Near Camp Pendleton
Gregory “Viking” Falk rolled over on his king-sized bed and groaned. His body ached and he felt like hell. Being put on bedrest because of the flu sucked. He hated being slowed down when he had packing to do. He couldn’t wait to escape his small apartment and return to Texas and the familiarity of home. Traveling the world had been great and it had been horrible. Horrible more times the last few years than it had been great. Anyone who said war was hell knew the truth.
He flopped onto his back and opened his eyes, staring at the white ceiling and taking in his bedroom. He wouldn’t regret leaving California. No, that was a lie. He’d enjoyed a lot about this area, and he’d loved the Marines even more. But Dad needed him.
He reached for his smart phone. Before he could register that he’d missed the time he’d promised to call his Dad today, the phone rang and his father’s name and number came up on the screen.
“Hey, Dad. Sorry I—”
“Greg! Listen to me.” His father’s voice was raspy, frightened. “There’s no time.”
Fear stabbed Greg deep. “What’s wrong?”
“Wildfire started less than an hour ago. I got the evacuation order but—”
His father’s voice cut out, then static filled the line. Greg’s heart slammed up into his throat.
“Dad, are you there? What road are you on?”
“Henry Walker. The road’s all rutted from a rainstorm we had yesterday. I would’ve taken Burro Lane straight to the highway, but the fire crossed the highway fifteen minutes ago. I can’t even reach Flower Mound. They’re telling people to get out any way they can. They can’t stop it, Greg. The son-of-a-bitch is chewing up ground faster than anyone can stop it.”
“Shit. Okay, stay calm. You can get out. Just keep going on Henry Walker. It leads straight out.”
As soon as he said it, he knew how stupid he sounded. His father had lived on that farm for thirty years and knew the roads. Something in his father’s voice and tone made all the hairs on Greg’s body prickle with an overwhelming dread.
“Son, I’m driving as fast as I can but the fire is up on me. Don’t think I’ll make—oh shit!”
The line died completely, the beeping noise letting him know he’d lost the call. Still, through the horrible constriction in his throat, Greg shouted.
One Year Later
If anyone had told Jenny Hannigan what would happen over the next week she would’ve asked them if they were high. She didn’t do excitement, or unpredictability, or danger. Especially not danger. But fate seemed to have something different in store for her.
When she glanced up from the brochures on the table in front of her, her breath hitched and her attention snagged on the man approaching her.
As he walked across the green expanse of city park grass and headed straight toward her, she was sitting at the Dallas Emergency Hospital booth minding her own business. She was also melting like an icicle in the temperature. She picked up a brochure and started fanning herself.
Normally, she’d shy away from staring at people too long or even meeting their gazes. She’d perfected the art of chin staring over the years and most people didn’t notice. The few that did sometimes wondered if she had Aspergers and then freaked because they’d heard people who didn’t look into your eyes were sociopaths. She didn’t have Aspergers, and she sure as hell didn’t suffer from sociopathic tendencies. But she’d discovered a long time ago she could see more than she wanted to see in people’s eyes.
This guy…well this guy twisted her thought process. She couldn’t not stare. The animal side of her fired into motion, hot, primal and out of control in a way she hadn’t felt since forever. His walk bragged of control and a ripped body accustomed to hard, perhaps punishing work. His long legs chewed up ground. She couldn’t tell if he looked at her or not because of the dark sunglasses he wore. His face seemed carved from rock, handsome but in a no-nonsense, take-no-prisoners way that verged on cruel. As if messing with him could be damned dangerous and then some. He wore a red t-shirt with lettering she couldn’t read from this distance, and it stretched a little over his wide shoulders and well-muscled chest. Cargo khakis hugged his hips just enough—thankfully he didn’t wear them super saggy and baggy. Everything about the guy screamed big. Explosive.
Heat licked over her, its tongue sending a white wash of red hot awareness into her face. Her heartbeat banged a new rhythm against her chest—no way she’d cool down watching this man stride. He moved like a well-oiled machine. She sensed he worked or had worked at one time in a job that featured danger as a daily diet. Then again, maybe the heat had fried her brains. She rubbed her temples. Because the mirage coming her way couldn’t be real, right? She lifted her sunglasses for a second and peered at the man who strode across the grass as if he owned everything within fifty miles. Even as she squinted to get a better look, she lowered her sunglasses, because part of Jenny feared he’d see her gawking like a high school girl at the quarterback.
Right. He’s probably an accountant.
Not that she had anything against accountants, but she’d been wrong about men before. Very wrong. Especially when she ignored warning bells and her intuition.
He veered to a booth for a local store that sold baby clothes and other items for children. The two thirty-something women sitting behind the table beamed like someone had just told them they’d won the lottery. Though she couldn’t hear him talking—a military band started to play on the stage behind her and across the green—she saw his smile and oh sweet baby Jesus, what a smile. It completely transformed his warrior face to panty-wetting gorgeous. He picked up a knitted onesie in one big hand, and part of Jenny’s heart sank. Of course. He probably had a beautiful wife at home and a new baby.
“All the good ones are taken, eh?”
Jenny jumped almost a foot and whirled around to face the man behind her. “Holy crap, Manny. You scared the hell outta me.”
Manny’s wide, good-looking grin inspired the rapt attention of many nurses at the hospital. Doctor Manniford Hopkins had all the right attributes that should make him attractive to any red-blooded woman. Six feet of lean muscle, a nice bedside manner with patients, and a respectful attitude toward everyone. He didn’t have that stereotypical doctor attitude where he expected people to be impressed by the fact he was a neurologist. The way he’d introduced himself to her two weeks ago as Manny rather than Doctor Manniford had impressed her. Today he wore a button-down blue polo shirt with the hospital logo on the breast and pressed dark slacks. Despite all that, he didn’t inspire even a tenth of the attraction inside her that mystery man had a few moments ago.
Yeah, that’s why you haven’t dated in a million years. You ignore the nice stable guys in favor of screwed up losers.
“Sorry. I heard I’m supposed to take over the booth at twelve o’clock,” Manny said as he eased into the chair beside her. He glanced at his watch. “Traffic sucks and I left the house too late. But if you aren’t done ogling that guy, I could take a walk to the food booth and buy an artery-clogging hot dog.”
Embarrassment heated her face. “God is it that obvious?”
He shrugged. “Well, your mouth was hanging open. There might’ve been some drool.”
She whacked him on the arm playfully. “I am not drooling.”
He laughed. “Maybe not literally.”
She laughed with him as tension eased away. “It’s time for lunch. Why don’t you grab the hot dog and when you’re back I’ll take a break and get lunch.”
Manny smiled, his green eyes sparkling with a teasing light. “Great. See ya in a few minutes.”
After he left, she sighed. Yeah, that’s what she needed. A nice, funny, interesting man in her life. The kind of guy she could depend upon. She watched Manny head to the food vendors and told herself she needed to recognize the difference between blistering sexual attraction and something sweet and slow building that could last. Not that blistering sexual attraction had happened to her often. Once.
Yeah, once. Remember how that turned out?
Yep, that relationship had been hot, fast, and had flamed out like an afterburner.
A breeze lifted her hair, and she wished she’d put up the long length in a bun or something studious and professional. Well…it would’ve been cooler with it off her neck. The clouds over the mountain turned darker by the moment—it wasn’t looking good for the fireworks tonight. Twenty percent chance of rain? Looked more like eighty at this point.
She looked back toward the booth where mystery man had stood moments ago. He was walking away toward another both down the line, a small bag in his hand that proved he’d probably bought that onesie for his baby. A pang of loneliness hit her. God, she so needed to get a life. Her reaction to mystery dude proved it. She swallowed hard and wrestled her attention away from him when he stopped at a local artist’s booth.
The military band finished their song and a changeover started. A local country music group began to assemble for their set. She was glad. Not that she disliked military bands, but she liked the variety. A rock band was scheduled to perform later.
Fourth of July celebrations in the park started early in Dallas, Texas, and she’d been part of the extravaganza for several hours. The booth she’d sat in since seven o’clock this morning hadn’t, unfortunately, rocked with visitors. She knew, though, that as the afternoon wore on more people would arrive to stake a claim to watch the fireworks later tonight. She rearranged brochures again and wished she’d thought to bring the little personal fan someone had given her. It was battery operated and would’ve given some relief. She took a swig from her water bottle and sighed in relief. At least the ice-cold liquid soothed. Sweat trickled down her back.
Like an idiot, she’d worn a blazer and skirt in pale pink summer linen, the white sleeveless blouse sticking to her like glue. Trying to look professional. Sure. If she hadn’t been too worried about pissing off her new boss, she would’ve worn a sundress. The thigh high socks were the only saving grace to this whole outfit. Thank God she hadn’t worn panty hose. The thought made her itch.
Jenny stood and peeled off the blazer and hung it over the back of her folding chair. She reached for her water bottle again and took a sip. That’s when mystery man in the red t-shirt walked her way, and he gave her a stunning, mind-melting grin. She choked on the water and started to cough. His smile turned to a frown and he picked up his stride. Heat filled her face, partly from coughing and the other part from pure embarrassment. She covered her mouth and smothered some of the cough. She recovered when he reached her booth. He threw her a crooked smile even though his brows were drawn together a little.
“Hey, you okay?” he asked, his voice filled with humor and some concern.
She laughed, but it came out more like a gasp, and when she spoke it was a rasp. “Just a little water down the wrong way.”
Yeah, and I saw you coming toward me and that about killed me.
Up close he looked even better. A dark five-o’clock-shadow gave him an even more dangerous ambiance. His charcoal dark hair was cut military short, but it looked as if it could be unruly if allowed to grow longer, and his eyes…yes, she took the chance and looked into them, were a warm, melting chocolate. His cheekbones were high, his nose a little crooked, and an overall cragginess to his features that prevented him from being conventionally handsome. But those eyes and that smile. Holy cow. A flutter low in her belly let her know exactly what her body thought about him. Then she saw the logo on his t-shirt and everything came together.
“Dallas Firefigher’s Association?” she asked. “You’re a member?”
He smiled again. “Yep. I’m a firefighter.”
She perked up. “What fire house?”
“You’re kidding? I’m friends with Lexi Fletcher.”
She’d met Lexi, a paramedic, when she’d moved to Dallas over a year ago at an official hospital function and they’d become fast friends. Jenny had met some of Lexi’s co-workers at Station 58, including Lexi’s firefighter husband Dane Chandler and his firefighter best buddy Jax Malloy and his wife Skye.
His eyebrows lifted. “Oh yeah?”
“I’ve met Dane, Jax and Skye, too…a few others in the department. Great people. Are you new to the station?”
He shrugged, those big shoulders catching her attention. “Not exactly. I’ve been there a year.”
Interesting that she’d never met him at the parties she’d attended packed with Station 58 people.
“I’ve been at the hospital a little over a year myself,” she said.
He nodded, and his face clouded over a little. She wondered if she’d been too nosy.
She cleared her throat. “So you bought something from the baby shop?”
Oh, God, Jenny. Talk about nosy.
He nodded. “Yeah. There are a lot of great booths here, and I’m just getting started. Are you a doctor at the hospital?”
“Public relations specialist.”
“Do you like it at Dallas Emergency?”
“Absolutely. It’s a great place. I hope to have a long career there.”
Part of her winced at what she’d just said. Because at the end of the day, she knew she wanted and needed a different career field, she just didn’t know what. An eruption of laughter jerked her out of her thoughts, and she couldn’t help but notice the way the firefighter looked at her. That chocolate gaze burned a little brighter with interest.
He put out his hand to shake. “I’m Greg Falk. Guys at the station call me Viking.”
She took his hand. Warmth and awareness sizzled through her once more as his calloused fingers brushed hers—his grip stayed firm but didn’t crush.
“Jenny Hannigan. Pleased to meet you.”
When he released her hand, he said, “It’s a pleasure.”
“I sense there’s a story in there with a nickname like Viking.”
“Yeah. There is.” He opened the small sack he held and extracted the white knit onesie with a teddy bear design on the front. “This is for the baby clothing and supply drive. I heard you were short on items for newborns.”
Her entire heart warmed as she took the onesie, a wave of surprise and happiness overtaking her she didn’t quite understand. “Oh my gosh, this is so cute! Thank you.”
“I was trying to think what to donate and when I saw the booth over there…” He shrugged. His eyes narrowed. “You’re the chairperson for the drive?”
“The assistant. My boss is the chairwoman.”
Only because she thinks it makes her look good.
“This is so great. I thought this was—” She almost choked on her own words as she stifled herself. “I mean…”
Oh, hell. Way to impress the hunky firefighter, girl. Tongue-tied and ridiculous.
He chuckled, and the low, rusty sound brushed over her senses in a way that ramped up her already ridiculous attraction to him.
“You thought?” he asked.
“Well, I just thought maybe it was for your own baby.”
He looked around in mock surprise. “My baby? Do I have a baby I don’t know about?”
She smiled as her face heated again. “Sorry. I just…I saw you buying it and just assumed.” She shrugged. “Most of the firefighter’s I’ve run into are married and have kids.”
He shifted a little closer, his voice lower even under the start up of the country band. The sound of it stroked her. “Not married and no kids.”
She didn’t have a chance to respond before Manny returned to the booth with a hot dog sack.
Manny nodded to Greg and smiled. “Hi. That hotdog stand has a line a mile long.”
She wrinkled her nose. “Not my favorite food.”
“Are you a vegetarian?” Manny asked with a grin.
“No. I prefer hamburgers. Dr. Manniford Hopkins, this is Greg Falk from Station 58.”
Then men shook hands, and she couldn’t help comparing them. Despite the fact they both qualified as good-looking men, Manny couldn’t beat Greg for pure sex appeal.
The brilliant sun went under clouds and a cooler breeze ruffled the booth canopies and sent brochures flying. She gasped and ran around the front as brochures floated on the current. Greg hurried after her, snatching errant pieces of paper off the ground. Manny put various items on the remaining brochures, trying to keep the rest from escape. They managed to grab all the papers and return them to the booth. When Greg handed her a stack, their fingers brushed and that wild swirling sensation darted from her hands straight into her stomach again.
“Thank you,” she said a little breathlessly.
Greg smiled and started to move away from the booth. “Well, I’ll see you around.”
“Have a great fourth,” she called after him.
He smiled and saluted. “You, too.”
As he walked, she watched his broad shoulders and—yeah she could admit it—world class butt move away and she wanted to think of an excuse to follow him.
“Earth to Jenny,” Manny said.
She jerked her attention away from Greg. “What?”
Greg gestured to the sky. “You’d better get some lunch before the weather arrives. I think we’re in for it.”
She’d been so blind to anything but the firefighter, she hadn’t noticed the towering thunderheads to the west growing more menacing. Unless they broke up, the clouds would soon obscure the sun. She glanced at her watch.
“We might have to pack up early.” She handed Greg the brochures. “I’ll call Donna.”
“Lizard Lady?” he said.
She tried not to laugh. “Where did you hear that name?”
“Your boss has quite a reputation.”
Jenny had always been under the impression her boss could fool almost anyone into thinking the moon and sun set by her. She didn’t want to talk gossip or say disparaging things about Donna Colton, even if she didn’t like the woman much. Jenny returned to the back of the booth and grabbed her cell phone out of her tote bag.
Donna answered on the first ring. “Jenny?”
“Hi Donna. Sorry to bother you but the weather here is looking pretty bad. We might need to pack up early.”
“Really? I’m looking out my kitchen window right now. They don’t look that bad.”
“From here they do. We’ll monitor the situation, but I thought I’d give you a heads up in case we have to take the booth down.”
Jenny’s mouth flopped open. “No?”
“We have to be open for the festivities later today. Congressman Holtz will be there and he expects to see us.”
Jenny wrinkled her nose. Donna’s older sister was married to Robert Holtz, and with Donna’s ambitious and political mind set, she always concerned herself with appearances. Jenny glanced at Manny, who was talking to a young woman at the booth. She looked irritated and so did he, but Jenny couldn’t hear what they were saying because the country band turned up the volume.
Jenny put her finger in her ear when she realized Donna was talking again. “What? I couldn’t hear you. The band started up again.”
“I said, don’t you dare close that booth. I don’t care if it does rain.”
Jenny wanted to tell her boss that she’d lost her freaking mind, but she needed her job more than she needed to tell Donna what she thought. “All right. See you later this evening.”
After they hung up, Jenny sighed. Wonderful. She didn’t want to stay through this entire July fourth event in the park, but what could she do?
She glanced over at the booth again and noted the young woman had left. Manny stared off into space with a strange expression. She decided to ignore Manny’s love life or whatever caused the turmoil.
“Don’t tell me,” he said. “Lizard Lady said we’ve gotta stay here hell or high water.”
“How’d you guess?”
“Because I know your boss.”
She lifted her eyebrows in surprise since Manny hadn’t worked at the hospital all that long, but maybe he’d encountered her enough times to detect the woman’s true personality, and not the one she hid behind.
“I’m not that hungry, but I’ll take a break,” she said.
“Suit yourself. Take your time.”
She did, walking among some of the booths for a few moments. Today’s Independence Day celebration always drew many businesses and other organizations, including political parties. If she was stuck at the hospital booth for several more hours, she’d better take relief when she could. She headed for one of the portable toilets and did her business. When she exited and headed across the long expanse of grass back to the booths, she paused and took stock of the clouds. A green tinge now stained the bottom of the puffy structures, and she knew a bad sign when she saw one.
“Damn,” she said under her breath.
She glanced over at the firefighting display across the grass near the south parking lot. Three firefighters in turnout gear and a couple of paramedics manned a booth. Parents with kids surrounded the area—kids loved talking to firefighters and getting a plastic fireman’s helmet. She smiled and noted one man in a red t-shirt. She squinted—was that Greg? Looked like him, but from this distance she couldn’t be one hundred percent certain.
Jenny looked to the west, and sure enough, the dark clouds had moved into position over the park and blocked the sun. God, she wished Donna had given her the option of closing the booth if the weather ramped up. As if the weather had read her thoughts, lightning flashed from the clouds and a low rumble started. Wind began to swirl, lifting her suit skirt. She hurried toward the booth, wishing she’d worn flats rather than heels. The grass beneath her threatened to snag and trip her. She glanced back at the firefighter display and saw they were hurriedly tearing things down.
Okay, so she wasn’t paranoid.
Wind turned into a crazy vortex as it raced across the park and kicked dirt into her face. From her peripheral vision, she caught sight of the man—Greg—jogging toward the booths. His urgency alarmed her. A moment later her cell phone, tucked in her blazer pocket, let out an emergency tone. It had to be a tornado watch. A second later, though, she discovered it was worse than that.
Somewhere nearby, a tornado siren blared.