Authors: Darcy Burke
Tags: #Christmas, #holiday, #Contemporary Romance, #Historical Romance, #paranormal romance, #regency romance, #angels
All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Â Patricia Schmitt (Pickyme).
Copyediting: Martha Trachtenberg.
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the author.
For my good friend Elisabeth Naughton, who would not let up about this series!
I hope it's everything you dreamed it to be.
Ribbon Ridge, Oregon, December
shivered against the cold wind sweeping down the street as she departed the door of the Arch and Vine brewpub, but her step was light and her heart warm. It was just three weeks to Christmas and though she was in a new town and had no friends or family nearby, she was optimistic that she'd made the right choice in moving across the country.
And to prove herself correct, she'd just landed a job as the Arch and Vine's newest server. Combined with what she'd earn from her part-time teaching job that was due to start in January, the wages would ensure she could live comfortably, if not extravagantly. Not that she needed to live extravagantlyâthat was her mother's dream, not hers.
Happiness and hope buoyed her gait as she made her way to her car down the block. A soft mistâeven the rain here was prettyâbegan to fall as she climbed into her trusty Honda Civic and fired up the engine.
The giddy feeling in her chest remained during the fifteen-minute drive to her little rental house in the countryside near the edge of Ribbon Ridge. It was the most remote place she'd ever lived, but it was all she could afford. Plus, she liked the quaint arched doorways and old-fashioned built-ins, though she had to admit she was still learning to appreciate the lack of a dishwasher.
She bobbed her head to silly songs on the radio sung by pink-haired pop stars and cute British boy bands and marveled at how well things had turned out. Her mother would hate that. She was so waiting for Chloe to pack up and come home before Christmas and admit she'd been wrong to uproot herself. Fat chance of that happening.
The song, however, died from Chloe's lips as she saw orange flames slithering into the dark night sky. There were just two houses along the narrow laneâhers and another one a quarter mile down the road.
The closer Chloe got, the colder she felt. Her house was on fire. Really, really on fire. She parked across the street from the fire truck and jumped out of her car.
“Oh, Chloe!” Mrs. Boatwright, her sole neighbor, called, striding quickly toward Chloe. Her gray hair was clipped up, and she wore a light blue raincoat and a pair of bright orange Crocs with fuzzy inserts. “I didn't know how to reach you, sorry. I had to call 911.”
“I'm glad you did.” Chloe wanted to ask what Mrs. Boatwright had done with her cell phone number, which she'd given her just the other day when they'd met, but recalled the woman's rather messy house and decided it was probably lost amidst all of the magazines, junk mail, and other clutter. “Do you know when the fire started?” Chloe's gaze fixated on the orange-yellow flames licking up the front of the little house. The fire had engulfed the entire left side of the structure, leaving the garage on the right mostly untouchedâso far.
She wished she hadn't gotten so far with her unpacking. If she hadn't, some of her clothes and other things would still be in the garage and might have been salvaged. She'd even hung most of her pictures and artwork, save about four canvases she hadn't gotten to yet.
Mrs. Boatwright patted Chloe's shoulder. “I noticed the flames maybe an hour ago. Took the engine almost twenty minutes to get here.”
Chloe was surprised they'd arrived so quickly, given the location of the house and the fact that the fire station was on the opposite side of town.
Just then, a slim, middle-aged man approached them. “Are you Miss English?” he asked.
Chloe nodded, a lump forming in her throat at the sympathy in his tone. “I am.”
His friendly face was weathered, as if he'd fought a hundred fires. “I'm Hank Johnson, the fire chief. Mrs. Boatwright said you lived alone. So there's no one else inside? Any pets?”
Chloe shook her head. “No, just me. What happened?”
His forehead crinkled and he took her hand between his large, gloved palms. “Let us put the flames out and then we'll figure out what happened, okay?” He gave her an encouraging lookâit wasn't a smile, but it was warm and gave Chloe a modicum of comfort.
Mrs. Boatwright had kept her hand on Chloe's shoulder and resumed patting it for a moment. “I'm glad you weren't home.”
“Me too. But maybe . . .” If she'd been there she could've stopped it before the fire had progressed.
Mrs. Boatwright removed her hand and crossed her arms as she watched the firefighters battle the flames. “You can stay with me, if you like. I don't have a spare room, but I have a couch. I'll just kick the dogs off it.”
Her four very large dogs who took up what space was available in Mrs. Boatwright's small house that was chock full of stuff. “I appreciate the offer, Mrs. Boatwright, and if I need a place to stay, you'll be the first person I call.” Before she resorted to that, she'd try one of the bed-and-breakfasts in town. She didn't have a ton of savings, but she had plenty of room on her credit cardsânot that she wanted to max anything out. Right now, though, things seemed bleak enough that it might come to that. Where was she going to go?
Her focus returned to the house and the men working to put out the fire. Watching it burn, she felt like the world was falling away, like everything she'd planned and dreamed by coming here on her own was disappearing before her very eyes. Tears of sadness and frustration trailed down her cheeks, mixing with the rain, which had started falling harder. It wasn't fair! She'd worked so hard to move here, to start over. It was like Fate was telling her to go home.
She wouldn't go. Home was wherever she chose it to be, and damn it, she chose here. She wiped her cheeks and stuck out her chin. She chose Ribbon Ridge.
“Hey! There's a cat here!” A tall firefighter rushed around the house, coming from the back. He cradled a tiny bundle in the crook of his arm as he ran to Chloe. “Is this your kitten?”
Chloe's gaze landed on the tiny ball of wet, gray fur nestled against his wet, soot-smeared coat. Her heart seized. “Where did you find that? Is it . . . ?” She couldn't bring herself to say “dead.”
He looked down at the kitten. “She's breathing. I think she'll be fine. I found her near the back porch.” He turned the full focus of his dark-as-midnight eyes on Chloe. “But she's not yours?”
Chloe shook her head.
“I think there might be something wrong with her eyes, there's some leakage. Can you hold on to her for now?” He held the animal toward Chloe. “I need to get back.”
“Of course.” Chloe brought the kitten to her chest and snuggled it inside her coat for warmth. The poor thing was ice-cold and sopping wet.
The firefighter returned to battling the flames and after another quarter hour or so, Chloe finally retreated to the relative warmth and dryness of her car. Inside, she grabbed her favorite hoodie, which was in the backseat from a few days ago, and wrapped the kitten up in it. She kept the bundle on her lap, rotating the jacket to a new dry spot when it got too damp against the kitten, and stroked the tiny animal while she watched her house burn.
Hours later, the fire was finally out. All that remained of her cute, little house was a roofless, charred shell. What hadn't been destroyed by the flames was surely toast from the water.
With the fire extinguished, the firefighters seemed to move into clean-up mode. The fire chief came over and took Chloe's statement as well as her contact information. He said he'd be in touch tomorrow morning. He'd tried to reach her landlord, but hadn't been able to get hold of him.
“He's in Mexico for the holidays,” Chloe said, numbly.
After the chief returned to the house and his crew, the tall firefighter approached her car. Chloe got out to meet him.
“You okay?” he asked, his gaze searching for the kitten and settling on it snuggled in the front passenger seat.
Â “I'm fine,” she said, not meaning it in the slightest.
“You're not fine. Your house just burned down.” He flinched as he realized he'd not only stated the obvious, but that he'd bluntly reminded her of the awfulness of her situation.
“Yeah, I get that,” she said, though she wasn't angry at him for saying it. She was angry at life.
“Sorry.” And by the concern in his dark eyes, she knew he meant it sincerely. “He nodded toward the kitten. “What are you going to do about her?”
“Keep her.” She glanced at the kitten curled up in her hoodie, as if she were Chloe's sole remaining anchor. And maybe she was. “Unless someone claims her.”
God, please let no one claim her.
Chloe might really lose it then, and she was only barely keeping herself together.
The firefighter's gaze flicked toward the kitten. “Maybe I want her.”
Chloe opened her mouth to tell him off, but belatedly heard the slight teasing note in his voice. He was trying to lighten a horrific mood, and on some level she appreciated that, though it was damned hard to show it. “Sorry, Ashley is spoken for.”
Chloe blinked at him. “She's gray.”
He laughed, and the sound was deep and rich and pleasant. It soothed her frazzled nerves and gave her at least a moment's solace. “Fair enough. You gave a statement to the chief, right? You didn't have a Christmas tree, did you?”
He nodded. “It would've been the easy culprit, but something else caused the fire, then. No appliances left on? A curling iron or something? No candles burning?” He held up his hand. “Never mind, I'm sure the chief already went over this with you. I'm so sorry this happened. We'll figure it out.”
She deeply appreciated his care and concern, but tears were clogging her throat and she couldn't speak.
As if sensing her distress, he laid his hand on her shoulder. “You'll get through this. Do you have family you can call?” He looked around as if just noticing she was all alone. And man, was she
. If she called her parents now, they'd insist she jump on the first plane back to Pittsburgh and abandon her dream of a new life.
But she refused to run home now. It would take a lot more than a fire to end her plans. “I don't. I only moved here about ten days ago. I have a room at a bed-and-breakfast in townâthe Blackberry Inn.”
He tipped his hat back and frowned. “I don't think you can take Ashley there. If you like, I can take her. Temporarily,” he rushed to add. “I promise I'll give her back.”
She eyed him warily, but in the end she wanted to trust himâneeded to in order to survive this horrible night. “Thank you, I'd appreciate that.” She turned and carefully lifted the kitten, still wrapped in her hoodie, from the car and handed her to the firefighter. “She seems to have warmed up, but I'm sure she could use some food. And I think you're right that there's something wrong with her eyes.”
He took the kitten from her and looked at the tiny gray face. “I know the vet in town. I'll have him take a look at her first thing in the morning.”
Chloe could hardly believe his generosity. Tears threatened again, but she fought them back. “Thank you. I can't even tell you how much I appreciate your kindness.”
“It's my duty. And my pleasure.” He smiled, and for the first time in hours, Chloe had an urge to smile back. But she didn't. Couldn't. Not yet. “Why don't you head to the Blackberry?” he said. “The chief will be in touch with you tomorrow. And I'll get your number from him so I can return your cat.”
She nodded, suddenly weary to the bone. “Thank you. Again.”
He cuddled Ashley, and Chloe was touched by the juxtaposition of the tiny ball of fur snuggled against a broad-shouldered, six-foot-two manâwith a heart-stoppingly handsome face. “Get some sleep. Tomorrow will be better.”
It had to be, right?
He reached over and held her car door while she climbed inside. With a final, grateful look in his direction, she started her car and turned it around before driving down the lane, careful to avert her eyes from the remains of her home.
The drive to town seemed to take forever, but maybe that was due to her exhaustion. It was practically the middle of the night, after all. Or maybe it was due to the fact that she was driving abnormally slowly. It was as if she was incapable of moving forward.
Frustrated with herself for succumbing to self-pity, she shook her shoulders and applied her foot to the gas pedal. She was going to get through this. It would take a lot more than a fire to get Chloe English down.
She pulled over when she got into town to look up the address of the Blackberry Inn. It was on Copper Lane, but she wasn't exactly sure where that was. She pulled up the navigation system and realized it was a couple miles out of town, thankfully not in the direction she'd just come from. Armed with directions courtesy of Mapquest, she headed toward the inn, her body anxious for a bed and maybe a warm bath. She smelled like smoke, which wasn't a great aroma, particularly when it reminded you that you'd just lost most of what you owned. At least her summer clothes were still in Pittsburgh.