Spencer Finley gripped the steering wheel of Engine 43. “Come on, come on, get out of the way!” he muttered.
He loved this part of his job: flying down the road in his big-ass fire truck, sirens wailing and traffic parting like the Red Sea…
Except for this guy in the red Ford Fusion, who was either hard of hearing or had his ear buds in.
He honked again—really laid it on this time—and alleluia! The guy pulled over.
Spencer leaned his torso over the wheel as they went into the right-hand turn. In his peripheral vision, he saw his partner, Kade Phillips, grip the oh-shit handle. He’d been driving this rig long enough that he knew exactly how fast he could take a 90-degree turn in any kind of conditions. Hand-over-hand, he brought the big rig around.
The cockpit radio came to life. “Engine 43, park behind Engine 15, clear of the fire hydrant on the north-northeast corner.”
Kade picked up the mic. “That’s affirmative.”
Less than a minute later, the fire location came into view. Black smoke poured from broken windows along the front walkway of one of the older strip malls that populated this part of Reno, Nevada.
In fact, there was so much smoke, Spencer couldn’t make out which shop was involved. Maybe multiple shops…
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire,” Kade muttered. He and Spencer had only been partners for a month or so—after Kade’s former partner became his girlfriend and moved to another fire house.
Kade pointed to their right. “There’s the hydrant.”
“Got it.” Spencer pulled the rig up behind Engine 15 and well clear of the hydrant as instructed. The transmission chuffed as he put it in park.
He grabbed his helmet and jumped down from the cab. The firefighters from Engine 15 were already laying out hose; Maizy and Oz were gearing up to head inside the structure. He followed Kade to where their captain, Dave Kieffer, stood holding a walkie to his mouth.
“Where do you want us, Cap?” Kade said.
“Crowd patrol,” Dave said.
Kade frowned but didn’t say anything. Spencer didn’t mind the assignment; he’d had The Dream again last night, and though he’d never let it affect his performance on the job, it always made him a little squirrelly.
He stuffed the memories back in their compartment and plunked his helmet on his head. “What’s on the upper floor?” he said.
“I think it’s a dance studio,” Dave said. “It’s not involved—yet.”
“Anyone up there?” Kade said.
Before the captain could reply, a short woman with vivid purple hair ran up to them. “The dance lady!” she gasped. “She’s still inside!”
Dave pivoted toward the woman. “Are you sure?”
The woman nodded vigorously. “We just came from her studio—it’s on the second floor.” She pointed. “We thought she was right behind us, but she’s not!”
“Is there a way to get to the second floor other than the stairwell?” Dave said.
“There’s a metal staircase around back,” the purple-haired woman said. “It seems a little rickety, though.”
A fire escape?
Dave’s gaze bounced from Kade to Spencer. “Go,” he said. “But be careful.”
Spencer’s adrenaline spiked like it always did when he first learned he was headed into an active fire. “Roger that.” He patted his front cargo pocket; his mask was right where it was supposed to be. He probably wouldn’t need it if Cap was right about the upper floor, but the weight of the oxygen tank on his shoulders and back was a familiar comfort.
He and Kade strode toward the eastern corner of the building. Sure enough, an iron stairway was bolted to the rear of the building.
Kade grabbed the iron bars at the base of the stairway and shook them hard.
“What do you think?” Spencer said.
Kade had worked in home construction prior to becoming a firefighter, so he was pretty good at evaluating the integrity of structures. Still, shit happened that was out of their control—like Kade falling through a roof earlier that year.
“The structure itself looks solid.” Kade squinted as he looked up. “Who can say about the bolts, though?”
“There’s always the possibility it’s been inspected regularly.” Even as he said it, Spencer figured the chance was less than fifty/fifty.
“One way to find out.” Kade put a boot on the first step. “Hold here.”
Kade took the steps at a steady pace, tugging on each side of the railing as he went. When he reached the landing at the top of the stairs, he motioned for Spencer to follow.
By the time Spencer joined him on the landing, Kade had popped the metal door open.
“Looks like a small entry area, and then it opens up,” Kade said. “You take right and I’ll go left.”
“Come on, Dixie!” Brooklyn D’Angelo stretched one arm toward the little mixed-breed dog cowering under the bed. “Please!”
Instead of coming toward her, Dixie backed up further. She’d always been skittish—especially around men—but no doubt Brook’s anxiety was fueling hers.
Brook dropped flat onto her belly. If she could just get another inch or two…
“Help me out here, Dixie Cup,” she pleaded. “We need to get out of the building!”
Brook glanced behind her; no flames danced in the open doorway between what passed as her bedroom and the rest of her tiny apartment. She hoped that was still true of the dance studio on the other side of the wall, as well.
She focused on the brown-and-white ball under the bed. “Come on, girl, I don’t want to leave without you!” Just the thought of doing so made her stomach hollow out.
“Firefighter, call out!”
Brooklyn startled, nearly bumping her head on the bed frame. “In here!”
Seconds later, a large form appeared in the doorway, clad in mustard yellow from head to toe. “Ma’am, are you all right?”
She blinked up at him from her place on the floor. “I’m fine,” she said. “But my dog—”
“We need to get you out of the building right now,” he said.
Smoke wafted in behind him, the acrid fumes prickling her nose and throat.
“I can’t go without my dog,” she said.
“Ma’am, there’s active fire on the floor beneath you.” His voice was steady with no hint of annoyance or condescension. He stepped closer, and his eyes—gray, like the smoke but lighter—pinned her in place.
“I… I got her from a rescue organization,” she said. “She’s already been through so much. I can’t leave her behind!”
She didn’t add that Dixie had been her only friend and source of comfort when she’d first moved to Reno. The little dog had rescued Brook as much as Brook had rescued her, and if she died of smoke inhalation she’d lose her best friend.
The firefighter’s eyes narrowed on Brook’s, as if he sensed what she hadn’t said. Shoot, he was probably going to haul her up and physically carry her out of the building without Dixie.
Instead, he lifted one hand to his shoulder and spoke into his mic. “I found the dance lady; she’s unharmed.” He got on his knees next to her. “What’s your dog’s name?”
“Dixie,” she said. “Like the cup.”
The firefighter reached out a thickly gloved hand, but the little dog growled.
“She’s scared of men.” Brook’s throat burned—was it from the effort of not crying, or from the smoke?—and she cleared it. “The people at the shelter said she was likely abused by a man.”
The firefighter glanced behind him, and she did the same. Smoke seeped through her tiny living room, thickening as it moved in tendrils along the floorboards. His mic rumbled, but she couldn’t make out the words.
“I don’t suppose there’s another way out of here,” he said. “A back door? Window?”
She shook her head.
His gaze swept over the space that had once been three offices and a kitchenette, then returned to the dog. He keyed his mic. “Slight delay, Cap,” he said. “There’s a dog here that I’m going to secure and bring out.”
She nearly cried with relief; he wasn’t going to make her leave Dixie behind!
He grabbed a pillow from the bed and yanked off the pillow case. “Wrap this around your mouth and nose.”
“How are you—”
“Wrap!” he ordered.
She pressed the fabric to her face. Her fingers were sweaty and clumsy as she tied it in a knot at the back of her neck.
“I’m going to lift the bed, and you’re going to grab the dog.” He paused, his gray eyes locked on hers. “We’ve got one chance at this, so don’t miss.”
Her heart pounded against her sternum. The simple two-letter word rattled around in her head. We, as in together. As if this firefighter (whose name she didn’t even know) trusted her to be part of his team…
He positioned himself at the foot of the bed. “Ready?” he said.
She crouched on her hands and knees, her face inches from the bed frame. “Yes!”
“On the count of three,” he said. “One… two… three!”
Brook scooted into the gap created under the bed. Her fingers plowed into fur and she gripped it. “Dixie Cup! It’s okay! I’ve got you!”
The little dog’s body contorted in panic.
Oh no! I’m not going to be able to hold on!
One big gloved hand grabbed the scruff at Dixie’s neck, and the dog yelped as she was lifted off the floor. Another gloved hand wrapped around her muzzle at the same moment the bed crashed back to the floor, narrowly missing Brook’s head.
Brook scrambled to her feet. To her amazement, Dixie had stopped struggling; it was as if she knew this man was here to save her.
Brook opened her mouth to thank him, but he spoke first. “You’re gonna have to get the door.”
“Yes. Right.” Brook led the way to her apartment door, which he’d closed behind him when he’d found his way into her apartment. She reached for the doorknob.
“Wait!” he said.
He stepped next to her, so close that she was squashed against the wall. “Grab the back of my jacket and hold tight,” he said. “Stay right on my heels.”
She nodded, one hand already fisted in the rough material.
He used one hand to pull a mask over his mouth and face. “Let’s go!”
At his muffled demand, she turned the knob. The door swung toward them. Smoke poured in like sand in an hourglass, and she shut her eyes against the sting.
“Easy now,” he said. “Take it slow. Breathe shallow, but don’t forget to breathe.”
She nodded her understanding into the small of his back.
She clung to him as they made their way across her studio at an agonizingly slow pace.
Across the special Marley flooring she’d spent weeks refurbishing.
They would make it out, but would she still have a studio—and her livelihood—when this was over?
Spencer shrugged out of his harness and stored his oxygen in the tank compartment of his fire truck. He should have been annoyed that the dance lady had put herself at risk for a dog, but he had a soft spot for canines. He’d had a dog as a kid—Lucky had gone everywhere with him—and he’d always wanted another. Unfortunately, military deployments didn’t accommodate pet ownership—and neither did 24-hour firefighter shifts (at least not when you lived alone).
“Cute dog.” Kade tossed his helmet on the truck seat.
“Her name’s Dixie.” Spencer shrugged out of his bunker jacket and draped it over the driver’s seat. “Like the cup.” Funny that he knew the dog’s name but not the dance lady’s…
“The owner isn’t bad either.”
Spencer glanced at Station Three’s resident ‘hound dog,’ Dez Andrews, who was rolling hose on the rig next to theirs. Dez waggled his eyebrows suggestively. “Looks like you got yourself a damsel in distress,” he said.
Spencer frowned, even as his gaze was drawn to the ambulance. The dance lady sat on the back bumper, an oxygen mask on her face and the dog huddled in her lap. She was petite with dark hair pulled back in a simple ponytail. She wore yoga pants—or whatever they called them—that looked like white-and-black marble with a black sweater over a matching top.
The paramedic said something to her, and she shook her head. Uh-oh, that was never a good sign. He’d bet the entire contents of his apartment that she didn’t want to leave the dog.
Before he could think better of it, he strode over to the ambulance. “I’d listen to the medics, ma’am,” he said.
Her gaze flickered over him. Up close, he was startled by her eyes; what he’d thought was a dull, muddy-brown color was three distinct rings: a nearly-black outer ring; a layer that looked like brown sugar; and an inner layer flecked with gold.
Those expressive eyes widened in recognition. “You helped me get Dixie out,” she croaked.
“Yes, ma’am,” Spencer nodded. “You really should get checked out by a doctor.”
“I’m fine,” she said—and promptly started coughing.
“You inhaled a lot of smoke,” he said. “Let the medics take you in. Just to make sure there’s no lasting effects.”
She glanced at the paramedic, then at the dog in her lap, and he knew he’d read her right.
“We’ll take care of Dixie.” He held one hand out toward the dog, hoping his Captain wouldn’t ream him a new one for making that offer.
“We?” she said.
“Me and my team at Station Three.” He jerked his chin toward the trucks idling behind him.
“But she doesn’t like…” Dance lady’s voice trailed off as Dixie’s nose touched Spencer’s hand. A tiny pink tongue snaked out and cautiously licked the webbing between his fingers.
“She likes me.” He grinned. “And just so you know, we have a female firefighter and a female administrator who’d be happy to lend a hand.”
“But…” She swallowed. “I don’t even know your name.”
“Spencer Finley.” He held out a hand. “At your service.”
She put her hand in his. It was petite, like the rest of her, smooth and soft. “Brooklyn D’Angelo,” she said. “Otherwise known as the dance lady.”
He chuckled. “Good to be known for something.”
She smiled, and it lit up her face, turning it from merely pretty to something that made his stomach flip in a funny way.
The smile morphed into a grimace as she coughed again.
“Okay, Brooklyn D’Angelo. You’re going to the E.R. No more arguments.” Gently, he scraped Dixie off her lap. To his surprise—and hers, judging by the raised eyebrows—the dog made no objection. “We’ll take good care of Dixie; you have my word.”