Excerpt: Never Far Away
Book 4: The Rockford Fire Department
New Year’s Eve
Reed Macauley swore as Dr. Delaney Shaw exited her siste r’s living room, leaving behind the New Year’s Eve party, which was in full swing. He followed her through the kitchen and upstairs to the third-floor guest room. In the moonlight, he could barely make out her silhouette. She was staring out a window, her back to him, her shoulders hunched with her arms circling her waist. She seemed small and slight—and afraid. He had a flash of another woman, a long time ago, reacting with fear to him. Because of that past, Reed had stayed away from this lovely woman for a long time. But tonight, he’d blown it big-time.
“I’m sorry,” he said from the doorway. “Are you okay?”
She didn’t answer right away. Then she said, “Of course. It was just a New Year’s kiss.” Her voice was hoarse.
Stepping into the room, he switched on a small corner light and crossed to her. Without warning, he drew her around. She shook back her cascading hair and clamped her elbows with her hands.
Reed leaned onto his heels and stuck his fists in his pockets. He didn’t want her to see that his hands were shaking. “Then why did you run away?”
She bit her lip and surveyed the room as if searching for an answer in the slanted oak ceiling, dark beige walls and thick taupe carpet. “I, um, didn’t expect to feel this way about you.”
He had to smile. Sometimes she was as ingenuous as the kids she worked with. Very different from his first impression of her when they’d met more than eighteen months ago at a psychology seminar at Rockford University. She’d gone head-to-head with him on every issue they’d discussed. He was the staff shrink for the Rockford Fire Department and she had her own private practice in a swank downtown office. They’d argued about theory, clinical practice and treatment.
But several months later, they’d worked together when Delaney—a specialist in adolescent behavior—was called in to help with a firefighter’s teenage son. Because of the good she’d done then, Reed had developed a healthy respect for her ability and intelligence. Unfortunately, he’d also begun to feel an attraction to her that kept him awake many nights.
He’d managed to hide his feelings for a long time, but tonight, he lost the battle and kissed her. Even now, he could feel himself losing his grip. Which was a reaction that usually sent him running in the opposite direction.
“Reed, you’re staring at me.”
He didn’t say anything. Instead, he grasped her arms, ran his hands up and down her biceps. Tugged her close.
“This isn’t a good idea,” she whispered against his sweater.
“I know.” His lips grazed her hair and she drew back. “One more kiss.” He smiled down at her. Passion flared on her face.
Good. There was a firestorm brewing inside his chest and pride demanded some reaction from her. What he was doing wasn’t smart, hell, it wasn’t even sane. He knew all too well that, for a man with his past, getting involved with her—with any woman—would have repercussions, but at that moment, he couldn’t make himself care.
“Reed,” she whispered raggedly.
“Say it’s all right. To kiss you. One more time.” Her blue eyes glowed like sapphires. “Then I’ll leave.” He would, he promised himself.
The struggle inside her was clear. Finally, she raised her arms and entwined them around his neck. The soft velvet of her sleeves tickled his skin. She smelled like jasmine, and he basked in the scent.
He lowered his head and covered her mouth with his. He took what she offered, sinking into her. She tasted so sweet that something inside him stirred. Contact with this woman awakened a need in him that had been dormant for a long time. Eight years, to be exact. That was how long it had been since he’d allowed himself to get involved with anyone who could elicit a response in him. His hands roamed her back, caressing every pulsating hollow he could reach. The kiss became hungry, then carnal.
When she pressed herself against him, when her velvet-clad legs rubbed his tan Dockers, the rein on his emotions snapped. Not gently, his hands slid down her body, clasped her bottom and locked her to him.
He thrust forward. She thrust back.
And that was all it took…
Hours later, Reed let himself relax into the pillows and adjusted the sleeping beauty in his arms. Her long black hair curled around his fingers and she burrowed into his chest. He held her like any normal man would do. In that twilight between sleep and waking, remembering the gut-wrenching ecstasy of making love to her, he began to sweat.
The nausea came.
Then he couldn’t draw a breath.
Half asleep, he shook himself to ward off the all-too-familiar symptoms. His body jolted with an adrenaline rush.
Delaney murmured something against his chest.
The murmur was obliterated by a shout—a loud one…
“Get out of the way, Macauley,” Marx called from behind him.
Reed saw the flash.
An ear-deafening explosion—like rapid rounds of gunfire—and suddenly he was on the ground.
He heard the screams of his men and tried to stand but couldn’t—
He groped for his leg. It hurt like a bitch. He had to get to them…
More noise. Loud, unfamiliar noise.
Something slapped him hard across his face. He grabbed whatever it was.
“Ooh! Reed, you’re hurting me. Stop, please.”
The sweet voice, the plea, dragged him back to reality.
He was sitting up. Delaney knelt next to him. He’d manacled her wrists, squeezing as hard as he could. When she came into focus, he let go.
Gulping, he touched her hair and her shoulder, trying to assure himself she was real. In the sliver of moonlight, he could see that her eyes were wide and frightened.
“Reed?” she finally said. “What happened?”
He shook his head.
“Please. Tell me.”
He’d never told anybody about the flashbacks or the incident that precipitated them. Even in therapy he hadn’t been able to articulate what had happened. As a result, the psychologists could only offer coping strategies.
To preclude the attacks, he’d deliberately avoided relationships or circumstances that might bring them on. But somehow Delaney had slipped through the barriers he’d erected.
Lying back against the pillows, he took deep breaths. The images began to fade. Unclenching his sweaty hands—every inch of him was covered with perspiration—he willed each muscle in his body to relax. “I don’t talk about this.”
“I just don’t.” He threw back the covers and slid out of bed. “I have to go.”
Suddenly chilled, Delaney dragged the dark brown sheet to her chest, sat back on her heels and watched the man she’d just made incredible love with draw away.
The impassive mask, the one she’d spent a year trying to remove, fell back in place. It had slipped earlier tonight. Fallen away completely once they were in bed. For the first time, she’d met the real Reed Macauley.
And known immediately that he was a man she could love. The awareness had been coming for months, and they’d both fought it by denying their attraction and using their very real differences to distance each other.
He dressed silently. In the light from a small table lamp, she studied him. He stood about five ten, and his broad chest was covered with a sprinkling of dark hair. At forty-two he kept himself in great shape. Before he pulled on his tan pants, she saw the scar that ran around his thigh to the back of his left leg. She winced. Whatever had happened to him must have hurt like hell.
He glanced over his shoulder. “Put some clothes on, will you?”
Quickly, she pulled on her blue-and-black-checked boxers and a black T-shirt she’d planned to sleep in, as she was staying overnight in this room. Then she rose and approached him. He was fully clothed and turned toward her, the bulky off-white cable-knit sweater making him appear bigger. His gaze focused on her shirt.
“Blasphemous.” He cradled her cheek with a callused palm. “How like you.”
Delaney collected T-shirts related to her profession and wore them to bed and sometimes to dance class. This one read I Used to Be Schizophrenic, But We’re Better Now.
“Tell me what happened,” she said, leaning into him. She felt dwarfed, though she was five seven.
His arms came around her and he held her close. Kissed her hair. She wanted nothing more than to crawl under those covers with him.
“I can’t, honey.”
“I have to.” Drawing back, he studied her face and settled his hand around her neck. “I’m not good at this.”
The imp surfaced. “You could have fooled me, Doc. I thought you were great.”
“I mean the emotional part.”
“We could work on that.” She cleared her throat. Lovingly, she traced his cheekbones. “Together.”
“No, not after…” He looked at her wrists, saw red marks beginning to form where he’d gripped her. Tenderly, he kissed the damage he’d done.
“I want you in my life, Reed.”
“No! You deserve some normal guy without a lot of baggage.”
She inched closer. “I’m good at dealing with baggage. That’s what I do.”
“Nobody can help me. I’ve tried that route. People only get hurt when they get close to me.”
“Please, Reed, I…”
He pushed her away before she could say more. His face was ashen and his eyes bleak. “No, Delaney. No.”
Pride battled desire. Delaney had learned from her mother, if only by negative example, never to beg. But something told her to follow her heart now. “This was the best night of my life.”
“Mine, too.” The words were wrenched from him. “I’ll never forget us, together.” He found his shoes and grabbed his coat. “But it was a moment of weakness that I won’t repeat.” He faced her before he left, locked his hand around her neck again and kissed her hard. When he drew back, he whispered, “Happy New Year, love.” And then he was gone.
Her legs wobbling, Delaney sank onto the bed. Absently she picked up a pillow and hugged it to her. It smelled like him.
She felt abandoned as she had during her childhood when her mother had accompanied her father from town to town on his music gigs. Delaney and her half-sister, Chelsea, had been left alone for days on end. She’d learned to cope then. But tonight, for the first time in her entire adult life, Dr. Delaney Shaw didn’t know what to do.
Five months later
Battalion Chief Ben Cordaro smiled at Delaney as he settled his big frame into one of her dark blue leather chairs. Looking much younger than his fifty-some years, Ben gave her a warm smile. “I’m here officially from the Rockford Fire Department. We’d like you to be part of our Family Assistance Network, or FAN, as we call it.”
From behind her desk, Delaney stared at the man who her sister’s husband thought walked on water. And who was probably Reed Macauley’s best friend. If Reed allowed anyone close. Battling back the tiny pinpricks of pain that came from the thought, Delaney smiled at Ben. “What exactly is FAN?”
“A nationwide movement to help firefighters and their families cope with the stresses of their daily lives. The chief finally got the mayor to okay our involvement in the program.” He looked exasperated. “Mayor Jordan took some convincing. She didn’t think our firefighters needed this kind of support.”
Hmm. Delaney knew of one firefighter who could use help. Big-time. “Help as in support groups after a traumatic incident?”
“Not just that. FAN will be proactive.” Ben’s black eyes flashed with high emotion. “Wives, husbands and kids of firefighters have a tough time coping with the lifestyles of rescue workers whose schedules are a nightmare and whose lives are at risk every day.” He glanced out the window where the birds chirped their announcement of summer.
Delaney could relate to this. She worried constantly about Chelsea.
“I have a special interest in FAN because of my situation, I guess. Because of Diana and my daughter, of course,” Ben continued.
Delaney knew that Ben and his wife had divorced years ago over her inability to deal with the danger of his job. They had recently reunited.
Ben’s son-in-law, Alex Templeton, had also had difficulty in handling the danger his wife faced on the job. Reed had helped them last year, and they were both doing better now. As a matter of fact, Francey Cordaro Templeton was expecting their first child in September.
“We need you, Delaney, because Reed Macauley can only do so much.”
At the mention of his name, Delaney’s heartbeat sped up. “I assume Reed will be integral in this Family Assistance Network, right?”
“Uh-huh.” Knowing eyes bored through her. “Except he doesn’t have your expertise in working with kids.”
No, but he had other areas of expertise, some of which she’d bet would shock the hell out of Battalion Chief Cordaro. Reed’s hands had been magic on her body that one night months ago.
“Is that what you want—my input on how to set up programs for kids?” Maybe she could manage that, if she avoided Reed.
“No, we want you to head up the adolescent division and run the kids’ programs.”
“Head it up?”
“Work with us in the trenches out at the academy.” He glanced around her chic office with its glass and chrome and soothing colors. “As much as this private practice will allow.”
Delaney pretended to study the bank of open windows facing her. She let the warm breeze settle her. “There are several problems. The first, I have a full load of patients here.”
“You’ve got five partners. Chelsea said they covered for you when you went to Illinois for three months. The training you took there was on the special psychological needs of the children of rescue personnel, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, the program was called Rescue the Kids.”
Again a grin from Ben. “See, there’s another reason we want you—that training will be invaluable. Then there’s the miracle you worked on Derek DeLuca.”
“My favorite rookie.” She thought of the dark-haired boy with hollow places in his soul from fatherly neglect. Something Delaney knew all about.
“Derek’s makin’ a great career for himself. Thanks to you.” From his shirt pocket, Ben drew out some photos of the young man Chelsea’s husband regarded as a son. “I thought you might like to see these.”
She took the pictures and shuffled through them. Derek in his uniform, at his first station, funny firehouse shots. She came across one of him and Reed—which brought tears to her eyes. The sight of Reed’s tender smile elicited too many memories.
After their passionate New Year’s Eve night together, she’d waited a week to seek him out. The visit hadn’t gone well…
She’d been ushered into his office by one of the lieutenants at the academy who kept flirting with her. Reed’s private space was so different from hers. Slate-blue paint, well-worn utility carpeting, firefighter memorabilia displayed on the walls. She’d been studying his bookcase when he came in. He wasn’t happy to see her.
“What do you want?” he’d asked tightly.
She’d circled around. “Hello to you, too.”
He strode across the room, devouring her with his eyes. Standing before her, he seemed to struggle internally. “Honey, don’t do this to me,” he finally said, as if the sight of her softened him. “Why are you here?”
“To see if you’ve changed your mind.” She moved closer to him and slid her hands up his chest. He smelled just like he had that night they’d made love. “To see if I can change your mind.” She tossed back her hair. “There’s something between us, Reed. I’m not giving up on it.”
His face was a study in torment. Damn, she’d thought. Why is this so hard for him? He was about to speak when the phone rang.
As he took the call, she turned back to his books. The spines of basic psychology tomes written by Freud, Jung and modern academics faced her. Some firefighter manuals. Some on the Oklahoma City bombing and its aftermath.
And nestled right next to the books on the terrorist attack were five others all on the same topic: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and the Veteran; Wives, Women and Children Surviving Life with Victims of PTSD; A Trauma Survivor’s Handbook; The Crime Victim’s Book. And the eye-opener, Posttraumatic Stress and the Rescue Worker.
Suddenly, the answer to his puzzling behavior on New Year’s Eve struck her. Reed’s sweaty disorientation. The flashback-like symptoms. His oblique statements about his inability to maintain close relationships—typical of people suffering from PTSD.
When he hung up, she picked up Posttraumatic Stress and the Rescue Worker. “This is the reason, isn’t it? You had a PTSD attack on New Year’s Eve.”
He eyed the book as if it was a snake waiting to strike. In some ways, the syndrome was a viper, coming out of nowhere, and could be just as deadly.
“What happened to you?”
“An incident. When I was a firefighter.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I lost…I lost men…” He raked a hand through his hair. “I don’t want to go into my issues.”
Her heart hurt for him. “Oh, Reed, I’m sorry. Did you get help afterward?”
“I tried. But since I’ve been in Rockford, the attacks have gotten worse.”
He shook his head. “You don’t need to know any more than that. What’s wrong with me is enough to keep us apart. Life with a PTSD sufferer can be hell, and I won’t subject you to it.”
“Isn’t that my choice to make?”
“No, the choice is mine.” When she started to protest, he got angry. “Stop it! You can’t bulldoze me on this one. I won’t change my mind.” Then he’d turned and exited his office. He didn’t come back…
She’d tried on four other occasions to see him, called several times, and finally threw in the towel. His rejection brought back too many unpleasant memories.
She peered up at Ben from the photos she held. “These are great. Thanks for letting me see them.” Handing back the pictures and sinking down into her chair, she looked directly at the chief. “Ben, I’ll cut to the quick. Reed Macauley won’t want me working in this program.”
Ben watched her for a minute. “I talked to him about your participation. He said this was your decision.”
Delaney remembered how Reed had avoided gatherings at Chelsea’s house when he knew Delaney would be there. He also declined to play baseball with the academy’s guys when they were up against Quint/Midi Twelve, since Delaney had joined that team with her sister. Hell, she’d hurt so much the few times she’d bumped into him, she’d eventually decided to go to the course in Chicago so she’d be out of town for a while and not run into him at all.
The time away had helped. She’d accepted his decision even if it meant losing the one man she thought she could love.
“He doesn’t want me there, Ben, take my word on that. And, frankly, I don’t want to work with him.”
Ben’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “I see.”
“Look, I care about Reed, but working at the academy with him would hurt us both. I’m sorry, I can’t say more without betraying a confidence.” She didn’t know why she was telling him this much. Maybe because he was a great father. And Delaney’s life had been irrevocably marred by the absence of one.
“All right. I’ll respect your decision. But it’s a damn shame that we won’t have your expertise in this program.”
“Reed can handle kids.”
“He’s got too much on his plate already. Over the last five months he’s…I don’t know…gotten more weary, sadder.”
Her heart turned over in her chest and thumped hard against her ribs. “I’m sorry to hear that. I wish I could help.”
She’d tried to do just that. She’d sent him a note, with the name of a specialist she’d located in New York City. He treated PTSD in rescue workers. In her usual frank style, Delaney had told Reed that if he wouldn’t let her help him, maybe a specialist could. She also stated that would be the last time she’d contact him, and wished him good luck. It was her final attempt at communication before she left for Illinois. He hadn’t responded.
Ben stood. He reached in his pocket and drew out his card. “If you change your mind, call me. I—” His hand went to his hip. “That’s my phone. A text.” His face tightened as he read the message. “Damn.”
Delaney stood. “What’s wrong?”
“A fire. A bad one. I’m to call Reed right away.”
Ben punched in numbers. “Reed, Ben here. What’s going on?” He waited a minute, then glanced worriedly at Delaney.
Fire. A bad one. Chelsea was on duty tonight.
Delaney’s breath stopped in her throat. She heard Ben say, “I’m on my way.”
He faced her squarely. “An industrial complex caught fire—all ten buildings are endangered. Chelsea’s at the blaze, but she’s fine as of now.” Chief Cordaro understood family fear and knew how important it was to relay all available information.
Delaney watched him. “But?”
“There’s a problem—two firefighters were caught in a dust explosion. They’re on their way to the hospital.”
She gripped the desk. “Who are they?” Please don’t let it be Jake, her brother-in-law.
“Brothers. The Leones, from Engine Seventeen.”
“Will they be okay?”
“Reed doesn’t know.”
Ben headed for the door.
After a split second, Delaney grabbed her purse and keys. “I’m coming with you, Ben.”
He faced her. “Good, you can help Reed.”
With a sledgehammer of fear pounding in her head, Delaney followed Chief Cordaro to his car.
Smoke and huge multicolored flames poured from the windows and roofs of several buildings of the industrial complex. As Delaney exited the car with Ben, she cursed again the day her sister had decided to become a firefighter. Chelsea was somewhere in that mess.
On the drive to the site, Delaney had heard the details crackling out over Chief Cordaro’s radio: The fire had started at Conner Technologies. The blaze had spread to two other buildings, and there was a very real danger that the whole complex would go up in flames. Three alarms had been called already—meaning three different sets of trucks had been dispatched, six companies in all. She heard terms Chelsea routinely spouted—a hydrant had been made and an eight-hundred-foot hose was dumping water on the Red Devil. Ladder trucks were positioned on the west side of the building, while one company went east to check for fire spread.
The acrid smell of smoke assaulted Delaney as she hurried behind Ben, cursing the white strappy sandals she wore with her simple white skirt and sleeveless blue top.
“Chief Talbot’s in charge of Incident Command,” Ben told Delaney as they neared a car where papers were spread out on the hood and men talked on radios. Tall and fit, Chase Talbot spoke into one radio. A second white-shirted officer was on another.
Talbot nodded. “Cordaro.” He recognized Delaney apparently. “Dr. Shaw.”
They’d gotten closer to the buildings, and Delaney was encompassed by the heat of the blaze—a big smothering blanket, stealing the breath out of her. It was menacing.
“Chief Talbot.” Ben stuck his hands in his pockets. “Can I help?”
The chief glanced worriedly at the complex. “Maybe. This one’s a bitch. Fire started in the Con-Tech site and two other buildings are fully involved. It’s still spreading. Scarlatta’s team is breaching the steel door of the fourth building now.”
Scarlatta’s team. Her sister was on Jake’s squad.
Ben squeezed Delaney’s shoulder.
“Maybe you should suit up and go over there,” Talbot continued. “I’d like to go in myself. I’ve got a bad feeling about this one.”
Delaney knew that gut instinct was never taken lightly in firefighting. In fact, Jake’s premonition had once saved Chelsea’s life.
Someone materialized with turnout gear for Ben. He stuffed his legs into heavy pants and bunker boots, donned the dark tan jacket of the RFD and pulled on headgear. Without a word, he jogged to the east side of the complex.
Delaney stood in back of the chief, out of the way. Worried as she was, she knew enough not to intrude. Instead she observed the dramatic details of the scene before her: A sky clouded with thick, heavy smoke, the loud slap of water as it hit the building, the wail of sirens in the distance, signaling more help on the way.
“Benson?” Talbot asked. “What’s the news from the ambulance?”
“They’re at the hospital. It doesn’t look good, sir.”
“Sam’s regained consciousness. Tommy’s not responding.”
Chief Talbot cursed, and Delaney’s blood chilled. People died in fires. Where was her sister? She shivered despite the heat.
The soft sound of her name blocked out the sirens, the radio static, the shouts of men and women fighting against impossible odds. “Reed?”
For a moment, he just stood before her, his white officer’s shirt in stark relief against his dark hair and eyes. Finally, he grasped her arm. “Come with me.” He drew her close as they walked.
“Where is she?”
“Inside the Optical Design building. Right down here.” He took her hand and clasped it in his. His eyes were weary and he wore his glasses. “Honey, they’re trained firefighters. They can do their jobs.”
“Two people are already critically injured.”
“Yes, the Leone brothers.” Reed nodded to Incident Command. “Did you hear anything over there?”
She gave him the grim report. His lips compressed and his jaw muscles tightened. When they reached the second building, he let her go. Wrapping her arms around her waist, Delaney glared at the gaping hole in a side of the building. Had her sister cut through it? Chelsea was so strong, so brave. Delaney was bombarded by a prophetic childhood image of the two of them. Chelsea had been twelve, Delaney six. They were dressed for Halloween—Chelsea as a firefighter, Delaney, a ballerina. They’d grown up in the same household, but their interests—and the careers they’d eventually chosen—were very different. However, as sisters and friends they couldn’t have been closer.
In silence, she and Reed watched the action. They were about thirty feet away from the building when she heard a rumble inside.
“Oh, my God, what was that?”
Reed’s arm went around her, pulled her close again. Unconsciously she turned her face into his broad shoulder. “I don’t know exactly,” he told her, kissing her hair. “Something inside probably gave way.”
Seconds passed, seeming like hours. Delaney prayed. Reed kept her at his side. Gray smoke began to curl out of the hole in the door, like a lazy cat stepping outside for a stroll. Delaney knew the color of the smoke was determined by what was burning and was an indication of how serious the fire was. The darker the smoke, the worse the conditions.
More time passed.
Suddenly, figures emerged though the gray curtain. One firefighter carried another slung over his shoulders. Behind the two, partially obscured from view, a third firefighter staggered from the building, dragging somebody else out.
Delaney prayed hard.
Paramedics rushed forward and surrounded them. Reed and Delaney followed.
Gingerly, both firefighters set their charges on the ground. Both whipped off their masks and helmets—one was Ben, and the other Chelsea. Her face grimy and a wicked-looking burn marred her neck. She didn’t take her eyes off the firefighters on the ground.
Delaney went weak with relief. When her knees started to buckle, Reed supported her with his arm. “Easy, babe,” he whispered.
Drawing in a breath, she straightened. She needed to help here, not to be taken care of. But, oh, God, thank you for watching over my sister.
From behind the paramedics, Delaney stared down at the men who’d been brought out. She recognized them as the other members of Chelsea’s group. They were coughing and one was holding his shoulder. But they were alive.
Delaney couldn’t help herself. She circled around the medical personnel and threw herself at her sister. About the same height, Chelsea was more muscular and stronger, but tonight she felt fragile and slight in Delaney’s grasp. Chelsea hugged her. “You’re gonna get that pretty skirt all dirty, kiddo.”
With a watery grin, Delaney drew back. “I’ll send you the cleaning bill.”
Giving Delaney one more hug, Chelsea looked past her sister’s shoulder. Delaney felt her freeze. “Where are they?” she asked Ben.
“Jake and Dylan?” Chelsea’s husband and their good friend. “I thought they followed us out.”
Surprised, Ben turned, too. No one was behind them.
A flurry of activity at Incident Command, then a crew of men hustled past them. Ben raced to the building with Chelsea right behind.
Reed and Delaney followed.
At the door a grim-faced firefighter spoke to Ben. “Scarlatta and O’Roarke didn’t get out. They radioed that a common wall between Con-Tech and Optical Design fell and beams are blocking their path.”
Delaney noticed the men carried axes and picks. Ben donned his helmet and fastened his mask. Chelsea started for her equipment. Oh, no.
Ben grasped Chelsea’s arm. “You’re not coming in, Whitmore.” To avoid confusion, Chelsea went by her maiden name at the station.
Gently Ben said, “Your neck and hands are burned. And your husband’s inside. You’re too close to this, Chels.”
“No closer than you. Jake and Dylan are like sons to you.”
Ben glanced over her shoulder. “Reed, I won’t argue with her. Keep her back.”
But it was Delaney who tugged on her arm. “Come on, Chels. You’re hurt. You’ll only hamper Jake’s rescue.”
Chelsea looked to Reed, who nodded his agreement. Her face was ravaged and frightened, like it used to get when they’d been left alone for days at a time as kids.
Finally, she stepped back.
The longest minutes of Delaney’s life passed. Reed kept an arm around Chelsea and intermittently reached out to touch Delaney. All traces of strain between them disappeared.
Finally, silhouettes materialized once again in the doorway. Delaney felt her sister straighten and grip her hand tightly. Someone was being carried out by two men. Two others followed them and took off their face masks and helmets.
For a minute, Chelsea deflated like the balloons they used to blow up as kids and then let go. When she recovered, she ran toward the building and threw herself at her husband, who’d come out next to Ben. Jake grasped her, whispered something in her ear and bent his head—as if to savor her, and life.
Delaney’s eyes misted, and she turned away from the sight. Briefly, Reed drew her against his shoulder again, then walked with her over to the group.
They all stared down at the man who’d been carried out. Covered with dirt, Dylan O’Roarke, husband of one of Chelsea’s best friends and a paramedic for the RFD, stirred. Ben removed his helmet and mask and knelt down. “Where the hell’s the stretcher?” he barked.
“It’s coming.” Reed squeezed Ben’s shoulder. He let go of Delaney and knelt down, too. “Is he all right?”
“Some burns, and his leg is twisted bad.”
Jake said, “He pushed me out of the way and dived on top of me when the wall beams fell. Damn hero.” Delaney knew that O’Roarke had been called on the carpet many times for his risk-taking.
On the ground, Dylan opened his eyes, which watered badly. He coughed, sputtered, then managed to say, “You ungrateful bastard.” Then he turned serious. “Everybody make it okay?”
Ben took Dylan’s hand. The tender gesture made Delaney’s throat catch. “Yes. Your whole crew did.”
Dylan sighed. “Beth’s gonna kick my ass for this one. She was already mad that I subbed at Quint Five tonight” Dylan’s wife, who trained paramedics at the academy, had almost forgone a relationship with him because of his daredevil attitude.
“You deserve it, buddy.” Jake had knelt, too, and was smiling weakly.
“I saved your hide, Scarlatta. Show some sympathy.”
The paramedics arrived, and everybody stood back. Delaney saw Talbot, who’d approached the group, motion Reed to the side. The chief’s features were grim. Stoically Reed listened, but Delaney could tell he wasn’t hearing good news by the way he shook his head and jammed a hand through his hair. Everyone else sensed something, too.
Reed came back and said to Ben, “I’m going to the hospital.”
“Tom Leone just died.”
A hush came over all of them.
Chelsea turned into Jake’s chest. Dylan swore, and Ben straightened. “We’ll see you there,” Ben told him.
Delaney faced Reed. His complexion was chalk white. Worried about Chelsea, she hadn’t noticed how he’d hardened himself, turned into himself. She saw his reaction now, though. “What can I do?”
“Come to the hospital with Ben. I’m going to need your help.” He swallowed hard. “You have no idea what the repercussions of this death will be.”