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Authors: Jill Sorenson

Aftershock

BOOK: Aftershock
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THERE’S A FINE LINE

As an emergency paramedic, Lauren Boyer is dedicated and
highly capable. Until an earthquake strikes, trapping her beneath the freeway
with a group of strangers—including Iraq war veteran Garrett Wright…

BETWEEN PERIL AND PASSION

Handsome and take-charge Garrett aids Lauren in her rescue
efforts, even as the steely look in his eyes seems to hide dark secrets. When a
gang of escaped convicts goes on the attack, Garrett’s bravery makes him more
than a courageous bystander to Lauren. If they can save the others before time
runs out, maybe, just maybe, they can explore the fire igniting between them—if
the truth about who he really is doesn’t pull them apart forever….

Selected Praise for

“Carnal scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in
Penthouse Forum
litter the pages. Sorenson makes her
characters realistic, flawed, and appealing. Deftly handled violent action and
red herrings rush this thriller to a believable ending.”

Publishers Weekly
on
The Edge of
Night

“Taut with emotion, suspense and danger. Sorenson expertly
weaves the two stories into a heart-wrenching conclusion.”

RT Book Reviews
on
The Edge of
Night

“One of the best books of the year…nonstop, heart-pounding
excitement.”

RT Book Reviews
on
Stranded with Her Ex,
Top Pick! 4.5 stars

“(A) high-tension romantic thriller...culminating in a
page-turning climax. Despite the mystery, the real tension comes from the
emotional relationships, full of explosive sex and terrible
secrets.”

Publishers Weekly
on
Crash into Me

“It was definitely hot. Sooo hot. Jill Sorenson is my new
favorite romantic-suspense author!”

USA TODAY
bestselling author Victoria Dahl on
Crash into
Me

Coming soon from Jill Sorenson
and Harlequin HQN

FREEFALL

Many wonderful people helped to make this book possible.

I’d like to thank Stacy Boyd, my editor. Your insights are
amazing and you give great advice. Working with you has been a dream come
true.

Special thanks to Shana Smith, assistant editor, for tweeting
that you wanted to read an earthquake story. I thought, “I could do that!”

Thanks to Laurie McLean, my agent, for always believing in
me.

Heartfelt thanks to Andria Dreyer, paramedic, for patiently
answering my research questions. It was great to speak with a smart, experienced
professional.

Thanks to Jessica Scott, fellow romance author and Iraq war
veteran, for your extraordinary service and military expertise. Any mistakes I
made are my own.

Thanks to my readers. I couldn’t do this (and wouldn’t want to)
without you. Thanks to reviewers and bloggers for talking about my books. I
really appreciate it.

Last but not least, thanks to my mom—my favorite nurse.

CHAPTER ONE

L
AUREN
B
OYER
CLIMBED
into the passenger seat of the ambulance, nodding hello to the EMT
behind the wheel.

Joe arched a brow. “I thought Alanis was working.”

“We switched a couple of shifts,” she said, stashing her purse
and extra uniform. “I didn’t feel like staying home.”

“You should’ve gone to Vegas.”

“Why would I do that?”

He fiddled with the switches on the console, avoiding her gaze.
“With your girlfriends. You know. For fun.”

“The bachelorette party got canceled, Joe. Just like the
wedding.”

That shut him up.

She didn’t want to talk—or think—about her broken engagement,
which was why she’d offered to cover for Alanis. Michael had called it off six
months ago, before the invitations were sent but after the announcement had been
made. Although she hadn’t discussed most of the details with Joe, he knew they’d
set the date for this weekend.

“We’ve got chest pain in North Park,” he said, pulling out of
the parking lot and heading toward the freeway on-ramp. Lauren glanced at the
digital clock on the console. It was 8:01 a.m. The April sky was already so blue
and bright it hurt her eyes.

Joe’s lucky dash-ornament, a hula girl with a grass skirt,
swayed her hips gently as they drove over a bump.

North Park was one of San Diego’s rougher neighborhoods. Their
ambulance station responded to emergencies there on a regular basis. Michael had
encouraged her to transfer to a quieter location, away from the heart of the
city. Lauren had refused. She loved the energy and diversity of the downtown
area.

Joe gave her a sideways glance. “It’s his loss, you know.”

She forced a smile, touched by his words. Joe had been her
partner for three years and they got along well. Maybe he was right about
Michael. She wished she could say that their breakup was his fault and she was
better off without him. The only thing she knew for sure was that he planned to
spend the weekend with his new girlfriend in Bermuda, while she rode in an
ambulance next to Joe.

At least he’d come clean with her before they’d made the worst
mistake of their lives.

The ambulance continued down the crowded freeway, sirens
blaring. Traffic was backed up near the interchange, as usual. Joe weaved around
cars with brisk efficiency. When a man in a silver Mercedes refused to move
aside, they had to squeeze by on the left shoulder.

“Jerk,” she said under her breath as they passed him. Every day
they encountered motorists who were too busy to pull over.

Two freeways converged at the 163 interchange, creating a
chaotic tangle. Joe and Lauren were on the middle level, with roads above and
below them, and multiple exit ramps on both sides. As they headed into the sea
of traffic, Joe’s hula girl began to do a frenetic dance on the dash.

Lauren tensed as the road stuttered beneath them.

Earthquake.

The ambulance jumped up and crashed down hard enough to rattle
her teeth. It felt as if they’d been rear-ended, but the impact had come from
below.

And it kept coming. Their vehicle bounced like a Ping-Pong ball
on the shuddering concrete.

Joe slammed on his brakes in an attempt to avoid a collision.
There was no way for him to maintain control of the ambulance. It scraped along
the inner wall of the underpass, sending sparks into the air.

He cranked the wheel to the right. “Shit!”

She braced herself for disaster, hanging on to the handgrip for
dear life. The ambulance continued to jackhammer violently. Beneath them, the
road undulated like a sheet in the wind. It was difficult to see clearly because
of the jolting motions. When a blur of yellow sailed by, she realized it was a
car falling from the upper level.

“Watch out,” she yelled, as if he could avoid the danger.

More vehicles careened off the top section, raining on the
traffic below. The sound of crashing metal rang in her ears, accompanied by a
low, ominous rumble. A tow truck landed on a minivan, crushing the inhabitants.
Its gas tank exploded in a giant ball of fire.

People were dying. Right before her eyes.

Joe held the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip. Through
his window, she watched a sports car hit the guardrail and flip in the air. She
looked to her right, anticipating an impact on her side of the ambulance.

Then the road shifted, sending several nearby cars spinning off
the edge. A second later, the entire freeway just...collapsed. With a
stomach-curling groan, the middle section fell away. It buckled in half, folding
across the lower levels and blocking the lanes. Vehicles smashed into each
other, meeting a wall of concrete head-on.

The ambulance slid sideways and landed at the bottom of a
pileup with a bone-jarring crash. Her head hit the window, cracking the glass.
The seat belt caught hard against her right shoulder, and the vehicle’s twin air
bags deployed. Rather than a soft cushion, the safety device felt like a punch
in the face.

She tasted blood and saw a blur of black lines, like the end of
a film reel.

The air bags deflated quickly. Joe called her name, nudging her
shoulder. His voice sounded sluggish to her ears, but she knew the situation was
dire. With some difficulty, she opened her eyes and tried to focus.

It was dark. The smell of gasoline and fire overwhelmed her
senses. Suppressing a gag, she blinked to clear her vision.

When she saw what was coming, she wished she hadn’t.

The ambulance was trapped at the base of a large slab of
concrete amidst a pile of other cars. Through Joe’s window, she watched a large
black SUV teeter at the top of the structure, directly above them.

There was no time to get out of the way, no hope to reverse
gravity.

“Joe,” she cried out, her throat raw.

But it was too late. The juggernaut rocketed toward them,
smashing into the driver’s side. Again, Lauren’s seat belt slammed against her
chest. Joe was struck full force, pinned behind the steering wheel. His door was
crushed by the SUV’s front grille. Blood erupted from his lips and his eyes
bulged wide with pain. He slumped over, his gaze going blank as he exhaled a
ragged breath.

Lauren reached out to him, choking back a sob. Safety glass
crumbled inward, clinging to her uniform shirt. Having responded to a number of
fatal vehicle accidents, she knew that Joe had been killed on impact. His chest
wasn’t moving, and he smelled like death. With trembling fingers, she felt for
the pulse in his neck.

Nothing.

Her life didn’t flash before her eyes, but his did. Joe was a
beloved husband and father. His daughter was less than a year old. Just the
other day, he’d shown Lauren a picture of the baby with the koalas at the
zoo.

A helpless whimper escaped her as the earth continued to
rumble. Debris rained down around them. The air was thick with gas fumes. She
knew she couldn’t stay in the ambulance. If she passed out here, she would
die.

“Daddy,” she croaked, though he’d been gone five years now.

At some point, the sound of grinding metal and falling concrete
quieted. The shaking stopped.

Lauren didn’t know what to do next. Normally crash victims were
advised to stay put, and it was difficult to see through the cloud of smoke. She
couldn’t catch her breath, couldn’t concentrate. Her heart thumped weakly in her
chest.

The hula girl on the dash was gone, having toppled into places
unknown, and the clock wasn’t working. She checked her watch. It read 8:09. Less
than ten minutes had passed since the earthquake started.

The temptation to cower in the passenger seat was hard to
resist. She was afraid to face the destruction outside. Paramedics were trained
to exercise caution and not risk their lives. Maybe all the people in the
surrounding vehicles were dead.

There were no screams for help.

What got her moving wasn’t her professional duty, or her moral
code, or any urgent need to save others. It was the odor of burning flesh. She
could accept dying of smoke inhalation, which would certainly come first, but
the thought of her hair and skin going up in flames was too horrifying to
fathom.

Along with the will to survive, she found a spark of logic. The
ambulance was equipped with oxygen and fire extinguishers. Releasing her seat
belt, she climbed over Joe’s slumped body, into the back of the van. Pieces of
equipment were hanging askew and first-aid supplies littered the space. After a
moment of disorientation, she found the oxygen masks. Donning one, she sucked in
a lungful of clean air.

She felt stronger. She took another breath.

There. That was better.

With a clearer head, but a heavy heart, she looked for the fire
extinguisher. It had become dislodged and rolled across the floor. She also
located her paramedic bag, which would be useful in the event that she found
other survivors. As soon as she grasped the bag’s handle, the earth started
shaking again.

Oh God.

There was a moment of weightlessness. She felt like Alice in
Wonderland, falling through the looking glass. What was up went down and what
was down went up. The world seemed to be hurtling toward a steep precipice.
Rather than regaining equilibrium, it toppled end over end, into chaos.

A massive wall of concrete crashed down, halving the ambulance
violently. Joe, and the entire cab, was gone. Crushed.

Had Lauren stayed in her seat, she’d have been obliterated.
Like Joe.

The quake ended a moment later, but she couldn’t control the
trembling of her own body. Back-to-back near-death experiences were more than
she could handle. She curled up in the fetal position and covered her head with
her arms, waiting to die.

The blow she was expecting didn’t come. No more chunks of
debris hit the ambulance. Against all odds, she was alive.

And...she wasn’t alone.

A man shouted in the distance. “Hello! Can anyone hear me?”

Lauren tore the oxygen mask off her face and sat up, her pulse
racing. Was she imagining things?

He spoke again. “Does anyone need help?”

To her amazement, he sounded strong. Good lung capacity.
Instead of asking for assistance, he was offering it.

This man was unharmed.

Lauren took another quick breath from the oxygen tank and
scrambled to her feet. The back door of the ambulance had an emergency hand
release. She pulled the lever and climbed out onto the uneven pavement.

Through the haze of ash and debris, she studied her
surroundings. It was worse than she’d imagined. Twisted metal, chunks of
concrete and pieces of cars were scattered across the dark cavern. Several of
the vehicles had no front ends, like the ambulance. Others had been bisected
lengthwise. Some were upside down, wheels still spinning.

The man called out again.

“Here,” she yelled, framing her mouth with her hands and
turning toward his voice. “Over here!”

He walked out of the smoke like an apparition. Lauren had never
been so relieved to see another human being in her life. Not only did he sound
healthy, he looked it. His dusty T-shirt clung to a broad, well-muscled chest.
He was wearing dark jeans and scuffed work boots. As he got closer, she assessed
his height at six feet and his weight at two hundred. Even with ashes in his
hair and dirt on his face, he was handsome.

“You’re an EMT,” he said, seeming amazed to see her in one
piece.

“Paramedic.”

“Even better.” His gaze moved past her, to the contents of the
overturned ambulance. Perhaps he knew that emergency personnel usually traveled
in teams, but he didn’t ask where her partner was.

“I’m Lauren.”

“Garrett,” he replied, returning his attention to her. He gave
her body a detached study. “Are you hurt?”

Although her head ached, she said no. She was afraid he’d think
her useless, despite her medical training. The navy-blue uniform she was wearing
couldn’t disguise her slender frame. Men had often underestimated her on the
job.

He coughed into the crook of his arm, trying to clear his
lungs.

She handed him the oxygen mask, which he accepted without
question. While he took a few deep breaths, she grabbed her supplies. “Anyone
alive that way?” she asked, indicating the path he’d taken.

His eyes watered, either from smoke irritation or the sights
he’d seen. “I don’t know. It’s almost impassable.”

They donned respirators and hard hats from the ambulance,
making a tacit agreement to go the opposite direction. She adjusted her
backpack. He picked up a heavy-duty flashlight. Together, they headed into the
mayhem.

“Stay close,” he said. “Step where I step.”

Lauren let him take the lead. She wouldn’t be much good to
anyone if she broke her leg in the rubble. At the nearest car, Garrett bent down
to check the interior. He straightened, shaking his head to indicate there were
no survivors.

As they moved forward, they found more bodies. Some were
trapped inside vehicles; others had been thrown clear.

Stomach churning with anxiety, she trailed behind Garrett,
letting his big body guide her through the debris. He was built like a football
player, wide-shouldered and fit. She felt safer with him than inside the
ambulance, although she didn’t trust the collapsed structure. Large, frequent
aftershocks were likely.

More concrete slabs might fall and crush them yet.

They skirted around a tall pile of rubble. On the other side, a
silver sedan rested upside down, its engine running. Gasoline gushed from a
ruptured tank. It traveled in rivulets along the ground and trickled down into
the open windows of the vehicle.

The driver appeared dead or unconscious. Her dark hair clung to
her bloody forehead and her eyes were closed. Any moment, the car could go up in
flames.

BOOK: Aftershock
6.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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