IT WASN’T EVERY morning that Dr. Sarah Grayson stepped out of her apartment and saw a couple making out.
It had happened, though.
Same man, different woman.
Nausea churned in Sarah’s belly. She ordered her eyes away, but since a nice, but somewhat bland apartment building corridor offered nothing to snag her attention, her gaze stayed put.
Making out in her hallway might be a bit of a stretch. Still, the couple stood in her rather hunky neighbor’s apartment doorway, sharing a far from innocent kiss.
Even if the kiss had been a mere lip peck, her neighbor’s lean hips wrapped in only a towel knocked innocent right out of the ball park. Home run.
Sarah ran her gaze over his chiseled torso. He rated pin-up-worthy—centerfold, for sure. Part of her couldn’t blame the busty brunette for clinging to his broad shoulders. Or for totally ignoring the fact Sarah had stepped into the hallway. Common decency said they should pull apart and look a little embarrassed, right?
When Sarah’s gaze collided with piercing blue ones, her breath caught. No embarrassment in those magnificent eyes. Just pure unadulterated sexual temptation.
Good grief. He probably was a grand slam.
What eyes. A color so intense they pulled you in and made you feel as if you were drowning, made you want to drown in everything promised in the enticing blue depths.
Not Sarah, of course.
She was immune to playboys like this guy. She’d built up her defenses years ago while listening to her mother harp about the blight of good-looking, fast-talking men.
Adulthood had fortified her defenses.
Still, she wasn’t blind. Her neighbor was hot. She knew it and so did he.
Even as his lips lingered on the brunette’s, those eyes crinkled with bad-boy amusement. Probably laughing at the fact Sarah had taken up full-fledged voyeurism.
Gaze locked with hers, he pulled back from the kiss.
“Baby,” the brunette protested, still not noticing Sarah as she tugged downward on her cocktail dress skirt.
Good, the skimpy material barely covered her perfectly shaped bottom. A sticking plaster would cover more than the clingy sparkling spandex. Then again, if Sarah had curves like the brunette maybe she’d wear shrink-wrapped clothes, too.
She doubted it, but who knew? Sarah dressed to avoid drawing attention so she could focus on more important things than meaningless ogling. Either way, she’d never know because her stick-straight slender body lacked the brunette’s hourglass shape.
“Brandy, we have company,” her neighbor said, much in the way a parent would to a petulant child.
The brunette turned, flashing big almond eyes, raked her gaze over Sarah’s shapeless body beneath her heavy jacket, scarf, and hat. She dismissed Sarah’s importance and quickly turned back to towel boy.
He was better to look at than a ready-to-face-the-chill-of-a-Manhattan-November-early-morning Sarah.
Or Sarah on any morning, really.
“Jude,” the woman practically cooed.
So that was his name. Jude.
He’d tried talking to her a few times when they’d bumped into each other in the hallway, but she’d ignored him. What would be the point? She wasn’t interested in going through his revolving front door and he didn’t seem the type to want to just be friends with a woman. Plus, he made her feel uncomfortable. Not a creepy uncomfortable, just a very aware of how male he was uncomfortable.
Realizing she was standing in the apartment hallway, gawking still, Sarah turned from the couple, locked her deadbolt, and pretended she couldn’t hear Brandy begging to do anything he’d like her to do. Had the woman no pride?
Go home, girl. He used you.
Too bad Brandy’s mother hadn’t warned about men like him as Sarah’s mother had repeatedly done.
At the woman’s next words, Sarah’s cheeks caught fire. Nope, no pride whatsoever.
Sarah turned and her gaze collided with Jude’s amazing blue one again. She’d swear those eyes could see straight into her very being, knew her thoughts. Maybe they even had some type of superpower because her stomach fluttered as if it had grown thousands of tiny wings.
Nausea, she told herself. Men like him made her sick. Out all hours of the night, never seeming to work, always with a different woman. Sick. Sick. Sick.
Maybe he was a gigolo or some kind of male escort.
Her nose curled in disgust to go along with her flaming cheeks.
“I think you’ve embarrassed my neighbor.”
His voice was full of humor, which truly did embarrass Sarah. What was wrong with her? Standing in her hallway, as if frozen in place, ogling the man as if she’d never seen a bare chest.
She’d never seen one like his outside magazines and television, but that was beside the point.
She needed to get her voyeuristic self to work.
She couldn’t make out most of what Brandy replied but caught the words “prude” and “dumpy”. Ouch.
Refusing to look that way again, Sarah dropped her keys into the oversized bag she carried to work, and got out of Dodge before she had to listen to Jude’s reply.
She hurried down the stairs, through the apartment complex foyer, and out onto the sidewalk to walk the few blocks to the hospital. The cold November wind bit at her face, but her jacket shielded her from the worst.
Too bad she’d not had a shield against what she’d just witnessed. That image was going to be hard to erase.
No doubt her neighbor had dismissed her as unimportant just as the brunette had. Sarah didn’t care what he thought. Or what any man thought. She knew her strengths, her weaknesses. She preferred to be known for her brain and her heart rather than for outward appearances.
She was quite proud of who Sarah Grayson’s brain and heart was. A dedicated emergency room doctor whom she believed made a difference in her patients’ lives.
She wouldn’t let her revolving bedroom door neighbor make her feel badly about herself. After all, what did he do?
He never seemed to do anything.
Except beautiful women.
On that, the man was an over-achiever.
A neighbor from the floor below said she thought he came from old money. Either Sarah was onto something with her paid male escort theory, or he was nothing more than a carefree, lecherous playboy using his family to fund his depraved lifestyle.
Maybe she would get lucky and he’d move.
* * *
Adrenaline drove firefighter Jude Davenport as he pushed his way through the flame-filled building. Or maybe it was the heat that kept him moving. Sweat dripped down the back of his neck and his ears burned beneath his Nomex hood.
First checking temperature with his thermal imaging camera, Jude opened a door and thick black smoke billowed out, banking low.
“Engine Seven to command. We are entering structure and making a left-hand search.”
“Command copies Engine Seven is entering structure, making a left-hand search.”
As lead man, Jude crawled to the left-hand wall and, staying in contact with him, his partner made his way around the room, using his axe to search. Visibility was next to nil thanks to the rolling black smoke.
They had to find her.
A four-year-old little girl was trapped in this hellish inferno.
Along with more than a dozen tenants, they’d already rescued her mother and sister. Jude did not want to have to look that woman in the eyes and say he’d not been able to find her daughter.
He knew first-hand the pain of losing someone you loved and that drove him as he crawled toward a closed door he could barely make out.
A child was in there, was alive. Every instinct said she was.
He just had to get there, get to her, and pray that when he did find her, that she was still alive and he’d be able to get himself and her out of the fire.
Finally, he reached the door.
Then what he’d been dreading happened, what he’d known was coming because of how long they’d been searching in the burning building.
The air horn on the truck blew.
Once. Twice. Three long times.
“Command to all units. Evacuate the building. Repeat, evacuate the building.”
He hadn’t needed the sound of the horn or command coming over the radio speakers in his air pack to know things were bad and the building was lost.
Things were bad.
Somewhere in this hellhole was a terrified four-year-old.
“Command says part of the stairs has collapsed,” his partner, Roger Woods, yelled. “We gotta go.”
Jude had to check the room. They were too close to turn back without doing so.
“Seriously, Davenport,” his partner called from behind Jude. “Don’t make me drag your butt out.”
“As if you could.”
Roger was one of his best friends and Jude trusted the man implicitly. There was a reason Roger was his partner. Because they had similar life philosophies. They valued others’ lives much more than their own. Roger wouldn’t turn back any more than Jude would. Not when they were so close to where the girl was supposed to be.
Finally Jude got to the door. Using the back of his wrist and his thermal imaging camera, he checked the door for heat.
Hot, but not unbearable.
He reached up, grabbed the handle with his gloved hand, and opened the door.
The room wasn’t quite as smoke-filled as the one he was leaving, but visibility was still barely above zero.
Reaching again for the camera hooked to the strap of his breathing apparatus, Jude scanned the room. The left and right walls glowed white, indicating that there was fire on both sides of the room. Jude was pretty sure the wall not lighting up, the opposite wall from him, was an exterior wall, which was good, because he was also pretty sure they weren’t going out the way they’d come in.
Then, with the aid of the TIC cutting through the smoke and steam, the image of a little body not moving made his heart pound.
“Davenport? Do you hear me? Get out now,” Command screamed in his ear.
It wasn’t the first time Command had screamed at him.
He prayed it wasn’t the last.
He didn’t answer his boss. What was the point? He wasn’t going anywhere. Not without the girl. He wouldn’t leave her. He couldn’t walk out of a burning building when the child’s thermal image was in his sight. Reality was that Command wouldn’t want him to. None of their crew would exit when a fire victim was within sight.
“There she is.”
“Thank God,” Roger called from behind him.
“Engine Seven to Command—we need a ladder to fourth division A-side window for rescue.” God, he hoped there was a window on the exterior wall because he couldn’t see a thing. “We have one victim.”
Command acknowledged, repeating the call.
“Keeley?” Jude yelled, hoping the girl could hear him above the fire’s loud roar. Hoping that she’d answer, that she’d move.
Please, don’t let us be too late.
He couldn’t see her with his bare eyes, but used the camera to guide himself toward her. The room was a sweltering hot box.
Then the thermal image on his TIC moved and Jude wanted to cry out in relief. She was alive. Who knew how much smoke she’d inhaled, what kind of burns she might have endured, but she’d moved so there was hope.
“Keeley,” he called again, crawling toward her. “We’re here to get you out of this place.”
He had no idea if she could hear him over the deafening sound of the fire destroying the building. If she could, he wanted her to know he was on his way.
Finally, he reached the far corner of the room where she was huddled beneath her mother’s bed.
Coughing, the little girl stared at him with watery eyes, but didn’t make any move toward him or respond to his motioning for her to come to him. Was she asphyxiated?
In his gear, he couldn’t fit under the huge low-rise bed she was hidden beneath and wasn’t quite sure how he’d move the massive bed with her beneath it without risking hurting her, but he had to get to her fast. They had to get out of the building pronto.
“Keeley, we have to go.” He tried again, tugging on the corner post of the solid wood monstrosity without any success. Was the thing nailed down? “Come to me, honey. Let me carry you out of this place.”
“Don’t leave me.”
He could barely make out her words. Maybe he even lip-read them more than heard them, but they rang loudly through his very soul.
As did the terror in her big puffy eyes as she coughed again.
“I won’t leave you, Keeley. I promise. Crawl to me, Keeley.” He purposely said her name over and over, hoping to get through to her, to let her know to come to him. He stretched his arms as far beneath the bed as he could. “Just move close enough that I can pull you to safety, Keeley, so we can get out of this building.”
He heard a crash and knew another section of the structure had given way.
Any moment the building could come collapsing down.
They had to go now.
“Keeley, come to me,” he pleaded, pushing against the bedpost again to see if it would move. Nope. The piece was solid, low to the floor, and heavy as hell.
He and Roger could stand, use their weight against the frame to see if they could shift it, and pray Keeley got out of the way if they did manage to move the massive piece of furniture.
She was crying, but she scooted forward a little, then back to where she’d been against the exterior wall.
Precious seconds were ticking by. Despite his protective gear, Jude could feel the worsening heat.
Instincts kicking in that said bad was about to get a whole lot worse if he didn’t get her and get her now.
“I know it’s scary, Keeley, but you’re going to have to crawl to me so I can pull you to safety.”
That was when she moved.
“Just a little closer, Keeley.” He reached as far as he could beneath the bed. “Just a little closer.”
Then her hand touched his glove.
“That’s it, Keeley. Just a little more.”
His hand closed around her wrist and he pulled her to him.
“I’ve got her.”
He wrapped his arms around her, just as a window burst out on the exterior wall.
Thank God. An exit.
No doubt the aerial truck platform was just outside the window and some of his guys were waiting to pull Roger, Keeley, and him through to safety.
“Don’t leave me,” the girl repeated, clinging tightly to him and then going limp in his arms.
“Never,” he promised again, praying he’d not been too late.