Lily Warren's new hat shop is her ticket to self-reliance until a fire threatens to destroy her dreams. And when Edward Stoneher landlord and the town blacksmithbursts into her private rooms to rescue her, Lily's reputation is tarnished. So Edward proposes a solution that could save her good nameeven as it puts her independence at risk.
With an orphaned niece who needs a mother, Edward believes a marriage of convenience is the answer to his and Lily's problems. But he didn't plan on developing feelings for his new wife. And now he can't quell his urge to protect impulsive, kindhearted Lily. Perhaps it's time for the wary blacksmith to try forging something truly preciousa real family
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Pine Haven, Texas
The sound of shattering glass snatched Lily Warren awake. She bolted upright in bed with a gasp, only to feel her lungs fill with acrid smoke. Coughing uncontrollably, she threw the quilt back and tugged on her dressing gown.
Unfamiliar with her surroundings, she fumbled about in the darkness, searching for the doorway to the stairs that led to her new shop.
Heavy footsteps pounded on the staircase outside her room. Lily turned toward the sound, desperate for fresh air. The coughing racked her chest, and she was getting dizzy.
She cried out between coughs. "Help!"
The door burst open, and the orange glow of flames gave her enough light to stumble toward her rescuer.
Her landlord, Edward Stone, came into the room with an arm across his face in an apparent effort to keep from breathing in the smoke. "Do you have something to wrap up in? A blanket?" His voice was intense.
She reached for her mother's quilt on the bed, though the coughing hindered her movements.
He snatched it up and, before she knew what he was going to do, wrapped it around her shoulders and picked her up like a child.
She stiffened and argued, "I can walk."
"Try to keep your mouth closed until I get you outside." He kicked the doorway open wider and started down the stairs.
"What?" Pressed against his chest, she couldn't hear over the roar of the growing fire.
"Quiet! The smoke." He reached the bottom of the stairs and turned toward the back door.
She could see the flames licking up the side of the back wall and climbing across her workbench. All the beautiful hats she'd made for her shop were being consumed by the hungry fire.
Kicking and squirming against Edward, she screamed, "My stock!"
He tightened his hold on her and reversed his direction to take her out the front door. He turned back to face the building and lowered her to stand in front of him.
The church bell rang from the opposite end of the street.
She tried to move away from him, but her hair was tangled in the buckle on his suspenders. She cried out in pain as it pulled.
"Hold still." He spoke close to her ear. "I'll try not to hurt you, but I've got to put the fire out." He tugged at the knotted curls.
A voice barked behind them. "Stone! Is anyone still inside?" The sheriff came running up the street.
With a final and painful pull, Lily was free of him. She turned to see what must be most of the town's population coming from every direction.
Edward shot around her and hollered his answer to the sheriff as he went back through the front door of her shop. "No one else was here. I think it's contained in the workroom in the back. There's a rain barrel in the alley behind the back door." The sheriff ran toward the rear of the shop.
Lily stumbled on the ends of her mother's quilt when she started up the steps. A man she hadn't met in the two days since her arrival in Pine Haven restrained her. "You can't go in there, miss," he said.
"My stock is inside!" She turned to plead with him to let her go. He wasn't tall or large, but was strong for his size, and she couldn't break free. "Everything I own is in there."
The lady from the general store came up beside them. "Miss Warren, you mustn't resist. The men need to put out the fire so it doesn't spread to the rest of town." Mrs. Croft put an arm around her shoulders. "Doc Willis, I've got her. Help them! Please!"
Smoke boiled through the open front door now. Lily could see Edward's shape through the haze as he swung his coat to beat back the flames. Every available man and woman scurried to form a line and pass buckets filled from the water troughs and barrels near the surrounding buildings.
Lily shrugged off Mrs. Croft's confining arm. "I've got to help at least." She let the quilt drop to the dirt and ran to fill a wide place in the line of townsfolk fighting to help their newest resident.
It had only been minutes, but seemed like hours, when Edward appeared in the front doorway with his charred coat lifted high in one hand. "It's out! We did it!"
Cheers went up from the crowd, and the line fell away. Everyone gathered near the steps of her shop.
Lily pushed her way through the people and stopped at the open front door. Water covered the floors she'd polished on her first day. Mud tracked through to the workroom. She leaned against the jamb.
She turned to look at Edward. "How bad is it?" Water ran in tiny rivulets through the soot on his face.
"I'm afraid your stock is ruined. What didn't burn will be damaged by the smoke and water." He dragged an arm across his forehead and smeared the soot away from his eyes.
Mrs. Croft came through the crowd at the bottom of the steps. "Miss Warren, please." The woman held Lily's quilt up by the corners. She lowered her voice to a conspiratorial whisper, and her eyes darted toward the people gathered behind her. "You need to cover yourself."
Lily gasped and looked down at herself. The tie to her dressing gown had loosened while she passed one bucket of water after another. The lace of her nightgown peeked out where the robe gaped open. She snatched the quilt from Mrs. Croft and wrapped it around her shoulders, clenching it tight, high against her neck. The heat climbing up her throat let her know she was turning as pink as the nightgown everyone in town had just seen.
"Thank you, Mrs. Croft." The mortification she experienced at the woman's condemning stare almost dwarfed the loss of her belongings. Almost.
She turned back to Edward. "Thank you for saving me." She remembered the feel of his arms around her as he carried her from the building. Strong, determined, protecting.
"You don't owe me any thanks. I'm just sorry we couldn't save your merchandise." As her landlord, he'd want Lily's Millinery and Finery to be a success. How could it be now, with nothing to sell?
Mrs. Croft's tinny voice broke into their conversation. "How did you see the fire, Mr. Stone?" Her lips were pinched tight, and her eyes narrowed.
"I was on my porch and saw the glow through the shop windows." He seemed at ease explaining what happened, but Lily's stomach sank and pressure built behind her eyes when she looked at Mrs. Croft and knew the woman was making an accusation.
The busybody confirmed Lily's suspicions with her next words. "But your porch faces in the opposite direction." A hum of low conversations ran through the people who'd only just put out the fire. Now the woman from the general store was trying to start another one. The kind that could destroy Lily's reputation. The potential damage could forever ruin her business before it opened.
Several of the people gathered looked over their shoulders in the direction of the blacksmith's shop and home. His porch faced a lane that ran perpendicular to Main Street. Lily held her breath.
Edward's tone was clipped. "I was leaning on the corner post and watching the night sky. The view of the moon is best from there."
"I see." Doubt hung on each syllable from Mrs. Croft. "It's just that when we came out to help, you were holding Miss Warren in your arms."
Mr. Croft interrupted. "Liza, he just pulled the woman from a burning building." He put a hand on his wife's shoulder. "Let's go home and get some rest. The whole town will be tired tomorrow after the excitement of tonight."
People murmured around them. Some were in agreement with Mr. Croft, but Lily knew in her soul that others were siding with Mrs. Croft. Only two days in her new town and something beyond her control had drawn her character into question. She couldn't let them all disperse without an attempt to protect herself.
"Mrs. Croft, I assure you nothing improper went on here tonight. Mr. Stone was merely rescuing me. If he hadn't come, I'd never have found my way out of my bedroom."
A light gasp escaped some of the ladies.
"I see." Mrs. Croft's eyes swept across Lily from top to bottom and then landed on Edward. "I guess it's okay where you come from to entertain gentlemen in your home after dark, but you'll soon learn that in Pine Haven we hold to a higher standard of propriety."
Edward took a step closer to the edge of the porch. "Miss Warren has told you there was no impropriety here." He looked at Mr. Croft and then the others standing in the street. "Thank you all for your help. By saving my building, you very likely saved many others from certain disaster."
Dr. Willis spoke up then. "And at least one life."
Lily let her gaze move over the crowd then. "Thank you all so much." She turned to Edward. "Especially you, Mr. Stone."
People began to walk away a few at a time, the rumble of voices fading into the night.
She pulled up the bottom of the quilt so she wouldn't stumble and stepped inside the shop.
"Miss Warren, I don't think you should stay here tonight." Edward's voice was kind.
Lily stilled for a moment. "Is the building sound?"
"Yes. And tonight when I say my prayers, I will thank God that the fire didn't spread to your private rooms. But the smoke and water damage are serious." He gestured toward the floor and the workroom.
She stepped inside and took in the magnitude of the destruction. There was a trail of muddy water from the front door to the workroom where water had sloshed from the buckets as they were passed from the porch and through the shop to put out the fire in the back room. She picked her way slowly to keep from slipping and stood in the entry to the workroom. Water dripped from the workbench. The stench of the smoke hung thick in the air. And everywhere she looked, the remains of all her hard work lay soaked and covered in soot. Now she had to begin anew. Not from the beginning, but from a new beginning much further behind any point she'd imagined.
She squared her tired shoulders and spoke. "All the more reason for me to stay and get to work." She nodded in dismissal. "Thank you again for all you've done. I'm certain it would have been a lot worse if you hadn't seen the fire." She looked down at the quilt her mother had made. "I'm grateful you saved my mother's quilt. I don't have many of her things. This one is important to me." As much as she'd tried to keep her emotions in check, she couldn't stop the tears from spilling over her lashes now. With a sniff she stood straight and moved to the front door.
Edward followed her and stepped onto the porch. His hand came up to keep her from closing the door on him. "Cleanup can wait until morning. It's only a few hours."
She shook her head. "The water will damage the floors if I don't mop it up now."
"Then let me stay and help you."
She'd come to Pine Haven for independence. Her recent failed engagement had driven her to create a new life for herself. The first two days now seemed like a distant dream. Making hats and polishing the furniture her father had sent with her to use in her new shop had filled her hours. The memory of humming while she cleaned the floors and set up the private rooms to suit her needs faded behind a cloud of dense smoke.
This was a major setback, but she wouldn't become dependent on her landlord. Now. Or ever. "No. You best get home to your niece. I'll be fine." She'd met his young charge on the first day and knew the child would be home alone.
He chuckled a bit. "Ellen can sleep through anything. That child wouldn't hear the church bell or commotion unless it was in the room with her."
"It's good she has such peace. Sound sleep is often a sign of contentment."
Edward looked over his shoulder toward his house. "In all her seven years, I've never known her sleep to be disturbed. Not since she was a baby. For her, it's more about how she wears herself out when she's awake. The child has more worries than a body ought."
"All the more reason for you to go home now. In case she awakens and you aren't there." When Lily was five, her mother had died. Being young and frightened was something Lily had experienced firsthand.
He dipped his head in agreement. "Please get some rest. I'll be back in the morning so we can assess the damage and begin repairs."
Lily stood in the doorway to her workroom after he left. The hats she'd made yesterday were scorched and ruined. What wasn't blackened by fire was covered in ash or wilted from the water that had doused the flames. She thought about crying, until her bare feet reminded her of the floors and all the work she needed to do.
She shrugged off the quilt, bundled it into a ball and tossed it onto a crate in the corner of the front shop. Lighting a lantern, she went through the workroom into the alley behind her shop and retrieved the mop she'd used to clean the floors. Bucket in hand, she determined to prevent as much damage as possible. Repairing the building would take more skill than she possessed, but she could clean up the mess. Then Edward could get started as soon as he arrived in the morning.
Could she undo the damage done by Mrs. Croft's words in the aftermath of the fire? Why had the woman so blatantly accused her and Mr. Stone of poor behavior?
Losing a night's sleep did not compare to what she stood to lose if she didn't get her shop open before her father arrived in a few weeks' time. Now she not only needed to get Lily's Millinery and Finery open for business, she also had to repair the damage done to her reputation in front of the townsfolk by Mrs. Croft's words. Her own lapse in decorum when she was unaware of her appearance in her dressing gown in front of the entire town added to her problems.
The water on the floor was the least of her worries, but it was the only thing she could control at the moment.
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