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Jill Shalvis

  Look what people are saying about Jill Shalvis…

  “Riveting suspense laced with humor and heart is her hallmark and Jill Shalvis always delivers.”

  —USA TODAY bestselling author Donna Kauffman

  “Romance does not get better than a Jill Shalvis story.”


  “Shalvis firmly establishes herself as a writer of fast-paced, edgy but realistic romantic suspense, with believable and likable supporting characters and fiercely evocative descriptive passages.”


  “For those of you who haven’t read Jill Shalvis, you are really missing out.”

  —In The Library Reviews

  “Danger, adrenaline and firefighting heat up the mix in Jill Shalvis’s blistering new novel.”

  —Romantic Times BOOKreviews on White Heat

  “Jill Shalvis displays the soul of a poet with her deft pen, creating a powerful atmosphere.”


  “Jill Shalvis is a breath of fresh air on a hot, humid night.”


  Dear Reader,

  When I start to write a romance novel, it’s usually all about the fantasy. Girl meets Hot Guy. Hot Guy falls hard. You know the drill. But this book is a little different. You see, this time, reality intruded—in my life, and in my writing.

  Several members of my immediate family were evacuated in the tragic San Diego fires this past fall, about the same time I was finishing up this book. And suddenly this miniseries, AMERICAN HEROES: THE FIREFIGHTERS, became more than a romantic fantasy for me. Sure, I wanted to give readers a sexy tale that would keep them enthralled right through to the end. That’s always my goal. But I also wanted to honor these amazing, strong firefighters who put their lives on the line for real, every day.

  I hope I did them justice.

  Best wishes and happy reading!

  Jill Shalvis

  P.S. If you still need a firefighter fix, you don’t have long to wait—the 2008 Harlequin Blaze Christmas anthology, Heating up the Holidays, will hit the shelves in December. And if you missed it, be sure to check out my connecting book, Flashpoint, available last month.




  USA TODAY bestselling author Jill Shalvis is happily writing her next book from her neck of the Sierras. You can find her romances wherever books are sold, or visit her on the Web at

  Books by Jill Shalvis





  270—JUST TRY ME…

  303—JINXED! “Together Again?”







  1015—FREE FALL


  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17


  THE FIRE BELL RANG for the fourth time since midnight, interrupting Aidan Donnelly in the middle of a great dream in which he was having some fairly creative, acrobatic sex with a gorgeous blonde. The last thing he wanted was to be shaken awake, but apparently sex, imaginary or otherwise, wasn’t on his card for the evening.

  He was on the last few hours of a double shift from hell. The loudspeaker mounted in one corner of the bunk room was going off, telling him and his crew that they would not be going home in one short hour after all, but back into the field on yet another emergency call.

  Putting the blonde back where she belonged, in the file in his brain labeled Hot Erotic Fantasy, Aidan got up to the tune of a bunch of moans and groans from his crew.

  So close. He’d been so close to three desperately needed days off….

  Across the room Eddie kicked aside the latest issue of Time, which had an entire company of firefighters on the cover. “A lot of good being the sexiest occupation does us,” the firefighter grumbled, “when we’re too exhausted to take advantage of it.”

  “Some of us don’t need beauty sleep.” This from Sam, Eddie’s partner. “Like, say, Mr. 2008 here.” He slid a look Aidan’s way, but Aidan found himself too tired to rise to the bait.

  Through no fault of his own, he’d been named Santa Rey’s hottest firefighter for 2008. This dubious honor came along with another—being put on the cover of Santa Rey’s annual firefighter’s calendar. “I told you, I didn’t submit my name.”

  Eddie grinned in the middle of dressing. “No, we did, Mr. 2008.”

  Aidan gave him a shove, and Eddie fell back to the mattress, snorting out a laugh as he staggered upright again and grabbed his boots. “Yeah, like being that pretty is a hindrance.”

  “I am not pretty.”

  No one answered him in words as they pulled on their gear, but several made kissy noises as they headed toward their rigs. Still groggy, and definitely out of sorts, Aidan took the shotgun position next to Ty, his temporary partner, on loan from a neighboring firehouse, since his usual partner Zach was still off on medical leave.

  Eddie and Sam grabbed their seats, as well as Cristina and Aaron, another on-loan firefighter, and they were all off into the dark night—or more accurately, the dark predawn morning—following the ambulance, which had pulled out first. The air was thick with dew, and salty from the ocean only one block over. For now the temperature was cool enough, but by midday the California August heat would be in full bloom, and they’d all be dying. Aidan got on the radio to talk to dispatch. “It’s an explosion,” he told the others grimly.

  “Where?” Ty asked.

  “The docks.” Which could be anywhere from the shipping area, to the houseboats filled with year-round residents. “Only one boat’s on fire, but several others are threatened by the flames, with no word on what caused the explosion.”

  Behind him, Eddie swore softly, and Aidan’s thoughts echoed the sentiment. Explosions were trickier than a regular fire, and far more unpredictable.

  “Are they calling for backup?” Sam asked.

  They needed it. Firehouse Thirty-Four was sorely overworked and dangerously exhausted going into the high fire season. They’d had a rough month. Aidan’s partner and best friend Zach had been injured after digging into the mysterious arsons that had plagued Santa Rey. Mysterious arsons that were now linked to one of their own.

  Blake Stafford.

  Just the thought brought a stab of fresh pain to Aidan’s chest. Now Zach was off duty and Blake was dead, leaving them all devastated.

  Cristina was especially devastated, and with good reason. She’d been Blake’s partner, and the closest to him. She’d suffered like hell over his loss, and also over the arsons he’d been accused of committing.

  She blamed herself, Aidan knew, which was ridiculous. She couldn’t have stopped Blake.

  As it turned out, none of them could have stopped him.

  Aidan considered himself pretty damn tough and just about one-hundred-percent impenetrable, but losing Blake had been heart-wrenching. He missed him, and hated what he’d been accused of. He didn’t want to believe Blake was dead, and he sure as hell didn’t want to believe Blake guilty of arson, and the resulting death of a small boy—none of them did, but the evidence was there. He could hardly even stand thinki
ng about it—classic denial, Aidan knew, but it was working for him. “Dispatch’s sending rigs from Stations Thirty-Three and Thirty-Five.”

  No one said anything to this, but they were all thinking the same thing—it’d take those stations at least ten extra minutes to get on scene from their locations—and the sense of dread only increased as they pulled up to the docks.

  Turned out that the fire wasn’t at the shipping docks, but where the smaller, privately owned boats were moored at four long docks, each with ten bays. Possibly forty boats in total, many of them occupied.

  Chaos reined in the predawn. Their senior officer was usually first on scene, setting up a command center, but he was coming from another fire and was five minutes behind them. The sky was still dark, with no moon, and the visibility wasn’t helped by the thick plumes of black smoke choking the air out of their lungs. Flames leaped fifty feet into the air, coming from a boat halfway down the second of the four docks. Aidan took a quick count, and his stomach tightened with fear. There were boats on either side of the flaming vessel, and more on the opposite side of the dock.

  Not good.

  As they accessed their equipment and laid out lines, three police squad cars tore into the lot, followed by the command squad, all of whom leaped to work evacuating the surrounding docks. Aidan and company needed to contain the flames, but the explosion burned outrageously hot. He could feel that mind-numbing heat from a hundred feet back. With the chief now on scene, barking orders through their radios, Aidan and the others moved with their hoses, their objective to keep the flames from spreading to any of the other boats. They were halfway there when it came.

  A sharp, terrified scream.

  The sound raised the hair on the back of Aidan’s neck, and he dropped everything to run toward the burning boat, Ty right behind him.

  The scream came again, clearly female, and Aidan sped up. No one knew better than a firefighter what it was like to be surrounded by flames, to have them lick at you, toy with you. It was sheer, horrifying terror.

  They had to get to her first.

  Behind them came Sam, Eddie, Cristina and Aaron, directing water on the flames to clear Aidan and Ty’s path down the dock toward the boat. Twenty feet, then ten, and that’s when he saw her. A woman standing on the deck of the burning boat, wobbling, the flames at her back.

  “Jump!” he yelled, wondering why she didn’t just make the short leap to the dock—she could have made a run for safety. “Jump—”

  Another explosion rocked them all. Aidan skidded to a halt, spinning away and crouching down as debris flew up into the air to match the intensifying flames. The chief was shouting into the radio, demanding a head count. Aidan lifted his head and checked in as he took in the sights. The boat was still there. With his heart in his throat, he searched for a visual on the woman—

  There. In the same spot she’d been before, still on the deck but on the floor now, holding her head. Goddammit. He got to his feet, took a few running steps, and dove onto the boat.

  She nearly jumped out of her skin when he landed next to her. “It’s okay.” He dropped to his knees at her side to try to get a good look and see how badly she was injured, but the smoke had choked out any light from the docks and she was nothing but a slight shadow. A slight shadow who was hunched over and coughing uncontrollably.

  “The boat,” she managed. “It k-keeps b-blowing up—”

  “Can you stand?”

  “Yes. I—” She let out a sound that tugged at his memory, but he pushed that aside when she nodded. She got up with his help, twisting away from him to stare up at the flames shooting up the mast and sails. “Ohmigod…”

  He pulled her closer to his side, intending to jump with her to the dock and the hell off this inferno, but several things hit him at once.

  The name of the boat painted across the outside of the cabin, flickering in and out of view between the flames.

  Blake’s Girl.

  No. It couldn’t be. Then came something of far more immediate concern—the rumbling and shuddering of the deck beneath their feet. “We have to move.”

  “No. No, please,” she gasped. “You have to save the boat.”

  “Us first.” He couldn’t have put together a more coherent sentence because of all that was going through his head. Blake’s Girl…

  Blake’s boat. God, he’d all but forgotten that Blake had owned a boat.

  Then there was the woman in his arms, facing away from him, but invoking that niggling sense of familiarity. There was something about her wild blond curls, about the sound of her voice—

  The warning signals in his brain peaked at once. In just the past thirty seconds, the flames had doubled in strength and heat. The deck beneath their feet trembled and quivered with latent simmering violence.

  They were going to blow sky high. Whipping toward the dock he got another nasty surprise—the flames had covered their safe exit.

  On the other side of those monstrous flames stood Ty, Eddie and Sam, hoses in hand, battling the fire from their angle, which wasn’t going to help Aidan and his victim in time. Cristina was there, too, with Aaron, and even in the dark he sensed their urgency, their utter determination to keep him safe.

  They’d so recently lost one of their own; there was no way they were going to let it happen again.

  “Ohmigod,” the woman at his side gasped, staring, as if mesmerized, at the sight of the flames closing in on them.

  She wasn’t the only one suddenly mesmerized, and for one startling heartbeat, Aidan went utterly still, as for the first time he caught a full glimpse of her.

  He knew that profile.

  He knew her. “Kenzie?”

  At the sound of her name on his lips, uttered in a low, hoarse, surprised voice, her head whipped toward his, eyes wide. Her wavy blond hair framed a pale face streaked with dirt and some blood, but was still beautiful, hauntingly so.

  She was Mackenzie Stafford, Blake’s sister. Kenzie to those who knew and loved her, Sissy Hope to the millions of viewers who watched her on the soap opera Hope’s Passion.

  She was not a stranger to Aidan, but not because of her television stardom. He knew her personally.

  Very personally. “Kenzie.”

  “I can’t—I can’t hear you.”

  People never expected fire to be noisy, but it was. The flames crackled and roared at near ear-splitting decibels as they devoured everything in their path.

  Including them if they didn’t move, a knowledge that was enough to pull his head out of his ass and get with the program. Old lover or not, he still had to get her out of there alive. But she was looking at him through Blake’s eyes, and his heart and gut wrenched hard. There was maybe twenty feet of water between Blake’s Girl and the next boat, which was starting to smoke as well, and would undoubtedly catch on fire any second. It didn’t matter. They had no choice. “Kenzie, when I say so, I want you to hold your breath.”

  “D—do I know you?”

  He wore a helmet and all his equipment, and in the dark, not to mention the complete and utter chaos around them, there was no way she could see him clearly. Still, he had to admit it stung. “It’s me, Aidan. Hold your breath now, on my count.”

  “Aidan, my God.”


  “The boat’s going to go, every inch of it, isn’t it?”

  Yep, including the few square inches they were standing on. In fact, it was going to go much more quickly than he’d have liked. Since they couldn’t get to the dock, it was into the ocean for them, where they’d wait for rescue.

  “No,” she said, shaking her head. “There’s got to be another way.”

  Unfortunately there wasn’t, and he quickly stripped out of his jacket and gear because the protection they offered wouldn’t be worth the seventy-five pounds of extra weight while treading water and holding up Kenzie to boot. At least she was conscious. She didn’t appear to have on any shoes, or anything particularly heavy on her person, all of which were poi
nts in her favor. “On three, okay? Remember to hold your breath.”

  “I don’t think—”

  “Perfect. Go with that. One—” He nudged her in front of him, pushing her to the railing.



  “Are you crazy?”


  “Hell, no. I’m not going into the—”

  He dropped her into the water, and she screamed all the way down.


  KENZIE HIT THE ICY OCEAN, and as she took in a huge mouthful of water, she realized she’d forgotten to hold her breath, a thought that was completely eradicated when Blake’s Girl exploded into the early dawn.

  In the brilliant kaleidoscope, she barely registered the splash next to her, or the two strong arms that came around her, supporting her as flying pieces of burning debris hit the water all around them.

  Aidan. My God, Aidan…That it was him boggled her mind. She tried to remind him that she could swim on her own, but the shock of the cold water sapped both her voice and the air in her lungs, and also hampered the working of her brain.

  She’d never experienced anything like it. Never in her life had she been so hot and so frozen at the same time. The heat came from the flames, so high above them now that she was in the water, but no less terrifying. And yet, an icy cold had taken over her limbs, making movement all but impossible, weighing her down, sitting on her chest, sucking the last of the precious air from her overtaxed lungs.

  Someone was screaming, and Kenzie envied their ability to draw air into their lungs because her own felt as constricted as if she had a boa slowly squeezing the life out of her.

  The scream came again.


  It sounded sort of like her.

  And then she realized, as if from a great distance, that it was her screaming, which meant that somehow she was breathing. Okay, that was good. So was the man holding her in the water, tucking her head against him, shielding her from the pieces falling out of the sky at his own risk. Without him, she’d have gone down like a heavy stone and she knew it.