Award-Winning Author of Romantic and Erotic Suspense
  Jo Davis  
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Excerpt from TRIAL BY FIRE

Copyright © Jo Davis, 2007
All Rights Reserved, Penguin Group USA

TRIAL BY FIREMeet Lieutenant Howard “Six-Pack” Paxton—
one of the handsome, hard-bodied firefighters of Station Five.
Four-alarm fires have nothing on him…
Howard may love being a firefighter and riding his Harley, but there’s nothing he values more than his bachelorhood. That is, until a feisty, curvaceous teacher named Kat McKenna falls into his arms at the scene of a fire—and melts the six-foot-six tower of bronze muscle…
But just as passion ignites between them—and they explore new heights of sexual ecstasy—a ruthless arsonist with a deadly secret and a thirst for vengeance becomes their worst nightmare…

 

Chapter One

Lieutenant Howard Paxton gritted his teeth against the burn, every muscle straining as he pumped three hundred pounds of iron from his bare, sweaty chest.

This is where you wind up when you’re cursed with insomnia and a drunken screwup for a bunkmate, friends and neighbors. As far back as he recalled, he’d never slept the night through. The odds of running across a miraculous cure for night owl syndrome after thirty-six years? Forget it. No help for that, except working himself until he dropped.

As for Julian party-like-you’re-gonna-die Salvatore...

Recalling the nasty scene earlier on shift today between Jules and Zack, Howard tightened his grip on the bar and started another series of reps. Of all things to target with his asinine practical jokes, Jules had to pick Engine 171, for God’s sake? Zack’s baby, his pride and joy. Took a biggie to trip Zack’s trigger, and Salvatore knew exactly how to flip the switch. They’d almost come to blows before he’d stepped between them, yanking apart a couple of snarling junkyard dogs.

Quiet, nerdy Zack Knight? Who knew?

Hands down, Salvatore was the most immature, self-absorbed team member he’d ever taken under his wing. Wasn’t the first time he’d dealt with a weak link like Salvatore, wouldn’t be the last. If the guy didn’t grow up, he’d get somebody hurt one of these days. Case in point, today’s fireworks. Slowly, his lack of discipline in his personal life was bleeding into the job. Pray to Jesus the Captain fired him first. And yet...

Tense with frustration, Julian had defended himself later, keeping his anger in check, his tone respectful. They’d been holed up in the privacy of the office Howard shared with the Captain. “Lieutenant, if the joke had come from anybody but me, we wouldn’t be standing here. Can you deny that?”

He couldn’t.

In spite of having the personality of a horny jackrabbit with ADD, Salvatore was an excellent firefighter and paramedic. Coolheaded in a tough situation, good at calming accident victims. If only he’d get a handle on the cocky attitude and get serious, maybe the team would bond with him.

Okay, give Jules a chance. Can’t fix the guy overnight. Think about something else.

Another rep, and another. He ought to stop, but he needed to exhaust his body enough to sleep without shadows crowding his mind, forming the strange images that always began in confusion.

Night after night for the past few months. Always the same. A bunch of fragments ending in murky terror.

Shouting. Anxiety. Why?

The vegetable garden in the moonlight. Tomatoes ripening on the curling vines. Fresh dirt under the little boy’s toes.

The cool night air whispering on his skin.

Fear. Horror. The crushing pressure on his chest. Can’t get away...

Howard!

No escape. Don’t understand-

“Howard! God, what are you doing?”

At the moment? Suffocating. His lapse in focus had caused him to push past his limit. Lose control. More than three hundred pounds bore down on his chest, pressing the silver bar into his skin, fingers trapped underneath.

Captain Sean Tanner’s worried face appeared above his. Sean grabbed the bar with both hands and heaved upward, helping to set the weights into the holder with a metallic clang.

Gasping, Howard struggled to sit up. Sean knelt, steadying him with one hand on his back, the other on his shoulder.

“Thanks, pal.” Howard coughed, sucked in several more breaths.

“Are you all right, Six-Pack?”

“I’m fine.”

“How many times do I have to tell you not to bench press without a goddamned spotter?”

Wiping the sweat out of his face, he glanced at Sean. Yep, his friend was rattled, judging by the reproach in his startling green eyes.

“Sorry, hoss. Can’t find the sandman tonight.” He paused, taking in Tanner’s haggard appearance. “Looks like I’m not the only one.”

“Shit, yeah.” Sean pushed to his feet, backed up a few steps, and parked his butt on the seat of the stationary exercise bike. With a loud sigh, he raked a hand through his dark brown hair.

Studying him, Howard felt his gut knot. Purple smudges under his friend’s eyes and the hollows in his pale cheeks testified to just how little rest he’d been getting. He’d lost so much weight, his stomach was concave and the blue warm-up pants hung off his hips. And, Christ, when had his hair started to turn silver at the temples?

Then again, they all knew the tragic answer to that one.

“The medication’s not helping?” he asked carefully.

“I’m not taking it anymore.”

“Jesus, Sean—”

“Don’t start with me, Howard.” His face hardened. “The station doesn’t need a captain zoned out on antidepressants.”

“The guys need a leader who’s not gonna pick up a gun and blow his brains out.”

The blood drained from Sean’s face. “My God, is that what you think? That I want to die?”

“Seems like you already have. Now you’re just waiting to bury yourself with Blair and the kids.” Bullseye.

Tanner clenched his fists so hard his knuckles turned white as the grooves around his mouth. “You push too far, old friend.”

“Not nearly far enough. You’re no quitter, so prove it. Keep taking the pills,” he urged gently. “Just for a while longer. Promise me.”

Sean gave a bitter laugh. “And then what? Tell me what I’m supposed to do with the rest of my life.”

Without my family. The unspoken truth hung heavy between them.

Howard shook his head and opened his mouth to reply, but three loud, high tones sounded over the updated intercom system, interrupting whatever he was about to say.

The Captain sprinted for the bay and Howard had pulled his discarded T-shirt over his head by the time a pleasant, computerized female voice announced a house fire in one of Sugarland’s older, more exclusive subdivisions. A jolt of adrenaline recharged the exhaustion he’d worked so hard to achieve. When was the last call to a residence fire they’d received in Station Five’s sector? Months, at least.

He jogged from the weight room, hitting the door to the bay on Tanner’s heels. As always, he glanced at the statement embossed on the square glass window of the door in bold, black and white lettering: Everybody Goes Home. And as always, the familiar chill zinged down his spine.

A potentially dangerous call, the ever-present ticking bomb. Sixteen years in the Sugarland Fire Department, in this building, and he’d never asked whether the words on the window affected the rest of the team the same way. He didn’t have to.

The other members of A-shift spilled into the bay behind him, silent and alert, well used to being jerked from a dead sleep. With quick movements, they bunked out in their gear, slipping the heavy, flame-resistant pants and coats on over jeans and warm-ups, stepping into boots. Last, they slapped on hard fire hats and climbed onto the vehicles.

As the Fire Apparatus Operator, Zack’s job was to drive the quint, the city’s largest and best-equipped engine. This was a privilege afforded his rank, second only to a captain and lieutenant. He hauled himself into his seat, hitting the opener to raise the huge door of the bay. Tanner hauled himself into the front passenger seat next to Knight, the place of the commanding officer. Tommy Skyler, the team’s youngest member, and Eve Marshall, Station Five’s only female firefighter, took places in the back seat.

Howard slid into the driver’s seat of the ambulance, Julian jumping in the front beside him. Zack pulled the quint out of the bay onto the deserted, moonlit street, activating the lights and siren. Eerie, the wail and the crimson light, pulsing in the darkness like a heartbeat. Howard suppressed a shiver and eased the ambulance out, following Zack.

Done. The whole team on the road in seconds, without one word. Fast and efficient, like a well-oiled machine. Nothing like those stupid television shows where everybody’s running around shouting and beating their breasts. Nope, when it’s showtime, dramatics have no place in the real world. Not in a firefighter’s world, anyway. It’s all about giving aid to those in need, and keeping the team safe. Working together.

Everybody Goes Home.

As he followed the quint into the upscale neighborhood, saw the orange glow dancing in the night sky like an angry dragon, something occurred to him. His brows drew together in a troubled frown. He’d asked Sean for a promise.

A promise his old friend, a man at the end of his rope, had never made.

* * *

“Please hurry!”

Kat McKenna ended the call to 9-1-1, shoved the tiny flip cell phone into her back jeans pocket, and clapped a hand over her mouth in disbelief. Jeez, oh jeez.

The Hargraves’ house, on fire! While vacationing on a cruise with her own parents, no less. Oh, God, how in the hell had this happened? She’d checked both homes, brought in the mail and newspapers, and watered the plants for the past three days.

Her heart jackhammered against her ribs. Was this her fault? Had she left any appliances on? Bulbs burning? No, she was positive everything had been fine. Until now. And how long would it take the firemen to get here?

Too damned long. Through the large arched windows, she saw the flames already spreading through the living room and the upper floor as well. Both levels at the same time? How was that possible? Bouncing from one foot to the other, she stood in the middle of the street, debating what to do.

Until she heard the scream. Distant, fading into the cool breeze.

She gasped, staring at the house. Strained to hear it again. The faint wail of sirens reached her ears, giving her goosebumps. Maybe that was the sound she’d heard. Probably.

Still, she ran. Across the street, up the long brick pavestone drive. Plunging into the artfully sculpted hedges near the front door, she found the water spigot, hose still attached from spraying the hanging baskets yesterday. Joan’s petunias will be fried. She shook her head. How frigging stupid to think of flowers.

Even more stupid to fight a fire with an effing garden hose, Katherine Frances. But dammit, the stubborn, take-charge side of her personality demanded she do something! Unfortunately, listening to the evil twin usually landed her ass in hot water.

She cranked the faucet on full blast and wrestled the hose out of the bushes, onto the porch. Momentary panic seized her. The house key? Her fingers dug into her front pocket, searching. There!

Tucking the hose under one arm, she flipped through the ring to the key the Hargraves had given her, plunged it into the lock with shaking hands, and turned. Testing the knob with her fingertips, she winced. Damn. Using the edge of her shirt, she grabbed and turned the knob, then threw the door wide. A rush of heat and smoke seared her face in greeting, stinging her eyes.

Blinking, she stepped into the wide marble foyer and took in the scenario at a glance. She’d never seen a house fire up close and personal, didn’t know the first thing about the technicalities, but it seemed a fire shouldn’t start in the middle of the room. On the furniture. What, like the sofa just spontaneously combusted?

Strange, but there wasn’t time to stand around analyzing the situation. Flames were crawling across the carpet from the center of the room outward, chewing a path of destruction in its wake. The sofas, draperies, and staircase were fully engulfed, fire licking toward the ceiling.

Kat squeezed the spray nozzle, pointing the stream at the carpet first, sweeping back and forth in hopes of saturating the material enough to stop the spread of flames along the floor. Not good enough. Thick smoke billowed around her, the fire consuming lamps, framed photos. Frantic, she turned the water toward the drapes. More smoke, and the inferno leapt, hissing and sizzling like a furious beast. Mocking her puny efforts.

“Shit!”

From outside, the shrill scream grew louder. Thank God! The heat was unbearable. Stifling. She coughed, glancing around to the open door, now hardly visible through the smoke. Flashing red lights approached, cutting into the murky pea soup. She could’ve wept with relief. Admitting defeat, she dropped the hose and stumbled outside, onto the porch.

Precious air hit her scorched face, but when she tried to suck in a deep breath, a cruel, unseen fist twisted her lungs. She coughed again, clutching her chest. Her head spun. So did the big truck and ambulance pulling up the drive.

Men spilled from the vehicles like ants, a couple scurrying to grab and unroll a hose. Their images blurred through the tears welling in her eyes as she sputtered. Bodies ran toward the house. She wiped her face, took a step forward. Blackness threatened, curling the edges of her vision.

Two firefighters rushed past and into the burning house, maneuvering the large hose. A hand grabbed her upper arm.

“Ma’am? Are you all right?”

The deep, baritone voice sent a thrill to every nerve ending. A smooth shot of Jack Daniel’s after a long dry spell. Warming her finger and toes. Other places, too. Good God, Katherine Frances, get real. Raising her head, she found herself gazing at the broadest chest she’d ever seen, even allowing for the bulk of his coat.

He pressed close, worry evident in his tone. “Ma’am?”

Kat tilted her chin up. Way up. A giant of a man roughly the size of an aircraft carrier towered over her, saying something else. Shadowed under the wide brim of his hat, she noted the line of his strong, square jaw. Full, sensual lips. Dark eyes.

“I’m...fine,” she croaked. And promptly ruined the assertion by hacking up a lung. The black edges encroached further, dizziness winning out, the mountainous man disappearing. Oh, no!

In spite of her best efforts, Kat did something she’d never done in her twenty-nine years.

She collapsed into a total stranger’s arms.

* * *

“Whoa!”

Howard lunged, catching the woman as her knees buckled. He scooped her up with little effort, cradling her soft body against his chest. Fear spiked, along with irritation. Jesus, when would people learn to leave the dangerous stuff to the professionals?

Her cheek lay against his coat as he carried her quickly to the back of the ambulance, her hair tickling his nose and chin. She wore the mass on top of her head in some little scrunchie doodad. A silky blonde fountain sprouting every which way, slapping his face with every step, making him want to sneeze. Nuzzle it, too.

He loved blonde hair. And lush, curvy bodies like hers. No bony, starving skeletons allowed. A big guy like him required a woman you could get a firm grip on. A real woman. Plenty of cushion for the—

You’re such a pathetic loser, Six-Pack. Focus.

Very carefully, he lowered her to the ground on her back. Taking her wrist between his thumb and forefingers, he forced himself to concentrate on her pulse. Not on the hourglass flare of her hips in skin-tight low-rise jeans.

Shazaaam!

Or the killer breasts proudly swelling against the ribbed tank top.

Ka-pow!

Or the teensy little diamond belly button stud peeking from under the edge of her hitched-up shirt. He groaned low in his throat, his starved libido sending fervent signals of appreciation to his groin.

Kill me now.

God, this had been a long frigging shift. They hadn’t even exchanged a hello and he was already thinking with his sex-starved anatomy. The lady had been injured, for cryin’ out loud. His job was to provide aid, not ogle the poor girl while she died of smoke inhalation.

He retrieved an oxygen mask and stethoscope from the ambulance, knelt at her side again, and listened to her lungs. Not totally clear, but not bad.

Concluding that her vitals were much steadier than his own, he pressed the mask over her mouth and nose, anxiety forming a cold, hard knot in his gut. Why, he didn’t understand. As a trained paramedic, he’d done this hundreds of times and knew when a victim was in danger of going south. This one wasn’t.

But he watched her intently, studying for signs of revival. Long, tawny lashes rested against cheeks like porcelain, smudged with black here and there. Delicate matching eyebrows arched over her lids, accenting a high, smooth forehead. Guessing, he placed her age as several years younger than himself. Fresh and lovely even with a bit of soot on her face, but no kid by any stretch.

Tanner, who’d been scouting the perimeter of the house, keeping track of everyone’s position and the progress on subduing the blaze, jogged over.

“How is she?” the Captain asked, pushing back his hat.

“She’ll be okay. Ought to come around any second.” He hoped. His jaw clenched.

“Any idea who she is?”

Not a clue. Neighbor, good Samaritan?” Bet your bippy he’d find out, though.

“Probably belongs to that car parked in the driveway across the street. Driver’s door is standing open,” Tanner observed.

Howard tore his gaze away from his blonde goddess long enough to cast a sideways look at the little red Beamer. He’d never fit into that sardine can in a million years. Shaking off the weird thought, he looked up at Tanner.

“How’s things going inside the house?”

“Eve and Tommy are working up to the second floor. Downstairs fire is out, but the damage is heavy. The Battalion Chief and the engine companies from stations three and four are on the way. We’re going to have to call in the arson division on this one, my friend.” Sean’s expression was grim.

The girl stirred, and he frowned, trying to divide his attention between her and Tanner. “Yeah? What’s up?”

“Nobody’s home, but the point of origin appears to be the center of the living room. The blaze trails up the stairs, nice and neat. We’ve got a fuckin’ torch job.”

“Aw, man. That sucks. Why—”

Whatever he’d been about to say was lost as one of the team staggered out the front door and down the front steps, ripping at the black face mask of his SCBA—Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus. Tommy. He didn’t have to see Skyler’s last name emblazoned on the back of his coat in reflective lettering to know. Tommy was tall, broad shouldered, Eve shorter and thinner.

Sean spun around. “Skyler! What the hell?”

Tommy freed the mask, shrugged off his Air-Pak, tossed both aside, and sank to his knees in the grass. Doubling over, he began to retch.

Sean took off. Abandoning his position at the corner of the house, Julian did the same.

An ominous chill curled through Howard. Skyler, literally on the ground? Nothing got that kid down. Ever. Torn, Howard glanced at the woman to find her blinking up at him. Relief blossomed, coupled with a new urgency.

“Ma’am, are you all right?”

She hesitated. Nodded.

He flashed a big smile, giving her his best reassuring bedside manner. “Excellent! This is oxygen, and it’s gonna make you feel better real fast. Can you hold the mask for a minute, just like this?” He took one of her hands and guided it to her face. She nodded again, holding the mask in place. “Good girl. Don’t move, okay? I’ll be right back.”

Leaving a victim’s side was a big no-no. Went against his grain, too. But as he jogged toward the small group huddled on the lawn, he didn’t have to be a psychic to know the situation was about to get a whole lot worse. Sean squatted beside Tommy, apparently waiting for the kid to collect himself enough to speak. Julian stood next to them, but Eve hadn’t yet emerged from the house. Zack stayed beside the quint manning the pump and gauges, his hands full at the moment.

Tommy’s hat lay in the grass a few feet away. Blond hair was plastered to his skull, a few strands hanging into his face, dripping with sweat. His hands gripped his thighs and he raised pale blue eyes to Howard’s, wide with horror.

“Lieutenant,” Tommy whispered. His throat convulsed. “Upstairs...my God...”

Exchanging a quick, worried glance with Sean, Howard laid a hand on Tommy’s shoulder. “Easy, kid. Breathe, in and out. Slow.” His presence seemed to have a calming effect on the young firefighter. After a giving him a moment, Howard went on. “Now, first things first. Is Eve all right?”

“She’s good. The fire’s out. She told me to go, but I know I shouldn’t have left her, sir. I’m sorry, but it’s just...” He closed his eyes, trembling. “I-I’ve never s-seen anything like that before. Oh, Christ.”

Yeah, the kid was in a buttload of trouble for leaving his partner.

“Remember, deep breaths. What did you see?”

“A b-body, in the master bedroom. It’s h-handcuffed to the fucking bed.”

 

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