At the sight of her ambulance’s side door yawning open, Sherri Steele tripped to a stop. This afternoon was headed the same way as the unsettled June weather. Stormy. Again.
“What’s the holdup?” her partner groused from the other end of the stretcher straddling their patient’s threshold.
She motioned with her chin for him to pull the stretcher holding the elderly gentleman back into the small bungalow. “I think we have company.”
She’d closed the ambulance’s door, but in this quiet retiree neighborhood locking it hadn’t seemed necessary. Before her partner could ask more questions, she whispered a quick prayer for protection, slipped out and padded toward the rig. Protocol demanded that a paramedic call the police if she feared for her safety, a practice she’d been a stickler about ever since her former partner had gotten himself killed, but the last thing she needed on her record was a nuisance cry-wolf call if it turned out to be nothing more than a curious kid inside. Maybe one of the neighbors’ grandkids. Or worse. No one at all.
Her finger tensed over the radio’s call button. She’d take a quick peek and if she saw anyone over four-six, she’d call it in.
“Get back in here with the patient and let me look,” her partner hissed from the bungalow.
She put her finger to her lips and waved him off as she melted against the side of the ambulance to shield herself from the view of whoever was inside. The guys would never let her live it down if she turned tail and it turned out to be nothing. Please, God, let it be nothing.
The hair on the back of her neck prickled. Someone was definitely in there. She drew in a deep breath and glanced through the opening.
A lanky teen with unnaturally black hair stood at the wall-mounted cabinet, jabbing at the lock with a screwdriver. He slammed his fist into the steel and cursed.
Sherri jerked back out of sight and fumbled with the button on her radio. That was no curious grandkid.
The next instant she was yanked off her feet and hauled inside the truck. The kid spun her around and pinned her to the wall, the butt of his hand crushing her larynx. Drug-crazed eyes locked with hers. “Open it!”
“Okay,” she mouthed, unable to get a breath past the pressure on her throat.
He slowly eased his hold, looking as if he wasn’t sure he trusted her. His heavy-lidded, gauzy blue eyes seemed vaguely familiar, which shouldn’t have surprised her in a town the size of Stalwart, Washington. But it rattled her more than ever. Maybe someone really was behind the bad things that only seemed to happen on her shift.
He shoved her toward the cabinet.
Making a show of thumbing through her keys, she depressed the call button on the radio and spoke as loudly and clearly as she could make her quaking voice cooperate. “We don’t carry narcotics on board the ambulance.”
At least he didn’t seem to know that the four vials of morphine she carried for patients with extreme pain were on her person at all times. And she didn’t dare tell him that the rest of the good drugs were in the trauma bag, still with her partner and the patient inside the house. The last thing she wanted to do was give their hip-fracture patient a heart attack.
With any luck this kid was crashing so fast that in another few minutes he wouldn’t be able to put two and two together. By now her partner would have called the cavalry. She just had to keep the kid from going ballistic on her until they got here.
He grabbed her ponytail, twisted it mercilessly, and shoved her face into the cabinet. “Open it!”
Pain ripped through her scalp, exploded in her nose. Screaming, she rammed her boot heel into his kneecap.
He doubled over with a roar, but the grip on her hair only intensified.
Gritting her teeth against the torturous pull, she jabbed the keys between her fingers and swung. Her fist connected with his cheek.
Her partner charged up to the open side door. “Let her go!”
With lightning speed, the kid maneuvered her in front of him like a human shield. His arm tightened around her throat as he snapped open a switchblade. “Stay back!”
Dan, her six-foot, barrel-chested, former-army-medic partner, came to a dead halt at the foot of the door. His arms shot up, patted the air. “Okay, kid. Take it easy.”
Straining to pull in a full breath, Sherri stopped struggling.
Blessed sirens split the air, the sound screaming closer. But the sound made the kid shaky. Real shaky. “Tell them to stay back or I’ll cut her. I swear I’ll cut her.”
A whimper escaped her throat as she winged a desperate plea heavenward.
“Look at me,” Dan said in a soothing tone. “You don’t want to do this.”
“Don’t tell me what I want,” her captor seethed, pricking the tip of the knife into her cheek. “Nobody cares what I want.”
A sheriff’s deputy stepped in front of her partner. “I care.”
The kid’s hold on her neck loosened a fraction, and Sherri dared to breathe.
“You don’t care. You left.” The teen’s arm around her neck went rigid again, his knife poised dangerously close to her carotid. “You left and didn’t come back!”
The deputy pulled his stun gun and painted the teen’s shoulder with the laser beam. “Drop the knife, and let her go, Eddie.”
“Or what? You’d shoot your own brother?”
Sherri’s heart jolted. This was his brother?
The deputy’s arm wavered. “I can’t let you hurt Sherri. You know that.”
Something about the way he said her name sounded achingly familiar.
His tortured gaze flicked her way, sending an unexpected flutter through her chest.
She gasped. “Cole?” When had he gotten back to town? Become a cop?
He winced at her breathless question and didn’t meet her eyes.
She hadn’t seen him since he’d left for college seven years ago. And never came back.
Not once. Not to see his brother. Not to see his father. And definitely not to see the three-years-his-junior neighbor girl who’d been nursing a colossal secret crush on him.
Eddie’s hold around her neck eased mercifully, but Sherri still struggled to pull in a full breath as her gaze clung to Cole. He was as tall as she remembered. But his brown hair was shorter and a shade darker. His chest broader. His voice deeper. And his eyes…
Those soft gray eyes that had once sparkled with mischievous teasing now brimmed with a tangle of apology, regret and despair.
She swallowed a rush of emotion.
“I wasn’t going to hurt nobody,” Eddie muttered, gesturing toward the cabinet with his knife. “He said the stuff was in here. Said it would be easy to lift.”
Cole edged closer, his stun gun still fixed on his brother’s shoulder, dangerously close to her own. “Who said?”
“The guy. The guy!” Eddie waved his knife as if Cole should know.
“Drop the knife, Eddie.”
“I just needed a fix.”
“I know.” That telltale muscle twitch in Cole’s cheek gave her an odd pang of reassurance. “But I can’t help you if you don’t drop the knife.”
“You don’t wanna help me!” Eddie shoved her into Cole’s line of fire and broke toward the rear door.
Thrown off balance, she tumbled out the side opening, right into Cole’s arms. They closed protectively around her, his legs already in motion. And for a few blissful seconds she felt fifteen again. He rushed her away from the ambulance and coaxed her onto a porch step.
Her patient’s porch step.
Remembering the poor gentleman who’d been in so much pain when they arrived, she lurched to her feet. “We need to transport our patient.”
Cole urged her back down. “It’s okay. Another ambulance is en route.” He tucked a strand of hair behind her ear, the tenderness in his gaze making it difficult to breathe.
She forced herself to inhale a deep breath, but with it came his distinctive, spicy scent. A scent that had whisked her into silly happily-ever-after fantasies more times than she cared to remember. Memories assaulted her of the sweet kiss and soul-stirring hug they’d shared after she’d played paramedic and treated the swollen, bloodied knuckles he’d gotten taking out his anger on the wooden fence between their yards. She squeezed her eyes shut. She couldn’t let him inside her head again and definitely not her heart.
At a sudden painful pressure against her cheek, she jerked back, her eyes popping open.
Cole’s lips dipped into an apologetic frown. “Your cheek is bleeding.” He held out a bloodstained tissue.
She accepted it from him and pressed it to the wound, cringing at what a wreck she must look. What was she supposed to say? Good to see you after all these years. Swallowing the lump in her throat, she settled for, “Thank you for getting me out in one piece.”
He cradled her jaw in his palm and coaxed the muscles to relax with a soothing brush of his thumb. “You were amazing back there.”
She stiffened, not wanting to acknowledge how something inside her came alive at his touch, at the admiration in his gaze.
Dan hurried toward her, trauma bag in hand.
But Cole didn’t budge. “I’m sorry,” he whispered, and she had the uncomfortable feeling he was apologizing for a lot more than his out-of-control brother.