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SKIN DEEP, CHAPTER ONE

 Kellan Walker stood with an ax in one hand and a sledgehammer in the other, thanking his lucky fucking stars he didn’t have an office job. Not that pushing paper was a bad way to go, necessarily—honest work, and all that. But a nine to five fit him about as well as a suit and tie, and since he hadn’t sported those particular torture devices since his father’s funeral ten years ago, he was all too happy to stick to the helmet and turnout gear he wore every day for the Remington Fire Department.

Better that the fires were literal than figurative. At least those he could put out.

“Is that a sledgehammer in your pocket or are you just happy to see me?”

Kellan looked up from his spot in Station Seventeen’s triple-wide engine bay, chuffing out a laugh at the familiar, feminine voice greeting him from the doorway. “I’m always happy to see you when I’m doing inventory, McCullough. Care to help out a brother in need?”

“You want me to pick up your slack again, Walker?” His fellow engine-mate Shae McCullough arched a honey-colored brow at him, and Christ, even in her sleep she probably had enough brass for a band. Cue up the number one reason Kellan liked her.

“I prefer to think of it more as lending your professional expertise. Sharing is caring,” he reminded her, putting just enough of a cocky smile to the words to make her cave. Ballbreaker or not, Shae always had his back, just like he’d had hers since the minute he’d crossed the threshold at Seventeen two years ago. Being a firefighter was the closest thing he’d found to the seven years he’d spent in the Army. He and Shae were part of a team, along with everyone else on engine, squad, and even Parker and Quinn on the ambo. They didn’t just carry their weight. They carried each other equally.

Still, Kellan knew better than to think McCullough would lower her brass knuckles all the way on his account.

“Caring, my ass. You owe me,” she grumbled, although the slight lift of her lips negated any sting the words might otherwise hold.

“I can live with that.”

Kellan let go of a laugh along with the words, his work boots scuffing over the smooth concrete of the engine bay floor as he returned both the ax and the sledge to their respective storage compartments in Engine Seventeen. But before he and Shae could pop open the next one down to do a head count on the Halligan bars, the piercing sound of the all-call echoed off the cinder block walls of the engine bay.

Engine Seventeen, Squad Six, Ambulance Twenty-Two, structure fire, ninety-three hundred block of Glendale Avenue, requesting immediate response.

Just like that, Kellan’s pulse tripped into go mode in his veins. “Nothing like a crispy job right out of the chute,” he said, double-checking that the storage compartments were all latched tight before quickly hanging the inventory clipboard in his grasp back on the nearby support post. Damn, they’d barely taken a chunk out of their morning shift-change duties. Not that it mattered in the grander scheme of things catching fire.

“You’re not complaining, are you?” Shae shot a disbelieving glance over the shoulder of her navy blue uniform shirt as she pulled herself into the operator’s seat, throwing on her headset and kicking the engine over into a low growl.

Kellan clambered into the back step behind her, moving all the way down to the spot diagonal from hers, directly behind the officer’s seat. “Hell no,” he said, because as crazy as it might seem to civilians, he’d rather be busy than bored. He hadn’t become a firefighter to sit around the station. Give him the chance to run into a shit storm while all others were running out, and Kellan would take it every day of the week. Twice on Sundays.

He parked himself in the seat where he’d stowed his turnout gear barely fifteen minutes ago, inhaling to counter the physiological responses tempting his body to get jacked up. His heart might want to charge full speed ahead against his sternum and flatten his lungs to boot, but he’d learned how to show his adrenal gland who was boss long before day one at the Remington Fire Academy. Being a sniper for the Rangers tended to teach a guy how to keep his shit in check. After two tours in Afghanistan, the methods for managing his adrenaline were pretty much stitched into Kellan’s DNA.

Deep breaths. Quick decisions. Precise movements. No dwelling on what was in front of you or what was already done.

Ever.

Kellan’s lieutenant, Ian Gamble, slid his huge frame into the officer’s seat in the front of the engine at the same time Station Seventeen’s rookie, Luke Slater, scrambled into the back step to sit behind Shae. Gamble turned to pin the rookie with a you-got-lucky-you-weren’t-last-in stare, hooking his headset over his ears and jutting his darkly-stubbled chin at Shae in a nonverbal “let’s go.”

Both Kellan and Slater grabbed the headsets hanging over their respective seats, because between the hundred and thirty decibel sirens and the rattle and whoosh of cabin noise inside the engine’s boxy interior, they didn’t have a prayer of hearing their lieutenant otherwise.

“Okay you guys, buckle down because this looks like the real deal,” Gamble cut out into his mic, the scraped-up edges of his voice a perfect match for his gruff demeanor. He leaned forward to look at the screen built into the dashboard that connected them with Remington’s emergency services system. “Dispatch is reporting flames showing at a residence on the north side of the district. Nearest cross street is Woodmoor,” he said, mostly for Shae’s benefit.

Of course, she probably didn’t need the assist. Shae had operated Engine Seventeen since before Kellan had even set his baby toe in the firehouse for his first shift. She knew Remington’s streets as well as she knew her own reflection.

Case in point. “That’s up in North Point,” she said. “The neighborhood’s not pretty.” While the fact didn’t matter an ounce in terms of how hard they’d fight the blaze, it could have an impact on the scene.

“Mmm,” Gamble acknowledged. “Well, if we haul ass”—he paused to slide a glance at Shae, whose resulting grin Kellan could just make out in profile from his spot in the back step—“we’ll be first on-scene, so gear up and be ready to look alive. Squad and ambo are on our six, and Captain Bridges is along for the ride.”

“Copy that,” Kellan said, tugging the headset from his ears. Continuing the smooth circuit of his inhale/exhale, he reached down for his bunker pants, pulling them over his uniform in one methodical move.

“Must be a hell of a fire if all hands are on deck, right?” Slater’s dark eyes flashed wide and round from his spot next to Kellan in the step, giving away his jitters despite the guy’s obvious attempt at a poker face.

Ah, rookies. Still, while some guys might be tempted to haze a newbie for being a little rattled on his first big fire call, giving the kid shit for turning out to be human after only three weeks on the job seemed a touch indecent.

“Not necessarily,” Kellan said, trying to lead by example as he got the rest of his gear into place. “Bridges is a hands-on kind of captain, and squad goes on all the fire calls in the district no matter what.” Those guys weren’t elite for shits and giggles, that was for damn sure. “But it’s not a drill, so keep your head on a swivel and stay on Gamble’s hip. And Slater?” He didn’t wait for the candidate to acknowledge him, because Christ, the kid looked two seconds away from stroking out. “Breathe in on a three count and out on a five. You’re gonna need your legs under you all the way. You copy?”

Slater nodded, his stare turning focused, and what do you know, he actually took Kellan’s advice. Good goddamn thing, too, because they were about T-minus two minutes from rolling up on the scene of this fire, and if the thick column of smoke Kellan had spotted through his window was anything to go by, something was burning pretty good.

Time to go to work.

“Bridges is calling the shots on the two-way,” Gamble hollered into the step, five seconds before Shae pulled the engine to a stop in front of a two-story detached row home heavily blanketed by smoke. “Listen up for assignments and watch your backs. And each other’s.”

“Copy that,” Kellan said, his response weaving around both Shae’s and Slater’s as they gave up the same answer at the same time. Doing one last lightning-fast systems check on both his gear and his composure, he shouldered his SCBA tank, his muscles squeezing at the familiar burden of the extra thirty pounds as he hustled his way out of the back step to put his boots on the ground.

Whoa. A sheen of sweat burst between his shoulder blades despite the cool September weather. His pulse knocked hard against his throat at the sight of the thick gray smoke and angry orange flames licking upward from the first and second-story windows on the front of the row home, and even though it was tempting as hell to stare at the fire alone, Kellan was all too well-versed on how danger could spring from the most unexpected places. After cataloguing the immediate no-shit threat posed by the fire itself, he took a swift visual inventory of all of his surroundings.

Fairly well-kept house, although not so much on the neighborhood. Only a handful of onlookers, which would be a plus for securing the scene. No obvious entrapment—no one stumbling from the blaze in a panic about someone still inside and nobody shouting their guts out from a window or the roof. And wasn’t that another win, because with the smoke and flames funneling from the Alpha side windows, getting anyone out of the place would be a bitch and a half.

Not that they wouldn’t go all just-in-case and get to looking. Speaking of which…

Captain Bridges’ voice filled Kellan’s ear from the two-way radio clipped just below the shoulder of his turnout gear. “Squad Six, we need a vent on this roof immediately if not sooner. Gates, you and Faurier get a move on. Hawkins and Dempsey, take primary search and rescue, Gamble, you and Slater ready the lines, and Walker and McCullough, back up squad on S&R. I want this fire knocked down before it grows any more teeth, people. Go.”

Gamble straightened to the top of his six-foot, five-inch frame, throwing a look from Kellan to Shae. “You heard the captain,” he said, but Kellan’s boots had already started to thump over the cracked asphalt.

“Yes, sir.” Sparing only the seconds necessary to grab his Halligan bar from its spot in Engine Seventeen’s storage compartment, he fell into step with Shae, who was right on the squad lieutenant’s boot heels on the concrete sidewalk leading up to the house. Under normal circumstances, Hawk probably would’ve come off with a smart-assed quip in that slow, Southern drawl of his. But pleasantries—hell, anything other than locked and loaded intensity—fell to the wayside the second something went from a smolder to a burn.

This house definitely fit the freaking bill. “All right,” Hawk bit out, barely looking over his shoulder as he clanged past the waist-high chain link fence marked with signs warning NO TRESPASSING. “This place is goin’ up fast, so don’t dawdle. Dempsey, you’re my door man. McCullough, once we’re in, you and Walker hit the basement and sweep from the bottom up. Dempsey and I will start on the second floor and work our way down. We’ll meet you in the middle.”

“Copy, Lieutenant,” McCullough said, her green stare firm and focused. Their footsteps came to a halt on the timeworn porch boards just shy of the front door. Hawk’s tight nod at Dempsey translated to a nonverbal “breach it,” and Kellan’s gut tightened in a quick jab of anticipation. Dempsey put a punishing kick to the sweet spot in the lower panels, shock flashing both over his face and through Kellan’s veins when the damned thing refused to budge in its casing. A breach like that on a house this old should’ve had the door not just wide open, but halfway off its hinges. No way would the lock hold unless—

“The fuck?” Dempsey grunted, sliding the flat end of his Halligan between the edge of the door and the jamb to visualize the deadbolt. “There’s a steel-reinforced protector screwed into the doorframe.”

Kellan’s brows popped toward the brim of his helmet. Not only was the jamb fortified to the nines, but the deadbolt itself had to be two inches thick. “That’s a shit-ton of hardware for a residence.”

“It’s definitely not your momma’s turn-and-go,” Dempsey agreed, and Hawk spun another gaze over the covered main-level windows and the thick veil of smoke muddying the morning sunlight around them.

“Put those ridiculous breach skills of yours to work, Dempsey. We need entry like five minutes ago.”

“You got it, boss.”

Determination shaped Dempsey’s features, flattening his lips into a thin line as he turned back toward the door. Blood pulsed over Kellan’s eardrums in a white-noise whoosh—thump-thump, Dempsey finessed his Halligan into a space anyone else would’ve thought microscopic, thump-thump, a chock replaced it for leverage to create a bigger gap, thump-thump, the edge of his Halligan found the hairsbreadth again, rocking once, twice, a third time—

The rip and crack of splintering wood never sounded so fucking beautiful.

Hawk didn’t waste so much as a millisecond shouldering his way past the busted-in door and over the threshold after Dempsey, not that Kellan had expected him to. They’d already lost valuable time with the sticky breach, and anyway, everyone’s assignments were crystal. Squinting past the haze, he stepped inside the tiny, barely-visible foyer, primed and ready to find the point of entry to the basement so he and Shae could get to work.

A rush of heat slammed into his lungs, chased quickly by the dark, bitter taste of smoke in his mouth, and damn, they had their work laid out for them.

“All right,” he barked after he’d yanked his mask into place, the hiss of his regulator punctuating the words. “Let’s find a POE to the lower level.”

Shae’s “copy that” came past the thick shield of her own mask. “Place looks pretty dead,” she said, flipping on the high-powered flashlight strapped just to the right of her sternum as she fell in at his six. The beam cut a path through the smoke and the layer of ash starting to pepper in around them, revealing a whole lot of nothing much by way of furniture or belongings. A single couch faced outward from the adjacent living room, its cushions askew. Fast food wrappers and empty beer cans littered the floor around it, but the space appeared empty otherwise. No coffee table, no TV, nothing on the rickety bookshelf propped against the wall.

“Shit.” Kellan turned on his own flashlight, although it didn’t do much to help illuminate the place. Heavy curtains blanketed every window from sash to sill, and between that and the smoke, visibility grew more and more difficult with every step farther inside. Still, the ominous glow of flames around them said this fire was eating through the house at an alarming rate. Abandoned or not, they had to make sure no one was trapped inside.

“Even if it’s vacant, there could be squatters. Anything goes in this neighborhood,” he said, resolve flashing harder in his chest as he scanned the front hallway for a door that might lead down. Forcing his legs into gear, Kellan stabbed his boots into the floorboards with each decisive step, methodically ruling out a hall closet and a tiny bathroom before hitting the jackpot on the third door at the back of the narrow corridor by the kitchen.

“Basement,” he called out, pulling the door wide on its hinges and clambering down the unfinished wooden stairs. Visibility went from bad to you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me with every downward move, daring his pulse to rattle and his brain to spin back in time.

Thick air, clogging his throat, poker-hot in his lungs. Eyes stinging with sweat and sand and images he’d never forget. Screams. The screams…

This moment. Right now. Nothing else.

Ever.

Kellan’s boots hit the concrete landing, slamming his focus back into place. A long, dark hallway stretched out to both his right and his left, and he metered his breath on a three count, using his exhale to bellow, “Fire department! Call out!”

The only response was an eerie silence that sent a chill laddering up his spine.

“Hang on,” Shae said from the spot where she’d come to a stop at his nine. She took a handheld thermal imaging camera from one of the deep-welled pockets in her coat, using it to follow the beam of her flashlight from one end of the hallway to the other. “There’s a ton of heat building in these walls, Walker. We need to make sure no one’s down here and get the hell out of Dodge. I’ll take the Delta side.” She jerked her head down the left end of the hallway. “You take Bravo. Go.”

“Copy that.” Kellan pivoted on his heels, angling his body to the right. Visibility amounted to a jack with a side of shit, which meant he was going to have to get creative in order to be thorough and fast. Throwing both arms out from his sides, he exhaled with a hell yes as his glove-covered hands made contact with either wall. Reinforcing his limited vision with feel meant he’d have less of a chance of missing something. Not that there had been a whole lot in the house so far to miss.

Kicking his feet into rapid motion, Kellan moved down the shadow-cloaked passageway. The air down here felt cooler than the main level, which was only to say it wasn’t hell-hot and actively engulfed in flames. At least, not yet. But for now, that made the basement a logical place for someone to hide, especially if they thought they’d get into trouble for squatting in an abandoned house, and damn it, there were just enough signs that someone had been here recently to make the unease in Kellan’s chest go for a double.

He opened his mouth to broadcast another offer for help, but the words jammed in his windpipe when his right palm skimmed the edge of a doorframe. The knob refused to budge despite the firm twist he tried to put to it, and seriously, what was with the Fort Knox treatment in this place?

Screw it. Not having the time for anything other than brute force, Kellan coiled up his energy on a deep inhale, sending all the power he could muster on a direct path to his leg as he unleashed a relentless kick. The door gave way with a crash, relief filling him in a quick burst as he crossed the threshold into the dank, smoke-tinged room.

“Fire department, call out!” The bellow of his own voice reverberated in his ears. The room was as dark as the hallway behind him, the one small rectangular window in the corner by the ceiling blacked out by a heavy layer of curtains. Kellan aimed his flashlight toward the far side of the space, giving the room a quick yet thorough scan from left to right.

Nothing much. Like the living room above, the furniture in here was sparse, just a large desk in the center of the room with empty pizza boxes and crumpled, grease-stained napkins scattered over its surface. Thankfully, no one was huddled up or trying to hide beneath it, and he turned to complete the sweep of the room. The beam of his flashlight landed on a set of bi-fold doors on the opposite wall, and finally, Kellan had found an opening in this place that wasn’t bolted shut.

He yanked the closet doors apart on their track, crouching down low to do a quick search of the crawl space beneath a set of crude wooden shelves. But before he could so much as open his mouth for a call-out, a burst of static sounded off from the two-way on his shoulder.

“Hawkins to Command,” the lieutenant clipped out. “We’re a negative on entrapment on the second floor. The house looks abandoned, but the structure’s fully involved. This fire’s gonna get worse before it gets better.”

“Command to Hawkins,” came Captain Bridges’ voice in return. “Fall out immediately, before this thing flashes over. Hawkins, Dempsey, McCullough, Walker, I want all four of you in front of me in sixty seconds. Do you copy?”

Kellan’s rib cage threatened to constrict, but shit, he had no time for body betrayal. He needed to finish clearing this room and find Shae. Now.

“Walker to Command. Copy. Falling out,” he said into the two-way. Steeling his breath, he sent his stare on one last tour of the closet before unfolding himself to standing. The back of his helmet banged against something in a hard thump—ah, fuck, he’d forgotten about the wooden shelves—and Kellan ducked back into the closet out of sheer instinct. His heart slammed in surprise as whatever had been on the now-upended wooden plank tumbled over his shoulder, hitting the concrete subfloor with a metallic crash.

He cursed under his breath, wrangling his pulse back down from its code red. There was no saving the lock box that had burst open at his feet upon impact, so Kellan stepped over the scattered papers and other items spilling over the floor. Racing toward the door, he swung himself back in the direction he’d come, his chest loosening just a fraction at the sight of Shae barreling in from the opposite side.

“I’m clear,” she said, and Kellan jerked his head in a nod, leading the way up the steps.

“Me too. Let’s get the hell out of here.”

They retraced their steps back to the main level, and holy shit, the fire up here had doubled in intensity in the sparse minutes he and Shae had been in the basement. Flames had snaked down the living room walls to grab hold of the curtains in their absence, illuminating the room in a rolling orange glow at the same time heavy billows of smoke clogged their path. But they were a dozen steps from daylight, and Kellan wasn’t stopping for love or money.

He charged ahead without pause, sweat stinging his eyes beneath his mask and his chest burning from exertion. Barging back through the front door, his boots punched over the porch boards, the sudden flash of over-bright sunlight leaving him momentarily disoriented. But muscle memory was a powerful thing, and his arms lifted up, his hands tugging off his helmet and mask even though his brain had little to do with the motions.

Breathe. In, two, three. Out, two, three, four, five.

The cool air hit Kellan like a titanium-reinforced wrecking ball. Although he had zero doubt that Captain Bridges had eyes on him, he still reported in over the radio, and by the time he’d heel-toed his way back to Engine Seventeen, he was more than halfway back to all systems go.

“Nice to see you in once piece,” Gamble said, one corner of his mouth lifting in a rare smile. “Heard shit was going a little sideways in there.”

“Nothing we couldn’t handle,” Shae answered from over Kellan’s shoulder, still on his six even though they’d more than cleared the hot zone.

Gamble jutted his chin at the water lines he and Slater had prepped per Captain Bridges’ orders. “Glad to hear it, because Hawk and Dempsey are clear and squad’s got a good vent on the roof. We’re about to get this place wet.”

The words shifted Kellan back into gear. He replaced his helmet over his sweat-damp head, buckling the straps in seconds. Captain Bridges’ command came a breath later, springing Kellan and the rest of his fellow firefighters into action. Move by move, minute by minute, the teams on both engine and squad worked in tandem to control the blaze, first from the outside, then strategically maneuvering their way back over the threshold once the flames had been partially subdued. Kellan tunneled in on each task, methodically completing the necessary steps with his team until finally, the fire had been completely put out.

“Jesus,” he breathed once they’d returned to Engine Seventeen, his inhale leaving the acrid taste of smoke on his tongue. “We haven’t seen a job this sketchy in a while, huh?”

Hawkins sauntered up from Squad Six’s vehicle, fixing him with a slow grin that said there was a whole lot of smartass incoming. “You know the drill, Walker. Just ’cause the fire’s out don’t mean the fat lady has sung.”

“Yeah, yeah,” Kellan said, although the words were far from a grumble. Hawk was right—there was a helluva lot more to being a firefighter than the name suggested, and if they didn’t want this place to reignite for round two, they still had a lot of boxes to check. “You ready, McCullough?”

“Darlin’, please,” she said, affecting the heavy Irish accent that went with her heritage as she shoulder-checked him with a wry smile. “I was born ready.”

Even though he knew the move would buy him a ration of shit with sprinkles on top, Kellan nudged her right back, just like he would’ve with any of the guys. “If you say so.”

They fell into step next to each other and headed back up the concrete sidewalk. RFD protocol dictated that they monitor the scene of any structure fire with thermal imaging devices post-incident to make sure nothing got hot enough to flare back up. With a blaze this big, chances weren’t small that the house still had hot spots in the walls that hadn’t been destroyed, and they had to sweep every inch of the place just to be sure nothing lurked where they couldn’t see it.

“Okay, boys and girls, let’s make this easy,” Hawk said, tipping his chin at the front door Dempsey had put a hurt to. “Retrace the ground you covered on your search and rescue circuit. Scan everything you can safely get to, and mark off any rooms too hazardous to reach. We’ll use the aerial on Truck Three to get to ’em if we need to. Y’all copy?”

After a chorus of affirmative answers, the four of them crossed the threshold. The bitter tang of waterlogged ash and stale smoke filled Kellan’s senses and invited his throat to tighten, but he kept to his smooth cycle of inhale/exhale. He still had plenty of work left to do. No way was he going to take a chance on his system shorting out before this scene was secure.

Or, okay. Ever.

“Damn.” Shae whistled under her breath, her footsteps sounding off in soggy splashes as she swung her gaze around the living room. The fire had ravaged the curtains on two of the three side windows, allowing sunlight to spill past the burned-out spaces where the glass used to be. Although the couch and the bookshelf were still recognizable, they were pretty well torched, not to mention waterlogged, and all of the surrounding area in Kellan’s line of sight matched.

“Definitely looks like a total loss,” he agreed, leading the way back to the basement door and turning on the flashlight still strapped over the front of his turnout gear. “You think this was an accident?”

One shoulder rose and fell beneath the heavy black material of her coat. “I think with a fire this big, the guys at arson investigation always take a glance at the report. But truth? This house is old and vacant. Chances are there hasn’t been any upkeep in a while. With how fast the fire moved from floor to floor, it wouldn’t shock me if crappy electrical sparked the whole thing.”

“Makes sense,” Kellan said. The scorch marks spider-webbing over the walls sure backed up the theory.

Shae stopped at the bottom of the basement steps, just long enough to give him one last shrug. “Anyway. Shout out if you find something, yeah?”

“Sure. Back atcha.”

Kellan turned his flashlight down the right-hand side of the hallway. The basement had escaped most of the fire and water damage, although there were still signs of both in the musty passageway. He took careful heat readings on the walls regardless, working his way down to the room he’d checked just before getting the order to fall out. Shouldering past the door he’d kicked in, Kellan trailed his flashlight over the space, re-noting the desk, the pizza boxes, the discarded napkins.

His stare snagged on the lock box he’d knocked from the shelf, busted wide on its hinges from the fall, and shit, he hadn’t meant to wreck what little was left in the place. Bending down to plant one knee against the concrete, he reached out to gather the papers—no wait, they were photographs—scattered like confetti over the ground. He dusted off their surfaces with his gloved fingers, hoping maybe the move would knock off any ash or dirt marking the photos as a result of their trip over the floor.

But then the images in front of him registered, and all the air left the room.

“Walker to Command,” Kellan said into his two-way, trying like hell to steady his voice along with his suddenly slamming heartbeat. “We’ve got a problem in the basement.”

“This is Command,” came Captain Bridges’ voice over the line. “Do you need backup, Walker?”

“No, sir,” he said, dread cranking down on his gut as he looked at the pictures again.

“We need the police. I’m pretty sure they’re going to want to see what I just found.”

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