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By Leona Karr
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2002 Harlequin Enterprises Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe last thing that Shannon Hensley expected when she rented a summer cottage near Beaver Junction, Colorado, was to be confronted with a life-threatening forest fire.
"They're bringing in firefighters from all over," Isabel Watkins, the owner of the town's one grocery store, told Shannon as she quickly sacked her purchases. "This place is going to be worse than a beehive turned upside down."
Shannon's gray-blue eyes widened. "The report I heard said the fire was somewhere in the high country."
"That's us," Isabel replied with a nod. "The fire started up on the north ridge. They don't know if it was started by careless campers or lightning. Everyone was hoping that it would burn itself out, but the winds have spread the blaze downward."
"But it's still miles away, isn't it?" Shannon asked, feeling an unbidden quiver of nervousness. She'd rented a summer cottage in a deeply wooded area about fifteen miles from this small settlement and had only been settled a short time.
"Not many miles as the crow flies. It's unbelievable how fast a wildfire can spread," Isabel answered, shaking her head. "They're hoping to get a fire line set up before the flames crest Prospect Ridge. Once it jumps into those thick drifts on the downhill slopes, it could make its way into this valley."
Great, just great! Shannon thought, and filled with all kinds of misgivings, she left the store and started driving down the two-block Main Street. She'd driven to Colorado, looking for a quiet retreat where she could try to make some sense out of the shambles of her life. She had wanted to leave all the drama and trauma behind in Los Angeles. Even now she couldn't believe that she was jobless, friendless and facing another uphill battle to secure a prosperous future for herself.
It wasn't fair, but then she reminded herself that she'd never expected life to be fair. She'd fought tooth and nail for everything she'd ever gotten. Her parents had believed that looking out for number one was what life was all about and had taught their daughter well. Shannon's focus had been on climbing the corporate ladder since college, and there had been little time in her life for anything or anyone else. She was well on her way to achieving her high goals when, almost overnight, her high-paying position was eliminated because of a corporate takeover, and she was tossed out by new management as easily as they were replacing old office furnishings with new.
Now it seemed that her hopes of spending some relaxing downtime in Colorado were threatening to go up in smoke. Maybe she should pack up her things and get out of the area. Better to forgo a month's rent than put herself under more tension worrying about a forest fire driving her out. But where would she go? Her finances were tight at the moment, and the added expense of seeking out another retreat wasn't something she had planned on. Besides, she told herself firmly, the fire might never get within miles of her rented place. She decided that it wouldn't hurt to hang around for a couple of days even though this mountain valley was isolated with only one two-lane road leading from the Junction to a major highway in Elkhorn, a town about fifty miles away.
As Shannon turned onto the narrow road snaking up to her mountain cottage and other dwellings built on the slopes of Rampart Mountain, she braked to a sudden stop.
"What in the world?" She couldn't believe it. A wooden barricade was stretched across the road, and a man wearing a cowboy hat and Western clothes moved quickly to her car window. Under different circumstances she might have appreciated his strong masculine features and the way his brown eyes reflected a smile as he waited for her to lower the window on the driver's side. She guessed him to be somewhere in his early thirties as he gave a polite tip to his broadbrimmed Stetson and acknowledged her with a polite hello.
"What's going on?" she asked without returning his smile. Used to big city runaround, she was ready to summon any argument necessary to avoid wasting time at a roadblock.
"We have to keep all traffic off this road," he replied in an easy, conversational tone, holding his smile.
"To keep it clear for the emergency vehicles." That slow easy smile of his was getting on her nerves, and she resented a deep, stroking voice that undoubtedly could play havoc with most females - but not her. She wasn't some backwoods gal who was used to taking orders from any smiling man who happened to be around, nor about to meekly accept this inconvenience without a firm protest.
"I don't see any traffic," she said firmly, as if that should settle the matter.
"You will in just a few minutes. The first caravan of forest fighters will be here shortly with trucks and all kinds of fire-fighting equipment. They're going to establish a base camp just a couple of miles from here. This whole area is going to be under siege before long."
"Does that mean the road is going to be closed indefinitely?" Shannon's sharp mind suddenly shifted into gear. What would this mean to her? She'd been a successful businesswoman because of her ability to handle unexpected situations. With dogged determination she had always made certain that she didn't come out the loser.
"I couldn't say how long it will be closed. It depends upon how fast the fire moves up the other side of Prospect Mountain." His slow, unruffled tone increased her irritation.
"I don't see why you can't let me drive quickly up to my place."
"Because I have my orders not to let anyone up this road."
"Then you're some kind of officer?" Her skepticism was obvious in her tone as she glanced over his Western shirt as if looking for a badge.
"No, just an ordinary citizen doing my duty," he answered smoothly. "Ward Dawson's the name. Now if you'll back up to that wide spot and turn around, you can wait out the road closures in town."
She glared at him. "How long will that be?"
"Well, let's see." He shoved his cowboy hat back far enough for her to see shocks of cinnamon brown hair framing his nicely tanned face. "Not more than a month, I reckon."
"A month!" She echoed, horrified. Then she saw the twinkle in his eyes and gave him a glare that told him she didn't appreciate his humor.
Ward silently chuckled. She was a testy one, all right, and he couldn't help kidding her a little. The California license plates on her fancy sports car had told him a lot. She was a city gal, all right, and a downright attractive one with wavy hair the color of corn silk, petite features and flashing gray-blue eyes that snapped at him. He didn't know who she was, but she sure wasn't going to drive anywhere up this road if he had anything to do with it.
Excerpted from Hidden Blessing by Leona Karr Copyright © 2002 by Harlequin Enterprises Limited
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