Tim Holden slammed a gloved hand into the heavy bag. It rocked to the left. He hit it with his left fist and it swung to the right. He followed up with two left jabs and a right hook.
“You takin’ out your frustrations, Lieutenant?” asked Grant, one eyebrow arched as he slid a gym bag into his locker.
Tim grunted and hit the bag again. “You on shift today?”
Grant nodded. “Yep, just clocking in now. You?”
Tim glanced at the wall. Beside the words ATLANTA FIRE DEPARTMENT – STATION 16 hung a slightly askew metal clock. It was close to eight a.m. He’d completed a twenty-four hour shift, then worked out. It was time to head home. “I’m almost done. Just clearing out the cobwebs.” He grinned.
Sirens sounded throughout the station. Tim cocked his head to one side, waiting for the call-out information. The radio squawked: “Possible gas leak reported to 911 operator by employee at the Georgia Times Building, 3624 Peachtree Road.”
Tim untied his gloves and set them in the basket with the ragged pile of red-and-white boxing gloves they all shared. He hurried to his locker, took out a navy uniform and put it on, pulled on his yellow turnout pants and jacket and tugged on his boots. He was bathed in sweat from boxing and at the tail end of a long shift, but it didn’t matter – he had a job to do, along with the twenty other men who either hadn’t clocked out yet or had just arrived for their shift. They didn’t talk about the call-out – they didn’t need to. Every one of them knew what they had to do.
And since the shift manager hadn’t arrived for a handover yet, Tim would have to ride with them.
“You drivin’?” shouted Grant, as he climbed into the passenger seat of Tower One, the station’s ladder truck.
Tim slapped on his hat even as he ran for the driver’s side. “Sure am. That okay with you?”
Grant grinned. “Of course. I’m always happy to have my life flash before my eyes.”
Tim grinned and climbed into the driver’s seat, slamming the door shut. He glanced in the side mirror, watching the rest of the crew load up in the cab behind him save for one in the rear. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re safer than a baby in a crib when I’m driving.” He cranked the engine, waited for the man out front to give him the all-clear, then edged the truck forward.
The fire station fronted onto a narrow road and only experienced drivers were able to pull out in one turn – the others had to ride shotgun until they could make it. He leaned over the steering wheel and turned it quickly, sending the truck in a wide sweeping curve and onto the lane. He checked his side mirrors to make sure the length of the truck didn’t scrape the fencing that ran along the right hand side.
“You make it look so easy,” complained Grant, his hand tight on the grab handle above his head.
Tim turned the truck onto the main road as Grant flipped on the sirens and lights. “You’ll get it soon enough. Just takes practice.” They had to shout to be heard over the noise.
“Where are we headed?” yelled one of the men in the back of the cab.
“Georgia Times building,” shouted Tim. Even as he said it, his stomach roiled. He knew the building well. His family owned the Atlanta Chronicle, and the Georgia Times was their main rival for both circulation and breaking stories. Both newspapers were family-owned and had vied for second place behind the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for years. Tim had opted out of the dynasty, preferring to forge his own path.
But his father and brother still ran the business his grandfather built and had a tense relationship with the Beluga family, owners of the Times. Maybe none of them would see him there today, if he was lucky. He didn’t feel like a confrontation. All he wanted to do was finish this call-out, head back to the station for a shower and home to bed. It had been a long day and between car accidents, domestic disputes and arson, he’d had just about all the drama he could take.
He pulled the truck to a stop in front of the building and killed the engine and siren. Lights still flashing, he and Grant climbed out of the truck. Within minutes the crew had donned oxygen tanks, masks, helmets and gloves and were ready to head into the building.
Another fire truck was already there, parked across from them. He walked toward Chad, a lieutenant from Station 14, who stood beside the truck, a cell phone against his ear. Chad hung up and grinned at Tim. “Lieutenant Holden – good to see y’all here.”
“How’s it going? You figured it out already?”
Chad nodded. “Yeah, we found the leak and got people on the way to work on it, but we could really use your help clearing all the floors.”
Tim scanned the outside of the building. A group of harried-looking businesspeople stood in clusters around the garden and across the street from the building. “Looks like they evacuated okay.”
Chad grunted. “Just protocol, but we gotta make sure everyone’s out.”
“Got it. We’ll get started on that now.”
“Great. If you can do the bottom floors and move up, my guys have already started at the top and are working their way down. You should meet in the middle somewhere.”
Tim walked back to his team, who were waiting for orders. He relayed the plan and they all set off toward the building’s entrance.
* * *
Tim ran up the stairs two at a time, stopping at the door marked FLOOR 8 to catch his breath. When he opened the door, the gas smell wasn’t as strong as it was in the stairwell, which was a good sign. He hadn’t come across any wayward office workers yet – so far, everyone had evacuated as they were supposed to.
He marched across the office space, divided by cubicles into smaller pieces. Each desk was littered with papers, pens and half-eaten breakfasts. Laptops sat open and coats hung on the backs of chairs that had been pushed out in a hurry and left there. So far, so good.
A noise in the corner near a line of offices with tall glass windows caught his attention – a shuffling sound, like papers being rifled. He hurried toward it, and as he rounded the corner he saw a woman at a desk, hunched over a laptop, typing frantically on the keyboard. She pushed a pair of round black glasses up the bridge of her button nose and resumed her typing. “Excuse me? Miss?”
She spun around in her chair and gasped. “Oh, hi. Sorry, I know I’m supposed to evacuate, but look …” She waved toward the open expanse of office behind him. “No fire. So I’m safe. Thank you for checking.”
He couldn’t help looking her over – cute brown bun piled on top of her head, peaches-and-cream complexion, fashionable suit that hugged her neat curves. His brow furrowed. He really couldn’t stand when people decided to ignore the rules and make their own, putting him and the rest of his crew in danger. “Miss, you can’t be here. It’s not a fire, it’s a gas leak, and we’re still working on resolving it. It’s time for you to evacuate. Now!” He set his hands on his hips and waited for her to move.
She pushed her glasses up again and smiled.
“Oh, right, sorry. Gas leak, huh? Just my luck. Um … tell you what. Give me ten minutes and I’ll be out of your hair, I promise.”
He rolled his eyes. Of all the … “Sorry, Miss, I can’t give you ten minutes. You’ve got to leave now. Everyone else in the building is already standing outside in the designated evacuation zones. That’s where you should be as well. Is what you’re doing so important you’d risk your life to finish it?”
Her head tipped to one side and she made a face. “Um …”
He grunted. “Okay, fine. Is it so important you’d risk mine?”
Her finely shaped eyebrows arched high and her mouth fell open. “Uh …” Her eyes darted to the laptop screen. “It’s just that I have to finish this story. I’m on a deadline and if I don’t get it done the Chron will scoop us again. I know you probably don’t care about that, but it’s a big deal. Trust me.” She returned to typing.
Tim’s eyes narrowed. She couldn’t be serious – of all the entitled, selfish … never mind. He reached her in two steps, picked her up by the waist, threw her over his shoulder and around the back of his neck in a fireman’s hold, and jogged toward the exit.
She wriggled and cried out. “Hey, put me down! You can’t do this! Okay, okay, I get it, you want me to evacuate. I’ll evacuate, just let me down!”
“You had your chance,” he replied. “Now quit your hollering – I’m not going to endanger my team for your article.”
She huffed and went still. He grinned as he carried her down the stairs. Thank Heaven she didn’t weigh much more than the backpacks he trained with. Before long he’d reached ground level and exited the building. He set her feet down on the grass. “Now stay!” he commanded.
She pushed her glasses back up again and glared at him. “I am not a dog!”
He chuckled and patted her on the head. “Good girl.” Then he turned and ran back toward the ladder truck to check on the rest of the crew. He could feel her anger aimed at his retreating back, and grinned again – he had to admit, she’d looked mighty cute with her glasses half falling off and her eyes burning with rage. Maybe he had more issues than he’d realized if he found himself so attracted to a woman who obviously hated him. He sighed inwardly.
Grant stepped out of the truck, chugging a bottle of water.
“Hey,” said Tim. “I heard over the radio that they fixed the gas leak. That right?”
Grant nodded, his sunglasses pushed up onto his forehead where they almost always sat. “Yep, it’s done. They’re doing safety checks now.”
“Good to know.”
“Hey, were you carrying a woman out of the building just now?”
Tim chuckled. “Yeah – she refused to evacuate.”
Grant laughed, held the two-way radio up to his mouth and pressed the side button. “Hey, y’all, you’ll never guess what Tim just did.”
Fitz’s voice crackled back to them over the airwaves. He and the rest of the crew were still clearing floors – they’d kept going up the stairs when Tim stopped on the eighth. “What’s that?”
“He found a woman refusing to evacuate and carried her out over his shoulder.”
“She hot?” Fitz replied. Tim shook his head with a laugh. Fitz had a one-track mind.
“Pretty cute,” replied Grant, one eyebrow raised.
Tim heard Fitz and the other members of the crew laugh, whistle and howl. Tim took a quick breath, wishing they’d quiet down. He glanced over his shoulder and found the woman looking their way, her hands on her hips. “Hey, cut it out,” he hissed, his cheeks blazing. “She can hear you.”
He’d felt some satisfaction in carrying her out after her lack of concern for her life and the life of his team, but he had no desire to humiliate her. Not to mention how well it’d go down if she or anyone there discovered he was a Holden. If they did, the chief would hear about it, and Tim knew full well he wouldn’t approve. No matter how much fun it could be to occasionally tease members of the public when they deserved it, he never seemed to be able to convince the chief of that.
He shrugged and headed back toward the building. Time to go back up and continue clearing floors. They’d work until they were done, or were given the all-clear for the building to be occupied again. He wiped the sweat from his brow with his sleeve and got back to work.
* * *
Steaming, Molly Beluga crossed her arms and glared at the fire truck as it pulled away from the curb. How dare that arrogant fireman treat her as though she were a sack of flour! She had a good mind to report him, but from the snickers she’d heard when he deposited her unceremoniously in the grass, she figured no one would give a hoot. Everyone else seemed to find the whole situation hilarious. Well, not her!
The fire marshals waved them all back into the building, and she marched inside with her chin jutted out. She still had to get her story finished and off to her editor in time for the next day’s print run. She glanced down at her watch – she’d missed the deadline by fifteen minutes. Maybe her editor would give her a break, considering they’d all been stuck outside the office twiddling their thumbs for the past two hours. And since her editor was also her sister.
She felt a jab in her ribs and spun around to find Vicky Simpson, her best friend and roommate, grinning at her. “What are you smiling about?” she snapped, and wished she hadn’t.
Vicky just giggled. “I saw you being carried out of the building by a big strong fireman – or am I mistaken?”
Molly rolled her eyes. “You’re not mistaken. Can you believe that guy?”
Vicky sighed dreamily, clutching her hands to her chest. “No, I sure can’t.”
“Oh come on!” cried Molly. “He manhandled me!”
Vicky’s eyes glinted. “Yes, he did.” She waggled her eyebrows.
Molly sighed. “I suppose it was kind of funny.”
“It was hilarious – we were all trying so hard not to burst out laughing. You looked so mad!” Vicky giggled again.
She inhaled sharply, her stomach churning. Vicky was right, she shouldn’t let one arrogant fireman ruin her day. She had work to do, and she needed to focus on that, else she’d never get it done in time — that is if she hadn’t missed out already.
Once upstairs, Molly hurried to her desk and quickly finished the article. It was a breakout on the mayor’s new initiative to combat homelessness – the kind of piece she lived to write. So much of her time was spent reporting on festivals, food, social events or gossip that she couldn’t help getting excited over writing about something important. After a last check for spelling and grammar, she attached it to an e-mail and hit send.
She leaned back in her chair with a sigh of satisfaction, a half-smile playing around her lips. It was an hour late, but maybe Amanda would let it fly just this once …
Her desk phone rang and she picked it up, holding it against her ear with her shoulder. “Hello?”
“Sugar Pie, it’s Granddad.”
She smiled and leaned back in her chair again. “How are you? Did you play golf today?”
He chuckled. “You know I did.”
“Did you win?”
“Of course.” He laughed. “How about you? Takin’ the world by storm?”
She shrugged and inhaled sharply. “I just sent an article to Amanda, so we’ll see.”
“Ah well, those things matter. But not as much as you might think, darlin’.”
She frowned. “What do you mean, Granddad?”
“Oh, nothin’, Sugar Pie. I’m just an old man thinkin’ back over his life.”
“But you achieved so much. And you’re still young, Granddad …”
He grunted. “Now I know you’re lyin’.”
She laughed and twirled a pen between her fingers. “Come on, Granddad, you sound a little down. Is everything okay?” He paused, and the silence made her sit up straight. “Granddad?”
“Oh, it’s nothin’, honey. Just wishin’ I could change some things in my past, that’s all. I’m gettin’ old, and I guess I don’t like that there are unresolved issues and things unsaid. When you get to my age, these are the things you think about – not your achievements, but the relationships you lost.”
Her brow furrowed. “Who are you talking about?” She’d never heard him speak that way before. She hoped he wasn’t ill.
“You remember me talkin’ about my time at the Chron?”
He sighed. “I just wish things had happened differently. Wallace Holden was my best friend, did you know that?”
Her eyes narrowed. “I knew you were friends …”
“And I never had another friend like him. Not after things went bad … never mind, I’m bein’ sentimental, is all. Nothin’ for you to worry about, Sugar Pie.”
“Okay.” But she did worry – she couldn’t help it. Usually Granddad was so gruff and matter-of-fact. He wasn’t introspective or nostalgic – it wasn’t his way. “But you are all right, aren’t you?”
He chuckled. “I’m fine, just fine. I’ll let you get back to takin’ over the world. Just make sure you come by and see me sometime soon, okay?”
She agreed to see him on the weekend, then hung up, her thoughts spinning. She’d have to talk to Dad about this, find out if there was anything else going on. Granddad had spoken of Wallace Holden before, but never so fondly – usually his name was followed by a string of cusswords.
Molly spun around in her chair, hands linked behind her head – and found Amanda staring at her from her glass-walled office. She gestured for Molly to come in while fiddling with her headset.
Amanda was thirty-six and felt entitled to boss her thirty-two-year-old sister around – at least that’s how it always felt to Molly. Even when they were kids playing school, Amanda was always the teacher or the principal and Molly the student. If they played family, Amanda was the mother and Molly the baby. Now as adults, Amanda was still telling her what to do – though as the Times’ news editor, she really was Molly’s boss.
Molly stood and hurried into her sister’s office. Surely Amanda wouldn’t push back on the article – it was one of the best she’d ever written. She had to see that. A surge of pride welled up, giving her goose pimples, and she smiled warmly at her sister. Amanda indicated a seat, and she sat slowly, then leaned forward over Amanda’s desk.
Amanda finished her call and smiled tightly. “Nice piece.”
Molly grinned. “I thought you’d like it.”
Amanda linked her fingers together and set them on the desk, her hazel eyes boring into Molly’s blues. “I just skimmed it, but I can see it’s good. Still, I can’t run it – not tomorrow.”
Molly’s nostrils flared. “Why not?”
“You know why not – you missed the deadline. Deadlines exist for a reason, Molly. You know that better than anyone.”
“We had that ridiculous fire drill …”
“It wasn’t a drill – there was a gas leak. It could’ve been a very dangerous situation, but thankfully it’s now contained.”
Amanda constantly amazed Molly. At work she was all business. Molly sometimes wondered where she’d got it from, then remembered how their grandfather and now her father ran the paper. But why did she always have to make Molly feel like she was eight years old again and she’d taken her favorite dolly? She straightened up and did her best to feel her age. “I understand that, but whatever it was, it interrupted me in the final stages of the article. I would’ve made the deadline …”
Amanda sighed and ran a hand through her hair. It fell perfectly in place around her face, accenting her high cheekbones. “Molly, I’m sorry, but I can’t make an exception for you. Layout needed everything from me ten minutes ago. Everyone else got their pieces to me in time, even with the interruption. If I start showing you leniency, it’ll upset everyone else in the office, or I’ll have to give everyone the same flexibility. Then layout suffers, the printers suffer, everyone suffers … do you understand?”
Molly nodded, her stomach in knots. All that work for nothing.
“We’ll run it the next day,” Amanda added, with a softer tone and a half smile.
Molly frowned. “Of course … unless someone else breaks the story first.”
Amanda nodded, already turning her attention to her computer screen “You should take the rest of the day off.”
“What? No, I’m fine. I’ve got that other thing …”
“It’s not a request. You’ve been working too hard. Take the afternoon off. Go out, have some fun. It’s all part of our innovation initiative. Apparently people are more innovative when they get time off to rest.”
“Okay.” Molly wandered back to her desk, feeling deflated.
Vicky peered over the gray fabric cubicle partition. “How’d it go?”
“I missed the deadline.”
“Oh suck. I’m sorry – I know how hard you worked on it.”
“Thanks. And guess what? Amanda’s sending me home for the rest of the day. Hey, you should come too. We can play hooky together.”
“It’s a deal. Just give me an hour or so, and I’ll meet you back here. I’ve got a few leads I have to chase up first.” Vicky smiled.
“Perfect, that will give me a chance to wrap things up as well.”