Excerpt: Risking It All
Book 2: The Rockford Fire Department
Dylan O’Roarke loved women—tall ones, slender ones, plump ones, smart ones, no matter how old, how plain, how naive. His Grandma Katie, who’d raised him from the time he was five, had taught him to cherish the female sex. This was her legacy, and he’d adhered to it for all his thirty-three years.
With one exception.
As he stepped onto the dock, she did the same. But she kept her gaze averted, fixed on the Caribbean Sea, sparkling like crystal under the bright Jamaican sun. Dylan figured if Grandma Katie had met the bridesmaid he’d been paired with for his best friend’s wedding, she would have understood his inability to adhere to her dictum this time. He glared at Winters, willing her to look at him.
They had a history. She’d been his Emergency Medical System instructor at the fire academy eight years ago. All Rockford, New York, firefighters were EMT’s, which allowed them to perform basic first aid and medical care—and he and Winters had clashed big-time. She’d gone after him repeatedly, critical of what she called his brash, risk-taking personality.
He’d responded by needling her every chance he got and dubbing her Lizzie Borden, for what he saw as her heavy-handed tactics. He’d heard that subsequent classes had continued the name, behind her back, of course. And ever since his recruit days, when he took further EMS training at the academy and become a paramedic or was forced to deal with her on department issues, they’d been barely civil to each other. Rotten luck that they’d been matched up for the ceremony.
I didn’t know, Dyl, I’m sorry, the bride, Francey Cordaro, had told him last night at the rehearsal dinner. Since you two chose lime green, the wedding planner put you together.
Because the nuptials were taking place in the Caribbean, Francey and her fiancé, Alex Templeton, had chosen sarongs in various bright colors for the women and, for the men, white trousers and gauzy shirts to match the dresses. Furthermore, the bride and groom had insisted they all go to Jamaica three days before the wedding. Chartering an aircraft—Dylan had teasingly called it the Love Plane—Alex had flown the wedding party and the rest of the couple’s family members down to enjoy the tropical weather before the big day.
As Dylan watched her, Winters raised her head. The cool aura surrounding her put him off completely. She was the antithesis of everything he considered feminine. Her intense hazel eyes locked on him. The irritation that marred her brow and shadowed her face every time she dealt with him was right there, as always, but today it was accompanied by a wariness he’d never seen before.
She’s not on her own turf, he thought with sudden insight. And not in her usual conservative clothes. So she’s uncomfortable. He considered making some snide remark to add to her discomfort. She probably expected it.
But one of Grandma Katie’s truisms, which she got from the many books she read or the sayings she heard, came back to him. He’d been a cocky ninth grader and made the competitive junior varsity high school basketball team. Dylan’s arch rival did not. He’d been gloating, and his grandma had peered at him from under steel-gray hair that had once been as black as his own, her blue eyes snapping. A sharp tongue can cut your own throat.
So Dylan bit that tongue, but continued to stare at Winters. Truth be told, he was amazed at what the outfit did to her rather ordinary looks. Her slender shoulders, kissed gently by the sun to a golden hue, were bare. The sarong draped over full breasts, indented into a small waist and fell gracefully to just below her knees. He’d never realized she had those kind of curves, for he’d only ever seen her in the fire academy uniform. Her cropped auburn hair glinted in the sun, and when the wind blew a few strands in her face, she brushed them out of her eyes with long, graceful fingers.
In addition to her unease, Winters looked fragile today, too, so he simply moved up beside her and said nothing. The sprinkling of freckles on her nose added to the illusion of vulnerability. And it was an illusion, because Beth Winters was a shark, cold and ruthless as those that swam in the sea. She could take chunks out of a guy’s self-esteem before he could blink and dismember every bit of self-confidence he had with well-placed caustic remarks.
Still, Dylan held out his arm for her. She glanced at it as if it were the tentacle of an octopus.
“I don’t bite,” he whispered irritably.
“Grow up, O’Roarke.”
Damn her! Even now she had the ability to reduce him to feeling like a rookie eating his first smoke.
Following the last attendants down the thirty foot dock, she held herself ramrod straight, barely making contact with his arm. Obviously, she didn’t want to touch him any more than she had to. The thought made him angry. It also conjured up the little devil that came out in him whenever he got within ten feet of the woman. Casually, he placed his other hand on top of hers, forcing her palm to curl around his bare forearm, where he’d rolled up the sleeve of the shirt. Her skin felt baby soft and smooth, which took him by surprise and made him subtly draw her closer. He sensed her whole body stiffen, and perversely he winked at her, then held on until they reached the end of the dock. She scowled at him, and they parted.
Purposely turning his attention to something more pleasant, he watched the bride’s procession down the dock. Despite Winters’ annoying presence, he smiled at Francey. He’d witnessed his friend in many situations—caked with smoke and grime and swearing like a trooper; pinned under a fallen timber and moaning in pain; adrenaline-fueled as they headed into a fire together; near tears with ecstasy when she saved a little boy. But he’d never, ever seen her like this.
Her wedding dress was a white sarong embossed with a design of tropical flowers, which highlighted her tan and accented her violet eyes. Eschewing a veil, she wore one white tiger lily tucked in her dark hair.
Dylan’s gaze switched to her groom, a few feet away at the end of the dock. Casual in his white trousers and white gauzy shirt, he looked utterly happy, obviously besotted with his soon-to-be wife.
Dylan, too, was genuinely happy for them because Francey and Alex had had a long road getting to this point—mostly around Alex’s coming to terms with the danger of her job as a firefighter.
The ceremony began, and soon the minister’s voice boomed out over the water in the sultry air. “I now pronounce you husband and wife.”
Alex smiled at his bride, then pulled her into his arms and kissed her passionately. When they drew apart, he crossed to his groomsmen and Francey to her bridesmaids.
“Congratulations.” Dylan grabbed Alex’s extended hand and clapped him warmly on the back.
“Thanks for being here for her, Dylan,” Alex said. “And for me.”
Francey cut between them and threw herself into Dylan’s arms. “Oh, Dyl, I’m so happy.”
“Yeah, kiddo, I can tell.” Dylan hugged her tightly.
After a few minutes the recessional began. He met with Lizzie Borden in the middle of the dock. Again she didn’t look at him as he took her arm. Morbidly silent they made it down the dock, without coming to blows.
“Nice talkin’ to you, Winters,” Dylan said when they reached the sandy shore.
“Do people really think you’re clever, O’Roarke?” Without waiting for an answer, she pivoted and, hips swaying, wound her way through the small crowd.
Dylan scanned the area for his date, Missy. Jake Scarlatta, another groomsman, approached him.
“How’s it going, buddy?” Jake asked.
“Everybody looks terrific, don’t they?”
“Yeah.” Dylan still searched the crowd.
“Even Beth Winters. Did you see her in that sarong?”
“No, I didn’t notice.”
“You must be blind, buddy,” Jake said, shaking his head. “Oh, there’s Jessica. I’ll catch you later.”
Jake hurried to his teenage daughter, who stood to one side, chatting with Francey’s friend Chelsea Whitmore. In peacock blue, which matched Jake’s shirt, Chelsea looked very feminine, like she always did, like a woman should, even though she was a highly touted body builder and a more than competent firefighter.
Unable to find his date, Dylan approached Ben and Diana Cordaro, Francey’s father and mother, who were talking with Francey’s grandparents, Gus and Grace.
“Hi, Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa,” Dylan said affectionately when he reached them.
Gus and Grace greeted him warmly. They were old friends of his father’s, as was Ben. The grandparents were called for pictures with the bride and groom.
Diana leaned over and kissed Dylan’s cheek. “Hello, handsome. You look terrific today.”
“Me? You two almost stole the show from the bride and groom.”
It was true. When Diana Cordaro, who was matron of honor, had stepped onto the dock and glided gracefully down the pier in a violet sarong, Dylan’s mouth had fallen open. The color of her outfit mirrored her eyes. Her bare shoulders were the perfect complement for her blond hair, which fell in waves around her face. Dylan thought he’d never seen a more radiant woman. Ben was a worthy escort. Decked out in white trousers and a deep purple shirt, he appeared considerably younger than his fifty-three years, despite his salt-and-pepper hair.
After being divorced for almost three decades, the Cordaros were newly remarried and had come to Jamaica a week ago to celebrate their honeymoon. No one had had a glimpse of them until the rehearsal last night. Dylan liked and admired Ben, and he was glad to see him happy again. Ben, the battalion chief in charge of training, was one of the reasons Dylan looked forward to working at the Rockford Fire Academy for the next few months. While Dylan waited for a lieutenant’s spot to open up at a station, he’d taken a staff position to help teach the class of the new recruits this fall.
“Wasn’t the wedding perfect for them?” Diana asked, beaming proudly at the happy couple.
“It was great. But I thought I saw a few tears there, when Ben brought Francey down the dock.”
Diana snuggled into her husband. “It was moving.” After a moment she said, “So, you’ll be at the academy now.”
“Yep, for a while.”
“Are you happy about the move?”
“Yes, I am.” He glanced over to where the bridesmaids were gathering. Except for working with Lizzie Borden. He didn’t voice the thought, though, because he’d already had a run-in with Ben on the issue.
“Time for pictures of the wedding party,” Francey called.
Dylan sauntered over and waited for the photographer to position him, along with the nine other attendants, in front of a garden of tropical flowers. His mind drifted to his first few days at the academy last week and the initial meeting of all the personnel…
Ben Cordaro, always the professional in the white shirt of a Rockford battalion chief with its epaulets, smiled at the staff.
“Good morning, everyone. I’d like to give you an overview of your tasks with the recruits.” The group would arrive the next Monday.
After that he smiled at Dylan and the other two instructors who were new to the academy. “It’s always good to have the expertise of line firefighters who are in the trenches. Welcome, guys.”
Out of the corner of his eye, Dylan watched Beth Winters bristle at the last remark. When Ben asked if any of the academy staff wanted to comment, Eric Scanlon, a veteran captain, welcomed the three of them and joked that he hoped the line guys were in good shape, so they could keep up with the confidence walks—physical-fitness treks required of the recruits to build their stamina. Having been through the walks themselves, the new guys groaned good-naturedly.
Then Winters raised her hand. Dylan knew in his gut she was going to extinguish the camaraderie and good mood quicker than a foam blanket on a gasoline fire. She stood, angling her chin and leveling her chilly stare on all of them. Wearing the light blue shirt of the RFD—as starched and crisp as she was—and man-tailored pants, she’d addressed the group.
“I’d like to remind the inexperienced instructors what we expect for the tone of the academy. Granted, we’ll be more formal at the beginning, and loosen up a bit as we go along, but I hope we all understand the seriousness of what we’re doing.” Her snooty gaze cut to Dylan. “And about the qualities we need to instill in these recruits—caution, discretion, clear thinking.”
The room had grown so quiet that the secretaries’ chatter filtered down the hall to them. Everyone present knew about Dylan’s recent reprimand—for lack of following procedure. They also knew it had saved a rookie firefighter’s life.
Ben Cordaro opened his mouth to break the charged silence when Dylan leaned forward in his chair. “I’d like to address that, Ben, since everybody knows her remark was directed at me. I understand the importance of instilling a sense of discipline in the recruits, Ms. Winters. I also know they have to follow orders unequivocally. I can assure you I’ll adhere to academy guidelines.”
Then Dylan had lazed back in his chair, linked his hands behind his head and propped his booted foot on his knee. “But I also believe in tellin’ them the truth. I think it’s valuable to have the three of us who’ve been on the line recently let the recruits know some real-life situations they’ll face that aren’t in the rule book.” The entire time he held Winters’ frosty gaze with his smoldering one.
She said no more, so Ben Cordaro stood. “I’m sure we’ll find a happy medium there. I think you both have valid points.” He was quiet for a moment, then added sternly, “And I expect you’ll be able to reach some compromise on this issue…”
Dylan remembered thinking that at least they’d be working in different areas—Winters in EMS, he in fire suppression. He could probably avoid unnecessary contact with her and get through this without losing too much of his hide in the process.
“Where’s the yellow?” the photographer called after he drew Jake and Chelsea together in the middle. Alex’s brother and best man, Richard, and Francey’s stepsister, Elise, stepped forward. Her hair, a few shades lighter than her yellow sarong, sparkled in the afternoon sun.
Next the photographer placed Francey’s brothers, sister-in-law and Diana. “All right, we need the green team.”
Dylan edged into the group, right up to his partner. Her shoulder brushed his accidentally. She was about five inches shorter than he was, so he could see the sun glisten off the red highlights of her hair. For a long fifteen minutes they held their forced smiles for the camera.
At the end of the session, Alex faced the group. “Don’t go yet.” Seemingly from nowhere, waiters produced glasses of champagne for the wedding party. “I’d like to toast my bride.” He tugged Francey close and lifted his glass. “Almost six months ago this gorgeous woman dragged me out of a fire and saved my life.” He gazed at her, his eyes so full of love it made Dylan suck in his breath. “But today, by becoming my wife, she gave me an even greater gift.” His voice hoarse with emotion, Alex finished, “I love you, Francesca.”
Dylan felt choked up. He turned from the scene to look out to sea. As he did so, he noticed Beth Winters watching Francey and Alex blankly, as if she wasn’t even seeing them.
Her body was painfully rigid. There was not even a spark of sentimentality on her face.
Jeez, Dylan thought, was the blasted woman made of stone?
In the sultry Caribbean night, Beth Winters took off her shoes and waded into the warm water, the grainy sand squishing between her toes. She’d left the celebration, held in one of the outdoor restaurants, to try to collect her thoughts.
You’re doing all right, she told herself silently. Just a little while longer. It hadn’t been too bad. During the ceremony, she was able to keep her thoughts off her own wedding a lifetime ago, and a young boy who loved the water and hot weather and had dreamed of one day visiting tropical islands. Instead, she’d focused on Francey’s absolute delight in joining her life with the man she loved. When that wasn’t enough, she’d concentrated on her annoyance at being paired up with Dylan O’Roarke.
When she’d left the reception, he’d been dancing with his date—all the attendants had been encouraged to bring a guest, though only Chelsea and O’Roarke had done so. He’d produced another of what his buddies called Barbie—a tall blonde with seemingly more breast than brains. Though Beth objected to the sexist nature of the comment, the description was apt.
Truthfully, Beth objected to almost everything about O’Roarke—from his too-long black hair which dipped boyishly into his eyes, to his reckless attitude and behavior.
“Want some company?”
Beth turned to find the bride had joined her in the shallow water. She smiled at her friend. Though the sarong was a little mussed and she’d long since parted company with the lilies in her hair, Francey was still gorgeous in the unorthodox wedding attire.
“Of course, but shouldn’t you be at the reception?”
Francey stood next to Beth and peered over the sea as waves curled around their ankles. “I’ll go back in soon. I wanted to look at the water again. I wish we didn’t have to go home tomorrow.” Francey had frantically juggled her schedule to get the week off for their wedding.
Beth smiled. She was thinking how good it would be to get back to a routine—a sure remedy for the nostalgia she’d been feeling. This excursion had upset her emotional equilibrium, something Beth didn’t like at all.
Francey’s eyes narrowed on her. “You want to go back to Rockford, don’t you?”
“No,” Beth lied.
“You weren’t crazy about coming down here.”
Hesitating, Beth struggled to find truthful words that wouldn’t hurt her friend. “I don’t go to weddings and things, France.” She reached out and squeezed Francey’s arm. “But how could I miss this?”
Francey grinned and didn’t probe. That she allowed Beth her privacy was one of the things Beth liked about her and one of the crucial reasons they could be friends.
“Sorry about you getting paired up with Dylan. I didn’t even consider that would happen.”
“That’s okay, being his partner didn’t kill me.”
“Life’s been so hectic, you and I haven’t had a chance to talk. How did the first few days at the academy go with him?”
Shrugging, Beth said, “Fine. Everyone thinks he’ll do a great job.”
“I wish you could know him like I do. He’s—”
“Francesca!” The male voice came from behind them. Alex materialized out of the darkness in rolled-up trousers, the sleeves of his shirt folded back, looking like some golden Greek god born on the foam of the sea. He banded his arms around Francey’s waist. “You left me.”
Rolling her eyes, Francey leaned into him and sighed. The chemistry between them almost sizzled. When he began to nuzzle her neck, Beth turned away. Apparently she wasn’t out of the woods yet. She took a cleansing breath to banish the ghosts stirred by Alex’s embrace of his new wife.
“Bye, Beth,” they both sang out.
Pivoting, Beth saw that Alex had scooped Francey up and was carrying her toward the restaurant. Beth breathed deeply again, forcing her shoulders to relax, her mind to empty. For twenty years, since she was nineteen, she’d used the technique and become a master at it. When the threat passed, she faced the sea again. And caught a glimpse of a man and woman on the pier. The outline and stature of the woman told her it was O’Roarke’s date. A deep masculine laugh and light feminine giggle drifted to her. She watched as the couple slid arms around each other’s waists and headed toward the large enclosed hammock for two at the end of the dock. Turning away from the sight, Beth trudged through the water in the opposite direction.
But she was unable to get O’Roarke out of her mind. She still couldn’t quite believe he was going to work at the academy for the next four months. Beth disliked very few people, and the irony of the situation didn’t escape her. Usually she didn’t let herself feel much either way about anyone. But it hadn’t taken her long to disapprove of Dylan O’Roarke’s whole outlook on life—take every risk you can, beat back every threat and don’t let fear ever stop you. He just didn’t understand the preciousness of life. She’d found herself calling him on that trait when he was a new recruit at the academy, and now she felt the white heat of resentment at his becoming a part of the staff.
He’d been so smug last week about his thoughts on training the recruits, so she’d gone after him again as she had in the past. And he’d been good and truly pissed off about it…
After the meeting had broken up, Beth returned to her office and was sorting though some files when she heard a noise at the doorway. She looked up to find O’Roarke leaning against the jamb, his arms crossed over a chest that stretched the blue RFD uniform shirt mercilessly. His eyes were glistening with anger.
“Is this the way my whole time here is going to go?” he asked, ditching his legendary charm. She had to be the only woman in the world he didn’t use it on.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“The hell you don’t.” He strode into the room. “You know, when I was a recruit here, I had to take this shit from you. I don’t have to take it anymore.”
She gave him her best detached, haughty look, though as always he evoked a furor of response inside her. “Usually instructors at the academy listen to each other and work together. They don’t go on the attack and use foul language.” She shook her head. “I’d hoped you’d…matured enough to get along here.” She knew that particular criticism had always zinged him.
His face flushed with anger. “Oh, and Ms. Wise-in-the-Ways-of-the-World knows all about maturity, doesn’t she? What are you, anyway, thirty-five? You act eighty…”
The recollection made Beth sigh heavily. Then she glanced around to see how far she’d walked.
Quite far. She could barely see the pier where O’Roarke sat cuddling with his girlfriend. Resolutely she started back. She wished she could go to her room, but Francey and Chelsea, Beth’s other close friend, would worry if she didn’t return to the reception. She took another deep breath. With any luck this wedding celebration would be her last for a very long time.
Three little hellions raced past Dylan, their arms held out at right angles from their sides. Each had dark eyes, olive skin and jet-black hair. Dylan guessed their ages ranged from four to seven. After whizzing by him, they circled a food stall, narrowly missing the sharp edge of one of the carts. They still bumped the back of it, making the thing teeter precariously.
“Where are their parents?” Dylan wondered aloud, unable to see any adult who might be with them. The Kingston, Jamaica, airport was crowded on Sunday afternoon as the Templeton wedding party waited for their plane to be fueled.
“Their mother’s over in the corner, breast-feeding her baby,” Missy told him.
Scanning the room, Dylan saw the woman and smiled at the nurturing sight. Then his gaze was snagged by Beth Winters, sitting alone about three feet from the mother, her nose buried in a book. Now there was a woman who knew nothing about nurturing.
Ben Cordaro appeared and spoke briefly with her. She rose as he headed toward Dylan. “O’Roarke, I’d like to talk to you.”
Ben gestured to a small table that butted against a wall behind the food stalls. As Dylan stood to follow, one of the little boys crashed headlong into him. Dylan bent and scooped him up. “Hey, you guys better settle down. Somebody could get hurt.”
The boy gave a gap-toothed grin as Dylan set him on his feet. “Okay, mister. I’ll tell my brothers. I’m watchin’ them for my mom.” The kid scampered off.
“Keep them away from those food carts over there. They don’t look stable,” Dylan called after him, then crossed to Ben, only to find Beth Winters had joined him. She looked feminine in a white silky T-shirt and khaki shorts, which revealed tanned slender legs. But she sat down at the table and clasped her hands. Once again her posture was so unyielding Dylan wondered if she ever relaxed.
“Both of us?” Dylan asked stupidly.
Dylan took a chair at the opposite end of the table from Winters, with Ben between them. Their battalion chief ran his hand through his hair and expelled a heavy breath. “I got a call this morning with some news that concerns both of you. I thought I’d tell you now, instead of springing this on you tomorrow morning at work. We’ll all be busy when the recruits arrive.”
Beth cocked her head and Dylan waited.
“Tom Jackson slipped last night in the shower. Hurt his bad hip. The doctor told him he’d need the replacement surgery right away.” Jackson, the captain in charge of EMS at the academy, had gone off the line because of hip problems. Recently he’d talked of retirement because his injury bothered him so much.
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Winters frowned. Dylan had never noticed how finely etched her eyebrows were. “Is he in pain?”
“A lot. They’re hoping to get the operation scheduled this week.”
Dylan said, “Good. The healing won’t hurt as much.”
Wearily Ben drew in another breath. “He’ll be out for at least three months—probably till after Christmas.”
“For the whole recruit class,” Winters said evenly.
“Too bad,” Dylan responded.
“I can handle things that long,” she said matter-of-factly.
“No, you can’t, Beth.” Ben frowned. “It would double your teaching load, as well as make you responsible for all the other medical duties at the academy. We’ve got an advanced EMS course for line firefighters scheduled for November. You’ll need help.”
“No one else at the academy is trained to teach in my area.”
Ben’s gaze swung from Winters to Dylan, then to Winters again
“Dylan’s a paramedic as well as a certified instructor. He also has an education degree from Cortland State. He’s had all the methods courses.”
Winters clutched a paper napkin and twisted it in her hands. “O’Roarke?”
Dylan shook his head. “No way, Ben. I’ve already got my assignment for which firefighting classes I’m teaching.”
“We’ll reassign some of them.”
“Ben, this isn’t a good idea,” Dylan protested. In fact, it was the worst idea in the world.
“I know you two don’t see eye to eye,” Ben said, exasperation in his tone. “But I don’t have much choice.” His face hardened. “Look, you’re both adults. You’ll have to find a way to deal with this…animosity between you.” He paused. “Maybe working together is the best thing for you. You’ll be forced to deal with whatever it is that turns you into cats and dogs when you’re in the same room.”
Chastised, neither Winters nor Dylan spoke.
“You’ll be sharing the EMS office, too. I’ll have Tom’s desk cleared temporarily for Dylan.” Ben paused. “I expect you to work this out.” Giving them his best chief officer look, he pushed back his chair, stood and walked away.
Dylan was thrust back twenty-five years, to when he was a Cub Scout and Grandma Katie was his den leader. Their troop had gone camping, and Dylan had been paired with Jeff Miller, the nerdiest kid in the group. He’d griped about it, and his grandma—her cheeks sunburned, her camping clothes grimy—had silenced him with a glare and another saying. In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity. He smiled at how right she’d been. He and Jeff had wound up hitting it off and remained best friends through college, until Jeff had moved south after graduation.
Not that this would happen with Beth Winters. It wasn’t possible.
Winters watched Ben walk away. After a moment, she turned to Dylan. Her eyes were deeply troubled. He stared at her, knowing his own reflected the same turbulence. He opened his mouth to speak, maybe ease her misgivings and his own. Suddenly there was a loud crash. Followed by screams.