The fire engine screams as we race through a residential neighborhood. In the distance, angry flames lick the night sky. On arrival, smoke pours through most of the upper windows. I grab a ladder and head toward the house.
“Has anyone checked inside?”
“It’s clear,” another fireman yells.
I set the ladder against the house. As I turn to head back to get a hose, I hear a faint scream. I freeze. Above the crackle of flames, I hear it again. Someone’s inside.
“There’s a survivor,” I yell. “Sounds like it’s coming from the top floor, rear window. I’m checking it out.”
More sirens wail as I climb the ladder. When I reach the window, I come face to face with a terrified female, late twenties or early thirties, with blonde hair and terrified green eyes.
“Can you open the window?” I yell.
“No. It’s painted shut.”
I can hardly make out her words over the cacophony of sounds. Painted shut windows are more common than I ever expected before starting this job five years ago. I don’t know why the hell people do it, but it could get them killed.
“Step back. I’m breaking the glass.”
I hold up my hatchet. Her eyes go wide as she stumbles back. She glances behind her at the door. Black smoke slithers under the door and across the ceiling. We only have seconds before that door gives.
With my head gear in place, I smash the hatchet through the glass. It shatters. I sweep the remaining glass away with my gloved hand.
She races toward me. I hoist her over my shoulder and carry her down the ladder. The moment my foot touches the floor, the house explodes. Wood siding smashes us against the earth. I’m on top of her, protecting her from the worst of it, as shards of glass rain down along with chunks of drywall and wood.
The second the smoke clears, I roll off of her. She’s laying still. Too still. I rip off my glove and press two fingers to her neck. Her pulse is faint, but steady.
The paramedics run through a blazing debris field. When they reach us, I point to the female.
“She was conscious until the house exploded.”
“Probably passed out from smoke inhalation,” the medic says.
I nod. As they start working on her, I step back. A police officer runs over. It’s my brother Jeff.
“Are you okay?” he asks. “Your team spotted propane tanks. They tried to get the hell out, but the whole place blew.”
“Is everyone okay?” My gaze whips toward the house.
“Benton’s in an ambulance. It’s bad.”
“Shit. Anyone else?”
“Jackson’s on the way to ICU. He’s got a piece of fucking rebar through his ribs.”
“How the fuck—”
“He was right next to the propane when it blew. They were in the downstairs bathroom.”
“At least five containers too,” he says.
“That would be my guess. Why would someone have a bunch of propane in the bathroom?”
“The EMTs are working on the survivor,” I say.
“You saved her life. One minute later and she would have been killed.”
“I’m going with them to the hospital. Let me know when the fire’s out.”
“We’re probably going to let it burn. They’ve got hoses on the neighbor’s houses, so they should be fine.”
“The burn marks on the sides would indicate otherwise,” he says.
“That’s cosmetic. Good thing the houses are spaced apart though, or they would have been taken down in the blast.”
“We’re ready,” a medic calls to my brother.
“Time to ride.”
“I’ll text you later.”
After my brother leaves, I join the rest of the team. I can’t get the haunted look in the woman’s eyes out of my head. It breaks my heart every time I see a terrified survivor because it makes me think about the ones who don’t survive.
I shake my head to clear the depressing thoughts. It’s something I struggle with, but I’ve been trying to stay positive. Life’s too short to dwell on all the bad. I turned thirty earlier this summer. No point in saddling myself with unnecessary misery.
It takes hours before the house is reduced to a pile of embers. Red coals flicker. The occasional flame flares before quickly dying. Although I’m focused on my job, I can’t stop thinking about the woman.
The chief tells me I can head home. I walk to the back of the truck and sit on the step. I pull off my head gear and gloves. Someone hands me a bottle of cool water. I guzzle it.
Shades of blue paint the sky, heralding the coming sunrise. It’s been one hell of a night, but I’m not ready to go home yet. I’m still thinking about the woman.
I text my brother.
How’s the survivor?
It takes several minutes before he responds.
Awake but scared. She thinks her ex tried to kill her.
Should I come down there?
Why? he replies.
I don’t know how to respond. I don’t know why I want to follow up on this particular woman, but I do.
I just want to check on her, I text.
She’s hot, but I wouldn’t get involved with this one. Her ex sounds like a psycho.
Now I’m intrigued. If it was arson and her ex was somehow involved, then she’s not safe. I can’t help but think about Penny. It’s been three years since I lost my fiancée. I wasn’t home to protect her. I was at work. But I can’t let it go. I should have been there.
It’s none of my business, but I need to make sure this woman is okay. I text Jeff and tell him I’m coming. At first, he doesn’t respond, but he knows I can’t let this go.
I’ll add your name to the approved list, he texts. I’m taking off. I get that you want to see that she’s okay, but after that, leave. Trust me on this one.
I grab a ride with one of the other guys heading back to the station. After a quick shower, I change into jeans and a t-shirt.
My hair’s still wet when I arrive at the hospital. She’s on the third floor in the burn unit. Although she didn’t have any outward sign of burns, her lungs could have been affected. I stop at the nurses’ station.
“I’m here for the female who came in from the house fire.”
“Name?” She gives me a look that says if you’re not on this list, I’m going to nail your ass to the floor.
As she scans the list, her scowl deepens then relaxes.
“She’s in 308, down the hall to the right. Check in with the officer to get an approved visitor’s badge.”
I head down the hall. She’s not my responsibility, and normally I never obsess about survivors, only about those who didn’t make it, so I don’t know why I care so much. I think it was the look in her eyes. Pure terror. Beyond what I’d normally see from someone trapped in a house fire. Her terror was deeper, more intense. I’m not surprised they suspect arson, but it sounds like it could be more than that. It could be attempted murder.
After greeting the officer and getting the visitor’s badge, I step into the room. The past comes back like a battering ram to hit me square in the chest. Penny. Lying in bed, broken, hooked up to every machine necessary to maintaining a life. Only, hers was already gone. Brain-dead from asphyxiation.
I have to shake my head to get the image of Penny out of it. The woman lying on the bed isn’t my fiancée. She’s not near death. She’s awake, and terror still darkens her stunning features. I shouldn’t be thinking about how she looks, but it’s impossible to ignore her beauty.
Golden blond hair peppered with soot lays in a halo around her head. Eyes the color of grass after a spring rain lock onto my face before sweeping down to take in the rest of me. Plump pink lips form a slight smile.
She’s gorgeous. No wonder I wanted to see her. Her beauty must have registered somewhere in my reptilian brain while I was rescuing her. Maybe that’s why I felt compelled to check on her.
“You probably don’t remember me…”
“Yes.” I perk up more than I should. I’m trying to keep my emotions in check, but the present is mixed up with the past. “My name’s Logan.”
“You rescued me.” Her eyes light up and my heart flips in my chest. She’s even more stunning when she smiles.
“How are you feeling?”
“Tired. My lungs hurt. They keep making me do breathing treatments, but it’s hard enough to take a shallow breath, let alone a deep one.”
“It will take time for your lungs to heal.”
“I know... It’s just…” Her eyes take on a glassy sheen as she looks away. Her voice drops to a whisper. “Do you think someone set the fire intentionally?”
“That’s what it looks like.”
“I heard your ex might be involved.”
“Brock. We’re divorced. At least we are on paper. In his mind, it’s till death do us part. I guess he’s finally taking it literally.”
“How long have you been divorced?” I take a seat next to her bed. I suppress the urge to reach for her hand to comfort her.
“Do you have a restraining order?”
“Yes, the cops know all of this already. Are you helping with the investigation?”
She grips the blanket and pulls it closer to her chin. Fear returns. My heart breaks for her. How long has she been living in terror?
“I don’t know how he found me,” she whispers.
“He doesn’t know where you live?”
“I moved. Three times since the divorce. He always finds me. I don’t know how, but he does.”
My fists clench. I’d like to find him and pound his face into the ground. This wouldn’t be the first time I’ve beaten the shit out of a man since losing Penny. Jeff keeps telling me that I need to learn to control my rage, but he doesn’t understand the hell I went through—the hell I’m still going through. I should have been home that night.
I shouldn’t be here. Getting mixed up in an investigation will rip open all the wounds I’d spent three years trying to close. It’s not worth my sanity, even if I do want to help her.
“I just wanted to make sure you’d be okay,” I say.
“I’ll let you get some rest.” I stand. Before I can stop myself, I pull a business card from my wallet. “If you need anything, call me.”
“Do you normally give your card out to women being hunted by their exes?” The corner of her mouth quirks. The tension in my body eases.
“Only the pretty ones.” The edge of my mouth tugs into a half-smile. I’m trying to make light of it, but my heart is devoid of any happiness.
“Thank you.” A shy smile spreads across her face. She sets the card on the small tray hanging over the edge of the bed. She’ll probably throw it out without giving it a second glance. But at least I tried.
As I head for the door, one thought lodges in my mind—I hope she calls. It’s stupid and irrational. The last thing I need is more trouble. But I can’t help it. She’s in danger, and I want to do something to help protect her. But what?
What the hell can I do? Put out fires, sure, but she’s going to need a hell of a lot more than that. Her ex needs to be caught, tried, and convicted. I have no doubt it had to be him. A woman that sweet couldn’t possibly have other enemies. I just hope the police find him before he tries to kill her again.