Sparks aren’t just flying . . . they’re catching.
Eli Johnson is not a hero. He’s just a guy who’s doing his best. His mother was a hero, though, and when she died, he dropped out of college to become a firefighter—a vocation she would have been proud of. He might not be able to save everyone, but he can do what she taught him: put more good out than bad.
Charlie Kinnear is definitely not a hero. When he ran into a burning building to save a trapped child, he was acting on instinct. He’s not expecting a medal, or for a handsome firefighter with a stunning smile to give him his oxygen mask. Charlie’s light-headed, and not from smoke inhalation.
Right as their romance begins, a serial arsonist terrorizes the city. As if that weren’t bad enough, Charlie appears at the scene of every fire. Eli hates to think it, but if someone wanted to get a firefighter’s attention—say, a certain sexy someone who coincidentally wandered into Eli’s life—what better way than by starting fires? Sparks are flying all right, and things may get too hot for Eli and Charlie to handle.
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Eli scowled at Pistol, his glare unwavering. “There’s no point in lying to me. I know what you did. Admit it. You’re a scheming, cold-hearted murderer.”
A loaded pause passed.
Pistol blinked slowly at him before flicking his tail twice and sashaying to the side, revealing the body of the dead mouse he’d been hiding behind his rotund haunches.
“I knew it. Fucking cats.”
Sighing, Eli stood for a moment in the middle of his kitchen, the white tile warming beneath his bare feet. Gray light filtered through the tattered blinds, a precursor to dawn. It was too damn early for this.
He grabbed a paper towel off the roll by the sink, carefully scooped up the poor mouse’s body, and dumped it in the trash. Then he tied the drawstrings on the half-full bag and carried it outside, shivering as the cool morning air sliced through his tank top and shorts.
Wasting a bag was a shame, but he couldn’t have a corpse stinking up his little kitchen, and there was always a chance Pistol would knock over the trash to collect his prize as soon as Eli left for work.
Once more, with venom, he muttered, “Fucking cats,” as he tossed the garbage into the can.
When he turned back to the little house, his eyes skimmed over familiar details: faded paint, overgrown hedges, and a lawn that needed cutting. It was hard to find the energy to maintain it on the best of days, especially considering he rented. The darkened kitchen window reflected the outline of his tall form back to him, but no detail.
The reflection was broken, as if a stone had been launched into a pond, when two fuzzy heads appeared in the holes in the blinds. Eli had stopped bothering to replace the covers. The cats would just tear them up again regardless.
Walking back inside, he clicked his tongue at the two animals. “Moxie, Chutzpah. Down.”
They stared at him. Moxie, the green-eyed tabby, obeyed only to attack the all-black blob on the floor that was Pistol. As she gnawed on his ear, he glanced dolefully up at Eli.
“Don’t look at me.” Eli shrugged. “Fight back if you want her to stop.”
Pistol rolled over in response, exposing his large stomach. Chutzpah turned back to the window, as if Moxie’s compliance counted toward his own as well.
“Get a cat, they said.” Eli sat at the small wooden table next to the fridge. The smell of brewing coffee filled his nose in the most pleasurable way. “It’ll be fun, they said. Oh, but you can’t stop at one. They need a friend! And when a stray ginger boy shows up at your door, shivering and starving, it’s not like you can turn him away. I swear, every month I go without a boyfriend, I earn another cat. Like some sort of loneliness Boy Scout badge.”
Chutzpah twisted around to look at him, orange eyes seeming to say, Talking to us is not helping your case.
Thankfully, the coffee maker chirped just then. He poured himself a cup and splashed in some milk, enough to lighten the color a shade or two.
As it did every day, his mother’s voice echoed in his head, “You like your coffee the same color as your eyes—“ He tore open two Splenda packets and added them as well. “—and as sweet as your heart.”
The memory wrenched his mouth out of the frown it’d been stuck in since his alarm had gone off. His smile widened when he glanced up and caught sight of a cluster of photos stuck to the fridge with colorful magnets. His mother, Delilah Johnson, saluted him, all decked out in her blue Air Force uniform, the triangular hat almost lost in her voluminous hair.
Eyes suddenly stinging, he glanced away and made a mental note to call his dad after work. See how he was doing. It was hard to believe eight years had passed. He still found it hard to look at her dark eyes, shining with life.
“Gonna make you proud today, Mom.” He gulped down his too-hot coffee and dumped the dregs into the sink. “Or at least, I’m gonna do my best.”
He slipped through the spartan living room to his bedroom. More photos of family members littered his nightstand and bureau. From his closet, he produced one of his many blue Louisville Fire Department T-shirts and standard-issue khaki pants.
The dry season had been over for months, and a wet spring had settled over most of Kentucky. If he wanted to, he could show up in civvies—he probably wasn’t going to do much more than cook, clean, and work out—but if he did, and they got a call, everyone would blame him. People who thought the theater was superstitious had clearly never been to a fire station.
If Mom were here, she would have teased him. She’d never believed in things like bad luck or jinxes. Her philosophy had always been simple: you got back what you put out, nothing more and nothing less. Unlike Eli’s father, who hobbled down to church every Sunday and prayed for everything from good poker hands to winning the lottery.
I miss her so much.
He sat on the neatly made bed to pull on his socks and boots, losing himself in the routine. When he was finished, he ducked into the bathroom to brush his teeth, taking a long look at himself in the mirror. The bags under his eyes were darker than his brown skin, almost like bruises. His hair fell in springy curls over his brow.
His shirt needed to be ironed, but he didn’t have time for that before work. He smoothed out whatever wrinkles he could see with his hands. He cut an impressive figure in his uniform, but the muscle wasn’t for show. If he had to lift a smoldering beam off someone, he had to do it fast.
After grabbing his things and an apple for the road, he searched for his cats so he could say goodbye. Chutzpah was still in the window, Moxie had joined him again, and Pistol was splayed out in front of the fridge like a puddle of ink. “Be good, y’all. Guard the house while I’m gone. And please, no more mice?”
They didn’t respond—thank God. All he needed was to start hallucinating his cats were talking to him. He left through the front door, letting the screen bang shut behind him. Outside, wet grass made slick sounds beneath his boots.
The sky was slate gray and opaque. The only indication that a sunrise was currently happening was the gradual lightening of the thick charcoal clouds. Maybe he could convince Chief Sappenfield to let them leave the trucks out for a nice soak. It’d beat washing them for the third time this week.
A nondescript green sedan waited for him in the cracked driveway. He waved to Mrs. Kavanagh—the little old white lady next door he was extra careful to be sweet to, even though she always eyed him like he was going to snatch her pocketbook—and climbed in. The engine sprang to life the second he turned the key, not with an impressive roar but with a reliable, midrange purr.
As Louisville slid past outside the windows, Eli’s eyes roved over buildings he’d seen so many times, he barely registered them anymore. The neighborhood market. Strings of cute mom-and-pop shops. The elementary school he quietly resented because if he drove past it around three, the speed limit changed to fifteen miles per hour. All of it was crowned by the small but stately skyline in the distance. A dozen or so skyscrapers cut the metallic sky into a jigsaw puzzle. It was no New York City, but it suited Eli fine.
His fire station—one of many in the metro area—had become a second home to him in the past five years. To be honest, it was a big-ass glorified garage where the trucks slept when they weren’t in use, but his heart still fluttered when he caught sight of the proud redbrick façade, wedged in the heart of downtown between a plain building and a filling station where the FD, PD, and EMS all fueled their trucks. He pulled into the parking lot next to the firehouse. Within seconds, a young black woman appeared as if by magic.
“Eli!” Anette, the FD’s newest recruit, jogged over to his car, her wild hair barely contained by the firefighter’s helmet jammed onto her head. Eli would bet money she and Thorogood had been racing to see who could get their gear on fastest again.
She flashed perfect white teeth at him. “Right on time, as per usual.”
Eli locked his car and smiled. “Hey, Anette. You’re awfully peppy for this ungodly hour.”
“Gotta be to balance out Chief Sappenfield.”
“Ah. I take it she’s in one of her sunny moods?”
“About as sunny as this weather.” Anette frowned up at the sky, her dark eyes narrowing with disapproval. “Think it’ll rain?”
“According to the forecast, it’s guaranteed. I’m calling it right now: we’re in for a quiet morning.”
Anette laughed. “You know you just jinxed us, right?”
“You know I don’t believe in that crap.”
Not really, anyway.
She led the way to the station, chattering all the while about this and that: what she’d done over the weekend, a joke McPherson had told her, and date night with her new boyfriend. Her energy seeped into Eli as if by osmosis, perking him up. By the time they walked into the station, he finally felt ready for the day.
The familiar smell of diesel and rubber hit him full force. Was it sad he’d grown to love that smell? A cherry-red fire truck gleamed under the overhead lights. Decades ago, the first truck had been named Dottie, and the tradition lived on. Currently, they were on Dottie III. It was filthy, which meant it’d need to be cleaned. Again. That was one stereotype about firefighters that Eli couldn’t deny: they were constantly washing their dirt-magnet trucks.
Hanging around the truck were three other members of the first crew: McPherson, Rogers, and Thorogood. They were decent guys, and great at their jobs, but Eli hadn’t warmed to any of them. They were older, white, and conservative, for the most part. Like the majority of Louisville.
Only Anette had gone out of her way to be friendly. He suspected that was partially because the others treated her with similar reserve, for similar reasons. It could also be a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Folks at the station had assumed he and Anette were friends long before they’d actually connected. Anette joked that it was because they were the youngest, or the hottest, or had the most swag. But they both knew the real reason.
“Johnson, get in here.” Chief Sappenfield’s barking voice sounded from the glassed-in dispatch room on the far end of the station, opposite the lockers where they stowed their gear and the proverbial firefighter’s pole that spat them out onto the ground level.
“Uh-oh,” Anette whispered. “She sounds crankier than before.”
Eli hustled over to the office. “Ma’am.”
Chief Sappenfield was standing straight-backed between the dispatch radio and the charging station where the individual radios for the first and second crew were all nestled together. Her back was to him, but when he entered the office, she twisted around.
He assessed her quickly, searching for signs that he was in for a verbal beatdown. Tall, Latina, mid-forties, with a semipermanent scowl on her face. She didn’t appear any more agitated than usual, however, so perhaps everything was fine.
Anette’s “cranky” description had been fair, and much nicer than the “hard-ass” moniker the chief had earned from the others, but Eli had never known the battalion chief to be anything other than reasonable. She demanded what she knew you could give. If you fell short of her expectations, her disapproval would be nothing compared to your disappointment in yourself.
“Good morning, Johnson,” she said briskly, getting the pleasantry over with.
“Morning, Chief. You asked to see me?”
“I wanted to give you a heads-up. I changed the schedule in the rec room. Rogers has to take his daughter to an early doctor’s appointment. You got the evening shift on Friday.”
Eli only barely suppressed a groan. “Evening” shifts for them were more like graveyard shifts. Someone had to be here around the clock in case a call came in, rainy season or not. As the only person in the first crew with no children, Eli often got stuck filling schedule holes. It was absolute murder on his social life.
Another Friday evening spent here, alone. Well, at least I’ll have the rec room to myself. Might actually get a turn at the Xbox for once.
Nodding, Eli smiled. “Fine by me. Hope Rogers’s daughter is all right.” His gaze drifted to the arm of the chief’s decorated uniform. Words jumped out at him from the embroidered badge near her shoulder: Honor. Courage. Duty. Dedication. The motto of their department. Words his mother would have taken very seriously. Words he tried to live by.
“Something on your mind?” Chief Sappenfield asked.
Eli toyed with a couple of lies before discarding them. He’d never been any good at lying, and the chief had more than earned honesty from him. “Been thinking about my mom a lot today for some reason.”
Instantly, Chief Sappenfield’s hard eyes melted. She patted him on the arm. “It never really goes away, does it? Grief, I mean. Don’t tell the guys, but I still have dreams where I talk to my father. Waking up is bittersweet.”
“My lips are sealed. Thanks, Chief. I’ll check out the schedule and then get to work.”
“Good. Lord only knows there’s always something to do around here.” The dispatch radio behind her buzzed right on cue. A gruff male voice barked the chief’s name. She gestured at Eli as she picked it up. “Dismissed.”
Scuttling away, Eli made a pit stop at the rows of tall metal lockers. They each had their own, and they were mostly full of everyone’s turnout gear: fireproof jackets, pants, suspenders, breathing masks, and more.
Almost everyone, however, also kept photos of their families taped inside. Smiling wives, kids holding puppies, that sort of thing. Eli was the exception, having no spouse to display. Even Anette had one of those cheesy photo booth strips of her and her latest squeeze.
Maybe you should propose to the Xbox and call it a day.
After checking his gear, Eli headed for the back of the bay. It housed the master air tanks that filled their individual ones. He’d serviced his tank only yesterday, but he checked it regardless. Not that he’d jinxed them or anything.
Next, he trekked upstairs to the communal areas. There was the rec room—where they spent hours of downtime huddled together on old, squishy couches—followed by the kitchen, where they took turns cooking for everyone during long shifts.
To the right was a storeroom with extra equipment and cots for grabbing power naps. It was the neatest storeroom in existence, because it also housed the fire pole. The way to it was kept clear at all times, on pain of having Chief Sappenfield flay you alive. Finally, behind an imposing wooden door, lay the chief’s office, a place they all dreaded. The chief only ever called someone in there if they really fucked up.
In the rec room, a whiteboard displayed the chores rotation and the schedule—who was on duty, who was at home, and who could be called for backup. Eli was almost always in the first crew, since his schedule was flexible. The second crew only got called for big fires or if a second fire broke out in their jurisdiction at the same time.
Sure enough, Eli was working three night shifts this week, only two of which he’d signed up for. This was what he got for complaining about having to wake up at the crack of dawn. The universe was always listening, and it loved to make him eat his words.
Much as he groused, working nights wasn’t terrible. The station was a different place when it wasn’t buzzing with people. A little spooky, sure, but the sight of Dottie III and the gleam of the fire pole always put him at ease. Eli had done some of his best thinking while stretched out on a cot, one ear tuned to the alarm that could go off at any moment and his brain a million miles away.
There was no denying it was lonely, however. At twenty-eight, he was far from old, but every Friday he spent with only himself for company was starting to feel more and more like a missed opportunity. His mom had always told him to focus on his education, and then later on his career. She’d said everything else would fall into place when it was ready.
Well, he had a career he loved, and he was settled. Where was the rest? When were things going to fall into place for him?
He hadn’t expected an answer, but in a sense, he got one.
The alarm tripped, blaring through the station with such force it drowned out thought. Eli’s instincts took over. He was out of the rec room and into storage in seconds, where the fire pole jutted up out of the floor to the ceiling. His muscles knew precisely what to do as he grabbed it, wrapped his ankles around it, and slid smoothly down.
The garage was an upturned anthill. Through the glass, he spotted Chief Sappenfield on the dispatch radio. Only one alarm had tripped, indicating a small fire, but judging by the grave look on her face, something was wrong.
Eli didn’t waste time trying to read her. He scrambled to the lockers along with the rest of his squad: McPherson, Rogers, and Anette. His heart pumped gasoline and broken glass. It was an incredible high: the mix of adrenaline, fear, and raw determination that flooded through him.
Moments like this made him feel unstoppable. Strong. Like he could rip the door of his locker clean off the hinges. But it also made him feel acutely vulnerable. One wrong move, and it could all be over. People could get hurt. Or worse.
Out of the corner of his eye, Eli saw Thorogood, the lead on the run crew, on his radio, repeating back the information from emergency dispatch. God forbid they wasted precious time driving to the wrong location. The faster they got to the scene, the more likely they could contain the fire before it spread.
This was where endless training and drills came into play. They had a little over two minutes to get their gear on and load into the truck. Every time that alarm went off, Eli was suddenly traveling through Jell-O. His limbs moved in slow motion as he pulled on his gear, assembled the pieces of his mask, and jammed his helmet onto his head.
Despite this, according to his internal count, he was dressed and ready in a minute and ten seconds: his personal best. McPherson, the resident veteran, had already finished and was readying Dottie III. Eli ran to help him. The water tanks would have been filled already, but he checked the gauges anyway. Full. Same for gas. Same for the spare air tanks. They were good to go.
Anette and Rogers appeared, geared up, followed by Thorogood.
He shoved radios into their hands. “There’s a confirmed fire at Woodrow Elementary.”
Holy shit, a school. No wonder the chief had looked perturbed.
“Students have been evacuated. The chief says to move your asses. We’re not taking any chances with this one. I’ll dispatch the second crew ASAP. Tune to channel one-seven-five.”
They didn’t pause to do more than grunt confirmation before they piled into the truck: two in the front, two in the back. Eli scrambled into the passenger seat next to Rogers, but in his head, he was already at the scene. All fires were frightening, but one at a school carried an extra level of trepidation. The tension in the air was thick as steel wool.
That’s the same school I’m always complaining about. Fuck. I’ll never do that again. Maybe I really did jinx us.
When they were all belted in, and the others had indicated via radio that they were ready, Eli flipped a switch on the dash. The siren blared to life as the white and red lights started flashing. Visibility was always paramount, but with children on the line, they were going to be barreling through every red light they came across.
While Rogers navigated the multiton vehicle out onto the street—cars skittering out of the way like mice—Eli tuned their dash radio to the correct frequency. Even over the siren, he could hear the dispatchers talking.
“. . . police and EMS have arrived on the scene. Over.”
“The fire appears to have started in the gym and is spreading quickly. Over.”
“Head counts of the children are being conducted, and it seems not all are accounted for. Police are attempting to clear pedestrians from the area and set up barricades. Over.”
Voices ricocheted off each other as news poured in. Eli’s blood sang with exhilaration, and nerves plucked taut strings in his stomach.
They saw the smoke long before the small elementary school came into view. The scene they arrived on was undiluted chaos, a life-sized hornet’s nest. Children and teachers were huddled together on the green front lawn while a white cinderblock building smoldered a dozen yards away.
Ambulances and police cars ringed the school like a moat. Paramedics were checking several children with ash-smudged faces, and police were fighting to set up a barrier. Literally fighting, because a dozen or so civilians—teachers?—were trying to sprint toward the gym. Eli got it, he really did, but hysteria would do more harm than good.
As they pulled up, he assessed the gym for entry points, potential danger, and the likeliest origin of the flames. It was practically instinct to him now as his eyes ticked off the scorched left side and intact glass windows. The building itself was mostly cement, which had undoubtedly stymied the spread of the fire. It hadn’t reached the main school building yet, and since they were separate, it likely wouldn’t.
It looked as though an equipment shed next to the gym had been the origin point, and the flames had spread via dead grass to a side door before creeping inside. If the gym had a wooden basketball court, it would certainly burn. Things could get much, much worse.
But the filmy smoke and lack of visible flames suggested they’d gotten here before too much damage had been done. There was hope.
Rogers parked the truck next to the closest fire hydrant and slammed on the brakes. Eli lurched forward, his seat belt digging into his chest. If it hurt, he was numb to it.
McPherson’s voice barked over their radios. “Goddamn it, Rogers. You drive like a fifteen-year-old with a learner’s permit and a dream. Over.”
Rogers yanked his radio off his belt and held it to his mouth. “Bite me. Over.”
Eli kicked open his door and jumped down to the ground, landing lightly on the balls of his feet. The thick, acrid smell of smoke burned his nostrils. Anette and McPherson burst out of the back of the truck, grabbed the hose, and hooked it up to the hydrant with practiced ease.
Rogers cut the siren before exiting the truck as well. “Marshall. McPherson. You’re on the hose. Keep the flames from spreading to the main building. Johnson, you’re with me. We’re heading in to search for missing children and assess the interior damage. According to dispatch, the current head count says two kids are unaccounted for.”
“Got it,” they all said in unison.
Crouching low, Rogers led the way to the gym at a light sprint. Eli followed, flipping his mask down onto his face, securing it, and enabling the air flow. They needed to be fast. Any children who might be inside were currently filling their tiny lungs with smoke. It’d cause them serious damage in a quarter of the time it would take for an adult. It was protocol to escort victims from the building before giving them air, but fuck that. If Eli found a kid, his mask was coming off. He would survive.
As it turned out, that wouldn’t be necessary.
Rogers had just reached the double doors leading into the gym and was preparing to force the metal open with gloved hands—or an ax, failing that—when the doors shuddered.
“Get back,” Rogers yelled, voice muffled by his own mask. “The heat must be pressurizing. It’s going to blow.”
Eli never got to finish that sentence.
The doors burst open. Eli braced himself for an explosion—thoughts scattering like feathers as a fresh wave of panic swept through him—but it never came. Instead, two figures emerged: a pair of adults who each had a child cradled in their arms.
On instinct, Eli ran for the nearest one, a young white man with a soot-streaked face. He was carrying a sobbing girl who couldn’t have been more than six. Her tears tracked clean paths down her dirty face.
Eli opened his mouth to ask if they were hurt, but before he could, the man caught sight of him and smiled, bright and easy. Eli couldn’t pinpoint what it was, but something about the man’s relaxed demeanor stopped him in his tracks.
“My hero,” the man said. “Perfect timing.”
Well, that was a new one. Most people Eli met in front of burning buildings were terrified, but this one was cracking jokes. Eli scrutinized him, flummoxed. The man had the deepest brown eyes Eli had ever seen, dark like coal. They drew Eli in so much he nearly took an involuntary step forward. The man was tall too. And built. Was he a teacher? The gym instructor, judging by his body.
What the fuck? Eli mentally slapped himself. This is an emergency. Focus.
He cleared his throat. “Are you hurt? Is anyone else in there?”
The man shook his head, dispelling ash from brunet hair. “We’re fine. These two were the only ones left. We found them huddled under the bleachers. Everyone else evacuated. The fire is contained to an equipment room for now, but I doubt it’ll stay that way for long.”
In the most eloquent moment of his life, Eli said, “Uh . . . wow.”
The guy smiled again in response, and it was the perfect mixture of cocky and coy. When their eyes met, even through the smoke and Eli’s mask, it was like one of the tongues of flame licked up Eli’s spine.
Rogers interrupted their pseudo moment. “I’ll double-check for stragglers. Johnson, get the civilians to the EMS, then radio the others and tell them where to concentrate the hose. If the fire hasn’t spread too far, we might be able to contain it with our extinguishers.”
Behind them, a loud gushing sound indicated that Anette and McPherson were in position and had started the hose. Spray hit the back of Eli’s neck as pressurized water descended onto the side of the gym feet from them.
Eli radioed in the info and waved for the survivors to follow him, including a wailing boy and a young woman in a cardigan who perfectly fit Eli’s mental image of a librarian. He made a beeline for the nearest ambulance. Paramedics rushed forward to examine the children and the woman, who relayed the whole story at double speed. The man, however, handed over the girl and then hung back, his expression pinched.
Curiosity poked at Eli, but he couldn’t very well stop what he was doing and ask the mystery man what was on his mind. As soon as the civilians were in the hands of paramedics, he sprinted back to the gym.
Inside, rows of compact bleachers lined a large wooden basketball court. The air shimmered from the flames that were licking their way out of an open side door. Most people would never know what real heat felt like. It was powerful. It had density, similar to getting smacked full force by an ocean wave.
A dull roar buffeted Eli’s ears, like the snarl of a distant beast. Only this beast was right in front of him. It didn’t matter how many times he came face-to-face with a fire, it never failed to make fear slither down his spine and pool in his gut.
Fighting a primal instinct to flee, he ran to Rogers’s side. Rogers had readied one of the canisters of compressed water they all carried with them and was beating back the fire. Juvenile wisps of flame were all they were up against, despite what Eli’s clenching gut was screaming at him. He grabbed his extinguisher and joined Rogers.
Between their efforts and the hose outside, the fire took twenty minutes to tame. There were a few harrowing moments where the smoke got so thick it obscured Eli’s vision—making his pulse rattle in his ears—but beyond that, it went as well as could be expected.
After, he surveyed the smoldering remains with a leaden stomach. Even small fires caused frightening amounts of damage. Thank God the actual school hadn’t been touched. The faces of the two frightened children popped into Eli’s head, followed by another smiling face he could picture with too-perfect clarity.
He turned to Rogers, who was kicking a smoldering beam to see if any lingering sparks flew up. “Sir, with your permission, I’m going to tell Marshall and McPherson to cut the hose. Then I’ll rendezvous with the police and see if the forensic team is here.” And if I happen to stop by the ambulances and check on the civilians while I’m at it, then I’m simply being thorough.
“Go ahead.” Rogers waved him off. “Looks like there’s nothing left to see here. Although, be a dear: if you hear a blood-curdling scream, feel free to mosey on back.”
With a snort, Eli headed out of the gym at a light jog. As soon as he was far enough away, he turned back and surveyed the exterior damage. Where flames had once licked along the ground, there was now ash and soot. The shed had collapsed, but the gym looked more or less fine, minus a blown-out side door and some scorch marks.
As promised, he stopped by Anette and McPherson first and declared the all clear over the deafening roar of the water. They cut the hose and began the process of packing it back up. It was a two-person job, so Eli headed for the nearest cop car. The officer there informed him that forensics were on their way.
While they swapped information about the fire, Eli’s eyes drifted over the officer’s shoulder to the ambulance where he’d left the two adults and children. The librarian-looking woman was more or less where Eli had last seen her, but the kids and the man weren’t in sight.
Disappointment gurgled in Eli’s stomach. You were hoping to see him again. He internally scolded himself and was about to return his attention to the officer when movement caught his eye. It was the man. He wasn’t gone after all, just edging toward the crowd’s periphery with his head down like he didn’t want to be seen.
Holy shit, it almost worked too. Funny that he can blend in so easily when he stuck out so much to me before. Is he trying to leave the scene before being interviewed?
Eli interrupted the officer midsentence. “Will you excuse me for a moment? I want to ask one of the civs some questions.”
“Sure thing.” The officer stepped back. “When you’re finished, send them my way. Detective Thorpe wants statements while the events are still fresh in everyone’s minds.”
Eli headed for the ambulances, eyes on his prize. As he watched, the man edged farther away from the buzzing crowds, slow and steady. It really seemed like he was preparing to make a break for it. Shock had probably set in, overriding his better judgment.
Not on my watch.
“Hey!” Eli broke into a jog. “Did the paramedics release you?”
The man jerked his head toward him, eyes wide. A second later, a familiar grin slipped onto his handsome face. “Hero. Fancy seeing you again.”
“That’s not my name, and you didn’t answer my question.” Eli eyed him, disabling his air flow and pulling his mask down so his voice was no longer muffled. “The paramedics will need to check you for injuries and smoke inhalation if they haven’t already.”
The man’s grin warped into a grimace. “I’m not injured. Don’t waste resources on me.”
Eli stared at him. “Buddy, are you kidding? You escaped from a burning building. You need medical attention.”
“I’m really fine.” He was looking down at his shoes—well-worn red Converses. Was he shy? He hadn’t seemed like it before when he was smiling and cracking jokes.
That’s odd . . . ly intriguing.
“Are you afraid of needles or something? They’re not going to give you an IV, I don’t think.” Eli was pushing past baffled and into curious now. It didn’t hurt that when the man looked down, it made it apparent how long and dark his eyelashes were.
Stop thirsting. Damn. This is so not the time.
The man looked up, and somehow, that made it impossible for Eli to breathe. “I don’t want the attention, is all.” He nodded to the left.