One freak accident brings these two opposites back together. Is ten years long enough to heal the physical and emotional wounds from the past? Can they reconcile who they were with who they’ve become–or will it be a case of Once Burned is enough?
“Oh shit,” Mike repeated under her breath, too horrified to do anything more than force herself to breathe. Not an easy task, considering she was literally frozen to the spot. The air was thick with heated tension and the buzzing in her ears made it impossible for her to hear anything. She willed herself to move, to do something.
Shit, it’s Nicky. Shit, it’s Nicky. The phrase kept spinning through her mind until she thought she’d be sick with the dizziness of it. Her chest heaved, like she was breathing water instead of air, and her pulse beat in a crazy tap dancer’s rhythm.
Did anyone else notice the sudden change in the room? Mike looked away from that face from her past and quickly glanced around. Four sets of eyes fixed on her with varying degrees of bewilderment. She could still feel his eyes on her, too, filled with stunned disbelief.
Feeling like she was trapped in a nightmare where everything moved with the speed of molasses, Mike pushed away from the counter and walked across the room, straight past the frozen figure of Nicky Lansing and through the swinging door. She turned a corner and rushed through a second door that opened into the engine room, not stopping until she reached the engine on the far side, where she promptly collapsed on the back step.
Heedless of the dirt and grime, she let her head drop against the back compartment door, ignoring the length of hose line in her way. Her breathing came in shallow gasps that did nothing to help the lightheadedness that caused black dots to dance across her closed lids.
Hyperventilating. She was hyperventilating. The calm, rational part of her—she was surprised she still had one—told her to lean forward, to get a grip on herself and her breathing. Now bent over, sitting with her head between her knees, Mike grabbed the running board with both hands and concentrated on the feel of the diamond plate cutting into her palms.
The spots faded away and her breathing slowed to something closer to normal. One last deep breath and she straightened, only to choke on a scream when she came face-to-face with Jay, his brows lowered in a frown as he studied her with concern.
“Jesus! Don’t scare me like that!” She pushed him away then stood, only to sit back down when she realized how bad her knees were shaking.
“Scare you? What is wrong with you? Are you okay?”
“I’m fine. I couldn’t be better! Don’t I look fine?”
“You look like you’re ready to pass out. What the hell is going on? Do you know that guy? He looks like he’s seen a ghost!”
“He probably thinks he has.” Mike moved over and motioned for Jay to sit down, ignoring his scrutiny as he twisted sideways and continued staring at her.
“Are you going to explain that?”
“No.” She ran her hands through her hair, muttering when she pulled a thick hank of it loose from the pony tail. Sighing, she reached back and pulled the elastic band loose, then quickly rearranged her hair into a more secure hold. Jay watched her intently then nudged her leg with his when she continued to ignore him.
“Well nothing. He’s just somebody I used to know, that’s all.”
Jay snorted. “Bull.”
“Okay, fine,” she conceded grudgingly. “He’s also somebody I never wanted to see again.” Mike reached down and gingerly touched her right side, trying not to remember but unable to forget. If Jay noticed the motion, he didn’t say anything.
They sat in silence, the familiar background noises of the station virtually unnoticed. A few minutes went by before Jay spoke again. “You sure you don’t want to talk about it?”
Mike shook her head, ready to make a sarcastic reply when the sound of footsteps echoed through the engine room. The steps paused, then changed directions and hesitantly walked around the side of the engine. Mike knew without looking who it was: the steps were those of a stranger, someone who didn’t know his way around.
Nicky stopped at the back of the engine, not saying anything as Jay slowly stood and positioned himself slightly in front of Mike, shielding her. She touched his arm briefly, in a gesture both of thanks and of reassurance that she was alright. Jay looked back at her, one brow cocked in question, then reluctantly walked away at her nod. Mike didn’t see where he went but knew that he would be close by in case he was needed.
She stood slightly, leaning against the running board, then crossed her arms in front of her, covering the jagged scar that ran along her left forearm. The stance was as close to aloof and detached as she could manage considering her insides were making a milkshake of her early dinner. Too late, she remembered the sunglasses hanging around her neck and wished she would have thought to put them on to hide any emotion in her eyes.
With an effort that took more strength than she wanted to admit, she let her eyes slowly, coolly rake the man in front of her from top to bottom.
Dammit. The Nicky Lansing from her past had been ruggedly handsome with dark looks and boyish charm; this Nick Lansing was dangerously gorgeous. A little taller than she remembered, he stood just over six feet, and was definitely broader through the shoulders and chest. The boy she remembered had finally filled out, to all the best advantages.
The long hair of his past was gone, cut to a length that brushed just past the collar of the light blue shirt he wore. Still too long to be squeaky clean, but short enough by today’s standards to be rated as acceptable. His eyes were the same, though. A dark chocolate brown framed in long lashes, they invited a person to swim in their depths and lose their soul without a second thought.
She would know, since she had done just that.
Lisa B. Kamps is the author of the best-selling series The Baltimore Banners, featuring “hard-hitting, heart-melting hockey players” (USA Today), on and off the ice. ONCE BURNED is the launch title of her much-anticipated new series, Firehouse Fourteen, featuring hot and heroic firefighters.Lisa grew up with an overactive imagination, strong encouragement from her parents, and an insatiable infatuation with the Peanuts gang. That infatuation—along with an impatience she has yet to outgrow—jump-started her love of writing. After all, why should she be forced to wait a whole week to read the stories of her favorite characters when she could create stories for them whenever she wanted?
That love of writing continued to grow, along with all those voices in her head, even during her assorted careers: first as a firefighter with the Baltimore County Fire Department, then a very brief (and not very successful) stint at bartending in east Baltimore, and finally as the Director of Retail Operations for a busy Civil War non-profit.
Lisa currently lives in Maryland with her husband and two sons, one very spoiled Border Collie, two cats with major attitude, several head of cattle, and entirely too many chickens to count.