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The Last Thing I Expected
By Heather Rae Scott
Samhain Publishing, Ltd.Copyright © 2006 Heather Rae Scott
All right reserved.
Chapter OneEddie Mancilla thought he smelled smoke.
But then again, he'd fought a nasty blaze today, and those smells sometimes stayed with him, etched into his memory. He shrugged it off and resumed channel surfing, hoping to catch a glimpse of the day's work on one of the news stations.
The loud shriek of a fire alarm ripped his attention away from the screen. There was no mistaking that sound. Eddie's brain went on autopilot, shoving his body out of his recliner and propelling him into the hallway.
Smoke billowed from underneath the neighbor's door, across the hall. He touched the door, making sure it was cool to the touch. From inside, he heard someone choking. His adrenaline kicked in. Checking the knob, which was also cool and locked, Eddie reared back and used his shoulder to bust through the door.
Paint thinner mixed with the aroma of sulfur and other various chemicals hit his nose. Making his way around an obstacle course of boxes he finally got to the choking victim.
Only the woman wasn't choking - she was laughing - hysterically.
And, even after all these years, Eddie could recognize that laugh anywhere. Grace Adams. Stepping back away from them, he sighed. Of course, where there was Grace, there was also Tory.
Frickin' women, what the hell were they doing sitting on the floor in front of a smoke-billowing coffee can? Were they insane? Obviously, the chemicals were affecting their brains, so he needed to get them out of there. He pulled Tory to her feet and then reached for Grace. She was still laughing hysterically. He wrapped a beefy arm around each of them and herded them out into the hallway where he dropped them.
They sat on the floor before him, eyes wide, coughing and trying to control their giggles. "Stay put," he ordered. "I need to make sure the fire is out. By the way, I'm a fireman."
"Oh man," Grace snorted. "It just gets better and better!"
Eddie shook his head and went into the apartment. He had to laugh. The dynamic trio were always up to no good-he wondered where Callie was. He moved the smoldering coffee can with his booted foot towards the sliding glass doors that led to a balcony.
He hoped for their sake they weren't doing anything illegal in here. He hadn't smelled marijuana, but it could've been masked by the toxic fumes of the paint thinner.
Then again, starting a fire in a coffee can in the middle of the apartment wasn't exactly in a standard lease agreement either.
Once the can was out on the terrace, he left the sliding doors open, trying to get some ventilation going. He'd have to notify his company, get the chief up here and see what the police would make of all this.
Reaching into the pouch he always wore snapped to his belt, he pulled out his cell phone and stopped. The fire was out. No signs of illegal use of substance. And it suddenly occurred to him they'd been called to something similar a couple of weeks ago. He put his cell phone back and strode back out into the hallway.
"Everything okay?" Tory asked. "She-we, didn't blow the place up or anything, did we?"
Eddie shook his head slowly. "Do you realize how lucky you are? What you did was dangerous. You're lucky to be alive. What were you thinking?"
He wondered if they'd even recognized him. Apparently, not. No reason why they should. Seven years was a long time, he wasn't the boy they knew in high school.
"I have to know-I mean, you had to know it was dangerous, right? Don't you know you're not supposed to light a flame near paint thinner? What exactly were you two trying to do?" Man, he felt like their father or something.
Grace stood up. Her normally pale cheeks were flushed a bright pink. She didn't look at him with those big eyes of hers. No, she looked through him. Something that always fascinated him was the way her eyes would change colors, like a chameleon. One day they'd be green with flecks of blue in them, and the next they'd be the opposite. Hell, sometimes they'd even have browns and gold's mixed in. Cat eyes. He remembered getting lost in them in class, particularly in Chemistry.
"We were performing a ritual," Grace said with a sigh. She turned to Tory. "Obviously nothing is going to get rid of this curse."
Eddie shook his head and smiled. "A curse huh? And how much did you ladies smoke this evening?" Some things would never change. He almost couldn't wait to share this story with the guy's tomorrow morning. Another botched experiment he had to clean up.
They exchanged glances. "Smoke?" Tory asked him. "Neither one of us smoke."
Grace shook her head. "He thinks we're crazy," she said. "I told you Tory, see. Right here is the proof."
Tory looked at him. "We're not crazy, just a little unwell." She winked. "Grace thinks she's cursed."
"I can't believe this is happening to me," Grace said, tears welling up in her pretty eyes. "All I wanted was a new start, ya know?"
For some unknown reason, his chest tightened with a guilty pang. He knew all about wanting a new start, knew all about how far a person would go to achieve it. He also knew Grace, whether or not she remembered him. Right now, he preferred not.
He watched the two former high school classmates hug.
"Awe, Honey, its okay."
Grace looked over her shoulder directly at him. "I'm not crazy," she said.
He nodded. "I need to know exactly what you did, though."
She wiped her eyes with the back of her hand. When she started to talk, she wasn't looking at him. "We were performing an old Pennsylvania Dutch ritual a friend suggested to me. You have to burn a string. Tory suggested I do an old boyfriend bonfire too, just for good measure...."
A boyfriend bonfire? He couldn't repress a chuckle. "I'm sorry," he said containing himself, barely.
"Amusing as that sounds," she began again. "I didn't think it would smoke up like that. We don't smoke, so I don't have any ashtrays, and the can seemed like a great idea."
"Where did you get the paint thinner?"
"It was in the can."
"You put it in this ... boyfriend bonfire?"
"No, the landlord did."
Eddie took a deep breath. "The landlord was here?"
An expression of frustration spread over her face, she said, "No. I suppose there was some paint thinner left over in the can."
"And you couldn't smell it?"
She held up her hands. "I've never painted a day in my life, unless you count finger painting."
"She's a teacher," Tory explained. "A kindergarten teacher."
Lord, Grace taught kids? What a shocker. Then again, he'd bet his life she'd never dream of him being a firefighter. Life took strange turns sometimes. A lot could happen in seven years, he knew that all too well.
"Look, Mister ...? Do you have a name?" Tory asked.
Panic surged through him. Why hadn't he thought of that? He didn't understand why he was making such a big deal out of this, really. They were all adults; it wasn't like he hadn't shocked other people when they ran into him. Hell, a few months earlier, a former classmate flirted with him and then reintroduced herself to him. She'd had no clue who he was.
No longer was she looking past him while she talked, she was looking at him. Busted. Did she know who he was?
When Grace cleared her throat, he hadn't realized he still had her hand in his. "Sorry," he mumbled, shaking away the embarrassment.
Grace stepped back, her eyes never leaving his. If she realized who he was, she didn't give him away.
"Grace, you okay?" Tory asked.
Arching her eyebrow, a slight, smug smile stretched across her lips. She said, "His name was Eddie."
The distant sound of sirens made his ears perk up and probably just saved him.
"Are there more fireman coming? We're not in trouble are we?" Tory asked.
"Great, more people to explain this to. I've never been so embarrassed in my life." Grace buried her head in her hands.
"It'll be okay," Tory told her, wrapping an arm around her slender shoulder.
"You're not in trouble," Eddie told them. "I don't know where they're going, but it isn't here."
"Oh. See, Grace. Does that mean we can go back inside?" Tory asked him rising from her sitting position.
"I guess so." He shrugged.
"Great, thanks," Tory said and walked past him, going into the apartment.
Grace stood there for a moment, scrunching up her features like she was trying to read his thoughts. "Thanks."
"No problem." She headed into her apartment and then turned at the last minute, popping her head around the door jamb. "See ya around ... Manny."
She knew who he was. Manny was his nickname in high school. His heart did a little flip flop before he could clamp down on the pure pleasure he experienced at seeing her again. Common sense overruled the pleasure. He didn't need a woman in his life. Period. Especially Grace Adams. He'd saved her from enough jams back in high school. He'd liked it then, being needed, especially by her, but God knows Grace needed a full-time knight in shining armor. He didn't have the time or the patience to deal with her now. Grace was clearly stuck in the spin cycle of the washing machine of her life.
He had enough problems of his own. He didn't need hers compounding and further complicating them. Besides, he saved people for a living. By the end of his shift he'd done his quota of good deeds for the day. Grace was on her own.
He just hoped to God her next stunt didn't involve fire. They were all lucky enough to have a roof over their head after the boyfriend bonfire incident.
"God, please deliver me from this woman," he said closing the door to his own apartment.
Little did he know, God had other plans.
Excerpted from The Last Thing I Expected by Heather Rae Scott Copyright © 2006 by Heather Rae Scott. Excerpted by permission.
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