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Her Only Hero
By Marta Perry
Steeple HillCopyright © 2005 Marta Perry
All right reserved.
"I suppose you'd better come in."
Laura McKay had a feeling that sounded ungracious. She tried to make amends by forcing a smile as she stood back to let the uniformed firefighter step into the foyer of her brick townhouse.
The man glanced through the archway to the bare, dusty area she hoped would eventually be a groundfloor shop. Searching for something to find unsafe, no doubt.
"Sorry to bother you." He consulted the clipboard he carried. "Ms. McKay, is it? I'm Ryan Flanagan, from the Suffolk Fire Department."
He didn't recognize her, then. Funny, because she'd known Ryan Flanagan from the moment she opened the door.
Ryan hadn't changed all that much from the tall, handsome football hero he'd been in high school. One of the popular Flanagan brothers, with those deep-blue eyes and that cleft in his strong chin, he'd had every girl at Suffolk High School longing to be the recipient of one of his teasing smiles, including her.
Well, that was a long time ago. It didn't matter that he hadn't remembered the shy underclassman who had admired him from afar.
"I don't understand why you're here." She glanced up the stairs of the three-story townhouse, longing to get back to the work she'd set herself for the day. "I have all the necessary permits for the renovation, and the building has already been inspected by your department."
He shrugged, smiling. The smile was, unfortunately, just as devastating as it had been in high school.
"Just one of those necessary things, I'm afraid. Someone called the department with a complaint, so we're obligated to check it out."
"Someone complained about me?" That jerked her mind away from the wallpaper she'd been removing.
"Anonymous." He shrugged again. "It happens. If you'll just let me take a walk-through and check things out, I'll get out of your hair."
He glanced at her head as he spoke, and she put up her hand to discover that the bandanna she'd tied on to protect her wiry mane was thoroughly covered with plaster dust. She swatted at it uselessly and then pulled the thing off. What difference did it make what she looked like, anyway? The important thing was to get back to work.
Her nerves tightened in a way that had become too familiar lately. Time was running out, and she had to finish the job. If she didn't --
Well, if didn't bear thinking about.
So the sooner she got rid of Ryan Flanagan the better. She waved a hand toward the staircase. "We might as well begin at the top. That's where I've been working today."
She started up the wooden stairwell, not touching the gritty railing. The wood was mahogany under all that dirt, and eventually it would shine. The whole place would.
His footsteps sounded behind her. "You're actually rehabbing this place yourself?"
"What's wrong with that?" She sounded tart, she supposed, but she'd heard that incredulous tone from enough people since she'd started this job.
"Nothing, I guess. But this place has been deteriorating for so long I figured eventually it would be torn down. Or fall down."
Laura touched the intricate molding she'd uncovered when she'd renovated the second-floor landing. She loved the smooth, aged feel of it under her fingers, loved knowing she'd uncovered its beauty.
"You'd be surprised. The place has been standing since 1810, and they built to last then."
The three-story brick townhouse on the edge of Suffolk's historic district might look decrepit, but she wasn't giving up on it. It had the potential to be a showpiece. Besides, it was all she and her daughter had between them and an uncertain future.
She glanced toward the apartment door as they passed it. She'd fixed the apartment up first, so she and Mandy would have a decent place to live. Mandy was occupied right now with a new coloring book, and she wouldn't hear them.
Her heart cramped. No, Mandy wouldn't hear them. They emerged into the open space at the top of the stairs. Ryan looked around doubtfully, and she understood what he was seeing.
The top floor looked like a barren, dusty wreck. Shreds of faded floral wallpaper clung to old horsehair plaster, which had crumbled away to the underlying lath in places. The May sunshine filtering through high, cracked windows, lit up every flaw.
Ryan touched a dangling strip of wallpaper. "You think you can actually make something livable of this?"
She wasn't used to explaining herself to people, but Ryan, with his uniform and that report sheet on his clipboard, wasn't just anyone. That insignia he wore gave him the right to probe. Tension skittered along her nerves. He could shut her down.
"Yes, I do. Believe it or not, I have a degree in interior design."
His dark eyebrows lifted. "This isn't interior design. It's construction. Or maybe demolition."
"My father was a contractor," she said quickly. "I learned from the best."
He nodded, still looking doubtful, and started around the third floor. Holding her breath, she followed him. She ran a clean work site -- her father had always insisted on that. He wouldn't find any junk around to complain about.
Ryan's attention to his inspection gave her ample time to take a look at the man he'd become. The seriousness with which he seemed to take his job was new. The Ryan she remembered had never taken anything seriously, but he'd always seemed able to charm his way out of the trouble his recklessness had gotten him into.
She wasn't surprised by the neat blue uniform with the Suffolk Fire Department patch that fit his tall figure so well. All the Flanagans had been wedded to the fire department. There'd never been much doubt as to what Ryan would do with his life.
Excerpted from Her Only Hero by Marta Perry Copyright © 2005 by Marta Perry.
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