CHAPTER SEVEN

MAYBE the fireplace was smoking. It was her first thought, but it was fleeting. The fire in the hearth was almost dead-a soft glow of coals and nothing more. But the smell of smoke had intruded on her half-sleep and Marilyn was barking.

She stumbled out of bed, worried, and the fire alarm started as she reached the door. She flung open the door into the hall, the faint smell of smoke became a thick wall of fog and the scream of the smoke alarm became almost deafening.

From the kitchen Marilyn let out a yowl of distress but the smoke wasn’t coming from the kitchen, either. It was billowing down from the top of the stairs. The security lights on the stairs and in the entrance were showing a faint sheen of smoke around her feet, but at head height the smoke was already so thick she could scarcely see.

‘Dom,’ she screamed-entirely without need when the fire alarm was doing her screaming for her. She hit the stairs, two at a time, forgetting about her injured feet, forgetting everything except that Dom and the boys were somewhere in the midst of the source of the fire.

‘Dom…’

The cry was from one of the kids, a terrified scream, high and filled with horror. She was at the landing now, her hand on the balustrade, feeling her way rather than seeing.

And then the smoke swirled back and Dom was there. An armload of child was thrust at her. Nathan. She clung and steadied and Dom was already invisible.

‘Ring emergency services,’ he snapped from the gloom. ‘Get Nathan outside, and the dog. I need to find Martin.’

He was gone.

She staggered down the stairs again, carrying Nathan. He had his arms round her neck, holding on as if his life depended on it, sobbing with fear. As she hit the flat surface of hall she staggered a little with the weight of him, and he clung tighter still.

She groped for the phone-she had a clear idea where it was now, which was just as well as the smoke was so thick she’d never have found it by sight.

‘Fire,’ she snapped into the phone without waiting to hear the operator ask leading questions. She gave ten seconds of curt directions. ‘Repeat it,’ she ordered, with the same efficiency she used with interns when she had to make sure they understood in an emergency.

Marilyn was whining, agitated, in the kitchen. Erin shoved open the door; the dog pushed her nose against her leg and then headed back to her pups.

‘We need to get us safe,’ she said to Nathan, trying to figure what to do next. Somewhere upstairs were Dom and Martin, but by the way Nathan was clinging and sobbing she knew he wouldn’t let her go. ‘I’ll take you onto the veranda.’

‘No,’ Nathan whimpered, but there was no time for sympathy. She should take Nathan outside, leave him, then go to help Dom, but she knew he’d come back in after her.

And Marilyn was clearly a dog in panic.

Okay. She had to let Dom take care of Martin as best he could until she had Nathan safe. The only way to get Nathan safe was to anchor him.

Anchor him to Marilyn. Anchor Marilyn with the puppies.

She bent over the pups, setting Nathan firmly on the floor beside her. ‘Nathan, hold my shirt and don’t let go,’ she snapped before he could clutch her round the neck again. ‘Don’t move away from me. I’m picking up the puppies.’

She tugged Marilyn away from the pups, and before Marilyn could react she gathered pups-bed included-against her. She now had an armload of blanket and pups, a little boy clutching her shirt and Marilyn making a Herculean effort to jump up and get to her babies.

And there was smoke. She was struggling to breathe without gagging. She wanted to hold her shirt over her mouth but she had no hands left.

‘Let’s go,’ she muttered, and headed out the door. In seconds she was out on the front veranda, with Nathan towed behind her and Marilyn leaping anxiously about her feet.

The relief to find herself outside was almost overwhelming. She kept going, over the grass, well away from the front door. Near the gate she allowed herself to pause.

‘Dom, Dom, Dom,’ she found herself saying, swinging round to face the house and hoping against hope he was following.

The lights in the upstairs windows flickered and went out. The power was gone.

At least she couldn’t see flames. There was an almost full moon in a cloudless sky and the house was a great, unlit shape.

No flames.

‘You need to stay here,’ she told Nathan, and he whimpered and clung, but she put him away from her, mustering strength before she started to speak. If she sounded scared there was no use expecting courage from him.

She laid the puppies on the ground by the gate. Marilyn whined her distress and started doing a maternal tongue count.

‘I have to help Dom bring Martin out,’ she said to Nathan, keeping her voice flat, inflexionless, like this was a completely normal scenario. ‘But Marilyn has to stay here. Can you put your hand in her collar and not let her move until I get back?’ She tucked his hand under the dog’s frayed collar. ‘Promise you won’t let her go? She might still think there’s a puppy inside and run in after me. It’s too smoky inside to be safe.’

‘You’ll come back?’

‘Of course I’ll come back.’ She gave him a swift, hard hug. ‘With Dom and Martin. But you’re in charge of Marilyn and puppies. Can I trust you?’

‘Y-yes.’

‘You’re great, Nathe,’ she said.

‘Erin…’

‘Mmm.’

‘Will you save the Easter eggs, too?’

The smoke had increased so much it was terrifying. It was a thick, flat wall, oozing out the door, stinking, grit-filled and dreadful.

She got three feet inside the front door and backed out. She’d make it maybe ten feet without a plan. If that.

Plan. Right. Like wait until the fire brigade arrive and men in uniform take over?

Not an option.

She leant on the wall of the front veranda and took three, four, lungfuls of cleanish air and then decided what were lungs if not to be used.

‘Dom!’ she screamed at the top of her voice. ‘Dom!’

Nothing. He’d hardly be able to scream back if he was in the pall of smoke inside.

So think. Layout of house. She hadn’t been upstairs apart from that one brief foray to get Nathan. She was going to have to feel her way.

She hauled back and checked the upstairs windows again. No orange glow. Lots of smoke. She could contend with that.

The downstairs bathroom was right next to the front door. Head there first and wet towels.

No. Wool would be better. Back into the sitting room. Blankets.

She was back beside her makeshift bed almost before she thought it, grabbing blankets, feeling her way back out into the bathroom, tossing the blankets into the shower, turning on the tap, then getting herself back outside for another couple of lungfuls of air while the blankets soaked.

‘Stay, Nathan,’ she breathed, but there was no time to check he was following directions. She was inside again, hauling sodden blankets out from the shower, draping them over her head, then groping her way along the hall toward the stairs.

Underneath the dripping blankets she could at least breathe, and she managed to call. ‘Dom. Dominic!’

‘Erin!’

The call, ending on a choked cough, had her feeling her way up the stairs again, clinging to the balustrade, blind under her canopy of wet wool.

‘Dom…’

He was on the top step. Crouching as she was. She almost fell as her feet came into contact with his solid presence. A hand came out and caught her ankle.

She was crouched low but now she sank even further, her hands seeking contact.

Her hands met his. Fingers clasping momentarily in the gloom. Registered the wetness.

‘Great forethought, Dr Carmody,’ he managed, the words coming out as a hoarse, choking gasp.

‘I have two.’ She tugged one of the sodden blankets from her shoulders.

He grabbed it. Hauled it over himself. ‘I can’t find him,’ he breathed. ‘There’s only Tansy’s room left. Stay here.’

‘I’m coming.’

‘Don’t be stupid. But stay here unless it gets so bad you can’t breathe at all. I might need help carrying…’

He didn’t waste further breath. He was gone.

Leaving her to wait. And wait.

Maybe it was only seconds but it was the longest wait of her life. Crouched at the head of the stairs. Not knowing the layout of the house. Knowing if she moved, Dom might well end up hunting for her.

Hearing the first crackle of flames.

Terror…

And then Dom was there. Magically. Hauling her wet blanket up, pushing a limp body into her arms. Martin.

‘I…I can’t…’ Dom stuttered. ‘I need…a minute. Go. Get him out.’ He was out from under her blanket, leaving Martin behind, and she heard him beside her, choking, lungs desperate for air.

He’d come from the seat of the fire, she thought. If she was struggling to breathe, the fact that Dom had managed to haul the child to her was nothing short of miraculous.

They couldn’t relax yet. Martin was limply unconscious. She hauled him close under her blanket. Smoke was pouring through.

‘Go,’ Dom muttered.

‘You follow,’ she gasped, and as he didn’t move she struck out with her foot, kicking so hard she heard him gasp in pain. ‘You follow or I’m not moving. Don’t you dare give in. Move.’

She could do no more. She was sliding down the stairs, clasping Martin to her, bumping on her backside, afraid to stand, not knowing what was in front or what was behind, not knowing if Dom was able to follow but knowing only she had to get outside before she lost consciousness. How many stairs? She sagged and something hit her in the small of the back.

Dom was behind her. ‘I can take him now,’ he muttered. ‘I’m okay.’

‘Pigs might fly,’ she managed, and focused on the next step.

The knowledge that Dom was right behind her was enough to get her down the last three stairs into the hall. She fell sideways on the last stair, rolled, tugging Martin with her, and kept going, hauling him out through the front door and onto the veranda.

She couldn’t stop. She couldn’t wait for Dom. Even here it wasn’t safe. The smoke was billowing outward, a tunnel of acrid poison. She was blind, still unable to remove her blanket. She shoved herself sideways, away from the door, tugging the dead weight of the child along with her.

One last tug and she was over the side of the veranda, dropping the eighteen inches or so into the flower bed below, out of the path of the smoke, out into clean, clean air…

Martin fell with her. Still. Ominously limp.

‘Oh, Martin…’ She was sobbing with fear and desperation. She tugged him free of the bushes so she could assess clearly what was happening.

She searched for a pulse. It was there…

And suddenly it wasn’t.

One part of her was blinded by panic, horror struck, terrified for Dom as well as for Martin. The rest of her was moving into medical mode. Checking airway, shifting the little boy into a position where she could work.

‘You’re going to live,’ she muttered fiercely. ‘Dom didn’t save you for nothing.’ She pinched his nose, put her mouth over his and breathed until his chest rose.

One breath. Fifteen pumps on his chest. Hard, fierce, determined.

Breathe, damn you, breathe, but she didn’t have the strength to say it. She bent again and breathed hard, filling those small lungs, then shifted to thump again…

‘I’ll do it.’

And miraculously Dom was there, edging her aside so he could work on Martin’s chest. ‘I’ll do CPR,’ he croaked. ‘You keep breathing.’

It was like a gift from heaven. Dom was safe. Dom was with her.

One life safe. One to go. Please.

They had much more chance of succeeding with two of them. She’d have more clear air in her lungs than Dom did, she acknowledged, although surely she must be stronger than he was right now. How could he have the strength to perform CPR?

‘If you’re not risking cracking ribs, you’re not thumping hard enough.’ It had been one of her first lectures.

But Dom was thumping hard enough, strongly and steadily, as if he had all the energy he needed and then some.

Breathe. Thump, thump, thump.

There was a desperate whimper from behind her. Nathan. It was too dark, too smoky, to see, but she could hear his terror.

‘Nathe,’ she managed between breaths. ‘Can you look down the road to see if the fire brigade is coming? Then stay with Marilyn to stop her getting frightened. We’re okay.’

There was a grunt of approval from Dom but there was room for nothing else.

Breathe. Thump, thump, thump. Breathe. Thump, thump…

How was he doing it? The man had almost died himself. For him to give Martin to her at the head of the stairs…she had no doubt he’d been feeling close to the edge himself.

People did extraordinary things under pressure. Stories came back to her…mothers lifting cars off their children. Running when running was otherwise impossible. Life or death-the threat gave superhuman abilities.

The need to perform a miracle…that was what they needed. A miracle. She breathed again, cupping the little boy’s chin, tilting it, pushing the breath down, hoping, hoping…

And then…a tiny gasp. A jerk.

A cough. His eyes fluttered open.

‘Martin,’ Dom said in a voice she didn’t recognise.

‘Dom,’ the little boy faltered, and then he was thickly, splendidly ill.

And suddenly it was over. The threat was past. There was nothing more for her to do. Dom was supporting his foster-son, tugging him in against him, cradling him so he couldn’t choke, soothing, holding, holding.

‘Nathe,’ she called into the dark, and Nathan came flying back to her.

‘Hey,’ she said, and tugged the little boy into her own arms. ‘These two are going to be okay. We’ve rescued each other.’

And then she hugged him so hard she thought she might break one of his ribs and Dom was reaching out to touch her. She hauled herself closer, tugging Nathan close with her and they sat in a huddle of mess and soot and smoke and she thought she’d never felt happier. And when Marilyn appeared through the mists of smoke, signifying her presence by a slurp to the face, she grabbed her, too, and the dog was enveloped in their sandwich squeeze as well.

‘Hey,’ Dom managed in a voice that was full of smoke and fear and the remnants of toxins. ‘We’re all okay. Thanks to our wonderful Erin.’

‘Thanks to all of us,’ she replied, kissing Nathan’s hair. What she really felt like doing right now was kissing Dom but it was hardly appropriate. So she just sat within the circle of eight arms and Marilyn’s tongue and felt fabulous, and then the sirens started in the distance and the cavalry was here.

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