I released the string, and the arrow whooshed through the air, sinking into the center of the bull’s-eye with a thud. Turning toward Cade Mayfield, who’d been a lifelong friend, I pointed at him and said, “You owe me a beer.”
“Man!” He shook his head in disbelief, running a hand through his dark hair. “I didn’t think there’s any way you could sink five in a row.”
“You were wrong, as usual.”
“Just for that….” A loud noise exploded in the air, squealing brakes, scraping metal, shattering glass.
Cade whipped his head in my direction. “What the hell?”
Being a firefighter, my instincts kicked in, and I scrambled up the steep embankment that would lead us out of the ravine that had provided a safe and secluded spot for target practice.
“Damn,” I muttered as the acrid smell of burning rubber assaulted my nostrils. I paused for a moment as I heard a noise with which I was all too familiar.
Scurrying into action, Cade and I rushed up the last bit of ridge that led to the rural road that connected downtown Creekview, Tennessee with the agricultural areas.
A huge black plume of smoke came into view, spiraling into the orange glow of the sky as the sun began drifting below the horizon, and as we pushed ourselves up on the pavement, we could see the mangled SUV lying on its side. An outer layer of bark had been peeled off a tall pine tree, exposing the raw wood. A quick assessment told me that the SUV had sideswiped it, and I assumed the driver had overcorrected, toppling the SUV in the process.
A woman’s frantic scream pierced the air as thick flames in varying hues of orange engulfed the rear of the vehicle.
“Shit, she’s trapped,” I yelled to Cade. “You got something we can bust out the window with?” I pointed at his truck, parked a few feet behind us.
“Yeah.” He turned and ran to retrieve it.
Rushing to the SUV, I saw a woman beating her fist against the windshield. “Help!” she screamed above the crackling fire. The urgency in her voice reminded me of the nightmares that plagued me, and a shudder crept down my spine as I raced toward the vehicle.
“Get back!” I yelled.
“Help!” she screamed, her fists thumping repeatedly on the windshield. “Help me!”
Frantically, she continued to beat against the glass that held her captive in the burning automobile.
“Back up!” I yelled one more time as I started kicking the glass. When I could tell she had backed away, I delivered more powerful kicks. The glass cracked, sending spidery veins shooting along the surface. Sweat beaded on my forehead from the blistering heat of the flames. I kicked again.
Finally, I knocked a small hole in the glass.
Cade ran up beside me with a crowbar. “Move!”
Backing up, I swiped my palm across my forehead to keep the sweat from dripping in my eyes. He swung the crowbar, widening the hole as smoke and flames continued to billow out from the rear of the vehicle. Then he hooked the glass and yanked, a large circle of the safety glass peeling back.
“Hold up!” I yelled, stooping down as the woman began emerging from the hole. She frantically wriggled through the broken glass.
“Flanagan!” Cade yelled as he pulled her away from the burning vehicle.
Recognizing her last name, I realized that the woman who had just crawled from the wreckage was Seren Flanagan, a girl who’d been a couple of years behind Cade and me in high school.
“Is anyone else in the car?” I asked her.
“Yes!” she screeched, her hair tumbling around her shoulders. “Amber. Amber’s in the car.”
“Amber!” I yelled, my blood pumping furiously through my body as I watched the flames creep closer toward the front of the SUV.
Seren screamed as she began crying. “Get her out!”
Kicking the window, I widened the hole, giving me plenty of room to crawl into the car.
Amber, still securely fastened in the passenger seat by her seatbelt, dangled limply in the air. I tried to focus on her, well aware that the flames were gaining ground. “Release your seatbelt.”
“Just leave me,” she half-coughed, half-yelled.
Flames licked along her door.
“Release your seatbelt,” I repeated, feeling the pressure to get her out immediately.
She didn’t respond. Crawling farther into the car, I maneuvered until I could reach the release button. After a couple of tries, I finally managed to press it long enough to free her. Her weight landed on my shoulder, her body limp, and I reached out in an effort to steady myself. Shit, I didn’t know what I had grabbed but it was hot, and I jerked my hand away, losing my balance under her weight. Managing to roll her over in my arms, I positioned her feet at the hole in the windshield and supported her body as Cade reached down and helped extricate her. Once she was clear, I concentrated on getting myself out.
Amber lay on the ground, her eyes closed, her red-gold hair fanned out around her. I motioned for Cade to back up. “Get the hell away from here and call 911.”
Scooping her into my arms, I followed Cade far away from the burning vehicle, joining Seren who was still crying hysterically. I knew it was unlikely that the vehicle would blow, but I wasn’t going to take any chances. Glancing back at the SUV, I realized the flames had now engulfed the entire cab.
“Is she dead?” Seren screeched.
“She’s alive, but I’m not sure of the extent of her injuries.” I laid her on the ground, immediately feeling for a pulse in her neck. She was definitely alive. “Amber!”
Cade was on the phone with the dispatcher while I assessed the woman’s condition.
“Amber. Come on, Amber. Answer me,” I quietly urged her.
“She’s been drinking,” Seren informed me. “We were at a party, and she needed a ride home. I don’t even know her. All I know is that her name’s Amber, and she lives in a duplex close to my house. A deer ran out in front of me, and I swerved.” Her words tumbled from her mouth, a spurt of unorganized thoughts that served as her attempt to explain the situation as quickly as possible.
Her sobs stopped further conversation.
“It’s okay, Seren,” I said calmly. “Amber’s going to be fine. I want you to go over by Cade and wait with him for the emergency vehicles.”
She nodded and immediately obeyed. Hopefully, Cade could calm her down.
I closed my eyes, hoping that Seren would be okay. Blinking a few times to clear some of the irritation from the smoke, I focused on Amber. I could tell that she had minor burns on her right arm and hand, but it was the huge knot on her forehead that worried me.
“Cade,” I yelled. “Do you have any liquid?”
He turned and focused on me while he held the phone away from his ear.
“Do you have any liquid?” I repeated.
“I might have a couple of bottled waters.”
“Get them.” I turned my attention back to the girl. “Amber.”
Her eyes fluttered open, and as she focused on me, I noticed that her irises were a deep mossy green. I tried to assess her pupils, but something about her gaze drew me in and distracted me. Forcing myself to ignore the strange pull she seemed to have on me, I focused on the urgency of the moment.
Seren ran over with two bottled waters. I quickly opened them and poured them on Amber’s burns in an attempt to cool the skin. “You’re safe now.”
Her eyes closed and slowly reopened. “And what if I didn’t want to be saved?”
Now that we were away from the smoke, I could smell the alcohol on her breath. I’d helped plenty of people in emergency situations, and no one had ever asked me that. Was she suffering from a concussion or just drunk?
“Whatever it is, it can’t be so bad that you’d prefer a burning car.”
“At least then it’d be over.” Her eyes drifted closed again.
Leaning back on my heels with my hands resting on my thighs as I knelt beside her, I waited to see if she would open her eyes. She was underweight, her thin body lending an air of fragility. Something about her hopelessness called to my innate need to rescue.
I smoothed errant strands of red-gold hair away from her face, trying to decide the reason for her unresponsiveness.
“Can you tell me your name?” I asked loudly.
Her eyelids opened again. “Amber Lawson.” The fact that she answered coherently made me feel better.
“How old are you, Amber?”
“Where do you live?”
She looked at me and blinked.
“Do you know your address?”
The wail of sirens became louder as the first responders reached us. A police car pulled over to the side of the road, the ambulance not far behind him.
Turning over her care to the EMTs, I watched as the fire continued to burn, glowing brighter as the day darkened.
“Hawk,” the police officer said, walking up beside me. “Were you the first one on the scene?”
I didn’t have to look at him to know who it was. I’d been listening to that voice for most of my life. “Yeah, Cade and I just happened to be nearby doing a little target practice when we heard the wreck.”
Jace Hawkins, a rookie on the police squad who happened to be my little brother, let out a whistle. “Lucky for them, y’all were here.”
“Yeah,” I said, nodding. “I guess so.”
I briefly explained to him what happened, and he slapped me on the back. “Good job. Guess I better go talk to the passengers.”
“Seren Flanagan was driving.”
“Really?” Jace peered around me, glancing in her direction. “I graduated high school with her.”
He walked away to discuss the accident with Amber and Seren.
Glancing at the EMTs, I noticed Amber was still lying on the ground in front of them. Jace spoke to her briefly and then approached Seren. I walked back over to see what was happening with Amber.
I knew both the EMTs, although I only knew their last names. Hoffman, the more experienced of the two replied, “Possible concussion. I’d say the hospital will keep her overnight at the very least.” He nodded toward Seren. “She said she’s fine. She signed an AMA.”
I wasn’t surprised that Seren had signed the Against Medical Advice form, refusing treatment. Other than a few cuts and scrapes, she seemed to have escaped injury.
As Hoffman and his partner began loading Amber onto the stretcher, she began to get distraught.
“Who’s going to take care of Gracie?” Amber asked frantically.
The EMTs fastened her in and raised the stretcher.
“I don’t have anyone here who can take care of her.”
I could hear the panic in her voice, and I laid my hand on her arm to reassure her. “Who’s Gracie? Is that your daughter?”
She shook her head. “My cat.”
“You don’t have anyone who can take care of her? A friend? A neighbor?”
Her lower lip quivered, and the forlorn look in her eyes haunted me.
“No one?” I asked, unable to mask the surprise in my voice.
She pursed her lips and shook her head.
“You’ll probably be back home tomorrow,” I assured her.
Tears filled her eyes. “I woke up late this morning, and I didn’t have time to feed her. I promised her I would be back after work. But then I got invited to the party….”
“How about a co-worker?”
Her face scrunched up, and I assumed the alcohol that she had consumed was making her more emotional than normal. “I just started two days ago. I don’t know any of their numbers.”
I knew she needed someone, but me taking care of a cat? I was highly allergic to them, and just thinking about the pet dander made my eyes water. “You want me to check on her?”
The look of relief on her face was instant. “Would you?”
“Her food is in the lower cabinet beside the refrigerator. She’ll probably go sit beside it when you go in because she’ll be expecting someone to feed her.”
Her slender fingers slid into her front pocket, and she pulled out a single key and handed it to me. After we exchanged information and she gave me her address, Hoffman loaded her into the ambulance, the red lights twirling through the increasing darkness.
I stared at the key in my hand, hoping that Gracie was one of those cats who would hide under the table when she saw a stranger. Sliding it into my front pocket as the ambulance drove away, I joined Cade and Seren who were talking to one of the firefighters.
The flames had finally been doused on the SUV, and it was a charred, wet, smoky mess.
“Guess I’m in the market for an automobile,” Seren said, a look of despair on her face as she stared at the card that Jace had given her with the police report information. She turned to us. “Thank you guys so much for getting us out of there. I’ve never been so scared in my entire life.”
Cade gave her a quick hug. “We’re just glad everything turned out okay. You need a ride home?”
“I would really appreciate it,” Seren said. “I guess we can go whenever you’re ready.”
“I’m ready. How about you, Hawk?”
“Yeah. I’ll be there in just a minute.”
Cade led Seren to the truck, and I turned back to the firefighter. His name was Bruno Wilkes, but his nickname was Mercury.
“Good job, man.” I slapped him on the back.
Mercury removed his mask. He motioned to our captain, who was standing by the pump panel on the fire engine having a discussion with the engineer. The emergency lights flickered over the scene. “Cap says you saved those two girls.”
“All in a day’s work, I guess. And Cade did just as much as I did.”
Mercury fist-bumped me. “That’s what it’s all about.”
I nodded. “Well, I’m going to head out. I just wanted to holler at you a minute.”
“All right, Hawk. See ya later.”
“Hold down the fort. Maybe we can grab a beer one night.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
I walked back to Cade’s truck and opened the door. Seren scooted to the middle of the bench seat, and I climbed in, sandwiching her between Cade and me.
“You okay?” I asked her.
She exhaled loudly. “I think so. It just scared me—badly.” She reached up and turned on the cab light while she held her hand in the air, her fingers trembling violently. “I’m still shaking.”
Cade put his arm around her and gave her a squeeze. “Just take deep breaths. You’re okay. Amber’s going to be okay. That’s all that matters.”
She leaned into Cade, and he held her a moment.
I knew how she felt. As many times as I’d responded to scenes like that, I never got used to it. Adrenaline flowed through my body like a raging river. My heart raced. The panic of the moment spurred me to action, but I always felt a certain amount of terror—not for my own safety. For me, it was a job. It’s what I did. No, for me, the terror was the fear of not getting to someone who needed my help in time.
I thought about Amber. I thought about her words. And what if I didn’t want to be saved?
For someone who made it his personal mission to save every person who needed help, her words haunted me.
I wondered what had happened to her, what had made her so sad that she could even say those words out loud.
What could make someone not want to be saved?
WHISKEY NIGHTS SERIES ORDER & Buy Links
Deceived #3 (coming 2015)
Suzannah Daniels has had an affinity for words for as long as she can remember. She grew up in North Georgia with four brothers, so she learned at an early age to admire snakes and motorcycles. When she wasn’t pestering her brothers, she could usually be found reading or writing.
She has an Associates Degree in Electrical Engineering, but her passion is writing.
She is the author of Viking’s Embrace, a historical romance, and Ghostly Encounter, Book One of her Ghostly series (young adult paranormal romance).
Currently, she lives in Chattanooga, Tennessee with her husband and her teenage daughter. Her son lives nearby. The family pets include a Lab mix, a Basset Hound, a Shih Tzu, and a sweet, little kitty.