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"Is everything gonna be okay, Mommy?"
Alyssa Douglas glanced from waves crashing against the shore in a rhythmic whoosh to the darkening sky to the tiny, worn cottage that was once the yellow of daffodils. Lump in her throat, she offered a smile to her worried four-year-old clutching his Braveman action figure in his little fist. "Everything will be great, Joey. We'll have a new life and so much fun you won't know what to do. I promise."
A promise she'd do everything in her power to live up to.
Joey pushed his glasses up on his nose, his squint telling her he was still worried.
It would take time, but she hoped with all her heart that their move to Rainbow Lake would help him grow into the happy four-year-old he could be.
She dragged her baby's car seat from her Escalade and tucked Robbie's blankets to shield his face from the cold wind. Grasping the carrier in one hand, she headed for the cottage, the roar of the lake filling the deepening dusk.
She hardly recognized the lake as the same one she'd befriended as a child. No doubt, it liked summers better than Novembers, too. Her fingers clumsy with anticipation, she unlocked the door and walked inside, a heavy pine scent hitting her.
Joey wrinkled his nose. "It smells funny."
"It's cleaning solution. The man who takes care of the cottage must have used it after I let him know we were coming." The living room wasn't as big as she remembered. The furniture looked more worn, the rugs older, more faded and the walls needed fresh paint.
But with the faded slipcover on the sofa reminding her Gram had let her help sew it, the same confidence settled over her that always had when she'd stayed here during summers as a child. Gram's cottage was exactly where she needed to be. On her own. Away from the generous people who'd made her and her boys their "project" this past year.
Not that she hadn't needed their help. She didn't know how she would have survived without it. And she'd always be grateful.
But she didn't need it anymore. Now, she needed to get back on her feet and learn to stand on her own without everybody, especially her parents, rushing in to help her at every turn.
She wished Gram were still here.
She blinked away the sting of tears and shut the door against the wind, effectively muffling the lake's fury. She only hoped Gram's determined, positive vibes still lived within these walls. She needed that energy and strength to get established and find a job and child care before her parents came for Christmas. She didn't know any other way to convince them to stop worrying about her and the boys.
She set her sleeping baby's car seat in the once-plush green velvet chairthe chair she'd curled up in as a kid to paint or read or daydream. Gram had encouraged daydreaming, a secret Alyssa had kept from her parents. She smiled through her tears.
Robbie didn't stir. He'd been sleeping since she'd pulled off the road and nursed him, and she needed him to keep napping until she could get Joey settled. Shivering, she tucked the blankets more snugly around her baby. Winter in the drafty cottage in northern Wisconsin was going to be a whole different thing than it had been in the comfortable colonial they'd left behind in Madison.
"Joey, come help me build a fire, okay?" She perched on the hearth and began to lay wood in the fieldstone fireplace, Gram's lessons on fire building sifting through her mind. "You can hand me the smaller pieces."
Joey dropped to his knees beside her. "Why doncha turn on the fire like at home?"
"This fireplace is different. It burns real wood." Had he understood her explanation that the house he'd always lived in would soon be somebody else's home?
"What are those for, Mommy?" He pointed.
Jamming the kindling Joey handed her under the logs, she spied two long, shaved sticks leaning against the fieldstone, a memory warming her. "Gram and I used to put marshmal-lows on the end of those sticks and toast them over the fire."
He studied her face. "Can we do that?"
She heard the timid plea in his voice, as if he expected her to be too busy. Her heart ached for him. She'd been too busy a lot. .with her high-risk pregnancy, then the new baby and now, their move. "We can do anything we want to, and that includes toasting marshmallows. I packed a big bag in the trailer just for us."
She crumpled some of the yellowed newspapers on the hearth and stuffed them around the kindling, then struggled with the lever to open the flue. It finally gave with a rusty clank, breaking two of her fingernails in the process.
A perfectly good manicure down the drain. It's a small thing, Lissa. Gram had always chided her concern over things Gram identified as unimportant. A couple of broken nails certainly qualified. Alyssa took a long match from the box on the mantel and struck it against the side of the container.
Nothing. She struck it again. And again. Still nothing. She tried another match with similar results. They'd need to snuggle to stay warm if she couldn't get a fire lit.
She'd brought warm blankets for their beds, but the drafty cottage was obviously too much for the old furnace. Besides, she'd promised Joey toasted marshmallows. "Let's see if we can find better matches in the kitchen."
"'Kay." Joey jumped up and scurried at her side.
Snapping on the light switch, she walked into the whitewashed beadboard room, her boots clicking on the worn linoleum. One glimpse of Gram's battered, round table set off memories of sharing homemade lemonade and chocolate chip cookies. Such treats had followed lessons on building a fire, chopping wood, fishing or catching fireflies. Memories she wouldn't trade for the whole world. She hoped she remembered enough to teach Joey how to fish and catch fireflies come spring.
"Is this the kitchen?" Joey looked around as if expecting the room to open up like their spacious one in Madison had.
"This is it." The kitchen was even smaller than she remembered. Was it big enough to expand the table for Christmas dinner? Did Gram have table leaves? She'd have to look for them.
She quickly moved to the fifties stove. Would the oven hold a turkey? Did the stove even work?
"Where are the matches, Mommy?"
"Matches?" She looked at Joey. "Right." She pulled out a drawer and felt around until she grasped the familiar tin box. "Here they are, exactly where Gram always kept them."
"Is she here?"
"Gram?" Gram was here. Alyssa could feel her. What she wouldn't give for one of her warm hugs. But no matter what she felt, she couldn't confuse Joey. "No, honey. Gram died this past spring."
"Did she go to heaven? Like Daddy?"
"Yes, she did." She waited for another question. She hoped it wasn't about heaven. Heaven was a mystery she had no idea how to explain. To him. Or to herself.
But instead of asking a question, Joey turned and zoomed into the living room. "Come on, Mommy. Let's start the fire."
Relieved there would be no questions she didn't know how to answer, at least for the moment, she followed him and knelt at the hearth. She struck a match and touched it to the newspapers inside the firebox. Holding her breath, she watched a flame flicker into being and begin to build. "Yay, we have a fire." She pulled the screen shut and stood. "I'm going to bring in some things from the car."
"I wanna go with you," Joey whined.
How long would it take before he stopped worrying she'd never come back? Like Cam. "I need you to be brave and stay by your brother. Can you do that?"
He nodded in his anxious way.
When she pulled the door open, the crash of waves vamped to full volume. She shut the door behind her, buttoned up her wool jacket and headed into the wind.
She fished her keys out of her jacket pocket, unlocked the padlock on the U-Haul trailer and climbed inside. Reaching across Joey's sled and her bike, she grabbed the grocery bags. She set them on the ground outside, then climbed back in the trailer and found blankets, Robbie's Pack 'N Play and Joey's bag of books. She'd wait until morning to unload the rest.
Leaving things stacked near the U-Haul for another trip, she picked up the grocery bags and strode to the cottage. The smell of something burning drew her eyes to the chimney. Black smoke puffed into the night. Good. The fire was building in the fireplace. Soon, they'd be cozy and warm.
But the chimney glowed oddly orange against the darkening sky.
Something was wrong. Her boys Dropping the groceries, she raced for the door.
Ben Cooper hung his leather jacket on a peg in his laun-dry/mudroom and tried to distinguish what the charred stink was that his kitchen fan couldn't keep up with. Had Hope tried to cook a recipe she'd picked up in family living class again?
He guessed he shouldn't be surprised. The tried-and-true had always been too boring for her. Maybe whatever she'd burned wouldn't taste as bad as it smelled. Holding that thought, he headed for the kitchen. "Honey, I'm home."
"How's it goin', Dad?" Hope's dark, curly head stayed bent over one of the pots on the stove. In her usual after-school attireworn jeans with holes in the knees, one of his old gray sweatshirts that fit her like a tent and bare feet no matter the weathershe fiercely stirred whatever was burning as if she thought she could still save it. "Digger sounds excited."
"Probably checking out the car and trailer parked next door. Funny, thought, Clyde said Emma's granddaughter would arrive next week."
"Did you see anybody?"
"Nope." Trying not to let the scorched-food smell get to him, Coop thumbed through the day's mail stacked on the island counter, a return address giving him a nudge of optimism. He slipped a finger under the flap, shook the letter from its envelope and skimmed words of praise for the church Reclamation Committee's ambitious undertaking to turn an unused building into low-income housing.
Finally, he homed in on "Unfortunately, economic considerations leave us no choice but to decline your invitation to contribute. Perhaps at a future time "
He blew out a breath. A vague promise of future support sure wouldn't pay for the lumber and fixtures they needed to make the Burkhalter Building into apartments.
Hope carried a pan around the center island, wooden spoon bouncing against the side with each step. "You'd better be hungry 'cause I made lots of beef Stroganoff."
Burned Stroganoff? He could hardly wait. He tossed the letter on the counter with the rest of the mail. Digger's barking outside was getting under his skin. "What is that dog making such a racket about? I'd better get him. Last thing we need is Mrs. Hendrickson calling Sheriff Bunker again."
He strode to open the back door and whistled.
Dig finally came panting around the corner, but instead of trotting into the house he turned and ran away, yipping excitedly and glancing back at Coop as if he expected him to follow.
"What has you so agitated, boy?" Coop reached for his jacket. "Be back in a minute."
"Does he smell like skunk?"
Noting the disgust in her voice, he shrugged into his jacket. "I think he learned his lesson about skunks."
"I hope so. I don't think we have any tomato juice to pour over him. Not that it helped much."
She was right about that. Living with a dog sprayed by a skunk was an unpleasant experience best not repeated. He pulled the door closed and strode in the direction his dog had disappeared. "Give it up, Dig. I hope you haven't rooted out a bear because if you have, we're both in big trouble."
What was that smell? It sure wasn't skunk.
It was something burning.
He rounded the corner of his house. Smoke rode the wind and billowed from the old cottage next door. Fire flashed from the chimney. "Well, will you look at that? She set the chimney on fire."
Grabbing his cell phone from his belt, he punched 9-1-1 and took off at a dead run. Directing the dispatcher to the cottage, Coop raced past the Escalade and trailer, dodged a pile of stuff on the ground and jumped over spilled groceries. Replacing his cell, he thundered onto the porch, pounded on the door and shoved it open. A bad-smelling, dark smoky haze filled the place. "Where are you?" he yelled.
A baby's cries came from somewhere, probably the kitchen.
Adrenaline slamming him, Coop shot through the room toward the cries, the kitchen doorway appearing in the gloom.
"Don't let go of my hand, Joey," a woman's voice said urgently. "The back door is stuck or something. We have to go through the front door to get out."
"But more smoke is in there," a child whimpered.
Coop strode toward the shadowy figures taking shape, swept the kid into his arms and grasped the woman's smooth hand. "You have the baby?"
"Then let's go."
"I dropped Braveman!" the kid hollered, twisting to get free.
Coop gripped the boy tighter, peering through the haze for a small animal of some kind. "Who's Braveman?"
"Then he should be fine, right?" Smoke stinging his eyes, he made for the door. The baby's cries echoing eerily in the haze, they broke onto the porch. Cold, fresh air smelled mighty sweet. They thumped down the few steps.
The woman set the baby carrier on the ground and fumbled with the security strap, the baby's crying almost covered by the wind.
Coop wrangled himself out of his jacket and wrapped it around the shivering kid in his arms. "You okay?"
The boy coughed, tears rolling under his glasses and down his cheeks. "Braveman's in danger," he wailed.
Coop glanced up at the black smoke rising into the sky and decided Braveman was on his own for the time being. "Don't superheroes love danger?"
The little guy gave a serious nod.
"Well, he's probably doing great, then."
The woman tried to cuddle her infant inside her jacket. "I need to call the fire department," she said over the baby's crying.
"I already called them."
"Oh. Thank you so much."
Coop helped her grasp blanket ends whipping in the wind and tucked them tightly around the infant. The woman's face was shadowed by the night, but her exotic scent drew him in and commanded his attention. With those high heels, she could almost look him in the eye. He liked that.
"I'm sorry to be so much trouble." Swaying to comfort her baby, her deep sapphire eyes fired off enough damsel-in-distress signals to tweak every protective nerve he owned. Her teeth were even chattering.
"Glad to help." This wind had ice in it, and her lightweight jacket was clearly built for style rather than warmth. "My house isn't far away."
"Your house?" The woman sounded as if she hadn't considered what she'd do beyond getting out of the smoke.
"Come on." Hanging on to the squirming kid, Coop scooped up the empty baby carrier and strode across the yard Clyde kept mowed and trimmed. The woman caught up and jogged beside him, the baby still crying his heart out. He sure did have a great set of lungs.
"My brother is really, really scart."
"I'll bet he is." This kid was probably plenty scared himself. "But everybody's safe, so there's no reason to be scared."
"Braveman's not safe." Coughing, the kid turned himself into a squirming octopus trying to wrench himself out of Coop's arms again.
Coop hung on.
The woman looked over her shoulder. "Something is wrong with the chimney."