D.J. tosses his boots in the locker and they clang against the metal. “Exactly. You had a great girl. You guys were just kids. Now, you have a great woman. Aren’t you glad that the first time you slipped her the D you knew what you were doing? Imagine her horror if you would have tried that shit when you were seventeen? There would have been crying and screaming and it would have been all over school that you didn’t know how to lay pipe. I did you a favor.”

I raise my eyebrow at him in annoyance, even though he does have a point. The sex with Finnley now that we’re both adults is so hot I almost want to check my skin when we’re done to look for burns. My first time having sex was a complete disaster fueled by too many shots of Goldschlager at a college party and a sorority girl who took a bet to relieve me of my virginity in the bathroom of the frat house. It was over before it even started and there were definitely tears, mostly from me since I started throwing up all the cinnamon schnapps and beer I’d consumed through the night ten seconds after I came.

Which, coincidentally, is also the length of time I lasted once I got my dick in her.

It still pains me to think that my first time wasn’t with Finnley. Knowing that she ran right into Castillo’s arms and slept with him after I tossed her to the side still fills me with so much jealousy and rage even after all this time. I’m not angry with her, I could never be angry with her for something like that. I broke her heart and she found comfort with someone else. My anger lies solely with Jordan Castillo. That fucker knew what he was doing even back then. Just because he was new to the school doesn’t mean he hadn’t heard about the two of us and how long we’d been together. Every time I had the unfortunate experience of walking past the two of them in the halls or seeing them together at a party, he would catch my eye and smirk, making sure my eyes were on the two of them as he grabbed her ass or kissed her right in front of me.

“Fine, I will concede to your point that having sex with her now when we both have experience is much better. Just don’t try to get me drunk again and tell me to write her a letter. That shit isn’t going to fly now,” I tell him with a chuckle.

“Come on, that letter was genius. ‘Dear Finnley: I’m sorry, but things just aren’t working out anymore. Please don’t hate me. Love, Collin’. I’m pretty sure I’m the one who deserves to do a little ass kicking for the fact that I had to give her that note and deal with her crying for a half hour afterwards. Chicks, tears and me just don’t mix. I was late to English because of you and I got detention.”

I can’t help but laugh when he recites the contents of that stupid fucking note. For the first time in years, thinking about it doesn’t make me want to kill someone. Finnley and I found each other again and all the bullshit from the past can finally be erased. For years, I tried to lose myself in other women, but none of them compared to the memory of Finnely. I tried to find girls who made me feel even an inkling of what I felt for her, but it never worked. She made me feel ten feet tall and like I could do anything when she was by my side. Other relationships, a marriage and years apart didn’t change that part of her. Even though my career consists of running into burning buildings and saving people, I’ve never thought of myself as a hero. After just a few days of being with her again, I feel like I can conquer anything.

“How are you guys going to handle that one little problem of her still having a husband?” D.J. asks as we finish stowing our gear and head inside.

“I’m trying not to pressure her about that. They’re legally separated and by state law she has to wait ninety-days until she can file for divorce. She’s already got the paperwork filled out, so now she’s just waiting for the date when it can finally be over. She’s been through a lot with that asshole and I will be more than happy when he’s finally out of her life for good.”

D.J. is unusually quiet as we head inside the house and he busies himself in the fridge without saying a word or looking at me when we get to the kitchen.

“What’s with the silence? I don’t like it when you’re quiet. It usually means you’re plotting something,” I tell him with a smile.

He finally turns around and lets out a deep sigh. “I don’t want to freak you out or anything, but I heard something about Castillo yesterday.”

D.J. starts nervously cracking his knuckles and the smile dies from my face.

“Spit it out. What the hell did you hear?”

He runs his hand through his short, spiky hair and I can see that he’s trying to carefully choose his words.

“So, you know my Aunt Connie works as a clerk at the court house, right?”

I nod my head, making a circling motion with my hand to get him to talk faster.

“Anyway, I stopped by her house yesterday after my shift and she asked me if I remembered Castillo from high school. I guess there was a restraining order filed against him about a week ago. She didn’t go into all the details but it has to do with stalking. Dude, Finnley filed for it.”

My heart immediately starts trying to beat its way out of my chest. I know we’ve spent most of our time fucking like animals the last seventeen days, but we’ve also spent a lot of time talking and she never said one word about any of this. Has he been bothering her this entire time? Why the fuck wouldn’t she have said anything to me?

“It’s been taken care of so don’t get any stupid ideas in your head. Aunt Connie said they served him with the order and the guy apologized and said it was all a big misunderstanding. If Finnley hasn’t mentioned it to you I’m sure it’s because there’s nothing to tell,” D.J. reassures me.

I don’t like this at all. I don’t care if there’s been a restraining order filed, a piece of paper isn’t going to keep someone from doing something if they’re pissed off enough. I experienced Jordan’s anger first hand that day he first caught us together at her house. He’s not the type of man to let something like this go. His actions in high school proved that he wasn’t too happy about the idea that I’d been with Finnley before him and, after seventeen years with her, I’m pretty sure he’s like a powder keg waiting to explode, just like her artwork, knowing that I’ve been with her after him.

It hurts that Finnley didn’t tell me what’s been going on but I have to remember that she had an entire life with the guy before I showed back up. She knows him better than anyone and she wouldn’t purposefully take a chance with her life. If she didn’t tell me, she must have had good reasons.

The familiar tone of an incoming call sounds through the house and I groan in irritation. I was almost home free. I was seconds away from getting the hell out of here and finally going to see Finnley. All I can think about is making sure she’s okay after this recent revelation, burying myself inside of her and finally telling her that I love her. Now I’m going to have to put it off even longer to go on another call.

I’m going to kill Schaffer and Bradley for calling in sick this week.

As I drag my feet back out to the bay with D.J. right on my heels, the voice from dispatch blaring through the speakers makes me stop in my tracks. The hair on the back of my neck stands up as my head whips around and I stare at the speaker hanging up by the ceiling, hoping that when dispatch repeats the information I will have heard it wrong the first time.

“Franklin 10, assistance requested in the next county. All available trucks at Carlisle 3 are out on another call. Severe structure fire, possible casualties. 116 Maple Drive.”

My blood runs cold and I can’t make my feet move even though I need to. Every single bit of training flies out of my head and I have no idea what I should be doing or where I need to go. My hands are shaking at my sides as I watch my men race around me, getting their gear back on and shouting orders. D.J. suddenly smacks his hand against my cheek a few times and I blink my eyes into focus and stare at him in shock.

“Is that…?”

He lets the question hang in the air and I grab handfuls of hair on top of my head. “It’s her house. It’s her fucking house, D.J.!”

I know I’m shouting like a lunatic but I can’t help it. One of a fireman’s worst nightmares is hearing the address of one of your loved ones come in as a call. I’ve never had to deal with this before. I’ve never had someone I cared about this much in danger and I don’t know what the fuck to do.

D.J. grabs onto my shoulders and shakes me once, getting into my face and speaking to me more professionally and calmly than I’ve ever heard him speak before.

“Here’s what’s going to happen. You are going to snap out of it, grab your fucking gear and get your ass into the truck. We are going to break every single fucking speed limit to get to her house and it’s going to be fine, you hear me?”

I nod my head numbly, doing everything I can to hold it together. I’ve been in plenty of burning buildings and, even after all these years, the heat from the fire, the darkness from the smoke and the crackle of everything burning and falling down around you can fill your body with so much fear that it’s hard to breathe. I think about Finnley in that same situation, stuck in her house while flames eat up the walls and trap her inside of her own personal hell and bile makes its way up from my stomach, getting trapped in my throat.

I move without conscious thought of what I’m doing, on automatic pilot as I grab my gear and slide into the jump seat of the rig. The sirens are screaming as we quickly make our way to the other side of town, running red lights and taking turns so fast I think we might tip over.

D.J. takes over my job as we go, getting on the radio to call for additional help from other stations and then barking orders and a plan of attack to the six other men in the rig with us.

The fifteen-minute drive to Maple Drive is like an eternity. I try to remember what I’m supposed to do in a situation like this. I know I need to assess the situation before charging inside. I know I have to make sure everyone’s protective gear is buttoned up properly and the SCBA tanks are at full capacity before strapping them to the men’s backs. I go through the checklist in my mind, but I forget everything I’m supposed to do as soon as we come to a stop and I jump down from the vehicle, not even caring that I never put my own gear on in the truck. Even from the street, the heat from the fire that has engulfed the two-story house is enough to make me shield my face.

I frantically search the surrounding yards for any sign that Finnley isn’t in the house. I hear a neighbor tell D.J. that he was walking his dog when he saw the flame shooting out of the front door and he never saw the woman who lives there come out.

When I see Finnley’s car parked in front of the garage, I know in my heart that she’s still inside and I forget everything I’ve been taught. I bolt towards the house, leaving all of my gear inside the truck. I ignore the shouts of warning from D.J. and the other men. My only thought is of getting inside and saving the woman I have always loved.

Chapter 21—Inside the Fire

THE FRONT DOOR is completely engulfed in fire and smoke and, as I run towards the house, I have to cover my face with my arm to protect it from the heat. There’s no way this fire didn’t have help. The place is going up faster than fucking Wilcox’s barn full of dry hay. Being that it’s also an older house, I know we don’t have much time before the entire thing crumbles to the ground.

I hear a blood-curdling scream from inside the house as I make my way to the side yard and my heart plummets to my feet.

“FINNLEY! FINNLEY!”

I don’t even realize I’m screaming her name until a solid band of muscle wraps around my chest from behind, pinning my arms to my sides and pulling me away from the inferno.

“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING? DO YOU HAVE A DEATH WISH?” D.J. screams in my ear as he continues to pull me away from the house, away from Finnley.

“GET THE FUCK OFF ME! GET OFF ME, GODDAMMIT SHE’S IN THERE!”

I struggle against his hold, clawing at D.J.’s arm as I attempt to buck him off while he tries to talk some sense into me as he roughly drags me further and further away from where I need to be. He has no fucking clue. He doesn’t get it. I lost every bit of sense the moment that call came into the station. I can still hear the sound of that one, painful scream ringing in my ears. I can’t hear anything else but the crackle of the fire and men shouting orders from the front of the yard. Even though the sound of her tortured cry coming from somewhere in that burning house was enough to bring me to my knees, at least I know she’s still alive. She’s still in there waiting for me to get to her.

“You need to calm the fuck down and use your head! You’re going to be no good to her if you go racing in there like a fucking idiot and get yourself killed!” D.J. yells.

He gets me twenty feet away from the house before I finally get one arm free and slam my elbow back into his stomach. His hold loosens just enough that I can turn around, slamming both of my hands into his chest.

“I’m not going to tell you again, D.J. Get the fuck away from me right now!” I shout in his face, shoving him again.

I quickly turn and race along the side of the house, looking for another way in. I spot a large picture window about chest-high towards the back of the house and sprint to it, my legs moving so fast that I barely have time to stop. With a quick glance in the window, I see no signs of fire in the room, but it’s quickly filling with smoke. Reaching down into the landscaped flowerbed right below the window, I grab a decorative rock the size of a bowling ball, heft it up over my head and send it smashing through the window.

I immediately duck down as the smoke that filled the room comes billowing out.




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