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by Denise A. Agnew
Category: Erotica/Erotic Romance/Romance
Description: A little heat... Former smoke jumper Autumn MacAllister returns to Montana after tragedy almost takes her life. She doesn't expect the chubby insecure boy she once knew to have turned into a virile man with a mind-blowing smile. A little flame... Firefighter Jack Dillon never forgot his childhood crush on Autumn, or the devastating blaze that melded their lives together. Now she's back and creating havoc in his heart, and he can't ignore the banked tension between them that threatens to ignite. Combustion! Now they must combine forces when an arsonist threatens to burn their city, and an old enemy threatens to create a flashover that may consume all they hold dear.
eBook Publisher: Atlantic Bridge/Liquid Silver Books, 2009
eBookwise Release Date: November 2009
38 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [502 KB]
Reading time: 297-417 min.
September 11, 2001
CNN blared on the small television high above the bar, and an incredulous silence hovered over those who watched. With diamond-hard precision, horrible images became engraved into the minds of patrons observing the terror playing on the screen. Peril existed for everyone in that second, that minute, that time of destruction.
The Watcher observed the chaos and drew in the scent of the smoky bar--beer, and the unmistakable stench of horror. Uncertainty became a live thing, writhing in the room and circling the people like a python strangling a last breath. Time hovered and stilled.
"Oh, my God," a woman sitting next to The Watcher said. "They've attacked the World Trade Center."
He felt the woman's disbelief and almost laughed at the vacant, dumbstruck quality of her expression.
The witless creatures nearby couldn't believe the dreadfulness unfolding before them. Everyone gaped and spoke in whispers. The bartender stopped swabbing down the bar and gazed at the boob tube in stunned fascination.
At first, the Watcher had cringed along with the rest of them, sickened by the pictures on the television, more than appalled, enraged and vengeful at the sight.
Then he absorbed the magnitude of the events, tasted the outright helplessness seeping from each person in the room. Glorying in the sensations, he shuddered as enjoyment piled upon fascination. Yes, the ordinary Joe Blow on the street would be glued to the television for hours. And the Watcher would feed on the violence with deep enjoyment.
He looked at the television again and saw firefighters rushing to the site of terrorism. Loathing and hatred ripped through the Watcher's soul. Clifton firefighter Jack Dillon would probably volunteer to go to New York.
He couldn't match the evil unfolding on such a staggering scale, but tonight, the small city of Clifton, Montana would have a taste of the fire and mayhem that had destroyed the World Trade Center. He felt the urge and the sizzling desire to create the power required for destruction. The irresistible yearning to burn, tamped down for months, surged as a ravenous hunger.
Jack Dillon didn't know it, but the conflagration tonight wouldn't be the first fire the Watcher had given Jack.
It wouldn't be the last.
* * * *
It all started with a bang.
Autumn MacAllister never expected to run into Jack Dillon the way she did that Monday. Especially after only two weeks back in Clifton, Montana.
The snow started as she traveled from her rented room to her job as a photographer and reporter for the Clifton Times five miles away. Light, wet flakes turned to heavy globs of moisture. Wretched conditions caused her to slow her vehicle to a turtle's crawl.
As she pulled her old blue Taurus up to the stop sign at the corner, she looked both ways more than once to make certain the intersection was clear. The street was deserted, a quiet residential area not far from a park. Satisfied, she turned right onto Jackson. She'd driven maybe half a block when she saw a big SUV barreling down the road at least twenty miles over the speed limit. Seconds later the SUV started to slide. The driver wrestled with the wheel and the huge vehicle swerved from side to side.
Ice. Black ice.
Autumn slowed her car, ready to take evasive action.
Before she could even inhale, the SUV started to spin...and skid right toward her.
Autumn cursed as she turned the wheel to the right and headed for the sidewalk. No cars along the curb. Nobody walking by.
Too late, Autumn. Too slow.
The SUV's huge silver grill faced her like a monster in a futuristic movie. She saw an old, wizened face at the wheel of the behemoth vehicle, mouth wide open in surprise or shock.
The SUV glanced off her front right fender and forced the sedan to spin to the right. She cried out as her seatbelt snapped taut and held her in place. Metal bent and crunched. Glass shattered. Her sedan continued to skate, heading straight for the light pole at the side of the street. Instinctively, she threw her arms over her face and head. The driver's side rear door rammed against the pole and vibrations radiated through her body with stunning force. Rending metal and breaking glass screeched in a cacophony against her ears. A sharp sting pierced her cheek, then another prickle of pain touched her left hand and her neck. For a fleeting second, she waited for the light pole to come crashing down and perhaps crush the car, or for power lines to spark electricity around the vehicle.
Her breath rasped in her throat, and she heard the engine idling. For several stunned seconds she couldn't think. Arctic air blew through the window and enveloped her body like an icy shroud.
She kept her arms over her head and her body drawn tight. The engine clunked and ticked, still running. As snow blew into the broken driver's side window, she lowered her arms and reached for the ignition to shut off the car. With shaky fingers, she unhooked her seatbelt. Small pieces of glass littered her lap, and she noticed a streak of blood on her left hand. She craned around to look at the other car. It stood kitty-corner to the sedan. The front end sat near the left rear side door. The small figure in the SUV slumped over the steering wheel.
Shivers shook Autumn's body as she tried to think.
If the driver's side door had hit the pole, she might have been seriously hurt. Instead, the back rear door on the driver's side was deeply dented by the pole.
As she looked at the devastation around her, an inane and ridiculous thought came to mind.
I've done it now. I'll be late to work.
Before she could move, she heard someone shout and a flurry of activity began around the accident. Two cars stopped on the other side of the wide lane.
Her whole body ached with a dull throb. She'd require a good soak in the tub tonight. First, she needed to escape this tangled metal. Since she'd arrived in Clifton two weeks ago, life seemed to become more complicated by the minute. Now she could add another bizarre incident to her growing resume of oddities.
I'm always in the middle of the action. She took a deep breath and tried to calm her racing heart. Come on. You've been in far more dangerous situations than this.
A balding, chubby middle-aged man suddenly appeared at her window. His nose was red from the cold, and his eyes filled with concern. "You all right?"
"Yes." She pushed against the driver's side door, but it wouldn't budge. "What about the person in the SUV?"
"She's unconscious and someone else is helping her." The man tried yanking on the door but it wouldn't open. "I'll try the other doors."
She realized that although the driver's side front window and back window were destroyed, her windshield formed an odd spider web that hadn't fallen apart. Since this old car didn't have airbags, she was lucky the windshield hadn't caved in and showered her with more glass.
The man struggled to open the other doors and failed. "What a mess. You didn't buckle the telephone pole, though, and that's pretty amazing." Apprehension drew his mouth into a frown as he gazed upward. "At least not yet."
In the distance, a siren wailed. She gave him a weak smile. "Is that help I hear coming?"
"The station is close. I wouldn't move if I were you. You might have injuries."
Oh, yes, I know. She knew the drill too well, and shoved back a memory that threatened to rear up and seize her throat like a mad dog. She drew in a deep, settling breath.
More quickly than she would have imagined, a brilliant red fire engine and ambulance arrived on scene, screaming sirens diminishing as the emergency vehicles came to a halt.
Firefighters unloaded from the engine. Garbed in black helmets, canvas-like bunker pants, suspenders, waterproof jackets and steel-toed rubber boots, their attire reminded her of the career she'd given up three years ago.
"Over here!" The middle-aged man waved to the firefighters. "This car won't open and she's trapped. The SUV driver looks in bad shape."
Some of the firefighters headed for the SUV, while two approached came to Autumn's car. They bent down, assessing the damage from behind tinted safety glasses.
"Ma'am, are you all right?"
The deep, masculine voice belonged to the younger of the two men. For a stunned second all she could register was his handsome face, eyebrows drawn together in fierce concentration. Whoa. She hadn't seen a firefighter this good-looking in a long time--if ever.
Concern creased his forehead, and his stunning jade eyes narrowed. "Ma'am? Are you hurt?"
Wake up, Autumn. You're gaping at him like a lovesick pup. He's going to think you have a head injury. She smiled weakly. "No, I'm perfectly fine."
Something surreal and familiar touched her thoughts. Worry registered in his eyes as he evaluated her. She could tell he didn't believe her. He tried to wrench open the door.
"I'm stuck." She realized two seconds later how lame that sounded.
A heart-stopping smile broke over his face, transforming him into nothing short of gut-wrenchingly, absolutely gorgeous.
She blinked and wondered if she'd started hallucinating. "Is the other driver all right?"
"She'll be fine, ma'am. Don't worry about her right now," the older firefighter said before he turned away and shouted instructions to other crewmembers.
Suddenly tears burned her eyes. She took a gulping breath and shoved unwanted emotion back where it belonged. One of the tears escaped. She wiped away the offending evidence of her vulnerability.
"Hey." The younger man threw her another wide grin as he slipped off his leather gloves and replaced them with latex. "You'll be all right. You're not crying because you're hurting anywhere?"
She sniffed but refused to acknowledge that she wanted to cry and cry hard. "No. I'm okay."
"We'll check and be sure." He reached in the car and started the standard examination, gathering her vital signs and asking her probing questions. As he touched her, his hands sent warm messages that went way beyond comfort. Though his touch was professional, what she felt made her wonder if she hadn't really hit her head. A sweet ache started low in her stomach as his fingers examined her neck. Tingles raced over her skin.
It felt surreal having someone take care of her this way, and even more unnerving that she wanted his touch intimately. What would it be like to feel his hands tracing over more intimate, forbidden areas?
"Any pain in your arms or legs?" he asked.
Jerked out of her steamy thoughts, she answered in the negative.
He touched a cut on her head with gauze and the sting surprised a small gasp from her. His eyes narrowed. "Sorry. Does it hurt a lot? Did you hit your head?"
"No. It must have been the glass."
"We'll need to put on a c-collar. A little bit longer and then we'll have you out." His gentle voice, deep and soothing, calmed her at the same time it stirred more carnal, primitive thoughts. "We need to make sure you don't have any serious problems."
As he brushed his big hands over her skull, searing sensual awareness gathered inside her once more. She pondered her reaction, and chalked it up to adrenaline.
Impatience wore on her, even though she knew he followed procedure. She wanted out of the car. "I'm fine. I could climb out the window and be out of here by now and save you from using equipment to get me out."
He shook his head. As he smiled the tiniest bit, she noted a small dimple in his chin--a barely-there dent. "We're not letting you climb out of here and risk it. Adrenaline can mask injury."
"I always was the worst patient," she muttered.
She'd proven that when she lay in a hospital bed three years ago with damaged pride, sorrow, and a smashed right knee. Automatically, she reached for her knee.
"What's wrong?" His tone came out brusque, concern evident in his eyes.
"Nothing. I was thinking about an old injury."
"Tell me if there's a problem."
His firm voice said it all, and she found herself responding to his strength. She liked the way he worked, efficient and quick. He slipped a c-collar into place around her neck.
Moments later another firefighter walked toward her with Jaws of Life machinery. Relief slowed her heartbeat to a reasonable speed when she saw the extrication specialist. He'd have her out of here fast.
She heard the young man saying something to other firefighters gathering near the car. Rescue personnel soon placed the woman from the SUV on a stretcher.
Autumn looked up as her firefighter gave her a disgustingly attractive smile that spoke of charm and maybe a little cockiness around the edges.
My firefighter? Where did that come from? So he's got an attractive smile. Okay, more than good-looking. Delicious and down right edible.
Nah, I don't do firefighters. And she didn't. Though she'd been in firefighting herself, she couldn't imagine herself married to one. The weird shift hours, the danger ... she didn't think she'd want to put herself through that. Not with her history.
Seconds later, the ambulance carrying the old woman sped away. Autumn wondered if she could have done anything to prevent the accident. She tried to recall the sequence of events but everything seemed blurred. She couldn't remember details and that scared her. She knew, all too well, that stress could render a person's thinking processes off kilter and cause problems with memory.
The good-looking firefighter turned back to her with a blanket. "I'm going to cover you up so that when we open this door you don't get hit with any debris, okay?"
She nodded. "Okay."
He eased the blanket over her, his concerned eyes crinkling as he smiled. Reassured, she settled under the muffling cloth.
A firefighter used the Jaws of Life, and she put her fingers in her ears to shut out the tremendous racket as machinery rattled and metal protested. Moments later the door creaked open. The young firefighter pulled the blanket away and squatted down beside her. His measuring gaze searched for any injury he'd missed.
Other rescue personnel brought over the backboard and stretcher. As her firefighter helped them ease her from the car, a thousand points of awareness rushed to her. People talking, traffic in the far distance, and the sound of another ambulance arriving. Trussed up in c-collar, head stabilizers and backboard, she felt like a chicken ready to roast.
Another man said something to the young firefighter taking care of her, and she heard the man call him Jack.
As they wheeled her to the ambulance, memories bombarded her like an avalanche. Surprise rippled down to her toes.
It couldn't be. It must be.
The young firefighter took off his helmet and his short, curly, dark blond hair came into view. Next, he removed his safety glasses and revealed more of his green eyes. He'd opened his jacket sometime during the rescue, and she saw his nametag on his uniform shirt and wondered why she hadn't noticed it before. She sure wouldn't have recognized him otherwise.
She reached up and clasped his forearm and he started. Worry showed through his mask of professionalism.
"Jack Dillon?" she asked.
As they slid her into the ambulance, his voice sounded far away. "That's me."
"The Jack Dillon?" She couldn't keep the amazement out of her voice as she recalled the young, overweight boy he'd once been.
A twinkle entered his eyes as he climbed into the ambulance with her. "The one and only."
"You don't know who I am, do you?" As the ambulance rolled away from the scene, she decided she would clue him in. "I'm Autumn MacAllister."
How many seconds went by before he spoke, she couldn't say. Time rolled back, parting the years. So many years and so much distance.
Recognition bloomed in his gaze, and she saw that he, too, remembered one windy afternoon seventeen years ago when they'd first met. It seemed like a lifetime ago.
Jack couldn't believe it. This was his Autumn lying on a gurney, cut and bruised from an accident. As he looked down at the slim-boned, but strong-looking woman on the stretcher, his heart did a thud and almost stopped. His breath shortened. The teenage girl who had given so much to him all those years ago had blossomed into a stunning woman.
Uh, yeah. Right. Try fuckable. A-number-one, wall-banger beautiful.
Jesus Jack. Get a grip.
Yeah, she was a patient, and yes it wasn't professional to stare at her like this, but he couldn't seem to help it. Ever since he'd seen her in the car, eyes a little wide, looking a bit scared, he wanted to protect her. Taste her. Her lips parted and his gut clenched.
Memories flew through his head. When he'd first seen her silver blonde hair and blue eyes, he'd felt a sense of deja vu. He'd shrugged it off and jumped into action, instinct pushing him to do his job. Autumn's voice, so like what he remembered, sent a jolt of longing through him. He let the hungry, appreciative sensations come, male and unmistakable. A carnal scene flashed through his head in an unstoppable instant.
Her long legs wrapped around his hips while his cock sank into her high and deep.
Shit. He'd lost his mind in a heartbeat.
He realized that he'd stared at her for some time without speaking. "It's been seventeen years." She smiled and the tenderness in that grin made his heart flip, flop and start a new, frantic beat. "I can't believe you're here."
"I can't either. What a way to meet again," she said.
A wry twist to her lips and heightened color in her cheeks made him wonder if she was embarrassed. He grinned.
As he gently touched her legs, feeling for any sign of injury, he tried to remember his ethics again. Built athletically, she obviously worked out to keep her great muscle tone. Her breasts were round, full, and beautiful under the long red tunic she wore, her waist and hips slim. Her dark leggings did nothing to disguise the firm curve of her legs. He'd always been a leg man. Nothing he liked better than a woman naked and wearing fuck-me shoes.
A fiery fantasy slammed into him of her stalking into his bedroom wearing a barely there black bra, a postage stamp sized thong, and sharp spike heels. Oh, yeah.
The ambulance hit a speed bump, and as they jostled, he grasped her forearm. "You all right?"
"You've certainly asked me that a lot." Soft, red lips parted into a smile.
Autumn's voice sounded whispery and smooth, and he recalled how her simmering tone once coached him through essays as his English tutor. Heat settled low in his belly and his cock hardened a little. He almost gritted his teeth. Now was not the time to get a raging hard on.
Words slipped from him before he could stop them. "Of course I ask it a lot. I'm worried about you."
He realized how intimate his statement sounded. Great, Dillon. She'll think you're a nutcase. Do your job and don't upset the patient.
"It's my job," he said. "Concern for the patient." He inhaled and tried to lower the speed of his out-of-control heart. He cleared his throat. "Mom said you were coming into town and renting a room from her."
"That's right. Your Mom is the greatest." She rushed onward with her trademark ability to bounce from one subject to the next without missing a beat. "She told me--actually several people told me when I got into Clifton--that you'd become a firefighter."
"Does that surprise you?"
She took a moment to answer, and disappointment made him frown. What did the psychologists call it when old tapes played through your psyche and reminded you of your faults? His old tapes turned him into dumpy Jack Dillon who would never amount to anything.
Autumn's features softened, and he could swear she looked at him with genuine affection. "Not at all. By the time I left Clifton, you had all the confidence in the world."
By the time she left Clifton, his determination to become a firefighter was solidified. But not because of confidence.
Unwanted memories intruded.
The sight of Autumn's house erupting in flames. Tongues of fire reaching into the night sky as the hungry blaze devoured the house with incredible speed.
No. He didn't have time to recall the horrible night that changed both their lives forever.
"Yeah, all the confidence in the world." Jack grinned ruefully and sat up straighter. "I was tempted to puff up with pride when I joined the fire department here two years ago, but I managed to keep a straight head."
"I can see how you'd be tempted." Before he could reply, she continued. "I heard you went to college, earned a chemistry and fire science degree, then went to Detroit. Why Detroit?"
"I had a girlfriend from college who lived there."
"Oh. You lived with her?"
Nothing like being personal. She'd always been direct. "Right."
Damn. Did the woman know what that sound did to a man when it came out all breathy? Autumn's wide mouth drew his attention, and then he realized that like all those years ago, she'd caught him staring. Heat rose in his face.
"I remember, too, Jack."
Did she mean she thought about the wild crush he'd had on her, or the fire? Whichever one, he didn't want to think about it. Better to leave the past in the past where it couldn't hurt either of them.
He realized his other hand still held her arm. He drew back as they arrived at the hospital.
As they rolled Autumn's gurney into the emergency room, that deep, gut reaction pounded inside him. He wanted to know more about her life and what happened over the years she'd been away. Sure, he heard rumors about her from time to time. Try as he might to avoid listening to those rumors, he'd absorbed everything he could learn about her anyway. Guilt replaced excitement.
Back to work, Jack. "See you later. Take care."
He waved and smiled as Autumn was wheeled away. She lifted a hand in farewell but said nothing, and her gaze locked on his for a long time until she rounded a corner.
Forcing his feet to move, he headed back to the ambulance and grinned. He wondered what she'd do if he asked her out. Ever since his mother had told him Autumn had come back to Clifton, he'd considered contacting her again despite their shared, painful past.
Now that he'd seen her, mile-long legs and deliciously curved body, he wanted to see if the old Autumn he'd known had changed mentally as well.
Damn. The woman he'd fantasized about for years had stepped right out of his dreams into reality. Excitement swirled in his psyche and pooled in his groin. Time to do something about it, Dillon.