“Tomorrow, it’s on me,” I said, standing up off the barstool.
Behind the bar, Carmen waggled her eyebrows, seductively calling out, “Funny, I could be on you tonight if you stayed awhile longer.”
I laughed at her innuendo and tossed her a wink. “I gotta get home, babe. Seven a.m. comes way too early.”
“Well, offer’s on the table,” she purred.
It always was with her. And, if I wasn’t careful, I’d eventually take her up on it.
Not that sleeping with Carmen wouldn’t have been good. But, when you find a cheap bar only five minutes from your house, you don’t fuck that up by dipping your cock into the bartender.
“Later, Carmen,” I called, pushing the door open and heading to my car.
I wasn’t out of the parking lot before I heard, “Officer Levitt? We’ve got an alarm going off in Park Hill. You mind taking a look on your way home?”
Banging my head back against the headrest, I groaned to myself. Park Hill was about as “on my way home” as swinging past California on the way to Maine.
Switching my radio to my other hand, I complained, “I’m off the clock, Jocelyn.” I had been for several hours, even if I hadn’t made it home yet.
She laughed. “I’m sorry, but you’re the only one remotely close. I had to send two cars out to the Laslows’ to break up another argument between Cam and his old man.”
“They at it again?” I asked.
“Apparently, Cam told Lindsey he didn’t want the baby. Lindsey told his dad. Old Man Laslow lost his mind.”
I chuckled, putting my blinker on and then doing a U-turn in the middle of the empty road. “Christ. I bet he did. I know the man’s seventy-five, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to go toe-to-toe with him.”
“I’m with you on that. So…you gonna head out to Park Hill?” she asked in a sugary-sweet tone.
I grumbled deep in my chest. “You’re gonna owe me some of that banana bread for this. I missed it the other day when you brought it up to the station.”
“I don’t owe you anything.” She giggled. “However, as a personal thank-you from the state of Illinois, Park County, and the owners of Park Hill, I’ll bring you in a loaf on Friday. Deal?”
“Deal. I’m en route now.”
“Stay safe, and radio in with your report.”
“Yes, ma’am,” I replied, knowing exactly how much thirty-year-old Jocelyn loved being called ma’am by a twenty-five-year-old man.
“Gotta go.” I turned the volume down to mute her, grinning to myself as I flipped my lights and siren on.
I’d been a cop for two years. And, in that time, I’d been out to the privately owned Park Hill estate at least a dozen times. It wasn’t unusual for the alarm on the mansion to get triggered. It never amounted to anything. The expansive estate was on the very edge of the county, and trouble didn’t usually travel that far out. More often than not, a bird at a window or a bumbling new member of the grounds crew would accidentally trip the alarm. Truth was, no one actually lived in Park Hill. The owners visited sporadically. But, for the majority of the time, it remained empty.
Some minutes later, I cut my siren as I pulled up to the entrance. The cold air assaulted me as I stepped out of my patrol car with my flashlight in hand and aimed at the keypad on the massive security gate that blocked the driveway off. That damn thing alone had to have cost more than I’d make in a lifetime. Forget about the house inside.
The smell of wood burning in a fireplace wafted through the night air. I guessed someone was home for a visit.
I typed in the emergency code on the gate panel and then climbed back in my car and made my way down the tree-lined driveway. I’d spent the day on patrol, and, with the exception of some minor vandalism across town, it had been a slow one.
Though, in the blink of an eye, that would change.
Along with my entire life.
“Oh fuck,” I breathed as the main house came into view on the top of the hill.
After throwing my car in park, I jumped on the radio at my shoulder. I could barely get the words out as I slung my door open and took off at a dead sprint.
“This is Officer Levitt! I need fire support at Park Hill immediately!”
And then I froze as a wave of adrenaline crashed into me like a tsunami.
An inferno roared in the night sky, but it was the small silhouette of a woman perched outside a third-floor window, smoke pouring out all around her, that knocked the breath out of me. My heart stopped, but my feet continued to pound against the pavement.
Jocelyn’s voice caught me. “What’s going on?”
“I need medical too!” I barked as I got closer. “The whole damn place is in flames and there’s a woman trapped!”
The woman’s long, black hair blew out behind her like a battered flag whipping in a storm. I couldn’t make out her face or her skin color or even guess at her age for the black soot covering her, but her fear was unmistakable.
“Hang on!” I yelled up to her.
“Oh my God!” she screamed before it turned into a fit of coughing. “Help me!”
“Hang on! Don’t let go!”
Frantically, I searched the perimeter for a way in, but it wasn’t only her house that was on fire. Flames were encompassing her. The yard and all the surrounding flowerbeds. Top to bottom. The first and second floors were completely engulfed, and if the sound of shattering windows was any indication, it was quickly making its way up to the third floor—to her.
“No! Don’t leave me!” she screamed, panic thick in her garbled voice, as I started around the side of the house.
A wall of heat stopped me in my tracks. Throwing an arm up, I did my best to block my face while scanning the building for any possible entry—or, in her case, exit.
But there wasn’t a surface of that house that wasn’t ablaze.
Except the roof.
Son of a bitch.
I spoke into the radio. “I need an ETA on fire.”
Jocelyn replied, “They’re on their way. Five minutes out.”
I didn’t have one minute, much less five.
My pulse quickened, sending blood thundering in my ears. I was a cop. I’d trained for chaos. I should have been able to come up with a solution for a situation like this, but they didn’t teach you how to conquer the impossible at the Academy.
And, as I took inventory of the flames dancing beneath her, I knew that was exactly what I was up against.
My gut wrenched as I helplessly sped back around the house. She appeared almost childlike, hovering barefoot on that narrow brick ledge, but her long-sleeve top and her loose-fitting pants clung to the body of a woman.
Jesus Christ! Where was that fucking fire truck?
“Is anyone else in the house?” I yelled up to her.
Not that I could have helped them, either. Short of running into a burning building, on what would surely be a suicide mission, there was not one thing I could do. And didn’t that little reality feel like a wrecking ball to the chest.
“No!” she cried, a loud sob lodging in her throat. It turned into more coughing, her body shaking violently with every heave.
I fisted my hands at my sides as my anxiety spiraled higher.
“Please. Do something!” she begged.
I ground my teeth together and once again glanced around as if a water hose and a ladder were going to suddenly appear out of nowhere. “Hang tight, okay? Fire trucks are on their way.”
“I can’t hold on much longer!” she cried.
“Yes, you can,” I demanded.
“I…I think I need to jump,” she coughed out.
I assessed the massive fire below her. I’d never be able to reach her before it swallowed her. But there was no way I’d be able to stand by and watch her burn.
No. If she jumped off that ledge, she was going to get us both killed.
“Don’t you dare,” I barked. “Don’t even think about it. Two minutes. They’ll be here.”
“Two minutes,” I repeated. “Hold—”
Suddenly, a window to her left exploded, shooting glass and flames in all directions.
I covered my face as she screamed in a paralyzing mixture of fear and agony. It cut me so deep that I knew I’d bear the scars for the rest of my life, and that had nothing to do with the glass and everything to do with the heavy weight of my failure already lingering in the smoke-filled air.
When I opened my eyes again, I caught a glimpse of orange flickering in the window behind her. Panic built in my chest.
“You need to move!” I yelled.
She shook her head and continued to cough and cry.
But it wasn’t an option. I couldn’t help her. Though I damn sure refused to watch her die.
“Please. Just listen to me.” I swallowed hard. “You can’t stay there.” I looked to the roof.
Sending her higher seemed wrong and went against everything I’d learned in my limited fire training. But fuck, my options were having her jump into a conflagration or scale up the side of a building in hopes of buying us the precious minutes needed for the fire department to arrive.
Drawing in a smoke-filled breath, I made a decision that would haunt me for the rest of my life. “You need to climb up to the roof.”
“I can’t!” she shrieked.
My stomach twisted, but I gentled my voice. “Look, I know you’re scared. But I’m right here. I’ll help guide you up, but, sweetheart, it’s bearing down on you. You gotta move, and I mean now.”
She choked on a mouthful of smoke as she attempted to look over her shoulder.
“You’re going to be fine. I swear to you,” I lied. “But you have to move.”
“I’m not going to make it!” She had to have yelled it in order for me to hear her, but I felt her defeat slither over my skin like a whispered goodbye.
I took a long step forward, too focused on her to feel the heat singeing my skin. “Yes, you are!” I declared. “Move your ass up to the roof and we’ll both be out of here in time for breakfast.”
Her gaze landed on mine, tears forging paths down her soot-covered cheeks, her disbelief obvious even from yards away. “Are you sure?”
It was a ridiculous question. It wasn’t like I could make any guarantees. It was fire, for God’s sake. But that didn’t stop me from covering my heart with my palm and vowing, “I swear on my life you’re going to make it through this.”
Her hesitation was evident, but with one last sob, she inched her small body farther out onto the narrow ledge, reaching the tips of her shaking fingers out for the windowsill above her.
“Good girl,” I praised, a fraction of relief washing over me.
And then I sucked in a sharp breath as one of her shaking legs slipped out from under her.
“No!” I yelled.
On instinct, I rushed toward the flames, my arms stretched out in the air as though I could catch her.
A scalding heat blistered my face and forced me to stop, but the real pain was in my chest. I watched in horror for what felt like a lifetime as she fought to right herself, her dainty arms flailing like a wounded butterfly frantically trying to catch the wind.
But there was none to be found.
My heart lurched into my throat, and my breath seized in my lungs.
And then a deep, guttural sound tore through me, shredding me from the inside out, as I watched her fall.
I woke up in a cold sweat. It wasn’t exactly something new. I’d been dreaming of Butterfly for over four years. She always flew directly into the flames, screaming as I stood helpless to save her.
Swinging my legs over the side of the bed, I cradled my head in my hands and tried to pretend I was okay. That wasn’t exactly something new, either. I could still feel the heat on the back of my neck. My lungs were still thick with smoke. The pressure in my chest never left me.
The distance while I was living in LA had helped. But, in the week since I’d been back in Illinois, I’d woken up every morning at that blazing house. I didn’t even have to be asleep for the memories to assault me.
I should have gone back to sleep. It was my first day at my new job, and the last thing I needed was to show up haggard and sleep-deprived. But, as I’d learned over the years, another fiery butterfly awaited me on the other side of REM. No way I was volunteering for that.
I pushed myself off the bed and tugged a T-shirt on, preparing to head down to the hotel gym with hopes that I could outrun the mental fog that had been hovering over me since I’d returned. There was a reason I’d thrown all of my shit in my car and driven as far as I could all those years ago.
Yet, somehow, I’d come full circle.
But I’d come back a different man.
At least that’s what I’d told myself as the deafening roar of doubt had overwhelmed me the moment I’d driven across the state line.
Regardless, it had been time to go home.
I’d been gone too long.
Or, as I’d decided as I’d passed the exit to Park County, not nearly long enough.