Part-time caregiver Thea Gayle is left to care for two young girls who've been abandoned by their father. She turns to the man who is the only family the twins havetheir uncle, Logan McCall. But is Logana wildland firefighter who is never homeup to the job?
Thea has to know, because she won't leave the twins with someone else who is going to let them down. Logan's been in a slump ever since the girls' mom, his twin sister, died. The biggest mistake of his life was allowing his nieces to be taken away, all because he thought he couldn't raise them on his own. But he's going to try to make it right this time by giving the girlsand Theathe happiest home he can.
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Evicted. Thea couldn't believe it.
"Can we go home now?" Hannah asked as she plucked a dandelion from the sparse grass at her feet. A gentle breeze lifted wisps of blond hair that escaped from her braid.
Hannah, one of Thea's ten-year-old charges, was perched on the corner of a black suitcase so large she could have fit in it, had it not been stuffed with everything the girl owned. They hadn't moved beyond the cracked sidewalk, edged with crab-grass, upon which the apartment complex landlord had left them fifteen minutes ago.
"We don't have a home," Hannah's twin sister, Tess, announced in a wobbly voice. She stuck her little chin out, daring Thea or Hannah to contradict her.
Swallowing a pang of despair, Thea stepped over her laptop computer and drew Tess to her. Not that the cramped, dark apartment had ever felt like home to Thea. This Seattle apartment was just one in a string of places she'd stayed since leaving home nine years ago. No, Thea hadn't lived in a place she'd call home in a long time.
Next to Thea, Tess kept her body stiff, staunchly refusing to show any sign that she was comforted in any way. Tess had to be the brightest, most standoffish child Thea had ever come across. And despite Thea's best efforts these past two months, she'd been unable to break through the barriers Tess and Hannah had erected around their hearts after their mother died.
"Home is where the heart is. You know, where you hang your hat and park your flip-flops." Thea tried to keep the words light, knowing she failed. Their mom was dead and their dad had gone missing. And since Thea could relate to mothers leaving and dads not showing much emotion, how upbeat could she be? Still, she had to try. "There's a better home for you out there. One with a a backyard and trees."
Since she was a kid, Thea Gayle had tried to go through life looking for the silver lining and encouraging those around her to do the same. She wouldn't let a few minor setbackslike being evicted or not knowing where her employer was get her down. At least, she hoped she wouldn't.
Thea forced her gaze away from the mocking piles of chaos that surrounded the twins she'd been hired to care for. Three bulging suitcases, a laptop computer, several boxes of textbooks and notebooks, two pink scuffed backpacks and one box with the meager remnants of their pantry were scattered in disarray around the porch of what had formerly been their sparsely furnished apartment.
"A house." Hannah made a wish, blew the white dandelion fronds into the air and shut her eyes tight, adding in a whisper, "A house with a staircase leading up to a magic room."
"With lots of friends nearby," Tess added, to Thea's surprise.
"That's the spirit." Thea managed a weak smile before the trio descended back into a lost silence.
"You won't leave us, will you?" Hannah turned her big blue eyes to Thea, her bottom lip quivering.
"No," Thea hastened to reassure Hannah. She might only be their nanny, but she cared about them.
If only they'd let themselves care in return.
"This is all his fault," huffed Tess, turning her back to Thea and crossing her skinny arms over her thin chest.
Assuming Tess referred to her father, Thea didn't refute her words. The girl was right. If Wes Delaney had paid the rent, his cell-phone billor even paid Theain the past few months, they'd be on the other side of that apartment door right now. If Thea could turn back the clock, she'd never again complain about the peeling paint on the door or the walls so thin you could hear the couple next door fighting. She'd be sitting contentedly at the kitchen table, studying for her Ph.D. exams while the twins did their homework on either side of her.
Two months ago, Wes's advertisement for a nanny/housekeeper had seemed a blessing. Working on her Ph.D. in textiles had taken Thea longer than she'd planned. She'd finished her coursework and was studying for her written and oral exams. Her savings had dipped dangerously low, so she'd taken the position with the Delaneys, which would have been fine if she'd been better at prioritizing the needs of the twins against progress on her studies. Now her exams were rapidly approaching and she was woefully unprepared.
And lacking a place to sleep.
Uncertainty, sour and unpleasant, clutched Thea's heart. Barely two weeks before Easter. No place to live. Less money than ever. Running out of hope that she'd ever fulfill the promise she'd made to her mother to make something of herself. And with Wes gone to heaven knew wherehe couldn't be dead, could he?what was she going to do with the twins?
As if aware of Thea's rising panic, Tess walked down the front path to the curb where Thea's yellow Volkswagen Beetle was parked. After a moment, Hannah followed her sister, stopping a careful distance from her twin. Neither spoke. Neither touched. But Thea had the distinct impression that they each knew what the other was thinking.
What had the twins been like before their mother died? Thea closed her eyes as she tried to envision Tess's small face with a joyous grin or scrunched up in tickle-induced laughter. She tried to imagine a more outgoing, confident Hannah. Or the two sisters holding hands as they walked home from school, giggling and sharing confidences as siblings were supposed to do.
Much as she tried, Thea couldn't quite picture them that way. Having buried their mother six months ago and being raisedif you could call it thatby a father who didn't seem very interested in his daughters the four or five days he was home every month, it was no wonder the girls were so withdrawn.
Turning them in to the police or some impersonal social agency was out of the question. They'd just be passed from one foster home to another. Tess would continue to refuse to eat more than kept her alive and Hannah would continue to eat to salve her pain. They may have been identical twins, but their grief had taken its toll on their bodies in different ways.
Unfortunately, Thea knew she couldn't take care of them forever. As it was, she'd have trouble figuring out a way to keep them fed for more than a few days with less than one hundred dollars to her name.
"I want to go home." Hannah turned back to Thea, fingering the hem of her yellow sundress.
"He won't take us." Tess shook her head without facing them. She shoved her hands into the back pockets of her jean shorts.
"Is that where your father is? In Idaho?" Thea asked, her spirits rising. Maybe this was just a huge misunderstanding. Wes could wire them some money and the landlord would let them back into the apartment. She'd spend more time studying and a little less time trying to coax the girls out of their shells.
Ignoring her sister, Hannah stepped around a box of Thea's books, something uncharacteristically bright shining in her eyes. "Uncle Logan lives in Idaho. In Silver Bend. We used to live with him."
Thea's spirits deflated as quickly as they'd risen. The twins rarely mentioned their uncle. He hadn't called since she'd been with them. He hadn't written to ask about the girls, hadn't sent them birthday cards. If she had to guess, Thea would say Uncle Logan didn't care what happened to his nieces.
"Please." Hannah touched Thea's hand with one finger before stepping back. The gesture said so much more than the reticent little girl ever would. The twins tolerated Thea's hugs, but didn't seek out physical contact.
Why on earth would this uncle in Idaho help them now?
An ant crawled up the side of the box containing the bread, peanut butter and cereal. If Thea didn't decide to do something soon, the ants would claim the last of their food.
Perhaps the twins' uncle was the only person they could turn to.
Lifting her gaze to the blue spring sky above, Thea refused to think about the folders filled with notes at her feet, or her looming exams, or the balance on her credit card that was already too high to pay off.
And she would not think about the penalties for taking the girls without their father's permission. She'd filed a missing persons report on Wes three weeks ago. As far as she was concerned, if Wes Delaney was alive, he'd abandoned his daughters.
"Let's load the car." Thea brushed the ant away, picked up the box of food and headed to her car.
She was taking the twins to Idaho.
"They're declaring this fire a runaway," Golden announced, sliding on a patch of ice as he came down a slope on Hyndman Peak, east of Sun valley, Idaho.
Logan McCall tensed, reliving his own tumble last year that had snapped his femur. Without thinking, he rubbed his thigh, which still gave him more than an occasional twinge of protest at the physical demands of his work. Then he realized he was drawing attention to his injury and stopped. He couldn't afford to show any weakness.
With a quick sideways glance to see if anyone had noticed, Logan lifted his arm to wipe the sweat off his forehead with the long sleeve of his shirt. It might be less than forty degrees on this sunny spring day in the mountains, but the fire above him had warmed everything here to above ninety sweat-dripping degrees. The Hot Shot fire crew kept perspiration-soaked bandannas and shirtsleeves busy in between flinging dirt and snow on the flames at their feet. Their clothing may have been fire resistant, yet all that coverage didn't keep them cool.
Logan's body felt the fire's heat from head to toe, but the flames could never warm his heart. He couldn't get over that one regrettable choice he'd made five months ago.
"Did the fire jump the line somewhere else, Golden?" Logan asked his best friend as he flung snow at the flames with a shovel.
Golden nodded, clipping his radio onto the front strap of his pack. "Winds pushed it across the road to the east. It's heading down the mountain to the ski resort."
Some of the other Hot Shots stopped tossing dirt and snow at the flames above them to listen. The Silver Bend Hot Shot crew was working with two other fire crews on a prescribed burn above the Sun Valley ski resort. The Department of Forestry had decided they needed to set a controlled burn in a timber area that had been weakened by two years of drought and ravaged by bark beetles. Without water, the pines had been unable to produce enough sap to protect themselves against the hungry insect, which bored into the bark and ate the dry trees from the inside out. The large percentage of dead pines on this side of the mountain was a huge risk for wildfires later in the year. Some bureaucrat seemed to think that the snow and rock farther up the ridge would stop the fire from crossing over to the other side of the mountain.
But they hadn't figured on winds changing direction and pushing the fire down the mountain, had they?
Gazing up the slope, Logan shaded his eyes against the glaring spring afternoon sun. He saw nothing but orange pine swaying in the wind orange from the flames consuming dry branches or orange needles indicating the tree had succumbed to the beetle. Succumbed. Given up. Lost.
"Are we being reassigned to the east?" Spider asked. He was a wiry firefighter about Logan's age. Seeing him in Hot Shot garba yellow button-down shirt and forest-green khakiswas always something of a shock. Off duty, Spider preferred the black color usually associated with the creepy crawly that was his namesake.
All the Hot Shots had nicknamesJackson was Golden because he was lucky; Nick was Steve, short for Stephanapolis; Doc because he went to medical school during the winter; and The Queen, so dubbed because she was a redhead named Victoria. Logan's nickname was Tin Man, a name he'd earned by being the most confirmed bachelor among his crew. They gave each other monikers to lighten the mood when battling the deadly flames.
Not to say that they weren't businesslike on the fire line.
"Lots of ski bunnies down that slope at the ski lodge, Tin Man." Chainsaw nudged Logan with his elbow, his namesake resting on his broad shoulders. He, Steve and a bulldozer had cleared a twenty-foot wide path through the trees that cut across their side of Hyndman Park. "We'll look like heroes."
Well, they might not always be businesslike, but they got the job done.
"Send my group out first, Golden, before Tin Man starts breakin' hearts and makin' all of mankind look bad." Spider's words were baiting, almost itching for a fight.
Logan looked away, heat burning in his gut near as hot as the fire above them. Since losing his twin sister six months ago, Logan's temper rarely receded. He'd taken to avoiding his friends because he couldn't escape the cloud that seemed to shadow him everywhere.
Golden shook his head. He was the superintendent of the Silver Bend Hot Shots based in Silver Bend, Idaho, and had the patience of a saint. Logan and Spider were his two assistant superintendents, each in command of a team of nine men and women.
Last year, Golden had volunteered to train firefighters in Russia, and while he was on leave, Logan had taken over the superintendent position. At the time, Spider had seemed to accept Logan's advancement over him. Then, just after Golden returned from Russia, the team had fought a huge fire in Garden Valley, Idaho, and things had changed.
Logan had been babysitting some of NIFC's Incident Command team when they'd been trapped by a fire on a steep slope. NIFC, short for National Interagency Fire Center, coordinated fire crews and resources in the United States when a fire outgrew the capabilities of a local fire district. The incident commander, Sirus Socrath, who went by the Hot Shot name of Socrates, had bounced down the slope toward the advancing flames like a rag doll, breaking his arm. Logan had slid after him in the hopes of saving him, only to take a tumble and break his own leg. They'd waited out most of the fire in a cave until Golden showed up and saved Logan's ass, cracking his own ribs and noggin in the process.
While Logan and Golden were on the mend, Spider took over the team. Shortly thereafter, he'd started giving Logan nothing but his own dark brand of bullshit. Logan was finding it increasingly hard to ignore his friend's digs, increasingly hard not to plant a fist in Spider's grinning face.
"Our team is watching the line here" Golden banished any hope of recreational action at the ski lodge, eliciting a series of muffled grumbles among the team. "They're sending the Snakes," he added, meaning the Snake River Hot Shot crew from Pocatello, Idaho.
The groans weren't held back at this news.