Read an Excerpt
Feel the Heat
By LORIE O'CLARE P.J. MELLOR LYDIA PARKS
APHRODISIA BOOKSCopyright © 2011 Kensington Publishing Corp.
All right reserved.
Chapter OneNate Armstrong squinted, keeping his breathing steady as he stepped gingerly onto the next stair. The floorboards wouldn't hold out long.
"Are you sure there's another kid in here?" he demanded, speaking through the small microphone attached to his helmet. It was getting harder to see. The smoke was like a fog against the special clear eye protection attached to his helmet. As with the rest of his uniform, it was designed to withstand ungodly amounts of heat. Unfortunately, it didn't prevent him from sweating his balls off.
"That's an affirmative." Fire Chief Joseph Campbell spoke clearly, his voice only a bit tinny through the earpiece.
Nate reached the top of the stairs. He counted three bedrooms, two on one side of the hall and a third on the other. Two doors were open. The smoke danced in circles above the floor, curling around his legs as he continued down the hall. Each bedroom appeared unoccupied. Nate made quick work of checking under beds, around dressers, and in closets. No kid.
So far the new equipment they were all using was working well. It was far less bulky than their previous uniforms and supposedly a lot more fire retardant, which in Nate's line of work was always a good thing. The uniform was made of lighter material, making it a lot easier to move around, but no one thought to install a thermostat in the damn thing. Nate might not die of smoke inhalation or by burning alive, but he would go nuts in the next few minutes from all the sweat dripping down his body and causing every inch of him to itch worse than anything he'd ever experienced. This was one hell of a hot fire, almost too hot to have occurred from something burning on the stove.
"I'm entering the last bedroom on the right at the back of the house."
"Nate! Hurry up!" Campbell suddenly sounded alarmed. "The entire first floor just exploded in flames!"
"Roger that." He didn't need the update. In a matter of minutes he'd be on the first floor, without taking stairs to get there.
Already smoke billowed around him in the hallway, turning darker and closing in around him. Nate didn't have a problem with claustrophobia, but it really sucked when he lost his sense of direction in a small area from thick smoke. Nate knew his training though. And this wasn't his first real fire. Meredith Curve, Missouri, was a far cry from a big city, or even a big town. They were just now receiving uniforms that firefighters in larger cities had been wearing for up to a year now. Accidents happened in small towns, too. As long as he got the entire family out alive, that was all that mattered. He wasn't in this for the glory.
He reached the only bedroom with its door closed. Nate found the handle and tested it. He felt the heat through his glove. If someone touched that doorknob without gloves, their skin would melt clear to the bone.
"What's the kid's name?" Nate asked, feeling a need to keep the conversation going. The heat was getting to him, making it hard to breathe. He kept a close eye on the wood floor, stepping gingerly in his boots. Smoke crept through cracks in the boards, like serpents taunting him and just waiting for him to fuck up.
"Johnny," the chief told him. "But he goes by Buddy."
"John will get a kick out of that," Nate said, forcing a laugh as he thought of his best friend since grade school, who also had responded to this call. Last he saw John he'd been on the first floor. Nate stared at the floorboards. "Is everyone else out?"
"That's an affirmative. You need to move, Armstrong," the chief warned.
Nate didn't answer but turned the handle and opened the bedroom door. Black smoke rolled over him, forcing him to step back automatically before plowing forward. The heat was too intense and his stomach rolled.
"How old is this kid?"
"Not sure." Campbell hesitated. "His mom is hysterical. Armstrong, you've got less than five minutes. We're positioning the trampoline below the south upstairs window. Head that way. I need you out of there." His tone grew more urgent. "The structure is going. Find that kid and jump, and you've got under a minute."
Nate didn't need to hear how serious this was. He swore his clothes were melting into his skin. His helmet weighed three times as much as it did when he'd entered the burning house. Sweat dripped down his forehead, chest, and back. But if there was a kid in here, jumping to safety without him would kill Nate as much as burning alive would. He'd never lost a life in the ten years he'd been a firefighter, and that wouldn't change today.
"Johnny?" Nate called out, moving his arms as he hesitated in all of the smoke. "Buddy, are you in here? Buddy?" he yelled. "I know I look funny, but I'm a firefighter. If your eyes are closed, keep them closed and just make a sound so I can grab you. Once we're outside I'll show you how cool this uniform is."
If the kid obeyed and made a sound it would be hard to hear between the crackling boards around Nate, the repeated explosions downstairs as the structure began collapsing, and the buzzing apprehension growing in his ears. Nate knelt on the floor, moving on hands and knees as he pushed toys away and crawled toward a child-sized bed.
He squatted lower, pressing the side of his head to the floor, and stared underneath the bed at the small figure curled into a ball. Nate had no idea if the child was alive or not but grabbed an arm and pulled him out.
"Got him!" Nate announced, lifting the boy into his arms. A rush of relief roared in his gut when the kid curled up against him. "He's alive!" Nate announced.
"Ten four. The south window, now!" Campbell ordered, and started barking orders to those on the ground around him before turning off his microphone.
It seemed like an hour or two later, but only fifteen minutes passed from the time Nate entered the burning house until he jumped from the window with the kid in his arms.
"Excellent timing!" Campbell slapped Nate on the back, although he wasn't smiling.
The other guys surrounding Nate were as smeared with soot and dirt as he was. Campbell was the only one who wasn't filthy. Not that Nate cared. He looked for the little boy he'd just rescued but didn't see him. Nate did see an ambulance pull away from the curb.
"The kid okay?" Nate asked. "Buddy? I promised to show him my uniform."
"They're taking him in for observation. He breathed in a lot of smoke in there." Campbell's expression sobered. "Corelli went with him."
Nate nodded, gripping his helmet in his hand as he ran fingers through his sweaty hair. He needed a shower. "Come on, probie," he said, slapping Gil Harper on the back. "I'll let you shower after me."
Nate might let Harper know how good a job he did today. Harper was barely grown at nineteen and had joined their house six months ago. Nate decided he'd wait until the fear of God left the probie's eyes before giving him any praise. If the kid wanted to be a firefighter, this was what it was all about.
"Feel better?" Chief Campbell sat alone in the kitchen, his hands clasped on the table. He took his time looking up from his coffee and staring at Nate.
"Feel half-human again." Nate rolled his shoulders. "I must be getting old, though. I'm sore as hell. Might have to force myself to pull double time on the weights later. Where is everyone?"
"Have a seat, Nate."
Campbell didn't use first names unless there was a problem. Nate eyed the chief as he pulled a chair out from under the table, flipped it around backward, and straddled it.
"What's up, Chief?" Nate was pretty sure he'd gone by the book today, but hell, the chief was a stickler to policy. "Did I take the stairs with my left foot instead of my right?"
Campbell grunted, lowering his gaze. "I wish you had."
"This is serious," Nate noted, tilting his head and studying Campbell's sober, if not weary, expression. "Looks like it might call for a drink."
He stood, headed over to the refrigerator, and pulled out a bottled water. "Want one?" he asked the chief.
Campbell shook his head. "John didn't make it, Nate."
Nate unscrewed his water bottle. "Didn't make it where?"
He brought the bottle to his lips and paused, staring past it at the chief. Silence grew between them until Campbell sighed loudly and shifted to face Nate.
"John took the first floor. I had four of you in there." Campbell stood and gripped the back of the chair, looking unstable for a moment.
"What are you talking about?" Nate said, his voice cracking. He didn't like the way Campbell was acting or what it sounded like he was implying. "Cut the crap, Chief. You're making it sound as if John really didn't make it." He laughed but stopped with a sharp breath when the chief stared at the floor and didn't say a word.
The water Nate had just swallowed turned to acid in his gut when Campbell finally looked at him. Nate shook his head, positive he wasn't following whatever it was the chief was trying to say to him.
"Where the hell is John?" he demanded.
"No. He's not." Nate shook his head adamantly. He'd just seen John. They drove to the fire together. He was outside talking with the rest of them afterward, wasn't he? "I just saw him," he argued, gesturing with his water bottle in the direction of the truck.
"Nate, don't make this harder than it already is."
"What?" Nate snapped, turning on his chief. "You're telling me John is dead! My best friend since fucking forever is no longer alive. Then you suggest I don't make this hard on us. Let me tell you something. This is as hard as it gets." Nate slammed his fist into the table, causing a portion of Chief Campbell's coffee to spill around the cup.
The reality of it sank in with a swift kick, nearly taking Nate down. John was dead. His best friend since the third grade. They'd become firefighters together, dreamed of glorious flames and saving damsels in distress. They didn't dream of dying.
The chief didn't say anything but watched Nate. The silence in the room grew unbearable. Nate couldn't stand it, any more than he could get his brain to wrap around this. John wouldn't just die.
"He's dead?" Nate whispered. Acid churned in his gut, growing and spreading until it itched under his skin. With a roar, Nate hurled the water bottle and didn't feel a damn bit better when it exploded against the far wall and water splattered everywhere. "How the hell did he die?" He was yelling. "Why did he die?"
"Sit down," Campbell said.
"I'm not sitting down. I don't want to sit down. Tell me what the fuck happened!"
Campbell had been around the station long enough to know it wasn't wise to tell a man raging with a temper to calm down. The quiet stance he always took when any of them locked horns or fought over a girl or argued about sports seemed grossly inappropriate at the moment.
"The structure collapsed on him," Campbell explained.
If he kept it simple because Nate was too outraged to hear details, there was no way of knowing. But Campbell didn't elaborate.
Nate swallowed the lump in his throat. His eyes suddenly burned as if there were smoke in them again. John deserved a poolful of tears, but he wouldn't get them now, not in front of the chief, not at the firehouse.
"Where is he now?" Nate asked, his voice sounding foreign and oddly quiet and resolved. "I'm going to go see him."
"County General." Campbell looked away first, focusing on his large hands gripping the back of his chair. "He was taken there with the kid you rescued. I just got the call ten minutes ago. The kid is fine."
* * *
Mary Hamilton adjusted her headpiece over her blonde hair then brought the mouthpiece closer to her mouth. "Police," she said for the fiftieth time that day.
"Mary?" a man asked.
"This is Mary." She glanced at the clock. Two more hours to go. She swore the air-conditioning wasn't working right today. Either that or Captain Odgers had the thermostat set at eighty.
"Mary, it's Robert Corelli."
"Mr. Corelli," she said, fighting to sound cheerful. The Corellis still kept in touch with her parents even though her folks had moved to St. Louis over two years ago. "How is Mrs. Corelli? Is everything okay?" she asked, tugging on her uniform shirt as she switched back to her professional mode. She was the primary dispatcher for the Meredith Curve Police Department, which meant a lot of callers were people she'd known most of her life. As she'd been reminded more than once, being born and raised there didn't mean it was social hour when she answered the phones. "There isn't a problem, is there?"
Mr. Corelli cleared his throat and there was a shuffling sound through the phone.
"Mary, hi, it's Elizabeth." Elizabeth Corelli was a year older than Mary. They hadn't hung around much growing up, but Mary knew her well enough to say hi if she saw her in the grocery store.
Elizabeth's younger brother, John, and Nate Armstrong were best friends and Mary had hopelessly followed the two of them around wherever they went while growing up. From grade school through high school, wherever Nate went, Mary followed, and John was always at his side. She might have followed Nate into adulthood, but having grown up with her father being a firefighter, she knew it wasn't a career choice she would like. She'd entered the police academy when Nate and John became firefighters.
"Hi, Elizabeth," Mary said, holding on to her work voice as she played with the cord to her headset. "What's the problem?"
"My parents thought we should call you." Elizabeth hesitated. She cleared her throat just as her father had. "Mary, there's been an accident. Something terrible has happened." Suddenly she was talking very fast. "John was brought in after one of the houses burned down over on Maple Street. I don't know the family, but I guess there were young kids."
Mary tried keeping up. Her mind stumbled over the words "accident" and "terrible." She shot a glance at her logbook, then at the computer screen where she documented all calls when they came in. All 911 calls came to her. She'd dispatched a call to the fire department a couple hours ago when a neighbor called in complaining of smoke. What terrible accident?
And if John was hurt in a house fire, Nate would have been with him. Mary's heart swelled into her chest so fast she wasn't able to catch her breath. She opened her mouth to ask about Nate, but Elizabeth continued talking.
"They transported John to the hospital in an ambulance, but he didn't make it."
"John is dead?" Mary whispered, dropping the cord as her eyes started burning. "Are you sure?"
When Elizabeth laughed it sounded anything but humorous. "Unfortunately, we're sure. He suffered from severe burns and I guess part of the house collapsed on him, or something. I don't have all the details yet. We wanted to reach Nate Armstrong, too."
They wanted to tell Nate that John was dead? Nate wasn't hurt. He wasn't at the hospital. The relief rushing through Mary was so incredibly overwhelming it took her a minute before guilt set in. John was dead.
"I'll contact him." She was numb. "And I'm terribly sorry."
"So am I." Elizabeth mumbled her good-byes and hung up the phone.
Mary stared at the switchboard in front of her. The computer screen had a glare to it and made her eyes burn worse. As terrible as this was, and it definitely was the worst thing that had happened in town in years, Nate was alive, but would be devastated.
Nate and John had been attached at the hip since third grade. Around that same time, Mary had fallen head over heels hopelessly in love with Nate. She'd followed Nate around shamelessly, refusing to be left behind no matter where he went. The three of them were really tight during grade school and into high school.
Nate taught her how to climb trees. He and John were the first to show her how to throw a baseball, shoot a hoop, and they learned to ride bikes together. They didn't teach her any of these things willingly. Whenever they told her she was a girl and to go home, she grew even more stubborn and refused to budge. Mary couldn't remember when she hadn't loved Nate. And she'd just volunteered to break his heart.
Excerpted from Feel the Heat by LORIE O'CLARE P.J. MELLOR LYDIA PARKS Copyright © 2011 by Kensington Publishing Corp.. Excerpted by permission of APHRODISIA BOOKS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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