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She was a firefighter. She hated fire.
"Anybody in there?" She saw Joey Silva spare her a glance from a few yards down the corridor, but already she was kicking the door open. She entered, moving quickly through the tiny rooms before racing back into the corridor.
"These freakin' rooming houses." Under his helmet, her partner's expression was disgruntled. "Freakin' fire-traps. Come on, I found another freakin' hallway."
"Gosh darn it all anyway." Tamara looked at the stairway behind them. "You know, Joey, you're going to have to get a couple new cuss words one of these days."
He followed her glance. "We can't wait for the hose. Let's go rouse the rest of the rubbies and the junkies."
She fell into step behind him, not taken in by his seeming callousness. It and his profanity were part of the protective shell that all of them had to grow, in their own individual ways.
The yellow bands on Joey's coat were bobbing smears of color in the smoke, and she reached with her leather- gloved handfor the air-pack at her chest. Following him into the secondary corridor Tamara realized that although a few tendrils of smoke were eddying in from the hallway they'd just left, this one was clear.
Bad sign, she thought, instantly alert. It's trying to trick us.
"The bitch is around here somewhere."
Joey's gaze had narrowed in identical suspicion, and despite the situation she hid a smile as she scanned the hallway. She called it the beast. For reasons known only to himself, he saw fire as a heartless female who -
Her thoughts screeched to a halt. Running along the top of the walls in front of them was a tracery of glowing red.
"Hell, Joey - it's in the ceiling," she whispered hoarsely.
"And the freakin' ceiling could go any minute." He wiped his mouth. "Come on, Red, the faster we check this hall the faster we can get out of here."
He'd bestowed the roughly affectionate nickname on her the first day she'd walked into the stationhouse six years ago, her auburn hair scraped back into a braid that kept unraveling. His use of it now didn't mask his apprehension. Her gaze sharpened.
"Where's your air-pack?"
He shrugged, avoiding her frown. "Guess I'll just have to eat the smoke. You take this room, I'll check out the one at the end of the hall."
With a father and grandfather who'd both been Boston firefighters, Joey knew better. But too often he arrived at a fire without his air-pack and ended up having to eat the smoke, as the old-timers called it. Tamara thudded her gloved palm on the door before pushing it open with more force than she needed.
Even as her gaze took in the man standing at the window with his back to her, she knew he was going to be trouble.
He was big - six foot two or three at least, to her five-six. As she entered he spoke without bothering to turn around.
"Don't worry about me, buddy, I can take care of myself." His tone was flat. "Up until yesterday the room down the hall was unoccupied but you might want to check it out anyway. The fire's in the ceiling, so there's not much time."
She tamped down the spark of anger that flared in her at his offhand attitude. Except for his height and the breadth of his shoulders, it was obvious he was no different from the rest of the lost souls she'd glimpsed as she'd run into the building. His hair, dark brown and too long, brushed the collar of his sweatshirt and his khaki pants had seen better days. The leather of his military-style shoes was cracked.
He wasn't a junkie. His build was too solid for a drug user, so the addiction that had brought him to a room in this rundown building had to have been alcohol. Still, he'd travelled so far down the road to self-destruction he couldn't even recognize how much danger he was in.
But he'd known the fire was in the ceiling, and he'd known what that meant. She didn't have time to wonder how or when he'd gained that kind of knowledge.
"My partner's checking it out." From another part of the building came a muffled crash as something fell.
"You're my responsibility, mister. Let's move."
He'd obviously assumed she was a man, because at her first words he'd turned to face her, his eyes widening as they met hers. Now he gave her a hard smile. She blinked, feeling as if a tiny shock had just gone through her.
"You passed the department physical so you're probably pretty strong, honey, but I've got almost a foot on you and I'm a whole lot heavier. I don't see you getting me through that door if I don't want to go." His shrug was dismissive. "Find your partner and the two of you get out while you can."
His eyes were the color of smoke - so pale in the tan of his face that it seemed as though they were looking through her. The tan she could understand, even in an unseasonably wet Boston May. Men like him picked up odd jobs, usually outdoor work, to pay for their habit.
His age was impossible to pinpoint. From the hard planes and blunt angles of his face he looked to be in his mid-thirties, but though his smile had held little humor and no warmth, for the briefest of instants it had transformed his whole expression. Not so long ago the man in front of her had been a very different person, Tamara thought with sudden certainty. If even now there was a destructively dangerous aura about him, what impact had that smile had on women before his life had spiralled out of control?
Who cares, King? Abruptly she shoved her speculations aside. The man's past didn't concern her. How and why he'd arrived at this dead end wasn't her business. Her job was to get him out of here, whether he wanted to go or not.
But that wasn't going to be easy. The sleeves of his sweatshirt were pushed up to his elbows, and the corded muscles of his forearms and the strength of those hands looked formidable. Squaring her shoulders, she clamped a gloved hand on his arm.
"That's not the way it works," she said, some of the anger she'd tried to suppress seeping through into her voice. "I'm a firefighter. If you understood anything at all about what that means you'd know I can't walk away and leave you here."
"Yeah, you can. You're going to." Under her hand his arm felt like a slab of rock maple. His tone was even harder. "Let me put in words you'll understand, honey. I don't want you risking your life for someone like me."
"Then both of us just ran out of luck, honey," Tamara grated, her grip on him tightening. "Because risking my life is part of the job, and I'm not about to make an exception in your case."
For the space of a heartbeat their gazes locked, hers coldly stubborn, his opaquely unreadable. Then he exhaled sharply, his posture rigid.
"My conscience seems to have taken everything else I've thrown at it over the years, but even I've got my limits," he said, his tone tight. "You win. Let's find your partner and get the hell out of here."
The whole encounter had taken only seconds, but somehow she felt as if she'd just gone ten rounds with Holyfield and had only squeaked by on a technicality, she thought as she stepped out into the hall, acutely aware of the man behind her. What the hell was his problem?
Excerpted from McQueen's Heat by Harper Allen Copyright © 2003 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.