The alarm bell boomed, rousing Hunter from one of the best night’s sleep he’d had in months. His body immediately transitioned into alert mode, and he jumped out of bed and threw on his gear in quick, fluid movements like he’d done thousands of times. By now he’d mastered the process.
Helmet in hand, he climbed aboard the big, red fire truck with the rest of the crew and the rig pulled out onto the crowded Dallas streets. The chief radioed him with the 411 on the early morning call—a penthouse fire.
A few groans were uttered when he passed the information along to his men. A fire in a high rise could cause numerous complications, the first being that stairs must be used once the power to the elevators was cut, which was probably already the case. Some of the less physically fit firefighters would struggle climbing more than twenty flights of stairs, much less climbing to the seventieth floor with all that gear on their backs.
“You and I’ll go, make an assessment,” Hunter said to Mitch, the other lieutenant and his best friend.
“Ten-four,” Mitch nodded. Mitch was almost as much of a fitness nut as Hunter. Mitch preferred wild endurance courses, the kind that had participants crawling through mud pits under barbed wire, while Hunter was more of a lift-weights-at-the-gym kind of person. They ran together sometimes and had both recently competed in a half marathon. They would be the best prepared team for the challenge.
As the engine pulled up to the building, lights flashing, sirens blaring, Hunter glanced up at the high rise and shook his head. This was going to be a bitch, no doubt about it. His own negativity sent off an alarm bell in his brain and he immediately pushed the thought aside. There was no room for any unconstructive thoughts when he went to work. It was essential he focus on the task at hand and forget everything else.
The building manager ran toward him and informed him that the fire was on the top floor, in the penthouse. Emergency fire hoses were located on the floor below, and as expected, the elevators had been shut down.
“Show me the stairs, and give a blueprint of the building to him,” he said pointing to another firefighter. He gestured to Mitch, “Let’s go.”
He and Mitch jogged up the stairs. Not only were the stairs plentiful, but they were also steep, with short steps their big feet kept slipping off. Once when his foot slipped off a step he groaned.
Mitch half-laughed, “Man, these stairs suck.”
Hunter nodded in agreement, and they pressed on.
When they reached the fiftieth floor they slowed down at the landing to catch their breath, then pressed on. Hunter’s calves screamed at him and each breath was punctuated by a sharp pain. The faint taste of vinegar lingered at the back of his throat due to his lack of oxygen and damn, his chest burned.
At times like these, Hunter had to dig deep to find the resources to cope with the situation. “Whatever it takes”, he told himself. He would do whatever it took to come to the aid of whomever was in that fire at the top of this building. It was his job. It was what he did.
When they reached the sixty-eighth floor the two men’s adrenaline kicked in. “Almost there,” Mitch wheezed, and Hunter nodded. He didn’t think he had enough breath left to speak.
The manager had given them a key to the small hallway outside the only apartment on the seventieth floor and one to the penthouse apartment itself. When they finally topped the stairs, they used the key and burst into the hallway dragging the fire hose from the hallway below and a couple of fire extinguishers along with their regular gear.
They looked for evidence of the fire but saw nothing suspicious. Mitch felt the door to the penthouse and signaled it was hot. Hunter banged on the door first. When there was no answer he tried the key, but it wouldn’t budge in the lock.
Upscale apartment or not, they’d have to break the door down. He motioned to Mitch who swung his axe and soon brought the door down. From the doorway he could see the kitchen was in flames and the fire was spreading through the apartment. He motioned for Mitch to turn on the hose while he radioed down for more backup. Then he sprayed one of the fire extinguishers, then another. At least this stopped the fire from creeping any farther.
It was then he heard the screaming. He entered the apartment, ran down a hallway toward the noise, and quickly located a girl crying in the corner of a bedroom. Even through the haze of the fire, Hunter noticed the pure luxury of the apartment. The silver gilt bed frame looked as if it belonged at Versailles, the craftsmanship was so detailed and over the top.
“Fire department,” he said identifying himself. “Are you alright?” He took the girl by the arm.
She looked up at him with arresting blue eyes. “I think so.”
“Good, let’s get you out of here. Anyone else here?” he asked guiding her back to the door where Mitch was controlling the inferno with the fire-hose.
She shook her head no. “Just me,” she said, a startling loneliness shining in her eyes. He shook it off. He must be imagining things.
Mitch waved them past, “Anybody else?”
Hunter shook his head, “Negative. She’s the only one.”
“Take her down. I got Johnston and Pulaski on their way up. We got this.”
Hunter gave Mitch a thumbs up, put his arm around the girl’s waist and led her into the stairwell.
He took the stairs two at a time and she tried to keep pace with him. Once they reached the first landing, he turned to make sure she was following. She had no apparent injuries, except for possible smoke inhalation, but she was ambulatory, no need for him to carry her.
Taking her in he realized for the first time how beautiful she was. Her wild hair stuck out every which way. The unruly locks consisted of several different colors and it looked more like a mane than any hair he’d ever seen; she reminded him of a lion. Her blue eyes pierced his soul and mesmerized him at the same time. It was an unsettling combination. “Are you sure you’re not injured?” he asked.
“No, I’m okay,” she gazed up at him pitifully. “But my head hurts. Do you think they’ll ever turn off that freaking alarm?” She rubbed her temples.
“Once the fire is out,” he said.
“Crap! Can’t you make it sooner?” she pleaded.
He held out a hand to her and started down the next flight of stairs. “It’s not my job to see that it’s turned off. Somebody who works in the building will have to do it. Come on.”
She stalled on the top step, put her hands on her hips and stuck out a luscious bottom lip. “Can’t you carry me?”
He couldn’t have been more shocked if she’d slapped him. Carry her? Down sixty-something flights of stairs. Who did this bitch think she was, the Queen of England? Some people he’d rescued lost their mind in times of crisis and this girl was definitely one of them if she thought he was going to do that.
Remembering his position helped him control his urge to tell her where to stick it. He’d been passed up for captain once already due to his impulsive behavior in the field. The last thing he needed was the little rich girl making trouble for him. “You’re fine, you can walk,” he said calmly and began walking down the stairs.
She remained on the top step kicking it with her pretty foot, her toenails perfectly manicured with hot pink nail polish. “But my head hurts,” she whined.
“No,” he said firmly. “Now come on.”
“But if I were burned you’d have to carry me down, right?”
“Yes, but you’re not burned, are you?”
She scowled at him.
“Come on,” he ordered her testily.
But rather than complying with his request she sat down on the top step, crossed her arms and rested her forehead on them.
“You’ve gotta be kidding me! Ma’am, there is a fire up there. It is my job to see you to safety. Now let’s go!” His blood began to churn, and he struggled to keep his temper in check.
She didn’t budge.
Exasperated, he climbed the short flight of stairs to her. When he reached her he picked her up, flung her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes, and started back down the stairs.
“What are you doing?” she asked, wriggling in his arms. She wasn’t specifically fighting him, but she wasn’t making it any easier to carry her either.
“My job,” he answered her through clenched teeth.
She tussled with him, but he held her tightly and she was no match for his strength. Frustrated little sounds bubbled up from her throat, but he kept going, determined to get her downstairs to safety.
After descending about ten flights of stairs she yelled, “Put me down!” and started kicking at him.
“No,” he answered, afraid her gyrations would send them both tumbling down the stairs.
“But this is hurting my head. All the blood is rushing to my head, plus that noise, it’s killing me.”
“Hold still or I will have to give you a spanking!”
He felt her stiffen. “You can’t be serious.”
“Oh, I’m deadly serious. If you don’t co-operate you’re going to hurt yourself or both of us.”
Bent over his shoulder, she squealed as she beat on his back with tiny fists.
She wasn’t going to behave. This was a woman who liked to play games, and he had little patience for people like that.
She wore a skirt and he knew he should leave her skirt down, but a need deep inside him got the better of him and he pulled it up to reveal two round, tanned globes interrupted by a thin strip of yellow fabric that served as underwear. His breath caught in his chest for a second as he admired her ass.
He knew better. The higher-ups and the paper pushers would try to take his shield if they ever found out about this. But they didn’t know. They wouldn’t last a day in the field and he smiled to himself picturing some of them trying to get this entitled brat down from her ivory tower. It would never happen.
Allowing his frustration to take over he gave her cheeks a smack, and then another. To his surprise his victim didn’t scream or cry out. In fact, he thought he heard her moan, though it was difficult to be sure over the ear-splitting alarm that still rang through the building.
Realizing she could take it, he struck her harder and harder until he felt her tense up and clutch his coat with a whimper. His cock twitched with arousal and he swatted her again with the same velocity. He’d transformed her bottom into juicy reddish-pink globes and realized they would be nice and warm by now.
He paused and removed one of his heavy gloves. The moment his skin touched hers the electricity in the air became palpable. Her smooth, baby-soft skin felt like velvet as he touched it with his fingertips. Then he grazed her bottom with his palm, wishing he were somewhere else doing this under different circumstances.
Remembering himself, he pulled down her skirt and delicately set her on the stairs, her blue eyes wide, her lips slightly parted.
She was speechless.
He had unnerved her, the lovely penthouse-dweller, and he liked it. This chick was probably used to ordering everyone around, always getting her way. Maybe his spanking would wake her up, teach her a thing or two. He stared at her evenly. “Now, you are going to walk the rest of the way down and you are not going to give me any more trouble. Do we understand each other?”
Her lips curled up slightly at the corners and she managed, “Yes, sir.”
“Good, you go on ahead.” He was afraid if he left her behind she’d sit down again. This way he could monitor her progress.
She descended the stairs ahead, and he followed. A few firefighters ran up the stairs past them, and he could tell from the radio chatter they had gotten the fire under control. Someone mentioned the fire looked to have started in the kitchen.
“So what happened? Were you cooking something, and it got away from you?” he asked.
“Oh, I don’t know. I was asleep,” she peered over her shoulder at him then kept walking down the stairs.
“Asleep?” he asked. The nonchalant way she said it touched a nerve. When he carried her, he’d smelled alcohol. What she meant was that she’d passed out, probably after leaving a burner on and setting something flammable next to it. He’d seen enough house fires to know that was one of the more common ones. Passing out while smoking was another one that happened all the time.
She shrugged, offering no explanation.
Hunter took a deep breath. They witnessed several deaths each year from people killing themselves by accidentally setting fires when they were high or intoxicated. The senselessness of it weighed heavy on him, and this little twit acted like she didn’t have a care in the world. She’d just burned her house down, or at least the majority of it, and all she seemed worried about was getting an aspirin.
When they got to the next landing he put a hand on her shoulder and turned her to face him. “You passed out, didn’t you? Didn’t realize you started the fire…”
“Maybe, I dunno,” she said coolly.
As he studied her, something about her face struck him. She looked familiar all of a sudden, but he couldn’t place her. Before he could figure out where he’d seen her before she wrenched her shoulder from his grasp and continued down the stairs.
“Unbelievable,” he said, disgust dripping from his voice.
“What’s your problem?” she snarked.
“People like you.”
“Whatever. You’re just doing your job. You’re not paid to give your opinions about my misfortune.” She straightened her shoulders and trudged down more stairs.
“Yeah? Well I’m not paid to keep them to myself either.” This was not exactly a lie, but he knew the brass wouldn’t approve of him spouting his mouth off either. Everything was about political correctness these days, not rocking the boat. It didn’t stop him from speaking his mind.
“I don’t see what you’re so fussy about. It’s my apartment that’s ruined. My things that are burned to a crisp!” she trilled, her voice growing more high pitched.
“You’re right. I’m sorry about your apartment. But you need to take this seriously. You realize other people could have been hurt?” The last thing he needed was for her to get hysterical on him, but she seemed oblivious. “Do you have anyone you can stay with?”
She nodded, her chest heaving.
“That’s good. Okay, let’s take a break, catch our breath.”
She looked relieved and plopped down on the next step.
“Hey, you do that and you’d better get back up,” he said, half-serious, half-teasing.
Her smile dazzled him. Even disheveled with a streak of black soot across her cheek the woman was gorgeous. He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen a more gorgeous woman.
Hunter set his watch two minutes. They sat silently, each breathing heavily until the watch beeped and Hunter offered her his hand. She took it and he helped her to her feet. “I’m Hunter, by the way. Hunter Baldwin.”
“Charmaine Bainbridge,” she said.
The name didn’t mean anything to him, but her face did. Where had he seen her before? He shook his head. Unless he was imagining it, it would come to him.
As they journeyed down the never-ending steps Charmaine asked, “How long have you been a firefighter?”
“Did you always know you wanted to be a firefighter?”
“Yeah, ever since I was a kid.”
“That must be nice, to know what you want to do and then do it.”
“I guess. How about you? What do you do?”
“Oh, right.” The penthouse. She must live a life of leisure, coveted by most but he knew he’d go crazy with nothing to do all day, no purpose.
“Well, what did you want to be when you grew up when you were a kid?” he asked.
“For real?” Hadn’t seen that one coming.
“Yeah. I love buildings. When the other kids were drawing stick-people and their pets, I was drawing buildings.”
“What sort of buildings?”
“Anything really—houses, skyscrapers, museums, even treehouses.”
“What happened? I mean why didn’t you become an architect?”
“When I was a teenager my father took me for career assessment. I took all sorts of tests, two long days of testing. In the end when they gave us the results it turned out I was horribly unfit to be an architect.”
“What?” Even though he’d just met this infuriating girl, for some reason it irked him for someone to squash a young girl’s dreams like that. “Unfit how?”
“Well, during one of the tests I took, the examiner took a piece of paper and folded it. He punched a hole in it and asked me to show him on another piece of paper where the holes would be if he unfolded the paper. When it was folded once or twice I could do it, but then he started folding it all different ways, numerous times. I was lost. I had no idea where the holes would be when he unfolded it—none. Turned out that test determines your aptitude for three-dimensional thinking, and I flat out failed it. I was in the 20% percentile for three-dimensional thinking, which is far too low for what you need to be an architect.”
“That sucks.” He liked to believe that people could do anything they wanted to do, but he did have to acknowledge that some people were more suited in life for certain jobs. That’s just the way it was.
“Yeah,” she said and walked a little faster. “It’s okay. My life is fine, great actually.”
“Uh huh.” Who was she trying to convince—him or herself?
A sign on the wall indicated they had reached the second floor. Finally.
As they started down the last flight of stairs he said, “When we get outside there will be paramedics waiting. I will take you to them. They need to check you out, and they’ll probably let you go, though you may have to go to the hospital if they’re worried about smoke inhalation.”
“I may need to go to the hospital after walking down all these stairs!” she huffed.
He laughed. For some reason he found it hard to stay mad at her. It couldn’t be the fact that she had super-model looks complete with a magnificent ass. “Well, I hope you don’t.”
When they reached the bottom he had the strangest urge not to take her outside, but to trap her against the wall and press his lips hard to hers. Invade that sassy little mouth with his tongue and squeeze her breast hard enough to make her flinch. His breathing slowed down even more and he realized he’d actually enjoyed talking with her.
With great effort he redirected his thoughts and pushed open the door to the outside. Sunlight shot them in the face, and they squinted against the brightness. Someone came and draped a blanket over Charmaine’s shoulders even though it was already over eighty degrees and muggy out. Hunter wrapped a protective arm around Charmaine and led her to the waiting ambulance. A flash of lights blinded him for a moment. Was that a camera?
“Take good care of her,” he said, handing Charmaine over to the paramedic.
“You know it,” the paramedic responded and helped Charmaine lay back on a gurney. Then she placed an oxygen mask over Charmaine’s nose and mouth.
Hunter gazed into her big blue eyes. “No more playing with matches, little girl. I don’t want to have to come back here.” Oh what a lie that was.
He touched her chin briefly then went to report to his commanding officer.
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