The Wedding from Hell, Part 3: Exclusive Excerpt of Consumed by J.R. Ward

The Wedding from Hell, Part 3: Exclusive Excerpt of Consumed is the final part of J.R. Ward’s The Wedding From Hell ebook serialisation. Don’t miss this exclusive teaser to her upcoming standalone suspense, Consumed (available in October 2018).

See why “Consumed takes it to a whole new level” (Lisa Gardner, #1 New York Times bestselling author). 

 

Chapter 1

 

Harbor Street and Eighteenth Avenue

Old Downtown, New Brunswick, Massachusetts

Box alarm. One-niner-four-seven. Two engines and a ladder from the 499, responding.

Or, put another way, Anne Ashburn’s Friday night date had showed up on time and was taking her to a show. Granted, “on time” was the precise moment she had sat down for a meal at the stationhouse with her crew, and the “show” was a warehouse fire they were going to have to chorus-line for. But if you judged the health of a relationship on its constancy and whether it brought purpose and meaning to your life?

Then this firefighting gig was the best damn partner a woman could ask for.

As Engine Co. 17 turned the corner onto Harbor with siren and lights going, Anne glanced around the shallow seating area of the apparatus. There were four jump seats behind the cab, two forward-facing, two rear-, the pairs separated by an aisle of gear. Emilio “Amy” Chavez and Patrick “Duff” Duffy were on one side. She and Daniel “Dannyboy” Maguire were on the other. Up in front, Deshaun “Doc” Lewis, the engineer, was behind the wheel, and Captain Christopher “Chip” Baker, the incident commander, was shotgun.

Her nickname was “Sister.” Which was what happened when you were the sibling of the great Fire Chief Thomas Ashburn Jr., and the daughter of the revered- falsely as it turned out- Thomas Ashburn, Sr.

Not everybody called her that, though.

She focused on Danny. He was staring out the open window, the cold November wind blowing his dark hair back, his exhausted blue eyes focused on nothing. In their bulky turnouts, their knees brushed every time the engine bumped over sewer-access panels, potholes, manholes, intersections.

Yes, she wanted to say to fate. I know he’s there. You don’t have to keep reminding me.

The hardheaded bastard was a lot of things, most of which carried terms you couldn’t use around your grandmother, but he knew she hated the “Sister” thing, so to him, she was Ashburn.

He’d also called her Anne—once. In the middle of the night about three weeks ago.

Yes, they had been naked at the time. Oh, God . . . had they finally done that?

“I’m gonna beat you at pong,” he said without looking at her. “Soon as we get back.”

“No chance.” She hated that he knew she’d been staring at him. “All talk, Dannyboy.”

“Fine.” He turned his head toward her. “I’ll let you win, how about that?”

His smile was slow, knowing, evil. And her temper answered the phone on the first ring.

“The hell you will.” Anne leaned forward. “I won’t play with you if you cheat.”

“Even if it benefits you?”

“That’s not winning.”

“Huh. Well, you’ll have to explain to me the ins and outs of it when we’re back at the house. While I’m beating you.”

Anne shook her head and glared out the open window.

The first tap on her leg she ascribed to a bump in the road. The second, third, and fourth were obviously—

She looked back at Danny. “Stop it.”

“What?”

“Are you twelve?” As he started to smile, she knew exactly where his mind had gone. “Not inches. Age.”

“I’m pretty sure I peak more like at sixteen.” He lowered his voice. “What do you think?”

Between the sirens and the open windows, no one else could hear them—and Danny never pulled the double entendre if there was a risk of that. But yes, Anne now knew intimately his heavily muscled and tattooed anatomy. Granted, it had been only that once.

Then again, unforgettable only had to happen one time.

“I think you’re out of your mind,” she muttered.

And then they were at the scene. The old 1900s-era warehouse was a shell of its former useful self, sixty-five thousand square feet of broken glass panes, rotting beams, and blown-off roof panels. The outer walls were brick, but based on the age, the floors and any room dividers inside were going to be wood. The blaze was in the northeast corner on the second floor, billowing smoke wafting up into the forty-degree night air before being carried away by a southerly wind.

As Anne’s boots hit the ground, she pulled on the top half of her turnouts. Her ponytail was up high on the back of her head, and she stripped out the band, reorganized the shoulder length, and cranked things tight at her nape. The brown was still streaked with blond from the summer, but she needed to get it cut—so all that lightness was on the chopping block.

Of course, if she were a woman “who took care of herself,” she’d get it highlighted through the winter months. Or so her mother liked to tell her. But who the hell had time for that?

“Sister, you sweep the place with Amy for addicts,” Captain Baker commanded. “Stay away from that corner. Danny and Duff, run those lines!”

As Captain Baker continued to bark orders out, she turned away. She had her assignment. Until she completed it, or there was an insurmountable obstacle or change of order, she was required to execute that directive and no other.

“Be safe in there, Ashburn.”

The words were soft and low, meant for her ears alone. And as she looked over her shoulder, Danny’s Irish eyes were not smiling.

A ripple of premonition made her rub the back of her neck. “Yeah, you, too, Maguire.”

“Piece’a cake. We’ll be back at pong before ten.”

They walked away from each other at the same time, Danny going around to the stacks of hoses in the back, her linking up with Chavez. She liked being paired with Emilio. He was a four-year veteran who was built like an SUV and had the brains of a Jeopardy! contestant. He also did what he said he was going to do with no drama.

Godsend, really.

The two of them went to a compartment on the outside of the truck, threw up the protective metal panel, and grabbed for their air tanks. After pulling her hood over her head, she velcro’d and buckled up her jacket and loaded her oxygen source onto her back. She let the mask hang loose, put her helmet on, and gloved up.

Moving forward on the truck flank, they opened another compartment, and she strapped a hand axe on her hip and added her radio and a box light. When Emilio was ready, the pair of them jogged across the frosted scruff grass, hopping over a debris salad of rusted-out car parts, random pieces of building, and weathered trash. The flashing red lights of the trucks made bulky shadows out of their graceless movements, and the clean air going in and out of her throat was the kind of thing she made sure to enjoy.

It was going to be a while before she had it again.

As they came up to a side door, the knob was locked, but the panels were loose as a bad fighter’s front teeth.

“I got it,” she said.

Turning a shoulder in, she threw her weight into the flimsy barrier, busting it wide open. As splinters fell in a clatter, she triggered the light beam on her helmet and looked around. Not what she expected—which was the norm. You never knew what a building’s interior was going to look like for sure until you got inside, and instead of one cavernous space, she and Emilio were in a makeshift hall. Offices, narrow and short-ceilinged, opened off of it, the repurposing transforming the warehouse into a den for administrators of some sort. Or telemarketers. Day traders.

Of course, whatever it was had been a going concern a good ten years ago. Now, the place was uninhabitable.

She and Emilio took opposite sides, and as they progressed, she checked out a lot of old office equipment from the Ally McBeal era. Everything was busted up, water-stained, and covered with grunge, which explained why it hadn’t been looted.

No scent of the fire. No heat. Air was clear of smoke.

The smell was rot, urine, mold.

They made quick time, going through the maze. As they went along, their radios kept them updated, the alternating hiss and talk the kind of thing she took in without being aware of hearing it.

“-wind changing. Northeast.”

“-getting that roof ventilation opened now—”

In the back of her mind, she noted the former, but didn’t worry about it. The blaze had been small, the engine was on it with a good water source charging the lines, and they had plenty of ladder access from above. Plus, the place was so big, she and Emilio were a mile away from the hot spot.

As they came up to a staircase, she stopped. “You take the second floor, I’ll keep going.”

“That’s not protocol.”

“There’s no reason to stay together. The fire’s all the way over there—it’s more efficient.”

“But it’s not—”

“Are you suggesting I can’t handle myself.”

Emilio shook his head. “I’ll take upstairs.”

“I’ll join you soon as I’m through down here. There’s one more corner to go, that’s it.”

As Emilio headed up the tight, jury-rigged steps, she continued on. The farther she went, the more mold compromised the air quality, but she had thirty minutes of oxygen on her back—fifteen if she were exerting herself—and she wasn’t going to waste it on a bad smell.

Up ahead, something flashed across the corridor, the figure scrambling in the darkness.

“Stop!” she called out as she took off after the person.

Anne went left, right, hit a straightaway, her lungs working, thighs churning, equipment bouncing on her body. In the helmet’s jumping beam, the man or woman went in and out of phase with the illumination, a ghost dressed in rags.

They ended up in a shallow room with no door, no window, nothing but the archway they both entered through. The vagrant was muddy as a hound, his hair so matted he had tails growing out of his head. His breathing worried her. Very labored. And that flush, too. He was on something, and probably had pneumonia.

She put her gloved hands up. “I’m not the police. I just want you out so you don’t get hurt—”

“I’ll kill you!” he panted. “I’ll fucking kill you!”

Stepping away from the jambs, she put one hand on her short axe. “I don’t care what you’re on, or why you’re in here. There’s a fire in the building behind us. Do you know where the ways out are?”

The man nodded.

“Go then. I won’t stop you.”

“I’m not going back to jail!”

“That’s cool. I’m fire, not police. But you have to get out of the building—if only because the cops will show up here. If you don’t want to be arrested, leave now. I’m not in your way.”

The vagrant took off, streaking past her and running flat out in his mismatched boot-and-shoe combo. If he had been saveable, she would have played a different card. But she was not going to get hurt trying to convince someone they needed help, and she wasn’t going to waste time vouching for rehab and treatment when there might be somebody who was in medical distress two doors farther down.

Three minutes later, she was at the far end of the building. “First floor cleared,” she said into her radio.

As she came back to the stairwell, she got her initial scent of smoke, that change in wind direction blowing the fire into its source of combustibles instead of away from it—

Bam!

The frontal impact was so quick and hard, she got blown backward off her boots, her body landing on her tank as gravity took her to the ground. With the air punched out of her lungs, her vision flickered, and she heard another of those vagrants disappear at a dead run.

Rolling off her air cylinder, she braced herself on all fours and looked at the wake of what had hit her. All she caught was a black shape disappearing around the corner.

“Sonofabitch.”

With a groan, she got back to vertical and took a couple of deep breathers. Pain was registering on her spine, but other than that case of the owies, she was okay.

No reason to go after that addict. He or she had gotten the GTFO memo.

Pivoting around, her beam flashed along the graffiti’d wall and then penetrated the stairwell. Emilio must have flushed the person down from the second floor—

The explosion was so loud, her ears lacked the capacity to accommodate it as sound. Pain was what registered, and covering her head and going into a crouch was both instinctual and part of training. Her immediate thought was meth lab. They’d had something similar the month before, with the chemicals used to make the drug blowing a two-story duplex sky-high.

She grabbed for her radio. “Emilio. Are you clear? Emilio—”

“Roger that. I’m way off in southwest corner second floor. What was that?”

Thank God, she thought. She did not want to lose him—

The rumble overhead started as a creak and a rattle. It did not stay that way. The collapse was as unexpected as it was fast, all kinds of heavy and hard landing on top of her, an avalanche of God only knew what raining blows on her body.

And then flames were everywhere.

Crushed under debris, pinned to the concrete floor, and without her air mask on, Anne had only one thought.

All her life, she had been determined to follow in her father’s footsteps.

Now it looked as if she might die in the same way he had.

 

Chapter 2

 

“Where the fuck were you just now?”

As Danny Maguire went to the pumper truck for an axe, he shot a glare over his shoulder at Captain Baker. “Running lines like you told me.”

“Duff’s working alone over there, Maguire.”

“I was with Doc. We had a problem with the pump.”

“You do what you’re told, goddamn it! Doc can handle his shit!”

Captain Baker was in a nasty mood, and that was what happened when you quit smoking. But come on, man. Talk about handling shit.

“You want some Nicorette?” Danny muttered.

“No.” Captain Baker walked away. Came back. “Yeah.”

Danny went inside his turnouts and took two squares out of the ass pockets of his work pants. “Chew ’em both. Trust me. I got three between my molars and they’re barely taking the edge off.”

“I want you and Duff on—”

A loud explosion buffered out through the cold air, coming in waves that Danny could feel against his face. Over the captain’s red helmet, flames and sparks burst out the second story of the abandoned warehouse, escaping through busted glass like fire through the nostrils of a dragon.

“Check in, people! Check in!” Baker said into the radio.

As firefighters started calling out their IDs, Danny lunged for an air tank—only to stop dead as a female voice came out of the radio. “Twelve-ten down. Base of north stairwell. First floor.”

A cold flush went through him, his vision going tunnel on the blaze that had suddenly gone absolutely, positively really-fucking-complicated on him. He looked at Baker. “Send me in, Captain—”

“No, Maguire. I just called the six-one-seven for backup and I want you on the hoses. You’re the strongest one we’ve got, and Duff’s got that busted shoulder—”

He put his face right into his captain’s—and had to remind himself he was not going to tear the man’s throat open with his canines. “Send me the fuck in.

Baker punched at his chest. “You are on hoses. That is an order, and don’t pull your shit with me!”

White-hot fury blanked him out, but before he could go rank stupid, a pair of heavy arms spun him around. Patrick Duffy, a.k.a. Duff, slapped him with an open palm and no emotion.

“Don’t do this.” The man grabbed his lappies and shook him. “Look at me, Danny. No one needs to add more paperwork to this bitch and you do not want to get suspended again.”

Twelve-ten was the call number for Anne Ashburn, the sole female firefighter at the 499, and the word “down” meant she was trapped in the burn. Under normal circumstances, Danny would have given her his right arm if she’d asked him for it. The fact that she needed assistance and might be hurt—

Duff yanked his lapels again, and then hung off of them so that Danny was forced to bend down from his six-six height. “Amy’s going after her. We’re getting on those hoses.” In a lower voice, the guy said, “You gotta regulate yourself. This is not about Sol.”

No, it was worse. If he failed Anne, that was going to make losing the stationhouse’s sergeant look like a cake walk.

The pair of them stayed nose-to-nose for a hundred and one years—that somehow passed in the matter of a moment.

Accept. Adapt. Change.

“Okay,” Danny said. “Fine.”

He shoved Duff off his jacket like the two-hundred-and-fifty-pounder was nothing but lint. Then he hooded up and strapped on that air tank.

“What do you need that for?” Duff asked.

“The wind just changed. I’m not going over there with a hose without an oxygen supply. That okay with you? Or do you want to try to make out with me again.”

He didn’t give the man a chance to answer that one. And everybody got out of his way as he went around to where he’d been assigned to go.

Firefighting followed in the military’s chain-of-command boot steps. You took orders or you were out. Even if that meant leaving the love of your miserable wasteland of a life in the middle of a now two-alarm fire to get burned to death inside her turnouts.

Happy Friday night, motherfuckers.

Trapped underneath debris and fallen wooden beams, the first thing Anne did after checking in on her radio was get enough freedom of movement so she could secure her mask over her face and turn on the airflow. As she breathed that metallic-and-plastic swill of oxygen, she did an internal check-in with her body. Her left arm was wrenched up above her head, and one leg was twisted at the foot and straining at its knee joint.

Her helmet beam was off, and she pulled her right hand free to feel around for it. No go. The unit had snapped off, and there was no reaching her box light.

“Check in, twelve-ten!” Captain Baker said over the radio. “Twelve-ten, what’s going on?”

Forcing her lungs to work, she rasped, “It’s getting hot in here.”

In her mind, she heard Danny’s voice: So take off all your clothes. I . . . am . . . getting . . . so . . . hot . . . I’mwannatakeoffallmyclothes.

She thought about the hell she was going to catch when Captain Baker found out she had split up from Emilio. Although maybe the man would be dead if they’d stayed together down here.

“We’re coming for you, Anne,” the captain said. “Injuries?”

“Negative.”

Twisting her head to the right, she only made it halfway around, her helmet getting crammed into something—

Through the visor of her mask, she got a crystal-clear on the field of orange flames roiling out of the stairwell and across the ceiling, the bubbling movement like a hundred rats fleeing rising water in the sewer, its escape the large hole above her that had been a ten-by-fifteen-foot section of the second floor, but was now the debris field trapping her in place.

Pushing against anything that was on her, she phoenix’d-from-the-ashes like out of The Walking Dead, a stiff, bad-angled version of herself rising from the floor. As she made it halfway to full height, it was a relief that her legs were fully capable of holding her weight.

That was the last piece of good news she got.

“Twelve-ten, check in,” came over the radio

“I’m okay.” She looked around and tried to place herself directionally. “I’m up on my feet.”

“Good girl—”

“Don’t call me ‘girl.’”

“Roger that. We’re coming for you—”

There was a sudden shifting overhead, one of the old timbers groaning as it was forced to shoulder an unexpected burden. She glanced up. The fire was closer, and she could feel the heat more. Smoke was beginning to build, too, bringing with it a galaxy of cinder stars that floated around, innocent and beautiful as fireflies in a summer field.

She realized she was trapped when she attempted to fully straighten her spine. Her right side was fine. The left half of her came up only so far as her arm would permit.

Leaning back, she pulled against the tether. Her hand, fat from her glove, refused to yield, some triangulation of trash turning the extremity into a rope with a blood supply.

The pulsating orange waves licking above her threw off enough illumination for her to see the problem. Desk. There was a desk that had fallen through the ragged hole in the ceiling, and somehow, the thing had managed to mate with one of the massive ceiling beams. No, two old beams.

Her hand was the bad-luck hole-in-one in the middle of the tiddlywinks from hell.

Planting her gloved right palm on the closest length of oak, she braced her feet in her steel-toed boots and shoved hard.

Nothing.

She tried a different hand position on the beam. And then an alternate angle of counterforce. Her big-ass glove was the problem, and with no way of reaching over things to release it, she was stuck with a Popeye problem at the base of her wrist.

And all the time, the fire spread, eating its way down the flammable, ancient carpeting on the stairs, spreading through the beams still on the ceiling, consuming the cheap particleboard that had been used to make walls.

“Twelve-ten, hang on there—”

Another collapse rumbled all around her, more sparks flying, another helping of debris added to her plate.

She pulled harder. Pushed more.

Inside her turnouts, something welled and river’d. She prayed it was sweat and not blood—and as much as she told herself to preserve oxygen, her lungs started to inflate and deflate like she was on a sprint, her cognition, her thoughts, fragmenting.

Talking into her radio, she tried to make like she was calm. “You guys almost here? Are you—”

The third collapse brought down a wooden beam that was breeding open flames two inches in front of her mask.

“Twelve-ten!” Captain Baker yelled through the radio. “Check in—twelve-ten!”

 

Chapter 3

 

617 Stationhouse

Hurst and Benedict Avenues

Fire Chief Thomas Ashburn stared over his messy desk at the two geniuses before him. Idiot number one, on the left, was a third-generation Italian firefighter, a stand-up guy who was built like a pro wrestler, never blinked in the face of death, and, aside from an intermittent off-duty drinking problem, had no red checks after his name.

If he had a dozen Chuck Parnesis in his firehouses, he wouldn’t be prematurely gray and divorced.

Okay, fine, he’d probably still be divorced. But his hair wouldn’t be almost white.

Genius number two was the problem—and the carrier. Neon-blue-haired and heavy-metal-loving Damian Reichmann was a walking hemorrhoid, the Typhoid Martin of Bad Behavior, a man capable of reducing even a relatively tight guy like Chuckie P to the lowest common dominator of a twelve-year-old at summer camp. Damian absolutely, positively measured his life’s worth on how many people around him were pissed off. Nickname? Damnit. Because pretty much every time the asshat was addressed, it was along the lines of “Damnit, why did you . . .”

“I am too old for this shit.” Tom glared at Damian. “And so the fuck are you.”

Damnit’s smile had fat-kid-loves-cake all over it. “What I do?”

Tom leaned back in his old wooden chair. And stared at the guy.

Damnit shrugged. “Look, Chuckie P got no game. I thought I was helping.”

“You set up an eHarmony account,” Chuck cut in. “And sent women to my house. To go on dates. With me.”

“Did any of it work?” Damnit gave a two-thumbs-up. “Did we get it in?”

“They were fetish models!”

Tom had to give that detail a “huh.” “I didn’t know those type of women were on eHarmony.”

Damnit shook his head. “It was an ad on Craigslist, actually.”

“What the fuck!” Chuck glared at the guy. “People get killed off that thing!”

“Annnnd you’re still breathing. Also haven’t answered the question. What about that redhead who was into bondage—”

“Enough.” Tom backhanded his neck to rub away the steel beam that was his spinal cord. “Look, I can’t let this go. This is one too many times in the last month.”

“Come on, Chief.” Damnit smiled some more, flashing the gold canine he’d added last month. “It was a practical joke. That could possibly have gotten him a blow job—if he weren’t a repressed Viagra candidate—”

“Chuck, punch him in the junk, and you’re even.”

Damnit cut the shit and stood up straighter. “What.

“I love you, Chief.” Chuck put his hand on that heavily muscled chest, right over his heart. “And I mean that as a leader, a friend, an example of good works everywhere—”

Damnit double-clapped his happy tackle. “Seriously, I’ll sue. I will sue you, the city, him, this firehouse. There are rules, you know.”

“Oh, right.” Tom reached back and took the city’s human resources manual off his shelf. Cracking it open, he drawled his forefinger down the table of contents and then opened the thing at about the halfway mark. “I better make sure I follow procedure—okay, I’m supposed to give you a warning first.” He looked up at Damnit. “Damian Reichmann, Chuck Parnesi is about to turn you into a soprano. Chuckie, g’head.”

“Take it like a man, Damnit.” Chuckie smiled like Jason on the right Friday of the month. “Besides, it’ll help you hit the high notes in the shower—”

The old-school clanging of the alarm bell going off was an eraser on a dry-erase board, swiping away the fun and games.

“Back to work,” Tom said as he pivoted and checked his computer screen.

“What we got?” Chuck asked.

“One-alarm that’s now a two down on Harbor and Eighteenth. Looks like the four-nine-nine is already there.”

“One of those warehouses?” Damian said.

“Yeah. They’re only requesting one engine. You boys take the call. Ropes’s still got that bum shoulder from last night—”

Vic Rizzo, a.k.a. Ropes, broke into the office. He had a cell phone up to his ear, and one arm in a sling. “It’s Anne. Your sister’s trapped in there.”

Tom knocked his chair over as he burst up. “Is she alone? Where’s the rest of the crew?”

Later, Anne would wonder what exactly it was that made her look over her shoulder. It couldn’t have been a sound because her heavy breathing drowned out even the roar of the fire. And it wasn’t anything visual. She didn’t have eyes in the back of her helmet. But

some kind of instinct called her from behind, and she pivoted against her left arm, glancing toward a wall of fire that had spread down the vertical particleboard.

From the midst of the swirling red and yellow flames, a massive figure plowed through the partition, its force so great, things didn’t so much break apart as powder into sparks.

And it had a chain saw.

There was only one person that size who would be insane enough to bring a gas-powered tool with him to rescue her.

As a lit part of the walling fell off Danny Maguire’s enormous shoulder, his head beam hit her square in the face, and she looked away as her retinas squeezed tight.

Thank you, God, she thought as she blinked to clear her vision.

“I’m trapped, Danny! I’m stuck—” When she didn’t hear her own voice over the radio, she realized her unit must have been compromised.

Pulling back against her hand, she pointed to show him what her problem was, and he nodded, that light of his moving up and down. With a powerful pull, he ripped the chain saw to life and came forward, wielding the fifty-pound piece of equipment like it was an empty coffee mug. Pumping the gas, a high-pitched whine rose and fell above the din as he assessed the wooden beam that had just fallen and was now part of the tangle. Moving herself to the side, she shoved something relatively light off her—a laptop, or what was left of one.

The blade and its chain came within inches of her facial mask, but she didn’t wince. As reckless as the man could be in real life, he was a surgeon with anything that cut wood or building materials—

Without warning, a ten-foot-by-ten-foot section of the ceiling fell on them, and she dropped her head, bracing for impact. When she wasn’t crushed, her first thought was that Danny was holding that whole corner of the building up—but no. That beam he’d been about to cut had caught the load and was keeping it at bay.

If he cut the length now, they would get buried.

The chain saw’s engine went silent, and as he put it down at his feet, she could tell he was cursing inside his mask, his eyes in a nasty squint as he scanned the collapse. Then, with an arch to rival a bridge span, he grabbed ahold of her forearm. When she nodded and sank into her legs, she watched the brim of his helmet dip three times.

One . . . two . . . three.

They both pulled and the pain that shot up her arm and into her shoulder had her grinding her molars to keep from screaming. When she couldn’t handle it for a second longer, she shook her head and bumped her body against his.

Danny released her. Looked around again. Behind his mask, his mouth was moving; he was talking into his radio—and she could guess what he was saying.

Anne gave a couple more half-hearted pulls. Then, with a curse, she pointed at the wall he’d come through. “Go!” she yelled inside her mask. “Leave me!”

Danny leaned over and grabbed her arm again, that cranking grip of his locking on her so tightly her bones compressed. As he pulled with his incredible power, her teeth clenched, and her breath shot out of her ribs—and she took as much of it as she could.

“Stop! Stop!” She sagged as he relented. “Stop . . .”

Anne shook her head and motioned toward where he had entered. “Go! I’m done!” Moaning in her throat, she pushed at his huge body. “Go.”

When that got her nowhere, she released her mask and shoved it aside. Hot, deadly air, the kind that toasted your esophagus and BBQ’d your lungs, closed her throat.

“Go!”

Behind his mask, Danny was furious and his gloved hands went to try to force her oxygen supply back into place.

“No! Get out of—”

Creaking over their heads made them both duck on reflex. As sparks rained down through the smoke, Anne weaved on her feet. “You’re going to die in here! Go!”

Danny put his face in hers. He was ripshit and letting her know it behind his mask, and for a split second, she watched him from a great distance even though their faces were six inches apart.

I’m going to miss you, she thought. Of all of the people I work with, and everyone I know . . . I’m going to miss you the most.

Danny yanked his own breathing mask away. “Put your goddamn oxygen back on!”

“You’re going to die!” she screamed.

“I’m getting you out of here!”

“It’s too late for me! Go!”

As if the fire was excited by their yelling, a hot flare burst out next to them, roasting the skin on one side of her face. Danny cursed and forced her mask back on, and she was still hollering at him as he reestablished his own air and then bent all the way over to the floor. Picking up the chain saw, he backed away a couple of feet and went on a discus spin, releasing the Craftsman at the top of the arc, the tool flipping end over end into the wall of fire. Then he covered her with his body, forming a shield.

The explosion was loud and immediate, the gasoline in that tank heating up until it created sufficient pressure to blow the Craftsman apart, the bomb detonating with a brutally hot kiss.

Anne ripped her mask off again. He was barking into his radio, but the time had come and gone for plans, and rescues, and her salvation.

“You need to go,” she ordered him. “Now.”

Danny stopped talking, his face going still behind his clear shield. And then he removed his oxygen supply. “We die together, then.”

He was every bit as resolved as she was, an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Exactly as it always had been between them. God, why did she think death would change anything? And the man wasn’t going to leave her. Between his brother dying on the job a couple of years ago and then him losing Sol six months ago, all of his nope-I-don’t-have-PTSD was going to make it impossible for him to go through that again.

Anne looked down at her arm. It was her left one. Not the hand she wrote with. And she was never getting married, so it wasn’t like she needed to worry about a ring finger.

Clean cut, she thought.

“Cut it off,” she said over the crackle and spit of the fire. To help him understand, she pointed to her forearm. “Tourney and cut!”

Danny’s blue eyes flared, and he shook his head as he looked around again, assessing all of their no-go options.

Anne released the straps on her tank under her pits and let the weight drop off her. Then she bit her glove off and spit it out. The fastenings down her fire-resistant jacket released one by one, and she kicked the heavy folds off so that that one sleeve pooled the entire weight at her trapped wrist.

“Tourney!”

Shit, it was hot. She could feel her skin prickle in warning—or maybe that was her shirt melting into her arms. But she had other problems.

Danny released his mask and put his face in hers. “Listen, James Franco, this isn’t fifty-seven hours!”

“The movie was 127 Hours!”

“Are you seriously arguing about that right now!”

“Tourney me and do it!”

“That’s it. I’m demanding backup—”

“Do you want to kill all of us? Either leave me or do it!”

She would have taken care of the problem herself, but the angle of the blade needed to be right . . . and oh, God, was she out of her mind? What was she saying?

“Cut my hand off or leave me!”

 

Chapter 4

 

Danny was rank furious as he tried to get Anne’s jacket back on her. Was she out of her fucking mind—

A resounding groan escalated into a roar, and more of the floor above collapsed around them, coming down the slope created by that panel held up by the beam. Arching over Anne, he protected her, bricks and pieces of particleboard punching at his shoulders and crashing on his helmet.

When things stopped hitting him, he got an unexpected bene. Smoke was escaping fast in a new direction, the rush-hour-worthy evac suggesting a way out might have opened that hadn’t been there before. The flames were so thick, he couldn’t be sure.

“Cut it off!” she yelled at him.

“Will you shut up with that!”

He kicked shit out of his way and dragged her protective jacket back into place, but she fought him—even as consciousness began to go in and out for her, her eyes rolling back, her weight weaving. And still that goddamn hand of hers was squeezed in between a tangle of beams and crap that looked like pieces of machinery and a desk.

“Pull with me!” He wrapped himself around the back of her again and took her forearm in his palms. “On three. One!” Maybe this will work. “Two!” Please, God, let this work. “Three!”

They both strained, her strong body bowing until her boots slipped out from under her and he had to catch her.

“Dan!”

As Anne barked his name, he refocused on her—and she put her free hand to the side of his mask.

“Do it, Dan,” she said. “Or you have to go. I’m okay with dying. Honest.”

He stared into her eyes through his mask. His breathing was a freight train in his ears. His body was shaking under his PPEs. His mind was racing through solutions, too many of them getting rejected.

Oh, wait, actually all of them getting tossed.

“Fuck,” he said.

“I’m sorry.”

Releasing his mask, he pushed it aside and locked eyes on hers without any barriers. It wasn’t supposed to end like this . . . although even as he thought that, he wondered what the hell their other option was. He and Anne Ashburn were both death-wish idiots, the kind of people who pushed limits, and themselves, until shit got broken.

Danny looked around one last time. Then he shifted his eyes to her arm and wondered, Can I do this?

“It’s the only way,” she said into the smoke and heat. “If you won’t save yourself.”

He didn’t make a decision. He just started moving. Because if he thought for a moment—for one goddamn millisecond—that he was going to hurt her? He was going to vomit the pepperoni-and-onion pizza, side of fries, two Cokes, and a cherry pie he’d had for dinner all over the fuck.

With hands that shook, he pulled off his gloves, unlatched the front of his jacket, and reached in through his bunkers to his woven nylon belt. When he brought the strap out, Anne closed her lids. And shrugged out of her heavy jacket again.

Danny drew the strap around her upper arm, busted the fork in the buckle, and pulled the length tight. She was right with him, reaching across with her good hand and taking the end, cranking it over until her bicep puffed up around the ligature.

Nope, he thought. If she lost consciousness and couldn’t hold that tight, she was going to bleed out. Plus, he was going to have to carry her once she was free because chances were good she was going to go into shock—so he couldn’t do it.

Pushing her hand away, he loosened the length and made a slipknot. “Brace.”

When she nodded, he used all of his strength to make a self-holding tourniquet, and the grunt she let out went through the center of his chest like a bullet. But it worked. Even though her upper arm was well muscled, the nylon bit into her flesh like fangs, going deep and locking in.

With a yank, he pulled her PPE back into place so she would be protected from the heat, making sure the tough fabric was flat and tight over her forearm for a clean cut—

Another warning creak from up above had him ducking and looking to the ceiling at the same time.

“Do it!” she yelled.

The long-handled axe was on his belt, and he popped it free and removed the head cover. The grip was insulated, certified to handle up to twenty thousand volts of electricity. Too bad the bitch was not rated to cover the shock of cutting off a piece of your partner. Just so you could maybe, possibly, probably-not-but-still, save her life.

Anne stared up at him, unblinking, unafraid. And that steely expression on her face reminded him, not that he needed it, that she was the single most courageous person, man or woman, he had ever met.

I love you, he thought. Not for the first time.

“Put your oxygen on,” he ordered. “Or I’m not doing shit.”

When she complied, Danny closed his eyes, but only for a second. Then he changed position so he could get a clear swing with good aim. Testing his angle, he lowered the blade so it rested on the PPE sleeve in the middle of her forearm. And then he settled his body into a stance, and thought about all the firewood he had been chopping out at Jack’s sister’s place.

This is no different, he told himself. This is a piece of wood.

If he thought for one second it was Anne’s flesh and blood, he was going to lose his nerve and fucking maul her.

Clean cut.

One chance.

 

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