Excerpt: Feel the Heat
Book 1: The Rockford Fire Department
The siren wailed and the horn blared as Quint Twelve, one of Rockford Fire Department’s state-of-the-art trucks, tore into the Templeton warehouse parking lot. The other rig in the house, the Midi, which carried medical equipment, rolled behind them. Francey Cordaro felt a jolt of adrenaline when they hit the fire ground, and her heartbeat quickened at the sight of the thick black smoke billowing from the building. The trucks squealed to a halt, and the crew catapulted out of the cab. They were second in, as another firehouse had beaten them to the scene.
While the captain sprinted to Incident Command for instructions from the battalion chief, the rest of them hefted hoses out of the Quint’s bed, removed the pry tools and twisted the heavy steel valves to open the vehicle’s water tanks.
“Hell of a way to start your thirtieth birthday, France,” Roncowsky, the rookie, said as he yanked on a line.
“You got that right, kid.”
Captain Knight strode back to them like a general ready to mobilize his troops. His radio pulsed as much static as orders from the chief. “Engine Sixteen’s ventilating the roof on the east side. They got two hoses in the front door. They figured the place was empty this time of night, but after they went in, a passerby told the battalion chief there might be somebody inside. Seems his car wasn’t spotted till just now. We’re going in the west side. There’s a wrought-iron staircase on the outside wall leading up to the office level.”
“Tough luck,” Dylan O’Roarke, her good friend, and excellent firefighter commented on the news that a victim was in the burning building.
The cap faced Francey. “Cordaro, make the forced entry up there. Office is to the left about twenty feet—we’ll look for the guy in there first. I’ll bring in the thermal imaging camera.” He flicked a glance at Dylan. “O’Roarke, take a hose in with her. Roncowsky and Duke, other members of the group who were on the second truck, will follow with a second line.” One driver would stay with the rigs and oversee water delivery.
Francey grabbed the pry tool, raced to the warehouse and bolted up the wrought-iron stairs, the men hauling the lines behind her. She reached the entrance in seconds and sprang the lock on the heavy steel door. Captain Knight barked their position into the radio, then all four firefighters donned their breathing masks and switched on their air flow. Francey shoved an ax-like halligan into her pocket in case it was needed inside and took her place on the tip of the hose. With Dylan behind her and Robbie in back of the captain on the other side, they entered the burning building.
A thick blanket of black smoke enveloped them. It was like being blindfolded, but the thermal camera would help the captain detect any bodies with different heat signatures from the ambient temperature around them. “Go down the west hall. I see something in a room.”
Crouching low, they inched along the wall. Francey groped the floor in front of her. She and Dylan pulled the charged hose down the wide hallway while the rookie and Duke mirrored their actions on the other side. The sound of water slapping on the fire below them indicated Engine Sixteen must have found the seat of the blaze.
About twenty feet into the warehouse, sweat trickling down her shirt, Francey heard Knight’s command into the radio. “In the room on the left, Cordaro.”
She felt the outline of a closed door. She let Dylan take the hose, stood, threw off her glove and tested the door with the back of her hand. Not too hot. She twisted the knob. It opened, but only partway.
Reaching around, she found a body slumped on the floor just inside the smoke-filled room, partly blocking their entrance. She eased herself inside and squinted to make out his form.
She managed to get him upright and dug her hands under his armpits. God, he was heavy. Over two hundred, she guessed. Slowly, she drew him back, the other guys opened the door then she dragged him into the hall. Duke got the legs of the victim. The smoke still a thick curtain, she walked backward behind the others who retraced their steps to the outside staircase. Dylan led the way with the hose. When they reached the exit, Francey stepped onto the landing backward and edged around to take the stairs.
Still unconscious, the man jerked spasmodically. The movement threw Francey off balance. Let go of him! she thought wildly. You’re going to fall. She did, and momentum took her down the steps. Her left arm banged on the railing, and pain splintered through her.
Her head hit something hard—and the world went black.
Every muscle in her body hurt—much like it did after a grueling session with weights. Francey willed the pain away and tried to open her eyes. Heavy-lidded, they stayed shut. She shifted slightly and moaned.
“She’s awake, Ben,” a familiar voice called from beside her. The captain.
Then a hand stroked her hair, as it had through measles and mumps and her first injury in the fire department. “Francey, honey, it’s me. Dad.”
Finally she was able to slit her eyes. Her father hovered over her, his face etched with concern. His dark, just-graying hair was mussed, and his brown eyes were troubled.
“Hi,” she murmured.
Coming up beside Ben, Dylan grinned. “You fell down the steps, klutz. Did you know that fifty thousand people are hospitalized every year because of fire-related injuries?” Though he was considered quite a ladies’ man with his unruly black hair and Irish blue eyes, her friend could be a pain in the butt.
“Spare me the statistics, O’Roarke.” Then her memory returned. A forcible entry into the warehouse. A man on the floor. She’d lost her footing when she reached the wrought-iron staircase. “The victim?”
“He’s fine,” her father told her. “Some smoke inhalation.”
“And a few bruises from being dropped,” Dylan added gleefully.
“Oh, shit.” Francey struggled to sit up. The action sent a bolt of pain through her arm. “What the hell?”
Her father sat on the bed and gently touched the cast that ran from just below her elbow to the middle of her hand. “It’s broken, kiddo.”
Francey closed her eyes and sank into the pillow, vaguely recalling her trip to the hospital and her stint in emergency. Her head began to throb. She used an obscenity she rarely said in front of her father. He gave her a weak grin.
A firefighter like his daughter and one of his sons, Ben Cordaro understood her concern. “You’ll be out at least two months.”
“You will, honey.”
Her older brothers, Nicky and Tony, came up behind their father. Nicky had Ben’s dark good looks; Tony, the older, was fair, with taffy-colored hair.
Sidling in close, Tony bent and kissed her. “Hi, kid. Took a nasty fall, huh?”
Francey nodded at his trademark gentle kindness. “I guess.”
“Tough break, sis.” Nicky chuckled. “Excuse the pun.” She gave him a pained look, like the ones they’d shared as children. “Hey, you can always go to the academy and work with Dad.”
Francey rolled her eyes. Most firefighters dreaded an academy stint because they missed all the action.
“Not this time. The doc said no work for two months, even teaching recruits. You have to heal properly.”
“What are you doing here?” she asked her brother.
“My crew was on at Sixteen’s last night. While you were playing hero with the CEO of Templeton Industries, I was in the basement knocking down the fire.”
Francey frowned. “The CEO of Templeton Industries?”
“Yeah. Alex Templeton was working late at the company warehouse and apparently fell asleep at his desk.
When the fire got rolling, he was overcome by the carbon dioxide. You pulled him right out of the jaws of death, sis,” he said with a wiggle of his eyebrows.
“Dylan, Duke and me got him out.”
“That’s right,” Dylan put in. “Just because you’re a battalion chief’s daughter doesn’t mean you get all the credit.”
Male laughter rippled through the room. “Is everybody here?”
Adam Genier, the other rig driver, approached the bed, along with Robbie. “You can always come in and cook for us while you’re off,” Adam teased.
The entire crew groaned. Francey’s lack of culinary skills was well-known in the department.
Francey gazed at the men gathered around the hospital bed—her biological family and her other family, Group One from station house Quint/Midi Twelve. Except for Robbie, their crew had been together for years, and the men were like brothers to her. Right now they were cleaned up and dressed in civilian clothes. But Ed Knight’s face was drawn and looked pale next to his gray hair and Robbie’s youthful complexion was pasty. Adam’s eyes, almost the same hue as his coffee-colored skin, were concerned; the harsh lines of Duke’s rough exterior had softened. And Dylan, though he joked and quoted his infamous firefighter trivia, had creases in his forehead whenever he looked at her.
They were all worried. She smiled in appreciation.
“What time is it?” she asked. “We off?”
“About seven.” This from the captain. “We came here as soon as our shift ended and our relief arrived.”
“You remember the ambulance ride?” Dylan, a paramedic, as well as a firefighter, had accompanied her to the hospital.
“Yeah. You got a great bedside manner, O’Roarke. You kept yelling at me to wake up.”
“He saves his tender side for his women,” Adam joked.
Francey glanced at Robbie. “You did good, kid, for your third fire.”
The redheaded rookie gave her an impish grin. “I did?” No one in the Rockford Fire Department doled out unwarranted praise.
“Jeez, France, I’m sorry you got hurt. Especially on your birthday.”
“The one saving grace is that you guys won’t be able to pull any stupid over-the-hill pranks on me now that I’m in the hospital.” When they were done with their tour today—a full rotation of four days on, three off, four nights on and three days off—they’d planned to go to Pumpers, a firefighters’ hangout, to break out the champagne.
She glanced at Captain Knight. “How’d the fire start? And where?”
“In the basement. We’re not sure how. The alarm was called in by one of the Templetons who was driving by the warehouse. The fire marshals have been there all night. They think maybe…”
The captain’s voice trailed off as someone came through the door to Francey’s room. She couldn’t see around the guys, but tension rose in the air quicker than heated mercury.
Her crew eased away from the bed. Ben, Tony and Nicky stilled. Her dad said, “Diana.”
He only half-turned away from Francey. His face was blank, his voice carefully neutral—a sharp contrast to his warmth only minutes before.
“How is she?” Diana’s tone matched his. Pure coolness.
“See for yourself.”
Ben stepped back, but Nicky blocked her path and glanced dramatically at his watch. “What, the queen’s up before noon?”
“Nick, lay off.” The admonishment came from Tony, who rested a hand on his brother’s shoulder.
Francey couldn’t see her mother yet—Nicky’s muscular frame blocked her view—but she could hear her voice. “Hello, Nicky. Tony.”
“Hi, Mom.” Only Tony’s voice held affection.
And then Diana Cordaro Hathaway stepped into Francey’s line of vision. Slim as always, her carriage
regal, Diana wore her fairy-princess blond hair swept back from a face devoid of makeup. Even so, she looked a decade younger than fifty. And light-years away from the rest of the Cordaros. “Francesca.” Her breathiness was pronounced.
Diana cleared her throat. “Are you all right?”
Despite her efforts to remain aloof, her mother’s fearful tone wended its way into Francey’s heart. “I’m fine.”
Impulsively Diana reached out to touch Francey’s cast, but drew back her hand at Francey’s frown. “Does it hurt?”
“They got me pretty doped up. I don’t feel much pain.”
“Are you injured anywhere else?”
“Just this bump on the head.”
After examining the injury with the care of a nurse, Diana said, “Well, good.”
From the corner of her eye, Francey saw the members of her firefighting group, including Captain Knight, sneak out and leave the dysfunctional Cordaro family alone. The room got so quiet Francey could hear the muffled sounds of a hospital’s morning routine outside in the hall—the elevator ping, the shrill of a phone, orders being given.
Her father broke the charged atmosphere. “How did you find out about Francey’s accident?”
Diana’s violet eyes, the only thing Francey had inherited from her, flickered with repressed anger. “I heard about the fire on the morning news. I called your mother to see if Francesca or Nicky was involved.” Censure colored Diana’s tone. “You could have phoned me.”
Ben’s face hardened. “I could have.”
“Why?” Nicky edged in front of her dad. “So you could play the loving parent? Just because you moved back here eight months ago doesn’t mean you’re part of our lives.”
Diana’s sharp intake of breath silenced her son’s attack more quickly than an angry retort.
Ben said, “Nicky, go get us some coffee.” When her brother hesitated, her father stared him down, just as he used to do when the Cordaro children were little and balked at going to bed.
With a scathing glance at Diana, Nicky stalked out the door. Tony followed him, stopping to kiss Diana’s cheek on the way out. Her father turned to her mother, and his face softened fractionally. “I should have called you. I’m not used to your being back in Rockford.”
Diana held his gaze unblinkingly.
“I, um, know how much firefighting worries you, Dee.”
Her mother swallowed hard, then turned to Francey. Her eyes brimmed with feeling. “I was hoping to see you today, but not under these circumstances, of course.” Diana drew in a deep breath. “Is there anything I can do for you?”
Francey studied the woman who’d walked out on her husband and children twenty-seven years ago. Every time she saw her mother, she was assailed by conflicting emotions. This morning she was too tired to deal with them. “No, Diana, there’s nothing you can do for me now.”
Alex coughed like a three-pack-a-day smoker and shoved away the oxygen mask. He swore as the IV tugged on his arm.
“You’ve got to use the oxygen, Alex.” His younger brother Richard’s voice was strained, and his normally pale complexion was chalk-white. He’d never matched Alex’s six-foot-plus height and broad shoulders, but today Richard’s hunched posture made him appear even smaller. And his blue eyes were clouded with anxiety and fatigue.
“I will, but I want some answers first. What happened at the warehouse?” Alex coughed again, deep spasms racking his body, shooting pain to his already sore extremities. He fell onto the pillows. The doctors had told him to expect a general malaise, but this exhaustion rivaled his bout with mono when he was a teenager.
“Son, your recovery is more important than the business.” Jared Templeton, haggard and drawn, leaned on
Alex’s mother, Maureen. Worry seemed to have erased some of the progress he’d made since his heart attack ten months ago.
Alex grabbed the mask, took a few deep breaths and lay back. All he could remember about that hellish night was being so tired he put his head down on the desk. He’d awakened in a haze of smoke, stumbled to the door and collapsed against the wood. They said that the small amount of oxygen he’d gotten from being on the floor probably saved his life. The next thing he knew, he was outside on the ground, his eyes stinging, his head pounding like a jackhammer, and his lungs ready to explode.
After sucking in some oxygen, he set down the mouthpiece. “Where did it start?”
“In the basement.” Richard’s scowl was pronounced.
“Do they know how?”
“Not yet,” his father told him.
“What happened to the new thirty-thousand-dollar sprinkler system we put in?”
“No one knows.” Richard again. “When I tried to talk to the firemen—”
“You were at the warehouse? Why?”
“I was driving by on the expressway and saw the smoke. I called in the alarm.” He glanced away for a moment, then back. “Anyway, it was such a zoo putting out the fire and getting you two into ambulances that the firefighters didn’t say much. What the hell were you doing there at midnight, anyway?”
Alex ignored the question. “Us two? Was someone else in the building?”
“No. The second person hurt was a firefighter.”
His mother answered. “A broken arm. A concussion. Apparently he fell down the steps after he dragged you out of the warehouse.” Maureen Templeton had been through a lot in the past few years, and her steel core always surfaced. She lifted her chin. “He dropped you before he fell. That’s why you have that bump on your head.”
“Are you sure he’s all right?”
“Yes. I didn’t see him, of course, but I inquired about him after we got through with Emergency. He’s in a room right down the hall.” She drew a neatly folded paper from her pocket. “His name is Fran Cordaro.”
Swallowing hard, Alex let the realization sink in. “I’d like to see him. He saved my life.”
“We know, dear. But you look tired.”
Alex closed his eyes. He was tired. Every part of his body hurt—especially his head. He could see bruises forming like different-size patches on his arms. “What time is it?”
His father’s voice soothed him. “Why don’t you rest? We’ll go get some breakfast, then come back up.”
“You don’t have to stay,” Alex murmured sleepily, wondering about the guy who’d pulled him out of the fire. What did you say to a man who’d risked his life for yours?
Then he felt soft lips on his forehead and two gentle pats on his arm before sleep claimed him.
When Alex woke up, he ate some hospital food and, with the help of an orderly, took a blessedly hot shower. Richard had retrieved pajamas and a robe for him, so when he was dressed, Alex convinced his mother to take his father home to rest. Richard had been harder to send off.
The brothers had gotten closer in the past two years. Richard had had a bout with drug abuse when he’d lived in the Midwest. After a painful divorce and some rehab, the only good that had come out of his whole ordeal was that he’d returned home to upstate New York and assumed a management position at Templeton Industries. Though Alex enjoyed playing big brother again, he wanted Richard to get some rest.
At last his brother cooperated and left around four.
Not much later, another man entered the room. He introduced himself as Fire Marshal Bob Zeleny.
A burly man—the stereotypical image of a firefighter—he was dressed in a suit and tie, not a uniform. The bulge in his jacket told Alex he carried a gun.
“How are you feelin’?” Zeleny asked.
“I need to ask you some questions.” Zeleny coughed, then cleared his throat. “What do you remember about last night?”
“I was tired and put my head down on the desk.”
“What time was that?”
“About midnight, I think.”
“Why were you there?”
“I hadn’t gotten a chance to open the invoices for some circuit boards we’d built. I arrived about nine to do it.”
“Okay. So you put your head down about midnight. What next?”
“For some reason, I woke up. The room was filled with smoke.”
Zeleny scribbled notes on a small leather-covered pad. Again, he coughed. “Some research studies say your sense of smell in sleep is still active and could wake you in case of a fire. Others don’t support that view.” He nodded. “Go ahead.”
“I tried to get to the door but didn’t make it out.”
“This helps us pinpoint the time of the fire.”
“Our rigs arrived at the scene at twelve-fourteen. If you zonked out about midnight, you must’ve breathed in the carbon dioxide only a few minutes. Much longer, you’d be dead.”
Alex’s eyes widened at his candor.
The fire marshal shrugged. “Anyone else in the building?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Cars in the lot when you got there?”
“I didn’t see any.”
“Richard Templeton your brother?”
“He called the alarm in. We talked with him last night but need to get more information from him.”
“What’s this all about, Fire Marshall?”
“When the origin of the fire is unknown, it’s my job to determine what happened.”
“Is there some kind of trouble?”
“We’ll let you know. I’ll be back.” Zeleny headed for the door, coughing again. Hazard of the job, Alex guessed.
He rested another hour, then got out of bed, walked slowly down the hall and stood in front of room 435. Fran Cordaro, the nameplate read. He wanted to see for himself that the guy was really all right. And thank him, of course.
Alex knocked. No answer. Maybe he was asleep. Edging inside, Alex blinked to adjust to the dim light of the room. Rockford Memorial Hospital had just been refurbished—his family had donated some of the money for the renovations, along with building a new wing—and the decor had been spruced up considerably. Mini-blinds were half-closed against the late-afternoon April sunlight. He could barely make out the muted rose-and-blue-striped wallpaper and accent chair.
A figure lay motionless in the narrow bed. From the doorway, the man seemed slight, at least compared to Alex himself. Some firefighters were small, he knew, but they were usually muscular and tough as nails.
Quietly, he crossed to the bed. The guy’s back was to him. Something wasn’t right. In the filtered light, he caught sight of the graceful slope of a back and the rounded curve of a hip. Damp dark brown hair came almost to the neckline of the hospital gown. Most firemen he’d seen sported military cuts.
The figure shifted.
A long-fingered hand rested on the pillow. And full breasts stretched the cotton of the gown.
Damn, he’d gotten the wrong room.
But he could detect a faint acridity of smoke. And the name on the door matched the one his mother had given him.
Intrigued, Alex stepped closer.
The woman on the bed shifted again, uncovering her face.
Alex winced at the swollen purplish bruise near her temple and the long, angry scratches under her chin. Her mouth fell open slightly, accenting the lush poutiness of her lips. She stirred, stretching one arm over her head, arching her back, burrowing her cheek into the pillows.
Her eyes opened, and she blinked. “Dylan?” she asked huskily. “Is that you?”
“No.” Alex cleared his throat. “I’m Alex Templeton.”
He could see her eyes narrow on him. She struggled to sit up and moaned. “Could you turn on a light or open the blinds a little? I can’t see very well.”
A bit chagrined, Alex crossed to the window and cracked open the blinds, then switched on a corner lamp. Coming back to the bed, he scrutinized her face again, clearer to him in the light. She’d managed to ease herself into a half-sitting position. The nasty bruise was worse from this vantage point; her cheek had swelled too. But it was her eyes that snared him. They were huge, almost translucent and the oddest color, indigo fanning out to deep purple. He’d seen a sky in Saint-Tropez once layered with those hues.
When he realized he was staring, he cleared his throat uncomfortably. “I was looking for the firefighter who saved my life last night.” Though awareness had dawned on him, he said, “You’re not him.”
“No.” Her voice was laced with amusement. “But I’m her.”
“Yes, so I’ve guessed.” He smiled. “What’s Fran short for? Frances?”
“Francesca.” The amusement spread from her eyes to her mouth. He couldn’t stop staring at her face. He didn’t think he’d ever seen such a perfect arrangement of features.
“You pulled me from the building.”
Though he’d never thought of himself as sexist—and certainly the existence of female firefighters was not new—the idea was somehow unsettling that this attractive female had rescued him.
He shoved back the disconcerting feeling. “Hmm. What does a person say to someone who saved his life?”
Those violet eyes twinkled like amethyst. “How about thank you?”
Alex reached over and squeezed her hand. It was warm and surprisingly soft. “Thank you. For saving my life.”
“You’re welcome.” Her enjoyment of his surprise and discomfort at learning Fran wasn’t a man was obvious in her mischievous grin. “You, um, don’t look like your ego’s handling this very well.”
“I think my ego will survive.” he told her dryly. But the stutter in his heart, the restless stirring of his battered body, indicated that the rest of him might not deal with the incident quite as easily.