“Oz, you’re going in,” the captain said.
Lucas ‘Oz’ Osborne yanked his gloves and helmet off and tossed them on the ground. He gripped the edge of the Buick LaCrosse, ignoring the wind and snow that lashed at his face. He’d been with Reno Fire for two years and had taken part in his share of extrications, but he’d never been point person.
At his teammate Kade’s nod, he shoved his head and shoulders through the rear passenger-side window. His fists closed on the front seat-back and his arm muscles strained as he dragged the rest of his body through the small opening.
The woman in the driver’s seat moaned, and his heart started beating triple-time. “Don’t move, ma’am,” he said. “I’m coming to you.”
He got himself upright and reached for the cervical collar Kade pushed through the broken window.
“You got this,” Kade said. “ABC’s, then primary assessment.”
Lucas nodded. Airway, Breathing, Circulation…
He slid across the back seat and situated himself behind the driver. “Ma’am, can you hear me?”
“Yes, I… I hear you.” There was a tremble in the woman’s voice. “But I can’t see you.”
“I’m right behind you in the back seat,” he said. “You’re going to feel me touching you.”
He got his hands around the seat rest and placed his fingers against her carotid artery. Her pulse was fast but strong. “Are you having any trouble breathing, ma’am?”
“No, but I can’t feel my legs,” she said. “Oh my God, are they crushed?!”
He heard the rising panic in her voice, but there was no way he could assess that part of her anatomy from the rear seat. His job was to stabilize her and keep her calm.
He hefted himself off the back seat and reached over the console. He got his fingertips on the rearview mirror and tilted it so that he could make eye contact. “Ma’am, can you see me in the mirror?” he said.
The woman’s pale green eyes bounced around before connecting with his. There were some minor cuts on her face—possibly from the force of the air bag deploying—and he guessed her to be in her early to mid-sixties.
“We’re going to get you out.” He was surprised how calm is own voice sounded. “But I need you to stay still right now. Can you do that for me?”
She blinked. “Yes.”
He gave her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “My name is Lucas,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“Margaret,” she said. “But everyone calls me Meg.”
“Well, Meg, you and I are going to get to know each other a little better while my firefighter friends work on your car.” He wedged his hand between the seats and placed it on hers where it lay on the console. “Can you feel my hand, Meg?”
In answer, she turned her palm over and squeezed his fingers.
Good; she had Circulation, Motion and Sensation in her upper body. Still, the comment about her legs concerned him.
“Is my car totaled?” Meg was pretty coherent, all things considered, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t injured her head or neck.
“I’m afraid so, Meg,” he said. “The driver’s side is squashed up against a cement divider, and the passenger side is jammed from the force of the other car’s impact. We’re going to have to peel the lid off your car like a can of sardines.”
Meg frowned. “I don’t like sardines,” she said.
A fissure of worry slithered down his spine; did she have a brain injury? Then he caught the tentative smile on her lips and realized she was joking. Well, he could do that if it made her more comfortable.
“Me neither,” he said. “But put a salmon in front of me, and it’s gone.”
Her smile grew, but then she winced.
Before he could say anything more, his radio rumbled with the captain’s voice. “How’s she doing, Oz?”
“Tell them I’m fit and feisty,” Meg said.
Lucas felt a pinch of pride; Meg had an attitude that would see her through this. He keyed the microphone with his free hand. “Conscious with good pulse and respirations. Major complaint is not being able to feel her legs.”
When he looked back up at the mirror, Meg’s eyes were closed. His mouth went dry; had she passed out?
Her eyes opened, and a wave of relief washed over him.
“Meg, I need to let go of your hand so I can put a cervical collar around your neck,” he said. “It’s just a precaution, to protect your neck and spine.”
She relinquished his hand reluctantly, and he made quick work of placing the collar around her neck and fastening it.
He checked her breathing and pulse again. Still good.
The car shivered, and Meg let out a strangled squawk.
“Easy, Meg,” Lucas said. “They’re putting supports on all the tires so the car won’t move when they start cutting.”
“Oh, God,” she breathed. “It’s like Chicago Fire.”
He almost smiled. His colleagues hated that show because of its inaccuracies about fire and rescue—but he wasn’t about to point that out to Meg. “Kind of,” he said.
“I do like that Kelly Severide character,” Meg murmured. “Such a good boy—but so confused about relationships.”
Lucas’s partner, Maizy Johnston, appeared in the broken window frame, a heavy-duty safety blanket in her hands. “Chocks are in place,” she said.
She pushed the blanket through the window. Behind her, Kade hefted the hydraulic cutters, and Lucas knew he had less than a minute to get them both covered.
“Meg, I’m going to put this blanket over you,” Lucas said. “It’ll protect you from glass and other particles.”
He positioned the blanket over both of them. “It’s going to get loud,” he said. “I promise the ceiling is not going to fall in on you, even if it sounds like it is, okay?”
“Do you mind holding my hand again?” Her right hand appeared up by her shoulder.
He squirrelled his hand over the seat and grasped it. Any more words he would have said were drowned out by the saw.
Geez, it was loud. He’d never realized how loud. Then again, he’d never been on the receiving end of its abilities.
He squeezed Meg’s hand. She squeezed back.
Metal screeched and the frame bent. The windshield glass splintered, fragments of it pelting the outside of the blanket. Meg’s grip became painful, but he was grateful for it because it meant she was still conscious.
Come on, come on…
The car’s frame jerked as the top was peeled away. Wind lifted the corners of the blanket, and he peered out to see Maizy scramble into the front passenger seat. She rammed a jack under the dash and pumped it several times. “Get the KED over here!” she called.
Cautiously, Lucas straightened so that he was bent over the front seat. Ignoring the snow that soaked into his hair and snuck down his collar, he used his free hand to drape the blanket over the twisted remains of the pillar so that Meg was somewhat protected from the wind and snow.
His fingers found Meg’s pulse again. Still strong, thank God.
“How are you doing, Meg?” he said.
“I can definitely feel my legs now!” she groaned.
“I know this is going to sound odd, but that’s a good thing,” Lucas said. “Once we get you out of here the paramedics can give you something to help with the pain.”
Lucas supported Meg’s neck and head as Maizy slid the Kendrick Extrication Device (aka KED) behind her. Between the two of them, they got all the buckles fastened despite the snow that cramped their fingers and made everything slicker than snot (and had no-doubt been a major contributor to the accident).
“Let’s get you out of here, Meg,” Lucas said.
He and Maizy maneuvered her sideways across the passenger seat and over the window frame, then slid her head-first onto a waiting stretcher. The paramedics closed in, and Lucas stepped back so they could do their job.
They were about to load her into the ambulance when Meg said, “Lucas? Where’s Lucas?”
“I’m here, Meg.” Lucas stepped to the stretcher.
Meg blinked up at him with teary eyes. “Such a nice young man,” she said. “You even look a bit like Kelly.”
“Take care of yourself, Meg.”
She reached up and patted his cheek. “Don’t you worry about me; I’ll be back to pickleball in no time.”
Lucas was grinning as Kade slapped him on the back and handed him his helmet. “Good job, Oz.”
“Okay, Chicago Fire,” Maizy teased. “Let’s pack up this scene and go home.”
Hannah Gilders smacked her hand lightly on her desk. “Darn it!”
The voice from her doorway startled Hannah. It was Violet Rhodes, SJ Marketing’s photographer.
“I know Patrick’s going to ask me for this data on Mount Rose Resort and I can’t find it on the server,” Hannah said.
Vi circled Hannah’s desk. “Sales report or forecasting?”
“Most recent sales numbers.”
“Try that folder there.” Vi pointed.
A couple clicks later the numbers Hannah was looking for appeared on the screen. “You’re a lifesaver,” she said as she hit the print button.
“Let’s go,” Vi said. “The project meeting starts in two minutes and Patrick hates latecomers.”
“I’ve noticed,” Hannah muttered. As driven as her new boss was, he’d have fit right in at her old firm in Los Angeles.
She grabbed the print-off along with her notebook and pen and followed Vi to the green room. She greeted the other project managers, who were already seated. They’d all been pleasant and helpful in the month since Hannah had arrived, with one exception: Carina Kivisto.
True to form, Carina barely glanced at Hannah now.
Before Hannah could dwell on that fact, Patrick swept into the room. “Okay, folks, let’s get through this agenda quickly,” he said.
Vi rolled her eyes, and Hannah suppressed a smile. The short, chunky woman with the slightly wacky sense of humor was quickly becoming more than a coworker.
Patrick spent the next twenty minutes on current project updates and next steps before moving on to new business. Hannah was studiously taking notes when he addressed her directly. “Hannah, I’d like you to handle the firefighter calendar.”
Out of the corner of her eye, she saw Carina stiffen.
“Calendar?” Hannah said. She was still untangling a project that had gone off the rails due to the previous employee’s sudden departure.
“Every other year, the Nevada State Firefighters Association puts out a calendar featuring real firefighters from around the state,” Patrick said. “All proceeds are donated to the Lion’s Burn Care Unit in Las Vegas. This year the calendar production falls to Reno’s district, and they’ve asked us to donate our time.”
“It sounds like a great cause,” Hannah said.
“It is,” he said.
“Patrick, don’t you think someone who’s been around a little longer would be a better fit for the calendar?” Carina said. “After all, it’s a large project involving nearly every department.”
Patrick studied Carina briefly. “I’m sorry, Carina, but I’ve already made the assignment.” He turned to Hannah. “You’ll need to work with Violet for photography and Abraham in PR. You’ll also need to connect with Richard Capstone at the Fire Alliance. He can get you hooked up with the leadership at each station.”
Hannah’s head was reeling. How many stations were there?
Patrick stood, signaling the end of the meeting. Hannah was gathering her notes when he turned back to her.
“Oh, and Hannah?”
“Set up a couple field trips for firefighters to visit the Burn Care Unit,” he said. “They like to visit and help.”
“Will do,” Hannah said.
On her way past her, Carina bumped into Hannah’s elbow, causing her to drop her notebook.
“Oh, I’m so sorry.” Carina’s sugary-sweet voice was at odds with her icy glare.
Hannah stared after the woman as Vi picked up her notebook.
“Ignore her,” Vi said. “She’s just jealous.”
“She probably wanted the Mount Rose Resort account.” Vi grinned. “And I know she wants to work with the hot firefighters for the calendar project!”
Well, who wouldn’t? Hannah thought as she made her way back to her office. She’d tried her best to be friendly to her new coworkers, but obviously Carina wasn’t interested in playing nice. It was unfortunate, but Hannah’s time in L.A. had taught her to hold her own—and to do the best damn job she could.
It was nearly 3 p.m. when Hannah pulled into Reno Fire Station Three. The visits at Station One and Two had gone well and she felt confident she’d find more than enough models to fill a twelve-month calendar.
She crossed the tarmac and stepped into a small office area. An older woman with frizzy hair sat on a stool behind a long counter. “What can I do for ya?” she said.
“I have an appointment with David Kieffer,” Hannah said.
“That would be Captain Kieffer, and he’s out.”
Hannah refused to be put off by the woman’s brusque manner. “Do you know how long Captain Kieffer will be?”
“Seeing as he’s at an active fire scene, I couldn’t tell ya.”
“Well, you know way more about these things that I do,” Hannah said, hoping a little flattery would help her cause. “Would you recommend that I reschedule?”
The woman peered at Hannah over the top of her thick glasses. “What’s your name, honey?”
“Gilders.” The receptionist’s brow wrinkled. “Oh! From the ad agency?”
“Yes ma’am,” Hannah said.
“You’re the one who’s going to coordinate the firefighter calendar!”
“That’s me,” Hannah said.
The woman’s face crinkled into an actual smile. “Our boys are gonna be the hottest ones in that calendar. Did you see the last one?”
“I haven’t.” Hannah made a mental note to bump that chore higher up on her to-do list. “I’ve been living in L.A. for a while, and I’m new to the agency.”
“Oh, child, you have to get your eyes on it,” the receptionist said. “How else you gonna make our boys look better than those Vegas boys?”
Hannah resisted the urge to roll her eyes as the woman got off the stool and rummaged around behind the counter. “I know I have it here somewhere,” she muttered. “I have to keep it where the boys can’t see it—”
A door slammed somewhere behind the receptionist. “Rowenna!”
Rowenna nearly bumped her head on the counter. “Why, here’s your man now.”
Hannah made another mental note to remember the receptionist’s name as a tall man with slightly graying sideburns strode into the narrow space of the office. “Rowenna, call Dwyer and have him take a look at Rescue 12’s brakes.” His attention switched to Hannah. “Ah, I almost forgot. You’re from the ad agency, right?”
“Hannah Gilders.” She held out her hand and he wrapped his large paw around hers.
“I’m afraid I’ve got to go back out to the fire scene to meet with the inspector,” he said.
“If you need to reschedule—”
“No need to do that; I’m sure you’re busy, too.” Dave Kieffer turned to Rowenna. “I need a point man on this calendar project.”
“Kade?” Rowenna asked.
“He’s too busy.” The captain snapped his fingers. “Oz can do it. Round him up and send him to my office, will you?”
Lucas entered the kitchen area to find his coworkers bunched around the counter, still dressed in their bunker pants.
“God, these cookies are scrumptious!” Maizy said as she rolled her eyes dramatically.
Lucas’s stomach rumbled; they’d been on overhaul all morning and he hadn’t eaten. He reached for one of the macadamia-and-chocolate-chip confections. “Where’d these come from?”
“They came for you,” Maizy said.
“Me?” Lucas said.
“They’re from Meg,” Kade said. “The woman we pulled out of that car on Highway 65 the other day.”
Station Three’s resident playboy, Dez Andrews, snagged a cookie. “The older lady?”
“That’s the one,” Maizy said.
“Why do middle-aged ladies always bring you goodies?” Kade said.
“She brought us goodies,” Lucas said. After all, Meg’s extrication was a full team effort.
“You can have the older ones,” Dez said. “I’ll take the younger ones.”
“Oz!” Their station receptionist’s voice carried clearly down the hallway. “Cap’n wants to see you in his office!”
Lucas glanced at his sooty shirt and bunker pants. “Now?”
“Three minutes ago.”
That was Rowenna’s standard answer. She always sounded crabby, but he’d learned long ago that it was just her way—she was more den mother than receptionist.
“Give me thirty seconds.” Lucas rinsed his plate and glass and set them in the washer, then took the stairs to the ground floor. Through the glass window of Dave’s office, he could see he had a visitor. A curvy one in a blue blazer and matching pants, with long blond curls that cascaded down her back.
He stopped at the door. “Hey, Cap. What’s up?”
“Oz, I’d like you to meet Hannah Gilders.”
The blond turned to him, and all the air rushed out of his lungs as surely as it did in the first seconds of a fire.
Hannah was here. In Reno. In his firehouse.
Hannah’s ocean-blue eyes reflected the same shocked surprise.
“Miss Gilders is in charge of the Lions charity calendar.” Dave said something else, but Lucas didn’t hear it because his pulse was pounding in his ears. How could she be here? Last he’d heard she was still in California—
Hannah recovered first. “Oh my God! Lucas?”
Dave stopped talking in the middle of a sentence. “You two know each other?”
Lucas’s hand went to his jaw to make sure it wasn’t hanging open before he turned to Dave. “We, uh, went to school together.”
Dave’s eyes darted from him to Hannah and back. “Great. Then I can get right to the point. You’re the inside guy on this calendar project, Oz. That means you give Miss Gilders access to whatever she needs, and you make sure our staff is cooperative—within reason, of course.”
Dave nodded to Hannah. “Sorry I have to run. It was nice meeting you.” He patted Lucas on the shoulder. “I’ll catch up with you later, Oz.”
Then Dave was gone and Lucas was left staring at the blast from his past that was Hannah Gilders.
“So you’re a firefighter.” Hannah’s gaze held warmth and a healthy dose of respect.
“Yeah.” He was overly aware of the soot streaking his shirt and the sweat caked under his collar. He raked his fingers through his hair. Damn, that probably looked bad too.
He scoffed at himself silently. Why did he care what he looked like? He was doing his job.
“We definitely have some catching up to do,” she said.
He shifted his weight from one foot to the other. “Apparently we need to talk about a calendar.”
She waved her hand. “That can wait. First I want to hear how this happened.”
He recognized the look on Hannah’s face even though he hadn’t seen her in years. Back in middle school, if she’d wanted to know something, she wouldn’t stop until she dragged it out of him. No doubt she wanted to know how the guy she thought of as a shy, geeky kid ended up fighting fires for a living. He tamped down an unexpected fissure of irritation; was it really so hard to believe?
“He’ll be at The Hydrant Bar & Grill tonight,” Rowenna volunteered from her perch at the counter.
Lucas’s head whipped toward the receptionist, who’d apparently heard every word of their conversation.
“Great!” Hannah said brightly. “Do you mind if I come by?”
Lucas edged toward the bay doors (and the relative safety of his coworkers). “Um…”
“Shift ends at eight,” Rowenna offered.
“That’s perfect.” Hannah pointed to Lucas’s shirt, wrinkling her nose good-naturedly. “I think I’ll wait until then for a reunion hug.”
His brain snagged on the word hug. Hannah wanted to hug him? That sounded way more appealing than it should have…
“Nice to meet you, Rowenna.” Hannah sent her disarming smile toward the receptionist as she turned to go. “See you tonight, Lucas!”
“Have fun catching up dear!” Rowenna called after Hannah.
Lucas blinked at the station den-mother, his jaw lax.
Rowenna winked. “You can thank me later.”