This was the last place she expected to spend Christmas, stuck in her cast-iron tub with her big toe wedged in the spigot. Well, welcome to another far-fetched development in my disastrous life. Franny Benson yanked on her foot one more time and Einstein’s quote about insanity came to mind. “Yes, I’m doing the same thing over and over.” Her jaws clenched so hard they hurt. “And, yes, I keep hoping for different results but at the moment, Mr.-Know-It-All Einstein, what freaking choice do I have?”
Earlier, when the continual drip, drip, drip from the faucet got on her nerves, she’d rolled a washcloth and shoved it into the pipe’s opening. Before long, the washcloth was soaked and dripping too. So to silence the infernal plopping, she’d removed the cloth and plugged the hole with her big toe.
A big mistake in hindsight.
Enjoying the quiet, she’d gone back to reading The Fireman’s Flame, sipping on a glass of wine and by the time she’d finished the romance, the bottle was empty and her toe trapped.
Wasn’t this just the perfect ending to a less than perfect week?
Her hours at Bunnies and Bears Day Care had been slashed, her landlord raised her rent and her boyfriend of three years had just announced he was gay.
Franny scowled at the empty wine glass and hiccupped. “Bah-humbug.”
No use pounding on the wall for help. Mr. Dunlap, who lived on the other side, was deaf as a paperweight. She couldn’t reach the ceiling to alert her upstairs neighbors. And with her toe blocking off most of the water, she couldn’t overflow the bathtub in hopes of flooding the slime ball downstairs. Not that he couldn’t use a good bath.
She’d drained the tub over an hour ago when the bubbles disappeared along with the water’s heat. In an effort to keep warm, she covered with her towel.
For the twentieth or thirtieth time, she yanked on her foot, hoping her latest effort would free her toe, but no such luck. Her ankle was swollen from repetitive jerking and, by the way her toe hurt, it was swollen too. Honestly, you’d think at the age of twenty-six, she’d know better than to stick any part of her anatomy into a leaky faucet. You’d also think she’d be observant enough to notice Wesley was more eager to spend time with his friend than her, but no. She’d seen only what she wanted to see. Another hiccup popped out.
Merry Christmas to me.
She should have flown to Florida to spend the holidays with her parents at their Gulf-front condo, but she’d wanted to spend Christmas Eve with Wesley, hoping she’d get the diamond she’d been anticipating for the past two years. I was such a fool.
Last night as they’d walked home from Christmas Eve services, Wesley held her hand. The snow fell gently amid the twinkling lights of her neighborhood decorations, and she’d stuck out her tongue to catch a few flakes. She remembered thinking it was a perfect holiday evening.
Wesley acted very nervous when they reached the exterior steps of her apartment building. “Franny, we need to talk.”
Her heart rate kicked up. This is it. He’s going to propose, but why not wait until we get inside? Oh, how sweet, he’s going to make it a grand public gesture. “Sure. Do you want to talk out here or come up to my apartment? I’ll make us some hot chocolate or eggnog, if you prefer.”
He cleared his throat and stared at his feet. “I’ve been seeing someone else.”
“What?” A strange buzzing filled her ears. “What did you say?”
“I’ve been lying to myself for years, denying my true sexual identity.” He took a deep breath and tipped back his head, glancing at the snow-heavy sky. “I’m gay.” His trembling hand cupped her cheek. “I think a lot of you, we’ve been best friends for years. But being with John makes me happy. We’re buying a condo together.”
“John? Your friend from college? The banker?” She couldn’t wrap her mind around his shocking revelation. Gay? He and John are gay lovers?
“You know I wish you only the best, Franny. But I can’t go on living a dual existence.” She remained frozen in shock as Wesley brushed a kiss to her cheek, said goodbye and walked away on the snowy street as muted strains of Christmas carols drifted from someone’s apartment. Gay. The guy I’ve been dating is gay.
Now she understood why Lori Anne, her lesbian co-worker, had told her to ditch Wesley, that he wasn’t the man for her. Why couldn’t he have been honest about his sexuality? Why had he led her on all these years? Didn’t he care he was hurting her?
A healthy cry hadn’t helped. Nor had a quart of peppermint chocolate ice cream or a bag of potato chips. Or a box of chocolate-covered cherries. She’d have to jog eight hours a day for the next week to burn off those calories.
When sleep hadn’t come by three in the morning, she’d decided on a bubble bath and a reread of one of her favorite romances. Every time she read about the handsome fireman who had a crush on the girl next door, Franny cried. The man’s feelings were tender and true, an alpha with a beta center.
This morning’s read had been no exception. Why can’t I be the type of woman to instill such devotion in a man? Devotion and passion. She wrapped her hands around her ankle and gave her foot another good yank. “I could use some devotion and passion, God. And some help to get my toe out of this blasted spigot.” She glanced heavenward. “Are you listening up there? I need an intervention here!” For God’s sake, Franny, calm down.
Tears prickled the backs of her eyes. After two long crying jags throughout the night, how could she possibly produce more tears this morning? If she ever got out of this tub, she was putting on warm pajamas and going to bed for the entire day.
Oh no! I volunteered to read stories to the kids in the cancer wing of Children’s Hospital this afternoon. I can’t let them down. She had presents wrapped for each child, a little something to brighten their Christmas while hospitalized.
A distinct odor wafted from somewhere in the building. She inhaled deeply and snorted. It was barely dawn, and someone was already burning the Christmas goose.
Shouts of alarm shot through the paper-thin walls of the old building. What in the world was going on? Somebody must have gotten his or her dearest wish for Christmas. A stab of envy pierced Franny’s heart. There’d be no diamond again this year. Heck, she wouldn’t even get a chaste kiss under the mistletoe. And looking back, Wesley's kisses were almost always chaste. I should have suspected something. Give it a rest, Franny. The romance, such as it was, is over.
She reached for the bar of soap. Maybe she could spread enough over her toe to somehow get it worked into the area inside the spigot. Then maybe she could free it.
Whew! Whoever’s cooking needs to turn down the heat on their stove. Her hand stilled. She sniffed again. Were her tear-swollen sinuses detecting the odor correctly? It didn’t smell like burnt food. It smelled like…fire!
Her chest constricted and a chill raced through her body. A heady pulse gonged in her ears. Surely not. No!
Sirens in the distance confirmed Franny’s worst fears. Her apartment building was burning, and she was trapped—and naked. Frantic, she soaped the base of her big toe some more. I have to get it loose. I have to!
Pandemonium erupted. Flashing lights from fire apparatus glowed in her tiny bathroom window. Men bellowed orders. A ladder clanked against the side of her building. Engines whirred and sounds she didn’t recognize punctuated the Christmas morning air.
Leaning forward, she looked into the hallway leading to the living room. Was that smoke curling beneath her front door? The rapid heartbeat of panic pounded ever louder in her ears. Trembles overtook her body. She had to do something! And fast. “Help! Someone help me, I’m stuck!” Maybe with everyone stirring and fleeing the building, someone would hear her. Perhaps if a fireman crawled up the ladder, he’d respond to her pleas.
Pulling on her foot, she screamed and shrieked and sobbed while smoke kept invading her tiny apartment. She could not give up. Could not. “Help me! Help!”
An ax splintered her front door. An insulated tan leg kicked through the wood. “Fire Department! Anyone here?”
“Yes! I’m in the bathroom! I can’t get out!”
Heavy footfalls jarred the floors. “Coming! I’ve got you.” Wide shoulders filled the doorway and stopped. Beneath the fireman’s helmet, his assessing gaze took in her situation before approaching the faucets.
Something about his strut seemed familiar. Who was he? Franny tugged the edges of her damp towel to make sure nothing crucial was exposed.
Crouching, he bit into the index finger of his insulated gloves and tugged them off. His warm hand coiled around her foot and pulled. He spoke into his wireless headset. “I have a woman trapped in her bathtub. Third floor. Second apartment on left. Need pipe cutters and adjustable wrench. Over.”
Crackle sounded. “Copy that. On the way.”
“Well, Frances Benson, you’re gonna have one hell of a story to tell your kids one day.” He stood and stalked into her bedroom, returning with her bedspread.
“Do I know you?”
With rapid movements, he tucked the blanket around her. His fingers stroked her bare skin. “Aaron Brenner. I sat behind you in homeroom all through high school.”
“Aaron?” Her heart rate skipped a beat or two. “My Aaron?”
His head snapped up and dark eyes pinned her, sucking the breath from her lungs.
The heat of a blush stormed across her cheeks. “I…I mean…my good friend, Aaron?” Great going, Franny.
After a few uncomfortable, silent seconds, he went back to cocooning her in the bedspread.
Meanwhile she tried to reconcile that this muscled fireman was once the skinny, long-haired teenager, who played the guitar so well he could take her breath away. For most everyone in high school, he displayed a snarl; yet for her, he was generous with a special smile that set her insides to dancing. She’d been painfully shy and, as her lab partner in chemistry, he forced her to talk and eventually eased her out of her comfort zone. He was the kid who wore a red tuxedo to the senior prom and punched out her date for groping her. This man was that Aaron—the object of her dreams for months after graduation?
Her hand slid under the bedspread to cover her necklace. Years ago, in the crowded hallway filled with eager graduates in caps and gowns, he’d pressed the golden heart necklace into her hand. She didn’t want him to know she still wore it, had always worn it. No doubt he’d think her silly, if he even remembered giving it to her.
“Don’t bother hiding it. A guy doesn’t forget the first piece of jewelry he buys for a girl.”
The heat from her blush intensified and the saliva in her mouth dried. Could this day get any more humiliating? “I’ve always loved it.” Her gaze swept over him. “Where’s your piercings?”
“Uncle Sam frowned on them. First day of basic and they were gone.” He jerked his chin to her empty wine bottle. “I won’t ask why you were drinking alone on Christmas morning.”
Another fireman rushed in, carrying the tools. “Here. Whoa. She naked under the blanket?”
“Keep your mind on track, man.” Aaron scowled and snatched the wrench and pipe cutter from the gawking man’s hands, bent to one knee and began doing whatever guys did with pipes and tools.
Heavy smoke rolled in, burning her throat and making her eyes tear. “Can you get it loose?”
Aaron grunted with the force he applied to the old cast iron connection. Beneath his heavy fire-gear, his shoulder muscles bunched and shifted. “Almost got it.” The spigot and connecting pipe broke free and his hand snaked over the tub’s edge to cradle her heel so it wouldn’t hit the bottom of the tub. His care surprised her. He glanced over his shoulder at the other fireman. “Check the rest of the apartments on this floor while I carry her out.”
“Want me to take her?”
Aaron shoved his hands back into his thick gloves. “No one touches her but me. I asked Santa for a redhead under my tree this year.” His hands slipped under her, effortlessly picking her up. “And I’ve been a very good boy.” She could have sworn he winked at her.
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Come back tomorrow for episode two of "The Fireman's Flame."
Visit Vonnie at www.vonniedavis.com