THERE’S A FINE LINE
As an emergency paramedic, Lauren Boyer is dedicated and highly capable. Until an earthquake strikes, trapping her beneath the freeway with a group of strangers-including Iraq war veteran Garrett Wright…
BETWEEN PERIL AND PASSION
Handsome and take-charge Garrett aids Lauren in her rescue efforts, even as the steely look in his eyes seems to hide dark secrets. When a gang of escaped convicts goes on the attack, Garrett’s bravery makes him more than a courageous bystander to Lauren. If they can save the others before time runs out, maybe, just maybe, they can explore the fire igniting between them-if the truth about who he really is doesn’t pull them apart forever…
Lauren Boyer climbed into the passenger seat of the ambulance, nodding hello to the EMT behind the wheel.
Joe arched a brow. “I thought Alanis was working.”
“We switched a couple of shifts,” she said, stashing her purse and extra uniform. “I didn’t feel like staying home.”
“Why would I do that?”
He fiddled with the switches on the console, avoiding her gaze. “With your girlfriends. You know. For fun.”
“The bachelorette party got cancelled, Joe. Just like the wedding.”
That shut him up.
She didn’t want to talk—or think—about her broken engagement, which was why she’d offered to cover for Alanis. Michael had called it off six months ago, before the invitations were sent but after the announcement had been made. Although she hadn’t discussed most of the details with Joe, he knew they’d set the date for this weekend.
“We’ve got chest pain in North Park,” he said, pulling out of the parking lot and heading towards the freeway onramp. Lauren glanced at the digital clock on the console. It was 8:01 a.m. The April sky was already so blue and bright it hurt her eyes.
Joe’s lucky dash ornament, a hula girl with a grass skirt, swayed her hips gently as they drove over a bump.
North Park was one of San Diego’s rougher neighborhoods. Their ambulance station responded to emergencies there on a regular basis. Michael had encouraged her to transfer to a quieter location, away from the heart of the city. Lauren had refused. She loved the energy and diversity of the downtown area.
Joe gave her a sideways glance. “It’s his loss, you know.”
She forced a smile, touched by his words. Joe had been her partner for three years and they got along well. Maybe he was right about Michael. She wished she could say that their breakup was his fault, and she was better off without him. The only thing she knew for sure was that he planned to spend the weekend with his new girlfriend in Bermuda, while she rode in an ambulance next to Joe.
At least he’d come clean with her before they’d made the worst mistake of their lives.
The ambulance continued down the crowded freeway, sirens blaring. Traffic was backed up near the interchange, as usual. Joe weaved around cars with brisk efficiency. When a man in a silver Mercedes refused to move aside, they had to squeeze by on the left shoulder.
“Jerk,” she said under her breath as they passed him. Every day they encountered motorists who were too busy to pull over.
Two freeways converged at the 163 interchange, creating a chaotic tangle. Joe and Lauren were on the middle level, with roads above and below them, and multiple exit ramps on both sides. As they headed into the sea of traffic, Joe’s hula girl began to do a frenetic dance on the dash.
Lauren tensed as the road stuttered beneath them.
The ambulance jumped up and crashed down hard enough to rattle her teeth. It felt like they’d been rear-ended, but the impact came from below.
And it kept coming. Their vehicle bounced like a ping-pong ball on the shuddering concrete.
Joe slammed on his brakes in an attempt to avoid a collision. There was no way for him to maintain control of the ambulance. It scraped along the inner wall of the underpass, sending sparks into the air.
He cranked the wheel to the right. “Shit!”
She braced herself for disaster, hanging onto the handgrip for dear life. The ambulance continued to jackhammer violently. Beneath them, the road undulated like a sheet in the wind. It was difficult to see clearly because of the jolting motions. When a blur of yellow sailed by, she realized it was a car falling from the upper level.
“Watch out,” she yelled, as if he could avoid the danger.
More vehicles careened off the top section, raining on the traffic below. The sound of crashing metal rang in her ears, accompanied by a low, ominous rumble. A tow truck landed on a minivan, crushing the inhabitants. Its gas tank exploded into a giant ball of fire.
People were dying. Right before her eyes.
Joe held the steering wheel in a white-knuckled grip. Through his window, she watched a sports car hit the guardrail and flip in the air. She looked to her right, anticipating an impact on her side of the ambulance.
Then the road shifted, sending several nearby cars spinning off the edge. A second later, the entire freeway just…collapsed. With a stomach-curling groan, the middle section fell away. It buckled in half, folding across the lower levels and blocking the lanes. Vehicles smashed into each other, meeting a wall of concrete head-on.
The ambulance slid sideways and landed at the bottom of a pileup with a bone-jarring crash. Her head hit the window, cracking the glass. The seatbelt caught hard against her right shoulder, and the vehicle’s twin airbags deployed. Rather than a soft cushion, the safety device felt like a punch in the face.
She tasted blood and saw a blur of black lines, like the end of a film reel.
The airbags deflated quickly. Joe called her name, nudging her shoulder. His voice sounded sluggish to her ears, but she knew the situation was dire. With some difficulty, she opened her eyes and tried to focus.
It was dark. The smell of gasoline and fire overwhelmed her senses. Suppressing a gag, she blinked to clear her vision.
When she saw what was coming, she wished she hadn’t.
The ambulance was trapped at the base of a large slab of concrete amidst a pile of other cars. Through Joe’s window, she watched a large black SUV teeter at the top of the structure, directly above them.
“Joe,” she cried out, her throat raw.
But it was too late. The juggernaut rocketed toward them, smashing into the driver’s side. Again, Lauren’s seatbelt slammed against her chest. Joe was struck full force, pinned behind the steering wheel. His door was crushed by the SUV’s front grill. Blood erupted from his lips and his eyes bulged wide with pain. He slumped over, his gaze going blank as he exhaled a ragged breath.
Lauren reached out to him, choking back a sob. Safety glass crumbled inward, clinging to her uniform shirt. Having responded to a number of fatal vehicle accidents, she knew that Joe had been killed on impact. His chest wasn’t moving, and he smelled like death. With trembling fingers, she felt for the pulse in his neck.
Her life didn’t flash before her eyes, but his did. Joe was a beloved husband and father. His daughter was less than a year old. Just the other day, he’d shown her a picture of the baby with the koalas at the zoo.
A helpless whimper escaped her as the earth continued to rumble. Debris rained down around them. The air was thick with gas fumes. She knew she couldn’t stay in the ambulance. If she passed out here, she would die.
“Daddy,” she croaked, though he’d been gone five years now.
At some point, the sound of grinding metal and falling concrete quieted. The shaking stopped.
Lauren didn’t know what to do next. Normally crash victims were advised to stay put, and it was difficult to see through the cloud of smoke. She couldn’t catch her breath, couldn’t concentrate. Her heart thumped weakly in her chest.
The hula girl on the dash was gone, having toppled into places unknown, and the clock wasn’t working. She checked her watch. It read 8:09. Less than ten minutes had passed since the earthquake started.
The temptation to cower in the passenger seat was hard to resist. She was afraid to face the destruction outside. Paramedics were trained to exercise caution, and not risk their lives. Maybe all of the people in the surrounding vehicles were dead.
What got her moving wasn’t her professional duty, or her moral code, or any urgent need to save others. It was the odor of burning flesh. She could accept dying of smoke inhalation, which would certainly come first, but the thought of her hair and skin going up in flames was too horrifying to fathom.
Along with the will to survive, she found a spark of logic. The ambulance was equipped with oxygen and fire extinguishers. Releasing her seatbelt, she climbed over Joe’s slumped body, into the back of the van. Pieces of equipment were hanging askew and first aid supplies littered the space. After a moment of disorientation, she found the oxygen masks. Donning one, she sucked in a lungful of clean air.
She felt stronger. She took another breath.
There. That was better.
With a clearer head, but a heavy heart, she looked for the fire extinguisher. It had become dislodged and rolled across the floor. She also located her paramedic bag, which would be useful in the event that she found other survivors. As soon as she grasped the handle, the earth started shaking again.
There was a moment of weightlessness. She felt like Alice in Wonderland, falling through the looking glass. What was up went down and what was down went up. The world seemed to be hurtling towards a steep precipice. Rather than regaining equilibrium, it toppled end over end, into chaos.
A massive wall of concrete crashed down, halving the ambulance violently. Joe, and the entire cab, was gone. Crushed under the wall’s immense weight.
Had Lauren stayed in her seat, she’d have been obliterated. Like Joe.
The quake ended a moment later, but she couldn’t control the trembling of her own body. Back-to-back near-death experiences were more than she could handle. She curled up in the fetal position and covered her head with her arms, waiting to die.
The blow she was expecting didn’t come. No more chunks of debris hit the ambulance. Against all odds, she was alive.
And…she wasn’t alone.
A man shouted in the distance. “Hello! Can anyone hear me?”
Lauren tore the oxygen mask off her face and sat up, her pulse racing. Was she imagining things?
He spoke again. “Does anyone need help?”
To her amazement, he sounded strong. Good lung capacity. Instead of asking for assistance, he was offering it.
Lauren took another quick breath from the oxygen tank and scrambled to her feet. The back door of the ambulance had an emergency hand release. She pulled the lever and climbed out onto the uneven pavement.
Through the haze of ash and debris, she studied her surroundings. It was worse than she’d imagined. Twisted metal, chunks of concrete and pieces of cars were scattered across the dark cavern. Several of the vehicles had no front ends, like the ambulance. Others had been bisected lengthwise. Some were upside down, wheels still spinning.
The man called out again.
“Here,” she yelled, framing her mouth with her hands and turning towards his voice. “Over here!”
He walked out of the smoke like an apparition. Lauren had never been so relieved to see another human being in her life. Not only did he sound healthy, he looked it. His dusty t-shirt clung to a broad, well-muscled chest. He was wearing dark jeans and scuffed work boots. As he got closer, she assessed his height at six feet and his weight at 200. Even with ashes in his hair and dirt on his face, he was handsome.