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Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
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Chapter OneSean Devaney's eyes were stinging from the smoke at the still-smoldering ruins of a tumbledown Victorian house that had been converted into low-rent apartments. Bits of ash clung to his sweat-dampened skin and hair. Even after stripping off his flame-retardant jacket and coveralls, Sean continued to feel as if he'd just exited an inferno ... which he had. The acrid smell of smoke was thick in the air and in his clothes. Even after ten years with the Boston Fire Department, he still wasn't used to the aftermath of fighting a blaze - the exhaustion, the dehydration, the stench.
He'd been young and idealistic when he'd joined the department. He'd wanted to be a hero, craved the rush of adrenaline that kicked in when an alarm sounded. Saving lives had been part of it, but so had the danger, the thrill of putting his own life on the line to do something that mattered. In fact, it seemed Sean had spent most of his life trying to matter in one way or another.
Now, though, with the adrenaline wearing off, all he wanted was a warm, pounding shower and about sixteen straight hours of sleep. Unfortunately, until these last hot spots were thoroughly dampened and the location made secure, Sean was destined to stay right here just in case there was another flare-up.
Thelandlord was damn lucky no one had been killed. Indeed, from what Sean had observed inside, the landlord of this building himself ought to be shot. Even in the midst of battling heat and flames, Sean had noticed that there were so many code violations, he couldn't begin to count them all. Though it would be another twenty-four hours before investigators pinned down the cause of the blaze, in
Sean's opinion it was most likely the outdated and overloaded electrical system. He hoped the landlord had a healthy insurance policy, because he was going to need it to pay off all the suits from his tenants. Most had lost just about everything to flames or to extensive smoke and water damage.
Sean scanned what remained of the crowd that had gathered to watch the inferno to see if there was any sign of a likely landlord, but most of the onlookers appeared to be more fascinated than dismayed by the destruction.
"Hey, Sean," his partner, Hank DiMartelli, called out, a grin splitting his face as he gestured toward something behind Sean. "Looks like we've got a new helper. He's agile enough, but I doubt he meets the department's age and height requirements."
Sean turned around just in time to catch a kid scrambling inside the fire truck. By the time Sean latched on to him, the boy was already reaching with unerring precision for the button to set off the siren.
"Whoa, fella, I think this neighborhood's heard enough sirens for one afternoon," Sean said, lifting the boy out of the truck.
"But I wanna do it," the child protested, chin jutting out in a mulish expression. With his light-brown hair standing up in gelled spikes, he looked a little like a pint-size member of one of those popular boy bands.
"Another time," Sean said very firmly. He set the boy on his feet on the ground and was surprised when the kid didn't immediately take off. Instead he stood there with his unrepentant expression and continued to cast surreptitious glances toward the cab of the engine. Sean had a hunch the boy would be right back up there unless Sean stuck close by to prevent it.
"So," he said, hoping to drag the boy's attention away from his fascination with the siren, "what's your name?"
The kid returned his gaze with a solemn expression. "I'm not supposed to tell it to strangers," he said automatically, as if the lesson had been drilled into him.
Sean hated to contradict such wise parental advice, but he also wanted to know to whom the kid belonged and why he was wandering around the scene of a fire all alone. "Normally I'd agree with that," he assured the boy. "But it's okay to tell me. I'm Sean, a fireman. Police officers and firefighters are good guys. You can always come to us when you're in trouble."
"But I'm not in trouble," he responded reasonably, his stubborn expression never wavering. "Besides, Mommy said never to tell anyone unless she said it was okay."
Sean bit back a sigh. He couldn't very well argue with that. "Okay then, where is your mom?"
The kid shrugged. "Don't know." Sean's blood ran cold. Instantly he was six years old again, standing outside a school waiting for his mom after his first day of first grade. She had never come. In fact, that was the day she and Sean's father had disappeared from Boston and from his life. Soon afterward, he and two of his brothers were sent into foster care, separated forever. Only recently had Sean been found by his older brother, Ryan. To this day, he had no idea what had become of his younger brother, Michael, or of the twins, who'd apparently vanished with his parents.
Forcing himself back to the present, Sean looked into the boy's big brown eyes, searching for some sign of the sort of panic he'd experienced on that terrible day, but there was none. The kid looked perfectly comfortable with the fact that his mom was nowhere around.
Pushing aside his own knee-jerk reaction to the situation, he asked, "Where do you live?"
"I used to live there," the boy said matter-of-factly, pointing toward the scorched Victorian.
Dear God in heaven, was it possible that this child's mother was still inside? Had they missed her? Sean's thoughts scrambled. No way. They had searched every room methodically for any sign of victims of the fire that had started at midafternoon and raged for two hours before being brought under control. He'd gone through the two third-floor apartments himself. His partner had gone through the second floor. Another team had searched the first floor.
"Was your mom home when the fire started?" Sean asked, keeping his tone mild. The last thing he wanted to do was scare the boy.
"Don't think so. I stay with Ruby when I get home from school. She lives over there." He pointed to a similar Victorian behind them. "Sometimes Mommy doesn't get home till really, really late. Then she takes me home and tucks me in, even if I'm already asleep."
The kid kept inadvertently pushing one of Sean's hot buttons. Another wave of anger washed through him. How could any mother leave a kid like this in the care of strangers while she cavorted around town half the night? What sort of irresponsible woman was she? If there was any one thing that could send Sean's usually placid temper skyrocketing, it was a negligent parent. He did his best to stay out of situations where he might run into one. The last time he'd worked a fire set by a kid playing with matches while his parents were out, he'd lost it. They'd had to drag Sean away from the boy's father when the man had finally shown up, swearing he'd only been away from the house for a few minutes. Sean had really wanted to beat some sense into him. A few minutes was a lifetime to a kid intent on mischief.
"Is Ruby around now?" Sean asked, managing to avoid giving any hint about his increasingly low opinion of the boy's mother. He even managed to keep his tone neutral.
The boy bobbed his head and pointed down the street. "Ruby doesn't have a phone, 'cause it costs too much. She went to the store on the corner to call Mom and tell her what happened. I went with her, but then I came back to see the truck."
Excerpted from Sean's Reckoning by Woods Copyright © 2002 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.