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By Joan Swan
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Joan Swan
All rights reserved.
Truckee, California Five years ago
That could not be Jessica Fury's husband. Not the man hanging upside down, fifty feet off the ground over unforgiving asphalt, prepared to perform a midair flip, hoping—hoping—to grab that ladder and scale down to safety. Not all in the name of some spontaneous, reckless, madcap training drill. Sure as hell not after he'd just been trying to coax her into making a baby with him hours ago.
Only it was. It so was. Goddamnit.
The catcalls and laughter from the other members of their hazmat team usually filled Jessica with joy. Tonight, the boisterous encouragement egging her husband on in his latest stunt made her teeth grind.
She stood at the base of a ladder, securing the structure for what should have been Quaid's execution of a simple bailout maneuver during one of their standard team training sessions. But what kept flashing in her mind—over and over, like the repeat of a movie clip—was the love of her life, her brand-freaking-new husband, diving out that fifthstory window headfirst, wrapping his leg in the safety rope instead of avoiding it, and pushing off the rungs of the ladder he should have been holding tight, then ... letting go.
Just letting go fifty feet in the air.
Beads of sweat burst across her forehead. The building spun in her vision against the darkening sky. Jessica swayed and tightened her grip on the ladder.
He looked amazing, she couldn't deny that—his strong body filling out the heavy turnouts and silhouetted against the evening, red helmet gleaming in the sunset. That mischievous, full-of-himself grin lit his handsome face. Confidence, courage, and challenge electrified the air around him.
No doubt about it—this was one-hundred percent authentic Quaid Legend in his element.
"Hey, buddy," Teague called from where he stood on the other side of the ladder. "Hope your life insurance is paid up. If you don't die from this stupid stunt, you can bet your ass Jess is gonna kill you when you touch down."
Another round of laughter erupted. Jessica fingers tightened on the ladder until they stung. Quaid's joyous grin dimmed and his beautiful eyes darted to hers.
"Legend!" Battalion Chief Kai Ryder, their team leader, yelled at Quaid from so close beside Jessica, she jumped. "What the fuck do you think you're doing?"
"Kai." Jessica's voice scraped out of her throat. One more crack to her heart and it was going to explode. "Scream at him after he's on the ground. Please."
Kai's attention jerked from Quaid's precarious sway to Jessica's face and, damn it, pity crept into his eyes.
The sting of tears pressed across the bridge of her nose. She would not cry. She would not. Damn Quaid for scaring her so badly she hurt. Damn him for putting her in this position with her team.
Kai approached the building. "Get your ass down here, you sonofabitch. A simple bailout, Legend. What part of that didn't you understand? You've only done it a million fucking times."
"Well, yeah, chief," Quaid said with typical ease. "That's why I wanted to work on this one."
This was classic Quaid—going rogue. Quaid the adventure seeker, the adrenaline junkie. Once upon a time, and not all that long ago, it had been sexy. Exciting. Only occasionally annoying. Now married, with him nudging her toward a family, it was terrifying.
"Goddamnit, Quaid," Jessica whispered.
"It's what happened with Duke," Teague said at Jessica's side, using his smooth mediator tone. "He hasn't been able to shake it."
Her thoughts turned to their friend, another firefighter, who was still in a coma with severe brain damage. Duke had recently found himself right where Quaid hung now after being blown out a window at a structure fire. Only Duke had been trapped as the building collapsed around him.
"I know." Her heart felt too big for her chest. "But if he wants to practice getting out of a bad situation, he has to plan for it. He needs an air pad out here. He needs to start lower and build up. He needs—"
"He's been doing this for weeks, Jess. He's gone higher—"
"What?" Her gaze broke from Quaid and cut to Teague. His blue eyes shone bright beneath the brim of his helmet.
Teague shrugged and returned his attention to Quaid.
Jessica followed Teague's gaze and wondered what other risks her husband had been taking without telling her. But she wasn't going to ask and put Teague in the middle. She didn't need to put any more pressure on their friends. As it was, she and Quaid were lucky to still be on the team together.
At the base of the tower, Kai had stopped yelling at Quaid and started coaching him through the steps of this new drill. Quaid's grin was back. Mischief sparkled in his velvet brown eyes again as he prepared to defy gravity like the rebel he was. Rebel to the core. Which was one of the things she loved about him. One of the things that shot heat through her veins and pumped adrenaline straight to her heart. The very damn reason she loved him so much sometimes it hurt to breathe.
But she wasn't breathing now—as Quaid pushed his body backwards for momentum, then swung toward the ladder. Every muscle in Jessica's body tensed. She leaned into the metal and held tight. Quaid twisted, then flipped like a gymnast, and righted himself. His gloves slapped metal. His single free boot found traction on a rung. But momentum tugged at the other leg still wound in the rope and that planted foot slipped.
Jessica sipped another frightened breath. Then Quaid regained his footing. Only when he unwound his other leg from the safety-rope-turned-death-trap did Jessica start breathing again.
"I thought he'd grow out of this kind of shit when you two got married," Teague muttered. "But it's not lookin' good, Jess."
Quaid couldn't even do something as simple as descend a ladder without flash. Instead of climbing down the rungs, he straddled the metal, settled his boots on either side of the vertical supports and started a stealthy slide toward the ground. He released one side of the ladder and turned to look for Jessica. As soon as his gaze found hers, he smiled. A big, warm, intimate smile just for her. A smile of shared excitement. A smile that said everything from, "Hey, babe, I'm back," to "Did you see that?" to "You're not really mad, right?"
And damn it, she didn't want to be mad when he looked at her like that. But she was. Which led to an onslaught of guilt. Followed by a burst of unrestrained anger.
By the time his boots came within a couple feet of the ground, his smile had vanished, and concern made that cute little V appear between his eyes. The one she loved to kiss away. Before he touched down, Jessica headed toward the station's engine bay.
"Jess?" he called. "Hey, Jessie. Wait."
He jogged up beside her, but didn't touch her, didn't try to slow her down or force her to look at him. He knew better.
"Come on, baby," he crooned in a voice that should have been outlawed. Deep and smooth and so damn sexy. "I know, I shouldn't have surprised you like that, but I did good, right?"
She clenched her teeth.
He bent forward, trying to look into her eyes. He'd taken off his helmet and in her peripheral vision she saw the dirt smudges on his face, his thick black hair mussed. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep a flood of tears from pushing over her lashes. He never looked better than after he'd been working. The light in his eyes, the excitement on his face, the raw life buzzing over his skin, and that smile ... Never was he more pure Quaid Legend, the man she loved heart, body and soul, than after he'd been working.
"Jessie, stop for a second." They passed through the huge bay doors and in one swift move, he darted in front of her, then blocked her every attempt to get by with a simple shift of his body.
"Quaid, knock it off."
Whatever expression she wore shocked him. He jerked his head back as if dodging a punch, and the playful frustration drained, replaced with something dark and far more serious. Something that made Jessica's chest cinch down tighter.
He dropped his helmet. The thunk against concrete shocked Jessica, and she jumped, frantically searching for the gear as if he'd dropped a child. She'd never seen him drop anything, especially not a piece of equip—
He slipped his hands beneath her turnout jacket and around her waist, pulling her up against him. He was strong and warm and familiar. And they fit so perfectly together. In so many ways. She hated the way he continued to put that at risk.
"Hey." He lifted a hand to her face. "What's this? I've never seen you like this."
"Quaid ..." She glanced over her shoulder for the rest of the team. "Don't—"
"Screw them. Look at me. You're scaring me, Jess."
Her gaze shot back to his. Her hands fisted in his jacket. "Scaring you? No, Quaid, scaring you would be more like me jumping out a fifth-story window on the spur of the moment while you were watching."
Guilt flooded his eyes. "I'm sorry, Jess. I ... didn't think—"
She pushed back, breaking his grip, her anger, terror, pain renewed. "You can't just say you're sorry and make it all go away. Do you have any idea, any idea, how it felt for me to stand there and watch you? Watch you roll out the window and let go of that ladder?"
"I know. I—"
"No, you don't know." Tears spilled over her lashes before she could stop them. "I thought I was going to stand there, helpless, and watch you fall to your death."
"Oh, shit. Christ, don't cry, Jess. That's not what I was ... I was trying to ... I wanted to ... with what happened to—"
"Duke." She pulled the hem of her shirt up and wiped her face. She hated how he caved when she cried, how he completely lost focus on the argument at hand. How he'd promise her anything just to get her to stop. "I know, but that doesn't—"
Their pagers went off at the same time and a stereo of beeps echoed in the bay.
"Ah, shit." Quaid glanced at the display hooked to his belt and Jessica silenced her unit. "Just a warehouse."
His turnout jacket fell back into place and he reached for her again.
She stepped back. "This is serious, Quaid. I need you. I depend on you. You're—" Her throat closed. Tears renewed and she took a breath to keep them back. "You're everything to me. Everything. If you really want a family you cannot be pulling shit like that. Do you understand?"
"Absolutely." He nodded, his eyes serious and intent on hers, and so very clear. She knew he meant what he was saying. "Yes."
The tension inside her shifted from heavy despair to blessed relief. She threw herself into him, knowing he'd catch her. He held tight, pressed his face to her neck and wiped his damp eyes on her skin.
"I'm sorry, baby. I love you so much. I worry all the time, you know? Shit like what happened with Duke ... I just want to know how to stay safe. How to keep you safe. I want us together ... forever."
Footfalls sounded on the concrete, and for the first time since she and Quaid had started dating, she didn't care who saw them together at work.
"I told you she wouldn't stay mad at him longer than ten minutes." Keira's voice cut into Jessica's moment of relief, which was just as well. She was ready to melt into her husband and let him take over. Let him do whatever he damn well pleased just to see him smile, which was exactly how they'd gotten here.
"You're one to talk, sweetness," Luke, their teammate and Keira's new boyfriend, teased with a tousle of her hair. "You can't stay mad at me for two."
"Knock that shit off," Kai grumbled, passing them on the way toward their hazmat rig. Jessica pulled away from Quaid just before Kai slammed Quaid's helmet against his chest with a glare of steel. "Watch your gear, Legend. And one more epic act of stupidity like that, and I'll kick your ass to Iceland. Load up."
Quaid's ass could have already been in Iceland. Despite his close seat alongside Jess in the back of the truck with her fingers curled into his, the look he'd seen on her face earlier still chilled him. It was the same look he saw on Duke's wife's face whenever a doctor entered Duke's room in the ICU. And Quaid didn't want to see that look in Jess's eyes again. Ever. His efforts to master that damn drill had been for exactly that purpose—to keep that look out of her eyes.
He pulled his hand from hers and sat forward in his seat, leaning elbows on knees. She might think he was everything to her, but she was his goddamned universe. And the road noise and others talking wasn't helping him think. Wasn't helping him figure out where his damn defect was or how to repair—as Kai had so perfectly put it—his act of epic stupidity.
Jess leaned into him and combed her fingers through his hair. Love, rich and warm and sweet, pushed wetness into Quaid's eyes. He closed them, pressed his fingers against the lids to ease the sting and let his mind wind around every possible way he could make this up to her.
They'd been riding twenty minutes, now well into the desolate mountains of the Sierra Nevada, when Kai called attention and started giving information.
"This is a government storage warehouse," he said, reading from his iPhone, where he stored data on all area buildings. "It houses machinery and supplies. We shouldn't run into weapons or biohazard, but we'll have petroleum-based products and cleaning supplies. May have high combustibles burning toxins and no doubt our beloved plastics."
The vehicle slowed and bounced onto a rough road. Quaid grabbed a handlebar above Jessica's head and braced her with his body.
"I'll take the entry team with Teague and Luke," Kai continued. "Keira, Jess, Quaid and Seth take second in. The hazmat team from Carson City will be there as backup."
Quaid saw an opportunity for redemption. The first step toward taking that look out of Jess's eyes forever. And after Luke and Teague popped the vehicle's doors and the team dropped into the cool night, Quaid went in search of Kai.
The scent of pure mountain pine mixed with smoke. One deep breath and excitement rushed his system. Adrenaline fueled his muscles and pumped his energy. His thoughts sharpened, his reactions quickened. He was high and ready to take on the flames.
But he couldn't do that tonight. He couldn't play that reckless cowboy anymore.
Local firefighters already had their ladder truck positioned alongside the building, their hoses pouring water on fiery tongues licking through a hole in the metal ceiling. Three other engines were positioned near the main door. Firefighters hauled hose from the back of the trucks, the thick canvas slithering along the asphalt like tan snakes. Light from flood lamps cascaded over the surrounding terrain, making the aspens' flat leaves sparkle gold among the dark towering pines.
Quaid followed Kai to the opposite side of the vehicle and stopped close. "Chief, I'd like to be on the entry team."
Kai yanked open a compartment. "As if."
"I know I screwed up. Give me a chance to fix it."
"If you can't act like a professional in training—"
"Give it a rest, Kai. We've worked together for eight goddamned years. Do you want me to remind you how many times my unorthodox ways have saved your ass?"
Kai shot him a heavy-lidded look around the metal door, but his silence said he was considering. Quaid held his breath, waiting ... hoping. After several seconds, Kai finally said, "Fine, you're on the entry team. But Quaid? I want you to think about how ball-shriveling glacial it is in Iceland right now."
"If you make even half a misstep, you're off this team. You got me?"
Quaid exhaled slowly. "Yes, sir."
With purpose and a plan, Quaid headed back toward the truck. He found Jess on the far side, unloading gear while studying the fire. He smiled to himself, a little surprised at the new sense of maturity and pride rising inside him.
"Lucky this didn't spread," she said, her gaze straying to the tree line. "If it had reached the forest, we could have lost thousands of acres. And look at those aspens. They're so pretty. God I love this time of year." She set her oxygen tank on the ground at her feet. "Where'd you go?"
"To talk to Kai. I'm on the entry team."
"Quaid, you don't have to do that."
Excerpted from Rush by Joan Swan. Copyright © 2013 Joan Swan. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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