Excerpts for Can't Help Falling in Love


It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon in San Francisco. The air was cool, the sky was clear. Couples were walking hand in hand through Golden Gate Park, tourists were discovering the wonder of clam chowder in sourdough bread bowls at Fisherman's Wharf and kite-surfers were out en masse in the bay, zigzagging around the yachts and sailboats with their bright sails.

Unfortunately, for the two dozen people who lived at 1280 Conrad Street, a fire had turned their perfect Saturday into a nightmare.

The fire trucks and firefighters arrived first, the news trucks close on their heels. To the casual observer the fast-moving men in their turnouts who were yelling information and coordinates at one another, the radios that were turned up loud in their hands and the hoses that snaked across the road and the sidewalk looked like utter chaos. In truth, the men of Station 5 were a well-oiled machine.

Earlier that afternoon, firefighter Gabe Sullivan had been enjoying a fund-raising concert his brother Marcus's girlfriend, Nicola, had put on at the fire station. Everyone had been beside themselves with glee at the chance to pay big bucks to attend the very intimate acoustic concert with Nicola, who went by the name Nico when she performed. Her show had been amazing, as usual, and Gabe was still beyond impressed that his oldest brother had scored a woman like her. She wasn't just beautiful and sexy, she didn't just have amazing musical talent: she was really sweet, too.

Nicola had just come to the end of her third encore when the call came in. Ten minutes later, the firefighters from Station 5 had arrived on scene, hooked up their hoses and began to evacuate the building and work to put out the fire.

Wearing his full turnouts, Gabe helped an elderly couple down the stairs of the old San Francisco apartment building and out onto the sidewalk. They looked to be in good health, but their nervousness about the fire was giving them trouble with the stairs. With a gentle hand on their elbows, he worked to keep their pace up so that he could get them completely out of the building and away from the fire as quickly as possible. They'd just made it to the sidewalk when the gray-haired man started coughing. Gabe steered them over to the ambulance parked a few feet behind the largest fire truck.

Gesturing for one of the paramedics to come over to them, he told the couple, "We're going to get you checked out for smoke inhalation. If you have any questions about anything, make sure to?"

His words were cut off by an explosion of flames and smoke out a second-story window.

After ten years as a firefighter, Gabe knew no fire was ever routine. No flame ever played the same game. And sometimes the simplest call could turn into the most complicated. The most dangerous.

Over his radio Gabe could hear concern in the voice of his station captain. "Everyone out!" Todd barked to the crew. "This fire has accelerated. We're switching to defensive operation. Repeat, evacuate the building."

Gabe still had his hand on the elbow of the gray-haired woman and she turned to him with a look of horror on her face.

"Megan and Summer are still inside. You have to get them out!"

He could tell from her rapid breathing and dilated eyes that the woman must be on the verge of going into shock, so he spoke to her in a clear, steady voice to make sure he got the information he needed.

"Who are Megan and Summer?"

"My neighbors, a mother and her little girl. I saw them go into their apartment a while ago." The woman looked at the other tenants who were gathered around the fire trucks and watching?horrified?as their homes and possessions went up in flames. Flames that were raging more out of control by the second. "Megan and Summer aren't out here." She was clearly panicked and gripped his arm harder than her earlier frailty had suggested she was capable of. "You have to go back inside to save them. Please!"

Gabe wasn't a firefighter who believed in superstition. He didn't have a routine he lived and died by. But he did believe in his gut.

And his gut was telling him there was a problem.

A big one.

"Which apartment are they in?"

She pointed to the third-story windows with a shaking hand. "Number 31. They're on the top floor, corner unit." The woman looked terrified. The stress of the situation was clearly becoming too much for her.

"It will be all right," her husband soothed her. "He'll find Megan and Summer." He was speaking to his wife, but his eyes held Gabe's, along with the silent message:Don't you dare let my wife down. She loves those girls like they are our own.

Seconds later, Gabe found both the captain and his partner, Eric, marshaling the crowd of people out on the sidewalk and street. Reporters were now swarming the street, only adding to the confusion.

"We've got to go back in. A neighbor just told me a mother and daughter could still be inside. Third floor, corner apartment."

They all glanced up in the direction Gabe was pointing. All that could be seen was dark smoke billowing above the rooftop.

Todd looked from Gabe to the fire raging inside the building. "Make it quick, guys. You've probably got ten minutes, tops," he said, and then turned and gave instructions to the rest of the crew to focus their fire-hose streams up toward the apartment.

In the same way that the loud boom from the explosion had rocked through the crowd, now a momentary hush fell over the assembled masses as Eric and Gabe moved in tandem to pull another hose into the building. Masks on, their earpieces activated, they moved up the stairs as quickly as they could through the smoke that hung thicker than the fog San Francisco was so famous for. With their breathing apparatus on, they were okay. But a civilian wouldn't last long in these conditions without frequent hits of oxygen.

Forcefully pushing his fears for the mother and daughter aside, Gabe concentrated on moving from the first floor to the second, and then to the third. All the while the roar of the fire increased, and the heat notched up higher and hotter. A door on the second floor blew out and shook the landing.

Gabe and Eric dragged the heavy hose through the thick smoke and debris. Despite the steep, tight flight of stairs, and the immense physical challenges, they arrived at apartment 31 in a matter of minutes.

Gabe tried the door, but it was locked. He prayed that the fact the fire hadn't yet blown out this door meant the people inside still had a chance.

Sliding his ax from its holster, while Eric waited several feet behind him, Gabe pounded on the door, yelling, "If anyone is by the door, I'm about to knock it down with an ax. Back away." Even though he shouted at the top of his lungs, his voice was muffled by the protective mask.

Jesus, the smoke was heavy?nearly thick enough to cut with a knife?and the heat was probably approaching eight hundred degrees Fahrenheit.

Would they find anyone alive inside?

"You got it?" Eric yelled, then took a few quick hits of oxygen.

Nodding, Gabe cocked the heavy tool back and landed the top of the ax head right against the doorknob. A hollow door would have split apart in seconds, but this old wood door was thick enough that he had to do a dozen sustained hits to get it to budge. When he felt the frame start to loosen up, he kicked at it, putting all of his two hundred pounds of muscle behind the effort.

Finally, it swung open and he was suddenly inside the apartment.

Sliding his ax back into its holster, he reached for the hose and started to drag it inside, but it wouldn't move.

"It's stuck. I need more hose," Gabe shouted to Eric.

He looked behind him and saw Eric yanking on the hose with all his might. "It's caught on something, damn it! I've got to head down and figure out where it's hung up."

They both knew how dangerous this situation had suddenly become?leaving his partner behind was not something a firefighter ever did unless there was a dire emergency.

No question, if a mother and daughter were stuck inside apartment 31, this was one of those times. They didn't have a choice; they needed that extra length of hose.

Gabe and Eric exchanged a look that held a world of meaning. If one, or both of them, didn't make it out alive, they'd had a good run together full of honor, laughter and countless pots of firehouse chili.

"Hurry," Gabe yelled to Eric.

Lives were on the line tonight. And the sixty seconds it would take Gabe to help Eric with the hose might mean a child would die.

Eric ran back down the stairs through the smoke as quickly as he could, and when Gabe looked up at the apartment's ceiling, the flames were already rippling above his head. Gabe cracked open the nozzle on the hose and started blasting the roof in an attempt to douse the blaze. He could feel the oppressive heat coming down on him as he moved farther into the room. Judging by the black-and-white soot already covering the furniture, this apartment was clearly one of the hot points of the fire, possibly the room where it had begun.

He stilled as he thought he heard someone calling out, crying for help. With the hose still stuck, he had no choice but to drop it, and make a move in the direction of the sound, a white interior door with a mirror on it. The door was closed, so Gabe kicked it open with his steel-toed boots.

A new flood of smoke rushed through the door, impairing his vision for a split second. But even though at first glance he couldn't see anyone in what was a small bathroom, he knew exactly where to look.

He ripped back the shower curtain and found a woman crouched in the old claw-foot bathtub, holding her daughter in her arms.

He'd found Megan and Summer. Thank God his prayers had been answered and they were alive.

"Megan, you've done good. Real good," he told her through his mask.

The woman's eyes were so big, and so scared. She was clearly terrified. Gabe's chest clamped down on itself and the emotion of the situation got to him for a second. But it was a second he couldn't afford right now. Not when all that mattered was getting Megan, Summer?and himself?out of the apartment building alive.

"I'm going to get you and Summer out of here. Now."

Megan opened her mouth and tried to say something, but all she could do was cough, her eyes closing as tears seeped out onto her face.

Realizing now that the little girl was unconscious, Gabe pulled off one of his gloves to check her pulse. Giving more silent thanks that it was still steady, he put his glove back on, then reached to take her.

Her mother's eyes shot open and they played tug-of-war for a moment before she let the girl go. Her lips moved in a silent plea:Please.

He knew better than to let her fear, her terror, stop him from doing what he needed to do to get them out alive. And yet, her eyes held him a moment longer than he should have let them. The love she felt for her daughter was so obvious, so apparent, and Gabe felt her desperation. In that brief look, Gabe felt as if he'd known her forever, rather than just a handful of rapidly ticking seconds in the middle of what had become a war zone.

"I'm going to take Summer and we're going to crawl out of here. Can you do that?"

She nodded and he gripped her arm to help her slip over the edge of the tub. She was shaky, but she was clearly a fighter. After helping her out of the tub and down to the floor where the smoke was thinnest, he pulled a second air mask out and moved to put it over her face so that she could take some clean hits of oxygen into her lungs. She tried to push it away, tried to get it over her daughter's face, but he'd anticipated this movement and shook his head.

"You need to take it first." He spoke loudly and firmly so that she could hear him through his mask. "Otherwise, you'll be dead weight and none of us will get out of here alive."

She grabbed the mask from him, and clamped it against her face. Her eyes widened as she took her first breath and he knew to pull it back so that she could cough a few times before putting it back on, holding it gently in place as she took in the clean air she so desperately needed.

When she shook her head and glanced wildly at her daughter, he removed the mask and put it over her daughter's mouth and nose. The girl stirred slightly, coughed, then seemed to settle. It had been barely a minute since he'd found the two of them in the bathtub, but those sixty seconds had been enough for the flames to grow higher, hotter, even more hellish.

They were all flat on the floor to avoid the heat and he was about to tell Megan the next steps in their escape plan when the motion detection alarm on his belt went off. It was second nature for him to reset it before anyone on the crew could be alarmed that he was down. It was dangerous as hell up in the third-floor apartment and he didn't want anyone else on his crew up there unless there was no other option.

With visibility almost completely gone, he yelled, "We're going to crawl against the wall edge to stay low out of the smoke and heat until we find the doorway. It's hot out there but if you keep moving, I promise you we're going to get out okay." Gabe would never make a promise he couldn't keep.

He would damn well keep this one.

Slowly, they made their way along the molding at the bottom of the tiled bathroom wall to the doorway. Gabe hoisted Summer under his left arm as he crawled along the floor with only one hand free, barely noticing the burning muscles in his right triceps and biceps.

Gabe kept frequent checks on Megan as they continued through the doorway into the living room, which was even hotter than the bathroom had been. He prayed the heat wouldn't have her passing out. Just in case, he helped her along every few seconds by wrapping his free arm around her waist and pulling her forward. She wasn't limp in his arms, which was a very good sign, but he could feel how weak she was becoming, that she was fighting to stay conscious with everything she had.

Finally, they made it to the tip of the hose and he realized Eric had never made it back up to the apartment. Gabe hoped like hell his partner was okay.

Preparing himself to deal with the possibility that the reason Eric hadn't been able to get back up the stairs to the apartment on the third floor was because the stairs had burned up, or collapsed while he'd been helping Megan and Summer, Gabe called out to Megan, "You're doing great. All we need to do is grab the hose and follow it back down." There was no time to try to radio his captain with his coordinates. Everything he did from here on out would depend on a decade of fire training?and instinct.

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