When the baby he rescued seven years ago returnswith his widowed adoptive momDeputy Fire Chief Matt Bailey can't turn them away. Desperate to escape the reminders of his failure in the line of duty, Matt is close to leaving town. But one look at Rachel Carter and her son, Christopher, has him second-guessing his plans. Rachel is a mom in need of a hero for her son. But as much as she wants the two to bond, she's determined to keep her distance from Matt. After losing her husband on the job, she promised never to love another fireman. Yet somehow she finds herself drawn to the one man she should avoid.
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Rachel Carter licked her finger and wiped a smear of chocolate from her son's cheek. He squirmed away from her and made a face.
"Mom, stop it," he complained.
"Stand still, Christopher." She pulled a tissue out of her jeans pocket to finish the job. "Are you ready?"
The boy twisted around to look at the firehouse. "This is it?"
Rachel's gaze flickered past her son's face to the two-story brick building. Old-fashioned brickwork surrounded three large garage doors, and a row of windows stretched across the second story. July sunlight filtered through the rustling leaves of two spreading oak trees, dappling the broad drive. From high in the branches, a squirrel chattered down at them, and Rachel paused and looked up, searching for the noisy critic.
Rachel had spent more than enough time at a fire-house like this one back in Billings. From Christmas dinners up in the barracks when her husband had to work over the holidays to quick visits over his long shifts and having to stand back and let him dash off into danger when that siren whooped. She treasured the memories of her late husband, but firehouses didn't bring back pleasant memories for her. It was a demanding job, and not even halfway glamorous for the families of the men and women who put their lives on the line for their communities.
"This is it." She tucked the tissue back into her pocket and regarded her son's pensive face. "This is your fire-house, Chris."
"Will the fireman remember me?"
"You're pretty hard to forget, sweetheart." She slid a hand over his rumpled blond curls, and he rewarded her with a grin. "Okay, let's go."
Angling around the side of the building, Rachel found the main entrance, which faced a small parking lot. She pulled open the door and was met with a welcome blast of air-conditioning. A middle-aged woman sat behind the reception desk, and she looked up with a pencil tucked behind one ear and a distracted smile.
"Can I help you?" she asked.
Rachel tucked an errant strand of dark hair back into her ponytail and scooped up Christopher's hand in hers. "Hi, I'm Rachel Carter. We're here to see Captain Matthew Bailey."
"Captain?" The woman raised an eyebrow. "That's Deputy Fire Chief Matthew Bailey."
"Oh." Rachel nodded, registering the higher position. "Is he here?"
The woman narrowed her eyes. "Do you have an appointment, miss?"
Rachel shook her head. "No. I tried calling a few times, but I never did hear back from him."
The receptionist didn't look impressed with her excuse, and Rachel didn't entirely blame her. The security in a firehouse was tight, military-style, and no one just squeezed in.
"The deputy fire chief is a very busy man" the woman behind the desk began.
A throat cleared to the side and Rachel turned to see a tall man with sandy-blond hair, a tinge of gray at the temples. A pressed navy blue uniform tapered down from wide shoulders to a trim waist, and his dark gaze swept over her as he shot her a lazy grin. Warmth rose in her cheeks.
"What can I do for you, ma'am?"
"Are you" she paused, adjusting her mind to his new title, and firmly putting his good looks aside "Deputy Fire Chief"
"Matt Bailey." He held out a broad, calloused hand.
"I'm Rachel Carter, and this is my son, Chris."
Christopher stared up at the deputy chief, eyes wide. He pressed his lips together into a thin line. He moved a couple of inches closer to Rachel's side, but his eyes were pinned to the tall firefighter.
"Nice to meet you." Matt clasped her hand in a brief handshake. "You're looking for me?" He regarded her in mild curiosity.
"I am, but it's a little bit delicate. Is there somewhere we could talk?"
The receptionist raised her penciled eyebrows and leaned forward in unveiled interest, but Matt gestured down a short hallway. A few office doors opened up on either side, and Rachel tugged her son along with her. Matt's polished shoes clicked against the tile floor, and he stopped at a doorway, glancing back at them with a casual smile.
"Come on in." He gestured them inside, and as she passed him, the musky scent of his cologne tickled her nose.
The room was small and neat, consisting of not much more than a desk and a few file cabinets. Christopher sank into a chair, his gaze locked on the big man, and Rachel remained standing. Matt looked down at the boy thoughtfully, then shifted his attention to Rachel.
"What can I do for you, ma'am?"
"Seven years ago, a baby was dropped off on the doorstep of this firehouse." Rachel's hand fluttered toward her son's shoulder. "We were told that Captain Matthew Bailey was the one who found him."
"Yes, I did find a baby a few years back." His gaze moved back to Christopher and he cleared his throat.
"This is him," Rachel said. "My husband and I adopted Christopher shortly after Social Services picked him up."
"Oh, I see." Matt nodded several times. "Hi, buddy."
"Hi." Christopher eyed the big man uncertainly. "You don't recognize me?"
"It's been a while." A smile flickered at the corners of Matt's lips. "You're a lot bigger now."
Christopher nodded. "I guess."
"So you came to see the firehouse?" Matt asked.
"We came to see you, actually." Rachel straightened her shoulders. Was she completely out of line doing this? She wasn't even sure. "Christopher has wanted to meet the firefighter who found him for a long time now. I've tried calling but never seemed to get through. I'm sorry to just drop in on you like this, but Chris was hoping to meet you."
"Well." Matt's tone turned formal. "It's all part of the job, Christopher. As a firefighter, I'm here to help the community, and that might be in a fire or at an accident, or even calling Social Services to pick up a baby."
Pick up a baby. Rachel glanced down at her son, not missing the disappointed slump in his small shoulders.
"Did you want to ask Mr. Bailey anything, Christopher?" she prompted hopefully.
Christopher shook his head and looked down.
"But you remember Christopher?" Rachel turned a pleading gaze onto the man before her. She understood his job better than he probably realized, but a little boy mattered more than whatever meetings and paperwork awaited him, and she wasn't going to let this slide by so easily.
"Do I remember you, buddy? Absolutely. It's not every day that a baby gets dropped on our doorstep. Here is an interesting bit of trivia for you. Did you know that firehouses have become a safe place for mothers to drop" He stopped and cleared his throat again.
Unwanted infants. At least he'd stopped himself. Rachel stared at the deputy fire chief as silence stretched awkwardly between them. Capping the rising irritation inside her, she smiled coolly.
"Do you think Christopher could look at the fire trucks for a couple of minutes while we talk alone?" she asked.
Matt nodded. "Sure." A firefighter crossed the open doorway and Matt rose to his feet. "Johnson!" Was that a hint of desperation in his voice?
The man turned back. "Yes, sir?"
"Would you mind showing this young man the fire trucks for about five minutes?"
"Sure thing, sir."
Christopher looked toward Rachel for permission and she smiled reassuringly. "Go ahead, honey. I won't be long."
Christopher left the room, the firefighter's voice echoing down the hall as he explained some details about the trucks they'd see shortly, and Rachel turned around and shot the deputy chief a withering look. Matt's eyes widened in surprise.
"A little bit of trivia?" She shook her head in exasperation. "He's barely seven years old."
"Yes " Matt didn't seem to know how to answer that declaration.
"Look, I get that we just kind of dropped in on you, and I can appreciate how awkward this is." She sucked in a breath. "I just want you to know that this really matters to Chris. He really latched on to the story of how you found him. My husband was a firefighter, too, so the whole firefighting thing is pretty important in our family."
"I didn't realize you're married to a firefighter. Is he retired?" Matt asked.
"No, he died in the line of duty."
Matt scrubbed his hands over his face and heaved a sigh. "What happened to him?"
"He was run down by a drunk driver when he was hooking up hoses to put out a fire at an accident." She brushed a wisp of hair off her forehead. "Chris was two at the time, so he doesn't remember him."
"What was his name?"
He nodded slowly. "I remember reading about his passing. That was in Billings, right? I'm really sorry, Mrs. Carter."
"Thank you." She softened her tone. "It was a hard time. That's part of the job, isn't it?" She couldn't help the tremor of anger that rose up inside her when she thought about her husband's death. She knew that he was a hero for his sacrifice, but it didn't change that he'd left a young family behind who still needed him.
"I guess so." His blue eyes met hers and held her gaze for a long moment. "I'm sorry about how I handled this with your son. I'm not good with kids."
"Kids can be a handful," she agreed quietly. She knew that better than anyone. "But my son is a little more complicated than others."
"He'd been fighting at school, and he was only in the first grade. It had gotten so bad that he was expelled. Our family counselor in Billings suggested that I bring him here to explore his roots, as it were. He's searching for something, and I need to help him find it."
"You think I'm part of that?"
Suddenly it seemed as though she was asking too much. Matthew Bailey didn't know her, or her husband. He didn't owe them anything, and if Chris was struggling, it certainly wasn't his problem. She grimaced.
"I'm sorry. This isn't your problem, and I should be"
"I didn't say that." His eyes locked on to hers and he dipped his head down slightly to keep the eye contact. "This matters a lot to your little boy."
Rachel let out a pent-up breath. "Yes."
"I wish you'd given me a bit of notice." There was a smile tugging at his lips again, and the heat rose in her cheeks.
"I called three times and left messages, but I didn't hear back from you," she attempted to explain. She shouldn't have brought Chris here without making an appointmentthat was a mistake. She was normally more cautious and planned than this.
"We've got a new receptionist." He shrugged. "It's been interesting around here."
They were both silent for a long moment, and Rachel attempted to keep her mind away from this firefighter's rugged good looks. She'd been married to a firefighter already, and she knew better than to go down that road again. But she was here, and she'd already trampled all over every polite boundary
"I hope this isn't too much to ask, but would you be willing to talk to Christopher a little bit?" Rachel hesitated, then plunged on. "I don't mean about the fighting, just about" she shrugged "finding him, that sort of thing. I know that my husband wasn't part of your fire-house, butI'd appreciate this a lot."
Matt was silent for a beat, then nodded.
"I could try, but I should warn you that I'm not the smoothest guy with kids. There is another firefighter who was there that night who might be a better guy to talk to Christopher. He has four kids of his own and he just seems to connect with children better than I do."
Rachel's gaze trailed around the small, impersonal office. There was more to the storythe part where she'd failed her son, too. She hadn't wanted to tell this part. In fact, she'd hoped that a little visit with Christopher's firefighter would be the beginning of some healing. She hadn't counted on Matthew Bailey having his own complications.
"I didn't tell Christopher that he was adopted right away," Rachel confessed. "I knew I was supposed to, but when Ed died, it blindsided me and I never could find the right moment, or the right words. Last year he asked me about being inside my tummy, and I had to tell him the truth. It was really hard for him." She sighed. "When I told him about you and how you'd found him and held him, that seemed to comfort him a lot. So I told him the story about being found on your doorstep quite often."
"You might have made me into more of a hero than I really am," he said.
"Maybe," she agreed with an apologetic smile. "But he's a kid who needs a hero. And right about now, you fit the bill."
"How long are you in town?" he asked, his tone low and warm.
"For good," she replied with a quick nod. "I've just been hired at the Broxton Park Elementary School to teach the fourth grade."
He froze, dropped his gaze, then cleared his throat. "It opens again this year."
"Yes, I'd read that there was a fire, and this year it will reopen. I'm really grateful for the opportunity. I have family here in Haggerston, and it will be good for Chris to be closer to relatives."
He didn't answer for a long moment, and there seemed to be complicated emotions flickering behind those steely eyes, a hint at what lay behind that granite mask.
"And if I can return the favor, I will," she added quickly. "Here is my phone number and address." She pulled a slip of paper out of her purse and slid it across the desk. "If there is anything I can do Maybe you have some children in your family who need to be tutored or perhaps I can be of some assistance to the fire department when it comes to school groups or"
The phone rang and Rachel clamped her mouth shut. Matt picked up the call. He averted his gaze as he spoke quietly, too low for her to make out the words. After a moment, he hung up and shot her an apologetic smile.
"I'm sorry, but I've got a meeting."
Rachel hitched her purse up on her shoulder and nodded quickly. This was getting more and more awkward by the minute, and all she wanted to do right now was to retreat. "Of course. I know that you're busy and I'm grateful for squeezing me in. Thank you for your time, Deputy"
She blinked. "Pardon me?"
"Call me Matt. And I'm not trying to get rid of you. Maybe we could talk more later. I might be able to take you up on your offer, too."
Rachel's cheeks grew warmer. "I'm glad. And thank you."
He reached out a hand and enveloped her slender fingers in his warm grip. A shadow darkened the doorway, and Rachel stepped back to allow the man entrance.
As she slipped from the small office, she glanced back and found Matt's warm gaze locked on her over his visitor's shoulder. A smile flickered over his lips and he turned his attention back toward the gentleman in his office. Rachel smothered a sigh and turned her steps in the direction her son had gone. This wasn't going to be as simple as she'd hoped.