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Nic Carano leaped from the fire engine as soon as the truck came to a rolling stop, heedless of the sixty pounds of turnout gear weighing him down. Along with the captain, the driver and two other firefighters from Station One, he'd been the first to arrive on a very bad scene. Flames shot out of the front windows of an old two-story Victorian. Fully involved. Being devoured by the beast. Smoke plumed upward like gray, evil genies. With a sinking heart, Nic realized fire crews had only arrived and they were already behind.
Almost simultaneously, Engine Company Two wailed onto the scene and "pulled a spaghetti" as a pair of firefighters, moving in opposite directions, circled the structure with the two smaller lines.
Someone said, "We've got people inside."
Nic's adrenaline jacked to Mach speed. He glanced at his captain, and noticed the fire reflecting gold and red in the other man's pupils. Without a word, Nic tapped a finger to his chest. Ten minutes ago he'd been asleep in his bunk. Now he was wide awake and revved for takeoff.
"You and Ridge do the primary." Captain Jack Summers's graying mustache barely moved as he spoke. "No heroics."
His captain knew him well. Nic wanted in. He wanted to face the beast and win. Maybe he broke a rule now and then, but Captain knew he'd never endanger the crew. He and Sam Ridge, a quietly intense Kiowa Indian had gone to the academy together and practically read each other's minds.
If there were people inside, they would find them.
He and Ridge charged the house, pulling hose. Engine Company Two axed through the front door. The beast roared in anger. Nic and Sam hit their knees, crawling low into the dark gray blindness. As nozzle man, Nic went first, spraying hot spots while Sam rotated the thermal imaging camera left to right around the rooms.
The whoosh-hush of his own breathing filled his ears. Darth Vader, he thought with humor. Otherwise he heard nothing, saw nothing.
"Front room clear," he said, feeling his way through a doorway to the left and into the next room.
"We got casualties." His partner's terse words jacked another stream of adrenaline into Nic's already thundering bloodstream. He aimed the hose in the direction Sam indicated and crawled through the smoke to a bed. Two people lay far too still.
In moments, he and Ridge had shouldered the victims and were back outside. A man and a woman. Young. Maybe his age. He discerned no movement, no rise and fall of rib cage. Smoke, he figured, because they looked asleep. The woman was blond. In Scooby Doo pajamas.
Paramedics took over, working frantically. But Nic's gut hurt with the knowledge: they'd arrived too late.
Nic clenched his jaw against the emotion. Fury at the fire. Fury at himself for being too late.
Though he'd been on the force for five years and he'd been taught to stay detached, firefighters were human. This could be one of his sisters.
"I'm going back in," Nic said grimly. "There may be kids upstairs."
More victims was always a possibility. He could only hope the smoke hadn't gotten that far yet.
The captain gripped his shoulder. "Parrish and Chambers can go."
Nic shook his head, already changing to fresh air tanks. "Me and Ridge. We started it. Let us finish it."
The captain's radio crackled. Lifting the black rectangle to his lips, Summers motioned toward the inferno. "Go. Don't do anything stupid."
This wasn't the first time Nic had heard the warning. And it wouldn't be the last.
He and Sam made the stairs in double time. Fire danced below them, taunting and teasing. The firefighters outside were doing their job, knocking down the worst. Smoke rolled as wild and dark as Oklahoma thunderheads.
The thin wail of a smoke detector pierced the crackle and roar of the blaze. Downstairs had been ominously silent. No detector. Or one that had been disconnected. Nic's teeth tightened in sad frustration.
Again, moving clockwise, they searched two rooms before Nic heard another sound. He stopped so fast, his buddy slammed into him.
"Did you hear that?" Nic asked.
"Can't hear anything over that detector but you, puffing like a freight train."
Nic pointed with his chin. "Scan over there."
Sam raised the camera. "Bingo."
The noise came again, a mewling cry. "A kid?"
"Baby." Sam shifted the viewfinder into Nic's line of sight. "And he's kicking like mad."
Nic wasted no breath on the exultant shout that formed inside him. Handing off the nozzle to his partner, Nic approached the crib and had the crying child in his arms in seconds. His blood pumped harder than the engine outside, consuming way too much air. "Let's get out of here."
Sam scanned the rest of the room as they exited, hosing hot spots along the way. A crumpling roar shook the floor beneath them. They both froze. Nic tucked the baby closer, waiting to see if the flooring would give way and send them plummeting down into the inferno.
Sometimes Nic wondered if his afterlife would be like that: A trapdoor sprung open and a long fall down into the flames.
Pray, Mama, he thought, knowing Rosalie Carano prayed for him all the time. He was her stray son, the one who danced on the borderline between faith and failure. Often she told of waking in the night to pray when he was on duty. He hoped she'd awakened tonight.
With the fire below them, eating its way up, it was only a matter of time until the second floor would be fully involved or structurally unsound. If it wasn't already.
"Move it, Sam. This little dude is struggling." Everything in him wanted to break protocol and give the baby his air mask. He'd do it, too, if he had to and worry about the consequences later. Nic reached toward his regulator.
A gloved hand stopped him.
"Don't even think about it, hotshot," Ridge growled, reading his intention. "You're no good to him dead."
Ridge was right. As always. Neither of them knew what might transpire before they could escape. Firefighters had been trapped in far less volatile situations.
Nic gave a short nod and started down the stairs, the infant tight against his chest. Almost as quickly, he jerked to a stop and slung his opposite arm outward to block Sam. "Trouble."
Heart jackhammering, Nic spoke into his radio. "Firefighter Carano to Captain of Engine One. Stairs have collapsed. We have an infant, approximately three months old, conscious and breathing, but we have no means of egress. I repeat, Captain, we have no means of egress."
A moment of silence seemed to stretch on forever. The baby had stopped struggling. Gone quiet.
Pray, Mama. Pray for this kid.
Nic was reaching for his air mask again when the radio crackled. "Firefighter Carano, you have a window on D side, second story. We'll send up an aerial."
He dropped his hand.
"10-4." Now to find the window. Fast. Though the upstairs smoke remained moderate, the darkness was complete. Without the imaging camera, he was as good as blind.
Keeping the baby as low to the ghostly haze as possible, Nic felt his way around the walls through the upper rooms, working toward what he hoped was D side. His partner found the exit first and opened it with a forcible exit tool. Glass shattered, the sound loud and welcome. The baby jerked. Cool night air rushed in.
Nic yearned to reassure the frightened infant. Through the plastic of his visor, he looked down into the wide, tearing eyes. Poor little dude would probably grow up with a terror of Star Wars.
The ladder clattered against the outside. Nic handed the child to Sam and climbed out, grateful for the flood of light as he reached back for the baby. He always appreciated life and light and fresh air a lot more after an entry such as this.
In seconds, he was down the ladder and on the ground.
Paramedics whisked the baby out of his arms and started toward the ambulance. Nic followed, ripping away his helmet and mask as he walked.
His legs felt like deadweights inside his turnout boots.
"He gonna be all right?"
The red-haired paramedic, Shannon Phipps, nodded, her busy hands assessing, applying oxygen and otherwise doing her job with rapid-fire efficiency.
"You done good, Carano," she said.
Nic knew he was expected to shoot back a wisecrack so he did. In truth, all he could think of was the tiny boy in blue sleepers who would never know his mother and father.
"We'll get him to the hospital," Shannon said. "But I think he'll make it. Listen to that cry."
Nic nodded, watched the paramedics load and slam doors. Heard the whack-whack of a hand on the back indicating the ambulance could pull away.
He jogged to his captain, equipment thudding, and then, as the ambulance started to leave, he stepped in front of the headlights. The driver slammed on his breaks and rolled down his window.
With a frown, the paramedic said, "Carano, I should have known it was you. You maniac, what are you doing?"
"Make room," he said. "I'm going with you."
This can't be real. This can't be real. Please, God in heaven, this can't be real.
Cassidy Willis's mind chanted disjointed prayers and denials as she stumbled down the corridor of Northwood Regional.
Janna and Brad would be waiting for her. They would laugh and yell a very cruel "April Fool." This was not real. Her sister and brother-in-law could not be dead.
A nurse stopped her. "Miss, are you all right?"
Cassidy nodded numbly.
"Fine." The word came out as a croak. "I need room twelve-fifteen. Alexander Brown. My nephew."
Comprehension and a heavy dose of compassion registered behind the nurse's glasses. She knew baby Alex was an orphan now.
An orphan. Oh no. Could she live through this torment again? She'd already lost her parents. Janna had been her family, her best friend, her sister. They'd had each other when life had been too hard to bear.
Cassidy closed her eyes and swayed. The nurse looped an arm gently through hers. "I'll walk you down. You must be devastated."
Devastated. Devastated. Like a recording stuck on repeat, words reverberated and replayed in her head.
All she could do was nod and stumble on, going through the motions. Doing what had to be done.
Whatever that was.
Alex. Baby Alex needed her. He was alone. All alone in a violent world that had stolen his mommy and daddy. A mommy and daddy who had loved him fiercely.
She felt lost. Alone. Just like Alex.
At the door of the room, she paused and sucked in a deep breath, hoping for strength, settling for vague sensory input. Hospital food. The clatter of trays coming off the elevator. Breakfast.
It seemed like hours since the sheriff had appeared at her door. But morning had just arrived, the dawn of a new and terrible day. A day she could not bear to face.
Maybe she was still asleep. Still dreaming. That was it. Bad dreams about death and destruction were all too common to her.
Wake up, Cass. Wake up.
The urging didn't work. She was still standing outside a thick, brown door inside Northwood Regional Hospital staring into the gentle eyes of a nurse. Wishing she could slide to the floor and die, too, Cassidy faced the fact that this nightmare was the real thing.
?" How did she ask if he was horribly burned or hooked up to tubes and wires? If he was suffering?
The nurse nodded, understanding Cassidy's concern. "He was far enough away from the fire to escape the worst. He suffered some smoke inhalation, but nothing that breathing treatments won't resolve in a few days. He should recover well."
With a push to the center of her glasses, the kind woman left the rest unsaid. Alex had slept in the remodeled nursery upstairs. His parents slept downstairs in the unfinished portion of the old house. The fire must have started on the bottom floor, sucking their lives away while they slept, exhausted from the chore of remodeling the beautiful old Victorian into a bed-and-breakfast. A dream that would die with them.
The nurse hovered, leaning close to whisper. "He came in with the baby. I hope you don't mind."
Cassidy paused, perplexed, the flat of one hand against the cool wooden door.
"Who?" She had no relatives close enough to have arrived already. Not anymore. No one but Alex.
"The firefighter. He won't leave."
Cassidy tensed. The last thing she wanted was a firefighter hanging around to remind her of what she and Alex had lost this horrible night. She wanted the man to get out, to leave her in peace. But she hadn't the strength to say so.
"I'll handle things from here. Thank you." Her voice sounded strangely detached, as though her vocal cords belonged to someone else far away in a big, empty auditorium.
"If I can do anything
Cassidy managed a nod. At least she thought she did as she pushed the door open and stepped inside.
The eerie quiet that invades a hospital deepened inside the room. Pale morning light from the curtained windows fell across a bulky form. Still dressed in the dark-yellow pants and black boots of a firefighter, stinking of soot and smoke, a man had pulled a chair against the side of Alex's crib. Turnout coat hung on the back of the chair, his dark head was bowed, forehead balanced on the raised railing. One of his hands stretched between the bars, holding Alex's tiny fingers.
Too exhausted and numb and grief-stricken to think, Cassidy paused in the doorway to contemplate the unlikely pair a baby and a fireman. What was the man doing? Sleeping? Praying? Why was he here?
Unexpected gratitude filtered in to mix and mingle with her other rampaging emotions. After the night's tragedy, she could hardly bear to think about anything related to fireeven the men who fought itbut she was very glad her four-month-old nephew had not been alone all this time.
The fireman roused himself, lifting his head to observe the sleeping baby and then to turn and look at her. Cassidy's first impression was of darkness. The same black soot covering his clothes smeared his face, so that Cassidy had a hard time discerning his age or looks. His eyes, though reddened behind the spiky eyelashes, were as dark as his nearly black hair. Only the fingerprint cleft in his chin stood out, stark white against the soot.
With another look at the baby, the man carefully slid his fingers from Alex's grip and stood. He wasn't overly tall, but his upper body was athletic and fit beneath the navy North-wood Fire Department shirt. Weariness emanated from him.
"Are you the aunt?" he asked. "They said he had an aunt." He glanced back at Alex, swallowed. "My sister has a baby."
Then he stopped as if the word sister was too strong a reminder of the night's loss.
"Yes, I'm his aunt. Cassidy Willis."
She moved to the raised crib and gazed down at the child with her sister's dark-blond hair and Brad's high cheekbones. What was she going to do now? What would Janna want her to do? Who would be mother and father to her sister's little boy?
"Is anyone else coming to be with you?"