Authors: Kimberly Kincaid
© 2016 by Kimberly Kincaid
ll Rights Reserved
. This book or any portion thereof may not be reproduced or used in any manner whatsoever without the express permission of the publisher except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
his book is
a work of fiction. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locations is purely coincidental. The characters are all productions of the author’s imagination.
This book is dedicated to you, the person holding it.
Without readers, I could not do my dream job.
I am so grateful to have you on this journey with me.
riting a book is an endeavor
. Starting a new series, an undertaking. Branching out to a new series in a new subgenre? There might not be a word big enough for that! I could not have possibly written this book without the following people.
, thank you for opening the door for the Station Seventeen series by inviting me into your MacKenzie world. Geoff Symon, words cannot express how eternally grateful I am for all your patience and expertise with the forensic aspects of this story. All rule-bending is on me, while the knowledge is entirely (brilliantly!) yours.
o Jaycee Delorenzo
of Sweet n’ Spicy Designs for a gorgeous cover, and Nicole Bailey of Proof Before You Publish for keeping my commas (and ellipses…and possessive apostrophes…and…) in line. Thank you for holding my hand in Indie waters!
o the usual suspects
: Alyssa Alexander, who read all the ugly words and stuck by me until I got it right. Tracy Brogan, whose support is unflagging. Skye Jordan, for kicking my butt through the word sprints that led me to “the end.” Laura Kaye and Cristin Harber, who are so gracious with their time and advice. I love you all!
o Robin Covington and Avery Flynn
, there aren’t enough thanks and love on the planet. There are no finer best friends than you.
, to my family—Reader Girl, Smarty Pants, and Tiny Dancer, I am ever-proud to be your mom and ever-grateful for your patience during my crazy deadlines. And Mr. K, to say that I am grateful for your understanding with this transition is pretty much the biggest understatement ever uttered. I could not do what I do without your love and support, just like I would not be who I am without your love and support. You are my heart.
ellan Walker stood
with an ax in one hand and a sledgehammer in the other, thanking his lucky fucking stars he didn’t have an office job. Not that pushing paper was a bad way to go, necessarily—honest work, and all that. But a nine to five fit him about as well as a suit and tie, and since he hadn’t sported those particular torture devices since his father’s funeral ten years ago, he was all too happy to stick to the helmet and turnout gear he wore every day for the Remington Fire Department.
Better that the fires were literal than figurative. At least
he could put out.
“Is that a sledgehammer in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”
Kellan looked up from his spot in Station Seventeen’s triple-wide engine bay, chuffing out a laugh at the familiar, feminine voice greeting him from the doorway. “I’m always happy to see you when I’m doing inventory, McCullough. Care to help out a brother in need?”
“You want me to pick up your slack again, Walker?” His fellow engine-mate Shae McCullough arched a honey-colored brow at him, and Christ, even in her sleep she probably had enough brass for a band. Cue up the number one reason Kellan liked her.
“I prefer to think of it more as lending your professional expertise. Sharing
caring,” he reminded her, putting just enough of a cocky smile to the words to make her cave. Ballbreaker or not, Shae always had his back, just like he’d had hers since the minute he’d crossed the threshold at Seventeen two years ago. Being a firefighter was the closest thing he’d found to the seven years he’d spent in the Army. He and Shae were part of a team, along with everyone else on engine, squad, and even Parker and Quinn on the ambo. They didn’t just carry their weight. They carried each other equally.
Still, Kellan knew better than to think McCullough would lower her brass knuckles all the way on his account.
“Caring, my ass. You owe me,” she grumbled, although the slight lift of her lips negated any sting the words might otherwise hold.
“I can live with that.”
Kellan let go of a laugh along with the words, his work boots scuffing over the smooth concrete of the engine bay floor as he returned both the ax and the sledge to their respective storage compartments in Engine Seventeen. But before he and Shae could pop open the next one down to do a head count on the Halligan bars, the piercing sound of the all-call echoed off the cinder block walls of the engine bay.
Engine Seventeen, Squad Six, Ambulance Twenty-Two, structure fire, ninety-three hundred block of Glendale Avenue, requesting immediate response.
Just like that, Kellan’s pulse tripped into go mode in his veins. “Nothing like a crispy job right out of the chute,” he said, double-checking that the storage compartments were all latched tight before quickly hanging the inventory clipboard in his grasp back on the nearby support post. Damn, they’d barely taken a chunk out of their morning shift-change duties. Not that it mattered in the grander scheme of things catching fire.
“You’re not complaining, are you?” Shae shot a disbelieving glance over the shoulder of her navy blue uniform shirt as she pulled herself into the operator’s seat, throwing on her headset and kicking the engine over into a low growl.
Kellan clambered into the back step behind her, moving all the way down to the spot diagonal from hers, directly behind the officer’s seat. “Hell no,” he said, because as crazy as it might seem to civilians, he’d rather be busy than bored. He hadn’t become a firefighter to sit around the station. Give him the chance to run into a shit storm while all others were running out, and Kellan would take it every day of the week. Twice on Sundays.
He parked himself in the seat where he’d stowed his turnout gear barely fifteen minutes ago, inhaling to counter the physiological responses tempting his body to get jacked up. His heart might want to charge full speed ahead against his sternum and flatten his lungs to boot, but he’d learned how to show his adrenal gland who was boss long before day one at the Remington Fire Academy. Being a sniper for the Rangers tended to teach a guy how to keep his shit in check. After two tours in Afghanistan, the methods for managing his adrenaline were pretty much stitched into Kellan’s DNA.
Deep breaths. Quick decisions. Precise movements. No dwelling on what was in front of you or what was already done.
Kellan’s lieutenant, Ian Gamble, slid his huge frame into the officer’s seat in the front of the engine at the same time Station Seventeen’s rookie, Luke Slater, scrambled into the back step to sit behind Shae. Gamble turned to pin the rookie with a you-got-lucky-you-weren’t-last-in stare, hooking his headset over his ears and jutting his darkly-stubbled chin at Shae in a nonverbal “let’s go.”
Both Kellan and Slater grabbed the headsets hanging over their respective seats, because between the hundred and thirty decibel sirens and the rattle and whoosh of cabin noise inside the engine’s boxy interior, they didn’t have a prayer of hearing their lieutenant otherwise.
“Okay you guys, buckle down because this looks like the real deal,” Gamble cut out into his mic, the scraped-up edges of his voice a perfect match for his gruff demeanor. He leaned forward to look at the screen built into the dashboard that connected them with Remington’s emergency services system. “Dispatch is reporting flames showing at a residence on the north side of the district. Nearest cross street is Woodmoor,” he said, mostly for Shae’s benefit.
Of course, she probably didn’t need the assist. Shae had operated Engine Seventeen since before Kellan had even set his baby toe in the firehouse for his first shift. She knew Remington’s streets as well as she knew her own reflection.
Case in point. “That’s up in North Point,” she said. “The neighborhood’s not pretty.” While the fact didn’t matter an ounce in terms of how hard they’d fight the blaze, it could have an impact on the scene.
“Mmm,” Gamble acknowledged. “Well, if we haul ass”—he paused to slide a glance at Shae, whose resulting grin Kellan could just make out in profile from his spot in the back step—“we’ll be first on-scene, so gear up and be ready to look alive. Squad and ambo are on our six, and Captain Bridges is along for the ride.”
“Copy that,” Kellan said, tugging the headset from his ears. Continuing the smooth circuit of his inhale/exhale, he reached down for his bunker pants, pulling them over his uniform in one methodical move.
“Must be a hell of a fire if all hands are on deck, right?” Slater’s dark eyes flashed wide and round from his spot next to Kellan in the step, giving away his jitters despite the guy’s obvious attempt at a poker face.
Ah, rookies. Still, while some guys might be tempted to haze a newbie for being a little rattled on his first big fire call, giving the kid shit for turning out to be human after only three weeks on the job seemed a touch indecent.
“Not necessarily,” Kellan said, trying to lead by example as he got the rest of his gear into place. “Bridges is a hands-on kind of captain, and squad goes on all the fire calls in the district no matter what.” Those guys weren’t elite for shits and giggles, that was for damn sure. “But it’s not a drill, so keep your head on a swivel and stay on Gamble’s hip. And Slater?” He didn’t wait for the candidate to acknowledge him, because Christ, the kid looked two seconds away from stroking out. “Breathe in on a three count and out on a five. You’re gonna need your legs under you all the way. You copy?”
Slater nodded, his stare turning focused, and what do you know, he actually took Kellan’s advice. Good goddamn thing, too, because they were about T-minus two minutes from rolling up on the scene of this fire, and if the thick column of smoke Kellan had spotted through his window was anything to go by, something was burning pretty good.
Time to go to work.
“Bridges is calling the shots on the two-way,” Gamble hollered into the step, five seconds before Shae pulled the engine to a stop in front of a two-story detached row home heavily blanketed by smoke. “Listen up for assignments and watch your backs.
“Copy that,” Kellan said, his response weaving around both Shae’s and Slater’s as they gave up the same answer at the same time. Doing one last lightning-fast systems check on both his gear and his composure, he shouldered his SCBA tank, his muscles squeezing at the familiar burden of the extra thirty pounds as he hustled his way out of the back step to put his boots on the ground.
. A sheen of sweat burst between his shoulder blades despite the cool September weather. His pulse knocked hard against his throat at the sight of the thick gray smoke and angry orange flames licking upward from the first and second-story windows on the front of the row home, and even though it was tempting as hell to stare at the fire alone, Kellan was all too well-versed on how danger could spring from the most unexpected places. After cataloguing the immediate no-shit threat posed by the fire itself, he took a swift visual inventory of all of his surroundings.
Fairly well-kept house, although not so much on the neighborhood. Only a handful of onlookers, which would be a plus for securing the scene. No obvious entrapment—no one stumbling from the blaze in a panic about someone still inside and nobody shouting their guts out from a window or the roof. And wasn’t
another win, because with the smoke and flames funneling from the Alpha side windows, getting anyone out of the place would be a bitch and a half.
Not that they wouldn’t go all just-in-case and get to looking. Speaking of which…
Captain Bridges’ voice filled Kellan’s ear from the two-way radio clipped just below the shoulder of his turnout gear. “Squad Six, we need a vent on this roof immediately if not sooner. Gates, you and Faurier get a move on. Hawkins and Dempsey, take primary search and rescue, Gamble, you and Slater ready the lines, and Walker and McCullough, back up squad on S&R. I want this fire knocked down before it grows any more teeth, people. Go.”
Gamble straightened to the top of his six-foot, five-inch frame, throwing a look from Kellan to Shae. “You heard the captain,” he said, but Kellan’s boots had already started to thump over the cracked asphalt.
“Yes, sir.” Sparing only the seconds necessary to grab his Halligan bar from its spot in Engine Seventeen’s storage compartment, he fell into step with Shae, who was right on the squad lieutenant’s boot heels on the concrete sidewalk leading up to the house. Under normal circumstances, Hawk probably would’ve come off with a smart-assed quip in that slow, Southern drawl of his. But pleasantries—hell, anything other than locked and loaded intensity—fell to the wayside the second something went from a smolder to a burn.
This house definitely fit the freaking bill. “All right,” Hawk bit out, barely looking over his shoulder as he clanged past the waist-high chain link fence marked with signs warning NO TRESPASSING. “This place is goin’ up fast, so don’t dawdle. Dempsey, you’re my door man. McCullough, once we’re in, you and Walker hit the basement and sweep from the bottom up. Dempsey and I will start on the second floor and work our way down. We’ll meet you in the middle.”
“Copy, Lieutenant,” McCullough said, her green stare firm and focused. Their footsteps came to a halt on the timeworn porch boards just shy of the front door. Hawk’s tight nod at Dempsey translated to a nonverbal “breach it,” and Kellan’s gut tightened in a quick jab of anticipation. Dempsey put a punishing kick to the sweet spot in the lower panels, shock flashing both over his face and through Kellan’s veins when the damned thing refused to budge in its casing. A breach like that on a house this old should’ve had the door not just wide open, but halfway off its hinges. No way would the lock hold unless—
“The fuck?” Dempsey grunted, sliding the flat end of his Halligan between the edge of the door and the jamb to visualize the deadbolt. “There’s a steel-reinforced protector screwed into the doorframe.”
Kellan’s brows popped toward the brim of his helmet. Not only was the jamb fortified to the nines, but the deadbolt itself had to be two inches thick. “That’s a shit-ton of hardware for a residence.”
“It’s definitely not your momma’s turn-and-go,” Dempsey agreed, and Hawk spun another gaze over the covered main-level windows and the thick veil of smoke muddying the morning sunlight around them.
“Put those ridiculous breach skills of yours to work, Dempsey. We need entry like five minutes ago.”
“You got it, boss.”
Determination shaped Dempsey’s features, flattening his lips into a thin line as he turned back toward the door. Blood pulsed over Kellan’s eardrums in a white-noise whoosh—thump-
, Dempsey finessed his Halligan into a space anyone else would’ve thought microscopic, thump-
, a chock replaced it for leverage to create a bigger gap, thump-
, the edge of his Halligan found the hairsbreadth again, rocking once, twice, a third time—
The rip and crack of splintering wood never sounded so fucking beautiful.
Hawk didn’t waste so much as a millisecond shouldering his way past the busted-in door and over the threshold after Dempsey, not that Kellan had expected him to. They’d already lost valuable time with the sticky breach, and anyway, everyone’s assignments were crystal. Squinting past the haze, he stepped inside the tiny, barely-visible foyer, primed and ready to find the point of entry to the basement so he and Shae could get to work.
A rush of heat slammed into his lungs, chased quickly by the dark, bitter taste of smoke in his mouth, and
, they had their work laid out for them.
“All right,” he barked after he’d yanked his mask into place, the hiss of his regulator punctuating the words. “Let’s find a POE to the lower level.”
Shae’s “copy that” came past the thick shield of her own mask. “Place looks pretty dead,” she said, flipping on the high-powered flashlight strapped just to the right of her sternum as she fell in at his six. The beam cut a path through the smoke and the layer of ash starting to pepper in around them, revealing a whole lot of nothing much by way of furniture or belongings. A single couch faced outward from the adjacent living room, its cushions askew. Fast food wrappers and empty beer cans littered the floor around it, but the space appeared empty otherwise. No coffee table, no TV, nothing on the rickety bookshelf propped against the wall.