The heat was intense. This was the largest wildfire firefighter Jess Taggert had ever seen. The sky was black and filled with thick, suffocating smoke that seemed to seep through her breathing apparatus. Her team had been fighting the blaze for 36 hours nonstop now and it was catching up with them. She wasn’t sure how much longer they would last at this pace but there was no one else to take over. Every firefighter in the state of California had shown up to help battle the ferocious flames. Firefighters from Nevada, Oregon, and Washington had also arrived in droves but it wasn’t enough.
Jess took a deep breath and kept going. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw her teammate, Shane, fall to the ground.
“Man down!” she screamed into her walkie talkie. She dropped her shovel and rushed to his side. Rolling him over, she yanked his mask off and inspected him. He was barely breathing. His skin, where it wasn’t blackened by ash, was devoid of color. Two other firefighters joined her.
“Get him out of here!” she cried. The two men carried their downed comrade away from the heat of the blaze. Shoving off the ground, Jess continued with her efforts. She was close to collapse herself, but she knew she couldn’t stop. If this fire spread any further, it put innocent lives at risk.
A deafening crack sounded behind her. She whirled around to see a large pine bearing down on her and those around her. The tree had finally buckled under the flames and lost its battle against the destruction, plummeting towards the firefighters trying desperately to contain the devastation.
“Jess!” her best friend and fiancé, Ty Blackwell, yelled as he ran toward her. “Move your ass, Taggert!” Jess’s legs moved, propelling her away from the tree, but she wasn’t going to make it. She was too exhausted, her muscles too weak from dehydration, and she felt like she was trying to run through quicksand. Strong arms grabbed her. Ty, glancing back, threw Jess away from the path of the falling tree.
Jess landed and rolled on the ground. As the tree came crashing down, she saw Ty’s face. He blew her a kiss and winked just before he disappeared under the burning branches.
“NOOO!” she screamed. “TY!!” She scrambled to her feet. She had to get him out of there!
“Jess! No!” She felt hands grab her.
“LET ME GO!” She screamed. “I have to get him out!” She fought like a wildcat to get to Ty. Her left hand snapped free from her protective glove, reaching desperately. “TY!!” she cried hysterically. He couldn’t be gone. Ty was supposed to survive this hell with her. They were supposed to get married and live the American dream with the picket fence, the kids, and the dog. Now, he was gone. All of it was gone. The man she loved had saved her life, sacrificing his own. Her heart felt as if it were crumbling to ash.
In her wild panic, she did the one thing a firefighter should never do in the heat of a fight. She left part of herself unprotected. The skin on the back of her hand was burning. A piece of fiery debris had landed on her bare flesh, searing it deeply.
“Man down!” Captain Brody Foster barked. “Get her out of here!” Jess was still fighting hard, even though she knew there was nothing she could do. Ty was truly gone.
“Come on, Jess,” said a voice above her. “Don’t let Ty’s sacrifice be in vain.” She was hauled over a strong shoulder and carried out of the ring of fire. Unable to stop it, she succumbed to the darkness and lost consciousness. This way, she didn’t have to think.
The fire blazed for another seventeen days. The third degree burn Jess sustained on her left hand kept her from continuing the fight with her comrades. She spent that time in the burn unit of Saint Francis Medical Center. It would be a long healing process. Jess knew how lucky she was to have been able to keep full use of her hand. There was no comfort to be found in that. Ty was never coming back and she no longer cared to survive without him.
Ty was given a full fireman’s funeral two weeks after the fire was defeated. The entire San Francisco battalion was in attendance to give him a hero’s send off. Jess sat with his parents, along with her father, trying to stay strong for Ty’s mother. She could break down later when she was alone. Right now, she was numb. Ty had been bigger than life and swept her off her feet before she knew what hit her. They made a great team, and he treated her as an equal on the job. She still couldn’t believe she would never see his sparkling blue eyes or his sly sexy smile again. She would never feel the warmth of his embrace as they lay together, spent from hours of heated lovemaking. She was saying goodbye to so much more than the man himself. They had been planning a future together.
Ty had proposed to her a few weeks before the blaze broke out. She closed her eyes as the tears she could no longer hold back coursed silently down her cheeks. An agonizing sense of loss settled deep in her heart. She absently stroked the bandages on her left hand. She would gladly have suffered death if it meant Ty could live again.
As the mourners dissipated, she remained in her seat. She didn’t want to say goodbye yet. She’d wanted to grow old with Ty, spend a lifetime together. Gentle hands drew her into familiar arms. Jess’s chin began to tremble and the tears fell harder. The man beside her said nothing. He leaned forward and pressed a kiss to her temple.
“You know, it’s times like this that hit a parent hard in the gut. My baby girl is in pain and there’s nothing I can do.” Her father, Adam Taggert, had come from Montana the minute he’d gotten the news of Ty’s death.
“Oh God. Daddy, what am I going to do without him?” Jess whispered. She crumbled against her father, clutching his suit jacket as she cried. She ignored the pain in her hand as she sobbed brokenly, letting the deep ache in her heart pour out. Adam held her tight, rocking her slightly as he rubbed soothing circles on her back.
“That’s it, honey. Let it all out.” A few tears slid out of Adam’s moss green eyes as he tried his best to soothe his daughter. His heart was broken for her. He understood her loss better than most. He’d said goodbye to the love of his life twenty years ago when his wife, Pamela, died. His whole world had been ripped out from under him. His heart was still raw from her death, but he had worked through his pain for the sake of his little girl. He wasn’t sure what would motivate Jess to pull through, but he would do his best to be her anchor while she sailed the seas of devastation.
Jess’s sobs had quieted down, and her tears had slowed. She laid in her father’s big arms, her head buried in his broad chest, and drew strength from his strong heartbeat.
“I love you, Daddy,” she whispered. “I couldn’t get through this without you.”
“I love you too, baby girl.” He hugged her close and kissed her forehead. “You need some more time?” Jess shook her head and accepted the handkerchief he held out to her.
“No,” she said. She thought back to Ty’s parents coming to her apartment to gather his things. It had been a tearful goodbye. They hadn’t understood her need to leave but they understood she needed to be with her father. She had tried to give her engagement ring to Ty’s mother, but Helen had simply closed Jess’s hand around it.
“Oh no, sweetheart. My son loved you. You keep that and remember how much.” With a kiss on her cheek, Helen left Jess in her bare living room. Jess had buried the ring with Ty. She just couldn’t bear to keep it, and she wanted Ty to know how much she would miss him. She had tied the ring to a rose and thrown it in the grave with his coffin. It would stay with him for eternity.
“He’s not here anyway,” rising from her seat, Jess took one last look at the grave that held her beloved. “I’m ready to go home.” She placed a kiss on the headstone, and let her father lead her away toward his truck. All her things had already been packed and loaded into the moving truck. Her teammates, Shane and Matt, were driving it to Montana while she rode with her father. Ty’s parents had come and taken his things that were left at her place. It had been a tearful goodbye. They didn’t understand her need to leave but they understood she had to be with her father. She tried to give the engagement ring to his mother Helen but she simply closed Jess’s hand around it.
“Oh no, sweetheart. You keep that. My son loved you. You keep that and remember how much.” With a kiss on her cheek, Helen left her in her bare living room. The ring was now buried with Ty. She had tied it to a rose and thrown it in the grave with his coffin. It would stay with him for eternity. She just couldn’t bear to keep it but she had wanted Ty to know how much she would miss him by giving a piece of herself to him, even in death.
The long trip back to Montana was spent in silence. Jess was on autopilot, the scenery passing by her unseeing eyes. Adam knew that look all too well. It killed him to see it on his child. Adam didn’t force her to talk. He just let her be, knowing she needed to process at her own pace and in her own way. Jess managed to sleep, slipping into slumber despite the weight of her shattered heart. She would often reach for Adam’s hand in her sleep, as if his touch brought her peace.
Finally, the familiar sights of Jess’s hometown came into view. Her lips curled into a small smile. Nothing had changed much in the last ten years, and she found it strangely nice. There was a lot to be said for the welcoming feel of a small town and for a moment, she embraced it. They turned down a dirt road right outside of town, and her childhood home appeared before her. The split rail fence was still there, surrounding the old farmhouse she loved so much. The sprawling porch with the white rocking chairs beckoned her.
The truck came to a stop, and she jumped out, unable to wait to get inside the haven that had sheltered her for most of her life. She walked through the screen door and stood in the foyer, taking in the smell of cedar and spruce. Her father had left the house the way it was when her mother was alive. Jess had been eight when her mother had passed away, but she still had vivid memories of her warm smile and soft voice. It felt good to be home. She just wished her homecoming wasn’t under such horrible circumstances.