Safe From The Flames
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by Sandra Sookoo
Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance/Romance
Description: Darren Kaestle wants nothing more out of life than to do his job. Putting out fires and keeping the community safe is his idea of a good time. Throw in a few beers with his best friend Tyler, and life's good--until he finds an unconscious woman at the scene of an abandoned house fire. He carries her to safety, and after having her check out at the hospital, takes her home. Only then does he find out about her paranormal status. Hadyn Bernson has lived in a run of bad luck all her life--ever since her family perished in a fire when she was twelve. Since then, she's harbored anger and fear deep inside herself until it manifests in a rare phenomena. She can burst into flames whenever her emotions get out of control, and they threaten to do just that when she opens her eyes and finds a sexy firefighter staring back. Together, these two people from opposite ends of the spectrum must find a way to settle their differences and quench the flames inside before the real terror of a dangerous blaze ends one, or both, of their lives.
eBook Publisher: Atlantic Bridge/Liquid Silver Books, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: March 2010
2 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [132 KB]
Reading time: 83-117 min.
"What the hell is that?" Darren Kaestle squinted through the heavy smoke that rolled through the bottom floor of the abandoned house. The oxygen mask distorted his words, morphing them into weird, alien-like sounds to match the ashy landscape. "I thought you said this floor'd been cleared?" He hated the taste of the plastic and wished he could lift it to spit the bitterness from his mouth.
"It has. Did it myself. Damn it, Kaestle, the roof is about to collapse. We gotta go."
Darren glanced at his teammate, Tyler Craig, dwarfed by the greenish-yellow fire gear, and gave him the thumbs-up signal. "Right behind you, just want to check something out."
"Make it quick. Chief's waiting." Tyler stomped through the gutted living room. Darren heard him call to the others in the garage area.
He felt the sweat run down his back to paste his t-shirt to his body. Must be over a hundred and fifty degrees. He'd kill for a bath in ice cubes or just one big, giant one he could be frozen into. The crackle and pop of the burning wood focused his brain, and he turned his attention to the smoldering object huddled in one corner. He moved toward it as he kept a wary eye on the support wall. If it went down, he'd be toast, no pun intended. Darren didn't spare the time for a laugh as he prodded the heap with the toe of his boot then jumped back when it moaned.
"Damn." Moving quickly, he tamped out the small flames that licked the singed clothing. He turned the bundle over. Sad, blue eyes blinked up at him. A woman. Her dried, cracked lips moved, but no words issued from her. He glanced around, hoping Tyler would still be in earshot. "Got a body here!"
From the other side of the room, a ceiling beam crashed to the floor in a blaze of orange embers. No more time. Darren scooped the woman into his arms, holding her close to his chest, and ran through the room, glad for his unerring sense of direction as he found the front door in record time. As soon as he passed through the threshold, something cracked within the house and another blaze flared. A stream of newly arrived firefighters rushed into the structure, dragging a live hose behind them like a captured boa constrictor.
Once in the fresh air, he didn't stop moving until he'd reached the street clogged with emergency vehicles. He laid the woman on the pavement at the edge of a squad car's headlight beams that writhed with summertime insects attracted by the light. "Ma'am, can you hear me?" Unwinding a green scarf from her head, masses of wavy red hair tumbled into his gloved hands. "Ma'am, are you hurt?" He yanked off his helmet, throwing it to the ground and did the same with the heavy gloves. He brushed his fingers over her cheeks, which were cool to the touch, and streaked with soot. "Talk to me." Darren leaned closer and put an ear to her chest. Her heartbeat was strong and steady. Nothing like he would have expected from a woman who'd just been through a traumatic fire. He lifted his head, scanned the area for the EMTs "Medic!"
Relief surged through him as effective as a rush of air conditioning when she stirred. He always hated losing at the rescue game. Nothing crushed his spirit more than reaching a body and realizing they were dead upon arrival. When his gaze met hers, it pinned him in depths so blue he could almost feel their coolness.
Time slowed down for him in that one moment, and it seemed that destiny barreled into him with the force of a Mack truck. He felt as if his entire life had been training for this moment, but he couldn't explain why.
He shot to his feet when a couple EMTs arrived, jostling for position around the woman.
"Move Kaestle. We need to work."
"She's fine, no smoke inhalation, and no burns, just exhausted. Better keep an eye on her just in case."
"Yeah, we got it. You did your job now let us do ours."
As he gazed down at her face, saw the splash of freckles over her cheeks and nose, he made a spur of the moment decision. Like the gut instincts that had saved his life countless times during countless jobs, that same unexplainable feeling told him this woman needed his help. He didn't understand it, but there was no way in hell he would ignore it either.
Kneeling down, regardless of the annoyed looks from the medical personnel, he smoothed the sweaty hair back from her forehead. "What's your name?" The pale flesh of her exposed midriff as her tank top rode up drew his gaze. He quelled the urge to touch her with less than professional attachment. Not appropriate, Kaestle. "Any identification?"
One of the EMT workers shook his head. "Nope."
Darren frowned as his gaze raked the legs of her snug jeans. "What's your name?" This time, his request was more forceful.
"Hi, Hadyn. I'm Darren. You're gonna be just fine."
Her fingers gripped his arm so hard he could feel them dig into his skin through the heaviness of his coat. "Please don't take me to the hospital. They won't understand what I am." Her lips twitched as if she intended to smile, but then her eyelids fluttered closed and she fainted with a tiny sigh.
The first emergency worker detached her fingers from his arm. "Sorry, sir, we have to get her to the hospital now."
"Sure. Sorry." Darren stepped out of the way as the EMTs lifted her body onto a stretcher. "Which one? Which hospital?" Once he had the vital information, he nodded and promised himself he would drop by for a visit. He wanted to know why she was so adamant that she not end up under professional care.
Rubbing his eyes and cracking his jaw with a yawn, he leaned a shoulder against the wall across from the room assigned to Hadyn. Visiting hours hadn't started yet, but he couldn't wait to get to the hospital. Whatever inspired the protective feeling in him the night before also brought him to her room now. She'd seemed so vulnerable as the EMTs swarmed around her, like a lost child.
A nurse approached, silent on her rubber soles. "Excuse me, sir?"
"Yes?" Darren glanced at the woman, surprised to see she was a pretty blond. Normally, he associated nurses with the steel-curled, formidable women from his childhood. The ones who didn't tolerate young boys who make unconscious noise as they waited with their parents to hear word on various relatives.
"I thought you might enjoy a cup of coffee while you wait, and to tell you that technically you're supposed to be in the family lounge."
"Sorry, just anxious." For the first time, he noticed the Styrofoam cup she held out to him in one hand, the fingernails curled around the cup perfectly manicured. "Thanks." He accepted the offering and a stab of guilt shot through his gut when a pleased smile lifted the corners of her pink tinged lips. A quick check of her ring finger showed she was single, and obviously on the prowl. "Uh, can you tell me when I'll be able to go in?" He just wasn't interested in a relationship at this point, especially when the only woman he could think about was the one on the other side of the closed door.
That fact alone bothered him. He kept women at arm's length because, in his line of work, the future could be altered in the blink of an eye. He didn't need that kind of stress, knowing he'd leave someone behind.
The nurse checked the watch on her left wrist. "It's few minutes shy, but I think you can go ahead. It's kind of slow at the moment." She turned and headed back down the hall toward the nurse's station.
"Oh, hey, thanks for the coffee." He lifted the cup as she glanced at him over her shoulder.
"If you need anything else, you know where to find me." With a wink, she disappeared around the corner.
Shoving the nurse from his mind, Darren pushed open the door to room three-fourteen and paused just inside the room. The door swung closed behind him then he was alone with a few machines and the woman on the single bed. She appeared to be asleep, but when he advanced a few steps into the room, he saw she stared unblinkingly up at the ceiling.
"Hadyn?" Ten steps took him across the polished tiled floor and to her bedside. The room was so tiny it could probably fit inside his cluttered guest bedroom at home with room to spare. He deposited his untouched coffee cup on the bedside table, glad for the rich aroma that went a long way to disguise the astringent hospital smell.
She turned her head toward him. Her eyes seemed to look through him instead of at him. "Hi."
The one little word was so musical that he smiled down at her without knowing why. "Do you remember who I am?"
"Yes. A fireman." Her eyelids drooped and the dark red fringe of her lashes lay in two perfect arcs against her cheeks. Suddenly, she opened her eyes and stared directly at him. "Do you remember who I am?"
Darren lifted a brow in confusion. "Of course. That's why I said your name." He perched on the side of the bed, careful not to touch her. "How are you feeling?" Keep to the everyday questions, Kaestle, and try not to spook her. "I didn't notice any burn marks at the scene last night." He allowed his gaze to move over the visible, pale skin that wasn't covered by the bedclothes or the sea green unisex gown she wore.
"I'm great. See?" She held up a hand with an IV line taped to the front as she pushed herself into a sitting position. "They have great drugs here." Her smile could rival the sun and was just as hot.
"I'll bet." Leaning closer, he caught a fleeting scent of something sweet, like baking cookies, and frowned. Shouldn't she at least smell like smoke? "What did the doctors say about your condition?"
A shadow of fear darkened her eyes and the hand attached to the IV twitched. She pulled back when he reached out to hold the fluttering fingers. "How did you find out about my condition? Do they know?" Her red hair, unsinged and bound into a ponytail, swung wildly with her frantic movements. "I have to leave. It's too dangerous for me to stay here."
"Hadyn, you need to calm down." Not knowing why she was upset, Darren stood as the monitors connected to her began to beep with sharp, staccato electronic noises. "What the hell are you so afraid of?" He said the last under his breath as the door flew open and the blond nurse bustled in, a scowl worthy of her old lady predecessors on her perfectly made-up face.
"What happened?" The flirtatious attitude of before was gone, replaced by the business-like tone of a consummate professional.
"Nothing. We were just talking and all of a sudden she flipped out." He watched as the nurse pushed a few buttons and held Hadyn's wrist, apparently to read her pulse. "Do you know when she'll be released?"
The look the blond shot him said she thought he was the biggest jerk in the world. "I really can't discuss that now. You'll have to leave until we can stabilize her."
"Fine, but I'll be back this evening." He loved a challenge, and nothing said solve me like a mysterious woman.
The next time he arrived, he came prepared. Not having much cause to know the ins and outs of how women ticked, he turned to the only woman he could trust. His buddy Tyler's wife. Luckily, she didn't ask many questions, but told him what the essentials were if she ever found herself in the hospital surrounded by a bunch of clueless men.
Darren took her words to heart and hit the drugstore. Now, with a fancy biodegradable bag swinging from one hand and a bottle of ginger ale in the other, he felt better equipped to handle whatever Hadyn threw at him. He counted his lucky stars that Tyler hadn't been home to answer the phone because he would never hear the end of his teasing. He never put himself on the line for a woman, and rarely dated, but that was a whole different issue, and he didn't want to analyze why he was going to such great lengths for her.
Why am I doing this? I don't even know her. She's a stranger.
Because, his conscience argued, you felt a connection to her at the scene and you're curious. She's fucking sexy as all get out, and you wouldn't mind getting to know her better.
Oh sure, and be murdered in my bed if she's a deranged lunatic.
When his know-it-all conscience remained silent, Darren exited the elevator and sauntered down the hall as if he visited hospitals all the time. At the nurse's station, he quickened his steps, not wanting to run into the bold blonde he talked with earlier. Nothing to worry about. The shift had changed and a whole new crop of curious stares bored into his back as he passed the desk and continued down the hall. He heaved a sigh of relief when he pushed open Hadyn's door and stepped inside.
This time, she sat up in bed, surrounded by several pillows, sipping orange liquid from a see-through cup. Just looking at the beverage made his stomach pitch and reminded him of the nasty vaccines he used to get at the doctor's office when he was little. She grinned when she caught sight of him. "Hey, fireman."
"Well, you look like you're feeling better." He crossed the room and handed her the bag. "I brought you a surprise." Pulling up a non-descript chair, he settled into the hard plastic and watched as she dumped the contents of the bag into her lap.
"Oh, thank you." She brushed a finger over the raised letters of a mystery novel then held up a chocolate bar. "I'm pretty sure this is outlawed."
"I won't tell if you don't." He wanted to keep that smile on her face all the time. "There's one of those girlie magazines also, you know the ones that tell you how to have the best sex and what clothes are fashionable and stuff." He trailed off and felt a flush sweep up the back of his neck and ears. "I mean, not that you need help in that department, I just thought--"
"I know. It's okay." Hadyn pushed around a tube of lip balm, a battery operated toothbrush, and a sample-sized bottle of some frou-frou shampoo that smelled like flowers. "And what's this?" She held up a pink stuffed pig that fit securely in the palm of her hand.
His flush deepened to include his cheeks now. "Uh, I figured all women like animals, and that maybe a stuffed toy would make you feel more at home." That wasn't on the list of things to buy, but once he saw it in the check-out lane, he knew she would like it.
"Thanks." She pressed the plush animal to her lips, and a sharp stab of jealousy tore through his gut. "I haven't been home in a long time."
He looked into her face and caught the fleeting shadows of fear in her impossibly clear eyes. "I didn't find any ID on you and no purse or bag nearby. Just tell me where you live, or who I can contact on your behalf, so you can at least have a familiar face to keep you company while you're here."
She shook her head. Her long hair swung with the violent movement. "There's no one. My family is..." Tears filled her eyes then tumbled onto her cheeks. "My family is dead. They, uh, died in a fire when I was twelve."
"I see." Darren leaned forward to snag a tissue from the box on the bedside table. "What about a boyfriend or husband, or maybe a roommate, a friend? Someone must be looking for you." He handed the tissue to her, feeling useless as she mopped at her face.
"I'm alone. Homeless."
He stared at her. "You don't look like any homeless person I've ever seen." Smooth, pale skin, unblemished by sickness or bruises, healthy hair and teeth, clean fingernails, they all indicated she'd never spent time on the streets. "What were you doing in that abandoned house?" No matter he was concerned for her well-being; curiosity regarding the fire niggled at the back of his brain.
Hadyn drew a deep, hiccupping breath. "Trying to kill myself."
"Why?" His gut churned with automatic denial. Whatever else he thought she'd say, He didn't expect that answer. A fresh torrent of tears brought out another wave of concern and triggered a need to protect her from further harm. "Are you sick, depressed? Has someone threatened you? Were you involved in a car accident, some other kind of trauma?" His gaze darted over her head but didn't see any signs of distress.
The tears glistened on her cheeks. Darren gave into the urge and wiped them away with his thumb, insanely pleased when she didn't flinch or pull way. "Then why do you want to end your life, especially in a fire? That's a horrible way to die." Unless the smoke got you first, then you just went to sleep and didn't wake up.
She didn't say anything, only blinked at him. Moisture spiked her reddish-brown lashes and her bottom lip, no longer showing a wound from the earlier trauma, trembled under the force of her emotion.
"Okay, let me ask you this. Did you start that fire?" No matter how much compassion and sympathy he felt for her, if she was an arsonist, he would have to report her to the proper authorities. He could do no less for his job. Even gorgeous redheads could be criminals. Picking up the stuffed pig, he forced it into her hand and received a jolt when their fingers brushed.
"Yes." The word came out as a tiny whisper that forced him to lean closer to catch the rest of her confession. "It's not like you think. I didn't do it on purpose."
"All right, so why don't you explain what happened?" He hardened his heart toward her. If there was one kind of people he couldn't stand, it was those who willfully caused fires and put the general population at risk.
"I'm not a fire starter, or arsonist or a vandal. I don't do that kind of stuff." She stared at him, meeting his gaze with no fear, only resignation as her fingers closed tightly around the pig. "I have paranormal abilities that I can't control. I have no idea where they came from or how I can get rid of them, if at all. When I experience extremely strong emotions, I..." Her hands fluttered then dropped into her lap as if she couldn't figure out how to explain her story. "I catch fire. Spontaneously combust, I guess you can call it. One minute I can be standing on the sidewalk, the next I'm a fireball."
"Are you serious?" Of course, he'd heard of the phenomenon but had never put much stock in the stories, never having seen it himself. People just couldn't generate enough heat to burst into fire and then survive the incident.
An angry glint surged into her eyes. "Do you really think I'd be in a house engulfed with flames if I weren't?"
From his position beside her, Darren felt her body temperature rise a few degrees. If what she said was true, he needed to calm her down before she set the room on fire, even if he didn't believe her. "Okay, it's all right." He ran his fingers down her bare arm in what he hoped was a soothing manner. He watched the pulse flutter in her throat just above the rounded neckline of her green hospital gown. "So, because of your abilities, you don't want to live anymore?"
"That's correct. I'm tired of being a burden to others, and to myself. I'm too dangerous to stay with anyone, and I refuse to be a science project for the government." She sucked in a breath and blew it out, stirring the thin wisps of her bangs. "This is why I need to leave this place and get the inevitable over with."
"No. Killing yourself is not the answer, regardless of your ... powers." He moved his fingertips over her shoulder, fascinated by the collection of five freckles on that one patch of skin, wishing he could ease her tension. He swallowed as her scent teased him once more. "They won't release you until you can prove you're stable, so use the time to think about your life, and I'll bet in the morning you'll feel better." If not, I'll convince the docs she needs a psych consult. He mentally grimaced at her reaction to that bit of news.
"I've already thought about it. All day, every day. Death is the only way."
Reaching out, he brushed a finger along her cheek to tuck a wayward strand of hair that escaped the ponytail behind her ear. "Would it make you feel more comfortable if I stayed here with you tonight?" He bet he could charm one of the nurses into letting him keep her company, at least until she fell asleep.
"Why would you want to?" She played with the pages of the novel, her gaze glued to the contents of her lap. "I'm worthless."
"No." The invisible thread that seemed to connect him to her pulled at his heart. "You're just misunderstood, and everyone deserves a second chance in life. Let me do this for you and you can return the favor to someone else down the line."
She met his gaze and held it for long moments before nodding. "Okay."
"Okay." Darren nodded. Now what?