Taco was glad he took the extra shift tonight of all nights. He’d already worked a forty-eight-hour shift, but one of the guys who was supposed to start work at five had a ballet recital for his little girl that he’d wanted to attend.
Knowing Adeline was going to invite him over to her house for dinner made it easy for Taco to decide to volunteer. It wasn’t that he didn’t love hanging out with his friends away from the station, but lately everyone had been trying to set him up with “nice women,” and he was tired of it. After Jen, he’d written off dating for the foreseeable future.
He supposed that dating a serial-killing religious cult leader would do that to a man, though, so he didn’t feel all that guilty about it.
Finding out he’d been such a horrible judge of character had shaken him…badly. He knew Jen hadn’t really been getting along with the other women, which should have been his first clue, but he’d thought it was something that would improve over time. He should’ve known better.
He should’ve known when she was only interested in hanging out with him while Quinn was around…Quinn being her ultimate target.
The bottom line was that currently, Taco didn’t trust himself when it came to women. And he wasn’t ready for all the pity dates Sophie, Quinn, and the others were trying to throw his way.
So doing an extra night shift was much more preferable than going over to Crash’s place to see which “absolutely beautiful, super-nice” friend would be there as well.
Taco didn’t want beautiful.
He didn’t want nice.
He didn’t want to be set up.
He just wanted to be left alone.
Being single wasn’t a bad thing, even if all his closest friends were married, engaged, or starting families of their own.
Brought out of his depressing musings by the emergency tones ringing throughout the station, Taco leapt up and rushed to put on his bunker gear. A good hard call was just what he needed to pull his head out of his ass.
He jumped into the front seat of the fire truck and reviewed the call notes on the laptop as they raced out of the station, sirens and lights blazing.
“Car versus semi,” he told his teammates as they headed for the interstate. He continued reading from the call sheet as they raced toward the scene. “One person trapped. Semi driver seems fine and evacuated the truck without assistance.”
Taco’s mind raced through the different scenarios that might greet them. They’d have to be very careful. The trapped person was obviously in the car and could be suffering anything from a neck injury to internal bleeding. Time was of the essence and the sooner they got there, the better.
From what he understood from listening to the dispatcher as they sped toward the scene, the semi had run a red light and a Nissan had gone right under the trailer attached to the cab. Most semis these days had underride guards to keep cars from doing exactly what this one had, so obviously this was an older-model trailer. According to dispatch, the top of the car had almost been completely sheared off. From accounts of bystanders and witnesses, the hood wasn’t smashed in and there was no gas leaking from the car, but it had apparently plowed under the trailer with almost enough force to make the Nissan a convertible.
The second the fire truck pulled up to the chaotic scene, Taco jumped out and ran toward the car. The sky-blue Nissan Altima was indeed wedged under the trailer, as dispatch indicated. Although it wasn’t quite as clean as the reports had made it sound. There was glass and debris everywhere and the passenger-side door was bent beyond repair or use.
Visions of the occupant being decapitated ran through Taco’s mind. He’d seen other accidents like this where the people inside the car had been killed instantly.
He crouched under the trailer and crawled on his hands and knees to the driver’s side of the Nissan. The smell of burning rubber was strong under the eighteen-wheeler, as if one or both of the vehicles had tried to slam on their brakes at the last second. And even though he didn’t see any gas, Taco could still smell it. He tried to put it out of his mind. The others would deal with that; it was his responsibility to see to the driver of the car.
The frame of the driver’s side windows were bent downward, which, along with the impact, had most likely shattered the glass. He tugged at the door, but the metal was so badly warped be knew he’d need a crowbar, at the very least, to pry it open it fully. More likely they’d have to use the jaws of life to get to the driver.
Managing to open the door just enough to see what he was dealing with, Taco peered inside the small crack. He saw the driver was a blonde woman. She was slumped over toward the passenger side of the car. Her seat belt was snug around her and he could see the steering wheel pressing down into her hips. He couldn’t see her legs at the moment so he wasn’t sure if they’d been crushed or not.
“Ma’am? Can you hear me?” he asked, not really expecting an answer—so he was shocked when the woman lifted her head and attempted to twist her body so she could see him. “No! Don’t move,” he ordered. “You might have a spinal injury. You have to stay very still.”
She stopped moving immediately, much to Taco’s relief. “I’m okay,” she said in reply. “But I’m stuck.”
Her voice sounded familiar, but Taco dismissed the thought. “Try not to worry, we’re going to get you out.”
“Not worry,” she snorted. “Yeah, right. I’m stuck, I’m lying on broken glass, and I almost had my head torn from my body. Sure. I’ll just lie here and think about eating bonbons while you do your thing.”
He couldn’t help it—Taco barked out a laugh. “Right. Although in my defense, I did say try not to worry. Now, does anything hurt?”
“You asking me or telling me?”
“Telling. And before you ask for specifics, at the moment, everything hurts.”
Taco resisted the urge to chuckle again. Now wasn’t the time or place. “How about this—does anything hurt way worse than the rest of you?”
“No. And before this truck tried to kill me, there was a seat belt cutter thing in the driver’s side door. If it’s still there, I wouldn’t mind you getting this thing off. It feels as if it’s strangling me.”
Looking down to where she’d indicated, Taco was impressed to see an orange emergency safety hammer. Somehow it hadn’t flown out of the door upon impact. It had spikes on the ends of the hammer head, which would easily break a window, and in the handle was a razor blade.
“I’ve got you,” Taco said. He reached for the door handle and pulled on it with all his might. It made a horrible screeching sound as he yanked on it, but he was able to manhandle it open wide enough to get his shoulders and head through. Somehow, this woman had beaten a lot of odds. The last car-versus-semi accident he’d been to, the driver had been texting and ran right into the back of the trailer. The car had been crumpled beyond recognition and the passenger had died upon impact.
The woman had also been extremely lucky. She’d hit the trailer right in the middle, it didn’t have underride guards, and he thought maybe the air in her tires had even been a little low. All of these things combined to give her the needed inches that allowed her to survive a horrific crash. And if she hadn’t had the presence of mind to duck to the side, as well, her head would’ve been taken off right with the rest of the car.
It was truly amazing that she was still alive. The fact that she didn’t seem to be badly hurt was literally a miracle.
Taking out his own seat belt cutting tool he always carried, Taco easily sliced through the material and wasn’t surprised when the woman immediately slumped farther over the center console. He couldn’t sit her up because of the truck above their heads, but now he could work on freeing her.
One of the other firefighters from Station 7 appeared next to him. Taco backed out of the car and together they used the crowbar Mick was carrying to pull both the driver’s side door and the one right behind it completely off. They discussed their best course of action for a moment, then got into place, Mick at the front, with Taco climbing into the back seat as well as he could. It was a tight fit in the cramped space, but he’d worked in tougher spots.
“Still here,” she quipped.
Taco couldn’t stop the smile that spread across his face. “Right. Here’s what we’re going to do. My friend Mick at your side is going to hold your hip still as we lower your seat to a reclining position. Then he’ll ease you onto your back, and I’m going to hold your neck as he does. Once we have you supine, we can cut that steering wheel away, get you on a backboard, and pull you out. Sound good?”
“Oh, sorry…did you say anything other than getting me out?” she replied.
“Nope. All you have to do is relax. Let me and Mick do all the work. We won’t drop you and we’ll do our best to make this as painless as possible. But you need to let me know if anything hurts while we’re moving you. I mean it. If you feel any pinching or shooting pains—or if you feel nothing at all—tell me immediately, and we’ll stop and reassess.”
“Okay. I can do this. Can I ask something first?”
“What’s your name? I know Mick will be hanging on to my hips, but I didn’t get your name.”
Taco mentally smacked himself in the forehead. That was one of the first things he usually did. Introduced himself.
“I’m Taco. I’m with San Antonio Fire Station number seven.”
“Yeah, it’s a nickname. What’s your name?”
“Koren Garner. And I’m pretty sure we’ve already met.”
Taco momentarily froze at hearing the name.
Yeah—he wasn’t about to forget the name Koren anytime soon.
His sense of urgency, already high, kicked up a notch. And it didn’t help when he heard raised voices from nearby talking about a ruptured gasoline tank on the semi.
“We have,” he agreed. “Although if you were trying to get my attention, this probably wasn’t the best way to go about it,” Taco joked.
“Right, because when the semi appeared out of nowhere in front of me, I thought to myself, maybe if I go under this thing and get stuck, Quinn’s handsome firefighter friend will be the one to respond and I can flirt with him during my rescue. Never mind the fact I smell like gas and might’ve decapitated myself. Any chance to snag a hot firefighter. Yup, that’s what I was thinking all right.”
Mick chuckled in front of him, and Taco shook his head with a grin. “All right, Koren, Mick is gonna do his thing. Remember, just relax. Let us move you.” He nodded at Mick and the other firefighter pushed the button to recline the seat.
As Mick eased her up slightly, turning her slowly, Taco held Koren’s head in his hands, supporting her. He and Mick gently eased her back until she was lying flat, looking up at Taco.
She had glass in her blonde hair and there was a scrape on her cheek, but otherwise she looked remarkably good for almost dying. Her blue eyes locked onto his…
And Taco swore he felt a bolt of lightning go through his body.
“Hi,” she said softly. “We meet again.”
He smiled, holding her head tightly. “Hi.”
Now that she was lying down, there was a little more room between her hips and the steering wheel. Taco looked up at Mick. “I think we can scoot her out without messing with the wheel. The last thing we want to do is have to cut and risk a stray spark.”
Mick nodded. “That’s what I was thinking.”
Koren blinked in surprise and tried to look down at Mick.
Taco held her head so she couldn’t move. “What?”
“He’s Australian,” she said.
“I am,” Mick said. “Hence the nickname. You know, Mick Dundee from that movie Crocodile Dundee.”
“You’re way too young to know that movie,” she said.
“Like you aren’t?” Taco retorted.
“It came out a year after I was born,” Koren said.
“Which means nothing to me, really, as I can’t say I have even the slightest clue when that thing first aired,” Taco responded.
She winked. “I’m thirty-three. And if you wanted to know my age, all you had to do was ask. Like this…how old are you?”
“Older than you.” Taco grinned. Then he turned when he heard someone at his side. Two more firefighters were standing there with a backboard. His attention went back to Koren. “All right, all kidding aside, it’s time to get you out of there.”
“Okay,” she said, not taking her eyes from his.
“I’m going to lift you a bit and my buddies are gonna slip the backboard under you on the seat. Again, just relax, don’t try to lift yourself in any way. Mick and I will get you on the board. Then it’s just a matter of slipping you out the door. Got it?”
She tried to nod, but Taco still had too tight a grip on her head for her to move.
“Don’t move your head, Koren.”
“Sorry. Okay. I’m ready.”
A shout went up from somewhere beyond the truck.
“Easy, Kor,” Taco said when he felt her pulse leap under his fingers. “We got this. Ready, Mick?”
“Okay, guys, bring in the backboard.”
It took some maneuvering in the small, cramped space, but within just a minute and a half, Taco was kneeling on the ground next to Koren, fifteen feet away from her crumpled car and the tractor trailer. They were waiting for the mobile gurney to be brought over so they could transfer her onto it and take her to the hospital.
“You okay?” Taco asked.
“Yeah,” she breathed. “Thank you.”
“Here’s her purse,” Mick said from nearby.
Taco turned and took it from the big, burly firefighter. “Thanks.”
Mick winked and rushed off to help someone else.
Taco looked back down at Koren, at a loss for words now that the rush of the rescue was already wearing off. He could tell she was well aware of how close she’d come to dying.
His thoughts were proven right when she took a deep breath and said, “I know this isn’t the place or the time, but…wanna go out sometime? I never ask guys out but, you know, since I almost died, I’m giving myself a pass this once.”
Taco hesitated. He wasn’t ready. And he really wasn’t ready to go out with someone who had a lot of the same features as his psycho ex.
He obviously hesitated too long, because for the first time, she looked away, her words tumbling out fast.
“Never mind. Forget I asked. Just blame it on adrenaline. I’m sure you’re already taken. I mean, why wouldn’t you be? You’re beautiful.” Then her eyes slammed shut. “And now I’m mortified.”
“It’s not you, Koren, I just—”
He was interrupted by two paramedics pushing a gurney. “Hey! Your ride to the hospital is here!” one of them said lightly.
Taco backed out of the way and watched as they lifted Koren onto the gurney. They carefully rolled her to the side and removed the backboard, handing it back to Taco. As they worked to buckle her in, Taco stepped up to the gurney, placing her purse between her lower legs.
Her eyes caught his for a second, before she looked away once more. “It was nice to see you again, Taco, despite the circumstances,” she said somewhat formally, and with none of the flirtatious undertones she’d had earlier. “Thanks for getting me out of there.”
“You’re welcome. Koren, I—”
“Taco!” his chief called out. “Need you over here!”
Taco gestured that he’d be right there, and by the time he turned back around, Koren was halfway to the ambulance.
Running a hand over his short beard, Taco swore. Then, spinning on his heel, he rushed over to where his chief was standing to see what else he could help with.
New York Times Bestselling Author
Shelter for Koren
Discovering your ex is a serial-killing religious zealot would put anyone off dating for a good long while. That’s where Hudson “Taco” Vines’s head is at when he meets Koren, a woman who looks a little too much like his ex for comfort. But he can’t deny their attraction, and the more he gets to know her, the more Taco realizes how different Koren is from his ex, in all the best ways. It’s not long before he’s feeling things for her that he’s never felt for anyone, ever. After the drama of his last relationship, maybe this is his reward…a supportive, comfortable life with a woman he’s coming to love.
Koren Garner is no fan of drama, and it certainly seems Taco and his friends have all seen more than their share. So you’d think meeting him for the second time at the scene of her own car accident would be enough to warn her away. But Koren can’t resist the sexy firefighter. A little drama might be worth the risk…even when an unknown threat starts targeting Taco’s friends. Someone’s setting fires, and the danger’s escalating with each blaze. Koren and Taco can only pray the culprit is caught before their relationship—and their lives—go up in smoke.
** Shelter for Koren is the 14th book in the Badge of Honor: Texas Heroes Series. Each book is a stand-alone, with no cliffhanger endings.
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