~ Silvia ~
Creee…ak. Scratch. Scratch. Scratch.
Silvia’s eyes popped open.
Her left hand quickly found the cold metal grip of her .38. Always in the exact spot. Always positioned the same way. She’d practiced grabbing it and dry shooting hundreds of times.
Smack. Smack. Smack.
She flicked her gaze to the three corners of the room in her line of sight, all dimly lit. She couldn’t sleep in complete darkness anymore. She had to be able to make out her surroundings the moment she opened her eyes.
In the dark, shadows turned into monsters. A shirt drying on a hanger looked like a man hovering over her, ready to thrust the final jab, the strike that would finally end her life.
Dark silhouettes brought back visions of real monsters, so she’d rather be able to see everything around her.
Smack. Smack. Smack.
She focused on the bedroom door, always opened just a crack, enough that she would hear an approach. A door stop wedged beneath the bottom of the frame allowed just enough resistance to give her a couple seconds that could save her life. She wouldn’t be taken by surprise next time; she’d have a chance to react.
A long breathy SIGH snaked through the two-inch gap. A loud THUD followed the exhale, moving the door open a foot.
Silvia waited. She knew the familiar sounds. Knew what was coming next.
More creaking, this time beside her, as a buck-forty of solid muscle tromped across the cheap particle board subflooring of the single-wide trailer.
A cold nose touched her exposed neck. Hot breaths raced over her cheeks. His halitosis made her gag.
“Eww…” Silvia whined. “Harvey, you need to start brushing your teeth.”
She rolled over, pushing his heavy head away as much as possible, given his size. The large rottweiler wiggled backward, his hind end smacking the wall and bed in a perfect rhythm that shook the paper-thin walls.
“This isn’t your house anymore, remember?”
“I know. I know. You don’t understand new home ownership—well, rental.” She’d been renting the trailer for two years, though, so it looked like she was his new owner. She reached for the cotton robe she’d tossed over the alarm clock’s bright red numbers.
“Hold your horses, buddy! I’m getting up. Gimme a second, though. Some of us work for a living, you know.”
Woof! He offered a little hop as she stood, his front legs coming off the floor, but he didn’t jump on her. She’d had to correct that behavior since he weighed more than she did.
She’d debated whether to block the manhole-size doggie door. But it was deep beneath the trailer, accessible only through a small break in the underpinning at the rear of the house, which was surrounded by shrubs and trees.
Only she, Harvey, and his dead owner knew it was there. No one else in the community had taken the dog in after his owner passed. So, fur coat or not, she couldn’t very well allow him to sleep outside in the Alaska winter.
Silvia headed toward the kitchen, Harvey on her heels. As she scooped out Harvey’s breakfast, she focused on the framed magnetic picture of her mother and sister that she’d placed on the fridge. She rarely cried anymore, though. The pain would subside eventually. At least she hoped it would. After all, it’d been eight years since she’d seen them.
“My name is Silvia Markow,” she droned. “Birth date, August 28. I am twenty-six years old.” She recited the social security number she’d had to memorize, the new driver’s license number. City and state of birth.
Harvey dropped a mouthful of kibble on the yellowed linoleum floor, then chomped on individual bites, staring up at her as she recited the essential information.
She inhaled through her nose for a count of four, held her breath for seven counts, then slowly exhaled through her mouth with a whooshing sound. “I am safe. My mother is safe. My sister is safe.”
Crumbs of dog chow fell from Harvey’s thick jowls.
She stared down at him and smiled. “And I have a ginormous adopted baby who won’t let anything happen to me.”
Apparently satisfied she wasn’t giving him a command, Harvey smacked his lips and returned to the dish for more.
Silvia made her way back to the bedroom, grabbed a pair of joggers and a sweatshirt down from the shelf she’d installed over the small closet space. Next, she selected a sports bra from the cheap plastic drawers she’d bought at Walmart, then donned thick socks and tennies.
As thankful as she was for the rottweiler, she never would have officially adopted a dog. Her work schedule of being gone for twenty-four hours or more wasn’t conducive to taking care of someone other than herself. But technically, she hadn’t adopted Harvey; he’d adopted her. He’d come with the single-wide. And he seemed okay with the arrangement.
Unlike her hometown, where mobile homes sat on small concrete slabs adjacent one another, the mobile home she’d rented here sat on a dead-end street with other manufactured homes. Each one even had a small wooded lot. Her landlord—the daughter of Harvey’s past owner—lived in a double-wide next door. Technically, widowed Mindy Smith was Harvey’s new keeper, but evidently, the rottweiler hadn’t gotten that message.
Dressed, Silvia started music on her iPhone—she never used earbuds. She needed to hear what was going on around her at all times. She started warming up inside the handkerchief-sized living room, which held nothing but a small loveseat and a folding tray that doubled as an end table and place to eat. Even if she did have extra money to buy furniture—she didn’t—she needed enough room to exercise. It might be summer in Alaska, but it was still freaking freezing outside for this girl, who’d been born and raised in the Valley of the Sun.
The firehouse where she worked had a gym, but she liked—needed—to run. At five-three and a hundred-twenty-nine pounds soaking wet, her best chance of surviving any future attacks would be her ability to run like the wind.
Not that she couldn’t pump iron with the best of them. So that she hadn’t been laughed out of the firefighter academy, she’d trained hard. When she first moved to Alaska, she barely weighed a hundred and ten pounds, but she’d put on close to twenty pounds—all muscle—by eating and working out like a beast. Now, instead of her once-skinny frame, she had a CrossFit body. But she was also a realist. She could drag a firehose up a ladder and heave a two-hundred-fifty-pound male from a fiery blaze with her rescue straps. But she would never be able to fend off an adult male who wanted to hurt her. So she had to be fast on her feet.
A weapon on her side didn’t hurt either. After she finished warming up, she hooked a canister of bear spray to the waistband of her sweatpants and opened the front door. She wasn’t worried about bears or cougars—even though that was always a concern in Alaska—she carried the spray to ward off two-legged monsters.
Harvey followed her out the door and down the corrugated-steel steps, which she was sure had been solid black once upon a time. In this time, they were a mishmash of chipped black, rusty reddish-brown, and battleship gray. She jogged across the lawn and down the pebbled drive, reaching the narrow road. Five a.m. would be civil twilight in her hometown, but in Wasilla, the sun had been shining for at least an hour.
At the road, she hooked left, and Harvey darted past her. As she increased her pace, her breaths came out in oval-shaped crystalized puffs against the cool air.
“Morning, Mrs. Smith!” Silvia jogged backward while waving at her landlord, who was shooing off Harvey—their morning routine.
The seventy-something woman, dressed in a long thick robe and dingy-white fisherman boots, held her coffee cup up and away from her body, trying not to spill a drop. Her other hand clutched a thin newspaper, which worked about as well as a flyswatter on Harvey’s thick hide. Silvia was certain that the pup assumed this was a game the old woman liked to play.
“Morning, Silvia! Shoo-shoo, you beast.” Misty continued backing away from Harvey while he pretended to bite the rolled-up newspaper. “I don’t know how you can run in the cold, young lady.” The woman’s words faded as Silvia moved swiftly along the side of the road.
Silvia would be concerned about a leash law if Harvey actually belonged to her. But other than a few shoos and down boys, none of her neighbors complained. They were probably just happy that she fed him, which cost a small fortune. Also, he functioned as security for the neighborhood.
In her previous life, Silvia hadn’t been friendly to anyone—let alone her neighbors. In fact, she hadn’t known one of her mother’s neighbors by name.
If she had, maybe someone would have heard her screams.
Since she’d moved to Alaska, she’d made it her mission to know everyone who lived near her. Oddly enough, she liked most of her neighbors, too. She even liked being sociable. Of course, she never got overly friendly. She moved quickly, running for exercise or to her next job, so that there was never time for in-depth conversations or probing questions. Her neighbors knew she was a firefighter, lived alone, and that she stayed busy twenty-four-seven. That was all anyone needed to know about her.
The next property she passed belonged to Mr. Jones, a retired mechanic who now fixed vehicles on his property. Already, he was half-buried beneath an open hood. He bobbed his shaved dark head from underneath the rust bucket and waved.
“Nice day for a run, Silvia!” He smacked his round stomach. “Run a few miles for me, will ya?”
She inhaled deeply and smiled, jogging in place for a couple seconds. “It is! And will do! Although, I’m not sure how my running will help you.”
He laughed and reached for a plastic canister he kept in his toolbox. Harvey darted to Mr. Jones for his morning pat and treat, then caught up with her before she reached Mrs. Miller’s place.
Mrs. Miller—a half-Native American, half-Russian woman with a shock of long white hair that she kept in a long braid—apparently thought it was a sin to throw away anything. Her yard was cluttered with lawn furniture and appliances that looked like they were in use, even though they’d probably been decommissioned long before Silvia’s mother had been born.
Silvia always took advantage of a concrete bench the woman had set out front. She bounded over it, pretending she was evading a predator. Harvey followed.
At the end of the dead-end road, Silvia stopped and stared out at the 23,000 square miles of pure wilderness that made up the Mat-Su Valley and the acres upon acres upon acres of newly sprouted green leaves that surrounded the city. In the last month, all the snow had melted in Wasilla. But the Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Range were still a flawless angelic white.
She breathed in the cool mountain air and smiled. She still missed the scorching sun and the sky that always looked as if it went on forever in the city of her birth, but the Land of the Midnight Sun had a different kind of beauty. The bright blue sky touching the white-capped range had such a contrast that it almost looked fake.
It wasn’t fake, though. The fact that she now lived in Alaska made her remember how tragically real her life was.
She inhaled and exhaled several times. “My name is Silvia Markow. I am safe. My mother is safe. My sister is safe.”
She turned, heading back to her tiny trailer. It was time to get ready for work.
Silvia locked her keys and purse inside her locker, forced the handle and latch to line up, which was a task in itself, then reattached the lock, spinning the knob. Although the firehouse was all-new construction with state-of-the-art technology, the city had recycled the furniture and accessories. Even the lockers looked as if they’d salvaged them from a high school that dated back to the nineteen-sixties.
The previous shift gathered up their personal effects and headed out after their twenty-four-hour tour, so she checked the pantry and fridge since it was her night to cook.
Silvia spied dishes in the sink as Malaspina ducked out of the kitchen. She turned and smacked him on the back of the head. “Hey, Spina! Those your dishes—again?”
John Malaspina, an Italian-looking guy who had about twenty years on her, looked over her head. “Sorry, Sil. I gotta get to an appointment! Can you help a brother out?”
“Brother, humph! Lately, I’m feeling more like a den mother.” She rolled her eyes but then shrugged. “Still doing the real estate bit, huh?”
“You know it! And I gotta big fish on the line.” His square jaw spread into a broad smile, making his brown eyes practically disappear under a heavy brow.
“When do you sleep?” Firefighters often worked side jobs, but John had been shirking some of his firehouse duties, and she’d been covering him. She was okay with that. Her primary concern was that he didn’t return to duty exhausted.
“I’ll sleep tonight. Do ya mind?”
“Go ahead, but clean up after yourself before shift ends next time. It’s my day to cook, so I’ll clean while prepping.”
“Thanks, Sil!” He headed off again, pulling on his sunglasses, even though he was still inside the building, then stopped and turned. “You speak with LT yet?”
Her brow furrowed. “Just got here. Why? What’s up?”
John’s cheeks lifted again. “Nothin’.”
“Wait. What happened?”
“Gotta go, Sil. Thanks for helping a brother out!”
Silvia watched John scurry down the hall, along with the rest of the shift, then made her way back into the kitchen to check on supplies. She hated cooking, but everyone had to take a turn.
A ruckus in the garage caught her attention. The sounds of hand smacks and hey yas commenced. John didn’t have the loudest voice in the station, but the person he said hello to did.
Only one man garnered that kind of attention. Damn probie acted as if he were governor of the house. Just because his family had been around since the buying of Alaska from Russia, it seemed. Most probies barely got the time of day, let alone a high-five from a veteran firefighter.
Silvia heard footsteps as the object of her disdain moved closer, so she ducked into the pantry. She wasn’t ready for another conversation with Daire. She’d never met anyone who talked as much as he did. If he weren’t telling some tale, he was complaining.
Even when he was complaining, he somehow had a smile on his face, which showed off his bright white teeth behind a suntanned face. Most Alaskans didn’t look as if they’d just left the beach, but Daire always did. He looked more like a California surfer than an Alaska firefighter. And she wasn’t interested in either type.
In the past seven years, she’d been asked out plenty. But she didn’t date firefighters or first responders—of any kind. But because her orbit included nothing but first responders, it meant she didn’t date—anyone.
The footsteps passed, so Silvia finished her inventorying of her team’s pantry shelves and moved to one of the four commercial-sized fridges lining the sidewall of the enormous kitchen. Her shift’s fridge was marked with a large A.
Satisfied that she had enough ingredients, she nudged the door closed and headed to the garage to check her rig.
Dressed in bunker pants and a white tank top, the loops of his suspenders dangling to his knees, shift officer Ivan the Terrible stood over a new volunteer recruit. “Dig deep, rookie! That chrome needs to shine when we wheel past the ladies!”
Ivan’s last name was too long to pronounce or remember, so everyone just called him Big Ivan—to his face. Because he was tall, not because he was overweight by any means. Behind his back, most of the team referred to him lovingly as Ivan the Terrible because he had a domineering presence and scared the hell out of new recruits.
Ivan winked because of his comment to his rookie, then jutted his head toward the hall of offices belonging to the brass. “LT’s looking for you, Sil.”
She lifted her chin in acknowledgment and headed to find the lieutenant.
Daire ran up beside her, causing her to jump. “Hey, Sil. Did you hear my news?”
Her lungs deflated. Two of her brothers had said that the lieutenant had news, and now Daire was asking if she’d heard his news.
This couldn’t be good.
Not that she cared about Daire’s news, but she looked up. At six-two, he was almost a head taller than she was. Then again, just about every adult was taller than her petite frame. “Nope. Just got here. What’s up?”
“Markow!” Lieutenant Jack Schilling’s voice preceded him from his office. He stepped through the doorway, looked at her, then Daire. “Oh, good. You already know. Lucky me.” He turned to go back into his office.
“Already know, sir?”
LT waved a hand at Daire. “Belgarde finished his EMT hours, so now he’s with you. You two will be on Ambulance One until further notice. Teach him everything you know, Sil.”
She stared up, and Daire was smiling again. “Howdy, partner.”
She resisted sighing. She could barely take Daire when he wasn’t riding in her rig shotgun, and now he’d be with her for twenty-four hours straight…until further notice? Great.
But all she responded with was “Yes, sir!” then turned and headed back to the garage.
Daire’s long legs made short work of catching up with her. “What do you want me to do first?”
She reached their assigned ambulance, pulled a clipboard off the wall, and shoved it into his hands. “Check your rig, of course. Make sure the LSV is fully stocked.”
Fellow paramedic Therese Allard “Frenchie” wagged her eyebrows and made kissy faces at Silvia from behind Daire. Although Therese was from Tampa Bay, she had a French heritage. And according to gossip that ranged from Anchorage to Falcon Run, Therese was rather fond of French kissing—male or female. Looked like Therese was also manning their other life-saving vehicle, Ambulance Two, today. Silvia ignored the bronze-haired woman and watched as Daire stepped toward their rig.
“A list,” Daire said, his dark brows lifting. “Of course, there always has to be a list, right? My brother Sam loves lists, too. We have a list for everything we do—” He stopped jabbering as she stared at him, arms crossed. “What? What did I say?”
Silvia gestured to the LSV, indicating that he should get started. “I don’t care what your brother does. I don’t care what you’ve done. Just listen and learn, probie.” She moved to the side compartments.
“I’ve been here a year,” Daire grumbled under his breath but then cocked his head and nodded. “That makes two of us; I don’t care what Sam does either.”
Silvia ignored the muttering and jab at his brother and waved to the ambulance again. “Check your fire gear first. Ensure that everything is charged up and ready to go and that the gauges match. Don’t forget to check your breathing apparatus and bi-pass valves.”
Daire moved to the correct compartment. “Of course. Because we’re still firefighters, right?”
Silvia watched his large hands make quick work of the gear, swiftly checking then stowing everything back in its spot. She observed him as he tested the thermal imaging monitor next.
He picked up the clipboard, marked his progress, then headed to the back of the truck, stepping inside. He examined the med bag, jotting down what medications and first aid needed restocking. It was the longest she’d ever seen him go without speaking. She couldn’t help but notice how good his face looked when he wasn’t frowning about something his big brother Sam had done to upset him.
After he finished, she led him to the EMT cabinet and unlocked it, filling the medical case with the replacements.
Daire fished into his pocket, pulled out his phone, then stared down and frowned.
“Hey!” Silvia waved a hand between his face and the phone. “Eyes on your work, probie.”
“Sorry. Sam’s been calling and texting me nonstop. The man drives me crazy.”
And there it was. She’d gotten so tired of his bitching about Sam that she tried to never be near Daire. Something that wasn’t possible anymore. Until further notice, anyway.
She clenched her jaw, then loosened it. They had work to do, and it wasn’t her business why he didn’t get along with his eldest brother. “Do you need to answer the call? Maybe it’s an emergency.”
“Nah. Sam’s last message just said he wants to talk. Normally, he just wants to know what I’m doing…if I’m working. If it were an emergency, he’d tell me, believe me.”
“So why didn’t you answer him earlier—on your off time?”
“’Cause he drives me crazy.”
She sighed without commenting. If Daire only knew how lucky he was. Once upon a time, her older sister had gotten on her nerves, too. She would do anything if she could take back all the mean things she’d said when she was too young to know better.
“Sorry.” He pocketed the phone. “What’s next?”
The alert system sounded. Blue lights, then red lights, strobed on the ceiling and walls, indicating a medical emergency and a need for the engine. A digital board scrolled the alert, notating an auto accident and address, followed by an audible: “Medic. Engine. Specialty Apparatus.” The station came alive. Firefighters, upstairs and outside, poured into the garage or down the pole, heading to their respective stations.
“That’s us!” Silvia waved to Daire to get going.
In front of her turn-out station, Silvia kicked off her shoes while pulling the balaclava over her head. She stepped into her bunker pants, then pulled the suspenders over her shoulders. As she tugged on her jacket, she fished her gloves out of the pockets. Lastly, she grabbed her helmet and headed back to the LSV.
Silvia hopped into the passenger seat, pulled on her headset, and logged into the tablet. She started to call for Daire, but he was already crawling into the driver’s seat.
She read out the address, then the call data. “Accident. Two vehicles. One car on its side. Three persons. Two adults. One child.”
Daire followed the engine out of the bay to the accident.
Only minutes away, local police were already on scene, redirecting traffic.
Silvia took a deep breath as she viewed the incident, praying that the child had been secured in a car seat. Seven years as a firefighter paramedic, she still couldn’t get used to seeing hurt children, especially when a parent was too lazy to use a car seat.
A low hum, almost a buzzing, droned in her head as she and Daire gathered equipment. She heard nothing audible as she watched Big Ivan work alongside his rookie—she couldn’t remember the kid’s name. Several of her partners stabilized the vehicle, then Big Ivan manned the Jaws of Life to start removing the top half of the vehicle. It was difficult to tell what type of vehicle it had been. A van or crossover, she suspected. Thankfully, even though the vehicle had been T-boned so hard that it flipped onto its side, the rear and passenger area looked intact.
Silvia spotted what had to be the other vehicle involved in the accident. A heavy-duty pickup truck. The large chrome bumper barely looked as if it had a scratch. The driver stood next to the vehicle, running his hands through his hair. No civilians stood near him, just an officer asking questions.
That meant the other two adults and child were inside the flipped vehicle that Big Ivan’s team was working on.
Silvia waited as two firefighters pulled out the front passenger first, then returned for the child. She exhaled softly when she saw no visible blood and that the child seemed alert.
One of the six firefighters helped the woman onto the first stretcher, then returned for the child.
Silvia turned to Daire as she wheeled the first stretcher to the back of the ambulance. “Daire, you tend to the child while I check out the female passenger.”
Therese assisted Silvia with the first stretcher. The auburn-haired woman grinned as she pushed the woman into the rig. “Daire’s your new probie, huh? Bet that news made your day.”
Therese’s partner, Jim Johnson, took over the woman’s care.
Silvia resisted rolling her eyes. “If I didn’t know any better, I’d think you put LT up to this?”
“Moi?” Therese feigned innocence. “Why would I suggest that LT put Daire anywhere near you? Wouldn’t want to put your I-don’t-date-first-responders spiel to the test by teaming you up with the hottest first responder in Alaska. Well, I’ve heard he’s the hottest. He’s not my type, obviously.” As she’d done earlier, Therese wiggled her eyebrows up and down. “But he’s your type, right? If you’d come down off your high horse.”
Sylvia never could get used to firefighters jabbering while on a call. Still, she answered anyway, “I’m not on a high horse, Frenchie. I just think it’s a bad idea to eat where you—”
Silvia turned back to see the child loose and running toward the wreckage.
Daire took off, catching the boy a mere second before the toddler reached the upturned vehicle. “I gotcha, big boy! The nice firefighters are gonna help your mommy now, okay?”
The driver must be the mother. At least she was buckled in. But seeing your mother jacked in the air sideways had to be scaring her son.
Daire walked back with the boy in his arms. “Here. Let’s get you checked out, okay?”
Silvia glared at Daire.
What? he mouthed.
The boy sniffed, then screamed, “Mommy!” so Silvia held back the words she wanted to shout at Daire.
“Mommy’s okay.” Daire cooed. “My friends are helping her.”
The woman in the ambulance moved to get up, so Silvia hopped up and placed slight pressure on her arm. “Hang on. Don’t move. You might have internal injuries.”
“My nephew. My sister,” the woman cried. “Are they okay?”
“My team is seeing to them. You’re my responsibility, okay? Jim, help Frenchie with the driver, please.”
Jim Johnson hopped down, and Silvia checked the woman over. It didn’t look like she had anything other than bruising. With the magnitude of the accident, though, she’d feel better if the woman was seen for internal injuries. “Daire, secure the boy while I help them with the driver.”
They were still cutting off the roof of what Silvia could now tell was an old Caravan, so she walked with her med bag to the truck's driver.
“The woman ran the light,” the man told the officer. “There was nothing I could do.” When he saw Silvia approach, he turned to her. “I’m okay! Please. Just take care of the women and kid.”
“Not a scratch on me. Is the kid okay?”
“Just shook up. I’d really like to—”
He waved her off. “I’m fine!”
Silvia looked at the officer, who shrugged. “He does seem fine.”
She quickly ran back to the Dodge Caravan. Six of her teammates gently pulled the woman onto a board while Therese wheeled another stretcher to the scene. “We got this one, Silvia. You and Daire take care of the woman and child. I’ll see you back at the house.”
Silvia nodded and returned to her rig, and looked inside. “You got things under control?” she demanded.
Daire tossed her a confused look but nodded.
Silvia picked up the radio. “Ambulance One to Mat-Su Regional for patient report.”
“Go ahead, Ambulance One,” responded a tired male voice.
“Ambulance One is currently en route with non-emergent patients involved in an auto accident. First patient is a twenty-something woman. Second patient is a toddler. No visible external wounds. Current vitals are as follows.”
Daire called out, “Heart rate 130. Blood pressure 129 over eighty. Patient denies any difficulty of breathing or chance of pregnancy.”
“ETA six minutes,” Silvia finished.
“We’ll see you in six, Ambulance One. Mat-Su Regional, clear.”
“Ambulance One, clear.”
As Silvia pulled away from the ER, Daire moved from the back of the rig to the passenger seat.
She stared at him.
Daire flashed his pearly whites as if he were proud of his actions. “Pretty good with kids, huh? I got a lot of older brothers, as you know, so now I have a lot of nephews running around.”
She sighed. “You had one job, probie, and you screwed up.”
His eyebrows slanted downward, causing his eyes to nearly disappear. “What are you talking about? I didn’t screw up.”
“I told you to make sure the kid was secure, and yet, somehow, he practically crawled back into the overturned vehicle.”
“No, he didn’t.”
She clenched the steering wheel, noticing her knuckles were several shades lighter than the surrounding skin color. Why was it that everything Daire did made her so angry? “You caught him not a second away.”
Daire blew out a breath. “Blame that on Brooks, not me. He set the boy down.”
She pointed a finger. “When I give you a task, I expect you to follow it. Not pass blame.”
Silvia raised a hand when he started to respond, then drove back to the house in silence.
Until further notice was going to be too long for her.
~ Daire ~
Daire watched as Vince motored the rescue boat along Cook Inlet.
Summer had unofficially arrived in South-Central Alaska. Temps hovered close to seventy with the season change, even though white-capped mountains still bordered the 200-mile inlet that stretched from Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska.
Daire was exhausted after his twenty-four-hour tour, but he couldn’t just sit around the house—thinking about her.
He’d tried to sleep beneath deck as they waited for a call, but every time he closed his eyes, he saw the cold, blank way Silvia had glared at him—repeatedly. Her dark brown eyes had grown darker as the day progressed. Nothing he’d done on his first day with her was to her satisfaction.
“Ugh.” He grabbed the wooden dog and pulled himself out of the hull. “I hate her.”
Vince laughed. “Hate’s a strong word, kid. Is this her, whom you hate, the same woman you were professing love for last week?”
Daire rolled his eyes and hopped onto the pedestal seat opposite his brother. “Yeah, her. But to be honest, I couldn’t have really been in love with her, now could I? Other than a few beers—once—with other firefighters after our tour, we’ve never even gone out. And she…” He shivered internally as he thought about her cold scowl.
“Drives you crazy,” Vince finished.
“Yeah. That about sums it up.” Before he’d worked with Silvia, those dark eyes had been warm and inviting. At least, in his dreams, they had.
“I told you, kid. Women’ll kill ya! And they’ll take your last penny and clean pair of undershorts and run.”
Daire leaned back in the chair, pulling the rim of his hat low over his face. “Yeah, but it never stopped you from falling in love.”
“Damn straight. Nothing like loving a woman so much that she can break your heart.”
Pfft! “Not this heart. I gotta sleep, Vince. Before I know it, I’ll be back under her demanding gaze.”
“Tough break, kid!”
Daire stared up from beneath his cap. “Seriously, man. I’m twenty-three. How long you gonna call me kid?”
“Till you stop whining like a kid.”
Daire closed his eyes again. “With Sam always bitching at me and now Silvia, that could be a while.” He popped up in the chair. “Speaking of Sam… What the hell is his problem now? He’s been texting and calling me non-stop. He’s been cool since he settled down, but he’s fallen back into his old grouchy ways since Erik’s wedding. Is he mad because Erik and Kimi started up the horse ranch?”
Vince shrugged but said nothing, which was odd. Vince was the one person who could outtalk him.
“What’s up, Vince? Is there something going on that I don’t know about?”
“Who knows what goes on inside Sam’s head. You should call him, though.”
Daire chuckled. “I got too much on my mind to hear Sam tell me how I should be living my life. First, he wanted me to go off to college when I wanted to join the Midnight Sons. Then he complained he couldn’t afford an extra SAR team member. Then he got upset when I decided to become a firefighter paramedic full time. And I don’t know why he even complains. Nothing I do makes him happy. He didn’t do that to any of you.”
Vince looked out at the choppy water. “You’re our baby brother, Daire. No matter what, that’s never gonna change. When Dad died, you were just a child, so Sam felt he had to step up. Hell, I was still a kid myself. Sam’s done a great job; you need to give him a break.”
“Really? You’re gonna give me a hard time now, too?”
“I’m not giving you a hard time, Daire.” Vince’s tone was as sober as he’d ever heard it. Typically, nothing shook Vince’s good humor. Although separated by about seven years, Vince and he got along well and enjoyed hanging out together. “I’m just saying,” Vince continued, “that you need to give Sam a break.”
Daire blew out a breath through his nose and leaned back again. Maybe coming out today hadn’t been a good idea, but he knew Vince liked to have him for company whenever he could.
The radio crackled. “Midnight Sons Base to Midnight Sons Three.”
“Speak of the devil,” Vince said, his ordinarily chipper tone back to normal.
Daire popped up again, waving his hands. “Don’t tell Sam I’m here.”
Vince shook his head but clicked the handset. “Midnight Three.”
“You in the inlet, Vince?” No pleasantries. Sam was all-business—always.
“Affirmative!” Vince flashed Daire a wink and released the push-to-talk button. “Sam is a grouch, isn’t he? I don’t know how Nora stands him.”
Daire laughed. There was his pal Vince.
Sam offered the coordinates and rescue information and a few murmured tidbits Daire couldn’t make out over the wind. But Vince nodded along to everything Sam said.
“Copy,” Vince offered, then replaced the handheld mic. “Looks like we’re gonna have fun after all.”
Intrigued, anything to keep his mind occupied on something other than Sam or Silvia, Daire hopped up, ready to work. “Whatta we got?”
“Seems we got a boatful of young ladies who got themselves into a mess.”
Daire nodded and geared up, pulling on his dry suit. Cook Inlet water rescues could get cold and wet quickly.
Back at the firehouse for ten hours, and Silvia had run Daire ragged.
Since they hadn’t received any emergency calls, Silvia had him clean every inch of the ambulance, even down to the last crevice, with Q-Tips. Then he’d swept, dusted, and scrubbed the floors and walls around the rig and other parts of the station house.
And he’d thought Sam was a tyrant.
Now it was his night to cook. Well, he could be thankful to Sam for that lesson anyway. His eldest brother had taught him how to easily feed a large family. Before his brothers all got married and moved out, they had to cook one night a week. Daire just needed to double what he used to make for his brothers and mother.
Silvia walked in as he stuffed another taco shell with a mixture of sauteed chicken. She stared down at what he was doing, then crinkled her nose. “I thought you were making enchiladas.”
Daire held up one of his latex-covered hands. “Hey, lady! Your job is to tell me what to do out there. In the kitchen, I’m allowed to do things my way. And I am making enchiladas.”
“With taco shells? Where I come from, you do things right, or you don’t do them at all. FYI, enchiladas are made with corn tortillas that you roll up.”
Daire shook his head and went back to stuffing the corn shells. “Where you come from? You come from L.A., right? Since when does L.A. hold the market on proper enchilada preparation?”
She bit down on her lip and waved a dainty hand. “You’re right. Not my business.”
Daire cleared his throat. “It’s easier, okay? I can never get the corn shells to roll up and stay put, and they come out tough sometimes. Sam showed me this trick. It’s still corn, right? They’re just pre-fried. And look how easy.” He held up one of the stand-up taco shells, stuffed it with the shredded chicken, then plopped it onto the baking pan. “See. Now I just smother it with sauce and cheese. Mexican rice and beans on the side, and voila, dinner’s served.”
Silvia lifted her head, her tiny nose crinkling again. “I’m sure it’ll be fine. After you finish, I need you in the bay. We’re going to run some drills.”
Daire watched as she turned and walked off, disappearing around the wall.
“Drills,” he grumbled beneath his breath. “I’d actually look forward to some drills. But you’ll probably have me scrub the tile in the bathrooms with a toothbrush.”
Silvia popped her head back around the wall. “Keep bitchin’, probie, and I might do just that.”
Daire flicked the contents of the spoon in her direction.
She ducked around the wall before it hit her, then poked her head back up. “Now you have to clean up that mess.”
He couldn’t help but notice that Silvia had said the last words with a smile. She hardly ever smiled, but it made her look utterly cute when she did. So cute, he forgot she was his supervisor. Instead, his mind conjured images of him rescuing her and her being ever so grateful.
Not that she needed rescuing. As tiny as she was, the woman was a ball-buster.
What was it he fell in love with again? He wasn’t sure, but he knew he was. Maybe it was just lust. Perhaps if he got below her rough exterior, he’d realize she was nothing spectacular. But, man, oh man, he wanted to break through that tough outer shell.
Definitely not how he should be thinking about the woman who was making his life a living hell.
He finished stuffing the last shell, covered both baking pans full of stuffed tacos with red sauce, then sprinkled cheese over all except half of one pan. That left half a pan for the lactose intolerants in the group.
He stripped off the plastic gloves, then tossed the pans into the oven, set the Instant Pot on high for fifteen minutes, and the beans on the stove to low.
Finished, he set out to find Czar Silvia.
“Not bad, probie!” Silvia said as she gobbled down the last bite of chicken enchiladas. “Now, we have more scenarios to go over.”
Daire stared at her. There was no sense in questioning the woman. Her wish was his command—literally. LT had made it clear that the two of them would stay on ambulance duty until he deemed him ready. He never thought he’d miss Ivan the Terrible. He did, however, say a quick prayer for a call. Not a five-alarm call. Just something that would get him out of the station. Before dinner, Silvia had him fully equipped and running up and down stairs until he could barely feel his legs. The exercise was mindless since Ivan had already spent a year drilling him.
The buzzer sounded.
Lights lit up blue over the door frame and on the ceiling. The electronic voice belted out: “Medic.”
“That’s us!” Daire said before Silvia had a chance. He pushed his plate aside and was on his feet, heading to his gear in seconds, Silvia on his six.
Geared up, Daire hopped into the driver’s seat of their rig, and Silvia stepped inside two seconds later. He thought about teasing her that he’d beat her to the punch, but he needed to earn all the positive points he could with her.
Silvia pulled on her headset and fired up the tablet. She read out the address, then pointed south. “Do…mes…tic,” she said, her voice cracking as if she hadn’t spoken all day when, in fact, she hadn’t stopped ordering him around. “Police are already on scene.”
Since she didn’t call for sirens, Daire flipped on just the emergency lights, watching all the side streets as he tore down the road.
Silvia tapped her fingers against the door, seemingly anxious to get to the scene. On all the calls he’d been with her, she never came off as nervous. She craned her head, trying to get a visual before they even arrived.
Daire approached the long rectangular building, which looked more like a cheap hotel that Norman Bates might oversee than livable apartments. He inched the LSV past several patrol cars parked alongside the road as an officer waved him into a dirt parking area.
Sparse patches of green grass ran parallel between the rear of the parking area and a swath of trees. Plastic children’s toys, including a miniature slide, littered the area. Even though it was summer, the few kids Daire saw weren’t playing. Instead, the little boys and girls hovered behind their guardians. Their tiny hands gripped pantlegs, and their wide eyes searched for danger.
Silvia removed her headset, grabbed the med bag, and hopped out before the rig stopped moving. Daire smacked the shifter into park and raced to catch up with her.
As Daire rounded the ambulance, he saw a woman sitting on the dirt, her head resting on her knees. A strip of thin white gauze circled her head, the wound already bleeding through. Not too unusual that she’d already received first aid. Police often carried medical supplies.
A female police officer stood beside the woman. Behind them, several male officers encircled a shirtless man standing just under a rickety excuse for a porch that spanned the six residences.
Silvia knelt down beside the injured woman but looked up at the officer for information. “What happened?”
Daire squatted next to Silvia, waiting for her direction.
The officer pointed to the woman’s head. “She had a deep gash in her forehead that couldn’t wait. She says she fell, but the neighbor who called 9-1-1 said she and her man were fighting. Again.”
The woman on the ground lifted her head in the officer’s direction long enough to whimper, “I’m…fine.” Then her head lumbered back to her knees.
“Can you look up for me?” Silvia asked.
The woman tried to lift her head, but it lolled just above her knees, then swayed back and forth.
“Ma’am, can you tell me your name?” Silvia coaxed.
“Ja…ness…a,” she slurred against her ripped jeans.
“Have you been drinking, Janessa, or have you taken anything I should know about?” Silvia reached for the woman’s right wrist. “Can you hold your head up so I can see your eyes?”
The woman raised her head again, and Daire held back a gasp. Not that he wasn’t accustomed to blood and gore, but he hated seeing a woman who’d clearly been beaten up. Blood trickled from beneath the head bandage, and her lips were busted up bad. Both eyes were blooming different colors. Definitely not a fall.
“Ma’am,” Silvia said again. “We need to check you out inside the ambulance. Can you stand?”
“She’s fine,” shouted the man standing with the other police officers. “She just had too much to drink and fell.”
Silvia reached for the woman’s other hand. “Let’s get you checked out.”
The woman jerked back. “I don—I don’t wanna…go…an…where.”
“It’s okay,” Silvia said, her voice low and calm as if speaking to a child. “We don’t have to go anywhere. I’ll take care of you inside the ambulance, okay? I just want to check your wounds, okay?”
“She’s fine!” the man shouted again.
Silvia glared at the police officers, then the man. “I’m sure she is. I just need to make sure.” Silvia nodded to Daire and reached for the woman’s left hand and waist.
Daire followed suit, taking the woman’s other hand.
“Janessa, just stand with me, okay?” Silvia placed her free hand beneath the woman’s elbow, and Daire copied her motions.
Janessa stood but groaned in the process.
“Good,” Silvia cooed. “Right this way, okay? Just walk with me.”
“I don’ wanna…go an…where,” the woman repeated.
“At the moment, we’re just going to check you out,” Silvia assured her. “As long as you’re fine, we don’t have to go anywhere.”
At the back of the ambulance, Silvia and Daire tried to help the woman up, but she gasped in response. Daire didn’t need any help. Although Janessa was tall—five-eight, he’d guess—she probably weighed twenty pounds less than Silvia. Janessa was an absolute stick. Definitely a tweaker.
Daire motioned with his hands that he could pick her up, looking to Silvia for the okay. She nodded and mouthed: Carefully, then hopped up into the rig.
Daire placed his hands beneath Janessa’s armpits and lifted her inside the ambulance.
Silvia helped Janessa to the cot, then looked into her eyes. “Have you been drinking, Janessa?”
“A li’l bit.”
“How did you get hurt?”
“I don’ know.”
“These injuries look pretty bad. Are you sure someone didn’t hit you?”
Silvia sighed. “Janessa, if you let me, I can help you—”
“Stop…asking…me. I fell.”
“I understand,” Silvia said, then continued her examination. The woman gasped when Silvia touched her ribcage. “You may have a broken rib, Janessa.”
The woman groaned, then her head fell to the side, eyes closing.
“And she just passed out,” Silvia said. “Time to go. It’s no longer her decision.”
Daire hopped down from the back, closed the doors, then jogged toward the driver’s door.
“Hey!” yelled the shirtless man. “I said she’s fine.”
Daire motioned to the cop who’d been beside them. “Janessa just passed out, and she may have a few broken ribs. She definitely didn’t fall down the stairs.”
The officer nodded and walked back toward the boisterous man. Apparently, without Janessa’s confession, they weren’t going to arrest the man for abuse, but they could damn sure hold him.
“Stop!” the man yelled again and made as if he were going to charge Daire.
When one of the officers reached to detain the man, the loser elbowed the officer, busting his lip.
“Well,” Daire called as he hopped back inside the rig, “looks like her partner’s heading for jail for assaulting an officer.”
Janessa groaned, and Silvia soothed her. “We got you, Janessa. He won’t hurt you again…tonight.”
As Daire drove, he listened to Silvia speak softly to Janessa, even though he was confident the woman was still out of it. He couldn’t make out all the words, but Silvia talked to Janessa as if they were friends. As if she knew this wasn’t the first time the man had beaten her up.
~ Silvia ~
Two domestic calls in the same night. Who did I tick off?
Because of her desperate need to help women suffering from domestic abuse, she’d chosen a career as a paramedic. Still, she hated witnessing the hopelessness and terror women went through. Especially when they had to choose between getting medical help or facing their spouse’s wrath when they returned home. She hated that ninety-nine percent of the time, all she could do was offer the women a metaphorical band-aid for an internally bleeding wound that would eventually kill them.
She also hated if her team had to wait to enter a residence because the police hadn’t arrived. She’d learned the hard way why her supervisors enforced that protocol, though.
An abusing spouse’s greatest fear wasn’t for the safety of their injured partner but that they weren’t caught.
Not a year into her new career, when she’d been a probie herself, she’d received a glass liquor bottle to the back of her skull when she leaned down to check for a pulse. Since then, Silvia had learned that no matter the situation on a domestic call, she always made sure that police officers were on-scene.
As Daire drove the long brick driveway, passing the patrol cars, Silvia stared up at the deep green wood siding, clearly painted to blend in with the surrounding woods. The picturesque house with the redwood deck and three-car garage trimmed with stone sat on more than an acre of property hedged by beautiful quaking aspen. The wind rustling through the leaves should have felt calming. Silvia only thought about how far the residence was from the neighbors, which meant no 9-1-1 calls ensued because of screaming or slamming doors.
Close to a million-dollar difference in housing value between the last residence and this one, and yet it was the same scene—more or less. This time, though, the husband had called 9-1-1 when the situation had gotten out of hand. His wife had apparently drunk too much and then fell down the stairs. Always, she sighed internally. The lie was always that the wife or child had fallen. After all, what else could explain multiple contusions and broken limbs and ribs?
As Silvia stepped through the doorway, she eyed the two-level staircase. Not very far to fall. Carpeted. Wide and flat. Possible, but doubtful the woman had fallen based on the officer’s account of the patient’s injuries.
Silvia walked toward the living area to the right of the foyer. Her patient sat on the coffee table. Her husband stood over her, hand on her shoulder.
Support or control? Silvia hated making assumptions, but the husband or boyfriend was usually the guilty party in most of her domestic calls.
The house was lush and immaculate. Pristine wood floors. Fifty-five-inch flat screen. A plush sectional sofa—probably full-grain leather—would seat twelve or more people. Wide and thick ornate-wood-framed outdoorsy prints of moose and bear. Cute, cabin-like, and yet, elegant and costly. More than likely, a summer home of a well-to-do executive.
Silvia’s eyes fell on the glossy wood bar at the back of the room, complete with a granite top, wraparound armrest, and even a brass footrest. Rows of whiskey, vodka, rum bottles, and even a built-in beer tap took up the entire wall.
Alcohol always seemed to be the common denominator for domestic calls. It seemed too-much alcohol paved the way for most marital or family disputes.
Had the wife not cleaned something to his liking? Turned off a game he was watching? Or had she confronted a cheating spouse?
Silvia inhaled deeply and approached the woman whose right arm rested limply in her lap.
The man could blame her injuries on falling down the stairs all he wanted. He couldn’t explain the red welts circling the woman’s upper arm. Had he pulled the damn thing out of joint when he’d screamed something akin to: Don’t walk away from me?
Pushing aside her pre-conceived assumptions the best she could, Silvia approached the woman. “Ma’am, can you stand, or would you like me to bring a stretcher? That arm is going to need attention.”
The woman looked up at Silvia, fear evident in her ebony eyes.
“It’s okay,” Silvia said with a small forced smile. “I’ll take care of you.” She extended her hand, and the woman reached for her. Silvia always did everything possible to get a battered spouse away from their partner before asking personal questions or administering care.
“Excuse me,” the man said, all dignified in his button-down oxford and pressed khakis. “How do you know she needs medical treatment? My wife said she just sprained her arm when she fell.”
“It’s my job to know.” As much as Silvia wanted to point out the red welts, she held her tongue. She just needed to get the woman to somewhere she felt safe.
The man snorted. “You’re a paramedic; you didn’t go to medical school. You can check her out here.”
Unlike their earlier calls, when Daire had stayed at her eight o’clock, this time he stepped just slightly in front of her. “You would rather someone who didn’t go to medical school working on your wife here?”
“Well…umm…” the man stuttered.
“It’s okay, Anthony,” the woman said as she stood and stumbled next to Silvia. “I think my arm does need attention.”
Her husband stepped forward. “Well, I’ll go in the ambulance with you, then.”
Daire impeded his path. “I’m sorry, sir. That’s against regulations. And we can’t have anything interfering with your wife getting the best possible medical treatment, can we?”
Silvia bit down on her bottom lip to hold back a smile. Too often, her superiors accused her of getting too personal. It seemed Daire understood what was going on, too. Well, that was something to respect in the probie.
The officer casually moved next to Daire. “Gentleman,” she said, and both Daire and the man stepped apart.
Silvia took the opportunity to escort the woman to the ambulance. “Your arm does need medical attention, so I recommend that we head straight to the ER. What’s your name?”
“Katrina. Katrina Marrs.”
Daire popped his head into the back. “ER?”
Silvia nodded and turned back to Katrina. “Is this the first time?”
Katrina didn’t utter a word, just nodded as a tear slipped down her cheek. Based on her impeccable face, it was the first tear she’d shed this evening. Like many women, it appeared she’d gotten used to the pain. Her tears weren’t for her pain; they were for what she knew had to come next.
Silvia knew that these soft tears—not wails—were her chance to help an abused woman. She’d seen it enough times. At this point, a victim had given up, meaning she might be open to help, or she was ready to end the pain herself. Silvia had researched all her domestic calls, looking for the common denominators, the clues she needed to fulfill her ultimate purpose. Too many women who’d reached this point had either gone home and taken out their oppressor or, worse, committed suicide. Either choice was a death blow, leaving a path of destruction for the woman and her loved ones.
This is when Silvia knew she could—had to—step in…before the violence ended a woman’s life. “I can help if you’ll allow me.”
Katrina’s eyes flicked to the driver’s door as it opened.
Daire hopped in and backed up the ambulance, then made a three-point turn. He lifted the radio and called the hospital, notifying them of their patient and ETA.
On the road, the house long behind them, Katrina rested her usable hand on Silvia’s knee. “Yes, I need help. I wasn’t drinking tonight; my husband was. We’ve only been married a few years, and his drinking has progressively gotten worse and, with it—” She choked on her words. “He—I know he doesn’t mean to hurt me, but…” She blinked the tears out of her eyes. “I can’t allow him to hurt me again.”
Silvia nodded and pulled out her phone. She waited for her friend to pick up, then said, “It’s me. Can you meet a new friend of mine, Katrina Marrs, at Mat-Su Regional?”
“Of course, Silvia,” Jean said. “Give me ten minutes.”
Back at the station and with her mind slightly clear because of Katrina’s willingness to seek help, Silvia now thought about her own circumstances. She rarely slipped up, and yet, she had.
Over stupid enchiladas of all things.
She’d stayed beneath the radar for eight years because she always stuck to her rule—no personal relationships.
When you put your life on the line for your coworkers and vice versa, you inevitably grow strong relationships. Sheer time together and circumstances made you family. But that was all she ever allowed—brotherly and sisterly love. The bonds she’d created with her firefighter comrades had made it easy—well, easier—not to think about all she’d left behind.
Until Daire came into her life.
In the last year, he’d driven her crazy. She disliked everything about him. Or did she? Was it her attraction to him that made her find fault?
She’d let down her guard for the first time, teasing him the way she teased all her brothers—the way they teased her, and yet, with Daire, she’d revealed something from her past.
One of the first things she’d learned as a firefighter—perhaps even more critical than firefighting itself—was not to get offended. Firefighters were often childlike in their teasing, playing pranks and making up names for one another. Often, it felt like kindergarten all over again. But it was a necessity, she realized. A way to blow off steam. A way to push aside the horrors they witnessed on a near-daily basis. Few jobs require that you live and work together for twenty-four hours at a time. Hell, few relationships spent twenty-four hours together in a week.
Even when her father lived with her family, she was lucky to see him for an hour or two, from when he came home to when she went to bed. And then he’d be off to work before she woke up.
Still, even with all the fun and teasing, Silvia had never revealed anything from her previous life.
Until Daire ended up on her tour.
“Enchiladas,” she grumbled under her breath. “As if I’m the authority in cooking. I don’t even like to cook.”
Why had a stupid act of Daire preparing enchiladas pushed her to make a significant snafu, which might have him questioning where she was from?
She knew why. Deep down, she knew what had upset her so much.
Enchiladas reminded her of home… Of her abuela preparing them. Of a time when she had zero worries. Before she’d become a rebellious teenager. Before her rebellion had created a terrifying existence. She missed her childhood home.
Not the fake home she’d described in L.A., but her real home in Arizona.
Even though Silvia’s mother had been born and bred in Phoenix, her abuela had been from Central America.
Silvia closed her eyes and pictured her abuela’s golden-brown wizened hands as she held her tiny hands, showing her how to make the tortillas they would eat for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and even dessert. She loved spending her days with her abuela while her mother worked. Her abuela would spend hours smacking her hands back and forth, never even paying attention. She made hundreds a day while watching her telenovelas. Her abuela’s one-bedroom house always had a wood fire blazing, even when it was a hundred degrees in the shade. And Spanish daytime drama flowed from the old console television that looked like a piece of furniture more than an electronic device.
Silvia had played off Daire’s remark about L.A., but now, she realized how stupid she was to think she could interact with him at all. One comment about enchiladas had gotten him questioning her home in California. Even though he probably hadn’t thought about his question once since he’d asked it, it proved what she’d known for the last eight years. Anyone would easily see through the paper walls she’d built around her new life if she let down her guard. If Daire questioned the simple truth of where she was from because of enchiladas, what would he doubt next?
She couldn’t allow that. She couldn’t take a chance that anything would lead to her past—to the far from over nightmare that would never be over.
~ Silvia ~
Silvia stowed her personal items into her backpack, then closed her locker.
Well, tried to close the danged thing.
She opened it and tried to close it again and again and again.
“Stupid piece of trash!”
All she wanted was to go home, play with Harvey, take a long hot bath, and then read all day. But she couldn’t even do that without causing a scene.
“Need some help?” Daire leaned sideways against the wall of lockers.
“No, I don’t need your help. I can close a locker, thank you very much.”
He smashed his lips together, nodded, then sat down on the long wooden bench opposite the lockers. “Okay. I’ll just wait ’til you’re finished.”
Mid closing—attempting to close the stupid thing—she swung around, her hand still holding onto the crooked latch as if it would hold her up when it couldn’t even do its one job of latching. “Wait for what?”
He offered her a slow blink. “For you to close your locker.”
She blew out a breath and turned back to her task, willing the damn thing to obey. It wasn’t that hard. Line the freak up! she shouted in her head. So I can get out of here! So I can keep what little dignity I’ve earned over the last seven years.
The latch finally clicked into place, so she hooked her lock through the aligning holes and spun the dial.
She turned, planting fisted hands on her hips. “What do you need from me now, Daire?”
“I don’t need anything from you, Silvia.” He’d said the words softly, and although they should have come off as sounding mean, they didn’t. He just sounded drained. “I just need to get to my locker, so I can get out of here. Mine’s right beside yours, remember?”
Of course, his locker’s next to mine. Why wouldn’t it be? She’d conveniently forgotten that little tidbit since she tried never to be in the same room as Daire. It seemed karma itself wanted her to suffer Daire’s presence at all turns.
She stalked toward the exit, refusing to acknowledge his unusual melancholy or his remember question, which really wasn’t a question.
“Hey, Silvia! Wait up!”
There he is… Back to his chipper-self when all she wanted to do was get out of dodge.
Hand on the exit bar, she pushed hard, ignoring him. If she could get to her vehicle before he caught her, she’d never have to know what he wanted. Then maybe she could call LT and ask for a transfer before her next tour. She worked well with the Anchorage firefighters. It wasn’t too far of a daily drive—in the summer, that is. It would suck during the winter, though.
Ugh! I can’t transfer. I worked hard to gain the trust of the other firefighters. Why am I letting Daire get to me? He’s just a guy. I work with guys round-the-clock.
She clicked the fob for her Subaru Impreza. Other than the fact that the vehicle was as dependable as the sun, it wasn’t very impressive. It had more rust than white paint. The interior still reeked of tobacco, dog, and some odor she couldn’t name—even though she’d Febrezed every inch of cloth and carpet. And it made a rattling sound that no mechanic could seem to find. It was another relic from Harvey’s dead owner, which she’d bought for less than a month’s rent from her landlord. The twenty-year-old vehicle still ran through snow and ice like a dog sled at the Iditarod. Hopefully, it would sprint her away from annoying coworkers, too.
“Sil! Hang on!”
Stupid short legs.
Since she couldn’t outwalk the man, she turned and sneered. She wasn’t at work anymore, so she didn’t have to be polite. “What, Daire? I’m in a hurry.”
“Oh, you work another job?”
She heaved a sigh. “Is that any of your business?”
He smashed his lips together again. “No. Of course not. I just…”
If she had the guts to let her gaze drop, she imagined seeing him kicking up dirt with his black combat boots.
I must have looked since I know he wears black combat boots that always carry a high shine.
Odd that he looked so nervous. Daire rarely looked uncomfortable. The man epitomized the role of hottest first responder in Alaska, as Therese had so eloquently labeled him.
Silvia scratched a non-existent itch on her forehead. “I don’t have anywhere to be except home, but I’m tired. What did you want to ask? If you have a question about work, can’t it wait? We’ve already clocked more than twenty-four hours.”
He shook his head, then waved her off as he turned toward his truck. “It’s all right. Maybe next time.”
Silvia reached out and touched his arm. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to be rude. I’m just over…you know…everything. It was a rough night.”
Daire looked down at her hand on his arm, so she dropped it. His eyes moved back to hers. “That’s just it,” he said. “It was a rough night. Rougher than usual. I can handle accidents and fires. But somehow, knowing those men purposely hurt those women—” He squeezed his eyes shut. “I have good friends who’ve gone through domestic abuse, yet it still shocks me when men hurt women. Or, worse, when a parent hurts their own children.”
Double ugh! She didn’t need to connect with Daire on this level. But, man, she sure did. Her other firefighter brothers had never voiced their opinions about abuse, even though she could see it bothered them. Daire just never held back his feelings—good or bad.
His lips turned up again. Not in a smile but in a quick questioning manner. “I just thought maybe I could buy you a beer.”
His words broke her out of her current state, and she laughed without warning. She looked at her watch, even though she didn’t have to. She knew what time it was. Less than an hour after their tour. “A beer? It’s nine a.m.”
He shrugged. “It’s five p.m. in my world. I can’t sleep after a tour. I’ll sleep tonight.”
Silvia felt her lips curve into a smile, but she waved her hands and reached for her door handle. “I actually don’t drink much, and I never indulge at nine a.m. But thanks.”
“I actually don’t drink much either.” He shot out the words as if he had to say them quickly. “I know a lot of first responders party hard, but big brother Sam is a stickler for not drinking,” he rambled on, moving next to her again. He didn’t stop her from opening her door, but he leaned against the rear door. “So…what do you do to unwind?”
Next to the tiny car, he looked taller than usual. Flush against the dull white paint, his skin looked darker than usual.
She closed her eyes to clear her head. “I unwind by playing with my dog. Then I take a long hot bath and read.”
He dropped his head but looked up at her from beneath his long ebony lashes. “That works? To forget about all you saw?” He inhaled deeply, then whooshed it out. “Doesn’t seeing that crap make you want to release some angst?”
“Running’s cool. But what about when it’s freezing out?”
“It’s always freezing out.” A nervous-sounding laugh slipped out. Where had that come from? “But yeah, when there’s too much snow, I do yoga. Well…” She shrugged. “A form of yoga anyway.”
“Wanna try what I do?”
“Beer at nine a.m.?” She laughed for real this time. “Umm… I seriously don’t think so, Daire.”
“Not beer. That was just an icebreaker.” He smiled. “But seriously, if you’re not busy, come to my house. I’ll show you what I do to unwind. And then maybe later, we can have one beer when the clock officially strikes five p.m. in our world.”
“Your house? I don’t have to tell you, right? I don’t date—”
“I know.” He lifted his hands as if he were surrendering something to her. “You don’t date coworkers or first responders of any kind. I understand. My house is my family’s house. There’s always someone there. You’ve met Erik and Kimi. They work from home and, usually, my mother or one of my other brothers is there. It’s a busy house. But big. We’ll have the basement to ourselves. It’s fun, I promise.” He bent at the hips and looked her square in the eyes. “I swear I’m not luring you back to my pad to seduce you.”
“As if!” She burst out a laugh, and it felt good. She rarely laughed. She rarely had anything to laugh about. But as much as Daire drove her crazy, he did make her laugh. A lot, it seemed.
“What? You don’t think I could seduce you if I wanted?”
“I’m not a seducee type of a woman, Daire.”
“I know you’re not, Silvia, and I swear it was never my intention to try.” Serious now, he rested a hand on her shoulder. “Come on. Let me show you how I unwind. I really think it will be good for you.”
Curious, she chewed on her bottom lip. Plus, if they spent a little downtime together as friends, maybe she could get over the unease she felt every time she was near him.
“Okay, but I have to run by my house first. I have to feed my dog. Text me your address.”
“My house is in Falcon Run.” He looked down at her car but didn’t comment on its ability or lack thereof to travel long distances. It did look pretty pathetic. “How ’bout I follow you home? And if your dog is friendly, bring him.”
“You sure? He’s friendly, but he’s a really big dog.”
“The bigger, the better. He’ll be able to keep up with Strider and Arwen.”
“Strider and Arwen? They’re not young kids, are they?”
“No… They’re our search-and-rescue dogs. They’re super sweet, though.”
Silvia exhaled deeply, but she couldn’t stop from nodding her assent. It had been so long since she’d gone anywhere other than work or home.
Everything about Daire’s obnoxious personality assured her that she wasn’t interested romantically, so there was no concern about anything other than a friendly relationship. Physically, that was another thing. The man oozed masculinity. But in the last eight years, she’d been able to suppress any urges. Spending a few hours with Daire wouldn’t change her world.
Besides, she was intrigued to learn about whatever Daire did to unwind. Every time she saw him, he was the most hyped-up and yet, happy person she’d ever met. Yeah, he complained, but somehow, his grumbles were usually superficial and involved his big brother Sam, as he always put it.
She couldn’t imagine leading an untroubled and happy life surrounded by family. Not anymore anyway.
Harvey seemed just as apprehensive as Silvia was heading into an unfamiliar situation. Daire’s back seat folded up completely, leaving an area where even a pup as large as Harvey could dart back and forth from window to window, though. So Harvey was taking advantage of the room and his restlessness.
For the hundredth time in the last thirty minutes, Harvey propped his giant paws on the center console and jutted his large head between the front bucket seats.
“Harvey!” She tried to push him back, but it was like pushing on a boulder. “Sorry. He’s usually better behaved when I have to take him somewhere.”
Daire ruffled the big dog’s floppy ears and spoke in doggy talk, “It’s okay, Harvey. You’re excited to go on an adventure, aren’t you?”
She giggled. “Why do we do that?”
Daire flicked his eyes to her, then back to the road. “Do what?”
“Use that sing-song cadence as if we’re talking to a baby when talking to something bigger than I am?”
If it were possible, Daire looked embarrassed. “Harvey may be bigger, but you’re tougher. And are you suggesting I speak in baby-talk?” His tone dropped several octaves, deeper than she’d ever heard.
She ignored his tougher comment. Good. She needed him to remember their roles. “We all do it. Regardless of their size, something about animals brings out our protective side, don’t you think?”
He cleared his throat. “Not me, ma’am. I’m all serious and professional.”
Harvey bounced his head back and forth, looking at them as they spoke.
“I think it’s sweet. When I meet people who like animals, I know they must be good…on some level. Don’t you think?”
Daire bobbed his head. “Mostly. I guess it depends on the kind of animals they like. I’ve known some people who have plenty of dogs, and they’re not nice people.”
“Do they treat their dogs nicely, or do they use them as security dogs?”
He shrugged. “Both.”
“Well, okay then. I guess I’ll have to rethink my hypothesis.”
She turned and faced him. “What do you mean, wow?”
“I think that’s the first discussion I’ve ever won with you.”
She sighed. “I didn’t know we had a competition going.”
“We don’t. It’s just I’ve been consistently wrong with you. If my brother Sam wasn’t married, I would definitely introduce you. Well, maybe not. He’s a lot older than we are. But you two definitely have a lot in common.”
“And yet you invited me to unwind with you.”
Daire nodded. “I thought we could both use some unwinding. Remember, though, I’m not interested or anything. You are my boss, after all.”
“Never crossed my mind, Daire. And not that it makes any difference, but I’m not really your boss; I’m just training you.”
“Good to know.” He slanted a playful look at her. “Don’t wanna get a rep for working my way up the ladder.” He snorted a laugh at his own joke.
She smacked his arm. “Definitely not…since you won’t get too many rungs with me. You’d have to work Big Ivan for a higher level.”
He let out one of his bigger-than-life laughs, flashed her another playful look, then focused his eyes back on the road—where they belonged. “I’ll pass.”
Silvia turned and looked out the window—where her eyes belonged. She shouldn’t be playing with fire like this. They both knew that playing with fire caused blazes. Out-of-control blazes caused forest fires.
And Alaska really was beautiful. Not just because of the scenery, but because it was safe. Vast and private. No sense in causing anything that would threaten her existence here. Her mind moved away from the allegorical pretty to reality. As much as she loved Alaska, she was starting to forget her home. While Arizona had its beauty, there wasn’t a lot of green. Especially during the drought years. But she missed the dryness. She missed the exposed mountains. The deep reds. The wide-open sky. She missed her mother and sister. A tiny bit of tears welled in the corners of her eyes. She quickly blinked them away and refocused on the snow-capped mountains in the distance.
“So…” Daire drawled after a few minutes of silence. “Tell me, what do you miss most about California?”
That wasn’t a difficult question. California and Arizona did have one thing in common. “The sun.” She stared up at the cloud cover that always seemed to hover just above tree line.
“I thought L.A. was really smoggy, though.”
“Not as bad as it used to be…” She had done some homework on her fake home of birth. “Plus, I lived outside the city.”
“Oh? Any place I would have heard about?”
“Glendora. It’s nestled between the San Gabriel Mountains and L.A. We’re famous for our ficus trees, so I’m guessing not.”
Daire laughed. “Hmm… Ficus trees. That’s awfully close to being famous for the highest mountain peak in North America at 20,310 feet.”
“Well, at least in Southern California, we have year-round sunshine.”
Daire lifted his chin. “Northern lights.”
“Perfect temperatures, year-round. Never too cold. Never too hot.”
“Hey,” Daire complained. “Alaska has lots of sand. We have 47,000 miles of tidal shoreline, more than all lower forty-eight states combined.”
She laughed again. “How do you know that stuff or remember those numbers? I’m terrible at remembering numbers.”
He fanned his fingers on the steering wheel. “I don’t know. When you work search and rescue, there’s lots of downtime. My brothers talk—a lot.”
“More than you?” She chuckled.
“Hey… I’ll turn this truck around, young lady.”
“Now that sounds like something your mom must have said with all you boys in the back.”
“Does sound like something a mother would say. But she never did. Not one time that I can remember. I have the coolest mom in the world, I’m sure.” He glanced at her again. “Sorry. Maybe not cooler than your mom.”
“No, I’m sure you’re right. My mom was never very cool.” Damn it. You had to bring up his mom. She braced herself for what she knew was coming next. Talking about family always encourages others to ask about your family. She knew better.
“Still,” he said. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t brag about my mom. I know many people aren’t as lucky as I am.”
Wow… There was a new side of Daire. He actually appreciates his family. Just not Sam, it seemed. And to his credit, he recognized she was uncomfortable speaking about her own mother and didn’t press her to elaborate further.
“Sunshine, huh?” He shook his head. “I have to ask… Why would you move to a state with six months of darkness?”
“Because Alaska also has six months of sunshine.”
“True. But that six months of darkness and bitter cold does most folks in. So many people move here, but then they only last a year or so, at best.”
“Alaska was hiring.” Which was the truth. It felt good to share something truthful about herself. Half of everything she offered about her past was fabricated. Not this. She didn’t just become a firefighter paramedic because it was the only thing available in Alaska; she’d wanted it from her very core. Ever since she was sixteen… since her entire life flipped on its axis. “I always wanted to be a firefighter paramedic,” she continued. “Most places have a crazy-long waitlist, but Alaska was actively hiring. And they specifically suggested women apply.”
He nodded again. It seemed Daire was a better listener than she’d given him credit for.
He flicked the turn signal, then turned down a dirt road that looked as if it went on forever. Nothing but tall evergreens and birch lined the long road.
After several minutes, he turned onto a long drive that led to a wide, open piece of property. The first house was enormous, at least several stories. Across from the house stood a large barn with horses grazing out front. And behind the house stood the rental properties she’d heard the Anchorage firefighters giggling about when they’d been drinking at Grizz’s. Supposedly the Belgarde Brothers had a tendency to use the rental houses for extracurricular activities during the off-season.
“You grew up here?” Was all she could think to ask.
“Yep. Like I said, I know I’m lucky. Do you like to ride horses? If they don’t have a tour, I’m sure Erik and Kimi wouldn’t mind.”
Silvia quickly shook her head. “That’s okay.” She couldn’t imagine horseback riding. She was so small compared to them.
“Don’t get offended, okay? But…they do have some horses for kids. Maybe that wouldn’t scare you.”
“I’m not that small.”
“I’m not saying you’re small. I’m just saying—never mind. If you want, we’ll check it out. But that’s not what I wanted to show you anyway.” He opened the door and hopped out. Instead of walking to her side first, he opened the back door for Harvey, which she preferred. “Come on, boy! Let me introduce you to Strider and Arwen. They’re probably in the barn. Hey, Sil? Will he run off?”
Silvia hopped down and made her way around the front of the truck. “Not from my house. He wanders all around the neighborhood, but he’s good about staying off the road. I think his owner taught him.”
“I thought you were his owner.”
She scrunched up her nose. “I inherited Harvey. I never would have adopted a pet with our schedule.”
Daire nodded, then reached toward her hand but stopped at the last second and pointed toward the barn. “Let’s go introduce Harvey.”
As they approached the barn, Daire let out a loud whistle.
Silvia looked up. Not surprised, really. She was actually jealous. She could whistle, though not good. Her abuela had always admonished her when she tried to whistle, said that it was unladylike. Then she’d spouted off one of her old sayings: Never trust a woman who whistles or a hen that crows, which still made zero sense to her. She got the gist, but it was so antiquated that she was surprised that her abuela had repeated it to her. After all, her abuela had convinced Silvia’s mother that she should allow her to date at fourteen, saying that she would sneak out if she wasn’t allowed. Silvia hadn’t thought about that then, but her abuela was right. She probably would have snuck out to see him— Her thoughts were cut off as two huge German shepherds, one sable and the other several shades of gray, came barreling from the barn.
The sable-colored one spotted the new arrivals and barked. Then, as if waiting, the gray one followed suit.
Silvia darted behind Daire, and Harvey stood firm beside her, his hackles rising, but he didn’t move or bark.
“Freundes,” Daire spoke, lifting his hand in a stop signal. Both dogs stopped as if they’d been shocked. “Guter hund. Good dog,” he said, patting Harvey on the head. Satisfied, the three dogs commenced to sniffing one another. Daire pulled her beside him, his arm hooking around her waist. “They weren’t going to attack, but they do like to bark. Their way of marking their territory. Their commands are in German, but it’s so close to English that I wonder why Sam even bothers.”
“It’s all good. I had Harvey.”
Daire dropped his arm. “I see that. Come on, they’ll be fine. They have lots of property to run around and get to know one another.”
He turned and walked toward the back of the main house, to a door that must lead to the basement he mentioned.
Daire held open the door, and Silvia walked into a large area about the size of a house. Instead of rooms, it was a wide-open space with support beams. One corner looked like the turn-out station at the firehouse. Instead of fire gear, though, the area held search-and-rescue gear, including backpacks, axes, climbing rope, and many other articles of equipment.
Opposite that area was a workout gym and what looked like a game room and then just a wide-empty matted area where Daire was leading her.
“Are you planning to have a wrestling match?” she asked on a laugh since the area looked like a wrestling ring, only smaller. The squared-off area was about ten-by-ten feet. “I don’t think we’re in the same weight class. Although, I bet I could take you.”
Daire released his hearty laugh again. “Like I said…tough. I’ll take your word for it. Though, I could introduce you to Nora.” He grinned. “Thankfully, she no longer fights, but I bet she could teach you some moves.”
“Oh, yeah, I heard about her. The UFC fighter. Ooh, I would love to meet her.”
“You will,” Daire said, his tone nonchalant as if it weren’t even a matter of discussion.
Silvia shook off the thought of meeting his entire family. “So, what are we doing?”
Daire walked over to a shelf and pulled out two hand controllers and what looked like a diving mask, except that it didn’t have clear glass.
He placed the mask against his face but didn’t pull on the straps. “I’m going to set you up on Valery’s player. You two are similar in size.”
Silvia let out a nervous laugh. “What is this?”
“Hang on.” Daire clicked a few options. She heard the audible clicks and the chime through the headset. “I’m betting you’re pretty good, so I’m starting you on medium. What type of music do you like?” He peeked around the headset. “Be honest. You’ll have more fun.”
“I like…anything, but I’m partial to EDM.”
He smiled. “Of course, you are. I could have guessed.” He clicked some more. “Ooh…you’re going to like this one. Lots of sunshine. The beach.”
“What is this, Daire?”
He lowered the mask, tightened the straps, placed it on her head, then tightened it until it fit snuggly. Then he slipped one controller strap on her right wrist, then the other on her left. “Okay, just hit the white targets with your right hand and the black targets with your left hand. When you see the starburst thing, hit it with both hands. When you see the gold bars, squat below the horizontal one. Slip left or right on the slanted ones. The trainer will show you the rest. Just pull the trigger on the start button on the right side of the screen when you’re ready.”
“Oh my gosh!” Silvia said.
“You haven’t even clicked start yet.”
She moved the controller to the hovering screen and clicked start. At once, she was transported to Brazil, standing on a floating mat. A woman—her trainer, she suspected—was on another floating mat, welcoming her. Silvia listened as the woman told her how to warm up and went over some moves, but all she could concentrate on was the beautiful scenery. No matter what direction she looked, she saw something different. The sky. The water. The mountains. It was like walking through a video—and then a flying target raced at her.
She instinctively raised her hand to block it, and the target exploded. And then another target raced at her, and another and another.
“Oh my gosh! I can’t do this!” She flew punches as the trainer called them out.
“Yes, you can,” Daire said from behind her.
She punched and ducked, laughing when she missed a flurry of targets.
“Fun, right?” Daire asked, but she was busy punching.
“Whew!” Jab. Cross. Uppercut. Uppercut. Then another portal opened up, and she listened as the trainer explained how to follow the portals. “Oh. Wait. Nooooo. Whoo…” She did the bob-and-weave thingy, and it felt like she was surfing. Just when she felt warmed up, the song ended. “Is that it?”
“Nope. That was just the warmup. There are four songs in that workout.”
Silvia watched as her stats showed up, then the next song started.
Fifteen minutes later, she removed the mask. “Can I go again?”
Daire was sitting on a stool outside the boundary. “Play all you want. Click the MY List on the bottom right of the screen, and you’ll see Valery’s favorites.”
Silvia clicked the tab, and a screen popped up with about twelve different options. She clicked on one that read Punk and listened as the trainer walked her through another warmup and then explained more moves.
She felt like she was jumping around on a pogo-stick to the music as she hit the targets.
Sixty minutes later, the device flashed a message that it was time to take a break. “It’s already been sixty minutes?” She lifted her head, looking under the mask for Daire.
He ran over from a video game he’d been playing. “Yep! So, I guess you liked it?”
She lifted the mask from her head. “Like it? I’m getting one! Oh, this was so great. The sky… It’s like you can see the sky and the water. And the pyramids. Scotland. Volcanoes. Just…wow. What a way to get away from the six months of darkness.”
Daire nodded. “Exactly, and it’s an amazing workout. And who knows when a perfectly timed uppercut can come in handy.”
Silvia had been thinking just that. The punching had made her feel powerful. “I’m getting one.”
“I figured you might—”
A door opened, cutting off Daire’s words. They both looked up.
“Daire? Are you down there?”
She suspected that the deep voice belonged to one of Daire’s brothers. She was actually happy it wasn’t his mother. She would feel weird meeting his mother when they weren’t dating.
“Ugh…” Daire groaned.
Silvia perked up, eager to meet this ogre who was apparently the bane of Daire’s existence.
“Daire?” Footsteps thumped down the steps.
“I have company, Sam!” Daire said, and Silvia was taken aback by the ire in his tone, something she’d never heard from him. Even when she’d given Daire a difficult time, he hadn’t sounded angry. She didn’t like it. Not one bit.
“Oh, hi!” Sam waved, and Silvia saw that Sam Belgarde wasn’t an ogre after all.
Not only wasn’t he an ogre, but he was also gorgeous. He smiled, and Silvia almost took a step back. Had she just said gorgeous? She realized she knew that smile. The man looked like Daire. He was just older. Of course, they were brothers. But why had she immediately thought gorgeous, a word she was pretty sure she’d never used when describing a man?
“What do you want, Sam?”
Daire’s attitude toward his brother, who’d only said hi, set her on defense again.
“I’ve been trying to reach you for weeks, Daire. I just need to talk to you.”
“I understand,” Sam said. “But can you find a few minutes soon? I really need to talk to you.”
“About what? I’m not your employee anymore, remember? You couldn’t afford me. I just finished my EMT hours, so now I’m training under Silvia.” Daire turned to her. “This is Silvia, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you, Silvia.” Sam focused back on Daire. “Maybe after dinner on Sunday?”
“I don’t know if I’m coming this Sunday.”
“Are you working?”
Daire heaved a sigh. “I’m always working, Sam. Isn’t that what you drilled into my head since I was twelve?”
Sam looked at Silvia, smashed his lips together, just like Daire did when frustrated, then shrugged. “Okay, Daire. If you’re not working, please let me know when we can have a few minutes. It’s very important.” With that, Sam walked off, then tromped up the stairs two at a time.
When the door shut, Silvia tapped Daire’s arm. “Take me home.”