On her tulip-lined pathway, Abby Hill stood, unable to move, barely able to breathe. She stared in horror as harsh smoke drifted through the air and fire licked out of the bedroom window of her Federal-style row house.
Firefighters passed by in a blur, portraying a sense of calm in the chaos. Though she’d heard things like possible electrical fire discussed among the men, the voices around her were distant. She wrapped her arms around herself, tears dampening her cheeks.
“Miss, you need to back up,” a low, smooth voice said.
“This can’t be happening,” Abby managed through her tight throat.
Firm hands gripped her arms and turned her to face warm green eyes with hints of brown around the irises. The firefighter, decked out in full work uniform with a 4 on his black hat, had dark soot on the right side of his squared jaw. His brows drew together with his frown. “Is this your house?”
Abby never thought of herself as a person who showed emotions to a stranger. Now, she could hide nothing. “Oh, God . . .” Hot sickness rolled through her and the world got dizzy, real fast.
His grip on her arms tightened. “I’m taking that as a yes.”
Before she could drop to the cement below, she found those firm hands belonged to strong arms as the fireman tugged her into his powerful body. He lowered her to the ground, settling her between his legs.
Abby pressed her head against his rough coat, which smelled richer with smoke than what lingered in the air. She held on tight to the coarse material, unable to let go.
Quick minutes passed, and soon the wooziness faded. All but sitting in his lap, she noticed the smoke wasn’t nearly as thick. When her spun around thoughts centered, that’s when she realized something didn’t make sense. “Why is my bedroom window broken?”
The firefighter’s thick thighs pressed against her, as did his arms. “We needed to break the window to evacuate the heat and smoke before we put out the fire.”
Somehow, being in his arms made facing what happened easier, or maybe the shock had worn off and she could process better. She noticed that no other windows were broken in her house. “Was the fire only in my bedroom?”
“Yes, you got lucky.” He shifted on his knees, yet didn’t move away. “The fire was contained to the master bedroom.”
She gulped. “Lucky?”
He hesitated, and all the pressure around her faded before he squeezed his arms. “I’m afraid you can’t enter your house until the chief gives you the all clear. Do you have someone you can stay with?”
She gripped his coat, resting her head against his arm, tears trailing over her hot face. Though she noticed the firefighters coming in and out of house, and heard the loud conversations going on around her, she didn’t care she sobbed in front of strangers. “It’s gone.”
He leaned away and his gentle eyes held hers. “Abby Hill? Is that what I heard the police say?” She nodded and he waited for the car with the loud muffler to pass before he added, “What you have is a partial loss, Abby. Yes, your bedroom is gone. The rest of your upstairs might have smoke and water damage, but your insurance will cover it.”
She understood why he looked to her as if she was overreacting. In the scheme of things, this didn’t seem all that bad. “I don’t care about the rest of the house.” Her voice cracked. “The photos of my family were in my bedroom.” Ten years ago, a car accident had stolen away her parents, younger brother, and older sister. “It’s all I had of them. There’s nothing left.”
He rubbed her back, giving an understanding nod. “I’m sorry.”
Somehow, his response was better than, “At least you weren’t hurt, or it could’ve been worse.” Though there were positives in her current hell, it didn’t change the fact that every picture she had of her family was likely destroyed. Nothing else remained that proved they’d ever existed, except for their gravestones.
A moment passed as his eyes searched hers. “You have no other family that would have some photos?” “Both my parents didn’t have siblings. There are a few friends of the family . . .” Her chest ached. “Possibly they have some, but it’s not . . .”
“Not the special pictures of you and your family,” he offered.
Her chin quivered. “Exactly.”
His lips pinched with his regard of her. The firefighter excelled at serving the public, she actually believed he felt bad for her. While she knew she should let him go, being a complete stranger and all, she couldn’t find it in herself to tear herself away.
Staring into his piercing eyes, she had the oddest sense that he didn’t want her to either. Something so sweet and pure passed in the air between them. A sensation of understanding that at this moment she needed more than anything. And how did that make any sense?
Why was being in a stranger’s arms providing her with such warmth and familiarity, and more than anything making her feel this safe?
“Where is she?” a familiar feminine voice snapped. “And if you dare tell me again that I can’t see Abby, I’ll remove your manly bits, you giant ass!”
Abby glanced over her shoulder, catching sight of Sierra, dressed in her typical black skirt and red blouse. Abby didn’t know how Sierra found out about the fire, but she didn’t care; she needed her best friend.
Sierra’s blue eyes were narrowed and her bright red lipstick covered her frown as she gave the firefighter a glare promising a painful death. After a good stare down, the man gestured in Abby’s direction, then Sierra rushed forward. She yanked Abby into her arms. “Jesus, sweetie. Can you believe they wouldn’t let me through to see you?”
“It’s all gone.” Abby rested her head against Sierra’s shoulder, hugging her tight. “They’re gone.”
Sierra paused, then heaved a sigh. “Shit, this is awful. I’m so sorry, Abby.”
Of course, Sierra understood the depth of Abby’s despair. Sierra had been there the night they worked on their high-school assignment together. That fateful night Abby didn’t go for her brother’s special dinner to celebrate his touchdown at the football game, and the night where the car carrying her entire family collided with the transport truck.
Leaning away from Sierra, Abby looked into her best friend’s teary eyes. “That’s all I had of them.”
Sierra gathered Abby’s hands. “You don’t have any pictures in your attic or storage?”
Abby shook her head. “I kept everything in my bedroom in a memory box. I wanted to scan them all, keep them safe, but—”
“Don’t do that to yourself,” Sierra interjected with a soft voice. “You’re not to blame for this. It’s a horrible accident.”
Abby remembered hearing something similar from her therapist. Not that she thought she could’ve prevented the car accident that killed her family, but her guilt for not being with them that night had stayed with her for a long time.
With her therapist’s voice in her head reminding her she couldn’t stay in the past and mourn things she couldn’t change, she pushed off the cement pathway. She glanced around, seeing that the entire neighborhood was watching from the other side of the street, and she didn’t want to process the loss of photos under the scrutiny of onlookers.
Sierra must’ve read Abby’s thoughts, since she reached up and fixed Abby’s hair. There wasn’t a day that Sierra had let Abby walk out the door with a strand of hair out of place. She ran her fingers under Abby’s eyes, clearing away her mascara. “Let’s get out of here.” She gave a small smile, wiggling her eyebrows. “Unless you’d rather stay in the arms of that sexy firefighter.”
Abby blinked. “Who’s sexy?”
Sierra snorted. “Seriously?” She grasped Abby’s shoulders. “When I found you, you were in the arms of that.”
Abby spun to face the house and she discovered a man whom she suspected was the fire marshal, dressed in a blue uniform. “Am I missing something, or are you suddenly digging older guys?”
“Older guys?” Sierra stepped in next to Abby, then she frowned. “Ew, not that guy.” She gestured to the garden off to the right. “That guy.”
Abby followed Sierra’s direction and her mouth dropped open. Though the firefighter’s attire made the man look bulky, she wondered how much of that was the gear, or if his thickness was due to a muscular body.
Standing near her front window, he chatted to another firefighter, who was slightly shorter than him. The height difference made the tallerfirefighter look masculine. He’d clearly noticed them ogling, since he caught her gaze.
Under his direct stare, funny things happened low in her belly. Odd, strange happenings, considering seconds ago, a soul-crippling despair had overwhelmed her. The fireman’s features portrayed more than confidence, more than strength, but she thought that came from the sexy, arrogant twinkle in his eye.
The firefighter broke the connection, and Abby exhaled. He turned to the other man and exchanged words. Then hotness packaged in firefighter gear approached. Similar to when she watched her bedroom burn, she froze.
She knew, with total certainty, her reaction was absurd. Her bedroom was destroyed, along with precious pictures, but her body flared with a heat so addictive and intoxicating.
Over Abby’s shoulder, Sierra whistled. “Holy hell—all he needs is the fire burning behind him and we’d have one of those perfect calendar shots.”
“No kidding,” Abby agreed.
On his way down the pathway, Abby scanned over his black boots, to the thick pants she knew had suspenders, and images of a shirtless man filled her mind. She swallowed, forced herself to stop thinking in the gutter, and focused on appropriate places, like his face.
That didn’t help much—he had a chiseled face with masculine features, all making him way too noticeable. Lifting her gaze, she looked past his kissable lips that held a slight arch in the corners, and when his piercing eyes captured hers, she finally released the breath she’d be holding.
Whoa . . .
He was drop-dead gorgeous.
Once the firefighter reached her, he smiled. “You look like you’re feeling better.”
Sierra elbowed her in the side. “She’s much better, thank you.”
“Glad to hear it.” His voice wasn’t too deep, but low enough to sound smooth. “Do you have somewhere to stay, Abby?”
Her mind stuttered under how he said her name. As if he wasn’t stating a name, but the one word held powers making her feel like he noticed her, too. A hot shiver slid right down to her toes. “Um . . .”
“She can stay with me,” Sierra interjected with a laugh. “Unless you’re offering—”
Abby jabbed Sierra hard in the side and Sierra cursed.
The firefighter chuckled, focusing on Abby. “Please give the chief the address and telephone number where you’ll be staying so he can get in touch with you. You’ll also want to contact your insurance company right away.”
She parted her lips to respond, yet closed them a second later.
Eyes squinting, lit with a twinkle of mischief, he said, “All right, Abby, you’re good to go.” His eyebrows creased. “Again, I’m sorry about your home.” He hesitated. “And your pictures.”
He turned, walking down her pathway.
Abby stared after him, her mind snapping into focus. On a gasp, she hurried to reach him. Just as he neared her front door, she grasped his bicep, giving his coat a tug. “Wait!”
Glancing over his shoulder, he looked at her hand before his gaze lifted. She nearly melted into a puddle of goo right there on her front porch. “Thank you for holding me like that. I know it’s not in the job description.”
He tipped his hat, giving a soft smile. “Maybe it should be.”