“Kade!” The voice came over the intercom at the same time Riley Carmichael’s shot on the 4-ball missed the pocket. “Your wife is here!”
Riley turned—along with everyone else in the room—to gauge the reaction of her partner and fellow firefighter, Kade Phillips.
Kade frowned as he handed the cue stick to Lucas “Oz” Osborne. “Step in for me.”
As partners—and even when they’d been at Academy training—she and Kade had helped each other through some rough times. If you caught a bad fire or a wreck where someone you worked on died—especially if things outside the station were strained at the same time—it helped to hang with others who understood.
But she’d been unable to raise Kade’s spirits over the past week—or even get him to talk about whatever was going on that had him tied up in knots.
Without another word—or even a glance in her direction—Kade headed for the stairs.
Oz nudged Riley’s shoulder. “Are we solids or stripes?”
Riley focused her attention back on the pool table. “Solids.”
Fifteen minutes later, they’d lost the game. She handed the cue stick to the next pair waiting to play, then wandered through the kitchen area. She stopped at the plate-glass windows that overlooked a small garden and gazebo the senior high-rise had installed in their backyard.
Movement in the gazebo caught her eye. She would recognize Kade from miles away just by the way he held himself.
Relationship troubles. She’d had her share lately, as well, with her boyfriend Quint and his ridiculous jealousy of her job—and especially of Kade. It didn’t seem to matter how often she reminded him that Kade was married with a two-year-old daughter.
Sure, if she and Kade weren’t already with others—and didn’t work together—he’d be the kind of guy she’d like to date. Maybe more. But his friendship was a highlight in her life and she would never jeopardize that.
Riley shifted her gaze to Kade’s wife, who placed something white on the picnic table, then set a rock on top of it. Papers of some kind. Kade didn’t even glance at them.
Connie turned and walked toward the parking lot. Riley trekked her progress for several moments, then turned her attention back to Kade.
He paced a circle in the gazebo, head down, hands shoved in his pockets. Then he sank down onto the picnic table, tucking his hands between his knees. He made no move toward the papers.
His head dropped to his knees. That didn’t look good, even from where Riley lingered at the window, debating the wisdom of barging in on her partner in what looked like a sub-stellar moment.
But that’s what they did, she and Kade. They made each other talk even when they didn’t want to.
Her mind made up, she took the stairs to the main floor and let herself out the side door.
As she approached the gazebo, she noticed Kade was twisting his wedding band around his finger.
“Hey,” she said.
He didn’t raise his head, or change his focus from the ring. “Hey Riley.”
“You okay?” she said.
He continued to stare at his hand.
She hesitated; clearly, the standard firefighter fallback of gallows humor and raunchy jokes wouldn’t work right now. She sank onto the table beside him. “All couples fight,” she said. “You’ll work it out.”
“Not this time.” He blew out a breath, then jerked his head toward the end of the table. “Divorce papers.”
Her head swiveled to the white sheets. “Oh shit.”
“Yeah,” he said. “Oh shit.”
He twisted the wedding band again. “She doesn’t love me.” His voice was unsteady, as if he were on the verge of tears. “She hasn’t for a while. I knew it. I thought…” He swallowed. “Now she… she’s met someone.”
“Oh, Kade.” She sounded more shocked than he did. How could any woman reject a man like Kade? He was the most upstanding, decent, thoughtful guy she knew… not to mention freaking hot.
She shifted so that her thigh was pressed against his. “I have no words,” she said.
“What am I going to do about Grace?” The pain in his voice just about wrenched her heart out along with his. “She’s my daughter. I’m supposed to raise her. Be her daddy. How can I do that if I only see her part of the time?”
Riley didn’t have an answer for that. “Maybe you don’t have to think about that right this second.”
He dropped his head into his hands. “I did everything I was supposed to,” he said hoarsely. “Why couldn’t I be what she needed?”
She felt the tremor in his shoulders, and realized with a shock that he was crying.
“Why, Riley?” he said.
Her hand clutched his arm. “I don’t know.” She leaned her head against his shoulder. “I don’t know.”
TWO YEARS LATER
Kade looked up.
The old warehouse building was more solidly built than newer ones, but it was also full of wooden pallets—a veritable feast for the fire that was somewhere above them.
He turned his attention back to the steel door they were trying to breach. Riley had a K-bar rammed into the crack between the door and the frame, but it wasn’t budging.
“The windows are holding.” He had to shout to be heard by his fellow firefighters—Alex Rutherford and Spencer Finley—who stood behind them, gripping the charged hose.
“Come on, man, we’re losing time!” Alex said.
Kade looked down at Riley’s petite five-foot-two-inch frame. “You can do it,” he said. But you gotta do it fast, he added silently.
She jammed the K-bar in again. She gripped the K portion in her gloved hands and leaned hard. She just couldn’t get enough weight behind it.
“Leverage, Riley!” he said.
She nodded, stepped back and swung again. A crack appeared along the edge of the door, and he threw his weight against it. No progress. “Again!” He shouted as he crammed a wooden wedge into the crack.
“We need to move. Now.” Alex’s voice.
“She can do it,” Kade said.
“Damn it, Kade, this is no time to coddle the little woman.” Alex’s hand closed over Riley’s, wrestling the bar from her hands. She stumbled back as he pushed in.
Alex braced himself, then rammed the K-Bar into the crack between the door and the frame. “Get on the hose,” he growled at Riley.
Glass showered down on them.
A window had blown out.
In Kade’s peripheral vision, he saw that Ladder Six was on its way up.
The radio crackled: Fourth floor.
They’d be humping up three flights. It could be worse—but it also meant there would be two more floors above them that could come crashing down.
The door gave with a CRACK, and Kade had no choice but to take Alex’s place on the hose while Riley dropped back.
He followed Alex into the building, aware that Riley was behind them, feeding hose.
They found the stairs and started climbing. He and Alex pushed forward while Riley and Spencer kept the hose from getting hung up or kinking, especially on the corners.
“Ladder Six going live,” Ladder team reported.
They rounded the stairs onto the fourth floor, and heat buffeted them. A moment later he saw the flames.
“Let’s put this bitch down!” Alex yelled.
Never let them see you cry.
Riley’s fingers slipped on the buckle of her SCBA harness, and she almost shouted her frustration.
She’d worked just as hard—harder—than every man in this department to get where she was. She could do every physical task required of her.
Except… breaking down doors had never been her strong point.
Yes, it was about leverage, but it sure as hell helped if you had an extra five inches and more than a hundred more pounds on your body. Why did she have to be born short?
She blinked at the voice she knew so well. She should have known Kade would find her ‘hiding place’ behind Ladder Six. She looked up as his fingers closed around the clasp of her buckle.
She loved getting lost in those smoke-blue eyes—but only when he wasn’t looking right at her, or he might figure out how she felt about him.
“Don’t let Alex get to you.” His nearness washed over her like a wave as he tugged the straps loose.
She sighed. “Did you hear what he called me?”
Kade’s mouth flattened. “I heard. Turn around.”
She did as directed; she felt the heavy oxygen tank slip off her shoulders.
“Your brains make up for his brawn any day of the week,” he said as he set the tank on the ground.
Tears pricked the back of her eyes; how could he stick up for her when she’d let him down too?
He turned away from her, and she reached up to grasp the straps of his harness. His head swiveled ninety degrees, but he couldn’t see her from that angle.
“It’s only fair I return the favor.” She lowered his oxygen tank to the ground beside her. “I’ll fill them both when we get back to the station.”
He shucked off his bunker jacket, revealing the sweat-stained V-neck tee-shirt he favored under his bunkers. Shirts that—no matter how she tried not to notice—always brought her attention to the strong cords of his neck.
Not to mention the impressive biceps.
She looked away.
“I mean it, Riley.”
This time she had no choice but to look into the blue-gray eyes that were gazing back at her.
She swallowed. Nodded.
He winked and walked away.
She sagged against the truck.
“Thirty minutes left on shift.” Maizy’s voice made Riley straighten.
The other woman held out a pike pole, and Riley took it.
“Figures,” Maizy said as she gazed at the burned-out building. “Overhaul on this puppy will take hours.”
Riley didn’t mind overhaul so much when every minute of it was spent around Kade.