Authors: Valerie Hansen
Lowering his voice, Mitch added, “Those kids in there are orphans because somebody purposely killed their parents.”
Jill felt a shiver zing up her spine. Mitch was right. She grabbed his arm in a viselike grip. “You don't think the children are really in danger, do you?”
“I don't know.” His eyes narrowed. “Are you willing to take the chance they aren't and let down your guard?”
“Of course not!” She didn't release her hold until she'd said, “I'm scared, Mitch.”
To her chagrin, he replied, “Yeah. So am I.”
The last thing Jill wanted to do was frighten the children more than they already were. Mitch seemed to sense her uneasiness. He paused and laid a hand of gentle comfort on her shoulder. “It'll be okay. I'll take care of everything. I promise.”
Love Inspired Suspense
Her Brother's Keeper
Out of the Depths
Shadow of Turning
Hidden in the Wall
Nowhere to Run
My Deadly Valentine
Face of Danger
Love Inspired Historical
High Plains Bride
The Doctor's Newfound Family
Rescuing the Heiress
The Perfect Couple
Love One Another
Blessings of the Heart
The Hamilton Heir
A Treasure of the Heart
Healing the Boss's Heart
was thirty when she awoke to the presence of the Lord in her life and turned to Jesus. In the years that followed she worked with young children, both in church and secular environments. She also raised a family of her own and played foster mother to a wide assortment of furred and feathered critters.
Married to her high school sweetheart since age seventeen, she now lives in an old farmhouse she and her husband renovated with their own hands. She loves to hike the wooded hills behind the house and reflect on the marvelous turn her life has taken. Not only is she privileged to reside among the loving, accepting folks in the breathtakingly beautiful Ozark mountains of Arkansas, she also gets to share her personal faith by telling the stories of her heart for all of the Love Inspired lines.
Life doesn't get much better than that!
Whoever receives one of these little children in
my name receives me; and whoever receives me,
receives not only me but Him who sent me.
My husband and son were career firefighters and my daughter also volunteered before she went into nursing.
The men and women in the fire service put their whole hearts into their work and no amount of praise or thanks for their efforts will ever be enough.
Thanks also to the dedicated CASA volunteers who take over after disasters and help children put their lives back together.
Fire station windows rattled. Overhead lights vibrated. Captain Mitch Andrews froze, held his breath and braced himself with both palms on his desktop.
in the world was
” someone shouted down the hallway.
Mitch figured every telephone in Serenity was already tied up by folks asking each other the same question. Their dispatcher would be fortunate to receive information giving a halfway accurate location of the problem, let alone a clear report of conditions at the scene.
A firefighter stuck his head through Mitch's office doorway. “What's going on?”
“I don't know. But it must be bad. Get ready to roll.”
What he desperately wanted to do was grab a phone and call Jill; at least hear her sweet voice and make sure she was far from the current danger before he left the station. Duty didn't allow him that luxury. Not this time.
Sprinting for the hangar, he slammed his fist into the buttons that raised the bay doors. The siren mounted
on the roof was starting to scream, rising and falling in pitch until he could barely hear his own voice over the wail.
“Jake, you round up the volunteers and get them moving as soon as you can,” Mitch yelled, hailing the first man to clear the door. “I have a feeling we're going to need every piece of equipment we own on this one.”
“Yes, sir,” the engineer shouted. “What blew up?”
“Don't know yet.”
Mitch listened to the details coming in over his handheld radio, then answered with, “Copy. All units responding to the vicinity of the county airport. ETA five minutes or less. Are ambulances started?”
The affirmative response gave him little comfort. Their small, local landing strip was located several miles outside town. If anyone had been in close proximity to an explosion violent enough to be felt this strongly at his fire station, they were going to need the coroner, not ambulances and EMTs.
Running, he grabbed his turnout coat, squashed his red captain's helmet over tousled, sandy-blond hair and jumped aboard the first engine out the door.
There was a bright, shimmering glow in the night sky as the driver headed west. Something had not simply blown up, it was also burning. Mitch gritted his teeth. There was only so much they could do to preserve life and property, no matter how state-of-the-art their equipment might be, and Serenity Fire Department was always struggling to keep up with new technology for both firefighting and medical aid calls.
“Was it a plane crash?” the driver shouted.
“Don't know.” Mitch's heart was in his throat. “If it
was, I sure hope they missed the industrial buildings out that way.”
“I wonder. Looks like a lot of fire for one small plane.”
“Yeah,” Mitch replied, releasing his breath in a whoosh. “It sure does.”
Siren blaring, lights flashing, the engine slued around the last corner that brought them face to face with the conflagration.
Mitch's spirits sank like a stone in a bottomless lake. He could see the unscathed, white-enameled roof of the Pearson Products warehouse. However, part of the manufacturing building next to it was engulfed in flames and it looked as if that fire was about to spread to the attached, single-family dwellingâif it hadn't already breached the common wall.
Acting from years of training and experience, he shoved his personal dread aside and raised his radio. “Engine three on scene. One industrial building on fire. Other structures threatened.”
As the first officer to arrive, Mitch was automatically in charge. “Engine two, follow me in. Engine one, lay a hose line and cover the rear.”
“Engine two, copy.”
“Chief,” Mitch added, hoping and praying he'd get a quick answer, “are you responding?”
“Affirmative,” Jim Longstreet replied. “I'm right behind you. ETA less than one.”
“Be advised, we've got a rescue operation. Will you assume command?”
“Just pulling in now. I'll take over.”
Tamping down the fear of what they might find if
they were already too late, Mitch broadcast, “Thanks. A family of five lives here. We'll lay a safety line and make access.”
in there?” the engineer beside him shouted above the howling of the engine's siren.
“Yes,” Mitch replied. “Three.”
Jill Kirkpatrick had formed the habit of monitoring local police and fire calls. It gave her more peace of mind when she knew what was going on in the country surrounding her isolated farmhouse, especially after dark.
Besides, she admitted to herself with a smile, she often listened in order to keep close tabs on Mitch Andrews. He was a very special person, the first and best friend she'd made in Serenity. They'd met when his fire department rescue squad had responded to the call for medical assistance after her husband's fatal accident, and Mitch had remained her anchor in the stormy days that had followed.
Being new in town and widowed so suddenly, Jill didn't know how she would have coped without his compassionate support and that of his fellow church members.
As she leaned closer to listen to the scanner, her long, blond hair swung against her cheeks and she tucked it behind her ears. She'd felt a strange shaking and heard a boom right before the radio had come alive. Something terrible must have happened. Not only was there a scary description being given of a fire, she could hear anxiety and dread coloring Mitch's voice as he broadcast to his crew. No matter how much
he might deny it, he was definitely worried. Therefore, so was she.
Her initial response was to grab a jacket and her car keys and head for the door. Pausing, she almost changed her mind before peering out the window. Her blue eyes widened. The whole northern horizon was painted orange, yellow and red. Billowing clouds of smoke were lit from below as they formed a plume that blotted out the stars and rising moon.
One hand fluttered at her throat. “Oh, dear.” That settled it. She had to go.
Quickly crossing the yard she climbed into her battered, well-loved red Jeep and started toward the glow in the sky.
Soon, acrid smoke was filtering in through the air vents. It carried pungent, unidentifiable odors that reminded her of melting plastic combined with household chemical cleaners.
“Lord, be with Mitch and whoever else is in danger,” Jill prayed softly, fervently, her hands clenching the steering wheel. “Please, please, please.”
She saw official vehicles converging at the far end of the one-runway airport so she pulled off the main road, parked where she wouldn't be in anyone's way, then proceeded on foot.
The closer she got, the worse the inferno looked. It had never occurred to her that any blaze could generate such a frightening roar. The noise reminded her of a crackling, pulsing jet engine and drowned out every other sound. Her eyes smarted. Her throat felt raw.
Knots of bystanders had gathered at the perimeter of the airfield. Men in yellow turnouts were busy shooting
streams of water onto a house, apparently in an effort to save it from the encroaching flames.
Several of the closest casual observers were familiar to her from church so she greeted them with a somber look and a nod.
“Anybody seen Mitch Andrews tonight?” she asked, working to control her tone so no one would suspect how concerned she was. “I heard his voice on my scanner.”
One of the elderly men hooked a thumb toward the burning home. “Yeah. He came outta there with two little kids, then handed 'em to the preacher's wife and went back inside.”
Jill's heart leaped. Raced. Fluttered. There were children in that fiery death trap? And Mitch was in there rescuing them?
The urge to do something, anything, was so strong she nearly forgot herself and ran toward the fire. Only her respect for Mitch and his work kept her rooted to the more distant spot where she could safely observe.
he? Could he be in trouble? Flames were licking up under the eaves in spite of the deluge from the hoses and it looked as if the entire house would soon burst into flames.
Jill's hands were fisted, her breathing shallow. “Come on, come on.” It was barely a whisper, yet it carried the intensity of a shout, the passion of a prayer.
Suddenly, a familiar figure came hurrying out the front door. She instinctively knew it was Mitch in spite of the black-edged breathing mask covering his face and the shadows cast by the brim of his dripping helmet.
Arms laden, he raced off the porch, through the cas
cading waterfall from the fire hoses and out onto the sparse, wet grass. Using his body to shelter the child he was carrying he whipped off his mask while the rescued victim in his arms kicked, screamed and fought him.
Mitch looked up, made eye contact with Jill as if he'd sensed her presence and gestured frantically.
She whirled to check behind her, assuming he'd been signaling a fellow firefighter. There were none close by. Pointing to herself, she shouted, “Me?”
His nod was quick. His meaning clear.
She reached him in mere seconds. “What can I do to help?”
“Take him.” Mitch's voice was a hoarse shout. If she hadn't noticed the moisture in the fireman's hazel eyes when he'd shoved a squirming, pajama-clad boy of about seven at her, she might have believed he was angry.
“Are there others? Should I wait?” Jill asked, holding tight to the thin, wriggling body of her new responsibility.
“No. I already gave Paul and Megan to Becky Malloy.” He raised his radio. “Chief, we got all three kids out. No sign of the parents.”
Jill waited until he was done speaking to ask, “What happened?”
“Don't know,” Mitch said brusquely. “Just get Timmy out of here.” His gaze softened and lingered on her face for mere moments, yet she could sense his special concern even before he said, “Take care of yourself, too, Jill. Watch your step. It's dangerous around here.”
“I know. I'll be careful.”
Seeing Mitch slip his mask and helmet on and turn, she blurted, “Wait! Where are you going?”
“Back inside. There are two more people to find.”
One look at the leaping, licking flames and she could hardly catch her breath. Mitch was going back into
Her first instinct was to grab his arm and hold tight to stop him, yet she knew that would be foolish. This was what he did, what he'd trained for. Interfering was very wrong, no matter how scared she was for his well-being.
“I have to. I'll be all right.” His gaze rested for an instant on the child in her arms. “Just take good care of Timmy for me.”
As Mitch jogged away, Jill felt a burgeoning concern that left her weak in the knees. It wasn't only the firefighters she was worried about. She'd realized belatedly whose house this was. The Pearsons were members of Serenity Chapel as well as close friends of Mitch, so the adults he was still searching for must be the children's parents, Rob and Ellen. How hard this must be for poor Mitchâfor all the local firefighters and police.
Her arms ached from holding on to the struggling boy, but she persevered. Right now, the most important thing was getting him away from the scene, keeping him safe and reuniting him with his younger siblings.
“Let me go!” the boy shouted. “Let me go.”
“No. Sorry. I can't.”
Jill knew there would be no reasoning with the child while he was so agitated. Keeping her replies calm and consistent was the bestâthe onlyâthing she could do.
It was trials such as this that her own childhood had prepared her for. That was why she'd volunteered as a foster parent in the first place, why she never said she was too busy or too financially strapped to take in another homeless, helpless waif.
It was her duty.
She'd trained for it by merely living the life she'd been handed.
Forced by the heat and flames to retreat or die, Mitch finally ordered his men to back off. Other teams had made access from the rear of the building so there was a chance one of them had successfully located the Pearsons. If not, there was nothing else anyone could do.
“Chief?” he radioed. “Any report on the adults from the house?”
“Negative. They thought they had one around back but it was just a nosy bystander getting too close.”
As the fire continued to gobble up everything in its path, Mitch tried hard to keep from thinking about the people who might still be inside. There was nothing anyone could do for them at this point and he had a job to finish. A job he counted as a God-given assignment.
Suddenly, a wild-eyed woman in her thirties lurched toward him out of the haze and confusion. Her reddish hair was mussed, her short, white jacket sooty.
Under the circumstances, Mitch didn't pause to consider who she might be, he simply held out his arms to block her access to the disaster. “You can't go any closer, ma'am. It's too dangerous.”
“Where is she?” the newcomer screeched, leaning to
peer past him at the ongoing destruction of the office and home. “Where's my sister?”
Mitch gritted his teeth.
he understood. “You're Ellen's sister, Natalie, aren't you?”
I am. Get out of my way.”
Ignoring the rolling of her eyes and her look of disdain, he shook his head slowly, sadly. “I'm sorry. We haven't been able to locate Ellen or Rob.”
Instead of swooning or weeping as he'd expected, the woman began to scream, curse and pound him with her fists. “Well go find her! Don't just stand there, you idiot! Do something! Go back and look again!”
He did his best to fend off the blows without harming his attacker. A female sheriff's deputy noticed the one-sided altercation and quickly came to his rescue.