Gabe Sullivan was helping an elderly couple down the stairs of an old San Francisco apartment building and out onto the sidewalk when the air was rocked with an explosion of flames and smoke out a second-story window.
After ten years as a firefighter, Gabe knew no fire was ever routine. No flame ever played the same game. And sometimes the simplest call could turn into the most complicated. The most dangerous.
"Everyone out," his station captain, Todd, told the crew. "This fire has accelerated and we're switching to defensive operation."
Gabe still had his hand on the elbow of the gray-haired woman and she turned to him with a look of horror on her face. "Megan and Summer are still inside."
He knew the woman must be on the verge of shock, so he spoke to her in a clear, steady voice. "Who are Megan and Summer?"
"My neighbors, a mother and her little girl. I saw them go into their apartment a while ago." The woman looked around at the tenants, who were gathered around the fire trucks as they watched their things go up in flames that were raging more out of control by the second. "They're not out here." She gripped his arm hard. "You have to go inside to save them."
Gabe wasn't a firefighter who believed in superstition. He didn't have a routine he lived and died by. But he did believe in his gut.
And his gut was telling him there was a problem.
A big one.
"Which apartment are they in?"
She pointed to the third-story windows. "Number 31. They're on the top floor, corner unit." The woman looked like she was going to cry.
Seconds later, he found both the captain and his partner, Eric, in the middle of the crowd of people out on the sidewalk and street. "We've got to go back in. A mother and daughter could still be inside. Third floor, corner apartment."
Todd looked from Gabe to the fire raging inside the building. "Make it quick, guys," he said, and gave the rest of the crew orders to focus their hose streams up toward the apartment to try to keep the flames at bay.
Eric and Gabe moved in tandem to pull the hose into the building. Masks on, their earpieces were activated. They moved up the stairs as quickly as they could through the thick smoke that hung in the air like the fog San Francisco was so famous for. With their breathing apparatus on, they were okay. But a civilian wouldn't last long without frequent hits of oxygen.
Forcefully pushing his fears for the mother and daughter aside, he concentrated on moving from the first floor to the second, and then the third. They made good time up to unit 31, even dragging the heavy hose through the thick smoke and up the steep, tight flight of stairs. He tried the door, which of course was locked.
Gabe slid his axe from its holster. "If anyone is by the door, I'm about to knock it down with an axe. Back away." Even though he yelled, his voice was muffled through the mask.
Jesus, the smoke was heavy, nearly thick enough to cut with a knife. Would they find anyone alive inside?
"You got it?" Eric asked him as he took a few quick hits of air.
Rather than answering, Gabe cocked the heavy tool back and landed the top of the axe head against the door, right by the knob. A hollow door would have split apart in seconds, but this old wood door was thick enough that he had to do a dozen sustained hits to get it to budge. When he felt the frame start to loosen up, he kicked at it.
Finally, it swung open and he was in.
Sliding his axe back into its holster, he reached for the hose and started to drag it inside, but it wouldn't move.
"It's jammed. I need more hose."
He looked behind him and saw Eric yanking on the hose with all his might. "I'm going to have to head down and see where it's hung up."
They both knew how dangerous the situation was, one firefighter leaving his partner to free the hose equipment. But Gabe couldn't stick with Eric. Not if lives were on the line. Not if the sixty seconds it took him to help with the hose meant a child might die tonight.
The flames were already rippling above his head and even though he wasn't in the position he wanted to be in, Gabe cracked open the nozzle on the hose and started blasting the roof to push them back. He could feel 800-degree heat coming down on him over his turnouts as he moved further into the room. This apartment was clearly one of the hot points of the fire, possibly the room it had all begun in, judging by the black/white soot already covering the furniture that hadn't yet burned.
He stilled as he thought he heard someone calling out, crying for help. With the hose still jammed, he had no choice but to drop it and make a move in the direction of the sound. A white door with a mirror on it was closed and he kicked it open, shattering the mirror beneath his steel-toed boots.
As a new flood of smoke rushed through the door, his vision was impaired for a split second, but even though he couldn't see anyone in the small bathroom, he knew exactly where to look. He ripped back the shower curtain and found a woman holding her daughter in her arms in the old claw foot bathtub.
He'd found Megan and Summer.
"Megan, you've done good. Real good," he told her through his mask. Her eyes were so big, and so scared, his chest clamped down on itself hard. "I'm going to help get you and Summer out of here now."
She opened her mouth and tried to say something, but all she could do was cough, her eyes closing as tears seeped out onto her cheeks.
He pulled off one of his gloves to check the unconscious girl's pulse. Thanking God that it was still steady, he put his glove back on, then reached for her.
Her mother's eyes shot open and they played tug of war for a moment before she let the girl go. Her lips moved in a silent plea: Please.
He knew better than to let her fear, her terror stop him from doing what he needed to do to get them out alive. And yet, her eyes held him a moment longer than he should have let them. The love she felt for her daughter was as clear in the expression on her face as if he'd known her forever, rather than just a handful of rapidly ticking seconds in the middle of what felt like a war zone.
"I'm going to take Summer and we're going to crawl out of here. Can you do that?"
She nodded and he gripped her arm to help her slip over the edge of the tub. She was shaky, but she was clearly a fighter. After helping her out of the tub, he pulled an air mask out and moved to put it over her face so that she could take some clean hits of air into her lungs. She tried to push it away, tried to get it over her daughter's face, but he'd anticipated this movement and shook his head.
"You need to take it first." He spoke loudly so that she could hear him through his mask. "Otherwise you'll be dead weight and none of us will get out of here alive."
She grabbed the mask from him, then, and clamped it against her face. Her eyes widened as she took her first breath and he knew to pull it back so that she could cough a few times before putting it back on, holding it gently in place as she took what she needed so badly.
When she shook her head and glanced wildly at her daughter, he reluctantly removed the mask and put it over her daughter's mouth and nose. The girl stirred slightly, coughed, then seemed to settle.
They were all flat on the floor to avoid the heat and he was about to tell Megan the next steps in their escape plan when the motion detection alarm on his belt went off. It was second nature for him to reset it before anyone on the crew could be alarmed that he was down. It was dangerous as hell up in the third floor apartment and he didn't want anyone else on his crew up there unless there was no other option.
With visibility almost completely gone, he yelled, "We're going to crawl against the wall edge to stay low out of the smoke and heat until we find the doorway."
Slowly, they made their way along the molding at the bottom of the wall to the doorway. Gabe carried Summer under his left arm, and kept frequent checks on Megan as they continued into the living room, which was worlds hotter than the bathroom had been. He prayed the heat wouldn't have her passing out. Just in case, he helped her along every few seconds by wrapping his free arm around her waist and pulling her forward. She wasn't limp in his arms, which was a very good thing, but he could feel how weak she was, that she was fighting to stay conscious with everything she had.
Finally, they made it to the tip of the hose. "You're doing great," he called out to her. "All we need to do is grab the hose and follow it back down."
He took her hand in his and placed it over the rigid pressurized hose. When he was confident that she had it, he moved behind her to help push her along, lifting her when her legs collapsed on her every few feet or when she was coughing too much to move on her own.
It was damn hard going through the heat and smoke, even in his turnouts with his air pack, and he admired the hell out of her. He should have been carrying two dead weights out of the apartment building, not just one little girl. Megan holding it together like this was going to be the difference between life and death.
"Turn around," he yelled to her when they reached the landing at the top of the stairs. "We're going to go down backward. And we're going to keep moving, no matter what."
He moved behind her again, going lower on the stairs to catch her in case she fell. Her little girl was stirring in his arms and he prayed she wouldn't wake up in the middle of this fiery hell.
A loud booming noise sounded and he looked up to see part of the wall beside the front door that he'd kicked in falling down in sheets.
Grabbing Megan, he moved with her and his daughter as quickly as he could down several steps. She had her head lowered and her arms over her hair to protect herself from falling sheetrock.
"Keep moving!" he yelled.
Every second that ticked by as they made it down one more step, and then another, was long and fraught with peril. He could feel how thin the well-worn steps were and knew they could crumble at any point.
By the time he could hear his crew yelling over the sound of the mini-explosions that kept going off all around them, he decided it was time for speed. He went to his feet to get down to the bottom as quickly as he could with one person under each arm.
Almost at the bottom of the stairs, he could finally see what had stopped his partner from coming back upstairs to assist with more hose. A huge ceiling beam had fallen down over the rail and it had sent the whole area around it up in massive flames. Judging from the water and smoke pouring off of it, he guessed Eric had been focused on putting that fire out before it took out the entire staircase and stranded Gabe and his victims upstairs.
Somehow he needed to get around the beam, but it was still too big and too hot for him to pass without putting Megan down. Damn it, he didn't want to leave her there alone where anything could happen to her while he took Summer outside.
Thank God, just then, through the smoke he heard a voice yelling, "Give them to us," and a moment later Eric and Todd were pulling both mother and daughter from his arms and taking them to safety.
Amazingly, it wasn't until that moment that Megan lost consciousness, her strong fingers that had been gripping at his arm going limp as Eric took her from Gabe.
As he yelled, "The mother just passed out," to Eric, Gabe's attention was so focused on her that he waited a moment too long to hurdle the smoking beam.
He heard the loud crack a split second before a chunk of ceiling came flying down straight onto his forehead. He hit the ground as hard as the beam had hit him. Darkness swam before his eyes.
The last thing he heard was the motion alarm on his belt going off.
Megan Harris woke up with her daughter in her arms. They often snuggled at night after a late movie or if Summer had a bad dream, but something felt different. Not just the bed, but the itchy spot on the inside of Megan's elbow and the way her throat felt raw and abused.
She smelled smoke in her hair, in Summer's hair, and she scrunched her nose up at the dark scent of fire that felt like it was seeping from their pores.
She woke fully with a gasp, her eyes flying open in the hospital room. There were two narrow beds pushed together side by side, but Summer's was empty, her daughter obviously choosing to climb in with her at some point during the night.
Oh God, the fire.
She'd almost lost-
No. Summer was right here, in her arms.
Megan pulled her daughter closer and Summer shifted to look up at her.
"Hey there, baby." The words came out rough and ragged. As if she'd swallowed fire. Which she pretty much had. Megan kissed her little girl on the forehead and each cheek, following those kisses up with a puckery smooch on her soft little lips. "How are you feeling?"
Summer gave a little wiggle. "Okay, but I want them to take this itchy tube out of my arm." She lifted up her left arm and looked at Megan's. "We match."
Smiling through the tears that insisted on falling, she agreed, "We do," then held up four fingers. "How many fingers am I holding up?"
"Six." Her daughter's crooked grin told her she was teasing. "Four." Summer held up one finger. "What about me?"
"One," Megan said with a kiss to the tip. "How about we call the doctor and see about getting set free?"
A smiling middle-aged doctor came in shortly after Megan hit the call button, clearly pleased to see them awake and doing so well. The doctor quickly checked their vitals, smiling as she wrote on their charts. "You're welcome to stay here a while longer if you'd like, but I'm happy to say it doesn't look like either of you have any of the serious aftereffects of prolonged smoke inhalation, probably because you're both young and healthy."
Megan shot a glance at Summer. "Thanks, but I think we'd both like to head home." A moment too late, she realized she didn't have a home to go back to.
The doctor gave her a sympathetic look. "I'm sure you'd like to get washed up and changed." Before Megan could remind her that they didn't have any clean clothes to change into, the doctor brought over a bag. "The hospital keeps a stash of clothes for people in your situation. I'm so sorry about what happened to you, but I'm very glad you're both doing so well."
Tears threatened again. She was in a situation. How she'd hoped that her situationswere behind her.
Well, she thought as she ruthlessly pushed more tears away, she and Summer had survived the first situation five years ago and they'd survive this one, too. Heck, they already had survived, hadn't they? Now it was just down to details.
If there was one thing Megan knew how to do, it was details. Her work as a CPA meant she was a master at taking the often messy financial details of her clients' lives and transforming them into clean, well-organized accounts and spreadsheets. She'd simply have to do that for herself now.
Thankfully, she was religious about backing up her clients' files. She'd be okay there, at least, once they'd found another place to stay and she was ready to get back to her job.
Before leaving, the doctor reminded them to take it easy for a few days and to check back in with her if they had trouble breathing, had coughing spells, or felt dizzy and confused.
When they were alone again, Megan told her daughter, "I'm going to take a shower and then you can go on in and clean up."
Summer nodded, reaching for the remote control and turning big, pleading green eyes on her. "May I watch TV?"
Even though Megan was usually strict about not watching TV during the day, she quickly decided that something mindless would be a very good thing for her daughter right about now. She nodded, ruffling Summer's short blond hair before scooting off the bed. "Just for a little while."
As Megan headed into the bathroom toward what was going to be the best shower of her life, she was glad to know that, where her very resilient daughter was concerned, it looked as if she was going to be okay.
Only, as she stood under the warm spray that was slowly washing away the black smudges of smoke on her skin, along with what she realized were the charred ends of her hair, she didn't have any idea how long it was going to take her to feel okay, too. Not with the visions of what might have happened to them running through her head one after the other, mental pictures of their ordeal that were blurred with the dark edges of a thick, black fog.
And yet, despite how exhausted and drained she felt, she could never forget the heroic firefighter who had pulled them out of their flaming apartment. He'd risked his life for theirs. Once she and Summer were back on their feet, she would go find him. Not just to say thank you, but to find a way to repay him for the incredible gift he'd given them.
The precious gift of life...when death had been so horribly close.
Closing her eyes tight, as if that would keep the dark visions at bay, she lifted her face to the water and let it wash away her tears of shock-and joy that she got to live another day with the little girl who meant absolutely everything to her.
* * *
As they walked through a nearby Target store a couple of hours later, Megan was amazed to find that, despite the horrors of the fire they'd lived through, Summer had returned almost immediately to her normal energetic personality.
Megan wished she could rebound so fast. Of course, the two zillion forms she'd just filled out for the insurance company hadn't exactly helped her state of mind. She was used to plenty of paperwork, but this had been over the top even for her.
She'd purchased their small but charming apartment last winter and had been fixing it up in her spare time. Now all she had to show for her hard work was a promise of money from the insurance company. After they did their assessments, of course. Until then, they'd given her enough cash to get by for a while until she could contact her bank for a new ATM and credit card. They'd also informed her that she had been checked into a Best Western hotel near the hospital until she could make other arrangements.
As soon as she bought a new cell phone, she'd call her parents and try to break the news of the fire to them without giving them a heart attack. No doubt they'd be on the next plane out from Minneapolis to come take care of her and Summer. Of course she wanted to see them, wanted to feel their warm arms around her, but at the same time...well, she wasn't looking forward to a repeat of five years ago when David died.
No doubt about it, they were going to put the pressure on her to come "back home." They'd use this fire as the perfect example of how much safer she and Summer would be in the small town she'd grown up in.
Megan unconsciously lifted her chin. She was proud of how well she'd done raising her daughter by herself. And regardless of what her parents thought, she'd learned her lessons about safety perfectly well. The men she'd dated the past couple of years were accountants like her, or teachers, or engineers. She'd never again make the mistake of giving in to the thrill of being with a man who thrived on risk, who ran toward danger instead of away from it like any sensible, reasonable person would.
Summer tugged her toward the food court and Megan broke another one of her rules, this time about junk food as they bought hot dogs and nachos and big cherry Slushies. But although Summer polished everything off, Megan couldn't do more than take a couple of bites of the greasy fast food.
Knowing how much her daughter liked new clothes-oh, who was she kidding, they both did-Megan told her, "We're just going to buy a few essentials like jeans and T-shirts today."
"But we'll need to get a whole bunch of new stuff soon, right?"
Silently thanking God that her daughter was more pleased about getting new clothes than she was distressed about losing her old ones in the fire, they went to try on a handful of things and were on their way to the front of the store to buy them, when Megan realized she'd forgotten something very important.
Yes, they needed clothes. Of course, they needed to buy some food. But despite how cheerful Summer was being about their situation, her daughter had just had all of her things taken away from her...including the Rapunzel doll she slept with every night.
Knowing they needed to be extremely careful with their cash for the time being, she put down one of the T-shirts she'd been planning to buy on the dressing room re-shelving cart and steered her daughter toward the toy section.
"Look, I think they have Rapunzel dolls here."
Summer's eyes lit up and she threw her arms around her mother. "You're the best mom in the whole world!" As she ran down the aisle to get the doll, Megan had found herself standing in the middle of the big store with tears threatening to come again.
When they were trapped in the bathtub, she'd hoped, she'd prayed that she and her daughter would live to do something as mundane as go shopping together, but the fact was that as the fire had raged hotter and bigger, as the sirens had rung out louder without anyone coming to help them, she'd almost stopped believing.
Quickly wiping away the evidence of the emotion threatening to spill out again, when Summer returned with the brand new doll, perfect in its shiny package, Megan knew she had a lot to learn from her daughter's smiling face, from her happiness over something as small as a pretty doll.
They'd lost things, but they still had each other.
All she wanted to do now was check into their hotel room and curl up with Summer for a much needed nap. But as soon as she arrived at the hotel, her neighbor and friend, Susan Thompson, pulled her aside.
"Megan, Summer, thank God you're all right."
The older woman brought both of them in for a hug. Again, tears threatened and Megan had to hold her breath and focus on a patch of dried gum on the carpet to keep them from falling. She wasn't normally a crier, hadn't let herself give in to tears even after David's death. She'd been too busy then trying to keep up with her two-year-old; trying to hold on to her accounting job and keep them fed with a roof over their heads; trying to deal with the pressure from her parents to come back home immediately and never, ever leave again.
Mrs. Thompson, however, had no such qualms about crying. Her cheeks were shiny with tears as she finally let them go. "As soon as I told the firefighter you were both inside, he ran straight in for you."
Again and again throughout the past hours, Megan's brain had flashed back to the firefighter who had found them in the bathtub, his firm, confident voice directing her. Her skin, her muscles and bones, still felt the phantom imprint of his hands, the strength of the way he'd lifted, moved, pulled her and Summer forward toward safety.
Susan sat with her on the nearby faded couch in the lobby. "He had just helped me and Larry out onto the sidewalk when I looked around and realized you and Summer weren't standing there with the rest of us." Her mouth trembled. "I'd seen you come in just a little while before. I knew something was wrong."
Megan swallowed hard, reaching out to cover the other woman's hand. "Thank you so much," she whispered. "If you hadn't told him-"
No, she thought as she shot a glance at Summer, who was happily unwrapping her doll, Megan couldn't finish the sentence. Her daughter seemed to be totally engrossed in her toy, but Megan knew darn well that she was actually taking in every little thing around her. Every expression, every word. Megan didn't want Summer to turn what had almost happened into a fear that she'd take forward with her.
But Mrs. Thompson was shaking her head. "That firefighter was the real hero. They didn't want to let anyone else into the building, but he didn't hesitate to run in to save you. I just hope he's all right after what happened to him."
Megan looked up at her friend in horror. "He was hurt?"
Susan frowned. "You didn't know?"
"No." She couldn't remember anything after they'd made it down the stairs.
Megan knew she should be pulling it together for her daughter, that it was the most important thing for her to do, but instead, all she could do was ask, "How badly?"
Her friend sighed, looking even more upset. "They had to carry him out on a stretcher."
Megan felt just as she had when they were stuck in the bathtub-like she could hardly breathe, like the darkness was coming down over her again.
She jumped up from the couch. "I have to call the hospital. I have to find out how he's doing." Susan stood with her and followed her to the front desk. "I need to use your phone. Please."
The young man behind the counter nodded quickly and she realized he must have overheard their conversation. "Of course. No problem."
Her hand was shaking on the receiver as she called Information for the phone number of fire dispatch. She asked them to transfer her to the firehouse in her neighborhood.
By the time the call went through, she was near frantic. A man's low voice barely said hello before she was saying, "I'm the woman the firefighter saved yesterday. Me and my daughter. I just heard he was hurt. I need to know how he's doing. If he was hurt badly? How long will it be until he's okay again?"
The man on the line with her was silent for a long moment. "I'm sorry, ma'am, but I can't give you that information."
"He put himself in terrible danger to save me and my daughter. I need to thank him. I need him to know how much what he did means to us."
"I understand how upset you are, but-" He stopped speaking and she heard another voice in the background. "Hold on a moment."
Another man came on the line. "Is this Ms. Harris?"
She was momentarily surprised the man knew her name. "Yes, this is Megan Harris."
"My name is Todd Phillips. I'm the captain at Station 5. How are you and your daughter doing?"
"We left the hospital a few hours ago," she quickly told him.
"I'm very glad to hear that. And I'm sorry about the fire in your apartment."
Megan knew the time would come when she'd grieve the loss of all her precious mementos of her daughter's baby years and of David. But the loss of their things paled in comparison to the horrifying knowledge that a firefighter had gotten hurt while saving them.
"I need to thank the firefighter in person for what he did to help me and my daughter."
She could almost hear the fire captain shake his head across the line. "I'm sorry, Ms. Harris, but-"
"Please," she begged. "I owe him everything."
After a short silence, he said, "I'll need to check with Gabe first."
"Thank you so much."
She gave the fire captain the number for the phone at the front desk before hanging up, but even as she and Summer finally went upstairs to their new temporary home and her daughter zombied out again in front of the Disney channel, Megan couldn't stop worrying about the man-Gabe-who had given up his own safety for theirs.
She was on the phone in her room, wading through more red tape with a representative from her bank, when there was a knock on her door. The young man from the front desk was there with a message.
"A fire captain called. He'll meet you at the hospital in thirty minutes."
Out. Gabe Sullivan wanted out of the damn hospital bed. He wanted to yank the IV out of his arm, too, and was just about to do that when his mother walked in.
"Don't you dare take that out."
Mary Sullivan had already been in to see him earlier in the day, but this time she'd returned with two of his brothers and their significant others.
Nicola ran forward. "Oh my God, I was so worried about you!"
When Marcus's pop-star girlfriend had heard that the city's stations were facing heavy budget cuts, it had been her idea to play a show to raise money for them. But at the tail end of her acoustic benefit concert, Station 5 had been called out to the three-story building on Conrad Street.
She threw her arms around him and he purposefully pulled her closer as Marcus looked on. The way his brother shook his head said he knew exactly what Gabe was doing. Any other time, Marcus would have had him up against the wall for getting this close to his woman, but evidently being stuck in the hospital had some bonuses. Like the fact that Marcus was too happy Gabe was alive to lose it over the placement of his hands just above the curve of Nicola's hips.
Still, Gabe knew he could only push things so far when Marcus wrapped his hands around Nicola's waist, growled, "Get your own damn girlfriend," and yanked her back against him.
Gabe got exactly why his oldest brother had fallen for the pop star. She wasn't just easy on the eyes and talented, she also had a huge heart. It had been years since Gabe had been with anyone like that-a woman who had all those qualities, someone with whom he could actually imagine having a long-term relationship rather than just a few hours between the sheets.
Fortunately, a moment after Nicola was pulled away, Chloe was taking her place in Gabe's arms.
"Damn it," Chase muttered, "now he's got mine. Nothing like being a hero to make women throw themselves at him."
Clearly, they were all so glad he was okay that they'd let just about anything slip right about now. Everyone except his mother, who was staring at him with eagle eyes.
"I just spoke to the doctor and he's informed me that you'll be staying here for another night so that they can make sure no internal bleeding has started in your brain."
"Aw, Mom," he said, sounding more like a fourteen-year-old boy than a twenty-eight-year-old grown man as Chloe moved back toward Chase. "I feel fine." His head ached like a son of a bitch, but he'd suffered hangovers nearly as bad.
"Since I'm sure the beam to the head has knocked out what little common sense you have, I'm going to trust the doctor." He barely stifled his groan at being stuck in one place for so many hours on end as his mother added, "And so are you."
Chase was doing a pretty good job of acting like the bandage on Gabe's head wasn't that big a deal. But Marcus, who had stepped into their father's place when he'd passed away more than twenty years ago, was clearly concerned.
"How did this happen, Gabe? You've always been smart out there, but from what the news reports have said about the fire, the building wasn't safe to go into." His expression tightened even further. "Not even close to safe."
At eight years his senior, Gabe had figured Marcus would be the one to call him on what he'd done. But although the rescue had almost ended in disaster, Gabe wouldn't have done a damn thing differently. Not when he could still see the helpless little girl in her mother's arms, her big eyes pleading with him to save the person she loved most in the world.
"The building wasn't empty." It was the only explanation that mattered.
"You could have died, Gabe."
He held his oldest brother's gaze. "You're right. I could have." He waited a beat before saying, "But I'm still here."
Marcus blew out a hard breath. "How many goddamned lives are you going to burn through playing hero?"
"Marcus!" their mother exclaimed.
Wanting to break through the tension in the hospital room, knowing this was just all part of being a firefighter's family, Gabe said, "It's okay, Mom. This is Marcus's way of showing he cares."
Fortunately, Nicola helped thaw things out in the room by laughing. When Marcus glared at his girlfriend, she merely grinned at him and said, "We all know you're like one of those hard candies with a gooey center, Marcus." He turned the full force of his scowl at her, but when she went up on her toes and kissed him, he stopped scowling.
Before Marcus-or anyone else-could start in on Gabe again, he yawned big and loud. One sibling after another had been in and out of his hospital room all day. The nurse had even said at one point, "How many of you are there? My patient needs his rest." Of course, when Ryan had flirted shamelessly with the woman, the no-fail effect of his too-pretty face meant she'd pretty much agreed to bend visiting hours as much as she could for the Sullivan clan.
Picking up on his signal, his mother began to shoo them out, kissing him on the cheek before leaving. "I'll be by your house with food tomorrow."
He could take care of feeding himself, but he knew helping him like that made his mother feel better about what had happened...or, more to the point, about what had almost happened. She'd never been crazy about the dangers that came with his being a firefighter, but she'd supported him anyway.
They left and he had just closed his eyes for a few minutes when another knock came at his door. His captain, Todd, stepped into the room.
"How're you feeling, Gabe?"
He moved to sit up straighter on the bed and Todd shook his head. "You're fine just like that. I know your skull must hurt like hell." He nodded back to the doorway. "Are you ready to see Ms. Harris and her daughter, Summer?"
No, he thought, he'd be better off never seeing those eyes again.
He'd thought about Megan and her daughter one too many times for comfort. Not just because he was reviewing the rescue, trying to look for what he could have done differently, to have gotten them out faster and more safely-but because he hadn't been able to forget her strength, how hard she'd fought to stay conscious, and what a fighter she'd been every single second of the harrowing journey from her burning apartment.
Still, he understood that fire victims often felt compelled to say thank you to the men who had saved them. Especially in a case like this, where they'd just barely held death at bay.
"Sure." He began to nod, but a sharp shooting pain stopped him halfway into the movement.
Catching his grimace, Todd said, "I'll ask Megan and her daughter to come back later."
Her name fit her, Gabe had found himself thinking one too many times. Megan was pretty and strong all at the same time. It would be better to think of her as Ms. Harris. Although, he had to wonder, was there a husband? And if so, where had he been during the fire and why wasn't he here with them now?
"No," he said, "it'll be better if I see them now."
She'd say thank you, he'd tell her he was happy to see her and her daughter doing so well, and that would be that. No more being haunted by her eyes, by the surprising strength she'd shown him as she'd crawled on the floor of her apartment and down the stairs.
A couple of minutes later, Todd walked back in with the mother and daughter. Ignoring the pain in his head, Gabe sat up higher and forced a smile on his face.
And then, his eyes locked with Megan's and his smile froze in place.
My God, he found himself thinking before he could shove the thought away, she's beautiful.
The last time he'd seen her face it had been through a thick haze of dark smoke and the knowledge that one wrong move meant their lives were over. Her eyes were just as big and pretty, her limbs looked as lean and strong as they had when he'd been helping to move her along the floor, but now he could see the softness in her, the sweet curves of her breasts and hips in her T-shirt and jeans. He couldn't stop staring at the startling green of her eyes, the silky dark hair falling across her shoulders, and the way her pretty young daughter was a carbon copy of her, the only difference their hair color, one dark, one light.
She seemed just as stunned as he and for a long moment, the two of them just stared at each other in silence until her daughter ran over to him and threw her arms around him.
"Thank you for saving me and Mommy."
The little girl's arms were just as strong as her mother's. "You're welcome, Summer. How old are you?"
"I turn seven on Saturday."
She beamed at him and right then and there he lost a little piece of his heart to the pretty little girl with the two missing front teeth.
"Happy birthday." He'd have to remember to have the station send her a gift.
Movement caught his attention from the corner of his eye. Megan was moving closer to him and, yet again, once he looked up at her, he couldn't seem to pull his gaze away. Without realizing what he was doing, he scanned her left hand for a wedding band and found it bare.
"Mr. Sullivan, I can't even begin to tell you how much what you did means to me."
He almost told her to call him Gabe, but he knew his name would sound way too good coming from her full lips. Already his brain was wanting to spin off into a fantasy of what it would sound like to hear her say his name in distinctly different circumstances, with one less child and fire captain in the room...and a hell of a lot less clothes.
As it was, he couldn't take his eyes off her gorgeous mouth, which was wobbling slightly. She clamped her lips tightly together as she quickly brushed her fingertips over her eyes.
"I'm sorry," she said with a small laugh that held no actual laughter in it. "I promised myself I wouldn't cry."
"She keeps doing that," Summer told him in a stage whisper as her mother worked to win the battle with her tears.
He whispered back, "It's perfectly normal."
"We needed to come say thank you." Megan's eyes moved over his bandages before she added, "And to make sure you were okay."
His voice was much gruffer than usual. "I'm okay."
"I'm so glad."
"How are both of you? You inhaled a lot of smoke."
She gave him a small smile that did crazy things to his guts. "We're both fine." She put her hand to her throat. "The doctor said I'll only sound like a frog for a few more days."
"You've got to hear her ribbit," Summer told him. "She sounds exactly like the frog we have in my class at school. Do it for him, Mommy."
This time Megan's soft laugh was closer to a real one. "I'm sure he doesn't want to hear me ribbit, Summer."
The power of her smile, the way her eyes lit up and a sweet dimple appeared in her left cheek, rocked all the way through him. He could get drunk on her smiles-was already feeling like he'd been knocked off center by just one.
If Megan were someone he'd met at a coffee shop or bar, if she were one of his siblings' friends-if she were anyone but someone he'd rescued from a fire-he would have not only been working on ways to get her to stay longer, but also to charm her phone number and a date out of her.
But the only reason she was looking at him with her heart in her eyes was because he'd saved her and her daughter's lives. He knew better than to let himself fall for her and her pretty little girl.
He didn't have to force his expression to harden at the memories of what an idiot he'd been in the past when he'd ignored professional boundaries and-stupidly-got involved with a fire victim.
"Of course he wants to hear it," the little girl said, and then, when he remained silent, turned to him and said, "Don't you?"
In the end, Gabe couldn't let the kid down. "Sure," he finally said in a tone that implied just the opposite. "Why not?"
But Megan read him loud and clear, pulling her daughter away from him and into her arms.
"We didn't mean to bother you," she said in a slightly defensive voice.
He didn't tell them they hadn't been a bother. It was better for them to think they had. That way they wouldn't come back. That way he wouldn't see either of them again.
At his curt nod, she said, "I appreciate you letting us come to see you today," then took her daughter's hand to pull her out the door.
"Do we have to go already?" the little girl protested. "I bet he has some really cool stories about all the scary things he's done."
In an instant, he saw in Summer the same desire for excitement and adrenaline, to live every single ounce of life, that he'd always had in himself.
Megan turned back to him, wary now. "I'm sure Mr. Sullivan needs to get some rest, baby." She forced her lips into a false smile that made his chest feel like a hundred-pound weight had just landed on it. "Say goodbye now, honey."
Summer frowned, with a mini-press of the lips that perfectly mirrored her mother's. And then instead of saying the goodbye her mother had insisted on, she said, "Do you think maybe we could come by the fire station some time? You know, so you could show us around?"
Megan didn't give him a chance to say a word, saying, "Summer," in a clear warning that had her daughter sighing in resignation.
"Goodbye, Mr. Sullivan."
He wanted to smile at the sweet little girl, wanted to let her know that the way he was acting didn't have anything to do with her, and everything to do with knowing better than to let himself fall into something that would only end up hurting all of them in the end.
Instead, all he could say was, "Goodbye, Summer."