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Can't Help Falling in LoveHunka Hunka Burnin' Love
By Wendy Etherington
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.Copyright © 2003 Wendy Etherington
All right reserved.
Chapter OneSkyler Kimball clutched the broad oak tree branch just above her head, stretching her other hand to her nemesis. "Give me a break, Fluffy."
Fluffy, the copper-colored, not-quite-pure-bred Persian sitting barely five feet away, merely blinked her topaz eyes.
"What did you expect, Sky?" she admonished herself. "After two and a half hours of perching in the tree, the animal was just going to fall into your arms? Life's not that easy." Certainly not her life.
"I called the fire department, Skyler honey," Fluffy's owner, Roland, called up to her.
"Uh ..." Skyler's hand slipped. She hugged the tree trunk as panic bloomed in her chest. "That's not - I mean, maybe we're jumping the gun here, Roland," she yelled down, peering through the thick branches.
Roland Patterson, the owner of the pet store located next to her women's clothing shop, smiled wide, his pale brown eyes twinkling, even from a distance.
And she immediately knew the significance of calling the fire department was not lost on her neighbor. He had a thing for the fire department. Specifically for firemen.
For nearly two years, she and Roland had owned businesses on Main Street in her hometown of Baxter, Georgia. Generous loan terms provided by the city council had given them - along with the bakery, the gym and the florist - opportunities to become part of the city's recent downtown expansion. Skyler loved the independence her shop, Kimball Fashions, had given her, though her protective brothers had argued each and every point of the contract she'd signed.
Brothers who, she reminded herself, would be arriving at any moment with the flamboyant siren, lights and hoopla of the Baxter Fire Department.
She looked heavenward. "Please don't let them bring the ladder truck ... please don't let them bring the ladder truck."
The image of her climbing down that long, shaky ladder, with half of downtown staring up her flowery sundress and gossiping about the risqu� lingerie no one would have imagined she wore, spurred her to action. She climbed a few branches higher. "Come on, Fluffy," she implored, holding out her hand to the stubborn cat.
Fluffy proceeded to wash her already pristine paw.
The possibility of some panicked individual - Roland came to mind - calling the fire department for such a simple, and clich�d, task as a cat in a tree was the reason she'd scaled the giant oak in the first place. She could handle any crisis. And without her brothers' help. Certainly Fluffy's sudden penchant to spend the afternoon in the park.
In the distance, she heard the peal of a siren. Yeah, right.
Briefly, she considered scrambling down the tree it had taken her more than thirty minutes to climb, but one look below at the park's summer green grass changed her mind. She swallowed hard. Had she really climbed so high?
Worse, a small crowd had gathered on the sidewalk. Two elderly women had their necks craned backward as they stared up at her. A couple of kids - was school out already? - danced around Roland chanting, "Jump, jump." Their words caused passersby to grind to a halt. People pointed and whispered. Cars stopped in the middle of the street. When Roland shook his head at the kids and shouted "Stop that right now," they only chanted louder. "Jump! Jump! Jump! ..."
"Hells bells." Resting her forehead against the rough tree bark, Skyler cursed her impulsive nature. She'd fought against the "hero" mentality of her family all her life by being planned, controlled and cautious. Her father had lost his life in a fire being the hero, never realizing the financial and emotional strain he might leave behind. Her brothers, Ben and Steve in the fire department and Wes as a cop, strove on a daily basis to live up to his legend, while she, at least on most levels, fought to live it down. She cared for her mother - who'd never fully recovered from the loss of her husband nearly twenty years before - she paid her taxes, attended to her customers, went out every other Saturday night with her friends for girls' night, and fought nervous sweats and panic over her brothers' dangerous jobs.
She had stock to unpack, customers to call about her upcoming sale and books to balance. Why had she decided to take on an ornery feline as her one heroic gesture in weeks? If only Roland hadn't cried....
"Don't jump, dear," someone called up.
Skyler glanced down to see one of the elderly women had moved to the base of the tree. "I'm not jumping," she returned. She had no intention of listening to the ridiculous suggestion of a couple of obnoxious five-year-olds.
"Just stay calm. Remember life is so precious."
"You have so much to live for."
Of course ... Skyler narrowed her eyes as realization dawned. That lady thought she wanted to do herself in. From an oak tree? In the middle of the park? Good grief. Feeling ridiculous for having to explain why she'd climbed the tree, she pointed at Fluffy. "I'm just getting a cat."
"You don't have to make up a story, dear."
Skyler clenched her jaw. "I'm not making -"
"We all love you."
Pushing a group of leaves out of her way, Skyler craned her neck to get a better look at this goofy woman. She'd never seen her before in her life. We all love you?
"I'm just here to get the cat." She stepped over one branch closer to Fluffy.
The crowd gasped. The kids chanted louder. "Jump! Jump! Jump!" The lady held up her hand imploringly. "No, don't move."
Then the fire department arrived. In the ladder truck. And the pump truck. And the ambulance.
Skyler sighed, sitting on a branch with her back braced against the tree. "Well, Fluffy, we're getting the full show today."
Captain Benjamin Kimball - her oldest brother - leapt from the passenger seat of the ladder truck, just as Steve, his junior by five years, jumped from the driver's side. Drivers and other firemen scrambled out of the other trucks, all jogging in the wake of their captain. Looking away from the whole, humiliating scene, Skyler absently wondered when the police - and her third brother - would arrive.
Her stomach growled, reminding her she hadn't eaten lunch. Fluffy butted her head against her arm, purring like crazy. She was probably hungry by now, too. Skyler rubbed the ornery feline between her ears. "You know, you could have decided to be friends twenty minutes ago, then we wouldn't be in this mess."
The cat crawled into her lap, flexing her claws as she found a comfortable position.
"Ouch!" Skyler flinched and grabbed an overhead branch to steady herself.
The crowd gasped. The goofy lady squealed. The kids chanted. "Jump! Jump! Jump! ..."
"Skyler?" a familiar voice shouted.
Skyler waved her hand in Ben's general direction. "Here."
"You're not planning to jump, are you?"
"Can you climb down?"
"If you really think I should."
"Skyler ..." Ben said in his best don't-mess-withme warning tone - the one he used whenever he was forced to bail her out of some scrape her impulsiveness had driven her to.
Excerpted from Can't Help Falling in Love by Wendy Etherington Copyright © 2003 by Wendy Etherington
Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.