Sean's Reckoning - By Sherryl Woods

Chapter One

Sean Devaney’s eyes were stinging from the smoke at the still-smoldering ruins of a tumbledown Victorian house that had been converted into low-rent apartments. Bits of ash clung to his sweat-dampened skin and hair. Even after stripping off his flame-retardant jacket and coveralls, Sean continued to feel as if he’d just exited an inferno…which he had. The acrid smell of smoke was thick in the air and in his clothes. Even after ten years with the Boston Fire Department, he still wasn’t used to the aftermath of fighting a blaze—the exhaustion, the dehydration, the stench.

He’d been young and idealistic when he’d joined the department. He’d wanted to be a hero, craved the rush of adrenaline that kicked in when an alarm sounded. Saving lives had been part of it, but so had the danger, the thrill of putting his own life on the line to do something that mattered. In fact, it seemed Sean had spent most of his life trying to matter in one way or another.

Now, though, with the adrenaline wearing off, all he wanted was a warm, pounding shower and about sixteen straight hours of sleep. Unfortunately, until these last hot spots were thoroughly dampened and the location made secure, Sean was destined to stay right here just in case there was another flare-up.

The landlord was damn lucky no one had been killed. Indeed, from what Sean had observed inside, the landlord of this building himself ought to be shot. Even in the midst of battling heat and flames, Sean had noticed that there were so many code violations, he couldn’t begin to count them all. Though it would be another twenty-four hours before investigators pinned down the cause of the blaze, in Sean’s opinion it was most likely the outdated and overloaded electrical system. He hoped the landlord had a healthy insurance policy, because he was going to need it to pay off all the suits from his tenants. Most had lost just about everything to flames or to extensive smoke and water damage.

Sean scanned what remained of the crowd that had gathered to watch the inferno to see if there was any sign of a likely landlord, but most of the onlookers appeared to be more fascinated than dismayed by the destruction.

“Hey, Sean,” his partner, Hank DiMartelli, called out, a grin splitting his face as he gestured toward something behind Sean. “Looks like we’ve got a new helper. He’s agile enough, but I doubt he meets the department’s age and height requirements.”

Sean turned around just in time to catch a kid scrambling inside the fire truck. By the time Sean latched on to him, the boy was already reaching with unerring precision for the button to set off the siren.

“Whoa, fella, I think this neighborhood’s heard enough sirens for one afternoon,” Sean said, lifting the boy out of the truck.

“But I wanna do it,” the child protested, chin jutting out in a mulish expression. With his light-brown hair standing up in gelled spikes, he looked a little like a pint-size member of one of those popular boy bands.

“Another time,” Sean said very firmly. He set the boy on his feet on the ground and was surprised when the kid didn’t immediately take off. Instead he stood there with his unrepentant expression and continued to cast surreptitious glances toward the cab of the engine. Sean had a hunch the boy would be right back up there unless Sean stuck close by to prevent it.

“So,” he said, hoping to drag the boy’s attention away from his fascination with the siren, “what’s your name?”

The kid returned his gaze with a solemn expression. “I’m not supposed to tell it to strangers,” he said automatically, as if the lesson had been drilled into him.

Sean hated to contradict such wise parental advice, but he also wanted to know to whom the kid belonged and why he was wandering around the scene of a fire all alone. “Normally I’d agree with that,” he assured the boy. “But it’s okay to tell me. I’m Sean, a fireman. Police officers and firefighters are good guys. You can always come to us when you’re in trouble.”

“But I’m not in trouble,” he responded reasonably, his stubborn expression never wavering. “Besides, Mommy said never to tell anyone unless she said it was okay.”

Sean bit back a sigh. He couldn’t very well argue with that. “Okay then, where is your mom?”

The kid shrugged. “Don’t know.”

Sean’s blood ran cold. Instantly he was six years old again, standing outside a