Authors: Susan Stoker
lizabeth Parkins lived
through a nightmare come true—getting kidnapped by a serial killer. Seeking a fresh start, she moves to Texas, but escaping her demons proves impossible when she’s too terrified to leave her own apartment. A small, accidental fire sparks a coping method she’d never expected, and brings an amazing man to her door.
Firefighter Cade “Sledge” Turner’s idyllic life ended the day his sister was kidnapped. Now he knows firsthand that tragedy can befall anyone, at any time. After meeting Elizabeth on the job, Cade can envision spending his with life her. He understands what she’s been through, is willing to help her heal…though even Cade is unaware of Beth’s new secret obsession.
As Beth takes steps to help herself heal, and Cade attempts to earn her trust and prove his own, they’re both about to be tested—in a way that could see everything they’ve worked for go up in flames.
helter for Elizabeth
is the 5th book in the Badge of Honor: Texas Heroes Series. Each book is a stand-alone, with no cliffhanger endings.
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This book is a word of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons living or dead is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Susan Stoker
No part of this work may be used, stored, reproduced or transmitted without written permission from the publisher except for brief quotations for review purposes as permitted by law.
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Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.
Cover Design by Chris Mackey, AURA Design Group
Photograph by Cover Me Photography, (c) (Becky McGraw, 2015)
Model: William Kimbrell
Edited by Kelli Collins & Missy Borucki
Manufactured in the United States
with a mixture of disbelief, horror, and fascination when the flames hissed and spit as they climbed higher and higher out of the pan on her stove. As soon as the oil caught fire she’d thrown water on it, but of course, that had only made it worse. She’d called nine-one-one, as she was taught when she was five years old, but instead of getting out of the apartment, as the operator ordered, all Beth could do was back out of the kitchen and watch as the fire spread.
The truth was, she wouldn’t have been able to go outside even if the entire apartment was on fire. Her body wanted to do it, but her brain held her captive. Being agoraphobic was a pain in the ass most days, but especially right this second. Even thinking about going out of the apartment caused a panic attack, which usually took at least a day to get over and feel normal again.
She hadn’t always been afraid, but being kidnapped and tortured had thrown everything she’d ever known for a loop. She’d been to therapy—was still
therapy, albeit remotely—but one of the only things that helped was simply avoiding unknown situations altogether.
Beth heard the frantic knocking on the door, but couldn’t make herself walk the ten or so feet to open it. She couldn’t even get enough air in her lungs to call out to the firefighters who were desperately trying to get inside.
Eventually the door was thrust open with the help of a battering ram, a three-foot-long piece of steel about five inches in diameter with a blunt front end, and three firefighters, dressed from head to toe in their fire-retardant uniforms, burst in. Without sparing a glance at her, the one with the large fire extinguisher rushed into her small kitchen and let loose a burst of dry chemicals on the flames.
Beth watched as they crackled but eventually sputtered and died when the chemicals did their job.
The entire experience was fascinating.
Beth supposed she should’ve been freaking out—hell, she was afraid of just about everything these days—but there was something mesmerizing about the fire that had fascinated her. From the way the flames had so quickly gathered strength and gotten out of control to how they’d immediately died away with one spurt from the extinguisher. It was as if they could be commanded to rise or fall at the whim of humans.
Beth was brought out of her semi-trance by a man standing in front of her. He was looking at her expectantly. She’d obviously missed whatever it was that he’d said.
“I’m sorry, what?”
“I asked if you were all right? Were you burned?”
Beth shook her head. “No, I’m okay.”
“Come on, let’s clear out of here and get you some fresh air. The medics will be here any second, they can check you out.” He reached out his hand as if to take her elbow and lead her out of the apartment.
Before the man was finished speaking, Beth was shaking her head. “No, I’m fine. I don’t need anything.” Her words weren’t as forceful as she’d have liked them to be, since she finished with a hacking cough as the smoke in the air drifted over to their corner of the room.
“You don’t sound fine. What was your name again?”
Beth knew she hadn’t given it to the firefighter in the first place, but she told him what he wanted to know anyway. “It’s Beth, and seriously, I’m okay. I’m not going outside.”
The man had the nerve to reach out and grab her biceps and start pulling her toward her front door as he informed her, “You can sign the ‘Against Medical Advice’ form outside once you’re checked out.”
The thought of stepping foot outside her safe apartment, where there were probably hordes of people standing around gawking at the fire engines and the ambulance, was more than Beth could handle. She felt her heartbeat speed up and the dizziness that usually accompanied it flooded her. She wrenched her arm out of the man’s hold and quickly backed away from him.
She saw him talking to her again, but couldn’t hear his words…only the frantic beating of her heart. Sweat broke out on her forehead and she swayed. Beth knew if she didn’t sit down, she was going to fall down. And if she passed out, they would surely take her outside and she’d be completely vulnerable.
The words barely made it through her consciousness, but she obeyed them without thinking. She felt the cushion of her couch give under her and a gentle hand landed on the back of her neck and pushed her head between her knees.
“Deep breaths…that’s it. Relax. You’re okay, just sit here and get your bearings.”
Beth did as the deep voice asked, and concentrated on taking huge gulps of air into her lungs. As she got control over the panic attack, she heard the two men talking about her.
“…dumbass. Didn’t you see she was panicking? You can’t force people to do what you want. You should know better.”
“I was trying to get her to the medics.”
“I get that, but you have to be more aware of the headspace of your victim.”
Beth raised her head. The hell with that. She might be afraid to step outside of her apartment, but she’d be damned if she’d be labeled a victim ever again. She’d had enough of that to last her a lifetime. She tried to shrug away from the hand at her neck, but was only partially successful. The man only moved it to her shoulder as she sat up.
“You have a bit of color back…do you still feel dizzy? Do you want some water?” he asked in a calm voice, the ire that had filled it when he’d spoken to the other firefighter now absent.
Beth croaked out, “Yes, please.”
The man who had first approached her walked off, she supposed to find her something to drink, but the second man stayed by her side.
“You really should get checked out.”
Beth knew he was right, but also knew it wasn’t going to happen. When she’d first been diagnosed, she promised herself she wasn’t going to be embarrassed about it. What happened to her three years ago wasn’t
fault; she wasn’t going to take that on as well as everything else. “I can’t…at least not without losing it. I’m agoraphobic. Please don’t force me to go outside.”
She watched as the firefighter thought about what she said. She expected him to ask what agoraphobia was or to dismiss her words, but her opinion of him climbed a notch when he merely nodded. He’d removed his helmet and was crouching on the floor at her feet. He was wearing the typical yellow and black turnout gear that most firefighters wore. He was perspiring a bit, but the short strands of his dark hair sticking to his forehead were anything but a turnoff. His gray eyes were fixed on her, assessing but, amazingly, not judging.
“Okay. We can work around it, I think. Would it be all right if the medic came inside to look at you? You sound okay, you’re not coughing, and once we open up the windows and the front door, the rest of this smoke should dissipate quickly. If you’re given the all clear, you’ll have to sign the AMA form.”
Beth almost cried. She hadn’t met anyone recently, other than the people in her therapy group, who’d been as understanding as this man. She almost sobbed the words in relief. “Yes, they can come inside.”
“Great. I’ll just go and get them.”
The words popped out before Beth could call them back. “Will you come back with them?”
The firefighter had stood up, but he paused and looked down at her. “If you want me to.”
“Then I’ll be right back. Hang tight. Stay there, your color might be better but you’re still too pale for my liking.”
Beth watched as the man headed out of her apartment with long, confident strides and she took a deep breath. She wished she’d asked the man what his name was, but he’d promised to come back. She’d ask him in a bit. There was just something about him that made her feel…safe. From his strong, square jawline and the scruff on his face, to the fact that he seemed to be a couple inches taller than her five-eight. Beth imagined that he was probably very strong under the turnout gear he was wearing. It made her want to bury herself against his chest and have him put his arms around her and hold on tight and keep her safe from the world.
Leaning down and resting her forehead on her knees, she tried to get herself together. She couldn’t rely on anyone to help her…she had to help herself. She could get through this. She could. One minute at a time. As long as no one made her leave her apartment, she was golden.
ade “Sledge” Turner
, so named because he’d once taken a sledgehammer and beaten his way inside a mangled car at a wreck when it was obvious they only had seconds before it burst into flames, watched as the medics looked over Beth. She seemed to be okay, other than being nervous. He felt bad for her. Apparently, she’d been trying out a new recipe for fried chicken, but had put too much oil in the pan with the heat too high, and the entire thing had gone up in flames.
He knew about agoraphobia. His sister had a good friend in her therapy group who had it. They’d had a long conversation one night about what it might be like to be afraid to go outside. Cade couldn’t imagine it. He loved camping, fishing, sports…generally anything that had to do with the great outdoors. To be trapped inside was akin to being stuck in a horror movie for him.
Cade worked with some great firefighters, but the man who’d almost forced Beth to go outside was one of the newer guys at the station. He’d transferred from somewhere up north. He’d made some minor mistakes in the past, enough to make Cade wary of the man, but this one was almost unforgivable. Thinking about the angst he could’ve caused Beth, when all it would’ve taken was a few questions to find out why she was resistant to seeing a medic, made Cade see red. He’d definitely be talking to their captain about him the first chance he had.
When Beth had asked hesitantly if Cade would mind coming back in while the medic looked her over, something in her voice struck a chord. He wasn’t a ladies’ man, never had been. He’d had girlfriends, even a few serious ones, but at thirty-four, had never found the right partner.
But this woman…there was something about her, and it wasn’t just that she was feeling vulnerable at the moment. He’d treated hundreds of female patients throughout his career. He’d seen single mothers with kids, hot college girls, even women fifteen years older than him—all who had been in similar situations as Beth—but not one had ever made him feel the way he did right now. A lightning bolt hadn’t come down from the heavens and struck, letting him know the woman was “his,” but he
attracted to her.
Cade knew in his bones he had what many considered to be a character flaw. He enjoyed being a knight in shining armor. It probably wasn’t healthy and so far hadn’t been good for a long-term relationship, but it was a part of who he was. There was just something that made him feel complete when he had someone to look after. He’d been called overprotective more than once in the past, but Cade knew he wasn’t going to change anytime soon.
But he had a feeling trying to get to know Beth better would be a waste of time. No matter how much he had the urge to fight her demons for her, they were just too different. He loved being outdoors, she couldn’t handle it. He worked long hours, and the last thing he wanted to do was come home and hole up inside on his time off. He wondered if she even had friends. How could she have friends if she never left her house?
“Oh my God! Beth? Are you all right?”
Cade turned to the door in surprise and saw Penelope, his sister and fellow firefighter, burst into the room. Beth looked up.
“Hey, Pen. Yeah, I managed to screw up my mom’s recipe big time and almost burned the place down.” Her voice was laced with humor and self-depreciation.
Penelope gave Beth a huge hug and sat next to her, holding her hand. “I was at home and heard your address come across the scanner and about had a heart attack! I got here as fast as I could. I was hoping the call wasn’t about you, but then I heard your apartment number on the scanner and that you were refusing to go outside.”
Beth cocked her head and gestured sheepishly with her free hand. “It’s me.”
“Well shit, woman. If you wanted some fried chicken, you should’ve just called me! I would’ve brought some over.”
They both laughed and Cade cleared his throat, trying to get Penelope’s attention. It worked.
“Oh, Beth, this is Cade…otherwise known as Sledge. We not only work at Station 7 together, but he has the lucky job of being my brother as well.”
“We met earlier, but I didn’t catch his name.” Beth smiled shyly at him. “I knew Pen had a brother, but I didn’t know you guys worked together too.”
Cade noted absently that she seemed calmer somehow. He wasn’t sure if it was the fact that she wasn’t going to have to go outside or that Penelope was now with her. Whatever it was, he liked it. Her eyes were sparkling with humor and intelligence and the smile she aimed at him lit up her face. He liked this non-timid version of her.
“It’s nice to officially meet you, Beth. I didn’t know you were the ‘Beth’ Penelope is always talking about either…all good things, of course.”
“Suuuure.” Beth laughed. She looked at her friend. “Just remember, Pen, I know as many secrets about you as you do about me.”
Penelope threw her head back and laughed uproariously. “I seriously doubt that, my friend. Cade, Beth is the smartest person I know. She might only be twenty-five, but I swear she knows more about computers, Internet, and code than anyone I’ve ever met. I bet if you put Garcia from
and her in a room together, Beth would wipe the floor with her.”
“You do know that Penelope Garcia is a made-up TV character, don’t you?” Beth intoned before Cade could respond, as if she’d told her friend the same thing a thousand times before.
Penelope chuckled and shook her head, answering her friend as if her brother wasn’t in the room. “I know but the shit you do is
.” Her voice dropped. “I’ve lived it, and you know it.”
Beth put her arm around Penelope’s shoulders and hugged her. “I know. I wish I’d known you before you went overseas. I would’ve done whatever I needed to in order to help. Those asshats wouldn’t have had a chance.”