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Where There's Smoke

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Where There's Smoke Kristin Hardy HarperCollins EUR ONCE BURNEDIf Sloane Hillyard's invention saved the life of one firefighter, it would be worth everythingeven if it was too late to save her own brother. But her biggest hurdle lay ahead: To convince sensual, skeptical Captain Nick Trask to give it a chancewithout getting burned herself.As for Nick, he could walk into a burning building, no problem. But the inferno that Sloane ignited presented a different type of challenge. Still, he was up for it. Now all he had to do was convince Sloane it was possible to enjoy the warmth of the firewithout getting consumed by the flames. Theres something going on here that doesnt have anything to do with the job. He was rightthis wasnt about the job. It was about what had started in the tower and was moving out of her control with frightening speed. Perhaps you just have an overactive imagination, Sloane said, fighting to keep her voice even. I dont know. Lets test it. Empirical method. Nick leaned in, sliding his fingers along her cheek. Experiment and observe. Youre out of your mind, Trask. Nick, he corrected softly, so close she could feel his mouth form the word. What? Call me Nick. Then his lips brushed hers. Dear Reader, Well, were getting into the holiday season full tilt, and what better way to begin the celebrations than with some heartwarming reading? Lets get started with Gina Wilkinss The Borrowed Ring, next up in her FAMILY FOUND series. A woman trying to track down her familys most mysterious and intriguing foster son finds him and a whole lot moresuch as a job posing as his wife! A Montana Homecoming, by popular author Allison Leigh, brings home a woman whos spent her life running from her own secrets. But theyre about to be revealed, courtesy of her childhood crush, now the local sheriff. This month, our class reunion series, MOST LIKELY TO, brings us Jen Safreys Secrets of a Good Girl, in which we learn that the girl most likely todo everything disappeared right after college. Perhaps her secret crush, a former professor, can have some luck tracking her down overseas? Were delighted to have bestselling Blaze author Kristin Hardy visit Special Edition in the first of her HOLIDAY HEARTS books. Where Theres Smoke introduces us to the first of the devastating Trask brothers. The featured brother this month is a handsome firefighter in Boston. And speaking of delightedwe are absolutely thrilled to welcome RITA Award nominee and Red Dress Ink and Intimate Moments star Karen Templeton to Special Edition. Although this is her first Special Edition contribution, it feels as if shes coming home. Especially with Marriage, Interrupted, in which a pregnant widow meets up once again with the man who got awayher first husbandat her second husbands funeral. We know youre going to enjoy this amazing story as much as we did. And we are so happy to welcome brand-new Golden Heart winner Gail Barrett to Special Edition. Where He Belongs, the story of the bad boy whos come back to town to the girl hes never been able to forget, is Gails first published book. So enjoyand remember, next month we continue our celebration. Gail Chasan Senior Editor Where Theres Smoke Kristin Hardy www.millsandboon.co.uk (http://www.millsandboon.co.uk) For their invaluable assistance in my research, thanks to Scott Salman of the Boston Fire Department, Joel Schwartz of the Dorchester Bay Economic Development Corp. and most of all, Stephen Hardy of the Merrimack Romantic Development Corp. KRISTIN HARDY has always wanted to write, starting her first novel while still in grade school. Although she became a laser engineer by training, she never gave up her dream of being an author. In 2002, her first completed manuscript, My Sexiest Mistake, debuted in Harlequins Blaze line; it was subsequently made into a movie by the Oxygen network. The author of nine books to date, Kristin lives in New Hampshire with her husband and collaborator. Dear Reader, The publication of Where Theres Smoke is a dream come true for me. About twenty years ago (when I was two, of course) I picked up a Silhouette Special Edition novel at the store and I got the bug to write a romance. Fast forward through several false starts and long hiatuses from writing. Even though I never finished a book, I always knew that one day Id make my living as a romance novelist. Then in September 2001, I finally typed The End on a story and sold it to Harlequins newly launched Blaze line. My heart has always been with Special Edition, though. When Gail Chasan bought the HOLIDAY HEARTS trilogy I couldnt have been more thrilled. I have so many stories to tell, so I hope that this is a journey we can go on together as I continue to write for both lines. Id love to hear what you think of my first effort, so please drop me a line at kristin@kristinhardy.com. Stop by my Web site at www.kristinhardy.com for contests, details on upcoming books, recipes and more. Happy holidays. Kristin Hardy Contents Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter One It was beyond him how so much paperwork could stack up in such a short time. Nick Trask stared balefully at the forms piled up on his desk and sighed. Hed joined the fire department to battle fires, not to generate his own personal fire hazard. When people asked him why he loved firefighting, he usually shrugged and said it was rewarding. It was true, that much of it, but there was more he didnt say. He didnt tell them of the fierce pleasure of firefighting, the euphoria of saving a life or the way the adrenaline blasted through him as he risked everything against the ravening beast of the flames. Those were the moments that made it all worthwhile. Those were the times that made up for days like this one, he thought, raking an impatient hand through his cropped hair. It had been crazy from the get-go. Theyd hardly had time to go over the morning announcements at the start of shift when the bells had sounded for a house fire in a triple-decker just blocks away. Climbing to the roof to ventilate the blaze, hands full with a chainsaw, Bruce Jackson had found out the twenty-foot ladder had a bad rung. The hard way. All things considered, it was a lucky thing hed only fallen eight feetif you could call a broken collarbone lucky. And the day had just gone downhill from there. Accident reports, damaged property reports, defective equipment reportsNick was tempted to put a lump of coal underneath them and see if he could make a diamond. It wouldnt have been so bad if it hadnt been for the rescue call, the inspections and the car fire. Not to mention the medical aid calls. Three of them. Even after spending every moment in between calls filling out forms and cursing the department for not having it all online, he was only a little over half done, and everything had to be shipshape by the time they made the shift change. Nick shook his head and glanced at the books hed optimistically spread out, hoping to study for the promotional exam. His chances of getting any time to look at them this shift were about as good as his chances of winning Powerball. Yo, cap, give me a hand for a minute? The question was shouted up from the garage area below, rising above the sounds of rock music on the radio. If he craned his neck, Nick could see out the open door of his office and through the stair railing to the long, gleaming red shapes of the fire engine and ladder truck, massive yet oddly sleek under the fluorescent lights of the cavernous garage. Something of the boy in him smiled then, something of the man felt a swelling pride, underlain by a breath of challenge, a taste of danger. Firefighting was his life. It touched the essence of him in a way nothing else ever had. Feet thumped up the stairs. El capitan? A burly, middle-aged firefighter with a blunt-featured face leaned into the office. From behind him came the sound of U2 singing about a beautiful day. Nick put down his pen. Still stuck on these reports, OHanlan, sorry. Remember the other day when you were asking me why I didnt want to take the exam to move up? Nuff said. You officer types, you gotta love paperwork. Me, Im an action guy. A corner of Nicks mouth quirked as he looked at OHanlans florid face. An action guy, huh? Every minute of every day. No wonder your wife looks scared. Look, Ive got to keep working on this pile if Im going to get through it by shift change, so if someone else can help you, go for it. No problem. I understand. Some people are born bureaucrats. But if your hand starts getting tired and you want to be reminded what the apparatus looks like Nick stopped and considered, tapping forms-in-triplicate with his pen and eyeing the door where OHanlan beckoned. Were you ever in sales, OHanlan? Just pointing out your options. He tipped his head in the direction of the apparatus floor, wagging his eyebrows. It was Nicks duty as captain to take care of any problems, and God knew he could use a break from the endless writing. Nick grinned and tossed down his pen. All right, you got me. Cap. Todd Beaulieu, compact and dark-haired, met them on the stairs, a slip of paper in his hand. I just found this note by the phone. Looks like you got a call sometime yesterday. Yesterday? I guess the other shift forgot to tell you. Beaulieu squinted at the paper. Jeez, OHanlan, this writing looks as bad as yours. Hey, Ive won awards for my handwriting, Ill have you know, OHanlan protested. Probably for cryptography, Beaulieu shot back. Nick reached out for the message. Eq tes tom? he asked squinting at the scribbles. Anybody want to guess? OHanlan considered. Abusing a cat? Leave your personal life out of this, Beaulieu told him. Nick struggled for a moment to make sense of the hasty scrawl. Looks like someones doing something tomorrow. Which means today. I guess well find out eventually. He shrugged and turned to the stairs. What did you break this time, OHanlan? Down on the garage floor, Nick and OHanlan threaded their way around the pumper to the ladder truck. The music on the radio segued into a no-nonsense womans voice reading the morning news. In Dorchester, Councilman Donald Ayre, running for reelection next month, spoke again about his new safety plan for Boston firefighters. We cant have fire safety in Boston until our firefighters are safe, Ayre said self-importantly. Thats my mission, and thats why Im looking for reelection. OHanlan rolled his eyes at the sound bite. Looks like old Hot Ayre is at it again, he said, climbing on top of the ladder truck. Funny, the last time he got yapping about firefighters it was an election year, too. And the time before that, I think, Nick said, following him. Course, he doesnt talk about how he pushed for department budget cuts once the voting was over, does he? Hes probably shy about his accomplishments, OHanlan guessed. Besides, if the equipment was good enough for our great-grandfathers, its good enough for us, right? Sure. Just ask Jackson. Nicks lip curled. Twenty bucks says that inside of two weeks weve got our illustrious councilman in a photo op with some high-tech gizmo the department will buy one of for tests and never use. Cmon, hows he supposed to enjoy the budget cuts unless he cleans out the miscellaneous fund, too? Cut him some slack. Id like to cut him something. Nick shook his head in disgust. If we dont give them something to yap about on the campaign trail, we dont exist for those guys. Cushy life, though. Think about it: nice, soft chair in the City Council meetings, free parking anywhere in town. Free lunches, too. OHanlans eyes brightened. Maybe I should go into politics. Nick looked him up and down. Im not sure you could handle any more lunches, OHanlan. That? OHanlan slapped his comfortable belly. Thats muscle, sonny boy, and dont you forget it. Ill work on it. So whats the problem that you had to drag me all the way down here for, anyway? OHanlan bent down to the giant aerial ladder that lay folded up in sections on top of the truck. The ladder felt sticky at that last fire. She didnt open up like she should have. I took a look and this bolt right here is loose and partly sheared. He pulled at the ladder and the bolt rattled in its hole. I think itll be okay if we just switch it, but with these mitts of mine I cant get at it. Nick glanced at it briefly, then at his watch. Why dont I write it up for repair? BecauseOHanlan made a futile attempt to reach the back of the boltyou write it up, the motor squadll take a month to get to it and a month to fix it. Or well get stuck working with one of those Civil War relics they keep around. Id think an action guy would want the challenge. I have to save my valuable strength for firefighting, not for pushing the truck to the scene. OHanlans voice was aggrieved. Here Im trying to save you some writing and youre not even appreciating it, ya bureaucrat. Thats the trouble with you, OHanlan, always thinking of others first. Nick squatted down to get a better view. Give me a wrench. Sloane Hillyard strode down the sidewalk toward Firehouse 67, narrowing her eyes against the glare of the October sun, wishing shed remembered her sunglasses. A group of teenaged boys hanging out on the corner turned to watch her pass. Yo, baby, what you in such a hurry for? the boldest of them called. Youghta stop and be more sociable. He trailed after her a few steps, while his buddies nudged one another and laughed. Cmon, baby, stop. Ill show you God. Sloane ignored him and kept going. An angry tangle of graffiti covered the walls of the building she passed. Here where the southern Boston neighborhoods of North Dorchester and Roxbury came together, even the sidewalk looked hard used. Sloane genuinely didnt notice. She wasnt concerned with young boys or with her surroundings. She was only concerned with the men in the firehouse ahead. Her stomach tightened. When she stepped through the doorway, she would start the final phase of five years of intensesome might say obsessiveeffort. Five years to design equipment that would help ensure no firefighter, anywhere, would be lost in a blaze. Five years to help ensure that no more men would be devoured by the gaping maw of the flames. The main doors of the station were open as she walked up. She slowed as she reached the dark crack in the concrete that marked the threshold. It had been a long time since shed set foot in a firehouse. Shed thought she was ready for it. Shed been wrong. Just do it, she told herself grimly, fighting to ignore the quick twist of anxiety. She was so close to achieving her goal, so close. This was no time to let the past take over the future. Taking a deep breath, she crossed the line and passed into the fluorescent cool of the garage. A compact, dark-haired man with a boyish face stacked air canisters against the wall. A young firefighter in a Red Sox cap swept the floor around the trucks. The sweeping came to an abrupt halt as he glanced up, hastily setting the broom aside and wiping off his hands as Sloane approached. Can I help you? The click of her heels rang in the cavernous garage. Hello. She smiled, wondering if he could have been a day past nineteen. Im looking for Nick Trask. The boy was blushing, trying to act cool. The captain? I think hes up in his office. Ill go get him. The dark-haired firefighter turned before they took two steps. Yo, Red! She looking for Trask? Sloane froze, her chest suddenly constricted. Hes not up in his office. Hes with OHanlan. The man pointed toward the ladder truck at the far side of the garage. Over there. Thanks, Beaulieu. The boy smiled shyly. My mistake. He looked at Sloane more closely. Are you okay? Sloane forced herself to breathe. Im fine, thanks. She saw it now, bright auburn hair curling around the edges of his ball cap. I knew someone else called Red once. My names Jim Sorensen, he said ruefully, taking his hat off and scrubbing it through his wavy brush. But you know how it goes. They took one look at my hair and that was that. I know how it goes, she agreed. Okay, Ive got hold of the nut if you can get the bolt through, Nick muttered, jaw set in concentration. Lets give it a push and get the holes lined up. They leaned on the ladder together and the metal creaked as it moved. Let me get my hand in there. Its just aboutah! OHanlan cursed to the ceiling as he barked his knuckles on unforgiving metal. I signed up to be a firefighter, not a damn mechanic. You were the one who was dead against calling in the motor squad, Nick reminded him. Come on, action guy, repeat power steering to yourself three times and lets try it again. Power steering, power steering, theres no place like home, theres no place like home, OHanlans voice rose an octave. Theres no place Abruptly he gave a low whistle. Well, well, well. Looks like I should have volunteered for clean-up detail. Without turning, Nick knew it was a woman. Her voice floated over to them, low, slightly rough, a smoky contralto that belonged in the bedroom and made him tighten before he ever looked at her. When he did, the first thing he saw was her hair. She had it pulled back and looped up in a clip, but not bound into submission. It was thick, nearly down to her waist, hed guess, and flamed a deep, splendid red. The facethe face went with the voice, decidedly, recklessly sensual. Slavic cheekbones, challenging eyes, a mouth that made him wonder how it would feel on his skin. Her narrow, forest-green suit played up the sleek curves of her body enough to make his imagination temporarily run rampant. There was more, something about the lift to her shoulders, the cool self-assurance in her stance that intrigued and enticed him. Look at Red. OHanlan chuckled. Hes falling all over himself, poor kid. He turned back around. Hey, Nick? Hed been staring, Nick realized, shaking himself loose. And you, of course, are a master of self-control. He gave OHanlan a derisive look before bending back to the ladder. Cmon, lets finish this. Im a happily married man, OHanlan reminded him, grunting as he leaned on the ladder and threaded the bolt in place. And Leanne would skin me alive if she caught me looking at another woman. OHanlan peeked over his shoulder at the approaching redhead. Which is why I do it here. Nick squeezed his hand in between ladder struts to work a nut onto the bolt. Stick to fighting fires, he advised, manipulating the wrench expertly. Its safer. Hello? Excuse me? The words echoed up from beside the truck. Im looking for Nick Trask. At close range her voice whispered over his skin and into his bones, mesmerizing, arousing. He leaned across the top of the ladder until their eyes locked. Up close, she was all the glimpse had promised and more. Im Nick Trask. Give me a minute, Ill be right with you. A minute? OHanlan grinned. Take over for me here and Ill be down there in thirty seconds. Easy, big fella. Nick passed the wrench to OHanlan and patted him on the shoulder. Skinned alive, remember? Save your strength for Leanne. Shed always been a sucker for men in uniform, Sloane thought, watching the lean, stripped-down lines of his body as he swung down from the ladder truck. That was all it was. Of course, he filled the uniform as though it had been designed for him. Off limits, she reminded herself. She didnt do firefighters. He neared and Sloanes pulse skittered unevenly, then steadied. Nick Trask, he said, wiping his hands on a rag. Dark, Sloane thought, and dangerous. His looks hit her with the slamming impact of a hundred-mile-an-hour collision. Black hair, tanned, almost swarthy skin and eyes darker than jet combined on a face that simultaneously compelled and alarmed. It was a face that was not so much conventionally handsome as it was filled with the essential character of the man. Her guard was up in a heartbeat. Sloane Hillyard, Exler Corporation. She reached out her hand when he drew near. Councilman Ayres office asked me to stop by. She wasnt sure what she found more disconcerting, the almost imperceptible chill that swept over his face as she spoke, or the flush of heat that assaulted her at the touch of his hand. Nerves, she told herself. She was just on edge over being in a firehouse again. Nice to meet you, Captain Trask. And you. There was a cursory politeness in his voice but no warmth. This close to him Sloane could see that his eyes werent black. They were deep gray, the color of darkest smoke, the color of a stormy sky at dusk. What can I do for you and the councilman? Focus, Sloane reminded herself. Im here for our meeting. Our meeting? I called to confirm yesterday. I didnt get any He checked himself and pulled a pink slip of paper covered in illegible script from his pocket. Ah. This must be you. Sorry, but I didnt get this until about five minutes ago and its been a really hectic day, so if Thats all right, she cut in smoothly. Ill only need a few minutes of your time. We need to talk about the gear. The gear? He put his hands on his hips and gave a nod. Ayre doesnt waste time, Ill give him that. Sloane didnt need to know the reason for the sarcasm to understand that she was at least a partial target. Irritation pricked at her. We need to talk about scheduling, plan the testing, she continued, not about to be derailed. Councilman Ayres office Yeah, I know, Councilman Ayres office. Nick cut her off, glancing at the number of men with sudden, pressing business in the immediate vicinity. Look, lets go to my office and you can tell me what Ayres up to this time. He didnt offer it as a choice, but in the clipped tone of command. Yes sir, Sloane muttered, following him up the stairs. Perhaps the man could put out fires, but graciousness was clearly not his strong suit. Nor, she thought a moment later, was neatness. Right through there. Have a seat. Sloane stood in the doorway of his tiny office and threw a glance of disbelief at the jumble of paperwork and books everywhere. Which stack of paper did you have in mind for me to sit on, Captain Trask? Her tone was deceptively sweet, as was her face. The sarcasm lurked only in her gaze, which warned him not to push too hard, not to presume too much. Nick shifted a pile of books to the floor. There. The telephone jangled for attention and he answered it impatiently. House sixty-seven, Trask. Oh yeah, right. Giancoli says the brakes on the pumper are down. He slid into his chair, instantly absorbed, leaving Sloane standing in the middle of the room. Setting down her briefcase, she took the opportunity to look around. Photographs covered the walls: smiling fire-fighters in front of shining engines, men crowded together at the kitchen table, competing in the Firefighters Olympics. A newspaper clipping showed grim men in helmets and turnouts, lines of exhaustion etched into their soot-streaked faces as they carried stretchers out of a smoke-filled building. Hillview Convalescent Home Burns but the Fire Claims No Victims, the caption read. The men in the picture were from Ladder 67. Sloane glanced further along and her interest sharpened. Stacked haphazardly atop the filing cabinet were a pair of plaques, the top one an award of valor presented to one Nick Trask for action above and beyond the call of duty. Impressed in spite of herself, Sloane glanced over to where he sat at his desk, absorbed in his call. Shed been wrong when shed thought his face held more character than perfection. Clearly, the sharp slashes of his cheekbones, the compelling shape of his mouth translated into above-average looks. It was simply that the force of his personality was so strong that it overwhelmed the handsomeness, carried it past simple good looks to a more dangerous realm, giving him the ability to hypnotize, the power to obsess. The sudden flicker of warning ran through her to the pit of her stomach. In defense, she moved to stare out the window. Outside, a dog barked and boys shouted as they threw a football in the street. Inside, a subtle tension filled the air. Nick shifted in his chair impatiently. Yeah, okay. Let me know when itll go. Great, talk to you later. He hung up the phone, turning to where Sloane stood. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but for just an instant her hair blazed the exact color of flame. For just an instant, he watched without speaking. He shook his head and forced his mind to business just as she turned from the window. All finished? Yes. Sorry about the wait. Because he was still having a hard time concentrating, Nick plunged in without preamble. So, Ms. Hillyard, what has the councilmans office promised that we would do for you? His tone was more brusque than hed intended. It made Sloanes mouth tighten and she took her time coming back to her chair. I believe the councilmans office is taking a sincere interest in your safety, as I think youll see. Now, I made an appointment through the city weeks ago, she said frostily. I assumed youd be ready to discuss this. Nick silently cursed the man whod taken the garbled message, then cursed the fact that it had been uncovered so late that hed had no time to sort it out. And he added Ayre, just on principle. No matter how gorgeous she was, whatever the woman was selling, it was going to take time he didnt have. Yes, well, he said, summoning his patience for what looked to be a long siege, why dont you start at the beginning? Sloane took a deep breath. I work for the Exler Corporation, she said, a little too carefully. Ive developed a system called the Orienteer. Its designed to locate firefighters in burning buildings. How? Its got a microprocessor that combines global-positioning-system input with a database of building plans to locate anyone, anywhere. You want to find your team members in a burning building, you can. If they need to track their way out, it will lead them. No one will die the way they did in the Hartford packing-house fire ever again. Her voice caught, so briefly he couldnt be sure he hadnt imagined it. Weve gone through the preliminary lab qualification and breakdowns. The last step is testing in a real-life situation with firefighters. No way. Nick was shaking his head before she finished. My guys arent guinea pigs. I beg your pardon? Not a chance. Nick knew how this went, oh, he knew it. Put on the dog for the politicians, invest precious departmental resources and when the photo ops and the elections were done, so was the funding. That was bad enough, but put his men at risk for that photo op? That was where he drew the line. You cant just refuse. First of all, its totally impractical. That was the part that really burned him about operators like Ayre. It couldnt be something reasonable or useful. Nosome babelicious Girl Scout turned up with her science project and Ayre saw only the headlines, not the lives at risk. Impractical? Sloanes eyes flashed. How can you say that when you dont know the first thing about it? Where are you going to get all the blueprints? Weve already gotten them from the planning commission. The microprocessors for the test units are being loaded up with plans for every building in Boston and Cambridge. He snorted. Do you actually think those are up-to-date in a city like this? You really want to bank someones life on that? Were confirming layouts as were entering them. Checking up on every structure? Youll never get it done, he said dismissively. You want to be useful, get me a couple more thermal cameras, build me a better breathing mask. Something proven. Something practical. Sloane flushed. The equipment is practical. And proven. Its been completely lab tested, it just hasnt been used in a fire situation before. Both the department and Councilman Ayres office are behind this. Im sure they are. The chief and Ayre grew up on the same block. She gave him a level stare. Whats that supposed to mean? He sighed. It really wasnt her fault. Look, Im sure youve got the best of intentions, but you dont know how the game goes around here. But Im sure youll tell me. She looked, he thought, strung tight as a piano wire. It didnt make her any less gorgeous. Ayre starts with the fire-safety shtick every election cycle. It gets him press, photos in front of shiny red trucks. Its all about exposure and its nothing hell support with funding. Trust me on that, Ive been through it before. He shook his head in frustration. Ayre just wants to make headlines. Youre the tool he chose to do it with. What is with you? Im talking about equipment that can help you and youre talking about conspiracies. He bristled. No, Im talking politics. And Im talking about saving lives, she retorted. Youve got problems with Ayre? Then vote against him next month. I dont care. All that matters to me is getting this equipment qualified. And youre dreaming if you think theyre actually going to buy this gadget. Its not a gadget, she said hotly. Its a very sophisticated system. A very He shook his head like a dog throwing off water. Do you understand anything at all about firefighting? Her eyes burned for a moment; it took her a visible effort to tamp her reaction down. Of course I do. I consulted with firefighters in Cambridge when I was designing the equipment. Great. Take it to them to test. Were not taking it to them. Weve taken it to the city of Boston and the city says you. This isnt some project of the week. This testing is critical and trust me, it is going to get done. Bill Grant in the fire chiefs office wants your company to do the testing. Ayre wants it. I want it. Youre way down the list, Captain Trask. Nick didnt even attempt to quell the bright flare of anger. Thats where youre wrong. You may think that because you had a couple of nice visits downtown that you can come in here and do whatever you want. He rose, stalking toward her until she was forced to tilt her head to hold his gaze. But this is my firehouse and I dont care what Ayre wants, I dont care what it is Grant wants and I certainly dont care what you want. I am not going to put my guys at risk so Ayre can take pictures of the two of you testing out a video game. Sloane paled for an instant, then shot to her feet, two spots of color burning high on her cheekbones. This equipment is going to get qualified, no matter what it takes. I dont give a damn if Im a tool or a pawn or whatever the hell you think I am if it means that I save one persons life, just one. Her voice rose in fury. And you are not going to stand in my way. They faced each other, inches apart, crackling with tension. Something kinetic surged through the air between them then, something elemental that had nothing to do with firefighting and everything to do with heat. Sloane moved away first, because she had to, because she felt the shudder of weakness in the wall of anger surrounding her. Wheres your telephone? she demanded. You dont want to do this, Captain Trask? Ill save you the trouble. Forget about wasting your time, testing with you would be a waste of my time. She crossed to his desk and snatched up the telephone receiver. Wheres the number for the fire chiefs office? He studied her a moment, his brows drawn together in a frown of concentration. Then he plucked the receiver from her hand. Ill dial it for you. He punched in the numbers rapidly and waited. Bill Grant please. Yes, Ill hold. He handed the receiver back without a word. Sloane waited, listening to Nick stalk out into the hallway. There was a click on the line, then a voice. Bill Grant here. Hi Bill, its Sloane Hillyard. Sloane, good to talk to you. The words were ever so slightly shaded with relief. You have perfect timing. I was just trying to reach you. Well, youve got me now. What do you need? Can you hold off contacting Ladder 67 for a day? We had a little paperwork snafu here and the memo that should have gone to them is still sitting here in my office. Give me a day to get everything set up with them and we can go ahead. Sloane glanced out toward the hall and found her gaze pinned to Nick Trasks. He was yards away, but she felt a clutch on her chest as sure as a physical contact. The breath of a shiver that passed up her spine was composed partly of anxiety, partly of feelings she was afraid to identify. She tore her eyes away and turned back to the desk. Too late, Bill. Im calling you from the firehouse. Oh. He paused for a moment and Sloane heard the rapid, nervous tap of a finger against the phone, maybe, or the desk. Um, is everything okay? Not exactly. In fact, after talking with Captain Trask, I think it would be best for me to work with a different company. Lets not be hasty, Sloane. Nick Trasks one of the best men weve got. Now she heard all four fingers begin to drum the desktop in sequence. If theres any hitch here, its my fault. Why dont you let me talk to him and see what the problem is? The problem, thought Sloane, was that she didnt want to be anywhere near Nick Trask, certainly not for a period of weeks. All right. She turned to Nick. Its for you. Sloane walked out into the hall where she could finally breathe. The testing couldnt be interrupted. Everything depended on getting the gear qualified. Everything. After a moment, she looked around. To her left was the stairway that ran down to the apparatus floor. To her right, the hall ended in a T, with the dormitory on one side and probably a kitchen and rec room on the other. Without even trying she could picture the latterworn, comfortable furniture, a TV and VCR, probably some back issues of Fire Engineering magazine tossed down on a table. Before she could block it, the image of a lanky, boyish-faced redhead sprawled on a firehouse couch came to her with painful clarity. Oh Mitch, she thought and grief and loss surged in for a blinding instant. Ms. Hillyard, Nicks voice called to her. Grant wants to talk with you again. She responded automatically, entering the office, reaching for the phone. Yes? Hi, Sloane, Grant answered cheerily. I just wanted to apologize for the mixup over there. Ive discussed the situation with Nick and hell be happy to work with you on this project. Sloane glanced over to where Nick stood, staring at her again. Oh, she could see how happy he was about the project. Its up to you, of course, Grant continued, but its really best. It could take quite a while to get another company lined up. Sloane bit back a protest. Grant had her neatly cornered. The testing had to be finished in two months, when production was scheduled to begin. There could be no delays and he knew it. Sloane sighed. All right. Lets stick with the plan. Wonderful. She could hear the satisfaction in Grants voice. If you have any more hitches with the testing, just give me a ring and Ill take care of things, okay? Sure. Anything else? Actually, yes. Can you put Nick back on? The clamor of the alarm bells shattered the quiet of the firehouse. Sloane couldnt prevent herself from jumping. Nick was galvanized into action instantly. Tell him Ill call him back, he barked over his shoulder, sprinting for the fire pole in the dormitory. Hes got I know, an explosion at the oil-tank farm. It just came in here. Sloane, thanks very much. Grants voice was hurried as he said goodbye. The previous atmosphere of calm had been replaced by one of controlled urgency, the air charged with tension. Even as Sloane rushed down the stairs, most of the men were on the apparatus floor pulling on turnouts, grabbing waiting helmets and gloves. A stocky firefighter turned away from the enormous district map that covered one wall and climbed into the cab of Ladder 67. I got it, cap. Lets fly. Sloane hurried to get clear as the last of the men vaulted aboard the gleaming apparatus. Already the motors throbbed, the station door was peeled back. She slipped outside as the ladder truck and the pumper hit the street, lights flashing and sirens shrieking. The firefighters were on their way. Chapter Two If he ever won the lottery, Nick thought, hed hire people to shop for him. Not just certain kinds of shoppingpretty much anything that involved cash registers and standing in line. Certainly anything with narrow aisles and those shiny chrome racks crammed so close together that he was perpetually bumping them with his shoulders. Can I help you? A teenaged sales clerk popped up at his elbow. The fixed, Mouseketeer smile on her face scared him a little. On the other hand, having to spend more than two more minutes in the boutique scared him more. He looked at the piles of silky scarves and fancy handbags. I need a birthday gift for my mother. Well, youve come to the right place. How about something to add a little color to her winter wardrobe? she asked, holding up a sheer band of fabric with a twisting pattern of burgundy and gold. The dark red brought Sloane Hillyard to mind. Not that he needed a prompt. Shed been in his thoughts since shed come to the station two days before. Granted, she had a face that was hard to forget, but if it had only been that, he could have dismissed her as a high-tech huckster. What had made her linger with him was the way shed looked at the end. There had been that instant that shed paled. And the words, so impassioned shed practically vibrated with them: If I save one life, just one life There was something driving her, that much was obvious. He couldnt help but admire her for it. There was a Why there and it was enough to make him wonder about the project. Of course, if his mind returned to the generous sweep of her mouth, the fire of her hair, the heat that had flashed between them in his office, he was only human, right? Forget about the project, it was enough to make him wonder about her. And wonder where the testing might take them. Do you see any scarves your mother might like? The clerks voice broke into his thoughts and Nick brought his focus back to the task at hand. There was plenty to think about there, too. My mothers not much of a scarf person, he answered. At least not scarves that were more for looks than for warmth. On the other hand, why not? Hed come in with the vague idea that he wanted to get her something different, something other than a new plant or a sweater from L.L. Bean. Something that would surprise her, maybe put the spark back in her eye, the spark that had been missing since his father had died the previous spring. Somehow, though, a scarf didnt quite seem likely to do it. How about something to pamper her? The sales clerk was twinkling at him, he noticed uneasily. We have some nice bath sets with body gels and lotions. Not sure I want to go there. How about something else? A watch? She led him from the small gift section over to the glass display cases. I dont think so. A watch would be unnecessary at the Trask family farm; there, you simply rose before dawn with the shrieking alarm clock and worked until long after dark. He looked at the velvet-lined cases filled with rings and bracelets of gleaming metal. Shiny and cold and all so unlike Molly Trask. Hed never actually seen her wear jewelry anyway, except for the plain band of gold his father had given her. The band of gold she still wore. Do you have anything else? Well, weve got Hold on. A warm, soft gleam caught his eye. Whats that? Oh, good choice. The clerks eyes brightened, this time in a decidedly mercenary fashion as she led him over to the far end of the case. Thats our Vintage Collection, made by a local designer out of antique and rose gold. She does some really lovely pieces. For those prices they ought to be, Nick thought, but there was a simple grace to the necklace that had first caught his eye. How about that one? She beamed. Perfect. Its a charm necklace. The artist has made a whole collection of birthstone charms that go with it. Perfect, indeed. Thats it, he decided, reaching back for his wallet. Lets seegive me a charm each for October, May, January, September and December. One for her, his father, his two brothers and himself. A reminder of family around her neck all the time. Shed like that, he thought. You needed family around when times were tough. And sudden guilt nipped at him with tiny, sharp teeth. He hadnt left Vermont to hurt anyone. Hed left because it was the only way he could breathe. As much as hed loved his family, hed needed more than anything to find his own way. Hed always assumed theyd be there when he went back. Hed never expected his father to die so young. And yet, in its own way, firefighting was his way of honoring his fathers legacy. For as long as Nick could remember growing up, Adam Trask would drop anything he was doing at the sound of the town siren and rush to join the other volunteer firefighters to beat back flames. Nick remembered the day the siren had sounded when theyd been at the farm supply store: the exhilarating drive to the firehouse, the purposeful rush of the men as theyd leapt into the fire engine. Instructions to Nick to stay put had held only as long as it had taken the pumper to leave, then hed jogged out into the street and down toward the scent of smoke. The mixed terror and pride of watching his father plunge into the burning building was still as fresh in memory as it had been that day. Seeing him hurry out, soot-streaked, with a young girl clutching at his neck, had filled Nick with a kind of baffled awe. Somehow, Nick thought as he signed the charge slip for the clerk, staying on the Trask farm to make maple syrup had never even come close. He walked outside, fishing in the pocket of his bomber jacket for his cell phone, flipping it open to punch up a number. The line clicked. Gabe Trask. You owe me two hundred bucks, Nick told his younger brother as he crossed the pavement to his Jeep. You dont say. You late on your car payment again? Nope. You said wed split Moms present. Thats splitting it. There was a short silence. I left you with responsibility of picking Moms present? Yep. What was I thinking? Nick unlocked his door and got in. How to come out smelling like a rose with zero effort? Hey, I want a shopping mall, Ive got either an hour drive over to Stowe or two hours down to Concord. Youre breaking my heart, here. Nick hooked his phone up to the hands-free cord. Listen, I just shopped voluntarily, thanks to you. Now whos whining? Me. Nick turned the key and the Jeep roared to life. So what did we buy for her? A necklace. There was a short silence. Gabe, you there? Oh, yeah. Sorry, I just fell asleep from boredom for a minute there. Tell me you got something a little more original than a gold chain. Have some faith, will you? Its a charm necklace made out of antique gold. Hence, the price, Gabe said dryly. Nick checked behind him and backed out of the parking space. It made me think of her, he said simply. She can wear it all the time under her clothes and its got a charm for everyone in the family. Thats not bad, Gabe admitted. Let me guess. A woman helped you pick it out, right? An image of Sloanes face flashed into Nicks head. Nope, not unless you count the clerk who took my money. Gee, my brothers evolving in the big city. So are you going to bring it up for the party? I cant make it to the party, Nick said, stifling another stab of guilt. Ive got one more week until the promotional exam. Ive got to spend every minute studying that I can. Gabe cleared his throat. Jacobs not going to be happy. Now theres a surprise. There was a lot that didnt make their elder brother happy these days and most of it centered around Nick. Ive put a year into this exam. I cant drop the ball at the last minute. Ill overnight you the present and you can take it to her. Shell understand. Im sure. Look, Im sorry Dad died, but I cant quit my job and move home. The words were out before Nick could stop them. And I didnt ask you to, Gabe said carefully. Youve got something to work out with Jacob, you do it with him, okay? I gave up being the go-between when I hit puberty. Nick pulled up to the exit of the parking lot and watched the sweep of passing traffic. Oh, I dont know. You made out pretty well being a go-between when we were kids. In fact, I remember a couple of summers you extorted candy bars from me just about every week to smooth things over. Extorted is an ugly word, Gabe said reprovingly. I had a gift for working with people and you wanted to show your appreciation for my efforts. Who was I to say no? Particularly when you had your hand out. When opportunity knocks Nick punched the accelerator and whipped out onto the highway. Exactly. Still like Baby Ruths? Walking down the white hallway to her lab at Exler, Sloane could hear the radio before she ever neared the door. The station promo segued into a song, accompanied by her lab intern, Dave Tomlinson, an MIT engineering student assigned to her for the year. Bright and efficient, he had a quirky sense of humor and a penchant for indie rock, preferably at high decibels. And invariably he sang along. Sloane fought a smile and reached out for the doorknob. Daves wobbly falsetto carried out into the hall, breaking off abruptly when Sloane opened the door. Uh-oh. His hand was already on the dial, turning down the volume. The warden returns. And none too soon. Do you know they can hear you down in manufacturing? Youd better watch out or the only place youll be playing tunes will be your dorm room. Dave sat at the computer workstation and grinned. You say that, but I dont think it really bugs you. Deep down inside, I think you got a soft spot for me. Quite an imagination youve got. You should have gone to Berklee College to be a rock star instead of MIT, she said, flicking a glance at the list of chords and lyrics hed scribbled on the lab white board. But then youd have some boring goob of an intern instead of a talented, charismatic young guy you liked. What I like is interns who get their jobs done. Her tone would have carried more authority if humor hadnt hovered just beneath the surface. Yeah, that was what you said when you tutored me in thermo. That had been when shed known she was in trouble. Her ice look, the one that had always kept her assistants at a respectful distance, had never worked on Dave. Now, he squinted unrepentantly at the computer and tapped the keys. Hey, I get something done now and then. Did you notice these? With a flourish he indicated the Orienteer modules and user manuals stacked neatly at one end of the lab bench. All of them loaded up with software and calibrated, ready to go live. Im running a simulation on the last one now. Very nice. Sloane admired them. Fast work. How did you get all this done? You were only just starting when I left for my meeting. He shrugged, clicking his mouse. I kind of skipped lunch. What? She frowned at him. Youre too skinny as it is, Dave. She didnt recognize herself playing the role of older sister because shed never been one. Go eat and Ill finish qualifying the last one. Go, she shooed as he hesitated. Now. Dave stood up and grabbed his sunglasses off his desk. Okay, mem sahib, your wish is my command. He walked jauntily out into the hall. A moment later the door opened again and his head popped back inside. Hey, boss? Yes? You really think I could be a rock star? Sloane tried to keep a straight face. Truth? Truth. Dont quit your day job, she advised. The door to the lab clicked closed on his whistle and Sloane got to work monitoring the simulations. Her good humor slid into humming concentration as she ran the Orienteer module through scenario after scenario. When the phone rang, she picked it up absently. Sloane Hillyard. Nick Trask, Ladder 67. She would have recognized his voice even without the introduction. It was unsettling how clearly she could imagine the lines of his face. Still, no one was going to distract her from getting the gear qualified, no matter how good-looking he was. Too much was at stake. She made herself speak coolly, impersonally. Captain Trask. How are you? Good enough. How about you? Fine, thanks. I saw the fire at the tank farm on the news. It looked bad. For a while. We held onto it, though. Chief Douglass is a good firefighter. It was the highest praise a firefighter could give. Im glad everything worked out all right. Sloane took a deep breath. So what can I do for you, captain? You could call me Nick, for starters. I only get called Captain Trask when Im visiting schools or getting chewed out by the chief. She blinked. Why? Why do I get chewed out? Why should I call you Nick? Were going to be working together, right? It might make things a little more friendly. You didnt seem too happy about the situation the other day. Why the sudden change of pace? Call it an experiment. I know Ayres an operator, but you were right the other day, I dont know you at all. I figure you deserve the benefit of the doubt. Oh, nice wasnt fair, she thought with a little twist of alarm. Nice could be dangerous. Nice could be just the start of far more than she could handle. She paused. So what can I do for youNick? I thought it was the other way around. That was the gist of our conversation yesterday, wasnt it? It was. Sloane drew a precise pattern of interlocking diamonds on her desk blotter, trying to ignore the quick flutter in her stomach. You made it pretty clear you wanted nothing to do with pandering to the politicos. And she wanted nothing to do with any man who could make her stomach flutter. Especially if he was a firefighter. You hold a grudge? No, but I need cooperation. Nick. Well, my opinion of the situation hasnt changed, but as you pointed out, it isnt up to me. So if I can help you outsafelythen Ill do it. The stiff note in his voice let her relax a bit. Start with an open mind. Done. If the equipments good, youll have my support. Just dont expect it to go any further than the testing. The day the department has the money to buy pricey electronics like youre peddling is the day Ill be driving to work in a Rolls. Sloane took a deep breath. I dont know what you drive, but I do know this equipment is going to be an important tool, as common in firehouses as thermal cameras. No doubt. No, there isnt, she said shortly. There couldnt be, not after all shed been through. Now is there something else, Captain Trask? Nick. And yeah, there is. I need to know what you want to do about the testing. How many men you want, when, what kind of apparatus, all that. You might find an engine company better suited to your needs, by the way. Sloane shook her head, forgetting that he couldnt see her. No, it has to be a truck company. Ive got five Orienteers to test, plus the master unit that Ill be using to monitor. Id like to keep it to the same group of men. We can do that if you schedule carefully. Good. What I had in mind was a session or two at the training facility, where well have control. Once Im sure the kinks are all out of it, you can start taking it onto fire grounds. I need a minimum of three fire situations over and above the training facility sessions to get meaningful statistics. Okay. Lets set up some dates. It didnt take long, when it came down to it, and she entered the dates in her computer with satisfaction. Were all set, then. Ill see you at the Quincy facility on Saturday. All right. Nick paused. You know, Bill Grant backed you when I talked to him. Despite his unfortunate tendency to cooperate with Ayre, hes a good man. Dont let him down. Sloane hung up the telephone. Dont let him down. The words echoed in her mind as she stared at the computer screen. She wasnt seeing the data, though. She was seeing a red-headed boy hanging around the local firehouse, wiping down the engine and listening to the stories of courage and glory. Dont let him down. She saw him on the edge of manhood, wearing the blue of the Hartford fire service, his lieutenants badge gleaming on his chest, pride gleaming in his eyes. She saw him at the altar, uncomfortable in his tuxedo and unmindful of the discomfort as he looked at the glowing woman who had just become his wife. Dont let him down. She saw his casket being lowered into the ground. The fire had been in an abandoned warehouse honeycombed with cold-storage lockers, decrepit and way below code. Two of Mitchs guys had been searching a tangle of rooms for victims when the smoke had thickened and theyd gotten lost. Mitch had plunged in to find them. And had never come out. How quickly had he passed out from the fumes after his air had run out? Sloane wondered for the thousandth time. Seconds? Heartbeats? Before or after he heard the voices of the firefighters on the other side of the wall, the firefighters who couldnt find him? Before or after the whole room flashed over into merciless, killing flame? Officially, the cause of death had been the smoke inhalation, but the real culprit had been the labyrinthine building and the lack of orientation equipment. It could happen to any firefighter at any time. It had been Mitchs bad luck it had happened to him. Even five years later, remembering made her tighten with the fury of senseless waste, struggle against the tearing loss. Dont let him down. She wouldnt let him down, Sloane thought now, staring around her lab, nor any of the people who staked their lives on the quality of their equipment. And she wouldnt let down their families. She remembered what it was like to lose someone. She remembered too well. Chapter Three It was visible as she drove in, an improbable, eccentric structure that looked as though a committee of quarrelsome architects had built it out of giant-sized Tinkertoys. The closer Sloane came, the more bizarre it looked, meticulously executed building segments arbitrarily slapped together into a four-story monstrosity, the whole considerably less than the sum of the parts. Depending on the side of approach, the structure looked like an apartment house, an industrial building, a parking structure or a tract house on stilts. It was the showpiece of the Boston fire-training facility and every inch of it had been carefully planned. It would never win any beauty contests, Sloane conceded ruefully as she parked her car and got out, but its sheer quirkiness appealed to her. Or perhaps it appealed to her because it was where she was going to get a chance to see what her gear could really do. Anticipation sharpened her awareness of everything around her, the early-morning tang in the air, the lines of the putty-colored tower silhouetted against the brilliant blue sky. Nerves knotted her stomach as they had since shed awoken that morning. There was no need to worry, she told herself for the hundredth time as she got out of her car. Everything was going to go fine. Ladder 67s truck was already parked on the wide concrete apron surrounding the tower, its aerial ladder stretched out to the top of the building. Nearby was a pumper, hoses trailing out toward the tower. From a distance, they looked like Tonka toys. In fact, the whole scene looked like nothing so much as a childs play area after its owner had gone for milk and cookies. A mind-boggling array of fireplugs poked out of the concrete at intervals. Sloane skirted one, heading toward where the ladder truck waited in the slanting shadow of the tower. Why did it have to be Ladder 67? she wondered, glancing at the group gathered around the truck. Things would have been so much easier if Bill Grant had let her change to another company. She had enough to worry without having to contend with Nick Trask. Not that she was about to let a man distract her from her job, but shed have far more peace of mind with a captain who was oh, say, pushing sixty, with the start of a paunch and a couple of grandkids on the way. She wouldnt have felt so much at risk. Still, Nick Trask was far from the first challenge shed faced in bringing the Orienteer this far. Shed deal with him, just as shed dealt with everything else. The important thing was to keep focused on what really mattered. Making her brothers death mean something. She recognized Nick immediately. He stood out from the other men, even though they were all dressed in their department T-shirts and dark trousers. Cockiness, Sloane thought immediately, but intrinsic honesty forced her to admit that it wasnt. Instead, it was confidence, complete confidence in his ability to deal with any fire that might arise and a man who could walk into an inferno without flinching wasnt daunted by much else. He turned to look at her from where he leaned against the side of the truck and against her will she felt the spurt of adrenaline in her veins. Oh, yes, the legions of women who probably fell at his feet had to have had something to do with that confidence, as well. Willfully ignoring the sardonic curve of his mouth, Sloane squared her shoulders and kept walking. When she drew near, Nick pushed away from the side of the ladder truck. What, is Councilman Ayre running late for his photo op? No Councilman Ayre, sorry to disappoint you. He studied her a moment. Who said I was disappointed? No man should be allowed to have such long eyelashes, she thought. Just a guess. Its good equipment. It can save lives, including yours. Pulling a neat pair of files out of the battered leather satchel at her feet, she stacked them on her clipboard. After Hartford, I cant see any department giving up equipment like this. Youre obviously new to Boston, or at least the politics. Hardly. Ive been here three years. He laughed. Sloane stared at him, her cheeks tinting. What? No wonder youre such an optimist. The high color that stained the edges of her cheekbones suited her, Nick thought. And it was definitely personal with her. Sloane frowned. If Bostons such a useless place and you hate it so much, why do you stay? Loving the city doesnt mean I have to agree with the agenda of the people running it. I suppose, but why choose a job thats subject to the whims of the politicians? I didnt. It chose me. For a moment, she just stared back at him. She looked a little like a Hollywood femme fatale, Nick thought, in her black turtleneck and tan jacket, dark glasses hiding her eyes. Her hair caught the light like a shower of sparks. Her skin was milk-pale and flawless. He wondered abruptly how it tasted. Concentrate on the job, Trask. So whats the plan? First lets go over how the equipment works, then get some smoke going and let them take the Orienteer through its paces. You want smoke, weve got it. Come on, Ill show you. A change came over her as she faced the burn tower, a tenseness he wouldnt have noticed if he hadnt been so aware of her. For a moment something in her stance suggested wariness, perhaps dread. It was there and gone in a flash. There was a story there, he thought again. Sooner or later, he was going to find out what it was. He led her into the cool of the burn towers shadow. At close range, the cinder block walls were scarred by water-marks and black flares of soot. What do they use for the fire? Sloane asked. Bales of hay, wood pallets. It depends on whether we want smoke or heat. Nick led her to stairs that threaded up the outside of the tower. He stood back to let her go first. Hed given the tour plenty of times. Funny, hed never noticed the narrowness of the stairway before, even when it had been crowded with a dozen people. They stopped at the first landing, in front of a discolored steel door that led to the interior of the building. Nick pulled it open. The metal groaned in complaint. Fire was never easy on anything. Heres the first burn room, in through here. Coming in from the bright sunlight, it took Sloanes eyes a moment to adjust to dimness as she shoved her sunglasses up onto her head. The air felt dank and close. In the mix of odors that assaulted her nose there was the stench of stale smoke, drowned char, of burned concrete and gasoline. Their footsteps echoed as though they were in a cave. Nick stepped in behind her. The back of her neck prickled in sudden awareness. Then the room became shrouded in shadow as he closed the door. Sloane forced her attention to the space in front of her, away from the soft sound of his breath. She blinked, then blinked again. The scene in front of her was weirdly disorienting, like a surrealist painting or a scene from a psycho movie. There was much that was familiar, but the context bewildered. The space looked like an ordinary living room, if one discounted the fact that the walls and furniture were completely encrusted with soot. There were the familiar shapes of a couch and a coffee table, but instead of rugs, the center of the floor was piled high with gasoline-soaked wood. It was like something out of an arsonists daydreamor a firefighters nightmare. Well, the color schemes simple enough, she said dryly. Black on black. Nick stood motionless by the door, watching her as she moved about the room. The training people like to simulate a real-life situation as much as possible, he murmured. The furnitures heavy-gauge sheet steel. Watch yourself, by the way. This stuff is coated with soot an inch thick. The furniture was absolutely matte black, sucking up all the available light, baffling the eye. It looked both soft as velvet and absolutely solid. Sloane couldnt resist touching it with her fingertip. She gave a surprised laugh when her finger sank in to the second knuckle, sending soot cascading down in small avalanches. I warned you, Nick pointed out mildly. Empirical method. Sloane tried unobtrusively to shake the soot off her fingers. I have to experiment and observe. Im a scientist, its part of my profession. She caught the quick gleam of teeth as he smiled. Nick pulled a rag from his back pocket and tossed it to her. Good thing you wore a black sweater. You ought to do a study sometime of the migration and breeding patterns of soot. Youd be amazed at how much of your clothing that little bit will cover. Sloane gave a scrub or two to her hands and handed it back to him. Maybe Ill turn into one of those people who write fan letters to the detergent companies. Maybe. He frowned and stepped forward with the cloth. Before she knew what he was about, hed touched it to her cheekbone. Sloane jerked back. Hold still for a minute. Youve got soot on your face. You dont want to look like Tom Brady on game day, do you? She felt the touch of the fabric, the heat of his finger beneath. The heat of his body. He was too near, she thought, too solid, too hard to ignore. Are you done yet? She glanced up and locked eyes with him and the words caught in her throat. His gaze was intent, as if he were trying to see through her skin. His eyes looked hot and dark. The silence stretched out. Well, thats all we can do here. Come on, he said abruptly, moving to the far side of the room. If you like interior design, theres more to see. It was time to get out of this close, dark room. She didnt want to react to his presence so strongly, Sloane thought as they started down the interior stairs. She didnt seem to be able to help it. In the stairwell, sunlight spilled through an open door high above. Light and shadow, bright and dark. They climbed the stairs in sync, shoulder to shoulder in silence broken only by the hollow ring of footsteps echoing off the cinder block walls, the whisper of hands sliding on the railings, the almost imperceptible rhythm of breath. Is this the first time youve been in one of these? Sloane jumped at Nicks voice. Yes. I didnt expect it to be like this. Are things usually the way you expect? Youre not. Often enough. They came to a landing and stepped through a door into another burn room. Light streamed in through the empty window cutout and Sloane breathed a sigh of relief. There would be no repeat of the shadowed intimacy of the room downstairs, no repeat of the closeness of the stairwell. It should have helped. It didnt, especially when she saw the furniture. The master bedroom, of course. Her voice sounded stilted and strange in her own ears. Her mouth was dry. Silly. Not much sleeping goes on in here. Sloane walked to the window to lean out of the open cutout, immensely conscious of every movement, every breath. I didnt realize we were so high up, she murmured. The tower doesnt look that big from the ground. Its a lot higher when youre hanging off it on a rope. No thanks. I hate heights. Sloane started to turn away from the window, then gasped and jerked backward, knocking into Nick. His hands caught her shoulders automatically; he released her a moment later. But not before she absorbed the feel of his palms. Deep in her belly something clenched like a fist. Adrenaline, she told herself, that was all it was. Whether it was from Nicks touch or the thing shed seen, she couldnt tell. Because she didnt want to find out, she stared instead at the figure wedged between the bed and the wall. What in Gods name is that? That? Nick grinned. Thats Harvey. It lay flat on the concrete, dressed in turnouts and steel-toed boots, one arm stretched out plaintively toward her ankle. It was ridiculously thin and even in its reclining position was tall enough to have been instantly drafted by the NBA, had it only been alive. Harvey? Nick seemed to relax. Our search-and-rescue dummy. They stash him and his wife, Gladys, in here somewhere before they start the fires. When we send the crew in to search, theyd better come out with both of them. Harveys set up to weigh about as much as the average man. Feel. Nick reached past her to pick up the outstretched arm. He was near enough that she could catch the scent of male, near enough that she could see the play of muscle through his T-shirt as he bent over. She moved to step away but a stray piece of wood from the fire pile caught her heel and she stumbled backward, arms out to brace against the wall behind her. And in a surge of terror felt only empty space. There were moments of absolute clarity in life. One minute Nick was bending down over Harvey, glad of something to do, the next, Sloanes cry was ringing in his ears. There was no pause for thought, no time for horror. Operating only on reflex, he surged up toward the window cutout even as Sloanes feet left the floor. Pulling her back in to safety took a flicker of a second. For an instant there was only adrenaline. Then he swept her to him, holding her tightly. There was nothing there. Sloanes voice wavered. I just backed up and there was nothing there. Four stories. Four stories down. His mind repeated it like a litany of horror. And at the bottom, solid concrete. Its all right, Nick whispered, as much to himself as her. I caught you. Youre safe now. Youre safe. Hed saved lives before. The amazement and rush were familiar, but no close call had ever shaken him this much. All the fragrant luxuries of her, the precious individuality, so fragile and so very nearly snuffed out. She was alive now, though, wondrously, completely alive. Hed had no idea how right she would feel in his arms, close enough that he could feel her heart beating against his chest. For a moment, there was only the soft feathering of her breath over his neck, the silkiness of her hair against his cheek. He heard her sigh, then her body seemed to melt into his. There was a shout and the sound of footsteps clattering up the stairs. Nick pulled away, staring at Sloane, who looked as shaken as he felt. Then OHanlan and Knapp burst into the room. My God, are you all right? OHanlan turned to Nick. Jesus, Trask, what happened? We turned around and there she was hanging half out the window. Sloane sounded calm, looked calm unless you noticed how rigidly shed clasped her hands together. I tripped. Good thing Nick was here. OHanlan studied her with concerned eyes. Youre sure youre okay? You scared the life out of us. I nearly scared the life out of myself. Sloane glanced over at Nick, as though unable to help herself. He knew how she felt. He hadnt caught up with what had just happened himself, knew only that it had started something, a drumbeat in his head that made the idea of professional detachment toward her a joke. Lets get downstairs, he said brusquely. It replayed in her mind over and over as they descended the tower. The whole thing had taken a matter of seconds. Shadow, then harsh sunlight, then a glimpse of blue sky as shed rocked outside the building. And there had been terror, blinding terror. It had seemed like hours before her heart had begun beating again. The solid ground under her feet came as a relief. Sloane couldnt understand why it was only then that she started to tremble, first her hands, then her whole body. The men milled about nearby, talking idly, staring over at her. She took a deep breath and willed the shakes away. If she just ignored it, she thought with a tinge of desperation, maybe she could manage. Nick walked up and looked at her carefully. Do you need some time to get calmed down? he asked. To her utter horror she felt tears threaten. For a ridiculous instant, she wanted only to be held by him again. Instead, she laced her fingers together to still their trembling and took a deep breath. Im fine. She attempted to smile. Lets get started. The gears in my trunk. Nick studied her and shook his head decisively. Give me your keys and go sit down for a couple of minutes, he instructed. Dont order me around, she returned. Im Look, dont argue, Nick said sharply. I dont care how tough you are, anyone would need a couple of minutes to recover from a scare like that. His voice softened. Weve got plenty of time. Ill get a couple of the guys to bring the gear over and then we can go to it. Now sit. He paused. Please? Sloane perched on the step of the ladder truck and gradually the wobbliness went out of her muscles. It was a relief to feel like herself again and ready to get started. Before she did, though, she had something to take care of. She stood and dusted her hands off. Hey, Trask? Not Nick. Nick was far too personal now. Im ready to get rolling. Nick turned inquiringly and crossed over to her. You bounce back fast. Time to get it over with. She cleared her throat. Listen, I want to thank you for catching me in there. You saved my life. Im sorry if I was rude just now. She fumbled for words. I justthank you. He smiled then, clear and uncomplicated. Relax. Its in my job description. Come on, let me introduce you to the guys. He led her over to where the crew stood. Sloane, meet the guys from Ladder 67. This is Todd Beaulieu, Tommy Knapp, George OHanlan, our chauffeur, and Jim Sorensen, our probationary firefighter. Nick pointed to each of them quickly. This is Sloane Hillyard, from Exler. She designed the gear were testing and shes running the program, so listen up. Sloane picked up one of the Orienteer modules. Nice to meet you all. Youve gotten the briefing on the equipment. Basically, we use data from a couple of sources to track where you are in a building, so that your commanders and colleagues always know where to find you and you always know your way out. She paused. The equipment is easy enough to use, but Id like to demonstrate adjustments and operation first. Volunteers? There was silence while the men all looked at one another. OHanlan nudged Sorensen. You should do it, Red. Youre the probie. Sorensen hesitated and with a sound of exasperation, Nick stepped forward. Ill do it. Great. Sloane handed him a helmet and one of the breathing masks equipped with the sugar-cube-sized display module. Then she held up a flat black package about the size of a pack of cigarettes. This is the Orienteer data module. She slipped the webbed belt around Nicks waist and pulled it around until her fingers snugged up against the flat, ribbed muscles of his stomach. Sudden awareness rolled over her and she fumbled with the clasp. Shadow, then harsh sunlightthen the hard feel of his body pressed to hers. Ill get it, Nick said abruptly, pulling the strap from her hands. With a snick, the clasp locked. He put on the helmet and breathing mask. The belt pack sends a signal to a head-up display embedded in your mask so that you get a blue schematic projected on your faceplate over the background, Sloane murmured, a catch in her breath. The belt pack also communicates with the master unit at the outside command post so whoevers running the scene can monitor locations on an LCD. The belt packs a wireless unit, so it can go under your turnouts or even in your pocket. She found herself aware of every slight shift, every scent, every inch of his body. The switch on top triggers a distress alarm to all of the other units. It shows up on the display here. As she tapped the clear plastic of his breathing mask, her fingers brushed Nicks cheek. She glanced up involuntarily to find his eyes leveled straight at her. Even with the clear shell of the mask between them, the intensity of his gaze, the desire that flared for an instant stopped her words in her throat. If the pause was too long, she couldnt tell. For just that time, she was incapable of speaking. Sloane stepped back, too hastily. I think thats all. If anyone has any trouble with the fit, just ask me. Nick pulled off the mask. All right, guys. Were going to run this as a standard timed drill. Keep your mind on the gear, but lets remember that this is also a search-and-rescue exercise. Treat it like the real thing. OHanlan, Knapp, you guys take the top two floors, Beaulieu, Sorensen, you guys take the bottom two. By the book, guys, and lets get Harvey and Gladys while youre at it, okay? It was the scent she noticed first, the odor of burning wood drifting across on the breeze. Faint tendrils of smoke trickled from the top window. Knapp rubbed his hands together. Smell that, guys? Break out the hot dogs and marshmallows, were ready for a party now. With casual efficiency, the men donned the masks and modules and walked to the tower. Sloane saw them give a quick thumbs-up to Nick, then they plunged into the thick pall of smoke. Nick pulled on his turnouts, the thick yellow garments obscuring the lines of his body, to Sloanes reliefand a tiny, sneaky sense of unease that she didnt want to admit. Are you going in, too? Nick slipped on his gloves. Part of my job. I do it in all fires, unless theres no one else to supervise. He pulled on his gloves. Besides, I want to see what your work is worth. In full uniform he became anonymous, one of the ones who walked into hell. She could almost forget how hed looked at her. She wanted to, Sloane thought as he headed toward the tower. How very much she wanted to. There was a gut-level dread of fire in her that skittered around her already nervous stomach. It was a controlled situation, Sloane told herself, there was no need to be apprehensive. Still, where fire was involved no situation was ever really controlled. There was always the freak accident, the unexpected. Firefighting was a profession predicated on risk. And if you took enough risks, it stood to reason that sooner or later youd pay the price. Shed won the state science fair in high school, had graduated with honors from both college and grad school. Shed won research grants to develop the Orienteer. None of it had meant as much to her as the fact that her first live test had gone flawlessly. The crew had a suggestion or two, but overall it had been a success. Now she just needed more. Trask, Sloane called as OHanlan brought down the ladder. Nick headed toward her, his walk loose and athletic. Hed taken off his turnouts and wore only his gray sweat-darkened department T-shirt and blue pants. It wasnt fair that they looked so good on him. He looked at her inquiringly. What do you need? We should get back to the station. I wanted to talk with you about the upcoming schedule. She had to strain to be heard over the drone of the ladder motor. Its too noisy out here. Lets go into the observation tower. They climbed the steps of the squat tower that sat apart from the burn structure. Nick opened the door and let her go in ahead of him. The small room appeared to be entirely made up of windows overlooking the training ground. Water had streamed over the concrete and the tangle of hoses from the fire engine. Harvey and Gladys sprawled over behind the ladder truck, amid a pile of helmets and turnout coats, Halligan tools and six-foot-long ceiling hooks. It looks like a battleground from here, Sloane murmured. She didnt glance away as she spoke. It is a battleground. All fires are. Its a matter of winning before they claim any casualties. Sloane shook her head at the idea and turned. She wasnt prepared to find Nick so close behind her. Youre all crazy, you know. She raised her eyes to meet his. How can you walk into a burning building knowing youll face fire, injury, maybe even death? Nick shrugged. Im a firefighter. Its what I do. For a moment, Sloane was reminded of a statue of a Roman centurion shed once seen, strong, proud and utterly fearless. A quick, primitive wave of response rippled through her. She forced herself to breathe. I want to do one more testing session in a controlled environment. Weve gotten permission to burn down a condemned two-story unit in Roxbury in a week. Id like to run the crew through there, through a floor plan they dont know to get them used to relying on the Orienteer. We cant afford any more time off the street. His words were quick and final. Sloanes chin came up. Its not your choice, Trask. I want to be sure about this. And I want to keep my men from walking into a burning building if they dont have to. Why not do the second round of testing here? Because after one run through the burn tower, even I could navigate it through heavy smoke. She didnt bother to hide the sarcasm. And she didnt plan to take no for an answer. I want a better approximation to a real fire ground. Id think youd want that, too. Look, you know my concerns. And you know mine, she countered. We need to do the testing, period. One or two more days wont hurt. It wont hurt? His eyes were turbulent as hell smoke. Every minute were out of the firehouse, people are potentially at risk. Ladder 67 had eighty-two calls last week alone. If an alarm comes in for our company while were gone, they call in a truck from the next station over. He took a step closer and he was all she could see, all she was aware of. The next station is two miles away, five minutes under the best of conditions. Do you have any idea what a fire can do in five minutes? Do you know how long even a second is to a person whos trapped, waiting for a ladder? The blood drained from Sloanes face. Her eyes were on Nick but her gaze was within as she remembered talking with Mitchs crew chief. The flashover just took a second or two. If we could have found him, we could have saved him. We got there just after the flashover, but it was too late. With an effort, Sloane drew herself together. Im sorry about departmental policy, but we need to do this testing in the safest possible way. If everything goes well with the next round, Ill release the units to you to take on a fire ground. Its my decision, though, she warned him. Weve got to be sure everythings working flawlessly and the guys really understand what theyre doing. And the conversation needed to be over with, now. She brushed past him toward the door. Wait. Ive said everything I had to say. She was too close to the edge, Sloane thought desperately, way too close. Will you just hold on a minute? Nick pushed his hand against the door. Stop, dammit. What? Her voice was tight with tension. Youre right, okay? Im sorry. I was wrong. Its a fair decision. He caught Sloanes shoulder and turned her to face him. Because she hadnt had time to compose herself, she was still pale. Her eyes were huge. Nick looked at her slowly, carefully, feeling the pull begin again. This really matters to you, doesnt it? She looked as if she was holding herself together with sheer nerve. Of course. I want my design to work. Nick shook his head. Theres more going on than that. You care about this project too much. I care about doing my job, Sloane answered stiffly. Theres something going on here that doesnt have anything to do with the job. He was right, this wasnt about the job. It was about what had started in the tower and was moving out of her control with frightening speed. Perhaps you just have an overactive imagination, Sloane responded, fighting to keep her voice even. I dont know. Lets test it. Empirical method, he told her as he leaned in, sliding his fingers along her cheek. Experiment and observe. Youre out of your mind, Trask. Nick, he corrected softly, so close she could feel his mouth form the word. What? Call me Nick. Then his lips brushed hers. Sloane stilled at the contact. Warm, soft and unexpectedly gentle. The sensation didnt bowl her over but simply engulfed her like an ever-rising tide, deceptively calm, relentless in its power. For years, shed kept herself separate from everyone, for years shed shied away from a simple human touch. Now, her nerve endings hummed with forgotten sensations. A quick brush with the tip of his tongue, a nibble to tempt her, his exploration was unhurried and exquisite. She barely noticed as he slipped past her defenses and made her yearn. The subtle sounds of intimacy filled the small space of the tower: the whisper of skin against skin, the soft, involuntary noises of breath, of arousal. And the scent of desire rose around them. He knew she intrigued him. He hadnt expected the taste of her to trigger an immediate hunger for more. When she gave a soft sigh, he fought the sudden drive to go deeper, to find out if she carried the passionate urgency she brought to the project to all aspects of her life. He forced himself to go slowly instead, his touch gentle. She was like a fire smoldering in a closed room. He could sense the heat and power but couldnt find its source. The taste of her skin was maddening, her scent powerful enough to make him reel. He journeyed from the soft side of her throat back to her lips and suddenly the fire blazed as her mouth came to life under his. Sloane didnt know where the hunger came from, knew only that she was driven to taste, to savor, to revel in sensation. For too long, shed denied herself any contact. Now she searched for more, driven by the feel of his mouth and light brush of his hands over her skin. Desire flashed through her, hot as flame, threatening to overwhelm her entirely. A blast from the ladder trucks air horn made them jerk apart. Sloane returned to a rapid, flashing clarity. She stared at the scene outside, unable to tell whether any of the men were looking at the observation tower. Very funny, Trask. Was this some kind of a show for your men? She attempted to brush past where he stood, unmoving. Hardly. This tower is designed so people cant tell if theyre being watched. The windows are smoked so dark you cant see in with the lights on, much less off. Youd be the first to point out that designs dont always work as intended, Sloane said curtly. Now listen to me very carefully, Trask. Nick, he corrected. Just listen, Sloane snapped. It was terrifying, how easily hed slashed his way through the barriers shed surrounded herself with. She had to push him out. She had to escape before he knew how much she was at risk. I am here to do a job that is entirely dependent on the cooperation of your truck company. I will not have my credibility damaged in front of your men. It wasnt damaged. Her eyes flashed. It could have been. Youre interfering with my work. The testing was done for the day, Nick countered. Im on the job as long as Im on fire department property. Nick reached out to finger a stray curl of her hair. Next time Ill make sure were off department property, then. There was a hint of danger in his smile. It frightened her, because it made her want. There wont be a next time, Sloane flared, pushing past him. She paused, her hand on the doorknob. After all, Im just a tool for Ayre, right? Try to remind yourself of that every so often. Chapter Four The hands of the clock on the wall moved noiselessly, counting off minutes of quiet broken only by the faint tick of pencils, the rustle of paper. Ranks of men sat at the tables, bent over sheaves of paper. Some scribbled madly, some thoughtfully, some stared blankly into space as though answers might suddenly, magically appear in the air in front of them. The second hand made its inexorable sweep about the clock face. The precious minutes marched relentlessly by. The proctor at the front of the room cleared his throat. Time, gentlemen. Please stop writing and bring your papers up to the front. Nick glanced up, feeling as though he had just broken to the surface after a long dive into a deep pool. Over the past months he had packed his brain with an enormous amount of detail about firefighting, fire management, personnel management, equipment, building codes, construction, hazardous materials and department regulations. He could recite the pump pressure of the fire engine and the weight of each size of hose, both empty and filled. Without thinking he could list the flashpoints of gasoline, methanol, dry cleaning fluid and a host of other chemicals. He knew as much about Boston building codes as any building inspector. For nearly a year it had taken over his life. The hours of study had been worth it, though. The answers had been there when hed needed them. Now that it was over, he felt light-headed, as though the facts that had poured out onto the paper had had weight. He set his paper down on the stack at the front of the room and walked gratefully out into the quiet of the hallway at fire department headquarters, rubbing his neck to loosen the tense muscles. All done, he thought, and tried to take it in. For the first time in months he could relax without the voice of guilt reminding him he should be studying. Punching the elevator call button, he bounced a little on the balls of his feet, light with a growing sense of freedom. Maybe he could actually go out for a change, listen to some music, drink a few beers. A bell pinged and the elevator doors opened to allow him into the car. Hold the elevator. A voice from the hallway interrupted his thoughts, a voice he recognized with the impact of a fist in his solar plexus. Sloane Hillyard. Hed thought of her in the four days since the testing, oh, hed thought of her. Waving the ladder truck back into quarters after an alarm, sitting down to dinner with the crew, over and over hed found her on his mind. Hed remembered her scent as hed pored over statistics about building codes and fire standards. The memory of holding her against him had derailed his review of chemical reactions. Hed studied and he knew a thousand and one facts about firefighting strategies. He thought of Sloane Hillyard and he knew only one thing. That he wanted her. Sloane hurried down the hall toward the elevator, her mind on the clock and the relentless calendar. Shed just been through a morning that could have won awards for lack of productivity. She could only hope the afternoon would be better. Ahead of her, the elevator doors opened back up. A sign, she thought. Something, at least, was going right. And then she stepped into the elevator. Hey. Nick smiled at her lazily, leaning against one wall of an otherwise empty car that suddenly seemed very small. He wore a leather bomber jacket over a rough-weave blue shirt and khakis. Shed gotten familiar with the look of him in his departmental T-shirt and trousers. This was the first time shed seen him in civvies. She wasnt at all prepared for the impact. They made him look leaner, rangier and subversively sexy. Going to the lobby? Nicks hand hovered over the lighted buttons of the control panel as the car started to move. Better decide quick. The lobby, please. She stood next to him, immensely conscious of his eyes on her. After their last interlude, shed resolved to put him out of her mind, which had worked about as well as the childhood game of not thinking of elephants. Still, just because she couldnt stop thinking of the kiss didnt mean she had anything to worry about. After all, how long had it been since shed locked lips with a guy? Of course shed overreacted. She probably would have with anyone. It was simply a physical response to an extremely attractive man, shed told herself. Physical hunger was something she could recognize. Physical craving was something she could ignore. . . , (https://www.litres.ru/pages/biblio_book/?art=39925130&lfrom=390579938) . Visa, MasterCard, Maestro, , , , PayPal, WebMoney, ., QIWI , .
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