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Fiona Cobb sliced open a box of books in the storage room of The Reading Nook. This was the last box, and by the clock on the wall, she had exactly twelve minutes before she had to leave to get her son to school.
Thankfully, Betsie, who owned the Sweet Shoppe two doors down, had stopped by half an hour ago to see if Sean wanted to taste test her new cinnamon rolls. Her son had bounced out of the storeroom after Betsie with a constant stream of conversation, their two dark heads nearly touching as he pulled Betsie close for a six-year-old secret. Quite the lady's man, her Sean. Fiona shuddered as she imagined what life would be like at sixteen.
Ah, well, with four brothersthree of them copsand a passel of cousins who were firefighters, she had plenty of experience with alpha males.
Fiona loaded her arms with the stack of books on gardening in preparation for the Happy Diggers Club meeting. In April in Fitzgerald Bay, everyone's mind would be turning to spring flowers, even if they were still buttoning up their winter coats in the early morning hours.
In fact, someone nearby must be burning a fire this morning to take the chill off. She carried the books to the round display table near the front window. The Happy Diggers tended to be early and she wanted them to have plenty of books to browse through and buy on their way out.
She glanced at her watch. Betsie had saved her skin again. Five minutes until she had to pick up Sean to walk him to school. Maybe enough time for one more stack of books?
If possible, the smell was even stronger back here in the storeroom. Most people loved a fire, but for Fee, a burning fire wasn't cheerful and the aroma of smoke wasn't reassuring. All it did was remind her of what she'd lost. A husband, Sean's daddy, a happy united family.
She looked up. A curl of smoke came through the vent in the ceiling. For a few seconds, she stared at it, frozen.
Smoke in the vent meant firenot the warm your hands kind of fire, but real life-stealing fire.
Fiona grabbed her cell phone, pressing the numbers 9-1-1. She ran out the back door, looking both ways down the back alley. Smoke poured through the seams of the building over the Sweet Shoppe. She ran down the alley, toward the back door. Oh, dear God, please, not again. Please.
"9-1-1, what's your emergency?"
"Fire. At the Sweet Shoppe on Main Street. I think there are people trapped inside." More smoke swirled in the alley behind the confectionery as she hung up the phone.
"Sean!" She pounded on the door. She couldn't hear anything. "Betsie!"
A faint yell came from inside. Oh, God, no. They were still in there. She reached for the door handle. It wasn't hot, but the door wouldn't budge. She pulled again, putting her foot against the wall on the other side. It wasn't moving. "Betsie!"
Her phone rang in her hand. She fumbled it, nearly dropping the handset before she answered it.
"Fiona! There's something jamming the lock. And there's fire blocking our way to the front door." Bet-sie's voice was calm for Sean, but there was the edge of panic lacing it. Fiona saw Hunter Reece's familiar old navy blue truck slam to a stop down the street and in the distance, finally, she could hear sirens.
She looked at the solid wood door. Even if she had the tools, she wouldn't be able to get it open in time. The small storage room window was their only option.
"Bets, open the window. If it's painted shut, find something that you can break it with. I'm going to get something to stand on." Fiona looked around the alley. A couple pine fruit boxes were stacked behind the market. She wasn't sure they would take her weight, but it was all she had to work with.
"Okay, okay. I think I've got something." Betsie coughed. "Sean, it's gonna be okay. Mommy's right outside waiting for you. Fiona, stand back."
The window burst out in a shower of glass. A can of shortening came rolling to a stop at Fiona's feet. "Great job, Betsie. Okay, you're going to have to hurry. Get Sean up there, fast."
She stuck the phone in the pocket of her slacks and stacked the fruit cartons one on top of the other next to the window. Climbing on, she stripped off her jacket and threw it over the ragged edge of glass on the bottom of the window. Sean's head appeared in the opening, his small face streaked with soot and tears. "Mommy!"
"Stretch your arms out, Sean. You can do it." Tears streamed from her own eyes. He was still her baby.
Strong, steady hands gripped her waist, stabilizing her balance. Hunter. Thank God.
"Come on, Sean. Just a little farther." Her boy extended his arms as far as he could. She could barely touch one hand.
"Mommy, I can't reach you!"
From behind her on the ground she heard Hunter's deep voice. "You can do it, L.J. Just a bit farther."
Hearing Hunter's words and the nickname, Sean's little face hardened into determination and his fingers closed around hers. She gave one huge jerk as Betsie pushed from the other side. Sean slammed into her and she tumbled back.
Hunter's arms closed around her as she caught Sean against her chest. She pulled him tight against her, feeling his solid weight. She couldn't get a breath in, but she didn't care. He was safe.
The fire engine wailed to a stop down the block at the end of the alley. Thank you. Thank you, God.
Fiona dug the phone out of her back pocket as Sean scrambled into Hunter's arms. "Betsie, are you there?"
Betsie coughed into the phone. "It's bad in here, Fee. The fire's getting hotter and there's no way my curves are squeezing through that window."
"Hang on, babe. Hunter's here and the fire trucks just got here. Get down on the ground, as low as you can." She turned to look at Hunter, her eyes connecting with his steady brown ones. That was Hunter, strong and steady. Always there when she needed him. He nodded. "You just hang in there, Betsie."
She didn't have to say the words. Hunter knew. She jerked in a breath that was more like a sob as Hunter passed Sean back to her.
"Get him to safety. Let me work on the door." Hunter was already sizing up the door with a metal crowbar he'd brought from his pickup. "Tell Liam we need the irons."
"You don't have gear." Terror choked her words.
"I'm fine. Get him out of here, Fee." He turned back to the building and slammed the sharp end of the crowbar into the small crack between the door and the wall.
Hitching Sean higher on her hip, she ran for the engine. The first firefighter swung off onto the ground, pulling up his hood and slamming his helmet into place. As he turned to look at her, his Fitzgerald blue eyes were unmistakable. Her cousin Danny.
"Betsie's trapped inside in the back storeroom. Danny, there's not much time." She tried to catch her breath, failed.
"Don't worry, cuz. We'll get her." He shouldered the ax and Halligan toolthe irons Hunter had asked forbefore running toward the building, his partner Nate Santos close behind him.
The fire chief's red truck pulled in as the other two firefighters began rolling hose to the hydrant.
Fiona stopped at the curb and just held on to her son, feeling his sturdy little body against hers. He was safe, thanks to Betsie. She closed her eyes, only to open them again as Sean squirmed his way to the ground, clearly not as traumatized as she was.
Her cousin Liam, the officer on A-shift, was talking into the radio. "Fire-Rescue One is on scene at a two-story attached building at a working fire. We're hand-jacking a line, initiating search and rescue. We're in offensive strategy, requesting the balance of the First Alarm and one ambulance." He glanced to the side as his father strode up beside him. "Fire Chief Mickey Fitzgerald is Main Street Incident Command."
Fiona looked down at her shirt. It was red with Sean's blood. Where was he hurt? He was glued to the action as Liam passed the clipboard to his dadFiona's Uncle Mickeymade sure the hose was run properly, and beelined toward her and Sean with a medical kit. "Sean was inside?"
At her nod, he dug a stethoscope out of the bag. Everyone on the small crew was cross-trained for medical response. Sean's dad had been an EMT, too. "Is he having any trouble breathing?"
"No, not that I can tell. Hehe has a cut from the glass." Her gaze darted back down the alley, where Betsie was fighting for her life. As if to emphasize that fact, an ambulance stopped in middle of the street, the medics grabbing their trauma kits and running toward the fire scene.
"I can breathe good, but not when there was all the smoke. It was really smoky. My arm hurts a little." Sean, clearly over the drama, dropped to the curb, where an ant was making its slow way down a crack.
On Main Street, the volunteer firefighters had arrived and begun to work at the fire from the other side. Hunter had told her once that a fire scene was like a well-choreographed dance. Everyone knew their part and when they all did it right, it was a beautiful thing. She couldn't see it.
She couldn't see anything. Where were they? They should have Betsie out by now.
A police cruiser came wailing to a stop on the street, blocking the small side street from people who wanted a closer look. Her sister, Keira, bailed from the car, a determined look on her pixie face, not quite panic, but close. "Fiona?"
"It's okay. We're fine. Betsie's still inside. They're trying to get her out."
"I'll be here if you need anything." Keira drew in a deep breath and gave Fiona a quick, fierce hug. She ran toward Main to block off the area, keeping it clear for emergency vehicles.
"So it was really smoky?" Liam unbuttoned his turnout coat so he could sit beside Sean on the curb. He turned up Sean's face. "How close were you to the fire, bud?"
Fiona didn't want to hear this, yet every nerve ending seemed focused on Sean's answer, the hustle and bustle of the fire scene fading into the background.
"Really close, just like you when you fight fires. Just like my dad did."
"You were brave, too, just like your dad." Hunter walked up behind them, and when she turned, his eyes were on hers, over Sean's head. He looked so good to her, calm and competent. Safe.
"Betsie?" Fiona's voice was hoarse and she cleared her throat. "Is she"
"We got her. Medics are working on her." He rubbed a hand through sun-shot brown hair and soot rained down. "The chief's commanding the scene. Everything's under control."
He knew she would want to know the bottom line. Everything under control. She took a deep breath, thankful she was able, and said a silent prayer for Betsie.
Liam pulled a penlight out of one of his many pockets. "All right, Sean, open up and let me see those shiny teeth."
Sean giggled and looked at Hunter. "I don't have any in the front."
"I know, ace. Come on, now. Let Liam have a look at your tonsils. He wants to make sure you're okay."
Sean obediently opened his mouth. One of the dangers of a hot fire was breathing in the smoke, not from lack of oxygenit was obvious Sean was thinking straightbut from the danger of swelling.
"Okay, Fiona, I think his throat looks good for now. They'll check him again in the E.R. just to be sure."
Liam took a look at the cut on Sean's arm. "I'll patch this up with some gauze, but I think it's going to need S-T-I-T-C-H-E-S."
Sean flicked accusatory blue eyes up to meet his cousin Liam's. "I can spell. I'm in the first grade."
Fiona laughed and ruffled Sean's black curly hair. Thank God he was okay. He was still her little spunky, funny boy. "It'll be fine. You'll have a war wound to share at show-and-tell tomorrow."
One of the paramedics rolled the gurney toward the ambulance. Betsie was buckled on it. Danny walked alongside, carrying an IV bag as the other paramedic breathed for Betsie with a bag valve maskshe'd inhaled so much more smoke than Sean. And she'd been so brave, getting him out.
Could Fiona survive if fire took another person that she loved? She watched as Danny helped load the gurney and slammed the door of the ambulance with her friend inside. All around her people were in motion. Firefighters tried to stop the flames from spreading. Cops directed traffic around the scene. Emergency medical personnel treated minor casualties.
She spun around. "I have to get Sean to the hospital."
"I'll drive you. I'm off duty all day." Hunter dug in his pocket for keys.
Fiona pulled away, shook her head. "I need some time." They'd been friends since childhood. He knew her, better than most of her family, probably. He would understand why she needed to get away from this.