Excerpt: Seeing Red
Cass had nearly died. According to everything Ben Wyrick heard, the Oklahoma City firefighter had died. The story of Cass Hollister’s fatal accident and incredible resuscitation spread with the speed of a bad virus. Ben didn’t want to admit how hard the news hit him.
It had been eight months since that night at his house when Cass had told him they were over. And now, standing in her hospital room, the sight of her lush curves, the memory of her silky skin still made his pulse hitch. But it was her pale, soot-streaked face and the emotion swimming in her eyes that shook something loose inside him. Being this close to her brought on a tide of emotion, ranging from anger to relief.
It didn’t matter if eight months had passed or eight decades. Ben didn’t think he’d ever be able to look at her without wanting to touch. It was more than the wholesome appeal of her features. There was a sweetness about her, a warmth.
Today, her peach-tinted complexion was waxy. Thick shoulder-length hair, the color of spiced tea, was in her usual neatly twisted braid. French braid, she’d told him once.
She wore a pale blue hospital gown, her breasts full and loose beneath the fabric. Her boots and navy pants sat neatly under the gurney.
The raw burns on her wrists looked tender and had anger sweeping through him. Right now, she was staring at him with those dusky green eyes and they shut off his brain for just a moment, just as they had the first time he’d met her. Thumping himself mentally, he rubbed his nape. “How’re you feeling?”
“Like I swallowed flames,” she said hoarsely.
The deep dimple to the left of her mouth flashed then was gone, but it was enough to make his body go tight. An uncommon sense of protectiveness stabbed through him.
For the fiftieth time, he wished he didn’t have to see her, but there was no way he could’ve gotten out of it. And he’d cussed about it the whole way from the fire investigator’s office to the hospital. Part of him had wanted to reassure himself that she was okay. Now he had, and she was, but he couldn’t leave.
Thanks to training classes, vacations and illness, the other fire investigators were unavailable. Ben had to be the one to interview her. Until now, he’d handled the work load just fine, but he didn’t want to handle this. “Is it okay to talk now? How’s your throat?”
“It’s a little uncomfortable, but nothing like what I’ve felt before with smoke inhalation.” She gave a wan smile, brushing her bangs away from her eyes.
The gesture reminded him of the first time he’d seen her hair down. It had been the first time they’d slept together. Images of the thick ginger-colored silk against his belly, sliding through his hands flooded his mind.
Her appeal wasn’t only physical. She had more integrity than almost anyone he knew and it had cost her a family member when she’d testified against her brother for arson.
Hell. He needed to do his job and get out. “Can you walk me through what happened?”
She recapped the sequence of events after the firefighters’ arrival at the downtown hotel in the midst of being renovated. Five other stations had also responded. For having eaten a massive quantity of smoke, her voice hardly sounded hoarse.
“We’d evacuated the building just before one part of the roof collapsed. Captain Tenney ordered us out. I was in the rear of the hotel and headed for the nearest exit when I saw another firefighter in one of the small offices. He motioned me over, signaled that his sound device wasn’t working.”
She paused and Ben looked up from his notes to find her waiting expectantly. He had questions, but he wanted to hear her version of events uninterrupted to see if she’d unconsciously attached significance to any one thing. “Go on.”
“I tried to get him to leave, but when he didn’t move, I decided he couldn’t see me well enough through the smoke to know what I was telling him. So I went over to lead him out. The next thing I knew, the beam knocked me flat.”
And caused her death. Ben still couldn’t believe it, but he didn’t doubt the doctor who’d saved her. “You were telling me about the firefighter you stopped to help. Who was it?”
“I don’t know. His helmet was pulled down so low, I could barely see his eyes.”
“Didn’t he have a name on his turnout coat?” The smells of antiseptic and smoke drifted around Ben.
“No, and I didn’t see a station number on the side of his helmet either.”
“So you have no idea who this guy is?”
She shook her head. “Someone else on the crew might.”
“I’ll be talking to them later. Probably figure it out then.”
“You’ll let me know what you find out?”
“Sure.” He needed to talk to the other firefighters, her captain and the incident commander before he got a better picture, but Ben already had a kink in his gut.
It was curious that Cass hadn’t recognized the firefighter, but he might have been from a different station house. That wasn’t what got Ben’s attention. What did was the fact that the man had worn no identification, not by station number or name.
The woman in front of him still brought out a primitive instinct to protect. He wanted to touch her so he could feel for himself that she was okay. But he didn’t need to do that. He sure as hell shouldn’t do it.
She wasn’t interested in a relationship. That was what she’d told him. The thought that she was probably already seeing someone else had his jaw clamping tight enough to shatter teeth.
He wasn’t going to ask. It had nothing to do with the case, but his next question did. Ben had no evidence to support his suspicion, but he couldn’t dismiss the possibility that a too-familiar arsonist might be involved.
“I heard Lee was out.”
Guilt and sadness crossed her face at the mention of her brother. “I heard that, too.”
“Has he contacted you?”
“C’mon, Ben. You know he hates my guts.”
“I thought he might’ve gotten in touch with you just to rub it in that he’s free.”
Three years ago, Cass had caught her twin in the act of arson and provided the testimony that sent him to prison. She’d become something of a legend after that.
From Ben’s short time with her, he knew she had tried to keep in touch with her brother, but after being rejected constantly when she visited him in prison, she’d finally let it go.
“His parole officer contacted me the second day Lee was out, saying he hadn’t checked in. I doubt he has since — or will.”
“I imagine you’re right. I’m going to ask around, see if I can get a lead on where he might be. Just to rule him out.”
“Good idea.” Fatigue shadowed her eyes. “If I hear anything, I’ll pass it on.”
“Okay.” He had enough from her for now, so he should get out of here. The longer he stayed, the closer the walls seemed to get. She didn’t exactly look comfortable with his presence, either. “If I have more questions, I’ll be in touch.”
Something flashed in her eyes – longing? – then disappeared. “Okay.”
He turned to go. “I’m glad you’re all right.”
He nodded, wishing he didn’t feel the need to escape, especially since he didn’t have the option of keeping his distance from her, at least not until he figured out what had started the blaze at the hotel.
Why had Cass been the only one hurt? From her description of what had happened and the pictures he’d taken, that beam shouldn’t have been loosened by the part of the roof that had collapsed.
Looking at her pale face made Ben furious that this had happened to her. And it made him feel, he had to admit, furious at her. He’d been kidding himself to think he could see her and not feel anger. Or the heavy throb of desire. He wanted her. He would probably always want her. But he wasn’t going to do anything about it.
Thinking about how she’d walked away from him should’ve cooled his blood, but it didn’t. He’d finally gotten her out of his head. And seeing her just now had put her right back in.
Despite trying not to, Cass was still thinking about Ben hours later when she lay in the darkness, listening to the softly humming monitors hooked up to her head and chest. Moonlight lapped like water against the floor each time the air from the vent fluttered the thin curtains.
After Ben left, the doctor had moved her to a permanent room, saying she must stay at least overnight for observation.
Seeing Ben had filled her with regret. She still believed she’d made the right decision to end their relationship, but she’d handled it poorly. He was better off without her.
His presence had caused a swell of longing inside her. It had also set off the awareness that skimmed the surface of her skin whenever he was near. He was a big man. Shoulders as wide as a door, strong neck, brawny chest covered with hair as black as that on his head. He was a wall of hard striated muscle.
His deep blue eyes were intense, perfect for the unpolished bluntness of his features. Her dad would’ve said Ben’s face had character. His nose was slightly crooked. Deep laugh lines bracketed his mouth and the dark shadow of a beard was always there on his sun-weathered skin. His hands were big, too, callused with long fingers. And incredibly gentle.
His appearance might’ve been too bold for some, but not for Cass. She’d been drawn to everything about him. After not seeing him for so long, that realization had barreled over her the instant he’d stepped into the E.R.
His manner had been distant yet polite. After what she’d done, that was probably more than she should have expected.
Her wrists were stiff with gauze, but at least the earlier pain had dimmed to a throbbing ache. She still felt detached, empty. As if there was no substance to her body. Except for when Ben had been here and then everything inside her had come alive.
She didn’t want to go to sleep. Not only because she was afraid she might dream about him, but also because she was afraid she might not wake up. Still, the strain was too much. She tried to stay awake, but felt herself drifting off.
She knew it was a dream as soon as it started. She was on duty in a well-known department store that was rapidly being engulfed by a blaze. Somewhere a child wailed. Moving as quickly as possible, she followed the sound to the back of the store. No one was there.
She heard her captain’s order to evacuate, and she turned to leave. Eruptions of heat and sparks and fire boiled around her, beneath her, snatching her down into a quicksand of hell.
Blinding gray smoke obliterated her flashlight beam in the dense acrid fog. Someone grabbed her ankle and she reached down to help them. Instead of a person, she gripped a ball of flame, a living incinerator that writhed around both hands like vines.
Her flesh burned as if bare. Where were her gloves? Frantic, she tried to beat off the flames ripping at her hands.
It was too late. The fire peeled off the first layer of her skin, chewing through the flesh, searing her nerve endings.
She shot bolt upright in bed, gasping for air as a cold sweat slicked her spine. Unbearable agony drew her hands into cramped, closed fists. Something was wrong. She needed light.
Flipping the switch was excruciating. She turned her hands over and cried out. Blisters covered her palms. Blood-red bubbles of skin from the bases of both palms to the tips of her fingers.
Tears blurred her vision. Cass dried her eyes on the sheet and looked again.
A dizzying heat washed over her as she stared at her palms, then touched them. Only smooth flesh, undamaged by fire. There were no blisters. None.
© 2008 by Debra S. Cowan
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