Valerie Wainwright stared at the mostly naked man up on the projection screen in her office conference room. Correction. The uber-hot naked man. Correction again. The uber-hot naked firefighter. Normally she never equated the word sexy with firefighter. Her ingrained fear of all things rescue related barred her from relaxing around firemen, but in this instance, there was no denying it. The guy on-screen was Hot with a capital H.
She had to hide her reaction, however. As the only woman in the room, she had to remain professional. It wasn’t as if her sixty-year-old boss or the other two men in the room were ogling his six-pack abs and white daredevil smile that said, “Hey look at me. I’m naughty.”
“Repairing reputations is our specialty,” Peter, her boss, said, and gave her his typical steely-eyed glance, which silently nudged her to speak up and schmooze the prospective client.
Nope, definitely not getting any sexy longing vibes from the boss’s corner. She swallowed and refocused her attention on doing what she did best: reeling in clients and changing their lives for the better when the shit had hit the fan, in most instances because the prospective client had taken aim at the fan themselves.
“Like Peter said…” She swiveled in her chair, forcing her eyes away from the decadence on-screen to focus on the county government official who’d landed in their conference room this afternoon. “When we’re through with your firefighters, the residents of your county are going to be singing their praises and signing their children up to become firefighters.” She pointed at the screen behind her. “The memory of them parading naked with sorority girls in their stations will be a distant one.”
The county official smiled. “Excellent. I knew we’d be in good hands.”
Peter leaned over to clap Valerie on the back. “The best. Guaranteed.”
Valerie braced both her shoulders and insides, because while what Peter had said about her being the best PR whiz to repair reputations, she wasn’t sure she could work her magic for firefighters. She was terrified she’d be more useless than Harry Potter without his wand.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t as if she had a choice. She wanted to make partner, and partners did not cry or bow out of assignments, especially a cushy one for a local government which would lead to bigger jobs for bigger government agencies. She was all in.
One week later
The unremarkable brick and concrete fire station stood ten feet in the distance, looming like a portal to Valerie Wainwright’s personal hell.
“This is a big deal account, isn’t it?” Rob Cohen hurried alongside her through the small parking lot toward the building. “Have we ever done PR work for a city government before?”
Rob was new to the firm, fresh out of college and eager to learn and have his hand in nearly everything the firm was up to.
“We’ve done work for the county before, but yes, if we do well here, we can count on more and bigger projects. So let’s kick some butt.” The promise of bigger and better was the only reason she was here now, the only reason she could contemplate facing her deep-rooted fears head-on. Because to her, fire station meant firefighter, and firefighter meant fire.
“They really screwed up, didn’t they?” Rob asked. “Have you ever done an image rehab for something this bad before?”
She paused to give him the kind of smile a big sister gives an ignorant little brother. “Oh, Robert, the stories I could tell…This is nothing.”
“Even though they were caught practically naked in the firehouse?” He paused to scratch his forehead. “I guess that’s not so bad, but then it went viral on social media…bad.”
“Bad,” she agreed. Firefighters from this station had been caught on Facebook partying with a local sorority. She’d spent long minutes clicking on the pictures that had gone viral. Her ingrained aversion to firefighters had been tempered by the male eye candy on display. The firefighter in the pictures had been hot. And bare-chested. And she was about to meet him. Surely that was why her legs were quavering. Her wobbly legs and quivery stomach had nothing to do with her personal fire phobia.
Rob sighed, obviously remembering his own partying frat days, or wishing he could’ve been with the firefighters when they’d hung out with the Delta Kappas.
“Government employees need to understand the ramifications of posting pictures and other private information on public forums,” she said, pretending to remain professional and ignoring the extra care she’d given her appearance this morning, putting on a professional outfit almost like a shield to protect her from her fears.
“I hear you,” Rob said with a knowing chuckle. “I understand social media.”
She didn’t respond and simply took a deep breath and, staring down at her pants-covered legs, pushed her way through the single door on the side entrance of Station House 12. She wasn’t sure what to expect, not having ever been in a firehouse before. She was here to do a job. She half feared Mr. Naked-but-for-a-towel would be there to greet her, terry cloth and all.
They entered the building and she was surprised to see it looked kind of like a regular office building. There was a short narrow hallway carpeted in gray and two doors leading off the hallway with a wide door that had a glass cutout in the middle. That door led to the heart and soul of the station. A gleaming red fire truck was parked just behind the door. A variety of mysterious equipment hung off the side of the truck.
“I’ll give you a tour, if you want.”
She whirled to the side where the voice had come from. A tall man with styled light brown hair leaned against the doorway just off the hallway. She’d been so preoccupied staring at the impressive truck, she’d failed to notice that door had opened, and it led to a decent-sized classroom filled with what were obviously her students.
The man who’d offered the tour tossed a cocky grin her way. He was obviously aware of his brawny good looks and the appeal of being a firefighter. She was half surprised he hadn’t been the one caught naked on camera.
“How ’bout it, angel? Can you wait a few for a tour?”
“She’s not available right now.” Rob decided at that moment to step up and be a man.
She threw him a scathing look and repeated it for Mr. Cocky. “I’m here in a professional capacity. Would this be the meeting room?”
The firefighter’s eyes widened for a fraction of a second, then his grin widened even more as he understood that she was the PR specialist. “Whoa, when I got suckered into doing this image rehab thing, I wasn’t sure I was on board, but, honey, I’ll be sitting front and center to hear anything you have to say.”
She rolled her eyes and stepped toward the doorway. This smooth firefighter with his wide smile and perfect hair would be running in the other direction if he knew what mess lay under her clothes. She’d be his worst nightmare. She tried to brush by him, but he latched on to her elbow. “What’s your name, angel?”
She ignored the question and started to push by him even harder, but another man already seated in the classroom called out, “Give it a rest, Dan. Let her pass. The sooner we do this, the sooner we can get it over with.”
Valerie frowned at that telling statement. Were the firefighters not enthused about being part of a professional media PR campaign? If not, she had her work cut out for her. She needed them out in the community smiling and rescuing kittens from trees and helping grannies cross busy roads.
Dan gave her elbow a little squeeze before gallantly stepping aside and gesturing she should enter.
Shaking her head, she strode to the front of the room and surveyed the rest of the occupants. Rob followed with Dan bringing up the rear, strolling indolently to a seat in the back of the room. So much for front and center.
She dropped her chocolate brown leather laptop bag at an empty chair in the corner then made her way to the front. An ancient green chalkboard hung on the wall with chips of white chalk on the metal ledge. She picked one up in a shaking hand and wrote her name on the board. “Welcome, everyone. My name is Valerie Wainwright, from Bernstein and Smith PR.” Only her own media training prevented her nerves from being on display to her audience.
As you know, you’ve been selected or volunteered to represent the county in redeeming the reputation of the department.” Her gaze circled the room, trying to meet everyone’s stare with a level one of her own.
It was an interesting mix of people of all genders, colors, and ages; exactly what she’d asked for. Most were men, and exactly what you’d think of with the term firefighter. Masculine, brawny, somewhat sexy if you went for that sort of thing. Her best friend, Arianna, would love it here. She’d have them paying close attention. As for her, well, law students in Brooks Brothers were more her speed. But she could do this. Hadn’t Capitol Magazine highlighted her as a person to watch in the PR world last month?
“The first rule of playing nice with the media is to not sexually harass anyone of the opposite sex.” She enunciated her words and looked everyone in the eye, ending with her hallway greeter. Her clearly worded statement got everyone laughing and sitting up a bit in their chairs. She smiled and tried to relax.
“But seriously, I saw you got in a bit of trouble thanks to Facebook a few weeks ago.” She looked around the room to see if the firefighter whose hot body graced the pictures was in the house. Hmm. Her eyes scanned the room and then, holy hell, her gaze came to rest on him. It was the firefighter from the picture. The one who could’ve been on a firefighter calendar. He sat stony-faced with a blank notepad and pen at the ready.
In person she saw that his hair wasn’t black as she’d thought, but dark, dark brown, and when the sun streaming through the window hit it, flecks of blond and red came through as if he had flames leaping in the strands of his hair. His massive strong body filled the typical conference room chair, while his muscular forearms rested on the desk at his front.
And his smile in person wasn’t just naughty. It was naughty and knowing, as if to say he knew you wanted him.
Damn him. She kind of…did.
“Before I highlight my plan for rehabbing your image, I’d love to hear what really happened. I don’t like to be surprised. An image on social media tells one story, I want to hear yours.”
To her surprise, all eyes swung, not to the sexy dark-haired man at the front who was at the center of the controversy, but to the back, where Dan the flirt sat with his legs up on a chair in front of him, and his arms folded behind his head.
“What can I say—” he started to drawl.
“You can say nothing other than a clear play-by-play of the events leading up to me being in front of you today,” she interrupted, knowing she needed to get a firm handle on the group of men or they’d walk all over her. “I’m not going to explore the reasons one of you was parading nude with sorority girls in your government place of work, but the fact remains, you let it get photographed. First mistake.”
A hand raised in front. It was him, the firefighter who’d been photographed in the buff, the one whose pictures she stared at long into last night. For work reasons, she’d told herself, strictly professional.
“Yes?” She swiveled to face him.
“I wasn’t naked. I had a towel.” His voice was low, deep, and slightly gravelly. And then the man grinned, and her heart thumped with an uneven jump as her weak legs wobbled. She took a breath as the classroom volume rose with chuckles.
She swallowed, fighting for composure and control of the room. “Nevertheless. Do your best not to put yourself in compromising positions, but you must always, always control the message. The citizens of this community are paying you for peace of mind. They want to feel they’re safe and secure because competent men and women are willing to put their lives on the line when their homes or families are in danger.”
She heard the words coming out of her mouth and was surprised how passionately true they felt to her. She was a PR specialist, she was full of “messaging to the media that would make good sound bites.” But this wasn’t her usual bullshit. This was important. She owed her life to people like the ones in this room. Average citizens could sleep at night knowing they were safe thanks to people who took risks.
A flash of memory of getting carried through her smoke-filled home wrapped in nothing but a blanket entered her mind. No, she couldn’t mentally go there now. She had to focus and get the job done. Dredging up her past would bring a wave of sadness and undermine her objective.
A female firefighter, sitting on the aisle, raised her hand and, with a calm demeanor, detailed the events that got the station occupants in trouble. Apparently—surprise, surprise—Dan had invited a group of sorority girls in the house. And Jason—hot man in the front row—had walked out of the shower only to have been surprised by the visitors. Visitors who took advantage of him by snapping inappropriate pictures on their phones.
She felt her head bobbing as she listened and noted that Jason was staring down at his desk with a stoic expression, but his cheeks had faint strips of pink as if he were ashamed. Interesting. It was a scenario that was becoming more and more common in this digital age. A camera phone picture told a thousand words, all of them fiction. She walked over to her bag, riffled through it, and pulled out a paper flyer. She held it up to the room. “This is your new county-wide photography policy. I want you to hang this in all public spaces of your stations. Can anyone take that task on?”
Jason, the man who was at the center of the trouble, raised his hand. “I’ll take care of it,” he volunteered. Again, interesting. Between his quiet demeanor, his shame at the photos, and his willingness to work, she was quickly reassessing her mental file on him.
“Thank you.” She realized she now knew his name, and she needed to start calling him Jason and stop thinking about him as sexy McFirefighter if she were going to be leading the class. Clearing her throat, she took her position front and center again and smiled around the room. “Since we’re going to be spending some time together, let’s get to know each other. Why don’t you each stand, say your name, and feel free to share any ideas you have about going out into the community.” She looked to the person in the front row corner seat. “Why don’t you start?”
One by one the firefighters stood, introduced themselves, but mostly they were silent on media ideas. Just as well—that’s why they were paying her the big money.
They didn’t go row to row as she would’ve expected, but they spaced themselves front to back by aisle. Only some of them seemed invested in the project and what she had to offer. One guy even said he was here for the overtime pay. Firefighter Dan stood with a cocky grin and said, “You know my name is Dan, and my idea is that we go to dinner, you know, get out in the community.”
The class staved off its laughter, waiting to see her reaction. She purposely held any reaction and simply told Dan, “Good luck in your endeavors, but I won’t date a client, and you are all effectively my clients.” Then the room erupted, but the mocking was pointed at Dan, who’d been firmly shut down. She could feel Rob’s admiring gaze on her. She didn’t know why he was surprised, she was the next in line to make partner at the firm, she clearly needed to have some skills handling a room full of people, and on their worst day, this group of firefighters didn’t hold a candle to a room of hungry-for-a-story journalists.
Finally they reached the seat with Jason, the dark-haired firefighter. His last name was Moore. Jason Moore. Her heart pounded as she listened to him say he’d volunteered to be part of the PR campaign. It was hard to hear anything over the buzzing in her ear and from smiling and nodding so much at him. What was with her? She’d seen handsome men before. Jason looked as though he’d jumped off the TV screen from a home remodeling show with a face that was chiseled but not pretty. He was all man with biceps that burst their way out from his constricting navy T-shirt and a chin that needed a shave.
Her attraction to him was nothing because she was never going to act on it. She didn’t date men like him. Mostly, she didn’t date, period. Especially not men who made her want to rip off their clothes and get naked.
Jason repeated his introduction. He couldn’t tell if the pretty instructor had heard him. She was nodding and smiling. “I’m here because I want to keep my job, and—” He sat down. He’d nearly blurted out he was here because the experience might help boost his résumé when applying for the county’s International Search and Rescue Team, but he stopped himself. No one in his squad knew of his goal to try out for the team. They’d wonder why he hadn’t before, and he really didn’t want to go into his reasons. The crew in his station saw him as a leader. He didn’t want to rock the boat by admitting he had a learning disability.
He sat and stared at his blank notebook in front of him and tried not to stare at Valerie, the PR expert. He hadn’t been expecting her. No one had. They’d been waiting for an older man in a suit or even the younger dude that was with her. But Valerie was something totally foreign to him. She was around his age. And gorgeous and so cool and collected, she made him want to go change into a shirt with a collar, or at least tuck his T-shirt in.
Her long light brown hair was pulled back into an elegant clip, but it looked like if she released it, it’d be soft and silky, flowing around her shoulders wildly. Her dark tailored pants covered too much skin, but also revealed her shapely ass, which made Jason’s hands itch to go touch and feel.
Shit, she’d already clearly explained she didn’t date clients, which meant she was off-limits. He could look and admire, but go no further.
When he and his colleagues at the station had gotten in trouble, they’d agreed to do anything to help the county redeem their reputation, even though all of them would’ve preferred spending the time on other more hands-on practical subjects. However, it had been made clear they had no choice, and now he was almost looking forward to the project thanks to the leader.
She didn’t seem to notice or care what the crew thought of her. A cool bubble seemed to surround the air around her, clearly delineating that she was no mere mortal. No one was as calm and collected as she appeared, and in fact, he’d noted her hands had shaken slightly when she’d written her name on the chalkboard. Ms. Wainwright was nervous. Likely for her job she had to give talks all the time, and probably to more important people than a bunch of firefighters. Why then was she nervous around them?
It made him want to tell the rest of the crew to shut up and pay attention, or to go talk to her quietly and reassure her that they were nice people, even Dan in his own special way. But she might interpret his gesture wrong and assume he was hitting on her. Not to say he hadn’t sat up and taken notice the second she’d entered the room. If she hadn’t put the kibosh on dating her clients, he might’ve considered making a move.
Just as well, they lived in different worlds. She’d want to go for sushi and have civilized conversation about what happened on Wall Street that day, and he’d want to take her for burgers, or if he were splurging, to go see a baseball game at Nationals Park.
They might attend the same Nationals game, but she’d be in one of the air-conditioned boxes getting served wine from a waiter, and he’d be at the top of the stadium whistling for beer from a vendor. Again with the figurative and literal bubbles separating them. Sheesh, listen to his brain spewing ten-cent vocabulary words like figurative. It was as if he’d gone to college or some shit, when his poorly wired brain had barely carried him through high school.
Oh wait, Valerie was back at the front of the room now talking about rules for posting pictures to the Internet and upcoming community events. He tried to concentrate, he really did, but he didn’t even have a Facebook page and no plans to get one. Lots of women had begged him to sign up for one, but he didn’t see the point. Too much reading. Give him a good old telephone any day.
Instead he daydreamed about the essays he’d have to write for the search and rescue exam. He had so much to say, he could talk someone’s ear off for hours, if only they’d let him. But no, the minute the pen got in his hand, his brain froze as if someone had cut the connection between it and his hand.
He looked up, hearing his name tacked on at the end of a sentence. “I’m sorry. Can you repeat the question?”
Valerie looked faintly annoyed, and he thought it made her sexier, like a dominatrix clad in a pants suit. “Mr. Moore, you realize you’re the reason I’m here today. Please try to pay attention.”
“I will. I’m sorry.”
“I was asking you for some ideas of how you could’ve prevented your situation.”
“Well, uh.” He swiveled to glare at Dan. “For starters, I guess those sorority girls shouldn’t have been in our living quarters to begin with. Since they were here to volunteer, we should have stuck them in a public space.”
“Good start,” Valerie said, nodding approvingly. “What else?”
All eyes scanned the chalkboard, where Valerie had scrawled tips. Jason was on the second sentence when hands started going up.
“The person who greeted the visitors at the door should’ve stated a photography policy,” Rebecca said.
“Excellent. And the photography policy is…”
“Ask permission before taking pictures and get written sign-off before posting them anywhere public,” Rebecca continued.
Jason absorbed that. It was a good idea. As far as he knew, they’d never had a photography policy, but starting one was a damn good idea. Would’ve saved his ass.
“What about birthday parties?” Tony asked.
Valerie pursed her pink lips in a way that made him think of kissing. “What about them?”
“On weekends, families can host their kid’s birthday party in our rec room in exchange for a donation to our station. The kids love to get their picture taken with us in uniform.”
She smiled. “That’s lovely, and I think you can use your best judgment there.”
“What about the moms?” Dan joked. “I like taking pictures with the hot moms.”
Valerie ignored his jibes and continued her lecture. Around noon, when Jason’s stomach was starting to growl, she wrapped it up with a smile and told them she’d see them all next week, for their next strategy session.
He stood to leave, trying not to be an ass and stare at her as he exited, but to his surprise, she called him over.
He turned and stepped toward her. “Call me Jason.”
“All right. Jason, I…” She stopped and flushed, and it was his second glimpse that there was a real person behind her Little Miss Perfect façade. He liked it. “You may or may not know that I’ve been asked to judge whether you’re participating in the PR program to my satisfaction.”
He nearly groaned as her lips formed the word satisfaction. God, he’d love to know what it would take to satisfy this woman.
He was also surprised. This was the first he’d heard of her overseeing his efforts. “Oh. I’m on board. Just tell me where to be, and I’ll be there waving and smiling.”
A pretty pink color washed over her cheeks. “Good to hear, and I have some ideas on other charitable endeavors that will go a long way in restoring your reputation.”
“I’m a firefighter, not a politician.”
“Of course.” There went that flush again.
“Why don’t you stay for lunch with the crew and you can tell us more.” Now what the heck made him ask her to stay for lunch, even if it was in a semiprofessional capacity? Especially since she’d already shut down Dan.
His invitation snapped her professional demeanor back into place. “I can’t. I mean, thank you for the invitation, but I have a work lunch to get to. I’ll see you next week.” She flushed again and hustled to the door, where her colleague waited for her.
He stared at her tight ass in the perfectly fitted long navy pants then looked away before he was caught drooling over a woman who was clearly off-limits. He didn’t know whether to count the seconds to next week’s event or find a way to call in sick.
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