Excerpt: Chasing the Fire
Book 6 (3 Novellas): Hidden Cove Firefighters
Captain Nick Evans held his breath as he picked out a straw and prayed he didn’t get the short one. He damn well couldn’t be in charge of the Christmas party to raise money for the kids who attended Hale’s Haven, the summer camp for children of slain firefighters and police officers. He hated Christmas and anything to do with the holiday.
Parker Allen Erikson, chic and slim, who’d come up with this harebrained idea, smiled at the firefighters assembled in her office at headquarters. “Don’t look so grim. You’ll have help.”
Mumbles from all fifteen officers of House 7, who’d been required by the brass to participate.
When everybody had drawn a straw, she said, “All right, look.”
Fucking son of a bitch. The little—littlest for sure—straw nestled in Nick’s palm.
“Hey, Evans got it.” This from one of the female officers.
“Yes!” a captain called out.
“Good for you, Nick,” another joked.
Nobody wanted to do the extra work for the party, but that wasn’t why Nick dreaded winning this particular lottery. So much more was wrong with his involvement with anything to do with Christmas. So he said, “If somebody’ll take over for me, I’ll pay you a Franklin a week.”
Parker raised a brow. “That is not in the spirit of Christmas, Captain.” She glanced over at her husband, Battalion Chief Cal Erikson, for support. The sappy look on the battalion chief’s face when he gazed at his wife told Nick he’d get no help there.
“A deal’s a deal, Evans,” Erikson said. “Buck up.”
Nick had no choice but to downplay how much this meant to him. “Yeah, yeah, I know.”
Bestowing a benevolent smile on him that could crack anybody’s veneer but his, Parker scanned the group. “Thanks to all of you. You’re not off the hook, though. You have to set an example for your team and actively participate.”
Team was the operative word here. As head of PR for the fire department, her scheme to raise money for the camp included all seven houses of the fire department, and four of law enforcement, each one assigned a winter fund-raising event/party for the kids who went to camp. Why couldn’t House 7 have gotten the basketball tournament House 3 was responsible for? Or even the all-day activity party at Play Station. No, he had to get the freaking Christmas party.
“Nick, can you stay for a preliminary meeting?”
Before he could answer, the BC did. “He’s free. I got a sub for the whole day for whoever was chosen.” Erikson gave him a don’t balk on this anymore look.
“Great. You can use my office for the meeting.” She winked at Cal. “And take your time.”
Just then, a knock sounded on the door. “That must be her.”
Her? The other chair was a woman? Huh, maybe he could get her to do most of the work.
“Come on in, Stacey.”
Through the door came Doris Day with red hair. Well, more strawberry blond than red, but hell, she had the freckles and hazel eyes that were common to redheads. “I hope I’m not early. I came over on my lunch hour.”
“You aren’t. We picked your co-chair.” Parker turned to Nick. “Captain Nick Evans, this is Stacey Sterling. Stacey, Nick.”
She approached him with a big smile and held out her hand. He shook it and forced a paltry smile. “Ms. Sterling.”
“It’s Mrs., but call me Stacey, Captain.”
“Fine. Nick to you.” Jesus, this was awkward.
Parker picked up her purse and circled the desk with a brochure in her hand. “Here’s the menu from the Hidden Cove Diner. Call my secretary to order the food. It’s on me.”
Nick nodded, Parker and Cal walked out and he was alone with Mrs. Sterling. There was something about her…
“So,” he said, congenially. “Why do you look familiar?”
“We’ve met at the bookstore.” She tipped her chin, sending skeins of hair tumbling down her chest in big fat curls. “I own The Book Nook.” She gave him a sideways glance. “You like mysteries and nonfiction.”
“I do. Now I remember. You aren’t there all the time, though.”
“I work every day, but I focus on the rare-book section of the business. It’s the lifeblood of the store, given the popularity of those dreaded ebooks.”
“I hear ya. I can’t get used to the readers.”
Glancing down at the menu, she said, “I’m starved. Do you mind if we eat now?”
“Nope. I’ll have lobster, baked potato and asparagus. With a crisp white wine.”
She laughed. It was deep and from her belly but had a feminine ring to it. “Maybe after this is over, we can go out on the town.” She perused the menu. “How about a cheeseburger, french fries and soda? Unhealthy, but will hit the spot. I’ll have the same.”
“Go for it.”
As she punched in the secretary’s number, he studied her. She was tall, at least five feet eight, not really big boned, but sturdy and well-toned. She wore a simple beige skirt, which hit her knees, and a striped T-shirt. On her feet were sneakers.
“I walked over from the store.” She must have caught him staring when she disconnected.
“Seriously? It’s gotta be six miles roundtrip.”
“I try to do between four and six every day. It clears my head.”
They sat at the table, and the scent of sunshine and some lotion-like smell filled his head. He watched as she took a small laptop out of the backpack she’d brought with her. Before she could speak, he asked, “So how did you get roped into this?”
Her face blanked. Then her eyes narrowed. “I volunteered. Didn’t you?”
The question was so ingenuous he felt like Scrooge. “No, sorry. Why’d you?”
She worried the wedding ring on her finger. “My husband was killed five years ago saving a boxcar full of immigrants.”
“Sterling? As in Sam Sterling?” He thought for a minute. “He got the Heroism and Community Service Award from Firehouse magazine for that.”
“I only had a passing acquaintance with him. You should know the department still mourns his loss.”
“As do I. Real hero material there.” She gave him a generous smile. “Actually, I think all firefighters are heroes. Super ones, I guess.”
Of all the things she could have said to him, those words were like a knife to the heart. Nick couldn’t respond.
Because of the guilt he carried, he knew he couldn’t be further from a hero than he was. Nope, in some ways, he was the total opposite of her husband.
Nick Evans hopped off the Rescue Truck in front of the strip mall. Angry fingers of flame rose at least ten feet from the roof of each of the four buildings. Rancid-smelling smoke curled everywhere. “This is a big one, guys.”
“Callahan’s here. Malvaso, Erikson, and two other battalion chiefs.” The statement came from Bilton Ames, aka Bilky, one of the best firefighters on his crew.
“Yep. And it’s a four alarm. Three engines and us.” The us included the Rescue, Quint and Midi rigs.
“Be back,” Nick said as he jogged to Incident Command, home base of the operation. Already, the noise of the scene filled the air…the sound of the trucks, the shouts of men, the slight hum of the generator, which gave them light. “Hey, Chief.”
“Evans.” Callahan nodded to the building. “It’s fully involved, was when we got here.”
“That happened fast.”
“One of the stores is a flooring place. The carpet and wood inside were tinder when the fire started.”
As they talked, Nick watched the streams of three trucks—two in front, one in back—pour gallons of water on the blaze. “Where do you want my crew?”
“Malvaso said the right, back corner of the last building is close to houses. Take your rig over to the street and evacuate the first three.”
Heading back to group, he gave them their orders. His Quint made it over to the neighborhood in minutes. “Huh,” Nick said as he hopped off the truck again. “None of the houses have their lights on. How can they not have heard the sirens?”
Amidst comments, some funny, they started down the sidewalk. “I’ll take the first. Cordaro and Ames the second. Thorne and Maloney the last.”
Though firefighters never went into a building alone—and he wouldn’t—Nick climbed the steps to the green-sided structure. Hopefully, all he’d have to do is call out. As he reached the porch, he saw that some of the shingles on the front were melting. Hell. It was hotter than anybody realized over here. Hand fisted, he banged on the front door. “Fire Department. Open up.” No answer. He pounded harder. “Your neighborhood is on fire! Open up.”
Something caught Nick’s attention and he looked up. Flames from the nearest building in the strip mall leapt from its roof to the top of this structure, almost as though he was watching an animated movie. The roof had to be as hot as the shingles and he wasn’t surprised to see the fire catch. Glancing to the side, he noted that his crew had escorted out people from the other houses. Into his radio he said, “Lead them away from the building and get back here. My house is on fire.”
He changed the frequency. “Chief, the house closest to the mall just caught. We need a pumper back here.”
“I’ll send Truck Four back. Anybody inside?”
“Nobody answered. We’ll go in and check.”
When his crew hustled up the steps, he saw Ames had brought a halligan. “Pop the door.”
Ames wedged the angled-head ax into the seam of the door frame and cracked it. Thrusting his foot forward, he pushed the door inward. The five of them donned their masks and stepped inside.
The house was filling fast with smoke. Nick directed his men to the left, back and right of the two-story. In a few minutes he heard, “I got a guy in the downstairs bedroom, naked as a jaybird.”
“Get him outside.” He asked through the radio, “Ames? What do you have?”
“Then you and Cordaro follow me upstairs.”
By the time they reached the top level, the smoke had thickened but Nick could still see three doors. “Ames, take the far one. Cordaro, the second. I’ll go in here.”
Nick went through the nearest open door and knew immediately something was wrong. He could see the outline of a man standing by the window, staring out. Coughing. “Sir, what are you doing? The house is on fire.” He yelled the question through his facemask.
The man didn’t speak. And the heat was shooting up. Nick strode across the room. The guy kept coughing and kept staring out the window. “Hey, Mister, you gotta get out of here.”
The guy turned around and pulled back his arm. He was about to punch Nick when a bad fit of coughing hit him. Nick pushed him away and into the wall, where he hit his head and slumped to the ground. “Hell. I got a victim,” he said into the mic. “Who tried to deck me.” People did crazy things in a fire, out of panic. “I’m gonna drag him out.”
“We’re at the door.” He turned to see Cordaro and Ames.
Coming inside, Ames took the guy’s feet and Nick lifted him under the arms. Cordaro led the way to the steps. There, Nick said, “I’ll carry him.”
They pulled the guy up to his feet and Nick hefted the none-too-light, now deadweight over his shoulder.
Holy shit. He weighed a ton. It was rare to have to carry somebody out of a building and he stumbled a bit. Finally, he got his bearings and started down. One step, two… Gingerly he descended the stairs. He could hear water slapping on fire. The engine crew had come to put out the blaze.
At the bottom, he eased the victim onto the floor and stood. Cordaro and Ames carried the man out by the arms and legs and Nick let them. His muscles were saturated. Blessedly cool air greeted them as they crossed the street and set the guy on the ground well away from the burn site.
He roused. “What…what happened?”
Suddenly, the guy sat up. “Gotta get out of here. They can’t know.”
Nick grabbed for his arm. “Know what?”
“Cap, look at his clothes.”
Nick glanced down. Stuffed in his shirt pockets and peeking out of his sleeves were big fat rags. The kind that…
Bolting up, the man started to run. He weaved like a drunk, and Nick easily caught up to him and tackled him to the ground.
“What are you doing, Evans?” Chief Malvaso had jogged over to them.
Nick looked up, still holding on to the guy. “I think I caught an arsonist. I’m pretty sure he’s got gasoline-soaked rags in his sleeves and pockets.”
“Jesus, Evans, you had a close call in there. Those things could have caught fire…”
That was the thing about fires. At any time a building could explode in flames.
“You’re one lucky bastard, buddy.”
Nick didn’t respond. Lucky was about the last word he’d apply to himself. Still, he was grateful to be alive.
A half hour before The Book Nook opened, Stacey dropped down onto one of the chairs set up for people to relax and read. First, she turned on the morning news. She liked to catch it each day in case any books she carried were relevant to current events and she should put them on display.
The local station came on screen. “And in another development with public workers, an unusual rescue happened this morning at four a.m. on Vickers Street. Our news crew covering the fire call got video of it…”
The screen switched to that of a burning house. Out of it stumbled three firefighters, two of them carrying a man by his arms and legs. When they set him down on the ground, the camera zeroed in and she caught the dirty face and weary expression of Nick Evans. The loud rumbling of fire trucks and the hiss of water obscured any talk, but suddenly the victim got up and a second later Nick did the same. How odd; he started to chase the guy.
The voice-over narrated. “The firefighter shown here is Captain Nick Evans of the HCFD as he discovers the man whose life he saved is the alleged arsonist who set the fire at the strip mall, which spread to a neighboring house. Sources say the firefighters recognized gasoline-soaked rags carried by the alleged.”
The pretty woman came back on screen. “So not only is Nick Evans a hero of a firefighter, but he’s done the police force’s work, too. Congratulations from the WHCD news station, Captain.”
A still shot came on-screen of Nick in his firefighter gear. Stacey froze it and cocked her head as she thought of the meeting she’d had a month ago with him. She could tell he wasn’t happy to be working on the kids’ Christmas party. He’d been friendly enough, but she’d felt his reserve. With all people? Or just her? She’d spent two hours with him but still didn’t know much about him.
As she stared at his photo, there was something about that jaw that drew her attention. So classic, so sculpted, so masculine. His eyes were green, with blond brows lighter than his wheat-colored hair.
They’d set a date to plan the party, discussed possible themes, and agreed to meet today, the beginning of October, to get to work on the nitty-gritty. She wondered after fighting a fire, which had apparently raged out of control, and tackling an arsonist if he’d show at the store.
The bell at the back tinkled and she could hear Cora Carlyle enter. The woman had been a lifesaver when she’d come in looking for a full-time job—Stacey had only had two part-time employees then—exactly when the rare-book section of the business had taken off.
Stacey smiled when the five-ten, willowy woman made her way out to the main store. “Morning, Stacey,” she said cheerfully.
“Get some coffee and come join me.”
Soon, Cora seated herself. “Thank you again for coming in to open while my husband’s away so I don’t have to worry about being late.”
“Get the kids on the bus okay?”
“Yeah, but Bobby’s a slowpoke.” She smiled at the thought of her seven year old. “I’m glad Jay takes care of that normally.”
Stacey hid a sudden pang of sadness. The only thing she regretted about her ten-year relationship with Jess was not having children. Who knew their life together would be so short? They were having fun when they first wed, then she’d inherited the bookstore when her beloved parents had died, then Jess had gotten a promotion…the time had never seemed right. After he’d been killed in that fire, she’d vowed never to let something important slip away from her again.
And damn, why did she keep having these moments of nostalgia and time flying by?
Cora caught a glimpse of the frozen screen. “Oh, yummy. Who’s the guy?”
“One of America’s Bravest. He caught an arsonist last night. Tackled him right to the ground.”
“Mmm. We’ll have to check the female-firefighter blog online. One of my neighbors contributes to it. It’s called Fire Belles, and the women tout the men in the department, too.”
“Cute name.” She glanced at her watch. “He’s coming here at eleven for a meeting.”
“Lucky you. Is it about the Christmas party?”
“Uh-huh. He’s a reluctant co-chair.”
“You can make him more cooperative, Stacey. Use your feminine wiles on him.”
She laughed out loud. “I don’t have them. I must have been sick the day God doled them out.”
Cora scowled. “I wish you wouldn’t say that about yourself. You’re lovely.”
Stacey gave an unladylike snort. “I’m plain, simple and have never known how to flirt. Funny thing, I didn’t mind all that.” She glanced away.
“Until Jess died. I’m…” She bit her lip, feeling guilty for even uttering her feelings. “I’m lonely, I guess. I’d like more in my life. And I’d probably do better out there in dating land if I was more feminine.”
“You have to get out there to do better, Stace. You give off absolutely no vibes you’re interested in dating.”
“It’s a recent development. I’m going to my office. Send Nick Evans back when he comes.”
Stacey sat down at her computer and called up the rare-book icon. An online auction for a first edition of a Hemingway novel would take place today. Though she hated his misogynist, self-absorbed stories, collectors paid good bucks for his work. She clicked into the online seller’s site. Bidding started at two this afternoon. She’d scribbled down a reminder and posted it on her computer.
She should do some work on the store finances, but she leaned back and thought about Cora’s comments. And the rescue Nick Evans performed. Huh! She did appreciate his looks. And he had an aura of authority, of command, that she hadn’t even known she liked in a man.
What the hell? Sitting up, she conducted a quick search and called up the blog of the Fire Belles. Sure enough, there was the same picture shown on TV. She read the blog: our hero…daring save…what a good guy he was…how he volunteered at a women’s shelter. They made a point of saying he worked hard promoting females in the department.
Cora appeared at the doorway. “Stacey, Nick Evans is here.”
Quickly, she closed the computer and stood. Smoothing down the black skirt she wore with a plain, white blouse, she smiled as he came to the entrance. “Good morning.”
He didn’t look tired. He looked as if he’d just rolled out of bed, and she had to admit, he wore it well. His hair was mussed and he sported a growth of overnight beard. A navy T-shirt tucked into beltless blue jeans.
“Come on in, Nick. Have a seat at the table.”
“Thanks.” He eyed the pot in the corner. “I’d sell my soul for a cup of that. Would you mind?”
“Go ahead. And soul selling won’t be necessary.” His rumpled look—or maybe Cora’s suggestion—made her think about saying something clever regarding ways he could repay her, but she kept quiet. See, she didn’t know how to flirt.
He seemed bigger when he sat and gulped back coffee from the huge mug he’d chosen. And his scent wafted over to her. He must have showered after the fire and put on some spicy aftershave. “Sorry I’m such a mess. I literally just woke up.”
“I saw what happened on the news. You could have called and canceled this meeting.”
“I had no idea I’d sleep so late.” He looked around. “Very nice in here.” A definite change of subject.
She tried to see the office through his eyes: posters of women authors everywhere (well, the store was hers!) a solid-oak desk, a sage-green, microfiber couch. She’d painted the walls a lighter green and the trim on the one big window white. The same color scheme and oak wood repeated out in the store. “Thanks.”
“I didn’t bring my notes with me. I forgot.”
“No problem.” She crossed to the cabinet in the corner and pulled out her laptop. When she reseated herself, she met his gaze. “Before we start, I want to congratulate you. You actually caught an arsonist?”
He chuckled and the change in his face was dramatic. And appealing. “Can you believe it? Hell of a thing.”
“My employee told me about the women’s blog. I read it. They adore you.”
“I try to counteract the anti-female element in fire departments, though the HCFD is better than most.”
“I saw what they wrote. You also volunteer at a women’s shelter. Why?”
He shrugged. “I got a little sister, who…let’s just say, I hate men who abuse women.”
“Where does she live?”
“She moved here when I did. From New York.” He seemed to study her. “Do you have family in Hidden Cove?”
“Jess’s. I adore them. My parents died and left me the bookstore. No siblings. But Jess’s family is big, so I have plenty of sisters and brothers.”
“I’m glad for you.” Nick nodded to the file. “Where do we start today?”
Stacey regretted the change of subject. She enjoyed the exchange of personal information. “I thought we’d talk in global terms of what we want to provide for the kids, then go from there. It’s in the Academy gym, so we’ll have to decorate. And the date’s already set. December twelve.” Parker had emailed both of them the information at the end of the summer.
He sipped more coffee and leaned forward. “We should probably plan for kids aged four to seventeen. That’s the range for the camp itself, but of course, we’ll be getting other children in town for the fund-raiser.”
“I’ve given that some thought, too. Do you know Faith McPherson? Well, Ruscio now.”
“The name sounds familiar.”
“Her husband’s an ex-cop. Long story there.”
“Now I remember; he did some henchman work for Stan Steele years ago.”
“He’s reformed,” she said defensively. “He’s a real family man.”
Nick held up his hands, arrest style. “Hey, you’re preaching to the choir. I totally believe in second chances. So what about his wife?”
“I belong to her father’s church. They’ve had fund-raisers for the camp. One was a kind of festival, with booths that catered to a variety of age groups. They haven’t done it for years, though, because they like to pick new ways of involving their congregation.”
“Fine by me. We should have a theme though.”
“I thought about that, too. Maybe we could do a hero theme. Incorporate real-life heroes like firefighters”—she nodded to him—“police officers and veterans with classic superheroes like Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.”
“Wow.” Those blond brows rose. In person they were thicker, blonder. “You’ve got this all planned. You don’t even need me.”
Her eyes widened. “Oh, my gosh, did I overstep? I should have consulted you on the basics. These are only suggestions. We can—”
“Whoa there.” His grin was wide. Sexy. “I was teasing.”
Damn it, she was rusty. She couldn’t even tell when men teased her. Rusty, and completely out of her element with this guy.
An hour later, they were analyzing some spreadsheets that Stacey had printed off, listing what needed to be done. Nick reached out to grab a page and accidentally hit the large mug he’d filled again. It tipped over and coffee splashed onto Stacey before she could back off. When she did, she pushed the table hard and upended it; papers flew everywhere.
“Oh, shit,” Nick said. “I’m sorry.”
She laughed. “No use crying over spilt coffee.” She pointed to the lav. “Want to get some paper towels in there?”
He rushed to the bathroom and came out carrying a roll. When he was flush with her, he tore off a few pieces. Before he gave them to her, his gaze traveled below her chin. “Want some help with that?” His tone was amused, and his green eyes sparkled like emeralds as he nodded at her.
She looked down. The white blouse she’d put on this morning clung to her breasts, outlining the lacy bra she wore beneath it. She raised her eyes to his and felt a spark of something arc between them. Her body reacted.
Oh, Lord, he’d know. He’s seen. Covering them up would just draw more attention to the fact that her nipples had beaded under his perusal.
If she only did know how to flirt. Say something cool and suggestive.
Instead, Stacey was mortified.