Chloe’s 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. Toast?!
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.
“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 alone. 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 town—the 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 him—needed 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 man—with a heart-stoppingly handsome face. “Get some sleep. Tomorrow will be better.”
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