Grant Cutter had figured this was about as bad as a scene could get. The temperature with windchill well below zero. Their gear and lines freezing up. Stalactites of ice hanging from his helmet blocking his vision until he took the time to break them off with a swipe of his stiff glove. And the water was a hell of a lot more effective at turning the house and street into an ice sculpture than putting out the flames.
But he was wrong. It could always be worse.
The fire had not only jumped, but it jumped to an apartment building they couldn’t confirm had been fully evacuated, so the incident commander was sending them in.
Canvassing a residential building that probably should have been condemned by the city before he was even born wasn’t exactly the reprieve from the cold he’d been looking for but, after checking their gear, he and the other guys from Engine 59 and another crew went inside.
“Fast but thorough,” Danny Walsh said. The LT led the way up the stairs since they’d start at the top and work their way down. The other crew would pound on doors at ground level and if all went well, they’d meet in the middle and get the hell out before it got bad.
The smoke thickened as they reached the top floor. A bare-chested, barefoot guy in undone jeans passed them on the stairs. He was coughing, but waved off their attempts to assist him.
“Is there anybody else up there?” Danny yelled.
“Dunno.” The guy didn’t even pause.
“Asshole,” Scott Kincaid muttered into the radio, but Grant wasn’t surprised. They’d responded to these buildings before and they didn’t seem to attract the kind of residents who gave a shit about their neighbors.
They started pounding on doors, which was all they could do, but they didn’t get any response until they’d worked their way down to the next floor.
“I hear something,” Aidan Hunt yelled, pounding a third time on a door. “Something banged. Maybe coughing.”
Grant was closest to him, so he used the Halligan bar to pop the door. Smoke billowed out, so dense they could barely see, and he followed Aidan in. The apartment was small—one room and probably barely legal—so it only took a few seconds to follow the coughing to the person on the floor near the window. While Aidan did a quick check of the bathroom and under the bed to make sure there was nobody else, Grant crouched down next to the person he was pretty sure was a woman, despite having a throw blanket over her head.
“Fire department,” he said. “Let’s get you out of here.”
Her cough was so weak and ineffectual, he didn’t bother asking if she could get up and walk. Instead he rolled her, intending to lift her and carry her out.
Then the throw blanket slipped away from a sleep-tangled mess of blonde curls, revealing dark blue eyes he saw in his dreams, and Grant’s world stopped.
He hadn’t seen her in five months, since she’d told him on the phone she didn’t want to see him anymore and then ghosted. No explanation. No compromise. Nothing but five months of a broken heart that hadn’t even begun to heal yet.
What the hell was she doing in this place?
Grant. Her mouth formed his name, though no sound got through her constricted throat. The grayish cast of her skin and lips terrified him, and he started to hoist her up.
Aidan was at his side. “I’ll carry her out.”
“I’ve got her.” Despite the shock and pain from seeing her again, Grant wanted to hold her. He wanted to cradle her in his arms and feel that sense of contentment holding her had always brought him in the past.
There was no time for that. After draping her over his shoulder, he stood and headed for the door. It wouldn’t be a comfortable ride for her, but the only thing that mattered right now was getting her out of the building and to an ambulance, where they could give her oxygen. Her body had gone totally limp by the time he reached the stairs, but he refused to consider the possibility she’d need medical care beyond that.
They’d gotten there in time, and that’s all there was to it.
He heard voices in his radio and was aware Aidan stayed right behind him, but Grant didn’t stop moving until he hit the clear, frigid air.
He paused to get his bearings and then headed for the ambulances on standby. Some of those voices in his radio must have warned them he was coming, because Cait opened the back of her truck and waved at him.
Cait Tasker was not only an EMT, but she was engaged to Gavin Boudreau, who was Grant’s best friend and with the Ladder 37 crew. E-59 and L-37 were parked side-by-side in the firehouse and always rolled out together, so Gavin was on scene, too. And Cait knew Wren. The four of them had spent a lot of time together before Wren walked away from him and didn’t look back.
By the time he reached the ambulance doors, he could feel her stirring. Not a lot, but she had to be breathing in order to regain consciousness and that was enough for now.
Because it was so damn cold and she was small, they didn’t bother with the stretcher. He handed Wren up to Cait’s partner, Tony, who turned away with her.
“Oh my God, Grant.” Cait looked at him, her expression mirroring his thoughts. “What the hell was Wren doing living here?”
“I don’t know. She’ll be okay, right?”
“We’ll take care of her. Are you okay?”
He didn’t answer. As he watched Tony fit a mask over Wren’s face, her eyes met his and, no, he wasn’t okay.
Questions tumbled through his mind. Why was Wren living in this place? Why had she disappeared from his life so abruptly? How could she still be in the city and not miss him enough to at least send a text message?
Had she known he’d been days away from buying her a ring and asking her to spend the rest of her life with him?
“Cutter,” he heard Walsh bark into the radio. “Where the fuck are you?”
He had a job to do and people’s lives depended on him doing it. But as he started to turn away, his gaze caught Wren’s again and he felt the impact all the way to his toes.
God, he’d loved her. And he didn’t think he’d ever really be okay again.
The look on Grant’s face—his expressive dark eyes going so flat and cold—before he turned and walked away almost finished what the smoke had started and killed Wren Everett.
Five months ago, she’d thought walking away from him would be the hardest thing she ever did. Seeing him again was harder. Even with her lungs filling with smoke and her eyes watering, in that unguarded moment he’d recognized her, she’d seen all the pain she’d caused him.
And as Cait’s partner pressed a mask to her face and ordered her to breathe, she watched Grant’s expression harden before he turned and walked away.
That hurt even more than her lungs trying to expel the smoke she’d inhaled.
“Wren, you can’t cry right now,” she heard Cait say. “You need to concentrate on breathing.”
She hadn’t even realized she was gasping harder and her vision was even more blurry until Cait told her she was crying, but it didn’t surprise her. When she’d broken Grant’s heart, she’d done a heck of a job on her own, too.
“Deep breaths,” Tony said in a kind but firm voice. She tried, but she couldn’t stop coughing.
“Were you living here?” Cait asked her while fussing over her, taking her vitals. Since she had a mask over her face and was supposed to be breathing, Wren nodded. “Why?”
All she could manage was a small shrug, and she was almost thankful when another round of hoarse coughs gave her a good excuse not to answer. Cait would have a lot more questions. She’d been somebody Wren considered a friend and the feeling had probably been mutual, but when she’d ghosted on Grant, she’d had to ghost on Gavin and Cait, too.
“Save the questions for later, Cait.” Tony looked at Wren for a long moment before turning to his partner. “I think she needs to go in.”
Wren didn’t even want to think about how much an ambulance ride to the emergency room was going to cost her, but when Cait nodded, she didn’t bother to argue. Cait was stubborn.
“You inhaled a lot of smoke and you lost consciousness,” Tony explained. “The doctors will check out your lungs and heart and make sure everything’s clear.”
“That sounds ominous,” Wren said, her voice raspy and muffled by the mask.
“Just a precaution,” Cait said. “Did the smoke detectors go off? You should have had plenty of warning, with time to get out.”
“There were no alarms.” It was all a little fuzzy in her head, but she was sure the smoke detectors hadn’t gone off.
Tony swore under his breath—but not so under his breath that she didn’t hear it—and shook his head. “Asshole landlords, willing to risk lives to save a few bucks. Hell, you can get them for free if you’re not too lazy to make a phone call.”
“I remember hearing the sirens,” she said. “But it’s not weird to hear sirens around here and I was exhausted, so I must have fallen back to sleep. When I woke up again, I was already coughing and the smoke was burning my eyes.”
She’d panicked and her first thought was that her ex had found her. That the phone call that scared her and made her walk away from the life—and love—she’d found for herself hadn’t been enough for him.
Cait set something on her lap. “When Grant picked you up, this was under you, so Aidan grabbed it on the way out.”
She couldn’t look down far enough to see it because Tony was holding the oxygen to her face, but she put her hand on the object and actually managed a small smile. The black, well-broken in leather wristlet hadn’t cost her a lot, but her car keys, license and debit card were inside. They weren’t much, but at least she wouldn’t have to stand in line at the RMV for hours before she could even start rebuilding her life.
Once they’d secured her for the ride to the hospital and Tony was driving them away from the scene, Wren closed her eyes for a moment and tried not to think about Grant.
The last time she’d seen him in person, he’d knelt on the edge of her bed to kiss her goodbye before he left for work. He’d told her he loved her and that he’d see her later. Whenever the confusion and hurt in his voice when she’d told him on the phone they were done tried to fill her mind, she pictured that morning instead. It still hurt, but it was easier to remember the happy times with him.
She didn’t want the expression on his face before he walked away from her tonight to be her new last memory of him.
“As soon as we’re released from the scene,” Cait said, interrupting her thoughts, “I’ll stop in and see how you’re doing. I don’t think you’ll need to be admitted, honestly. And I have tomorrow off, so I can sleep in tomorrow if Gavin doesn’t wake me up after his shift.”
“You don’t have to do that.”
“So you already have somebody else who’s going to help you out?” Cait folded her arms. “Who is it?”
“What? I don’t…”
“Maybe I didn’t know you as well as I thought I did, but if I had to bet, I’d say you’ll be alone at the hospital and when they release you, you won’t have anywhere to go, but you still won’t pick up a phone and call any of us.”
Since she’d plugged it in to charge before collapsing on her bed, Wren didn’t currently own a phone, but she knew that wasn’t the point.
“Am I wrong?” Cait insisted. When Wren refused to answer, she nodded. “That’s what I thought. So I’m just going to show up.”
Tears blurred Wren’s vision again, but this time they had nothing to do with the smoke. She didn’t deserve this kindness. She’d done a shitty thing to a man Cait considered family, but she still wouldn’t turn her back on her. Maybe it was the EMT in her, but Wren could see the concern and caring in Cait’s eyes.
“Thank you,” she whispered.
“It’s going to be okay, Wren. Whatever happened before and whatever’s happening now, it’s going to be okay.”
She had to believe it would be okay. Maybe she was just being paranoid. The building was a dump and she didn’t need an expert to tell her it wasn’t up to code. It could have been an electrical fire. Or a toaster mishap. There was any number of things that could have started the fire.
It didn’t mean Ben had found her.