Tuesday, August 15, 2023

#NewRelease #FirefighterRomance - Scorched (Brothers of Fire #4) by Kathryn Shay

Title: Scorched
Series: Brothers of Fire #4
Author: Kathryn Shay
Genre: Contemporary/Firefighter Romance
Release Date: August 15, 2023


He’s a top notch firefighter but a failure with women.

She’s one of the best in the CCFD and plans to stay that way. No guy is going to way-lay her.

Tom Mancini is a stellar firefighter and a good friend. But he has trouble with women. So he’s wary of taking on a feisty and independent female firefighter.

Stef is only interested in her job and she’s climbing the ladder to the top. Sure, Tom Mancini is cute, likable and a good grandson. But they’re just friends.

Then circumstances throw them together and these same circumstances tear them apart. Will Tom and Stef be able to maintain a relationship amidst all this turmoil? Or will it be the end of the greatest love either of them has known?

Be sure to grab all the books in The Brothers of Fire: ALL FIRED UP, THE RESCUE, FRIENDLY FIRE, SCORCHED, REKINDLED and COMING IN HOT.





Chapter 1


Where is she? Tom Mancini thought as he checked his watch for the hundredth time. He knew she was finished by now and…the doorbell rang. Not wanting to be too eager, he walked slowly to the foyer and opened the door. Her back was to him. “Stef?”

She turned. Her expression brought a huge smile to his lips. She gave him an impish grin. “I passed.”

Tommy couldn’t help himself. He stepped outside, picked her up and swirled her around. She kept hugging him afterward. “I knew you could do it, Lieutenant Stevens.”

She hugged him close. “You were the reason why.”

Stepping back, he led her inside. “Let’s go sit on the deck.” They went out through the porch. The lawn rolled back a ways and trees gave the whole yard privacy. “It’s beautiful back here.”

He crossed to the table. A bottle rested in a cooler along with cheese and crackers. He smiled at her. “I’m prepared.”

“How sweet that you had so much confidence in me.”

He just wished he had more confidence in himself. He wanted to tell her how he felt about her now that they were equal in rank. “Of course I did.” He grabbed the bottle. Put a towel around it. Pop! The cork flew onto a chair. He poured the bubbly. Gave her a glass.

“To you, Stefanie Stevens. Congratulations.”

“And to you. Thank you for helping me.”

“You would’ve done it without me.”

“Yeah, but it wouldn’t have been any fun.” 

His gaze held hers over the rim of the glass. “For me, too. Stef.”

He broke the eye contact. “Let’s sit.”

They dropped down onto the two person swing. She was still grinning as she looked out at the yard, then patted the arm of the chair. “Did you get this for your grandparents?” 

“Yeah. They sit out here all the time and hold hands.”

“I want to be like them, someday. With somebody special.”

Ask her, you idiot.

But the failures he’d had in his love life prevented him from getting out the words.

“Where are they?” 

He’d lost the train of thought. “Who?”

“Your grandparents, silly.”

“They went to stay with their sister up in Rochester. Their niece came and got them.”

“Will they be gone long?”

“A week. Then I’m picking them up.”

“Hmm.” Her grin was mysterious. 

“So, what firehouse would you go to if you could choose your placement?”

“Noah Keaton’s. On the opposite shift. I really like the smallness of the group and the fact that they aren’t as busy as Carson’s house.”

“Yeah, that appealed to Noah too.” He took a sip. 

“Did you want to go to Engine 2?”

“I was just happy to get a placement. I had to wait a while.”

“I will too, I’m sure.”

He toed the rocker back and forth. “What did your mother think about all this?”

“She doesn’t know yet. I came right here, like we agreed.”

“That makes me feel good.”

She turned her whole body to him. “How good, Tom?”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t pretend you don’t know.”

Take the chance. He set down his glass and took hers, placed it next to his, their sides touching. “I do know from my end, Stef. But how—”

She threw her arms around him. Plastered herself to him. “Kiss me, please. I’ve been dreaming about that.”

The minute his mouth touched hers, he felt the spark. It was like lightning. He deepened the kiss. She opened to him. He explored her mouth, nipped her lips until they were both squirming. He stood. Pulled her up. It felt totally normal to scoop her into a carry and head toward the bedroom. Unable to believe this was happening, he set her on the bed and began to unbutton his shirt.

She opened hers.

Then he dove in.

Stef awoke to a sound. The doorbell. Tom was fast asleep so she’d just take a peek at who was there. Then she’d decide if she’d wake him.

Throwing on his shirt, she tiptoed to the foyer. A woman stood on the stoop, facing the street. Well, this was awkward. Stef pulled open the door and the woman turned around. Oh, she was pregnant. Visibly. “Who are you?” the woman asked.

“Um, I’m Stef. Who are you?”

“Then Tommy’s got a girl on the hook again.”

“Pardon me.”

She touched her belly. “I was another one of them.”

Stef’s gaze dropped to the woman’s stomach. “What are you saying?”

Before she could respond, she heard, “Stef, what are you…” He came to the door in his jeans. No shirt. “Lila?”

“Hello Tom.”

“What do you want?”

“I’m five months pregnant. I’m the last woman you dumped.”

His eyes widened like saucers. “Is it—”

“Yours? Yep. Congratulations, you’re going to be a daddy.”

He turned to Stef. “I’m so sorry.”

“Yeah,” she said heading to the back of the house. “I am too.”

She felt a clutch in her heart as she found her own clothes. She was almost dressed when he came in. 

“Stef. Let me explain.”

“No need. You got a lot to deal with here. But one of the things isn’t me.” She finished buttoning her shirt. “Don’t contact me again.”

“Stef…”

She raced out of the room, to the foyer. She caught a glimpse of Lila in the living room. Tears threatened, but she kept going. Out the door. Out of the driveway. And out of Tom’s life for good. 

#

“Hey, honey. I’m almost ready.” Vanessa, her mother, called out from the bedroom of her condo. 

“No worries.” She took a bottle of water from the fridge and sat in the dining area.

Her mom’s living space was something. She had a knack for decorating and the black lacquer table with red cushioned chairs was a stellar example. In through the wide archway was a huge living space. All black and red, too. She’d separated areas intuitively, so she had a desk in the corner, with a huge curved lamp, and black book cases, then across the way, was a living area consisting of one long curved couch with red pillows. 

Vanessa came out to the kitchen. “Hey, thanks for waiting.” Her mom’s outfit, a simple black sleeveless one piece suit with a wide belt of hammered gold, dangling earrings and bangles to match. The front plunged discreetly.

Stef had chosen to dress in her style too. 

“Would you like me to drive?” her mother asked.

“No, I’m okay with it.” 

Vanessa studied her face. “What aren’t you okay with?”

“I’ll tell you over drinks.”

They arrived at the Glen Edith, a beautiful restaurant overlooking a gorge with a waterfall. They’d snagged a table outside and the sat close to the railing, in a corner. A waiter approached them.

“Good evening, Ms. Stevens. Would you like the champagne you ordered?”

“I would. Thank you.”

When he left, Stef said, “You didn’t have to.”

“Of course I did. It’s not every day that a daughter achieves the rank of lieutenant in the fire service.” She reached across the table to take Stef’s hand. “I want to celebrate.”

“Okay.” Stef put the white napkin on the lap of her slate-blue skirt which had a matching top that fell nicely over her breasts. It was sleeveless, too.

The beginning of August night was warm but comfortable because of the shade and a breeze from the water. They made small talk until the champagne arrived, then her mom toasted to Stef. She took a sip. Hmm. Cool and dry.

“All right, we’re alone. Spill.”

She faced her mother squarely. “I slept with Tom last night.”

Vanessa’s eyes widened. “Wow, that’s a big step.”

“I know. I was just so happy and he was elated that I’d passed. I promised I’d come to see him right after the test. We kind of got carried away.”

“You know honey, there’s nothing wrong with that.” Her mother was a liberal feminist who had taught her that sex was good and healthy.

“Well, first off, I don’t get involved with firefighters.”

“I know.” Her ash-brown brows knitted. “Because of those awful rumors.”

“And second, something really fluky happened.”

When she related the visit from a woman who claimed to be his ex, and pregnant, Stef remembered the shock and disappointment of the confrontation. 

“Oh, my God. Oh, damn it.”

“I know. I probably would have broken my own rule about firefighters and dated him. But this sealed the deal not to do it.”

“That would be a hard road to navigate, especially in a new relationship.”

“Right. A relationship I don’t even want a serious one.”

“There’s always Harry.”

Stef laughed. “Harry’s a great guy. Not the settling down type, though.” Stef had been dating him off and on but the relationship was casual.

“So, how was the sex with Tom?”

She felt the heat rise to her face. “I didn’t expect him to have so much…expertise. He knew a lot. More than any other guy I’ve been with.”

“Darling, there haven’t been that many.”

“I know. But there’s more. He was so tender. And…slow.”

“Whew! A powerful combination.”

“I know. That’s why I said, it’s too bad.”

“What did he want from you?”

“He got as far as let me explain and I cut him off.”

“Maybe that was hasty.”

She took a hefty sip of the champagne. “Oh, Lord, it was, Mom, believe me.”

“All relationships are messy, honey.”

“Not with you. You had a great marriage with Daddy and now with Addison.”

She just watched Stef. “About that.”

“Oh, no, you’re getting married?”

“What? No. Actually, I’m going on a cruise with him. I have vacation saved up and I’m taking two weeks.”

“That’s generous of him.”

“What do you mean? Oh, he’s not paying for me.”

“Mom, he’s rich.”

“I won’t be indebted to him. It’s the fastest way to kill the sizzle.”

Now Stef laughed. “You’re something else, Mother.”

“So are you, Stefanie. Now, back to the expert in bed. Are you sure you want to ditch him?”

She sighed. “I have to. My career’s too important to me. How would that look, me hooking up with a guy who has a pregnant girlfriend?”

“Shitty, I guess. But other people’s opinions haven’t stopped you from doing anything in your past.”

“If I want a career in firefighting, other people’s opinions have to matter. So no, Tommy Mancini is out of my life.”

#


“Okay, Mancini, talk!” This from Adam. The Brothers of Fire had just finished up their fun at ???. Tim had snagged a table way in the corner of the big gym-like space, where they could see the action but it was quiet enough to talk.

“Why me?” Tommy asked grumpily. He was more depressed than he’d ever been in recent memory.

Tim, next to him, socked his shoulder. “You’re wound up tight. Your expression looks like you just lost your best friend, and you mumbled the whole night. And you played like shit. Look, Tommy, we’re here for you.”

He shot a glance at Stark. Adam’ll mock me.”

“No, I won’t, I promise.”

“Well, two big things happened this past weekend. Stef Stevens passed her lieutenant’s exam and we…hooked up afterward.”

“Hooked up as in…” Noah asked.

“What it always means,” Jarek explained. “So, Tom, that sounds like good news. Or was it awful?”

“It blew the top of my head off. Hers, too.” 

“Well, then?”

“We fell asleep, but I got a visitor. Remember Lila?”

“Oh, yeah, the party girl.” Noah frowned. “You were better off without her.”

“She’s pregnant.”

Four jaws gaped.

Tim recovered first. “Is it yours?”

“She said it is. Right in front of Stef.”

Noah scowled. “Oh, boy, bad luck.”

“She also told Stef she was another one of my girls I dumped.”

“You said she dumped you.” This from Adam.

“Okay,” Jarek put in. “I got something to say about this. Lacey heard that you didn’t dump most of the women you said did. It was the other way around. I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to call you a liar.”

“Hell. I thought they dumped me. Some of ‘em gave ultimatums. Other just never answered my call.” He shrugged. “I thought they were ditching me.”

“You’re pretty young, Tom. Maybe you didn’t see things right.” Jarek again.

“Maybe. But that’s not the issue now. First off, I want to be with Stef. Second, I can’t find out if the kid’s mine.”

Adam had been on his phone while he was talking. It pissed Tom off.

“Or course you can.” He held up his cell. “Listen to this. There’s a non-invasive test that can check the free floating DNA that escapes the placenta and is present in the mother’s blood. A blood sample from the mother can be compared to a DNA swab from the father.”

Tommy’s face blanked. 

“What Tom?”

“She said she wouldn’t take one because it would hurt the baby.”

“Untrue. And if she lied about that, she could by lying about the paternity.”

“Why would she?”

“Jesus, Tom, I been telling you you’re a catch.” Tim shook his head. “You’re great looking, you said you were good in bed, and you got a well-paying job.”

He sat back. His whole body went limp. “Fuck.”

“No, don’t give up. If you really want Stef, go after her.”

“She dum--”

“Don’t say it!” Tim again. “Don’t assume anything. Call her or better yet go see her.”

“What would I say?”

“Mostly what you just told us. And how you feel about her.”

“I don’t want to harass her. I hate those kinds of actions.”

Noah spoke. “I’d say the fact that she slept with you is motivation enough.”

“Okay, I’ll think about it. Now, let’s talk about all of you.”

Chapter 2

Stef was home cleaning the house. All of her bravado of the night with her mother had suddenly turned to sadness. She was vacuuming the floor, cleaning as she always did to fight the doldrums. Had her mother been right? Could she have Tommy in her life?

What a nightmare it would be. She hardly knew him.

No, she did know him. He was one of the good guys.

Her side doorbell rang. She shut off the machine, and the quiet was startling. She crossed to the door and opened it up.

There he was, leaning against the railing at the top of the outdoor staircase. He wore jeans and his firefighter navy T-shirt. “Hi.”

“Hi.” She knew how she looked. Ragged cutoff, a tank top, barefoot. She even had a scarf on her head. “Hi.”

“Cleaning?”

“Yeah.”

“You told me you cleaned when you were upset or sad. Which is it?”

She put a hand on her hip. “Both.”

“Can I come in?”

“I told you we were done. Go find you pregnant girlfriend.”

“I’ll go if you really want me to. But we both feel bad. Come ‘on, Stef. Let’s talk.”

She sighed heavily. God she wanted to say yes. “Okay. For a bit.” She led him through her galley kitchen to the living room/dining area. Since the vacuuming was her last chore, she wound up the cord and stashed it in the pantry. 

“Sit.” He took a chair in the seating area facing a window. She sat on the couch that angled up to it and tugged off the scarf. She ran a hand through her hair. “Go ahead. Tell me why you’re here.”

“Because I want you in my life.” His expression was sincere, as was his tone.

“We don’t even know each other that well.” She lied, but she had to protect herself.

“You know that’s a lie. We’ve spent a lot of time together and admit it, the sex was off the charts.”

“What happened to the modest Tommy?”

“I want you.”

“You’ll get over that. So will I. I can’t be with a man who has a pregnant girlfriend.”

“Let’s talk about Lila.”

“That’s the last thing I want to do.”

“She’s the elephant in the room.”

“All right. But I don’t want lurid details.”

Briefly, he told her about how they met, how long they went out, how it was very casual. “We stopped seeing each other about five months ago.”

“What happened?”

“She wanted to get more serious. I didn’t. When she said she wouldn’t settle for that, I took it as a rejection.”

“How do you see this playing out?”

“First off, I need to find out if the baby is mine.”

“Do a DNA test.”

“She won’t.”

“Boy, that’s suspicious.”

“And if it is mine, I’ll be its father. But I won’t be with her. A lot of guys have children with other women. Two are on your shift.”

“Yeah, and the complain about being away from the kids.”

“Wouldn’t it be worth it to try?”

She looked at the ceiling. “Maybe I would, Tommy. But I’m worried about how that would look. I want to rise in the ranks of the fire department and I can’t afford a blemish on my record.”

“I’d be a blemish?”

“The whole situation would be.”

He stared hard at her. “You’re a feminist, right?”

“You know I am.”

“If a guy got girl pregnant, and had a child out of wedlock, that wouldn’t hurt his career at all.”

“I-” She shut up. 

“He wouldn’t Stef. Maybe you could claim that right for yourself?”

She didn’t respond because he was right. 

He got up and crossed to her. She knew she smelled sweaty. He took her hand. Held it in both of his. “I have a proposal. Be with me, see me, until I can figure out a way to get her to take the DNA test. Or if she won’t, until the child’s born. If it’s mine, and we’re still together, then you decide what to do.”

“I’m wary of that, we’ll be too close then. How far along is she?

“Six months.”

“So we’d spend the months together.” She forced herself to go on. “I wouldn’t want to let you go then.”

“I’d feel the same way. What does that tell you Stef?”

“What do you mean?”

“That you already care about me. And I care about you.”

“We’ll get over it.”

“I don’t want to. And if you’re upset and sad, neither do you.”

#

Carson sat in his car in front of Tommy’s house, staring at it. Should he go in? God, the kid was so na├»ve. He needed somebody to look after him. “Shit,” he said as he got out of the Porsche. “This isn’t a good idea.”

Still, he made his way up the driveway and over the brick sidewalk to a nice front porch. Against his better judgement, he rang the bell. 

He answered it. And his jaw dropped. “Carson? What are you doing here?”

“I came to talk to you?”

“That’s great. Come in.”

He walked inside. Nice house. He knew Tommy had remodeled. “Come out to the back sunroom.”

Carson followed him and took a seat on the rattan chair. Tommy said, “Want something?”

“Yeah, I’ll have a beer.”

After Tommy returned, he set the bottles down. The he sat. “It’s so great having you here.”

“This isn’t a social visit. I came to give you some advice.” He drew a card out of his shirt pocket and handed it to Tommy.

He looked down. “Stuart Associates? Who are they?”

“My lawyer. I made you an appointment for next week.”

Tommy’s eyes narrowed on him. “For what?”

Carson came to the edge of his seat and linked his hands between his knees. “Tim Daniels called me. He told me about Lila Hart.”

“Jesus!”

“Don’t get mad. He thought I might be able to help. I think you should keep the appointment and see what your legal recourse is. About the DNA test. And if the kid’s yours, you need a lawyer anyway.”

“Why?”

“Because in New York State, a petition can be filed in Family Court to make her take a DNA test. And if the kid is yours, a lawyer can fight for your rights.”

Like?”

“Custody of the child. Fair payments of child support. Those kinds of things.”

“I looked this up online. I know someone who went through this. His best advice is to get a lawyer.”

“How can somebody force her to do this?”

“Well, the court can’t force her. But then she could be found in contempt and suffer a fine or even jail time. But it didn’t get that far with the guy I know.”

Tommy leaned back. “Fuck. This is really complicating my life.”

“A child always does. You’ll deal with it. But don’t jump the gun. Don’t assume anything until you know if you’re the father.”

Tommy watched Carson. He was smart and savvy. Tommy wasn’t. “You’re right. I should have thought of that.”

“I’m guessing your mind’s swirling about all this.”

He didn’t know the half of it. He could still see the Stef in her home, crying, telling him she wouldn’t take the chance.

“My mind is full of this situation.” 

“Rightfully so. But you need information. Get it, please.”

“All right, I will.”

#

Three nights later, the P.A. crackled out, “Fire at Crystal City Towers. Engine 2 and 5, Truck 2 and Rescue 5 go into service.”  

The five firefighters on Tommy’s squad bolted up and bounded out of bed. They raced to bay, still wearing the nightly attire of shorts and T-shirts. Stuffing their feet and arms into their turnout gear, they climbed onto the truck. Abby Gaines, the driver, turned on the sirens and headed out. Tommy had grabbed the printout.  “This is a big one. Multiple apartments are burning at the assisted living complex.”

Because it was outside his territory, the truck arrived in six minutes and Tommy leapt out. Battalion Chief Cummings at Incident Command met him even before he even reached the command post. “Tommy, get your team out back. Only one section is burning in the rear on Floor 2. Douse it. The Truck 2 is out of this section and on its way, but we can’t wait. Your engine guys have to go inside and do search and rescue.” He started away when the chief called out, “And be careful, the grass is slick.”

In under a minute, the rig was in position. Fingers of gray smoke curled out of the roof. Tom manned the nozzle himself with Lopez behind him.

Bucked back a bit by the force of the hose, Tom poured water on blaze. It went out quickly.

With Lopez carrying the hose, they headed inside and up the staircase. No flames were visible up here and only a bit of smoke lingered hallway. “It’s 112. Right here. Sanders, break down the door.”

A big guy, Sanders lifted his foot and hit the wood, splintering it on the first try. “Sanders, check the kitchen and the closets. Larson and Lopez, go into the room on the right. I’ll take the left one.” 

The team separated. Tom opened the door and it slammed behind him just as he got inside. Odd. He heard a woman coughing. “I got a resident here, Chief. I’ll carry her out.” Still on his knees, he gave the frail older lady some of his air. He heard from his guys, “We need help with this man. He’s big and resisting.”

“Sanders,” he ordered through the radio. Go help them.” 

Then he picked his victim up to chest and headed for the door. 

When he opened it, fire flared up in the hallway. Jesus, Lopez had the hose. “Fire reignited, Lopez. Bring the hose.” 

“We just got down the stairs the victim. Took three of us to stop his flailing and get down the steps. But we’ll come right back up.”

“No time for that. There’s a window in here.” He said calmly into the radio. “I’ll need a ladder Chief.”

“Truck 2, get a ladder up to the east back window.”

Close to the wall, he walked over, set his victim down and lifted the frame.” Miraculously the thing opened. Tom scooped up the old lady again. 

Noah Keaton appeared at the top of the ladder. “Give her to me, Tommy.”

Gingerly, Tom handed her out. Noah situated the woman to face him, his legs between hers, and he gripped onto her torso. It was slow going down.  

He heard the chief say, “Exit the window, Mancini. Fast.”

When the woman was safe in the grass, he climbed out the building and descended the ladder. He’d gone a couple of rungs.

A loud whoosh. The ladder went out from under him.

Tommy fell face first.

#

Stef was rolling up Engine 5’s hose in the front of the building when she heard over the radio, “May Day, May Day, a ladder collapsed in the back. Firefighter down. Firefighter down.”

The chief said, “Taylor, anybody free?”

“Yep. Two of us.” 

“Go back and help. I just sent the Med-Truck there, too.”

Stef and Carson rounded the east side of building and came around the corner. They hurried over to the others. The ladder lay on the ground and a firefighter was face down in the grass. Two others were tending to him. Both Carson and Stef knelt down. “Fuck. It’s Tommy.”

Stef froze. Then, “Is he breathing?”

Noah Callahan said, “Yeah. But we haven’t moved him. We checked his limbs as much as we could through his turnout pants. His boot is at an odd angle. 

Just then, the Med Truck pulled up close to them and two women hurried over, one carrying a gurney. They both knelt. Pierson said, “Secure him with the C-collar, Mackenzie.” 

Mackenzie slid the collar under him and immobilized his neck.

Noah told them what happened. 

Pierson set down the gurney. “Turn him over carefully, watching out for the foot.” 

Tommy moaned as four people helped ease him over.

Dear God, Stef thought, his face was all bloody. 

“I gotta clean him to see if he’s still bleeding.” Mackenzie dug for something in her bag then gently wiped his face. 

“No open wound,” Mackenzie said.

Pierson took out a knife and cut sliced his turnout coat arms, did the same for his pants, then ran her hands along his the bones. “Nothing suspicious. Same thing, guys. Get him on the gurney.”

More moans from Tom, louder moans. They cut Stef to the quick. Once he was secure, they medics raised the stretcher and led him to the truck. 

Carson turned to Noah. “What the fuck happened?”

“The guy who was heeling the ladder took my victim from me. And left his position to hand her to someone else. Just as I jumped off to heel it, the ladder fell.”

“Mancini was already coming down? Why would he do that?”

“I don’t know. But this is my group, I take full responsibility.”

“It’s unacceptable.”

“I know, Carson.” Noah’s tone was sad.

“Clean everything up back here. We’re going to the front.”

Stef squeezed Noah’s shoulder as they left. She reigned her in her emotions. She couldn’t show weakness, any indication that she cared about Tommy. But all she wanted was to go the hospital with him. And she needed him to be all right.

#

After shift was over, Chief Cummings called together the two squads who’d been present at the fire this morning. They came, bedraggled, dirty and exhausted. All of them sat around the table. Cummings asked, “How did this happen?”

Noah spoke up and reiterated his story. Stef felt really sorry for him. 

“Why, Noah?” Cummings asked.

“It happened so fast. I just got to the bottom of the ladder, handed my victim to Kirkland and he had to step back to get ahold of her. I turned to heel the ladder but it went down before I could.”

“Were you hurt?”

“No, Chief. Just knocked aside.”

“But Tommy was on the ladder.” This from Carson. “He fell face first.”

“Did you witness that, Stevens?”

“No.” Stef jumped in. “I wasn’t back there when it happened.”

“I see. So Taylor, were you there?”

“No.”

“So you don’t really have anything to contribute.”

Carson’s face reddened. “Somebody made a mistake.” “

“I see bad choices were made. For one, Tommy should have waited until the ladder was secure.”

“You can’t blame him for this!”

Cumming’s stared at Carson. “Watch your tone, Captain.”

Carson didn’t comment.

“I’m not blaming anybody. Now, Back to Noah’s team. What do you think?”

Noah said, “It happened in seconds. But as I said, I’m officer on group 2. I take the blame.”

Kirkland faced the chief. “I should. I backed away.” 

“It sounds to me like bad luck.”

“What?” Carson raised his voice.

“I’m not sure it could have been prevented. I don’t see any reason to blame Truck 2.”

“I do!”

“Watch your tone, Taylor.”

“I’m putting in for a reprimand for Truck 2.”

“As an officer, you have that right. But I’ll tell you I’ll fight it.”

Noah deflated. “Just put something in my file.”

“No. Carson, you go to Chief Redman and get his take on this.”

Carson stood. Turned. And walked out of the room.

Cummings glared at him as he left.

The meeting broke up and Stef went home. She showered and changed, then decided, Fuck it. I have a right to go check up on a colleague. 

When she arrived and saw a number of firefighters in the waiting room. They were from all the squads who’d been present, plus Tim Daniels, who was sitting with Carson and Jarek Zenko. Adam Stark was missing. She went up to Abby Grimes. “How is he?”

“All I know is what happened at the scene. You were there to hear the medics.”

Just then two more people entered the room. Tommy’s grandparents. Captain Stark escorted them. Rose gripped his arm and Gus bumped shoulders with him. Stef crossed to them. “Hey, Gus and Rose.” 

“Hello, honey.” They hugged.

Do you know what happened?”


“What Adam told us when picked us up. Tommy fell off a ladder.” She looked around the hospital. How is my boy?”

She reiterated what the medics had told them.

Chief Redman approached them. He squeezed Gus’s shoulder and put his arm around Rose. “Keep the faith.”

Within a few minutes, a doctor came out. Everyone crowded around him. “Hey Chief, firefighters,” he said to the group. His gaze landed on the Mancinis. 

Redman said, “These are Tommy’s grandparents.” 

The doctor addressed them. “Tommy’s been X-rayed from head to toe. We’re sending him for an MIR as soon as his ankle is stabilized. So far, the damage is miraculously scarce. Though he’ll probably be black and blue and sore for a long while.”

Rose wept. Gus lifted his chin. “We will take care of him.”

“He’ll be here a couple of nights. Mr. and Mrs. Mancini, you can see him after the MRI.”

“Is he awake?” Stef asked.

“He was. But we gave him something for the pain. So he’ll sleep.”

“We’ll wait,” Gus put in. 

“So will we,” all around from Truck 2, Engine 5 and The Brothers of Fire.



Chapter 3

Adam awoke with a start. He took a look at his watch. 3 o’clock. Hell! Laying back on the pillows, he sighed heavily. Jesus, Stark, go back to sleep. But he couldn’t. What a night. He’d gotten home around five. Had fallen right to sleep. But now, after only a couple of hours, he was conscious again.

Might as well give into it. When he and Beth split, these early awakenings had been frequent. Since he met Stella, they’d gone away. He pictured her sweet face as she’d been two nights in bed. An adventurous lover, she wrung him out. Then clung to him afterward. He liked both.

Beth used to turn over and go to sleep. Then again, the sex had been terrible the few months before they’d split. Don’t think about Beth. He got up to erase the memories that kept coming when he wasn’t strong enough to resist them.

A man is strong, Adam. We don’t show emotions. 

Just what he needed, his father in his head. 

As he fixed coffee, he thought of Tommy. He’d gotten petrified that the boy would die. This is what the Brothers of Fire had done to him. But something kept him attached to them. He hadn’t figured it out yet. Sure he liked them and he really got into the lives. 

The phone rang. It would have awakened him anyway. “Stark.”

“Good morning, Adam.”

“Beth, what do you want now.”

“I heard about Tommy Mancini. I’m wondering how he is.”

“Huh, that’s new. Sympathy about my job.”

Silence. 

Shit, he couldn’t help needling her. “Sorry. I didn’t get much sleep.”

“That’s okay.”

“He was in and out of consciousness but the miraculously—the doc’s word—nothing major is wrong with him. I waited until they got the MRI back, and his brain is fine. Then I took his grandparents’ home.”

“Tommy’s grandparents?”

“Yeah, I developed a liking for them, I guess.”

“That’s the Adam I love.”

“Beth, stop it.”

“Why?”

“A hundred reasons. One is the girls. Don’t mess with me.”

“Hmm. Can I bring you supper.”

“No. Anything else.”

“Yeah, I’m really sorry about Tommy. He’s a nice kid.”

“Uh…thanks.” 

Then he clicked off. God, these calls bothered him. He wish they didn’t. They were through as a couple and he liked it that way.

Beside, he had Stella now.


The next day around five, Stef walked in the hospital and went to the desk. “Is Tom Mancini still here?”

“Yes.” She nodded to the uniform Stef purposely wore. “You all stick together, don’t you?”

She gave the woman whose nametag read, Janice, a smile. 

“We do, Janice.”

“He’d in a Room 41 East now, but there are lots of firefighters in the waiting area.”

“Good, I’ll join them.” She was halfway to the elevator when turned back. “Janice.” The woman looked up. “Not all firefighters are popular as Tom. He’s a great guy and everybody loves him.”

“I know. The nurses say he’s a great patient.”

Stef took the elevator to the second floor and found about a dozen firefighters hanging around. She approached one. “Hi, Tim.”

Tim hugged her. As if he knew… “Hey, Stef. He’s better. Complaining about the immobility.”

“How’s his ankle?”

“Bruised but not broken. Two cracked ribs.

Tim looked over her shoulder. “Two smoke eaters just came out of the room. Come with me.” He took her hand and led her to the group. “Hey, guys. Stef’s here inquiring about Tommy. He helped her pass the Lieutenant’s exam. Can we let her go in next?”

They agreed. 

Tim said, “Take fifteen minutes.”

She headed to the room. From the doorway, she saw Tom lying in bed, his ankle propped up on a pillow.

Light filtered in from the slatted blinds. He looked bigger. “Hi, Tom.”

He glanced over. “Hey.” His voice was gravelly.

She went further inside. “I came to see how you are.”

“Come closer, honey.”

Oh, geez. 

She walked up to the bed, got her first good look at him. And gasped. “Oh, God, Tom. You’re so battered.” Most of his face was black and blue and red. His arms, too. She imagined his chest and legs were as bad.

“Never this seen these many bruises on someone?”

“Nope.”

“Me, either.” He reached for her hand. His was puffy and looked sore.

She grasped it lightly. 

Even then he winced. “Sit.”

Letting go of him, she sat. “Are you in a lot of pain?”

“No, thanks to modern medicine. I’m sure I will be when I leave here.”

“Did they say when you could go home?”

“They’re gonna decide today. I can’t quite believe I don’t have serious injuries.”

“Your ankle?” 

“Sprained. Bound now. I must be one lucky guy.”

“If you are, you deserve it.”

“Did you see me fall? I know were at the fire.”

“No. The chief sent us around to help out but you were already down.”

“Noah explained what happened. No one’s to blame.”

“Do you think he agrees with you?”

“I don’t know.”

“Nobody got in trouble.”

“They shouldn’t. It was a fluke. Kirkland had to step back to grab the victim. But they still might censure me. I didn’t wait long enough to come down.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“The fire was creeping to the window for oxygen. It had almost reached me. So I went out quick.”

“Nobody will blame you for that.”

He cocked his head. “Thanks for coming. Does this mean you changed your mind about us?”

“I have to say my heart was in my mouth over this. And I hardly slept for worry over you.”

“I’m sorry for all that. And I’m not. It’s something for you to think about. Tell me you will.”

“I will.”

Just then Tim pushed open the door. Time’s up. Gus and Rose will be here in half an hour, and he needs to rest for them.”

“Thanks Tim. Close the door.”

Stef stood. “I’ll leave.”

“Okay, but kiss me first.”

She gave his cheek a light peck.

“I hardly felt that. On my mouth.”

She leaned over and kissed his lips. It was a nice kiss. A kind kiss. With a lot of potential.

“There that’s better. Come back tonight. The guys go home by eight.”

“You sure?”

“Yeah.”

“All right. I’ll see you then.” 

#

Tom hadn’t take his sleeping pill, so when Will Kirkland came inside, he was wide awake. He’d asked the nurse to send the firefighter in the waiting room home, but his colleague must have stayed. 

Will had hunched shoulders and lines around his face and eyes. “Hey, Tom.” Regret tinged his tone.

“Hey, Wil1. Why so glum?”

“You know.”

“Get over here. Sit.”

Will trudged over and sat. “Jesus, Tom, I don’t know what to say.”

“Didn’t you talk to Chief Cummings?”

“Yeah, he called me. Said I was off the hook. But it doesn’t feel good, what I did.”

“Tell me what other choice you had.”

“Well, I could have…um, I should have. Fuck it, I was too close to Noah so I had to move back.”

“Right. Do you think it was Noah’s fault?”

“No. He had no choice either. You fell before he could turn around and take my place.”

“What about me?”

“You?”

“Yeah, I should’ve waited until it was safe.”

“Why didn’t you?”

“Because the fire was on my tail. I had to get out.”

“Well, then, you’re not to blame either.”

“See. Nobody is, as I said.”

He leaned back. “God, I’m glad.”

“Me, too.”

“But look at you.”

“Yeah. I haven’t gotten a mirror yet. I don’t want to scare myself.”

Relaxed now, Will smiled. “Ha!”

“So, how’s work?”

They talked about some fires Truck 2 had been to, then Will left. It was close to 8. 

Soon, Stef arrived. She’d changed into a pair of white shorts and a yellow T-shirt. “Hi, Tom.”

“Hey, you look good.”

She came up to the bed. “The wonders of a hot shower.”

 Tommy sniffed. He still smelled like fire. “I wish I could take one.”

“I’ll bet.”

“Yeah, today, after you left. With a crutch and two orderlies to help me to the john but no shower. It exhausted me.”

“No worries. We’re used to smelling.”

She started to sit.”

“I got a better idea.” He patted the side of the bed. “Get in.”

“No, Tom. It’ll hurt you.”

“We’ll be careful. I want to hold you.”

“Can you lift your arm?”

“Yes, but you can just cuddle up.”

She shook her head.

“Come on woman. I’m hurt. I should have my way.”

“And here the nurses said you’re good patient.”

He grinned. Then his brows raised.

#

Stef couldn’t resist him. And he almost died. So she kicked off her sandals and gingerly got on the bed. She moved in as close as he could. They laid there in silence for a while. He did smell like smoke, but his nearness thrilled her “So,” he said, “Does this changed anything?”

She’d been afraid of that question. “You mean about us.”

“Yep. You told me you were terrified when you saw me on the ground.”

Remembered the fear, she shivered. “Everybody was.”

“Right now, this is about you. Come ‘on, Stef. You had more than a colleague’s reaction. See me. We can do it on the sly if you want.” Though Tommy would hate that, he’d do it to be with her. “Life is short, babe. We both are faced with that knowledge every time we walk into a fire.”

She sighed heavily. “Tell me a few things first. What’s going on with Lila?”

“I got an appointment with a lawyer this week. Oh, shit, I won’t be able to make it.”

“Maybe he or she will reschedule.”

“She.”

“What exactly could she do?”

He filled her in on Carson’s information.

“That sounds promising. Okay, I’ll see you on the sly. Though sneaking around doesn’t sit right with me.”

“I just had the same thought. But still, I want to see if we have something here.”

“I do too.” 

“Great.” He kissed the top of her head. Tell me what happened at work after the incident.”

“We had a briefing with Chief Cummings. He didn’t fault any of us. But Carso did.”

“Who?”

“Noah and his team. Carson made an ass of himself.”

“He cares about me.”

“He has responsibilities as a captain. He should have kept his mouth shut.”

“When does your group go back to work?”

“Tomorrow. On days. He’ll be more of a bear than usual.”

“I wish I could help.”

“You just have to get better.” She glanced at the clock. “And I have to go. My alarm clock goes off at five a.m.”

“I understand. Stay just a little while longer.”

She hesitated, then said, “All right,” and luxuriated in the fell of him next to her.”


“Can I get you anything, bambino?”

“No grandma. I’m fine. You two go back to your apartment. Go on with your day. I’ll text if I need anything.”

“Be careful, boy,” Grandpa warned and left with his wife. 

Tom had come home a day later than he thought he’d would. And his grandparents were doting on him. He also didn’t want them to know about the lawyer or Lila. When they left, he looked down at his big blue boot. He had to wear it for a few weeks. The sprain wasn’t that bad but he did have to be careful.

Grabbing a pillow, he made his way to the front porch and sat on the lounge chair out there with his foot raised. A snazzy little Porsche pulled up in the driveway. He watched the driver get out and head to the front. She wasn’t at all the bookish woman he’d expected. She was very pretty. “Hi, Tom.”

“Hello, Ms. Grant. Thank you for coming here.”

“No worries. We meet clients at a lot of places outside the office.”

“Still, I’m grateful.” Her amber gaze rested on him. “Wow, you’re really battered.”

“Yep. I haven’t looked in a mirror yet.”

“Nothing that won’t heal right?”

“Right. Sit down.”

She sat in a chair across from him. Her pink summer dress draped over her knees. “Carson gave me the details. Anything want to add?”

“Not at this time.”

She took her tablet out of the gigantic purse she carried. Called something up. “It’s pretty clear what we’d want. We’d file a petition and send it to a judge. He’ll okay it and then set a court appearance. In the end, he’ll decide what to do, but these petitions are rarely tuned down. You’ll have to be there along with Ms. Hart, and you’ll both be asked questions.”

“Lila will freak. She’s pretty emotional.”

“We can deal with that. You know she can’t be forced to take a paternity test.”

“I know. But there’ll be legal consequences, right?”

“Yes. She’ll be charged with contempt of court and fined if she refuses. Technically, she could be put in jail.”

“That never happens to pregnant women.”

“No, it doesn’t. It’ll be a hefty fine, though. She’s an exotic dancer, right?”

“She has been. She had to quit.”

“So doesn’t have much money?”

“Not much.”

“How many times did you have intercourse with her?”

“For two months. A lot.”

“This is indelicate but I hope you used protection.”

“Every single time.”

“Did she sleep around?”

“Well, she’s had boyfriends. I saw her with another guy around town right after we broke up.”

“You broke up with her, right?

“Yes. She wanted more out of the relationship than I would give.” He yawned. “Oh, sorry.”

“No worries. I think I have enough with the papers you filled out to prepare the documents we need. And you’re tired.  I’ll leave now.”

“Thank you Ms. Grant.”

“You’re welcome. And call me Melanie.” 

“And I’m Tom.”

She gave a little smile. “Carson calls you Tommy.”

He rolled his eyes. “I know.”

When Melanie left, he lay back in the chaise thinking about what he was doing. Man, he hoped it was the right thing.

He laid his head back. Relaxed. Felt his eyes close.

“Tommy.”

Someone was shaking him. He awoke fully and was disappointed Lila had come. He wished she was Stef. “What are you doing here?”

“You’ve ignored all my calls. What the hell happened to you?”

“I fell off a ladder.”

“Oh, poor baby.” She sat in the chair Melanie vacated. “I could take care of you.”

“I have good care. And I told you I didn’t want to see you for a while.”

“It’s been a while.” She put her hand on her belly. “Baby’s kicking. Wanna feel?”

“Nope, not until I know it’s mine.”

Lifting her chin in defiance, she said, “I won’t agree to a test that would harm the baby.”

“All I need is a blood test.”

“Really, I thought you had to have its DNA? Done with a big needle.” She shuddered.

“You’re wrong, Lila. All I need is a noninvasive blood test.”

“When did they develop that?

“Technology advances are made every day in medicine.”

“Still I won’t do it.”

“I should tell you now that I’m taking you to court to do one.”

“The court can’t force me to have the test.”

“You’re right. But you’ll have to be in court. And the legal consequences of not coming are hefty. In any case, you’ll be hearing from my lawyer.”

“You hired a lawyer?”

“Uh-huh. And if the baby is mine, I’ll support you through the rest of the pregnancy and then I’ll provide child support.”

“You’re damn right you will.” She stood, her whole body tense. “You’re a prick for doing this to me.”

Ignoring her slur, he shook his head. “I’d like you to leave now.”

“You’ll speak to the mother of your child like that?”

“When I know if you are, I’ll be nicer. But actually, now,  I’m pretty pissed that you didn’t find out for sure if the kid’s mine before you made this accusation. I would have given you a DNA sample.”

“You got some nerve, buster.” She turned and huffed away. 

For a little while, he thought about what having a baby of his own would be like. He’d wanted one for a long time. But he wouldn’t be tricked into it.

And if he was gonna father a kid, he’d want it to be with someone he loved. He thought of Stef. Hmm. That’d be something.  




 

A NEW YORK TIMES and USA TODAY bestselling author, Kathryn Shay has been a lifelong writer and teacher. She has written dozens of self-published original romance titles, print books with the Berkley Publishing Group and Harlequin Enterprises and mainstream women’s fiction. One of her firefighter books hit #20 on the NEW YORK TIMES list. Her novels have been serialized in COSMOPOLITAN magazine and featured in USA TODAY, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL and PEOPLE magazine. There are over ten million copies of her books in print and downloaded online. Readers call her work heartwarming.



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