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Nadia Hamlin's friends often said her job would be the death of her. Today, it seemed they might just be right.
Nadia stared outside, sweating and shivering at once, through the glass side door of the Silver Sands Hotel. She checked her watch, pointlessly, because she already knew she was running late for the mandatory evacuation of San Amaro Island.
Securing the files she'd grabbed from her office beneath her rain jacket, she squeezed her eyes shut and used all her weight and strength to force the door open against the wind.
She'd lived on the island for most of her twenty-seven years and never experienced a hurricane until now. Evacuations, yes, and she promised God and anyone who was listening she would never push it so close to the deadline again if she could just escape safely this time.
She'd left her BMW in the closest parking spotit was the only vehicle in the entire lotjust twenty feet away, but it felt like twenty miles as she fought against the wind. Her hair was soaked before she was halfway there. Heart pounding, she swore out loud repeatedly. Not that anyone could have heard her over the roar of the storm. This might be only the early stages, but it was awe-inspiring, anywayor fear-inspiring if, like Nadia, you flirted with being stranded.
When she reached the car, she let the wind press her into the side of it, the stack of folders between her body and the door, relieved to quit fighting for a few seconds. She fumbled in the pocket of her rain jacket for her keys, unable to see a thing because her long, wet hair was blowing everywhere, mostly in her face. Damn, she should have done this inside. At last, she pressed the unlock button and steeled herself for the effort of opening the door.
When she finally got the door open, she screamed as the wind whipped it outward. She fought to hold on, to prevent it from being ripped off her beloved car. It took all her strength to pull the door closed.
She sank into the driver's seat, exhaling shakily.
As she was about to start the engine, something crashed into the front of her car. Something huge. She swallowed, trying to get her heart out of her throat, and blinked back tears.
Her favorite swearword became her new mantra, the word steeped in disbelief and icy, paralyzing fear.
Now that she was out of the weather and her hair was out of her face, she could sort of see. And it wasn't good.
The something huge was a sign? For real? A mangled commercial sign was lodged on the front section of her car. Seconds passed as Nadia stared, dumbfounded. She spotted the familiar coral and green of the sombrero from Ruiz's Restaurante, which was a good quarter of a mile up the beach from here.
That realization spurred her into action.
She twisted and fished her cell phone out of her pocket. Her fingers hovered over the numbers as she tried to figure out who to call for help. Not many options when you waited until the rest of the island population had already taken off, were there?
She dialed it with her eyes closed tightly, hating that she had to call anyone. Stupid, stupid, stupid. But she really didn't care to die in the parking lot of her family's hotelor anywhere, for that matter.
She half expected to get a lecture from the dispatcher about waiting too long to leave. Thankfully, the woman was business as usual and said a crew would be out to help her momentarily.
Momentarily seemed like eternity when you were stuck in a car during a hurricane.
Debris flew by, slamming into the side of the building and anything else in its path. Not knowing what else to doand incapable of sitting here doing nothingshe turned the key, which she'd left in the ignition, to start the car. It hesitated, turned over a couple of times, and Nadia thought for sure it wasn't going to start. It'd always been reliable, but it was six years old and had a sign lodged in it. The engine caught on the second try, though, as if the hood wasn't partially crushed.
So now what? Of course she couldn't drive itthe chunk of sign was enormous, maybe eight feet across at its widest point, and from here it looked like it had melded with her car. Futilely, she turned the windshield wipers on to high.
Something hit her side window, making her jump. Pressing her hand to her chest, she yelled, as if that would do a bit of good. Whatever it was kept blowing past. She inspected the window, surprised it was still in one piece, without chips or cracks.
At a loss for what else to do, she turned around and went through the things in the backseat. Maybe she could use something there for whatever. Maybe there was something she needed to take with her, besides the suitcase of clothes and toiletries she'd thrown in the trunk at the last minute. Dirty beach towel, box of business cards, convention-planning folder, Frisbee, old flatiron for her hair. Maybe not.
As she turned back around, a man six feet from her door startled the breath out of her. A firefighter, she realized, registering the red truck behind him and the helmet that made him look top-heavy. The storm was raging so loudly she hadn't heard them approach. And this was the very beginning stages? Yeah, way past time to get out of Dodge.
Instinctively, she went for the handle and attempted to push the door open. The storm had other plans. Even leaning into it didn't make it budge.
The firefighter grabbed the handle and pulled, bracing himself against the back door. He managed to open it a few inches, and the noise and chaos of the weather intensified until he let it slam shut again.
Panicked, Nadia pushed the door from her side but the man, who she could barely see even though he was only two feet away, shook his head and held up his hand. Before she could question him, he made his way, obviously struggling to stay upright, around the back of the car to the passenger side. He opened that door more easily, climbed into the seat next to her and closed the door.
He'd been about to speak when he turned toward her, but as they made eye contact, they both froze in recognition.
"Penn?" Her relief at finding someone she knew was disproportionate and she attributed it to the storm. Any other time, in any other situation, she would likely barely say hi to Penn Griffinbecause he wouldn't want her to.
He closed his green eyes and shook his head, exasperated. A moment later, he returned to strict professionalism. "Are you hurt, Nadia?"
"I'm fine. Well, scared to death, actually. I guess I kind of screwed up. I had to come in to get some files because who knows how long we'll be stuck off-site and unfortunately business won't stop in the rest of the world"
She took a breath, briefly closed her eyes, realizing she was babbling like a fool. In front of a man. A man she'd gone out with exactly onceor really it'd been more like half a date when you got down to it. Losing her cool in front of a good-looking guy wasn't normal for her. Again, she blamed the fact she was in the middle of a stinking hurricane.
"Let me get this straight. You're sitting in a potentially deadly storm because of some files. For your all-important job. Why am I not surprised?"
"I know. Not my best decision," she said more levelly. "I meant to be off the island an hour ago." She knew exactly what he was thinking. After their failed night out three months ago, there was little room for doubt.
"If you're not hurt, let's get you out of here ASAP. It's going to get bad."
"This is only the beginning. The engine's running?"
"Yes, but I didn't think I should drive with " She gestured to the front of the car.
"You did the right thing," Penn said. "By calling" He didn't have to clarify that stopping by the hotel before evacuating was not the right thing.
It hadn't seemed so risky at the time. If she had to spend a few days on the mainland, she needed to bring work with her, particularly the materials she needed to prepare for her upcoming conference. She hadn't counted on traffic being heavy this far north on the island, since most people had left hours ago. The streets had been bumper-to-bumper, though. And then, because all the other hotel employees were already gone, including her mom, Nadia had had to find the right key for the hotel, something she hadn't done in ages. What should have been a fifteen-minute errand had taken more than an hour, and here she was.
Damn. She really hated messing up.
"What are we going to do?" she asked, reveling a little bit in Penn's reassurance.
"You are going to stay put while we get that thing off your car. I'll tell you when it's okay to go. Then I want you to drive straight to that bridge and get your rear as far inland as you can, understood?"
Nadia nodded but he didn't see her. He was already out the door. She noticed a second firefighter jogging toward Penn then. The two came together to the left of her car and she could see Penn gesturing and shouting to his colleague in order to be heard, pointing to the sign as he spoke. The other guy nodded and rushed back to the truck. Penn went to work on the sign. He peeled a couple of insignificant pieces away with more difficulty than Nadia would have expected.
As he bent over to get a better look at where part of the sign was embedded in the hood, things happened so fast, Nadia had a hard time making sense of them. A large chunk of debris blew into him and he went down, out of her line of sight. All she could see was his helmet, skittering across the pavement.
Nadia screamed and struggled to get the door open, black fear pulsing through her. As she fought against the wind, she watched for him to pop up, prayed that he would regain his footing and make another go at dislodging the sign. He didn't appear, though.
The door finally opened and the wind swung it out of Nadia's reach. No longer concerned about the car, she stepped out into the chaos just as the other firefighter ran to Penn. One more followed closely, the two of them yelling back and forth.
The wind overpowered her and she crouched close to the ground, bracing herself in a wide stance and waiting for Penn to move. Sheltering her face from the pelting rain, she watched the men scramble. She fought to see Penn's face, to ascertain whether he was conscious, but the firefighters blocked her view. One of them spoke into his radio. She couldn't make out a word he said.
Time seemed to slow down like a DVD player on half time, and she felt like she was watching from somewhere far removed.
An ambulance pulled up. The paramedic on the passenger side rushed out and yelled something at her she couldn't understand. The driver made a quick stop at the back of the ambulance and then ran toward Penn carrying a bag of equipment and a backboard.
A freaking backboard.
As the first paramedic reached her and ushered her toward the ambulance, the firefighters let the other paramedic get closer to Penn. The parts of him she could see remained motionless and she called out to him, desperate to see a reaction of any kind.
"They'll take care of him," the paramedic yelled, urging her forward. "Come on!"
Right before she was ushered inside the ambulance, she got a better view. Penn was lying on the concrete, looking dead.
Consciousness was overrated.
Penn fought to stay asleep but the pain wouldn't allow it. It felt as if someone had jabbed the claw end of a hammer in the back of his left thigh and was raking it downward. And that was with narcotics, if he remembered right. Time had become meaningless. Immeasurable. Son of a bitch, he didn't know how much more he could take.
He glanced around the hospital room to make sure he was alone. In the two days since he'd been brought in, his colleagues had filtered in and out to check on him whenever they could. They'd attempted to keep the mood light, trading jokes about the state of Penn's concussed head and bringing him nonhospital food.
Rafe Sandoval and Paige Hegel, two of the paramedics on duty last night, had ducked in whenever they dropped off a patient. This was the nearest hospital to San Amaro Island and just far enough inland that it hadn't been evacuated or damaged by the storm. Penn's roommate and fellow firefighter, Cooper Flannagan, had hovered like a nervous mother hen so much yesterday that Penn was relieved as hell Coop had started a twenty-four this morning.
These people were like family. They meant well and he was thankful for them. But it was tough to keep pretending that he wasn't in agony. Hard to maintain civility. unable to stomach another doughnut or piece of candy, he pushed the wheeled table away with more force than he'd intended. It crashed into the metal heating unit under the window. Penn squeezed his eyes closed and trusted the nurses were on top of the morphine. He refused to ask for a stronger dose. Hated that he needed the drugs at all.
A knock on the partially closed door echoed through the room and Penn gritted his teeth, steeling himself against the pain. By the time the door creaked open, he'd pasted on his friendly face.
"Hey, there." Fire Captain Joe Mendoza ambled in. Behind him was Faith Peligni, Joe's gorgeous firefighter fiancée. "Mind some visitors?"
Penn did his best to not cringe. "Come on in. Not sure I'm very good company, though."
"We didn't wake you, did we?" Faith asked. Her dark hair fell across her face as she linked her arm with Joe's. He was decked out in a crisp San Amaro Island Fire Department T-shirt, and Faith wore clothes that gave no hint of her profession. Feminine, stylish clothes. It always tripped Penn out how she was such a girlie-girl outside of work.
"Nope. I was awake, just waiting for a visit from the department's eye candy."
Faith was well aware of the respect Penn had for her so he was one of the few who could get away with teasing her. He made sure to do it at every opportunity. She never failed to give it right back to him.
"You're lucky I'm too nice to punch you while you're down," she said, grinning as she walked around the bed toward the window. "I brought you a couple of paperbacks but it looks like the guys got you, uh, set up." She gestured to the stack of girlie magazines sitting conspicuously on the windowsill and set the books down next to them.
"That's Coop. Always has to be the funny guy. I'd tell you to throw them away but I think they're the only reason he visits."
"And he wonders why he's single," Joe said.
"How are you doing?" Faith hoisted herself up to the wide sill.
Penn hated that question with a passion, and every last person who came in to see him asked it. "Holding my own."
Translation: I hurt like a mother but there's not a damn thing I can do about it so let's talk about something else.
"I hear the storm veered at the last minute," Penn said, endeavoring to get his mind off his discomfort. "What's the latest on the island?"
"Could've been a lot worse," Joe said.
"It's a mess," Faith said. "Palm trees and debris everywhere. A lot of beach erosion. It's hard to imagine how bad it would be with a direct hit. San Solana got the worst of it and it doesn't sound good."
"I'm surprised you're not out there working," Penn said.
"I had to force her to leave after thirty hours straight," the captain said protectively. "Couple of crews from central Texas and Louisiana showed up today to help out. We should be able to let residents back on the island late tomorrow, maybe early the day after." Joe sat in the plastic-upholstered chair in the corner, near Faith.
"Any new injuries reported?" Penn asked.
"No new ones. Surprisingly few overall. In general, people took Mother Nature seriously and got out like they were supposed to."
"Leave it to Nadia," Faith muttered.
Just the mention of her name had Penn tensing and his blood pressure crawling upward. He clamped down his jaw on the anger, not wanting his visitors to notice. Not wanting to think about Nadia. He had enough anguish to deal with already.
He hadn't told anyone here that he knew the woman he'd tried to rescue. Knew hell. She'd been haunting his dreamstotally against his willfor months, even after she'd embarrassed him by walking out on their date last summer. Just when the dreams would slow down, he'd see her again with Faith or at the Shell Shack and, sure enough, they'd start back up.
He'd managed to covertly find out she'd gotten off the island okay but had left it at that. "You spoke with her?" he asked in an attempt to avoid drawing attention to his reaction.
"She finally got a call through to my cell phone a couple of hours ago. Apparently she's been frantically trying to reach me, the hospital, anyone who could tell her how you're doing."
He grunted, sorry he'd asked.
"She feels horrible," Faith continued.
"She needs to get over it," Penn said evenly. "According to the doctor, the discs were probably weakened to start with," he explained halfheartedly. "Simple as that."
"Nadia's never been a simple girl. She's pretty hard on herself."
Joe chuckled. "Simple girl. Now there's an oxymoron for you."
"Got that right," Penn said.
Nadia was more complex than most. She'd grabbed his attention long ago with her looks, a body that wouldn't quit and a magnetism that tended to draw everybody in, male and female alike. But her devotion to her job had been a turnoff. Not only had she rushed out just after the entrees were served on their date, but she'd canceled an earlier date at the last minute, as wellboth times because of her job at her family's hotel. He'd taken her inability to get through a single date with him as a sign to move on.
"Consider yourself warned," Faith said. "I have a feeling Nadia will be tripping over herself to make it up to you.
"Like I said, there's nothing to make up." He clenched his jaw.
"Even if I could convince her the injury wasn't her fault, I think she still regrets what happened when you two went out."
"Have you been warned about Nadia's two-date policy?" Joe asked.
"Joe." Faith leveled a look at him that promised trouble later, when they were alone. "You're not supposed to broadcast that."
Joe shook his head, only mildly chastised. "Guys have to stick together. If Nadia plans to prance around here apologizing."
"Two-date policy?" Penn asked, disgusted. No wonder she hadn't taken their plans seriously. "She actually said that?"
Faith smacked Joe's arm and looked at Penn. "Just her way of not letting things get serious with anyone. She won't let herself become more devoted to a guy than her job. I don't necessarily agree with it."