When fire fighter Grady Ashcroft adopts his deceased sister’s son, he knows his life is going to change. Although he never expected to be a dad, he resolves to give young Jamie his best, even if it means a celibate life in a new home, far from all he’s known before. He does not expect to find the man of his dreams in the
village where he takes a new job, a man who seems to hate his guts. Colorado
Sullivan Parker wanted to be chief of the Valle Vista fire department when the worthless former chief was forced to leave. Instead, the town council hires a stranger from a distant city. In spite of his resentment, Sully finds himself drawn to the new comer. Then he discovers a need to take little Jamie and the speckled pup the former chief left behind under his wing.
The brotherhood born of battling dangerous blazes slowly turns to stronger feelings for both men. Then a scare involving the boy and the dog creates a final catalyst to break Grady and Sully out of their tense and conflicting interface. Can resentment and distrust turn to love?
Sheer cacophony jerked Grady out of a deep sleep. His radio squawked, his beeper chirped like an anxious baby bird and the siren over the fire station's front doors blared out over the village. Operating on auto-pilot from long years' habit, he jumped out of bed and scrambled into his clothes. Next stop would be the station's back door. Inside, he'd grab his turnouts and then start the main truck while he waited for the first of his crew to arrive.
Sandy, the dispatcher and Sully jogged in together. For an instant, Grady wondered if they were a couple, but so far he hadn't heard even a whisper of gossip to that effect. Still, small towns tended to be close-mouthed and protective of their own to outsiders, even while hot tidbits spread fast among the regulars.
"Jamie's still asleep," Grady said to Sandy. "I thought about getting him up and bringing him over here, but he should be okay."
"I'll watch for him," she assured him. "I'm sure this is the first place he'll come if he wakes up and realizes you aren't there. We're getting to be pals."
"I'll drive," Sully volunteered. "I know right where this fire's at; get there faster than trying to tell you where to turn."
Grady nodded and trotted around to the passenger side. They roared off down the road, lights flashing. Sully blasted the siren briefly at the first intersection, although at two o'clock on a Thursday morning, traffic was light to none. They had not gone much farther when Grady saw the glow and, as they topped a ridge, he could see the fire--by appearances, a big one.
"Shit, it's the barn," Sully mumbled. "Hope to God they got the horses out. It'd kill Kate to lose one."
Behind them, Grady could see the flashing lights of the second truck. They usually took at least two so one could go pull more water from the nearest well or stock tank while the other pumped. There were no hydrants out here away from the few sparse blocks of town. Residences could be a quarter mile or more apart, most with their own wells. Some had a ready spigot, but many did not.
In the back of Grady's mind, he had to admit he had a lot of new tricks to learn. He even appreciated Sully's experience. Of course, the other man resented him, a stranger with a completely different background, coming in to take over. To be honest, the fact Sully cooperated at all surprised him. He had to like the rusty-haired mechanic, despite his periodic fits of grump and sarcasm. He fought against the urge to more-than-like all the time now.
Driving under a western style sign reading Hollister Quarter Horses, they screeched into the farmyard and drove straight to the barn. A man and a woman in nightclothes were squirting the blaze with a garden hose, to little avail. Glancing around, Grady saw several horses tethered to a couple of trees and a fence.
"Did you get them all out?" Sully yelled, as he started the gasoline-powered pump and then began to reel out hose.
"Yeah, thank gosh. Beauty alerted us something was wrong. Smart dog. We ran out and got the horses before the place was fully engulfed, but the hay's a total loss."
The woman who answered dropped the hose and swiped a hand across her face, already soot streaked and marked by the tracks of tears. She knelt and put an arm around the black-and-white dog, sitting close by. The man walked back to turn off the tap and then returned to pull her to her feet and put an arm around her, murmuring something Grady could not hear.
Sully had already set the pump to full power. Grady helped him steady the bucking hose to shoot a strong blast of water into the highest flames. Leaping a good twenty feet into the air, they were erupting from the roof, probably above the hay the woman had mentioned.
Soon Tom Grassley and Henry Smoot pulled in with the second truck. A couple more volunteers followed in their own pickups.
It didn't take long to run through the tank full of water. "I'll go fill 'er up," Mike Davis, one of the men in the first pickup, said. "You guys go ahead with the second truck. I know where the water tank is here."
Grady nodded, attention focused on the fire. Tom already had the second hose going, so they put that pump on high and kept soaking the barn. Just then the woman jerked away from her husband and ran toward the open double doors. "The tack and the trophy--we've got to try to get them out."
"Stop her," the man hollered, starting after her, although she had several yards' start on him.
Sully and Grady both let go of the hose at the same instant. Henry and Tom staggered, taking the full force, and almost lost control. The three-inch hose whipped around like an angry snake.
"I'll get her," Sully fairly snarled. "You're the fucking chief. Stay here and keep things going."
Grady started to yell back, then caught himself. Sully was right on both counts. He might even be familiar with the interior of the barn and know where to go to catch the lady before she succumbed to smoke or worse.
Mike returned with the second truck, and they shot more water into the fire. Grady could see they were starting to cool and wet it down enough to slow the blaze. There would not be much left of the barn, but no other structures would be damaged. Now the big question was, how did the fire start? Anyone with livestock and feed should know enough to be careful with flammables and, perish the thought, never light a cigarette or anything with gas or oil flames near hay.
A chill settled into his gut. What if it was arson, perhaps even set by the farm owners? He'd heard rumors their business was not going well. Maybe they hoped to collect insurance. Although arson investigation was not his specialty, he'd had some training. He'd have to look into the cause as soon as they got the fire out.
All at once, he realized Sully had been in the barn way too long. The structure could collapse at any moment, and he had no way to know what things were like inside. It seemed the upper story was the most involved in the fire, but burning hay could fall down from the loft and the fire might even have started in the lower level. Panic clenched a cold fist inside him. The idea of losing a man scared him spitless. He'd only gone through that once in his prior career, but once was more than enough.
He shoved his grip on the hose at another volunteer who'd arrived a few minutes late. "Here, give the others a hand. I've got to find Sully." He ran for the barn as soon as the man's hands clutched the hose.
The owner lurked at the doorway, clearly hesitant to enter the dim and smoky space, but also desperate about his wife's safety.
"Stand back. I'll go get them," Grady told him. "Don't try to go in. It's way too dangerous for you, but I know how to do this. I'll do my damnedest to get her out and my fireman as well."
Just then, a darker shadow appeared against the dim glow of flame through smoke. Sully emerged, the woman slung over his right shoulder and an odd-shaped glittering object clutched in his other hand. He stumbled as he hit the doorsill. The man reached for his wife as Grady grabbed Sully's arm.
"Are you crazy, man? What took you so long? Let me get you over to the brush truck and get some oxygen going for you. How's the lady?"
Sully coughed before he could croak a reply. "One by one, Chief. Hard to see in there, even though I knew the tack room was at the southeast corner. She's got some spot burns I expect from stuff falling from the loft, but mostly the smoke got to her. Almost got to me, too." He coughed again. "Give her the oxygen first and call for an evac."
Grady didn't bridle at the orders, whether they were appropriate or not. He could see the woman was unconscious. Her husband wept and swore, cradling her in his arms. "Damn fool woman! A stupid trophy isn't worth risking your life for, baby. Oh fuck, don't go and die on me."
Once Grady saw Sully stagger off in the direction of the small grass and brush fire truck, which also carried their medical and rescue gear, Grady caught the owner's arm. "Let me take her. We've got oxygen for situations like this." He eased the woman's limp body from the man's grip. "We've called in the chopper out of Boca Cañon to evac her and we'll keep her going until they arrive. Oxygen will help unless she's got internal burns from the smoke."
The man scrubbed at his eyes, smearing soot across his face. "I tried to stop her. I told her it was dumb. I-I didn't do enough. Oh God, please don't let her die."
When Grady reached the truck, he saw Sully sitting on the bumper, an oxygen mask over his face. A second mask waited, both attached to the same tank. There should be enough to supply two at a medium setting for at least half an hour. Grady turned to one of the other firefighters standing by, watching Sully. "Did someone call for a med evac? Not sure how bad the lady is, but it's clear she needs medical care."
"Done," the woman said, dwarfed by her turnouts, although they were the smallest available. From experience at a couple of drills, Grady knew Judy Diaz could hold her own, despite her size. She was one tough little gal, as well as steady and sensible.
In the brighter lights from the arc of department vehicles, he could see charred spots on Mrs. Hollister's jacket and holes in her sweat pants where coals had burned through the fabric. It was damn lucky her clothes had not actually caught fire. He slapped the mask in place over her nose and mouth and fiddled with the tank's controls to start the life-sustaining flow. By God, he'd rave at the town council until they coughed up enough for a bigger and better concentrating machine. Any member of his crew could suffer from smoke inhalation, and he wasn't going to see anyone die from lack of this essential gear.
With steadier movements, Sully jerked the mask of his face. "I'm good," he rasped. "Save it for her. She don't look good at all."
He stood steadily enough and reached to turn off the connection for the hose to the mask he'd removed. Then he wheeled around to start toward the main truck, which still pumped out water. At the same instant, a sudden crash shook them. Sparks flew as the barn folded in on itself. For a short time the fire leaped. However soon it subsided, much of its fuel clearly gone, while the rest of the ruined building was now saturated and cooling.
"Sit down and give yourself a break." Grady roared out the order. "Things are under control and you fucking well aren't going to risk more strain right now. That's an order, in case I didn't make it clear."
Sully stopped, looking back with a poisonous glare. "I know my limits. I'm not going to endanger anyone. Leave me be."
Although most of Grady's attention focused on the unconscious woman, he glanced up at Sully. "I said sit. Do it, or I'll write you up for insubordination."
Sully managed a raspy laugh. "Do I look like I care? You can't fire volunteers, big shot. If you keep hassling me, I might just quit."