Authors: Marie Ferrarella
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #General, #Suspense
“Take a deep breath,” he instructed. “It’ll help.”
She did as he told her, which was when Ethan realized that his supporting arm was way too close to her chest. As she inhaled, her breasts rose, making contact with his forearm.
All sorts of responses went ricocheting through Ethan.
“Am I getting to you, Detective O’Brien?”
“Lady, we’re way past ‘getting’ and hip-deep into ‘got,’ as in you ‘got to me.’”
Sensing she was about to fall, Ethan tightened his hold around her waist, dragging her closer against him.
For one second, their faces were less than a measurable inch away from one another.
Giving in to the moment, Kansas kissed him.
Ethan let himself enjoy what was happening. The kiss packed a wallop that left him breathless, shaken and wanting more. Definitely more.
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So here we are with another Cavanaugh story. By all rights, this is also the last one. And if you believe that, you don’t know me. I have a great deal of trouble letting go, except for a truly awful experience. In essence, I am an emotional pack rat.
Case in point: when I was a teenager in New York City, every year we had a real Christmas tree. I would plead for our tree to stay well into January and once, actually into February (Valentine bush, anyone?). As with everything else, it had been a source of joy once and I didn’t want to let it go. So how could I possibly say goodbye to a family I have come to love?
Sidebar: this is my two hundredth book with Silhouette and the mother company, Harlequin Books. Not bad for a person who thought she had only one, possibly two books in her when she started out. I have loved every nail-biting minute and hope to write another two hundred!
As ever, thank you for reading my books, and from the bottom of my heart I wish you someone to love who loves you back.
Silhouette Romantic Suspense
The Woman Who Wasn’t There
Her Lawman on Call
Her Sworn Protector
A Doctor’s Secret
Secret Agent Affair
Protecting His Witness
Colton’s Secret Service
The Heiress’s 2-Week Affair
Becoming a Cavanaugh
The Agent’s Secret Baby
The Cavanaugh Code
In Bed with the Badge
Colton by Marriage
Silhouette Special Edition
Romancing the Teacher
Remodeling the Bachelor
Taming the Playboy
Capturing the Millionaire
Falling for the M.D.
Diamond in the Rough
The Bride with No Name
Mistletoe and Miracles
Plain Jane and the Playboy
>Loving the Right Brother
The 39-Year-Old Virgin
A Lawman for Christmas
Prescription for Romance
Doctoring the Single Dad
Fixed Up with Mr. Right?
bestselling and RITA
Award-winning author has written two hundred books for Silhouette and Harlequin Books, some under the name of Marie Nicole. Her romances are beloved by fans worldwide. Visit her Web site at www.marieferrarella.com.
To the wonderful Silhouette/Harlequin family, and especially Patience Smith, who more than lives up to her name.
I thank you all for making my dreams come true.
Also, to Pat Teal, who started it all by asking, “Would you like to write a romance?” Thank God I said, “Yes.”
And last, but by no means least, to you, beloved readers, thank you!
I wouldn’t be here without you.
e smelled it before he saw it.
His mind elsewhere, Detective Ethan O’Brien’s attention was immediately captured by the distinct, soul-disturbing smell that swept in, riding the evening breeze. Without warning, it maliciously announced that someone’s dreams were being dashed even as they were being burnt to cinders.
Or, at the very least, they were damaged enough to generate a feeling of overwhelming sorrow and hopelessness.
Summers in California meant fires, they always had. Natives and transplants would joke that fires, earthquakes and mudslides were the dues they paid for having the best, most temperate overall weather in the country. But they only joked when nothing was burning, shaking or sliding away. Because during these catastrophic events, life proved to be all too tenuous, and
there was no time for humor, only action. Humor was a salve at best, before and after the fact. Action was a way to hopefully curtail the amount of damage, if at all humanly possible.
But it wasn’t summer. It was spring, and ordinarily, devastating fires should have still been many headlines away from becoming a very real threat.
Except that they were a real threat.
There were fires blazing all over the southern section of Aurora. Not the spontaneous fires that arose from spurts of bone-melting heat, or because a capricious wind had seized a not-quite-dead ember and turned it into something lethal by carrying it off and depositing it into the brush. These fires, ten so far and counting in the last two months, were man-made, the work of some bedeviled soul for reasons that Ethan had yet to understand.
But he swore to himself that he would.
He’d been assigned to his very first task force by Brian Cavanaugh, the Aurora Police Department’s chief of detectives, and, as he’d come to learn in the last nine months, also his paternal uncle.
Knowledge of the latter tie had jolted him, Kyle and Greer the way nothing ever had before. He could state that for a fact, seeing as how, since they were triplets, there were times when he could swear that they functioned as one, single-minded unit.
The three of them received the news at the same time. It had come from their mother in the form of a deathbed confession so that she could meet her maker with a clear conscience. She’d died within hours of telling
them, having absolutely no idea what kind of turmoil her revelation had caused for him and his siblings.
Initially, finding out that he, Kyle and Greer were actually part of the sprawling Cavanaugh family had shaken the very foundations of their world. But in the end, once they’d gotten used to it and accepted the truth, the information had proven not to be life-shattering after all.
He had to admit, at least for him, that it was nice to be part of something larger than a breadbox. Back when his mother’s death was still imminent, he’d anticipated life being pared down to it being just the three of them once she was gone. Three united against the world, so to speak.
Instead, the three of them were suddenly part of a network, part of something that at times seemed even greater than the sum of its parts.
Just like that, they were Cavanaughs.
There were some on the police force who were quick to cry “Nepotism!” when he, Kyle and Greer advanced, rising above the legions of patrol officers to become detectives in the department. But as he was quick to point out when confronted, it was merit that brought them to where they were, not favoritism.
Merit riding on the shoulders of abilities and quick thinking.
On his way home after an extraordinarily long day that had wound up slipping its way into the even longer evening, Ethan had rolled his windows down in an attempt to just clear his head.
Instead, it had done just the opposite.
It felt as if smoke were leeching its way into his lungs and body through every available pore. The starless sky had rendered the black smoke all but invisible until he was practically on top of it.
But nothing could cover up the acrid smell.
In the time that it took for the presence of smoke from the fire to register, Ethan was able to make out where the telltale smell was emanating from. The building to his right on the next block was on fire. Big-time.
Ethan brought his lovingly restored 1964 Thunderbird sports car to a stop, parking it a block away so he didn’t block whatever fire trucks were coming in. And truth be told, it was also to safeguard against anything happening to it. After his siblings, he loved the car, which he’d secretly named Annette, the most.
“I’ll be right back, Annette,” he promised the vehicle as he shut down the engine and leaped out. Despite the urgency of the situation, Ethan made sure that he locked the car before leaving it.
Where was everyone?
There were no fire trucks, not even a department car. People from the neighborhood were gathering around, drawn by the drama, but there was no indication of any firefighters on the scene.
But there was screaming. The sound of women and children screaming.
And then he saw why.
The building that was on fire was a shelter, specifically a shelter for battered women and their children.
Protocol, since there was no sign of a responding firehouse, would have him calling 911 before he did anything else. But protocol didn’t have a child’s screams
ringing in its ears, and calling in the fire would be stealing precious seconds away from finding that child, seconds that could very well amount to the difference between life and death.
Out of the corner of his eye, Ethan saw several people gathering closer, tightening the perimeter of the so-called spectacle.
Disasters attracted audiences. This one time he used that to his advantage. Or rather the shelter’s ad vantage.
“Call 911,” he yelled to the man closest to him. “Tell them that the Katella Street Shelter’s on fire.” He had to shout the end of his sentence, as he was already running toward the building.
Turning his head to see if the man had complied, Ethan saw that he was just staring openmouthed at the building. Disgusted, Ethan reached into his pocket and pulled out his cell phone.
The fire couldn’t be called an inferno yet, but he knew how little it took to achieve the transformation. It could literally happen in a heartbeat.
Raising the windbreaker he was wearing up over his head as a meager protective barrier against the flames, Ethan ran into the building even as he pressed 911.
The next moment, he stumbled backward, losing his footing as someone came charging out of the building. Springing up to his feet, Ethan saw that he’d just been knocked down by a woman. A small one at that. The blonde was holding an infant tucked against her chest with one arm while she held a toddler on her hip on the other side. A third child, just slightly older than the
toddler, was desperately trying to keep up with her gait. He was holding tightly on to the bottom of her shirt and screaming in fear.
Trying to catch his breath, Ethan was torn between asking the woman if she was all right and his initial intent of making sure that everyone was out of the building.
The once run-down building was spewing smoke and women in almost equal proportions. In the background, Ethan heard the sound of approaching sirens. It was too soon for a response to the call he’d made. It was obvious to him that someone else must have already called this fire in. There were two firehouses in Aurora, one to take care of the fires in the southern portion, the other to handle the ones in the northern section. Even given the close proximity of the southern-section fire station, the trucks had to have already been on their way when he’d first spotted the fire.
The woman who had all but run over him now passed him going in the opposite direction. To his amazement, she seemed to be running back into the burning building.
Was she crazy?
He lost no time heading her off. “Hey, wait, what about your kids?” he called out. She didn’t turn around to acknowledge that she’d heard him. Ethan sped up and got in front of her, blocking her path. “Have you got another one in there?” Ethan grabbed the woman’s arm, pulling her away from the entrance as two more women, propping each other up, emerged. “Stay with your children,” he ordered. “I’ll find your other kid,” he promised. “Just tell me where.”
“I don’t know where,” she snapped as she pulled her arm free.
The next moment, holding her arm up against her nose and mouth in a futile attempt to keep at least some of the smoke at bay, the woman darted around him and ran back into the burning building.
Ethan bit off a curse. He had a choice of either remaining outside and letting the approaching firefighters go in after her or doing it himself. Seeing as how they had yet to pull up in front of the building, by the time they could get into the building, it might be too late. His conscience dictated his course for him. He had no choice but to run after her.
Ethan fully intended to drag the woman out once he caught up to her. If she was trying to find another one of her children, he had the sinking feeling that it was too late. In his opinion, no one could survive this, and she had three children huddled together on the sidewalk to think about.
Mentally cursing the fate that had him embroiled in all this, Ethan ran in. He made his way through the jaws of the fire, its flames flaring like sharp yellow teeth threatening to take a chunk out of his flesh. Miraculously, Ethan saw the woman just up ahead of him.
“Hey!” he shouted angrily. “Stop!”
But the woman kept moving. Ethan could see her frantically looking around. He could also see what she couldn’t, that a beam just above her head was about to give way. Dashing over, his lungs beginning to feel as if they were bursting, Ethan pulled the woman back just
as the beam came crashing down. It missed hitting her by a matter of inches.
Still she resisted, trying to pull free of his grasp again. “There might be more,” she shouted above the fire’s loud moan. She turned away but got nowhere. Frustrated fury was in her reddened eyes as she demanded, “Hey! Hey, what are you doing?”
“Saving your kids’ mother,” Ethan snapped back. He threw the obstinate woman over his shoulder, appropriately enough emulating fireman style.
She was saying something, no doubt protesting or cursing him, but he couldn’t hear her voice above the sounds of the fire. As far as he was concerned, it was better that way.
His eyes burned and his lungs felt as if they were coming apart. The way out of the building felt as if it were twice as far as the way in had been.
Finally making it across the threshold, he stumbled out, passing several firefighters as they raced into the building.
One of the firefighters stopped long enough to address him and point out the paramedic truck that was just pulling up.
“You can get medical attention for her over there,” were the words that the man tossed in his direction as he hurried off.
“Let go of me!” the woman yelled angrily. When he didn’t respond fast enough, she began to pound on his back with her fists.
For a woman supposedly almost overcome with smoke, Ethan thought, she packed quite a wallop. He was having trouble hanging on to her. When he finally
set her down near the ambulance, Ethan instinctively stepped back to avoid contact with her swinging fists.
She all but fell over from the momentum of the last missed swing. Her eyes blazed as she demanded, “What the hell do you think you were doing?”
He hadn’t expected a profusion of gratitude, but neither had he expected a display of anger. “Off the top of my head, I’d have to say saving your life.”
“Saving my life?” she echoed incredulously, staring at him as if he’d just declared that he thought she were a zebra.
“You’re welcome,” Ethan fired back. He gestured toward the curb where two of the three children were sitting. The third was in another woman’s arms. The woman was crying. “Now go see to your kids.”
She stared at him as if he’d lost his mind. What the hell was he babbling about? “What kids?” she cried, her temper flaring.
“Your kids.” Annoyed when she continued staring at him, Ethan pointed to the three children she’d had hanging off her as if she were some mother possum. “Those.”
She glanced in the direction he was pointing. “You think—” Stunned and fighting off a cough that threatened to completely overwhelm her, Kansas Beckett found that she just couldn’t finish her thought for a moment. “Those aren’t my kids,” she finally managed to tell him.
“They’re not?” They’d certainly seemed as if they were hers when she’d ushered them out. He looked back at the children. They were crying again, this time
clinging to a woman who was equally as teary. “Whose are they?”
Kansas shrugged. “I don’t know. Hers, I imagine.” She nodded toward the woman holding the baby and gathering the other two to her as best she could. “I was just driving by when I smelled the smoke and heard the screams.” Why was she even bothering to explain her actions to this take-charge Neanderthal? “I called it in and then tried to do what I could.”
Kansas felt gritty and dirty, not to mention that she was probably going to have to throw out what had been, until tonight, her favorite suit because she sincerely doubted that even the world’s best dry cleaner could get the smell of smoke out of it.
Ethan gaped at what amounted to a little bit of a woman. “You just ran in.”
She looked at him as if she didn’t understand what his problem was. “Yeah.”
Didn’t this woman have a working brain? “What are you, crazy?” he demanded.
“No, are you?” Kansas shot back in the same tone. She gestured toward the building that was now a hive of activity with firemen fighting to gain the upper hand over the blazing enemy. “From the looks of it, you did the same thing.”
Was she trying to put them on the same footing? He was a trained professional and she was a woman with streaks of soot across her face and clothes. Albeit a beautiful woman, but beauty in this case had nothing to do with what mattered.
“It’s different,” he retorted.
Kansas fisted her hands on her hips, going toe-to-
toe with her so-called rescuer. She absolutely hated chauvinists, and this man was shaping up to be a card-carrying member of the club.