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Dusty Conrad's mission was simple. Go into the fire-house. Seek out Jolie. Get her to sign the divorce papers she'd had for two months. Move on with his life. Let Jolie get on with hers.
Simple. Right. Then why was he driving around the narrow, tree-lined streets of Old Orchard, going everywhere but the fire station?
Dusty tightened his hands on the steering wheel of the shiny red pickup and visually inhaled his surroundings. He took in the hay bundles decorated with pumpkins, the witch and black-cat decals clinging to the windows of the older homes that lined Main Street, the colorful mums dotting nearly every free space. Funny. Only six months had passed since he'd left. Somehow it seemed just like yesterday. Except that now the town had on its Halloween best, ready to partake in the spooky festivities unquestionably scheduled for the weekend. Six months ago budding tree branches had borne pastel eggs and windows had sported cute caricatures of rabbits and baskets.
Bustling was one word he'd never use to describe the Rockwellesque streets of Old Orchard, Ohio. No. Rather the word sluggish came to mind as he left the residential section of Main and slowly drove into the quaint downtown area. As he veered to the right to navigate around Lucas Circle, he watched young Dana Malone as she tried to teach her son Josh how to look both ways before crossing the street. The toddler, however, seemed to have other ideas, like trying to climb into the gargantuan water fountain that had been designed some hundred and twenty years ago. The entire town had been built around Lucas Circle. It was where all town functions began and ended, the town meeting spot for union support rallies and carnivals alike. Just like the old, hulking cement structure of Old Jake's, a general store where everyone still shopped, despite the spreading cancer of strip malls a mere five-minute drive away.
He supposed the word town no longer fit the growing city now estimated at forty-five thousand. But while the modern semi-new hospital on the opposite end of Main Street and several towering office buildings had altered the skyline a bit, the heart of downtown looked pretty much as it had a century earlier. Threeand four-story brick buildings crouched side by side for blocks on either side of Main Street and Old Orchard Avenue, storefronts holding advertisements for seven dollar haircuts, sporting neon beer signs and announcing daily specials. With the majestic trees, the old stone library and the turn-of-the-century church, the smalltown flavor remained. An essence carefully and lovingly tended to by Old Orchard's citizens, the majority of whom still chose to walk instead of drive, frequented the smaller shops rather than heading out to the cheaper strip malls and large chain stores nearby, and were never too busy to say hello and stop for a brief chat, or help out a neighbor in need. It was a place where if you didn't directly know a person, you knew someone who did. Some might find conversations dotted with "you know, Jim Olsen's cousin's husband's aunt" difficult to follow, but here such connections were the norm.
Dusty finished negotiating Lucas Circle and absently rubbed at a spot just below his rib cage, at the needling ache there. Old Orchard was where he'd been born. Where he'd passed every major milestone, from first step, to first sexual experience. He knew just where to look for items in Old Jake's General Store on the corner, be it his favorite candy bar or condoms. Knew that the unseasonable warmth of the late October day would glide into a crisp autumn night. Could remember that if you hit the curb just right with the front tire of your bicycle, you could either pop an awesome wheelie… or lose your front teeth. He could practically hear the old church bell missing a ring as it chimed off the time, and the sound of the kids being let out of school on the outskirts of town and the hum of lawnmowers as homeowners saw to the last of the garden chores before winter set in.
He could also practically hear the echo of his younger brother Erick's mischievous laughter riding on the gentle breeze and smell Jolie's subtle perfume entwined with the scent of autumn leaves.
Once outside Lucas Circle he continued down Main and reluctantly picked up speed, reaching his destination quicker than he intended. He slowly pulled to a stop outside Fire Station 2, then glanced at the building. The renovated old schoolhouse looked exactly the same. The tower clock was stuck at the same time—nine-fifteen, the same moment it stopped back on June 6, 1982, when a fire had claimed the lives of two firefighters at the automobile-parts manufacturing plant five miles outside town—and the white trim contrasted neatly against the warm red brick. Then again, he hadn't expected it to change any. He was the one who had changed. So much he barely recognized the man who had spent nearly as much time running to the station than from it, perpetually late. Even now he fought the urge to glance at his watch to see that he was on time, though no one would be clocking him in.
Two of the three bays were open to the midmorning sun, revealing that one of the hulking red engines—the hose truck—was missing, while the pumper stood gleaming like a chrome-toothed animal.
"I'll be damned. Is that Dusty Conrad?" a familiar voice echoed from within the depths of the station.
Dusty watched his old friend John Sparks step out from the side of the remaining engine, wiping his hands on a soft leather cloth, a mile-wide grin on his too-handsome face. He wore his gray-and-black sheriff's uniform, telling Dusty that his penchant for hanging around the fire station hadn't changed any. And seeing as Sparks had started out at the fire station, no one complained about his being there. Especially since he enjoyed helping out.
Dusty began to step toward the open bay when another man stepped from the shadows behind John. The pinprick in his chest turned into a tangible pain as he realized he'd half expected to see his brother, Erick, stepping out after John. But no matter how similar in build and coloring the unfamiliar man—more kid— with Sparks was, he could never be Erick. His brother was gone. And Dusty was the one to blame.
Realization seemed to spread across Sparks's face. He looked down, then hooked a thumb in the kid's direction. "This is Scott Wahl. You remember him, don't you? Think a foot or two shorter—"
"Scooter." Dusty nodded, finally recognizing the blond-haired teen. Whenever the station team conducted school classes and drills, or demonstrations at the county fair, Scott, aka Scooter, had always been the one to dog them every step of the way. He must have graduated to actually hanging out at the station.
Growing aware of the uncomfortable silence, he switched his gaze to John Sparks. The shorter, wiry man had been Erick's best friend. All throughout elementary, middle and high school nothing had been able to separate the two.
Nothing but death.
"Hey, Sparks, how have you been?" he asked, finding it difficult to face the only person on earth who had been as close to his brother as he.
John's ready grin always caught him off guard. As did his strength when he came out and shook Dusty's hand so vigorously he might have vibrated him straight out of his work boots before giving him a brief, awkward "guy" kind of half hug. "I'd say you were a sight for sore eyes, Conrad, but with you looking like a paint can just fell on your head, I can't."
Dusty lifted his free hand to his light brown hair. "Funny you should say that. A paint can did fall on me. Two days ago on a work site."
John's grin never budged. "It was rumored you were working in construction in Toledo."
"Yeah. Nothing much ever escaped town gossip, did it? Sneeze and those on the outskirts called to bless you."
"That's Old Orchard, all right." John slapped a hand across his shoulders and they walked toward the open bay door. "You back for good?"
Back for good? Dusty slowed his step, an odd foreboding taking root in his stomach. He glanced at his friend and absently rubbed the back of his neck. When he'd left, he'd done so without any intention of returning. John's sincere expression told him he expected otherwise.
"Nope," he finally said in answer. "Just back for a visit."
When he'd left, he'd done so without talking to anyone but Jolie. He'd never stopped to consider how she might explain his absence. Even if he had, he would have guessed she'd put it as simply as possible. Say something along the lines that after the death of his brother, he'd lost his nerve… both as a firefighter and her husband.
He would never have thought that she might not explain it at all.
A full minute passed before Dusty's eyesight adjusted from the bright sunlight to the dimness of the station as they stepped into the open bay. "Jolie around?" he asked as casually as he could, though just forming his mouth around her name did something funny to his stomach.
John shook his head. "She, Martinez and Sal are out on a run."
Dusty wasn't surprised. If a truck was gone, then Jolie was on it. "Nothing serious, I hope."
John chuckled. "Not unless you're a chicken farmer. One of Rudy Glick's chicken trucks overturned over on Route 108 with a full load. Yeah, I'd say Jolie and the guys have their hands pretty full right about now."
At the sound of their voices, the remaining members of Group 1, the team scheduled for duty that day, came out from the back room. Dusty weathered a swarm of back pats, arm slugs and hearty greetings from the men he'd spent a good chunk of his life with fighting fires.
"There is a God," Gary Jones, the chief, moaned, his gray hair tucked under a station ball cap. "I haven't had a decent meal around here since the day you left, Dusty."
Sparks patted Gary's round middle. "Not that you could tell."
"Watch it, boy, or I'll ban you from the station." A grin smoothed the edge off his words. "Either that or retire now instead of in a few weeks, leaving the town in the lurch. Then where would you be, Sheriff Sparks?"
Dusty slid his fingers into his front jeans pockets. "Who's on kitchen detail now?"
He winced. "I'm guessing he got stuck with it because of lack of seniority rather than any real skills in the kitchen."
"Yeah, well, it's not his skills we're questioning. It's his choice of foods. Refried beans are not something you want churning in your stomach when you're called off on a run." The guys laughed. "Anyway, we did try to enlist somebody else…." Jones's words drifted off even as his blue eyes twinkled. "You should have seen Jolie's face when we suggested she take over, you know, thinking she may have picked up a thing or two from you along the way."
Dusty scratched his chin. "I can imagine. You all must have thought it was the Fourth of July what with all the fireworks that suggestion should have launched."
Gary grimaced as he burrowed his fingers under the front of his ball cap. "Got that right. We nearly had to get out the hose. That little gal of yours sure has a temper, all right."
All at once Gary seemed to realize what he'd said, as did everyone else in the firehouse, setting off an uncomfortable silence. Even Scooter Wahl, hanging out on the fringes, looked ill at ease.
Sparks cleared his throat. "So how long you in town for, buddy?"
"I don't know yet…."
The strident sound of an engine horn bellowed through the house. They all turned to find the missing members of the team pulling into the drive. Behind the cab, Jolie jumped off the step onto the pavement, her heavy gear slowing her not at all.
Dusty was rendered completely speechless. Fool that he was, he hadn't considered how he'd feel when he laid eyes on Jolie again. Hadn't even thought to remember that just looking at her made him wonder if he'd just swallowed a handful of sand. Hadn't anticipated his intense physical reaction to her, a need, really, that always seemed to be there, just below the surface of his skin. Even in her turnout clothes, the bulky yellow fireproof and waterproof jacket and pants, she drew his gaze like a spotlight. The bright morning sun ignited the auburn strands in her hair, her cheeks were full of color, the adrenaline inspired by any run fairly emanating from her like a heady perfume.
Then she spotted him. Her blue eyes widened to the size of baseballs, then brightened with a happiness that sent Dusty's stomach careering down to land somewhere around the vicinity of his knees.
Dusty had the sinking sensation that nothing about this visit was going to be simple.
Joy surged through Jolie Calbert Conrad's veins sure and strong as she stared into the face of the man it seemed she had loved her entire life. How many times in the past few months had she imagined returning to the station to find Dusty there? No fewer than a dozen at least. But he never had been. Until now. And despite the weightless sensation in her stomach, her shallow breathing, and the heat that immediately rushed to her cheeks, she wasn't altogether sure how she felt about him being there now.
Especially since his coming here to the station, rather than stopping by the house, their house, didn't bode well for what he was doing back.
"Did you get those dangerous, rampaging chickens picked up?" the chief asked as Martinez climbed from behind the driver's seat.
"Dirty job, but somebody's gotta do it," he said. "The town is safe for all to walk the streets again."
"Hey, it's Dusty!" Martinez rushed her husband and gave him an awkward bear hug. Jolie envied him the simple gesture, if only for the physical contact it allowed. She averted her gaze, trying to push the desire to hug Dusty herself safely away.
She swallowed the sudden emotion clogging her throat. Hugging Dusty should be the last thing she wanted to do. After five years of marriage, and a whole lifetime together before that, six months had gone by with little word from him. Except, of course, those words that came through his attorney.
She shivered despite the sunshine warmth of the day and the heavy gear she wore.
Martinez made some comment on Dusty's getting a little soft around the middle, then said, "I can't tell you how glad I am to see you, buddy. Where in the hell have you been? How in the hell are you?"