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Prologue



In his twenty-odd years on the job, he’d never seen anything like it.

Black skid marks zigzagged wildly across the asphalt, leading to what was left of a mangled, and in this case, ineffectual guardrail poised on the precipice of a steep drop-off.

The pungent odor of burnt rubber filled his nostrils as he peered into the deep ravine, barely able to assimilate that the piece of twisted metal wrapped around the base of the massive tree in a sickening embrace was the remains of a car. Orange flames licked at the car’s crumpled hood, and a black plume of smoke rose up in a mushroom-like cloud, the acrid smell grabbing him by the throat and making him choke.

Amidst the sizzling snap and crackle of the flames he heard a sound that made his blood, pounding furiously through his veins, turn cold—a woman’s agonized screams.

Common sense, logic told him he should wait for back-up, steel his heart, deafen his ears to the sound; experience told him differently.

There was no time.

He had at least one survivor in there—maybe more. It could be minutes before his call to the emergency crew garnered any results. Minutes he didn’t have. His guys were good. They never left a call for help unanswered. But sometimes, sometimes even they were a minute too late, and from the sounds of the screams, which had only grown more wrenching and hard to ignore as valuable seconds had ticked by while he’d waged his internal battle, he didn’t have that minute to spare.

His decision made for him, he half slid, stumbled down the ravine to the scene, the heat of the growing flames making his face flush and sweat pop out on his brow. Reaching the passenger side of the car, he tried the handle and swore loudly when the door didn’t immediately give. Scrambling around to the car’s other side, he nearly cried out in relief when the door opened, but his joy was short-lived when he saw the driver’s bloodied remains. It wasn’t until he heard a voice hoarsely sob the question that he realized the screams had mercifully ceased.

“He’s dead, isn’t he?”

The brown eyes he met with his own were large and filled to brimming with unshed tears, and unable to voice a lie neither one of them would believe, he gave a short nod in response, even as he reached a hand out to grasp her thin shoulder. “I’m going to get you out. I’ve called for help. Can you move?”

A single tear slipped down her cheek as she bit her lip and shook her head, a strand of dark hair falling into her eyes. “I think my legs are stuck.”

For the first time letting his eyes drift down her torso, he tried to keep his expression neutral as he took in the gentle swell of her belly and the bloodied legs that disappeared beneath a hopeless twist of metal, and said a silent prayer. Swallowing down the lump of emotion lodged in his throat, he instead attempted a smile. “Got a little one on the way I see. Girl or boy?”

“I…we,” she bit her lip as more tears started to fall, “wanted it to be a surprise.” Her hands were tense and white-knuckled on her abdomen. “But I know my husband wants,” her breath hitched painfully in her throat, and she dragged in several gasping breaths before she could continue. “Ethan wanted a little boy.”

“Nothing wrong with sons,” he answered her, ghosting his hands over every inch of skin he could reach, making a mental note of each particular spot that made her wince, suck in a deep, rasping breath, cry out when the pain was too much to stand. “Got a daughter myself. I’d say she’s about your age.” He frowned as his eyes traveled down to her legs once more. “You can’t be a day over eighteen.”

“Just a few days,” she gave him what might have passed for a teasing smile had the situation been drastically different. But there was certain look of understanding in her eyes, a growing acceptance of a truth he’d tried and failed to hide from her. “They’re not going to make it in time.”

His eyes clenched shut momentarily, and he pondered voicing the weak denial poised on the tip of his tongue but found he couldn’t lie to her, not even to give himself the cheap false comfort. When he opened his eyes again, he saw that she had stretched one arm out, clutching her husband’s lifeless hand, while the other hand rest protectively on her belly as she whispered a broken apology and tearfully lamented the cruelty of the twist of fate that had led them all to this point on such an ordinary, beautiful day.

In the distance an ambulance’s sirens wailed.

“Do something for me.”

She didn’t beg; she didn’t have to. He couldn’t save her, but he hoped he could give her some peace. “Sure, sweetheart.” His hand found its way into her hair, and he tucked the thick dark strands behind her ear just the way he used to tuck his own daughter’s hair behind her ear each night when he tucked her into bed with a kiss to her forehead and a softly murmured, “’Night, love.”

“Make sure,” her face crumpled, but only for a moment before she seemed to gain strength from her own words. “Take Anna home.”

“Anna?” his dark brows drew together. “I don’t understand,” he shook his head. The sirens loomed nearer, but he could see the reflection of the growing flames in her tortured brown eyes, and he knew that time had simply run out. “Where is home?”

“Harmony,” she said, infusing the single word with so much love and such regret that it took her another long moment before she could continue. “Just…go. Go. And take my baby home for me,” her voice broke on a sob as she squeezed his hand hard and pushed him away.

There was shouting, there were flashing lights, and suddenly there were hands, pulling him away.

And there was Anna staring up at him from a wrinkled photograph with her too blue eyes and her tumbling dark curls, and he did something he’d never done during his twenty-odd years on the job: he laid his head in his hands, collapsed to his knees, and cried.