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Sara Stevens took her eyes from the long driveway nestled between rows and rows of grape trellises, colorful rose gardens and mountains in the distance. Glancing over her shoulder into the back where her four-year-old daughter sat in her car seat, she noticed Amy was staring out the window. Amy was as shaken as she was. She could tell when her little girl was quiet any length of time. She'd been quiet since Sara had awakened her a few nights ago in a house filled with smoke and carried her to safety.
Had that only been a few nights ago?
They'd lost everything they'd possessed, except their car. The loss weighed heavily on Sara. But right now, what weighed on her most was the decision she'd have to make regarding their living arrangements. Going through the channels of The Mommy Club, an organization in Fawn Grove, California, that helped parents in need, Jase Cramer had invited her and Amy to stay in the guesthouse at the nearby Raintree Winery.
But she and Jase had a history. She was just coming to look at the guesthouse today. Maybe she could find another place to stay.
Or maybe not.
As she drove up to the gravel parking area at the guest cottage, she spotted Jase standing by the door in the mid-May sun. His wavy black hair was shaggy, his gray eyes still intense. Craggy lines had etched his face, no doubt from the sights he'd witnessed in his former career. His physical therapy had ended two years ago. What had happened to him since?
She was about to find out.
He was so tall and muscular, now tanned from his work on the vineyard rather than his former profession as a photographer and journalist who told the rest of the world about children in refugee camps.
She shouldn't be so unsettled about this meeting. She was a widow now, after all. But seeing him again took her back two years to a time when her life had been different, to a time when she'd thought she'd been happy, to a time before her marriage had been rocked and her world as she'd known it had blown up.
She opened her car door, and he offered her his hand. "Sara. It's good to see you again. I'm just sorry it's under these circumstances."
His voice was still that deep warm baritone that seemed to vibrate through her. "How did you know about the fire?"
"I saw your interview on the news."
Sara nodded. "Right after the fire. That reporter wouldn't stop asking questions."
"You were the news. You saved your daughter from a burning house. That's heroic."
"Not heroic. I couldn't have left her. She's my heart."
After studying her for several long moments, Jase peered into the backseat. "How is she doing?"
"She doesn't understand what happened. Kaitlyn Foster has made us feel at home in her guest room, but Amy is confused by it all."
"Why don't we take a look at the guesthouse? Maybe she'll like the cottage and the vineyard."
A few minutes later, Sara held Amy's hand as they stepped over the threshold of Raintree Winery's guesthouse.
"What do you think?" Jase asked, motioning to the exposed beams, the empty living room with a native stone fireplace and kitchen and dining area beyond. The golden polished flooring, the rough plastered walls and the birch cabinets she could glimpse in the kitchen added lightness to the space already glowing with sunlight from the windows.
Amy burrowed into her mother's side and Sara crouched down, hanging her arm around her daughter's shoulders. "Isn't this pretty?"
Amy just poked her finger into her mouth and looked down at her sneakers.
Jase crouched down with Sara. "You can have your own bedroom here. There are two, one for your mom and one for you. And, if you're lucky, you might even catch sight of a deer outside your window. Or a hummingbird. Have you ever seen a hummingbird? They're tiny and flap their wings really fast."
Sara could see Jase had caught Amy's attention now, and her daughter actually gazed over at him.
"They like to flit around the columbine."
"Can I catch a hummingbird?" Amy asked.
"Probably not. But if we hang a feeder on the porch, you might see them more often."
Sara rose to her feet, the idea of catching a glimpse of a hummingbird entrancing her, too.
After another smile for Amy, Jase also rose. "Kaitlyn told me furniture won't be a problem. Apparently The Mommy Club has storage sheds full of stuff for emergencies like this, as well as people donating."
With a sigh, Sara closed her eyes.
Jase stepped a little closer. "What's wrong?"
"I don't want to accept all this help. I don't want to be a charity case."
"Sara," he said with so much gentleness, tears almost came to her eyes. "This is temporary. Living here and accepting help is temporary. Didn't you once tell me I had to get over my pride and rethink my life to make it work again?"
The fact that he remembered her words from when she'd been his physical therapist touched her. He'd been at an emotional as well as a physical low, not ready to give up the life he'd wanted to pursue. While photographing children outside a refugee camp in Kenya, he and a few other aid workers had been injured by a marauding band of criminals. For some reason, the last thing he'd wanted to do was return to his father and Raintree Winery and make a place for himself here. She'd never known the real reason why, but she had known other details about Jase's life, details that now made her wonder if everyone experienced betrayal at one point or another. His fiancée had been unfaithful.
"Your memory is too good," she murmured, wondering what else he remembered about what she'd told him while he was in treatment with her.
He chuckled. "I only remember the important stuff."
He cast a glance down at Amy. "Don't you think she'd be happy here? Plenty of room to wander. For you, too. I hear long walks are therapeutic."
This time Sara had to laugh, and it was almost a strange sensation for her. Her life had been nothing but serious the past couple of years. "Did you follow all the advice I gave you?"
"Not all, but most. I wanted to get well and strong."
He was obviously strong again. Although he wore jeans and a white oxford shirt with the sleeves rolled up, she could see the muscles underneath when he moved. After all, as a physical therapist, she quickly assessed the condition of muscles. He'd been way too lean when she'd treated him. Now he'd built up muscle all over. From the looks of his flat stomach, he had strength there, too.
Jase Cramer wasn't handsome in the usual sense. Those lines around his eyes and along his mouth were a little deeper than they should be at his thirty-six years. But there was an intensity about Jase, a deep passion that hadn't been so evident when he'd first come to her as a patient, but had been revitalized by the end of his therapy.
"Let's take a look at the bedrooms," he suggested.
Empty bedrooms, she reminded herself, feeling an unexpected spark deep down inside whenever her gaze met his. Not going to happen, she warned herself. If she and Amy did accept Jase's kind offer, they would only stay as long as it took for her to get back on her financial feet.
One bedroom was smaller than the other, but both were adequate, and there was one bathroom they'd share. It was a cozy guesthouse and she wondered why it was empty.
"Do you rent this out?"
"My father hasn't done that since before I returned home. While I was growing up, our housekeeper lived here, but he let her go when I went to college. Friends have stayed here on and off for vacations, that kind of thing, before my father emptied it. He updated it by refinishing the floors and putting in new appliances. He likes everything to be in tip-top shape, even if he doesn't use it."
Sara had noticed Jase rarely referred to his father as his dad. That seemed kind of odd but she'd never questioned him about it.
"Your father's okay with us staying here?"
Jase frowned. "I'll be honest with you. He doesn't like a lot of people around. Our chief winemaker, Liam Cor-bett, has an apartment above the winery and he's used to him living there. So he had reservations about inviting you here. But he couldn't give me a good reason not to. I promised him you wouldn't have wild parties that lasted all weekend."
Again, she had to smile. "No wild parties," she assured him.
When they returned to the living room, Jase dropped down into a crouch again to be on eye level with Amy. "I didn't ask your mom first," he said with a wink. "You can make the decision for both of you. How would you like a sweet treat? I have sweet rolls made with grape jelly from vineyard grapes. They'd be great with a glass of milk for a late breakfast."
Amy looked up at her mom with pleading eyes. She loved sweets and Sara usually limited them to cookies as a bedtime snack. But Amy had been through so much, she didn't have the heart to deny her a treat. She had lost her toys in the fire. She'd slept with Sara the past few nights in Kaitlyn's spare room. She'd asked Sara when they were going home, and it had been so hard to explain to a four-year-old that they didn't have a home anymore.
Jase rose to his feet, and when Sara gazed into his eyes, she said, "I think a sweet treat is just what we all need."
As they walked toward the main house, Sara looked out over the vineyard. It was an absolutely beautiful setting. Jase had once told her it encompassed over two hundred acres. Clover covered some fields. Lush green was everywhere, from the trees and shrubs, to the trellises of grapevines. There were deep, rich scents here, from the earthy damp ground to the roses. It was crazy, but she almost felt like a different person here. Maybe she and Amy had made a mistake by staying in the house that Conrad had bought them to the detriment of them all. When she'd married Conrad, she'd loved him in a naive, too-trusting way. Over the course of her marriage, she'd explicitly learned how one-sided trust could destroy everything.
Although she was close by Sara's side, Amy nevertheless seemed eager to follow Jase. She was used to other kids being around her in day care, but as for adults, mostly women were in and out of her life. In the past year, Sara hadn't thought about it much, but male role models were important to little girls, too.
Stone steps led to the polished walnut back door of the main house. Jase opened it and they stepped inside a cavernous kitchen. This room held none of the warmth of the cottage, though it did have a brick fireplace with a rounded arch and fire screen. The appliances were shiny stainless steel and they looked as if they, too, had been replaced recently. The granite counters gleamed and the copper pots hanging from the ceiling above the sink looked as if they'd never been used. There weren't any colorful place mats on the oak pedestal table, or flowered curtains at the windows. The blinds were tilted closed, not letting in much light.
Jase pointed to the counter and the glassdomed dish. The sweet rolls were a confectioner's delight and Amy's eyes grew wide along with her smile.
"Can I, Mommy?"
"Sure, you can. But I think we'll need plenty of napkins to go along with the sweet roll."
Jase pulled dishes from a cupboard and a few napkins from another. They all sat at the table. Amy was happily biting into jelly, sweet icing and pastry when Jase said, "In your interview, I heard you lost your husband a year ago. I'm sorry."
Sara tore off a piece of a roll but suddenly had no appetite for it. Thanks to real-time research, the journalist who'd interviewed her had already known much of her background. "Yes, it was a year ago."
"Was it sudden?" Jase prompted.
"A heart attack."
Jase's expression turned questioning, so she added, "He was fifteen years older than I was. Forty-four. The doctor said whatever triggered it might have been a congenital abnormality."
And physically, she knew that was certainly true. But the stress in his life definitely hadn't helped. She tried to keep herself from feeling guilty, but she was to blame, toofor being so blind. She hadn't known he'd taken on a supersized mortgage. She hadn't known about his credit card debt. As a new wife, first pregnant and then busy with an infant as well as work, she'd let Conrad handle their finances. She hadn't asked enough questions. She'd trusted too much.
Jase's eyes were kind as he looked at her, and her heart started thumping faster as she thought she saw more than kindness there.
Unexpectedly, Amy laid very sticky fingers on Jase's shirtsleeve and asked, "Can I have some milk?"
"Oh, Amy." Grape jelly streaked the white fabric of Jase's shirt. Over the years, Sara had found men didn't like the messiness of kids. Conrad had never wanted to feed Amy himself when she was a baby, so it was automatic for Sara to jump up, grab a napkin and try to fix the mess. Had she resented that he didn't seem to love their daughter as much as she did?
She dabbed at Jase's sleeve, smearing the jelly more. Her fingers slipped from the material to his arm. His skin was hot, his hair rough, and when she met his gaze
The inordinate silence when their awareness of each other took hold was enough to rattle her bones.
"Mommy, I'm sorry," Amy wailed.
Sara knew she was making a mess of this whole thing. She wrapped her arm around her daughter. "It's okay. We'll wash Mr. Cramer's shirt. We'll fix this."
Jase clasped her shoulder. "It's okay. Relax. It's just a shirt."
He addressed Amy. "Sticky fingers and sweet rolls go together. Let me get that milk." He rolled both of his sleeves up further to cover the jelly and grinned at Amy.
"See? All fixed."
He motioned for Sara to sit again. "You're too jumpy. You need to take a walk through the vineyard and relax." Then he must have realized he'd chided her and shook his head. "Sorry. I have no right to give you advice. I can't imagine what losing your home was like."
Then, to Sara's astonishment, Jase went to the sink, ripped a paper towel from the roll under the counter, wet it and sat down with Amy. "Here, let's get some of that jelly off. Your milk will slide through your fingers."
"I'll do that." Sara reached for the towel in his hand. With instant clarity, she remembered some of the photos in the paper and online of Jase feeding little children who were malnourished, of him holding one Amy's age in his arms.
His fingers covered hers as she took the towel. "You've got to relax," he said again. "Everything is going to get better."
His touch sent tingles through her. That was odd. After all, she'd treated him she'd touched him when he was her patient. But as with all patients, she'd closed herself off against any personal feelings. She'd been married and she'd ignored vibrations coming from men who were anything more than just friendly. But now, today, it was like the floodgates had opened. Everything about Jase Cramer made her feel overly sensitized to him.
Sara had torn off a piece of her sweet roll and tasted it when Jase brought three tall glasses of milk to the table. Amy's was only halffull, and again Sara appreciated his knowledge of kids.
Sara was watching Amy drink from the tall glass without spilling it when she heard footsteps outside the kitchen doorway.
Ethan Cramer entered the room. She recognized him from photos in the paper about him and Raintree Winery. Raintree Wines had won awards and Fawn Grove lauded their citizens who made good.
Having never met Ethan Cramer, Sara didn't know what to expect, but she was sensitive to his expression of disapproval as his gaze fell on her and Amy. Jase and his father looked nothing alike.
Where Jase was all dark intensity, black hair and gray eyes, his father's hair was blond and thinning. His blue eyes were sharp as he asked his son, "This is Ms. Stevens?"
"Yes, this is Sara and her daughter."
"I'm sorry you lost your home," Ethan said while studying her.