A preview for KISS OF FIRE, book two in the St. James Family four-part series:
Antoinette St. James stood en pointe in front of the floor to ceiling mirror in her practice space until her legs shook. Her toes ached. Her back ached. Everything ached. She had been dancing for hours. Back and forth, back and forth on the worn floor. She wanted to get the moves exactly right. Her audition for Sleeping Beauty was the next morning. She arched her arms and tilted her head. In the mirror, she looked like a dancer. Her arms were graceful and lean. Her cocoa complexion was bright and clear. Her black hair was pulled back tightly in a bun. There were dark circles under her eyes, but make-up would cover that in the morning.
Toni was young, one of the youngest dancers in the company. But she was hungry. She knew the higher-ups in the company noticed it. They noticed her. She gave herself a bright smile. She was going to be amazing tomorrow, she thought to herself. She was going to outshine her fellow dancers with her grace and poise and precision. Toni stuck her tongue out and crossed her eyes at her reflection. She was tired. She needed rest. She let her body relax and her arms fall to her sides.
She plopped on the bench at the back of the studio and pulled off her pointe shoes. Her feet were wrapped in white tape stained red. She grimaced as she unwrapped her bloody toes. The price to pay for perfection. Quickly and efficiently, she re-bandaged her left big toe with clean tape and then pulled on a pair of wooly socks over her tights. Her vision blurred and she blinked. She was more tired than she would admit. She had barely slept at all that week. She maneuvered her feet into her leather boots and threw on a sweatshirt over her leotard. There was no way she was waiting for the train to head back home to Harlem. She would have to splurge on a cab.
She stood and a dizzy spell overtook her. She swayed on her feet. The room tilted on its axis. Toni shook her head, trying to clear the fog. Finally her vision sharpened and the room stopped spinning. With shaking hands, she rifled through her bag on the way to the door. She unearthed an apple from beneath a notebook and took a bite. The first bite of food she’d had all day. She needed to start taking better care of herself. After tryouts, she would start eating and sleeping again. She would let herself relax. Really relax. She smiled. Maybe she would even have time to get laid.
Toni waved goodbye to Jones, the late night custodian who pushed a mop in the dark hallway. She had seen him every night this week. She was having more of a relationship with Jones than she’d had with any other man in a long time, she thought with a chuckle. Her love life was in a sorry state. But romance was low on the list of priorities at the moment. She hadn’t come from Louisiana to dance with UNB, one of the best ballet companies in the world, just to blow it because her head wasn’t in the game.
Toni pushed through the heavy glass doors of the front entrance. There was a chill in the early May air that cut through her sweatshirt and tights. She shivered and wrapped her arms around herself. The courtyard was empty. Her foot falls echoed off the tall buildings that surrounded her. There was something ominous about the chilly, lonely night. Suddenly, she wanted nothing more than to be at home in bed. She quickened her pace to the street, and hailed the first cab that she saw.
Sebastian O’Donovan sped up the West-Side Highway. He glanced at the digital clock on the dash. 2:05 a.m. Shit, it was late. He was surprised Gwen hadn’t started blowing up his phone by now. She would be pissed he was showing up at this hour. He could hear her voice in his brain: “You act like I’m on call. My pussy’s not open whenever you need it to be.” It wasn’t his fault there had been a warehouse fire late into his shift. Or that her place had to be on the Upper-West Side, an hour’s drive away from his firehouse in Queens. He had asked her to move in with him months ago. He had a nice flat in Woodside, close to his job. She had laughed and declined. Queens might as well be Siberia as far as she was concerned.
Holy Mary. He just wanted a hot shower and a hot meal. But he laid on the gas and continued up the west coast of Manhattan. He glanced out the passenger’s side window. The glittering lights of the city never failed to impress. He quickly did the sign of the cross and then kissed his fingertips. His family had emigrated from Ireland when he was just a lad. He sometimes couldn’t believe that he lived in the best city in the world. The vastness of what men could create. He shook his head. He shouldn’t complain about having to drive to Manhattan, he supposed. A pint of beer, and he’d be right as rain.
He smiled to himself. He wondered what Gwen would be wearing as she waited for him. Something sexy, he hoped. Or even better, nothing at all. He hadn’t seen her in four days, since he stayed at the firehouse during his days on. But this was the beginning of his three days off. He was ready to kick back and relax, a beer in one hand, his girl in the other.
And then he saw it. He might have missed the flash of orange flame had he been looking in a different direction. Squinting, he leaned forward to look in his rearview. Sure enough, about a mile back, something was burning. It was hidden in the trees by the side of the road. Shit. He pounded the steering wheel. He had to go back.
At this time on a Tuesday night, the road was virtually empty. A few cabs and not much else. He craned his neck to look out the back window. No cars were coming. He was in the clear. He punched the brakes and his tires squealed. He put the car in reverse and sped back toward the flickering light in the trees. He hit the brakes about a quarter mile past the accident. His headlights illuminated the road ahead. He looked for tire burn on the pavement. Sure enough, there were tell-tale black streaks, leading to the underbrush. The guard rail to the right of him was twisted where a car might have crashed through. Shit.
Pulling over and parking by the side of the highway, he jumped out of the car and hopped the guardrail. He headed toward the flames. He patted his jeans for his cell-phone and found it in his back pocket. The acrid smell of smoke was heavy in the air. He dialed 911 and put the phone to his ear as he slashed his way through the underbrush.
“911, what is your emergency?” A tinny voice sounded in his ear.
“This is Sergeant O’Donovan with ladder 56. I’m on the West Side Highway, between 59th and 79th street exits. We’ve got an accident on the right side of the road.” He put his hand in front of his face as he reached the car. The heat and the stench were already overwhelming. It was a yellow cab, the front end smashed into the ditch. Flames were leaping from under the hood. Sebastian shoved the phone back in his pocket and looked in the back window. There was a body slumped over the backseat. In the low light, he could see it was a young woman. She appeared to be unconscious. He jogged to the driver’s side and yanked on the handle. The door didn’t give.
Sebastian leaned forward and cupped his hands to look into the driver’s window. The driver was pushed forward into the steering wheel and his head had made contact with the front windshield. Sebastian made a quick executive decision. The cab driver was either dead or dying. He had the best chance to help the passenger. He moved back to the passenger door and yanked on that handle. It didn’t give.
He moved toward the door on the opposite side and braced his foot against the side of the car. He took hold of the door handle and pulled. The ruined car shuddered and shook as he tried to open the door. “Come on, come on!” Finally, he got a break. With a creak, the door swung open. He lost his footing for a moment, falling back on his ass in the dirt. Then he was up again and lunging into the backseat of the car, reaching for the woman. He grasped her under her arms and pulled. Maybe it was the adrenaline coursing through his veins, but the woman seemed to weigh nothing. She slid across the backseat toward him.
Her head and shoulders were clear from the car when he could feel resistance. She was caught on something. Sebastian could feel the strain of the muscles in his biceps as he tried to pull her free. “Can you hear me? Hello? Miss?” He barked. Her eyes fluttered. Black smudges and blood dirtied her face. There was an oozing, rough gash on her forehead. He tried to sit her upright in the backseat. Her head flopped against his shoulder and caught in the crook of his neck. He ran his hands down her legs, trying to find what she was caught on.
Smoke was billowing out of the car. The flames were getting closer. Sebastian could feel the intense heat on his face and the smoke choked his throat. After what seemed like hours, he found her boot was caught under the front seat. He yanked on her leg trying to free her. With a splintering crash, the flames destroyed the windshield. The bulletproof glass that ran the width of the cab was the only thing separating him and the girl from the flames. He knew he was out of time. If he had to break her ankle to free her, then he would. He had no choice.
Once more, he braced his leg against the side of the car. He got a good grip on the meaty part of her calf muscle. Then he gave a rough yank and he thought heard a crunch. The girl opened her eyes and screamed. Sebastian gritted his teeth and pulled again. She screamed again, her body jerking against him. Suddenly Sebastian was back on his ass in the dirt, but this time, the slender girl was lying atop of him. Sebastian rolled over on his side, taking the girl with him. He knew they had to get far away from the car if they had any chance. The girl was crying now, her face pressed against his chest.
“Listen to me,” he said gruffly, his throat was rough from the smoke. “I’m gonna get you out of here, but you gotta help me.” She turned her face up to his and for the first time he really saw her. Big brown eyes. Dark skin. She looked innocent and young. And she looked like she trusted him with her life. She nodded. “Okay, here we go.” Sebastian rolled over and got on one knee. “Try to sit up,” Sebastian said.
She tried to pull herself up, her fingers clutching at the dirt and leaves. Sebastian glanced back at the car. Flames had finally made their way to backseat. The seat where she had been laying seconds before was now engulfed in flames. Involuntarily, he shuddered. They had to get out of there.
“Hold on. I’m going to lift you.” Sebastian leaned forward and she put her arm around his neck. “It’s probably going to hurt,” he said. She nodded. He took a breath and hauled her up. Again she weighed next to nothing, but he could feel the muscles strain in his back. She moaned, the pain getting to her. Her head flopped back as he carried her away from the burning wreck. He was worried she had passed out from the pain. Branches from the underbrush slashed his face and arms as he moved, but he could feel the heat lessening behind him. Finally, they emerged from the underbrush. He dropped to his knees and settled her on the ground. He held her against him, chest to chest, and he grasped her chin. “Come on, Lovely. Wake up.”
Toni opened her eyes and the hard reality hit her. The accident was not a bad dream. It was real. Her body hurt all over. Her head throbbed. She blinked. Someone was holding her. The man. The man who saved her held her against his chest. She pushed back and leaned up to look him in the face. It was dark, and she couldn’t see him. She lifted her hand to touch his face. He had risked his life for her. How would she ever be able to thank him?
She tried to talk, but her throat muscles didn’t seem to want to work. She coughed and then gagged. She dry heaved and doubled over. The man rubbed her back. “It’ll be okay, Lovely.” He had a slight accent, maybe Irish?
She shuddered, thankful that she’d barely eaten anything that day. There was nothing for her to vomit up. She coughed again, her throat burning. “I wish I had water for you,” he said softly. “They’re coming to help. They’re coming.” He put a warm hand on the back of her neck and gave it a light squeeze. Tears welled in her eyes. She threw her arms around him and hugged him as hard as she could. Since she couldn’t say thank you, she wanted to show him how grateful she was. Without him, she didn’t want to think what would have happened to her. Without him, she would be dead.
He continued to hold her. Minutes passed like hours. The pain coursed through her body, flaring up like the heat from the car. Her eyelids drooped. Her arms slacked, dropping to the ground. The dance studio seemed so far away. All that seemed to exist was the warmth of the man beside her, the cold ground beneath her, and the pain. Toni was close to unconsciousness. Her neck gave way and her head tilted back. She blinked. She could swear she saw stars in the night sky. She hadn’t seen stars since she moved to the city. She lifted an arm to point. She wanted the man to see the stars as well. Then, a bright light blossomed in the sky. She felt the ground shake beneath her. As the black engulfed her, she caught a quick glimpse of the man’s face, lit by the unearthly light.
He was beautiful.