If writing a book is a group effort, then bridging to a new series is a total team event. I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have on my side than the following people.
First things first—I have to thank the Kiss of Death chapter of the Romance Writers of America for setting up the tour that started the firefighter-hero/heroine ball rolling. Thank you for putting my feet on
To the men on C shift at Atlanta Rescue Squad Four, Engine Six, and Quick Six, especially Captain Williams, George, Jenks, Jason, Peter, and Clark, who didn’t bat an eye at having a romance author with lots of questions ride along for a whole twenty-four hours—your patience, professionalism, and willingness to show me how things are done made this book possible. Any mistakes or liberties
taken are my own, while all the knowledge belongs to you. Y’all know how to get it done like a boss!
To retired firefighter Jon Bartholomew for his expertise on back injuries and physical therapy timelines, and to Dr. Sajjad Khan for the medical advice regarding narcotic substance abuse rehabilitation protocol, your guidance was instrumental in getting the finer details on the page. Also, to
the lovely Dana Carroll, without whom this book would still have no title. I am so grateful.
To Alyssa Alexander, Tracy Brogan, Robin Covington, and Avery Flynn, who read this book in various stages and always asked for more (even when it was in the ugly-baby stage!), there are not enough words to thank you sufficiently for your encouragement and friendship.
To my grandfather Ted and my father-in-law
Bob, both of whom proudly served fire companies, I cannot think of finer heroes to use as role models. You are both missed beyond measure.
To my unbelievably supportive daughters—Reader Girl, Smarty Pants, and Tiny Dancer—your excitement at watching me living my dream, even when it’s hard on you, is what keeps me going. And Mr. K. . . . well, I’m pretty sure you know that without real-deal love,
there are no books about real-deal love. Just like without you, there’s no me.
Lastly, to my incredible readers, who have laughed, cried, ooohed, and aaahed with every Pine Mountain love story. I promise, while the journey may be shifting, it is far from over! I cannot be a writer without amazing folks like you, asking for the stories that need to be told. Thank you for being the biggest part
of this girl’s happily ever after. I love you all!
Nick Brennan’s boots sounded off against the neat stretch of pavement in front of his apartment, and he inhaled a deep breath full of frozen air and screaming back pain. He’d learned to cope with an extended and somewhat brutal version of winter upon moving to Pine Mountain two years ago.
The pain was a little more difficult to swallow, but then again, the snap, crackle, and pop
running the length of his spine was more rule than exception. After nearly two and a half years, Brennan had learned to suck it up and lock it away.
After all, there were worse things than blowing out a couple of vertebrae. Not to mention worse ways to deal with the pain.
Brennan stuffed back the thought, popping the locks on his Chevy Trailblazer and sliding into the well-worn driver’s seat.
The Double Shot’s staff schedules weren’t going to write themselves, no matter how much his back creaked like a hundred-year-old staircase, and he needed to get to work, stat. Brennan might’ve closed the bar last night, and yeah, the four before it too, but his friends Adrian and Teagan needed all the help they could get.
With business booming under the new management of the burly head chef
and the owner’s daughter, busy shifts were a foregone conclusion, especially around the holidays. Not that Brennan minded. All that work kept him moving forward, and that was a good thing. Because going back?
Not an option.
The handful of country miles between his apartment complex and the small-town bar and grill started flashing by in a late-morning slideshow of snowy pine trees and mountain
backdrops, and Brennan cracked his window to take another deep breath despite the December chill in the air. Dwelling on the past and the physical pain that went with it only spelled trouble, and he forced the muscles in his shoulders and back to unwind as he slid more air into his lungs.
Wait . . . was that smoke?
Brennan’s pulse catapulted into go mode, his heart triple-timing it against
his sternum even though he refused to let his movements follow suit. With his senses at Defcon One, he methodically scanned the narrow road in front of him from shoulder to shoulder, scooping in another lungful of air as he lasered his focus through the bare trees to the sky overhead.
Fuck. Definitely smoke. Enough to mean very bad things.
And it was getting stronger by the second.
swung the Trailblazer around a familiar bend in the road, whipping gracelessly into the parking lot of Joe’s Grocery. His palms went slick over the steering wheel as the building came into view past the tree line on either side of Rural Route Four. Black smoke funneled from the far end of the clapboard building near the roofline, billowing with enough density to kick his oh-shit meter up another
notch. Fueled by nothing more than pure instinct and hard-edged adrenaline, Brennan threw his SUV into PARK and laid waste to the distance between his sloppy parking job and the front entrance.
“Joe!” Relief uncurled in his chest at the sight of the store’s owner standing outside the front door, despite the obvious panic on the older man’s face. “What happened? Are you hurt?”
“No.” Joe shook
his head, eyes glassy and breath puffing around his face from the cold. “Caleb and I were stocking produce when all of a sudden the fire alarms started going berserk. I did a quick look for people in the aisles, but by the time we got Michelle from the register at the front and told everyone to get out, smoke was all over the place.”
Jesus. Something must be burning back there, and
“Okay. If everyone’s out, we need to move away from the building and call nine-one-one.” Brennan turned toward the opposite side of the parking lot, where the two college-aged kids on Joe’s staff stood alongside a smattering of shoppers, thankfully all far enough from the building to be out of harm’s way.
For now, at least. Fires could turn on a dime and leave nine and a half cents change, and
the smoke now steadily pushing at the expanse of windows on Joe’s storefront was thick enough to make Brennan twitchy.
Right. Time to go. “Come on.” He turned to lead Joe across the parking lot, ready as hell to let the Pine Mountain FD have at the building so he could get out of there and slide back into the shadows, when an ungodly scream stopped him cold.
” The woman belonging
to the noise came hurtling around the corner of the building from the back, her head whipping from side to side in a panicked search.
“Whoa!” Brennan looped an arm around her waist to stop her midstride as she angled herself toward the front door. “You can’t go in there.”
“My little boy!” She struggled against his grip, turning to fix him with a wild-eyed stare. “He was in the bathroom, but
I can’t find him. I think he’s still inside. Please, you have to let me go!”
Realization punched Brennan’s gut full of holes. “Ma’am, it’s not safe inside. You need to wait for the fire department.”
“No.” She shook her head, vehement. “No, I don’t see him anywhere. He’s not out here. I’m going back inside!”
For a split second, the entire scene froze into place. Black smoke, foreboding and
malicious, pushed from any exit it could find. The heat pouring off the building, demolishing the chill of winter from twenty feet away, was a clear-cut sign of a large, active fire within. Brennan’s brain screeched at him to restrain the woman and fall back, to let the fire department arrive and secure the scene, to
act impulsively in a way that could cost him everything. Again.
he caught sight of the propane tanks Joe sold in the summer, lined up in a chain-link storage locker against the side of the clapboard building, and he was done thinking.
“Joe, get my cell phone out of my truck and call nine-one-one. Tell them you have an active fire with reported entrapment. Round up everyone on the outside and stay as far away from the building as you can until they get here.
Go now.” Brennan flipped his keys to the older man, scanning the grocery store for the best strategic point of entry. Damn it, despite all the possibles, this still had
spectacularly bad plan
written all over it.
He turned toward the woman, purposely slowing his words and movements so he didn’t spook her further. “The last place you saw Matthew was the bathroom in the back of the store?”
“Y-yes,” she sputtered. “When the alarm went off, I looked all over, but I couldn’t find him. I thought . . . maybe he got out another way, but . . . oh God. He’s only seven. You have to help him.
Serrated echoes of a different voice yanked at his chest from the depths of two and a half years ago, stealing the breath from his lungs and cementing his body to the asphalt.
You don’t have
time for this. Your only job is to get this kid. This. Kid. Right fucking now.
Before Brennan could register the movement, the past was gone and his boots were crunching over the frost-encrusted gravel strip leading to the side of the building. The bathrooms were in the back of the store, and he needed to start there and work forward. Just because Matthew’s mom hadn’t seen him there didn’t mean
there, and it was the last place the kid had been for sure. With the fire alarm going full bore and the building full of smoke, they could’ve missed each other, and at seven, Matthew had to be terrified.
Probably enough to hide.
Jacking the neck of his long-sleeved thermal shirt up to cover his nose and mouth before zipping his black canvas jacket tight, Brennan clattered to a stop
by the side door, marked E
Although it was ajar, he laid a quick hand on it to assess the temperature, relief splashing through him at the relatively cool feel of the steel panel. This had to be where Matthew’s mom had exited the building.
Calculating his surroundings with every move, Brennan swung the door open and stepped inside the space, squinting hard against the thick curtain
of smoke issuing up from the floor.
Christ. Until it had a place to go, this smoke was going to be a major roadblock. He needed to find Matthew. Yesterday.
“Matthew!” The acrid air scraped a path into Brennan’s lungs, but that didn’t stop him from crouching down low and drawing in another ration of breath. “Call out, buddy! I’m here to help.”
But the bathrooms and the small office beside
them turned up empty, and Brennan banged both doors closed behind him in an effort to isolate his search field and contain some of the heavy smoke. The heat had gone from zero to unbearable in about three seconds flat, and between the sweat stinging his eyes and the smoke clogging his path, visibility was pretty much nil.
Nope. No way was he leaving without this kid.
“Matthew!” Swiping an
arm over his brow, Brennan tried again, the bellow burning in his chest as he called out over the clanging smoke alarm. “I’m here to get you out!”
The only answer was the incessant bell and the soft, underlying
of unseen flames that told Brennan he needed to haul ass unless he wanted to die trying.
Pushing forward, he bent even further for breathable oxygen as he quickly checked the
employee break room and made his way toward the main section of the store. Despite the high overhead ceiling, the normally wide-open space was cloaked in hot, soot-filled air and thin stretches of orange flames, and Brennan coughed hard against the sucker punch rattling through his lungs. Fully on his hands and knees now despite the bite of the linoleum through his jeans and the screaming tightness
in his back, he forced Matthew’s name past the charred taste of smoke in his mouth.
Process of elimination told him the boy had to be somewhere in this room, so Brennan shuffle-crawled toward the wall to start a strategic search. Yes, he needed to move as fast as possible, but speed wouldn’t matter for shit if he missed the kid altogether. Starting in aisle one, Brennan clambered down the smoke-obscured
rows, instinct thrumming through him as he shoved past metal shelves and cardboard displays. The first four aisles turned up empty, each one hotter and more smoke-laden than the one before it, and damn it, where was this kid?
Brennan sucked in a raw breath to call out again when a deep chill of fear plucked down his spine.
What if Matthew
gotten out safely? What if the boy was outside,
right now, wrapped up in his mother’s arms, while Brennan was trapped inside?
What if history was cruel enough to repeat itself?
The barely there sound of a cough sank hooks into every inch of his attention, and he whipped toward it without pause. “Matthew?” The word flew past cracked lips, and Brennan crawled forward as fast as he could, searching wildly. “Call out, Matthew! I want to help
The wavering reply sent a shock wave of relief through Brennan’s chest. A set of saucer-wide eyes blinked out from an oversized shelving unit half full of cases of water, and holy hell—Brennan never would’ve seen the boy hiding there if he hadn’t paused for that brief second.
“Hey, bud. I’m going to get you out of here, but we’ve got to hurry.” He didn’t want to frighten
Matthew any further, but they’d been running out of time since the minute Brennan had crossed the threshold.
“I want my mom,” the boy said, coughing over the words, and Brennan instinctively pulled the collar of Matthew’s shirt over his nose and mouth to match his own.
“I want to get you to her.” Brennan calculated the distance between their location and the front door in his mind, weighing
it against the return trip to the back of the store. The front door was the fastest route out, for sure.
Just as long as it wasn’t blocked.
“Come on.” Brennan stomped on the thought and reached for Matthew, who thankfully slipped from his hiding spot to crawl next to Brennan on the floor. Other than looking tearstained and terrified, he didn’t appear to be hurt, which was a huge mark in the
win column. With one economical move, Brennan swung the boy to his back, and even though his muscles seized in pain from the added pressure, he aimed himself full-on at the exit.
“Hold on as tight as you can, okay?” He stabbed his boots into the linoleum in a wide stance, balancing Matthew’s weight with the need to stay as low as possible. Between the smoke and the tall shelving on either side
of them, visibility was limited to only a few feet forward, but Brennan still covered the space with confidence. He’d memorized all the exits by his third trip to Joe’s, and by the sixth time, he could find the front door with his eyes closed.
Some instincts were sewn in forever.
Brennan rounded the corner at the end of the aisle, sweeping his gaze in a lightning-quick one-eighty before tipping
it upward. Flames sparked like bright orange pinpricks through the haze of black smoke, covering a huge section of the far wall, and what little breath he had left shot from Brennan’s lungs, making him dizzy.
, this fire had moved fast, changing the game with each passing second. Which meant he was only getting one chance at the door.
And dizzy or not, he needed to take it
his hand over Matthew’s interlaced fingers to make sure the boy had a solid grip, Brennan gave all he had as he stood and pumped his legs toward the door. Clips of daylight showed through the window, peppered with flashes of red and white. His muscles played chicken with his lungs, each daring the other to give out first, but he thrust the burn of both from his mind and ran.
Mancuso flicked a glance at the GPS coordinates for her latest story assignment, absolutely convinced she was in hell. Or at the very least, purgatory, because honestly, she’d been floating between both at the
for the past five years.