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A guy ought not to look that good in baggy old shorts and a holey T-shirt, but Zak Ashford did.
Jilly Fairmont yanked the rope on the cantankerous lawn mower and tried not to stare at her neighbor, cocked back in his lawn chair, shades in place, taking it easy on a sunny summer Saturday. She was surprised he wasn't playing baseball.
Yes, she noticed the comings and goings of her single neighbor. They were friends, buddies, pals. If she hollered, he'd come running. If he wanted someone to watch the game with, she'd be there in a flash. Zak didn't know it, would be shocked to even think it, but his best pal, Jilly, was in hopeless, unrequited love with him.
She yanked the rope again. No luck.
Across the quiet street and the rise of lush green lawn separating her home and his, Zak's voice called, "Hey, Jilly, need some help?"
No, she needed a new lawn mower. And a life. And she needed to stop mooning over her firefighter neighbor.
"I'm good. Thanks anyway." She backhanded the sweat from her eyes and yanked once again, muttering words like "trash heap" and "salvage yard" to the old mower. The incantation must have worked because the motor roared to life and shot black smoke and grass flecks from underneath.
With a wave toward Zak, she struck out across the thick, sweet-scented grass just as an unfamiliar car turned down her street.
Certain days in a man's life should come with warning labels. For Zak Ashford, that particular sunny day turned his world upside down, and nothingnot one single thingwas ever the same again.
He saw the battered old Chevya white Cavalier with a dented fender and one brown doorround the corner and rattle down the street in front of his house. Cars came and went. No big deal.
Kicked back in his lawn chair with a cold Pepsi at his side and fantasy baseball on his iPod, he focused on Jilly's dog of a lawn mower expecting it to wheeze and gasp to a stop at any moment. She'd need him over there pretty quick. Not that he minded. That's what friends were for.
He set his Pepsi aside ready to jog across the street to Jilly's just as the Cavalier chugged up the slight incline of his driveway, shuddered a couple of times and died. He pushed his sunglasses to the top of his head, leaned forward in the chair and squinted.
The driver's gaunt, pale face turned to stare at him. His belly went south. An electric current zipped from his brain to his nerve endings.
"No way. No possible way," he was muttering as he slowly rose for a better look. When he did, three small heads popped up from the backseat. Kids. A tiny blonde girl and two boys with dark hair. Not one of them had a child safety seat.
The adrenaline jacking through his blood centered on that one thought. No matter who the driver, she was irresponsible. And she was breaking the law.
The brown door of the white Chevy groaned open before Zak reached it. A too-thin woman with short, curly hairdirty blondgripped the door and levered herself to a stand.
"Zak?" she said. "Zak Ashford?"
His belly did that dipping thing, like the time he'd fallen down a flight of stairs into the belly of the beast, a roaring fire. This could not be who he thought it was.
"Yeah, I'm Zak. Who's asking?" And why don't you have those kids in child restraints?
As he started around the car ready to give his fireman lecture, the woman met him at the headlights. "Remember me? Crystal?"
So it was her. She looked differentolder, harder and more desperate, if there was such a thingbut here she was. His most humiliating moment.
Suddenly, the subject of car seats was not paramount.
Before he could open his mouth to ask why she'd come for this unexpected visit, she took two steps in his direction and crumpled like a wet paper sack.
With driveway concrete looming up fast, Zak's paramedic training kicked in. He lurched forward to stop her fall but missed. She collapsed against his bare knees and slid down to the top of his Converse All Star slip-ons. Gently, he eased to a squat and turned her over, going through the ABC protocol. Airway, breathing, circulation.
"Crystal. Crystal, can you hear me?" he asked, his hands and eyes assessing. Pale and gray, she looked like warmed-over death. A cloud passed between him and the sun. He shuddered, vaguely aware of car doors opening and people moving around him.
A small voice said, "Mama's dead."
The statement yanked Zak's attention from Crystal to a thin-faced boy. Maybe eight or ten, he stood solemnly, almost passively in front of Zak, staring down at his mother.
"No," Zak reassured. "She fainted. She'll be fine."
"Nu-uh," the boy insisted in that same tired, matter-of-fact voice. "She has cancer."
The word slammed into Zak's head as all the tumblers rolled into place. Crystal's ghastly gray color, her skeletal body, the ultrashort, curly hair all pointed to someone who'd spent recent time on chemo. Lots of chemo.
Another boy, this one a few years younger, started to howl. Weirdly, not one of the three kids standing in a semicircle touched the woman lying on the concrete. The third, a tiny blonde girl with wispy ponytails, stared with undisguised interest at Zak.
By now, Jilly had arrived, panting and breathless. "What happened?"
"She passed out."
"I saw that much." She leaned forward, hands on her knees to stare at his patient. "Should I call 9-1-1? Anything?"
"I am 9-1-1. Give me another second." He hitched a chin toward the kids. The yowler had escalated to something just short of siren velocity while the little girl had wandered off toward the street. "The kids."
"Oh, sure." Good old Jilly herded the toddler back to the fold. With one hand on the little one's arm, she hunkered beside the yowler and stroked his back. "It's okay. She'll be okay. Zak's a fireman. He'll take care of her."
The yowler wasn't impressed. The older boy was. His flat expression livened up a tad. "A real fireman?"
"Real deal," Jilly said. "He rides in a fire truck and every thing."
Too concerned about his patient to bask in firefighter adoration from a grade-schooler, Zak checked Crystal's pulse again. Her eyelids fluttered. "She's coming around."
With a moan, Crystal opened her eyes and blinked blankly at her surroundings. She licked dry lips and managed a whisper. "What happened?"
"You passed out."
As she struggled to sit up, Zak offered his strength. At six feet three and one-eighty-five, he could have shot-put Crystal across the street. Careful lest he break her match-stick arms, he assisted her to her feet. She was light. Scary light.
"We should get you to the hospital."
She made a face. "Absolutely not. I've had my fill of those."
He turned her loose. She wobbled. He reached for her again. "Hey."
"Yeah, and I'm a unicorn."
She rubbed a shaky hand over her forehead. The three children, all corralled by Jilly, stared up at their mother. The yowler had stopped crying and was now sucking his thumb. The little girl had a very baggy diaper.
"Bella's wet," the oldest boy said, a hint of annoyed resignation in his voice as he headed toward the beat-up car. The passenger door opened with a groan and Mr. Serious dragged out a diaper bag, scraping it across the concrete as though it weighed a ton.
Zak's head buzzed on overload. What was Crystal doing here in his driveway after all these years? How had she found him? And why? She was sick, obviously, but what did that have to do with him? Now that she'd fainted in his front yard, what was he supposed to do with her? He couldn't stick her back under the steering wheel and send her out into traffic in this condition with a carload of kids. And no safety seats.
The older boy tugged on Crystal's hand while studying Zak with suspicious brown eyes. "Is this him, Mama?"
"Yes, Brandon. That's him."
Him what? Zak wondered, but his conscience kicked in. The woman, regardless of who she was, was sick and weak and shaking like one of Jilly's rat terriers at bath time.
"Come in the house for a minute," he offered. "I'll get you something to drink while you get your bearings."
He wasn't sure what else to do. Obviously, Crystal hadn't tracked him down to faint in his driveway and then go merrily on her way. But what she wanted remained a complete mysteryand from his experience, Crystal always wanted something. That's what had gotten him into trouble before.
With one hand on the wobbly woman's arm, Zak led the way into his house. His home was one of the modern few in Redemption, Oklahoma, a small historic town populated with big, beautiful turn-of-the-century Victorians and pretty little cottages. Today, he especially appreciated the lack of tall steps.
Once inside his spacious, slightly cluttered, ultra-male living room, the three children flocked around the mother like chicks around a hen.
"Mama, you want me to change Bella?" Mr. Serious asked, still toting the diaper bag.
"Yes, Brandon." Crystal took the little girl by the arm and pushed her toward Brandon. "Go over there in the corner, Bella. Brandon will change you."
Zak felt sorry for the boy, but it wasn't his place to interfere. "Can I get you some water or a Pepsi or something?"
She shook her head. "Nothing for me. The kids are probably starving."
Crystal was still Crystal. Needy and unembarrassed to ask. "I've got baloney and wieners." What could she expect? He was a guy. Sandwiches and 'dogs were his mainstay. "Will they eat that?"
Jilly, who'd helped herd the children inside, spoke up. "I can make sandwiches, Zak."
Thank goodness for Jilly. He was a little rattled at the moment. "Thanks."
Jilly disappeared into his kitchen, knowing her way around from the many times they'd hung out. She was a pal like no other. And she made sandwiches and herded unfamiliar rug rats. Great neighbor.
"What's this little dude's name?" he asked, chin hitched toward the yowler with a thumb in his face. The boy looked a little old for thumb-sucking.
"This is Jake. He's almost seven. That's Brandon. He's nine. And Bella. She's three."
"Cute kids," he said politely although inside he was going loco. His heart thundered like a spring storm, his palms leaked sweat and every rational brain cell suspected an unpleasant reason for Crystal's visit. "So what's going on, Crystal? We haven't seen each other in what? Ten years?"
"About that." A ghost of a smile pulled at her gaunt cheeks, more of a grimace than joy. "I was really stupid back then, Zak."
Wary of apologies at this juncture, his anxiety jacked up another notch. "We were college kids. Stupid is normal."
She fidgeted; her skinny hands twisted in her lap. From the kitchen came the sound of Jilly digging in the fridge, cellophane crumplingnormal soundswhile in his living room sat the biggest mistake of his life.
"I shouldn't have gone with Tank that second time." Her smile was wan. "Or the third. He was a jerk. Just like you said."
Tank Rogers had gotten her pregnant and dumped heron Zak. Then, the creep had come back "for his woman."
"That was a long time ago, Crystal."
Her sigh was tired and whispery and full of regret. "I've made a lot of mistakes in my life. I don't want my kids to suffer for them."
Okay, what did that have to do with him? He sat with hands gripped together between his knees and waited her out, not knowing what else to do.
"I don't suppose you have a cigarette," she said.
She made a wry face. "I thought about quitting, but now I figure, what's the use? I'm sick, Zak." She drew in a shud-dery breath. Hollow eyes focused on the boy in the corner changing his sister's diaper. "The doctors stopped treatment last week. I have cancer. I'm dying."
Even though he barely remembered this woman, other than the humiliation he'd received at her hands, the pitiful statement made him ache. He was a certified paramedic/ firefighter, a serve-and-protect kind of guy, who liked people and wanted the best for them. Crystal was too young to die and leave behind three kids.
He shifted, cleared his throat. "I'm sorry." Sorry seemed a pathetically useless word in the face of death.
"That's why I looked you up, why I've driven across the state to find you. You have to help me."
Now they were getting down to the purpose of her visit, although he was still clueless. The sweat on the back of his neck said her reasons wouldn't be good. "You need money? I don't have a lot but maybe I can manage something."
She shook her head. Her gaunt body sagged against the fat pillow of his napping chair. "No."