Kennadee Wilde drove the windy road back to Heartbreak, Alaska. She’d just seen the doctor in Fairbanks for a check up on her dislocated shoulder. While he’d told her, she could lose the sling, he hadn’t okayed her return to work, which pissed her off. Granted, being a firefighter required that she be in top physical shape. The rational part of her understood the need to take it easy and give her body time to heal, but the other part of her dreaded the upcoming weeks of doing nothing. She wasn’t good at having too much time on her hands. She liked to work, needed to stay busy or she was bound to get into trouble.
Break Up—the Alaskan term for spring—had arrived in a violent mood of rivers rushing, waterfall snow melts and buds bursting free on the birch trees. The warmer temperatures and longer days had her itching to be out in it, celebrating the coming of summer. Summer was her busiest time of year, as she spent most of it smoke jumping all over the state fighting wildfires. So, it was spring that really enchanted her. She could take time to enjoy the short season, more so this year than she’d planned, unfortunately.
She steered around a wicked bend in the road, automatically slowing down. A Tahoe in the oncoming lane suddenly swerved to avoid a bear and her two cubs moseying across the blacktop. The Tahoe swerved, lost control, hitting the soft shoulder, and rolled down the embankment.
Kennadee hit her brakes.
Screeching to a stop, she grabbed her phone and dialed 911 while she bolted across the road, hoping the noise of the accident had scared off mamma bear so she wouldn’t have to deal with her and her cubs along with whoever was in the Tahoe.
“Nine-one-one, what’s your emergency?” a woman answered, her voice calm and comforting.
“This is off-duty firefighter Kennadee Wilde from Heartbreak. There’s a roll off near mile marker thirty-three,” she relayed, scrambling down the embankment to assess the condition of the driver. “Send an ambulance.”
She didn’t bother staying on the line, pocketing her phone. Mile marker thirty-three was roughly halfway between Fairbanks and Heartbreak. An ambulance would be twenty to thirty minutes away at best.
A copse of black spruce had brought the rolling Tahoe to a stop, where it perched precariously. The roots of the trees weren’t anchored deep in the permafrost ground and wouldn’t hold the weight of the Tahoe for long. Once they gave, the SUV would continue its downhill cartwheel into the rushing river below.
If she didn’t get the occupant or occupants out of the vehicle before then, they wouldn’t survive the icy water swollen with the spring runoff.
Brush and branches tore at her clothes and the exposed skin of her arms and face. She’d taken off her coat as it was too warm with the sun shining through the windshield of her old beater pickup.
Sliding down the torn underbrush and soggy ground, she reached the vehicle. The door was bashed in, the windshield shattered, and the airbag deployed. A man lay back against the seat, held there by the airbag and steering wheel, blood seeping from a head wound. She scanned the rest of the vehicle, grateful to find only the driver inside. Thank God, there were no kids in the backseat. She tried the door, but it was crushed in from the roll and wouldn’t budge.
She knocked on the window. No response. Searching at her feet for a pointy rock, she found one and busted the window behind the driver’s door. “Sir, can you hear me?” She reached in and unlocked and opened the door, crawling into the backseat. She felt the pulse at his neck, relieved to find it strong and steady. Good.
A tree trunk snapped, and the Tahoe lurched forward. She grabbed the back of his seat to steady herself.
Shit, she had to get him free before the SUV tumbled the rest of the way down the slope. She’d prefer to wait for the ambulance since she didn’t want to injure the man more by moving him. But time was against them both.
He moaned and lifted his head.
“Sir, can you tell me your name?”
“Gideon,” he rasped out. “My name’s Gideon.”
“Can you move your legs, Gideon?”
“I-I think so.”
“We need to get out of the car.” She reached around him and unclicked his seatbelt. He hollered as her hand brushed his side. “Can you tell me where you hurt?”
“Everywhere.” He wiped at his eyes, the side of his face that she could see from the backseat showed powder burns from the airbag. “I-I can’t see. Why can’t I see?” The question ended on a high pitch.
“Don’t panic. I need you to stay calm. An ambulance is on the way, but we need to get out of the car now.” The Tahoe shifted again, and another spruce splintered.
He turned toward her. Blood trailed down his face from a cut on his forehead that would require stitches, and he looked as if he had a possible broken nose.
“Take my hand,” she ordered. He felt around for her, and she grasped his hand in hers. “Your door is caved in. I need you to climb into the backseat. Can you do that for me?” She prayed he could or she didn’t know how she’d get him out before the Tahoe gave up its perch.
He shifted slowly in his seat, feeling his way with his other hand, and inched toward her. “Keep talking. I can’t see anything.”
“I’ve never had a good-looking man ask me to keep talking,” she said, trying to keep the mood light and calm. “Most men usually want to shut me up.” As he got closer, she grabbed his other arm and pulled him toward her, finally getting him into the backseat.
“You have a smoky voice,” he said, breathing hard. “Reminds me of this girl I once dated, but yours is deeper. I like it. Very sexy.”
“You can’t be hurt that bad if you’re handing out compliments.” She stepped out of the vehicle still holding his hand. The Tahoe slid and she refused to let him go, pulling him free. He fell on top of her in the mud. She lay there under him, trying to catch her breath. Relief hitting her hard enough to cause her to feel dizzy. Damn, that had been close.
“Are you okay?” he asked, rising above her on his elbows.
“I need to be asking you that question.” She smiled. He was indeed a very good-looking man even in his injured state. He was tall with thick hair the color of hazelnuts. He had a strong, square jaw, and the warmest brown eyes she’d ever seen. They blinked unseeingly at her, causing her to worry. “Let’s take a look at you.”
She needed to assess his condition and then climb back up to the road so the ambulance could find them. Just having her truck parked alongside the road wouldn’t be enough of a signal. Trucks were always parked along the roadside in Alaska by fishermen, hunters, and hikers.
“I need my bag.” He rolled off her, grimacing in pain, and tried to stand.
He wasn’t going to try and get back in the Tahoe, was he? What was he thinking?
“Nothing inside the car is worth your life.” She gently forced him to lay on the ground. “You need to lay here and let me look at you.”
“You don’t understand. I have test samples in my bag.” He started to get agitated, and she laid her hands on his shoulders, trying to calm him. “I need the bag,” he stressed again.
“I need you to breathe for me and stay calm. Can you do that?”
“Yes, but I need that bag.”
She glanced back to the deathtrap, not believing she was going back in there for a damn thing. “Where did you last see it?” She winced, knowing she shouldn’t have reminded him that he couldn’t see anything.
“It was on the passenger seat.”
“Promise me that you will stay right here and not move.” The last thing she needed was for him to stumble around and hurt himself worse. She took a deep breath, facing down the Tahoe. It was no worse than running into a burning building, she told herself.
Standing on the running boards, she looked inside the Tahoe, not seeing the bag.
“It’s a medical bag. Big and black,” Gideon said from behind her.
“Should be easy to find then.” And helpful in their situation. She had a basic first aid kit in the truck. She really needed to upgrade that. Climbing into the SUV, she inched toward the front. There on the floorboards on the passenger side next to the door lay the bag. Getting to it would be tricky. Her added weight on that side of the vehicle could be what pushed it over the embankment.
“Here goes nothing,” she muttered, climbing onto the console and reaching down for the leather handle. Another tree splintered sounding like a gunshot. The noise nearly had her tumbling forward headfirst.
Grabbing one of the handles with her fingertips, and straining her sore shoulder further, she pulled the bag toward her, already moving back toward the door. She cleared the vehicle just as it gave up its perch and plummeted to the rushing river below, the crunch of crushing metal and glass deafening as it echoed around the valley, followed by a huge splash. It rocked once, twice, and then sunk. Only the two feet of the top showed as it anchored near a dam of fallen trees.
Gideon hollered for her. She turned to find him on his feet, his arms reaching out in front of him.
“I’m fine. I can’t believe you talked me into going back in there. And I have your damn bag.” Why the hell had she’d actually gone in after it? Dying in a car crash was not how she planned to go out of this world.
He slumped to the ground with obvious relief, his hand holding his side. “I’m sorry I made you do that. But thank you.”
“What’s so important about this bag?” She needed to know why she’d risked her life for a piece of leather. Risking her life for another person went with the job, and she got off on saving lives, but risking it for a material possession was a first for her.
“Test samples from a little girl. I was driving them to the lab in Fairbanks. I didn’t want her to suffer me having to take them again, if I could have helped it, but I never should have asked you to do that. I’m sorry, I’m not thinking straight.” He reached up and rubbed at his eyes again.
“Are you a doctor?” Her heart melted at his story. Not wanting to cause a little girl more suffering elevated him from not only good-looking, but to a man with good character too. She appreciated both in the men she casually dated.
“Good. We could use one about now. Let’s get you checked out then. Lay down for me.”
“I think I’m okay, other than the head injury and not being able to see, most likely due from the powder of the air bag. Though I have this pain in my side. Maybe a broken rib?” He said all of this matter-of-factly, but Kennadee heard the underlying panic in his voice.
“For now, you’re my patient. I’ll be the judge of that.”
“And, pray tell, what is your training?” he asked skeptically.
“You have been lucky enough to have been saved by not only a firefighter but also a recently licensed EMT.”
“My lucky day, indeed,” he smirked. “You forgot to mention your sexy voice.”
“Save your flirting for the nurses.” She pushed aside his suit jacket and went to work on unbuttoning his moss-green dress shirt. “Good thing you were wearing your seatbelt.” His chest already showed bruising from the force of the belt keeping him in his seat. The bruising was intense, but more worrying was the discoloration spreading under the skin, indicating that he might have internal bleeding. She tenderly felt around his ribs, stopping when he gasped. They needed to get him to a hospital—fast. She turned her attention to the cut on his forehead. The bleeding had slowed, but like all head wounds, it had bled enough to make Gideon look like he’d been in a horror film.
“Do you have a headache?” she asked, bending over him, checking his eyes.
“Wow, you smell good. Like a meadow blooming with fireweed on a hot summer’s day.”
“Headache? Do you have one?” she asked again, ignoring his comment.
“Yes. I have a concussion, which could be causing the temporary blindness too.” While he’d delivered the line as a statement, the tone didn’t sell it, and she knew he was worried the blindness wasn’t temporary.
Tearing into his medical bag, she found gauze and tape and quickly bandaged the cut on his forehead and then she heard the faint siren of the ambulance in the distance. Thank God. “I hear the ambulance. I need to climb up and meet them. Don’t move.”
He grabbed at her, and finding her hand, held on. “You’ll return?”
“As soon as I can. Promise.” She didn’t know why she did it, but she leaned down and kissed his cheek, surprising them both. Then she climbed up the slope and was greeted by a firetruck screaming around the bend, leading the procession of an ambulance and Alaska State Trooper.