Excerpt from UNDER FIRE
Copyright © Jo Davis, 2007
All Rights Reserved, Penguin Group USA
Meet Zack Knight, firefighter and paramedic—
the handsome genius of Station Five.
He can take on any blaze, but needs a certain kind of woman…
Zack fights fires and saves lives, yet his own thirst for life has run dry—until he comes to the rescue of hardheaded, sharp-tongued exotic dancer Corrine Shannon, who sparks a carnal appetite that has the normally shy hero burning out of control.
But just as they are consumed by the flames of passion, they find themselves under fire from two relentless enemies with fifty million reasons to succeed. Dangerous men who will stop at nothing to get what they want, even if it means putting a permanent end to Zack and Cori’s love—or their lives. Can Zack and Cori withstand the heat, or will their newfound romance be extinguished as fast as it began?
A-shift had worked some tough scenes over the years, had tread the razor’s edge in some gut-wrenching situations. As Zack drove the quint past the police barricade and neared the bridge’s summit, Captain Tanner let loose a few creative curses. God Almighty, this one was a real bitch.
“We’ll wrap the chain around something solid, like the opposite guardrail or bridge support, then hook it to the rear axle of the SUV, try to stabilize the vehicle. Extract the driver through the back hatch.”
“Yes, sir.” Zack frowned as the teetering Explorer came into view. Recognition dawned, hitting his gut like a fist. “Sonofabitch.”
Tanner snapped his sharp gaze to his FAO’s face. “What?”
“That’s her. The lady I hit on the way to work.”
“Keep your head in the game, kid. That doesn’t necessarily mean anything.”
Zack’s thoughts mirrored Tanner’s. The woman might’ve been more injured than Zack previously believed. She could have passed out. Or perhaps she was rattled from being hit, and a moment of inattention resulted in her current predicament. Either way, the idea he might be responsible for a woman’s life literally hanging in the balance, even inadvertently, filled him with horror.
If what happened to Cori Shannon was his fault, Tanner wouldn’t have to fire him. He’d be finished.
Pulling the hat low over his eyes, Zack threw open the door and swung down from the quint, wincing at the pain. The wind howled with frightening strength, the forceful gusts threatening to sweep man and machine right off the structure and into hell. Rain pummeled his body in icy sheets, soaking him to the skin once more and chilling him to the bone despite the thick coat, pants, and hat.
And in spite of the rising fever he hadn’t told anyone about. He was hot and cold by turns, limbs weighing a ton. Once Miss Shannon was safe and the situation put behind them, he’d collapse on his bunk at the station.
Opening a side compartment on the quint, he and Tanner wrestled out a thick, industrial-strength chain while Eve and Tommy Skyler ran over to the Explorer. Six-Pack and Julian Salvatore hopped out of the ambulance and jogged toward Zack and Tanner.
“Get this wrapped around the guardrail over there,” Tanner shouted at Salvatore above the thunder and lightning.
As Skyler helped Salvatore, Zack hurried to the side of the Explorer, watching his footing. The driver’s door was positioned over open space, muddy water swirling only feet below them. To see Cori, he had to lean forward carefully without touching the vehicle and upsetting it, or losing his balance in the wind and falling off the bridge. With the added weight of his gear, he’d sink like a stone.
He knocked on the window hard as he dared. “Ma’am? Miss Shannon?” Slowly, she turned her head to peer at him through the rain-splattered glass. “Sugarland Fire Department. Are you hurt?”
“Hit my head,” she called back, voice barely audible above the storm’s racket. “Nothing’s broken.”
Thank God for that. He tried to sound encouraging. “All right, that’s good. Listen, I promise we’re gonna get you out of there. Sit tight while we secure the back end, then we’ll bring you out through the rear. Okay?”
After a pause, she nodded.
“That’s my girl. I’m going around to the back and—”
“No! Don’t leave me!” she wailed.
“I’m not leaving you, Cori, you have my word.” He put a thread of steel into his voice, using her first name on purpose. The calm assurance, the familiarity, it was how they kept a victim from wigging out. “I’m not going anywhere except through the back to meet you.”
Cori was terrified. Depending on him. In that moment, Zack’s problems, the sickness threatening to topple him, vanished. His whole world shrank to a laser point of purpose. Nothing mattered except keeping his promise, getting her to safety.
As Zack hurried to the back end of the vehicle, he wondered if she’d recognized him. Probably not, with the storm obscuring her vision and the hat shielding his face. If she were in shock, she might not even consider how he knew her name.
Skyler and Salvatore had secured the chain to the rear axle by the large hook on one end. The other end, they’d wrapped several times around the guardrail on the opposite side of the bridge to take out as much slack as possible.
Salvatore waved a hand at the makeshift support. “I don’t like this,” he said. “The guardrail can’t take the dead weight if she shifts.”
“It’s what we’ve got to work with.” The Captain jabbed a finger at Howard. “Six-Pack, you’re the heaviest. Your weight will help hold it steady while you take her—”
No.” That single, sharp command from Zack got the entire team’s attention. Including Tanner’s, who gaped at him. “I promised Miss Shannon I’d go in and get her, and I’m not about to break my word. She’s hanging by a thread, and we need her calm.”
Tanner’s face darkened with anger violent enough to rival the storm. “Knight, did you hear what I—”
“I heard, Cap, and I’m still going in. Miss Shannon doesn’t have time for us to stand around arguing about it.” Dismissing Tanner, he turned to Skyler. “Tommy, get the hatch.”
Skyler stared at him, pale eyes wide, jaw slack. To his credit, he turned and twisted the knob, opening the rear entry without argument. The door gave easily, despite being bent from the earlier wreck. Had to be done anyway, so Zack hoped Skyler wouldn’t catch hell later. His own job, however, was probably toast.
“What’s this? Look!” Crouched by the right rear tire, which was suspended a couple of feet off the ground, Eve pointed to the tread.
“Tire blew,” Six-Pack observed. “That’s what sent her into the skid.”
“Not just a blown tire. A bullet hole.”
Another wave of heat and cold swamped Zack. A bullet. Jesus Christ, someone shot out her tire! Who would do such a malicious thing?
“Let’s push the vehicle down, get the back tires on the ground,” Tanner said. He positioned himself on the right corner of the vehicle leaning just inside the hatch, Six-Pack on the left. The two men braced their hands on the lip, above the bumper. “Slow and easy.”
When the rear tires met pavement, the Captain nodded at Zack. Carefully, Zack popped a latch on Tanner’s side and let down the rear bench seat to clear the path somewhat. Pushing his hat back, he crawled inside. On his hands and knees, inch by inch. “Cori? You still with me up there?”
“Hurry!” Long gone was the cocky attitude of their earlier meeting.
His heart lurched in response to her terror. “I’m here, but you’re going to have to meet me halfway.”
“Nooo! If I move, we’ll fall!”
“If you don’t, we’ll fall anyway. You want me to get you out, right?”
“Yes, but I can’t—”
“You can. Listen to me. Unbuckle your seatbelt. Do it now.”
She did, taking the strap off her shoulder. “Okay. Now what?”
“Good. Turn your body to your right, nice and slow, so you can see me.” Leather squeaked as she followed his direction, scooting around in the seat. Bracing a trembling hand on the console, she got her first good at him. Instantly, her eyes widened in recognition.
He tried a reassuring smile. “Don’t worry. In spite of earlier evidence to the contrary, you’re in good hands.”
She let out a shaky laugh that didn’t quite hide her fear. “So you’re not a complete dipstick. Nice to know, Zack.”
He grinned at her, glad she had some sass left, even if the barb was directed at his head. That meant she was thinking clearly and would help him get her out of this mess.
A groan of metal reached his ears from somewhere behind him, and a ripe curse from Salvatore.
“Move it, amigo! She’s not gonna hold for long!”
Amigo? Since when? Salvatore couldn’t stand him, so he and Cori must be in deep shit. A trickle of sweat streaked down Zack’s fevered cheek as he inched forward. Reached out a hand. “Cori, climb over the console.”
“If you don’t, we’re both going to die because I’m not leaving without you. I promised.”
She glanced at his outstretched hand. Read the truth on his face. He’d willingly give his life for hers. His resolve seemed to fortify her own, and she heaved a deep breath.
“All right. Here I come.” Wiggling a bit, she crept forward, squeezing between the seats. One hand over the other.
“Easy does it. Just a little more.”
The truck gave a sudden lurch, nose dipping downward. Cori shrieked, grabbed for him and missed. Metal squealed, the noise deafening as the truck slid, tearing the undercarriage. He didn’t have to look to know the guardrail was giving way. Or that Sean and Howard were no longer holding down the tailgate. The SUV tilted toward the swollen river at a crazy angle.
With nothing to stop him, the momentum sent him into the back of the middle seats. Sweet Jesus. If he went over, he’d crash into Cori and send them both toppling through the shattered front windshield.
The vehicle shuddered and stopped.
Leaning over the row of seats, he reached for Cori once more. “Now or never.”
Bracing her booted feet against the back of the driver’s seat, Cori pushed herself toward him in one last-ditch effort, beautiful face totally focused. Determined. When she grabbed for his hand this time, she didn’t miss.
Zack pulled Cori over the seat, practically threw her toward the open hatch. Bracing himself underneath her, he cupped her ass and shoved her hard toward his team.
Several pairs of hands hauled her to safety, and he exhaled in relief. Cori was out. Following behind, he scrambled toward the opening. His fingers wrapped around the lip and he hauled himself up—
Just as the guardrail holding the chain gave way.
A terrible rending of metal filled the air. Lightning split the sky as the rail snapped. The chain whipped, the backlash popping like a gunshot. A blow slammed into his head with the force of a shotgun blast, and he flew backward from the impact.
Shouts, screaming. Drowned by the storm as the truck slid free of its perch. He tumbled with it, falling, falling. Saw the bridge disappear.
The rear door banged shut as SUV hit the river, hard, and rolled. He crashed around in the interior, along for the ride. Ice-cold water rushed in, filling the cabin. Dragging at the heavy protective clothing that would serve as his shroud if he didn’t get out. Before the water closed over his head, he managed to suck in a deep breath.
Zack’s head throbbed with intense agony even shock and the freezing water couldn’t blot out. Disoriented, he groped for a window or door handle.
Which way out? Where? Nothing but pitch black.
He searched, running his hand along the interior. Leather. A seat, but which one? The cumbersome gear weighed him down and must come off. Stay calm. Find the windshield, exit through the busted glass, then discard the coat. He shoved forward, hands out, but he was swimming blind. Instead, he found a side window, the edge of a door.
Zack yanked on the handle, pushed. The door wouldn’t budge. Swiveling in the opposite direction, he tried for another escape route. Seconds passed, his chances slipping away. He found another door, but by now his lungs burned. He needed air.
He located a different handle. Pulled, pushed. Kicked the glass. All to no avail.
His lungs screamed, his futile efforts to free himself slowing. As reality hit, horror electrified his brain.
He wasn’t getting out of this alive.
Two hours ago, he’d actually entertained giving up. Now he wanted desperately to live. Get involved with life again. To find out who’d taken a shot at Cori Shannon, and why. Maybe get to know her and...what?
But fate had stolen those options from him.
Please, God, I don’t want to die! Help me...
Precious air exploded from his lungs. Unable to stop the inevitable, he sucked in great gulps of brackish water. Clawed at the glass, the door. No use.
His limbs grew heavy, refused to function any longer. His struggles ceased, the fight over. Consciousness began to fade, along with the pain.
Besides his team, who would mourn his loss?
Nobody. Not even his father.
You’re a disappointment, boy. Wasting the superior intelligence God gave you on a city job, going nowhere.
If he could, he’d laugh at the irony. His father had been right after all. And he couldn’t even blame his own tragic end on the old fucker’s debt to his dangerous friends.
No time for regrets. No more fear. Only a strange lightness in his body as he finally accepted, let go.
Zack smiled inside, raised a gloved middle finger in defiance.
Get seven hundred fifty thousand dollars out of that, assholes.
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