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In you our fathers put their trust; They trusted and you delivered them.
Psalm 22:4 NIV
Catelyn Caldwell's cry ripped from her throat as she slammed her car door. In horror, she watched flames leap from the old Loganton Theater to the sky. The stench of devastation seared her nostrils. Fire tinted the adjacent buildings in shades of angry red as it writhed and hissed, consuming one of the town's favorite structures.
The marquee thundered down onto the sidewalk. Its crash ricocheted off Main Street's buildings, many of which were the same vintage as the blazing structure. Firefighters doused the nearest ones to try and keep them from meeting the same fate as the theater.
Tears burned Cate's eyes, more painful than the waves of heat slapping her face. Fear shot bile up her middle. What if
"Stop it!" No need to think the worst.
Neal Hunter, one of the oldest and most reliable firefighters under her dad, had called her not ten minutes earlier. "The theater's on fire and your dad went in after Wilma Tucker." Frustration had made his voice tight. "She wouldn't leave. Said she'd do more good wetting everything down from the inside. Wouldn't listen to reason. Then, when things got bad, I couldn't talk Joe out of going in after her. You might want to head on over here."
As if anything could have kept her away.
Joe Caldwell, Loganton's fire chief, had been putting his life on the line every day since he'd joined the fire department in Roanoke decades earlier. He lived to serve, even if his service kept those who loved him fearing the day when the worst come to pass.
It looked as though today might be that day.
She told herself Dad and Wilma would probably make it out of the raging inferno while she drove there.
Now if she could only make herself believe it.
Tears spilled down Cate's cheeks. She stepped forward, her hands clenched at her sides, her knees buckling. Everything inside her commanded her to run inside, to tear the place apart until she found her father and saw him safe. She didn't want to face the possibility of
No. She wasn't going there.
Squaring her shoulders, she took a step forward. While she'd been called all kinds of things at different times in her life, she'd never been called a coward.
With every step, her terror at the thought of disaster grew. I can't, I can't, I can't.
She'd faced tragedy in the worst way the night her older sister Mandy and her brother-in-law Ross were killed in a car accident eight years ago. She'd had a front-row seat for that nightmare. Cate had been a passenger in the car they'd swerved to avoid.
Surviving that nightmare had taken more than she could stand to surrender again. And yet, because of the nature of her father's work, she might just be forced to give in one more time. And soon.
Her immature faith in Christ had seen her through the aftermath of her sister's death. Her more mature relationship with the Lord these days would see her through again should the worst come to pass.
I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me
The nearer she got to the burning theater, the more unbearable the heat grew. Cate licked her dry lips and tasted the salt of her tears.
Her dad's men filled the street, water hoses spewing, ladders extended, calling out instructions in tight, intense voices. The silence of the night, an ominous backdrop to all the activity, felt oppressive, threatening.
As she approached the firefighters, Cate's shivers became tides of tremors. When she stepped off the curb a block down and across the street from the blaze, she stumbled and nearly landed on the road.
She took a second to get a grip on her emotions and nerves. At least, she triednot an easy feat as she scanned the burning building one more time. "Stop thinking the worst," she told herself.
One of the firefighters separated himself from the rest of the team and came toward her. Cate could see the lines of stress on Neal Hunter's face. Under the yellow hard hat, her dad's best friend's face glistened with sweat. She called out his name.
He trotted the last few steps toward her. "I'm hoping the guys will turn the corner with this monster soon. I don't think it's spreading anymore."
At the thought of what she had to ask, she shook harder. "Has he
have you seen him?"
The flash of pain across Neal's face said everything she needed to know.
"Do you think there's any chance Dad's still
His eyes blazed as bright as the flames. "There's every chance, Cate. The fire is worse in one spot in the basement. I figure Joe yanked Wilma away from dumping buckets on it and dragged her to the safer area at the back. Don't ever give up hope."
The smile she tried to give him wobbled around the edges as his words registered. "So the blaze started down there, away from the patrons."
"Looks that way. Don't think we're looking at kids smoking in the john or anything like that."
"Does the theater have aproblem with teen smokers?"
"Not really, but the high school seniors came to watch a film for English tonight. All one hundred twenty-nine of them were here. Them, and their chaperones."
"But the fire didn't start in the bathroom."
Neal shook his head. "Gotta get back, Cate. I'll let you know as soon as I know anything."
Another firefighter ran up. "If we don't turn this around in the next five minutes, I'm going to call in the other counties' departments."
Neal glanced at the theater. "Maybe you shouldn't wait."
The flames bathed the newcomer's face with an angry glow, but Cate still recognized him. In spite of the stress, soot and sweat, she had to acknowledge that the years since he'd left town had been good to Randall Mason. Then again, he'd always been drop-dead gorgeous, popular, athletic
Everything Cate hadn't been.
Rand had also been the person she most loved to hate in school.
"Any sign of Wilma or the chief?" he asked.
Cate dragged in a harsh breath.
Neal glared and jerked his head in the universal sign for let's talk about this over there. "Not on our side yet."
But the captain didn't seem to hear Nealhe was staring at Cate. Her instinctive response to his question had caught his attention. His blue eyes homed in on her. "I thought you guys had cleared the perimeter. We can't have civilians this near to an active fire."
Cate tipped up her chin. "I'm not your usual civilian. Neal called to tell me Dad had gone in after Wilma. We're hoping they made it to the back of the basement, since Neal says the damage is not supposed to be as bad there."
"Cate? Catey Caldwell
is that you?"
Her mouth curved up on one side. "The one and only."
"You've changed" He winced as he realized how his words sounded. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay. I have changed. Believe me, I know. Let's face it. I think the last time you saw me I had green hair. Or maybe that week it was purple."
"Something like that."
She offered him a tentative smile, hard though it was to eke out. "You don't have to dance around reality with me. I'm more aware than anyone else of the dangers you guys face. And even though it took hours of arguing, I finally got Dad to agree to have one of his men call me if
well, if there was ever any possibility of
" She waved toward the remains of the theater. "Neal did me the favor."
Rand's expression warmed with compassion. "If there's one thing I know, it's that your father's one of the smartest, best-trained and most capable men I know. If there's even the smallest corner left standing in the back of that place, then I'm sure he's found his way there. Took Wilma with him, too. Have faith."
The last two words rang in her heart. Faith
these days she had plenty of that. A glance at the theater encouraged her. It looked as though her father's men had managed to contain the worst of the flames to the lobby. Until the blaze had erupted, that lobby had sparkled with the chrome and crystal Wilma had lavished on the place during the recent renovation.
Cate closed her eyes and offered a silent prayer.
"Hey!" someone called over the crackle of fire and rush of water. "We found them! They're alive! Get the ambulances over here!"
Tears again poured down Cate's face. "Thank you, Jesus."
Rand looked at Cate, the surprise in his blue eyes mirroring what she had grown used to seeing over the years. Those who'd known her as a rebellious teen had trouble recognizing her as the responsible woman she'd become.
She forced another tight smile. "Surprise, surprise." As she hurried off in the direction of her father, she heard him say, "And how."
Rand loped back to help the men pull out Joe and Wilma, both of whom were suffering with smoke inhalation, numerous burns and unknown internal injuries from the collapse of a portion of the theater's ceiling.
He'd feared for his mentor's life, in spite of the men's training and their determination to save the popular chief, as they'd carefully removed chunks of ceiling off the two trapped victims. When they were finally freed, Rand realized his hands were shaking. It was far more gut-wrenching to fight to save people he'd known his whole life than strangers back in Charlotte. He'd wanted a more personal touch, and so he'd come home. He hadn't expected this level of closeness.
Thankfully, Joe and Wilma were out. "Hang in there," he told the older man as the EMTs strapped him to the gurney. "They'll get you back to fighting form in no time at the hospital."
Joe tried to grin, but instead grimaced as the gurney rolled away. Rand glanced at Cate. Sympathy swelled when he noticed her expression. It hovered somewhere between despair and hope.
He heard her sob, watched her bring a fist to her mouth. Her misery drew him.
As he approached, his steps slow and tired, he ran a hand down his sweat-dampened face. A glance at his hand showed traces of soota common job hazard. He swiped it against his tan gear, then realized the action might have made matters worse.
The closer Rand went, the more intently he watched her. With her tangled hair, long-sleeved Tarheel Basket-ball T-shirt, drawstring flannel pants and running shoes with a hole in the right toe, she looked appealing in a true girl-next-door way. She'd obviously changed into sleepwear before she'd received Neal's call and had rushed out to her father's side. It seemed Cate loved her father as much as Rand knew Joe loved her.
"Hey," he said. "I just spoke to one of the EMTs. They don't mind if you ride with Joe in the ambulance. I figured you'd want to."
The breath she drew sounded ragged, rough and heavy, maybe with the dissipating smoke. "To be honest, I didn't get so far as to think about that. I'm kind of numb. All I could think about was that Dad had survived. Thanks for getting him out."
"No problemand I didn't do it single-handed." He glanced toward the ambulance. "I'd like to go see how he's doing, but I have to stay here and step into his shoesan impossible challengebut he hired me to be his number two, and I owe him my best on the job. That, and to make sure he gets to the hospital as soon as possible. With you at his side."
A strange undercurrent flew between them. Cate stood taller. "I'm sure you'll get a chance to visit him soon enough."
He shrugged. "Yeah. I'll be there as soon as I can."
"Well, thanks. Again." As she started toward the ambulance, she gave him a last look over her shoulder, a slight smile on her lips. "I'm sure I'll see you around the hospital."
She hurried off to the ambulance, and Rand stood still for a second or two. What had she seen when she'd turned to look at him? It had made her smile
sort of. For a moment, he wished he still looked like the popular football team captain and Honor Society member he'd once been, the guy she probably remembered from high school.
On the other hand, maybe when she looked at him, Cate saw the arson investigator for the Charlotte Fire Department he'd been in the years between high school and his recent return. He wondered if she'd heard all the stories that seemed to have mushroomed in town. Winnie Zook, the town's most avid gossip, had been heard telling those who'd listen that Rand had come back to the slower-paced Loganton Fire Department not just to put out fires, but to follow in his father's footsteps and sell books on his own time. As soon as he'd started knocking around in his father's old bookstore, tearing down walls and sawing at all hourswhen not on duty, of courseWinnie had taken to stopping by to chat. She'd also made a point of strolling past the plate glass window and peeking in every so often, since the former Reading Corner sat next to her knitting goods store.
Rand had no idea what he was going to do with his father's old store, but remodeling the space gave him something to do in his downtime. He sure wasn't going to bother arguing with Winnie, much less those others who insisted he'd come home to write the Great American Novel, based on his experiences. Or even with those Logantonians who just knew he was hiding out from the mobhe had helped put away a number of organized crime types who torched property for the insurance pay-off, after all.
The multiple theories, creative as they were, made Rand laugh. He'd come back home because it was home. He knew everyone in town, and he wanted to make a difference in their lives. True, he'd left all those years ago for practically the same reason. A family tragedy had turned his life upside down. His cousin Ross's death had been hard to take, especially since it had been Rand's first call as a rookie volunteer firefighter. He hadn't wanted to face the loss of another person he loved, or even knew.
In time, he'd realized he was lonely in Charlotte. So he'd come back. Now, he'd faced the very issue that had sent him running in the first place. And he'd dealt with it. He hoped it grew easier as he went along. He'd have to ask Joe for advice once the older man was well enough.
But he sure couldn't tell the citizens he'd been hired to protect why he'd left as a young man. Or why he'd come back. It might make him sound pathetic, certainly not strong enough to keep them safe.