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"I'm glad you made me do this," Summer Spencer said.
Her older sister gave her an odd look as she sliced a sliver of cheesecake from the small wedge on her plate.
"Cheesecake, especially your raspberry cheesecake, is always a good idea," Spring said.
The sisters were taking a break in the sunroom off Summer's large, light-filled gourmet kitchen. Smiling, Summer put her own fork down, rested her elbows on the table and her chin in her hands.
"Not this," she said, clarifying with a nod toward the table. "I'm glad you made me come home to Cedar Springs. This was a good move for me. The only downside has been dealing with Ilsa Keller at Manna. I volunteered at the church's soup kitchen to help people, not to be in a constant turf battle with her."
"Ilsa can be " Spring paused, looking for the right word. "Territorial."
Summer grimaced. "Dictatorial is the word I'd use."
With a nod, her sister conceded the point. "She means well."
"We're already shorthanded," Summer said. "And three more volunteers have quit. One came to me in tears asking if I could do something, and another stormed out the back door five minutes before the evening meal service after a screaming match with Ilsa right in the dining room."
"It sounds like the two of you need to have a heart-to-heart talk."
Summer shuddered. "I think I'd rather have a root canal without any anesthesia. You know I don't like confrontation, Spring. Besides, it's not my place to tell the director how to operate the place. I've only been volunteering at Manna for a couple of months myself."
"Mmm-hmm," Spring said. "Long enough to see that if things continue the way they're going, there may not be a soup kitchen at Common Ground if Ilsa chases or scares off all of the people who are running the place. No one gets paid to be there. Just like no one gets paid at any of the other church ministries. I probably put more hours in at Common Ground's free clinic than I do at the hospital. You know how mom is about the homeless shelter. And you do remember that quote about what happens when a good man-in this case, a good woman-does nothing."
While Summer pondered that, Spring dabbed her fork into the homemade raspberry sauce, then speared a piece of the fruit. "For the record, I didn't make you move home. If you hadn't already been thinking about it, you never would have come," Spring said as Summer gave her an indulgent smile. "Besides, it's good to have you here. It will take the pressure off me with Mom."
Summer rolled her eyes. "Good luck with that. You know that once Lovie Darling gets an idea in her head, there's no stopping her. And the idea that's been stuck there lately is that one of us needs to get married and start providing grandchildren for her to spoil."
The doorbell, a chime that echoed like church bells through the house, halted Spring's response to that taunt.
Summer dabbed her mouth with a napkin and pushed her chair back. "Wonder who that is. I'll be right back."
Without even thinking about it, she pulled a small tube of lip gloss from the pocket of her tailored shorts and refreshed her mouth.
Leaning back in her chair and looking toward the front of the house, Spring observed, "Summer, there's a fire truck outside."
"A fire truck? Oh, dear, I hope nothing's happened to any of the neighbors."
The bell chimed again as Summer reached the front door. She pulled it open without looking through the peep hole to find firemen in full gear on her threshold. A ladder fire truck sat at the curb and a sport utility vehicle with the Cedar Springs, North Carolina Fire Department logo emblazoned on its side was pulled into her driveway.
"Good afternoon," the firefighter in front said. "I'm looking for Summer Spencer."
"I-I'm S-Summer Spencer," she said, her voice quavering almost as much as her heart suddenly pounded. "W-what's happened? Tell me, what's happened?"
She heard her sister's voice behind her, but Summer only registered the officials standing before her, bringing her more horrifying news. Two of them were dressed in typical firefighter gear and the third, the one who addressed her, was in a dress uniform, the type worn by the brass to deliver condolences to the family of the deceased. In that moment, Summer's hard-won confidence shattered and her sense of security evaporated.
She didn't have the strength to go through it again. Not now. Not when she was finally stable, settled and starting her life over again in a place where the past didn't haunt her days and where people didn't give her pitying glances on the street.
" S ummer."
"No," she said, "no," as darkness enveloped her.
* * *
"Are you sure she's okay?" Cameron Jackson asked.
The beautiful but unconscious woman he'd caught and lifted into his arms was just now stirring on the overstuffed sofa where he'd gently placed her.
His firefighters had sprung into action when she'd collapsed, one dashing to the van for oxygen and the other summoning an ambulance.
"I think so," the efficient blonde said. "She was just a bit overwhelmed."
Just like his firefighters, she didn't panic when the woman fainted; she just reacted-in all the right ways.
"I'm Spring," she told him. "This is my sister. Her name is Summer."
Even given the situation, his mouth quirked up. She saw it.
"Our parents had a, let's just say, unique sense of humor."
Spring was taking her sister's pulse while one of the firefighters got the oxygen flowing and the mask over her nose and mouth.
"Summer? Honey? Can you hear me?"
The pretty blonde tried to sit up and Cameron was quick to assist. He sat beside her offering comfort and aid, and wondering what type of attack she'd had.
In all his years as a firefighter and as chief in Cedar Springs, he'd seen fire victims and their relatives overcome with emotion. But never had he had someone pass out on him simply because he'd said hello.
Now that he could see she was recovering, he took a moment to assess the two women. They were clearly sisters, one a younger version of the other. Both had the porcelain complexions that were evidence of good genes. While dressed casually, the older in chinos, loafers and a white button-down shirt and the other in navy blue shorts and an identical white shirt, they both exuded the aura of wealth.
"Would you get her a glass of water, please?" Spring asked the firefighter. "The kitchen is right around there," she indicated.
"Yes, ma'am, Doctor Darling."
Cameron looked up at her. Doctor? No wonder she hadn't panicked.
As Billy sprinted toward the kitchen, Cameron helped Summer sit up. He stayed close though, afraid that she might faint on him again. A hand at her back held her steady.
"Spring?" she asked.
"Hold on a sec, sis," Spring said as she tucked the ear buds of a stethoscope and took her younger sister's vitals.
"You keep a stethoscope at the ready?" Cameron asked.
Spring smiled. After she finished, she draped the instrument around her neck.
"Some doctors still make house calls," she said.
Cameron looked from one blonde beauty to the other. "You're sisters," he observed.
He could have slapped himself at the obvious remark.
"Give the man a cigar," Spring said. But any bite that could have been in her voice was offset by a smile and a little wink. "Okay, Summer. I think you're going to live."
"I might not," Cameron said. "You gave me quite a scare."
The firefighter who had been dispatched to the kitchen handed Summer a glass with ice water. "Here you go, ma'am."
"My mother is 'ma'am.' Please," she said. "Call me Summer."
Summer, Cameron thought. The name suited her. While he momentarily glanced up at the older sister, the doctor, his attention quickly returned to the younger beauty.
As a blush of color rose in her cheeks, a Scripture rose to his mind: The man who finds a good wife finds a good thing.
"I don't need this," she said tugging at the oxygen mask. "I'm fine, really."
He watched as she took a sip of water from the glass and handed it back to her sister. She then seemed to notice him and the two firefighters, and her eyes widened in panic.
"You fainted," Spring said.
Her cheeks got even redder, and this time Cameron suspected that it might be a blush of embarrassment. He wanted, inexplicably, to soothe the tension from her.
"My name is Cameron Jackson," he said. "I'm the fire chief here in Cedar Springs. We," he added with a nod toward the two crewmen with him, "came to check your smoke alarms. You requested the service from the department." He said it almost as a question, something that made the woman smile.
The siren of an ambulance could be heard through the screen of the still open front door.
"Billy, go give them a sitrep."
"Yes, sir." The young firefighter gave a half salute to the two women and dashed toward the door.
"Would you like to go to the hospital?"
"No, there's no need" Summer said, glancing up at Spring. "My sister's a doctor. And I'm sorry. I guess it's not every day that someone falls out over smoke alarm batteries."
Cameron looked up at Spring, the pieces finally falling into place. Spring Darling. She was the doc who worked at the free clinic. They'd never met, but he'd heard of her. What he didn't know was that she had such an enchanting sister.
"You're Dr. Spring Darling," he said.
"Guilty as charged," she said, holding out a hand for him to shake.
He did and was surprised to find that she shook hands like a man. The grip strong, steady and sure. It was a bit off-putting, but he didn't know why.
"And I'm Summer Spencer," the younger sister said, standing.
The handshakes were as different as the seasons they were named for. Summer's was light, airy and barely there.
Fifteen minutes later, after the paramedics also checked her vitals, the firefighters Billy and Chip and the two emergency medical technicians who had arrived in the ambulance said their farewells, each licking his lips from cheesecake samples and clutching a plastic sandwich bag filled with homemade cookies.
Cameron was about to follow them when he stopped in his tracks. Spring, trailing behind to see him to the door, bumped into him.
"Sorry about that," she said.
"We didn't check the smoke alarms." She grinned.
Summer, her purse slung over one shoulder, shook her head.
"I need to get down to the clinic, sis. First-aid kits and home fire extinguishers are in the kitchen, second shelf, and in the hall linen closet upstairs. My housewarming gifts to her," she added for Cameron's benefit.
"She's the practical one," Summer said dryly.
Ignoring the teasing Spring continued, looking at Summer but talking to Cameron. "I should see Mom at the clinic so I'll call you in about half an hour to confirm the time for Sunday."
Cameron got the subtle but effective warning from the older sister. Spring was leaving him alone with Summer, but would call in thirty minutes. He could appreciate the protectiveness, but also wondered if there might be more to it. She'd fainted at the sight of firefighters on her doorstep. Was that the residual effect of some trauma she'd suffered? Summer had a different last name than her sister. Was she pregnant? Ill? Where was her husband? She wasn't wearing a wedding band, but that didn't mean much to some people these days. Clearly the doctor had concerns, but Cameron kept his questions to himself.
"They took the new resident kits with them," he said. "I'll go grab one from the truck. Your home safety check won't take long."
While the Cedar Springs fire chief roamed through her house, Summer Spencer did what she always did when nervous or upset. She baked. By the time he returned to the kitchen, she had a batch of cookies in the oven and was placing dirty pans and utensils in the dishwasher.
"Yes," he said. "You look good."
When the color rose in her cheeks, he apparently realized the unintended double entendre. "I mean, the house. Everything is fine with the house. Your batteries are all replaced. Wiring looks. The wiring is fine, too."
Summer took a bit of comfort in the fact that he seemed as uncomfortable as she was.
"So, you're a baker?"
"Oh, no. I just dabble," she said, shutting the dishwasher door and drying her hands on a towel.
"Your cheesecake rivals what's sold over at Sweetings," he said. "My guys and the paramedics left here looking like they'd found the keys to the cookie store."
"Thank you," she said. "Cooking and baking relaxes me."
Years ago, she would have known what to say to this man, a man who so gallantly carried her when she'd fainted as if she were some delicate Southern belle with the vapors. But all that seemed to come from her mouth was inane chatter. She couldn't seem to think straight. As a matter of fact, the only thought in her head was that she didn't want him to go away believing she was a delicate little flower who needed a man's protection. The fact that she'd lived most of her life just like that only spurred her determination to offer him a logical explanation.
The only problem was, well, she didn't exactly have one of those handy.
"I wanted to explain," she said, "about what happened at the door."
He shook his head, cutting off her words. "There's no need," he said. "I'm just glad you got the all-clear from your sister and from the EMTs."
"My sister is a pediatrician. I'm not a child."
"No," he said. "Of course you're not."
Something in his tone arrested her, but before Summer could decipher it or determine just why this man seemed to make her so-was it uncomfortable or just aware?- he'd hefted his bag and was headed to the door. He left a packet of materials on the foyer table next to a bouquet of flowers she'd cut from her garden just that morning. The cover design on the new resident's packet, with a picture of a fire truck said: Welcome Home to Cedar Springs, North Carolina.
As she watched him back the fire department's sport utility vehicle out of her driveway, Summer didn't feel welcomed, and she couldn't help but wonder if she was letting an opportunity slip away.