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Ice! The ocean-sized sheet sucked her in, paralyzing, drowning her. Samantha shot up from her nightmare, drenched in sweat. Breathing so hard the gasps hurt her chest, she painfully lifted one leg, then the other over the side of the bed. She reached for her wheelchair. Still not accustomed to her damaged body, Samantha tried three times before she levered herself up from the bed.
Trembling, she wheeled slowly through her parents' home to the kitchen, which was in the rear quarter of the old, large Victorian house. Accustomed to her streamlined New York apartment, she'd forgotten how many doodads her mother had everywhere. Between the little tea tables, plants and trinkets, it was hard to navigate the distance, especially in the aftermath of her nightmare.
Hands shaking, Samantha decided to have a cup of tea. She turned the knob on the stove, but it didn't light. Ignitor switches were getting old, her mother had said months before. Samantha was lucky they'd decided to leave the utilities on in the empty house.
Muttering to herself, she searched through the lower shelves of the pantry and three drawers before she found a kitchen match. She returned to the stove. Hands not yet under control, it took her several tries to light the match.
Whoosh! Boom! With the knob set on high, gas had built up, causing it to explode.
Samantha rolled backward as the blast billowed out. Flames touched the crowded row of potholders on the cabinet directly beside the stove, then climbed to the curtain framing the large window. Silly, frilly doodads hanging on the adjoining wall erupted into flames. The heat grew, suddenly popping out the glass in the window. Air rushed in, feeding the fire.
Smoke alarms started shrieking, first in the kitchen, then in the hall as the smoke traveled. Trying not to panic, Samantha wheeled over to the small fire extinguisher that hung on the wall. She reached with all her might, but she couldn't get a decent hold on the metal cannister. Frustrated, she tried to stand, but her leg muscles were ineffectual.
Panting from exertion, she slumped back in the chair. Tempted to give into her fate, Samantha waited a few precious seconds before she pivoted and wheeled into the living room, where she'd stowed her purse. Grabbing her cell phone, she dialed 911. She didn't particularly care what happened to her, but she wasn't going to destroy her parents' house.
Fearfully watching fire eat through dry, native pine cabinets in the kitchen, Samantha gave the emergency operator the address. The house was more than a hundred years old, perfect kindling.
Samantha closed her eyes briefly, imagining the disappointment on her parents' faces. Retired teachers, they'd gone to a remote country in Africa to run a school. But the house was her mother's pride and joy, having been in her family for generations.
Coughing from the smoke, Samantha unlocked the front door for the firemen. She tried to reach the rear door in the kitchen, but the heat of the fire pressed her back.
The smoke made its way into the living room and more alarms shrieked. Her coughing intensified. She tried covering her mouth with her hands, but it didn't do much good.
A siren split the air as the fire engine screeched to a stop in front of the house. The door burst open and volunteer firemen rushed inside. She pointed toward the hall. "It's in the kitchen, in the back of the house," she gulped out between coughs.
"Anywhere else?" one man asked.
"No…." She continued coughing, then managed to speak. "At least I don't think so."
Another man grasped the handles of her wheelchair, pushing her toward the porch as soon as the last fireman cleared the doorway. He had to lift the chair over the threshold. Outside in the fresh air, Samantha continued coughing. In between, she took deep breaths to clear her lungs.
Long hoses were uncoiled, then hooked up to the fire hydrant three houses down. Some of the men carried dispensers of foam fire retardant as well. Neighbors opened their doors and windows to see what was going on.
A paramedic rushed to her side, checking for injuries.
Samantha touched her hot cheeks. "I'm not hurt. Just scorched a little of my hair."
The paramedic scanned her beneath the illumination of his flashlight, then reached for an oxygen mask. "Just want to be sure."
She brushed back the singed ends of her bangs. "I'm fine."
"You really need to get a threshold ramp in case you have to get out alone. It's an easy adaptation." The tall, muscular fireman who had wheeled her outside pulled off his mask and frowned, critically studying the front of the house. "You don't have a porch ramp either."
"Bret?" Samantha stared at the handsome man. They'd known each other since high school. And had loved each other enough to become engaged. The pain of their breakup had kept them apart for the last eight years.
He stared back, clearly startled when he recognized her.
"It's been…what?" Samantha swallowed the unexpected rush of emotions. "Since graduation?" Their days at Texas A&M seemed a lifetime ago. Strange the pain didn't.
Bret pushed back his helmet, revealing dark hair. His equally dark eyes hardened and she wondered if he was feeling the same rush of memories, the unexpected flare of attraction. "Samantha Shaw. Didn't expect it to be you. Thought your parents must have rented out the place." He glanced down at the chair. "Accident?"
"Yeah." It was still hard to talk about, impossible to accept.
His surprise didn't fade. "So, what are you doing in Rosewood?"
"Can't a person come home for awhile?"
"You haven't been real big on doing that."
She craned her neck, looking back at the house, trying not to think about the shock of seeing Bret.
The paramedic placed the oxygen mask over her face.
When she could speak, Samantha looked again at Bret. "Do you think there'll be much damage?"
"If it's confined to the kitchen, probably not." Bret's voice was as hard as his eyes. "Once it's clear, you can go inside for a quick look."
Her relief disappeared. "More than a quick look. I'm living here now."
"Can't do that, Sam. Not tonight. Could be a live ember left we didn't catch. It's too dangerous. You have to wait 'til it's completely cold."
Overpowered by the now familiar sense of claustrophobia and panic, she could barely speak. Not that it mattered. Surrounding neighbors who had poured out of their houses, dressed in pajamas and robes, crowded around, offering sympathy and help.
"I appreciate your concern, but it looks worse than it is." Polite but firm, Samantha declined their offers, knowing she couldn't let them in on her secret or her life.
Albert and Ethel Carruthers, the older couple who lived next door, were slow but determined as they closed in.
"Samantha!" Mrs. Carruthers clucked in worry, unfolding a crocheted afghan she'd carried with her, then smoothing it over Sam's lap. "Whatever happened?"
They were two of the very few people in Rosewood who knew she was home. Because her parents had entrusted them to watch over the house, Samantha had been forced to tell the Carrutherses that she was back, especially since she'd needed their help to get inside. "Just a tiny grease fire." She tried to ignore Bret's startled expression, certain he was wondering why she was covering up the truth. "Nothing to worry about."
"But Samantha can't go back in tonight," Bret told them. He disregarded the warning in her eyes, instead talking directly to the older couple. "Could she stay at your place? Don't want her toasted by a flare-up."
"Well, of course she can!" Ethel Carruthers patted Samantha's shoulder. "It's difficult enough to be on your own, but when there's a catastrophe—"
"I wouldn't call it that," Samantha interrupted.
"Even so. What are neighbors for?"
Possibly to squeal on me. If my parents find out…
"I'll be back in a few minutes," Bret was saying. "Want to see how much damage there is."
As he walked away, Albert Carruthers stared after him, then back at Samantha. "I thought it was just a small fire."
Emotionally, Samantha felt as though she'd just run a hundred miles. The irony made her even wearier. She hated fibbing to these people—she'd known them literally her entire life. "You know how firemen are extra cautious. I don't see why I can't stay here tonight."
"Don't even think about it." Ethel had moved on to her mother-hen mode. "We keep the guest room set up all the time. Never know when one of the grands or great-grands will stop over."
Samantha softened at the longing in the older woman's voice. Her grandchildren were grown and Ethel missed them.
"Maybe we should call your parents," Ethel mused.
Ethel's eyes widened and Samantha tried to control her flustered response. "Why worry them? It's a tiny fire. They gave up so much time flying to New York when…when I had my accident. It'd be just like them to hop on an airplane and come home."
"Going to Africa's been their dream since…well, before they retired. The kids in their school need them more than I do right now. We agreed we wouldn't ruin that for them."
Ethel sighed. "You've always been determined. Ever since you were a little thing. You could barely toddle, but you were relentless."
Swallowing, Samantha tried not to think of those days, a time when she believed anything was possible. "My days of toddling are in the past."
Bret came up behind them. "I'm going to open the windows, let the house air out tonight. That'll help the kitchen cool down sooner, too."
Samantha squeezed her eyes shut for a brief moment, not wanting her emotions to spill over in front of him. But the lack of control, the inability to do things on her own anymore…. The pain was so intense she felt it pierce her chest. Instinctively, she pulled off the oxygen mask.
"I can come back in the morning for a few minutes before work," Bret continued. "Check out the house and take you back." He turned off the oxygen tank and placed the mask on top of it.
Not allowing Samantha to agree or refuse, he again took charge of her chair, wheeling her toward the house next door. Logically, she knew the elderly Carruthers would have a difficult time coping with her chair, but she hated when others simply took over as though her mind didn' t work any better than her legs.
The Carrutherses trailed a good distance behind. Bret chose the back door of their house, tipping and then lifting Samantha's chair over the threshold in two efficient moves. "I'll wait till tomorrow to ask why you're back." He pushed the chair through the kitchen and into the living room. "And why you lied."
Startled, she stared up at him. Hearing the Carrutherses entering the house, Samantha didn't try to explain. But she knew the reprieve wouldn't last past the night.
The morning air still held the bitter aroma of charred wood. Inside Samantha's house, though, the fire was completely banked, no live embers hiding beneath the wreckage.
Bret Conway knew Samantha so well it was clear she was hiding something. Even though he shouldn't be, he was bothered by the defeat he'd glimpsed in her eyes. There'd never been an ounce of defeat in Samantha Shaw.
Just the opposite. She had been set on becoming a botanist and discovering new species. She'd traveled the globe, searching out varieties never before cataloged. Universities lined up, requesting her lectures. And as a plant pathologist, she was in constant demand. Even though Bret had gone after the same degree in school, he'd never had the same aspirations. There were wanderers and there were stayers. Samantha was a wanderer. But he needed his roots in Rosewood, to stay connected to what mattered.
So he'd used his horticulture degree to specialize in native species, in efforts to make them thrive again, to help his own corner of the planet. Or at least his corner of Texas.
And he'd known that when Samantha left Rosewood, it was for good.
Holding the newspaper he'd picked up on the lawn, Bret knocked on the Carrutherses' front door. Hearing the slow shuffle of feet, he waited patiently.
Albert didn't bother to check who was standing on the porch, pulling open the door as soon as he reached it. "That you, Bret?"
"Yes, sir. How're you doing this morning?" He held out the paper.
"Same as every other day." Albert accepted the newspaper, but didn't glance at it. The biggest local news would be the fire next door. "Come have some coffee."
Bret followed the older man into the kitchen. Ethel stood at the stove and Samantha was at the table. "Smells good."
"If that means you want a waffle, pull up a chair," Ethel replied. "I don't guess young men cook for themselves."
Amused, at the age of thirty, to be included in the young people category, he sat down across from Samantha. "If you don't plan to stay here, I will. Last time I had a waffle for breakfast…well, I don't know the last time I had one."
"Your mother must make them," Ethel chided.
He grinned. "I live in the apartment over the business, but I don't go to their house for breakfast."
Samantha fiddled nervously with her fork, but her plate was almost full. Looked like she'd only eaten a bite or two. The Samantha he knew ate with gusto, lived with even more. And she'd rarely been nervous. No, she followed her own path even when it meant breaking his heart.
Bret's appetite vanished. He shoved back his chair. "Ethel, it pains me to say this, but I've already eaten. Sam, you ready to look at your place?"
Relief flooded the delicate features of Samantha's face. "Yes."
"But you've barely touched your breakfast," Ethel fussed.
"It was delicious, really." Samantha's smile was strained. "But I need to see the house."
Albert's brow furrowed, his long, gray eyebrows pulling together. "There shouldn't be much damage from a little grease fire."
"No, no. Of course not," Samantha's words tumbled out too quickly. Then she took a breath. "But you know how my mother feels about her house."
Ethel wiped her hands on a small terry towel. "Like any woman. Go on then. You probably won't get a decent meal 'til you've seen the kitchen."
Samantha wheeled back from the table. Bret stepped forward and opened the door. She tried to push herself over the threshold, but the chair stuck. He tipped it, lifting the wheels over the low barrier.
Bret waited until they were on the grass, heading away from the Carrutherses'. "I see you're still trying to push past anything that gets in your way."
Surprisingly, she didn't pop back with a quick retort.
The front door to her house was the only one open, since the back entry was a mess. He pivoted her wheelchair around so that she faced away from the house. "Hang on." Lifting the chair carefully up the steps, then over the threshold, he rolled her inside. They headed down the hall toward the kitchen.
As they got within viewing distance, Samantha gasped, hands flying to cover her mouth.