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Flames were already shooting through the roof of the abandoned warehouse on the outskirts of Last Stand when Jorie Russell arrived on the scene. Black smoke billowed over the tops of the nearby live oaks, and the acrid stench of burning metal filled the air. Despite the blisteringly hot summer in the Texas Hill Country, an intermittent breeze riffled the tall grasses in the nearby meadow and made the abundance of wildflowers appear as if they were dancing.
The town’s firetrucks and water pumpers were already on site, but, thankfully, the dozen or so firefighters who had arrived with them were too busy pulling hoses, shouting orders, and manhandling equipment to notice her. Police Chief Highwater hadn’t yet arrived, either, which boded well for her. He’d have already cordoned off the entire area and set up a perimeter, preventing her from gaining access to the property. She had only minutes before he and his officers did show up, so she needed to act quickly.
She pulled her little SUV into the farthest corner of the gravel, weed-choked parking lot, well away from the emergency vehicles. She’d been on her way home from a long day’s work at Honeyman’s Veterinary Hospital when the firetrucks raced up behind her, sirens wailing and lights flashing. She pulled over and allowed them to pass, and then followed them. She’d been horrified to see flames engulfing one side of the old warehouse that had once been a distribution center for local peaches. All she could think about was the feral cat who lived in inside amongst the wooden pallets and old peach crates. The last time she’d checked on the animal, the cat had been in the advanced stages of pregnancy. Had she delivered her kittens? Were they even now trapped in the warehouse, too frightened or disoriented to escape?
Keeping a wary eye on the firefighters, Jorie turned off her engine and slipped out of the driver’s seat. She opened the back of the SUV and retrieved a small pet carrier and a can of cat food with a pull-tab lid. The town of Last Stand had a trap-neuter-release program for the feral cats in the region, and Jorie always carried several small animal crates in the back of her vehicle, as well as food and first aid supplies. She’d been trying to capture this particular cat for weeks, but the sly feline was proving to be elusive. With one eye on the first responders, she walked as quickly as she could along the side of the building toward the back of the warehouse, where she knew she’d find an unlocked door. She’d accessed the warehouse numerous times before, but promised herself if there was any sign of smoke or flames, she would abandon her mission. But she had to at least try to rescue the scruffy calico she’d affectionately dubbed Taco.
As soon as she was out of sight of the firefighters, Jorie broke into a run but when she rounded the back of the building, she was dismayed to see the access door that had always hung askew, had been secured with a thick padlock. There were no windows and no other doors that she could see. If Taco was inside, she would have no way to escape! Jorie turned to run back to the front of the warehouse . . . and barreled directly into a man’s hard, unrelenting body.
She gave a startled cry and would have lost her balance, but a strong hand reached out to steady her. Jorie looked up into the face of a firefighter wearing a heavy yellow turnout jacket and helmet. But this wasn’t just any firefighter, and Jorie’s heart nearly burst with joy as she recognized Luke Claiborne, her first and only crush from the time she’d been thirteen years old. Not that he had a clue. She’d heard he’d gotten out of the army and had recently returned home. In that first instant, she had a swift impression of the changes the past years had wrought.
He was bigger.
And he still had the ability to make her go a little spongey in the knees. She would have thrown her arms around him in relief, but he held her firmly away and for the first time, she noticed the expression on his handsome face.
Luke Claiborne was furious. With her.
All the times she’d daydreamed about meeting him again, she’d never imagined this particular scenario. Worse, there wasn’t so much as a flicker of recognition in his eyes, although she did notice he wasn’t at all shy about giving her the once over. He raked her with a look so thorough that Jorie felt momentarily exposed.
“What the hell are you doing?” His voice was harsh with disbelief, even as his dark eyes flickered between the cage and the can of food she carried, to the padlocked door. He knew exactly what she’d hoped to do, and Jorie could see the knowledge seriously pissed him off.
She found herself floundering for words, still reeling in disbelief that Luke Claiborne was standing in front of her, in the flesh. The fact that he didn’t seem to recognize her shouldn’t have piqued her so much. After all, the last time he’d seen her, she’d still been a gangly teenager. But she hadn’t been prepared to feel as if she was still fourteen years old in his eyes, not when she’d hoped to show him she was a woman now.
“There’s no fire in this part of the warehouse,” she said lamely.
“Doesn’t matter. The situation could change in a heartbeat. Do you have even the slightest instinct for self-preservation? Do you?”
Jorie could only stare mutely at him, wide-eyed with embarrassment that he’d caught her doing something so foolish. She’d heard he was working cattle on his family ranch. When had he traded his cowboy hat for a firefighter’s helmet?
“That’s what I thought,” he snapped, when she didn’t answer. “This is an active fire scene, and you have no business being here. Get back in your car and go home.”
He still had one gloved hand wrapped around her arm, and now he began to haul her away from the building. But Jorie dug her heels in and resisted him.
“No, wait! There’s something I need to do!”
Luke stopped and stared at her, his expression incredulous. “Are you fucking kidding me? If you don’t get your pretty little ass moving, I will throw you over my shoulder and carry you back to your car. Then I’ll have Chief Highwater arrest you for trespassing. Do you understand?”
“Please,” she said. “I wouldn’t have gone in, except I’m desperate! There’s a cat that lives inside, and—”
To her astonishment, Luke pushed his face close to hers, until a scant inch of space separated their noses. She should have been alarmed, but all she could think was that his eyes weren’t actually black, as she’d always believed. They were a lovely shade of coffee brown and she could even see specks of gold in those dark irises, like Spanish coins tossed into a wishing well.
“Lady,” he growled, interrupting her, “I don’t give a shit if the Queen of Sheba lives here. In case it’s escaped you, this entire building is going up in flames. Even if you were able to find a way in, you’d be overcome by smoke and you would die before you ever found the damned cat which, by the way, is probably long gone. Cats have more sense than some people do, apparently.”
“She has kittens. Please.” Jorie could feel tears threatening and hated that she had so little control over her emotions. But the thought of Taco perishing in a fire was almost more than she could bear. She’d dedicated her life to saving animals and each time she lost one, it was like losing a beloved friend. “Please.”
To Luke’s horror, the woman’s beautiful hazel eyes welled up with tears. He had two younger sisters so he got exactly how this worked. But even knowing he was being played, he felt his resolve slip a notch.
“Jesus H. Christ,” he muttered, and half spun away, tempted to make good on his threat and carry her bodily to her car. He couldn’t believe she’d been willing to put her own life at risk for a damned cat. When he’d spotted her making a break for the back of the warehouse, he’d bolted after her, suspecting the worst. But now, seeing the genuine distress in her lovely eyes, he found he couldn’t dredge up the will to refuse her. He actually understood how she felt.
“Okay,” he finally bit out as he turned back toward her. “I’ll look for the cat, but you are leaving. Now.”
Her expression cleared, and she gave him a smile so brilliant that, for a moment, Luke felt a little dazzled.
“Thank you!” She held out the crate to him.
“Yeah, yeah,” he muttered, ignoring the crate. “Let’s get you the hell out of here and then we’ll worry about the damned cat.”
She kept pace beside him as he strode toward the parking lot, talking hurriedly as if she was afraid he might change his mind. “That door wasn’t padlocked the last time I came by. I’ve been inside there a dozen times. I don’t know who locked it.”
“Probably the owner, tired of people trespassing on his property.” He gave her a meaningful look.
“She lives in the middle section of the warehouse where all the pallets and old peach crates are stacked,” she continued, ignoring his remark. “She’s a multi-colored cat, mostly black, but with orange and white patches. I call her Taco. If she’s in there, you can coax her out with the tuna and then locate the kittens. If there are kittens, that is.”
“Wait.” Luke stopped beside her car. “You mean to tell me you don’t know for sure if the cat is actually in there? Or if there are any kittens?”
She at least had the grace to look embarrassed. “Last Stand has a trap-neuter-release program, where we try to catch feral cats and neuter or spay them before returning them to the environment. I’ve been trying to bring this cat in for weeks now, but she’s pretty cagey. She was definitely pregnant the last time I saw her, but I’m not sure if she’s had them yet, to be honest. I checked on her a few days ago and she looked ready to drop them any time.”
Luke gave a short laugh. “Oh, man, this just gets better and better. You’re going to send me into a warehouse fire, where you think a feral cat might be living beneath a pile of fucking kindling, and where there might be kittens. But you’re not sure. But hey, no problem. I’ll try not to get burned alive during your damned scavenger hunt.”
He wouldn’t admit—even to himself—that he’d be willing to walk barefoot over hot coals to earn another smile from her. She was, hands down, the prettiest woman he’d seen in a long time, and her pale pink hospital scrubs couldn’t disguise the sweet curve of her backside or the elegant slenderness of her shape. There was something familiar about her that he couldn’t quite put his finger on, but it would come to him. Hers wasn’t a face he’d easily forget.
“Do you have to swear so much?” she asked, but her tone lacked any true censure.
No, he didn’t, but since he no longer wore a uniform, he figured he no longer had to follow the protocol he’d lived by as a military police officer. As a civilian, swearing was his new prerogative. And maybe, if he kept up the bad-ass attitude, she wouldn’t realize she’d found his weakness. He was a sucker for a pretty smile.
Now she held out the crate to him. “This is your job, right? It’s what you get paid to do.”
Luke snorted, but took the crate. “I’m part of the volunteer fire department, honey. I don’t get paid for any of it.” He indicated the car. “Just get the f—just go. Please.”
He waited while she climbed into the driver’s seat and started the engine. Before she put the vehicle into gear, she looked at him and worry creased her smooth brow.
“Be careful, okay?”
“Now you worry,” Luke muttered, and watched as she drove out of the parking lot and was directed around the emergency vehicles. Past the hydrant, where three fat water lines were now connected, she pulled her car over to the shoulder of the road. Satisfied that she wasn’t going to pull any more harebrained stunts, Luke made his way back to the tanker trunk for his breathing apparatus.
“What’s going on?” Fire Chief Harding asked, as Luke pulled a protective hood over his head and shrugged into an oxygen pack.
“Lady over there says a mother cat and kittens are living in the warehouse. I told her I’d go in after them.” He pulled on his gloves and adjusted the face mask on the hood where the oxygen hose would connect, before securing his fire helmet.
Chief Harding frowned. “Does she have any clue where in the warehouse they are?”
“Right in the fucking middle, where else?”
“Okay, I’ll give you ten minutes. They’re knocking the flames back on the far side, but it’s an old structure and any support beams could be compromised. Take Jenkins with you.”
Luke nodded as Chief Harding gestured for Pete Jenkins, one of the senior firefighters in Last Stand, to join them. After hearing what Luke intended to do, he quickly donned his own breathing apparatus, but not quickly enough. Luke groaned inwardly when he saw his brother Evan jogging toward them.
“What’s going on?” Evan asked, sweeping his gaze over Luke. “Why are you suited up? You’re supposed to be manning the tanker.”
“Yeah, well, now I’m not,” Luke replied. “I’m going in after a mother cat and her kittens.”
“You’re kidding me, right?” Evan gestured toward the warehouse. “That roof could collapse any minute. The cat’s probably not even in there.”
“I have it on good authority that she is,” Luke fibbed.
“We should go in now, before the fire spreads to that part of the structure,” Pete advised.
“I’ll go with him,” Evan said. “They can use you here, Pete.”
“You don’t have to go with me,” Luke protested, torn between annoyance and amusement over his brother’s overly protective stance. “I’m a big boy.”
“We’re wasting time.” Evan grabbed his own breathing apparatus and quickly suited up. “Let’s go.”
Luke bristled but didn’t argue. Granted, he was new to the department, having joined the Last Stand firefighters just six weeks ago, but he’d completed the training and he knew what he was doing. But his twin brother had always taken the lead on whatever they did. Just eight minutes older than himself, Evan had done the same their entire lives. But Luke knew Evan’s high-handedness today had nothing to do with their birth order and everything to do with wanting to ensure Luke’s safety. No matter how many times Luke assured his brother that he had recovered from his combat injuries and was fine, Evan treated him with kid gloves.
Luke knew he meant well, but Evan’s protectiveness rankled. A year had passed since an improvised explosive device, or IED, had ended his career with the 503rd Military Police Battalion. Physically, he felt fine, but the doctors had refused to clear him for combat duty, so he’d gotten out. He could have taken a desk job, but no way was he cut out for that shit. He needed to be boots on the ground, making a difference. He just wished his canine partner, Elsa, had been able to get out of the military with him, but she’d been reassigned and had redeployed before he’d been released from the hospital.
Luke couldn’t think of the German shepherd without his chest tightening. He’d been her first handler and together they’d saved countless lives in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Not a single soldier had died under Elsa’s watch, because her instincts had been that good. He hadn’t had a chance to thank her for her loyal service or even say good-bye. While he was profoundly grateful she had survived the explosion without injury, he hated thinking of her with a new handler, establishing the same kind of tight bond that he had shared with her during their five years together.
“We’ll keep you wet,” Chief Harding said now, bringing Luke back to the present. “Just watch your heads.”
They entered the warehouse through the door at the back of the building, using a bolt cutter to break the padlock. Inside, they switched on their headlamps. The smoke was blinding and their flashlights actually made the poor visibility even worse, like high beams in a fog. Angling the beam downward, Luke took careful note of their surroundings. They were in a corridor littered with debris. Luke used his pike to feel his way along until they came to an open area. Smoke billowed in from a nearby wall where paint was blistering and the wood had an eerie red glow. As the woman had indicated, the space was filled with wooden pallets and crates.
Feeling a tap on his shoulder, he looked up to see Evan.
“This place is a fire trap!” Evan shouted, and used his hatchet to point overhead, where flames licked along several ancient beams and plumes of black smoke oozed from the wood. Above the beams, the metal, corrugated roof had holes in it, but not enough to allow the deluge of water from the tanker truck to penetrate the interior of the building.
Even as Evan said the words, the beam made an ominous cracking noise, and a shower of sparks and flaming debris rained down onto the warehouse floor, threatening to ignite the wooden pallets and crates. On the far side of the space came a loud groaning sound of metal, and one side of the roof gave way, collapsing into the interior with a tremendous crash, smashing crates and pallets and sending plumes of thick dust and smoke into the already-polluted air. Water gushed into the opening as the firefighters turned their hoses onto the opening. Evan’s radio crackled and Captain Harding’s disembodied voice carried clearly.
“Claiborne, report! You boys okay? Over!”
“Roger that, Captain, we’re good, over!” Evan replied.
“That roof isn’t going to hold,” Captain Harding advised. “I need you out of there, now! Over.”
“Affirmative. Over and out.” Evan turned to Luke. “There’s no way we’re going to find anything in this,” he shouted. “We have to go!”
But Luke was on his hands and knees, searching beneath a pile of overturned crates. A beam of light from his head gear had picked up the reflection of two glowing eyes in the darkness beneath the rubble, and now he pulled off his glove and shoved his arm beneath the pile of wood, searching cautiously.
He felt Evan grab the back of his turnout coat and give a hard tug. Glancing over his shoulder, his brother’s face was hard with frustration. “We have to go!”
“I found them!” he shouted, and carefully drew forth a tiny, mewling kitten whose eyes hadn’t yet opened. Luke guessed it to be no more than a day or so old. He handed the little creature to Evan, who tucked the kitten into a pocket of his turnout coat, and then retrieved three more kittens, handing each one to Evan. Only then did the mother cat finally appear, looking frightened and stressed, and panting hard. “That’s it,” Luke crooned softly. “Come here, kitty.”
When it seemed she would retreat back beneath the fallen pallets, Luke snatched her by the scruff of the neck and rose to his feet, holding the growling cat protectively within the curve of his body.
Evan clapped a hand on his shoulder, steering him back the way they had entered. “Let’s get out of here before this thing decides to come down on our heads.”
He had to shout to be heard over the thundering of water on the metal roof. As they passed beneath the overhead beam, it groaned loudly and sent another shower of sparks down on top of them. But then they were outside and moving away from the structure, and Evan was carefully withdrawing two of the kittens from his jacket pocket to cradle them in his gloved hands.
“Didn’t you hear me in there?” Evan demanded, when they were safely away from the building. “I was shouting to you. You can’t just ignore me because I’m your brother, Luke.”
“I wasn’t ignoring you. I had my hands on the kittens,” Luke said, avoiding Evan’s eyes. “I couldn’t just leave them.”
Evan stopped and stared at him in disbelief. “You’re not wearing your hearing aid, are you? Jesus, Luke. You’ll put yourself and the rest of us at risk because of your damned pride.”
Luke frowned. “There’s too much ambient noise. I do better without it.”
“Uh-huh.” Evan began walking away, but turned so that Luke could see his face—so he could read his lips. “Keep telling yourself that.”
Blowing out a hard breath, Luke caught up with his brother. Evan was right, but Luke hated wearing the damned earpiece. It was a constant reminder of everything he’d lost, and the hearing in his left ear was the least of those things.
“How’re the kittens?” he asked, changing the subject.
“Little buggers wouldn’t have had a chance,” Evan observed, turning his attention to the tiny kittens in his hands. “Speaking of which, let’s get momma cat some oxygen. She looks like she’s struggling.”
They rounded the warehouse and were walking toward the firetrucks when there was a deafening crack, as if thunder had erupted behind them, followed immediately by a booming crash. Both Luke and Evan turned to see the entire roof of the warehouse collapse inward, sending a plume of flames and black smoke into the air. They exchanged a meaningful look.
“Five more minutes, and that would have been us under that rubble,” Evan said, his voice grim.
“But it wasn’t.” Luke lifted the mother cat to a more comfortable position in his arms. She was panting heavily and beneath his hand, he could feel the rapid beat of her heart. “Let’s get her some oxygen.”
As they approached the trucks, the woman in the SUV jogged over, still holding the pet carrier. “Oh, thank goodness!” she gasped, seeing the cat. “I can’t believe you were able to find her!”
“Yeah, I’m fine, thanks for asking,” Luke said.
Her hazel eyes flew to his, and maybe it was the heat of the day, but he could have sworn her cheeks turned pink. “I’m glad you’re okay. Do you want me to take her?”
“Why don’t you take these little guys first?” Evan extended one kitten toward her. “We’ll administer some oxygen to momma cat, make sure she’s okay.”
“Thank you, Evan,” she said, and carefully transferred the first kitten to the pet crate.
Luke looked sharply at his brother, but Evan was fishing in his jacket for the remaining kittens.
“You two know each other?” A single thought hammered through his head: Please don’t let them be involved.
“Uh, yeah, it’s a small town,” Evan muttered.
“I’m a vet tech,” the woman interjected, as if that said it all. “Let me take a look at her.”
“Her breathing is labored and her heart rate is accelerated,” Luke said, and put out a gloved hand to keep her back. “Let us do this first, and then you can take her.”
“Here are the other kittens,” Evan said, and handed her the remaining two.
Despite their plaintive mewling, the mother cat barely responded to the sound of her babies. Her eyes had closed to mere slits and she panted rapidly. The woman took the kittens and placed them carefully inside the pet carrier, which had been lined with a soft, fleece blanket.
“The kittens seem healthy,” she observed. “No obvious trauma or signs of oxygen deprivation. They can’t be more than a day old. Will Taco be okay?”
“A little oxygen will help her rally.” Evan pulled a portable oxygen tank from the back of the truck and deftly fitted a plastic tube attached to a face mask. Luke held the cat securely as Evan tested the oxygen flow and then fitted the mask over the cat’s face.
“So you’re a tech vet, huh?” Luke asked, as they hunkered over the cat. “Do you work at the clinic here in Last Stand?”
“I do, yes. I’m Jorie Russell, by the way.”
Luke glanced at her, but her attention remained fixed on the cat. “I’m Luke Claiborne, and this is my brother Evan. But I guess you already knew that.”
She lifted her hazel gaze to his. “Yes, I know who you are,” she murmured.
“So, how do you and Evan know each other?” he asked again.
He didn’t miss the swift look that passed between them, and his heart sank. The bro-code pretty much guaranteed that if Evan had ever dated this woman, then she was off-limits to Luke. He would never disrespect either of his brothers that way.
“It’s been a long time,” Evan said, glancing at Jorie. “How’re you doing, anyway?”
“Fine,” she said brightly. “Great, actually.”
“You seem familiar,” Luke mused. “Have we met before?”
Jorie shrugged. Reaching out, she gently stroked Taco’s fur. Luke noticed her hands were slender, the fingers long and delicate and devoid of any wedding or engagement rings.
“I’m a friend of your sister’s,” she said. “I used to hang out with Emma when we were just kids, whenever she visited from New York. I did a lot of sleepovers at Riverrun Ranch, but that was a long time ago, so I wouldn’t expect you to remember.”
Relief rushed through Luke.
She hadn’t been involved with his brother.
She was his sister’s childhood friend, which was why she’d seemed familiar to him. Luke’s younger half-sister, Emmaline, had lived in New York with her mother for almost her entire life, but had recently moved back to Last Stand. Growing up, she’d spent every school vacation at the ranch, and she’d been friendly with a couple of the local girls.
Luke had a distant memory of a skinny girl with a long, flaxen braid that had swung to her waist. He hadn’t paid much attention to any of Emmaline’s friends since they were so much younger than himself, but he did recall Jorie had liked to hang around the barns and paddocks and watch as he and his brothers trained new horses. As she fixed her attention on the cat, Luke studied her. She’d changed over the past ten years or so.
He never would have guessed that leggy young girl would grow up to be such a knockout. Her white-blond hair had darkened to an ash blond, but some lighter streaks lingered, ribboning through the long tendrils. She was still slender, but in a way he knew other women probably envied.
Taco began to squirm in his arms and Evan removed the oxygen mask. “That did the trick. She seems to be perking up nicely. Give her plenty of water, and I think she’ll do okay.”
“I think you’re right,” Jorie said, and gently lifted the cat out of Luke’s hands. “There, now, you’re okay,” she crooned, stroking the cat’s fur. “Come say hello to your babies.”
Luke watched as she placed the cat inside the pet carrier with the kittens. Taco nosed each of them, before settling down in a corner to wash her offspring as they crawled closer to her.
“So what will you do now?” he asked. “Bring them to the clinic?”
“I’ll keep them at my place until the kittens are old enough to be adopted, and then find them good homes.” She pushed a single finger through the wire of the crate and gently stroked Taco’s fur. “But I think I’ll keep this one.”
“Okay, good luck with that,” Evan said and rose to his feet, clearly anxious to do something more exciting now that the cat had been rescued. “C’mon, bro, we still have a fire to put out.” He dismantled the oxygen mask and coiled the plastic tubing, before he stowed the gear back into the truck.
Jorie picked up the pet carrier and looked at Luke. “Thank you for what you did. Both of you.”
“You’re welcome,” Luke said. “But no more running into burning buildings, agreed?”
“Not unless I have to,” she demurred.
Luke bent forward so that his face was level with hers. “Not ever. Understood? This is no fucking joke.”
“Hey, bro,” Evan said, putting a hand on his shoulder and pushing him back. “Easy. She meant well.”
Luke shrugged his brother’s hand off, but didn’t break eye contact with Jorie. “I’m serious.”
“Okay, I won’t go into any burning buildings,” Jorie said, but a hint of a smile lurked in one corner of her mouth, as if his vehemence amused her. “I promise.”
Luke watched as she walked back to her car with the pet carrier in her arms. Removing his helmet and protective hood, he scrubbed a hand through his hair. “Damn fool woman.”
Evan laughed. “Yeah, I can see she completely repulses you.”
Luke shot him a glower, and then shoved his helmet back on. “I hope I never run into her again.”
“Uh-huh, sure.” Evan grinned, and then turned and walked toward the warehouse.
“At least not under these circumstances,” he added, but Evan was already out of earshot.
End of Excerpt