Read the first three chapters of A Firefighter’s Christmas Gift!
There were twelve days until Christmas, which didn’t seem like long enough considering everything Hanna Lane needed to accomplish.
Still, some things were meant to be savoured. She wrapped both hands around the cup of mocha latte she’d allowed herself to splurge on, sipping slowly with her eyes closed as she let the sounds in the Buns and Roses coffee shop wrap around her like a warm, winter blanket.
Familiar voices, delicious scents. Tansy Fields’s cinnamon buns made Hanna drool just thinking about them. But she wanted to share the treat she’d bought with her daughter Crissy, which meant keeping the top of the paper bag firmly folded to help resist temptation.
Didn’t mean Hanna couldn’t pretend she had all the options from behind the counter for her tasting pleasure.
A chair squeaked, and she popped her eyes open to discover an enormous, broad-chested man settling himself carefully into the wrought-iron chair on the opposite side of the table. Brad Ford’s deep blue eyes swept over her, a smile on his face.
He reached up and pulled off his toque, running a hand over the short stubble on his head. Hanna couldn’t tear her eyes away. It wasn’t right how simply looking at him was enough to make her hot and cold at the same time.
He was just so big. Big hands, big arms, big biceps being revealed as he shrugged out of his winter coat and draped it over the back of the chair behind him. His long-sleeved T-shirt was living on borrowed time, stretched hard across his shoulders and chest.
A soft cough reached her ears.
Oops, she’d been staring. Hanna’s gaze shot back to Brad’s face where his smile had twisted toward amusement. “Good afternoon, Hanna. Do you need another coffee?”
“No, thank you. I just started this one.”
He moved slowly, the same as usual, but there was so much of him that she always felt like a munchkin when he was around. He settled his elbows on the table in front of him, leaning toward her.
He spoke at the perfect volume so she could hear him but wasn’t easily overheard by their neighbours at the nearby tables. “Sorry I had to cancel last night.”
Hanna was too, and yet at the same time, maybe she wasn’t. “You’re a firefighter. You can’t help when you’re going to get called out.”
“But I was looking forward to our date. You don’t often have a Tuesday night free, and I know you set up a special babysitter.”
Hanna played with her cup. It was easier to not look at him when they spoke, because it still didn’t seem possible he was interested in her. “It probably turned out for the best, because it was a school night. My sitter said she had a test to study for.”
They were interrupted by the arrival of Brad’s food. Fern Fields, the youngest of the Fields family, lowered the tray in front of Brad. She glanced between the two of them, her riotous black curls dancing around her head as her expression grew inquisitive. “Can I get you another drink, Hanna?”
“No, thanks,” Hanna told her quickly.
“Go ahead and get her a second one, and put it on my bill,” Brad insisted over Hanna’s protest. “You can take it home and warm it up later if you don’t drink it now.”
“One dark-chocolate mocha latte, on its way.” Fern waited until Brad transferred the plates to the table before she grabbed the tray with her prosthetic hand and headed back to the counter, humming cheerfully as she dodged tables and people.
Hanna tried her best to look stern as she chided Brad, but she was distracted by the sheer amount of food. “You don’t need to go buying me things.”
“You’re right. I don’t,” he agreed, even as he grabbed a cinnamon bun and put the plate in front of her. “Here. This is for you.”
His eyes twinkled. “It’s my apology for leaving you dateless last night. Seriously. Otherwise, I’ll feel terrible all day.”
He was terrible. And relentless—and Hanna wasn’t quite sure how to deal with him. She looked at the cinnamon bun and up at him, but when her stomach growled and he lifted a brow, there wasn’t much she could do in protest. “Thank you.”
He nodded happily, picking up his own enormous muffin and taking an enthusiastic bite.
They were quiet for a moment as they both enjoyed their treats, but Hanna wondered again what she was thinking. This man had done everything possible to make it clear he was attracted to her and wanted them to spend time together, but still she hesitated.
She wasn’t sure if her concerns were real or caused by ghosts from the past.
Hanna peeled off another bit of cinnamon bun and popped it in her mouth as she covertly peeked in his direction. Someone at a nearby table was talking with him, not as if she were being ignored but as if Brad was giving her a bit of space.
Brad Ford might be a giant, but he was a gentle giant. Only, Hanna had an eight-year-old daughter who was her first priority, and not even the butterflies of attraction were enough to let her risk Crissy being hurt.
His determined pursuit made Hanna uncomfortable in ways she hadn’t felt for a long time. She was smart enough to know that they weren’t necessarily wrong ways, but she still needed to go slowly. Very, very slowly.
Brad turned toward her, offering her a muffin, and this time when she shook her head he relented instantly.
They were mostly quiet, sharing a companionable silence as Hanna reached the bottom of her first cup of coffee. She checked the time as she considered what she needed to accomplish before meeting Crissy after school. First on the list was an afternoon nap, because her late-night job cleaning offices meant she could either rest for a while each day or end up like a zombie by the end of the week.
She gathered her things as she glanced across the table at Brad. “Thank you for the lunch treat. I didn’t expect it. It was a nice surprise.”
His face lit up as if she’d given him some kind of prize. “Glad to do it, sugar. I hope Crissy enjoys the cinnamon bun.”
Hanna could picture her daughter’s delight at the sweet treat.
“I…” Funny how she wanted to stay and to escape. “I should go.”
“Can I see you later this week? Maybe we should try a date during the day so you don’t have to worry about getting a babysitter.”
She was more tempted than she should be. It was a generous and observant offer. “Maybe.”
He leaned in again, and it seemed as if there were just the two of them in the crowded coffee shop. “Horseback riding?”
Observant and evil. Horses were her kryptonite. She looked him over and, for one brief moment, allowed herself to enjoy the entire beautiful package of manhood. “Tuesday or Wednesday next week?”
“Friday? Or Monday?” As if he was too eager to wait.
Hanna laughed. “Okay, Monday. But I need to be back at the school by three o’clock when Crissy is done. And I can’t go until eleven o’clock.” Because while she could mess with her schedule a little, like napping before lunch instead of after, she needed to get at least a couple hours of sleep.
He had no arguments. “I’ll pick you up, because I don’t think your car can make it up the road to our ranch.”
A shiver of excitement slid over her, but as she picked up her coffee in one hand and her bag with the cinnamon bun in the other, she offered a smile, fighting against the feeling another date was a dangerous idea. “Okay, I’ll see you then.”
He was on his feet, turning as she moved. “I can’t wait.”
Hanna pushed past him, the scent of his soap and the sheer presence of him like a touch. She headed onto the street, her boots sliding in the snow coating the sidewalk as she returned to her and Crissy’s apartment. They lived upstairs above the ground floor businesses one street over from Buns and Roses.
As she carefully put her drink and the treat in the fridge then headed off to crawl into bed for a bit, she was a mass of shivers and excitement.
Was it possible for something good to be coming her way?
Brad caught himself whistling as he took the steep road to the sprawling ranch house where he’d grown up. Even after being called out on a fire at a most annoying time, and having to stay until nearly two a.m. to make sure there were no lingering sparks from the old barn that had gotten out of control, Brad was pretty much happy as a clam.
He would’ve been happier had he’d made the date with sweet Hanna Lane, but he was a patient man. He was pretty sure there was no use in pushing to move faster than they were already going.
Brad wasn’t stupid. He could tell she was interested, but she was also either incredibly shy or nervous. So be it.
He was patient, but also determined. Coming back to Heart Falls where he’d grown up had been a deliberate choice. Not only so he could be there for his dad, but because he’d enjoyed living in the small town when he was young.
His training as an EMT and firefighter had taken him away, but now he was back, with a good job and enough money in the bank, thanks to an inheritance from when his mom had passed away. He was ready to settle down and raise a family of his own.
Coming back to a small town was a risky proposition in terms of potential relationships, though. There was no way to know who’d still be around, and who’d already found their special someone, which was why he’d been delighted to discover Hanna Lane had moved into the area.
Oh, he’d seen her a couple of times while visiting his father over the years. She had long brown hair she wore loose around her shoulders and big brown eyes that made him want to stare at her for hours. Soft curves on a petite frame—she was spectacular enough to catch his attention but quiet enough he’d never pushed to officially meet her. Not until last June when he’d moved back to town for good.
Ever since then it’d been two steps forward, three steps back in a dating dance. He was serious, but Hanna didn’t seem to think he was. Hanna didn’t seem to know what she was ready for, and he hadn’t pressed her.
They’d had a half-dozen official dates since October, and he’d kissed her twice. Not even real kisses, because once she’d twisted her head and his cautious attempt had landed on her forehead, and the second time he’d hit her cheek. He’d worried that he’d been pushing too hard, but she’d smiled sweetly, and he’d hoped, and…
No matter that he’d been hard and aching for more, he’d been shockingly content to head home each time, determined to go at her pace.
Brad pulled over the ridge of the hill, and the Lone Pine ranch house appeared, the stately wood siding worn by time yet still sturdy. His father had slowed down over the past years, especially after Brad’s mom, Connie, had died two years ago.
But Patrick Ford had cared for the place best he could until his accident in early June. Since then, he’d slowly been getting rid of the animals and renting out the fields to neighbours.
Between his social security and the bit of income from the ranch, his father was doing fine financially. Brad had willingly taken over repairs and his share of the expenses. Heck, he was willing to pay them all if necessary.
He just wanted his dad to be happy. Patrick was still weak from a tractor accident, and it was a tough time of year as the anniversary of Connie’s death approached.
Patrick losing his life partner of nearly forty years had left him more handicapped in some ways than the damage to his legs from being rolled under the heavy equipment.
Outside the house, his dad’s well-worn Chevy truck was parked close to the door. Next to it sat a shiny new Hyundai that looked very out of place in the rustic surroundings. Brad wondered how on earth the vehicle had made it up the snowy drive.
When he pushed through the back door to raised voices, Brad strode in with his boots on, marching through the foyer to the living room.
“Maybe if you’d ever shown that you gave a damn about me, I’d think differently,” Patrick Ford said, the silver white hair on his head standing upright as if he’d dragged a hand through it. He glared sternly at Brad’s older brother, Mark. “There’s no use in arguing. I’ve made up my mind.”
“What’s going on?” Brad interrupted. “Mark, what are you doing here?”
His brother turned on him, anger in his eyes. He wasn’t as big overall as Brad, built more along the lean, narrow lines he’d inherited from their mother. “It’s my house too. I have every right to be here.”
“You’re welcome to visit, but it’s not your house,” their dad said firmly, leaning back in his easy chair as if there weren’t raised voices echoing off the walls.
“Mark. Dad.” Brad stepped between the two of them, putting his hand on his brother’s chest. Mark was nearly vibrating with anger. “I didn’t mean what are you doing here like you’re not allowed, I just didn’t expect you. What’s going on? And don’t shout, my hearing is fine.”
Mark stepped back, pacing the room, the worn wooden flooring letting out a protest, each footfall echoing with a staccato crunch. “He told me to come. Said he had something to tell us, but what he really meant was he wanted me here so he could spit in my face.”
Brad took a deep breath and fought for strength. His dad and his older brother had a falling out years ago, and while he’d tried to convince them to move on, neither of them would budge an inch. It had only gotten worse after Connie died.
Brad put as much authority into his tone as possible, snapping a finger at the chair in the opposite corner from where his dad sat. “Mark, sit down and we’ll figure this out.”
To his shock, his brother actually cooperated, dropping into the chair then glaring at Patrick.
Brad focused on his father. “Dad? Did you ask Mark to come?”
Patrick nodded. “I didn’t mean to tell him anything until you were here as well. But he makes me so damn angry—”
“I make you angry? You should try living with yourself, old man. You’re the most—”
“Be quiet,” Brad roared, his voice echoing off the walls. “Both of you.”
The two of them quelled, stubborn anger painting their features, but at least now their mouths were shut.
What a mixed-up day. What a change of emotion, to go from daydreaming about sweet Hanna to having to deal with his family’s inflammatory situation. “I don’t have the time or patience to deal with this if all you’re going to do is shout at each other. Mark, stop interrupting and let Dad have his say. But Dad, you can talk without insulting anyone.”
Patrick broke off his staring match with his elder son to meet Brad’s gaze. “I’m just taking care of my estate. Doing the things your mother and I discussed when she was still alive. Damn if I want the tax department to get fifty percent of everything we worked to build.”
“You’re far from being dead,” Brad pointed out, “and to be blunt, when you’re gone, it won’t be your problem. Mark and I will deal with it.”
“The same way he dealt with the money Connie left him? Let it run through his fingers like it was water?”
Mark made a sound as if he was going to speak then locked his jaw together, fists tightening on the arms of the chair.
Patrick looked up at Brad. “Of course I’m dying.”
Brad felt his legs go weak, and he dropped onto the couch. “What? What’s wrong?”
His father had the grace to look guilty. “No. I don’t mean that. Just that we’re all dying. And my accident proved we never know when life might change. Now with my damn legs, and—”
“Jeez, Dad, don’t scare the hell out of us like that.” Brad glanced at his brother in the hopes their father’s moment of vulnerably had broken through his hard shell.
Mark was still glaring. It seemed his brother’s heart truly was a rock.
Patrick cleared his throat then spoke firmly. “It was my choice. I sent a letter to my lawyer to get things set up, so it’s done. I told him I was giving it all to you, Brad. Which means I’m now officially your responsibility, but you I trust. I know you won’t kick me out on my ass or put me in some old-age home and never come and see me.”
“This is my home too. You can’t just give everything to Brad,” Mark snapped. “You’re out of your goddamn mind.”
His father raised a brow, but instead of shouting, he spoke more softly. “And maybe that right there is an answer to why I trust Brad to take care of me, and not you.”
“So just like that, you’ll cut me out of everything?”
“It’s done,” Patrick said.
Brad sighed. “I wish you’d talked to me about this first, Dad. I mean it’s your decision what you do with your money and the house—”
“Of course, you’d say that, since you’re getting everything,” Mark snapped, rising to his feet. He glared between the two of them. “You haven’t heard the last of this. You just can’t up and give everything to him.”
All the shout seemed to have left his father. Patrick stared sadly at his oldest son. “There’s nothing you can do to change my mind about that part. You’ve spent the last five years showing how little you respect me, the ranch, your mother when she was still alive. I don’t trust you right now. So whatever debts you built up that you were hoping for your inheritance to clear up, you’ll just have to grow a pair and get yourself out of trouble on your own. You made your choices, son. Now you have to live with them.”
It was softly spoken, but sharp as a knife.
“So. That’s it?”
“I guess it is.”
Mark stomped from the room, slamming the door behind him. In the quiet that fell, an engine raced before fading into the distance.
Patrick looked pale. Brad went over to kneel by his Dad’s feet, taking his hand and covertly checking his pulse.
His father shook his head. “I’m sorry that turned out so harsh.”
“Me too.” Brad sat back on the coffee table, keeping hold of his dad’s hand. “We’re not done talking. I meant it—it’s your decision to do what you want with the ranch. And you’re right. Mark needs to take responsibility and grow up. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to close the door on him. He’s still your son and my brother. People can change.”
Patrick’s silvery-white head dipped slowly. “I know. It’s hard to see the big picture when I’m running on piss and vinegar. Connie wouldn’t be very happy with me right now.” He sighed heavily. “I should have talked to you first.”
“You should have, but we’ll do what we can to move forward. How about we give Mark a bit of time to cool off, then send him an email,” Brad suggested. “Tell him to come visit. It would be nice to start being a family again someday.”
Patrick stared off into space. “Damn, I miss your mom. She wouldn’t have been able to fix this, but just talking to her always made the burden lighter.”
Brad knew what his dad was talking about better than he’d ever imagined, because in the space of a few months, everything had changed.
The strongest longing inside him was to go find Hanna and pull her against him. To hold her tight as he shared what had just happened. He wanted to let her into his world and let her support him.
It was something to be thought about…
Friday night Crissy crawled onto Hanna’s lap, homework reading book at the ready. “What time do you have to leave for work, Mommy?”
“Soon. Mrs. Nonnie should be here anytime.”
Her little girl snuggled in tight then turned the pages slowly, reading the words with care. Hanna prompted her when necessary, but for the most part she just soaked in the warmth of her precious child.
Every moment of struggle up to this point had been worth it because of Crissy. Every relationship that she’d had to turn her back on, Hanna couldn’t regret any of them because Crissy was here and happy, and thriving as much as she could.
There were sad truths. Crissy didn’t have a grandma and grandpa because when Hanna had found out she was pregnant, the first thing her parents had done after looking at her with horror and shock was to tell her to pack a bag and get out.
Hanna pushed the memory away. Those were nightmare thoughts and not something she wanted in her life. She focused on Crissy, who smiled up at her after sounding out an exceptionally hard word.
“That says beautiful,” Crissy informed her.
“It does. Well done.”
Crissy lifted a hand to touch her cheek. “I think you’re beautiful.”
Hanna’s heart filled. “Thank you. I think you’re beautiful too.”
The phone rang, and Hanna picked it up.
“Hanna, honey. I’m sorry, but there’s no way I can come over.” Something in Mrs. Nonnie’s throat made a horrible sizzling sound, and the woman paused to blow her nose before coming back to finish in a hoarse whisper. “I should have called earlier, but I fell asleep.”
This night was going from bad to worse. “I’m sorry you’re not feeling well. Of course, you should stay home and get better.”
“You take care.”
Even as Hanna hung up, she scolded herself for not realizing this could happen. Mrs. Nonnie had cancelled only a few nights ago, and Hanna had been forced to scramble and drop Crissy off with friends.
While Hanna had booked a different sitter for her and Brad’s cancelled date, getting a teenager at the last minute on a Friday night was out of the question.
She checked the time. It was too late to ask her friends for help.
Crissy took a deep breath. “I’m big enough to stay home by myself,” she said in a soft whisper.
“Oh, darling. No, you’re not. I’m sorry, but you’re going to have to come with Mommy. We’ll bring your sleeping bag, and you can have a camping trip, okay?”
It was going to make everything harder, but what choice did she have? And it wasn’t something that she hadn’t had to do at different times over the years.
Crissy headed off to gather her things.
“Don’t put on pyjamas. Wear your soft sweatpants and blue hoodie,” Hanna reminded her.
Most of her cleaning supplies were already in the car. Hanna grabbed the basket of things she brought in every day to keep them from freezing, then packed a snack and a bottle of water for Crissy. She added a couple of books and a flashlight to turn it into a camping adventure.
It took an extra trip to get from the car into the office, and it took time to set up Crissy in her “tent”, but as Hanna went about cleaning the accounting firm that was her first of four jobs for the night, it was a little like stepping back in time.
After Crissy had been born, Hanna had needed a job. She’d worked for another woman for a year, sharing an apartment with two single moms. They’d arranged their schedules so they could babysit in a rotation.
When that had fallen apart, though, Hanna had come to Heart Falls. She’d started out by bringing in a portable playpen for Crissy to sleep and play in, and when that didn’t work, she had a backpack she wore, the motion of moving back and forth with the vacuum cleaner and the rest of her tasks were enough to put a tired toddler to sleep.
Every job had taken a little longer, but it made it possible for Hanna to bring in enough work to pay the bills.
The fact that Crissy was a beautiful, sweet child made it easier, then, and now. But by the time the third office was done it was after midnight, and Hanna began to feel the extra effort it had taken to get through her tasks.
She carried a sleeping Crissy upstairs back to their apartment and laid her in bed. This she would allow herself to do. The final office that needed to be cleaned was the law firm directly below their home. And with the baby monitor turned on, if Crissy did need her, Hanna could be upstairs in under a minute.
She pressed a kiss to her sleeping daughter’s forehead. “Mommy loves you,” she whispered.
Crissy’s arms came up and tangled around her neck, squeezing tight. “I love you, Mommy. This is my bed,” she said drowsily.
“Yes. Your camping trip is over. Mommy has to go downstairs to finish work, but if you need me, just call out, okay? I’ve got the special telephone with me.”
“Okay.” Crissy was asleep before she finished rolling over.
It was tough work to do the last office. Probably because Hanna’s afternoon nap had been more tossing and turning than sleeping, images of Brad interrupting her far too often.
She needed to figure out what she was doing with the man. It wasn’t fair to keep going out with him if she wasn’t interested in getting serious.
On the other hand, she couldn’t decide if she was interested unless she knew he truly was serious. He seemed to be, and he was persistent, but it was pretty clear she didn’t have a very good handle on when guys were serious and when they were just trying to get something. And by get something, she meant sex.
The back kitchen area of the law office looked as if someone had held a party before an earthquake struck. And when Hanna went to move the coffee maker and it tipped, cold coffee spilling everywhere, it just added to the disaster.
By the time the room was sparkling, she was tired enough she had to sit down. She laid her head on her arms and closed her eyes for a moment.
She probably could’ve gotten away with a little less work, but Mr. Boise had been kind to her right from the start when she’d arrived in Heart Falls. He’d been the first to hire her, and offered a recommendation so she’d gotten into the apartment above his office.
He’d also helped her do up the paperwork necessary to make sure no one could ever take Crissy from her. Not that she expected the sperm donor to show up asking for parental rights, but she wasn’t taking any chances.
She could see Crissy’s clear grey eyes looking at her with trust. Hanna dreamed of taking her somewhere pretty, up on a mountainside, with a swing set and maybe some horses—Crissy loved horses as much as Hanna had at that age.
A loud buzzing filled her ears, and Hanna realized she’d fallen asleep at the table. She looked up in shock to discover the room was filled with smoke, and the buzzer was a fire alarm going off.
Hanna leapt to her feet, racing down the hall toward the front door.
She jerked to a stop in the doorway as heat slammed into her face. The entire front office was filled with flames, and she turned, darting to the back entrance, frantically patting her pockets for her phone as she ran.
She hit 911 even as she put her shoulder to the emergency exit and another alarm rang out.
Hanna raced to the entrance leading to the stairs to the apartments before she discovered her keys were back in the law office. She was in the back alley in nothing but her T-shirt and jeans, her purse and jacket left on the table beside the rest of her things.
“No.” She pounded on the door, desperate for Crissy to hear.
“Nine-one-one, what’s the nature of your emergency?”
“There’s a fire in the law office, and my little girl is upstairs, and I can’t get in. Please, please, somebody help me.”
Brad had been down at the fire hall when the call came in, the initial warning rising from the switchboard linked to the alarm system from the law office. By the time 911 received the second call, he and the first of the volunteer fire department were headed out in the truck.
It didn’t register until he actually saw the building that this was where Hanna lived. Icy fear crawled up his spine, but he moved in well-practiced precision with the other members of his team, sliding into place at the front of the building and hauling out the hoses to deal with the immediate flames.
He shouted orders at his men then took the route around to the back, circling to look for other entrances.
He found Hanna pounding on a closed, locked door, screaming at the top of her lungs.
“Someone get me a blanket,” he shouted back at the lookout at the corner before examining her quickly. He scanned her hands and arms, running a hand over her head. “Are you okay? Were you in the fire?”
“Crissy. Crissy is upstairs,” she said, trying to get past him and back to the door.
His heart fell all the way down to his toes. He gripped Hanna by the shoulders and leaned over to look her in the eye. “I’ll go get her. You stay here.”
Hanna shook her head frantically. “I know where she is.”
“Tell me. Back bedroom or front?” He knew the layout of the place from years ago, but he also knew that in a fire, kids didn’t stay where they started.
Another EMT had showed up, wrapping a blanket around Hanna’s shoulders.
She tried to push it off, tears shining in her eyes but anger there too. “I have to save her,” she shouted.
The crew had the door open, and Brad couldn’t wait any longer.
“See that she stays here,” he ordered the EMT before bending down and grabbing hold of her, looking her square in the eyes. “Hanna, I’m going to get Crissy for you. You have to stay here.”
He squeezed her briefly, and she nodded, expression sharpening as she remembered something. “Her secret code is Santa Claus. She might not come with you willingly without it.”
“Got it.” He carefully forced her back into the protective arms of a volunteer. Then he whirled, pulling down his face mask and motioning for his partner to join him as they entered the smoke-filled stairwell.
The heavy weight of his equipment didn’t exist as he sprinted upward, pivoting on the landing toward Hanna’s apartment. He and Mack checked both doors quickly.
Mack swore as he pulled away from the empty apartment. “She’s got a backdraft building.”
“This one is still cool,” Brad told him. One solid kick at the lock level was enough to send wood splintering.
At some other time he’d have worried about how flimsy the protection guarding Hanna and Crissy was, but right now, he was glad.
“Crissy. It’s Mommy’s friend, Brad. We’re here to help you.” The shout came out garbled by his mask, and Brad cursed softly before lifting it partway, directing Mack toward the front bedroom. “Crissy, we have to get out of the apartment. Hanna said you need to come with us.”
Smoke was pumping up through the baseboards and registers, the sound of sirens and fire alarms carrying over the fainter but growing crackle of flames. All too familiar, all too dangerous.
Brad slipped into what was definitely a little girl’s room, a pretty purple with unicorns and fairytale-creature posters covering the walls. Only the princess palace was rapidly turning into a scene from hell as the fire on the first level took hold of the floor under this part of the building. Walls were buckling with heat, and the surface beneath him creaked ominously.
She wasn’t in bed, under the bed or in the closet, all the usual places for a frightened child to hide. He checked the toy chest, but there wasn’t anywhere else big enough for a kid, not even a slight eight-year-old.
“Other bedroom is empty too,” Mack shouted. “Crissy, your mom is waiting for you downstairs. You gotta come with us now.”
Heat was rising. The bathroom was a dead end, the kitchen small enough it only took ten seconds to open all the cupboards and peer in them.
Brad shouted Crissy’s name again while Mack worked the edge of the living space, running his hand over blankets and curtains, tossing pillows aside. Visibility was fading, the old building giving up as the flames took their toll on wood and insulation, lighting up even as water pounded against the closed windows.
She had to be there.
His gaze fell on the coffee table in the corner. A small artificial Christmas tree rested on top, bare branches like a Charlie Brown tribute.
But the base was covered with a cheery Christmas-coloured cloth that hung all the way to the floor. It would have kept out the worst of the smoke, and been a lot safer than her bedroom.
Was it possible?
A crash sounded from out in the hall. Mack shouted a warning. “Two minutes, tops. Move it, bro.”
Brad dropped to his knees and lifted the edge of the fabric, looking into two big grey eyes and the tear-stained face of a mini-Hanna. “Hey, Crissy. Mommy says Santa Claus wants you to come with me. Okay?”
If he had to, he’d scoop her out of there in under two seconds, but when she immediately crawled forward and threw herself into his arms, he was relieved to avoid adding to what was already a traumatic experience.
He spun. “Got her, Mack. Let’s get out of here.”
His feet were already moving as he pulled a blanket off the couch. “Crissy, I need you to hide under this for a minute, okay? I’m taking you to your mom.”
She clutched him tighter, pressing her face to his chest as he threw the blanket over her head and ducked low, sprinting toward the door where Mack was waiting. His hand caught hold of Brad’s gear and shoved him in the right direction.
The stairs were on fire.
Brad jumped the final five steps, one hand on the railing to guide his forward flight, the other holding Crissy against him. They shot out of the door like they were jet propelled, a horrid crashing sound echoing on his heels.
Mack wrapped an arm around Brad’s shoulders and together they rushed to the safe zone. Behind them the fire protested their escape, an eardrum-rattling shriek echoing as the building gave up.
He glanced back, and the blanket over Crissy’s head shifted as she wiggled upright. Haunted little-girl eyes took in the flames and crashing walls, heat roiling over them.
She turned her gaze upward as he hurried to the ambulance where Hanna was being forcibly restrained to keep her from rushing them. “You’re okay, sweetie,” he assured her. “And Mommy is right here. Let’s be brave for her, okay?”
Crissy pressed her lips tight, but her head dipped the tiniest bit.
“You hug your mama, but then we have to let my friends take a look to be sure the smoke didn’t get inside you. Can you do that?”
Hanna had broken free and was closing the distance between them, the spare jacket someone had given her hanging nearly to her knees.
Brad gave Mack a nod. “Take over. I need a second.”
“No prob.” His second-in-command slapped his shoulder briefly before raising an arm and shouting orders, the volunteer crew rushing to fill him in. They dragged in extra hoses, but at this point Brad doubted they could keep the other buildings on the street from going up as well.
His attention went to Hanna, bending his knees far enough he could open his arm and let her catch hold of Crissy without taking the little girl fully from him.
“Is she okay? Are you okay—?”
“She’s good,” Brad assured her quickly. “She came right away when I told her to, and she’s not hurt.”
“Oh my god, baby. Mommy’s so sorry. I’m so sorry.” Hanna dropped kisses over her daughter’s face, leaning in and pressing their foreheads together. “I love you.”
“Love you, Mommy.” Crissy snuck a hand out and wiped at a tear on Hanna’s cheek. “Santa Claus told me to hide.”
“Hanna, we need to go back to the ambulance,” Brad interrupted. “Come on.”
He curled his arm around her and guided her toward the emergency vehicle, the strangest sensation growing in his belly.
Post-rescue adrenaline always left a buzz, but this was more. Something tangled and powerful. Seeing the sheer relief on Hanna’s face was compounded by the grip her daughter had on his neck. Crissy had wiggled one arm around him and was clinging like a monkey.
When they reached the truck and he tried to lower Crissy to the gurney, she refused to let go.
Hanna had Crissy by one hand, but the other had slipped down to tangle in the loops of his jacket.
Brad closed his fingers over hers. “Hey, kiddo. I told you about this. You need to let the doctors peek at you.”
She tugged again. “Stay.”
“Crissy, Brad has to work still. Mommy will stay with you.”
Crissy’s eyes were fixed on Brad. “Come back?”
“I’ll be back when I can,” he promised. “Be good for your mommy and help the EMT.” He tapped her nose gently with a gloved finger, sliding his gaze over Hanna.
She stood ramrod straight, watching like a mama bear as the EMT moved in to start the examination. Everything she owned was burning to the ground behind them, but she didn’t seem to care. All her attention was on Crissy.
Brad forced himself to step away. There were decisions he needed to make.
Behind him, Hanna’s voice rose, clear and comforting. The voice of an angel, not a woman on the brink of a breakdown. “Everything will be okay, sweetie. Everything will be okay.”
Leaving nearly killed him, but that moment was enough to make one thing very clear. Everything was going to be okay, because he would do whatever it took to be sure that was true for Hanna and Crissy in the future.
Whatever it took.
It was three a.m., and Hanna was dead on her feet. She was bundled up on the edge of a truck bumper, wrapped in so many blankets she felt like a mummy. Crissy had been given a clean bill of health, but it’d taken extra time because they’d had to shift the entire operation halfway down the block.
The entire row of shops was burning, structural walls collapsing.
Hanna had stood helplessly by as a portion of the old red-stone building had given way, crumbling southward with a crashing rush to cover her car with bricks and debris. Everything was gone, including her phone which had become a victim of the evening as well when it slipped from her fingers during the crisis and been crushed underfoot.
In her lap, Crissy slept like the innocent she was, content to be in her mama’s arms. Although, until her eyes had reluctantly closed, she’d been watching closely for any sign that her fireman was coming back.
And now that Crissy was asleep, Hanna found she couldn’t take her eyes off the man.
He seemed to be in more than one place at the same time, moving quickly back and forth, his heavy equipment not slowing him down in the least.
The EMT was back, looking at her with concern. “You warm enough?”
Out of nowhere, Brad appeared, his mask pushed back, soot smearing his face. “What’s going on, Tyler? Why is Hanna still here?”
The man glanced at Hanna before stepping away, and though he spoke quietly, his words carried to her ears. “There’s trouble with space at the emergency shelter. And the local motel is completely filled with that bridge-repair team. She called a friend, so she’s got a place to stay for the night out at Silver Stone, but her ride hasn’t arrived yet.”
Brad nodded, turning back to Hanna. “You hanging in there?”
“I’m doing—” Another crash sounded behind him, and she cringed involuntarily. She straightened her spine, looking him in the eye and admitting honestly, “I’m tired, but happy we’re safe. Thank you again for saving Crissy.”
“She’s a smart little thing. You’re spending the night with the Stone family?”
She had hated to phone so late, but it was the only place she could think of where Crissy would be comfortable to wake up in the morning. “They should be here soon.”
He looked as if he was about to say something else then his name was called, and with a farewell nod he backed away. “Tell Crissy I’ll come see her soon.”
“Hanna.” A shout echoed from the other direction as Caleb Stone marched forward. The familiar face of her friend’s husband gave her something new to focus on instead of Brad marching back into the danger zone.
Although, she had to admit she was still watching.
“Let me take Crissy,” Caleb said, his voice a low rumble. “We’ll get you home and warmed up.”
They were both quiet on the drive. At the house a sleepy and green-looking Tamara, moving slowly, offered Hanna a set of pyjamas and a towel. “There’s a guest bed in the playroom downstairs. You can keep Crissy with you, or if you want to put her in bed with Emma, that’s fine too.”
“We’re all smoky—”
“If you want to shower, take one, but don’t worry about it if you don’t want to wake her. Everything is washable.”
In the end, Caleb carried Crissy downstairs and laid her on the hide-a-bed. Hanna looked down at her sleeping child for a long time before stepping into the shower and letting the hot water pour over her.
It seemed as if she was never going to get warm.
Morning came far too early, and Hanna opened her eyes to discover she was being watched by a curly-haired blonde with big blue eyes who was perched on the edge of the couch armrest. Emma Stone, one of Crissy’s best friends.
“Good morning,” Hanna said quietly.
Emma glanced at Crissy, who was wiggling slightly as she cuddled against Hanna’s side. “You came for a sleepover?”
Hanna guessed that was one way to put it. “Sort of?”
Crissy was sitting up now, looking at her friend seriously. “Everything got burnt up, but Santa told me what to do.”
“Santa talked to you?” Emma crawled onto the bed unself-consciously, sitting down opposite Crissy as if she had nothing else in the world to do but discuss this in greater detail.
Hanna slipped from the bed while the girls continued to talk, looking at her smoke-scented clothing with dismay.
The second little girl of the household, Sasha, appeared at the top of the stairs. She had a robe in her hands as she marched down and looked Hanna over with far more authority than any ten-year-old should. “Mommy says you can wear this and come upstairs.”
Only it wasn’t Tamara who greeted her in the kitchen but her sister Lisa. Hanna had only met the dark-haired woman a few times in passing.
“How are you doing this morning?” Lisa asked.
She lifted a pot of coffee, and Hanna nodded, tugging the front of the robe around herself a little tighter. “I’m alive.”
Lisa put down the coffee and came around the island. She held out her arms out wide. “I know I’m not Tamara, but if you need one, she taught me everything I know about hugs.”
A shaky laugh escaped as Hanna stepped forward and allowed herself to be enfolded in a tight, giving squeeze. “Thanks.”
The other woman gave her an extra pat on the back before releasing her and heading back to the stove. “I put a call out to get you some clothes. Tamara and I would offer you ours, but you’d swim in them. Kelli James who works here is more your size. She said she’d bring over some stuff to tide you over. And between Sasha and Emma, we’ll find things for Crissy.”
Hanna focused down on her coffee mug, the tightness in her throat growing. She took a deep breath then lifted her eyes with a nod. “I really appreciate it.”
“No problem.” Lisa got busy at the stove. “Tamara will be up in a little while. This pregnancy is knocking her for a loop, so she tries to avoid moving until after we finish with food and drink.”
Lisa ordered Hanna to take her cup and sit by the fire, and Hanna didn’t have the strength to argue. She ignored the chairs and settled on the ground in front of the flames, considering how big of a difference it was to have this warmth and comfort compared to the all-encompassing terror of the previous night.
One thing was for sure; she couldn’t take advantage of her friends by staying out at Silver Stone for too long.
That decision was made even clearer when Tamara made her way into the room an hour or so later, ghastly white as she moved gingerly to a chair and nibbled on crackers.
“Sorry for not being more help,” Tamara apologized. “I will never make fun of anyone with morning sickness ever again.”
“I had it pretty bad for the first three months with Crissy,” Hanna shared.
“I’m in my second trimester, and if anything, it’s gotten worse.” Tamara gave her a sheepish smile. “But hey, building babies takes work.”
“It’s worth it,” Hanna agreed.
Since it was Saturday and they had nowhere they needed to take the girls, it had turned into a kind of a sleepover. Crissy settled in with Sasha and Emma and found a couple of outfits to borrow. The offered loaners came in for Hanna, and she had another shower before pulling on well-worn jeans that fit, but didn’t.
It was just after lunch when Tamara pulled herself to vertical and offered Hanna a ride into town to see her apartment. “I’m feeling good enough to go with you. You can leave Crissy here.”
“I’ve got the girls,” Lisa promised.
Which was a good thing, because the scene wasn’t anything Hanna wanted her daughter exposed to that soon.
The flames had been replaced by a smoldering pile of blackened debris and support pillars. Icicles dripped from the rubble like twisted modern art. Even the beauty of frost and ice couldn’t make the destruction into something less horrifying than the reality.
There was nothing left.
Tamara wrapped an arm around her. “I’m sorry.”
“Me too.” Hanna looked down at the ground. At the running shoes that were her only pair of footwear. Borrowed pants, a borrowed coat. She really did have nothing to her name.
But she had Crissy, and she was more than enough.
She lifted her chin determinedly. She’d started with nothing, and while it hurt to think about how much work it would be to do it again, she could do this.
She turned to Tamara and attempted a smile. “Thank you for taking us in last night.”
“You’re welcome to stay as long as you need to,” Tamara offered. “We’ll just have to juggle things a bit.”
Hanna nodded. “Can you take me by the fire hall? The EMT last night said I should stop in because emergency services would have information for me.”
They returned to the truck but Tamara paused, leaning her head against the window. “Sorry. I think you need to drive.”
It was a bit of a stretch, but after adjusting the seat and sitting up as straight as possible, Hanna could both reach the pedals and see out the front window. She drove slowly to the fire hall, trying to avoid the bumps in the road as Tamara gritted her teeth and attempted to put on a happy face.
“Stay here,” Hanna offered. “I won’t be long.”
She hurried into the office of the fire hall.
Brad had made it into work an hour earlier after checking the fire site. They’d hung markers around the territory to keep snoopy parties out, but there wasn’t much left to poke through.
He wished he’d grabbed more from the apartment when he’d had a chance, but that was wasted regret. Crissy was alive, and so was Hanna. That’s all that mattered.
He was picturing Hanna’s face when the door opened and suddenly she was there, looking a little lost and confused, neither of which he blamed her for.
Her head swiveled his direction, wide brown eyes that he’d been dreaming about far too often focusing on him with intent. A strange sort of smile twisted her lips, and she met him in the middle of the room and, without any hesitation, wrapped her arms around him and squeezed.
He didn’t quite know what to do with his hands. What he wanted to do was hug her back just as tightly, but instead he patted her gently, making sure she could get away when she wanted to. “How are you this morning? How’s Crissy?”
Hanna slipped back as if surprised by her boldness, cheeks flushed. “I don’t think it’s registered yet. She’s having a sleepover, and that’s the most important thing in her world.”
Brad nodded. “I hope that’s how it continues, but if she needs some help, or if you do, we’ve got contact numbers for people who are good to talk to after a loss.”
She seemed distracted. “The EMT said there were emergency services I could access. I have tenant insurance, but I don’t know how long it’ll take to get some money. And I need somewhere to stay.”
He headed toward the drawer where the information was kept even as he asked, “I thought you went to Silver Stone?”
Hanna met his gaze, and that steely determination he’d seen before was back. “They’re good friends, and they’ve offered to help us, but I can’t stay there for more than a couple of nights.”
He pushed the sheet forward, wondering what the problem was.
Something must’ve shown on his face because Hanna shook her head. “They want me to stay, but Tamara’s pregnant, and she’s got morning sickness twenty-four hours a day. I can’t add two extra house guests to that stress.”
He glanced at the page under his fingers which offered information about the women’s shelter. The nearest one was in Black Diamond, a forty-five-minute drive away. He thought through what he knew of Hanna’s friends, and he was sure there was someone local who could offer a temporary place.
Which was why it was to their mutual shock when the next words that came out of his mouth, unplanned but totally perfect, were, “You’re welcome to stay with me.”
Her eyes widened to the size of dinner plates.
He hurried on to correct himself and explain. “I mean, with my father and I. The house at Lone Pine ranch has a half-dozen rooms, and there’s just the two of us. There’s no reason why you can’t use a couple of them, and to be honest”—he thought quickly, trying to find an excuse that would tempt her—“it would be a really big help.”
Hanna’s mouth opened and closed, but no words came out.
Which was fine, because it seemed as if Brad suddenly had more than enough words for them both. “My dad’s been out of sorts lately, and it would be good to have some company around during the holidays. My mom died two years ago on Christmas Day, and he misses her. Having you and Crissy around would be good for him. Heck, Patrick would probably love to babysit while you work.”
Rambling. He was totally rambling. But again, he didn’t care as long as he figured out some way to put a smile back on her face. The reality was she’d lost everything, and it didn’t make sense for her to be smiling, but it was killing him to see her like this.
The phone rang and Brad had to answer it, which meant if Hanna was going to bolt for the door this would be the perfect time.
Only when he finished answering the question about Christmas bonfire permits and returned to the desk, she was still there. She’d picked up the paper he’d left for her with emergency contact information, her nose wrinkling in an adorable manner.
“Women’s shelter. That’s for women who’ve been abused.” She shook her head. “We can’t stay there. We can’t take room from someone whose life might depend on it.”
“It’s for anyone who needs it,” he pointed out reluctantly.
She was frowning now, determination coming back into play. “Your father volunteers at Crissy’s school.”
Brad nodded. It was one of the things Patrick had begun to do over the past five years as he slowed down work on the ranch. “He said it’s a lot more comfortable working in a warm schoolroom than a cold barn.”
Hanna stared into his face. “I know him. I’ve met him a number of times when I’ve helped in the classroom. Do you really think he wouldn’t mind acting as a babysitter for Crissy when I have to work in the evening?”
Holy cow, she was actually considering his offer. “We should ask him.”
“Because I don’t want to have to take Crissy into town with me, and I don’t think that Mrs. Nonnie will drive out to the country.” Her steady gaze fluttered away, her cheeks turning brighter red. “But if we do this, just because we’re in the same house… If I take your offer, that doesn’t mean—” She swallowed hard. “I’m not going to— I mean, I know we were kind of trying to date, but—”
“Oh, no. This isn’t— I mean—” Damn, he was just about as tongue-tied as she was. He cleared his throat then waited until her gaze rose to meet his. “We are dating, but I promise nothing will happen beyond what lines you draw. That means if you move in and we don’t do anything more than share a table sometimes, or watch a show with Crissy and my dad, then that’s all that happens while you’re under my roof.”
Although he wanted more, this was not the time and definitely not the place. But everything in him screamed to offer this bit of protection and comfort, especially heading into the holiday season.
Her head tilted slightly, and Hanna examined him as if she were checking Santa’s naughty-and-nice list to see where his name had landed.
After a pause that seemed to last for an eternity, Hanna spoke. “You have to let me help with the cooking.”
“All you want,” he said with a soft tease. “Especially if your cooking produces some Christmas goodies. I’ll buy the ingredients if you provide the manpower.”
A flash of her sweet smile returned. “Sweet tooth?”
He nodded. “I can’t seem to get enough of sweet things.”
He was staring at her a little too hard when he said it, and her cheeks flushed, but she didn’t run away.
“We should ask your dad first, about the babysitting.”
If he had to pay his dad to make sure he agreed, Hanna and Crissy were going to become their houseguests, come hell or high water. “I’ll give him a call then let you know.”
She smiled wryly. “Can you do that right now? Because I don’t have a working cell phone at the moment. I can wait.”
He punched in his dad’s number and quickly explained the situation. Patrick, of course, said it wasn’t going to be a problem, and suggested Hanna and Crissy should join them for supper.
The relief on her face was clear when Brad shared the news. “That’ll give me time to get our things together.”
She wrinkled her nose and grimaced, probably realizing it was going to take her all of five minutes to do that.
He worked on offering a steady, reassuring pat on the shoulder. “Then we’ll see you this evening. If you can get Caleb Stone to drop you off after five, I’ll be there and can show you around.”
She left, the snowflakes that swirled in the door after her melting the instant they hit the ground. Brad stared out the window as she climbed up into an oversized pickup and carefully drove away.
It was nine days until Christmas, and Hanna Lane was moving in with him.