Excerpt: Taking the Heat
Book 3: The O'Neil Family
GLANCING OVER at the firefighters who’d come into Bailey’s Irish Pub for breakfast, Liam O’Neil snagged a stool at the bar and sat down. “There’s a lot of them today.”
Patrick smiled. He was the oldest O’Neil brother and manager of the business. “Yeah. Word of mouth, I guess. Can’t believe our luck.”
“Too bad about Sweeney’s, though.”
Dylan, the second oldest, looked up from washing glasses at a nearby sink. “Their loss is our gain.”
Pat shrugged. “At least old Sweeney’s retiring, not goin’ out of business.”
“You look whipped.” Pat cocked his head at him. “This too much for you? All of them coming in here since Sweeney’s closed?”
“Nah. I handled this many at the diner and got up even earlier.” Liam had also had a part-time job in SoHo that he was able to quit when their other brother left the pub to pursue a career in photography. “I’m glad to be here full-time. I miss Aidan, though.”
“Not me.” Paddy’s voice was gruff as he stared down at the list he was making. “His shit-eatin’ grin since him and C.J. hooked up drives me nuts.”
Liam knew the origin of that comment. He’d talked to Pat’s wife, Brie, last night. She and Paddy had had another row. “Pat, I—”
“Hey, Paddy?” This from a burly firefighter across the room. His voice was gravelly, probably from inhaling smoke. “Where’s the chow?”
“Where’s the fire?” Pat shouted back.
They all laughed, punchy from the night shift. Mikey, Liam’s son, had a thing for firefighters, and from time to time, the two of them stopped by the firehouse down the street. Liam had also researched the profession on the Internet. He didn’t know how they lived with such a whacky schedule, let alone the risky job they performed. And then, of course, 9/11 had happened, changing all of them.
The door opened and the sounds of a busy MacDougal Street filtered in. Cabs hustled people to work and pedestrians were already flocking to their employment.
Another firefighter walked into the pub. Wearing jeans and an FDNY sweatshirt, she filled hers out better than the others.
Dylan murmured, “Ah, there she is.”
“Who’s she?” Liam asked. “I’ve never seen her before.”
“Sophie Tyler. She works at Company 14.” Pat was admiring the view, too. “Dylan thinks she’s hot. I like her. She’s real friendly.”
From across the room, Sophie smiled at them. “Hey, Pat. Dylan.” Then she nodded to Liam. “Hi.”
“Come over here, darlin’,” Dylan called out, “and meet another O’Neil brother.”
Her smile broadened as she walked toward them. “How many of you are there?”
“Four. This one’s Liam, the middle child.”
Her gray eyes wide and warm, she held out her hand. “Hi, Liam. I’m Sophie.”
Liam stood. Her grip was firm when they shook, and her palm callused. He noticed her other hand was bandaged.
“Nice to meet you.”
“Hey, Sophie baby, get your ass over here.”
She rolled her eyes. “They get worse, the more tired they are. We caught two fires last night.”
“Time for bed, I’d say.” Dylan’s tone was flirty.
Liam envied Dylan’s easy charm. It had never mattered to him before his wife, Kitty, had died three years ago, but lately Liam wished he’d inherited some.
Laughing off Dylan’s innuendo, Sophie said to Liam, “Nice to meet you,” and headed over to the tables where her friends had gathered.
All three men watched her walk away.
Dylan shook his head. “Man, I’ll bet she’s a fiery one.”
Pat grunted. “Her hair’s not red enough for you, boy.”
“Strawberry blond,” Liam murmured.
From the corner of his eye, he saw his two older brothers exchange looks.
“See something you like, bro?” Dylan asked.
In the O’Neil family, you had to give as good as you got or you were dead meat. Dropping back down on the stool, Liam picked up his mug. “What, and risk life and limb? Seems to me you’ve already staked your claim.”
Dylan’s brows raised. “You can have her if you want her.”
“That’s nice of you.” Liam’s tone was wry. “But I’d guess she’d have something to say about that.”
Bracing his arms on the bar, Paddy leaned toward him. “You said you were gonna start datin’ again.”
“I have.” He sipped his coffee, stalling for time. “I went out twice in two weeks. The women were nice, but they didn’t do anything for me.”
Dylan crossed his arms over his chest. “Because they were Kitty clones. You need to change it up a little.”
“I so do not want to have this conversation.” He pushed away from the bar, stood and headed to the kitchen. “I gotta get their food.”
“Coward,” Dylan called out.
“Back off,” he heard Pat say.
“He needs a push.”
“Not a kick in the pants.”
Their voices cut off as the kitchen door closed behind Liam. He took comfort in the familiar banter between his brothers and the smell of food he’d put in the oven an hour earlier. Checking the egg strata, he saw it was done, pulled out the pans and set them on the butcher block. As the food cooled a bit, he began to slice the homemade bread his ma had made before she and Pa left to visit her relatives in upstate New York.
When the firefighters in the surrounding houses were looking for a place to have breakfast after Sweeney’s had closed, they’d told Pat they enjoyed a variety of foods. That’s how Liam’s List had begun. Every day he’d fix them a different meal from a list he’d posted. They checked it when they were in and made suggestions for the menu. Though different groups from different houses came in all week, the method was working. It was fun, and he felt a part of things.
Fun was something that had been missing from his life since Kitty had died and his son Mikey had gone into an emotional tailspin.
Don’t think about that now, he told himself. He’d worry about the kid twenty-four/seven if he let his mind go there. The therapist he’d been seeing told him that was self-destructive. Instead, he thought about the firefighters. Sophie was a pretty one in a tough sort of way. Focusing on them, he managed to block Mikey from his mind.
“WHAT’S THE HOLDUP? I’m starved.” John Cooper was glowering at the kitchen door. Big and brawny, with a shaved head, he scared probies with that expression alone.
“Gourmet breakfasts take a while.” Company 14’s captain, Jim Mackenzie, checked his pager, then sipped his coffee. His red hair, moustache and friendly blue eyes belied a good officer who could kick ass and still maintain camaraderie.
“We could just have bacon and eggs,” Cooper grumbled, wrapping his beefy hand around a mug of coffee.
“Where’s the fun in that?” Hannah Harper was Sophie’s ex-roommate as of last month when she had married another smoke eater from Engine 46 where they both worked. “The variety of food’s great.” Her dark eyes danced. “And the scenery around here isn’t bad.”
“You checking those Irish dudes out again, Harper?” Bagatelle, one of her crew, asked. “Wait till Dominic finds out.”
“Dominic knows I’m crazy about him.” Hannah’s expression was suggestive. “I take care of him just fine.”
“You’re just jealous ’cuz no broad will even look at you, Bags.”
“As if! The ladies flock to me, sweetheart.”
Enjoying the back-and-forth, Sophie glanced over at the O’Neils. “Man, they are real eye candy.”
“You get a glimpse of the other one yet? Aidan?” Hannah asked.
“No.” She’d heard about him, though, because of the gentle notoriety of this place. There was an O’Neil sister, too, whom the pub took its name from. She was now the wife of Vice President Clay Wainwright. Their story had been in the news three or four years back.
“Each one’s cuter than the next,” Hannah added.
Sophie thought about the brother she had just met. “Liam seems nice. But sad.” And she liked his looks. Deep blue eyes, the same as the rest of them, and dark hair. But his was cut shorter and had a bit of curl.
“He’s stopped by our firehouse a couple of times with his kid,” Sean Murray put in. The rig’s driver, he was a wiry little guy with a wry sense of humor. His demeanor was more mellow than most, unless you messed with him. “You musta missed him, Soph. The cap calls him the ‘Quiet Man.’”
At Torres’s questioning expression, Bilotti, the other officer on their group, snorted. “Don’t you know nothin’ about old movies, probie?”
“John Wayne, 1956.” This from Mackenzie. “The story was better.” Their captain was a reader, not a TV freak, and it wasn’t uncommon to see him around the firehouse with a book.
“Story?” the probie asked.
“The Quiet Man. They made the film from a story in the Saturday Evening Post.”
“Ah, finally,” Cooper groused.
Sophie glanced up to see Liam coming out of the kitchen carrying a huge tray. As he got closer, the smell of freshly baked bread and eggs and cheese filled the air. Her stomach growled.
“Oh, my God.” Hannah’s stomach rumbled, too. “I think I’m going to have an orgasm.”
“Shh,” Sophie told her friend, who never seemed able to censor herself. “You’ll embarrass him.”
Muscles bulging with the weight, Liam set down the tray, removed the two rectangular pans and put them at either end of the table. When he put the toast down near Sophie, his aftershave filled her head. “There you go. Hope you like it.”
Her coworkers dug in.
Liam smiled. It was a nice smile. Genuine, like he took pleasure in small things. “Need anything else? More coffee?”
“We can get it.” She nodded to an urn across the way that the O’Neils had set up for them, free of charge.
“Let me. After what you all did on 9/11, we can’t do enough for you.”
When Liam went to fill a pitcher, there was a strained silence at the table. The anniversary of the Twin Towers bombing had just passed, and they were still feeling the effects. Their house had lost five guys—the captain’s best buddy included; Cooper’s cousin had died, which had sent him on a drinking binge that lasted three years. And Bilotti himself had been trapped in a stairwell but was dragged to safety by another smoke eater. All of them, including Sophie, who’d been out of the country at the time of the attacks, had worked for months at the Pile. Looking for bodies was the most gut-wrenching experience she’d ever had.
Liam returned and began to fill mugs. When he picked up Sophie’s, he nodded to her hand. “What happened?”
“A few embers got inside my gloves.”
“Hurts like hell,” Bilotti said around a mouthful, “but she’s had worse.” His tone was affectionate, though gruff.
Liam grimaced and finished pouring them coffee. “If you need anything else, let me know.”
The guys were appreciative. “Thanks, buddy…”
“This is service…”
“Nice of you, man.”
“My kid’s school is coming for a field trip at Company 14 next week.”
Mackenzie nodded. “The school’s getting our group. We’ll look out for him.”
After Liam left, and they’d satisfied some of their hunger, Hannah leaned back and patted her belly. “I’m stuffed. That guy can cook.”
The razzing began…
“Yeah, unlike you, Harper.”
“Dominic is satisfied all the time, guys, now that we’re living together.”
The captain tilted his chin at Sophie. “Speaking of which, any luck finding a new roommate, Soph?”
“No. I wish I didn’t have to.” On her third helping of the cheesy strata, she spoke between bites. “I’ve been thinking about getting a part-time job.”
“Why don’t you work here?” Hannah suggested.
“Yeah.” She pointed to the window. A double-sided sign read Waitress and Bartender Wanted.
“You got any kitchen experience?” Murray winked at the cap. “I mean besides what women are born with.”
All the guys at the table laughed. Cooper frowned at Torres. “Who said you could laugh, probie?”
Julian rolled his eyes, but kept his mouth shut. He’d only been with them a few months and was still in the initiation stage. Yesterday, the guys had rigged a bucket full of water and flour to fall on him when he went outside for a smoke.
Sophie drew their attention from the kid. “Up yours, Murray. I cook for you morons when it’s my turn and clean up after. That’s plenty of experience.” She stared at the sign. “Besides, I tended some bar when I got out of high school.”
Hannah sighed. “I’d work here just to be around them.”
“Maybe. If I could earn two hundred and fifty dollars a week, I could swing the apartment alone.”
She glanced across the room and saw Liam had taken a seat at the bar again. His back was broad in the green pub T-shirt he wore, but his shoulders slumped a bit. She studied him and his brothers, watched them joke around, and suddenly missed her own brother, Nate, a lot; he was a career soldier in Afghanistan. She was going to e-mail him tonight.
“Soph? Something wrong?” the cap asked.
“Nah, just that seeing the O’Neils make me think about Nate. I miss him.”
Talk of family began. Then, as always, they got to the runs they’d had last night and the two different companies exchanged war stories. Sophie was glad to get the focus off her. She glanced at the sign again. She’d never had to take a part-time job like a lot of firefighters. She’d been one for twelve years, made enough money, and lived frugally.
But maybe she’d pick one up now. It might be fun working here. Hannah was right. The scenery was great.
DROPPING TO HER knees, Sophie crawled down the hallway behind Bilotti at a snail’s pace. Pitch-black smoke blinded her and her crew, and her heart began to pound. Though she wore the regulation face mask, her throat felt gritty. On their way over to Vestry Street, they’d gotten the information on this call: seventh-floor apartment, four rooms, bedrooms in back. Occupants: mother, two kids. Her crew’s job was to get the family out; Engine 33, the pumper in their house, was slapping water on the fire and her truck, Ladder 44, was conducting search and rescue.
From the radio on her shoulder Sophie heard the captain’s voice. “Bilotti and Tyler, first bedroom. Cooper and Murray second. Probie stays with me.”
Sweating now, and taking in too much air, she tried to slow her breathing. “Go right,” Bilotti barked as they came to the doorway, of which she could only see an outline. Still on her knees, feeling her way, she bumped into a piece of furniture. A dresser. A few feet down, she banged her arm on something steel. She swore but kept going.
Finally reaching the bed, she bounced it with her hands. Heavy. Occupied. “Got somebody.”
Suddenly the smoke cleared. And Sophie was on the bed, dressed in a thin white nightgown. Nate was screaming from across the room. Help us, she wanted to yell, but no words came out. A silhouette appeared before her looking like Darth Vader and she cowered back against the wall. There were flames behind the thing. On either side of her now. Licking her bare toes.
“Soph, wake up.”
“No, no, no.”
“Sophie baby, wake up.”
Her eyes snapped open. A man sat on her bed and she whimpered. “It’s me, Mackenzie. You’re in the firehouse. You’re not little anymore. You’re not trapped.”
She could feel the sweat covering her body. Smell the faint odor of the spaghetti sauce she’d made for dinner. “Yeah, yeah.” She swallowed hard. Reaching over, Mackenzie picked up something from the table and handed it to her. Bottled water. She drained it. Her eyes adjusted and in the light from a streetlamp outside, she could make out the lumps of her group sleeping in the bunk room and the cap on the side of the bed.
“She okay?” Bilotti mumbled from the next cot.
“Soph?” This from Cooper.
“Yeah, I’m okay. Sorry, guys.” She took in deep breaths. Shook her head and rolled her shoulders to loosen them.
Mackenzie stood. “Go back to sleep.”
“What time is it?”
“I’ll just get up.”
“Suit yourself.” He squeezed her arm. “It’s been a while.”
“I know. Thanks.” She didn’t want his sympathy. Or his pity.
When he shuffled back to his bed, she slid out of hers, donned her sweat suit over the shorts and T-shirt she slept in and headed out of the second-floor bunk room. The soft sound of snoring followed her downstairs.
In the big kitchen, she crossed to the coffeemaker, flipped the switch and went to the window to watch lower Manhattan wake up. Damn it, why had she had the dream tonight? It always made her feel weak, something a female in the FDNY couldn’t afford and all of them went to lengths to avoid. And why was the dream so real? She was ten again, on that bed, suffocating from smoke, while her brother screamed for help. If she concentrated hard, she could still hear Tom Carusotti say, “What’s your name, honey?” Somehow she got it out. “Okay, Sophie baby, we’re blowin’ this pop stand. Just hold on tight to me.”
The coffee stopped dripping and Sophie poured herself a cup. On edge, she leaned against the counter, sipping. She should do something. Maybe fix the guys breakfast. Better not; they’d revolt if they were deprived of their new favorite cook’s morning meal.
She thought of the sadness on Liam O’Neil’s face and wondered what monkey was on his back. Everyone had one, it seemed, and she didn’t feel sorry for herself for hers. Except when it deprived her of sleep like now. She hoped the cook had slept better than she did tonight.
“YOU DIDN’T SLEEP last night?”
Liam shifted uncomfortably in the stuffed chair. He didn’t like coming here at all. “I fell asleep but woke up at four. I forget, is that anxiety or depression?”
His therapist, Jay Yost, smiled. “The theory is that anxiety keeps you from falling asleep, and depression wakes you up prematurely.”
“Based on that, I shouldn’t be getting any rest.”
Waiting a beat, Jay finally asked, “How’s Mike?”
“I’m not sure. Some days are better than others. Last week’s session went well with Dr. Lang, and he talked in school some. He’s only been back a few weeks, but the teacher said he’s doing okay. The kid’s just so damn sad all the time.”
“As is his father.”
Liam’s heartbeat quickened. “You think he’s taking his cue from me?”
“Hell no. Don’t assume responsibility for that, too.”
Blowing out an exasperated breath, Liam clenched and unclenched his fist. “I’m trying to be objective. But watching your child slip deeper into himself is hard.”
They discussed Mikey for ten minutes, then Jay asked about Liam’s other son, Cleary. After Liam answered, Jay glanced at the clock. “Time’s up for the kid discussion. Tell me about you. What’s happening?”
He told Jay about the breakfasts with America’s Bravest that had gone on for two weeks now. Several different companies were coming in—the same guys weren’t there every day, of course—giving the pub a steady stream every morning.
“That sounds like fun. And lucrative.”
“Pat’s in seventh heaven and I feel like I’m earning my full-time salary.”
“You’re part owner of the place, Liam.”
“I know. Still, I wanna carry my own weight.”
“Any women in the picture?”
“Not since the excruciating date with Eve Larkin.” He scowled.
“Dylan says I’m dating Kitty clones.”
Jay chuckled. “You guys don’t pull any punches with each other, do you?”
“Nah, never have. Down deep, I’m glad.”
“Is what he said true?”
“Maybe. I only meet women through events with the boys. Eve’s the mother of one of the kids in my Cub Scout troop.”
“Should you start doing some things outside of that box?”
“I don’t know. A hobby. Join a gym.”
He glanced at his biceps. “I wouldn’t mind joining a gym. I hate the idea of picking up women, though.”
“You work in a bar. Any regulars you could get to know?”
“I guess I could look around. Truth is I want to. I’m…lonely.”
“For female companionship.”
He laughed. “That, too.” They’d talked about sex in the few times Liam had seen Jay. He felt comfortable enough with the guy to share the fact that celibacy really sucked.
“That’s two ideas today—a gym and scoping out the pub.” Restless, Liam ran a hand through his hair. “I hate this.”
“I know you do.”
“I never thought I’d be here, at nearly forty-two, looking to date. I thought I’d grow old with Kitty.”
“The fact that you met her in junior high and never dated anyone else also complicates things.”
“I know.” He thumped a fisted hand on the arm of his chair. “Shit.”
“Anger. You don’t show much of it.”
“It builds up inside sometimes until I feel like I’m gonna bust open.”
“Then let it out. Your brothers would probably go a few rounds with you.”
Liam laughed. That, of course, was true.
He was feeling better when he left the session. Outside, across from Jay’s office, Washington Square Park was busy with late lunchers, nannies with strollers and the ubiquitous tourists. On a whim, and because it was a beautiful September day with the sun shining, he walked to Thirteenth Street and arrived at Mikey’s school as they were letting out. From near a tree, he watched his somber-faced son walk out of St. Mary’s Catholic School. A little redheaded girl caught up to him. She said something, but Mike only shook his head and averted his gaze. She shrugged and walked away. He got to the curb before he saw Liam. “Dad?” His eyes widened. “Did something happen?”
“Nothing bad. I had some time so I thought I’d pick you up and we’d go get ice cream.”
Smiling, Liam nodded in the direction of the little girl, who was watching them. “Want to bring your friend? We could call her mother.”
Mikey shook his head vehemently.
“All right, just you and me.”
His son closed the distance between them and took his hand. Liam’s throat got tight as he watched the other kids, whose lives hadn’t been torn apart by tragedy and loss, playfully wait for rides or the bus, toss a ball to each other, hang out in groups.
Again, anger welled inside him. For his kid. And for himself. For Christ sakes, all he wanted was a normal life. Was that too much to ask?