Looking for something to read this holiday weekend? Like fantasy romance with a magical twist? Well, then check out the first chapter in my latest book – Playing with Fire!
The radio woke Sera Cardoso with a start. “Four alarm at 89A and East Cornville, all units respond. EMT in route.” As she shook off the fog of sleep, Sera kissed her day off goodbye. She replied to the call on her handheld while she searched through the dirty laundry on the floor for something to wear.
“Cardoso responding, ETA five minutes.” She pulled on a pair of gray sweatpants and a wrinkled white tee, trying to recall if it was once or twice that she had worn them. Wouldn’t matter much since, once she donned her turnout gear, she would sweat like a cold beer on a hot day.
“All units, fire at 800 Wellness Center Drive. Station three on site, setting up command.”
Sera swept up her ebony curls and secured them with one of the clips she kept in a basket on her dresser. She didn’t need to look in the mirror to fix it; she had been wearing it in the same style since she was little. By the time she was done with the messy updo, she was in her living room. She scanned the floor for her shoes. Where the hell were they? She heard the radio crack with another message, this time from her chief.
“Station one waiting for responders, ETA ten minutes.”
“Copy that, station one.”
Damn. She should have spent the night at the station, even though she wasn’t technically on the schedule. With one co-worker out on medical and the other on his honeymoon they were extremely short-staffed. Guess the gynecologist visit she had scheduled for the day would have to wait another few weeks. Not that it would matter; it wasn’t like she had been seeing any action lately anyway.
She found her Skechers on the other side of the couch, where she had kicked them off the night before. Her back ached from the broken sleep she endured on the ancient piece of furniture, before she finally took herself to bed, just hours before. It was definitely bitching to her as she bent over to slip on her shoes.
“Shit,” she muttered, “just what I need.” She rubbed the knotted twinge in her lower back and grabbed her go-bag off the kitchen counter. She prayed it still had enough Motrin and snacks to get her through. She needed to grocery shop. That was yet another errand she wasn’t going to get done on her non-existent day off.
Sera wasn’t sure how much longer her body could take the abuse, so she really needed to get that promotion. She hoped she would hear by the end of the week, and then her plan was to take a nice long vacation.
She raced out the door, slamming it behind her, and jogged to her truck. The engine hardly started before she screeched out of her assigned parking space and ripped onto the highway with her siren blaring and lights ablaze. She was halfway up the street before she realized she hadn’t swished any mouthwash. She looked at the empty pack of Trident in her center console and shook her head with a laugh.
“Shit, well that figures.”
She lived five miles from the station, which typically took less than ten minutes travel time when she didn’t have her lights and siren on. It was always a battle getting through the tourist traffic in Sedona, especially on highway 89A, but there wasn’t an easy way to get there.
Her radio cracked with updates from dispatch and her chief. “Station two on route to the Wellness Center. All units report.”
“Station one responding. Cardoso, where the hell are you?”
“Cardoso ETA one minute.”
“Dispatch, station one to scene in five.”
At times she wished she lived closer, but purchasing a house wasn’t something she was willing to do – at least not yet. Everything in her life hinged on getting the Arson Investigator position. It would determine if she grew roots in Arizona or moved on. She really wanted to grow roots; she was getting too old for the alternative.
Sera squealed into the staff parking, hopped out of her truck, and hustled through the door held open by one of her co-workers. They were already geared up and preparing the second engine. She stowed her bag in her locker and pulled on her gear as she received a brief update from her friend Nathan.
“Second station is almost there,” he said abruptly. “We need to haul ass.”
She grabbed her coat and helmet. “Ready. I can finish in the truck.”
Sera and Nathan piled onto the engine and prepared for the ten mile ride. Lopez was already in the driver’s seat and pulled out as soon as they gave him the thumbs up. The blare of the siren never ceased to make her heart race and her pulse flutter. It had affected her that way since riding with her father when she was a kid.
Station three had established the command center. They were one of the smallest stations, but were the closest to the scene. The man barking over the walkie sounded like her sparring partner Mark.
“Station one, we need you here yesterday. What is your ETA? Over.”
“ETA four minutes. Over,” Sera responded.
“That you, Cardoso?”
“Yes sir, it is.”
“Good. I’ll give Captain Williams a heads up. And Cardoso?”
“You need to be here in three.”
The Wellness Center complex was on the outer edges of Sedona, surrounded by desert on all sides. Since it was so close to one of the area vortexes, its walking paths were open to the public and were often used for mediation. The complex acted as a buffer to the ancient burial grounds behind it and the staff members took great pride in maintaining its integrity and honoring the traditions of the tribes buried there. Sera had spent hours in the common room appreciating the artwork that had been donated by some of the most talented local artists in the area. It would be a shame if the fire destroyed the gallery, since many of the pieces on display were created by tribe members who had passed on years ago.
Luckily, traffic was light so they made excellent time. Sera and Nathan finished gearing up on the way and checked their equipment as best they could in the speeding engine. As Lopez turned onto the access road, they saw the smoke pooling close to the building’s roofline like mist on dry ice. A billowing column rose straight into the turquoise sky, which made Sera thankful for the windless day. It would make their jobs easier.
There were a number of ambulances waiting to receive patients. On her way to the command center, she noticed a few of the emergency techs working on people with minor injuries. She placed her hand over the tattoo on the upper part of her left breast and said a small prayer that there would be no fatalities. She had promised her abuela years ago that she would carry a thistle with her into every fire for protection. The tattoo she had near her heart had been the only way she could think of to honor that request. So far the symbol had done its job.
The Wellness Center offered on-site care for patients with addictions, psychological disorders and anxiety stemming from post traumatic stress disorder. Sera knew the building well. She volunteered on a regular basis in the counseling center and was extremely familiar with the layout. She knew they needed to contain the fire quickly so they didn’t have to relocate the patients. Many of them were traumatized enough.
She spied Mark with the captain and reported in with the rest of her crew. When the captain was finished with the others, he turned to her and Mark made the introductions.
“Cardoso and Miller from Station one, sir. Cardoso was the one I was telling you about who volunteers here. She will be the most familiar with the site.”
He nodded abruptly and went right into giving orders. “We have word that there is one patient in wing two who has not reported in and we’re unable to reach their location from the outside. We need you to get the vic out before the roof collapses.”
“Got it,” Sera responded.
“Your team is on search and rescue and if the building is compromised, you get the fuck out. Is that clear?”
Sera ran to catch up with Nathan who was already making his way to the main entrance. Even though there were no flames present, the space gave her a bad feeling. Something wasn’t right. The pit of her stomach churned with a liquid heat, and her lungs seized, halting her breath. It wasn’t heartburn; she hadn’t eaten anything spicy. As a matter-of-fact she had only had a bottle of water and a granola bar on the way to the station. The tips of her fingers started to tingle as did the tattoo of the small purple flower that decorated her chest. That was the last sign she needed. Whatever force looked out for her was sending her a warning. She had learned the hard way to heed them.
“Nathan, hold up.” She ran up to him and caught his arm, tugging back slightly. “There is a better way in that brings us closer to the wing. I think we should head around the south side of the building and go in through the entrance there.”
“Okay, but this way seems clear.”
“I know, but I am having one of my feelings. You know how I get.”
He nodded. “Yup, I do. And I am also smart enough to know your feelings have saved our asses more than once.” He waved his hand toward the edge of the building. “After you.”
Sera sighed in relief. The warning feelings were becoming more and more frequent, and although she wasn’t sure what triggered them, they did seem to be accurate. A few months back, after warning everyone out of a building that later exploded, the rest of the station started paying more attention to her intuition. She loved all the guys like brothers; it would kill her if anything happened to any of them.
“This access point looks clear,” Nathan said, as he waved to a firefighter nearby. As the man came closer, Sera saw from his helmet that it was Summers. Lopez came up right behind him.
“What’s going on?” Summers asked. “The captain sent us around to this side to help anyone who might be trying to get out from the windows.”
“We are heading in, but using this access point,” Sera explained. “Just want you to know where we are in case shit goes sideways.”
“We’ve got your back,” Summers replied. “Keep your comms on.”
She and Nathan pulled down their face shields, checked the seals for leaks and made sure their Bluetooth comm system was working before entering the building. From her vantage point she couldn’t see any flames, but Sera knew that could change in an instant. From the looks of the activity on the roof, they wouldn’t have much time to check for survivors.
The smoke was thin, and she thought she heard coughing down the hallway toward the cafeteria. Nathan was already heading in that direction.
“There’s a common area at the end of the hallway,” Sera said through the comm-link. “We should start there.”
Nathan nodded and took the lead, peeking into the rooms along the way to see if anyone was in them. Sera remembered that the end of the building they were in was primarily used for storage. It was highly unlikely they would find anyone, but it didn’t hurt to check.
A voice cried out from the end of the hallway. “Is anyone there?”
Nathan looked back to her and gave a nod, signaling with his hand that he would move in first. She responded with a thumbs-up and a nod and followed closely behind as they made their way deeper into the building. It was definitely hotter in this part of the building, and Sera wondered how close they were to the outer edge of the fire.
The coughing stopped and Sera was unsure about the direction of the victim. Muffled through her helmet, she barely registered a popping sound and turned her head to see dust pouring from cracks in the ceiling.
“Nathan, watch out!”
Sera barely pushed him out of the way before the ceiling collapsed and separated them. She saw him through the flames. He had fallen with her shove but gave a thumbs up to let her know he was okay. He shook his head and touched the side of his helmet.
“We’re okay, sir. Separated in the cafeteria by fiery debris. We’ll need to come out separately. Looks like Miller has something wrong with his comm.”
She heard another muffled cough. There was someone nearby.
“Get out of there now, both of you.”
“On our way, sir. Think I found the vic.”
“Secure the vic only if you can do it safely.”
Nathan stood on the other side of the debris looking for a way across. From the height of the flames and the pile of rubble present it didn’t look like he would be able to.
She yelled as loudly as she could in an effort to communicate over the roar of the fire, and used hand gestures to indicate he should head down the hall then exit left.
Nathan nodded as if he understood her, but stayed in place to wait until she secured the victim.
She looked to the wall of flames once more, trying to gauge how far the victim might be from her location. The flames weren’t acting like any fire she had ever seen. They were staying in place like a wall. Why wasn’t it spreading? Were the floors wet? She hadn’t thought they made it this far with the hoses, but perhaps they did. She called out to the victim.
“Hello? Sedona Fire, is anyone in here?”
Sera felt the tattoo on her chest start to burn and her fingers tingle, something was wrong. She moved into the room toward the area where she heard the voice, pushing aside chairs and tables along the way to clear an exit path. On the wall to her right there was a hole encircled with flames that should have led to the room next to the cafeteria. But from her vantage point it looked as though it led nowhere. Why couldn’t she see through to the other side?
The ring of fire swirled around the edges and crackled with a lightning-like energy. It started to spin, the outer edges spitting orange and red flames, while the center faded to black. The darkness lightened and she saw a shirtless man in the center staring at her from the other side. He wasn’t in distress; he didn’t call out to her, merely cocked his head in a dog-like fashion and stared her down with his golden eyes.
Her reflexes were dulled, as if she had worked a 48-hour shift with no sleep. The tattoo on her chest really stung. Did she have a hole in her coat? She needed to get out of the building to check but wasn’t leaving without the vic. She shuffled forward and her hand came up of its own accord. He was reaching for her too.
“I’m here to help you. Take my hand.”
The man cocked his head again and then graced her with a dazzling smile. He sure wasn’t acting like he needed saving. And was that a kilt he was wearing? Just as she reached the edge of the flaming hole, she heard a cough in the corner and glanced toward it. When she looked back, both the hole and the man in the kilt had disappeared.
She shook her head, not understanding what she had just seen and even more convinced there was something wrong with her gear. Perhaps her oxygen levels were off. It was either that or the sweat dripping into her eyes was making her see things.
“Over here,” came the coughing voice and through the smoke she saw a shadow of movement. As she drew closer, she realized that the man, fully clothed, was pinned under debris that he was trying to move off his left leg.
“Command, I found the vic. He is caught under debris. Getting him out now.”
“Move it, Cardoso!” She couldn’t help but roll her eyes. No shit, Sherlock.
She crouched closer to him to get a better visual. He looked to be in one piece, although his leg was bent at a weird angle. “Don’t move, sir. I’ll get you out.”
“Beam’s too heavy at this angle.”
Was that a British accent she detected? It was hard to tell over the whooshing sound of the flames, but she could swear he sounded just like Benedict Cumberbatch. “I’ll be right back.”
Sera scanned the room, looking for something she could use as a lever. A leg from a broken table looked as though it would work. She pulled it from the pile and tucked it under the beam, yelling at the victim to pull himself out when she moved it. Sera pushed down on the table leg with everything she had, and the man pulled his injured leg out with a scream. He was pale and close to fainting. She would have to carry him out. The leg looked bad. She was surprised with all the smoke in the room, and the bone sticking out the way it was, that he was still conscious.
“Put your arm over my shoulders. We’re going to head up the hallway.” She honestly wasn’t sure how long she had before he passed out. “Sir, I need you to stay awake as long as you can.”
He nodded weakly, his eyes closed but his arm gripping securely around her shoulder. She could tell it took all of his strength to do as she requested. His limbs were starting to shake from the shock.
She hoisted him up as far as she could and took as much pressure off his leg as she was able. Once she got him in a semi-standing position, she leaned up under his stomach and pushed up until he was across her shoulders. As she straightened she pulled down on his uninjured leg and one of his arms. The man cried out in agony, then passed out. She was thankful they didn’t have far to walk; he needed medical attention stat.
Sera trudged up the hallway, slowed by the load she carried. The sweat ran along her forehead and dripped into her eyes as she blinked to clear them. Nathan made his way around the building and was just coming in to help her when she got to the entrance. Summers and Lopez came up and took the victim from her shoulders, and Nathan led her away from the building.
Nathan grabbed her arm and lifted the shield on his helmet.
“You okay?” He lifted her shield and handed her a water bottle, which she drained in record time.
“Yeah. Just need to rest. Think there may have been something weird with my oxygen levels.”
“What do you mean?”
Sera looked at the concern in Nathan’s eyes and decided that whatever she saw in there, if it was anything at all, shouldn’t be shared with him. He worried too much, and besides he was sweet on her.
“It’s nothing, I’m just tired.”
Nathan scanned her eyes for the truth and nodded. Apparently he believed her. “Okay, head over and get checked out. I’ll check on the vic. Oh, and by the way, good call on the front entrance. It collapsed shortly after we entered. I had to go out through the back.”
“Good to know I haven’t lost my touch,” she said with a smirk.
He gave her a soft smile that warmed his eyes and then ran toward the medic to check on the man she pulled from the building. Yup, definitely sweet on her. She needed to put a stop to that. He was the only one in the station that looked at her as a woman; to the rest of them she was just another guy. They all knew her rules. She didn’t date anyone she worked with, but Nathan was new. He didn’t know any better. Besides, he was ten years younger than her, and she wasn’t sure she had the energy.
She wandered over to another emergency medical unit and sat down just as they finished a woman who had a shallow cut on her head. The injury wasn’t bad, but there was a lot of blood. Sera was feeling better, and she realized as she sat calmly that her earlier feelings had all but disappeared. Her stomach was back to normal and her tattoo didn’t burn. She looked down to the front of her coat, no hole. It was almost as though she had imagined the entire thing.
As the medic checked her oxygen levels and blood pressure, Sera found her mind returning to the image she saw in the fire and wondered what it symbolized for her. She never dismissed a dream, vision or hallucination. Her abuela taught her years ago that they all had meaning. She often said it was the mind’s way of working out its destiny. She couldn’t for the life of her imagine what a man in a kilt standing in a flaming ring of fire could mean, but she knew from experience that if she was open to the message the universe was sending her, it wouldn’t be long before she found out.
Want to read more? Book 3 is finally out in the wild, and can be found at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Kobo! Print copies can be ordered, or for those who like to read on their favorite digital device, it is also available in ebook. And help a writer out – be sure to leave a review anywhere you purchase the book or on Goodreads!
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For those in the US, have a great holiday weekend!