Authors: Leslie Johnson
Tags: #Firefighter Romance
“That’s not fair,” she said quietly.
Ryan flexed his fingers, ran a shaky hand through his hair and sighed. He had to get his anger in check before he said or did something he’d regret. He couldn’t believe this was happening. “What’s wrong with living here?” he asked after a moment.
“Nothing.” She kept her back to him, refusing to meet his gaze.
“Is there something wrong with the house? Because if there is, I know Jim will—”
“The house is fine,” she said, shutting off the stove and finally turning to look at him. “It’s not the house.”
“Then what is it?” He studied her for several moments. Dread crawled up his spine and erupted in his veins. That look on her face, he’d seen it before. It was the same look she’d given him the last night they’d spent together at the beach, the night he asked her to move in with him, the night she agreed and then disappeared. It was a look ripe with fear, uncertainty, and sadness.
“It’s you,” she whispered.
“Me.” It wasn’t a question.
“Yes. I can’t live next door to you, Ryan.” She looked away from him, her head lowered as if she were studying the floor. “I can’t be near you without wanting to be with you. It’s clear I don’t have the willpower.”
Ryan closed the gap between them and stood in front of her. He put his finger under her chin, tilting her head up to look at him. Tears glistened in her eyes. “So be with me then.” It was so simple. Why couldn’t she see it? His heart raced as he waited what felt like an eternity for her response.
“Why the hell not?” He took a calming breath. Yelling at her wasn’t going to help. If nothing else, he’d learned that lesson with Vikki. “Being with you is all I’ve ever wanted. From the moment I laid eyes on you, I knew I had to be with you.” Tears spilled from her eyes. He wiped them away. “We’re good together, Jess. You can’t deny that.”
“It’s not that easy, Ryan.”
“What are you so afraid of?” He felt the panic rising in his voice and he tried to stifle it, to shove it back down deep in his gut where it belonged, but it was useless. He was losing her again. It was written all over her face. She remained silent. Ryan took a step away from her, throwing his hands in the air in frustration. “I can’t do this anymore.” He shook his head, grabbed his jacket from the back of the chair and headed toward the door.
“Ryan!” she sobbed. He stopped and slowly turned around. She stood in the doorway between the kitchen and the living room, her face streaked with tears, her lips trembling.
I’m afraid of losing myself if I’m with you
. Her brain said the words but she couldn’t force them out of her mouth.
“Do you know why I left you that night?”
“No, Jess, I don’t know.” He knew what she’d told him a few days ago, but it wasn’t really an explanation. He reached into his back pocket, pulled out his wallet, and took out a worn piece of paper. “This is what I know.” He unfolded the paper and began to read. “My dearest Ryan, you are the most amazing man I’ve ever met, and these past two and a half months have been the best of my life, which is why this is so hard. Then again, saying goodbye is never easy.”
He paused for a moment to collect his emotions. Reading this letter brought back all the painful memories of that morning, of waking to an empty bed and a note. He took a deep breath and continued. “I don’t expect you to understand, but please trust me when I say that I have reasons for doing this. I’m not the woman you think I am, and I can never be the woman you deserve. That doesn’t change how I feel though. I wish I had told you this before: I love you, Ryan.”
“Oh my God!” Jess cupped her hand over her mouth. “You saved it?”
“Yes, I saved it,” he snapped, then softened his voice. “It was the only tangible thing I had left of you, Jess.” He set the note on the coffee table and approached her, framing her face with his hands. “That night when I asked you to move in with me, when I told you I loved you, I meant it. I still do.”
She gasped and shook her head. “Please, Ryan, don’t... I... I just need some time to figure things out.”
Ryan dropped his hands to his sides. “There’s nothing to figure out, Jess. I love you, and either you want to be with me or you don’t.”
Jess inhaled deeply and then exhaled slowly. “I don’t,” she whispered.
A knife to his heart would’ve hurt less. He backed away from her, the meaning of her words sinking in with each step he took. So that was it. She didn’t want him and there was nothing he could do about it. “I knew it was a mistake trying to be your friend.” Without another word, he walked out of her house and her life. He got halfway home when he realized he wasn’t wearing any shoes. He’d left them in her house. “Son of a bitch!” He kicked at the ground and stormed home.
He went straight to the bathroom, stripped out of his clothes, and climbed into the shower. What the fuck just happened? Yesterday, last night, it had all gone so well. He truly believed they’d reconnected, that she was finally coming around and wanted to be with him. That woman was screwing with his mind like it was a national pastime. Enough was enough. If she didn’t want to be with him, fine. He didn’t need her.
He got out of the shower and wrapped a towel around his waist. Going to the station and beating on some equipment was tempting, but he was physically and emotionally exhausted. A nap, that’s what he needed. Unconsciousness. He flopped down on the bed, covered his face with a pillow, and was sound asleep within minutes.
Knock! Knock! Knock!
Ryan jolted awake. It was dark inside his room. He’d sworn it was daylight when he’d fallen asleep. The bedside clock read nine-fifty-two. Holy shit! He really had been tired.
Knock! Knock! Knock!
“I’m coming!” he shouted, getting off the bed and adjusting the towel around his waist. He shuffled to the door and swung it open with annoyance. He had no idea who he expected to see, but he sure as hell hadn’t expected her.
“Hey, Ry.” She smiled. “Looks like I caught you at just the right time.” It was Melissa, his most recent ex, trailed her finger down his chest.
Ryan moved out of her reach. “What do you want?” Melissa was the last person in the world he wanted to see. Ending things with her had been the best thing he’d done. Too bad she didn’t think so. Every week or so, she’d show up at his door begging him for another chance. Each time he’d tell her no. Sometimes she’d show up and try to seduce him. He was guilty of giving in to her advances a few times. He had no excuse. He was a guy. It had been quite a while since the last time she’d shown up though.
“I thought maybe we could have a have a little bit of fun.” She stepped inside and put her arms around his neck. “You know, like we used to?”
He tried to remove her hands and tell her to leave, but before he had the chance, Melissa pressed her lips to his. Ryan pulled away, opening his mouth to protest. She used the opportunity to pull him back and stick her tongue in his mouth.
“Ryan? Are you here? We need to—” Jess stopped midsentence, her petite frame standing in the open door. “I, uh, I’m... sorry, I didn’t mean to...” She turned on her heel and left.
“Damn it!” Ryan disengaged Melissa’s hands from the back of his neck and pushed her away. He didn’t bother saying anything to her. Instead, he ran after Jess. He really wished he was wearing pants; running in a towel wasn’t easy. “Jess!” He caught up to her as she reached her front porch. “I can explain.”
Jess spun around and faced him. The amount of pain he saw in her eyes nearly brought him to his knees. Her bottom lip trembled and tears fell from her eyes. “You don’t owe me any explanations, Ryan.”
“That woman, she’s an ex-girlfriend. I broke up with her a couple of months ago and—”
“It doesn’t matter.” She shrugged and wiped away a few stray tears.
“It matters to me, Jess.” He clutched her upper arms and peered into her eyes. “Let me explain.” He knew her experience with men, what Derrick had done to her, and how she didn’t trust anyone. The idea that she would see him like all the other men in her life sickened him.
She crossed her arms over her chest. “Fine. Explain.”
Rain drops fell from the sky, first in sporadic little splatters and then suddenly in a deluge, pouring over them like a waterfall, a long streak of lightning sprinting across the sky. Ryan wouldn’t be deterred though. He was going to make her understand. “She’s an ex-girlfriend. I broke up with her and she’s not taking it so well. She shows up on occasion, and she can be a bit aggressive at times.”
“And how do you explain how you were kissing her back?”
“I wasn’t,” he said firmly. Jessie simply stared at him, disbelief clouding her brown eyes. Ryan released her arms and ran a hand through his hair. “Shit, Jess. You have to believe me. I have no reason to lie to you.”
“I don’t know what to believe, Ryan.” She was in full sobs. “I came over to apologize, to tell you...”
“To tell me what?” he shouted over the sound of the rain, thankful to see the headlights of Melissa’s car pulling away.
She shook her head. “Nothing. Forget it.” She jumped when a bolt of lightning lit up the sky, following quickly by a thundering crack.
“No.” Ryan took hold of her arms again. She jerked out of his grasp. He sighed and looked up at the sky. The storm had come fast and was getting worse. “We’ve got to get out of this. Let’s go inside and talk.” They were both soaking wet. Jess was trembling, from the cold rain, or her emotions, he didn’t know. Jess turned on her heel and ran toward her house. Ryan followed. “God damn it, Jess!” he shouted.
“Just go away, Ryan. Go entertain your friend.” Jess kicked off her shoes on the porch and went to open the door.
Ryan clutched her wrist and spun her around. “Do not walk away from me again.”
She stood nose to nose with him, her eyes blazing with undiluted anger. “You’re no better than Derrick.”
“I’m nothing like that fucking asshole and you know it.”
It was wrong that her defiance turned him on. He should be pissed, and he was, to a certain point, but he was more aroused than anything. He half guided, half pushed her up against the wall and then crushed his mouth over hers, not caring that they were still outside, where anyone could see. She groaned and clutched handfuls of his hair between her fingers. “Don’t keep pushing me away,” he said, scraping his teeth down her neck.
“I’m so scared,” she whispered.
“I am too.”
She dug her fingernails into his skin as he sucked on her earlobe. “Maybe…”
Her words were cut off by a horrendously loud clap of thunder, so piercing it made them both jump and turn. Lightening had struck a tree four houses down, and to their horror, they watched it fall directly into the center of the home.
Jessie screamed, but Ryan went into action, yelling at her to call 911 before jumping off her porch and running to his house. Moments later, he was dressed and rushing to his truck, pulling on the protective fire jacket he always carried.
“Ry-an!” Jessie was screaming his name, pointing at the house. He glanced over and saw the flames coming from the front window. The Jernigan’s lived there and he noted both their vehicles in the driveway. Damn, they were home, along with their young daughter and son.
He jumped into the bed of his truck, opening the lockbox and pulled out an extinguisher, helmet and first-aid kit. Jess ran across the lawn, still barefoot, screaming, “What can I do to help?”
“They’re on their way. Wait for them,” she screamed. He couldn’t do that, not with an entire family’s life teetering on the edge. He said nothing, just jumped from the truck and began to sprint toward the burning house.
The front of the house was gone, caved in and burning fiercely now. He turned the corner and nearly ran over Amy Jernigan, carrying her infant daughter in her arms.
“Help,” she was screaming, the baby wailing in her arms. “Sam’s still… there, trying… get…Jake.”
He grabbed her arms, trying to get her to calm enough to give him directions. “Amy, where did you see Sam last. Where was Jake?”
She was sobbing, nearly incoherent. “Jake. Upstairs. Bedroom. Right. Stairs.”
He’d heard enough. About that time, Jess came flying around the corner and he thrust Amy and the baby her way. “Take them to your house, get the baby inside.” Then he took off before checking to see if she obeyed.
He dropped the first aid kit for later and pulled on his helmet before surging through the open door in which Amy had fled. The smoke was thick in the back of the house and getting thicker by the second.
Although they’d been neighbors for a while now, he’d only been inside their house one time before. He’d brought over a gift when Emily had been born, but felt sure he remembered the layout of the house well enough.
He charged into the hall at a half crawl, trying to stay below the layer of smoke. He found the stairs and rushed up, just as he heard screams and desperate banging coming from above. Sam was ramming himself into the door, but not effectively enough to get it open. He was coughing violently, shirt pulled up over his nose, but he wasn’t stopping. He was desperate to get to his son. It appeared as if he planned to die trying.
“Get back,” Ryan yelled, tossing down his gear and pulling the man by his shoulders. “Go, I’ll get him. I promise. Wait outside his window. I might have to lower him out.”
He hoped it didn’t come to that, but knew he needed Sam out of the house. Giving him an assignment was the easiest way to get him to do what he wanted. Ryan was relieved when, after only a few seconds, Sam turned and puked; hacking up soot and ash, then dizzily headed down the steps.
Ryan didn’t take the time to test the temperature of the door. Fortunately, Jake’s room was at the back of the house. The smoke had spread there, but not yet the flames. The tree landed to the left of his room, but had taken out enough of the wall to wedge the little boy’s door shut. Jake picked up the ax and swung with all his might. He chopped five more times before the wood splintered enough to kick in.
The heat at his back was incredible and his protective jacket helped but he desperately wished for his full suit. He was also without his oxygen mask and the smoke was beyond intense. Remembering all his yearly training, he was grateful for the time in the smokehouse, but right now, none of that mattered.