Can't Help Falling In Love (The Sullivans #3)


by Bella Andre

Chapter One

Gabe Sullivan was helping an elderly couple down the stairs of an old San Francisco apartment building and out onto the sidewalk when the air was rocked with an explosion of flames and smoke out a second-story window.

After ten years as a firefighter, Gabe knew no fire was ever routine. No flame ever played the same game. And sometimes the simplest call could turn into the most complicated. The most dangerous.

“Everyone out,” his station captain, Todd, told the crew. “This fire has accelerated and we’re switching to defensive operation.”

Gabe still had his hand on the elbow of the gray-haired woman and she turned to him with a look of horror on her face. “Megan and Summer are still inside.”

He knew the woman must be on the verge of shock, so he spoke to her in a clear, steady voice. “Who are Megan and Summer?”

“My neighbors, a mother and her little girl. I saw them go into their apartment a while ago.” The woman looked around at the tenants, who were gathered around the fire trucks as they watched their things go up in flames that were raging more out of control by the second. “They’re not out here.” She gripped his arm hard. “You have to go inside to save them.”

Gabe wasn’t a firefighter who believed in superstition. He didn’t have a routine he lived and died by. But he did believe in his gut.

And his gut was telling him there was a problem.

A big one.

“Which apartment are they in?”

She pointed to the third-story windows. “Number 31. They’re on the top floor, corner unit.” The woman looked like she was going to cry.

Seconds later, he found both the captain and his partner, Eric, in the middle of the crowd of people out on the sidewalk and street. “We’ve got to go back in. A mother and daughter could still be inside. Third floor, corner apartment.”

Todd looked from Gabe to the fire raging inside the building. “Make it quick, guys,” he said, and gave the rest of the crew orders to focus their hose streams up toward the apartment to try to keep the flames at bay.

Eric and Gabe moved in tandem to pull the hose into the building. Masks on, their earpieces were activated. They moved up the stairs as quickly as they could through the thick smoke that hung in the air like the fog San Francisco was so famous for. With their breathing apparatus on, they were okay. But a civilian wouldn’t last long without frequent hits of oxygen.

Forcefully pushing his fears for the mother and daughter aside, he concentrated on moving from the first floor to the second, and then the third. They made good time up to unit 31, even dragging the heavy hose through the thick smoke and up the steep, tight flight of stairs. He tried the door, which of course was locked.

Gabe slid his axe from its holster. “If anyone is by the door, I’m about to knock it down with an axe. Back away.” Even though he yelled, his voice was muffled through the mask.

Jesus, the smoke was heavy, nearly thick enough to cut with a knife. Would they find anyone alive inside?

“You got it?” Eric asked him as he took a few quick hits of air.

Rather than answering, Gabe cocked the heavy tool back and landed the top of the axe head against the door, right by the knob. A hollow door would have split apart in seconds, but this old wood door was thick enough that he had to do a dozen sustained hits to get it to budge. When he felt the frame start to loosen up, he kicked at it.

Finally, it swung open and he was in.

Sliding his axe back into its holster, he reached for the hose and started to drag it inside, but it wouldn’t move.

“It’s jammed. I need more hose.”

He looked behind him and saw Eric yanking on the hose with all his might. “I’m going to have to head down and see where it’s hung up.”

They both knew how dangerous the situation was, one firefighter leaving his partner to free the hose equipment. But Gabe couldn’t stick with Eric. Not if lives were on the line. Not if the sixty seconds it took him to help with the hose meant a child might die tonight.

The flames were already rippling above his head and even though he wasn’t in the position he wanted to be in, Gabe cracked open the nozzle on the hose and started blasting the roof to push them back. He could feel 800-degree heat coming down on him over his turnouts as he moved further into the room. This apartment was clearly one of the hot points of the fire, possibly the room it had all begun in, judging by the black/white soot already covering the furniture that hadn’t yet burned.

He stilled as he thought he heard someone calling out, crying for help. With the hose still jammed, he had no choice but to drop it and make a move in the direction of the sound. A white door with a mirror on it was closed and he kicked it open, shattering the mirror beneath his steel-toed boots.

As a new flood of smoke rushed through the door, his vision was impaired for a split second, but even though he couldn’t see anyone in the small bathroom, he knew exactly where to look. He ripped back the shower curtain and found a woman holding her daughter in her arms in the old claw foot bathtub.

He’d found Megan and Summer.

“Megan, you’ve done good. Real good,” he told her through his mask. Her eyes were so big, and so scared, his chest clamped down on itself hard. “I’m going to help get you and Summer out of here now.”

She opened her mouth and tried to say something, but all she could do was cough, her eyes closing as tears seeped out onto her cheeks.

He pulled off one of his gloves to check the unconscious girl’s pulse. Thanking God that it was still steady, he put his glove back on, then reached for her.

Her mother’s eyes shot open and they played tug of war for a moment before she let the girl go. Her lips moved in a silent plea: Please.

He knew better than to let her fear, her terror stop him from doing what he needed to do to get them out alive. And yet, her eyes held him a moment longer than he should have let them. The love she felt for her daughter was as clear in the expression on her face as if he’d known her forever, rather than just a handful of rapidly ticking seconds in the middle of what felt like a war zone.

“I’m going to take Summer and we’re going to crawl out of here. Can you do that?”

She nodded and he gripped her arm to help her slip over the edge of the tub. She was shaky, but she was clearly a fighter. After helping her out of the tub, he pulled an air mask out and moved to put it over her face so that she could take some clean hits of air into her lungs. She tried to push it away, tried to get it over her daughter’s face, but he’d anticipated this movement and shook his head.

“You need to take it first.” He spoke loudly so that she could hear him through his mask. “Otherwise you’ll be dead weight and none of us will get out of here alive.”

She grabbed the mask from him, then, and clamped it against her face. Her eyes widened as she took her first breath and he knew to pull it back so that she could cough a few times before putting it back on, holding it gently in place as she took what she needed so badly.

When she shook her head and glanced wildly at her daughter, he reluctantly removed the mask and put it over her daughter’s mouth and nose. The girl stirred slightly, coughed, then seemed to settle.

They were all flat on the floor to avoid the heat and he was about to tell Megan the next steps in their escape plan when the motion detection alarm on his belt went off. It was second nature for him to reset it before anyone on the crew could be alarmed that he was down. It was dangerous as hell up in the third floor apartment and he didn’t want anyone else on his crew up there unless there was no other option.

With visibility almost completely gone, he yelled, “We’re going to crawl against the wall edge to stay low out of the smoke and heat until we find the doorway.”

Slowly, they made their way along the molding at the bottom of the wall to the doorway. Gabe carried Summer under his left arm, and kept frequent checks on Megan as they continued into the living room, which was worlds hotter than the bathroom had been. He prayed the heat wouldn’t have her passing out. Just in case, he helped her along every few seconds by wrapping his free arm around her waist and pulling her forward. She wasn’t limp in his arms, which was a very good thing, but he could feel how weak she was, that she was fighting to stay conscious with everything she had.

Finally, they made it to the tip of the hose. “You’re doing great,” he called out to her. “All we need to do is grab the hose and follow it back down.”

He took her hand in his and placed it over the rigid pressurized hose. When he was confident that she had it, he moved behind her to help push her along, lifting her when her legs collapsed on her every few feet or when she was coughing too much to move on her own.

It was damn hard going through the heat and smoke, even in his turnouts with his air pack, and he admired the hell out of her. He should have been carrying two dead weights out of the apartment building, not just one little girl. Megan holding it together like this was going to be the difference between life and death.

“Turn around,” he yelled to her when they reached the landing at the top of the stairs. “We’re going to go down backward. And we’re going to keep moving, no matter what.”

He moved behind her again, going lower on the stairs to catch her in case she fell. Her little girl was stirring in his arms and he prayed she wouldn’t wake up in the middle of this fiery hell.

A loud booming noise sounded and he looked up to see part of the wall beside the front door that he’d kicked in falling down in sheets.

Grabbing Megan, he moved with her and his daughter as quickly as he could down several steps. She had her head lowered and her arms over her hair to protect herself from falling sheetrock.

“Keep moving!” he yelled.

Every second that ticked by as they made it down one more step, and then another, was long and fraught with peril. He could feel how thin the well-worn steps were and knew they could crumble at any point.

By the time he could hear his crew yelling over the sound of the mini-explosions that kept going off all around them, he decided it was time for speed. He went to his feet to get down to the bottom as quickly as he could with one person under each arm.

Almost at the bottom of the stairs, he could finally see what had stopped his partner from coming back upstairs to assist with more hose. A huge ceiling beam had fallen down over the rail and it had sent the whole area around it up in massive flames. Judging from the water and smoke pouring off of it, he guessed Eric had been focused on putting that fire out before it took out the entire staircase and stranded Gabe and his victims upstairs.

Somehow he needed to get around the beam, but it was still too big and too hot for him to pass without putting Megan down. Damn it, he didn’t want to leave her there alone where anything could happen to her while he took Summer outside.

Thank God, just then, through the smoke he heard a voice yelling, “Give them to us,” and a moment later Eric and Todd were pulling both mother and daughter from his arms and taking them to safety.

Amazingly, it wasn’t until that moment that Megan lost consciousness, her strong fingers that had been gripping at his arm going limp as Eric took her from Gabe.

As he yelled, “The mother just passed out,” to Eric, Gabe’s attention was so focused on her that he waited a moment too long to hurdle the smoking beam.

He heard the loud crack a split second before a chunk of ceiling came flying down straight onto his forehead. He hit the ground as hard as the beam had hit him. Darkness swam before his eyes.

The last thing he heard was the motion alarm on his belt going off.

Chapter Two

Megan Harris woke up with her daughter in her arms. They often snuggled at night after a late movie or if Summer had a bad dream, but something felt different. Not just the bed, but the itchy spot on the inside of Megan’s elbow and the way her throat felt raw and abused.

She smelled smoke in her hair, in Summer’s hair, and she scrunched her nose up at the dark scent of fire that felt like it was seeping from their pores.