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His eyes on the fingers of black smoke hanging in the rays of the setting sun to the west, volunteer firefighter Drew Sellers pulled up to 25 Flying Fish Lane.
He jerked his truck to a stop behind one of the two fire engines flanking the house. The massive rig ran all pumps on, drawing from a water tender parked at an angle on the road, spraying a thick jet of water on the blaze.
Furrowing his browif he remembered right, Old Man Whitley had died about a year ago and the house had been empty ever sinceDrew threw open the truck's door and cast his gaze left toward the decrepit cottage-style house set well back on the property. The distinctive smell of burning wood washed over him in an acrid wave.
His heart sank.
The old house was almost completely engulfed in flames already. He wished he could have arrived sooner, but he'd been too far out of town, on his way back from his interview in Atherton, Oregon, to respond and meet up with the rest of the crew at the station. But since he was driving by on his way home, there was no way he wasn't stopping to help out.
He ran around the engine, jumped the taut hose and spotted Chief McCoy, dressed in his turnout coat and white helmet, his radio in hand, standing next to his SUV parked on the other side of the engine.
"We've got this under control, Drew," the chief shouted. He waved left. "Can you go see how the homeowner is doing?"
Guess the house wasn't empty after all. With an acknowledging gesture, Drew looked to his left and saw a small woman huddled in a dark coat standing just beyond the chief's rig. She held two leashes attached to two large dogs, one black and one golden, her shoulders hunched as she watched the house burn.
Sympathy welled; feelings of hopelessness and devastating loss were as vivid as they had been on the day his family's house had burned to the ground on the fifth of July the year he turned seven, thanks to an errant Roman candle. To this day, he hated fireworks.
He headed in her direction. "Miss? Are you all right?" He immediately regretted the words; of course nothing was all right.
She shook her head.
He noted the paleness of her face and the downward slash of her mouth, how small and alone and upset she looked. Yeah, he knew what that felt like.
"I'm Drew Sellers," he said by way of an introduction. "Moonlight Cove volunteer firefighter." He looked her and the dogs over. "No one's injured, right?"
"No, we escaped unscathed."
Suddenly, the black dog lunged at Drew, barking, his teeth bared. Drew froze, but thankfully the woman reacted instantly and pulled back on the taut leash with a quick tug. "Rex, leave it!"
The dog backed off but remained standing, his tail high and quivering, his hackles bunched.
"Sit!" the woman commanded.
The dog whined, then sat, his big haunches plopping down. But his large black eyes remained trained on Drew as if to say, Move and you die.
Drew stayed put and made a point of not meeting the dog's gaze. "Looks like you have a protector."
She looked warily at Drew with the biggest set of green eyes he'd ever seen. "Yeah, he's like that."
In between weird heart palpitations, Drew realized he didn't know her, which was unusual since he'd grown up in Moonlight Cove and was at the very least acquainted with just about everybody. She must be new in town, and, well, with those eyes, he'd certainly remember if he'd seen her before. "Remind me to keep my distance."
"He'll remind you himself, I'm sure, but please don't hold it against him," she said, rubbing the big canine behind his floppy ears. "He's had a pretty rough life, and he doesn't like men." She visibly swallowed. "I suspect he was abused by a man."
"So he hasn't been yours for long?" Drew asked out of curiosity, and to distract her from her plight, if only for a little while.
"No, I just started a dog rescue organization, and Rex was my first rescuee." She patted the other dog, which looked to be some kind of chubby retriever, on the head. "Sadie here came home with me yesterday."
This woman obviously had a soft heart and a boatload of compassion. "That's a selfless job," he said. "I admire that kind of dedication."
"Well, thanks." She cast woe-tinged eyes toward her burning house. "Although now well, now I'm not sure what we're going to do."
He followed her gaze with his own. "Maybe it isn't that bad.. "
She blinked rapidly. "Again, thanks, but it looks pretty bad to me."
He agreed with herfire and water and smoke was a horrific combinationbut he didn't quite know what to say, so he replied, "Are you new in town?"
"Yeah. I'm Ally York." She flipped the hood off her head, revealing a creamy-smooth complexion, sculpted cheekbones and a cute smattering of freckles across her nose. Long, straight dark blond hair streaked with gold spilled down around her shoulders.
"I just moved into this place two weeks ago," she said.
No wonder she didn't look familiar. "Old Man Whit-ley used to live here, but he died last year. Did you know him?"
"No. But my foster sister was his niece, and the house was sitting empty since he passed on, so she offered it to me rent-free. Not sure what I'm going to do now."
Drew's heart lurchedseemed as if she were down on her luck. Before he could respond, though, he saw the chief wave at him from his post. "Excuse me," Drew said.
Drew reached the chief. "What's up?"
"The fire's just about out, but we still have to check for hot spots and bring the debris out."
"I figured as much." He'd had enough firefighting training in his EMT basic class at the Volunteer Academy to know how this worked. The crew would move all the furniture to be sure there weren't any traces of fire underneath anything and then they'd bring the furnishings out of the house to eliminate any risk of the fire starting up again. "You want me to tell her she can't go in?"
"Go ahead," the chief replied.
Drew headed back toward Ally, dreading having to deliver the news. But that was what he did as a volunteer firefighter, what he wanted to continue doing in Atherton, if he was lucky enough to get hired for a full-time, paid position.
As he got closer to Ally, Rex growled low in his chest. Drew stopped dead. "Um^I'm sorry to have to tell you this, but you aren't going to be able to go back in yet."
She lifted her chin. "I understand. Mostly I'm just concerned for the dogs' stuff. They need their food and beds and toys."
The fact that she didn't seem to care about her own belongings raised her a notch in his eyes. "Do you know anyone else in town?"
Made sense, since she'd only been here two weeks. "Don't worry, I know plenty of people with dogs. In fact, my sister's best friend, Molly Roderick, owns the local pet store, and I'm sure she can rustle up anything you need."
"I'd hate to ask.. " Ally said, her shoulders sagging the teensiest bit.
"Well, don't. There are lots of folks around who would be willing to help."
"I'm not used to depending on others," she said. "Guess I'm going to have to get over that." Her eyes glittered as her gaze landed on the attached one-car garage. "Guess my car is gone, too."
He looked at the garage and his heart sank; its walls were charred and the roof had caved in. Empathy welled. She'd truly been left with nothing. "Yeah, it looks like it." An idea rattled around in his brain. "You gonna need a place to stay?" He and his family had been homeless after the fire that destroyed their house, and if not for the kindness of others, they wouldn't have had anywhere to live.
"I'll figure something out," she said, jutting her jaw out. "I'm used to managing on my own."
He dropped his chin. He couldn't turn her loose with no place to go and no way around; that just didn't seem like the gentlemanly thing to do. And no doubt Mom would be on his case if she found out about Ally's situation and then discovered he hadn't helped out. His place only had one bedroom, so that wasn't an option. But Mom and Dad had three unused bedrooms .
"Listen, Ally. My parents have plenty of room at their house."
Her leaf-colored eyes widened. "Oh, no. I couldn't impose."
"Trust me, you wouldn't be imposing. Mom, in particular, would love having you around." Now that Dad had moved into the apartment above the garage, she'd undoubtedly like having someone else in the house to talk to.
"Would they love having my dogs underfoot?" Ally asked with a lift of her eyebrows. "I can't just desert them. And I should tell you that Sadie here is going to be a mama soon."
"Yep. The shelter thought she had a few more weeks to go."
"If that makes a difference, I totally understand."
"No, it's fine," he replied. "Mom and Dad have always had dogs up until three months ago, when their German shepherd, Duke, died. And my mom has a soft spot for animals. So I'm sure they won't mind. In fact, I think all of Duke's stuff is still in the basement."
Ally studied him. "Why are you being so nice to me? You don't even know me."
He shrugged. "When I was a kid, our house burned down, and I remember how traumatic it was for the whole family."
She cast her eyes to the smoldering house and garage, shaking her head. She froze for a couple of seconds, and some of the light faded from her eyes. Gradually a sense of what looked like inevitability seemed to envelop her like a gray cloud. Clearly, she felt as if her life had crumbled before her eyes, and honestly he couldn't blame her for thinking that. Fire struck a blow no one should have to endure.
Suddenly, Drew had the urge to wrap an arm around her for comfort. But he didn't; he was sure ol' Rex and his teeth would think that kind of gesture was a really bad idea. And the dog would be right. Drew barely knew this woman, and after he dropped her at Mom and Dad's, he and Ally would only see each other in passing. He had no business offering her any more than a roof over her head, and a part of him wondered why the urge to comfort her had even crossed his mind. He wasn't usually one to establish quick connections.
After a long, silent moment, Ally straightened her shoulders, took a deep breath and finally spoke. "Well, I'll agree on the condition that the arrangement would be only temporary."
He held up his hands. "Fine."
He lifted an eyebrow. "What do you plan on doing in the long run?"
She sucked in a large breath. "Maybe I'll move to a hotel or something."
He liked her determination. But with the talk of her rent-free situation, he got the impression her bravado, while understandable, was false. Not to mention that she wasn't being realistic about finding somewhere else to stay, given that she was bringing two big dogs with her, one expecting puppies any day now.
He nodded. "Unfortunately, there are only two lodging possibilities in Moonlight Cove, and as far as I know, neither one of them allows dogs."
Another idea occurred to him. "Listen, my dad owns a real estate company and has tons of connections around here. I'm sure he could help find an inexpensive rental for you."
"I don't have the money for all the deposits necessary, and until I get work, I can't afford any kind of rent, either."
Man, she was really in a bind .
"I'll figure something out." She gave him a brittle smile. "I always do."
Again, her determination impressed him. "Okay, I hear you loud and clear." He paused, his gaze on the smoldering house. "Any clue as to what caused the fire?"
She shook her head. "I had the dogs out for a walk. We came back inside, and I was getting to work making more flyers for the housecleaning business I'm setting up."
"This is in addition to the dog rescue?"
"Gotta find a way to pay the bills."
Good point. "Do you have any clients yet?"
"Not yet, but I just posted an online ad yesterday, so hopefully something will come from that."
Sounded like a good plan. "I know just about everyone in town, so I could probably rustle up some prospects."
"That'd be great." She smoothed her wind-tossed hair behind her ear. "Anyway, Rex here started barking, and when I came out to the kitchen to investigate, there were flames shooting from the wall behind the stove."
"Wiring maybe? That house was built a long time ago."
She shrugged. "Maybe."
"I take it you hightailed it out of there fast?"
"I went straight for the door, then called 911 on my cell when I got outside. I didn't even think to grab my keys."
"Good thing Rex was on top of things."
"No kidding." Her lips trembled. "I hadn't even unpacked everything yet." She laughed without humor. "Guess now I won't have to."
Sadie whined, and Ally gave Drew a lopsided smile as she gestured to the dog. "This one is turning out to be quite sympathetic." Crouching down, she put her arms around the dog's furry neck and hugged her close. "Thanks, girl. But don't worry. Everything's going to be just fine. I promise you won't be homeless again."
Drew's throat went tight. Ally was clearly a compassionate soul, and he couldn't help but admire that trait. Once again, her plight had him wanting to come to her rescue, fix everything and present it to her all wrapped in a neat and tidy bow.
Guess he'd need to get ahold of himself and his crazy need to help out Ally and her dogs more than he'd already planned to. Because if things worked out and he was chosen to take the slot he'd interviewed for earlier today at the Atherton Fire Academy, he'd be long gone from Moonlight Cove in just a few weeks.
And once he realized his dream of becoming a full-time firefighter, and eventually a paramedic, he wasn't planning on looking back. For anything or anyone.