blazing hotter (love under fire book 2)

Advertising Download Read Online

Blazing Hotter

(Love Under Fire - 2)

Chantel Rhondeau

Electronic Edition

Copyright 2016 Chantel Rhondeau

*

Cover Design: EDH Graphics

*

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to an ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

*

This book is a work of fiction. The characters, names, events, and places in this novel are used fictitiously or are products of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to real people, living or dead, or to places, businesses, or events, is entirely coincidental.

*

Table of Contents

Title Page

Copyright Page

Blazing Hotter Description

Dedication

Acknowledgements

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Chapter Twenty-Four

Chapter Twenty-Five

Author’s Note

Chantel’s Books

Preview of Blazing Love

Blazing Hotter Description

F
ormer bad boy and firefighter Frankie Hernandez struggles to recover from debilitating injuries sustained during his last fire. Physical therapist Cassie Flick is at her wit's end with the handsome hunk, conspiring with his friends to get Frankie’s life back despite his intense pain. Those plans get derailed when she receives a delivery from an unknown source. Roses are sweet, but a note inside them threatening Cassie isn’t.

There’s a killer loose in Sayle, Washington, and Frankie isn't about to let Cassie face this threat alone, no matter what it costs him physically. The more time they spend together, the closer they become and the higher the stakes are for Frankie to overcome his disabilities and protect her. Together they race to discover who’s killing women in their city, fighting to solve the mystery before Cassie becomes the next victim.

Dedication

To all civil service members who work hard to keep us safe. Thank you.

Acknowledgements

A
big shout out of thanks to all the people who make my books possible. First and foremost on that list is Conra, who supports my dreams, working hard so I can spend more time writing and encouraging me to keep going even on days I feel like giving up.

My list of beta readers and proofers are always rock stars who help me out even when I’m asking for a super fast turnaround. They take time out of their busy lives to be my first-line readers, showing me where I went wrong, helping me fix things, and, in general, being my trusted group to keep me from losing my mind during the process. Not to mention the typos they find! Thanks so much to Speedy Shanny G, Author Rachelle Ayala, The Fabulous Liza Robbins, Awesome Editor Sara Kay, and Wonderful Rebecca A.

Another big thanks has to go to my cover artist, Erin, at EDH Graphics. It’s as though we share a brain with our visions for cover art, and she always creates something beautiful without needing a lot of back and forth between us.

Finally, thank you to all my readers! I don’t know if I could stop myself from writing even if I wanted to, but knowing there are people out there waiting to hear my stories helps keep me motivated. My fans are the best!

Chapter One

T
he raging fire had nearly consumed the house, but the kids hid inside somewhere. Unfortunately, no one awaited Frankie and his partner, Thayne, in the first bedroom. Glancing up, Frankie noted the sparks of flame that flickered through the smoke, threatening to catch fire.

“Fall back. It’s gonna flash.” Thayne tugged Frankie’s arm and dragged him into the hallway, turning to shut the door in an attempt to keep the superheated air from blazing to life. “Let’s get out of here.”

Thayne led the way, as usual, crawling low to the ground.

Frankie knew he should put his gloves back on in case there was a flash fire, but Thayne had threatened to kick his ass if they separated. He needed to keep up with his partner. Looking up again, Frankie shuddered and fear spurred his adrenaline, helping him crawl for the front door faster. Black smoke snaked along the hallway ceiling and small licks of orange and blue lit here and there. It was only a matter of time before the whole house burst into flames.

It crushed Frankie that they had to leave without finding the kids. There was one room they hadn’t been able to check. The children must have taken shelter in the master bedroom.

He’d barely reached that little girl hiding in the bathtub in time during the last fire they fought, but he
had
saved her. Giving up on kids seemed like the worst thing a firefighter could do.

Hoping for a miracle, Frankie glanced over his shoulder, peering through the smoke-filled hall. As though they only waited for him to look, the door at the end of the hall opened, revealing the forms of children barely visible through the inky blackness.

“Thayne, wait! It’s the kids.” Frankie took off without waiting for Thayne to give the order, standing and running for the opening. He had to reach them. They likely had seconds before passing out, overcome by the smoke they breathed. Screw the danger! He had to save them.

“Frank, no!”

Thayne’s shout was a direct order, but Frankie didn’t care if he was the probie who should follow a superior’s commands. There wasn’t time to argue about this.

He raced to the doorway, scooping a little girl under his right arm and making a grab for a young boy.

The toddler didn’t seem to realize Frankie was there to help, dodging beneath Frankie’s arm and backing further into the room.

“Damn you, Frankie. Grab that kid!” Thayne stood mere inches behind Frankie, holding the last child, who appeared to have passed out as soon as he picked her up. “We need to get the fuck out of here.”

Nodding, Frankie lunged forward, snagging the back of the kid’s shirt. Not caring if it wasn’t the most gentle way to handle a child, Frankie yanked him against his side. “Let’s go.”

As one, he and Thayne turned for the bedroom doorway. A crackle and a crash of noise spurred Frankie backward and part of the hall ceiling caved in front of them. “What now?”

“Window,” Thayne yelled, sprinting through the room.

Frankie stuck close to him, despite holding a kid under each arm. “It hasn’t been broken yet.”

“I’ll get it. Get ready.”

The danger of sucking the fire toward them when they let in fresh oxygen was all too real, but they didn’t have a choice. It already felt like the flesh of Frankie’s hands had melted to the bones, the air scorching them.

Thayne carefully set the girl on the floor and snatched up a chair from the nearby vanity set. As he spun toward the window to drive the chair through it, all hell broke loose.

It sounded like an explosion. The air caught fire and suddenly the house was falling in on itself, the attic area already blazing. Chunks of burning drywall and insulation knocked Frankie to the ground. It was all he could do to crawl on top of the two children in an effort to shield them from the worst of it as bigger pieces rained down.

When the screaming started, Frankie struggled inside the rubble, frantic to get out from under the fiery blaze. He needed to help whoever screamed. Slabs of something held him down, pinning him on top of the kids. A pain unlike anything he’d felt before swallowed him whole, making it difficult to even form coherent thoughts.

The fire suit didn’t do much to help. The sweat on his body morphed into boiling steam, searing him with such excruciating agony that he could no longer worry about the kids he wanted to protect. He needed to save himself.

And the damn screaming wouldn’t stop. He just wanted it to end.

It wasn’t until he almost drifted into unconsciousness that Frankie realized the screams came from his own throat.

***

F
rankie Hernandez bolted upright in bed, yelling out once before collapsing against his sweat-soaked pillows. It was the damn dream again. Always that dream. For a year and a half now, he’d relived the moment that changed his life forever.

Frustration mounting, he struggled to grab the stress ball next to his bed. It was supposedly part of his therapy, but Frankie’s damaged hands could barely grasp the damn thing.

With a defiant grunt, he chucked the ball as hard as he could across the room. It flew with all the confidence and power of something thrown by an infant, only serving to anger him further. It arched shakily through the air, headed toward the door leading to the main hallway of the rehabilitation center.

Before the ball hit, the door swung open. Thayne Bloodgood, Frankie’s old partner, snatched the stress ball from the air before it hit him, a sideways smile on his face. “That’s some welcome you have going on, probie. No wonder you don’t get many visitors.”

“I’m not a probie anymore,” Frankie grumped. “I’m nothing but a damn cripple. What the hell are you doing here?”

Thayne shrugged in a lazy manner and crossed the room, plopping into the chair next to Frankie’s bed without waiting for an invitation. “Came to wish you a happy birthday and wheel you to our therapy appointment. It’s not every day you turn twenty-three, you know?”

“You’re right. Considering I turned twenty-three two years ago, you’re already too damn late.”

Not wanting to look at Thayne’s perpetually handsome face, Frankie turned and stared resolutely toward his room’s tiny window. Not even a fire could strike down the mighty Thayne. The man was walking and back to work within six months of the fire despite the burns he’d suffered on his back and legs. Not to mention, Thayne was back to being deliriously happy with his fiancée, the sweet veterinarian assistant, Laura Lyon.

“Dude, you’re really twenty-five today?” Thayne asked. “I had you pegged as younger, considering how you used to get it on with all the strippers in town instead of settling down with a nice girl.”

“Don’t let it worry you. I won’t be with them anymore.” Frankie knew his voice was snarly and Thayne only tried to be kind, but he wasn’t in the mood to deal with people right after having the dream again. “No stripper would want me touching them with these burned out husks I have for hands. Not to mention how hard it’d be for them to handle seeing my scarred thighs and stomach.”

“Could be worse,” Thayne replied. “Your dick still works, right?”

“Not that I have occasion to try it out,” Frankie grumbled.

“That’s why you gotta start getting out of this place more.” Thayne said it with all confidence, as though Frankie had just supplied the comment Thayne had been waiting for. “Lucky for you, the guys have a birthday party planned at the station. I’m supposed to bring you by once therapy is done. Sterling is making his famous chili, his wife baked a cake, and Laura knows how partial you are to chicken enchiladas, so she’s baking those as we speak.”

Talk about the worst idea ever. Going to the firehouse and seeing all his old friends was not his idea of a good time. He didn’t want the other guys to see what had become of him. They’d stopped visiting after the first few months, and Frankie was fine with that. Besides, it made Frankie cringe every time he had to face Laura, considering he nearly got Thayne killed. She was too sweet to be mean to him, but Frankie couldn’t imagine she’d ever really forgive him for that. He couldn’t forgive himself.

Going to face them all meant showing them what a year and a half of therapy had accomplished. Nothing. He was weak and cowardly now, not able to strengthen himself enough to walk. Hell, he couldn’t even make his damn hands work. He wasn’t part of their brotherhood anymore. He’d never be a firefighter again, so why should he spend time with them?

“Tell them thanks but no thanks. I’m not feeling up to it.”

“What if I told you I was going?” came a soft voice from the doorway.

Both men turned to look, and Frankie bit the inside of his cheek as familiar feelings of desire and need coursed through his sex-starved body. Why did his physical therapist have to be so damn hot?

“Hey, Cassie.” Thayne waved her inside. “We’d love to party with you, wouldn’t we, Frank?”

Cassie Flick stepped into the room, crossing it quickly and perching on the side of Frankie’s bed. “Sorry to eavesdrop, but you weren’t exactly being quiet. Having a rough day?” Her sky blue eyes flashed with concern in that way she had.

The way that totally made Frankie melt. If only she wasn’t off limits.

If only he wasn’t a shell of the man he’d been two years ago. The old Frankie would take a perky blond like Cassie into his arms with no hesitation, rubbing her back and shoulders and kissing her until she was breathless and moaning for more. He’d have no problem using his nimble fingers to tease her into a frenzy of hot desire until she begged him to make her come, over and over again.

Frankie looked at his hands, thinking about what the doctors had said earlier at his surgical consultation. A rough day didn’t even begin to describe it.

“It’s been pretty shitty,” he admitted. “I’m not up to a party. In fact, I meant to call you to cancel therapy, Cassie, but fell asleep. I just want to go back to bed.”

Cassie frowned, her brow furrowing in a way that somehow made her even hotter. “The nurses tell me you haven’t been out of your room since our last therapy appointment. I know I had to cancel a few sessions to go to my brother’s wedding, but you promised you’d work hard while I was gone.”

He had no answer for that. It was the first time in a year and a half that Cassie had missed a therapy appointment. She worked her ass off trying to help him gain more mobility. However, Frankie knew he had to face facts sooner or later.

“I’m not getting better. Rehab isn’t helping.”

She tilted her head sideways and reached out, smoothing his curly black hair across his head. “You’re all sweaty. You mentioned something about having bad dreams once before. Is that what has you so worked up and grouchy?”

Her touch was magical, the coolness of her skin acting like a soothing balm for his hot flesh. However, if he let her continue touching him, he’d lose control and pop a boner right here. Maybe that would have been okay for the old Frankie, who could convince a girl to take care of it or do it for himself, but his screwed up hands couldn’t even move enough for him to whack himself off these days.

He pushed her hand away. “It’s really none of your business what I dream about.”

If his rudeness upset her, Cassie didn’t show it. She merely shrugged and hopped off the bed. “Nope, it’s not. What is my business is getting your ass down to the therapy room. I’m not going to let what muscle tone you do have atrophy just because you want to feel sorry for yourself and act like a whiny little bitch.”

Thayne’s loud guffaw of laughter filled the room. “I love how you kick his ass. I can’t talk to him that way anymore.”

“Well, you should,” she said. “Coddling him won’t get him moving again. Grab his wheelchair, Thayne. I don’t care if we have to beat him and throw him in the damn thing.”

She looked back at Frankie, piercing him with her fiercest glare. “You are going to therapy and then you’re getting cleaned up and going to that party. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. Plenty of people have gone to a lot of trouble to make your birthday special, so get off your damn pity pot.”

***

P
acing the outside hallway while Thayne helped Frankie shower after therapy, Cassie Flick couldn’t calm her nerves. She hoped they were doing the right thing by forcing Frankie into this party. When the nursing staff reported that he wouldn’t get out of bed while she’d been gone, it had been more than a little concerning. She was running out of options to treat the former fireman, and now she needed his brothers at the station to step in and help roust him back to life.

She turned the corner of the hallway furthest from Frankie’s room, readying herself to make another lap of the floor when she still didn’t see Thayne or Frankie waiting for her. How long could it possibly take the man to clean up? From everything she’d seen, Frankie was sexy no matter what he did. Besides, it wasn’t like the guys at the station cared how he looked.

The door to one of the nearby rooms opened and a woman stepped out, putting her hands over her face and stifling tears.

She looked vaguely familiar, and Cassie wondered if something had gone wrong with one of the other residents on the floor. Hurrying her steps to approach the woman, she cleared her throat to let her know she was there. “Are you okay, ma’am?”

The woman looked up, glaring through her tears. “This is all your fault.”

“Excuse me?” Although Cassie felt a sense of familiarity, she was sure the woman wasn’t related to any of the patient’s Cassie had worked with. She must not mean Cassie personally was at fault. “What’s happened, ma’am?”

“He died and it’s your fault.”

Although she was supposed to be getting ready for a party and being in an upbeat mood, Cassie’s heart swelled with sadness. Another person hadn’t made it, and his loved ones had no one to blame except the employees. How horrible must it be to come to this center, day after day, praying your husband would get well only to have him pass away?

She patted the woman’s arm reassuringly. “I’m so sorry for your loss. Is there anything I can do?”

“All you damn doctors and nurses have done enough,” the woman practically spat. “I hate you. Get away from me!”

Knowing everyone grieved in their own manner, Cassie mumbled another apology for the woman’s loss and rushed the remaining distance to Frankie’s room. It didn’t matter if her patient wasn’t completely ready yet. She needed to get out of this hallway.

Whoever was in charge of caring for the woman’s loved one must know he had passed on. They would help her. For now, Cassie had her hands full in trying to help Frankie. There was only so much she could do in a day.

Unfortunately, death was an inevitable part of life, no matter how hard medical personnel worked to stave it off as long as possible.

Chapter Two

C
assie stood in the main room of the firehouse, rocking back and forth in her tennis shoes while watching Frankie interact with his old coworkers. She hoped she’d made the right decision.

She understood Frankie being discouraged, considering there was a high likelihood he wouldn’t get more mobility back than what he had right now. That didn’t mean he could just check out of life. She’d done what she could for his body, now she needed to help him integrate back into life again with the abilities he did have.

Sure, he’d never return to fighting fires, but that didn’t mean these men weren’t still his friends and brothers.

“I’m glad you called me about planning this party.” Thayne leaned against the wall next to her, also watching Frankie. “I had no clue he was that bad off. Laura’s been busy making wedding plans, and I’ve been wrapped up in that with her. She’s trying to figure out where we can have it so Frankie’s wheelchair won’t be a problem. Originally, she wanted to have it on a tropical island down on the water, but that will be impossible.”

Cassie sighed but nodded. “Unless the resort you go to would put out a special boardwalk for his chair. He’s not going to walk again, Thayne. The sooner we help him adjust to that, the better.”

“But what about his hands?” Thayne took his eyes off Frankie, quirking an eyebrow when he looked at her. “Didn’t you say a new neurosurgeon was meeting with the orthopedist to talk about what they could do?”

Cassie blinked rapidly, thinking about what she’d read in Frankie’s chart when she arrived at Sayle Regional Hospital this morning. “Let’s just say the birthday gift we worked so hard to get him will come in handy.”

He blew out a puff of air. “Damn.”

Just then, Thayne’s fiancée stepped out from behind the partition separating the small kitchen area from the rest of the main room, hands full of a large plate of food. A smile crossed her pretty face as she walked toward Frankie. Her slightly plump hips swayed as she walked. Next to Cassie, Thayne let out a soft sound of appreciation.

Cassie smiled. “You guys have been together for nearly two years now. She still makes your heart pound harder when she walks into the room?”

“Oh, yes. She takes my breath away.” The dreamy look on Thayne’s face proved how much the handsome fireman loved Laura more than his words could explain. “I can’t wait to make her my wife.”

“If you’re still intent on Frankie being the best man, I’ll do everything I can to help him accept his new reality and get back to living.”

If only she had a man who looked at her the way Thayne looked at Laura. Cassie had dated a lot over the years, and one by one, she watched her friends and family find the person they couldn’t live without. First, her best friend married a doctor at the hospital, opening a free clinic for the town of Sayle, Washington, and having a baby. She was deliriously happy but had very little time for her old friend.

Last week, her stepbrother married the receptionist at the law office he worked for as an accountant. Cassie knew from experience that Blake and Lucy would have less time to hang out with her now that they were in the process of adopting a new baby. Cassie’s nephew was over the moon happy to get a little brother or sister. Once they received a baby, Lucy planned to take time off from work to help the bonding process. That meant they’d no longer need Cassie to babysit Aaron, at least until Lucy went back to work, and Cassie would end up spending less time with the family.

Now, Laura and Thayne would marry. Not too long after that, Cassie suspected they’d have a kid too. She’d become close to Laura in the first months of Thayne’s recovery and the two of them hung out quite a bit now when Thayne was on duty, but soon Laura wouldn’t have time for that.

Cassie would once again be on her own as her friend moved on without her. She couldn’t begrudge any of them their happiness, but she wished she could find the same thing they had. Why was it so hard to find a nice, respectable guy who could love her the way Thayne loved Laura? Then again, most marriages didn’t last, so Cassie wasn’t sure she really missed out on anything except heartache.

Laura approached Frankie, handing him the plate of food. “Here’s the first batch of enchiladas for the birthday boy.”

While Frankie had been a bit surly to the guys in the firehouse, he favored Laura with a smile. “Thayne said you made these special because you know I like them.”

“Yep.”

“Thanks, Laura. It means a lot.”

She grinned, bending down to kiss his cheek. “Happy birthday.”

Beneath his dusky skin, Frankie’s cheeks turned pink, embarrassed by Laura’s attention, it seemed. The bashfulness, as opposed to his normal anger and bluster, made him endearing. It was moments like this that kept Cassie working hard, wanting to help the former firefighter.

“Hey, Cassie?” Laura called, waving her over. “Why don’t you dish up before I turn the guys loose on the kitchen? You can sit on the end of the couch here, right next to Frankie’s chair.”

Following orders, she crossed the room to accompany Laura to the kitchen. She didn’t miss the way all the men watched her as she walked, including Frankie. Maybe Laura had the right idea going out with one of the guys from the station. They were strong, loyal, and made Cassie feel good just with their open appreciation of her body.

“Can you do me a favor?” Laura asked softly when they stepped into the relative seclusion of the kitchen.

Cassie hesitated, not sure she liked Laura’s hesitant tone. “What’s that?”

“I know the single guys out there are eyeing you like a prime piece of booty and it feels good.”

Cassie smiled. “There are a lot of handsome men in this station.”

Laura chewed on her lower lip and then shrugged. “Not as sexy as my man, but yeah, handsome. That’s where the favor comes in. Could you only have eyes for Frankie tonight?”

“That’s your favor?” Cassie tucked short blond hair behind her ears on either side, confused. “I don’t understand.”

“A big problem Thayne had before you got him walking again and able to do things for himself was feeling like less of a man. He admitted that after getting out of the hospital. Since he’s been dealing with it for a year and a half now, I can only imagine how much worse that is for Frankie.”

Cassie nodded to show she understood. “He’s a great guy, and he deserves the undivided attention of a woman. But he’s my patient...”

“Not tonight,” Laura argued. “Tonight, we’re just a bunch of friends celebrating his birthday.”

A fluttering in her stomach warned that this wasn’t a good idea. Cassie already had some occasional hot and heavy dreams featuring the former fireman. She could only imagine what might happen if she let herself spend an evening flirting with him and making him feel more like the man he used to be.

Sure, it would make Frankie feel good and that had to help her plan of getting him back to some semblance of a normal life. However, if she let herself think of him as anything other than a patient Cassie wondered if she’d ever be able to put him back in the patient category again.

It was getting frustrating to have dreams of the sort she was having. Her trusty vibrator might help her get through it, but it wasn’t as good as having a man would be.

“Laura, I’m not sure I should do that. I’ll sit with him and I won’t flirt with any of the guys here, but I can’t flirt with him either. It’s just not right.”

Laura sighed. “Maybe I should have hired a stripper.”

Cassie’s eyes widened, shock coursing through her. “I had no idea you knew anything about strippers.”

The other woman laughed. “I’ve learned a lot of things, being with Thayne. I even took some classes on erotic dancing so I can please my man.”

“You never told me that!” Cassie shook her head in disbelief. “I wish you had invited me along. If I ever find a man, I’d sure like to be able to dance for him.”

A knock sounded on the partition and Thayne popped his head around the side. “Hey, ladies? Are you letting us eat anytime soon? The guys are getting restless, and you never know when a call could come in and break this party up.”

“Oh, of course!” Laura leaned toward the wall, giving Thayne a quick kiss. “Cassie is dishing up now and then everyone can come in.”

“Should we eat and then give him his gift?” Thayne asked. “Or do you want to wait until after the cake?”

Cassie put a small helping of chili into a disposable bowl and shook her head. “I didn’t think about you all getting called away. We’d better eat and then do it. I just hope he likes it and doesn’t feel like we’re pushing him.”

“He needs to be pushed,” Laura said.

“Besides,” Thayne chimed in. “He can handle it. Frankie might be an ass sometimes, but he’s tough and determined. We need to focus that on something new.”

***

F
rankie tried to be civil and act as though he were happy to be at the firehouse. Really, it just reminded him of how disabled he was. His strong, able-bodied former coworkers did things with such ease. Like eating. It took all Frankie’s concentration to hold a fork and stab the pieces of already-cut enchilada Laura had brought him. He was grateful she cut it before bringing it out without making any comment on it. At least he was saved from that embarrassment. Around him, the guys had no trouble holding their plates, cutting their food, and getting it to their mouths without accident.

On top of that, there was the fact that Cassie had sat next to his parked wheelchair and stuck to him like glue. Having fantasies about his hot physical therapist was one thing, but he wasn’t so sure he enjoyed socializing with her. Out of everyone here, Cassie truly knew his limitations. Even though he was sure she didn’t mean for it to happen, every once in a while pity filled her gaze when she thought he wasn’t watching her.


Que pasa, mi amigo?”
Carlos Santos, a man who had come in as a fellow probie to the fire station at the same time Frankie had, sat on the couch next to Cassie, leaning over her to look at Frankie. “I’ve missed you, bro. Any chance you’ll get off your ass this year and do the community outreach program with us? We can always use an extra set of hands.”

Forcing a smile, Frankie held up his dysfunctional limbs. “I don’t think I’ll qualify as extra hands.”

Cassie’s eyes widened slightly, but she didn’t say anything.

For Carlos’s part, he didn’t seem overtly bothered by the evidence of Frankie’s disability. “Who cares? That’s a figure of speech. We’d really like you there. It’s the end of next month and you could run the information booth. Tell kids what they should do if there’s a fire in their house, ya know?”

Frankie shook his head. “I’m hardly qualified to warn about fire safety.”

“Fuck that.” Carlos glared at him before softening his gaze and glancing at Cassie. “Excuse me, ma’am, but I have to call him on his bullshit. I’m sick and tired of him being such a freakin’ pansy and using his burns as a reason not to do anything with his friends anymore.”

Cassie put her hand against Carlos’s shoulder, seemingly in an effort to calm him. “Frankie’s working on it. I personally think he’s ready to leave the rehab center and get on with his life.”

Nice of her to announce that to a room full of men who already figured Frankie was a pussy and not handling his recovery well. Couldn’t she have talked to him about it privately first?

“That’s interesting.” Frankie leaned forward in his wheelchair, not attempting to conceal his frustration. “This is the first I’m hearing about your thoughts.”

She nodded. “I know it is. I wanted to see how you did tonight before making recommendations to your doctors.”

“Yeah? Well, my doctors had some recommendations of their own today. I don’t think I’ll be getting out of the hospital anytime soon.”

“I know.” She sighed. “I’m sorry, Frankie. I really am.”

Carlos leaned forward again, eyes narrowed. “What are you guys talking about?”

Frankie didn’t want to tell anyone, not even Carlos who he’d once considered a best friend. If he didn’t say it out loud, didn’t admit that it was happening, maybe this would be another nightmare and he could wake up screaming but get different news from his doctors.

Luckily, before he had to answer Carlos, Laura walked up, taking his plate from him. “It’s present time. Did you get enough to eat?”

He felt as though his smile couldn’t hold out much longer. How long until Cassie and Thayne would relent and take him back to the rehab center? “It was delicious, Laura. Thank you.”

She grinned. “If you ever accepted any of Thayne’s invitations to come to our house for dinner, you’d get this treatment more often.”

“I promise I’ll come over sometime soon.”

“Good. I’m glad to hear you’re going to get out more.” Laura’s smile grew wider. “By the way, we need to get you fitted for your tux soon. The wedding is happening before the end of the summer, no matter what I have to do to make it work.”

Frankie wanted to protest that he couldn’t be in their wedding, especially not within the next month. While he’d originally wanted to be the best man, he had expected to stand next to Thayne, watching happily as his partner married the love of his life. Instead, he was still in this damn chair. He knew Laura wanted a wedding on a beach against the water. How was Frankie supposed to attend something like that? He didn’t want her giving up her dream wedding just so the place was wheelchair accessible.

“Laura, about me being your best man—”

“Attention, everyone,” Thayne called from the doorway toward the ambulance and fire truck bay, cutting off Frankie’s words. “The present we bought is too big to wrap, so gather around here.”

Cassie stood, quickly flipping the locking mechanism off Frankie’s chair and pushing him across the thin brown carpet. “I hope you like it,” she whispered when they came to a stop.

“Now,” Thayne continued once everyone stood around him in a half-circle, “we’ve all missed Hernandez being here with us and have wished him a speedy recovery, but Cassie Flick has done the real work.”

The others gave a polite cheer.

“Frankie.” Thayne turned his attention to him. “We were partners for such a short time, but I feel like you’re the little brother I always wanted.”

Carlos laughed. “The annoying brother, for sure, eh, Thayne?”

Thayne chuckled and the other guys clapped Frankie’s arms and shoulders in good-natured teasing.

“Sometimes,” Thayne agreed. “What I’m trying to say is, Frankie, you’re not only an important part of the firehouse and the men here but of my own family. We’ve worked around the clock getting donations for your gift, and Cassie spent hours and hours making phone calls and fighting the insurance company. I think this is going to make your life so much easier.” He turned toward the doors and yelled, “Bring it in.”

Sterling Jefferson came in through the doors, riding an electric wheelchair. The smile on his wrinkled dark face made him look like a kid at Christmas.

Around Frankie, all the men hooted and congratulated him, happy commotion taking over the room.

A large red bow partially obscured the controlling mechanism on the right-hand side of the chair, and Frankie kept staring at it, dumbfounded. They bought him a mechanical wheelchair? Even if the insurance covered part of the cost, Frankie couldn’t begin to imagine what that must have set them all back.

It also meant Cassie didn’t expect his legs to get any better than they were now.

His hand muscles screamed in protest, and Frankie realized he tried to grip the arms on his wheelchair. Making a conscious effort to relax and attempt another smile, he watched as Thayne’s triumphant grin shifted, fading as a frown took over.

“What’s wrong, Frank?”

“You have to send it back.” Frankie was proud that his voice barely shook. He could handle this.

“Send it back?” Thayne looked over Frankie’s head, staring at Cassie as though asking her to do something.

“I can’t use it,” Frankie clarified, deciding it would be better to get this over with now. They might as well know and the mass pity that he knew they’d give him could start. “I met with a surgeon today. There are no further options for my right hand. With the amount of pain it gives me, they’ve recommended amputation in an effort to improve my comfort and quality of life.”

Startled gasps met his words. Everyone seemed in a state of shock, and Thayne’s gaze filled with sorrow, just as Frankie knew it would.

“Hey, it’s okay,” Frankie said in an attempt to stop them from feeling sorry for him. “I agreed to the surgery. Less pain will be great.” He tried to sound confident and upbeat, to not let them see how terrified he was at the prospect of losing his hand, but it didn’t work. His voice shook and cracked on the last few words.

Cassie’s hands massaged his shoulders and she leaned close to his ear. “I saw the recommendation in your chart. I’m so sorry.”

“Don’t be.” He jerked his shoulders to shrug her sympathy away. If people acted like this was a horrible thing, Frankie wouldn’t be able to pretend that it wasn’t. He didn’t want to break down in front of everyone and give himself over to the yelling session he’d desperately wanted to have since hearing the news. “Anyway, I can’t use the chair. The controls are on the right side, and I won’t have a hand.”

Chapter Three

T
he week following his party, Cassie tried to keep things normal between her and Frankie. She’d kept his therapy routine the same, but his heart really didn’t seem to be into it anymore and he barely tried.

Determined to continue with the regimen, Cassie had him in the physical therapy room, working over his leg muscles. She stretched his right leg fully before bending it back toward his chest. Although he let out a hiss of pain and squirmed slightly on the table, he offered no further complaint while she repeated the action.

He’d definitely been acting weird since his birthday party. It was as though he couldn’t wait to get away from her each day when therapy ended. While she understood he was frustrated about the plans to amputate his right hand and a portion of his forearm, she didn’t think that was the entire problem.

She flexed his leg again but made eye contact with him this time—something that hadn’t been happening between them the past week. “I spoke to the company and your wheelchair will be delivered tomorrow with the controls on the left side.”

“Wonderful.” He squeezed his eyes shut and gritted his teeth while she completed another repetition of the stretch. “That muscle’s so tight by my ass that it feels like it rips all the time. Even with you doing the work of moving it, the pain isn’t improving with these stretches.”

Apparently, the powered wheelchair was still a sore spot he didn’t want to talk about. Then again, telling her about his tight muscles was an improvement over the long silences they’d been sharing.

Cassie shifted to the left side of Frankie’s body. “Let me massage it a bit. You have a lot of scar tissue back here, and I think that’s what gives you the tearing sensation.”

Not that the massage was likely to help. It had been far too long. If the scar tissue was going to break down, it would have started to do so by now. It might give him a bit of relief, though.

Frankie rolled to his side, facing away from her but giving her better access to the back of his legs. “Can I ask you a question, Cassie?”

“I wish you would.” She used her thumbs to dig into the hardened tissues. “You’ve been pretty much silent since your birthday.”

“We’re done, aren’t we?”

“Almost. I want you on the stationary bike before ending the session today.”

“That’s not what I mean.” Frankie brushed her hand away with his partially functional left hand, then struggled to a sitting position. His warm brown eyes met hers, and she didn’t like the worry she saw reflecting out of them. “I mean, there isn’t anything more you can do for me. I’m not going to walk again. Ever.”

Cassie sighed and hopped onto the table next to him, letting her legs dangle over the side next to his. As much as she and Thayne agreed they had to get Frankie to face his new reality, she wasn’t looking forward to having this conversation. “You’ll always need therapy, Frank, to keep what muscle tone you do have.”

“But there won’t be any improvement. No true mobility as far as walking.”

He said it with a finality that told her he knew the truth, and perhaps was even coming to terms with it.

“I’m really sorry,” she said. “I thought there was a good chance, but the nerve damage was extensive and the scar tissue on top of that makes everything harder. It’s so painful for you to even try that I don’t see how you can ever get to the point of walking again. You haven’t tried to stand for weeks because of the pain, and that doesn’t seem to be improving.”

He nodded. “And so even though I got pissed off about the chair, you really did me a great favor by getting it. It’s going to be my only means of transportation since I won’t be able to wheel myself around. Hell, I can’t handle it now, but it’d be doubly hard to do once they chop my hand off.”

“I didn’t know about your hand when I started working on the chair. But, yes, it’s twice as important now. This rehab center isn’t all you’re meant for. The chair will help you get mobile again so you can start living your life.”

He flexed his left hand in a half fist, as far as it would clench before causing him pain. “Living? What am I supposed to do? What kind of job can I possibly work with no legs and one hand?”

She’d worried about the same thing. “I don’t know.”

“I go nuts here,” he admitted. “The only time I’m truly happy is when I’m with the kids who live in the burn unit. I have to be strong for them, pretend I’m okay so they won’t be afraid.”

“Maybe that’s something you could do,” Cassie said, warming to the idea. After all, if Frankie could get back into some sort of service role, even if it wasn’t being a firefighter, maybe he could get his confidence back.

To her dismay, he shook his head.

“Not only is that not a paying job, some days I just can’t do it.”

Although they’d spent many hours together over the last year, this was the first time Frankie had spoken to her with such candid openness.

She patted his leg softly. “Why not?”

“I see those three kids sometimes in my mind.” A shudder went through his body. “Some days, I can’t imagine being near children, can’t imagine why anyone would
trust
me near them. I couldn’t save those kids, and it kills me a little bit more each time I think about it.”

“No one blames you for those kids’ deaths. It was the arsonist who killed them.”

“That’s easy to say, but I’m the one who didn’t find them in time to get them out of the house.”

“You tried. You tried at the expense of yourself. No one can ask more than that.” Although she knew contact should be kept strictly professional with Frankie, she reached up to stroke his cheek, cupping her hand against his face. “You paid a high price trying to save them. You aren’t a failure, Frankie. You’re a hero.”