The fire.

The burning.

The pain.

The words from what must have been my ambulance ride after I’d been rescued from the fire float through my mind over and over and I cry even harder.

There’s no way McDaniels is still alive.

There’s no way McDaniels is still alive.

There’s no way McDaniels is still alive.

Maybe they were wrong. Maybe the drugs they gave me were playing with my mind and I misheard them. It can’t be true.

With a shaking hand, I reach up and move the oxygen mask away from my face as the nurse sticks a needle into my I.V. and pushes the syringe down, the pain medicine quickly making its way through the tube and spreading into my veins.

“Collin, where’s Collin?” I ask her with a raspy voice.

She looks at me in confusion as she pulls the blankets up around my body and tucks me back in. I remember the paramedics saying something about a fall. I remember hearing him scream my name and I know that wasn’t a dream. He was in the house. He came to save me.


“The man who was in the house with me. Is he here?”

I watch the confusion leave her face, quickly replaced with sadness that she’s unable to hide. “Oh, sweetie, I’m so sorry. He didn’t make it out.”

She moves the oxygen mask back over my face and starts talking about my injuries and how long it will take me to recover. I don’t even hear her words. The pain in my chest hurts greater than the throbbing of my scorched flesh. Ignoring my bandaged legs and stomach and the I.V. attached to my arm, I roll over onto my side and curl up in a ball. I never thought my heart could possibly break a second time for Collin, but it does. It shatters into a thousand little pieces when I think of his smile and his touch and how he saved me, in more ways than one. I’ll never recover from this pain. I’ll never be able to put my heart back together again. I squeeze my eyes closed and wish that I had died in the fire right along with him.

Chapter 24—Things We Lost in the Fire


I hear his voice in my dream and I refuse to open my eyes. I want to stay right here in the haze of pain medication so I can hear him say my name over and over. I don’t know how long I’ve been asleep and I don’t care. I’m not ready for reality, but I know as soon as I open my eyes it will come crashing down around me. I feel a hand rubbing up and down my arm and I want to scream at the nurse to stop touching me. There’s only one person who can ease my pain and he’s gone.

I curl my body into a tighter ball and try to will the tears away, but there’s no use. They stream down my face and soak the pillow under my cheek.

“Don’t cry, baby. Please don’t cry.”

The sound of his voice is so real and so full of anguish that I have no choice but to crack open my eyes. When I see Collin’s crystal blue eyes filled with tears just inches from my face, I can’t stop the sob that flies past my lips. I jerk my body upright, shouting in pain when my bandaged legs brush roughly against the bed. I immediately push the pain away, launching myself forward and into his arms. They wrap tightly around my back as he leans into me, pulling me as close to his body as possible. It’s not close enough. It will never be close enough. The tears fall faster down my cheeks as I press my face into the crook of his neck and breathe him in through my sobs.

“I thought I’d lost you,” he whispers brokenly as he moves his arms from around me and cups my face in his palms, pulling me away from his neck so he can stare into my eyes.

“Oh, God, am I dreaming? Please don’t let this be a dream. They told me you were dead. They told me you didn’t make it,” I whimper, crying so hard now that I’m close to hyperventilating.

“Shhh, it’s okay. You’re killing me, Lee, please don’t cry. I’m okay. I’m right here and I’m okay,” he reassures me, wiping away each tear that falls with his thumbs.

I try to calm down and slow my breathing as I run my hands over every inch of him that I can reach, making sure that he’s real and safe and alive. I slide my hands up his arms, over his shoulders, run them across his face and then back down his arms again, feeling the warm, hard muscles and sighing in relief.

“I love you. I love you so much,” I tell him, bringing my hands up to rest over top of his on my face. I don’t care if it’s too much too soon. I don’t care about anything but not wasting another minute of our time together. I almost lost Collin without him ever knowing how I feel and I’m not going to make that same mistake twice.

“Oh, baby,” he whispers. “I thought I was too late. When I saw you lying there in that bedroom and you weren’t breathing, I wanted to die. You are everything to me, Finnley, everything. I have loved you since I was fifteen years old and I’m never going to stop.”

The tears start all over again with his words and he quickly leans forward and presses his lips to mine. I never thought I’d see him again. I never thought I’d hear his voice or feel his lips against mine and it’s almost too much to take. I’m overwhelmed with emotion and relief that he’s okay. He’s here and he’s alive and I can kiss and touch him whenever I want.

He moves back and that’s when I finally look down and see that he’s in a wheelchair.

“Oh, my God. What happened?” I ask in horror as I see a hard plaster cast that goes from the tip of his left foot all the way up to his knee as well as a few bandages here and there on both of his arms that I didn’t even notice when I was running my hands over them.

“It’s just a broken leg and a few minor burns. I’ll be out of commission for a little bit but it’s fine,” he explains. “After I got you out of the house and D.J. took you down the ladder so he could start working on you, I tried to get Jordan out of the house. He fought me and refused to leave. When he told me he’d killed you, I stopped giving a shit if he lived or died and I was halfway out the window when the house started to collapse. Thank God D.J. never listens to a damn word I say. He passed you off to another paramedic and raced back up the ladder, grabbed onto my shirt and yanked me out of the window. He lost his hold on me when the ladder started falling with the house and I dropped two stories and landed on my leg.”

My eyes widen in horror as he explains what he went through, but he refuses to let me feel even a moment of guilt.

“Wipe that look off your face right now. It’s not your fault and I’m going to be just fine. I’m more concerned with you. How do you feel? Are you in any pain right now?”

The adrenaline that shot through my veins with the news of Collin’s survival quickly fades, replaced by throbbing pain in my legs and hips where I sustained the worst burns. Collin winces when he sees the look of discomfort on my face and quickly presses the button on the side of my bed to call the nurse.

She races into the room and immediately fills my I.V. with another shot of morphine, making me lie back down in bed and strapping the oxygen mask back on my face.

Before she leaves, she narrows her eyes at Collin. “You should be in bed yourself, breathing in some of the same nice, clean oxygen Mr. McDaniels.”

He gives her a heart-stopping grin as he grabs my hand and brings it up to his mouth, placing a kiss on my palm. “You’re going to have to bring in another tank then, Stephanie, because I’m not leaving my girl’s side ever again.”

She tsks him but can’t hide the smile on her face as she leaves the room.

I can feel the medicine begin to work its magic, the numbness inching it’s way up my legs and hips until there’s nothing but blessed relief and my eyes grow heavy with sleep.

“Close your eyes, baby. I’m not going anywhere, even if Nurse Ratched tries to drag me out of here,” Collin whispers with a laugh close to my ear as my eyelids flutter closed.

I let sleep consume me as I feel Collin’s hand smooth across my forehead and down the side of my face. Everything will be okay. I know that Collin hasn’t told me everything. Based on the way he quickly glossed over the fact that Jordan refused to leave the burning house, I have to assume he probably didn’t make it out alive. I know now that when I asked the nurse earlier if Collin made it out of the house, she naturally assumed I was referring to Jordan. My medical records would still list him as my husband and I’m sure that’s who she thought I was so upset about.

I wonder if it’s wrong that I don’t feel even an inkling of sadness that he’s gone? I built a life with that man. He picked up the pieces of my broken heart after Collin left and he was my whole world for over half of my life.

Seventeen years together.

Seventeen thousand problems.

Seventeen days with a man from my past who is now my future.

Seventeen minutes in hell as the house Jordan and I built together burned down around us.

Seventeen breaths until I took what I thought would be my last.

It turns out, this story does have a happy ending. It wasn’t too late. We still have plenty of time to build a new future.

“I love you, I love you, I love you,” Collin repeats softly in my ear as I drift off to sleep, dreaming about the future that stretches far and wide in front of us.



I watch from across the room as Finnley chats to a group of people, smiling to myself as her hand comes up and tugs on her earlobe.

Quickly making my way over to her side, I wrap my hand around hers and bring it down between us.

“Calm down, you have no reason to be nervous,” I whisper in her ear.

She excuses herself from the group and tugs me a few feet away until we’re out of earshot of other people. “How in the hell did you know I was nervous?”

I smirk down at her and shake my head. “Baby, you always tug on your ear when you’re nervous. You did it right before the first time I kissed you at the end of tenth grade, when I stuck my hand down your pants three months later, five seconds before you gave me my first blow job and-”

“Alright, smartass, you made your point,” she tells me with a laugh, cutting me off. “What’s the deal with D.J. and Phina?”

Glancing in the direction where she’s looking, I see the two of them on the far side of the room, quietly arguing. Phina starts gesturing wildly with her hands and then D.J. points at her and says something that makes her face fall. I hold my breath, assuming he said something really stupid and she’s probably going to smack him across the face, but it never happens. She says one more thing to him and then turns and walks away. D.J. grits his teeth, shoves his hands in his pockets angrily and then storms off in the opposite direction.

I have no idea what the hell that was all about. D.J. hasn’t mentioned one word about Phina since that night at Slammers when he drunkenly made out with her at the table in front of everyone. I hope to God she doesn’t have some sort of misplaced infatuation with the guy. D.J. will never settle down, no matter how hot the girl is.

“Shit, I better go see what that was about,” Finnley states quietly, pulling away from me.

Grabbing her hand, I bring her back towards me. “Leave it alone for now, babe. This is your night and I don’t want anything ruining it. We’ll deal with those two later.”

She sighs, looking off in the direction Phina went for a few seconds before turning to face me. “Have you seen all the people who showed up tonight? This is insane.”

Her hand starts to move back up to her ear as she glances around the room but she quickly drops it when she realizes I’m watching her with a huge grin on my face.

“Can you be serious for one minute? Someone from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation is here tonight. The GUGGENHEIM, Collin, the fucking Guggenheim in New York City! I think I’m going to throw up,” Finnley complains, pressing her hand to her stomach.

Wrapping my arms around her, I pull her close and kiss the top of her head. It’s almost hard to believe how much has happened since I first saw her again at Slammers all those months ago. After Finnley was released from the hospital a week after the fire, she moved into my house since there was nothing left of her own. While her burns healed, my broken leg mended and she dealt with the bullshit of filing the claims for her homeowner’s insurance, she poured herself into her art. She worked night and day on new pieces and, when I wasn’t helping her light them up in the backyard, she was curled up next to me on my couch coming up with new ideas in sketch pads.

I kept a close eye on her and swore to myself I wouldn’t let it get to me if she ever showed even an inkling of sadness about Jordan dying in the fire. Regardless of what he’d done and how close he came to bringing us both down with him, I would never fault her for her grief. Seventeen years is a long time to spend with someone and, even though it didn’t end well, I know she had many good years with him and a lot of memories that wouldn’t just disappear over night.

Every time she woke up screaming in the middle of the night, I’d kiss away her tears and hold her close. Each time she got quiet and stared off in the distance at nothing, I’d kiss the top of her head, reminding her how much I loved her and that I was right here if she needed me.

I didn’t agree with her decision not go to Jordan’s funeral, but it was hers to make and I didn’t pressure her. It’s not that I expected her to go and cry over his casket, I just didn’t want her to have any regrets. Even though she’s angry and hurt by what he’s done, I don’t want her to look back ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road and wish she’d said good-bye to him.

I hovered over her that entire day until she finally threw her sketchpad on the table and glared at me.

“If you don’t find something to do, I’m going to kick your ass. I’m fine, Collin. I have no regrets about not going to his funeral, I swear to you. I don’t need to go to that fucking cemetery and pretend that I’m sad just because people say it will give me closure. I got my closure the day I filed for separation. I’m not going to waste one minute of my life mourning someone who tried to take you away from me.”

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