An excerpt from
Where There's Smoke
Book #1 of Holiday Hearts

Silhouette Special Edition


Sloane Hillyard strode down the sidewalk toward Firehouse 67, narrowing her eyes against the glare of the October sun, wishing she'd remembered her sunglasses. A group of teenaged boys hanging out on the corner turned to watch her pass.

"Yo, baby, what you in such a hurry for?" the boldest of them called. "Y’oughtta stop and be more sociable." He trailed after her a few steps, while his buddies nudged one another and laughed. "C'mon, baby, stop. I’ll show you God.”

Sloane ignored him and kept going. An angry tangle of graffiti covered the walls of the building she passed. Here where the southern Boston neighborhoods of North Dorchester and Roxbury came together, even the sidewalk looked hard used. Sloane genuinely didn't notice. She wasn't concerned with young boys or with her surroundings. She was only concerned with the men in the firehouse ahead.

Her stomach tightened.

When she stepped through the doorway, she would start the final phase of five years of intense -- some might say obsessive -- effort. Five years to design equipment that would help ensure no firefighter, anywhere, would be lost in a blaze. Five years to help ensure that no more men would be devoured by the gaping maw of the flames. Sloane thought of her brother. It had taken a long time and a great deal of work, but it was worth it, in memory of Mitch and all the firefighters like him.

The main doors of the station were open as she walked up. She slowed as she reached the dark crack in the concrete that marked the threshold. It had been a long time since she'd set foot in a firehouse. She'd thought she was ready for it.

She'd been wrong.

Just do it, she told herself grimly, fighting to ignore the quick twist of anxiety. She was so close to achieving her goal, so close. This was no time to let the past take over the future.

Taking a deep breath, she crossed the line and passed into the fluorescent cool of the garage. A compact, dark-haired man with a boyish face stacked air canisters against the wall. A young firefighter in a Red Sox cap swept the floor around the trucks. The sweeping came to an abrupt halt as he glanced up, hastily setting the broom aside and wiping off his hands as Sloane approached. "Can I help you?"

The click of her heels rang in the cavernous garage. "Hello." She smiled, wondering if he could have been a day past nineteen. "I'm looking for Nick Trask."

* * *

"Okay, I've got hold of the nut if you can get the bolt through," Nick muttered, jaw set in concentration. "Let's give it a push and get the holes lined up." They leaned on the ladder together and the metal creaked as it moved.

"Let me get my hand in there. It's just about…ah!" O'Hanlan cursed to the ceiling as he barked his knuckles on unforgiving metal. "I signed up to be a firefighter, not a damn mechanic."

"You were the one who was dead against calling in the motor squad," Nick reminded him. "Come on, action guy, repeat 'power steering' to yourself three times and let's try it again."

"Power steering, power steering, there's no place like home, there's no place like home," O'Hanlan's voice rose an octave. "There's no place?” Abruptly he gave a low whistle. "Well, well, well. Looks like I should have volunteered for clean up detail."

Without turning, Nick knew it was a woman. Her voice floated over to them, low, slightly rough, a smoky contralto that belonged in the bedroom and made him tighten before he ever looked at her. When he did, the first thing he saw was her hair. She had it pulled back and looped up in a clip, but not bound into submission. It was thick, nearly down to her waist, he'd guess, and flamed a deep, splendid red. The face…the face went with the voice, decidedly, recklessly sensual. Slavic cheekbones, challenging eyes, a mouth that made him wonder how it would feel on his skin. Her narrow, forest-green suit played up the sleek curves of her body enough to make his imagination temporarily run rampant. There was more, something about the lift to her shoulders, the cool self-assurance in her stance that intrigued and enticed him.

"Look at Red." O'Hanlan chuckled. "He's falling all over himself, poor kid." He turned back around. "Hey, Nick?"

He'd been staring, Nick realized, shaking himself loose. "And you, of course, are a master of self-control." He gave O'Hanlan a derisive look before bending back to the ladder. "C'mon, let's finish this."

"I'm a happily married man," O'Hanlan reminded him, grunting as he leaned on the ladder and threaded the bolt in place. "And Leanne would skin me alive if she caught me looking at another woman." O’Hanlan peeked over his shoulder at the approaching redhead. “Which is why I do it here.”

Nick squeezed his hand in between ladder struts to work a nut onto the bolt. "Stick to fighting fires," he advised, manipulating the wrench expertly. "It's safer.”

"Hello? Excuse me?" The words echoed up from beside the truck. "I'm looking for Nick Trask.”

At close range her voice whispered over his skin and into his bones, mesmerizing, arousing. He leaned across the top of the ladder until their eyes locked. Up close, she was all the glimpse had promised and more. "I'm Nick Trask. Give me a minute, I'll be right with you."

"A minute?" O'Hanlan grinned. "Take over for me here and I'll be down there in thirty seconds."

"Easy, big fella." Nick passed the wrench to O'Hanlan and patted him on the shoulder. "Skinned alive, remember? Save your strength for Leanne."

* * *

She'd always been a sucker for men in uniform, Sloane thought, watching the lean, stripped-down lines of his body as he swung down from the ladder truck. That was all it was. Of course, he filled the uniform as though it had been designed for him. Off limits, she reminded herself. She didn’t do firefighters. He neared and Sloane's pulse skittered unevenly, then steadied.

"Nick Trask," he said, wiping his hands on a rag.

Dark, Sloane thought, and dangerous. His looks hit her with the slamming impact of a 100-mile-an-hour collision. Black hair, tanned, almost swarthy skin and eyes darker than jet, combined on a face that simultaneously compelled and alarmed. It was a face that was not so much conventionally handsome as it was filled with the essential character of the man.

Her guard was up in a heartbeat.

"Sloane Hillyard, Exler Corporation." She reached out her hand when he drew near. "Councilman Ayre's office asked me to stop by." She wasn't sure what she found more disconcerting, the almost imperceptible chill that swept over his face as she spoke, or the flush of heat that assaulted her at the touch of his hand. Nerves, she told herself. She was just on edge over being in a fire house again. "Nice to meet you, Captain Trask."

"And you." There was a cursory politeness in his voice but no warmth. This close to him Sloane could see that his eyes weren't black. They were deep grey, the color of darkest smoke, the color of a stormy sky at dusk. "What can I do for you and the councilman?"

Focus, Sloane reminded herself. "I'm here for our meeting."

"Our meeting?"

"I called to confirm yesterday."

"I didn't get any…" He checked himself and pulled a pink slip of paper covered in illegible script from his pocket. "Ah. This must be you. Sorry, but I didn't get this until about five minutes ago and it’s been a really hectic day, so if?"

"That's all right," she cut in smoothly. "I'll only need a few minutes of your time. We need to talk about the gear."

"The gear?" He put his hands on his hips and gave a nod. "Ayre doesn't waste time, I'll give him that."

Sloane didn't need to know the reason for the sarcasm to understand that she was at least a partial target. Irritation pricked at her. "We need to talk about scheduling, plan the testing," she continued, not about to be derailed. "Councilman Ayre's office?"

"Yeah, I know, Councilman Ayre's office." Nick cut her off, glancing at the number of men with sudden, pressing business in the immediate vicinity. "Look, let's go to my office and you can tell me what Ayre’s up to this time."

He didn't offer it as a choice, but in the clipped tone of command. "Yes sir," Sloane muttered, following him up the stairs. Perhaps the man could put out fires, but graciousness was clearly not his strong suit.

Nor, she thought a moment later, was neatness.

"Right through there. Have a seat."

Sloane stood in the doorway of his tiny office and threw a glance of disbelief at the jumble of paperwork and books everywhere. "Which stack of paper did you have in mind for me to sit on, Captain Trask?" Her tone was deceptively sweet, as was her face. The sarcasm lurked only in her gaze, which warned him not to push too hard, not to presume too much.

Nick shifted a pile of books to the floor. "There." The telephone jangled for attention and he answered it impatiently. "House 67, Trask. Oh yeah, right. Giancoli says the brakes on the pumper are down." He slid into his chair, instantly absorbed, leaving Sloane standing in the middle of the room.

Setting down her briefcase, she took the opportunity to look around. Photographs covered the walls: smiling firefighters in front of shining engines, men crowded together at the kitchen table, competing in the Firefighters' Olympics. A newspaper clipping showed grim men in helmets and turnouts, lines of exhaustion etched into their soot-streaked faces as they carried stretchers out of a smoke-filled building. 'Hillview Convalescent Home burns but the fire claims no victims,' the caption read. The men in the picture were from Ladder 67.

Sloane glanced further along and her interest sharpened. Stacked haphazardly atop the filing cabinet were a pair of plaques, the top one an award of valor presented to one Nick Trask for action above and beyond the call of duty. Impressed in spite of herself, Sloane glanced over to where he sat at his desk, absorbed in his call.

She'd been wrong when she'd thought his face held more character than perfection. Clearly, the sharp slashes of his cheekbones, the compelling shape of his mouth translated into above-average looks. It was simply that the force of his personality was so strong that it overwhelmed the handsomeness, carried it past simple good looks to a more dangerous realm, giving him the ability to hypnotize, the power to obsess.

The sudden flicker of warning ran through her to the pit of her stomach. In defense, she moved to stare out the window. Outside, a dog barked and boys shouted as they threw a football in the street. Inside, a subtle tension filled the air.

* * *

Nick shifted in his chair impatiently. "Yeah, okay. Let me know when it'll go. Great, talk to you later." He hung up the phone, turning to where Sloane stood. Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but for just an instant her hair blazed the exact color of flame. For just an instant, he watched without speaking. He shook his head and forced his mind to business just as she turned from the window.

"All finished?"

"Yes. Sorry about the wait." Because he was still having a hard time concentrating, Nick plunged in without preamble. "So, Ms. Hillyard, what has the councilman’s office promised that we would do for you?"

His tone was more brusque than he'd intended. It made Sloane's mouth tighten and she took her time coming back to her chair. "I believe the councilman’s office is taking a sincere interest in your safety, as I think you’ll see. Now, I made an appointment through the city weeks ago," she said frostily. "I assumed you'd be ready to discuss this."

Nick silently cursed the man who'd taken the garbled message, then cursed the fact that it had been uncovered so late that he'd had no time to sort it out. And he added Ayre, just on principle. No matter how gorgeous she was, whatever the woman was selling, it was going to take time he didn’t have. “Yes, well,” he said, summoning his patience for what looked to be a long siege, “why don’t you start at the beginning?”

Sloane took a deep breath. "I work for the Exler Corporation,” she said, a little too carefully. “I've developed a system called the Orienteer. It's designed to locate firefighters in burning buildings."


"It’s got a microprocessor that combines global-positioning-system input with a database of building plans to locate anyone, anywhere. You want to find your team members in a burning building, you can. If they need to track their way out, it will lead them. No one will die the way they did in the Hartford packing house fire ever again." Her voice caught, so briefly he couldn't be sure he hadn't imagined it. "We've gone through the preliminary lab qualification and breakdowns. The last step is testing in a real life situation with firefighters."

"No way." Nick was shaking his head before she finished. "My guys aren't guinea pigs."

"I beg your pardon?"

"Not a chance." Nick knew how this went, oh, he knew it. Put on the dog for the politicians, invest precious departmental resources and when the photo ops and the elections were done, so was the funding. That was bad enough, but put his men at risk for that photo op? That was where he drew the line.

"You can't just refuse."

"First of all, it's totally impractical." That was the part that really burned him about operators like Ayre. It couldn’t’ be something reasonable or useful. No?some babelicious Girl Scout turned up with her science project and Ayre saw only the headlines, not the lives at risk.

"Impractical?" Sloane's eyes flashed. "How can you say that when you don't know the first thing about it?"

"Where are you going to get all the blueprints?"

"We’ve already gotten them from the planning commission. The microprocessors for the test units are being loaded up with plans for every building in Boston and Cambridge."

He snorted. "Do you actually think those are up to date in a city like this? You really want to bank someone's life on that?"

"We're confirming layouts as we’re entering them."

"Checking up on every structure? You'll never get it done," he said dismissively. "You want to be useful, get me a couple more thermal cameras, build me a better breathing mask. Something proven. Something practical."

Sloane flushed. "The equipment is practical. And proven. It's been completely lab tested, it just hasn't been used in a fire situation before. Both the department and Councilman Ayre's office are behind this."

"I'm sure they are. The chief and Ayre grew up on the same block."

She gave him a level stare. "What's that supposed to mean?"

He sighed. It really wasn’t her fault. "Look, I'm sure you've got the best of intentions but you don't know how the game goes around here."

"But I'm sure you'll tell me.”

She looked, he thought, strung tight as a piano wire. It didn’t make her any less gorgeous. "Ayre starts with the fire safety shtick every election cycle. It gets him press, photo in front of shiny red trucks. It's all about exposure and it's nothing he'll support with funding. Trust me on that, I've been through it before.” He shook his head in frustration. “Ayre just wants to make headlines. You're the tool he chose to do it with."

“What is with you? I’m talking about equipment that can save lives and you’re talking about conspiracies.”

He bristled. "No, I’m talking politics."

"And I’m talking about saving lives,” she retorted. “You’ve got problems with Ayre? Then vote against him next month. I don’t care. All that matters to me is getting this equipment qualified."

"And you’re dreaming if you think they’re actually going to buy this gadget.”

“It’s not a gadget,” she said hotly. “It’s a very sophisticated system.”

“A very?” He shook his head like a dog throwing off water. “Do you understand anything at all about firefighting?”

Her eyes burned for a moment; it took her a visible effort to tamp her reaction down. "Of course I do. I consulted with firefighters in Cambridge when I was designing the equipment.”

“Great. Take it to them to test.”

“We’re not taking it to them. We’ve taken it to the city of Boston and the city says you. This isn't some project of the week. This testing is critical and trust me, it is going to get done. Bill Grant in the fire chief's office wants your company to do the testing. Ayre wants it. I want it. You’re way down the list, Captain Trask."

Nick didn't even attempt to quell the bright flare of anger. “That’s where you’re wrong. You may think that because you had a couple of nice visits downtown that you can come in here and do whatever you want.” He rose, stalking toward her until she was forced to tilt her head to hold his gaze. “But this is my firehouse and I don’t care what Ayre wants, I don’t care what it is Grant wants and I certainly don’t care what you want. I am not going to put my guys at risk so Ayre can take pictures of the two of you testing out a video game.”

Sloane paled for an instant, then shot to her feet, two spots of color burning high on her cheekbones. "This equipment is going to get qualified, no matter what it takes. I don't give a damn if I'm a tool or a pawn or whatever the hell you think I am if it means that I save one person's life, just one.” Her voice rose in fury. “And you are not going to stand in my way."

They faced each other, inches apart, crackling with tension. Something kinetic surged through the air between them then, something elemental that had nothing to do with firefighting and everything to do with heat.

Sloane moved away first, because she had to, because she felt the shudder of weakness in the wall of anger surrounding her. "Where's your telephone?" she demanded. "You don't want to do this, Captain Trask? I'll save you the trouble. Forget about wasting your time, testing with you would be a waste of my time." She crossed to his desk and snatched up the telephone receiver. "Where's the number for the fire chief's office?"

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