The Pepperverse - Home of Author Pepper Espinoza

Hearts Afire: To Heaven Resembled

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Firefighter Lance Stuart is minding his own business when a man on the street stops him with a simple expression of gratitude. He falls into the conversation with the man, and learns that Jakob is far more than what one might expect from a busker. For starters, he’s gorgeous. He’s also funny, charming, and flirty. Lance immediately wants to get to know him better.

Jakob Fox spends his days performing on the sidewalk and his evenings in various coffee shops and clubs, reading his poetry. But he always takes the time to thank firefighters when he sees them. He knows first-hand how much firefighters risk and what they sacrifice. His father was a New York firefighter, until he died in the line of duty. As a result, Jakob can show his appreciation, but he always keeps his emotional distance--from everybody. He also suffers from almost debilitating anxiety.

He wants to be with Lance, but he can’t handle the emotional stress of being with a firefighter. Jakob needs to decide if they have a future, or if he should just walk away.



Pepper Espinoza and India Harper both deliver well written, thought provoking stories in the Hearts Afire: November anthology. Both of the firefighters loves their job, but are still open-minded enough to understand the impact of their career on the men in their lives. I think Lance won me over just because he was able to prioritize what he deemed important and was willing to make sacrifices for love. --Four Nymphs from Literary Nymphs



“Thank you.”

Lance stopped short and looked over his shoulder. The words had been clear and loud, and he was pretty sure they were directed at him, though he hadn’t been doing anything except walking. There was nobody to his left, but when he swung his head to the right, he found a possible source for the words. A scruffy young man with the most stunning blue eyes Lance had ever seen leaned against the wall, one foot crossed over the other as he idly strummed a guitar. His other hand moved over the fret, like he was picking out chords, but Lance couldn’t tell what. At his feet lay an open case. Brown hair hung over his forehead, like he was a week overdue for a cut, and he had the type of body that always made Lance pay attention.

After several beats, he realized he was staring, quite openly and rudely. He had been staring so long that he couldn’t just turn around and walk away like nothing happened. Even though he was pretty sure a red flush was starting to creep up his neck. He was just grateful for the shades hiding his eyes. “Excuse me?”

The young man used his guitar to gesture at Lance’s chest and the Los Angeles Fire Department initials on his blue shirt. His fingers were still moving, strumming out a tune Lance could barely catch, and didn’t recognize. Lance couldn’t help but notice that his nails were neatly trimmed.

“Thanks. You know, for all your hard work.”

“Oh.” Lance smiled a little self-consciously. It wasn’t the first time somebody had stopped him on the street, but it always made him feel a little awkward. It wasn’t as though he became a fireman because he wanted to be a hero, but he had to admit, it was a nice perk. Especially when good-looking guitar players stopped him to express his gratitude. “Well, you’re welcome.” He might have left it at that, but the stranger’s eyes were like magnets drawing him forward. “I thought you might have been sarcastic.”

He tilted his head, his fingers moving along the fret like they had wills of their own. “Why?”

“Because I just kept walking and didn’t, you know...” Lance gestured at the case. Coins and bills littered the bottom, but it was by no means a great fortune. Or any fortune at all, really.

The man smiled. His smile was almost as captivating as his eyes. “No, I find that sarcasm doesn’t actually encourage people to give me their money.”

Lance returned the smile. “I guess it wouldn’t.”

“You been a fireman for long?”

“Five years now.”

“Five years? I thought you were younger than that.”

Lance took a step towards him. “Nope. And I’m getting older every day. What are you playing?”

“Nothing right now. I’m just making sure it’s in tune.”

“You can do that while we talk?”

“Sure. You can do two things at once, can’t you?”

“I did try to walk and chew gum at the same time. It wasn’t pretty.”

The man looked up from beneath his lashes, his eyes dancing with amusement. “You’d expect firemen to be a little bit more coordinated than that.”

“No kidding. Actually, I’m not a fireman. They just let me hang around the station as a sort of mascot.”

The man arched his brow. “I thought that’s what Dalmatians were for.”

“I’m cuter than a Dalmatian.”

“A Dalmatian?” He shook his head. “No, but maybe an English Bulldog.”

“Gee, thanks.”

“Were you fishing for compliments?”

“No, but I wouldn’t have complained if you had given me one.” Lance touched the open guitar case with the tip of his boot. “Besides, English Bulldogs aren’t ugly.”

His grin widened. “I never said they were. For all you know, I love English Bulldogs and I have one of my own.”

“Do you?”

“No, but I’d like one.”

Lance snorted and held out his hand. “I’m Lance Stuart, by the way.”

“Jakob Fox.” He stopped playing long enough to take Lance’s palm in a firm grip. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”

“Do you play around here usually? I’m sure I’ve seen you here before.” Which was a lie, but Lance figured it was forgivable, since his intentions were good. Now that he was standing a little closer, he noticed small details. Like the fact that Jakob’s shirt was clean, and the scruffy beard wasn’t actually scruffy at all, but neatly trimmed.

“Yeah, I usually play on this block. Sometimes Devin lets me play inside for tips.”

Lance looked up, dragging his gaze from Jakob. They were standing outside Café Muse. Lance had never been inside. The name itself was enough to put him off. He didn’t really get the feeling it was the right place for firefighters who preferred Budweiser to lattes. “That must have been where I’ve seen you before.”

Jakob inclined his head. “Must have been. Though it doesn’t really seem like your sort of place.”

“It doesn’t? Why not? I like coffee.”

Jakob’s smile changed slightly, and his eyes glittered with amusement. “The coffee is okay, but I meant because of the atmosphere. This place is usually full of beat poets and old hippies...and other eccentrics.”

“Oh, yeah, I know.” Lance offered an easy smiling, wondering if he should just cut the conversation short while he could still escape with his pride intact. “I like eccentric people. They keep life interesting.”

“If you’re not on your way to any fires or anything, I’d love to buy you a coffee.”

“I’m not even on my way to the station. Today’s my day off.”

“Mascots get days off?”

“Oh, there are two. We trade shifts.”

“You and the Dalmatian, eh?”