Lucas Bennett’s hands shook, adrenaline coursing through his veins as the wheels of the engine ate up the pavement. When the engine finally pulled up to the house, thick, gray smoke billowed out of the burning barn. Horses’ panicked whinnies and mournful cries from the family filled the air. By the time his crew hustled to establish the perimeter and pour water on the fire, it would be too late. There wasn’t time. Flames darting out the barn’s doors and the melted holes in the metal shingles on the roof didn’t matter. He couldn’t let the beast take everything from this family.
Flinging an oxygen tank onto his back, he charged into the burning barn. Thick smoke enveloped him, taunting him through the mask on his helmet. Straw blanketed the floor and stretched up to the loft. Fuel to feed the beast. His worst nightmare flashed before him.
He shined his flashlight at the beams. Flames danced and licked at the main support for the barn. Damn. The thick layer of hay covering the barn floor was a big invitation for the beast, and if Lucas didn’t move quickly, fire would win. Again.
Horses bucked and screeched on each side of him.
He had to get to the animals.
He lowered his head. The deadly heat pressed against him, waiting for the right moment to test his bunker gear. He ran his hand along the wooden slats framing the stalls. Each step toward the horses also brought him closer to the roaring flames licking at the wood. His racing pulse thumped in his neck. He breathed deeply, evenly, to conserve the precious oxygen in the tank. Before he reached the blaze, his hand connected with the latch of a stall and he flung it open.
Come on. Out! You gotta work with me here.
With teeth bared and eyes wild, the horse backed away from the open door and encroaching smoke and flames. Her screaming whinny echoed through the barn. As the heat from the stall seared her flanks, she leapt forward but still didn’t leave the stall.
Of course, it couldn’t be that easy. Dammit.
Fumbling until he could grab a lead rope on a nearby hook, he headed into the stall. The horse inside continued to buck. She lifted her hooves high into the air, obviously rattled by Lucas’s presence and the fire surrounding her. He approached the horse, his hands held up and out, a gentle shushing sound on his lips. If only she’d calm down enough for him to grab her. Finally, he got close enough, flung the rope around her neck, and dragged her toward the door of the stall. She braced her feet against the floor, fighting against his pull. Damn, this girl was strong. If he spent any more time freeing this horse, neither of them would get out alive.
Sharp, piercing pain speared his chest. No, not again. This wasn’t happening. He was getting out of here no matter what… and the horse was coming with him.
He’d just pulled the horse into the aisle when a deafening sound echoed throughout the barn, the floor shaking from the depth of the roar. His head snapped up as a flaming beam fell toward him. As the horse darted in one direction, Lucas leapt to the other. The beam glanced off his shoulder and knocked him to his knees then landed on the floor beside him. The fire licked at the straw, eating it up and filling the floor with flames. Like a beautiful woman, the flames drew him in, called to him, and he couldn’t turn away.
The impact of another beam knocked him flat on his face.
Dammit. Shit. How could I get so distracted?
He shook his head and blinked. Fuzzy images swirled in front of him. Through the thick fog, red and orange flames nipped at the straw on the floor. He pushed at the obstruction on his back. Nothing. He tried to get to his feet. No dice. When he turned his head to the side, sharp knives of pain shot through his body. He wiggled left and then right. He was trapped. He couldn’t move.
Lucas twisted and turned faster now. He refused to let the beast win. Eventually, he managed to turn to his side then rolled once more until he landed on his back. The fallen section of timber now lay across his chest, its heavy weight compressing his lungs. If he could just get free, he might get the upper hand over the blaze. He tried again but the gear and tank meant to save his life now hindered his escape. His heart raced, his breathing shallowed, and he flailed his arms and legs. He looked toward the stalls that housed the remaining horses. They reared and then slammed their hooves down, the floor vibrating each time.
Damn. I know better. This is my own fault.
If only he’d listened to the crew and not rushed in. The beast was not going to win. He couldn’t let it. But fire didn’t play fair. Didn’t follow the rules. He kept thrashing, challenging the fire in a fight for his life.
Is this how Shawn felt just before the end?
Would he suffer the same fate?
He closed his eyes, resting for what would likely be his final battle. He opened them again and spied movement through the grey fog of smoke that filled the barn. Had someone come in after him? He writhed again, swinging his arms against the wood pressing him against the floor.
The pressure and weight eased off his chest and a hand pulled him to his feet.
The barn spun. Lucas bent over, acrid bile burning his throat. Each breath sent stinging daggers through his side. Shit. Bruised his ribs… again. He straightened and his knees buckled. He pressed his hand to his side. It didn’t work. Sharp knives kept pricking at him.
The other firefighter gestured in the opposite direction they’d come. The man’s mouth moved, but the words were lost in the rumble of the fire.
“What?” Lucas shouted through his mask.
The firefighter shoved him toward the back of the barn. Lucas slung his arm around his buddy and together they stumbled through the gray, billowing smoke and darted around flames licking at the hay-covered floor. They rounded the corner into the last stall, backs pressed against the wooden slats as the final strokes of an ax fractured the thick wall.
Daylight cut through the smoke. One firefighter shoved Lucas through to the other side where several hands grabbed him, yanking him to safety.
With his arms wrapped around two company-mates, he stumbled around the building to where the crew had established a perimeter—the one he shouldn’t have crossed before the fire was under control.
As soon as they released him, he ripped his helmet and mask off. Sharp pain speared through his side, his muscles trembled, and his legs gave out, throwing him to the ground. He hung his head, the pinch in his stomach growing intensely until it bubbled over and he wretched.
He stayed there for a few minutes longer, his stomach churning and his head spinning. Eventually, he looked up to see Stacey in her blue uniform, a stethoscope draped around her neck and the medical box in her hand. Her face was pale. As he straightened up and sat back on his heels, Stacey reached out, pressing against his arms, his shoulders, and eventually, his ribs.
“Are you hurt anywhere else?” she asked.
“No, just bruised ribs and smoke inhalation.” And he should know. He wasn’t just a firefighter, but a paramedic, too. He could diagnose his own bruised ribs, thank you very much.
After studying him for a moment, Stacey smacked him across the shoulder.
He leapt up, pain stabbing him in the side. He fell back onto his ass. “Hey! What the hell was that for?”
“For being an idiot…and an asshole. What were you—”
“What the hell was that?” the Captain yelled as he ran up to the pair of them on the sidewalk.
“I couldn’t let it win, Captain.” Lucas coughed and grimaced as he spoke.
“That’s not good enough, Bennett. Not anymore.”
Planting his fists on his waist, the Captain stomped away a few steps and then turned back to Lucas. “You’ve been spiraling down this path of self-destruction for months now. We’ve had this conversation. Each time, you’ve promised me you had it under control. Today, you not only risked your own life, but the lives of Justin and Drew. I had to send them in after your sorry ass and move Jake off fire control to cut a hole for your escape. You’ve gone too far this time, Lucas.”
Damn. His first name. This was really bad. Lucas fumbled for the words to make this better. He needed to fix this—fast. In the past, he’d been the only one at risk. Not today. Today, he might have taken others with him. It was unforgiveable.
He pulled himself to his feet and stalked over to the engine. He ran his hand through his hair, then opened his mouth but closed it again. He turned back to the captain and leaned against the engine. “I know… and I’m sorry. I never meant to get anyone else involved. I don’t have an excuse, but it won’t happen again.”
“You’re damn right it’s not going to happen again. I’m suspending you—”
“No buts, Bennett. Not anymore. You can stay on the EMS crew as long as you don’t screw that up, too. You’re also gonna get yourself to the department shrink. If she doesn’t clear you to return at the end of your suspension, we’ll have to discuss your future here at the station.”
His heart raced. This wasn’t happening. He couldn’t lose the one important thing he had in his life. “How long?”
“Sixty days! Please, not that long, Cap. I’ll go see the shrink, I promise, but don’t take me off the crew. I need… I have to…”
“You’re lucky I’m not terminating you, Bennett. I’m taking a risk leaving you on EMS duty. I’m trusting you to get your head screwed on straight. This is your last warning. I have no intention of walking up to your mother’s door to tell her you died because you were stupid. Do you understand me?”
Lucas bowed his head. His family meant everything to him. He couldn’t do that to them. An image of his mother mourning his death filled his mind and a sigh of resignation escaped his lips.
He hung his shoulders. “You’re right, Cap. I understand.”
“You’re too valuable to this company, and I’d hate to lose you. More importantly, I do not intend to bury any of my men because they’re taking too many risks. Take this time to chill out. Maybe spend more time with your family, or find a girl to take out dancing down at J.J.’s. Whatever you need to do to get your head on straight. Then I’ll see you back, hopefully healthier and happier.”
“Will do, Cap.”
Lucas would chill, even talk to the shrink, but he had no plans to follow the captain’s last suggestion. Bringing a woman into his life wasn’t going to happen. He wasn’t selfish enough to have her mourn him if he lost the fight like Shawn had.
Everything he did, every risk he took, was for his best friend. Shawn’s wife and child still grieved his loss to the beast. Lucas wasn’t about to let that happen to anyone he loved again. Not on his watch. He’d go see the shrink, do his time on suspension, then get back on the engine as soon as he possibly could.
Sarah Robinson stepped out her front door and drew in a deep breath, the fresh, clean air filling her lungs. She glanced up and down the street she now called home. Cottage-style houses sat side by side in both directions as far as she could see. Each boasted a wide front porch, but unique touches had been added by their occupant. A swing hung on one. Maybe she’d get one of her own, a place she and Lily could rock away the sun with Lily’s favorite book between them. Probably an Angelina Ballerina book, if she knew her daughter. A huge overflowing pot of impatiens, its bright colors cascading from the basket as it swayed in a gentle breeze, would brighten the doorway. She could fill the now-empty flower boxes with happy daisies next spring.
She looked forward to warm evenings, enjoying the summer weather on her neighbor’s porches, or her own, an iced tea or a glass of wine in hand. She’d only met a few nearby residents so far and couldn’t wait to meet the rest. In Philly, she’d barely known her immediate neighbors except to wave and say hello. But here, the prospect of having friends nearby excited her. On a street like this, she couldn’t be anonymous; she couldn’t shut herself away from the world outside her door, as much as she would like to.
Large maple trees lined both sides of the street. Their brilliant red leaves hung in stark contrast to the bright blue, cloudless fall sky. The sidewalk that wove a serpentine path in front of the homes sat empty now, but, by the end of the day, it would be filled with kids on bicycles, skateboards, and roller blades. Before long, Lily would be old enough to join the neighborhood children playing out front of her house—under Sarah’s watchful eye, of course. She pictured herself in one of the white wicker rocking chairs on her porch, smiling as Lily dug in the dirt or rolled in the grass. When it came to her spirited daughter, she just never knew what to expect.
As much as she loved her home on the tree-lined street, this was not the life she’d planned for herself. How could she have expected to be raising her daughter alone at twenty-eight years old? Alex should be here, standing beside her—with her—to take their daughter to her first day of preschool. Her breath hitched and she slammed her hand over her aching heart. As their daughter got older, the problems got bigger, the questions harder. She needed Alex with her to tackle parenting together.
Quick, little footsteps thumped on the hardwood floor behind her. Sarah turned and laughed as her curly-haired, tow-headed daughter spun in a circle, showing off her favorite purple, sparkly shirt with pink leggings, rainbow sneakers, and a fuscia tutu.
“I’m ready, Mommy.”
“Are you sure that’s what you want to wear?”
“I want my new friends at preschool to see my tutu.”
“Okay. If you’re sure.” Sarah grabbed the new backpack Lily had picked out at the store yesterday. “Here, put this on.”
Lily extended her arms, and Sarah slid on the backpack. She placed a gentle kiss on her daughter’s head. Sweet moments like this, just the two of them, made everything she’d been through worth it. But today, the feelings of unrestrained, unconditional love she felt for her daughter mixed with sadness. Another milestone—another first in Lily’s short life—without Alex.
Lily hopped down the three front porch steps and ran to the car, her laughter mingling with Sarah’s. Her daughter had two speeds: running and asleep. After locking the door, Sarah hurried down the stairs and, before long, they were both buckled in and pulling out of the driveway.
The preschool was on the other side of the town green, so the drive only took a few minutes. Not nearly long enough to calm Sarah’s racing heart or settle the nerves that beat in her stomach. She pulled up to the house. “We’re here, baby.”
“Yay!” the sweet voice from the back seat squealed. Lily fumbled with her buckles and reached for the door handle.
Once out of the vehicle, though, Lily pressed her back to the car and grabbed for Sarah. She’d expected this. Lily gripped her hand tighter, and Sarah smiled down at her daughter, her bottom lip pulled between her teeth and her restless feet shuffling on the pavement. Sarah didn’t want Lily to see the butterflies that danced in her own stomach. Lily needed this. They both needed this step toward independence and a new life.
Sarah’s eyes scanned the street and her stomach tightened. She noted a fire hydrant close by and another just at the corner. Her muscles still tight, she turned back to the home, taking comfort in the brick construction. Weren’t brick houses less likely to burn? With all of her being, she wanted to throw Lily back in the car and drive home where they would be safe. And together. But that wouldn’t be healthful for Lily… or Sarah. For both of their sakes, Lily deserved a normal childhood. Full of happiness and love and none of the grief that had shrouded the past two years of their lives.
Sarah squeezed her hand into a fist, the sting of her nails cutting into the skin on her palm. “It’ll be okay, baby. You’re gonna have fun.”
But before long, a broad smile crossed Lily’s face and Sarah’s nerves relaxed. Lily’s positive outlook on the world, her innocent belief of everything good, calmed Sarah. Hand in hand, they headed up the sidewalk.
The preschool teacher, Michelle, met them at the door. She smiled at Sarah before looking down at Lily. “Are you ready to have fun today, Lily? You sure look pretty with your pink tutu.”
Lily didn’t step forward, her anxious eyes seeking Sarah’s approval. Maybe Lily wasn’t ready, either. To this point, it had been just the two of them against the world. Sarah wasn’t ready to let that go, let Lily grow up just yet. To be left alone at home with her own thoughts. But they’d moved to Oak Grove so Sarah and Lily could start a new life, have a fresh start, with none of the negative memories of their home in Philadelphia. This was just another step in the process.
Sarah nodded at her daughter and nudged her forward. Lily planted her feet on the ground at first, her hand squeezing Sarah’s. Michelle smiled at Lily, and after a few sweet words from her teacher, Lily released Sarah’s hand and reached for Michelle’s.
“Bye, Mommy.” Lily waved to Sarah and then tugged her teacher.
“She’ll be fine. Really. I’ll call you if she needs anything,” Michelle said as Lily pulled her new teacher into the house.
The storm door slammed. A barrier of glass now stood between Sarah and her daughter.
Sarah placed her hand over her heart and drew in a deep breath. This shouldn’t be so hard. It was just a few hours, and Sarah would just be a few miles down the road. But that didn’t make handing her baby off to someone else’s care any easier.
Sarah backed away slowly at first, the separation between her and her daughter growing stronger with each step closer to the car. She threw one last look at the house before getting in her sedan. There wouldn’t be a fire. And if there was, Michelle had discussed fire safety with Sarah the first day she’d visited. Lily was meant to live a long, full life. But Sarah had thought the same of Alex, too.
She could do this. If she didn’t learn to trust again, the fire would control her forever. She’d moved to Oak Grove for a fresh start, and this step was an important first one. She was sick of being controlled. Tired of circling the house for frayed cords, loose wiring, or faulty bulbs. Exhausted from going over the fire drill with Lily, who’d forgotten about what had taken her daddy’s life, and found the everyday drill a fun game. Most of all, Sarah needed peace. Peace in the knowledge that she and Lily would be okay. Peace in her decision to start over in Oak Grove.
Sarah pulled away from the curb and headed toward the center of town for her upcoming business meeting, throwing a couple of glances in her rearview mirror on the way.
Finding a convenient parking spot in front of the line of shops on Main Street only took a moment. One of her favorite parts of Oak Grove was the centrally-located town green where many of the residents walked rather than drove their cars.
She easily spotted the brightly colored sign hanging above Mug ’n Muffin, her friend Emma’s shop and her current destination. The promise of a steaming cup of coffee and a festively decorated cupcake warmed her insides as much as the fall sun warmed her body.
Each time Sarah strolled the sidewalk in front of the shops, she imagined stepping back into time, when life was simpler. When she lived in Philly, she could have walked down the same street at the same time every day and never have seen, much let met, the business owners. Here, she was already on a first-name basis with many folks in town and she was greeted with a wave and a smile.
She opened the door to Mug ’n Muffin, the high-pitched tinkle of the bell above the door announcing her arrival. The scent of sweet, decadent chocolate enveloped her. Her mouth watered and her stomach growled. She’d be taking home a box of Emma’s freshest confection when she left. Again.
The somewhat round, short woman in question stepped out from the back and wiped her hands on the bright pink apron covering her floral dress. A matching bandana pulled her curly silvery hair off her face and delicate, frameless glasses hung on the tip of her nose.
Emma’s face broke into a smile when she spotted Sarah. “Come on in, sweetie. You’re right on time.”
Only a few customers sat at a single table in the corner. The perfect time to talk business. Sarah’s heart raced but she drew in a deep breath and gave herself a silent pep talk. She had this. The prospect of owning her own business excited and scared her at the same time. She’d spent several hours perfecting her business presentation, and Emma was her first potential customer. Sarah took a few wary steps forward. When she reached the shop owner, Emma wrapped her up in a motherly hug. At times like this, Sarah missed having her mother living just around the corner. As hard as it was to be away from her family, this was the right decision for her and Lily.
“Well, how did it go?”
“How did what go?”
Emma’s matronly eyes softened. “Preschool drop-off.”
Sarah’s eyes shifted to the door, and for one moment, the draw of the closed door of preschool was strong. Maybe she could just peek in the door and check on Lily for a minute. She pressed on her belly with her hand to calm the butterflies and kept her feet firmly planted. “Hard. I thought I was ready, but then I got there, and I wasn’t. Lily was nervous for a minute and I was ready to drive us both back home. But then she ran up to the teacher and into the house. And you wouldn’t believe her outfit—she wore a sparkly, pink tutu.”
“That girl. She’s quite a spitfire.”
“Yes, she is.”
“Well, why don’t we get down to business? I just took some double-chocolate cupcakes out of the oven. They should be ready to frost about the time we’re done here.” Emma grabbed two coffee mugs and led Sarah to a table in the corner.
Emma reminded Sarah of her own mother—the smile on Emma’s face, caring eyes and a soft, gentle touch. When Sarah first arrived in town, she’d been immediately charmed by Emma’s shop. The bakery had a sophisticated feel to it, with its deep walnut shelves displaying various gourmet coffees. A dozen or so tables with cushioned armchairs sat around the room, inviting customers to sit and stay a while. A dark wood customer counter and brightly lit display cases stretched from left to right across the middle of the shop. The sparkling clean glass case burst with color and presented a wide variety of delicacies Emma baked from scratch.
Sarah had returned several times after her initial visit, and before long, she’d struck up a conversation with the woman behind the counter. Having recently expanded her business, Emma needed to hire outside accounting. Perfect timing for Sarah. Emma was not only Sarah’s first customer, but her first real friend in town.
Alex would have loved this bakery. Although he had been happy in the city, he’d been a small-town guy at heart. They’d hoped to move to a town like Oak Grove after their family grew. Now Sarah was fulfilling their dream. Alone.
From the day she and Alex met, their relationship had been intense. The two of them spent every free moment together while they were dating and had been quick to move in together. They’d married within a year of meeting—the very definition of a whirlwind romance. Before long, Sarah was pregnant and they became a family of three, Alex the doting father to his newborn daughter. They had so much in common, including their goals for their careers and family. By this point, she’d hoped to have at least two kids and be focused on raising her family. Instead, here she was, new in town and raising her daughter alone.
“You miss him,” Emma said.
Sarah’s face heated. She was in the middle of a business meeting. Of all the times to think about the past. “Uh…”
“S’okay dear.” Emma patted Sarah’s hand. “I can tell, you know?” Her dark eyes warmed. “You rub your ring every time you think of Alex.”
Sarah lowered her hand from her neck where she’d unconsciously fingered the gold wedding band hanging there. Maybe she wasn’t as ready for a fresh start as she’d thought. By wearing her wedding ring on a chain, she kept Alex close to her heart, even while she tried to move on with the rest of her life.
“I’m sure it’s hard to think about life without Alex, but I’m proud of you for taking this step, moving away from your family, and starting fresh here in Oak Grove.” Emma reached across the table and placed both of her hands over Sarah’s. “You’re a strong woman, Sarah Robinson. Stronger than you know.”
How wrong Emma was. But she meant well, and her words were appreciated. Sarah smiled to make her new friend feel good, even if she didn’t feel it herself.
While downing two cups of coffee, Sarah and Emma completed their business and solidified their working relationship. By the end of the meeting, all of Sarah’s nerves had calmed and she had a solid start on her accounting business. While Sarah tucked her papers back into her bag, Emma stood from the table. “Let me go frost you some of those cupcakes, and we’ll get you on your way.”
“That sounds heavenly. I’m just going to get a refill.” Sarah crossed the room, mug in hand.
She pulled the coffee off the burner, pouring the steaming liquid into her cup as the bell above the door announced another customer. With pot in hand, she turned… and stopped short. A man strode into Emma’s shop with his shoulders back and a broad smile on his face. His thick, brown hair was swept to the side and hung a little long over his ears.
Sarah’s stomach leapt into her throat and her breath hitched. Her skin tingled and her pulse raced. She couldn’t move, her feet frozen in place, coffee pot suspended in air. What in the heck was happening to her? She couldn’t remember ever reacting to the sight of a man this way.
A blue T-shirt with a gold logo over his heart stretched over his muscular chest, his biceps stretching the restraints of his short sleeves. Either he earned those on the job, or he spent hours at the gym. She guessed the former. Despite his tough-looking exterior, a gentle, easy smile graced his face. But a storm brewed just beneath the surface of that smile. Everything about him drew her in, pulled her toward him, and her body wavered.
The man stopped halfway to the counter, his rich, whiskey-colored eyes locked on hers. Customers milled around him, but he didn’t move. Sarah’s heart raced. What was happening to her? Images of this man’s arms wrapped around her flooded her mind. Picturing his mouth lowering to hers had her puckering her lips. Heat rose on her cheeks. Even though her face was probably flushed, she clenched her fist at her side to keep from hiding behind her hands.
Stop it. She was married… well, had been married. She was Alex’s wife, she shouldn’t be staring at another man in this way. But she couldn’t help herself. Her rapidly beating heart and the ache in her gut was something she hadn’t felt in a long time. And it wasn’t wholly unwelcome.
Her eyes remained locked on the man as he swaggered toward her, his arms relaxed at his sides, confidence seeping from his pores. Nice that he could be so calm while her skin prickled and her hair stood on end. He stopped when he reached her side, leaning in and crowding her against the counter. A wolfish look settled in his eyes as his face closed the distance between them.
She drew in a deep breath. The musky scent of his aftershave mingled with the aroma of fresh coffee in the air, creating a heady combination.
With his voice barely above a whisper, he said, “Are you finished with the coffee?”
“What? Oh.” She still stood with the coffee pot in her hand. Get a grip. She wasn’t a silly schoolgirl mooning over her recent crush, although that’s probably what he thought of her. “Yeah, I’m done.”
She tried to return the coffee but banged into the machine instead, the hot, black liquid sloshing nearly over her hand. He was too close, his presence overwhelming her. If only she could move her feet, she could put some distance between herself and this man. She finally slid the pot onto the burner and took a wobbly step back, finally tearing her eyes away from his. They dropped to her mug and she ran her finger along the rim then stole another peek at the man. He hadn’t moved, her very presence filling the room. His lush lips formed into a wide grin and his whiskey-colored eyes twinkled.
He arched one black, thick brow. “Thanks.”
Flirt. This man knew the effect he had on women and he flaunted it. And now, that attention was turned toward Sarah.
Emma stepped out from the back just in time to save Sarah from further embarrassment. “Here you go, hon. A half dozen cupcakes. Now you be sure you share with Lily, you hear?”
Sarah heard the woman enter. Heard the words she’d said. But they didn’t compute. She couldn’t turn away from the man in front of her. Her tongue couldn’t form words to thank Emma. Instead, her eyes stayed locked on the man.
“Oh, Lucas. I didn’t hear you come in,” Emma exclaimed.
Lucas. Sarah tucked that piece of information away for later… maybe when she could focus and her brain was firing on more cylinders. Because right now, standing next to this man, she could hardly string two words together. Not since Alex had she turned into a trembling bundle of nerves. Even though Lucas’s body screamed strong, his demeanor said so much more. Protector. Nurturer. Lover. She felt helpless in his presence.
Lucas’s eyes finally broke away from hers and he turned toward Emma. “Hey, Emma. How’re you doing today?”
“I’m great. You on a break?”
“Nope, just coming off duty. Wanted to grab a cup before I headed home.”
“Sounds great. Can I get you a muffin to go with your coffee?”
“You know I never say no to one of your treats.”
Not only was he a flit, but he was also a tease. And his attentions weren’t solely on the young crowd. His charm extended to the older woman, his sassy grin a permanent fixture. There was no way this man wasn’t involved with someone already, so why had he turned his attention toward Sarah.
“I’ll be right back.” Emma headed into the kitchen, leaving Sarah alone with Lucas. She stood frozen in place. She couldn’t make her feet move to escape from this embarrassing situation.
The man extended his hand. “I’m Lucas.”
After drawing in a deep breath to calm her racing heart, Sarah reached out and placed her hand in his. The minute her skin slid against his, a jolt traveled up her arm, spearing her straight in the heart. She didn’t speak. She couldn’t make her mouth form the words.
His grin grew a bit wider. “…and you are?”
After shaking her head and willing her mouth to work, she finally responded, “Oh, I’m sorry. Sarah. I’m Sarah. Nice to meet you. I’m not normally this scatterbrained.”
“Well, nice to meet you, Sarah. Will you join me for a cup of coffee?”
Was he serious? If she sat with him now, she’d be a salivating mess by the time they finished. Clearly, she could only handle this man in small doses. Sarah shook her head. “No, um, oh. I was just leaving.”
“Maybe another time. It was nice to meet you. Hope to see you again.” He chuckled. Had he seen through her poorly-veiled embarrassment?
Heat rose on her cheeks. “You, too, Lucas.”
After another minute staring into his eyes, she finally forced herself to take a step… and then another, until she reached the door and pulled it open.
As soon as she stepped out of sight of the shop, she sagged against the front of the building. What just happened? He’d asked her out, right? At least it sounded like he asked her out. She hadn’t been asked out in so long she wasn’t sure.
No way could she drive home with her hands shaking like this. Besides, it was a beautiful day and she had told herself she wouldn’t hole up in the house when she could be outside, enjoying the weather and getting to know her new town. And what better place that the town green right across the street, a plush, peaceful haven from the bustle of life around it.
When she stepped into the large park, her heart rate slowed and her breathing calmed. The town green had been the first place she’d visited when she first came to town and its peacefulness always calmed her. Wrought-iron benches with wooden slats lined the sidewalks, and the bench directly opposite Emma’s shop gave Sarah a perfect view of Main Street and into the large picture window of the Mug ’n Muffin. Lucas still stood at the counter, waving his hands and talking to Emma, his head thrown back in laughter. Sarah’s stomach fluttered. Had he been as affected when their arms brushed? She’d been a wobbling mess while he stood there looking completely unaffected. And he hadn’t pulled away. It had been a long time since she’d felt this kind of attraction toward a man. Since Alex.
As she kept her eyes fixed on the bakery, Lucas turned and faced the window. Sarah snapped her head away. Had he seen her? That would be so embarrassing. Her eyes darted furtively back to the shop. Lucas had crossed the shop and now stood, hands on his hips, staring out the window. She could tell the moment he spotted her—a huge grin broke out on his face and he raised his mug. She snapped her head around. She was no better than a shy schoolgirl afraid to look at her latest crush. She couldn’t meet his eyes again. She had barely the courage to move her daughter an hour and a half away from her family, she wasn’t ready for a crush. As she forced herself to keep her eyes off of Emma’s shop, she studied the other buildings on Main Street.
Across First Street, on the corner of Main, the firehouse and sheriff’s departments stood as beacons of strength and order, watching over the residents of Oak Grove. While she’d been drawn to the stations on her first visit, she’d never entered either building. She’d come close on several occasions, but each time, she stopped with her hand hovering over the handle. She couldn’t bring herself to enter the symbol of everything she’d lost in her life.
Station One. Funny since it was the only firehouse in town. Equipped with one fire engine and one ambulance, the station served Oak Grove and the surrounding rural areas. Volunteers filled most of the positions, with the station maintaining only a small full-time fire and EMS crew. She bet no one else in town knew as much about the stations as she did, but she’d researched the details of the local fire response before making an offer on her home. She couldn’t bear another delay like the one that had killed Alex.
Two brass bells mounted on the front of the fire station clanged and reality broke into her train of thought. The firefighters and paramedics milling around the front of the station scrambled into the open doors, shouting commands as they did. In no time, the fire engine and ambulance screeched out of their bays and turned onto Main Street, sirens blaring and lights flashing. Sarah held her breath, tension squeezing her chest.
She was unable to wrench her eyes away until the vehicles rushed out of sight. A deafening silence replaced the clamor of bells and engines. Was someone else living through the horror that struck her family just two years ago? Would another family lose a loved one to a fire?
A strangled huff sounded from across the street, and she turned to see Lucas standing on the sidewalk in front of Mug ’n Muffin, his head lowered and his hands clenched into fists at his sides.
* * *
Lucas stood, frozen in place, watching his fellow firefighters and paramedics racing to an emergency. He ached to be on the engine with them. His heart raced and his feet had moved toward the station on their own when the bells rang. But he wasn’t welcome on the engine. Not right now. The captain shouldn’t have taken him off the crew. They needed him… and he needed them. He clenched his muscles, forcing his body to stay put when every cell yearned to follow after the vehicles.
After the last strains of the sirens faded on the air, he glanced into the park. Sarah had been sitting on that bench, staring across the street, since she’d walked out of the coffee shop. As he talked to Emma, he’d kept his gaze pinned on Sarah. A mixture of concern and longing shone on her face. What could be going through her mind that left her with such a troubled look?
Their initial conversation was too short. Maybe now after she’d had a few minutes to relax, she’d be up to spending some time with him. They didn’t have to drink coffee, he’d be happy just to sit beside her on the bench. But before he could head across the street, she hustled in the opposite direction, his opportunity to redeem after his rocky introduction lost.
Where was the smooth, suave Lucas that the ladies in town called Oak Grove’s Most Eligible Bachelor? Could he have sounded more like a dork? That Lucas must have stayed outside, and Awkward Lucas had entered the coffee shop alone.
He couldn’t pull his eyes from her the entire time he’d been in the shop. She’d worn a pair of tight-fitting jeans that perfectly showcased her round hips. As his eyes traveled up her body, they landed on the bright red sweater that hugged her breasts. Her blonde hair hung straight and long down her back. He hadn’t meant to, but he’d stared so long he’d nearly embarrassed himself. Acted no better than a horny teenager drooling over the cute girl across the classroom. She’d smiled when their gazes had locked, but happiness didn’t reach her eyes. Sadness permeated her look, the swirl of emotions drawing him in and he couldn’t look away.
When he’d touched her, the air between them sizzled. He’d felt it and he was certain she had, too. At least he’d regrouped in the end and had gotten her name before she left. If his brain hadn’t been scrambled from the mere sight of her, he’d have gotten her number. Considering how quickly she ran out of the shop, he’d probably scared her off.
She was clearly new in town. No way had she lived here long and he not have met her. Now, he just needed to find a way to run into her again. Smiling at the challenge he had ahead of him, he headed to his brother Joey’s bar, looking forward to a cold beer and a hot plate of nachos.
“Bye, Mommy.” Lily yelled and waved as Sarah backed toward her car.
Sarah didn’t want to leave Lily here with Jessica with Sarah back at home, ninety minutes away. It was too soon. She’d just adjusted to leaving Lily at preschool for a few hours. The long list of tasks she had waiting for her could wait.
But Lily needed the freedom, and Sarah needed the time alone. Raising her daughter as a single mother was incredibly rewarding but at the same time, exhausting. Luckily, her family was still not that far away and weekends between cousins were only a drive away. So, Sarah plastered a smile on her face and waved back at Lily.
A few large drops of rain landed on Sarah’s head. What she wouldn’t give for a few minutes’ peace and an uneventful drive back home. Was that too much to ask? She looked up and cursed. The rain didn’t faze her sister and nephew, who stood beside Lily on Jessica’s porch. Well, she couldn’t do anything about the weather, and she certainly wouldn’t get anything done if she didn’t get home first. As the drops quickened, she dashed into the car.
Lily, Jessica, and Nicky darted into the house as Sarah backed out of the driveway. With a final, hesitant wave to the trio through the glass door, Sarah pulled away for the ninety-minute drive back to Oak Grove.
The deep plunking sound of huge rain drops hitting the roof echoed through Sarah’s car. She focused on the windshield and squinted her eyes. The glass filled with water faster than her wipers, even at their highest speed, could swipe it away. Her stomach tightened and her heart raced. She probably should have just stayed at Jessica’s, but she’d never really be able to start a new life for her and Lily if she couldn’t leave her daughter for a simple overnight sleepover.
She gripped the steering wheel tighter, pain radiating through her knuckles. Damn, she could barely see the hood of the car, much less the road in front of her. She sat forward in her chair, her muscles in her cheeks throbbing from her constant tensing. Because she had to drive so slow, the sun was going down and she likely wouldn’t make it home before the sky nightfall. She couldn’t have picked a worse night to drive the route from Philly to Oak Grove.
If she thought the interstate was bad, the winding road leading back into Oak Grove was so much worse. Her stomach clenched and she swiped at the sweat that dotted her forehead. Was there anything else she could add to the stress of the drive home?
Thank God Lily was with Jessica. Those words ran through her mind over and over, the one comforting thought swirling in a sea of frightening ones. The lengthy list of things she hoped to accomplish this weekend forgotten, her only goal now was to reach her new home safely.
She turned the knob on the air conditioner and a huge blast of cold air smacked her in the face… but the thickening sheen on the window didn’t clear. Her jaw ached from gritting her teeth as she eased off the gas pedal. She eyed the shoulder… maybe she could pull off and wait out the storm.
A slight movement in her peripheral vision startled her and she jumped in her seat, her eyes shifting to the side of the road. She shrieked, jerked the wheel to the left, and slammed both feet on the brake. The car skidded out of control toward the deer directly in front of her.
She released the brake and slammed the gear shift down, trusting the lower gear would slow the car. Maybe she could gain a little traction. The tires slipped and then gripped the surface, the car straightened, and she finally regained control, stopping just short of the animal.
The deer stood in the middle of the road, her tongue sticking out of her mouth, her aloof look saying what’s your problem? Their eyes remained locked on each other for a moment, after which, the deer ambled the remaining distance across the road. Two fawns ran onto the road, spindly legs flailing as they hustled behind their mother.
At least she didn’t wreck the car or hurt the doe and its babies. The same couldn’t be said for the inside of the car where her purse had tipped over and strewn its contents throughout the car. She could drive home and clean it up later, but with the storm still raging outside her window, she wanted to keep her cell phone handy. At least she could grab that before she went on her way. But not until she moved from the middle of the road.
She could climb out and walk around, but she’d get soaked. Could she reach her phone without leaving the safety of her vehicle? Well, it was worth a shot. She stretched over the console of the car and the tips of her fingers skimmed the strap of her purse. She withdrew a second and caught her breath and then stretched again, finally grasping the handle and pulling the bag onto the passenger seat. Damn, that shouldn’t have been so hard. Finally, her hands stopped shaking enough to collect the few loose items she could reach.
After she shoved the other items back into her purse, she pressed the speed dial button on her phone.
“Sarah! What’s wrong?”
Thank God her sister answered. Her voice always calmed Sarah’s nerves. “Nothing’s wrong.” Her voice wobbled and she gritted her teeth. “Why do you ask?”
“Well, you usually text me, so when your name popped up on my display, I got worried. Are you home yet?”
“Not quite… almost.” She sure wouldn’t get any closer until she calmed her racing heart and her hands stopped shaking.
“Are you driving?” Concern laced Jessica’s voice.
She drew in a deep breath, knowing she could count on Jessica’s rational thinking to calm Sarah’s overly excitable nerves. “No. I pulled over. I almost hit a mother deer and her two little ones. I stopped the car just in time.”
“Oh, thank goodness. You had me scared for a moment.” Jessica paused. What was she thinking? If she encouraged Sarah to come back to Philly, she wasn’t sure she could resist. “Are you sure you’re okay?”
“I am. It just rattled me a little.”
“I’m sure it did.” Sarah opened her mouth to say something when Jessica’s voice echoed through her ear. “So… why don’t you tell me more about that sexy man you met at the coffee shop?”
Sarah groaned. “I knew I shouldn’t have mentioned him. You’re like a freaking dog with a bone. There’s not much to tell. I stared. I made a fool of myself. I left.”
“It couldn’t have been that bad.”
Only Sarah acting like an awkward teenager in front of the most handsome man she’d ever seen. Lucas’s face filled Sarah’s mind, his piercing eyes staring back at her, eyes sizzling with awareness as they trailed up her body. She imagined laying her head on his broad chest, feeling his heart beat beneath her cheek. Her arms wrapped around him, pulling him in close, peppering kisses along his neck, up to his ear, around to… “Dammit, Jessica!”
“Better now?” Her sister’s chuckle rang through the phone.
She could always count on Jessica. “Yes, thank you. I’m glad I called. Give Lily a kiss for me. I’m going to head home now.”
“Text me when you get home. You know I’ll worry.”
All of her life, Jessica had always worried enough for the both of them. Tonight was no different. “Yes, I know you will, Mom.”
Jessica laughed again and Sarah pressed End before placing her phone in the console, wanting it nearby for the rest of her trip home. Thank God Lily’s safe.
After one more cleansing breath, she convinced herself she could finish the drive home. Seat belt fastened—check. Hands on the steering wheel—check.
Sarah checked behind her but found only the dark road behind her. Not one car had passed the entire time she’d talked to Jessica. At least no one else was out in this mess. She slowly pulled her sedan out into the road, starting out at a much slower pace.
Rain continued to pound her car and her muscles burned from the tight grip she had on the steering wheel. Only a few more minutes and she’d be safely tucked into her new cottage and then it wouldn’t matter if the storm raged outside. As she approached the first traffic light on the outskirts of town, she took her foot off the gas and prepared to stop. She didn’t expect many cars to cross her path at this late hour, but she slowed anyway. All she needed was another deer to dart in front of her.
When the light turned green, she turned her head left and then right before heading into the intersection. Suddenly, bright white lights filled the car, blinding her. Deafening sounds of crushing metal filled the air, and her body slammed against the door. She screamed… her car spun out of control… the airbag deployed, smacking into her face and upper body and slamming her back against the seat. Intense pain shot up her arms and across her chest.
Lily’s beautiful face flashed through her mind just before her car slammed into a tree.
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