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Brand New Flame

A fireman, a nurse, a blizzard, and a little Valentine's Day magic
Tracy was incredibly lucky.

Escaping the fire from the sixth story of her apartment building would have been enough. A combination of careful planning, fortunate necessity, and simple good luck left her better off following the disaster than she’d ever hoped to dream of, prior to the fire.

It was a coincidental meeting with a stranger at the storage building that had proved the greatest boon. While pulling out an old computer to tide her over, someone had stopped with a wide-eyed stare, and shortly thereafter informed her about the ghastly painting she’d ended up with when her mother died. Her mother had loved it, and that was reason enough to keep it, but not to put it anywhere except in a dark storage building.

Her decision to use a climate-controlled storage facility proved another wise choice when the painting auctioned for over two-hundred-thousand dollars.

So now she owned her home, her new car, and had a solid nest egg at thirty-seven years old. With her son moved out of the house and off to college on a full scholarship, she had few worries, and many luxuries that she’d never expected to enjoy.

Even all that couldn’t dull the melancholy when she returned from yet another date that was going nowhere. Two years of never making it beyond a second date would break down any woman’s hopes. A quick whiff of her light chestnut hair confirmed the smell of cigarette smoke that she expected, and sent her straight to the bathroom.

She showered, changed clothes, and settled in to relax and watch a movie. She had the next two days off, so she could afford to stay up late for once. The opportunity to avoid the depressing evidence of Valentine’s Day that filled the hospital at this time of year was quite welcome, as well.

About an hour into the movie, two sets of headlights speeding down the road attracted her attention. She then noticed a strange glow reflecting off the siding of the house across the street, and realized what it was just before the sound of sirens reached her ears. A dart to a window confirmed her fears. A house only three lots down was fully engulfed in flames.

Tracy hurried through the house to change her clothes and snatch up her first-aid kit. She hadn’t ignored the needs of others when her own life was turning upside down, and she wasn’t about to do so now.

When she reached the house, she saw the paramedics already working on three children and a woman. A fireman stumbled through the thick, billowing clouds of smoke with a stocky man slung over his shoulder. The paramedics were overwhelmed, as two were performing CPR on the women, so she hurried to the fireman when he sank down to his knees with his burden.

Tracy dropped to her knees next to the violently coughing fireman, and immediately recognized that the man on the ground wasn’t coughing. She felt for a pulse, and didn’t find one.

The fireman tore off his helmet, pushed a sweat-dampened lock of his short, dark brown hair from his forehead, and said, “He’s not breathing,” before coughing again.

“No pulse,” Tracy confirmed, a little surprised to recognize the young fireman who had guided her out of her burning apartment not so long ago.

“Clear!” One of the paramedics shouted, confirming that the man in front of her wasn’t the only one in serious danger.

The young, soot-covered fireman started chest compressions, still coughing. She wasted no time in giving the victim mouth-to-mouth. After a minute or so of no response, Tracy tore open her first-aid kit to retrieve her AED.

The fireman recognized the portable defibrillator and stopped his chest compressions. She readied the device and offered a little prayer. Just as she discharged it, she heard one of the paramedics yell, “She’s stable! Pick it up! Pick it up! We’ve got another one!”

Tracy smiled when the man on the ground sucked in a gasp of air just as one of the paramedics arrived. She and the fireman both stepped back as the paramedics went to work.

“Thank you,” the fireman said, tears streaming down his cheeks, and then he hurried toward the children near the ambulance.

“Can I do anything to help? I’m a nurse,” Tracy offered.

“I think we can handle it now, but this guy is lucky you were here with that AED.”

Another ambulance arrived at that exact moment. With a second set of paramedics on the scene, Tracy gathered up her kit and got out of the way. She took on the task of calming her neighbors, letting them know that everything was under control, and guiding them back away from the fire.

She was weary, frozen, and dirty when she returned to her house several hours later, once it was obvious that the firemen had the blaze both contained, and knocked down.

****

Tracy awakened late, and walked over to a window shortly after she changed out of her nightgown. The house down the street was a mere shell, though it was still standing. As best she could tell, neither of the houses next to it had suffered any serious damage. One of the fire trucks was still on scene, though it appeared that the firemen were packing up.

When she went to the bathroom, Tracy could smell the reek of smoke coming from her clothes in the hamper – both those she’d worn when she hurried to the fire, and those she’d worn to the bar for her date.

That determined her first order of business for her day off.

With the laundry started, she settled in for the rare treat of watching afternoon television. She had absolutely no idea what was going on in the soaps that she used to watch regularly, and all of the romance was a bit depressing, but she enjoyed it anyway. The constant barrage of cupids, hearts, and flowers during the commercials was even more difficult to handle, and she ended up flipping to a business channel every time the commercials started.

When an odd roar that set the windows to rattling drew her attention away from the television, she could see little more than a wall of white. Though she knew that bad weather was in the forecast, the sheer violence of the storm took her by surprise. When she walked over to the window and looked outside, she knew that the storm must have just started. Despite the thick, horizontally blowing snow, little had reached the ground yet. That changed rapidly as she watched, and she was glad that she didn’t have to go to work for the next couple of days.

The knock at the door a short while later startled her, and her first thought was that the wind had blown something against the door. The next knock followed rapidly on the heels of the first, and she knew it for what it was.

Who is crazy enough to be out in this storm? She wondered as she walked to the door. She recognized neither the truck in her driveway or the man standing on the porch at first, but she realized who he was when he turned toward her, away from the wind.

Tracy hurried to the door and opened it, fighting against the force of the wind trying to slam her into the wall. “Hurry – come in,” she called over the roar of the storm.

The fireman stepped inside, shivering and wearing an embarrassed grin.

“Are you crazy?” Tracy asked with a laugh. “What are you doing out in this?”

“I didn’t think it would be this bad. That will teach me not to listen to my mother.” He held up a wrapped package, one side of which had a quarter of an inch of wind-blasted snow plastered to it. “I wanted to thank you.”

“For what?” she asked as he handed her the package, which had a good deal of weight to it. “You’re the one that walked into a burning building.”

“I got yelled at for it, too. For that, and for doing it without putting on my respirator first. I want to thank you because that was my uncle. You saved his life. He, my aunt, and my cousins are all doing fine, thanks to you and the paramedics.” He nodded toward the package and said, “Open it.”

Tracy’s cheeks warmed. “I’m glad that they came through it okay. You didn’t have to come out in this to bring me a thank you gift.”

“I wanted to. Go on, open it.”

Her cheeks still a little red, she peeled back the paper, and then opened the box inside. She let out a sharp gasp upon seeing the bottle of Cognac inside. “Oh my god – I can’t accept this. It’s too much.”

“I won’t take no for an answer,” The fireman said, holding up his hand when she tried to hand him back the package. “The whole family chipped in for it. I thought you’d like it, because I remembered you saying that you wished you had a nice bottle of brandy when I first met you, after all the excitement was over.”

“It’s just... I... I don’t know what to say. I don’t even know your name.”

“That makes us even. Steve.”

“Tracy,” she reciprocated. “You’re right. I love it,” she said, and then laughed.

“I’m glad.”

“At least have a glass with me. It will keep me from feeling so guilty about accepting such an expensive gift.” She turned toward the kitchen, but then paused and turned back to ask, “Uhm, you are old enough to drink, aren’t you?”

Steve laughed. “I’m twenty-one, by all of a month. I’m legal. I’ve never had brandy before.”

“Well, if you’re going to like it, then this will surely spoil you. I haven’t had anything this expensive since my honeymoon.”

He pulled out his cell phone and said, “I’d better call my mother to let her know that I’m okay, and to get the I told you so’s out of the way.”

Tracy chuckled, remembering similar situations with her own son. “I’ll get some glasses.”

Though she hadn’t yet replaced her snifters after the fire, Tracy found a pair of whisky glasses that would serve. An almost orgasmic tingle shot through her body as she opened the bottle and caught the first hint of the bouquet. She poured the brandy, and then carried it back into the front room to sit the glasses on the coffee table.

“Yes, I’ll be careful, Mom. I love you. Goodbye.” Steve glanced over at Tracy as he hung up the phone and said, “Moms,” with a little roll of his eyes.

She wiggled a finger at him and said, “I’ll have you know that we stick together. Whatever she said, she’s right.” She then gestured to the brandy and said, “This should sit for a few minutes. Maybe the storm will calm down a bit in the meantime.”

“How old are your kids?”

“My son is nineteen,” Tracy answered as she changed the channel to check the weather.

“Nineteen?” Steve said with undisguised surprise.

“Yes, why so surprised?”

“Well, uhm... I guess I didn’t think you could have a kid that old,” he answered with a shrug of his shoulders.

“That’s an even better present than the brandy,” Tracy said with a little color rising in her cheeks again. The television caught her attention, and she turned up the volume.

“Law enforcement recommends that all residents remain indoors during this dangerous storm. All roads are closed due to near zero visibility and drifting snow. A blizzard warning remains in effect...”

“Ah, man,” Steve groaned as he listened to the report. “I’d better get going before the snow gets any deeper.”

The television switched to the weather man. “I just want to give you an idea of how bad it is out there. Take a look at this shot from the tower cam.”

The image popped up, which usually gave a wide view of downtown. All Tracy could see was a few feet of thick, fast blowing snow.

“Now here’s the view from the foyer of the studio,” the weatherman continued.

The video was much the same as that from the tower camera, though Tracy could just make out cars in the parking lot coated in snow on one side and building drifts on the other.

“I think it may be a little late for that,” she remarked.

Steve sounded a little less than confident when he said, “I have four-wheel-drive and big tires. I should be okay.”

A combination of Tracy’s maternal instincts and years of seeing the effects on people caught out in such storms compelled her to argue, and offer her hospitality. “I don’t think so, and I think you know it, too. Just stay here until you can at least see where you’re going.”

“I don’t want to impose.”

“I’d rather that you impose on me than the hospital or the morgue,” Tracy argued.

He chuckled and said, “Okay, you win. I really don’t want to go back out in that again.”

“Take off your coat and have a seat. This should have had time to warm just right,” Tracy said as she picked up one of the glasses of brandy. She held it up to the light and said, “The color is beautiful.” A little shiver shook her as she said, “Oh, this is going to be so good.”

Steve sat on the opposite end of the couch and picked up his glass. She instructed, “Just sip. You don’t really taste the subtleties if you just gulp it down. Take a good, deep breath of the bouquet first, too.”

Tracy brought her glass to her nose and softly swirled it. A sigh escaped her as anticipation built.

Steve looked a little awkward as he tried to duplicate her action, but his eyes lit up as the scent of the brandy filled his nose. “It smells almost woody – and flowery. Maybe fruity too.”

“Mmm – that’s the experience of good Cognac.” Tracy took a sip, and then drew in a long, deep breath. “Oh my, thank you,” she breathed as the rare treat awakened her taste buds and warmed her all over.

She wondered about Steve quickly looking away from her before he said, “This is good – very good.”

“It’s heavenly,” Tracy responded, and then realized how she was acting. Her cheeks burned as she realized how she must look and sound to him. “Sorry, I guess I’m getting a little carried away,” she apologized, and then laughed.

“I can understand,” he said, “I always thought things like sniffing a drink were pompous, but I get it now. When you spend this much on something, you have to appreciate it.”

“Exactly,” Tracy said with a smile. A couple of seconds later, she realized that she was staring and turned away a little more quickly than she’d intended, only making her stare more obvious.

Every other time she’d seen him up until now, he was either wearing his fire gear or a winter coat. Now that he’d removed the coat, she could see his muscles bulging against his t-shirt. He was also devilishly handsome now that he wasn’t coated in soot. I haven’t even had enough to drink yet to use that as an excuse for drooling over him like a teenager, she silently chastised herself.

Tracy took another sip and changed the subject, hoping for a distraction. “My father was a fireman. That’s why I became a nurse. I wanted to help people like him, but a woman wasn’t exactly considered a possible firefighter back then.”

“My dad’s been on the force my whole life, too. We keep trying to get him to retire, because he’s getting up there, but he won’t give it up. He’s with the big station in the city. Did your dad retire?”

She shook her head. “Heart attack. He carried a little girl out of a house and left his air on her most of the time. He sat her down next to the paramedics, and that was it.”

“The girl was okay?”

“She was fine. She didn’t even stay overnight in the hospital.”

“If he was anything like my dad, then that’s exactly how he wanted to go.”

Tracy grinned, her eyes a little misty as she remembered. “That’s what Mom said. My brother and I were devastated, but the way Mom handled it and talked about how proud she was of him helped us through it.” She then sifted through the mail on the table and picked up a card. “We all still get cards from that family. I just got my Valentine’s card yesterday.”

Steve nodded, but his expression looked more than a little sad. Tracy couldn’t help but pick up on it. “I’m sorry, did I say something wrong?”

“Nah, it’s nothing. I broke up with my girlfriend a few months ago. I’m trying to pretend that Valentine’s Day doesn’t exist this year.”

“I know what you mean. My anniversary with my ex was this week, too.” Tracy raised her glass and said, “To forgetting.”

“Cheers,” Steve responded, and then joined her in another sip. He looked out the window and said, “It looks like it’s getting worse. I think the weatherman dropped the ball on this one.”

“It’s a little bit frightening. I’ve never seen a storm like this. I’m glad I loaded up on food before this hit.”

“If it keeps this up, I may be glad that you have plenty of food, too.” He shrugged apologetically.

“The couch folds out into a bed, if it comes to that. Speaking of food, I’m a little hungry. You?”

“Yeah, actually I’m starving. You have to let me help, though. Believe me, you don’t want me singing for my supper.”

Tracy broke out into laughter. Once she regained her composure, she said, “Okay, let’s go find something, then.” She stood up, and then snapped her finger toward him to quickly say, “No singing.”

As she laughed at her joke, he stood with a chuckle of his own and said, “Not a note.”

As soon as she crossed the threshold into the kitchen, Tracy looked back over her shoulder and asked, “How about roast chicken and vegetables?”

“That sounds great to me.”

“I was just going to fry the chicken, but since I’ve got company and half of the leftovers won’t go to waste, we’ll go with something a little more elegant. Potatoes, carrots, and onion?”

“Perfect. I’ll take care of the veggies.”

Tracy pulled everything out of the fridge and the cabinets, relaying each item to Steve, who arranged all the utensils and ingredients with a little more knowledge than she would have anticipated. When she turned around from pre-heating the oven, he was already rinsing the vegetables.

With a little nod of approval, she went to work on the chicken. Once she’d washed it and discarded the giblets, she sat it down on the cutting board and reached for the dreaded spool of twine in the drawer. Steve had already finished peeling half of the carrots as Tracy took a deep breath before trying to truss the bird.

As usual, she made a couple of false starts. The string was too short the first time. On her second attempt, the wrap around one of the legs slipped loose while she flipped the bird over. Somehow, she resisted the urge to curse.

“Need a hand?” Steve asked.

“This always frustrates me, but I’ll get it eventually.”

“Try giving the drumsticks one more wrap than you have been.”

Tracy turned and asked, “You know how to truss a bird?”

“Learned to do it to help my mom once her arthritis got bad.”

“Well, let’s see it,” she said with a gesture toward the chicken.

Steve put down his carrot and knife, and walked over to take the twine from her. It was all Tracy could do not to let her mouth hang open as he trussed the chicken as quickly and efficiently as a professional chef.

“Show off,” she scoffed, the smile on her face completely belying her tone. She then took the chicken to the roasting pan to finish preparing it. More than once, she glanced over her shoulder at Steve to wonder what other surprises he had hiding.

Soon enough, the chicken was in the oven. They returned to the front room, munching on carrot sticks that Steve had cut to tide them over until the chicken finished cooking.

He walked over to the window. “I can barely see your car, and my truck isn’t much better.”

Tracy sat down the bottle of Cognac and said, “Looks like this couch is going to get some use tonight. Care for another nip?”

He took another bite from his carrot. “Sure, why not.”

She quickly discovered that Steve opened up with a little alcohol in him. He was animated and talkative while they sipped brandy and waited for the chicken to cook. She spent a lot of time wistfully wondering where he was when she was ten years younger, while trying to push the thoughts out of her head at the same time.

That fight became a great deal more difficult when the conversation turned to music, and the discovery that his retro taste lined up perfectly with hers.

When the timer sounded from the kitchen, it snapped her out of the almost trance-like state that she’d slipped into. She was suddenly aware of the wide, flirtatious smile on her face, and the way she was sitting with her arm on the back of the couch, leaning toward him.

Tracy sat back up, once again moving more quickly than she’d intended. She winced inwardly and said, “Well, it’s ready. I’ll go take it out of the oven and give it the finishing touches.”

“I need to run to the bathroom. I’ll be there in a minute.”

“Down the hall – first door on the right.”

She maintained her composure until she was safely out of sight in the kitchen. At that point, she covered her eyes with her hand and shook her head, her face burning.

What is wrong with me? He’s barely older than my son, and I’m flirting with him. It’s probably all he can do to fake a smile because he’s stuck here.

After a couple of deep breaths, she straightened her slumped shoulders and removed the roasting pan from the oven. With her shame firmly in the forefront of her mind, she kept her attraction from coming out in her words and mannerisms when he joined her again – all the while embarrassed to admit that it was attraction.

The pair had transferred everything to the table and were about to sit down when Steve asked, “Uhm – did I do something to upset you?”

Tracy managed to hide her wince. She’d overdone it in dropping away from near full-blown flirting to nothing. “No, not at all. I just have something on my mind. I’m sorry.”

“No problem,” he said as a wide smile spread across his face. “Well, let’s eat then.”

The strain of moderating her enthusiasm wore on Tracy throughout the meal. Steve not only excited her physically, but she genuinely enjoyed talking with him. More shared interests popped up as he steered the conversation that way, sprinkled with frequent compliments on her cooking. She felt torn in half as she struggled not to show just how much of an effect he had on her.

The phone rang just after Tracy put aside her fork. She answered it, and assured her ex-husband that she was okay. To head off a second phone call, she contacted her son to do the same. When she put down the phone, she realized that Steve had cleared the table at some point between the two calls. She could hear water running in the kitchen, so she walked in to find him rinsing the dishes to put them in the dishwasher.

“You didn’t have to, but thank you.”

Steve looked back over his shoulder and said, “You’re welcome.” He put the plates into the dishwasher and said, “It sounds like you get along pretty well with your ex.”

“It took a couple of years, but we’re friendly now – so long as we don’t spend much time together.” She joined him at the sink and pulled out the dishwashing detergent. “He did the right thing even when he could barely afford it, and he was always there for Chris.”

“Certainly could have been worse. Doubt that Denise will ever speak to me again.”

She had genuine sympathy in her voice when she said, “Sorry.”

Steve leaned up against the dishwasher after turning it on. “Sometimes it just takes one thing. She wanted kids – I don’t. It just came up in casual conversation one night, and things nosedived in a week.” He shrugged. “I guess I should bring it up before I get too involved in a relationship next time.”

“You never know what will make things fall apart.” She sighed and rested her bottom against the edge of the counter. “My ex and I were probably too young, to begin with. We eloped on my eighteenth birthday. Two weeks and a broken condom later, I was pregnant.”

“He wasn’t ready?”

Tracy half-smiled and responded, “Neither of us were, but the shock didn’t last long. Once it sank in that we were going to have a baby, everything was wonderful – right up until the last couple of months. I had a difficult pregnancy, and...”

She trailed off as she realized that she was spilling out her life story to someone she barely knew. “Oh, I’m sorry. I’m going on and on – probably boring you to death.”

“It’s okay. I started it, after all.” He didn’t look the slightest bit bored.

She blew out a long breath and pushed away from the counter. “I think I ate too much. I need to go sit down for a while.” She then yawned, and added, “Between that, the brandy, and too little sleep, I don’t think I’m going to be up long, either.”

“Mind if I check the weather? It looks like things have tapered off. Maybe they’re getting the roads cleared.”

Desperate to get away from the crazy old lady, Tracy thought. “Go right ahead,” she responded, and then walked ahead of him back to the front room.

She flipped on the television, and caught the anchorman in mid-sentence.

“... with more of our continuing coverage of this dangerous storm, already dubbed the Valentine’s Day blizzard, even though it’s a day early.”

The camera switched to the weatherman. “Don’t breathe a sigh of relief just yet.” He then pointed at the radar. “This front is only minutes away from the downtown area. While it shouldn’t last more than two hours, we are going to see an additional two to four inches of snow from this band. High winds will continue to create white-out, blizzard conditions.”

As if summoned by the weatherman’s words, a powerful gust of wind slammed into the house, announcing that the storm had arrived.

“Well, so much for that thought,” Steve said with a chuckle.

Tracy put down the remote and said, “I’ll go get you some blankets.”

Not long after, everything caught up with her. She could feel her eyelids drooping, and the pangs of spending time with someone so perfect, whom she couldn’t possibly pursue, were simply too much to handle.

Tracy stood, and stretched. “I think it’s time for me to go to bed.”

“Will the TV bother you?”

She shook her head and answered, “No – as long as it isn’t too loud.”

“Well, thanks for dinner and a place to crash for the night. Goodnight.”

“You’re welcome, and goodnight,” she responded, and then smiled before walking to the bedroom. She couldn’t help but peek back at him with a sigh before she closed the door.

She pulled open a drawer and a sheer, barely-there negligee called out to her. Some part of her hastily suggested putting it on and walking back into the front room because she forgot something.

Tracy shook her head and removed a thick, calf-length cotton gown instead. Once she changed for the night, she also pulled a robe that reached to her ankles from the closet, and hung it on the hook on the outside of the door, just in case she needed to go to the bathroom.

She drifted off to sleep, staring at the door, and listening to the faint sounds of the television in the front room.

****

Tracy awakened, and instantly knew that something was wrong. The house was deathly quiet, and horribly cold. Her room was pitch black, though a security light at the neighbor’s house should be shining a dim illumination through the curtains, as it always did.

The fright of awakening in complete darkness during the fire in her apartment building had taught her a valuable lesson. She felt for the handle of the small chest of drawers next to her bed, and retrieved the flashlight there. As soon as she turned it on, she could see her breath.

She held her blanket against her with the hand holding the flashlight, and quickly darted to her robe, hanging on the closet door. Once she put on the robe, she tucked the blanket back around her, and reached for the phone with a shivering hand. It dawned upon her just before she touched the phone that it was pointless. Both of her phones were cordless, and wouldn’t work without power.

A frustrated groan passed her lips when she considered her cell, which was plugged into a socket next to the couch. Resigned to the journey, she found her freezing cold slippers and wrapped her blanket around her as well.

Steve stirred as the edge of the flashlight beam found him. He had curled up and pulled his blanket tight about him as he slept. While Tracy removed her cell from the charger and turned it on, he awakened.

“D-damn,” he muttered. “Power out?”

Tracy nodded, and felt a little silly for it because there was no way he could possibly see her. “Yes. I’m getting my cell to call the power company.”

“Somebody must have hit a power pole,” he speculated, and then scooted over a little to give her a place to sit.

After sitting on hold for over five minutes, she gave up. Her shivers were now as much from worry as from the cold. “What if it stays off f-for hours? W-what if we c-can’t get out, and n-nobody c-can get in?”

Steve must have understood the panic in her tooth-chattering questions. “We’ll be fine. There’s gas in my truck, and in your car. Even if we can’t use them to drive somewhere warm, we can run the heaters. I have a battery powered defroster in my truck, too.” He paused, and then sat up as he added, “Your oven is gas. We could always turn it on and huddle around it, if it comes to that. Not terribly safe, but it will keep us from freezing.”

“I hadn’t t-thought about t-that.”

“Sit here with me. We should keep each other awake and share warmth. You’re freezing, and I haven’t been up to let the heat out.”

Too cold to think about what she was doing, she nodded and climbed beneath the covers, spreading out her own blanket to share it as well. Steve scooted a little closer to her, and then grasped the edge of the blanket to pull it over both of their heads as they sat against the back of the couch.

“Our breath will warm it up more,” he explained in the darkness. “It’s not as if there’s anything to see out there anyway.”

Tracy’s teeth ceased to chatter as she soaked up his warmth, and the feeling of touching him. Even with three layers of cloth between their skin, the sensation of his body next to hers warmed her more than anything.

“Hey, stay awake.”

She started, and realized that she had indeed dozed off. The understanding that her head was resting on his shoulder came a second or two later. “Sorry. I’m just so tired.”

“I know. I am too. The worst thing we can do right now is fall asleep.”

Tracy had no trouble waking up when he patted her knee. His hand only touched her for less than a second, but that was more than long enough. She was glad for the darkness, because it hid the color rising in her cheeks.

“You okay? You’re shaking again.”

Tracy let out a little whimper when he slipped an arm behind her and leaned closer. She melted in the embrace, all thoughts of his age and her inhibitions evaporating in an instant.

“Tracy?”

She couldn’t manage an answer. Instead, she sucked in a slow, stuttering breath, and leaned into him to rest her cheek on his shoulder.

“We’ll be fine. We’re warm, and we have a way to get heat if we need it. It’s going to be okay.” He wrapped his other arm around her waist, and the two leaned against the couch back in their new position.

Equal parts of comfortable bliss and painful fear warred in her heart as she sat in his warm, strong embrace.

****

Tracy awakened once more, to faint sunlight streaming through the window, and the sound of the furnace running this time. She was lying with her head on Steve’s chest and her hands curled up by her chin. One of his arms remained around her waist, while the other draped over her – still holding her.

“Morning,” Steve said. “The power came back on a little bit after I realized that you’d dozed off again. I didn’t want to wake you, and I was almost asleep again, too.”

He made no effort to unwrap his arms from around her as Tracy looked up at him. She knew that she should get up, but she simply had to have a few more seconds.

His cell rang in his coat pocket, breaking the moment. She could have sworn that she sensed reluctance when he unwrapped his arms from around her and reached for the phone.

Wishful thinking, she thought as she sat up and tried to shake off the feeling of him holding her, though she wanted nothing more than to stay wrapped in that wonderful sensation for as long as possible.

“Hey, Joe. You come through okay?” Steve answered the phone. A few seconds later he said, “I got caught off guard. I’m right near my uncle’s house.” He laughed. “Yeah, I got blasted just as I was coming down the street to bring her the present. Tell my mom that I can hear her, and she’s right – again.”

He listened for a minute or so, and then answered a question, “Sure, if you can get a plow through to here, I’ll be glad to help. Cool. I’ll keep my eyes open for it, then. See you in a bit.”

He hung up the phone and informed Tracy, “They’re going to send a plow down the street so that I can get out. The police, fire department, and the city are organizing to get people who still don’t have heat to a warming center.”

He pushed the covers aside and stood. “If you’re up to it, I’m sure they could use a nurse at the warming center. There are bound to be people who need to go to a hospital that might listen to you, where they wouldn’t listen to one of us.”

“Of course,” she answered with a wan smile, half wishing that she had taken advantage of the moment before the phone rang. “I’ll go get changed.”

“I’ll go out and start the truck.”

Tracy walked back out to find Steve on his cell.

“Don’t worry, Mom. If it will make you feel any better, I’ll have a nurse sitting next to me if something would happen.” He paused for a moment, and then sucked in a surprised breath. He had more than a slight touch of embarrassed reproach in his voice when he said, “Mom.” He then chuckled nervously, and continued, “Look, I’ll be fine, and I’ll keep in touch. Love you, Mom.”

Steve hung up the phone and said, “I rocked the truck a couple of times when I started it. As long as they plow the street, I can get it out of the driveway. I tried to kick a bit of a path out there, and to not track too much back in the house.”

Tracy hung her coat over the back of the couch and sat down. “How long do you think it will be?”

“Probably not long. This is a fairly direct route between the hospital and the school. Since they’re coming this way anyhow, they’ll probably plow the first path right through here.” He peeked out the window and looked down the street.

Tracy quickly looked away from him, because she knew that she was going down a dangerous path. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t escape how handsome and charming he was. Every second was a battle between her growing emotions and her common sense.

“Here it comes,” he announced with a smile as he turned away from the window.

Tracy watched the plow go by, amazed by the true depth of the snow, which she could only really see with a path cut through it.

“Ah, I was worried about that,” Steve remarked.

She followed his gaze and saw a tractor coming down the street. The man driving it waved toward the window, and Steve waved back.

“He’ll clear the end of the drive. It might have been a bit of a problem getting over that mountain the plow dropped there.”

Within a few minutes, the end of the drive was open. Steve turned to her and asked, “Ready?”

Tracy nodded, and grabbed her coat. She followed him out to his truck, doing her best to stay within the path that he’d kicked out earlier. He’d even made a path to the passenger door for her.

“Here we go. Buckle up.”

She clicked her seatbelt closed, and Steve put the truck in gear. A second later, they were carefully navigating the freshly plowed street toward the school.

****

Tracy was rather proud of her community and the elected officials as the day marched on. The city had prepared this plan after the last heavy snowfall a couple of years before, and it worked like a charm. As the city plows opened pathways, everyone from citizens with plows on pickups to construction workers on backhoes pitched in. The city was able to concentrate on breaking new ground, counting on the community to go from there, allowing the plan to proceed at a far quicker pace than originally conceived.

Steve rarely spent more than a few minutes at the school, usually just to help someone inside when he dropped them off. He always made sure to have a few words with her before he ventured back out, though.

Tracy lived for those moments, no matter how many times she told herself not to. She didn’t even have much work to do to distract her. The injuries of the people coming into the warming center consisted of only a few cuts, bumps, and bruises, mostly from falls.

By late afternoon, more people were leaving to return to their homes than arriving. The power company worked furiously, aided by people clearing paths to wherever work needed to be done, restoring power so that people could return home. With everything under control, others told Tracy and Steve to head home, as they were amongst the first to arrive, and had been going for hours.

Tracy glanced over at him as they neared the house. With a mental sigh, she thought, How sad am I, that this is the best Valentine’s I’ve had in years?

Steve caught her gaze and smiled at her. “Almost there. What a day – huh?”

“Mmm hmm,” Tracy responded, not really trusting her voice in light of the melancholy creeping up on her.

Steve pulled the truck into the drive, and slowly lined up the doors with the paths he’d made earlier in the day. He shut the truck off and said, “I’m hoping that my multi-tool is somewhere here, because I realized that I didn’t have it a couple of hours after I left. If it’s not here, I’ll never find the thing.”

“Come on in, and I’ll help you look for it,” Tracy said as she opened the truck door. Her heart leapt at having even a couple more minutes with him, even though she knew the crash afterwards would be all the harder for it.

As soon as Steve stepped across the threshold into the house, he said, “Whew – there it is,” and pointed to his tool sitting on the end table next to the couch, which was still folded out into a bed.

“Glad you found it,” she said as she opened the closet door to put away her coat.

Steve crossed the room to retrieve his tool, while Tracy remained leaning into the closet for a few seconds. Part of her was screaming to ask him if he was hungry, or wanted a drink – anything to keep him here longer. The sensible, rational side of her won out, and she closed the closet door after an inaudible sigh.

Steve walked toward her, and the door. “Well, thanks again for dinner, and a place to crash, and the help today.”

“You’re welcome. Thank you for the Cognac, and the company,” she responded.

“Well – I guess I’d better get going,” he said.

“Safe trip,” she said, wondering if the hesitation that she heard in his voice was real, but assuming that it was only a figment of her imagination. Something on the end table caught her eye – a plastic bag. Her brow furrowed, and she asked, “What’s that?”

Steve looked back at the bag as he edged toward the door. “It’s uh... Well, I... It’s for you.”

“For me? What is it?”

Steve’s face turned bright red. “Guess you’ll have to look,” he said, and then let out a nervous chuckle.

Tracy walked over, her heart pounding as she approached the bag, and untied the handles. A little oh of surprise escaped her when she saw the silk flower, card, and box of cherry cordials inside.

He chuckled again, and said, “You weren’t really supposed to find it until I left. It was the best I could do, with only the convenience store open.”

Tracy pulled out the card and opened it.

A woman as beautiful as you, inside and out, should have flowers and chocolate for Valentine’s Day – Steve.

Tears filled her eyes, and a sob shook her indrawn breath as she sat down on the hideaway bed, her trembling hands still holding the card.

“Oh, geez. I’m sorry,” Steve said as he walked over to her. “I saw the flower in the store, and I didn’t know if it was a good idea, because you’d said that you were trying to forget, and...”

Tracy let out a little laugh, the sound broken up by sobs. She sniffled, and then smiled up at him standing in front of her. “I love it. Thank you.” Before she even knew what she was doing, she stood up as well. Caught up in a swell of emotion, she kissed him.

Steve stiffened in surprise, but just as Tracy thought to pull away, she felt his arms slide around her, and his lips softened against hers. The kiss was brief, but oh so perfect. She stood in front of him after their lips parted, her eyes still closed. After a few moments, she finally let her eyelids flutter open.

Tracy’s cheeks warmed as she whispered, “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have...” She trailed off when one of his hands moved up from her back to her cheek.

“You’re beautiful,” Steve breathed, looking deep into her still misty eyes.

“This is a really bad idea.”

“I don’t care.”

Tracy melted into his arms as he kissed her. His one hand caressed her cheek, while the other held her close. She hugged him tight against her as well, lost once more in the feeling of his arms around her.

“When you fell asleep on my shoulder last night...”

Another kiss.

“And then again in my arms...”

Yet another kiss.

“I’ve never felt that close to someone before – ever.”

One of Tracy’s hands slipped up his back, to slip through his hair. “It’s been so long since anyone held me,” she whispered.

“It may be selfish, but I’m glad nobody else has.”

Tracy shook her head, her lip quivering and her eyes filling with unshed tears again. “But we can’t do this.”

“Why not?”

“We’re... I’m...”

“Incredible.”

“I’m thirty-seven.”

“It’s just a number.”

“It’s more than that.”

“Not to me.” He kissed her again – harder this time – his touch full of passion, and desire.

Tracy couldn’t help but respond. The dam of caution and self-consciousness inside her ruptured, releasing emotions long restrained. Her hands roamed over his back, and then moved to slide beneath his coat. She needed to feel closer to him. Her fingers glided over his muscular back, the thin cotton of the t-shirt doing nothing to restrain the warmth of him. Her tongue slipped out into the kiss, just brushing his lips. She could feel his breathing quicken, and their tongues met in a perfectly coordinated, slow dance.

Beneath the softer emotions, the coals of her desire flared to brilliant life. Rather than burning away the budding glow of love in her heart, the heat mingled with it instead. A quick, unconscious tug slipped the tail of his shirt from his jeans, allowing her to slide her hand beneath – to feel her skin against his.

He moaned into the kiss, as she gasped from a chill shooting through her from her fingertips. Both she and Steve pulled against each other, seeking even closer contact. Their kisses grew more ardent – needy.

Soon, Tracy knew that there was only one way she could feel the closeness that she so desperately needed. “Make love to me,” she breathed between kisses, and tugged his shirt higher.

He gave her one last, soft kiss, and leaned back to take off his coat. As soon as he dropped it at his feet, he pulled off his shirt. Tracy gasped at the sight of him, and ran her fingers down his muscled chest. As his shirt fluttered to the floor, she tugged on her blouse.

She let out a surprised whimper when Steve’s hands glided up her arms as she pulled her blouse up over her head. He gathered up the cloth and dropped it aside, his eyes locked with hers. He cupped her cheek in one hand, and kissed her. She shivered as his other hand slid around her back, to the clasp of her bra.

His lips never left hers, and he still held her cheek in his hand as her bra popped open. Tracy gave his lips a light caress of her tongue, and then leaned back.

Slowly, she pulled the straps from her shoulders. Steve’s eyes looked deep into her as she hesitantly slipped her right arm free. Though she was in good shape, she knew all too well that gravity couldn’t be completely defied.

Tracy’s bra dropped to the floor, and Steve’s eyes finally drifted downward. He sucked in a deep breath, let it out slowly, and leaned in with his lips parting in anticipation.

A broken whimper escaped Tracy as his lips engulfed her. She stroked her hand over his back, breathing heavily under his tender ministrations. Steve released her pebbled flesh with a quiet moan, and then kissed his way to its twin.

She let her arm slid down from his back, and then reached for his belt. She whimpered and moaned from the delightful sensation of his lips on her as she blindly unbuckled his belt. Once the ends hung free, she worked on the button of his jeans.

Steve’s lips moved to her neck, and his hand to her cheek. His kisses were mere feather-light touches, but each drew a gasp from her. Tracy pulled down his zipper, and let her fingers slip into the parted denim. “Oh,” she breathed in surprised delight as she felt him through the satiny cloth of his boxers.

“Oh, Tracy,” he whispered, and then kissed her neck one last time. His lips found hers, and she felt his jeans slipping down around her fingers.

As the denim slipped away, she was able to explore the full length and breadth of him with her fingers. A quavering gasp shook her, accompanying a twinge of almost fearful fascination caused by taking in the truth of him with her touch.

After a final, tender kiss, Steve pulled back to look into her eyes again. His other hand moved to her hip, and pressed down to guide her to sit. As she sank down to the hideaway bed, he lifted one foot, and then the other, untying his boots. His eyes held hers as he removed his boots, pulled his wallet from his hip pocket to place it on the end table, and then stepped out of his jeans.

Steve knelt down in front of her, where she sat on the edge of the hideaway bed. He lifted her left calf, and slipped off her shoe. Her sock followed, and Tracy let out a heavy, high-pitched sigh as he kissed the top of her foot.

She barely had any conscious awareness of her fingers popping open the buttons of her jeans while he repeated the sensual tease with her other foot. As he lowered her foot to the floor once more, Tracy lifted her hips to pull down her jeans. He let out a moan, and helped her tug the tight denim down to her knees. He then lifted her feet, and Tracy leaned back onto her hands as her jeans slipped down her legs.

Steve walked forward on his knees as he let her jeans fall to the floor. His hands glided from her knees to her hips, and then curled beneath the elastic band of her panties. Tracy lifted her hips, her breathing heavy and rapid. The cotton slipped down, and she felt the kiss of the cool air on her wet heat.

Tracy’s panties pooled to the floor, and he rose from his knees to lean over the bed. He kissed her, and she bent her elbows so that she could recline. His lips followed her as she settled into the mattress, his kisses now tinged with hunger once more, matching her own growing need.

Steve moaned into the passionate kiss, and then moved to kiss her chin. His lips crept down her body, trailing kisses on her neck, her chest, and her tummy. When he reached her naval, he looked up into her eyes, as if asking for permission.

Tracy gasped, and then whispered, “Oh – please.”

He kissed the curls on her mound, and Tracy shivered in anticipation. A kiss alighted on her hip, and then the other. His lips found her thighs, tantalizingly close to where she wanted them. He took a deep breath with each kiss, as if drinking in the scent of her to savor it.

“Please,” Tracy whispered again, as his hands moved to her knees. She let her legs drift apart, and held her breath as he looked up into her eyes and moved into the widening V.

He tickled the curls shrouding her need with his fingertips, and finally broke eye contact to dart in for a kiss.

Tracy’s back arched up from the bed, a sharp cry of bliss bursting from her lips as he touched her. “Oh – oh, Steve,” she whimpered as his tongue caressed her folds. Her fingers scrunched up into the sheets as her hips rocked in a slow wave.

His lips and tongue continued to glide over her, making her moan in delighted wonder. He wasn’t rushed, trying to push her to the edge. Instead, he savored her as she’d taught him to enjoy the Cognac. He took in her bouquet with deep breaths, warming her with his touch, bringing her to the peak of perfection.

Tracy tingled all over, permeated at the same time with wonderful warmth and titillating chills. He slowly fanned her coals, leaving her feeling as though she were floating above the mattress, held aloft by his soft tongue slipping over her. Time lost all meaning to her, the minutes slipping by in a fog of sweet delight. Even when he rose after a final kiss, she could still feel him. Her eyes fluttered open to see him removing a condom from his wallet.

With a deep, quavering moan, she sat up. While he tore open the package, Tracy slowly tugged down his boxers. “Oh my,” she gasped as the cloth slid away to reveal him.

She curled her fingers around his manhood, finding that her fingertips would not meet around his girth. Steve sighed and caressed her shoulders with his free hand as she slowly pumped her hand over his hardness. After a few strokes, she took the condom from him, and finished removing it from the package.

Tracy pinched the tip of the latex sheathe, and slowly rolled it down his thick manhood. Once she reached the base, she looked up into his eyes in breathless anticipation, and scooted back on the bed, turning lengthwise on the mattress at the same time.

He climbed into the bed, and reclined next to her on his side. His hand curled beneath her far shoulder, urging her onto her side. Tracy raised her leg as she rolled, draping it over his body. While he pressed his lips to hers, he slipped his leg between hers. Her left hand curled around behind his head, while she pulled him close with the other. Steve’s arms surrounded her in much the same way, holding her tight as their kisses grew stronger by the moment.

At last, she could wait no longer. She reached between their bodies, shifting her hips at the same time. Steve moved as well, until Tracy could at last press the tip of his latex-shrouded manhood toward the center of her heat. Once she guided him past her curls, he shifted his hips and pushed.

Tracy’s eyes popped wide open and she sucked in a quavering gasp as he slipped inside her. She felt delightfully full, more than she could remember ever experiencing before. The intimacy of their intertwined bodies made her feel lightheaded as he slowly rocked his hips.

He kissed her neck, lips, and the swell of her breasts as his hips moved in a slow wave. She felt no sense of urgency from him. He seemed perfectly content to enjoy the feeling of her wrapped around him, squeezing him so tight.

Her hand, still between their bodies, crept down to her bud. She circled it with one fingertip, barely brushing the swollen nub at first, but steadily pressing harder as a tingling heat built in her loins.

“Oh god, Tracy,” he breathed, and then kissed her neck again, his hips moving slightly faster.

“You feel so wonderful,” she said as the increased friction caused the flames of her arousal to burn higher in turn.

In perfect sync, two bodies slowly shifted position, until Steve could push harder and deeper inside her. Her finger moved faster, causing her to twitch as she moved ever closer to the peak of her pleasure.

“Oh. Oh, Steve. Oh yes,” she whimpered, now poised on the brink of climax. Her face grew feverishly warm, matching the heat deep inside her. “I... I... Oh! Oh!”

A long, warbling cry accompanied her plunge over the edge into beautiful agony. Her arms and legs tightened their embrace, pulling her body hard against him, holding him buried deep inside her. Her orgasm was a soft, gentle swell of ecstasy that rippled through her, rather than crashing down with overwhelming force.

She sucked in a loud, high-pitched gasp of breath, which then emerged as a series of clipped whimpers, culminating in a deeply satisfied moan. She could feel him throbbing inside her tightly clenched sheath, triggering chilly little arcs of electric pleasure. She held him tight, shivering and wondering if her climax was ever going to let her go.

“Did you..?” Steve asked as her muscles relaxed.

Tracy nodded and giggled. “Oh, that was... That was so wonderful.” She pulled him close again, planting little kisses on his neck. “Did you?”

“No. Almost.”

“I want you to.”

Steve groaned, and then pulled his arm beneath him so that he could rise. Tracy whimpered as he slipped free of her, but knew that it wouldn’t be for long. She rolled onto her back as he leaned over her, pulling his knees under him.

She parted her legs at the urging of his strong hands, and panted as he scooted forward on his knees. His left hand curled around her knee, while the other dropped to his manhood, guiding it into her once more.

“Oh my god,” Tracy groaned as he slipped inside her, far deeper this time. His hardness filled her, feeling as though it was reaching into her belly, and then retreated, only to return with a quick thrust of his hips.

“Ah! Oh! Ah! Oh!” she gasped in time with the motion of his body. The heat of her swelling climax reached deeper this time. It was also far warmer – sharper – demanding. Her fingers once again found her pearl, and matched the intensity of her need.

Steve breathed heavily, the strain in his features obvious despite the measured motion of his hips. He penetrated her with quick, deep thrusts, letting her feel every inch of him caressing her walls with hot friction.

He began to grunt from the effort of holding back his own release, his eyes tightly closed. Tracy’s hand fisted into the sheets as the other blurred over her mound. “Oh – oh, Steve. I’m so close.”

Steve increased his pace, his lips parting to reveal his clenched teeth. A sharp jolt of pleasure snapped Tracy’s eyes closed as well. Growls joined his vocalizations as he reached the point of no return, mingling with Tracy’s increasingly loud cries.

“Can’t hold...” He began, and then let out a loud, growling breath.

“I’m there. Don’t stop. I’m...” Tracy’s mouth popped open into a silent scream for a few moments, and then her cry of release burst forth. The ecstasy rocked her body, causing her to lurch beneath him, and then his hips slammed forward with enough force to scoot her back a fraction of an inch. He let out an explosive cry as he reached his peak as well.

Tracy’s arms and legs wrapped around him, squeezing him tight as he leaned over her. She could feel him pulsing inside her, flooding the latex sheathe with his seed. The sensation set off another powerful wave of ecstasy within her, causing her to cry out again.

For long minutes, neither of them could move, save for involuntary lurches and twitches. Finally, he rose up to his knees, breaking the grip of her embrace, and pulled free with a groan. Tracy let out a disappointed whimper as she felt the void inside her, but then squeezed her legs tight to moan from the warmth of her afterglow.

Steve struggled with trembling hands, but eventually managed to remove the condom and wipe his manhood clean with a corner of the covers. As though that had taken the very last of his energy, he collapsed on the bed next to her, and rolled over on his back.

Tracy rolled atop him, draping one leg over him and pressing her cheek against his chest. “That was so perfect – so wonderful.”

“Unbelievable,” Steve agreed, and wrapped his arms around her.

“It feels so good when you hold me.”

“For me too.”

“Mmm – then don’t stop.”

She drifted off to sleep – warm, safe, and satisfied in his arms.

****

Tracy slowly roused, still wearing a smile, and feeling the warm afterglow of the bliss from the night before. As the sleep fog evaporated from her mind, she realized that she was alone in the bed.

A sharp pang stabbed her heart, but it faded as she wrapped her arms around her. She took a deep breath, and then let out a sigh. She’d known from the beginning that this couldn’t possibly lead anywhere. There was simply too much of an age gap for it to work, no matter how much they had in common. Rather than feeling hurt by his leaving, she felt good.

For too long, she’d doubted herself. She knew all to well that her lack of self-confidence was the main reason that her personal life had gone nowhere for years. Steve had given that back to her, many times over. She felt attractive – desirable. She couldn’t think of a better Valentine’s gift than that.

Just as she thought about rising to have a shower and some breakfast, the faint hints of an aroma tickled her nose. She sat up, and her eyes widened in surprise when she saw Steve’s clothes, still lying scattered on the floor around the bed.

“Morning, Beautiful. Hungry?”

She could see the mingling of love and desire in his eyes as he stepped out of the kitchen with a steaming tray of food, wearing nothing but his boxer shorts. He’d truly meant what he said about her age being nothing but a number, and now she believed it too.

Tracy knew that last night was only the first of many perfect Valentine’s to come, as he sat down the tray, and kissed her deeply.

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