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"You know you're nuts, right? Might even say you're obsessed. Face it. The woman's gone. Like a lot of folks, she was probably just passing through Red Rock, anyway."
Darr Fortune eyed his brother, Nick, over the lunch counter at SusieMae's. "Thanks for the support."
Nick grinned. "That's why you wanted me to move back here, isn't it? Give my baby bro some ego boosting?"
"Yeah. That was it," Darr agreed drily. He was the youngest of five, it was true, with an entire decade between him and JR, the oldest. But one thing he'd never particularly lacked was ego. A trait shared by his four brothers. "Didn't have a thing to do with the Foundation."
"You just wanted me to put in my time there so your conscience would be clear to play around with matches and rescue damsels in distress." Nick flicked the pink message slip that sat on the counter between their empty lunch plates. Around them, SusieMae's buzzed with customers. Most likely because SusieMae's pretty waitresses wore short, sassy little checkered dresses that looked as though they'd been designed by Daisy Mae, herself. "Like the blond babe you've been hunting for since Red went up in smoke."
"I haven't been hunting for her." The denial was weak, and he knew it. So did his brother, considering the way Nick snorted. "I'm only trying to follow up. Make sure she's all right. I did pull her out of a burnin' building." He kept his voice light. Not even Nick would know how hard that was.
"Two weeks ago, Darr. And nobody says you're not a hero. Though why you want to go into something that's on fire when everyone else with a lick of sense is trying to get out still escapes me." He pushed a pair of glasses onto hisnose and picked up the message slip. "Whoever wrote this ought to be sent back to school. I can't tell the sevens from ones, and is that last number an eight or what?"
"Devaney took the message." Darr slid the message out of his brother's fingers and peered at it himself. He'd been puzzling over the writing ever since he'd found the message tacked to the board outside his quarters at the firehouse. "Except for the street—I think it's Windrose—I can't read the rest of the address he wrote down, either. And Devaney can't remember." The other man was a hell of an engineer, but he was miserable when it came to remembering the details of anything that didn't pertain to a burn. "He couldn't even tell me who called with the address."
It probably hadn't been the hospital, relenting on its confidentiality stance. More likely, it was one of the cabbies Darr had bribed. Hitting it lucky by finding the one who'd actually driven Barbara Burton away from the hospital when she had checked herself out almost as quickly as the ambulance had gotten her there.
"I'm telling you. Obsessed. You ought to put that attention into taking the next promotion exam for captain."
Darr let that pass and Nick picked up his coffee mug, which had gone empty for too long, and gestured toward the waitress behind the counter. "Hey there, sugar. Have some hot stuff any time soon?"
Sugar, more commonly known as Lorena, strolled over and leaned against the lunch counter, giving them both a healthy view of her award-winning cleavage above pink and white checks while she refilled Nick's cup. "This soon enough for you, cutie pie?"
"It is now," Nick toasted her with his cup.
"You want a top-off, Darr?" Lorena barely looked his way. Why would she? Darr was a regular in SusieMae's. Had been since he'd moved to Red Rock from California alone himself, a few years back. She'd learned quickly enough that he wasn't the kind of man she wanted—namely, someone other than a firefighter.
Nick, however, was fresh pickings.
"I'm good, Lorena. Thanks."
"Heard you're working at the Fortune Foundation," Lorena said to Nick. "A financial analyst. Guess little ol' Red Rock must seem pretty tame after Los Angeles."
"Darr got used to it well enough." Nick eyed her, his amusement plain. "And I've always been better at everything than my baby brother."
Lorena glanced at Darr. "Really." Her speculative gaze slid back to Nick's. "I might just have to test that out someday."
"Lorena, order's up," SusieMae barked from the kitchen. She did not wear a dress short on length and low on material. A true blessing to the thriving community of Red Rock, Texas.
Lorena straightened up in a leisurely way. "See you later, cutie." She went over to the window and collected her order.
"Maybe Red Rock'll be more entertaining than I thought it would be," Nick mused.
"Oh, Lorena's entertaining all right." Darr pulled out his wallet. "But she doesn't want just a good time. She wants a ring and a baby carriage, too."
"Now, what makes a perfectly attractive woman want to go ruining things that way?" Nick shuddered as he pulled a clip of folded bills from his pocket. "I got it."
Darr tossed enough bills onto the counter to pay for his own meal with a decent tip for Lorena included. The Fortunes might be a wealthy bunch, but he'd always made his own way on his own terms. "I'm not broke." Not that he was earning here what he'd pulled down back in California. But his reasons for coming to Red Rock had much less to do with money than to do with his sanity.
Which Nick figured he'd now lost, anyway, given his futile hunt for the blonde from the fire at Red.
Maybe he's right.
Making certain that Barbara Burton was all right wouldn't erase what had happened with Celia in California.
"Geez." Nick's voice brought Darr back from thoughts of the woman he hadn't been able to save despite his best efforts. "Nobody said you were broke. Maybe you'd better go find the blonde, after all. A roll with a pretty woman might make you less touchy. Most folks are happy to get a free meal."
"I'm not looking for a roll." Just a way to sleep at night.
He shoved the message slip into his pocket and grabbed his leather jacket off the empty stool beside them, heading for the door. "Or a free meal."
Nick caught up to him, pulling on his own coat. "Christ, it's cold. This time of year the weather shouldn't be much different from Los Angeles. If I'd wanted to freeze, I could've taken that job in Chicago I was offered last year. Did you see the weather report this morning? They say if the storm veers, it could actually snow here."
"Don't bet on it. I don't care what the weather reports say. It hasn't snowed here in more than twenty years." But they could see their breath, which wasn't at all usual, and the sky looked heavy and gray. "So how are things going at the Foundation?"
Nick shrugged, shoving his bare hands into his pockets. "They're fine. Working for a philanthropic outfit is definitely different. Red Rock is different than it used to be, too. Helluva lot bigger." They reached their vehicles—Nick's racy Porsche and Darr's not-so-new black pickup, parked slantwise into the curb in front of the busy diner. "How long are you going to keep hunting for this woman?"
Until I find her. Darr pulled open his truck door. "I'm not hunting."
"Yeah, right. You know there'd be easier chicks to have the hots for than some woman who basically disappeared in the night."
"Save it." Nick shook his head and pulled open his own door. "Why d'ya think Uncle Patrick wants to meet us out at the Double Crown later? His and Lacey's place in town would be more convenient than Lily's." Lily had been married to their father's and uncle's cousin, Ryan Fortune, and after his death had thrown herself even more into the kind of good works that Ryan had always favored.
"At first I thought it must be something to do with the charity event Lily's hosting at the ranch later this month, but now I don't think so. Patrick wouldn't call in the entire family for a children's picnic. I hope to hell it's not 'cause he's sick or something."
Nick grimaced. It was all too easy remembering when their mother, Molly, had died just two years earlier. Typically though, neither one of them commented on that. "You got the shift off?" was all Nick asked.
"Switched with another guy to get it."
"Dad and the others are taking a car in from the airport, so I could pick you up on my way out there."
Darr shook his head. "I've got some stuff to do first. I'll just see you there."
"Stuff. Like your blonde." Nick shook his head again, as if he wanted to say more, but he refrained, and slid down into his car. "Later."
Darr returned the brief wave and got behind the wheel of his truck. He didn't watch Nick pull out into the moderately busy traffic on the main drag behind him. He was too busy trying to decipher the address Devaney had jotted on the phone message.
Nick was right: Darr was nuts. What else could explain the lengths he'd gone to trying to track her down?
His thumb beat against his steering wheel as he waited for a rusted-out station wagon to pass.
It wasn't just her name that stuck in Darr's thoughts.
It was those cornflower-blue eyes of hers.
No, not just blue. Despite the light that night, mutated and muddled by the flashing beacons, by spotlights, by smoke and flames, he'd been able to see that bruising color. The panic in them, followed by relief. Trust. The intimate, soul-wrenching kind of trust that had absolutely nothing to do with sex and everything to do with a basic human need for connection.
That, and the discernible swell of her abdomen that he'd felt when he'd lifted her unconscious and otherwise very slender form, off that smoke-filled restroom floor.
A horn tooted.
He blinked, and shoved the truck into Reverse, backing out into the road, clearing the parking spot for the SUV waiting behind him.
For two weeks, he'd tried to coax and cajole information about Barbara from anyone and everyone who'd had contact with her the night of the fire. The best he'd gotten out of the emergency room had been that she'd left AMA—against medical advice—in a cab. That had led to some greasing of palms at all the cab companies that could conceivably service the community of Red Rock, which was located about twenty miles outside of San Antonio.
His attempts had involved a fair number of cab companies. It had meant a lot of "grease."
Darr probably would have been wiser to let Nick pay for his lunch.
He turned off Main and wound his way through a quieter, modest residential area until he reached Windrose. There, he turned left and began hunting for the first possible combination of house numbers from the message.
Four houses later, he'd netted himself two slammed doors in his face and a third, more kindly shake of a head before the door closed. In his face. The fourth house, he hadn't gotten an answer to his knock at all, but the sight of two motocross bicycles and an abandoned hockey stick in the front yard made him pause.
Barbara Burton had told him that night that she had no husband. And while he strongly suspected that she was pregnant now, she nevertheless looked too young to have children old enough to ride those bikes. Still, he scrawled a note on the back of his business card that he was looking for Barbara Burton and tucked it into the doorframe.
He returned to his truck, and headed back in the other direction. The street narrowed. Well-tended yards grew smaller and then disappeared altogether.
He grimaced when the pavement ended, leaving nothing but scattered gravel and ruts.
In the few years since he'd moved to Red Rock, he'd thought he'd learned every bend in every corner in every street. But he knew for a fact that he'd never been out this way.
He passed a turnoff just before the road started to climb. A lone house sat facing the other street and he followed it, but the address on the mailbox stuck in the weedy yard wasn't remotely close to Devaney's scrawl and he veered around back to the original road. For all he knew when he reached the top of the hill, it would end at exactly nothing, and this would be just one more wasted afternoon looking for a woman who might as well be a ghost.
He crested the hill and a small house came into view.
His boot lifted off the gas and the truck slowed, nearly coming to a stop. In his chest, though, his heart had started pounding. His hands tightened around the steering wheel.
The house—hell, it was more of a cottage, considering its size—sat about fifty yards off the miserable excuse of a road. There was no neatly trimmed, nicely bordered lawn in front of it. Instead, there was cold, bare dirt. Scrubby bushes. The cottage had probably been painted a cheery yellow once, but now it just looked faded and sad, and the open-sided carport next to it seemed to have a tilt. But there was a curl of smoke coming from the chimney, and the rear corner of a car was visible in the listing carport.
So his foot hit the gas again.
Gravel spit from beneath his tires. "Get a grip, Fortune," he muttered, and turned toward the house, heading up a virtually nonexistent driveway.
He parked in front of the cottage and when he got out, the slam of his truck door sounded loud and ungodly intrusive. He looked around. There didn't seem to be a breathing soul anywhere.
It was almost hard to believe he was still in Red Rock.
He exhaled, causing another cloud to ring around his head, and brushed his sweating hands down the front of shirt before pulling up the zipper on his jacket. If this wasn't Barbara's house, he was going to tear up that damn message and that would be the end of it.
No more hunting. No more obsessing.
She was a woman with her own life who didn't need complete strangers tracking her down, and finding her wouldn't change the things for him that couldn't be changed.
He rounded his truck and went up the three cracked concrete steps leading to the door and knocked.
He knocked again, craning his head back to look at the smoke rising from the chimney. Definitely an active little blaze in the fireplace. But there was still no answer.
He knocked harder. "Hello! Anybody there? I'm with the Red Rock Fire Department," he called out. "I'm looking for Barbara Burton."
Bethany jumped when the deep voice—oh, it sounded much too familiar—passed easily through the thin door.
She pressed her hand to her heart, willing it to calm. At least it wasn't Lyle. Or worse—her parents.
She hid behind the faded curtain at the front window, and lifted the corner of the thin fabric. Just an inch. Just enough to see the front stoop.
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