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Pediatrician Jaclyn LaForge quickly ushered her patients out of her brand-new clinic to safety. Her relief was shortlived when the clinic's nurse grabbed her arm.
"Randy McNabb and his mom haven't come out," RaeAnn whispered. "I think they're still inside."
The volunteer fire department of Hope, New Mexico, wasn't here yet and Jaclyn wasn't going to wait for them. She kicked off her high heels.
"Wait," RaeAnn begged.
"No child left unattended, RaeAnn. That's our motto." Jaclyn raced inside the building, praying Randy and his mom were safe. Surely God would answer this prayer.
Inside the clinic, she moved from room to room. When choking black smoke enveloped her, she dropped to a crouch, calling Randy's name as she squeezed her burning eyes closed. Reopening them, she saw nothing. Her hand clutched air. Her lungs gagged on thick heavy smoke. She ripped off her jacket and held it over her face, trying to stem her terror.
Jaclyn reached for a shadow and knocked something over. She knew she couldn't stay in the clinic, but when she rose to move ahead, shards of broken glass pierced her foot. She collapsed in pain.
Don't let me die, God. Not before I've kept my promise to Jessica.
A gloved hand curled around her arm. Another nudged her jacket away from her mouth to plant a mask over her face. She lifted it. "Randy"
"Keep it there," a gruff voice ordered. "And hang on to me."
Jaclyn obediently inhaled the pure, clear air in gasps. Her rescuer heaved her over a very broad shoulder and carried her through the building. For the first time in years Jaclyn relinquished all control and allowed someone else to be in charge of her life.
As they emerged into the sunny spring warmth, Jaclyn pushed away the mask and inhaled, forcing her burning lungs to clear as she shot a prayer of thanks heavenward. Her rescuer gently set her on the ground. She lay still, overwhelmed by what had almost happened.
"Are you nuts? You don't go into a burning building. Not ever." The fireman in front of her ripped off his headgear and glared at her, his lips tight in an angry frown. But his fingers took her pulse with gentleness. He carefully eased her sooty jacket from her hands and tossed it away before checking her for burns. "Can you breathe okay? Do you need more oxygen?"
He tried to replace the mask but she pushed it away.
"I'm fine." Well, that would be true if her stomach hadn't just flipped in reaction to his touch. Jaclyn peered into cobalt-blue eyes and wondered who he was.
"Why would you go into a fire?" he demanded.
"A little boyRandy" She blinked at the familiar bellow that came from her left. "That's him. Where was he?"
"He and his mom used the old fire escape on the side of the building. They're fine."
"Good." She kept her gaze on the fireman, fighting not to look at her clinic. "I'm fine, too." She accepted his outstretched hand to help her stand, winced and quickly sat down again. "Except for my foot. I stepped on some glass."
The fireman called for a first aid pack, shredded what was left of her stockings and examined the soles of her feet with a tender touch.
"I took off my shoes, you see," she said, as if that would explain everything.
"If those are your shoes, I'm not surprised you got rid of them." He shot a scathing glance at her spiked heels lying not ten feet away. "I don't know how you can even walk in those things." He glanced up, his blue eyes darkening to navy. "This is going to hurt."
"It already does. Go ahead." Jaclyn leaned back on her elbows and watched him delicately remove bits of glass from her foot. She tried to ignore her pulse-thudding reaction to him by trying to remember where she'd seen eyes so richly blue before.
Her rescuer's forehead pleated in deeply tanned furrows. So he was an outdoors guy, good-looking with the kind of massive shoulders that not even the bulk of a fireman's jacket disguised. He'd shed his headgear to reveal a face that appeared chiseled from stone.
His jaw clenched and unclenched as he worked, a tiny tic in his throat betraying his concentration. His hairdark, almost blacklay in a ruffle of tight curls against his scalp
"Kent?" Jaclyn whispered in disbelief. "Kent McCloy?"
"Yeah?" He lifted his head, blinked at her.
"I didn't recognize you. It's me. Jaclyn. Jaclyn LaForge." She waited. But Kent only nodded once and went back to work on her foot. "Thanks for getting me out of there."
"No problem. It's what firemen do." His drawl, like his face, gave nothing away.
Oh, no, her soul groaned. Kent was just like the rest of Hope's biased locals who couldn't believe the former bad girl of Hope could be a real doctor. Jaclyn was sick of that attitude. As if a mistake from her past made her completely unqualified to actually treat patients.
Kent squeezed the arch of her foot in preparation to draw out yet more shards. The last one was large enough to make her yelp in pain.
"Sorry." His fingers belied his gruff tone as he gently held her foot and poured antiseptic over the wounds. He began to wrap her foot in gauzehis bandaging skills were as good as or better than hers. "Okay?"
"It's fine." Actually his touch was more than fine, which was utterly confusing because Jaclyn had never reacted like this to anyone ever.
"I think I got it all but you should have somebody at the hospital check." He set her foot down and tied off the gauze. "No stitches needed, though I suspect it will be painful for a while. And wearing those shoes? No way."
Who cared about shoes? Jaclyn caught a glimpse of her dreamJessica's Clinicand groaned.
"It's ruined," she whispered, swallowing tears that would make her look weak. "It's totally ruined."
"Yeah, fires tend to do that." Kent offered a hand to help her rise. When she was upright, he slid his arm around her waist, as if he understood that only force of will and his help kept her standing. If he hadn't been there she'd have burst out bawling.
"But how could a fire start?" She looked from him back to the blackened, smoking building. "I had the place checked out. I had everything very carefully checked out."
"Then somebody missed something. Or it's an accident."
He shrugged. "Sorry, but the place is toast. In my opinion it isn't salvageable." Despite his harsh assessment, his blue eyes glowed with sympathy.
Jaclyn didn't want sympathy. Forget Kent McCloy with his midnight eyes, big broad shoulders and the gentlest touch she'd ever felt. Her dream was going up in smoke.
"I just opened." Despite her best efforts, a tear slipped out and trickled down her cheek. "I worked so hard to make this dream come true."
"Then you'll start over." Kent turned her to face him, his voice softer. "It's just a building. Compared to your life, losing a building doesn't matter. Besides" he waved a hand "Hope is full of empty buildings. I should know. I own that one over there."
She nodded, recognizing it. "Your dad's old law office."
"Uh-huh." He shook his head. A faint smile tugged at his mouth for a millisecond before it disappeared. "You can start over, Jaclyn. Take your choice of where." He waved a hand, as if it were simple to start again.
She blinked, surveyed the street then twisted to look at Kent again. If he wanted her to reopen he couldn't be holding her past against her. Maybe he'd even help her.
"Many of these places look worse than the one I was in."
"Probably are. Unoccupied buildings deteriorate fast." He turned away as one of the other firemen came over to speak to him. "She's okay. She should be checked out at the hospital for smoke inhalation. I removed the glass in her foot."
"Fire department volunteers aren't supposed to render that much first aid," the other fireman reminded, eyes dancing. "At least that's what you said at our last meeting, Chief. I can see why you did it, though." He gave Jaclyn a smile that should have made her heart throb.
Jaclyn wanted to tell him to save it for someone who would appreciate it, that she was devoted to her workexcept for when Kent McCloy made her pulse race by taking glass out of her foot.
"Generally we don't. Do first aid, I mean." Kent's tanned face turned a shade of burgundy.
"Just couldn't help yourself this time, huh?" the fireman teased.
"The fire, Pete?" Kent reminded, dark brows lowered.
"Under control. But I'll take the hint and get back to work." The other man left smirking.
"What did he mean you couldn't help yourself? Are you a doctor, Kent?" Jaclyn frowned. "But I met the local doctors.
At least, I thought I had."
"Vet," Kent corrected with a mocking smile. "I can't stand to see things hurting, though I usually treat a different species."
"Oh." She glanced at her foot. "Well, maybe you should broaden your practice. I'll be a reference if you like."
"You want me as competition in town?" His chuckle made her stomach quiver again.
"I'm not sure it would matter much," Jaclyn mumbled. "I could hardly have fewer patients." She gulped, regrouped. "It's good to see you again, Kent. It's been a long time since we were in high school together. We'll have to catch up sometime." She'd been so focused on the clinic she'd met hardly anyoneit would be nice to have a social life.
His beautiful smile disappeared, his face tightening into an unreadable mask.
"Sure." He looked around as if he wanted to avoid further conversation. "The ambulance is here. You'd better go with them, get your foot checked." His arm left her waist.
"I'm fine." Jaclyn studied him as she balanced on her uninjured foot, feeling suddenly bereft. "Have you lived in Hope since high school?"
"No." Kent's response didn't invite further questions. He turned his head, nodding when one of the other firefighters motioned for him to join them. "I have to go."
"Well, thanks for saving my life." She waited until he'd taken a few steps away. "Kent?"
"Yes?" He turned back, his impatience to get back to work clearly visible.
"Was anyone else hurt?" She held her breath as she waited for his answer.
"Just you." He studied her for a moment longer, then grabbed the gear he'd thrown down and strode away looking larger than life.
Not that he needs any help there, she thought noting the badge at the top of his sleeve. "Fire Chief Kent McCloy is already the stuff of heroes. But that doesn't matter to me," she said aloud, as if convincing herself. "I have no time for relationships. I'm not back in Hope for a high school reunion."
So what was with her reaction to him?
"Jaclyn, you're talking to yourself." RaeAnn frowned. "How much smoke did you breathe in?"
"No, you aren't. Your foot is injured. For once, stop trying to be in control." RaeAnn slid an arm around her waist for support. "I'm taking you to the hospital."
Maybe they could get her head examined while she was there, Jaclyn mused. She checked over her shoulder one last time and saw Kent motion for another fireman to direct his hose on the back of the now-smoking building that had housed Jaclyn's clinic. That clinic had been the focus of her dreams for more than ten years. It was the place where she was finally going to earn the life she'd been given. The life Jessica had lost.
Why? That was the question that always haunted her. Why had her twin sister gotten leukemia and not her? In all the years since Jessica's death, she'd never figured that out.
Jaclyn shook off her stupor and concentrated on getting into RaeAnn's car while her assistant retrieved her shoes. It must have been smoke addling her brain that made her notice Kent's broad shoulders again because Dr. Jaclyn LaForge was not interested in menespecially not Kent McCloy, no matter how good he looked in his gear.
Guys like Kent, even though they're gorgeous, have no effect on me, she thought as she sat alone in a treatment room, waiting to be examined by a colleague. But all the denials in the world couldn't disguise the way her heartbeat had raced when Kent had touched her.
How was it that the only guy she'd ever had a crush on in high schoolthe guy who'd stuck by her when everyone else had turned against her after Jessica's deathstill had the power to make her shiver?
Didn't matter. Overpowering reactions notwithstanding, Jaclyn had no time for personal relationships. She had a duty to her twin sister to get the clinic up and running again. Despite losing the building, she would find a way to do itno matter what.