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By Karen Erickson, Stacy Abrams
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2012 Karen Erickson
All rights reserved.
two years later
"I want to ride in the truck!"
Jane smiled at her six-year-old son, Logan, as she watched him in the rearview mirror. His eyes were wide as saucers and energy radiated off his body in waves. He couldn't stop fidgeting in his seat and even his voice shook. She knew he couldn't wait to get to the fire station. "I don't know if they'll take you for a ride, but they'll definitely let you check out the truck."
"Yay!" Logan raised his arms and pumped his fists, looking pleased as punch.
His older sister, Lexi, on the other hand, had a sulky expression on her face, her arms crossed in front of her. Three-year-old Sophia slept blissfully in the car seat between them, with not a care in the world.
"I don't wanna go," Lexi said for what felt like the millionth time. "I don't care about stupid trucks. I wanted to go to Kylee's house and play."
Sighing, Jane turned onto the road that led to the fire station. "I know, but this was Uncle Mac's idea. We don't want to disappoint him, do we?"
"No!" Logan shouted, nearly bouncing out of his seat.
"I don't care. He won't be mad if we change our minds," Lexi said. "Kylee was so sad when I told her I couldn't come over."
Jane ignored Lexi's complaint. She'd been going on about Kylee's hurt feelings since breakfast that morning. "The firefighters are doing this specially for us. Giving us a tour, letting us check out the station and see what they do. We have to be respectful, Lexi."
Her daughter didn't answer, just turned to stare out the window, her arms still crossed in front of her, lips pursed. Jane let her wallow in her misery and instead, concentrated on the winding road that followed along the southwest side of the lake in her little hometown.
It was still hard for her to believe she'd permanently moved back to Lone Pine Lake. Of course, she never thought she'd survive a horrific house fire, either. Or that she'd be left alone to raise three children under the age of eight.
Well, she wasn't really alone, and that was the reason she was back—most of her family was still living in Lone Pine. Her parents could help her, along with her brothers and sister. She needed her family's help, though she was loath to admit it. It had been almost two years since the devastating fire that had taken her husband's life, and her body was still recovering.
As were her heart and mind.
She shook her head, pushed the memories away, and looked around. Jane rarely came over to this side of the lake. A few restaurants and boat launches, along with cabins for rent, proved this part of Lone Pine was clearly for the summer folk. And Jane was once again a townie.
Nerves ate her insides and she tugged at her hair, bringing it across her right cheek as best she could. The scars weren't as noticeable anymore, at least to her. Most of the burns she'd suffered on the right side of her face had been second degree; she'd looked as if she'd been horrifically sunburned for months on end.
But along the left side of her face, her temple, down across her cheek to her jaw, she had third-degree burns, which had necessitated skin grafting. And skin grafting meant scars. They'd warped and marbled her skin. She tried her best to hide them, styling her hair a certain way, holding her head at a tilt so maybe no one would notice.
She didn't like to think of the scars that marked the rest of her. Her left side had taken the worst hit. Her arm, her torso, down her thigh, stopping at just above her knee, she was covered. Her back, too.
And then there was the all-consuming guilt that hung over her like a dark, foreboding cloud. She'd survived; Stephen hadn't. She'd put her family through years of torture and misery ...
"Are we almost there?" Logan's voice rang so loud in the car that Jane winced when she saw Sophia give a startled jump in her sleep.
"Almost, Logan, yes," Jane said, using her best quiet voice, even though she knew it wouldn't matter. Logan had only one volume—loud.
He gave another shout and Lexi yelled at him to be quiet. "You're hurting my ears!"
They were both hurting Jane's ears, but she tried to ignore them. Chose to focus instead on the gorgeous fall Saturday, the vivid red, orange, and yellow shades of the turning leaves. A breeze rustled through the trees, even the surface of the lake rippled with the wind, and she was thankful she'd made everyone wear a sweater—much to the protest of Logan, who, it seemed, would spend every season clad in a short-sleeve T-shirt and shorts if he could.
Her younger brother, Mac, had organized the trip to the state wild land fire station as a way to combat the strong fear her children had for fire. Fire was what took their dad and damaged their mom, and it scared them tremendously. The captain of the station was a good friend of his, Mac had said. A little tour would help ease their fears, he was sure.
Jane wasn't so convinced. Her children had every right to be afraid. She was afraid of fire, too: she didn't burn candles anymore, though she used to. Her family liked to get together for giant bonfires in the fall, but she avoided them now. And the house they were living in, her brother Patrick's home that he kept for his family's holiday visits, had a grand, majestic river-rock fireplace that demanded to be lit during the cold winter months that were ahead.
She couldn't even look at a lighter without flinching, let alone try to start a fire.
Up ahead, the station loomed, an older structure painted in faded shades of industrial pale green with forest green trim. It was a large building, standing right off the side of the road, directly across from the lake. She pulled into the gravel lot, parking her SUV in front of the building. A porch ran the entire length of the front of the station, and Jane immediately envied the view. Large lounge chairs carved out of smooth wood were scattered across the porch, and she imagined those who worked there sat out front on a daily basis watching the lake.
Lexi unbuckled her seat belt but didn't move, while Logan tugged and jerked against the restraints of his booster seat. Jane climbed out of the SUV and went to the passenger door behind her. Going for Sophia's car seat first, she unbuckled it carefully so as not to disturb her.
No point in being so careful, though, since Sophia's big brother wouldn't stop shouting or moving, and the flurry known as Logan woke his baby sister. Jane hurriedly undid Logan's seat belt and he scrambled out into the parking lot, his little feet kicking up gravel as he sped toward the building.
"Logan, wait!" Jane yelled as she helped Sophia out of the car and then stood. Logan was already zooming up the steps and onto the porch, his little feet pounding a booming rhythm on the wood rafters.
Shaking her head, she slammed the door but realized Lexi still sat in the car. She rounded the end of the SUV and opened the back passenger door to find Lexi sitting in her seat, her arms still crossed in front of her, little hands clutched into tight fists. The typical pose her child had held since she'd first heard of this idea.
"Are you coming inside or are you sitting out here in the car?"
Lexi's eyes widened. "You'd let me sit in the car? All by myself?"
Jane shrugged, adjusting her hold on Sophia. "If you really don't want to go in, then okay, I guess."
"But someone could ..." Lexi swallowed hard. "... snatch me."
"I'll lock the doors."
Lexi's eyes went wider. "And you'd leave me alone?"
"You don't want to hurt the fire captain's feelings, do you?"
Lexi was quiet for a moment, absorbing her mother's words.
"So what's it going to be? We need to get going before Logan busts into that fire station by himself." Wasn't that the truth? She wouldn't be surprised if he started pounding on the front door.
"Fine, I'll go. But only because I don't want to hurt the captain's feelings." Lexi trudged out of the car, dropped onto the ground with a little hop, and then ran up to the front porch like her brother had.
Jane's lips curved into a faint smile as she hit the lock button on the keyless remote. Her feet crunching noisily on the gravel, she headed toward the porch, noticing how quiet it was. The wind whistled faintly through the trees and the sound of an occasional car driving a few miles away shushed in the distance, but there was no traffic on the main lake road.
Tourist season was long over. The fire station probably saw very little action. Mac had told her the seasonal staff had already been laid off, only those who worked year-round remained—they were few. No wonder they didn't have a problem giving a local family with big fears a quick tour.
"Anybody home?" Just as Jane predicted, Logan knocked on the front door, his tiny fist beating a mighty tattoo against the wood-trimmed screen door. Jane practically ran up the steps, ready to stop Logan from his antics before he took it too far.
"Logan, stop," she hissed as she reached out to grab him and yank him away from the door ...
The very same door that suddenly swung open with a cranky groan of hinges. Jane took a step backward, jerking Logan along with her and bumping into Lexi in the process. Her gaze zeroed in on big, booted feet as they crossed the threshold, the hem of navy blue uniform pants curled around those dusty dark shoes.
She did a slow perusal up endlessly muscular legs, her gaze landing onto lean hips and then a broad chest and shoulders. Shoulders that seemed to go on forever, clad in a sky blue uniform shirt. A nametag was pinned at the top of one shirt pocket, a badge onto the other, and she squinted, barely able to read his name.
Again, she smoothed a hand along her hair. Thankful it hit just above her shoulders so she could curl it around her face and almost hide her scars.
Why am I so afraid to look him in the face? But she could answer her own question almost before it formed—he would surely notice her scars, something that still made her nervous when she met someone new. Plus, it had been a while since she'd been in the company of a man who wasn't a blood relative, in-law, or of the medical profession. A combination of fear and worry made her leery.
Plus, there was his reputation. The fire captain was known around town as a hot catch, a bit of a playboy. Her oldest friend Chloe had described him as one of the few good-looking, single men in town. He set all the women's hearts aflutter with his hero-type job.
The last thing she wanted to see from this guy was sympathy. Or worse, pity.
When her eyes finally lit upon his face, she couldn't help but notice how attractive he was. Dark-as-night hair, tanned skin that showed he spent most of his time outdoors, and defined bone structure. Strong nose, jaw, and cheekbones, though his mouth appeared soft ...
"Mrs. Clark?" Those soft-looking lips curved into a welcoming smile.
Jane nodded, but his greeting made her feel like an old woman. She had a first name—why didn't he use it?
He let the screen door slam behind him as he stepped out onto the porch, his hand extended toward her. "I'm Captain Christian Nelson. It's a pleasure to meet you."
Shifting Sophia in her arms, she held out her hand and he took it. The touch of his rough fingers, the press of his wide palm against hers, sent a jolt of electricity up her arm. She let go quickly, as if it had scalded her, but his smile stayed easy, his stance casual, confident.
The captain appeared very comfortable in his skin and she envied him that. When he flicked his head in Logan's direction as if to ask permission, she gave her consent with a slight nod. He knelt down so he was eye level with Logan.
"Hey buddy, what's your name?"
"Logan!" Her son's yelp made Jane wince, but the smile on Captain Nelson's face grew even wider.
"Nice to meet you, Logan. I'm Captain Nelson." He offered his hand and Logan took it, his little arm moving in two jerky pumps.
"Can we see the fire truck now?"
"Absolutely. Let's go around back and check it out." He stood and smiled directly at Sophia. She promptly tucked her face into Jane's neck.
"Sorry. She just woke up," Jane apologized, her skin prickling with awareness at this man's closeness.
Lexi made her presence known as she rounded from behind her mother to stand in front of Captain Nelson, her pointed chin tilted, little rosebud mouth drawn into a tight line. He knelt down once again, his expression turned serious, and he gave Lexi a slight nod.
"Are you Logan's big sister?"
She gave a hesitant nod in answer.
He didn't even break a smile. "Captain Nelson at your service, ma'am. And you are?"
"Alexis Elizabeth Clark."
Now he did smile, but it was gentle, and miracle of all miracles, it coaxed what could pass for a smile from her stubborn daughter. "That's a beautiful name. It's nice to meet you, Alexis."
"You can call me Lexi."
"Well, Lexi it is, then." He stood, shooting a wink in Jane's direction, and heat flooded her cheeks.
"Are we ready to go check out the engine?"
"Yes, yes, yes!" Logan cheered, causing everyone to laugh, even Lexi, even Sophia, who giggled against Jane's neck.
"Then let's go."
* * *
Chris led the Clark family back to the garage that housed the fire engines. Well, make that the single fire engine. The other one had been temporarily retired to headquarters down in Sacramento, since fire season had been declared officially over a few weeks ago. Now he worked with a skeleton crew for at least the next six months.
When his friend Mac had called a few days ago to explain his sister's situation, he'd agreed immediately to give Jane Clark and her kids a tour of the station. He didn't know Jane personally, especially since he wasn't a Lone Pine Lake local, but he knew all about her situation. Everyone in town did. The widow who'd survived a tragic house fire and a long and painful recovery, and who now had come back to town with her family to stay.
A miracle, the local gossips called her. Can she do it? they wondered. Take care of three young children barely recovered, and she not fully over her husband's death?
They'd all failed to mention just how pretty Jane Clark was. Her above-shoulder-length dark brown hair curled around a heart-shaped face and eyes as green as grass. They'd been filled with wariness and sadness and ... awareness when he'd first locked gazes with her.
And when he'd clasped her hand in his, he'd felt it again—a tiny fizz of attraction that just bubbled to the surface. He'd wondered, if he paid more attention to it, if it might grow.
Huh. He didn't want to look into a supposed attraction with a lonely widow who had three kids. That wasn't his style or his usual preference. Talk about baggage.
Her kids were cute, though.
Chris headed toward the garage with Jane to his right, slowing his pace so she could keep up with him. She held the hands of both of her little girls as they walked slowly along the graveled path.
The boy was hopping and skipping down the drive, and his arms stretched wide when he spotted the big red fire engine standing in the open stall of the garage. He broke out into a full run, going as fast as his little legs would take him, even though his mother called out for him to slow down.
"He's pretty excited, huh?"
Chris caught a flash of a smile, though she wouldn't turn to look his way. Odd. "That's a major understatement. He's had a thing for large and loud trucks for a few months now."
Chris took a few steps closer so he could hear her. Her melodic voice was low and sweet. "Would he want me to turn on the siren, then?"
She visibly flinched—he saw the twitch of her slim shoulders—and he immediately took a step back. "I'm not sure."
"I don't like sirens," Lexi piped up, her voice flat.
God, he was an insensitive jerk; of course they didn't like sirens. He could only imagine what sort of memories the sound of them brought back, especially for Jane.
"He might like a quick honk of the horn," Jane suggested, and he could tell she was trying to be polite for his sake.
"I could probably arrange that." He sank his hands in his front pockets, his boots crunching on the gravel sounding incredibly loud in the now awkward silence, and he glanced down at Jane Clark's feet. They were encased in lipstick-red leather flats, the hem of her wide-legged jeans flaring around them with her every step.
Excerpted from Jane's Gift by Karen Erickson, Stacy Abrams. Copyright © 2012 Karen Erickson. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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