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The clock in the hall had already struck midnight when Caroline Fairchild pushed back from her home computer. Muttering an unladylike expletive, she rubbed the tense muscles in her neck. The discouraging financial printout told her what she already knew. Her newly launched decorating business in Denver was in the red. If she didn't get at least one lucrative contract this fall, she'd lose the investment of her late husband's life insurance and probably the house, too.
It wasn't just her future that was at stake. There was Danny, her six-year-old son. Growing up without his father was hard enough. She wanted him to have a full and happy life. Being a single parent presented more challenges than she had ever imagined.
Wearily, she turned out the lights on the lower floor and went upstairs to Danny's bedroom.
"I'll figure something out," she whispered as she bent over the child's bed and brushed back his lightbrown hair from his forehead. He was a beautiful child and her heart swelled with the miracle that he was hers. Since she had no other family, she'd wanted to be a mother more than anything in the world. Now that she had lost her husband, having this darling little boy to raise made every day a special blessing.
Quietly, she crossed the hall to her bedroom and left the door open in case Danny called to her. Even though her husband, Thomas, had been dead two years, being alone at night was still the hardest part of being a widow. She'd given up wearing the sexy nightgowns and settled for oldfashioned flannel pajamas. Sometimes when she looked in the mirror, she wondered where her youth had gone. Even though she'd kept herself physically fit and her hair was still a rich dark brown and her blue eyes were 20/20, she thought she looked older than her thirty-two years.
She lay awake for a long time, her thoughts heavy with unanswered questions and decisions to be made. The tiny bedside clock had passed two o'clock before her tense body began to relax. She was finally on the edge of sleep when suddenly her nostrils quivered with the stench of burning wood. She sat up and clasped a hand over her nose and mouth.
She leaped from the bed and bounded into the hall. Clouds of black smoke rolled up the stairway. Somewhere on the floor below was a terrifying brightness and the sound of crackling flames.
"Danny!" Shouting, she ran into his room and grabbed him up from the bed. Half-asleep, he started to fight her. "No, honey no, the house is on fire! We have to get out."
He was a load to carry as she fled back into the hall, holding him tightly against her chest. They had to get out of the house. Frightened, Danny began to cough and struggle in her arms.
The only exits from the house were on the ground floor. As she froze at the top of the stairs, she could see tongues of red flames already licking at the stairs and banister. In moments the entire staircase would be in flames. Black smoke swirled around them.
"I can't see," Danny wailed.
As she wavered at the top of the stairs, the heat rose up to meet her, instantly parching her mouth and throat with a burning dryness. Her eyes were watering and the biting smell of scorched wood and cloth seared her nostrils.
A dancing brightness at the bottom of the stairway warned her that the entire first floor might already be a flaming furnace. Danny was coughing and crying as she plunged down the stairs through the swirling, thick haze.
Panic drove her through an encroaching ribbon of fire spreading along the bottom step. She leaped over it, almost losing her balance as she fled down the smokefilled hall.
Fiery flames were devouring the dining-room curtains and spreading along the carpet runner leading to the front room. Danny bolted out of her arms with the panicked strength of a terrified six-year-old. He disappeared in the direction of the front foyer just as a thunderous crash vibrated through the depths of the house.
"Danny!" she screeched with parched lips and a burning throat as she ran after him. He was already at the locked front door, pounding on it and whimpering when she reached him. Her eyes were watering so badly, she couldn't see the dead bolt. As her hands played blindly on the door seeking it, her fingers touched a hinge. She was on the wrong side of the door!
Danny had his face buried against her nightgown when she finally found the lock. Frantically, she turned it with one hand and jerked open the door with the other.
They bounded outside.
Coughing and gasping, they stumbled across the porch and down the front steps. The sound of falling timbers and radiating heat from leaping flames followed them across the yard.
Grabbing Danny's hand, she croaked, "Run."
At two o'clock in the morning all was quiet in the modest neighborhood in North Denver. The street was empty of people and cars. Only a few porch lights were on as they bolted across the cul-de-sac to the house of Betty and Jim McClure, her closest neighbors and longtime friends.
They stumbled up the steps and Caroline's frantic ringing of the doorbell and pounding brought Jim, disheveled and sleepy-eyed, to the door.
His eyes widened when he saw them. "Caroline! What on earth? What's happened?"
"Call 9-1-1! Fire. My house!"
When Jim looked across the street and saw the flames leaping out of the windows and roof, he spun on his bare feet and ran for the phone.
"What is it?" Betty called from the top of the stairs and hurried down.
Caroline tried to answer but a spasm of coughing choked her words.
"Our house is on fire," Danny whimpered.
All night crews from two fire trucks fought to control the flames. Caroline knew she never would forget the sound of the wailing sirens and the sight of firemen mobilizing to fight a dangerous enemy.
By sunup, their victory was small.
A stench of smoke, ashes and foul water floated through the whole neighborhood. The entire house had been gutted. The back was leveled. Most of the roof on the remainder had collapsed and water damage was everywhere.
As Caroline stared at the devastation, her lips quivered with disbelief. She and Thomas had bought the house when they were first married.
It had been the only real home she'd ever had. Her parents had been dryland farmers in eastern Colorado, moving from one acreage to another when times were bad"and they always were. Caroline was an only child and had been weighed down with responsibility and never-ending poverty as she grew up. Her parents had died within a year of each other when she was a senior in high school. She'd always been a hard worker and good student and her perfect 4.0 high-school record earned her a full scholarship to Colorado University.
She'd been working in the cafeteria when she met Thomas Fairchild, an older medical student doing his internship. Thomas always told her she was the prettiest girl with summer-blue eyes and soft brown hair that he'd ever seen. Their marriage had been a happy one, especially after Danny had become a part of their lives.
Now, she bit her lip to fight the ache in her heart as she walked across the street and stared at the shambles of their home. Most of the firemen had left, but the fire chief had remained. His expression was sympathetic as he walked over to her.
"I'm afraid there's not much left."
"But surely, I haven't lost everything?" she asked, biting her lip to control her emotions.
He avoided a direct answer. "Do you have any idea what started the blaze?"
She shook her head. "I can't imagine how it happened." "Did you have any combustible material stored at the back of the house or in the kitchen?" he prodded.
"No. And nothing left on the stove. I always clean up after dinner and work a few hours in my office."
His eyes traveled over what was left of the house. "I'm afraid the damage is extensive."
"I'll need to go through and see what I can salvage," she said in a strained voice.
"Maybe tomorrow," he hedged. "You'll have to have one of the firemen go with you." He cleared his throat.
"The cause of the fire is under investigation. We don't want any potential evidence destroyed. Arson is always a possibility."
The way his eyes narrowed suggested he was considering the idea that she'd set it herself.
She stiffened. "How long will the investigation take?" "Hard to tell."
Caroline knew that meant the insurance company was absolved of any responsibility to write out a check for who knew how long.
Three days passed before she was finally allowed inside the house. In the company of a young fireman, she went through the painful process of salvaging what she could.
She was relieved that her important personal papers and a few old photos of her late parents were in a metal box that had survived the heat. Her office was destroyed.
Nothing in the upstairs rooms was salvageable. What hadn't burned was ruined by smoke and water. When all was said and done, she accepted the stark reality that all was gone.
She was grateful for the generosity of friends and strangers and, luckily, she had just taken some fall and winter clothes to the cleaners to get ready for the October weather. She had no choice but to use funds from her less-than-impressive bank account to buy necessities for her and Danny.
"What are you going to do, Caroline?" Betty asked as Caroline sat dejectedly in the kitchen, staring at a cup of tea. "I mean about your business? I know you've always worked out of your home but you're welcome to put in a desk at our furniture store."
Jim and Betty owned the McClure Furniture Outlet and it was through their referral of some of their customers that Caroline had secured several redecorating contracts.
"Maybe that way you'll pick up some decorating jobs from more of our customers," Betty encouraged. "And you and Danny can stay with us until things get settled."
"That's kind of you. I just don't know."
After the shock had worn off and reality set in, Caroline gratefully accepted both offers.
Danny had turned six the first week in October" after school had started, so he was in kindergarten.
Betty loaned Caroline a laptop and she set up her "office" in a corner of their store. Using the telephone, she prospected for viable clients and created a simple advertising brochure to hand out.
She had just hung up the telephone, batting zero for the morning, when Betty and an attractive woman approached her desk.
"Caroline, I want you to meet Stella Wainwright. She's from Texas and her brother-in-law has a mountain lodge in Colorado that he's decided to redecorate."
"Pleased to meet you." Caroline rose to her feet and held out her hand. "Caroline Fairchild."
The woman was fashionably dressed in gabardine slacks, a pink knit shell and a leather jacket. Her blondish hair was cut short around a tanned face and alert hazel eyes matched her steady expression. Caroline guessed her to be close to forty despite her youthful appearance.
"She tells me she's having trouble hiring a decorator willing to go and work in such an isolated place," Betty explained quickly. "I told her I didn't know whether you'd be interested"with your other commitments and all," she added with a straight face.
"The project sounds interesting," Caroline responded, smiling and playing the role of a successful, busy decorator.
With obvious satisfaction, Betty made her retreat, leaving the two women to talk.
"Please sit down." Caroline motioned to a nearby chair and turned her desk chair in that direction. "Where is the lodge located?"
"At the foot of the San Juan Mountains on the western slope of Colorado," she answered, crossing her legs in a relaxed fashion.
"North of there. Closer to Telluride."
"I see." Caroline had never been in that part of the state but she had a general idea of the area.
"His property is extensive and includes its own lake and encompasses hundreds of acres of mountain forest," Stella Wainwright continued. "The lodge is quite isolated and private."