The sky had fallen, and with it, the house had fallen too. Sarah crouched with her hands over her head, blond strands of hair falling over her face and getting stuck in her mouth with each breath. She was wedged in the small space between her dresser and her bed, with the roof several feet lower than it usually was and a very cold breeze filtering through the debris stacked above her.
The tornado had come with no warning at all. One moment she had been asleep, the next she was rolling out of bed and onto the floor, covering her head with her arms in the motion her father had drilled into her when she was a girl and praying for her life. There was no time to get to the basement, or even the bathtub. Mother Nature had lashed out and caught her suburb with a devastating sideswipe and the result was that even in her desperate position, she knew she’d been lucky. The house was broken, but it was still vaguely house-shaped. It had not collapsed on top of her entirely. Not yet.
Sirens were blaring all around. The cacophony of the wind and destruction had been replaced by the wailing of police, fire, and ambulance. Loud creaking, snapping sounds echoed around her as the house strained against its own bones. Fear had turned her muscles to stone, and made her brain a lumpen dumb mass incapable of making any decisions. She had no idea how long she’d been there. Time had stopped when the tornado hit, but now she was coming to her senses and starting to realize that she had to get out.
Though she knew she had to move, the courage to actually do so failed her. The worst of the storm had passed, but the winds were still quite high outside and squall after squall made icy fingers of wet wind trickle down her back.
A male voice came through the wailing wind. Sarah did not recognize it as belonging to anyone she knew, but something about the deep timbre unlocked whatever mental chains had been holding her still. She started to move toward it, gathering the presence of mind to grab her phone and purse from the floor where they’d fallen at about the same time she’d tumbled out of bed.
“Anybody there?!” the voice called again.
“I’m here!” she shouted back, finding her voice. She wished she’d worn something more suitable to bed than pink pajamas without any pockets to speak of. Now that her brain was working again, she realized that there was so much more she couldn’t leave the house without. She began crawling toward the doorway, her dirty blond hair loose around her face. As she reached it and peered out down a hall that was warped like some kind of funhouse mirror madness, she heard the same voice booming an order from the region of the front door.
Sarah retreated a little just in time to see the front door fly off its hinges and collapse into several pieces under the business end of a fireman’s axe. Bright lights from outside silhouetted the form of a large man made larger by his fire gear. To her frightened eyes, he looked about ten feet tall and as broad as a giant.
“Come on,” he said, extending his gloved hand toward her. “Come over here.”
“One second,” she said. “I can’t leave yet.”
She scooted out into the hall and started crawling toward the lounge. Half of the house had fallen in on the other half and navigating it was like wriggling through a jigsaw puzzle that had once been her life.
“Get back here!” Her rescuer sounded annoyed, but Sarah wasn’t worried about that. She was worried about saving the precious things that could never be replaced. The last memories of the family she had lost one member at a time. They’d left her, but she would not leave them. Sarah squirmed around a wall that had fallen in, detouring through what had been the bathroom to circle around through a spare room to…
The house shifted again, timber snapping and glass breaking. Sarah screamed as the walls suddenly got a lot closer, stopping just short of crushing her.
“Goddammit!” she cursed at the top of her lungs. The entrance to the lounge was completely blocked now. She’d have to find another way in. She’d have to clear a way in. She crouched down and started pushing fallen bits of wood and furniture. All she needed was a little gap to slide through…
“Stop where you are!” A large hand took hold of her arm from behind.
Sarah screamed again as she turned to see the fireman she’d ignored at the front door. He still seemed like the biggest man she’d ever seen in her life, and now that he was up close she could see that he was handsome too. He had rugged features that were lit to real advantage by diffused moonlight through broken windows. He was wearing a helmet with a face shield, but she could still make out his masculine features: a hard, broad jaw, dark eyebrows quirked above narrow eyes, and a dark curl plastered against his forehead by sweat and dirt.
“Come on, little lady,” he said gruffly. “We have to get out. Now.”
“You get out,” she said. “I have to get something first.”
“There’s no time. This house could come down at any second.”
“Then you better get out of here.” She pulled her arm out of his grasp and bent back down to the task of pushing the broken pieces of her life out of the way. “I just need a little bit more time. I need… ow!”
That large hand returned, but this time it clamped on the back of her neck, scruffing her like a kitten. Sarah let out a whine of complaint as she was pulled up to her feet.
“You’re all out of time,” the firefighter informed her flatly. He pulled her up against his body, wrapping his arm around her waist to cinch her against his hard frame.
“Let me go! You asshole! You son of a bitch!” Sarah screamed every curse she knew as he hauled her through the house, carrying her as if she barely weighed a thing. She didn’t have time to be impressed by that. As far as she was concerned she was being abducted from her home. It might be broken, but it was her place, and nobody had any right to drag her out of it.
Unfortunately for Sarah, she had no control over the situation. The firefighter was big, very big, and yet he moved with alacrity through the narrow spaces with the sort of ease that came with superior strength. As they got to the front door, Sarah put her arms out, bracing herself against the frame.
“I don’t want to go,” she said. “I’m not ready to go!”
“Sorry,” he growled in her ear. “Put your hands down.”
He didn’t ask again. She felt him shift her in his grasp a little, and then she felt one hell of a whack land against her backside. He had spanked her through the thin fabric of her pajamas, his glove-clad hand landing against the roundest part of her bottom. Her hands shot back in a reflex to cover her ass, and that was all it took. He carried her out the front door and into the cold of the night.
Sarah wasn’t ready to give up though. She fought him with everything she had, kicking and squirming and shouting at the top of her lungs. “Let me go! Dammit! Let me go now!”
With his arms full of screaming, flailing girl, John kept his cool. It wasn’t the first time he’d had to deal with a belligerent subject. Fear and trauma tended to have different effects on different people. Some shut down, some cried—and others, like this curvy little blonde, swore their heads off.
“Settle down,” he ordered, continuing to take charge of the situation. “You’re bleeding.”
“Liar! I am not!”
Adrenaline meant that she had no idea she’d cut her feet walking over broken glass. She was making the lower parts of his uniform pants look like a red-streaked modern art installation with all her kicking and carrying on.
He carried her to a triage tent. Most of the medics were busy with more serious cases. Anyone capable of cursing the way this girl was wasn’t terribly high priority. Once inside the tent, he sat her on a bench, wrapped a blanket around her shoulders to keep her warm, and got some light on her feet. Thanks to the fact she’d mostly crawled around, there weren’t any cuts to the soles of her feet, but she’d sustained a series of cuts to her knees, lower legs, and the tops of her feet.
“You must have done this when you were crawling around in there,” he surmised. “These are going to need some stitching.”
“You’re going to need some stitching,” she rejoined petulantly. “Abducting me from my house like that. I’m going to lay a complaint.”
Now that they had some light in the tent, he could look at her properly. She was cute, or would have been if she wasn’t snarling. She had messy blond hair and bright blue eyes set in an attractively round face that tapered to a sharp chin. Her mouth was set in a petulant flat line as she looked at him expectantly, wanting some kind of reaction.
John reminded himself that he was meeting this young woman on what was probably the very worst day of her life. The nicest people in the world could turn into utter monsters under enough stress and pain.
“I’m going to bandage these up and turn you over to the medics,” he said. “They’ll need to assess you.”
“You can turn me over to myself,” she said. “I’m going back home.”
John drew in a deep breath and fixed her with a stern look. “If I catch you going anywhere near that house, I’ll turn you over my knee and tan your hide, little lady.”
Her eyes widened into an expression of outrage and surprise. “You can’t talk to me like that!”
“Given the way you’ve been running your mouth, consider yourself lucky you haven’t already been given a damn good thrashing.” He didn’t have to play at being stern; it came naturally when dealing with this young woman.
She didn’t have anything to say to that, so it seemed. He almost thought she was blushing in response, though that could have been nothing more than a stress reaction. Either way, his words seemed to settle her down some, and that was a good thing.
“What’s your name?” she asked him, probably by way of changing the subject.
“John,” he said. “What’s yours?”
“Sarah,” she said, wincing slightly as he started to clean the cuts. That was a sign the adrenaline was wearing off. He kept a careful eye on her, looking for signs of shock.
“This will sting,” he said as he used the hydrogen peroxide solution liberally.
Sarah gave a stoic little shrug. “Probably no more than that thrashing you threatened me with.”
He glanced up to see that she was looking at him with a little smile. He found himself smiling back. So she’d liked the threat, or at least not taken offense to it. Interesting.
She was definitely a tough little thing, staying stoic as he inspected each of the cuts for stray glass or other debris and washing out any he did find with a stream of the disinfecting agent. It wasn’t a pleasant process, but it would save infection down the line.
“Is it bad?” She frowned down at him as he inspected the deepest cut, one just above her ankle. It was a nasty place to get that kind of injury and she’d definitely need a few stitches there.
“I think you’ll keep the foot,” he winked. “How sore is it?”
“It’s fine,” she lied. He could see the pain in her eyes as he handled her leg, but she clearly didn’t want him knowing or sympathizing with her discomfort.
“Well, it will be a lot more fine once the medics get some pain relief into you,” he reassured her. “Just hang in there a little longer.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she said dismissively. “It’s not a problem. I’ve had worse.”
She had a heck of an attitude. A chip on her shoulder big enough that he could practically see it, but everyone responded differently to stress and John wasn’t about to blame her for being a bit off in the middle of a disaster. Chaos was all around them, flashing red and blue lights reflecting off both of their faces as ambulance, police, and fire vehicles came and went. The damage was limited to a few blocks, but those few blocks had suffered. Sarah had been lucky. Some of the other houses nearby were flattened as if some giant boot had come from the sky and simply stepped on them.
“Looks like they’ve got room for you in this next ambulance,” he said once he had her prepped to go. “Are you going to be a good girl for me and let the medics help you?”
She sighed at him, defeated. “Fine,” she said. “I’ll be good. Just for you.”