Authors: Donna Alward
Tags: #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fiction
To my furbabies, Dreamer and Boo.
The sound of barking warred with the dull roar of flames. Chris Jackson tapped the shoulder of the firefighter in front of him and they moved forward slowly. Two staff members were already out of the animal shelter, but Ally remained inside. With the way the smoke was increasing in the old building, Chris knew they’d better find her quick. His heart pounded and fear came knocking.
And yet he took careful, deliberate steps, knowing that rushing would be his biggest mistake.
“Nothing here,” his partner said. The barking got louder. They entered the main kennel area. So far, the fire had stayed on the other side of the structure, near the storage and kitchen area. Worst thing here was the acrid smoke filling the air. But then he saw her. Shit. Even though she had a towel over her face, Chris heard her cough as she opened a cage and moved to a table, shoving the animal inside a crate.
“It’s the fire department,” he identified, not like it could be anyone else. “Come on, we’ve got to go,” he shouted above the noise.
She spun around and faced them. “Just a few more.” She coughed and gasped. “Take this crate and I’ll let out the dogs—”
“Are you crazy? You’ve got to come out now or I’ll have to carry you out.”
“I can’t leave the animals!” she shouted back. “They’re going to die in here! You can either help me or not, but I’m not leaving until they’re out!”
For God’s sake.
Chris swore and looked at his partner.
“We’ve gotta go,” Mark verified.
Chris paused for a moment, just a heartbeat, and then turned to Mark. “Open the damn kennels. We can’t carry them out. We’ll have to set them free and hope they follow us.”
Mark hesitated. “All of them? Are you nuts?”
But Chris shook his head. “Ally’s not going to leave without a fight. It’ll take just as much time prying her out of here. Let ’em loose. I’m not coming back in.”
Mark started flicking cages open and coaxing dogs out of their kennels. Chris turned to Ally and gave an order that he would force her to obey if necessary. “We’re opening the cages, but that’s all. No one is coming back in here, understand?”
“Ally!” he shouted at her, and in the haze of smoke realized that she’d just now recognized who he was. For a split second the last three years evaporated, and he felt a real sense of fear and urgency. This was no time to mess around. No matter what had gone wrong between them before, he couldn’t let anything happen to her.
“There’s no time. That’s the deal, or I carry you out and they get left behind. I
do it,” he promised.
She rushed along a final row of smaller crates and flicked the doors open, then hefted the crate—how many cats had she stuffed in there?
“Okay!” she shouted, and Chris sighed with relief that she was going to go without more of a fight.
“Stay low!” he commanded, as they made their way out of the kennel and back to the reception area.
It was hotter out here. The fire was getting close to the main part of the building. As they moved along, Ally called for the dogs between coughing fits, shouting their names and encouraging them on. Once outside, she pulled down the towel, put the crate on the ground and dropped to her knees. Chris pulled her up, supporting her weight. “Let’s get you away from here and looked at.”
“I’ve got to go back. Chester’s so timid, he’ll never come out. And there are kittens I couldn’t fit in the crate…” She started to push him away but he caught her neatly around the waist.
“You are going to see the paramedics, and you are not going to go near that building again, you understand?” He still had his mask on but his voice was clear.
“But…but…” She turned back, anguish marking her face. “They’ll die in there, Chris!”
He wished he could say yes, but he couldn’t. Not the way the fire was spreading. “I’m sorry, Ally. It’s too dangerous, and I won’t risk your life or any of ours either.”
He looked at the shelter. Another minute or two and it would be fully involved. She pulled on his grip but he didn’t let her go. “I swear to God, you’re staying out here if I have to tie you to the ambulance.”
He lifted the crate, grabbed her arm with his gloved hand and saw her wince at the force of his grip. Okay, so she got his point. But there was no way he was letting her risk her life and the lives of the other firemen. As much as he loved animals, he…
Hmm. In his head he’d nearly said
he loved her more
, hadn’t he? Except he couldn’t. Didn’t.
He led her away from the building and towards the ambulance that was waiting.
Barking increased as dogs ran everywhere. There had to be at least five cats crammed into the dog crate she’d carried out—a good seventy-five pounds. And she’d lifted it as if it were nothing. He couldn’t help but feeling a grudging admiration for her tenacity. He’d underestimated her grit.
She was still coughing when they reached Gabe Brenner. Chris took off his mask and helmet and nodded at the paramedic. “Smoke inhalation,” he said, putting down the crate.
“Chris…” Her voice was raspy from the smoke.
He turned to face her again. The woman who had handed him back her engagement ring and told him she’d changed her mind. The woman who’d broken his heart three years ago. It bugged the hell out of him that he still had a weak spot for her.
“Thank you,” she said, her watery eyes filled with gratitude.
“I’ve got to get back to work.” He turned away, needing to keep perspective and not doing a great job of it. “Someone round up these dogs!” he yelled, crossing the grass.
He was going to catch hell later. Mark hadn’t looked too impressed, but Chris hadn’t wanted to leave the animals trapped inside either. He wished he could have gone back in to get the last of the shelter animals. They’d done the right thing by setting them free.
No, the person Chris was really angry at was himself. For three long years he’d convinced himself that Ally Gallant didn’t matter.
Today the cold fear in his heart had told him she still did.
Her chest still burned and her head ached. Ally stood on the grass outside the shelter, tears running down her face. The fire department was still here, putting out hotspots, but the old building had been so badly damaged that she knew it would have to be leveled.
All her hard work…gone. And the animals…
She reached in her pocket for a tissue. It could have been worse. They’d lost the three kittens and only one dog—Chester. Moose was still missing. He’d run off in the chaos, but the other dogs, all ten of them, had been found. Most were being treated at a local veterinarian’s. A few had already been fostered. For now.
But the four that had been lost still made her heart ache, and though she’d only had them a short time, she grieved for them. Chester had been a sweet Miniature Schnauzer with bad eyesight and a loving heart. The kittens—Marmalade, Jelly and Jam—had been three orange-and-white sisters from the same litter who’d been dumped on the side of the road in Canning. Ally had been going to set up their spay appointments this week so that they’d soon be ready for adoption.
She wouldn’t need to do that now.
When the fire crew finally packed up and left the scene, Ally sat down on the grass and hugged her knees. The shelter had been her labor of love, the one thing in her life that made her feel as if she amounted to something. She was twenty-five years old and what did she have to show for it? She’d done two years of university and hated it. She worked instead at a drugstore in town and lived with her parents.
Since the shelter was a charity, Ally didn’t make any money, but it didn’t matter. It had been her idea and she’d been the one to get backing for it. She’d done the research, looked after the legal details and sweet-talked people into sitting on the board and lending their expertise. She’d worked out a deal with a local vet for care for the animals, including spays, neuters and vaccinations.
This place was her home.
And now it was gone. She sat, shocked, stunned and grieved both for the animals she hadn’t saved and for the loss of something that had meant the world to her.
Footsteps sounded behind her. She looked up and saw Chris standing beside her, staring at the building. Her heart squeezed. It had been something, seeing him in the middle of the smoke today. In that moment, all her panic had fled. It had been a moment where all her fears, centered square in her gut, mixed with a surge of relief that he was there, a knowledge that it would be okay.
He’d been right to pull her away when she’d wanted to go back in. She didn’t want to admit that, but it was true.
“How’re you doing?” he asked quietly.
“I’m okay. Could have been worse. Gabe let me go.”
“Putting a towel over your face was pretty smart.”
“And staying inside was stupid. You could have been seriously hurt, Ally. Killed, even, if you’d been unconscious and we couldn’t find you.”
The raw edge of his voice made her tears well up again. Stupid. That was her. She knew what people thought of her in this town. It wasn’t that they disliked her. They just accepted that she was none too bright. She made up for it by being friendly and outgoing.
Sometimes it was exhausting.
“I had to try to get them out. I couldn’t just leave them all in there to die.”
But Sue and Laverne had. They had pulled the alarm and gone out front to wait for the fire department, just like they were supposed to. For a moment, Ally was angry. If there’d been three of them, they might have been able to get all the animals out in a shorter amount of time.
She looked up. “Did you get in trouble?”
His gaze was inscrutable. “I’m not heartless, Ally. We do try to save people’s pets if it’s possible. Let’s just say that right now Mark’s none too happy with me and I’m taking a fair bit of ribbing down at the station.”
So he was in trouble. Because of her. “I know I should say I’m sorry, but—”
“But you’re not. I know.”
She pushed up off the ground and brushed off the back of her pants. She still smelled like smoke and Chris had showered the stench away, smelling now like soap and clean clothing. His short military-style-cut hair was precisely in place, while her dirty-blonde locks hung limp around her shoulders.
She already felt inferior around him, and this wasn’t helping at all.
“Just so you know, there’ll be an investigation as to the cause of the fire.”
She tilted her head to look up at him. “Why would you feel you had to mention that? Do you think I had something to do with it?”
His brows pulled together. “Of course not.” He paused. “Did you?”
Her humiliation was complete. She turned around and punched him in the arm. “I can’t believe you’d ask that. Go away, Christopher.” Anger and grief and impotence all seemed to wind their way through her veins. “Just go away.”
He shrugged and turned away. “Just don’t touch anything,” he said over his shoulder.
“I’m not stupid,” she called after him, the words laced with derision.
He stopped, turned around and faced her again, his hands on his hips. “I never said you were. I’m assuming you want to know what happened here today because it meant so much to you. That’s all.”
Ally bit down on her lip. Was she overreacting? It had obviously been a stressful day. But look at Chris. He was unflappable. He never flew off the handle or did anything impulsive. And perhaps that had been the problem all along. He’d had everything planned out in stages, and Ally had felt the walls closing in around them. He made decisions and she didn’t know what she wanted. It had all been rather intimidating. And while he’d been sure that being a firefighter was what he wanted to do, she’d been afraid. Afraid for him, afraid of losing him someday. Afraid that if she became his wife she’d always be the one in the supporting role. What would happen to her if anything happened to him?
She hadn’t even known what she wanted from life yet and he’d been pressing her to set a date.
“I do want to know what happened. The building is old. I suppose it could have been anything.”
“So let them do their job. Go home and shower, get some rest.”