Excerpt from RIDE THE FIRE
Copyright © Jo Davis, 2010
All Rights Reserved, Penguin Group USA
After a day of putting out blazes, the firefighters of Station Five tend to give off their own heat. But Captain Sean Tanner is about to get burned…
After a tragedy took the lives of his wife and children, Sean was a shattered man who drowned his pain and heartbreak with alcohol. Now, fresh from rehab, he wants to stay clean, regain the trust of his team, and begin again. The last thing he needs is to have feelings for Eve Marshall, the beautiful lone female at the station.
But even as they dare to explore their mutual desires, Sean discovers that the accident that stole his family may have been a cold-blooded murder. And that a vengeful shadow from his past has returned to commit a shocking act of terror—and finish off Sean and anyone he loves…
On the night the world ended, Blair Tanner told her husband to go to hell.
The argument was stupid. Just one of many they’d had lately, going at each other like scalded cats in a sack. Sean leaned his back against the grille of Engine 171, arms crossed over his chest, and stared out the open door of the fire station’s bay, watching brown leaves drift from the trees to litter the ground outside.
Everyone assumed he and Blair were blissfully happy, the quintessential Barbie and Ken couple with their two gorgeous children, not to mention a pair of nice vehicles, living on a spread they’d never be able to afford if not for Blair’s fancy job. Sean snorted, figuring at least one of those points was spot-on.
His teenage son and six-year-old daughter were perfect. Even more than the job he loved so much, he breathed for his children. Not, however, according to his pissed-off wife when they’d had it out over the phone earlier.
Your son is going to be so let down. How can you do this to him, Sean?
Bobby understands. I can’t leave my men in a bind—
Oh, save it! Always with the excuses, and they’re getting old. You know, if you can’t appreciate what you have here, someone else might.
What the fuck is that supposed to mean? Blair?
“Hey, Cap. What’s with the long face? In the doghouse again?”
Sean turned to see Clay Montana swagger toward him, grinning like a fool. “Is my name Sean Tanner and do I have a pulse?” He couldn’t help but smile back at their resident cowboy.
“Ouch.” Clay grimaced in sympathy. “That’s what happens when you break the first rule of bachelorhood.”
“Never sleep with the same woman twice. Unless a man wants to end up like you—pussy-whupped and with couple of rug rats biting at your ankles.”
Sean laughed, shaking his head at the cowboy’s earnest expression. The guy wasn’t joking. “Yeah? At least I know where my woman’s been, and I happen to like my rug rats just fine, thanks.”
Clay shrugged. “Whatever, it’s your blood pressure, not mine. So, what happened?”
“Blair ripped me a new one for working overtime tonight instead of going with her and Mia to watch Bobby’s football game. He’s the starting quarterback again and he’s doing really well since he took over for the first-string kid who got injured. He’s even been approached by a couple of college scouts.” His chest puffed out with pride at that.
“Hey, that’s great! For Bobby, anyhow. We can probably swing it if you want to take off and catch the last half. If nothing else, we can try to call in the lieutenant to cover.”
For a long moment, he was tempted. “Nah, that’s okay, I already asked Six-Pack. He couldn’t make it in and I don’t want to leave you short a man. Besides, there’s a couple of games left in the regular season and I promised Bobby I’d make those.”
“Sucks being the boss, huh?”
“Only when I have to disappoint my kids to come ride roughshod over you bozos,” he said, shooting the other man a grin. “Someday you’ll understand.”
Clay shuddered. “Not me, man. No freaking way will you see me stick my head through the golden noose.”
Sean snickered as Clay strode back inside, presumably to make himself useful doing something. Sean thought his friend protested too much. Firefighters were family people, nurturers at heart. They all fell eventually, and he’d bet Clay would be no different.
The evening crawled at a snail’s pace with only a couple of minor calls, and Sean began to think he’d given up his day off for nothing. But if he hadn’t come in, the station would’ve gotten called to some real disaster and he would’ve ended up here all the same. Murphy’s Law.
It was almost a relief when dispatch sent them out to an accident—except this one was major, with two possible fatalities and a third person, a screaming child, trapped in the burning car. In the front passenger’s seat of the quint, Sean stared intently down the highway, knowing time wasn’t on their side. They weren’t going to make it before the fire consumed the vehicle, and he hoped the police or bystanders were able to free the child and anyone else involved.
Behind the wheel, Clay gestured to the blaze in the distance, growing closer. “Is that what I think it is?”
“Sure as hell is,” John “Val” Valentine said grimly from the back. “We’ve got a car bred to an eighteen-wheeler, folks.”
The police hadn’t yet arrived. The eighteen-wheeler was parked on the shoulder, as though it had some sort of engine trouble. The car that had hit the rig from behind was fully involved with flames, too, the blaze beginning to engulf the back end of the big semi. Clay pulled the quint as close as they dared, the ambulance on their tail, and they all jumped out. Clay and another man scrambled to grab hoses, while Sean and the others went to assess the situation, check on survivors and their injuries. Other cars had pulled onto the shoulder, and shocked witnesses stared at the spectacle, a couple of women sobbing.
One older woman grabbed the sleeve of Val’s heavy coat. “They c-couldn’t get the little g-girl out! The older boy who was driving the car, a-and the woman, they were dead. But the little one was screaming for her daddy to put out the fire and—and . . .” The woman clapped a hand over her mouth, overcome by recounting the horrifying events.
Sweet Jesus. Her words made Sean’s blood run cold. “Ma’am, are there any other survivors you know of?”
“The driver of the big truck says he’s fine. He’s over there,” she said in a wobbly voice, and pointed. Sean followed the gesture to a distraught man sitting on the shoulder of the highway, face in his hands, and doubted the man was fine at all.
“Val, check on the driver while I go talk to the witnesses.”
“Got it, Cap.”
Pushing his fire hat back on his head, Sean turned and began to walk toward the inferno and the agitated witnesses. Three men were pacing too close to the fire, hopeless expressions on their faces. There was nothing they could have done, and Sean felt sorry for the poor bastards. Nobody should have to encounter something as sad as this.
He opened his mouth to yell at the three men to move back—
And that’s when he saw the license plate on the back end of the car, curling and blackening from the intense heat. Saw the letters and numbers rapidly being overcome by the flames.
An older boy and a woman.
A little girl screaming for Daddy to put out the fire.
“No.” He stopped, rooted in place, his mind resisting the truth. Unwilling to make the final connection, to make it real.
Because if it was real, he had nothing. Was nothing. Not without his family.
“Oh, God . . .”
His knees buckled, hit the asphalt. He struggled to draw in a breath, to scream, but his lungs were frozen.
“Cap! Cap, what’s wrong? Talk to me!” Someone crouched beside him and a gloved hand grabbed his arm.
“That car,” he whispered. “That’s my wife’s car. My family . . .”
“What? No, no, I’m sure you’re mistaken. Sean?”
The truth swept in, as black and bitter as the stench of gasoline and burning bodies, and he couldn’t stop the images.
Blair. Bobby. Mia, his sweet baby.
Blair was right to damn him to hell. He’d put work above his family and they’d paid the ultimate price. He hadn’t deserved them, and now . . . No, please, God. Please.
He slumped sideways, falling into darkness.
“Sean? Oh, Jesus. Somebody help me over here!”
But there was no help for him.
Not ever again.
Laughter and celebration carried on the warm spring breeze, and with the sounds of merriment, the swell of excitement reflected in so many young faces. This day truly marked the first day of the rest of their lives.
Bouncing on his feet, Sean Tanner impatiently searched the sea of caps and gowns for the one person who mattered most. The one who always had his back, no matter what. Finally, he spotted a familiar blond head weaving through the crowd, headed straight for him and rapidly closing the distance.
Jesse Rose’s smile lit his handsome face as he wrapped Sean in a manly hug, slapping him on the back. “Dude, was that boring or what? Thought they’d never stop preaching about us being the future of mankind and shit.”
Sean drew back, playfully ruffling his best friend’s hair. “Scary thought, huh?”
“You know it! So tell me, what’s the plan? Made up your mind yet?” Still smiling, Jesse arched a blond brow. As if he knew damned well that hearing the words was a mere formality.
Sean sucked in a deep breath, and forced down the flutter of fear in his heart. It was just the thrill of the unknown, that was all. “You and me, the few and the proud. We’re gonna see the world, man!”
His friend slung his arm about his shoulders. “I knew I could count on you.”
“Always, Jesse. Always.”
Sean Tanner leaned against the porch railing and wrapped his hands around his coffee mug, relishing the warmth. The fall morning was crisp and cool, sporting enough of a bite to justify the light jacket he wore over his navy fire department polo shirt. As he watched the horses graze, his thoughts tumbled one after another, a lengthy, confusing list of things to do.
Amends to make.
Emotions assailed him, a cacophony of trepidation, anxiety, amazement. And hope.
Hope, because as terrifying as the tasks laid before him were, the miles left to travel, all these intimidating thoughts and emotions had one important thing in common.
They were those of a sober man.
But for how long? Would he screw up tomorrow, next week? Even now his hands trembled as he clutched the mug, longing to skip the much-anticipated reunion with his team. To jump into the Tahoe and make tracks to the liquor store outside of town, grab a bottle of bourbon to add some kick to his coffee. Replace the raw pain of reality with the comforting haze of oblivion.
Closing his eyes, he clamped down hard on the temptation and beat it into submission. If he went down that road again, he might as well be dead. No. When he finally joined his family on the other side, he’d go to them as a man they could be proud of, not the mean, drunken wretch of the past two years. The man who became so sloppy and inattentive at work, he’d cost Tommy Skyler his firefighting career and nearly his life.
That man isn’t me. Never again.
Heading inside, he rinsed out the mug and placed it in the dishwasher. Turned off the coffeepot. Wiped down the counter. Watered the ivy on the windowsill. Anything to keep him busy and his mind off another drink, not to mention his dubious reception in—he glanced at the kitchen wall clock—forty minutes.
A deep sigh escaped his lips. No sense in putting off the inevitable. Even if he’d rather get caught in a backdraft with no hope of escape than face five of the people he’d let down time and again.
“Jesus, grow a pair and get going, Tanner.” End of pep talk.
Before he could change his mind and do something truly idiotic, like call in sick, Sean snatched his keys off the counter and headed out the door.
The drive into Sugarland had never seemed so long, and singing country music along with the radio didn’t provide much of a distraction. Then suddenly he was at the station, parked in his usual spot around back, almost frozen in place by the difficulty of taking the next few steps.
If they’d strung up banners and shit, he was going straight home.
He slid out of the Tahoe, locked up, and pocketed his keys. Walking around the side of the building, he steeled himself for whatever was to come. Awkwardness? Or, worse, sympathy?
Taking a deep breath, he stepped into the bay and found . . . complete normalcy.
Zack Knight, their FAO—fire apparatus operator—had his back to Sean and was busy buffing the quint to a candy-apple shine. A couple of guys just getting off C-shift were standing around bullshitting with Julian Salvatore and Sean’s best friend, Lieutenant Howard “Six-Pack” Paxton. Clay Montana, who’d moved to A-shift and taken Tommy Skyler’s vacated spot, was fishing around in the back of the ambulance. Sean scanned the group for Eve Marshall, Station Five’s only female firefighter, but didn’t see her, and figured she was inside, maybe manning breakfast. A day just like any other.
Sean cleared his throat. “Is that all you lazy boneheads have to do, stand around and jaw like a bunch of old fishermen?”
A bead of sweat rolled down his temple, the only outward sign of the knot in his stomach. Conversation halted and all eyes swung his way, wary and uncertain—until he gave them a tentative smile.
“How’s it hangin’?”
“Damn, you look good! Don’t he look good?”
The general explosion of heartfelt well-wishes wrapped around him like a blanket, eased a sore place in his gut as the guys migrated toward him. No cheesy banners, but he had to admit the backslapping that ensued was all right because it meant his boys still gave a fuck about him. This was their way, he realized, of making sure he knew they respected him—or at least were willing to forgive. Even after the crap he’d put them through.
And, yeah, he must have gotten some dirt in his eyes, making them sting.
“Let the man breathe,” Six-Pack boomed, pushing the others aside and promptly ignoring his own dictate. He scooped Sean into a bone-crunching bear hug that lifted him off his feet with no effort whatsoever, which was saying a lot, since Sean wasn’t a small guy.
Sean laughed, the sound strange and rough to his own ears. “Put me down, you big ox!”
Six-Pack did, and Sean had to look up at him, standing this close. His best friend was six feet six inches and two hundred fifty pounds of solid, intimidating muscle, if one didn’t know the man was a teddy bear. Sean was no shrimp at just over six feet and two hundred pounds, but he was much leaner in build. Hell, everyone was smaller next to the lieutenant.
Six-Pack grinned at him, brown eyes dancing. “Man, it’s great to have you back. Trying to keep these guys in line is like trying to herd baby ducklings.” This prompted a round of good-natured protests.
“Then it’s a good thing Captain Hard-ass is back to save the day, right?” A couple of them grimaced and Julian coughed, and Sean took perverse pleasure in their discomfort. “What, you didn’t think I knew? There’s nothing wrong with my hearing, you know. But hey, all’s fair. I’ll just have to work on earning a different nickname.”
Clay smirked. “Like Captain Candy-pants?”
“Smart-ass,” Julian said, punching his arm.
“How about Captain Cool?” Sean suggested, which elicited more laughs and a few ribald comments. He loved this. How long had it been since they’d felt comfortable enough to stand around and joke with him instead of running in the other direction when they saw him coming?
Out of sheer self-preservation, his brain slammed the door on the answer.
The lieutenant waved a hand. “Come on, slackers, get to work and let Sean get his bearings.”
The two men from C-shift said their good-byes and left. Zack went back to buffing the quint, Clay to whatever he was doing in the ambulance, probably stocking the meds. Yep, a normal day. Except for one thing.
“Where’s Eve?” he asked Six-Pack. He’d be damned if he’d admit how much it stung that she hadn’t come out to say hello.
“Inside, making your favorite breakfast, though you’re not supposed to know. Act surprised.”
“Oh.” Pancakes and bacon? Especially for him? Well, that sure went a long way toward soothing his remaining unease. In fact, it caused a weird little bubble of something in his chest that he couldn’t define. Something different from how relieved the guys’ greeting made him feel. “Damn, that’s really thoughtful of her.”
None of them had made his favorite breakfast.
“Ain’t it? Why don’t you go inside and say hey. I’m gonna go call Wendy Burgess back about the charity thing.”
“What charity thing?”
“You know, the auction and calendar deal.”
“No, I don’t.” A sneaking suspicion crept over him that he wasn’t going to like this.
“Jeez, I didn’t tell you when you came to the barbecue? Could’ve sworn I did. The City of Sugarland is holding a firemen’s auction in about three weeks, and also choosing twelve of our guys to do a calendar shoot, all for charity. Wendy and some of the other department brass are taking care of the bigger details.”
Sean eyed him warily. “That doesn’t sound too bad. What are we auctioning?”
His friend smiled, his expression a bit too mischievous. “Ourselves.”
He snorted. “Get outta here! No way.”
“Yep. Us in front of a bunch of squealing ladies, wearing nothing but our fire pants and red suspenders.”
“Hold on. Us? There is no us in the equation,” he said firmly. “Have fun living your Chippendales fantasy.”
“Oh, we will, all of us. I already signed you up, my friend.” Six-Pack clapped him on the shoulder.
“Well, you can just scratch my name off the list, friend. There’s absolutely no way in hell I’m going to stand around half-naked in front of a bunch of screeching women.”
The other man arched a dark brow. “Even when I tell you the event will benefit the families of fallen firefighters?”
Sean groaned. “Don’t do this to me.”
“Even if your participation could add hundreds or even thousands of dollars that will go to a grieving widow and her children? That you could single-handedly ease someone’s burden long enough to let them get back on their feet?” Six-Pack speared him with a pointed look.
“You suck,” he declared in defeat.
“I knew we could count on you! Think how much better about yourself you’ll feel, doing a good thing for someone less fortunate.” His friend beamed as they started inside together. “Besides, it’ll be a blast, you’ll see.”
“Yeah, yeah. I’m a regular Mother Teresa and party animal, all rolled into one.” Christ, he was forty-three years old, his brown hair turning silver at the temples. What if he looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy next to the department’s young studs? What if nobody bid on him? Now, that would be embarrassing. Maybe he should plant someone in the audience to step forward just in case. Problem was, he had no idea whom to ask.
The issue was put on hold as they walked into the kitchen and were greeted by the smoky aroma of frying bacon. Sean’s stomach rumbled in approval. He marveled, not for the first time in the past few weeks, how good it felt to be hungry without alcohol killing his appetite. Now he’d have to watch his weight on top of everything else.
“God, it smells good in here,” he said. At his declaration, Eve turned from the stove to face him, and his stomach did a funny lurch that had nothing to do with hunger pains.
“Well, if it isn’t our fearless leader.”
A broad, dazzling smile transformed her angular face, bright against her smooth, coffee-with-cream skin. The smile reached all the way to her big blue eyes, warm and welcoming. Dark hair shot with reddish highlights fell in gentle curls to her shoulders.
Holy shit, she’s beautiful. Why haven’t I noticed before?
Or perhaps he had sometime in the past few months. . . but he didn’t want to dwell on those fuzzy memories at the moment. He didn’t have time to, because Eve was striding toward him while he stared like a witless fool.
She wrapped him in a fierce hug, and he found himself noting how wonderful her taut, sleek body felt pressed against his. How well she fit in his arms, her chin resting on his shoulder, soft, curly hair tickling his nose. Her fresh scent, not floral, but clean and herbal.
“It’s so good to have you back.” She drew away some to hold his gaze. “I mean really back.”
“Thanks,” he said quietly. “I’ve got a ways to go, but I’m right where I belong. Just don’t give up on me.” Hell, that last part just slipped out. God, could he sound more needy?
An odd flash of emotion crossed her expression, there and gone. “Are you kidding? We haven’t so far, and we won’t. You’re going to be fine.” Releasing him, she went back to tending breakfast.
“From your lips,” he said softly, but she didn’t hear him.
The way she said that, he almost believed her. Immediately, he missed her heat pressed to his body, the soft words just for him. Why? What’s wrong with me? I’m her captain, for God’s sake. Hopefully her friend. To entertain anything more is highly inappropriate.
He’d tested the department’s goodwill and stretched it to a microscopic filament. Fooling around with a female firefighter under his watch after they’d all stuck out their necks to save him and his career? That would be the end.
The others drifted in from the bay, saving him from getting too maudlin. Leaning against the counter, he watched them horse around like a litter of goofy puppies, razzing each other and cracking jokes. Julian attempted to steal a piece of bacon from the platter only to get his hand smacked by Eve.
Sean spent a few private moments thanking God he hadn’t lost this, his second family, in the wake of trying to drown his grief. All along, he should’ve been seeking the comfort and strength his friends had to offer, not pushing them away. Time and counseling were finally getting that through his head.
Eve’s announcement was met with hearty approval and they all settled around the table, digging in. Sean took a bite of fluffy pancakes and listened to the chatter around him, content to soak in the scene. Okay, so this was good but a little weird. Like he was a guest in his own body, watching everything from a perspective that was suddenly too close-up and bright.
And it frightened him, too, the idea of living up to their faith in him. There would be no third chance. If he failed—
He blinked at the group, caught Eve and Six-Pack exchanging concerned glances. “I’m sorry, what?”
“I said we’ve decided to wear red G-strings for the auction instead,” Clay drawled, grinning. “Across the front they’ll say ‘Firemen have big hoses.’”
“Shut up, moron,” Julian said, pelting the cowboy in the face with a balled-up napkin. “Half the women in the county have already seen you in less, so where would be the surprise?”
Clay snorted. “There’s still the other half to conquer. You could get a piece of the action, too, except, wait—you’re neutered now.”
“I’ve got your ‘neutered’ hangin’ low, cowboy, and Grace has no complaints. Don’t you have an ‘off’ switch?”
“Jules finally has to put up with someone more annoying than he is,” Eve whispered in Sean’s ear, good-natured humor lacing her words. “Sweet, huh?”
Sean laughed, the sound not quite as alien as before. “True justice.”
No sooner had they finished their breakfast than the intercom emitted three loud tones and the computerized voice dispatched them to a traffic accident with a major injury out on I-49. Those calls were the worst in Sean’s opinion, the ones that made his blood run cold and threatened his sanity. The victims’ faces would haunt him for days, and now he had no buffer to place between himself and the nightmares.
They reached the scene to find a single car in a gully. The driver’s door was buckled inward just enough to prove impossible to open, a long scratch running down the side of the vehicle. An elderly gentleman sat slumped behind the wheel, unconscious and bleeding profusely from a long gash in his head.
The lieutenant and Zack brought out the Jaws of Life and went to work on the door, prying apart the stubborn metal. Moments later, Clay and Eve had the man stretched out on even ground, working feverishly to save him. The man’s face, the unmarred half, was parchment white. Slack. Shaking her head, Eve began CPR.
“Sideswiped,” an officer told Sean grimly. “Some bastard cut off the old guy, ran him right off the damn road, and didn’t stop to help.”
“Shapin’ up that way according to the witnesses. Helluva way to start the mornin’, if ya ask me.”
Sean nodded, unsure whether the cop was referring to them or the victim. He crossed his arms over his chest, watching the futile attempt to revive the man, who might have been in his eighties. Hard to tell.
Whoever he was, he didn’t make it.
Sean and his team stayed out of the way after that, using their vehicles to block the far right lane, routing traffic around the police and emergency vehicles so the officers could take photos, make reports. A mound of paperwork always followed a traffic death, particularly one now labeled a possible vehicular homicide.
Welcome back, Tanner. The day can only improve. Right?
He’d repeat that to himself over and over, until he believed it.
A knock sounded on Sean’s office door a second before Eve popped her head in.
“You got a minute?”
Sean swiveled his chair away from the computer screen and the report he’d been typing, gesturing her inside. “I’ve got several if it means putting off my paperwork. Come in.”
Eve closed the door behind her and sprawled in the chair across from his desk, all sleekly muscled limbs, like a cat. Strong enough to hold her own in a male-dominated profession, yet no less womanly. A combination Sean found intriguing. Sexy.
An observation he had no business making.
“Funny how most stuff is done online nowadays, but it’s still called paperwork,” she said, giving him a guarded smile. As though he might find an excuse to bark at her like he would’ve done a few short weeks ago.
He leaned back in his chair, linking his fingers over his flat stomach. “And it’s still a pain in the ass, too. How did we ever cope without computers and e-mail?”
A mischievous twinkle lit her blue eyes as she relaxed. “Some of us are too young to remember not having them.”
“Ouch! Third-degree burns on my first day back,” he joked. “And here I am, caught without my protective gear.”
“Just making sure you’re reinitiated properly.”
“Why do I get the feeling this is only the beginning?”
“Because it is. Don’t be fooled by the pancakes—they were merely an evil ploy to lull you into complacency.”
“Hmm. I’ll consider myself warned. So, what’s on your mind?”
Humor fading, she hesitated before getting to the point. “I want to clear the air between us once and for all, and to do that, I need to apologize.”
He stared at her in surprise. “What for?”
“For not being more supportive these past few months,” she said, guilt coloring her voice. She held his gaze, though, unflinching. “I’ve bucked you at every turn and even been a real bitch, at times in front of the others, when I knew I wasn’t helping the situation. For that, I’m deeply sorry.”
“You’re kidding, right? I was an unbearable, drunken, self-pitying son of a bitch, and you’re apologizing?” Pushing out of his chair, he stalked to the small window behind his desk and looked out at the view of the field beyond the parking lot where the guys sometimes played football. But he didn’t appreciate the scenery, as he hadn’t appreciated so many good things in his life when he’d had them.
“Yes, I am. You don’t kick someone when they’re down, especially when they’re no longer in control of their own actions, and that’s exactly what I did.”
He shook his head. “No, you didn’t. You had the best interests of this team at heart every single time we butted heads. You and the guys were afraid I’d do something to seriously fuck up and I did, so badly I can’t believe I still have a job, much less that I’m still alive. I understand that and I’m trying to make peace with what I’ve done.”
The words were horribly familiar, as though the movie reel of his life had rewound twenty years. They left him shaken.
He could never atone for what he’d cost Tommy, any more than he’d been able to atone for that other mistake so long ago. But he could try really hard to live a good life for the rest of his days—a life denied to so many he’d loved and lost.
A soft hand gripped his arm, and Eve’s sweet voice whispered next to his ear. “Everything is going to be okay, Sean. I believe in you.”
Startled, he turned to find her practically in his arms. Right where he wanted her to be, and damn him to hell for feeling this way. They stared into each other’s eyes, the moment stretching into a thin wire, supercharged, and he forgot where he was. His responsibilities, his reputation, his position as her captain.
Gone, with the first brush of his lips against hers as his palm slid down her arm. Lost, with the need in her eyes and her beautiful face tilted up to his, her taut body pressed close, warm and safe.
Heaven. Oh, God, it’s been so long. Need this, need you . . .
The cell phone on his desk shrilled a rude interruption and they sprang apart as though the fire chief himself had walked in unannounced. Off-balance from his lapse in judgment, lips tingling in pleasure, Sean grabbed for the phone.
A man’s voice responded, quiet and amused. “Did you ever ask yourself . . . what if it wasn’t an accident?”
A couple of heartbeats passed before Sean frowned and lowered the phone from his ear, his brain scrambling to assimilate the caller’s meaning. Weird. What could that possibly . . .
“Oh . . . oh, God, no.”
“Sean? Sean, what’s wrong?” Eve’s voice called to him from miles away.
And the phone slipped unnoticed from his frozen fingers. Clattered to the desktop.
“Talk to me!” Strong fingers wrapped around his upper arm, shook him.
Blinking, he gazed into Eve’s worried face and cleared his throat, suddenly gone dry. “Prank call. Had to be.”
“What did he say? Or was it a woman?”
His voice trembled, betraying his upset. “No, it was a man. He asked if I’d ever considered whether ‘it wasn’t an accident.’ Then he hung up.”
“What accident?” She frowned. “That wreck we worked earlier? Somebody sideswiped the guy and he was killed. Could that be what he was talking about?”
“I don’t know, that’s all he said. But I got the feeling it was meant to be more personal.” Leaning his rear against his desk, he ran a shaking hand through his hair and studied the floor.
“Why? Did you recognize his voice?”
“No, it was too low. And there was some background noise, like a radio or something. His tone was almost like a smirk, though. Like he was enjoying every second of jerking me around.” He raised his eyes to meet hers. “I have a feeling he was referring to the wreck that took my family.”
God, he’d said the words without falling to pieces. A first. But his chest still burned as though he’d been shot.
Eve gasped. “I can’t believe anyone would be so cruel! Who would do something so horrible, and just when you’re beginning to heal?”
He thought heal was a pretty strong word, but didn’t point it out. Considering the answer to her question, he gave a harsh laugh and spread his hands as though indicating the whole city. “Pick a contestant. There’re bound to be a couple of guys in the department who are less than thrilled to have me back. My actions killed Skyler’s career, remember?”
“Tommy is still your friend,” she said softly. “Everyone knows that.”
The kind reminder helped, but not much. “Yeah. Doesn’t mean everyone likes it, though.”
“True, but I can’t honestly think of anyone who’d go that far. Can you?”
The three loud call tones interrupted further speculation, for the time being. Sean almost breathed a sigh of relief, but experience had taught him better. A firefighter should never let his guard down, never take a call for granted as simple or easy.
And this one was anything but.
“A water rescue.” Eve groaned as she pushed out the door ahead of him, and broke into a jog. “Shit, we haven’t had one of those in ages.”
“Be glad I had Six-Pack take all of you through that drill on the Cumberland last week,” he said, hurrying after her into the bay. A quick check showed the others were already there, pulling on their gear, two of them hitching the rescue boats to the smaller red truck.
“Which you conveniently missed because you weren’t back at work yet.”
At her raised brow, he just shot her a grin and said, “I’ll pull the boat. You ride with me.”
Her eyes widened and she opened her mouth, but the order had surprised her into silence. As they prepared to leave, he couldn’t help but gloat a little. Catching Eve off guard wasn’t easy.
And for some reason, he looked forward to doing it a whole lot more in the future.
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