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.
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.”
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
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."
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."
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, 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."
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
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
"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.”
his hand in between ladder struts to work a nut onto the bolt. "Stick
to fighting fires," he advised, manipulating the wrench expertly.
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."
O'Hanlan grinned. "Take over for me here and I'll be down there
in thirty seconds."
fella." Nick passed the wrench to O'Hanlan and patted him on
the shoulder. "Skinned alive, remember? Save your strength
* * *
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.
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.
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."
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?"
reminded herself. "I'm here for our meeting."
to confirm yesterday."
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?"
right," she cut in smoothly. "I'll only need a few minutes
of your time. We need to talk about the gear."
He put his hands on his hips and gave a nod. "Ayre doesn't
waste time, I'll give him that."
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?"
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.
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.
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.
* * *
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.
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."
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."
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
Nick was shaking his head before she finished. "My guys aren't
"I beg your
"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.
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.
Sloane's eyes flashed. "How can you say that when you don't
know the first thing about it?"
you going to get all the blueprints?"
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?"
layouts as we’re entering them."
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."
"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."
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."
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."
with you? I’m talking about equipment that can save lives
and you’re talking about conspiracies.”
He bristled. "No,
I’m talking politics."
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."
dreaming if you think they’re actually going to buy this gadget.”
not a gadget,” she said hotly. “It’s a very sophisticated
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.”
Take it to them to test.”
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
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?"