BY SHERRY MORRIS
"Would you like some coffee?" she asked, "I don't make it just for myself, but I can brew a fresh pot for us."
"No, thanks, I've had too much. I want to try to get the framing done today." He turned on the basement light.
"Okay, thanks, Johnny. You really don't have to do this—"
He placed a finger on her lips. "Shh…stop it. Brandon was my best buddy. I'm finishing what he started…"
Susan wiped a tear from her eye and smiled, looking away. "Let me take a shower, then I'll come down and give you a hand."
* * * *
In the basement, Johnny measured and cut the studs for the final wall. He laid them out on the concrete floor, spacing the two-by-fours eighteen inches on center. His mind wandered to how attractive Susan looked this morning, standing in front of him in that robe with her long black hair all tousled. He'd never known anyone else with crayon blue eyes like Susan's. He'd fallen hard for her the first time their eyes met, at the awards ceremony where Brandon received his medal. Brandon was the one who pulled her out of the apartment fire. Johnny couldn't compete with her hero. The Lieutenant had Johnny up on the roof, ventilating. Damn it. It should have been him rescuing the goddess from the fire.
She had occupied his mind for much of the last six years. The one woman he couldn't have. In Johnny's fantasies, he'd steal Susan away from his best friend—the man with whom fate had erroneously paired her. But now all of that had changed.
Johnny put his finger on his lips, the one he shushed her with. He softly stroked his mouth. Water clunked through the pipes. Johnny Newman envisioned the chenille robe falling to the floor and Susan stepping into the hot spray. Oh, to be her pump bottle of foaming body wash…
* * * *
Susan inhaled fresh sawdust as she trotted down the unfinished pine stairs. Bob stumbled along in front. Johnny was lifting the last section of framing off the floor. He'd pre-assembled the studs in between the top and bottom boards. That way he didn't have to toenail them in. Susan helped heave the framing upright. Johnny employed a sledgehammer to gently persuade the tight fitting wall section into place. He adjusted it level, plumb and square.
Johnny put on ear protectors. "Cover your ears, sweetheart."
She did as he said and ran to the other side of the basement with Bob at her heels. Johnny used a concrete hammer and little loads of gunpowder to fasten it to the floor. Four loud pops and the wall wasn't going anywhere.
Susan and her puppy trotted back over to him. She took the ear protectors off of Johnny. He smiled.
She shook his hand. "You did it!"
"Tomorrow I'll start on the wiring."
"Do you want to bring Jenna over tonight, I'll cook a nice meal for us?"
Johnny shook his head. "Jenna's outta the picture."
Susan grinned. "The perpetual bachelor. Let me guess. She gave you the old ultimatum, 'Marry me or we're through.' and you said, 'It's been fun.'"
"Somethin' like that."
"Why don't you ever settle down, Johnny?"
He wanted so badly to blurt it out, but it was too soon. Or was it? He couldn't blow this one. He shrugged his shoulders.
"Well, the invite still stands. I'll make Mediterranean garlic shrimp. Bring someone else if you'd like. Eight thirty-ish."
"I'll be here, alone, and I'll bring dessert."
"It's a date."
Johnny couldn't believe she'd said that. She had to mean it, didn't she?
Susan said, "Bob! No! No eating sawdust! Spit it out, now." She leaned down and swept the yellow pine fluff out of his mouth. "You go get in your playpen, right now. Get in your playpen." She chased him up the stairs.
Johnny said, "Sorry, it's my fault." He wondered if she really had said the word date. He had to be reading into things. He shop-vacuumed up the sawdust before joining Susan and Bob upstairs. His pulse raced.
Susan followed him to the door. "Thanks, Johnny."
He grabbed his coat and kissed her cheek, something he'd never done before. "Bye." Johnny hurried to his fire engine red pick-up truck.Susan locked the door and trotted to the kitchen, where she sprawled on the floor, petting Bob. He nuzzled her face, sniffing. For the first time, she felt uncomfortable around Johnny. There was something different in that kiss. Could he be flirting with her? No way. FDNY's most eligible bachelor wouldn't be wasting his talents on her. He dated models and lawyers.