Jack Waters kept coughing, but his breath wouldn’t come out anything but ragged. His voice was raspy and weak and his throat dryer than a desert. His eyes stung from the smoke, and the flames around him fanned hot air his way until he felt like he was swimming in an ocean of fire. His blond hair was singed and his FEMS T-shirt covered in soot.
Stumbling along the corridor, Jack tried his best to get his bearings, but the roar of fire surrounded him, the noise deafening and the flashes blinding.
“Help!” he tried again, but even if someone had answered him from down the hall, he doubted he would have been able to hear it.
Suddenly, a different kind of boom sounded, followed by a terrifying crack. The whole building shook, as if caught in an earthquake, and then the floor tilted out from under him and sent him tumbling down at a steepening angle. He could faintly make out a pile of debris below. Most of the building lay in shambles.
Jack knew the impact would be the death of him.
Yet he had no way of stopping his forward momentum as he glided down, as if on a twisted version of a slide in an amusement park.
At the end, a quick rush of pain. Then nothing but darkness.
“HEY, there. Glad you could join us. Easy now. Don’t try to move. You’re on a gurney, and you have a mask on for breathing.”
Yes, being an EMT meant Jack probably knew better than whoever was talking what an oxygen mask was. Yet he barely felt the edges of the plastic, and he briefly wondered why.
Then again, his head was humming and his entire body spinning—or was it the other way around? Jack tried to open his eyes, but his eyelids seemed to weigh a ton. His body felt weird, at the same time heavy and floating. What had they given him?
While his eyes were tired and refused to cooperate, Jack still felt like he could go to battle right then and there. Pretty sure it was just the adrenaline release of the shock talking, Jack coaxed himself to lie still. The wintery air was chilly, and though he had a blanket on, he was shivering.
Why aren’t I dead?
All of a sudden, there was an achingly tender caress along his right cheek, the touch cool and moist. “Rest easy, Jack. We’ve got you. The ambulance is almost here. You’re going to be all right. You were damn lucky we were close by, or you could be way worse for wear.” There was amusement and levity in the deep masculine voice, and Jack had a feeling he’d like the owner.
Wait. How does he know my name?
“Your nametag was in your pocket,” the man said. “We fished it out once we saw your FEMS shirt.” Washington, D.C. Fire and EMS Department, Jack thought fuzzily. Where he worked.
Is this guy a mind-reader?
A booming chuckle sounded in Jack’s ear and strong coffee-scented breath wafted over his face. “You’ve got a very expressive mug, is all. I can tell what you’re thinking just by looking at you. And”—his voice came closer, a mere seductive whisper now—“you are quite sexy to behold.”
Jack would have scoffed if he could have. Flirting with an injured person at the scene of an accident? Jesus. But reproaching the man was not an option when his throat felt like it had been stuffed full of dry twigs and his lungs felt as though they had shrunk to the size of a testicle.
“Relax.” The man laughed lowly. “I’m just teasing.”
The sirens of an approaching ambulance began to register, same as the other noises around. They all came at him in a whoosh as his ears popped open.
“The bus is here,” the guy said, his voice receding. “I gotta get back to work.” Jack thought the man had gone—where, he couldn’t tell—but then he was back and whispered in Jack’s ear, “I’m Luke, by the way. I’ll see you at the hospital.” Heavy footsteps moved farther away, and then there was too much commotion to separate one voice or sound from another.
At that point, though, Jack couldn’t have cared less, since he was fading in and out of consciousness. People hovered, touching and fiddling with his body. He was lifted off the ground, and machines bleeped around him. Someone was talking to him, crooning in a soft, yet indifferent, tone, and Jack guessed he was in the ambulance when the surface beneath him began to move, gain speed, and turn here and there. The echo of traffic was remote but ever-present.
Someone was fumbling with his arm, and a tiny pinch of pain spoke of needles and IV fluids. But Jack felt like he was wrapped in cotton, and he didn’t care. His brain was mush and his perceptions dull. One by one, his senses shut down as he fell into a dreamless sleep.
“SHUT up, Kev. I’m sure Jack’s gonna explain everything when he wakes up,” said a familiar voice, which then lowered to mere grumbling. “He’d better, or I’ll wring his neck.”
Jack sighed inwardly in relief.
Jordan’s here. My big brother’s here. I’m okay.
Then he flinched when he realized what Jordan had actually said.
Kev. Kevin’s here too. Oh God, why does he have to see me like this?
Jack rose to full awareness as his body switched itself on, bit by bit. His eyes must have still been closed, because all he saw was blackness. He became vividly aware of his surroundings, though: the lumpy mattress, the slightly uptilted position of the bed that left him hunched in discomfort, the bright light aimed at his face, the bleeping and buzzing machines, the clicks of shoes on a tile floor, the rustling of clothes, sheets, and curtains, and the disgusting smell of disinfectants.
Yes, he was indeed in a hospital.
Someone touched his left shoulder, squeezing a bit. A sad, broken sigh followed right after. “God, Kev. He could’ve died. What the hell was he thinking?”
“You know what he was thinking, Jordy. He’s an EMT. He went there to help—”
“Without backup? How could he be so stupid?”
“Jordy. Jack’s not stupid. Just a little too impulsive sometimes.”
Inwardly, Jack cringed. Kevin Thompson was Jordan’s partner in the Financial Crimes and Fraud Unit of the MPDC—and Jack’s intermittent paramour. Very intermittent, to be exact, as the two of them were in and out of their so-called relationship in equal amounts.
Jack had missed Kevin’s voice more than he’d realized—the deep rumbling sound, like a gathering thunderstorm. Its soothing influence spread through Jack like ripples in a pond. How those professional, almost impersonal, tones could touch him so profoundly, Jack wondered if he would ever truly understand.
At the moment, though, all Jack heard was the underlying recrimination. Not stupid, just impulsive. That was a particular gift of Kevin’s: he could offer a compliment and a rebuke in a single sentence. And that made Jack mad enough to force his weary eyes open a bit.
But neither of the men were looking at him at that moment.
Jordan was Jack’s brother, older by five years chronologically and eons in the wisdom department. And to think, once Jack had been better at it. Oh, how times changed. Jordan was a tall, tanned, and ripped guy with platinum-blond hair with lavender-colored streaks, emerald-green eyes, and tattoos and piercings all over, although his formal suit and tie hid them from view. He was the type to overthink and overanalyze things to death, but he had mellowed since he had become involved with Sebastian Sumner, his boyfriend, a civilian who volunteered at the police station. They were so in love that more than once Jack had envied them till he was green in the face.
Now Kevin Thompson, Jordan’s partner, on the other hand, was way more subdued in his demeanor. A consummate professional, he was a colossal grizzly-bear kind of guy with a rugged countenance that looked as if it might have been chiseled out of rough stone without the finishing touches. His black hair, cut short, and his thick stubble made him appear even more militaristic, and though his lopsided grin could entice a statue to smile back, he didn’t offer that gesture idly or often. Jack knew Kevin had been in Special Forces before becoming a cop, but he knew precious little else about the man—even though they had fucked more than once.
Their attraction to each other had been immediate.
Getting to know each other and being able to stay together had proven impossible.
Right at the moment, though, Kevin and Jordan were standing next to Jack’s bed deep in their own conversation, or more like a pregnant silence. Jordan’s shoulders were hunched and his expression remained haunted and weary. Kevin’s face was more impassive, but heavily guarded. Both looked all too grave, considering Jack was alive and awake.
Although in their defense, they were unaware of the latter, considering Jack’s heavy-lidded eyes were mere slits.
Then their words began to register again.
“How can you not be mad at him for going off half-cocked, Kev? Just look at him, at his body. Look at his face, for God’s sake! Jesus, when he wakes up, he’s gonna die….”
My face? Jack wanted to touch it, but he couldn’t move. He could feel his arms there, lying at his sides, but he didn’t have the strength to move them. He was so tired; worn to the bone. He couldn’t even keep his eyes open in slivers longer than a few seconds at a time.
Finally, after what reminded him of a grueling hour running track back in college, Jack managed to lift his hand. Though pain shot through him in white-hot flashes as he moved, he did reach his face, his body twitching constantly.
“Jack, no!” Jordan’s shocked voice seemed to come from far away, but it was too late.
Jack’s boyishly handsome, smooth face was covered by a cool compress, which he instantly knew could mean only one thing.