Waiting For You
A McKinney/Walker Novel book 2
When ER nurse Nora Sellers is hurt in a hospital scuffle, firefighter Zach Walker blames himself. Blaming himself is nothing new. He’s been blaming himself for years for the trauma his baby sister endured as a teenager. Though with his happy–go–lucky attitude no one would know it. He’s good at his job, he’s a good brother, and a good friend, but Zach decided long ago he wasn’t husband and father material.
Even so, when Zach learns Nora is a single mother with a house that needs his help, he can’t walk away. After a few days with Nora and her ten month old son, he knows he doesn’t want to.
But Nora’s wary. She learned at a young age that the only person she can count on is herself. Now with a baby, a job, and a fixer–upper house, the last thing Nora wants is a sexy firefighter, making her heart flutter. But Zach is more than what he seems, and the more she gets to know him the harder he is to resist.
She’s been brave all her life. Can she be brave one more time and take a chance of a lifetime with her heart?
Zach Walker leaned a hip against the counter, sipping his second cup of midmorning coffee. His engine crew and the ambulance crew had been out on two minor calls since he’d come on shift at eight. The station house kitchen still smelled of burned bacon. Not because of the calls, but because truckie driver, Walt, burned everything he cooked.
“I thought you said you knew how to do this.” Zach eyed the man bent low beside him in front of one of three industrial–sized refrigerators.
“I do.” Bull wiggled the thin metal pick, searching for the pin in the heavy silver padlock. “Didn’t say I was fast. Not like I’ve made a career of B and E.”
Zach laughed softly, took another drink of coffee, and smirked at his good friend. “How the hell do you wear all that facial hair in this heat?”
Bull paused to run his thumb and forefinger down his wooly beard. “I told you. It’s good luck. And you don’t know hot ’til you’ve lived through August in Alabama.”
Bull continued working at the lock guarding B shift’s fridge. Those guys were a constant thorn in their side but still family. And as one of four boys himself, Zach knew nobody messed with you like family.
Dink—or New Guy, as they affectionately called him even though he’d transferred to their station over a year ago—stood on Bull’s other side. He finished his can of diet soda and stood ready to remove the contents of the refrigerator as soon as Bull cracked the lock. “You know, Mikey’s going to shit himself when he comes in tomorrow and his chocolate milk is gone.”
“That would be the point,” Zach said. “He started this war when he ate my peanut-butter pie. We’re finishing it.”
“Boom.” Bull opened the lock, and there were congrats all around as the links of silver chain clanged against the door. “Commence food relocation.”
Zach opened the door of their own fridge, and he, Bull, Dink, and Riley McKinney, their young recruit, removed everything belonging to Mike.
“Why don’t we move it all?” Eddie, his engine driver asked. “You know, big statement. They come in tomorrow, open it up, and… nada.” Eddie sat at the shellacked pine table with five more guys, all of whom were encouraging the kitchen ransacking.
Zach thought about it a second, agreed. Teresa from C shift came from the back, her hair wet from a shower. He’d passed her earlier as she got in her hour in their house gym. It was small but functional and saved them from paying a gym membership.
She went straight for the coffee, watching their shenanigans as she poured. “They’re going to kill you. You know that, right?”
“They’re not going to know it was us,” Zach said. “No way will you rat us out.”
Teresa laughed. “If the incentive was right? In a heartbeat.”
Riley abandoned the mission and eased down the counter toward Teresa. He picked up a rag as he went, but he didn’t wipe. The golden-haired Adonis had been there two weeks. Long enough to become enthralled with the station’s lone female crew member, whose space he was now leaning into. God help him.
Teresa reached for the cream and dumped enough into her to-go cup to make Zach cringe.
“So what made you want to be a fireman?” Riley asked her.
She reached past him for a plastic spoon. “You mean a firefighter?”
“Yeah. Exactly.” He grinned, thinking she was making conversation with him, oblivious to her tone.
“Riley?” Teresa said.
“Yeah?” He straightened his big body, his baby face pathetically hopeful at the way she said his first name.
“Get the fuck out of my way.”
The guys around the table burst out laughing.
Teresa grabbed her coffee and threw Zach a look on her way out. “You’d better rein that one in, Walker.”
“Me?” Zach narrowed his eyes at Riley. He didn’t know if Teresa had named him because he was the engine lieutenant and Riley was the recruit on the same apparatus or because his sister had married into the McKinney family, making her husband’s cousin her cousin and thus the kid was family in an extremely roundabout kind of way. Either way, he didn’t think Riley tangling with the sole female in the house qualified as his responsibility.
Dink let out an award-winning belch that had Teresa rolling her eyes.
“And with that,” she said, “I’m out.”
“You know you’ll miss us,” Bull called after her.
“Won’t miss you,” she said, giving them a backhanded wave over her shoulder.
Riley wistfully stared at her back.
“She’ll so miss us,” Dink said. “She’s probably on the phone right now, begging the chief to move her to our shift.”
“Seriously? Could that happen?” Riley brightened.
“Riley?” Zach looked at him with pity. “She will eat you alive.”
“Maybe I want her to.”
Dink choked on his Coke. “Go ahead, kid. But when she goes to crush your balls, I will not stand in front of you.”
“Come on, peach fuzz,” Bull said. “Get this shit moved, and let our resident ladies’ man give you some tips.”
Bull gave a chin jerk in his direction and Zach shook his head. “No way.”
“Oh, come on, Walker. Help the kid out.”
Zach turned to dump the rest of his coffee down the sink. The title ladies’ man might have fit years ago. What the guys at the house had called his parade of women. His siblings had laughingly called it a circus. He’d thought of it more like a carousel. Keep them moving, don’t get too tangled up with any one. Not so much anymore. In fact, not for years.
“Fine, then. Uncle Bull will give you some tips. You can listen while you work. Rule number one: don’t ever get involved with someone in the house. Rule number two: don’t ever get involved with anyone you save. Women already have a thing for men—”
“With a big hose?” Eddie offered, walking past.
“I was going to say in uniform, dipshit.”
A couple of the guys agreed, others encouraged Riley to use what he had since he obviously had no game.
“Just trust me. Doesn’t matter if it’s carrying a woman out of a burning house or standing with her beside a fender bender.”
The guys continued giving advice, most of it not intended to be helpful, until the captain walked through, making a beeline for coffee.
A foot from the counter, the stocky man paused and, with a deep furrow between his bushy gray eyebrows, observed what they were doing with the refrigerators. “You know this is just going to go on and on.”
Bull shrugged. “Maybe, but they started it.”
Captain Bodine added sugar and cream to his coffee and took a sip, watching them finish their antics. “Whatever. I saw nothing. But…” He paused as the guys groaned. “The Truck Day deal is coming up, and guess who’s off that day?”
Bull put the lock back in place and turned around. “More than one shift is off that day, Cap.”
“That means I get to choose which one covers Truck Day, and guess who I pick to represent us, fine upstanding public servants that we are?” He gave them a mock salute and went back to his office.
There were shrugs and a few muttered curses, but it was just for show. Most of the guys here would show up for a community event without having their arm twisted.
Dink yawned loudly and cracked his neck from side to side.
Zach raised a brow as the man went for another can of carbonated caffeine. “Still not getting any sleep?”
In addition to a fourteen-year-old daughter, Dink had a new baby with his second wife.
“Not much. Though Leena begs us to let her get up at night with her baby sister. Sweet as hell, but I still can’t sleep.”
Zach knew about having a baby sister. Didn’t remember ever begging to get up with her at night. He and his brothers had been tossed into the raging waters of parenthood when other guys were skipping school and trying to round second base behind the bleachers. He hadn’t been prepared to take that on. None of them had.
Ready or not, his oldest brother, Nick, at just nineteen had done what was hard, while he, only a few years younger, had spent most of his time trying to avoid it. The shame of that still hung over him. One reason he was single at an age most men were long since settled.
He left emotional entanglements with the opposite sex to the other guys. He’d spent a lot of years watching drama in the firehouse. Men might not cry or get bitchy, but they had drama, and he’d had enough emotional upheaval to last a lifetime. Some might say that made him a coward. He tended to think it made him smart and sane.
Three solid beeps on the intercom had Zach shutting the door on his personal baggage. All conversation dropped off as each of them tuned an ear to the computerized voice.
“Vehicular accident. Two cars. One victim: male. Two victims: woman, male child.”
Eddie went to the map and plotted a course. Without saying anything more, Zach and his crew headed out first to block traffic. The ambulance pulled out next with the truck and crew close behind. Even after eighteen years, he still loved the job—the teamwork, the control. Knowing exactly what to do, solving the problem in front of him, then passing it off and moving on to the next. Too much of his life he hadn’t known what to do.
Zach sat up front and listened for more information to come through. The extra tension of a child being involved had them riding in silence. Mike drove the truck like a pro, pushing through intersections and getting them to the scene in just under eight minutes from the time the call came in.
They arrived, and Zach took in the scene. Typical four–lane cross intersection. One car sat in the middle of the road, facing the wrong way, light smoke seeping from the hood. Another sat at an angle, one rear wheel on an embankment. Other drivers were slowly rerouting themselves around the stopped cars. A few extras sat on the side, and he took in a handful of civilians. The cops weren’t there yet, but Dink had situated the engine to block traffic and force a wide berth around the scene.
He didn’t need to give much direction. The guys in his house knew their job. They’d discern any need for extraction and vehicle stabilization.
“I’ll take the ditch,” Zach said. “Riley, with me.”
As a recruit, Riley was already a certified EMT. Still, it was only his second accident scene, and shit happened. Irate drivers, oil leaks, unstable gas tanks. Zach breathed in the acrid scent of burned rubber, which made the sweltering morning feel even hotter. The front end of the car was smashed pretty good, the driver’s-side door slightly dented. From what he could tell just looking at the scene, he’d guess that dent had been there before today. He made his way over and saw a middle-aged man slumped forward, his head on the steering wheel.
Zach took in the line of blood on the man’s forehead and thought possible concussion. He checked the door and found it locked, but the window was down—no sign of broken glass. He hit the button to unlock the doors. Riley, who’d gone around to the other side, opened the passenger door.
“Sir, I’m with the Jacobson Fire Department. Can you tell me your name?” He leaned farther inside the open car window and saw an empty bottle of whiskey on the passenger seat. He had no sympathy for drunk drivers, especially when his parents had been killed by one, and he braced himself against the ball of fury that burned in his gut.
The man lifted his head and turned it slowly toward Zach mumbling what and huh, as his mind wrapped around the fact that his car had come to a stop. Zach drew air in through his nose, grinding his teeth together until his back molars ached.
Zach shoved aside his anger as he opened the door. Not the time for it. “Sir? Can you tell me your name?” He reached in with gloved hands and put two fingers against the man’s neck. “Does anything hurt? Did you lose consciousness?”
There was a good chance he’d lost it before the impact.
The guy groaned and mumbled something unintelligible.
Mikey, another firefighter EMT, stepped up and Zach moved aside to let the man do his job.
“How’s the other car?” Zach asked Bull when he came over and stopped beside him.
“Minor. Driver had his seatbelt on. Kid in the back was strapped into a booster. Belt got him, but he’s having no trouble breathing.”
“That’s good.” Didn’t lessen the fury, but it did help the knot in his gut to know the kid was okay.
They got the man extracted and onto a stretcher. Another ambulance crew had arrived behind them, and the first car’s passengers—a mom and a five-year-old boy—were transported first just as a precaution.
Dink approached, wiping his dripping forehead. “How’s that one?”
“Probable DUI,” Zach said.
Dink cursed under his breath and watched as the man was loaded. The police would sort out who was responsible and, after blood work, would decide whether to charge him.
“Cops’ve got traffic control, and tow trucks are on the way.”
“Okay. I’m going to ride in with the DUI,” Zach said. “I’ll take Riley along.” They were down a man today, and as one of the two acting lieutenants, he rode along with the ambulance every once in a while. In this case, it would give him a chance to assess the recruit.
* * *
Nora Sellers bent to her computer to input her last patient details. Six-year-old girl who’d had a run-in with a rusty screw on her swing set. She entered all meds given, the doctor who’d sutured the wound, and any other pertinent details. Still the new girl after two weeks at East Providence—a smallish hospital on the outskirts of Norfolk, Virginia—she read over everything twice and then a third time.
“Ooh, don’t look now,” Becca said behind her, “but Dr. Lando is back.”
Only half listening, Nora gave her report a final look, hit enter, and closed the window before turning to Becca. Young, just a year out of nursing school, Becca had pink-tipped blond hair in a short, choppy cut. The day they met, Becca had proclaimed herself a math-and-science whiz if not so smart in other areas. Her smile and shrug when she said that made Nora instantly like her.
“Trust me,” Becca hissed. “Move slowly and quietly and pray he doesn’t see you, because if he does, he will find something you’re doing wrong.”
“Thanks for the warning. He signed room two’s discharge papers without a fuss, so, so far, so good. ” But she’d worked with doctors you had to tiptoe around. Or worked for, as they saw it. Not all doctors were like that, but some were. Doctors with egos the size of a small country who were impossible to please. They wouldn’t care if you were God Himself come down from heaven and could raise patients from the grave. In fact, they would hate it. Miracles were their domain.
“Dr. Evil,” Becca said under her breath.
“Better not let him hear you say that,” Scarlet warned. A plump woman in her sixties, Scarlet knew it all, had seen it all, and was never surprised. She wore her silver hair in a soft cloud around a smooth ebony face that remained calm and composed in even the most difficult crisis. And she’d taken Nora under her wing. Not used to being under anyone’s wing, Nora decided in a new job, new procedures, and new everything, it wasn’t a bad place to be.
Nora smiled to herself and checked the color-coded triage board. Walk-ins were ranked by level of urgency just beyond the doors that lead to waiting room. Up next, male, fifty-six, chronic coughing. First, she needed to deliver discharge instructions to her previous patient and was on her way to do just that when an EMT’s incoming call made her stop short.
“Multiple car crash. Bringing in three: one child, not serious. Female adult with neck pain. Male, conscious, small head laceration, probable intoxication. Ten minutes out.”
“A DUI? At eleven fifteen in the morning?” Scarlet shook her head.
There was a lot of head shaking in the ER. “I’ll get room two discharged before they get here.”
Nora did a fast walk back to her young patient and her mother. “All right. Who’s ready to get out of here?”
“Me!” The girl raised her uninjured hand.
The mom just smiled and reached for the discharge documents and instruction papers Nora held out.
She ran through them— keep it dry, any questions, blah blah. Necessary but she was confident this particular mom had it under control.
The girl frowned. “How am I gonna wash my hair?”
“Maybe hold your head over the tub?” Nora smiled and laid a hand on the child’s head. “Your mom can help you.”
“Of course I will. Or maybe we’ll go to the hair salon. Have a girls’ day.”
Nora held her smile through the sadness that came when she thought of her own mom. She still hadn’t been to see her mother, hadn’t taken flowers to lay by the stone etched with her name and the years of her life. Busy with house, with work, with Will. But those were excuses. She was avoiding it and she knew it.
“Come on, baby. I promised her ice cream on the way home.”
“I think an ice cream is well deserved. You were very brave.”
Be brave, her own mother had told her near the end. Be brave. She’d tried.
She was just turning from the patient hallway when the ER doors opened, bringing a blast of warm air. Two EMTs from the local fire department pushed the first gurney quickly toward her. They gave her the basics as they performed a seamless handover of patients.
The mother would have a scan for a more serious neck injury, and the child needed a chest X-ray just to make sure the seatbelt had left nothing more than a bruise. On the heels of the mother and child, another pair of EMTs came in with the male. One of them relayed the man’s latest vitals as he was transferred to a hospital gurney.
A tall firefighter in standard blue shirt and pants joined Nora and gestured toward the man with blood on his forehead. She was used to working with firefighters in the ER. Like her old hospital in Boston, all 911 calls for injuries came to the ER through the fire department. She’d never seen this particular firefighter before.
“Make sure to get a blood alcohol on him,” he said, looming over the gurney, his stance intimidating. Even without looking at him directly, it was impossible not to notice his height and build, the biceps right about her eye level.
“Got it.” When he didn’t immediately move away, she glanced up, catching the name embroidered on his shirt—Lieutenant Walker. She also caught his eyes, brown and clearly angry. His jaw clenched as he glared down at the man. She understood. Seeing firsthand the recklessness of people could do that to you.
“The officer who followed us in got a call, but they’re sending over someone else,” he said.
“Okay.” Nora went to work, checking the man’s pupils and making a note of his response.
“Riley.” He motioned a young man over who barely looked old enough to drink, wearing the same blue polo with the PFF insignia on the chest. “Watch him,” he said as Riley joined them then looked pointedly at her. “He’s docile now, but he wasn’t so much on the ride over,”
“Got it.” As the lieutenant moved away, she reached for the blood pressure cuff on the wall. The young firefighter’s phone beeped, and he pulled it out.
When she turned back, the injured man was trying to sit up. “Hey, hey, back down you go.” She put her hands firmly on his shoulders to ease him back.
It happened fast. The man surged up, knocking her hand away. Riley dropped his phone and took a step forward just a second before the drunk’s fist connected with the side of her head.
She managed to partially avoid it, but even then, the hit was solid enough to send her careening back. She hit the cart, sending it rolling, and went all the way to the floor. The pain was instant and knocked the breath the rest of the way from her lungs. Her heartbeat pounded in her ears as she lay there a second, stunned. Riley had the drunk down, and in a blink, two more firefighters were over him.
“Shit, Riley! I said to watch him!”
“Sorry, LT. I—” With her ears ringing, she caught the flurry of bodies from where she lay on the floor. Firefighter boots. A nurse’s shoes.
Her cheek stung, but it was nothing compared to the white-hot stabbing fire streaking through her wrist.
“Damn it. Are you okay?” The lieutenant squatted beside her.
Sucking air through clenched teeth, she nodded. She’d broken this arm years ago, and the memories of that pain rushed back at her. Scared, alone, wishing for her mom, not surprised her dad was nowhere to be found.
“Riley! Strap him the hell down if you have to,” he yelled over his shoulder. “Where the hell are the cops?”
She moved to stand, do her job. Get off the floor. The lieutenant stopped her with a hand on her shoulder.
“Just stay there a second.”
The deep furrow that cut between the firefighter’s dark brows and his laser-like stare had her touching her face, expecting to find blood. Nope, but it hurt about like she’d expect a punch to the face.
“I’m okay,” Nora said, struggling to get up on her own. “And I am the help.”
When he saw she wasn’t staying down he reached out to help her up, and she gasped. He’d barely touched her left hand, but the gesture had stolen her breath.
Becca was beside her, and Michael, a young male nurse with a painful crush on Becca, took charge of the patient.
“Walker!” A firefighter standing near the exit called out.
At the same time, Walker’s phone buzzed. He looked at the screen.
“What is it?” She cradled her hand against her middle, breathing through the pain. Damn it, she did not need this.
“A fall,” Walker said.
Probably an elderly person, she thought. And a fall could lead to heart attack, stroke, or worse. “Go. I’m good.” She forced a smile. “It is a hospital after all.”
He straightened, hesitated, but thankfully the call of duty overrode whatever concern he felt for her.
“Go,” she said again. She’d rather lick her wounds without his intense brown eyes searching hers. And he was making her twitchy with his big body so close. She didn’t like feeling twitchy.
The following afternoon, Zach approached the ER desk, scanning for the tall redhead he’d last seen with an angry red mark blooming on her cheek and sharp pain in her green eyes. He couldn’t say why he felt the need to check on her, to apologize, but he did.
Not seeing her, he leaned his arm on the desk and down at Scarlet. “Hey, there, beautiful.”
Scarlet, who was barely five feet tall and always reminded him she was old enough to be his grandmother, rolled her eyes. “Always a sweet talker, aren’t you?”
“Only for you.”
She belted out a loud, deep laugh. “I’ll likely be dead in the ground before that’s the truth.”
She’d hugged him more than once over the past ten years when she thought he needed it. He’d let her because he probably had.
“What are you doing hanging around my desk?”
“I was looking for someone.”
“Oh, really? And here I thought you were looking for me.”
“Always,” he said. “But you’ve shot me down enough times for me to take a hint.”
“Pfft. It’d take a two-by-four for you to take a hint. So who might you be looking for?”
“A nurse. Tall. Red hair.” Strawberry blond to be more accurate, kind of golden. And the greenest eyes.
“That’d be Nora,” she said, and studied him intently enough to have him removing his arm and straightening off her desk. “She’s gone.”
Scarlet eyed him with a suspicious glint to her eyes. “And what did you want with our newest nurse?”
“She was here yesterday when we brought in the DUI. She got hurt.”
“Yeah, she did. Insisted it was nothing, too. I knew better.”
“Well, I just wanted to…” What was it exactly that he wanted to do? “Check on her, I guess. Apologize.”
“Did you, now?” She narrowed her eyes on him. “Oh, don’t you pull that innocent face on me. I’ve known you going on ten years now. Seen you chase enough skirts, too. Wouldn’t hurt to settle on one.” She stood and went to the printer. “That Nora would be a fine one to start with. Just don’t go making her cry.”
“Do I ever make women cry?”
“No.” She looked back at him kindly. “That’s one thing I can say about you: I’ve never known you to be a heartbreaker.”
“Because I'm not.”
“And if you were, I’d have tanned your backside before now. She’s a sweet one, our Nora,” Scarlet said in what might have been a gentle warning.
He’d already been having second thoughts about this little field trip. Now he was having thirds. “Well, maybe you can just tell her for me. Riley’s new, he’s a good kid, but he’s new. I should have stayed, or…”
“Well, you can just tell her yourself, can’t you?” She nodded, looking past him. “Here she comes now,