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Jill Shalvis, Alison Roberts, Gail Barrett

Feisty Firefighters Bundle

© 2007

Aftershock By Jill Shalvis

1

THE PLACE wasn’t what she expected. Though she was alone, Amber Riggs kept her features carefully schooled so that nothing in her cool, serene expression reflected dismay. Control was everything. A deal couldn’t be made to the best advantage without it, and she did love a good deal.

She got out of her car without checking her makeup or hair. She didn’t need to. It wasn’t vanity that told her she looked crisp and businesslike. It was just fact. Her careful facade was purposely created with clothes and makeup so that people took her seriously.

If she were vain, she’d still be basking in the glow from the write-up she’d received in this morning’s paper: “A go-get-’em real estate manager.” “Best in San Diego county.” “No one gets the better of Amber Riggs.”

Great for business, but the praise meant little. Amber loved her work, and because she did, she didn’t need anyone’s approval.

That’s what she told herself.

She looked at the deserted warehouse in front of her and frowned. As good at her job as she was, making money from this building would be like bleeding a turnip. It was too far out of town.

Still, stranger things had been known to happen. At least the owner hadn’t cared whether she found a buyer or a renter, and that would give her some options.

Her heels clicked noisily on the rough asphalt as she moved closer. The place was two stories and mostly brick, which gave it definite character. That was good. So was the basement that held the offices. She had to sigh as she noted the deterioration of the roof and the decay of the old brick walls. That wasn’t good. And no windows, which meant that the client she’d contacted this morning, the one who wanted to convert an older building into an antique mall, wouldn’t be happy.

She could fix that, Amber decided, by going inside and finding something interesting. Something that would appeal. This was her forte, turning the negative into the positive. Her fat bank account could attest to that. For a girl who’d left home exceptionally early with nothing but the shirt on her back, she’d done okay.

She took the key out of her purse and let herself in. Darkness prevailed, but always prepared, she again reached into her purse for the small flashlight she kept there. As she flipped it on and moved past the reception area into the even darker open warehouse, the silence settled on her shoulders eerily. She swallowed hard, losing a fraction of her iron-clad control.

The dark was not her friend. It was an old fear, from childhood, where she’d spent far too much time alone, afraid. Unwanted.

Dammit, not the self-pity again. She was twenty-seven years old. Maudlin thoughts about her past were unacceptable, and she promptly pushed them aside. Her flashlight shimmered, cutting a path across the huge empty place. The beam hardly made a dent in the absolute blackness, and more of her control slipped. Her palms became damp.

Determinedly, she lifted her chin, letting her logic and famed concentration take over. She was a grown-up. Yes, she was alone, but she wasn’t leaving until she’d scoped out the place carefully. She needed something to lure her potential client.

She wanted the deal.

She made it three quarters of the way across the place when she came to a door. Stairs, leading down. Good, the offices there would be a good selling point. Swallowing her discomfort around the intense, inky blackness, she bravely wielded her flashlight and went down the stairs, entering another large and even darker room.

A damp, musty smell greeted her.

An unnatural silence beat down, so did a terrible, heavy foreboding. In the strange stillness, Amber’s every nerve ending froze, rendering her incapable of movement.

In the distance, she thought she heard a male voice call out, but that couldn’t be, she was alone.

Always alone.

Suddenly a sound like savage thunder ripped through the room, and Amber decided to hell with control. To hell with the deal.

She wanted out.

That’s when the earthquake hit.

The unexpected violent pitch and roll of the ground beneath her threw her to the floor, hard. The earth came alive like some monster clawing its way out of hibernation.

Time ceased to exist.

The earth moaned and rocked. As she slid across the cold, concrete floor, her ears rang with the deafening sound. Her skin crawled with horror.

Then she slammed into an unforgiving wall.

Stars exploded into the darkness.

And the last thing Amber heard was her own terrified, piercing scream.

DAX MCCALL loved driving. Loved the freedom of the wind ripping through his hair, the scent of autumn as the trees turned. Loved the eye-squinting azure sky.

Hell, he was feeling generous, he simply loved life.

The tune-up he’d done on his truck the night before had it running smoothly, and he took the time to enjoy the way it handled the unpredictable mountain roads of Point Glen.

He couldn’t have asked for a better day. Mother Nature loved Southern California, specifically San Diego county, and though it was nearly November, the breeze blew warm. Not a cloud marred the brilliant sky. And thanks to the Santa Ana winds, smog was nonexistent, leaving the air unusually clean and pure.

Sunday. His first day off in weeks. Not that he was complaining, he thought, cranking up the rock ’n’ roll blaring from the stereo. He loved his job, and knew he was the best damn fire inspector this county had ever seen. But the hours were ruthless, and ambitious as he was, even he needed brain-rest once in awhile.

The last few fires had really taken their toll. He’d just closed an arson case that had spanned two years and caused five deaths. Sometimes at night Dax would close his eyes and see the charred bodies. Worse, he could still see the expression on the family’s faces when he’d questioned them. Horror. Pain. Accusation. Sorrow.

Yeah, he needed a day off. Maybe even a vacation. He thought about the wildfires raging out of control in Montana. He could take some time and go help fight them. Not what most would consider a vacation, but in his heart, Dax was first and foremost a firefighter. When he’d turned investigator, he’d never given up his love of fighting fires. Every chance he got, he went back to it.

A shrill ring shattered the peace. Damn. Dax turned down the music and answered his cell phone with all the enthusiasm of a child facing bedtime.

“Better be good,” he warned, slowing his truck on the narrow two-lane highway as he came into a hairpin turn.

“Some greeting.”

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