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Black smoke billowed down the hallway, obscuring Nick's view through his face shield. His peripheral vision tracked two teenagers in the Westbridge Academy's conservative uniforms hurrying toward the exit, clutching hands and sobbing. He thought about stopping the girls to ask if they had seen anyone else left in the building, but the air of panic surrounding them indicated they wouldn't be responsive.
Seeing they required no assistance, he and his partner moved on, Paula taking the lead. As they progressed down the hallway, the smoke thickened, settling lower to the floor. He reached for his SCBA automatically as they checked each classroom, quickly but methodically.
At the last room in the hallway, where the fire had originated, Nick and Paula stepped inside, dropping to a crouch as they moved through the room, searching for anyone remaining. His low vantage point allowed him to avoid the thickest concentration of the acrid smoke and improved his visibility.
The room appeared to be a science lab containing several long black tables with three chairs at each. All of the tables were bare of the clutter of academic paraphernalia, indicating either everyone had grabbed their belongings, or no one had been in the room when the fire started.
Under that assumption, he didn't expect to find anyone but indicated with a hand signal to Paula that he was checking the adjoining lab, as procedure dictated. With Paula behind him, he entered the second room, and his heart stuttered when he saw someone lying facedown on the floor in the corner. Nick moved closer at a rapid pace, identifying the form of a woman when he knelt beside her. As Paula joined him, he rolled the woman onto her back and lifted her in his arms, not taking time to check her vitals. She settled over his shoulder easily. The woman was a negligent burden on his way from the building, and he emerged into fresh air seconds later, his partner close on his heels. Paula broke off to rejoin the group of firefighters gathered round the engine.
Nick went straight to one of the ambulances, where an EMT waited to care for her. He lowered the woman onto a waiting stretcher and stripped off his SCBA then pushed back his face shield, preparing to find his chief to inform him the building was clear. Nick's eyes fell on the face of the woman, and he caught his breath. Even the black smudges couldn't disguise her finely honed features. With olive skin and dark brown hair, she was a striking contrast to the crisp white sheet and pillow on the gurney.
Her eyes opened as the EMT slipped an oxygen mask over her face. The rich brown color reminded Nick of pools of molten chocolate. The bewilderment in them made his heart ache. Without removing his elkskin gloves, he took her hand and squeezed gently. "Everything's going to be fine, ma'am."
For a long second, her gaze didn't waver from his. Nick had the sensation she was peering into his soul. He squirmed at the thought, breaking eye contact when he caught sight of the chief. It was a struggle to release the woman's hand, much to his surprise. Glancing down once more, he saw her eyes had closed again. The sound of her harsh coughing remained with him as he made his way to Brady, the chief. Her frightened eyes haunted him, and it took all his willpower to push away thoughts of her and return to the business at hand. Never had he experienced such a connection in such a way, and the woman's image stayed with him as he rejoined the rest of the crew extinguishing the fire.
Breathing hurt. Coughing hurt even more, but Miri couldn't stifle the urge. The oxygen provided some relief from the burning, acrid sensation in her throat and lungs but didn't repress the reflex to clear the congestion. She was vaguely aware of the EMT hovering beside her, monitoring her vitals every few minutes, but couldn't manage to converse yet. Her throat was too raw. Even the thought of speaking made her wince.
The approach of a firefighter, stripped of his Nomex jacket, with a white T-shirt and red Nomex pants, distracted her temporarily from her misery. Miri's eyes widened when she recognized the black-haired, blue-eyed hunk as the man who had carried her from the building. Her stomach clenched with nerves or the urge to vomit after a prolonged coughing fit as he approached, a smile displaying his firm lips, set in a tanned face, to their best advantage.
He tapped the EMT on the arm. "How's she doing, Manny?"
"Pretty well." He pointed to the pulse oximeter attached to Miri's finger. "Her oxygen is ninety-eight."
"Will you be taking her to the hospital?"
Miri moved the oxygen mask. "No." She hardly recognized the hoarse voice emerging from her throat.
He turned his attention to her. "How're you feeling, ma'am?"
"I can take care of that."
She watched him walk away from her, heading toward the red engine with phfd emblazoned on the side in black letters. The loose fit of his pants hid his buttocks and legs, but the T-shirt clung to his defined arms like a lover, revealing each bulge and flex.
When he returned, water bottle in hand, Miri quickly dropped her eyes to hide the fact she had been staring. The instant attraction to her rescuer disturbed her. She wasn't the type to have her head turned so quickly, and definitely not just by physical attributes. She tried telling herself gratitude was the only thing she felt for the man, but knew it wasn't true.
"Here you are, Ms. " He unscrewed the cap before handing her the bottle.
"Zorga. Miriam Zorga." She handed the mask to Manny, nodding to acknowledge his cautionary words of sipping slowly, and took a small taste. The water was like Heaven, though tainted by the flavor of smoke lingering in her mouth. After two more small sips, she looked up at the firefighter. "Thank you for the water...and for saving my life."
He inclined his head. "That's my job."
"Still, I want to repay you. May I buy you dinner Friday night?" Miri's eyes widened at the invitation. What was she thinking? She never dated a man unless she had known him for a decent length of time, knew his character, friends, interests and flaws. She did not go out with men she had just met, no matter how sexy. She certainly wasn't the one to issue the request. A retraction hovered on the tip of her tongue, but his reply cut it off.
"It's not every day a beautiful woman offers me dinner. How can I say no?" His blue eyes sparkled, as if he sensed she had been about to withdraw the invitation.
She couldn't graciously change her mind now. Miri forced a small smile. "Does Poplin Hills Country Club suit you?"
"If that's what you want." The idea didn't seem to thrill him. "I'll pick you up if you'll give me your address."
"No." She winced at the panic in her tone, hoping the lingering huskiness masked it. "We'll meet there. Seven thirty?" She held her breath, expecting him to argue. Hoping he would, giving her an out from the evening. She wouldn't feel at all guilty for rescinding the invitation should he prove to be forceful or controlling. To her disappointment, he simply nodded.
"I'll see you then." He started to turn but paused, looking down at her. "I'm Nick Martin, by the way." Then he was gone, fading back into the chaos of the scene on the front lawn of the staid private girls' school.
She blushed upon realizing she hadn't even caught his name before asking him to dinner. Hormones were to blame for her spontaneous action, which alarmed her further. She hadn't surrendered to the pull of hormones as a teenager. It's about time you did, whispered a sly voice in her mind the voice she was careful to always repress and tune out. This time, it refused to be ignored, whispering all sorts of erotic suggestions about how the dinner date with Nick might end. Much to her surprise, she didn't want to ignore the voice this time.
Miri groaned at the sight in the mirror. Her attempt at sexy had ended up closer to disheveled. Thick hair hung around her face in a tangled mass, refusing to lie sleek, as she had envisioned. The black silk pants she hadn't worn for years reminded her why she hadn't worn them with the way they clung to her thighs, accentuating the cellulite she hid under skirts and looser slacks. The red shirt dipped too low, exposing what should have been generous cleavage on a different woman, but merely accented what she lacked.
Miri glanced at the clock, biting her lip. She had twenty minutes until she was supposed to meet Nick. Availing herself of valet parking would give her five extra minutes to fix the disastrous sight she currently presented. In record time, she stripped off the slacks and shirt, and standing before the mirror in plain beige panties and a simple bra, she grabbed her hair and pulled it back. Her hands were adept at forming the bun she wore every day, so that took little time. She secured it with pins and turned to her wardrobe, once again examining her available clothing. Everything seemed wrong, which had already led her to the two sexiest pieces she owned, and look how they had turned out.
With a sigh, she selected an A-line brown skirt and camel turtleneck sweater with subtle threads of gold woven throughout. Adding gold hoops and a pearl necklace made the outfit dressy enough for the country club, though boring. She chose to look on the bright side as she scooped up a gold clutch and hurried from her small house. Boring was sure to be a turnoff to the all-male Nick Martin, who must be accustomed to dating beautiful women. If he had no interest in her, that saved her the effort of fighting her attraction to him. The thought provided little consolation as she pushed her beige Saab four miles over the speed limit through the sparsely populated streets of Poplin Hills.
She arrived five minutes late, to find Nick sitting at the bar, watching for her. She nodded to the maitre d' on her way through the spacious entryway, sparing no time to admire the antique teak, gold accents and deep red carpeting. The surroundings were familiar to her.
As she approached, Nick eased off his bar stool, drink in hand. He tugged at the tie around his neck, as if unaccustomed to such accoutrements. With a critical eye, Miri examined him, noting he was sexy in the black suit but obviously uncomfortable. Her choice of restaurants was clearly a failure.
"I'm so sorry I'm not on time," she said in a rush when reaching him. "I'm never late..." She trailed off, deciding not to elaborate on why she was tardy.
He shrugged. "Don't worry. The beer is cold, and this is a nice place to wait." His expression betrayed the small white lie. Miri bit back a gasp at the electricity flaring between them when he took her hand. "All that matters is you showed up."
She cleared her throat, resisting the urge to tug her hand from his. The contact discomfited her. Not because he was a stranger, but because she liked it too much. "Are you ready for dinner?"
He nodded as the maitre d' appeared at their side, as if psychically summoned. Nick didn't release her hand while they followed the man to a round table draped with a red tablecloth. Gold candleholders shone in the muted illumination from the crystal chandelier above the table. The flames from the red candles provided a cozy glow to accentuate the overhead lighting.
She breathed a sigh of relief when he had to let go of her hand as she prepared to sit at the table. The light-headedness his touch had inspired almost faded, though she still felt giddy. Inner alarms screamed warnings about his effect on her, but Miri tried to ignore them as Nick pulled out her chair and seated her. Once again, his touch made her breathless.
Awkward silence fell between them as the maitre d' departed after promising their server's attention shortly. She stared across the table, struggling not to stare into his sinfully blue eyes while trying to avoid the appearance of rudeness by ducking his gaze. She couldn't strike a balance and ended up looking away.
"Do you come here often?" His mood was difficult to discern. He didn't seem nervous, merely out of his element. Nick's voice didn't betray anything other than mild curiosity.
She nodded. "I have a lifetime membership." Miri didn't share the complete history of how it came to her. Her mother's numerous sordid marriages weren't a topic for first-date discussion. "It was a gift from my stepfather. He owned Poplin Hills Country Club a few years ago." Stepfather number four, to be precise, and the only one she had ever loved as a father.
His brow furrowed. "Richard Grazier was your stepfather?"
She nodded, struggling to maintain an indifferent façade as she studied him subtly, searching for a hint of avarice. More than once, she had disappointed a suitor who thought her stepfather had left her a large inheritance. His death had been several years after the divorce, and Miri had refused to accept anything from him other than companionship at that point. His other children and current wife had been relieved.
"It was hard on the town when Mr. Grazier passed. Everyone loved him."
Her heart softened at his sympathetic tone, and she struggled to make an intelligent response while hiding the tears in her voice. Thankfully, the arrival of the waiter prevented a reply, allowing her a minute to compose herself as Nick ordered a steak. Her order of grilled tilapia came automatically, and the server moved away.
The sommelier arrived within seconds, handing the wine menu to Nick. "What will you have this evening, sir?"
Miri almost grinned at his deer-in-the-headlights look. It was clear he wasn't a wine aficionado. Smothering her mirth, she said, "I don't believe we'll need a bottle tonight, Jules. Would you please bring me a glass of sauvignon blanc?"
Jules turned to Nick. "For you, sir?"
"Beer's fine." Nick seemed unbothered by the wrinkling of the sommelier's brow as he left the table.
Again, the conversation lapsed. Miri asked a few meaningless questions, as did he, while accomplishing nothing but killing time. Out of desperation, she asked about his family. That was a topic she rarely broached with a stranger, for fear of having to give reciprocal information, but something needed to move along their exchange.
His posture relaxed, and he began telling her about his large family, all currently living in Boston.
As Nick spoke of his relations, Miri tried not to let envy plague her. As she laughed along with him at his shared remembrances, she couldn't help contrasting his childhood to hers. Nick's had been full of family and love, while hers was one long stretch of loneliness, with no siblings to share the trauma of uncles and stepfathers constantly coming and going, and a mother who was more concerned about her sex life than her daughter's welfare.
As their meal arrived, she asked, "Why are you in Oregon if your family is in Boston?"
"I wanted to see something besides Boston. I ended up here after traveling a few years." He shook his head. "It's funny. I thought I wanted to break away from the family traditions, but I ended up a firefighter just like my brothers and father, in spite of myself. It just took me a few years longer."
Her eyes widened. "Everyone in your family is a firefighter?"
"Just about." Pride shone in his eyes. Before she could ask anything else, his expression dimmed. "My oldest brother isn't a firefighter now. He married a woman who hated the whole idea, so he gave it up." It was clear what Nick would do in a similar situation. Miri would hate to be the woman to ask him to give up his career.
As they ate, they managed to fill the meal with stilted, meaningless conversation. By dessert, Miri had chalked up the date as a disaster and was admonishing herself about rash behavior when the bill arrived.
After settling the check, Miri rose to her feet, not waiting for Nick to pull out her chair. He rose just after her, putting his hand on her lower back as they left the restaurant. She searched for a painless way to close the evening while getting across the point that she didn't want a repeat. It probably wasn't a concern. What man would want a second date with her after this calamity?
Outside, she handed a slip to the valet, noticing Nick didn't. They stood in silence as the young woman brought forth her Saab. At the curb, Miri turned to him, extending her hand. "Thank you for allowing me to repay you for saving me, Nick."
His lips twitched, as if repressing laughter. "My pleasure, Miri." He took her hand, caressing the palm with small circles of his thumb.
With a decisive nod, she pulled her hand from his and slid inside through the opened car door. Miri looked up at him, trying not to let her eagerness to escape show. "Well...good night."
He nodded but made no effort to walk toward his own car, wherever it might be. She waited for him to speak or move, so she could close the door and drive away, but he just stood there. "Good night," she said again, allowing a hint of exasperation to show.
"I'll follow you home to make sure you get there safely."
"There's no need "
He tapped on her windshield, already setting off in the direction of the self-parking area. "I'll catch up with you," he called over his shoulder.
She gritted her teeth and resisted the urge to run over him as he stepped in front of her car. No, she didn't want to dent the pristine grill, and blood would never come out of the beige paint.
As he jogged away, she slammed the door and shifted into drive, hitting the accelerator with a vengeance. All the way to her quiet home, she seethed with anger at his high-handedness. If he was pulling this stunt to get her to invite him in, he was in for a disappointment. Yes, he was too sexy for words, but she didn't like his attitude. He was too blunt for her tastes. She had cultivated a sophisticated life, courtesy of the time she had spent as Richard's stepdaughter. Nick would never fit into her existence. She couldn't even imagine him in her immaculate brick home, decorated in neutral colors with pastel accents.
She squirmed as an unwanted mental image came to her of Nick sprawled across her periwinkle Egyptian-cotton sheets with his hair tousled, his chest gleaming with sweat and the flush of passion still in his cheeks. Okay, there was one place he would complement her décor, but she refused to let her self-control slip enough to allow him into her home, much less the bedroom.
Copyright © 2008 by Ellora's Cave Publishing, Inc.