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Sara Darling was collecting donations for the Children's Sunshine Fund throughout her bayside neighborhood, and it wasn't easy over the last weeks of summer when everyone was gone on vacation. The beach was unusually warm today and the stairs to each cottage seemed higher and higher as she moved down the beachfront area. To make that climb and then come up with no answer to her knock was demoralizing. The only people who opened the doors were vacation renters, and they weren't interested in donating to a local fund.
"Collecting," she muttered sarcastically as fat beads of sweat began a race down her spine. "Begging would be a better name for it."
Somehow she let her sister Jill talk her into doing this every year, and every year, she swore it would be the last time. She walked past her own little house and smiled. She hadn't been living in it for the last few weeks. Renovations were underway. She could hardly wait to go in and see it all changed. Just a few more days and work should be over. She could pack up her baby and move back home.
The last house on her schedule was the one next to hers. The neighbors were in Europe on their annual trek, but they did rent out to short-term vacationers. She looked at the red door and sighed, wishing she could head back to her baby right now. One last climb.
She made it and gave a short knock on the door. No response. Oh, well. She started to turn away, but a sound from inside turned her back again. What was that? A siren? An alarm? Or was the tenant playing some sort of weird music?
What the heck, it was none of her business. She started to turn away again, but the door suddenly swung open as though someone had yanked it from behind. Sara found herself staring into a pair of icy-blue eyes beneath dark, intimidating brows.
"Yes?" the man asked shortly, as though she was already late answering him.
Unaccountably she was flustered and for a moment, she couldn't remember why she'd come. "L..uh "
Maybe it was because he was so darn handsome. Or maybe it was because he was looking so fierce. Possibly also in the brew was the fact that his naked torso was muscular and manly and altogether breathtaking, and the way his jeans hung on his hips was enough to give a girl ideas. That might have been a contributing factor. But whatever the cause, her mind was completely blank.
"Hey, you're a woman," he announced gruffly, as though it was something of a revelation to him.
She tried to smile. "So I've been told," she said, attempting light humor that crumbled and died before the words even left her lips.
His frown grew fiercer. "I need a woman. Maybe you can help me. Come on." Reaching out, he grabbed her wrist and pulled her into the house, letting the door slam behind her.
"Wait a minute!"
"No time. All hell is breaking loose. Come on. Quickly."
Truth be told, she was pretty sure she would have resisted with a bit more spunk if it hadn't been for the oddly disturbing noises coming from the very room they were dashing toward. Curiosity was strong here, and it was rewarded. He threw open the double doors and ushered her into a little piece of madness.
The noise was overwhelming. Something was rotating and banging against the wall. Some form of food sizzled and spit on the stove, and thick waves of suds poured out of the dishwasher. A cat had climbed halfway up the inside of the screen door and was howling for escape. The refrigerator door stood open, creating an annoying electronic warning buzz. Meanwhile cans of soda were slowly rolling out and hitting the floor. Now and then, one burst open and shot carbonated beverage across the walls. A cloud of black smoke was emanating from the toaster and the smell of burning bread was in the air.
"You see what I mean?" the man shouted above the din. "Where do I start?"
Whatever was sizzling on the stove suddenly burst into tall orange flames, which shot toward the ceiling. She gaped. The gates of hell might have looked something like this.
Sara took it all in and suppressed the scream of horror that wanted to push its way up her throat. This was no time to panic. She had to be cool, calm, collected.
But she wasn't perfect. "Oh, my goodness what?" she cried, knowing there was going to be no answer until disaster had been headed off at the pass. "Are you crazy?"
He spread out his hands and shook his head.
"Help," he said.
She looked at him. He was actually waiting for her to tell him what to do. She gulped. He wasn't the type. She knew that instinctively. But here he was, asking for assistancefrom her. Help indeed!
She pushed back the panic and tried to think clearly. Wait. She knew all these items intimately. The situations, taken one at a time, were all things she'd dealt with before. Darn it all, she could handle this. Suddenly she realized it was true. She could take command. Why not? He was obviously clueless.
She grabbed his arm. "Okay," she shouted in order to be heard above the din. "Turn off the dishwasher. I'll take care of the fire."
He turned to look at it. The flames appeared fiery, leaping higher every minute.
"You will?" he said doubtfully.
She didn't waste any more time. The lid to the frying pan was lying on the floor. She reached down to grab it, took a deep breath and plunged forward, firmly slamming it down on the pan, smothering the flames almost instantly. Quickly turning the knob for the gas, she doused its fuel. And then she took a deep breath of relief.
"Hey," he said, looking impressed.
"The dishwasher," she reminded him, jerking her head in that direction. They were going to be swimming in suds in no time if he didn't stop the flow. She could just picture the two of them waltzing across the slippery floor and landing on their backsides.
"Right," he said. He actually looked like he knew what he was doing so she headed for the washing machine at the far end of the kitchen. It was doing a spin cycle, but it was unbalanced and creating a terrible noise as it bounced around. Reaching out with a strange new confidence, she snapped off the juice. Like a crazed windup toy coming back to sanity, it began to wind down its banging cascade.
"How do I turn this thing off?" he was calling to her as he peered at the knobs and buttons on the dishwasher.
So she'd been wrong. He had no idea what he was doing. But wasn't that obvious by now? She strode over and slapped the off switch as she passed, never missing a beat, on her way to the refrigerator. There, she caught the last two cans before they hit the floor, unended them, placed them on a shelf and closed the door.
The awful noise from the washing machine had stopped. The sizzle was dying down in the frying pan. The refrigerator alarm had faded away and the suds were slowing down.
She looked at the toaster. A black cloud still hovered over it, but nothing new was burning. At least he seemed to have unplugged it on his own, so that was taking care of itself by now.
However, the smoke alarm it had probably triggered was shouting a warning over and over. "Evacuate! Evacuate! There is smoke in the basement. Evacuate!"
She looked at him for an explanation and he shook his head. "There is no basement," he told her. "The thing's gone crazy."
"How do you turn it off?" she asked him, knowing there had to be a way and knowing at the same time that he wasn't going to know what that was.
"You got me."
She hesitated. It was up so high, she couldn't fan it with a towel like she usually did with hers. But something had to be done. It was getting louder and louder, as if it were angry they weren't paying enough attention. She looked around the room and saw a broom. Grabbing it, she placed it in his hand.
"Kill it," she said.
He almost laughed. "You're kidding."
She shook her head. She was feeling a little wild. "You're taller. Swing at it with the brush end of the broom. That might do it. If not, do you have a gun?"
He did laugh this time, but he swung at it, forcing air into its core and finally, like a gift, it stopped yelling.
"Oh, my gosh," she said, sagging against the counter. "What a relief."
"Almost done," he said, turning to look at the cat that was still clinging to the screen door and howling at the top of its lungs.
"Is he your cat?" she asked, looking at the poor terrified thing with its claws stuck.
He shook his head. "Never saw him before in my life. He must have been hiding in here when it all began."
She nodded. She'd thought as much. She'd seen him around the neighborhood for ages.
"Okay. You're going to have to help me. This is going to be a two-part play."
He nodded, watching her. "Just tell me what to do."
She glanced into his eyes, expecting a touch of ridicule. He was the sort of man she would have thought would be ready to put her back in her place by now. But, no. His eyes were clear and ready. He really was waiting for her to tell him what to do.
For some reason, that made her heart beat faster. She scanned the room. "We'll need a towel," she said.
He turned and grabbed one from a pile of dirty clothes in front of the washer. It looked as though he'd just emptied a duffel bag right there. He handed her the towel and she regarded the cat. The only way she'd ever managed to take her catwhen she had oneto the veterinarian was by wrapping him firmly so that no claws were exposed. But that was a cat who knew and loved her. This one was a stranger. She only hoped she didn't end up a bloody mess when this was over and done.
"Okay. I'll grab him. You whip open the door."
"It opens to a back porch," he warned her. "You want me to go all the way through that and open a door to the backyard?"
"Absolutely," she said, nodding. "Okay, here goes."
She drew in a deep, deep breath, muttered a little prayer and lunged for the cat. He saw her coming and yelled a threat, a deep, vibrant howl. If he'd been free to fly, he would have done it, but luckily his claws were stuck just enough so that he couldn't move.
The next part was tricky. She had to get him wrapped really well and do it fast, but at the same time, she didn't want to hurt him and his claws being stuck shifted from being an advantage to being a problem. She threw the towel around and hugged him, lifting slightly to loosen his claws. Somehow it worked out fine. Only a few claws continued to stick, and then only for a few seconds. As he came loose, she wrapped his paws quickly and clamped down tight. He howled and struggled but she gritted her teeth and held on, carrying him quickly out as the man opened the doors for her.
The cat was strong and he'd almost worked his way out of the towel by the time she hit the backyard and she didn't get to put him down as gently as she would have liked. But she hardly saw him at all. In a flash, he was gone. She looked around and tried to catch her breath. Then she turned and saw the man staring at her in wonder.
"Wow," he said. "You're incredible."
She stared back at him, surprised. He meant it. But she thought about it for a second. She sort of was, wasn't she? She'd handled all this pretty well, if she did say so herself. Now that things had calmed down, she couldn't believe that she'd been able to maintain that sort of control. She'd moved smoothly, with purpose and determination.
That really wasn't much like her. Hey. She was pretty proud of herself.
As for him well, what on earth was that all about, anyway? She shook her head.
"How could you get so many things wrong at one time?" she asked, still amazed at what they'd just experienced.
He gave her a crooked grin that didn't seem to reach his eyes. "Pretty amazing, isn't it? I don't know. I just seem to have a talent for failure lately."
"I doubt that." She rejected his explanation out of hand. No, he had the look and feel of a man who did just about everything right. Onlytoday things had spun out of control for a bit. Interesting.
They were standing in the backyard and neither of them seemed to have any interest in going back into the kitchen. She shuddered when she thought of it.
"Seriously," he said. "I've spent most of my time living in hotel rooms or tents over the last few years. I've lost the knack of civilization."
She wanted to laugh but he wasn't even smiling. "Surely you didn't grow up in a cave," she said.
"No." He raised his bright blue eyes to meet hers. "It was more of a hut. And after my mother died, we didn't live much like modern people do. My father caught game and fished and we lived off that. People called us the Wild Ones in my town. I resented it at the time, but looking back, I guess we deserved it."
She couldn't look away from his brilliant blue gaze. He had her mesmerized. She could see him living rough, like a twentieth century native. All he needed was a horse and a blanket and off he would go.
But the twentieth century was over and the modern world wasn't very open to living like a wild one. Very deliberately, she took a step backward, as if she could somehow make a move out of his sphere of suggestive influence by putting more space between them. It didn't work, and she found herself smoothing back her sleek blond hair like a woman primping for an encounter.