t help himself, but then he’d set it aside like he’d been told to do. Through various connections he shouldn’t have had, he’d found out that the baby had been given back to her birth mother and three weeks after that—smothered. The girl was in prison for a crime Athena was pretty sure the baby’s grandfather had committed.
“I told you coming here would do you no favors,” Athena murmured as she came to stand beside him.
“I wish…” Buck took a deep breath. “Something told me that I shouldn’t turn my back on her, and I did it anyway because that’s what everyone said to do—leave them at the doors.”
Athena took his hand and squeezed gently. “Let me take you home.”
He shook his head and stared at the grave. “The name doesn’t suit her.” She didn’t tell him that he couldn’t know that—no one would ever know that since she’d died before she was even a year old. “She deserved something sweet and pretty after what she went through.”
“You were right,” Athena said. “That girl didn’t deserve any sort of consideration from you or me.”
“No,” Buck said with a sigh. “I… She was a young, desperate girl, and the system failed them both. Her parents forced her to take the baby when social services decided she was stable. I think they were punishing her for getting pregnant. You and I both know she probably didn’t kill her own baby no matter what she did the day she gave birth.”
“They couldn’t shake her confession,” Athena said and took a deep breath. “Regret will wear you down.”
“If you could turn around and walk into the past, would you?” Buck questioned. “Would you save this little girl from being smothered in her own crib? Do you believe that there is some plan for the universe and that everything happens for a reason?”
“Such power is beyond us,” Athena said. “And perhaps that is for the best, baby. What would we do with the ability to make those sorts of decisions?”
“A lot of good,” Buck suggested.
“Or a lot of terrible,” Athena murmured. “This is a tragedy, but maybe she was spared worse.”
“They never should’ve let the baby go home with her mother,” Buck said. “Not after what she did. Something terrible was happening in her life, and…it all just got dismissed.”
“I could talk to you about statistics, overworked people, and an underfunded department, but you already know that. The social worker for the case was fired for her terrible decisions, but it won’t bring little Joan back.” Athena paused. “Nothing will.”
Well, that wasn’t true at all, Buck thought. “I’m about to do something reckless with myself.”
“If you let me change my clothes, I’ll help you hide that bastard’s body,” Athena muttered.
Buck laughed, quick and sad, as he squeezed her hand. “I didn’t say illegal, but I do appreciate your support should I find myself at a loss for another solution. I’ve never known how to say this without it being weird, but I love you.” He glanced down and found her staring at him, wide-eyed. “Your strength, determination, and spirit…honestly, Athena, you’re one of the most breathtaking women I’ve ever met in my entire life. You are beautiful inside and out. I kind of wanted to give Bobby the shovel talk when I realized you were dating him. I know it would’ve been wrong, and weird, and honestly kind of toxic, but I still wanted to.”
“Evan Buckley.” She took a deep breath. “How dare you.” Athena wiped away a tear with trembling fingers. “Are you sure you’re not going to do something illegal?”
“I’m sure,” Buck murmured. “It’s just that things might change in ways I can’t control, and maybe I’ll never get another chance to speak with you like this, and as much as it hurts—I feel like I have no choice.”
“I don’t understand.”
“It seems wrong to tell you,” Buck said. “You won’t remember it, but I’ll carry some sort of relief with me the rest of my life for having shared it with someone.”
“I won’t…remember it,” Athena repeated.
He brought her hand up to his chest and placed it over his heart. The magic inside him warmed, and a gentle glow spread between them. “When I was very young, an ancient and unspeakably powerful remanent of long-forgotten energy found a place inside me to rest. This magic, for lack of a better word, allows me to turn and walk back into the past. I can’t always do it, but I have done it more since I started working at the 118 than I ever have before. Sometimes the magic is still, and I’m left to grieve the changes I cannot make. Other times, I can turn just a little…often it’s not much at all. Sometimes, I just have enough time to make a phone call to tell a mother she needs to go home immediately because I’d rather not have to carry her daughter’s coffin, again.”
“Oh, God,” Athena whispered, and tears slipped down her cheeks. “Buck. That was you? I couldn’t trace the number. I tried. I tried so hard. I couldn’t make out the voice…why…how?”
“As I said, I’ve never told anyone. I turned, but it wasn’t far back enough to prevent May’s suicide attempt. I keep a prepaid phone in my Jeep for situations just like that one—I faked a headache to get out of work to make that call.” Her hand trembled against his chest. “There have been times when I have a feeling, a push to pay attention or to make a different choice. I’m feeling that push now. The magic inside me agrees that I should…make a different choice for this little girl.”
“You’re going to try to save her,” Athena murmured and looked down at the grave. “It’s been months. Have you ever turned that far back?”
“No, and I’m not sure the magic or fate will allow it, but I can’t live with myself if I don’t try,” Buck said. “I think I might be able to go back as far as my last turn.”
“The day May tried to kill herself?” Athena questioned, and he nodded. “Do me a favor, kid, and tell me not to seek revenge on that silly bitch bullying my girl. I’m still getting bullshit from the brass, and her parents threatened to sue me.”
“Okay, but we can get some kind of revenge because she’s a wretched human being and deserves it,” Buck muttered and released her hand. “Now, you should go tell Bobby everything is okay before he comes bounding across the cemetery like the golden retriever he claims I am.”
She turned and huffed the sight of Bobby’s truck near her SUV. “Right.”
He released her hand. “Well.” Magic started to shimmer between them. “I’m sorry that you won’t remember this but thank you. Speaking of it with someone makes it all seem easier somehow.”
“You can tell me again; I’ll believe you,” Athena said. “My grandmother had a bit of magic of her own, nothing like this, but I’ve felt that kind of power before, and I respect the nature of it.”
Buck stepped back. “Maybe. We’ll see how it goes.”
* * * *
It paid to have a world-class lawyer for an older brother. Daniel Buckley flew into LA within hours of Buck calling him, and now two weeks later Buck was close to achieving his main goal. As much as their parents had ignored Buck, his brother had indulged him overtly his entire life. There was precious little in the world that Daniel wouldn’t do for the little brother who’d saved his life. Buck knew that, as an adult, Daniel had grown to deeply resent their parents for making a savior baby they had no intention of loving.
“Are you sure about this?” Daniel asked quietly as they sat at a table in a private adoption agency. “Based on the story you’ve told me, she might have long-term health issues.”
“I didn’t want to let her go the day we rescued her,” Buck admitted.
Daniel’s hand settled on his arm. “Evan, talk to me.”
“Do you remember when I told you that you needed to check the brakes on your car before your trip to the lodge two years ago?” Buck questioned. “And the mechanic found a fault that would’ve probably caused a major accident if you’d been forced to use the brakes a lot?”
“Like on that steep mountain road leading to the lodge,” Daniel said quietly. “He said getting them checked before that trip probably saved my life.” His hand tightened briefly. “Did it save my life, Evan?”
“Yeah,” Buck said and took a deep breath.
Daniel nodded. “Sometimes, when you were little, you’d glow while you were asleep. Maddie decided you were an angel—given just to us so that we’d be safe. It was why she invested so much time in keeping you away from our parents. She said we had to protect our gift. It was Maddie’s idea to get a nanny, and she was furious when they fired her shortly before Maddie left for college. She almost didn’t go at all.” He smiled then. “But you saved yourself—another little push, then?”
“Something like that,” Buck admitted because he wasn’t ready to discuss the depth of his abilities and maybe never would be when it came to Daniel. A brother he was certain would’ve died if it hadn’t been for the magic nestled in his body. “This baby won’t survive if I leave her where she is, Daniel. Please make this happen for her. She deserves better than to be thrown away again.”
The adoption agent, a bright-eyed woman named Bonnie Arnold, reentered, a frown in place as she sat down at the table. “The birth mother is in agreement. Her parents tried to extort money but backed down when I told them that, if they persisted, I would have to report the matter to the police. They tried to refuse the adoption at that point, but California doesn’t require parental permission for an adoption to take place where it concerns a minor birth parent. She claims she has no idea who the father is, but I believe that is just to protect him from her own father, who is very unpleasant.”
Buck nodded. “Does she want an open adoption?”
“She doesn’t want her parents to have any access to the child after today,” Ms. Arnold explained. “And considering her father’s temper, I agree. But, Mr. Buckley, you are a young, single man…”
Buck tensed, and his mind raced with protests, but Daniel’s fingers tightened just a little on his arm.
“My brother is a generous, hardworking adult with a good job and a substantial trust fund, Ms. Arnold. He doesn’t actually need to work if he is frugal and thoughtful with the money he inherited. I manage his money and his investment portfolio. Financially, he will have no issues providing for this child. He developed a deep connection with the infant during the course of her rescue—Evan’s prone to such things if I’m honest. He’d rescue the whole world if it were possible. Even as a child, he dedicated himself to keeping others safe. I can’t tell you how many times I found him building little shelters to put over bird’s nests so the baby birds wouldn’t get wet when it rained.”
Buck blushed. “Daniel, geez.”
Bonnie Arnold laughed. “There is no legal or ethical reason to disapprove of the adoption, of course. I just want to make sure you know what you’re getting into.”
“I understand, Ms. Arnold, I promise. This isn’t a decision I’ve made lightly. I almost registered with social services to become a foster parent while the baby was in the hospital, but I was told they’d decided to let her go back to her birth mother.” He grimaced. “Despite the fact that she shoved her newborn down a plumbing pipe.”
Bonnie’s eyes fluttered shut briefly, and she took a deep breath. “They’re calling the baby Joan.”
“That’s the name the social worker gave her in the hospital,” Buck said. “It was supposed to be temporary. I’d thought to change her name to Beatrice.”
“Beatrice.” Bonnie smiled. “I adore it.” She made a note on her legal pad. “Would you want a middle name?”
He hadn’t really considered it because he didn’t have one. Buck honestly figured his parents hadn’t really considered names at all where he was concerned and knew that Evan had been Maddie’s suggestion. “Minerva.”
“Beatrice Minerva Buckley,” Daniel repeated. “It’s lovely. Grandma would be so happy to have a baby named after her. I think our parents purposefully didn’t give Maddie even part of her name out of petty revenge because of the way she wrote her will.”
Buck wouldn’t have been surprised. His maternal grandmother, Beatrice Ellison, had come from money and had loathed her son-in-law. She’d made sure he’d never touch a dime of her money when she passed by placing all of it in trust for her grandchildren. She’d died when Maddie was just four, so Evan had no memories of her. Still, he’d heard stories and seen pictures; he felt as if he knew her through Maddie and Daniel’s vague memories. And her generosity had given all three of them a good life.
* * * *
Ms. Arnold brought in the baby, tucked in the brand-new car seat that Buck had brought. He didn’t know what the family had and honestly didn’t want much, if anything, from them. There was a lot of resentment for what had been done before, and as much as he’d turned over the years, he couldn’t always control that emotion.
“She hasn’t been to the pediatrician at all since she was brought home,” Bonnie reported tersely. “So, she hasn’t had her shots and has no health records beyond what we have from the hospital regarding her traumatic birth and rescue.”
Buck unbuckled the harness, frowning just a little at the dingy yellow onesie and mismatched socks. But everything was clean, and the baby smelled fresh and sweet. The girl had clearly been doing all she could with what she had. Part of him wished he’d gone to see her in prison before turning back time. Knowing the truth from her would’ve helped him now. He had a feeling he could’ve gotten her to tell him.
“We’ll leave the adoption open on the explicit terms that only his birth mother or a verified sibling can ask for information,” Buck said finally. “Don’t let her parents know about that, please.”
“I won’t,” Bonnie said.
Buck focused on the baby. “Hello, sweet Bea. I’m gonna be your daddy. It’s weird, I know.”
She was sturdy and not underweight as far as he could tell. She had wispy light brown hair and bright green eyes. He let her rest on his chest and took a deep breath against her hair. She didn’t smell much like a baby, so the girl had probably been bathing her in her own products.
“If it wouldn’t call attention to the situation and the adoption, I’d be filing a complaint with the Department of Children and Family Services regarding her lack of medical care,” Bonnie admitted. “It is our policy to do two home visits during the first year, Mr. Buckley. I can’t say for certain that DCFS won’t eventually investigate. Especially if the grandparents decide to be vindictive about the lack of a payout. I don’t expect anything to be amiss since your home study went so well. Your brother can be present during those visits, and they will be scheduled well in advance in respect to your work schedule. I will need to see records regarding her health care at that time.”
Buck nodded. “Of course.”
“You’re lucky to have such a resourceful brother as a lawyer,” she said wryly. “Precious few could pull that kind of card out of their pocket, especially one that was already licensed to practice law in a state he doesn’t live in.”
“I sought a license to practice in California when my brother moved here,” Daniel said smoothly. “My siblings are the only family I have, Ms. Arnold. I place a great deal of value in their safety and happiness.” He checked his watch. “Speaking of, our sister’s flight will be landing within the next three hours. I would be grateful if we could have at least two hours to get my brother and niece home before I have to fight LAX to extract my sister.”
“Let’s get this finished up,” she said and offered Daniel a warm, flirty smile.
Buck refrained from rolling his eyes. Both his brother and sister were practically supernaturally attractive, and it was a real burden. He focused on Bea, who was staring at him. Her pretty little face was quite solemn, and the desire to make her laugh was almost instant.
The turn had been stressful and emotionally wrought, but he’d been hopeful. Daniel had worked miracles regarding the whole thing. He hadn’t expected anything different. Maddie’s return from Italy was a bit of a surprise, as she hadn’t really planned to ever return to the US as long as Doug Kendall was alive. Daniel and his law firm had ruined the man’s life and career—only his parents’ money had kept him from living on the streets. The scandal had been so damaging that the entire family had left Pennsylvania. That, in itself, was troubling as Buck had no idea where Maddie’s extremely violent ex-husband was.
* * * *
In some ways, it was good that she hadn’t gone to the doctor as there were no records regarding her progress since leaving the hospital. Buck hated the lack of care, but it did allow him to give his new daughter a little boost that wouldn’t be questioned by anyone. He’d been holding her since he got home, and Daniel had darted off to rescue Maddie from LAX. They were both glowing and had been since the door had shut behind Daniel.
He couldn’t really direct the magic he carried, but it often granted his wishes if his intentions were good. It clearly liked Bea, and that was a relief because Buck had been a little worried about it. He’d never shared the magic with anyone before, at least not on purpose. He did wonder what Daniel had gotten during the bone marrow transplant and if the magic had played more of a role in his survival than just that first little turn. Buck was certain that he did turn but was relieved that he didn’t remember it. He had enough terrible memories.
His doorbell rang, and he pushed the magic away gently as he left the living room and went to the door. A check of the security camera revealed Bobby Nash. Buck winced but unlocked the door and let his captain in. Turning as he had meant that there were relationships in his head that didn’t really exist yet. Deeper emotional connections that they were still working to forge. Still, he knew he could trust them.
Bobby blinked in surprise and exhaled sharply. “Right.”
“Did HR forward my paperwork?” Buck questioned. “I know it’s a terrible time…”
Bobby waved that off. “No, it’s fine. Kids happen. I just expected…I don’t know what I expected.”
Buck motioned him in. “She’s not…mine biologically.”
“Did a friend or relative pass away?” Bobby questioned as he pulled the door shut and locked it. “Need any help setting up?”
“My brother’s here and helped get everything ready while I was…getting my head around everything. And no, she’s not… Bobby, this is the baby from the pipe.”
“Excuse me?” Bobby questioned in shock. “Buck…what…why?”
Buck laughed a little and inclined his head toward the kitchen. “Come on, I was about to warm a bottle up.” The doorbell rang again.
“That’s probably Chimney or Hen,” Bobby admitted. “We were talking about your unannounced leave and argued over who would come to see you. I won, I thought.” He headed back to the door.
Buck looked down at Bea, who was sucking her fist and staring at him in clear disappointment. She’d liked the light show. Her skin had a healthy pink glow, which was a relief. Buck wasn’t all that surprised to look up and find Bobby escorting Hen and Chim into the kitchen. They all three stared at him in silence for several moments.
“Social services let the birth mother take her home,” Buck said and took a deep breath when Hen swore under her breath. “When I found out, I called my brother, who contacted a private adoption agency. The girl’s parents tried to extort money out of me, but the mother gave her up without much discussion at all. I think she was afraid that…it wasn’t safe for the baby in her parents’ apartment. Bea hasn’t been to the doctor since she left the hospital and hasn’t had her shots.”
“Son of a bitch,” Chim muttered. “Well, hell, Buck, where do we start?”
“Start?” Buck questioned.
“What do you need?” Bobby prodded. “Is a nursery set up? You said your brother has been helping?”
“Yeah, I picked out the stuff, and he arranged for a guest room to be turned into a nursery,” Buck said. “I need to buy some clothes because we weren’t sure of her size. I have a few packages of different sizes of diapers and some formula. I’ve been researching pediatricians, and my sister, Maddie, came home from Italy. Daniel’s picking her up from LAX, and he’s already doing an apartment search for her. I’ll need a nanny, I guess. It’s a lot. I sort of threw myself at the problem as soon as I realized how much trouble she was in.” He looked down and found that Bea had laid her head on his chest and gone to sleep. “I know I’m supposed to leave them at the doors.”
“You’ve got too much heart for that,” Hen said. “We all take a fall on that front at some point or another. Bobby said something about warming a bottle?”
Buck flicked a hand toward the machine on the counter. “There’s a bottle warmer, but I’m not sure I need something like that. I never should’ve let Daniel do the shopping. He’s ridiculous. I’m pretty sure the damn diaper bag is Eddie Bauer.”
“It’s Burberry! And it has four insulated pockets,” Daniel called out from beyond the kitchen.
Buck turned back to the door just in time to watch his sister appear. “Maddie.”
“Evan,” she said warmly and rushed into his one-armed hug. “Oh my god, look at you! Why are you so big? Your arm is bigger than my head!”
Buck laughed and shifted Bea around a little only to have her plucked from his hold by Hen.
“Give your sister a proper hug,” Hen ordered him sternly, then grinned at Bea, who laughed a little at the abrupt transfer.
Buck pulled Maddie close and watched as Daniel introduced himself to his work family. He wasn’t all that surprised when Maddie burst into tears. She’d always been a crier.
* * * *
Five weeks into paternity leave, Buck ended up at the firehouse with Bea strapped to his chest, helping Bobby with paperwork he’d already done once before. The first time around, it had been because Chim had broken his hand during a rescue. Without Buck there, he’d ended up with a minor concussion. It was a bit disconcerting that his absence had allowed for a lesser injury to take place, but some ripples couldn’t be controlled or even rationally explained. With Chim being out of commission for a couple of days, Buck had agreed to come in and be the man behind. He’d planned to leave Bea with Maddie, but she’d gotten a call back regarding her application to become a 9-1-1 dispatcher and had been slotted into a training session earlier than expected.
Buck was honestly surprised by her desire to work as a dispatcher, though she hadn’t been living a life of luxury in Italy. She’d worked a variety of jobs and volunteered, as she hadn’t been able to return to nursing. Doug had ruined that for her, and Buck suspected that Maddie would never seek to go back to that career. It pissed Daniel off to no end.
Daniel had gone back to New York to handle leaving the law practice he’d founded with his lifelong best friend. Buck hadn’t asked, but he couldn’t help but be relieved that both Maddie and Daniel were going to live in LA.
“Here’s the list of potentials coming out of the academy in a few weeks,” Bobby said. “I have applications—haven’t had time to read them. The three at the top of the class are the ones everyone is vying for. This Diaz guy is the hot ticket this session—former Army, real hero, heavy rescue certification is guaranteed, and a combat medic.”
Buck nodded and stared at the list. The last time he’d steered Bobby toward another candidate, one with a full paramedic certification because it would round their team out more. They really didn’t get that many calls for heavy rescue assets since most of those jobs went to the 56. Diaz had gone to the 56, and the captain on his shift had gotten the man killed. Buck had deeply regretted the choice he’d made when it came out that the captain in question had been transferred around the LAFD repeatedly for being a damned racist. He hadn’t been charged with it, but Buck suspected he’d gotten Edmundo Diaz killed on purpose. Moreover, the guy they’d gone with had turned out to be a terrible fit for their shift personality-wise, and Bobby had ended up moving him to B shift within a few weeks.
He’d tried to turn then, to figure out a way to prevent Diaz from getting killed, but the magic had gently rejected every single attempt. It had been infuriating and hurtful. Buck wondered if fate would allow him to save the man this time around when it had been so stubborn before.
“Want me to call about this Diaz guy and set up a little informal conversation?” Buck questioned. “I could give him a tour of the station, romance him a little.”
Bobby grinned. “I was hoping you’d suggest it. He’s a single father, so your current accessory is probably going to win us some serious favors.”
Buck looked down at his daughter, who was slumped against his chest, asleep. “He might have already made a decision.”
“It would solidify your position as my favorite if you could get him to make a different decision,” Bobby said wryly, and Hen scoffed from the couch.
“He’s already your favorite, Bobby; come on.”
Buck grinned and sorted through the pile until he found Diaz’s file. “Looks like he’s working in construction right now. Diaz is on the 24-week course, marital status is listed as divorced. Next of kin is his paternal grandmother.”
“You did the twenty-four, too,” Bobby pointed out. “I’m curious as to why…considering…well.”
“My trust fund?” Buck questioned. “I wasn’t fit enough for the job. I mean, I was gym fit, but I wasn’t work fit. So, I doubled down on the physical training so I could qualify for a heavy rescue certification. I took the academy at part-time hours for that but also because I wanted to make sure I could handle the class work for fire science, too.” His phone buzzed where it sat on the table, and he picked it up, checked the number, and set it aside again.
“Problem?” Hen questioned as she joined them at the table. “I can write the last incident report, Bobby.”
Bobby immediately pushed the laptop her way. “Thanks.” Then he focused on Buck. “That’s the third phone call you’ve ignored.”
“Abby,” Buck said roughly. “I broke up with her, and she’s bent about it.” He patted Bea’s back when she stirred. “But she was really unkind about the adoption, and I’m not going to tolerate that bullshit.”
“Unkind how?” Hen questioned.
“She said it was reckless and irresponsible for me to adopt as a single parent,” Buck said. “And she was mad that I didn’t discuss it with her. But hell, we’ve barely been dating three months, so I wasn’t going to include her in a decision that impacted my whole life. She didn’t like being told that.”
“It’s pretty cold,” Bobby said. “But you’re not wrong. She was barely your girlfriend and canceled more dates than she actually went on because of her mother.”
Buck flushed. “I didn’t resent that part. I think taking care of her mom is the most honorable thing about Abby, but I did make a lot of concessions because of that situation. Concessions I really can’t make with Bea in the picture. I made a choice, and Abby just didn’t…fit anymore. Pretending otherwise would’ve been a waste of time. She seems to think that I can just put Bea back where I found her, and that’s ugly. The whole situation has made me realize that she’s just not the kind of person I want in my life.”
“How did Bea’s check-up go?” Hen questioned.
“She’s good,” Buck said. “As much as she hated it, getting the blood work done made me feel a lot better about her nutritional situation. She’s in the 80th percentile on growth and weight, but that’s not a terrible statistic considering the fact that she was born premature and…well.”
“Yeah,” Hen said. “She’s got good physical control already. There could be some neurological issues later on depending on how the oxygen deprivation, which was minimal, impacted her.”
Buck nodded. He hoped that the amount of magic he bathed her in regularly would correct any damage that was done by her birth and the circumstances that followed. The alarm sounded, and Buck cupped Bea’s head to cover her ears until it finished then just sat where he was as everyone else went to work. He focused on his daughter, who was frowning at him. It was adorable.
“How about we save someone’s life, sweet Bea? I’ll be informative and sort of professional, and you can bring all the cute to the conversation.”
Bea bounced a little against his chest and cooed in excitement at being spoken to. She clearly loved the attention, and most especially his attention, which he tried not to gloat about when Maddie pouted. A little whisper of magic passed between them, and she giggled.
* * * *
Buck looked up from the clipboard he was holding and focused in the direction of the voice. He swallowed hard, taking in the man in one quick sweep of his gaze. Jeans, T-shirt, work boots…trim waist set off by a black belt. His mouth went dry, and Bea fussed a little because he’d stopped bouncing her.
“The chief’s office said I could come straight from work…” the guy said and brushed off his T-shirt, which did look a little worse for wear. “I’m Eddie Diaz.”
He was the hottest person Buck had ever seen. Buck cleared his throat. “Right, sorry.” He laughed a little and focused on Bea, who huffed dramatically. “What? We can critique Rogers’ hose rolling abilities later.” She shook a fist at the closet. “I know; it’s terrible in there.” He hooked the clipboard on the wall next to the supply closet. “Firefighter Evan Buckley.” He held out his hand, and Diaz wet his lips as he took it. “Captain Nash is out on a call, so this isn’t an official interview or anything. The chief’s office had great things to say about you, though, and your work at the academy is catching a lot of attention.”
“The recruitment effort has been a surprise,” Diaz murmured as he released Buck’s hand. “Cute kid.”
“My daughter, Beatrice,” Buck said and patted her back as he motioned Eddie to follow him. “We’re a man down because of an accident, and I’m officially on leave. Anyways, me and Bea are the Buckleys left behind today as a favor to the captain.”
“Your wife couldn’t…” He trailed off and motioned to the baby.
“No wife,” Buck said easily. “You can call me Buck; everyone does.”
“Eddie,” Diaz said.
“Let me give you a little tour, and you can ask questions if you’d like,” Buck said, and Diaz nodded.
He showed off the gym, the sleeping area, and the engines that weren’t currently in use before offering the man some water.
Diaz cleared his throat as they moved up the stairs. “The chief’s office thinks I’d fit best at the 56.”
“They could certainly use you,” Buck agreed and unhooked the baby carrier. He freed Bea of it easily and dropped it on the couch. Then he took her to the pack and play he’d brought along when he’d come on duty. “There are a couple of positions open here at the 118, and one coming up at the 126 just in time for you to graduate, in fact. I’m going to blunt because it’s easier, and I’m not great at subtle. The 56 runs three full shifts, complete with incident response teams and captains to match. C shift has the opening, and that’s where the chief wants to put you. But C shift is run by what I’d call a covert racist. He’s never done anything to get himself fired. I took an interview with him, and he told me I’d fit right in, then he introduced me to his entirely white crew. He said I was his kind of guy. I can only assume he meant the whole blond, blue-eyed, white guy look I was born with and can’t help.”
Diaz grimaced but then laughed a little. “Well, you wear the white guy look well.”
“Thanks,” Buck said with a grin. “As to Captain Mallory—I’d honestly never been more uncomfortable in my life, but he didn’t say anything overt, so I had nothing to complain about. I did point out to someone in HR, however, that his shift was extremely pale, and that could be why the chief’s office is pointing you in that direction. So, sorry about that.”
“Great,” Eddie sighed. “The 56 is closer to my abuela’s house—she’s my current childcare.”
Buck nodded. “I get it, but I don’t think it’s worth the risk. You know what it means to work in dangerous situations, and being able to trust who you work with is extremely important. By the time you graduate, there could be more openings. The 136 is pretty far out, so not my first choice, but the captain is great.” He went into the kitchen and pulled a bottle out of the bag he had in the fridge. “Real stand-up guy. I’d have probably gone with him if I hadn’t interviewed with Captain Nash first. The 133 is also a fantastic choice to make, but they only have an opening for a paramedic from what I’ve heard.”
“How old is she?” Eddie questioned.
Buck looked up and found that Diaz was standing over the pack and play. He was smiling at Bea in a besotted fashion, which Buck found amusing and relieving. He really didn’t get people who didn’t smile at his kid. She was great. “Five and a half months as of yesterday.”
He put two bottles of water down on the table then retrieved Bea. She eagerly grabbed for her bottle as soon as he sat down, so he adjusted his own grip easily to allow for her help. Buck didn’t think she’d be able to hold the bottle herself for a few weeks or longer, but he was very proud of her progress as he’d been worried about her meeting milestones.
Diaz joined him at the table and opened both bottles of water. “Would I be replacing you on A shift?”
Buck shook his head. “My leave ends in a couple of weeks, and I’ve got a nanny service lined up. It’s hard to find someone who can take care of your kid 25 hours at a time. My sister is already helping, and my brother, who’s moving to LA as we speak, also plans to supplement on the childcare front. Maddie’s currently in a training session for a 9-1-1 dispatcher. He’s a lawyer. He tried to leave his practice in New York, but his partner just said they should both come to LA.”
“Good partner,” Eddie said. “Not many people would be willing to go that far for a business relationship.”
“They’ve been best friends since undergrad,” Buck said. “You mentioned having a kid?”
“A son—he’s seven.” Diaz immediately pulled out his phone, and shortly Buck was being shown a picture of a little boy. “Christopher.”
“Adorable, I love kids,” Buck said with a smile. As he stared at the boy’s picture, it was clear, more than ever, he couldn’t let Diaz go to work at the 56.
The other man glanced toward Bea. “Yeah, that’s pretty obvious, actually. You’re great with her.”
“Thanks, we’re still figuring things out,” he focused on Bea then. “Yesterday, we learned that while she likes headbands, she can’t stand a hat.” Eddie laughed. “And she’s not super fond of being swathed head to toe in sun block. Though she loved the ocean, and she’s been pretty cool with the swimming lessons so far.”
“I think California girls could be required to love the ocean,” Eddie pointed out and grinned when Buck laughed. He turned his phone over his hands and frowned. “I think I’ll just cancel the interview with the 56. Would that come back on you?”
Buck shrugged. “I don’t know, and I really don’t care. They should’ve fired that asshole instead of trying to force people of color on him to prove some kind of point. He’s not going to magically stop being a racist. There are only a few spots open right now, so that’s a factor if you want to stay in LA.”
“I do,” Eddie said and took a deep breath. “You’re not doing a hard sell for the 118.”
“I’m not big on peer pressure,” Buck said. “You need to make the best choice you can for you and your family.” He shifted Bea when she stopped suckling. He put the bottle aside, and she burped loudly without any sort of prodding. “Good girl.” He tapped his fingers on her tummy, and she giggled. “You will have to live with it in the end, right?”
Eddie nodded. “Things have been hard—I’ve been working a lot plus course work at the academy. Chris has been great about it, but there’s some stress. He has cerebral palsy, and I’m having a difficult time with the school that he’s in. It’s just not going to be able to truly accommodate him. I’ll have all summer to find a better solution.”
Buck nodded. “There are probably some state resources you could tap. Is he on Social Security disability?”
“Yeah, since he was diagnosed,” Eddie said. “We needed the support for doctors and the other benefits. I had good insurance in the Army, but sometimes we needed specialists…” He shrugged. “I’ve got him a great doctor here in LA. It’s part of the reason I moved. El Paso was stifling for a lot of reasons. His medical care was adequate but not all that I wanted for him. He’ll have to have another surgery in the next few years, and one of the top ten surgeons in the country for that kind of work is here in LA. We’ve already had one surgical procedure since moving here, which helped him a great deal.”
“That’s great,” Buck said and shifted Bea around so she could lay on his chest. She slumped without any sort of care.
“She trusts you a lot,” Eddie said. “It’s nice to see. Whenever I see a kid that age uncomfortable in their parent’s arms it worries the shit out of me.”
“Yeah,” Buck said in agreement and pressed a soft kiss against the top of Bea’s head. “She didn’t have a great start, so I’m trying to do the very best I can for her.”
“You weren’t there when she was born?” Eddie asked, his confusion clear. “You seem like the sort that would’ve been there to ask the doctor a million questions and almost get kicked out of labor and delivery as a result.”
Buck laughed and flushed because the man wasn’t wrong at all. It was weird since most people didn’t see that part of him at the start. “I would’ve been. Bea’s not mine, biologically. Did you see the story on the news about the girl that gave birth in an abandoned apartment and shoved her newborn down a plumbing pipe?”
Eddie grimaced. “Yeah, I read about it in the paper. I never heard if the baby survived…” He trailed off and focused on Bea. “Oh.”
“The 118 rescued her,” Buck said. “And though I was supposed to…leave her at the doors and move on, I couldn’t. It’s what we’re taught—to save and let go so we can concentrate on the next job. Something told me I’d regret it. The girl was in a very bad head space when she gave birth, but something had to be seriously wrong in her household that her parents had no idea she was pregnant. At any rate, I adopted Bea a few weeks ago.” He looked up and found Eddie staring at him with open admiration. “She kind of stole my heart at first sight.”
Eddie nodded. “I can see how. I’m glad to know she’s in such great hands after her traumatic start in life.” He cleared his throat and checked his watch. “I need to go. Please tell Captain Nash that I’m looking forward to an interview.”
“Here, take my phone number in case you have questions or whatever,” Buck said and reached out to grab his notebook. He tore off half a sheet and jotted his number down, then, as an afterthought, Bobby’s direct number. He didn’t want to take any chances with a message not getting relayed considering the politics he saw looming around Diaz’s placement.
“Thanks,” Eddie said. “Don’t be surprised if I call.”
Buck smiled. “Great.” He stayed where he was as Eddie Diaz left. He bounced Bea a little and stood. “Team Buckley for the win.” The baby laughed like she understood.
A half-hour later, he’d just gotten Bea down for a nap when Abby showed up. He was glad she hadn’t shown up when Eddie Diaz had been around to watch the post-break-up drama. Buck stayed where he was, nursing his coffee while Abby walked across the loft from the stairs and sat down at the table.
“You’ve been ignoring my calls.”
“How’d you know I was at work today?”
“Your sister was part of the training tour today, and I overheard her mention it to Josh,” Abby said. “She didn’t know who I was, and I wasn’t sure about introducing myself considering your behavior lately. I recognized her from pictures around your house. She clearly didn’t recognize me.”
Buck shrugged; he’d had a few pictures of Abby around his house, but he’d taken them down after the break-up. “Look, Abby, don’t make this weird. We had some fun, but we’re clearly not as compatible as I thought we were.”
“You’ve made a terrible mistake,” she said plainly. “You’ve taken on an immense burden you can’t possibly handle, and it was a deeply selfish choice considering how many people are waiting to adopt a child. What if she’s delayed or outright disabled? You didn’t even think about that when you used your brother’s money to buy a baby.”
Buck cleared his throat. “Is that really what you think?”
“What else could I think?” Abby questioned. “He bought your house, the Jeep you drive, and now he’s bought you a baby because you’re spoiled rotten.” She waved a hand. “He doesn’t see how much damage this is going to do long-term—never telling you no. You can’t take care of this child. You’re barely an adult yourself.”
Buck stared at her for a moment. “Actually, I have a substantial trust fund that I inherited from my grandmother. My brother manages my money for me as trustee, but I bought my own house, and I bought the car I drive. The adoption was private, but not a single damn penny was given to that girl or her family. I’m actually horrified that you’d think all of that about me and still want to date me. It doesn’t speak well of your character that you’d want a spoiled rotten man-child who’d stoop so fucking low as to buy another human being.” He set aside his coffee and stared at her pale face. “You should leave and don’t contact me again in any single way. If you do, I’ll seek a restraining order.”
“Buck, I’m just trying to make you see what others see in you. I want you to be a better person.”
“Evan Buckley is one of the best people I’ve ever had the pleasure to know.”
Buck looked up and found Athena Grant standing at the stairs.
“He is a good, honest, and honorable man who adopted a child in need when no one else seemed to care if she lived or died,” Athena continued. “Ms. Clark, you need to leave, and if you bother Firefighter Buckley on or off duty again, I’ll see the matter investigated thoroughly.”
Abby grabbed her purse and stormed off. Buck stayed where he was, rubbing his chest just a little. He really hadn’t seen much of Athena since he’d turned back. The first thing he’d done was make the phone call to her about May, but he’d been pretty messed up emotionally when he landed and had made the phone call from his own phone. Fortunately, she’d barely questioned him at all regarding his demands of her that day. And hadn’t brought it up at all the one time they’d crossed paths since.
Athena sat down. “You’d better not tolerate another visit from her.”
Buck nodded and took a deep breath. “How’s May?”
“Back home,” Athena said and took a deep breath. “I’d meant to speak with you, but I didn’t want to bother you at home while you were on leave.”
“You’re always welcome,” Buck said simply.
“You knew she…and you knew why,” Athena said. “Will you tell me how? May said she hadn’t talked to you in weeks before that day and hadn’t told you anything about the bullying or how she felt about it.”
“No, I was stupidly invested in my relationship with Abby and let my other relationships fade into the background, which I regret. I think I would’ve noticed her circumstances a lot sooner if I’d taken more care,” Buck said and was tempted to tell her again about the magic he carried and the gift it gave him. She was the only person he’d ever told, and she no longer remembered because he’d turned. Something told him that most people couldn’t handle the burden of it or the limitations on the ability. “Sometimes, I just feel things—know things, but you know that. I’ve always been this way, and I’ve learned to pay attention to those feelings. It’s never led to something terrible. I’m glad you paid attention to what I was saying. Because my only other alternative was calling in a 9-1-1 to your house, which would’ve led to more attention than I would ever want.”
She nodded. “You have a documented history with this sort of thing, both with the LAPD and the LAFD, but this seemed far more detailed than anything else I’ve ever heard directly or indirectly.”
True enough, and he had no explanation he wanted to share. He cleared his throat. “Coffee?”
“I’d love some,” Athena admitted.
Buck grabbed his cup and stood. “What was done about the bullying situation?”
Athena sighed. “May begged me not to do anything to the girl. Michael insisted we move her to a new school next year, and she’s happy with that decision. We’re looking at our options on that front. The girl’s a vicious and selfish little bitch, and I want… I haven’t done anything since you told me it would be a bad idea.”
“It feels like a choice that would come back to haunt you, but there’s no reason you can’t sue that vicious girl’s parents for creating a fucking monster they don’t bother to parent,” Buck said as he returned to the table with her coffee. “You’ve not officially met the baby.”
Buck retrieved Bea and brought her back to the table. Athena immediately held out her hands. “Beatrice Minerva Buckley—this is Athena Grant. I want you to grow up and be just like her.”
Athena smiled and took her. “Minerva, the Roman goddess of war.”
“And the arts and stuff,” Buck said. “It took a lot of strength to survive her own birth. I figured she deserved something special.” He took a sip of coffee.
“You named this baby after me,” Athena accused.
“Yeah, of course I did,” Buck said gently and just smiled when she seemed surprised by his easy agreement. “You and my grandmother—strong, independent women who made the world work for them. I can’t imagine a better name for her.”
Athena blinked back tears and took a deep breath. “My grandmother, the one you spoke of on the phone, with the little touch of magic…her name was Minerva. It’s why I was named Athena.” She focused on Bea. “We made a little circle, sweet girl.” Bea laughed and bounced. “How did you know about my grandmother? Was it like with May?”
Buck didn’t have an answer for that question that wouldn’t feel like a lie. “Magic moves through us all in one fashion or another. Sometimes I know things I can’t explain as a result. It can be frustrating for people.”
“Not every question needs to be answered no matter what most people think,” Athena said and focused on Bea. “This darling girl is lucky to have you. Don’t let what Abby Clark thinks get to you or make you doubt your choices.”
“I won’t. Bea would be dead if I hadn’t interfered,” Buck said simply, and Athena’s gaze focused on him. “I have no doubts about that, Athena. There’s something very wrong in that household, and she wasn’t safe. I don’t think her birth mother is safe even now, but DCFS has already investigated and dismissed the situation as not a problem. Which is fucked up.” He flushed when she tutted. “I’ve already decided that I’d rather control her first curse word than leave it up to chance.”
“A first curse word is very important,” Buck defended. “I wouldn’t want it to be something dumb.”
“May’s first curse word was fuck,” Athena said. “Neither one of us knew who to blame. I choose to think it was Michael’s fault.” She cleared her throat. “I’ll figure out a way to keep an eye on that situation with the girl. When will the adoption be final?”
“We skipped some steps in the process by using a private agency, but we had the home study, and there will be two visits. The birth mother signed a waiver with a social worker from the state, giving up her right to reclaim Bea. So, we’re looking at about four months.”
“She can’t come back and try to take her? What about her parents or the biological father?”
“She claimed not to know who the father is,” Buck said. “It bothers me because what if he shows up years from now and contests the adoption?”
Athena took a deep breath. “Well, most teen pregnancies involve a teenage girl and a grown man. The age of consent in California is 18, and the birth mother is only fifteen. If he is an adult, he’s not going to come forward and admit to statutory rape. If he is a teenager, they’re both clearly hiding the relationship, and that could have something to do with her parents or his. She believed she had no options and no way out—considering what she did when she went into labor. It was no easy thing, giving birth the way she did.”
Buck nodded. “Right. Well, that all just pisses me off even more. I’m trying not to borrow trouble on this front. Daniel assures me that I’m legally covered, and he’ll go to the wall and over it to protect the adoption. The father had months to step up and take custody but didn’t. Surely DCFS would’ve given him custody over the girl if that had been an option.”
“I agree,” Athena murmured and adjusted Bea so she could drink her coffee. “Are you on duty all night?”
“No, Fuentes is coming in for the last twelve hours. He’d have come in for the full twenty-four, but his kid brother is sick. Bobby told me he’s agreed to move to A shift permanently, which is great.”
“Well, you’ll let me know if you need help. I know your family has moved close to help but…” Athena focused on Bea, who was staring at her. “I’d be honored if you would trust me enough to include me in your options when it comes to taking care of her.”
“Thanks,” Buck said. “That means a lot.”
* * * *
Buck sat down at the small café table with his coffee and checked the time on his phone. The text from Eddie Diaz had been a pleasing development. He wasn’t going to assume that the man’s interest was personal, but he had clearly carved time out in a busy schedule to see Buck a week after he’d taken a formal interview with Bobby. Buck had heard through various sources that Diaz had been pressured into taking the interview with the 56 but then had turned around and accepted Bobby’s offer to join the 118. Bobby was thrilled with the whole thing, and Buck had gotten a whole apple pie out of it, hand-delivered to his house by Hen, who’d come by to hog his baby.
“Hey.” Eddie stopped at the table and put down a large coffee. “Thanks for taking the time.”
Buck glanced him over, taking in the tight jeans and a worn T-shirt with US Army blazed across the chest. He inhaled a little before he could help himself. The man looked and smelled absolutely amazing. Eddie sat down and offered him a bright smile. Buck’s heart did a little flip flop in his chest.
“No problem at all,” he said and took a deep breath. “I was surprised to get the text since Bobby told me you already said yes.”
“I asked around about you,” Eddie said.
Buck grimaced. “Well, I don’t get laid as much as any of those assholes assume. I can’t say I’m celibate, but I’m just coming out of a semi-serious relationship that ended badly, and sex makes me feel better, so fuck them.”
“Definitely fuck them,” Diaz said easily and grinned when Buck laughed. “I mean, I did hear that you were kind of…generous with yourself. You’re gorgeous, fit as hell, and single—getting laid should be your primary hobby.”
Buck flushed. “Flirting with me, Mr. Diaz?”
“Absolutely,” Eddie said easily and grinned when Buck blinked in surprise. “But I figured that would hold until we know each other better and you’re more settled. Parenthood is a big adjustment, though rumor has it that you’re owning the hell out of that whole deal to the surprise of a few.”
“I’m trying,” Buck said. “And I’m not opposed to future flirting and stuff.” He took a sip of coffee. “If this isn’t a date…”
“Oh, it can be a date,” Eddie assured. “Getting the first date out of the way would be a relief because they’re always horrible. But I texted to talk to you about Captain Mallory.”
“I heard you were pressured into an interview.” Buck leaned back a little and tried to ignore the way the thin material of the man’s T-shirt stretched over his chest.
“Yeah, and he started out by telling me that neither of us had a real choice to make. The chief wanted me at the 56, so he was going to have to personally tolerate an affirmative action hire to make everyone else happy and that I should just suck it up. When I pointed out that I was first in my class at the academy, he shrugged and told me that standards had been getting lower and lower every year.”
“That’s a lot of ugly to unpack,” Buck said mildly. “I thought he was smarter than to actually say that shit aloud.”
“Yeah, well, I left the 56 calling Captain Nash to accept his offer officially, though I’d already mostly agreed by the end of the interview. I’d also started looking at jobs as far out as Santa Monica if things got too political and I couldn’t work at the 118,” Eddie admitted. “It feels like a good decision. I don’t know if I should file a complaint about Mallory. I mean, I know I should file one, but I’m not certain that my career is best served with something like that during my probationary period, and I’ve got my kid to think about.”
Buck considered the various ramifications. “The best way to deal with it, politically, would be to put another bug in someone’s ear about him. I think he’s a real problem, and I’ve been working on the issue for a while. This is ugly to say, but the other five or six people coming out of your class vying for jobs in LA county are all white, so they won’t be a problem for him at first glance. He probably still thinks I’d have been an ideal fit for his team—when, in reality, I would’ve made life hell for him and anyone else that proved to be a bigot in front of me.”
“They clearly already know he’s a problem since they’re trying to force him to take someone of color onto his team,” Eddie said roughly. “And that, in itself, is offensive as fuck.”
“He’s a dinosaur, and they’re trying to teach him because he brings a lot of experience to the table, but there are some people so entrenched in their ignorance that they’re never going to learn to be decent people. I don’t think his experience is worth the price someone is going to pay.”
“You think he’s dangerous.”
“I know he’s dangerous,” Buck murmured. “And there’s not much I can do about it. I mean, besides interfere as much as possible in the department’s efforts to diversify his shift. And I’m going to double down going forward. I make friends easily, so…I’ve got a lot of connections across the department and in various other city offices. I don’t like to use friends for their jobs, so I’m careful with it.”
Eddie nodded. “I get it, and I really appreciate the fact that you looked out for me.” He paused. “While doing your captain’s heavy lifting.”
Buck grinned. “Bobby knows how to use the resources available to him. It’s one reason why he’s one of the best captains in the LAFD. I mean, he could’ve hardly known you were bisexual.”
“No, but he didn’t hesitate to deploy a young, good-looking, single father complete with an adorable baby in my direction,” Eddie said wryly. “I’m not complaining, though. Best ambush I’ve ever experienced.”
Buck grinned and glanced over his shoulder as his magic shifted slightly around in his chest. He frowned as he watched a Latino teenager approach the counter. He was a little jittery and wearing a hoodie in 90-degree weather.
“Shit,” he muttered and stood with an apologetic look in Eddie’s direction.
The magic started to warm up, so he took it for the warning it was and cleared his throat as he came to a stop beside the kid.
“So, listen,” Buck said casually and tried to ignore the fact that Eddie had followed him. “You’re feeling pretty desperate right now, and you’re scared.” The boy’s gaze focused on him, and he started to pull his hand out of the hoodie. Buck put a hand on the arm and held it firmly. “Armed robbery is a felony in the state of California, and you’ll be tried as an adult. You’re probably thinking you could handle it, but it would be a nightmare.
“Prison would ruin your life—destroy your potential and break your heart. You’d never be the same. You’d go in angry and full of yourself—maybe even high on being convicted of a manly crime, but you’d be somebody’s bitch inside a day. They aren’t going to care how old you are, what you want, or what you think you’re entitled to. The guards aren’t going to care either. They’ll turn a blind eye—let you get beaten and worse on a regular damned basis because they don’t get paid enough to make enemies on the job.”
“I…” Tears welled in the boy’s eyes.
“We’re going to walk out together, okay? And you’re going to give me the gun, then you’re going to run your ass off to the nearest adult you personally trust. You’re going to tell them what’s wrong, and I promise you, they’ll help you fix it.” Buck watched the boy absorb that. “Okay?”
“Okay,” he said hoarsely.
Buck turned and found the girl behind the counter offering a bag.
“It’s just a muffin, but you look hungry.”
The boy took the bag with a trembling hand and let Buck lead him out of the coffee shop. He walked him to the Jeep, aware of their tense and alert shadow. He was grateful that Eddie hadn’t tried to interfere.
“How about I retrieve the gun?” Eddie questioned as they stopped beside Buck’s vehicle.
The boy nodded and pulled his other hand out of his hoodie. “I’m sorry.”
“We do dumb things sometimes because we can’t see another way,” Buck said as Eddie pulled a small revolver from the front pocket of the hoodie. “You’re hurting and upset. Where did you get the gun?”
“It’s my stepdad’s.” The boy used his sleeve to wipe his nose. “He’s gonna kill me.”
Buck figured the kid actually meant that. He unlocked the Jeep and pulled out the prepaid cell he kept in the glove box. “Get somewhere safe and call for help—a grandparent? Someone who won’t take you back to your mother and stepfather?”
“My real dad,” the boy said as he took the phone. “Maybe. Mom said he doesn’t love me because he left her.”
“Call him,” Buck urged and motioned toward the alley. “Now, haul ass before the cops get here because someone in that café definitely called 9-1-1. You don’t want a record for attempted robbery. Take off the hoodie, tuck into a store, say hi in a cheerful way to the clerk at the counter to put them at ease, then go the bathroom and call your dad.”
Eddie put the gun down on the passenger seat and leaned beside him as the boy trotted off. Buck watched the kid drop the bright red hoodie in a dumpster. A siren sounded in the distance, and Buck crossed his arms.
“You can go if you want,” Buck offered. “They’re used to me giving half-assed police reports regarding things that almost happened.”
“I’ll stay and give my own half-assed report,” Eddie said dryly and laughed when Buck grinned. “Besides, my fingerprints are on that gun.”
“Oh, right,” Buck said and turned. He snagged a rag from the glove compartment and wiped the gun clean then put it back down.
Eddie picked the gun up, emptied the bullets onto the seat, and put it back down.
“If the step-father registered it…” Eddie began. “It’ll pop, and the kid will be implicated.”
“Not required in California,” Buck said. “There might be a sales record, but it could’ve been bought a decade ago or more if it was even bought in this state. I’ll hope for the best in this case.”
“How’d you know?”
“Sometimes, I just get a feeling,” Buck said. “I’ve learned over the years to act on those feelings because not acting sometimes leads to terrible things.” He glanced toward the alley. “Like a boy bleeding out on a street because he robbed a coffee shop in a moment of stupid desperation.”
Gun crimes were all too common in LA for him to remember exactly how this particular day had gone, but he was glad that turning had put him in the right place at the right time to help someone.
A squad car rolled up, parked beside him, and he got a frustrated look from the officer. Buck watched him activate his radio and say something. He figured he was getting tattled on to the on-duty field sergeant. If his luck held, it would be Athena. The officer got out of his car and stared pointedly at Buck.
“Sergeant Grant would like you to stay put, Firefighter Buckley. Which way did the perp go?”
Buck jerked his thumb in the opposite direction of the kid’s actual escape. “About 5’7, tanned, light brown or blond hair, teenager, T-shirt, red hoodie, jeans, sneakers.”
The officer got back in his car and left.
“You just described practically every white teenage boy in California,” Eddie said dryly.
“Well, no need for him to start eyeing every brown kid between here and the state line,” Buck muttered. “That’s how someone gets accidentally shot.”
“I don’t know what to do with you,” Eddie said.
“I can provide a list when the time comes,” Buck assured and grinned when Eddie laughed then gently bumped their shoulders together.
There was something compelling about the man. It was more than just physical attraction—he felt like he was standing beside someone he could really depend on. The team at the 118 was good, but something was missing and always had been. The idea that it might be Eddie Diaz kind of hurt considering the choice he’d made the first time around.
Athena pulled up at that point, hopped out of her SUV, and sent him a look. Buck just grinned and shrugged.
She came around the Jeep, trying and failing to frown at him. “It got back to Bobby that you foiled an armed robbery. So, you’d better call him before he brings the whole damn shift over here to check on you.”
“There was no armed robbery!” Buck exclaimed. “I promise.”
She shot him a look and shook her head before focusing on Eddie. “And you were on a date? Really, Buck?”
“This is Eddie Diaz; he’s starting at the 118 in a few weeks. Eddie, this is Sergeant Athena Grant,” Buck said. “We were just chatting about the job.” He paused when she raised an eyebrow. “And flirting because he’s so pretty.”
Athena looked Eddie over even as the man blushed furiously. “Well, you’re not wrong.” She put her sunglasses on and sighed. “Now, I have to file another ridiculous report about an almost-crime that you interrupted and make it sound reasonable.”
“I’m lucky you love me, I know,” Buck said.
“Yes, you are,” she retorted.
* * * *
Buck bounced Bea gently as he walked; teething was more of a nightmare than he’d expected. He’d exchanged a few texts with Bobby, who was clearly irritated about Buck’s problem solving, but he was used to that. Rarely a week passed when he wasn’t pushed in some fashion or another magically to respond to a situation that most would’ve left alone or never noticed before. He turned on the TV as he passed it for the third time but kept the volume low.
There was a big fire downtown, and he knew the 118 was on it. The fire had been raging for over an hour, and he’d turned off his scanner shortly after it had gone from three companies to five. In situations like that, the scanner was more stressful than helpful. The news footage was about like he expected. His magic was still inside him, telling him there was really nothing for him to do. He vaguely remembered working it the first time around. By the time the 118 had arrived, everyone that could be evac’d had been, and they’d been put on the exterior to prevent the fire from spreading to the next building.
Bea fussed against his neck, clearly miserable despite the amount of magic that was shimmering around them. It was a relief that the magic he carried was willing to offer his little girl comfort even over something so mundane as teething pain. Eventually, he meandered back into the kitchen and pulled the teething ring from the freezer. She eagerly started to gnaw on it.
He went back into the living room and watched the scene with a low-key amount of anxiety. The camera’s view went wide, and he briefly caught sight of Bobby. His memories of the fire were dim, purposefully, he thought, since he tried not to hold on to stressful shit because he already had to contend with multiple memories of the same events. He figured Chim was at home also staring at the TV, so he considered calling him so they could angst together.
The reporter on the scene was a hot blonde that he’d banged a couple of times a few weeks before he’d met Abby. She’d avoided him on the scene the first time around, and he’d been relieved. He’d gone viral during his first weeks on the job for the roller coaster rescue. That particular event had haunted him for a while because he’d turned three times trying to save that man’s life, and never once had he come close to getting the guy to take his hand. It had been a hard loss to accept and move on from.
Sometimes, the magic he carried made him feel like he could change the world always for the better. But neither fate nor free will could truly be accounted for. His mind wandered to Eddie Diaz, which had been a frequent thing since their sort-of date. They’d exchanged a few snarky texts back and forth since they’d met for coffee. Eddie was currently spending a week at the academy, which he hated because that meant his son was with his ex-wife. Buck didn’t know the details, but it was clear that Eddie wasn’t fully on board with his ex having the kid overnight, much less for an entire week.
He turned his attention back to the TV and frowned as his magic stirred. He reached for his phone and hesitated only briefly before he started writing a text.
Buck: Bad valve. Use the one on the east corner.
On TV, he watched Bobby pull his cell phone, read the screen, and look toward the news camera. He put the phone away without answering and headed for the east corner hydrant. It was just a few minutes of work, but Buck remembered having to change that hose out because the older hydrant hadn’t been maintained properly in years. He knew Bobby would get it checked out later.
His magic retreated suddenly, and Bea huffed around her ring. Buck turned to the sound of footsteps and watched Daniel enter the living room.
“Want me to walk with her a while?” Daniel asked around a yawn and rubbed his head. “You’ve been up all day and half the night.”
“You were on a plane most of the day,” Buck said. “We’re fine. Is Maddie up, too?”
“Not yet.” Daniel yawned again and slouched on the sofa. “She passed out shortly after she got home. What do you think of the job she’s taking on?”
“I think she has the right personality for it,” Buck said. “And it would give her a chance to use some of her education to help others. I know you want her to work her way back to nursing, but Doug broke that dream for her.”
“I should’ve had the bastard killed,” Daniel muttered and shrugged when Buck looked his way.
“It would’ve ruined you,” Buck said. “You’re a better man than he’ll ever be, Daniel, and there’s never any need to wallow in the filth with that son of a bitch.”
“And if he comes here?” Daniel questioned. “What if he finds out she came back to the States?”
“He won’t hurt her,” Buck said, and the magic in his chest burned with agreement.
It was a pact he’d made—a promise he’d extracted from the magic that shared his body. Doug Kendall would never hurt Maddie again. Buck had served the magic since he was a small child, so part of him believed that he was owed a favor or two. He’d cashed one in on behalf of his sister.
“Abby said you’d spoiled me rotten,” Buck said and glanced toward his brother. “She said you’d bought me a house, a car, and a baby. She made it clear that others thought it, too.”
Daniel grimaced. “What did you say?”
“I told her none of that was true and admitted to having a large trust fund.” Buck shrugged. “I know you don’t like me to tell partners that, but it doesn’t matter because I’m never dating her again. She called Bea a burden the day I broke up with her. She said she’ll probably have problems and that I deserved better than to be saddled with a damaged child.”
“I told her to leave you the fuck alone,” Maddie said from the doorway and yawned. She came in putting her hair up. “Sue moved her to a different dispatch center because Captain Nash filed a complaint. I don’t know what the complaint was about, but it was clear that he didn’t want Abby Clark interacting with him or anyone else at the 118 going forward. Josh said Abby has been weird since the two of you broke up and really judgmental about the baby.”
She slouched down on the couch beside Daniel and curled up against him.
“I didn’t know you’d met Abby since she doesn’t work on the training shift. She mentioned seeing you during your tour, though.”
“She tried to talk to me,” Maddie reported. “The day that Captain Nash filed the complaint. She blamed you for it and wanted me to talk to you about endangering her job. I told her that you didn’t talk or think about her. It clearly upset her. She tried to introduce herself as your girlfriend, and I called her your ex. I also told her she was an idiot.”
“What? Why?” Buck questioned.
“Look, Evan, you’re hot like fire, twelve years younger than her, and completely out of her league. She’s a moron for fucking up with you. Seriously.”
Buck flushed. “Maddie, come on.” He shook his head as Daniel laughed and focused on Bea, who was staring at him with sad eyes. “I know it hurts, sweet Bea. But just think about all the yummy food you can eat once you get teeth.”
She spit out her teething ring in response. He barely caught it. Buck shoved the ring in his pocket and started to walk again as Bea let her head rest on his shoulder. He rubbed her back as he watched the fire out of the corner of his eye.
“Is that the 118?” Maddie questioned.
“One of them, yeah. There are five stations on site,” Buck said. “The apartment building on fire is a serious threat to the whole block. The fire is being accelerated.”
“Arson?” Daniel questioned curiously.
“Could be,” Buck murmured. “But it could just be old building materials, a drug lab, or stuff in storage. We had a house fire last year that was a complete nightmare because the owner was a rare book collector. He lost probably millions of dollars in books, but it burned like an arson job because the fire had so much fuel. It couldn’t have been worse unless he was the sort to collect old movies on nitrate film.”
Bea snuffled against his shoulder and sort of slumped as she fell asleep.
“Ah, look, I bored you to sleep,” Buck murmured. “That’s my girl. Don’t pretend to be fascinated by a man, not even your dad.”
* * * *
Buck woke to Daniel talking to Bea and apologizing for doing a terrible job changing her diaper. He turned and stared at the baby monitor in amusement before picking up his phone and checking his messages. There were a couple.
Bobby: The valve was rusted shut. The whole thing will have to be replaced. Thanks for the head’s up.
Hen: Heard you did that thing you do from the comfort of your own home. Thanks, you sweet weirdo. Every second counts in a fire like that.
Eddie: I stayed up half the night watching the news of the fire. Did you? Is it weird not being with them? I’ve not even started working and I felt guilty for not being there.
He sent Hen and Bobby thumbs up messages and paused to consider how to respond to Eddie’s message. It was nice that he was already investing in the team.
Buck: I was up. Bea’s teething so she was miserable and I’d heard about the fire on the scanner. So I watched it while I walked around the house with the baby. It’s hard to watch them work a big fire like that—or any dangerous job that makes the news. I always want to be there to have their backs. Your team becomes a family of sorts and a lot of times you spend as much time with them as you do someone you actually share a house with.
He got a response immediately, which made him smile.
Eddie: My cousin Natalie uses a teething mitt that fits over her son’s whole hand. He likes it a lot. I’ll find a link?
Buck: That would be great. She likes the ring but can’t hold it on her own. A mitt would give her independence which is clearly her goal every single day.
Buck: Working today?
Eddie: No just got home from the academy last night. Chris wants to go swimming.
Buck waited for the invitation because he really wanted one.
Eddie: Know of a kid-friendly beach that won’t be super crowded? You and Bea could come?
Buck: I know exactly the place. I’ll send you Google directions. I’ll pack a lunch—any allergies?
Eddie: No allergies. Meet at 11? I’ll bring drinks. Chris is picky about them.
Buck: We’ll be there.
He quickly looked up the address and forwarded the directions. It was a thirty minute drive from his house, but well worth it because it wasn’t crowded, and they wouldn’t have to worry about a bunch of teenagers goofing off in the water and on the sand. Buck eased out of bed, considering lunch options and trying to figure out where Bea’s swim diapers were. He’d washed all three pairs and the little tops he’d bought to match, but Maddie had put away Bea’s laundry, so he wasn’t exactly sure where she’d put them.
He found Bea and Daniel in the kitchen. She was in her highchair, and his brother was standing in front of the fridge with a befuddled expression.
“She normally has a bit of cereal in her milk first thing in the morning,” Buck said in amusement. “It’s her only warm bottle of the day these days. I’ve got some pre-made.” He snagged one from the door and wiggled it. “Just put it in some warm water to heat it. Shake it before giving it to her.”
Daniel grabbed the bottle. “I was trying to be helpful. Where’s the bottle warmer I bought?”
“I donated it to a women’s shelter because it was made for commercial use, you crazy person. Bea doesn’t like warm bottles most of the time anyway, so it wasn’t going to get used a lot. It’s better off where it is.”
“Sorry. I just…picked the most expensive one I saw.” Daniel shrugged. “I’ve never even dated someone who had kids.”
Buck laughed. “It’s fine. When does Sydney arrive?”
“Next week, he refuses to set foot in his new house until the moving company has brought all of his things and unpacked for him. His admin is already here supervising that, and he’s in Aspen at a spa.”
“Was he always that high maintenance?” Buck questioned.
Daniel sent him a look. “He drove a BMW his freshman year of college and considered it an embarrassment because it was two years old.” He checked his watch. “I’ve got an appointment with the security company to finish the install on the system at Maddie’s apartment today. What’s on your agenda?”
“Me and Bea are going to the beach,” Buck said and yawned as he headed toward the blender to start a smoothie. “We’re meeting the new hire for the 118, Eddie Diaz.”
“Ah, your surprise-date turned almost-armed robbery,” Daniel said wryly. “Send me his phone number in case I need you and your phone is damaged or lost or stolen.”
“I’m an adult, you know.”
Daniel ignored that. “And give him my phone number in case there is an accident and you need me.” He paused when Buck huffed. “Because Bea would need me, too.”
Buck looked toward his daughter, who was chewing on her teething ring and staring pointedly at the bottle Daniel was swishing gently around in water in a pan on the stove. Buck turned the flame up a tad, gave his brother a look, but then nodded. “You and Maddie are in my emergency contact list on my phone and on the ID card in my wallet, Daniel. I also have an information packet in Bea’s diaper bag with all of her details and a picture so a first responder would have information on her if we were in an accident.
“And I updated my next-of-kin documents with the department,” Buck continued, and Daniel’s shoulders relaxed. His brother really had hated it when he’d been told that Buck had his captain down as his emergency contact, but it just made the most sense when neither Daniel nor Maddie lived in LA.
Maddie came in and went straight for the coffee pot. “I need to go shopping today.”
“Buck and Bea have a beach date,” Daniel tattled. “So, we’re on our own. I’ve got an appointment with the security company, but other than that I’m free. What’s on your agenda?”
“Ikea, probably,” Maddie said and yawned. “We can eat good food if we’re not going to be judged for our carb load.” She shot Buck a look, who shrugged.
“Stop acting like I body shamed you,” Buck ordered with a laugh. “You could probably stand to gain a few pounds, honestly. I just said that you eat four times as many simple carbs as I allow myself on any damn day, and it makes me sad. If I ate like that—I’d feel like crap all day. I love junk carbs, and they hate me.” He was actually pretty sure the magic hated them because he had to protein load like crazy to maintain his muscle mass.
“This guy must be really interested if he’s bringing his kid on a date,” Daniel said and raised an eyebrow.
“It’s not a date, just a trip to the beach as friends,” Buck said. “He seems the cautious sort when it comes to his son. He hardly trusts his own ex-wife with their child, so that says something. I don’t know the details on that front.” He checked his watch for the time. “Mads, where did you put her swim stuff?”
“Third drawer of her dresser,” Maddie said and yawned. “Her little swim outfits are so cute.”
“I ordered them online since the diaper service I got doesn’t have a swim option,” Buck said. “Are you going to feed her, Daniel?”
“Yeah,” Daniel said and rolled the bottle around in his hands. “I’ll bring her to you when she’s done. Are you taking lunch, or should I order something from somewhere for you to pick up?”
Buck finished adding protein powder to the blender before getting the orange juice. “I’ll pack a lunch. Might as well show the really hot guy I’m having a beach day with what I bring to the table, besides an adorable kid.”
“Well, you’re a catch,” Daniel said. “Maddie and I raised the best kid ever.”
Buck quirked an eyebrow, but he couldn’t protest it. Their parents had never bothered with him at all. Their deaths had just been a relief, though none of them had ever said it aloud.
“We’re all tens,” Maddie declared. “Educated, gorgeous, and single…LA needs to look out.” She offered Daniel her fist, and Buck laughed when it got bumped very gently.
* * * *
Eddie took a deep breath as he pulled into the small lot and parked next to Buck’s Jeep. “They’re already here.”
“Cool,” Chris said from the backseat. “Do you think he’ll like me?”
“How could he not?” Eddie asked. “You’re awesome.”
“Mom’s boyfriend doesn’t like me,” Chris pointed out and shrugged when Eddie exhaled noisily. “It’s okay. He doesn’t have to like me. I won’t have to spend another whole week there, right?”
“Right,” Eddie said. “I’ve done my last whole week at the academy. Now I’m just doing certification tests. Listen, I’d like to become friends with Buck. I think he’s a good person, and he’s already done a lot for me. But, if you aren’t comfortable, we can leave.”
“I’m gonna like him,” Chris decided.
“How do you know?” Eddie asked curiously.
“You said he adopted a baby to keep her safe. That means he’s a good person, and I like good people,” Chris said. “Let’s go.”
Eddie helped Chris down from the truck, put the strap of the cooler across one shoulder, and grabbed their backpack as he watched his son navigate the parking lot with his crutches. The last surgery had done a lot to increase his mobility though more than one person in their life had fought Eddie on getting it done. His parents thought it should wait a year or more, and Shannon, his ex, hadn’t wanted it done at all, ever. She hadn’t thought it would be helpful and considered it a waste of time and money.
Fortunately for Chris, Eddie was the only one making decisions for his care. He had full custody, and Shannon only had visitation at his discretion due to her abandonment of them both. Her current boyfriend couldn’t stand Chris, so Eddie had made Shannon agree that he wouldn’t visit at all while Chris was staying with her. She’d adhered to the agreement but told him in private that it wasn’t fair to her, and she wouldn’t do it again. Eddie had responded by telling her that she wouldn’t have any more overnights with Chris. He didn’t know how she was going to react regarding supervised visits going forward, but he didn’t care about her feelings.
The only reason that Chris had gone for a whole week the last time was that Abuela had to go out of town to visit her sister in Mexico. The trip had been planned for a whole year, and Eddie couldn’t bring himself to ask her to change it.
The beach was nearly empty, and Buck was already on a blanket with Bea. He was trying to tie a sun hat on, and the kid was not having it. Eddie was so instantly amused that he started laughing. Father and daughter both looked up. Bea waved her hands in fury and tried to pull the hat off.
Buck sighed, put the butter yellow hat back into place, and tied the strap quickly. “Don’t encourage her!”
“It’s gonna be pretty hard not to,” Eddie admitted and sat the cooler down. “Chris, this Evan Buckley, but he likes to be called Buck, and the star of his show is Beatrice.” He helped Chris sit down on the blanket and put his crutches to the side.
“My sweet Bea is being a complete pain in the booty this morning,” Buck reported and released her. She immediately rolled over and started scooting on her butt toward Chris. “It’s great to meet you, Chris. Please don’t take her hat off for her.”
Eddie pulled out a hat for Chris. “Here, maybe she’ll be less mad about it if you wear yours.”
Chris made a face, but he put it on and accepted the bottle of sunblock as well. Bea scooted all the way to Chris and slumped down beside him with a glare toward her dad.
“Ah, you think you’ve found yourself a comrade in arms,” Buck said and shook his head at her then focused on Eddie.
The quick dart of attraction stirring in his gut was hard to ignore. Eddie was glad they had a two-kid buffer, or he might be talking Buck into finding a more secluded place to spend their afternoon. The quick grin he got made him think that Buck knew exactly what he was thinking. Eddie ignored the way his face heated and pulled his T-shirt over his head. Buck’s little blink of shock was satisfying. He dropped the shirt into the backpack and took a seat so he could pull out some water.
A couple of hours later, Chris was in the water with Buck, and Bea was napping under a ladybug beach umbrella that Buck had retrieved from the Jeep. Eddie was sitting with her, having exhausted himself a little in the water with Chris. His last week at the academy had been pretty intense physically, and he had one more certification to do on that front before he had to sit several exams. He wasn’t concerned; physically, he was more than ready, and he knew the material very well.
Lunch had been great, and Chris had eaten everything he’d been given without complaint. Even the chicken salad, which Eddie had almost declined on his behalf because Chris had reacted very poorly to it the last time it had been on offer. He’d eaten three little sandwiches of Buck’s chicken salad and a whole little container of sliced cucumber and little tomato chunks in what turned out to be balsamic vinegar. Eddie was pretty sure the focaccia for the sandwiches was homemade, which was delicious and probably more complicated than he wanted to know.
He focused on his son, who was clearly getting tired. Eddie didn’t want to be the bad guy and ruin his fun, but over-tired was not a good mood for his kid. Before he could signal Buck, though, the other man snatched Christopher from the water and buzzed him around like an airplane before bringing him to shore. His son was still laughing breathlessly when they reached the beach blanket.
“Daddy, Buck made peanut butter sandwich cookies,” Chris reported. “I can have two if you agree since I didn’t fuss about leaving the water.”
“Two doesn’t seem unreasonable,” Eddie said as Buck pulled another fancy glass container out of his picnic satchel thing.
“My brother, Daniel, bought me this,” Buck said and motioned toward the bag. “When I told him I was going to start taking Bea on picnics and stuff in the park. He’s ridiculous.”
“Generous,” Eddie corrected. “It’s a nice set.”
“It has ice packs for her bottles,” Buck said. “And he’s both, honestly, ridiculous and generous.” He opened the container. “I left most of these with him and my sister, Maddie. I made them yesterday as a welcome gift for him, but I figured he wouldn’t miss these.”
They looked very good.
“Did your mom teach you to cook?” Chris asked. “I thought I hated chicken salad, but yours is great. Why is it great?”
Buck’s gaze widened a little as he passed Chris two cookies on a napkin. “Hmmm, you didn’t have to try it, buddy. We could’ve gotten you something else.”
“I liked it, though. It didn’t even look gross. Grandma’s is awful.”
Eddie winced. “Well, yeah, my mom’s is really kind of awful compared to yours. I’ll probably never be able to eat it again.”
Buck laughed. “I make my own mayo from avocado oil, bake a whole chicken, buy organic eggs, etc. I usually keep some on hand since it’s a good snack for me when I’m shifting into a heavier workout schedule. And I learned to cook because it was interesting. I started in college since I hated eating out, and I didn’t like cafeteria food. I’d gone to military school before college, so I was definitely done with institutional food. I took a few classes as well in undergrad. Recently, I’ve been learning some recipes from Captain Nash, who could cook professionally if he wanted.”
“I met Captain Nash; he seemed really nice,” Chris said. “And a lady named Hen who said she’d bring her son over to play with me some weekend. His name is Denny.”
“Denny’s a lot of fun,” Buck said. “I let him kick my butt at Mario Kart at least once a month.”
“I, too, would like to kick your butt at Mario Kart on a regular basis,” Chris said earnestly, and Eddie laughed.
* * * *
Eddie leaned on his truck after glancing back at Chris, who had fallen asleep on the blanket just short of the sun setting. He hadn’t stirred even when Eddie had buckled him in. Buck was leaning on the Jeep in front of him, windswept and gorgeous. Honestly, a beach day with the hottest person he’d met in years probably hadn’t been the best choice he could make. It hadn’t been a date, hadn’t even felt like a date, but it had been a great day just the same.
“I should go,” Buck said finally and glanced back at his daughter, who was snoozing in her car seat. “I promised Maddie that I’d be home in time to make dinner with her. She talked me into a mushroom risotto even after I complained about carbs being cruel to me. I’m gonna have to eat the better part of a cow to make up for it.”
Eddie laughed. “Not exactly a hardship.”
“No, not really.” Buck shifted off the Jeep, moved into his space, and stopped just short of kissing him. “I don’t want to make the wrong move here—because we’re going to be working together. But I also don’t want you to think that I’m uninterested. Because I’m totally interested.”
Eddie closed the distance and buried his fingers in Buck’s damp curls as he did so. The kiss was just a soft pressing of mouths, sweet and so fleeting that he swallowed hard as they parted. He sought another quick kiss, which Buck leaned into eagerly, and exhaled as Buck stepped back.
“Let’s just be honest with each other, and I think everything will be okay,” Eddie said quietly as he released him.
“Deal,” Buck murmured and smiled. “I’m not rebounding. I figure that might be a concern, but I wasn’t anywhere close to being in love with my ex, no matter what she or anyone else thought. I thought, maybe, we could get there, but she turned out to be a real asshole, and I don’t make time for those kinds of people. When I adopted Bea, I had to make some choices about what kind of life I was going to have with her and who I would allow to be a part of that life. It was clear pretty quickly that Abby wasn’t going to make the cut.”
“I get that,” Eddie said.
“I know,” Buck murmured. “Drive safe.”
Eddie slid into the truck and started it up. He stayed where he was until Buck had done the same then backed out to leave.
“That seemed to go well.”
He huffed a little and looked in the rearview mirror to find Christopher wide awake. “You sneak.”
“Well, you probably weren’t gonna get a kiss if you both thought I was awake, Daddy. I’m just trying to be a good wingman,” Chris said and rolled his eyes. “Like I could sleep through being buckled into a five-point harness?”
He had before, Eddie was sure. Probably. He frowned because, honestly, his kid had played him, and he couldn’t be certain if it was the first time. “What do you think?”
“He’s great,” Chris said immediately. “And Bea’s sweet. We should keep them to ourselves for a while. Mom might ruin it for us because she doesn’t want you dating anyone. Abuelo and Grandma would be worse since they just want us to move back to El Paso, like that’s reasonable. They don’t even have a Disneyland.”
“The lack of Disneyland does feel like a deal-breaker,” Eddie said in amusement.
“Do you like him?”
More than I should, Eddie thought and flushed. “Yeah, mijo, I do.”
“Well, he likes you, too,” Chris said. “He brought all that nice food for us when he didn’t have to. He even cut the grapes in half and made little triangles out of watermelon for the fruit salad. I’ve never had homemade bread before. He said he makes sourdough bread, too. I told him it was your favorite. And the cookies were awesome. Mom’s peanut butter cookies are always dry. I gotta drink a whole glass of milk to just eat a couple.”
Shannon hated baking and only did it when she had no choice. Eddie was decent in the kitchen, more out of necessity than desire. His grandmother had taught him more about cooking since he’d come to LA than his mother ever had because she’d thought he didn’t need to know how to cook. Both of his parents were deep in their beliefs concerning traditional gender roles.
Eddie would say that his mother was more invested in toxic masculinity than even his father. She had this clear idea of what was manly and had made sure Eddie understood how important it was to her from a very early age. He figured that was the root of her demands that he give Christopher to her—as she really didn’t think a man could raise a child by himself. After he’d realized that, he’d stopped taking her ugly opinions so personally. And that had resulted in him telling his mother to shut up about his parenting or he’d start listing all of her failings in that department. That story was still making the rounds in the family since it had happened at his sister Sophia’s engagement party.
“What did you mean about your mom not wanting me to date anyone?” Eddie asked.
“She always asks about it,” Chris said and yawned. “She said the divorce was your fault because you wouldn’t let her come back. But I know she left and broke our family. Why should we trust her again after that? She tries to say that you left when you were in the Army, but you called home all the time and talked to me. She didn’t call us for two whole years. Anyways, she said I should tell her if you start dating some woman because she wasn’t going to let another woman be my mom.”
“What do you think about that?”
“Well, I told her that I didn’t want another mom because having one was stressful enough,” Chris admitted. “And she told me that was mean, but it was the truth, so I didn’t apologize. But I think you should date whoever you want. I don’t suppose Mom would be happy about Buck either, but that’s a her problem, not a you problem.”
“You have spent too much time with your Aunt Sophia,” Eddie told him with a laugh.
“I’m glad she moved here,” Chris said. “She seems happier not having to deal with Grandma’s…input.”
“Your grandma is real free with the input,” Eddie muttered. “And you’re right; Sophia is much happier here.”
“We should invite Buck and Bea to a movie night,” Chris decided. “We can order pizza and watch The Lion King.”
“Lion King, huh?”
“It’s the best one,” Chris said. “And Bea should watch that first if she hasn’t already. It’s important to her Disney education that she starts off on the right foot. The circle of life is a valuable life lesson, Daddy.”
* * * *
“Now, tell me about this young man you’re dating.”
Eddie turned to stare at his grandmother in horror. “Abuela.”
She raised an eyebrow. “He’s already met Christopher.”
“I met a friend at the beach.”
“For a fancy picnic lunch?” Pepa questioned and laughed when Eddie blushed.
He wanted to pat his face to get rid of the redness. “My son is a tattletale.” Eddie cleared his throat. “I met him through work. We’re going to be at the same firehouse. He helped me out, told me some things that I really needed to know, and…we’re…there’s no rush on either side. He’s a new father, he adopted a little girl from a rescue, and I’m going to be new on the job.”
“You like him?” Pepa questioned.
“He’s a very good person,” Eddie said after a few moments of thought. “Thoughtful, careful, and he’s giving his daughter 110 percent. It’s pretty hard not to like him.” He pulled out his phone because they’d taken some pictures over the course of the beach day. He flipped through until he found one of Buck, Bea, and Christopher. “And it doesn’t hurt at all that he’s gorgeous.”
Pepa took his phone when he offered it and hummed under her breath before passing the device to her mother.
“Ah,” Abuela said. “What a lovely picture. He’s a firefighter as well, then?”
“He’s an engineer for the shift I’ll be working,” Eddie said. “Based on the conversation I had with Captain Nash, Buck primarily handles fire science in the field, in part due to his education on that front and his degree in civil engineering. He is heavy rescue certified, like I will be, but is also certified as the driver engineer. It means he can operate all of the equipment in the firehouse and can drive it all. In some ways, the firefighter engineer of a shift is the backbone of the whole operation.”
“A position that requires the respect and trust of everyone around him,” Pepa said and nodded. “And he’s young?”
“Under thirty,” Eddie said. “I don’t know his exact age, but yeah, he’s clearly put in a lot of effort into the job and his career.” He took his phone back with a frown. “Maybe he deserves better than my mess.”
“Ah, none of that,” Abuela said and patted his shoulder as she returned her attention to the stove. “You are a very good man, and you deserve a partner who is just as dedicated and loyal as you are.”
There was a subtle complaint about Shannon weaved into his grandmother’s words. No one in his family was prepared to forgive her for running away and ignoring him for two years. He never got any grief at all for the fact that he’d basically run away himself. Granted, he’d done all he could to have as much contact with Shannon and Chris as he could while he’d served. Eddie considered himself lucky that Chris didn’t resent it.
“Shannon doesn’t want to be a mother,” Eddie said, and both his grandmother and aunt focused on him. “She never did, but she also refused to terminate. She did get her tubes tied shortly after she gave birth to Chris. Motherhood stressed her out from the beginning, and it only got worse after his diagnosis. Mom and Pop blamed her for it—insisted that she must have done something very wrong to hurt Chris during the pregnancy. No amount of discussion with the doctors changed that for them. They were vicious to her on a regular basis, if I’m honest, and I wasn’t a good husband either. It made everything more difficult for Shannon.
“I forgive her for bailing on the marriage,” Eddie continued. “And me. I was never the husband she needed, and the way I let my parents treat her is frankly unforgivable. But I can’t forgive her for ignoring Chris for years. He cried for her for nearly six months after she left. I left message after message asking her to call and talk to just him, and she ignored me.
“Then, when she finally did respond, it was only to say she wasn’t going to sign the divorce papers I’d had her served with.” He exhaled sharply because he’d never discussed that part with anyone. “In the original set of papers, I gave her visitation and asked for child support. In the ones she sent me, she agreed to pay child support but refused formal visitation and essentially forfeited all of her rights as a parent. She doesn’t even have a say in future partner adoption.”
“It’s for the best,” Pepa said firmly. “She’s proven to be quite selfish.”
Eddie snorted. “Apparently, she’s been grilling Christopher about my dating and trying to get him to spy for her. She also told him that I was to blame for the divorce. I won’t be allowing her unsupervised visitation going forward. She’ll probably…” He took a deep breath. “Tell me she doesn’t want to see him at all anymore because the guy she’s dating doesn’t like Chris. I told her that she’s not allowed to bring him around Chris. She doesn’t think that’s fair to her.”
“Well, anyone that doesn’t like Christopher isn’t worth knowing,” Abuela declared.
Eddie agreed, so he just nodded. He checked his watch and stood. “I need to get Chris home so we can get ready for school in the morning.”
“Ah, that reminds me, I picked up all that paperwork you needed for school tuition assistance,” Pepa said. “It’s practically a book.”
The last thing he needed was more paperwork, but he just nodded. “Thank you.”
* * * *
Eddie dropped the folder of forms his aunt had given him onto the pile he was collecting. The sight of it was overwhelming, so he focused on making sure Chris’ backpack had everything it needed in it. He packed Christopher’s lunch but left the snack decision for in the morning since that was always a discussion.
There was a bit of laundry to put away, but at least it was folded, so he was feeling okay about that. After checking to make sure Chris’ school shoes were where they should be, Eddie crawled into his own bed and set the alarm on his phone. There was a text message that he hadn’t heard come in, so he opened it.
Buck: Had a great time yesterday. I go back to work in a couple of days but I’d like to see you again…I mean…before you start work? No pressure.
Eddie relaxed on the bed as he went through his schedule. He’d given notice on the construction job because he had enough saved to allow him a little breathing room before he started working for the fire department.
Eddie: I’m free on Tuesday afternoon. Unsure of your schedule. I take my last exam on Thursday.
He started to put the phone down, but it buzzed in his hand.
Buck: You’ll get your results Friday at the latest. I work Monday Thursday & Saturday. I’ll be up and mobile around 12pm on Tuesday but I’ll have Bea if that’s okay.
Eddie: It’s always okay. Lunch then?
Buck: Lunch. I’ll text you with a time and place. Anything you hate?
Eddie: Not really. I can normally find something to eat anywhere.
Buck: Good. Looking forward to it.
Eddie put the phone on to charge and settled down under the duvet. It was weird that just a little bit of contact with Buck had made everything seem more manageable. Thanks to the Army, Eddie had met lots of different people from all over the world, but there was something special about Evan Buckley. It felt like he could just cuddle up close to the man and be safe the rest of his life. That brought him up short and reminded him of the therapy sessions the VA had forced on him while he’d been recovering from being shot.
His hand went to the shoulder, and he held the scar for a few moments before he forced himself to let go. A part of him looked forward to being part of a team again, but there was a dark spot inside that he rarely wanted to even look at that feared being responsible for others again as part of a team. Working as a first responder had precious little in common with a war zone despite the stress and danger; at least, he couldn’t compare the two in his own mind. The isolation alone made the two jobs seem worlds apart. He did think that the skills and experience he’d gained in the Army would serve him well in his new job.
* * * *
“Sorry,” Buck said as soon as he slid into the booth, Bea clutched to his chest. “I’d love to say it was traffic or something beyond my control, but honestly…” He flushed. “I couldn’t find the socks that match this outfit.”
Eddie stared for a moment then focused on Bea, who was wearing a teal sundress with yellow butterflies on it. Her socks were the same shade of yellow as the butterflies. Despite the fact that she couldn’t walk, she was wearing a pair of teal Nike sneakers. He grinned. “She looks cute, though.”
Buck sighed. “I have this…thing.” He waved a hand as he shifted the baby around then pulled out a travel highchair.
“Can I help?” Eddie questioned and was immediately passed Bea, who giggled at him. “What’s your thing?”
“It’s going to make me sound deeply insecure,” Buck confessed as he fixed the highchair to the table, sanitized the surface with a wipe, then put down a little silicone placemat. “But I get really anxious about leaving the house with her if she’s not…put together.”
Eddie focused on Bea. She was sucking her fist and staring at him. “A happy, healthy baby is all most people see, you know?”
“I just don’t want anyone to say I’m failing at this whole thing,” Buck confessed as Eddie passed Bea back to him. “And if she’s looking a mess or whatever, it’s like this overt sign that I’m not getting the job done.”
“I’ve not spent a lot of time with you, obviously, but I don’t see that at all,” Eddie said.
“Thanks.” Buck smiled. “An outside perspective is helpful. What do you think of the place?”
“I’m kind of surprised by the choice.” He glanced around the deli. “I expected…”
“Some upscale, hipster place?” Buck questioned and laughed when Eddie flushed. “That’s not really my kind of deal, but I can see how you might have thought otherwise. This is my favorite deli—the only place I buy lunch meat and the like in the whole city. They have really good stuff. I got my sourdough starter here, though I had to beg and plead for a whole year before Elias parted with it.”
“It smells so good in here that I resolved not to be mad about being stood up,” Eddie said and grinned when Buck groaned. “Relax, ten minutes late is hardly a deal-breaker. I have a feeling this is going to be my new favorite deli.” He leaned back in the booth and took a deep breath. “The only downside, so far, is the redhead in line at the counter who keeps looking over here and glaring at me.”
Buck glanced over his shoulder and groaned. She immediately averted her gaze and tightened her grip on her purse. He turned back to Eddie. “My ex. We didn’t part well at all. Mostly because she was more invested than I was, and she thought I was making a big mistake in adopting Bea. She point blank told me I had no business with a child and to put her back where I found her.”
“Gross,” Eddie muttered. “Well, we can just ignore her. I don’t care about being glared at by a bitter ex.”
“Bitter?” Buck questioned.
“I’d be bitter in her place,” Eddie admitted. “She clearly isn’t over you and made some mistakes there’s no coming back from.”
“No, agreed,” Buck said. “I can’t forgive her for a lot of things that she said. I gotta make really good choices for Bea. We can order through the app and pick up from the counter.” He pulled out his phone. “That way we don’t have to stand in line.”
“Sounds great.” Eddie’s gaze drifted over Buck’s shoulder. “The ex just stormed out without ordering.”
“Gah, I can’t stand drama,” Buck complained. “All of the bread is made fresh daily, and you should definitely try the sourdough since Chris said it was your favorite. You aren’t going to be disappointed. Elias’ starter is 150 years old.”
Eddie tried to ignore how nice it felt that Buck remembered the thing about the bread. It had been a long time since anyone had bothered to get to know him and remember the little things.
“I do have a bone to pick with you.”
“Oh yeah?” Buck said with a grin. “What did I do?”
“Chris complained this morning because I didn’t cut his grapes in half when I was packing his snack.”
Buck laughed. “Hmmm, I mean…” He shrugged. “They work best that way in a fruit salad. Also, it’s a great way to make sure there are no stray seeds.” He passed his phone across the table. “Go ahead and order while I feed Bea. I’ve already put my food in the cart.”
Eddie quickly browsed the app, made his choice, and checked the total so he could split the tab. He probably had enough cash on hand, though he rarely carried much in the way of cash at all. He slid the phone back across the table and watched Bea eagerly eat what looked like peach yogurt. It was a favorite of Chris’, so he’d seen it a lot over the years.
“You’re going to make mistakes,” Eddie said, and Buck focused on him. “Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you’ll fail your kid. It’s just the nature of parenthood and the ramifications of raising a little person who has thoughts and perceptions that you don’t. I want to be all things to my son, mostly because his mother checked out, but also because when he was first diagnosed, I kind of checked out, too. I was in the Army, and I didn’t hesitate to go overseas. Yes, the benefits were great, and the combat pay helped a lot, but there were other ways I could’ve provided for my family that didn’t involve being on the other side of the world.
“I think I’ll be paying for that for a very long time, even if Chris doesn’t hold it against me. Though he certainly resents his mother. When we first reconnected with Shannon, he was too happy to see her to focus on the fact that she bailed on him in the middle of the night and didn’t contact him for two years. But as the months have gone by and she hasn’t apologized to him, he’s come to realize that he’s not really a priority for his mother.”
“I’d never want Bea to feel that way,” Buck said pensively and focused on his daughter, who was making a grabby motion at the spoon. “Sorry, sweet Bea.” He started feeding her again. “She’s already been…well…thrown away. It’s hard to see how any human being could do that to another, but there’s a special kind of horror around her circumstances. More so for the fact that it’s not even rare for a newborn to be thrown away in some fashion or another. I’ve seen it more than I thought I would because of the Safe Haven program, which I thought wasn’t much of a thing until I started working at the 118. Fortunately, there is a honed process in place that takes some of the trauma out of it. But it’s never good to come face to face with it.”
“At least they aren’t left on the street,” Eddie said. “Not that being abandoned to strangers is much better when it comes to longterm emotional consequences.”
“Granted,” Buck said. “At any rate, that can be hard to take. Situations involving kids are always the worst on the job. I feel like it might be worse for me going forward. I didn’t…do well emotionally the day that we rescued Bea, actually. I argued with Athena about transporting the birth mother with the baby. I was furious with the whole situation and didn’t think she deserved a single bit of our attention despite the fact that she’d just given birth and was in a terrible state.”
“I can’t say I would’ve felt any different. Just reading the report in the paper was infuriating. I can’t put myself in the girl’s place, obviously, and that makes the difference. There’s no situation in my life where I have ever felt that desperate.”
“Not even when you got shot?” Buck questioned and flushed when Eddie jerked back involuntarily. “Sorry, I just noticed the scar at the beach. Your range of motion in your shoulder is excellent, so I’m glad to see it didn’t give you a permanent deficit.”
“It’s fine—most people just skirt around it, or they don’t know for certain what the wound is. An asshole at the academy asked me if I got it in a drive-by shooting,” Eddie said and shrugged when Buck grimaced. “Tats, gunshot wound, and Mexican equals gang to a lot of people. I mean, it’s laughable since I grew up in the suburbs of El Paso, Texas, and the closest I ever got to joining a gang was that whole week Scotty Marks tried to get me to join the Boy Scouts in the second grade.”
“I don’t think the Boy Scouts of America would appreciate being called a gang,” Buck said in amusement.
“Well, a comparison could be made. But they aren’t as bad as the Girl Scouts; they’ve got a nationwide extortion racket going on,” Eddie said.
“Oh, now, be serious.”
“You’ve obviously never tried to get past a pack of Girl Scouts at Target during cookie season,” Eddie said. “Last year, I must have spent a hundred dollars on thin mints out of self-defense.”
“Sure, sure, self-defense,” Buck said and laughed.
Eddie shrugged, pleased that he’d made Buck laugh. He focused on Bea, who was sucking on her fist again. Her eyes were so bright they were practically glittering. She laughed when she realized she had his attention. There was something so lovely about the two of them at that moment that Eddie realized if he wasn’t careful, he was going to fall far too fast and too hard for Evan Buckley and his daughter.
* * * *
Buck wrapped a towel around his waist as he left the shower stall and picked up the second, smaller one to dry his hair and face. He went to his locker and sat down on the bench in front of it. They were off-line for two hours following their last call, and he’d decided that he would be best served with a long damn shower. He’d had almost three months off, and coming back to work had been both a relief and a big stressor. He plucked his phone from the locker and checked messages. Bea was with Daniel currently after spending eight hours at the daycare center in the office building where Daniel was setting up his law practice.
They had a nanny service on call that Buck had vetted thoroughly and approved two different people to work for him as needed. Bea had responded to both nannies very well, so that was something. His magic had been put off by a third that he’d been introduced to, so he’d nixed her without any real discussion.
A hand trailed across his shoulders, and Buck jerked in shock. He stood and turned to find Chad Rogers in front of him. Rogers normally worked C shift, and Buck avoided him like the plague. Not because he was dangerous, but because he was a complete loser and half-assed the job. He got away with it more often than not. Since Rogers normally avoided working with Bobby, Buck was surprised to see him.
“Looking good, Buck,” Rogers murmured. “I was a little worried you’d let yourself go being off work for so long.” He reached out to touch his chest, and Buck took a step back. “Heard you dumped that woman you were dating. Good—she was too old for you.”
Buck caught Rogers’ wrist when he tried to touch him again. “Do not touch me. I’ve told you before that I don’t like it, and I will report you if you don’t back the fuck off. I don’t care who you’re related to.” He tightened his grip when Rogers smirked. “Or I can break your wrist, and you can explain to the captain how you can’t keep your damn hands to yourself.” The asshole blinked in surprise and tried to tug free.
“Problem here, gentlemen?”
Buck looked up as he released Rogers’ wrist and found Chimney standing in the entryway of the men’s locker room with Eddie Diaz. He winced.
“Nah, LT, Buckley’s just playing hard to get,” Rogers said easily.
“Bullshit,” Chim said. “If Buck wanted you—he’d have already had you. Go wash the ambulances.”
“By myself?” Rogers asked with a frown.
“Seems like you’ve got time and energy to spend,” Chim said and jerked his head. “Now.”
Buck turned back to his locker as Rogers left in a snit. “He’s way too comfortable around here.”
“I’ll talk to Bobby,” Chim said. “We put him on C shift for a reason and, apparently, that reason still exists.” He flicked a hand in Buck’s direction.
“Are you blaming me?” Buck asked in amusement.
“You know I’m not,” Chim said. “Put on some clothes, for fuck’s sake. Eddie, the locker next to Buck’s is yours. Get settled and come upstairs when you’re ready. The captain has some orientation stuff for you.”
Buck looked up and focused on Eddie, who had put a duffle down on the bench a few feet away. “Yeah, of course. Not the first time that guy has made a move. I can’t stand his ass, and he knows it. He seems the sort to really invest himself in the pursuit of itself over the actual person. The more I dislike him, the more he wants it. But I’ve never been down for grudge fucking.”
“No, it’s…emotionally unpleasant,” Eddie said after a moment and hung his uniforms on a hook above the locker. “Lt. Han said we have two lockers.”
“Yeah, personal and turnout,” Buck said. “The padlock on that one has two keys—one in the lock and one on the captain’s keys. You can keep the key on your own keyring. I unpacked your turnouts this morning, actually, since I was the man behind for the first call. Mostly, I was left behind to watch the food that Bobby was cooking because he didn’t trust anyone else.”
“Probably a good call,” Eddie said and sat down on the bench after opening the locker.
Buck noted that Eddie had averted his gaze and was focused on setting up his stuff. He figured that the Army had trained all of the body modesty out of the man, but he appreciated the gesture of privacy he was offered. He finished drying off and slid on a pair of boxers, then sat down on the bench before grabbing a bottle of lotion.
“I heard that the last call was pretty bad,” Eddie said.
“Jumper,” Buck said. “She jumped before we could even get up there. I think the sight of the truck put her over the edge. Hen and Chim got the brunt of that situation, but I saw more than I wanted when I came back down. Controlling the scene and helping the medical examiner clean up the result was…difficult.” He cleared his throat. “You spent the morning in HR?”
“Yeah,” Eddie said and glanced his way briefly then sighed. “This is weird because your bathing suit was more revealing than those boxers.”
Buck pulled on a T-shirt and plucked a pair of uniform pants from a hanger. “Context, I suppose. Have any issues in HR?”
“Just a bunch of forms to fill out for insurance, taxes, and medical,” Eddie said. “Standard as far as I can tell. The chief’s assistant did come by and ask me if I was sure about working at the 118. He also asked me if I had a problem specifically with Captain Mallory that I’d like to disclose, and I declined.”
“Right move,” Buck said, and his magic swelled with agreement. “If they want to deal with him, they need to do it head-on rather than make you their scapegoat, and that’s what that situation could’ve quickly turned into one way or another. He’s got to be fairly close to retirement age, and the union would have to come down on his side unless there are complaints and proof.”
“But an official complaint from a probationary firefighter would damage me more than him,” Eddie muttered. “I’d get a reputation for being a problem before I work a single shift.”
“Fair or not, I agree,” Buck said. “But something is already in process on that front. There are plenty of ways to get a man like Mallory off the job. I have a friend pretty high up in the union, and they’re going to take care of it. Because at the end of the day, the union doesn’t want to have to go bat for a racist. A background solution will solve the problem, and it’ll teach some people a valuable lesson.” He pulled his pants on then the belt. “Regardless, at this point, it’s out of our hands.”
“A friend in the union?”
“I sort of saved them by accident one night on a date,” Buck explained. “Well, I did save them since they were exposed to an allergy, and I used my EpiPen on them.” He paused. “We weren’t on a date together. I was at a different table enduring a very awkward date, and they were getting ready to take a knee and propose. He blurted out the proposal to his boyfriend while wheezing into an oxygen mask.”
“What are you allergic to?” Eddie asked curiously. “And did the boyfriend say yes?”
“Kiwi and the boyfriend said yes repeatedly,” Buck said. “I don’t normally have a problem since it’s not a common ingredient. Though I do avoid smoothie bars due to the risk of cross-contamination. So, did Chris like your lunch efforts this morning?”
“Yeah, we tried the hummus before I packed it for him, and he was on board with it. Then he asked me if I thought going grocery shopping was a good date. Clearly, he’s worried about my game.”
Buck laughed. They’d ended their deli date with a stop by his favorite grocery store, where he’d pointed out some different items for snacks that Chris could try since the boy was interested in expanding his options and trying new things. “Did you tell him it was my idea?”
“I did, but he thinks you’re great, so any bad dating ideas must be mine,” Eddie said and pulled off his shirt.
Buck let himself look just a little before he focused on putting on his boots. “I am great, which means he’s a very good judge of character.” His magic shifted around his chest in a way he’d come to see a head’s up, and he glanced around the locker room. They were the only ones in the area, so he closed his locker, locked it, and pocketed the keys. “Bobby’s up in the loft when you’re ready. We have another hour of off-line time, so he’ll probably take up all of that getting situated to his satisfaction.”
Eddie nodded. “That guy from before? Is he a real problem?”
“He’s a pain in the ass that treats sex like a game and people like things,” Buck said. “And his grandmother is the deputy mayor.” He watched Eddie’s face do something complicated then the other man snorted.
“Wait. You mean…he hides behind his grandma’s job?” Eddie laughed and shook his head. “Lame motherfucker.”
“Right?” Buck said. “Anyway, he’s not a problem beyond the fact that he gets handsy when he thinks he can get away with it. He heard I was single and figured he’d shoot his shot again. But he couldn’t hit this with someone else’s ten-inch dick.”
“Fortunately for Rogers’s ego, I’ve sent him home,” Bobby said dryly from the doorway, and Buck looked up. “He put his hands on you? Do you want to file a complaint?”
“He touched my shoulder and tried to get flirty by touching my chest, but I prevented it,” Buck said honestly. “Seriously, Bobby, I’ve been assured I’m a ten, and he’s like a four due to his terrible personality. He’s not qualified to operate this ride.” He motioned to himself.
Bobby laughed then sighed. “Just let me know—I’ll ruin his life no matter who his grandmother is.” He left shouting for Hen.
“He’s a three,” Eddie muttered. “At best.” He stood and unbuttoned his jeans. “The only thing worse than a mama’s boy is a grandmama’s boy.”
Buck agreed, so he just shot Eddie a grin and trotted off to see what his magic was bothered by. He started at the turnout lockers, letting his fingers run across the surface of everyone’s things as he walked. Each shift had its own row, and he started with A since the impact would be more immediate. Everything was as it should be, so he walked over to the ambulance and gave the vehicle a once-over.
“Yeah,” Buck murmured and glanced only briefly at Hen and Chim, who were standing near the ladder truck.
By the time he’d moved to the ladder truck, Bobby had appeared with Eddie in tow. Everyone else on shift was meandering about in the background, giving him room. They really didn’t understand, but over the time he’d been working at the 118, they’d come to respect what they assumed to be heightened instincts. He squatted down in front of the driver’s side tire, ran his hand along the tread with a frown as his magic started to swirl faster in his chest.
With a sigh, he snagged a creeper and slid under the truck with a push of his foot. “Hey, Bobby, remind me. When did these brakes get changed last?”
“A week ago,” Bobby said as he joined Buck under the truck. “That the problem?”
“Something’s off,” Buck admitted. “I can’t place it. Nothing looks out of place, but there’s definitely an issue.”
“I’ll call a mechanic in,” Bobby said simply.
Buck made a face. “The last time we did that without a verified issue, I got looked at like I was crazy.”
“You don’t care if someone thinks you’re crazy,” Hen said easily from where she was squatted near their feet.
“Lemme check the fluids,” Buck said and slid out from underneath the truck. He took the hand that was offered and gave Eddie a quick smile before releasing it. “Thanks. Hey, Cosmo! Get the toolbox; we’re going to crack the hood and do an inspection.”
Oscar “Cosmo” Fuentes, the other firefighter engineer on their shift, offered Buck a salute before trotting off toward the equipment closet.
“I’ll ask for another hour,” Bobby said and walked away as Buck picked up both creepers and hung them back on the wall out of the way. “Let me know if we need to take the ladder off for the rest of the shift. Diaz, with me, unless you’d like to ogle Buckley your whole shift.”
Eddie huffed a little but walked away with the captain even as Buck started laughing.
“In my defense, sir, you did ambush me with him and his adorable baby. What was I supposed to do with that?”
“You straight-up played dirty, Bobby,” Hen agreed.
Buck stilled because as Bobby walked away, his magic calmed down. That was disconcerting as fuck. He stopped mid-climb and dropped back onto the concrete floor.
“Yeah.” He turned to Cosmo. “Would you check all the fluids? And run a diagnostic?” Buck watched Bobby walk up the stairs.
“It’s not the truck,” Cosmo murmured.
“No, but do the check anyway just to keep up appearances,” Buck said lowly and offered Cosmo a smile when the other man gave him a firm nod. “I’m going to check over the rest of the vehicles just to be sure.”
An hour later, everything was clear, and they were back online. The agitation in his magic was growing, and he didn’t know what to do with it. He’d casually put a hand on Bobby several times since returning to the loft, and the third time he’d done it had resulted in Hen checking Bobby’s vitals as Bobby protested that he was fine. Buck knew his behavior was putting everyone on edge, so after a quick meal, he’d gone to sit down on the sofa by himself.
He sat alone for close to an hour playing a game on his phone when Maddie arrived, a container of cookies in hand and Bea on her hip. Buck put away his phone in favor of his kid. He left the others to fight over the cookies and returned to the sofa with Bea, who was babbling at him excitedly. A glance across the loft earned him an opportunity to watch his sister zero in on Chimney like a lioness spotting a gazelle. Buck briefly considered warning the man, but he didn’t want to ruin his sister’s fun.
Eddie joined them. Bea, the traitor, immediately made grabby hands at him. Buck couldn’t blame her, so he hardly pouted at all as he gave her up. The thing about Eddie was that he was just really attractive, but that whole thing increased by a factor of ten when he smiled like he was smiling at Bea. Buck looked up and found half the occupants of the loft looking at the three of them gobsmacked. He just waved his hands helplessly in response, and Hen laughed.
Eddie, who was completely unaware of the attention they were getting, passed him two cookies in a napkin, which Buck figured was a pretty decent trade. Bea was babbling away, probably telling on people as she certainly had opinions galore about everything she was exposed to on a regular basis. Eventually, Maddie came to perch on the sofa arm.
“I thought Daniel was keeping her at my house tonight,” Buck said.
“They have a few corporate clients that have offices in New York and in LA,” Maddie explained. “Well, the CFO of one of those companies was arrested two hours ago at his home by the FBI. It’s a big enough deal that Daniel and Sydney both were called in. I suspect Sydney is acting as a council while Daniel is concentrating on protecting the company.” Maddie rubbed the back of her neck. “I finished work three hours ago, so I have the time. I’m back on shift at 6am, but Daniel said I can take her to the daycare in his building starting at five. He said you’re going to pick her up?”
“Yeah, as soon as I get off, if we get enough sleep, or by noon if I have to sleep at home first,” Buck said and focused on Bea, who was staring adoringly at Eddie. “Oh no, her first crush.”
Eddie laughed. “It’s only fair, considering the mess you’ve made of my kid after one fancy picnic.”
Buck flushed as Maddie laughed.
“I told him that cucumber and heirloom tomato salad was extra. That balsamic vinegar he uses is imported.”
“Imported by you,” Buck said in his defense. “You sent me a whole damn case last year, Maddie.” He rolled his eyes when she laughed.
“It was the sliced grapes that sealed the deal,” Eddie said, and Buck huffed dramatically. “Heirloom tomatoes? Seriously?”
“I don’t buy any other kind,” Buck protested. “Unless I’m making marinara sauce and Bobby is over to help with canning.”
“You can your own food?” Eddie questioned. “And you still maintain that you’re not a hipster?”
“I don’t have to feed you,” Buck told him. “Ever. And I use my Mason jars as nature intended, Edmundo Alexander Diaz.”
Eddie focused on Bea. “Your daddy is awful.” Bea cooed and bounced excitedly in his hands. “Yes, he is.”
Buck took his baby. “Rude. I’m amazing.”
Eddie laughed and relaxed on the sofa as Bea rubbed her whole face against Buck’s jaw.
Buck pulled her back and wiggled her little. “Enough of that, sweet Bea, or you’ll get beard burn, and I’ll get a lecture.”
The alarm sounded, and Buck passed Bea to Maddie quickly. His magic just continued to swirl in irritation as they suited up. He ended up in the ladder truck, Eddie’s leg pressed against his. He felt like it should’ve been a comfort, but it was hard to concentrate on anything but the terrible feeling that was piling on top of him. He hadn’t felt like this since the day Daniel had died on a steep mountain road on the way to a lodge he no longer owned. Buck had turned mere minutes after Sydney Vaughan had called him to tell him about the accident. The magic had never hesitated to help when it came to Daniel or Maddie, and for that, Buck was grateful.
Forty minutes later, they were staring at a grenade in a man’s leg, and Buck realized why his magic had been going haywire all evening. It actually shuddered in his chest as Eddie volunteered to take the grenade out of the man’s leg. Fortunately, Buck’s agitation had put everyone so much on edge that Eddie had realized the round was live before they’d pulled the man out of his own house. Buck didn’t want to know what a ride in an ambulance would do to a grenade.
“I’ll stay with him,” Buck said.
“No,” Chim said. “I’ll stay with him.”
“Forget you’ve got a kid already?” Chim demanded.
“Fuck you,” Buck snapped. “Also, Eddie has a kid, too. But that can’t ever be the reason one of us is not chosen for a damn job, Chim. I didn’t suddenly become more important than anyone else on the team because I adopted a baby.”
“I’m trained to deal with ordnance,” Eddie said. “Captain Nash, I can handle this. But I will need another pair of hands.”
“I’m staying,” Buck said firmly and focused on Bobby.
Bobby looked at their patient; fortunately, he’d passed out. Well, maybe not fortunately, since it was clearly due to blood loss. “Give me one good reason why it can’t be me or Chim, Buck.”
Buck was certain if he left the room that Eddie Diaz would die again, and fate wasn’t going to get her way. He was keeping Eddie, and once that realization hit him, it became such a certain thing that it actually left him breathless. It was also clear if Eddie died due to that grenade that he wouldn’t get the chance to turn to fix it.
“I stay, or the two that do stay will die,” Buck said simply. “And the patient, too. And we don’t have time to argue or wait for the bomb squad to bring in the specialist. It’s Eddie and me now, or this man dies alone in this house with a live round in his leg because none of you are staying if I’m going.”
Bobby stared for a long moment, nodded, and prodded Chim to leave ahead of him.
Chim grabbed the doorframe and glared at him. “If you get yourself killed, you asshole, I’m never going to forgive you.”
Buck nodded as they left and focused on Eddie, who was staring at him. “What?”
“Let’s get started,” Eddie murmured with a shake of his head.
Buck finished setting up the IV fluids that had been abandoned when the live round was recognized as Eddie inspected the wound and the trajectory of the grenade into Charlie’s leg.
“These feelings you get,” Eddie began as he picked up the clamp. “They’re pretty powerful, right?”
“They can be,” Buck said. “Sometimes, it can be overwhelming—emotionally and physically. I had a hard time with it when I was younger, but I’ve learned to manage them most of the time.”
“People like you normally end up in highly classified government projects,” Eddie said grimly. “Used up and worked to death by the powers that be. How did you avoid it?”
“I have no documented gifts,” Buck said. “And no method of controlling my instinctual responses to dangerous situations. There was a headhunter from the NSA who came around when I was in college, but when it became clear that I had no control and no gift that they truly understood, they went away. I’m not a precog or a visionary. There are no extra senses that can be measured. There’s nothing really going on that they can tap into and quantify.”
Eddie nodded. “Good. No one deserves to be disappeared into one of those programs. I don’t mean to be insulting with this, but in some ways, your nature seems too delicate for it.” He flushed when Buck laughed. “What?”
“It’s just the headhunter from the NSA said basically the same thing. He said whatever I was gifted with couldn’t be controlled, which made it useless to them, and I was too emotionally fragile for the work.”
“I understand what he was saying, but that’s not what I meant,” Eddie said. “Okay, get that ordnance box ready. I’m going to pull this out as carefully as I can. Let me know if you feel like I should stop at any point, and we’ll reassess.”
“Everything feels fine,” Buck said. “I think…I just need to be here.”
“Sometimes, the right person in the right place is all the world needs,” Eddie murmured. “History has told us that repeatedly.”
He pulled the grenade out carefully, and Buck ignored the slick sound of it as he offered the ordnance box. His magic surged, and he started to glow. To Eddie’s credit, he didn’t react outwardly to the unexpected light show. He tucked the grenade into the bottom of the box and held it in place as they both moved toward the table. Buck put it down, then Eddie released the round. They closed the lid, and Buck’s magic gently receded.
“Let’s get him out of here so the bomb squad can get to work,” Buck said and cleared his throat. “And…huh…about the…”
“I’ve got your back, Buck,” Eddie said.
“And I’ve got yours.”
“I think that was true before you ever met me,” Eddie responded as they unlocked the gurney and started to move.
Moments later, they were sliding the gurney into the ambulance when a loud boom and the shattering of glass told Buck that whatever time magic had given them had expired. He turned to stare at the house even as Chim pulled the doors shut on the ambulance with an outraged huff. Buck shrugged and trotted off toward the ladder truck so they could put out the fire.
* * * *
Buck put a tray of coffees down on the table and plucked his from it before walking away. They’d managed to pull seven hours of sleep, and their shift was ending fairly soon. Neither Bobby nor Chim had asked about what had happened with the grenade. They rarely did follow-up, which Buck was grateful for since he hated to lie. He leaned on the railing and watched the resupply happen. He’d gotten out of the duty due to being put on a coffee run. Leaving the station for a bit had helped him settle down.
His magic trusted Eddie Diaz, and it had never really fully trusted anyone but him since the very beginning. It certainly had never shown itself to anyone without his permission before. Eddie joined him at the railing, coffee in hand, and Buck looked down to find that everything was done, and B shift was arriving. He focused on Eddie and found the older man staring at him.
“I live about fifteen minutes from here,” Buck murmured. “Where’s Chris?”
“He’ll be at school in the next twenty minutes; my aunt is taking him,” Eddie said. “Bea?”
“Daycare—I can pick her up anytime between now and noon,” Buck said. “Follow me home?”’
“Yeah, I can do that,” Eddie agreed and took a sip of coffee.
A half-hour later, he pulled into his garage and left the door open long enough for Eddie to park in the driveway and come in. He shut it, grabbed his bag, and let them into the house. He dropped the bag as Eddie pinned him to the counter, and as much as he hadn’t actually been expecting sex, Buck fell into the kiss like a thing starving. They left a trail of clothing from the kitchen all the way to his bedroom. He was really glad that both of his siblings had their own places now because he could just imagine one of them making a passive-aggressive pile of discarded clothes in front of his bedroom door.
He let Eddie pull him onto the bed and sought another kiss even as he settled between the other man’s thighs. The press of his dick against Eddie’s was a startling pleasure. His cock started leaking immediately. Eddie slid a hand between them with a pleased groan and wrapped it around both of their cocks.
“Fuck my hand,” Eddie ordered against his jaw. “Come on.”
Buck couldn’t help but do as instructed and groaned at the feeling of a hard cock held tight against his own. He considered getting lube, but his own precum was proving to be all they really needed. Eddie cupped his head with his free hand, spread his legs, and rolled his hips up into his own hand. His physical strength was such a turn-on that Buck knew he wasn’t going to last long. It had been ages since he’d been with a man since women were just easier, and he could pull one with no effort whatsoever.
“Fuck,” Eddie murmured. “I’m not…gonna…”
“I’m not going to last, either,” Buck admitted and pushed into Eddie’s hand slowly with a shudder.
“Come then,” Eddie urged and tightened his grip just enough that it pushed them both over the edge. “Damn.”
Buck brushed their mouths together as his magic whispered over them both. He tried to pull it back in case it freaked Eddie out, but the man released their spent cocks and relaxed on the bed under him. He used his clean hand to cup the back of Buck’s head.
“You’re beautiful,” Eddie murmured. “I’ve never met anyone like you.”
“That’s probably a good thing,” Buck said wryly and, after a few moments, rolled onto his back. He stared at the ceiling for a moment and exhaled. “I figured we could talk about the whole light show with the grenade.”
“It’s some kind of magic, right?” Eddie questioned. “My abuela says there are ancient powers at play in the world around us and that we have to pay attention to them. My father hates when she talks about it. I saw some stuff overseas that made it clear that there are deep pockets of supernatural power all over the world that can’t be controlled. I mean, it wasn’t like I was really over there fighting for oil, Buck.”
“Ah, well, most will never understand that such things can’t really be controlled by mankind.” He turned on his side. “It’s an energy source that I’ve always called magic, for the lack of a better word. It guides me, allows me to make changes when they are to the benefit of others and alter the course of events as long as fate doesn’t have a say in it.”
“You said that like…fate is a real thing,” Eddie said roughly.
“Oh, it’s real,” Buck said. “Frustrating, unfair, and unreasonable. I’ve had it tear the heart of me more than once over the years. I’ve carried this power since…well, I was probably close to Bea’s age when it found a home inside me.” He watched Eddie’s eyes widen with shock. “It’s a gift, Eddie.”
“No gift comes free,” he said. He reached out and settled a hand over Buck’s heart. “You didn’t let that asshole touch your chest because of your magic. I can feel it—under your skin.”
“I wouldn’t have let him touch me like that regardless,” Buck admitted. “He really isn’t qualified for this ride.”
Eddie laughed. “Glad I made the cut.” He wet his lips and shifted closer. “This isn’t about sex for me, despite the evidence. I feel like we could have something special, but if that’s not what you’re thinking…”
“It is,” Buck assured and caught Eddie’s hand before he lifted it off his chest. “I should’ve made it clear before, but I didn’t invite you here for sex at all.” He grinned when Eddie’s eyes went wide. “I obviously wasn’t at all opposed; it just wasn’t what I had planned. I figured I could fix us some food, and we could talk about my magic and how it works since it gave you a light show. I’ve never had it reveal itself to anyone without my permission before. It doesn’t need to be visible to work.”
“So, it revealed itself to me on purpose,” Eddie said. “Do you know what would’ve happened last night if the captain hadn’t given in?”
“Bobby would’ve stayed with you, and the grenade would’ve gone off,” Buck said. “That’s why my magic started getting pushy with me at the station—it was more about him than you. Because it was his decision that the situation hinged on, and he’s protective of me.”
“I already got the be nice to Buck or you’ll make every single one of us sad talk,” Eddie said wryly.
Buck huffed. “Sorry.”
“You’re special,” Eddie murmured. “I get it. They’re all protective of you. Apparently, most of them heard you invite me to follow you home. They probably think we’re having thank fuck we didn’t die sex.”
“If that’s a legit thing, then every single person on A shift owes me sex or at least the friends-only equivalent,” Buck exclaimed hotly.
Eddie eased on top of him and caught both of his hands. He held them down on the mattress. “How about I do the work for the whole shift?”
“Some of them wouldn’t thank you,” Buck said in amusement.
“What they don’t know won’t hurt them,” Eddie said and pressed a soft kiss to his mouth.
* * * *
“The cooking thing—is that about your magic?”
“Clean eating keeps me healthy,” Buck said. “And that makes things easier magically. If I put a lot of crap and processed carbs in my body, I pay for it with exhaustion that turns into a weird kind of magical flu. Organic produce, grass-fed protein, complex carbs, etc. I burn a lot of energy because of the magic, so I eat accordingly. That’s one of those costs you were talking about earlier because you were right—nothing is free. I think magic least of all.”
“Do you think your magic could be trained? Controlled?”
“No, and I think if I tried, it would leave,” Buck said simply. “To protect me from people like that guy from the NSA. I also think it does a lot to keep people like that away from me. Though he wrote me off as a fragile flower a decade ago.”
He shot Eddie a look as he split the sautéed chicken and mushrooms between two bowls of wild rice and quinoa. The simple dish was his favorite comfort food, so he hoped Eddie liked it.
“I don’t think you’re a flower,” Eddie said in amusement. “I do think that you’ve got a tender heart, and that kind of work would destroy you. No one should have to decide to kill someone or multiple people, but someone like you…it’d be…a desecration.” He accepted the bowl. “This looks great.”
“We can eat out on the patio,” Buck said. “I’ll grab us some water. I have some green tea if you’d prefer?”
“Water is fine,” Eddie said.
They sat down at the table, and Eddie looked out over the backyard. “Nice place.”
“Thanks. I bought it last year after moving around a few times in different apartments. I can’t really handle having people that close to me. The last place,” Buck began and made a face. “I had a neighbor who was a complete nightmare. I mean, she was like an emotional black hole, and she made my magic hyper-reactive. I don’t know what it was about Veronica, and I did, honestly, try to fix her. I figured I’d be doing the whole world a favor.”
“Regardless, I had to basically run away from her because living near her was making me sad, and I asked Daniel to release money from my trust fund so I could buy a house. We all three inherited from our maternal grandmother. It’s not a huge amount comparatively, but my brother is good with money, and he’s made sure we’re provided for in case of…whatever. I think he was kind of disappointed with my purchase, but I wanted a normal house. Or at least as normal as I could get and still manage to get a little buffer from neighbors.”
“It’s not ridiculous,” Eddie said. “A little big for a single guy, but you’ve got room to grow.” He paused. “Make a family, which you’ve done. Maybe get Bea a dog later.” He checked his watch. “I don’t want to keep you from her, so please feel free to kick me out.”
Buck nodded. “Yeah, I mean, I would. I promised her I’d put her first the day I adopted her. It seemed like the least I could do since she’d never been anyone’s priority at all.”
Eddie took a deep breath. “I’m honestly glad I wasn’t on that call, Buck. It sounds like a nightmare.”
“It was,” he said. “The idea of her stuck in that pipe…well, it was awful the first time around, and now it’s just horror I can’t wrap my mind around.”
“Would I have died if I’d gone to the 56?” Eddie asked quietly.
Buck didn’t want to lie to him, but he wasn’t ready to share the full scope of his abilities with anyone. He thought about Athena and how she’d told him that she’d believe him if he told her again. Part of him worried that it would scare Eddie off, and that thought hurt.
Eddie took a deep breath and wet his lips. “Jesus.” He closed his eyes briefly and exhaled sharply. “You seem pretty certain about that.”
“So certain I was ready to tear Mallory’s career apart in a very public fashion if you ignored what I said,” Buck said. “I’d have probably taken a big hit, but I’d have done it anyway.”
“Honestly, Buck, the moment I set eyes on you—I was prepared to beg Bobby Nash for a job at the 118,” Eddie said and flushed when Buck laughed a little. “He had to know it, too. He was all smug and shit all throughout that interview. At the end, he asked me when I’d like to start, then grinned, and told me that I’d be on your shift if that mattered.” Eddie huffed. “It was literally the only part that mattered, at that point, and he had to know it.”
“Then Chimney escorted me out to my truck and told me that you were a brother to him and how he thought shovel talks were toxic, but also he reserved the right to be really disappointed in me as a person and as a man if I was terrible to you,” Eddie continued.
“I’d tell him about himself, but my sister is about to seduce him, wrap him around her finger, and make him dance like a fool, so he’s going to get what he deserves,” Buck said and grinned when Eddie laughed. “Seriously, Chim is going down. He probably won’t even know how much trouble he’s in until he’s thinking about engagement rings, then it will be too late. Buckleys always get what they want.”
“I’ll keep that last part in mind,” Eddie said.
Buck grinned. “I already got you, bud.”
Eddie laughed and nodded. “Yeah, you do.”