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Home / Samples / Ladder 54: Five Firefighter Romances by Maren Smith, Raisa Greywood, Adaline Raine, Isabella Laase, and Felicity Brandon – Sample

Ladder 54: Five Firefighter Romances by Maren Smith, Raisa Greywood, Adaline Raine, Isabella Laase, and Felicity Brandon – Sample

Prologue

Big Banks was a sleepy little town no more than twenty miles outside of Missoula. But even sleepy little towns had their entertainment hot spots. Like the Putt-Putt mini-golf course and the water park, both of which could be found packed full of kids and teens, and people of all ages looking for good family fun. There was the Century 21 movie theater down at the mall, with a food court that had just opened up a brand-new edible cookie dough shop. And for romantic date nights, they had both a Chili’s and a nightclub, with a black light bar and live DJ that kept the place hopping even after the bar closed down. For those in the know, however, Big Banks was also home to a different kind of club. One that met officially twice a month, every month, and unofficially a lot more often.

The Crystal Cabin Club was more than a hundred members strong, drawing people from nearly every county across the state of Montana. They were the largest club of their kind within a hundred miles and often still met at coffee shops to welcome new recruits, at the ‘cabin’ on Crystal Lake for family-oriented cookouts and get-togethers, and sometimes even at the Missoula Walmart when it came time to decorate the dungeon for holiday events. But tonight, they were meeting at the hottest spot of all, The Cabin on the Lake, where—even though it was barely April—in less than one hour’s time the event of the year was about to take place. Sophie Lassiter couldn’t wait.

Thrills of excitement competed with the cool mountain air, raising chills that raced along her back as she manned her post at the patio door. This was her cabin, passed down to her through the generations, starting with her great-grandfather, who had built the place. In the beginning, it really had been a cabin, but like the town of Big Banks itself, over the years it had morphed. Grown. Sprawled out. What had once been a one-story hunting lodge where her patriarchal lineage from ‘great’ all the way down to ‘father’ had loved to take their hunting buddies, now was a luxury cabin. Two stories high with a full basement, it still sported the huge golden log pines and original cut wood flooring her great grandfather had planked by hand and the massive river-stone fireplace he’d built. But onto that, every generation had added more until, at last, the cabin had come to Sophie.

It was Sophie who had put in the floor-to-ceiling windows all throughout the first floor and the dozens of picture windows everywhere else. It was Sophie who’d built the wraparound balcony that made the most of the spectacular views Crystal Lake offered. And it was Sophie who had built the basement, filling it over time with St. Andrew’s crosses, spanking benches, and bondage cages, and opening it up to select members of the community who shared her ‘special’ interests.

Oh, yes, this was her cabin and her club, the ownership and responsibilities of which she shared with her husband of almost thirty years. Walt was her lover, her best friend, her dom, and be it the loss of a job or the loss of a friend, he had been there for her at every hard turn her life had ever taken. Now, when he needed her the most, she was ready to do whatever she had to in order to give some of that back.

“Welcome, ladies, come on in,” Sophie called, beckoning to the new arrivals coming up the walkway from the parking lot around the side. Although most of tonight’s guests were long-time members of the club, she only knew one of these women: Emma Reed, wife of the town’s late doctor. The other woman Sophie guessed to be the ‘plus-one’ that Emma had recruited from one of the event flyers they’d discreetly distributed to anyone and any place Sophie knew to be ‘kink friendly.’ Usually, the only people she allowed inside the luxury cabin were vetted members, but she needed this auction to be successful and to that end, she welcomed everyone who came, whether she knew them or not.

The two women were laughing and chatting as they hurried up the cobblestones, high heels echoing sharply across the patio and past the bonfire in the fire pit, where the smokers huddled, also laughing and chatting, winter coats drawn up to their chins against the still icy mountain breeze. The weatherman said it was spring now, but winter in Montana rarely conceded its authority to the dictates of a mortal calendar. Snow wasn’t just expected this weekend, it could be expected all the way up to June.

“Sophie.” As she neared, Emma reached for Sophie, grasping her shoulders as she leaned in. They kissed cheeks, something that meant so much more than the superficial greeting most considered it to be. Drawing back, the widow offered a sympathetic smile that just as quickly vanished with a sniff behind a mask of ‘well, that’s enough of that.’ She turned and introduced her companion. “This is Lauren Roberts, the young lady I told you about.”

Sophie shook the much younger woman’s hand when she extended it, taking quick stock of her fine pale hair and striking blue eyes. She looked very elegant in her evening gown. Mostly what she took notice of, though, was the woman’s apparent age. “You’d best keep your ID ready tonight, Ms. Roberts, because I guarantee my boys are going to card you at the bar.”

Emma barked a delighted laugh, but Lauren merely grimaced a good-natured frown and dutifully dug into her dress purse for her wallet. “I’m used to it,” she said, her British accent light and lilting. She whipped out her driver’s license, twiddling it between two fingers before tucking it away again.

“Is he here tonight?” Emma asked, peering over Sophie through the glass double doors. “How is he?”

“At the bar.” Drawing her black knit shawl tighter around her, Sophie folded her arms. “And he’s…” she hesitated before nodding, “he’s processing it. His dad died of cancer, you know, so he’s always had it in the back of his mind that this day might come. But the specialist at St. Peter’s says we caught it early and we’ve decided on an aggressive form of treatment. We’re going to fight this.”

“You’re not alone,” Emma said, firm and determined. “If you ever need anything—a ride back and forth, help with housework, a couple of hot meals—I mean it, you call me.”

Sophie smiled her gratitude, hoping it would soften the honesty with which she replied, “What we need is money.”

Digging her wallet out of her sparkling plum-colored purse, Emma shook it. “I cashed in a couple of bonds, darlin’. Money I’ve got, honey. And while I know a certain someone won’t be getting up on that stage tonight, you better believe I’m not leaving here without a winning bid on somebody.” Emma leaned in, hardly bothering to whisper as she said, “Maybe it’ll make him jealous.”

That ‘certain someone’ happened to be Lance Howard, the only firefighter who’d been at their firehouse longer than Walt. He looked the part too, and was every bit as toned and physically fit as the younger set, despite the pepper of his hair carrying more salt than it used to. It was no secret that Emma harbored a crush on him and had for years. Unfortunately, Lance was not a member of the CCC and, as far as Sophie knew, did not share in their kinky proclivities. Still, a girl could hope, and judging by the look on Emma’s determined face, tonight was the night she might just stop hoping and do something about it.

“He’s manning the bar,” Sophie leaned in to whisper. Getting the door for both ladies, Sophie gave Emma’s back both a pat and a push. “Go get him, tiger!”

“I think the word you’re looking for is ‘cougar,’ but I thank you—oh, my God,” Emma froze halfway across the threshold, her gray eyes widening as her jaw dropped. “Is that Dakota Channing? I didn’t know she was back in town! Look how much weight she’s lost; she looks fantastic! Dakota!” Emma shouted across the room, drawing more than just her target’s startled gaze. “Look at you! Good night, honey,” she shot back over her shoulder as she hurried to the bar to sweep her now blushing target into a bear hug. “You look fantastic! Where have you been squirreling yourself?”

Sophie rolled her lips to keep from laughing. Poor Dakota. She looked like a deer in the matronly social butterfly’s attentive headlights. Ah, well. Dakota had lived here once before. She knew these people almost as well as Sophie did. The dark-haired beauty had chosen to come back; she could deal with a little of Emma’s hen-clucking now.

Almost as if called, Sophie’s gaze skipped past them, past Lance mixing drinks and laughing with a small gathering of people at the bar, past the ten-piece orchestra set back near the balcony overlooking the lake, where the soft music they played drifted easily through the massive cabin, past the stage set up near a river-stone fireplace so large that it took up the entire wall. There her wandering eye halted, first upon the stage and then upon the salt-and-pepper-haired gentleman setting up an audience full of empty folding chairs around it. Only a few years older than herself, one would never know to look at him that an insidious disease was eating him from the inside out. He looked so strong, as strong he had ever been. Strong enough to toss a two-hundred-pound man over his shoulder and carry him down a ladder. Strong enough to keep her in line—Sophie’s mouth curled, despite herself—not just through all the years of their crazy youth, but to this day. Her bottom tingled beneath the sparkling black sequined layers of her dress. Her heart tingled too. Still. After all these years.

She was not ready to lose him. She’d never be ready, but especially not now. Not to cancer. Not to anything.

As if he could feel her watching, Walt looked up. Their eyes met. He probably knew exactly what she was thinking, but he smiled anyway and winked all the same. Because he was strong that way too. He might be sick, but he still gave her courage.

He also tapped his watch and cocked an eyebrow. They were on a schedule tonight. Time wasn’t going to wait for them, and in just the short period in which she had stood here, mooning over him like a new blushing bride, several people had entered through the patio door behind her, handing their winter coats to David, another volunteer from the fire station, before joining the growing crowd at either the bar or near the orchestra.

Already more than sixty people had shown up. She expected perhaps only twenty or so more. She was grateful for the turnout. She was even more grateful for Walt’s ‘boys’ as she liked to call them. But they weren’t boys; they were the men who worked for him down at the fire station, the local Ladder 54. If not for them… well, the entire motivation (not to mention entertainment portion) for what was scheduled here tonight simply would not have happened.

Sophie went back to her self-appointed post at the door, catching the handle right before the next group of guests could admit themselves. “Welcome,” she greeted, smiling warmly at the vetted patrons of the CCC, as well as the few new faces that slipped in along with them. The group probably didn’t even notice shy, quiet, petite Rylee Mercer, who’d likely tacked herself onto their shadows before flashing Sophie an almost apologetic smile and quickly veering off to find a quiet drink and (most likely) a quiet corner in which to watch. Just like she did at the bi-monthly CCC meetings. Frankly, Sophie was surprised she’d showed up today. Of course, every month when the scheduled get-togethers rolled around, she was always a little surprised when Rylee showed up. To date, she’d never seen Rylee play. Not with anyone. She just… watched.

Movement from the kitchen caught her eye and Sophie forgot about everything except Liam, a firefighter volunteer who’d graduated from the culinary arts years ago and who, once upon a time, used to make his bones as a fine-dining chef. From the moment they’d started to pull the concept of this charity event together, he’d stepped up to take control of the kitchen. He wasn’t even a member of the CCC. Neither were Lance or David. Of all the firefighters who worked under Walt, only five shared enough of the Lassiters’ kinky proclivities as to attend more than one of their CCC parties. And yet, eleven firefighters were here tonight, showing their support for the fire chief who treated them all more like sons than employees.

Liam signaled that dinner would be ready on time. Sophie checked her watch. It was ten minutes to the official starting time listed on the invitations. She nodded her head, but ready wasn’t at all what she was feeling. This was all starting to get too real, too fast. She wasn’t ready for any of it.

She braced herself. She also got the door for the next group, a lovely couple from two counties over who made the hour-long drive through Yellowstone every month to get their kink on and who hadn’t batted an eye over the two-hundred-dollar admission to participate in tonight’s event.

Dinner was called and everyone adjourned to the dining hall where a hundred and sixty formal settings were spread out across two sixteen-foot oak tables and many additional folding tables, cleverly disguised beneath fine scarlet tablecloths, and topped with black and white lace runners and china place settings. The massive cabin had been redesigned for lavish parties practically from the moment her mother had inherited it, and this dining hall could have held two hundred, but the number currently taking their seats were the most that Sophie had ever personally presided over. Classical music from the orchestra kept the atmosphere light, and despite the seriousness of the illness that had spawned all this, people were smiling and laughing and happily getting to know those seated around them.

Oh, how Liam outdid himself. The food was wonderful, and for a man who had dedicated himself to winning the highly acclaimed World Food Championship, BBQ division, two years in a row, it wasn’t at all surprising that he could cook. That he could cook prime rib for a hundred and fifty as perfectly as what was set out on the buffet—along with the black and white rice salad and the savory lobster bisque, garlic buttery rolls that absolutely melted in her mouth, not to mention the five-layer, melt-on-the-tongue coconut cake placed among the pudding and the fruit tarts on the dessert cart—was nothing short of amazing.

“This is fantastic,” Tammi Lou exclaimed, and how that gold-digger had managed to slip into a seat not two chairs down from Sophie, she didn’t quite know. She was too much of a lady to comment on it, however; she just smiled as Tammi Lou laughed, “He’s not going to be in the auction, is he? I might just have to bid on him instead, and there goes my diet.”

Several around the table laughed. Sophie did too, but she felt pulled. Now it was starting to feel like a party—like a CCC party, when she knew an evening full of kink and fun awaited all the members she would invite, but not her. Because Sophie never played when she was acting the part of the hostess. She was too busy making sure everyone was having fun, that the rules of the cabin were being obeyed, and that the stations and equipment were being utilized safely. She was the one the newbies came to when they wanted to play but didn’t know anyone to partner with. She was the one who provided instruction for those wanting to improve their skill sets and sometimes even offered implements from her own play bag to practice with, if they didn’t have their own.

Most play nights were so hectic that Sophie couldn’t relax enough to play even if she wanted to. Usually, it wasn’t until the next day that she relaxed enough for Walt to take her by the hand and give her that same much-needed release that other submissives achieved during the parties. Oh, but she loved this group, Tammi Lou notwithstanding. She loved this cabin, and she wouldn’t give up either for anything in the world. Especially not when both were now coming together to help her husband in a way she never would have dreamed necessary.

She was going to have to say something about that. She was going to have to say something period. Dinner was drawing to a close. Empty plates were being swept from the table back to the kitchen; desserts and coffee were filtering out. She’d stayed up late last night putting together the perfect speech. She’d memorized it, but as spoons scraped that last bite from small china plates and people began shifting in their seats, carrying on the conversation but with growing excitement for what more the evening held in store, she suddenly realized that speech that she’d prepared was grossly inadequate for what she really needed to say. Through this dinner alone, what they’d already raised would never be enough, but that so many people had cared enough to contribute, that meant something more than she could put into words. Still, she was going to have to try.

Beneath the table, Walt gave her knee a squeeze. When she looked at him, his discreet nod redirected her attention to the door where David was hovering long enough to give her the five minutes mark. The boys on the stage were ready. Time to get the meat of this party started.

Her heart both leapt and tightened. She’d never done something like this before. She hoped it went well; she couldn’t afford for it not to.

Conversation dribbled to a hush when Sophie stood up. She would have clasped her nervous hands, except Walt took one and held it in his warm and comforting grip. He centered her. He’d always centered her.

“I want to thank you all for coming tonight.” She tried to pretend her voice wasn’t trembling as she tried to catch the gaze of every person seated at the tables stretching the length of this great room. “Everyone knows what this is for, so I’m not going to bore you with the details other than to say we have a plan of attack, and we have hope. Every penny of what we raise here tonight will go to covering the costs that a fireman’s insurance simply won’t. Experimental medication, large deductibles, transportation costs, overnight stays at the hotel adjacent to the hospital—these are the things we are going to need help with over the next year. Should we raise more than we require, the extra will be donated to help other families facing these exact same overwhelming costs. To that end, tonight we have two auctions. The silent auction will be held in the basement and it consists of items donated by family and friends. For instance, Lorna Beckett, who has generously donated her time and her studio for a full fantasy photography set that is also kink-friendly. She charges anywhere from $295 to $800 depending on what kind of package you desire, so please keep that in mind when you make your bids. Also in the silent auction is Travis Daily’s offer to completely renovate any room in your houses for free. Now, you’ll need to supply the materials; it’s his labor that you are bidding on tonight. If you want to know the quality of his work, feel free to wander into the cabin’s kitchen. He did that for us two years ago. He was extremely professional and fantastic to work with. We also have a few select items in the silent auction, not the least of which is a 1968 Chevy Camaro from Walt’s own collection. Spank-me red with a black stripe up the hood, it is a hardtop and has been completely restored.”

At least half the men around the tables were here for that car. She knew it from that wave of fidget-shifting that went through the collective tables as they all strove at once not to show their interest. Walt had fantastic cars and everyone knew it. That Camaro in particular had been his baby for longer than she had.

“But the silent auction isn’t our only auction here tonight,” Sophie continued. “For those of you who are interested in that, I would have you please follow me.”

An entire chorus of chairs scooted back from the table as roughly half the women in the room, women not just from the CCC or Big Banks, but who had responded to the flyers she’d sent out and driven in from all over the state, followed her down the hall to the living room. The lights were dimmed low now, and the shadows of the massive stage dominated. From the moment her heels crossed the threshold into that room, a low thumping beat began in the base speakers set up all around the stage. Multicolored lights winked on like a runway, drawing the ladies filing in behind her down through the aisle of folding chairs. Light-up auction paddles waited for them on each of those seats.

A hand touched Sophie’s shoulder just before David leaned in to whisper, “Ready when you are.” He pressed a microphone into her hand, the same one she used on party nights whenever she had announcements.

She could do this, Sophie told herself. She could totally do this.

A smoky mist began curling out across the stage, falling in ethereal wisps to the floor where it spread out to twine about the feet and ankles of those seated in the front row. Lines of multicolored lights around the edge of the stage flashed on, blinking along to the beat of the music now drowning out any hint of whether the orchestra still played or not.

Her palms felt sweaty. Her hands shook. She hoped this wasn’t a flop.

“Welcome, ladies,” Sophie said as she flicked the microphone on. The speakers around the stage amplified the false confidence in her voice as she took her place to the back of that ocean of chairs. During practice, this had been the only place in the room where she could stand without the mic and speakers screeching feedback off one another. From here, the low thump of the base beat throbbed through the floor and up through her feet. “Welcome to the CCC’s first ever Date-A-Dom auction. The rules tonight are simple: You are bidding on one night—and one night only—in the privacy of the Crystal Cabin, with all the amenities it has to offer, under the undivided attention of one of our vetted doms. Five of them have stepped forward tonight, ladies. Five men who make a living out of finding ‘em hot and leaving ‘em wet, and they are ready, willing, and fully capable of offering their spanking services… to you.” Sophie smiled at the giggles that inspired. “You know them. You’ve watched them scene and you know what they can do. Get ready, because the hotter you get, the faster they’ll come. And for the price of your winning bid, these men are gearing up to do all of that to you. I bring you the bad boys from Big Banks’ very own Ladder 54 and the CCC’s first ever Date-A-Dom!”

The black screen mounted to the back of the stage lit up with a ceiling-high photograph of the fire station, complete with crisscrossing ladder trucks. And there standing in a line along the back where no one had seen them even come out onto the stage, were Walt’s boys: Walker, Troy, Blake, Declan, and Theo. They stood in full fire gear, all beat up and scruffy and even smelling faintly of smoke, as if they had come straight from the worst the dry Montana summers and a stray spark had to offer. Their heads were bowed, showing only the tops of their smudged yellow helmets, with the flashing lights reflecting off their raised visors. Their big hands hung straight at their sides. Their legs were each braced a shoulder span apart. They could have been a line of strippers straight out of a movie like Magic Mike. An image that was reinforced on the very next deep thump of the base speakers, when as one, all five of them shed their heavy work coats to reveal they were shirtless underneath.

The women in the audience erupted in gasps, then cheers and enthusiastic clapping.

Beside her, David snorted laughter. “I’m so never letting any of them live this down,” he said under his breath. “Ever.”

“Be nice,” Sophie told him, grinning for the first time all night. She’d never been so proud of anyone, the way she was as she stood watching these men and trying not to cry. They weren’t just doing this for her and Walt; they were throwing themselves into the role as if they’d been practicing for it for weeks. “If you think you can do better, you get on up there too.”

“No, thank you,” David grinned. “I’m married and I would like to stay that way.”

Bringing the microphone back to her lips, Sophie called above the whooping of the crowd, “Count your cash and grab your bank cards, ladies.” On cue, all five firemen stepped into the flashing light to take their place in the center of that swirling, smoke-filled stage. “You know what they say: Play with fire and you could get burned. Well, I say, play with a fireman and you’ll end up wet… every time! Throw your hands together for our first man up—Walker!”

Sweeping his helmet off his head, the fireman to the far left tossed it away and strutted out to the forward edge of the stage. All dark hair and devilish grin, Walker had been a hot commodity dom from the moment he’d started attending the CCC. The man had only moved here from California a year ago. It was said Los Angeles was the City of Angels, but only because the City of Sin had already been taken, and it was definitely not angels that Walker brought to mind when he raised his arms to flex his muscles and strike a sideways pose.

“A master with both flogger and cane, if you’ve seen him play then you also know he’s got one hell of a pumper!” Sophie quickly shut off the mic, but not before David threw his head back and laughed. On the stage, Walker shot her a warning look, but at the same time gave a dutiful hip thrust that set the audience off into peals of squealing giggles. Bright red flashes from multiple auction paddles rippled through the audience before she could even say, “Shall we start the bidding at one hundred dollars—I’ve got two… three hundred…”

“Yup!” David boomed out, still laughing as he took his place as a spotter out in the crowd. He walked down the aisle, a sweeping gesture of his hand following every subsequent red flash that upped Walker’s price that much higher.

The number ratcheted high in a shocking amount of time, passing a thousand, which was easily five hundred more than she’d thought possible when this whole idea had been laid out before her. “Fifteen hundred,” she called. “Now who’ll give me sixteen… sixteen hundred?”

“Yup!” David called, his arm flying out to match the bright red flash of a paddle coming up in the front row. But bidding had slowed. Only two women now remained locked in a red-flashing war of determined auction paddles.

“Seventeen hundred,” Sophie called.

“Yup!” David confirmed, pointing to the flash of a paddle in the far back.

“Eighteen hu—”

“Yup!”

“Do I hear nineteen hundred?”

The woman in the back of the room—Sophie squinted; was that Tammi Lou?—hesitated, but then her paddle flashed as she held it up again, shooting the bid back to the front row. Shielding her eyes against the glare of the stage lights, Sophie was shocked to see shy, quiet, had-yet-to-play Rylee slap her paddle up into the air.

“Yup!” David called at the flash.

“The bid is at nineteen hundred dollars,” she called. “Do I hear two—”

Rylee’s paddle hit the air before Sophie could even finish, and upped the bid.

Everyone knew Tammi Lou had more money than even God knew what to do with. But for some reason, she hesitated. Truth be told, she had been hesitating for some time, but then that was the nature of auctions. The bidding would go until someone ran out of money. That that someone looked to be Tammi Lou was nothing short of shocking, but it never occurred to Sophie that something might be wrong. Not until Walker hopped down off the stage and, suddenly, Tammi Lou vomited, something Sophie only knew because the women around her jumped out of their chairs with gasps and exclamations.

Walker was at her side before Sophie could switch the mic off. Knowing Tammi Lou could have had no finer help and halfway suspecting she’d probably engineered this in order to get it, Sophie signaled to Lance at the bar and then continued with her job. “We’re at two thousand dollars, ladies. Do I hear two thousand and one?”

Tammi Lou didn’t wait for anyone else’s help, not even Walker’s. Her face flushed and sweating, she grabbed the back of her dress and ran for the nearest bathroom.

“Too much to drink,” Walker mimed at her. He waved for Sophie to keep going, and even stayed to clean up just as soon as Lance got there with a bucket and rag.

That man was a keeper.

“Going once…” Sophie said, slowly reclaiming the attention of the crowd as she closed out the remaining bidder. “Come on, ladies, he’s not just an excellent dom, but he does cleanup too! Going twice…”

Walker poked his head up over the top of the crowd to give her the kind of look that made her laughingly glad she wasn’t his submissive.

“Sold,” she declared, “to Rylee for two thousand dollars!”

She could not have been more pleased at the price one night with Walker had brought. It was always the quiet ones who surprised her, Sophie thought, as David met Rylee with cellphone and chip reader ready to swipe for payment.

“There’s still four more doms to go,” she cried, the excitement on the floor kicking back up in a wave as the tallest of the firemen stepped out of the lineup and took center stage. “He’s six-foot and five-inches of good ol’ boy wrapped in muscle, and he’s got a love for the darker side of S&M. Best known around the firehouse for perfecting the phrase, ‘We’re gonna need a little more head pressure,’ put your hands together for Blake!”

The ladies whooped and cheered as Blake strolled out to the front of the stage.

“You can climb that man like a tree,” Sophie called, cheerfully ignoring the arched eyebrow Blake gave her as he spread his arms and made a slow circle, letting the women get a good look. He strode toward Sophie, removing his helmet and holding it against his left hip as he threw her a salacious wink.

“I’m ready, Mrs. Lassiter,” he hollered out across the sea of excited women. His steps were confident and his hips held nothing but swagger as he asked them, “Who wants me?”

The volume in the place rose exponentially, and he grinned.

Showboat, Sophie thought fondly. “Let the bidding start at one hundred dollars!”

Flashing red paddles shot into the air and the price went soaring. Apparently, tall-as-trees firemen inspired a pretty price, because they passed Walker’s ending bid by more than three hundred dollars before Sophie’s second surprise of the night stood up in victory. It was Lauren, Emma’s British-sounding friend whom Sophie had only just met and who had never even attended a CCC party before. She’d have pegged that girl as a newbie, and newbies were usually so reserved. That Lauren wasn’t stunned Sophie almost as much as Blake’s twenty-four-hundred-dollar winning bid.

“Next up, we have Troy!” And so it went on, with Troy bringing two thousand, and gorgeous sun-bronzed Declan bringing twenty-three hundred, and finally it was the last fireman standing. Theo milked the audience, too. He flexed, he winked, he worked the crowd. Whether it was because he was the last dom and their last chance for something that might very well never be offered at the CCC again, Sophie didn’t know, but he brought more than three thousand dollars and a whooping war cry of victory from the winning bidder—a young lady named Selene, whom Sophie had only just met at the coffee shop the day before.

Sophie managed to hold everything together while the ladies, both the winning and those who hadn’t, filed back out of the living room. Some went outside to walk along the balcony and watch as moonlight played upon the rippling surface of the lake. Others headed upstairs, where the silent auction was still in full swing.

“We just collected eleven thousand six hundred dollars,” David said as he handed back both her cellphone and the chip scanner.

Walker shut off the music, while Declan turned off the flashing multicolored lights, and the remaining three firemen came down off the stage to meet her.

Troy spread his arms. “Well?” he said with a smile. “Not bad for a bunch of truckies, right?”

She didn’t know how close she was to losing it until she tried to thank them. Throwing her arms around as many as she could reach, Sophie burst into tears.

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