Behind a thick wall of smoke, orange and blue flames climbed the walls and danced across the ceiling. As Jason carried the woman toward the back door, he walked in a crouch, trying to protect her from falling debris.
“Hang in there. I’m getting you out of here.”
The woman in his arms couldn’t be Lacey Brockman. She’d left Murphy long before he had. With the smoke, the darkness and his own raging adrenaline, the similarities had momentarily fooled him.
The front door exploded inward and a stream of water burst from the end of a hose. Soon several more firemen would pour into the building to perform rescue operations and wrestle the fire under control. Small volunteer fire departments were spread throughout Cherokee County, with three stations often responding to emergencies. Tonight was no different.
Jason stepped outside. Two paramedics rounded the corner and hurried toward him with a gurney. As Jason laid the woman on the makeshift bed and stepped back, the security light on the building behind theirs cast a glow over the scene. Her head was turned toward him, her hair spilling over the thin mattress.
He swept aside his face shield, which was coated with soot and smoke. His breath hitched.
“Lacey.” This time it wasn’t a question.
It had been fourteen years, but he’d know her anywhere—the wavy strawberry blonde hair, the pert upturned nose and the light dusting of freckles across her cheeks.
Her eyes were closed, but he remembered them clearly: green with gold flecks. Back then, they’d been filled with sadness. And a seriousness that went far beyond her years. What would he see in them now?
He took a step toward her, then stopped himself. He couldn’t follow. His partner for tonight, Keith, was still in the building. Two in, two out. That was the rule.
The paramedics finished securing the straps, and he held up a hand. “She needs oxygen, stat.”
The moment the words slipped from his mouth, he flinched. Telling the men how to do their job was out of line.
He forced his feet to carry him back inside. Other than a few hot spots, the flames had been doused. Two firemen headed for the basement, and Keith met him at the end of the hall.
“First floor is clear.”
Jason nodded. Soon all that would remain of the blaze would be soaked ashes, charred wood and melted belongings.
As soon as he stepped out the front door, he made a beeline for the ambulance, pulling the breathing apparatus from his face. One paramedic stood at the back, swinging the first door closed.
A voice came from inside, laced with panic. “No! Let me go!” A round of gut-deep coughs followed. “He tried to kill me.”
Jason closed the distance at a run. The paramedic who was outside climbed into the ambulance, and Jason followed. Lacey was lying on the gurney, struggling against the straps, the oxygen mask clutched in one hand. Another paramedic was leaning over her, hands resting on her shoulders. “You’re okay. No one’s going to hurt you.”
“He already tried. I can’t go to the hospital. He’ll find me.”
Jason put a gloved hand on the paramedic’s shoulder. “Let me talk to her.”
After moving sideways next to the gurney, he sat on the padded bench against the right side of the vehicle. “You need to let them take you for medical treatment. You inhaled a lot of smoke.”
Green eyes, filled with fear, locked on him. “He tried to kill me. I have to get out of here.”
“Who tried to kill you?”
“Ivan. He set my office on fire, then blocked my way out.”
Blocked her way out? He nodded slowly. When he’d arrived, a large branch had fallen against the back door. He’d had to move it to get inside.
“No one blocked the door. A tree limb came down. I pulled it out of the way.” He patted the back of her hand with his glove. “No one’s going to hurt you.”
The fear gradually left her eyes, and her brows dipped toward her nose. “Jason?”
“Yeah.” He removed the helmet and smiled down at her. In what seemed like another lifetime, the two of them had enjoyed a special bond. He’d helped her through a tough time, and for him, that one-year period had been a rare bright spot in an otherwise miserable childhood.
Then she’d left. Eventually, he had, too, making a fresh start on the other side of the country. Though he’d vowed to never return to the place that held so many bad memories, two weeks ago duty had trumped determination. He’d come back to help his mother, and he’d found Lacey.
He squeezed her hand and rose. “Let them take care of you. I’ll be up later.”
As he made his way back to the others, his chest tightened. When Lacey had first awoken, she’d been terrified, sure someone had tried to kill her. He’d tried to put her mind at ease.
But what if she’d been right?
What if the limb hadn’t landed there on its own?
What if someone had moved it to keep Lacey inside?
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