Page Title: Chapter ?
Live Date: 111815
Story: Thankful for You
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Publish Date: 111815
Story Title: Thankful for You
Byline: Karen Rock
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Count down to Thanksgiving with one of our 13 poignant Harlequin Heartwarming stories. This is a time to get together with family and friends, and reconnect over pumpkin pie and hot apple cider…or read about our heroes and heroines whose dreams come true over the holidays!
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Copyright © 2015 by Karen Rock
She never met a man in uniform she didn't like…except one.
Two years ago, hotshot firefighter Eric Langley swept restaurant owner Maggie James off her feet. And promptly broke her heart when he told her he never wanted to have children. She's done her best to move on. But when circumstances force them together again, Maggie can't help thinking about what might have been…
Nothing frightens Eric Langley except spending time with the one woman he's never been able to forget. Still, working with her to create a Thanksgiving banquet for foster kids is more rewarding than he imagined. He's fought thousand-acre fires, battled deadly smoke and flames, yet his greatest challenge will be resisting Maggie and the white-picket-fence life she'd offered him once upon a time.
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Page Title: Chapter One
Live Date: 111815
Eric Langley shoved through the dense smoke of a disintegrating foster home, his breath harsh inside his helmet. Two children still missing.
Where were they?
A flaming section of ceiling crashed to his left and he ducked, his pulse throbbing in his neck. He ignored his screeching headset and the blistering, acrid air.
Dean, a newbie in Eric's fire company, jerked his thumb over his shoulder. "Back out! Back out!"
"No. We'll find them!" Eric hollered.
"Chaos. Chief's pulling the hook!" Dean nodded at the retreating pipe men who hauled back the line.
"I'm making the grab."
Eric ignored Dean's shout and sprinted upstairs. The metal banister twisted beneath his gloved hand. Taking the steps two at a time, he felt his air tank thudding against his back, solid and reassuring. How much did he have left?
As if on cue, his SCBA shrieked. Eric swore. Twenty percent oxygen and his world engulfed in smoke and flames. He silenced the pinging alarm and leapt off the crumbling staircase onto the second floor.
No going back now.
Grey ash swirled and visibility lurked near zero. A door bulged to his right. Electricity jittered through him. Just as he dove past, it exploded into the hall, an incinerating fireball.
He shoved to his feet, running. "Taylor! Hannah!" he hollered above the fire's roar, using the names a hysterical staff member had shared. He squinted down the hallway. Marked doorways swam into focus. What had they missed?
Then Eric spotted it.
A half door just above the baseboard, nearly obscured by the large sideboard rising above it.
A crawl space? Could a kid fit in there?
A desperate one?
Adrenalin surged. Scraping his ax against the wall to keep his bearings, he stumbled to a halt beside the set of drawers. His brain listed inside his skull, spots appeared on the edge of his vision. Grabbing the spindle legs, he squatted and peered at the small door.
"Hannah! Taylor!" he shouted.
"Here," was followed by a faint gasp.
"I'm Lieutenant Langley. I'm going to save you."
Crying erupted and he swallowed, his throat burning as though someone had poured acid down it.
Wrenching open the door, he groped through the dark and touched a small hand. A pair of green eyes blinked up at him. A girl. Ten or so. "Don't be scared, Hannah."
"I'm not scared," she said, nodding over her shoulder. "Taylor's the one who's crying."
Eric bowed his head. Relieved. "You're together. Good. Now listen. When I pull you out, cover your nose with your shirt and stay close until I grab Taylor, too."
"I won't leave him," came her furious voice. "Why do you think I'm still here?"
Beams whined overhead and plunged. One careened into the opposite wall in a shower of sparks. Eric doggedly kept his focus. They would make it out. Alive.
When he reached for Hannah's hands, she jerked back. "No! Get Taylor first."
A small boy appeared, his eyes wide with fright.
At his name, the boy nodded and his mouth trembled. Tears streaked his grimy cheeks.
"Give me your hands, bud."
Eric gently freed the pre-school aged child. Hannah joined them, coughing.
Eric considered his options. Any of the rooms had windows, but what condition were they in? They might enter and never come out.
As for the staircase, there wasn't a chance it still stood.
Come on, think.
"Is there another way out of here?" His voice sounded as strangled as he felt.
"The back stairs to the kitchen." Hannah pointed to a distant, empty doorway. It looked dark and full of smoke…but no flames.
They had a chance. One he couldn't afford to waste.
"Hannah. Hold on to my jacket." He swung Taylor into his arms. "Don't let go, bud. And breathe through your shirt."
In a flash, they sped down the stairs and burst out into the night.
EMTs grabbed the kids and Eric crashed to his knees and ripped off his helmet. He pressed his burning cheek to the light snow that'd fallen this morning.
"Lieutenant? Can you hear me?"
Eric looked up at another medic and the last of his breath caught in his throat; he couldn't speak. After some water and oxygen, he refused a ride to the hospital and joined the chief.
"What's your problem, Langley?" his boss growled.
Eric straightened his spine. "Saving lives, sir. Guess it's become a habit."
Chief Redmond blew out a breath and his irritated expression eased. "Runs in the family, too. Your father would be proud."
Eric's last memory of his confident father roared to life. That final wave goodbye across a little league field when he'd been called to an "all hands" fire. Eric's team won the game, but he'd lost his dad that day. It was an unhealed wound that still burned, driving Eric and his brothers, Arizona Hotshot firefighters Ethan and Evan, to take risks. Continue the distinguished, generations-old Langley firefighter legacy.
Eric ducked his head. "Thank you, sir."
The chief's bushy eyebrows knitted together beneath his hat brim. "But I'm temporarily suspending you for ignoring a direct order."
His boss swatted his protest aside. "We both know you're lucky that's all I'm doing. Plus, I've got another job for you."
Eric couldn't help being suspicious. Chief Redmond loved thinking up unorthodox ways to torture his underlings.
"All ears, sir." Despite the heat blazing off the collapsing building, Eric gritted chattering teeth. The late November Adirondack air had a bone deep bite.
"Thanksgiving's in three days and I want the fire department to host a meal for the kids."
Eric nodded. "Sounds good."
"And I'm putting you in charge. Reach out to local restaurant owners. Get whatever help you need. Make this the best holiday these kids ever had."
They certainly deserved it.
Eric's thoughts flashed to the one person who could help put on such a large event, the same woman he'd avoided these past six months. The woman he couldn't forget.
Should he call her?
He looked at the chief's firm expression.
Orders were orders, even the kind that actually terrified him.
"What a shame."
"Those poor kids."
"And it's Thanksgiving."
Maggie James listened to her customers as she bustled around the packed diner she co-owned with her best friend, Vivie Harris. The Homestead buzzed with news of yesterday's heartrending fire and planned charity drives.
On the tip of everyone's tongue: Eric Langley; hero.
At her disgusted exclamation, a road crew stopped jabbering about Eric and shot her speculative looks. Her cheeks warmed. She refilled their water glasses and strode away, head high, imagining the conversation erupting behind her back.
"Didn't she and Eric used to…"
"Haven't seen 'em together in months."
Yep. She hadn't seen her ex in six months, actually, and wished she didn't have to hear his name either…over and over… She shoved a curl under her bandana and tightened the knot at the nape of her neck. Maybe her lipstick could use freshening.
Life always looked brighter after a touch-up.
And she needed a break. Her thoughts spun so hard they made her dizzy.
How could a guy who risked his life saving kids never want his own? It'd been the sticking point that'd halted their two-year relationship and ended her only real love.
"I'm going in the back office for a sec, Vivie."
The bell above the front door jingled.
"Holy…" Rowdy, their short-order cook, muttered. He leaned on the through ledge and stared over Maggie's shoulder.
The noisy customers muted themselves and Maggie stiffened. When she met Vivie's wide eyes, she read everything in her best friend's horrified expression.
Had to be.
Maggie felt the eyes of the entire restaurant boring into her back.
She inhaled sharply and lifted her chin. What would her idol, Katharine Hepburn, do? What would she say? Something witty. Sarcastic. Flippant.
None of which Maggie felt at the moment.
She shoved her shoulders back and pasted on a carefree smile before turning. No way would Eric see the girl who still cried during black-and-white romance movies, imagining what might have been.
And there he stood. Nearly as tall as her doorway. Wide shoulders filling out a tan Carhartt jacket. Faded jeans low on slim hips, hands shoved in his pockets. He rocked back and forth in his work boots. A muscle jumped in his square jaw.
A couple of state troopers crowded over and slapped him on the back. Pumped his hand. Despite all the congratulations, Eric's eyes never left hers. And she couldn't stop looking at him, either. At his kind brown eyes, at the shape of him, familiar to her very bones. She'd forgotten the utter joy just looking at him used to bring her.
And now he'd come back. Why?
"Excuse me," she heard him murmur. Then, in a few long strides, he reached her.
"Hi, Maggie." His dark eyebrows angled up. "Can we go somewhere? Talk?"
Maggie's insides turned briefly to water. When she opened her mouth, nothing came out. What did they have to speak about? Could she even speak? Apparently not, so she nodded instead, trying to look unconcerned. Unruffled. Just like the gutsy glamour gals she'd grown up watching with her grandmother. Cool as a cucumber.
She'd hidden her misery when they'd agreed to split and wouldn't let Eric see it now. Or her patrons. A low muttering circled the room. Rowdy growled somewhere over her shoulder.
Eric stared at her. "Where?" he prompted. Gently. The way you'd speak to a spooked horse. Was she the spooked horse?!
"Here's fine." She lifted a desert slicer. "Would you like some pie? We're running a special on Humble—"
He caught her elbow and angled his body, shielding them from their avid audience. "Alone."
"I've heard more tempting offers." She jerked her arm free. "Why just the other day, the IRS—"
"Enough, Maggie," Eric growled. "It's important."
"Fine." She flicked her hair over her shoulder, hoping it bounced the way plucky heroines managed. Not the kinds with broken hearts like her. "Follow me. Though, FYI, I'm not at my friendliest in the morning."
"Tell me about it. And it's twelve-thirty," he grumbled, his arm brushing hers as they strode behind the register to the back hall.
She snuck a glance at his strong profile and something electric jolted through her. "I make exceptions for people I don't like."
"Lucky me," he drawled and the left side of his mouth lifted.
He gestured for her to precede him at the office door. As she swept by, she breathed in the tangy, citrus aftershave she'd always loved. His clean male scent made her a little giddy.
She needed a clear head to deal with Eric.
Once she was seated behind her desk, her throat loosened, as did her lips.
"Why are you here, Eric?"
He leaned against the wall, arms crossed over his chest. "I have a proposition."
She twisted sweaty hands in her lap. What could he say that she'd ever, in a million years, agree to?
"You should have read the sign at the door. No solicitors."
She shoved to her feet and clutched the edge of her desk. "Don't 'Mags' me," she said, fighting to keep her voice steady. Composed. Not crazy. Not still crazy in love with him for goodness sakes. "We agreed you wouldn't come here again. Am I dreaming? You look so real." She pinched herself.
He frowned. "Still here. And I wouldn't be, except this is important." His nostrils flared above full lips. For a moment she imagined them on hers. Tracing her jaw. Nibbling her ears… The way he laughed against her throat. Made her tremble.
Stop staring, she warned herself, ignoring the spike of warmth in her gut. "You have ten seconds."
His brown eyes delved into hers and her traitorous heart flipped the way it always had. She should have given him five seconds.
"The fire department is hosting Thanksgiving for the foster kids. I'm in charge and need local help."
"So I'm the 'local help'?"
The tips of his ears, visible below the clipped edge of his thick brown hair, reddened. "You know you're more than that," he said, voice deepening. His eyes rested on hers just a moment too long.
Maggie coughed, realizing she had stopped breathing.
"Don't—" She gestured between them, her pulse speeding. "Do that. Us."
His lips firmed and he nodded briskly. "Right. And my ten seconds are up. So, will you help? Please?"
She stared into his handsome face and her rejection withered on her lips.
"Yes," she said at last, heavily.
It was for the children, and she'd planned to help with Thanksgiving anyway.
Just not beside the man who'd stomped her flat.
"Thank you." He pulled on a baseball hat. "So where do we start?"
He grimaced. "Torture. Pick you up at nine?"
"Do I have a choice?"
"I think you already made it." He shot her a cocky grin, tipped his cap and disappeared through the door.
After he left, she stared at the vacant doorway, her heart swooping low in her chest.
She'd spent months learning to forget Eric. Slogged through weeks, convincing herself she didn't need him. And now, all her hard work, undone in five minutes.
How would she get through the holiday with him by her side?
She dropped her aching head in her hands.
Katharine Hepburn's words about life being hard echoed in Cassie's ear. As her idol quipped, eventually, it kills you.
True enough. And working with Eric might finish off the last of her tattered heart.
Eric pushed an overflowing cart down one of the discount supercenter's aisles. He and Maggie had been at this for an hour and a half. Could he call time? Who spent this long shopping without going insane? And how were pumpkin pack and pumpkin pie pack different?! He tugged at his thermal shirt's collar. Ignored the insistent voice telling him to run.
He'd promised the chief he'd put on a great holiday for the kids.
And Maggie… Since seeing her yesterday, she'd occupied his thoughts. He needed to avoid her but couldn't resist this time together. Although he'd shut away his pain when they'd broken up, his old feelings rushed back after one glimpse of her beautiful face.
"Lightning sale on holiday tablecloths. Aisle ten," crackled the overhead speaker.
Maggie jolted to a stop. "Let's go!" Her face glowed under the dim fluorescent light as she wheeled around and gestured. Wispy curls sprang around her face. The rest of her deep auburn hair swung from a ponytail. She tugged the weighty cart's end and he lunged for a wobbling, toaster-size carton of bread cubes.
"Where's the fire?"
She shot him a sidelong glance as they pivoted the screeching cart. "Maybe you should find one. I don't need help."
He dragged his gaze off her cherry-red mouth. Her mobile face fascinated him as did that sharp, clever mind and the sassy comebacks that kept him on his toes.
"Maggie. I know neither of us wants to work together." He shifted his eyes from her penetrating stare, sure she'd see right through his lie. "But let's call a truce."
He watched some brief, internal struggle before she blew out a long breath. "It is the holidays." The animosity lurking in the corners of her eyes retreated.
"And a good cause," he said.
"For the children."
"And you need me."
"Hah!" Her right eyebrow arched. "Now you're pushing it."
He forced a nonchalant shrug. Searched for a lighter tone. "Who's going to make sure you grab the unsalted butter instead of the salted?" Her mouth pursed. "Remind you to get both heavy cream and whipped cream? Oh, and half-n-half. And…" He paused, enjoying the sparks shooting from her eyes. "Explain why onion salt is completely different than buying salt and onion powder, separately. Big catastrophes." He gestured wide. "Huge."
The corners of her lips hooked up, though her pinched expression stayed put. "You might have a future in personal shopping."
"I hope not," he said and sighed, enjoying their banter too much for comfort.
Her polka-dot skirt swung around long legs as she trotted ahead, leaving a dewy fresh smell in her wake.
Did he still love her?
He stifled the answer that came in a rush. Better not to know. After watching his vibrant mother retreat from life following his father's death, he'd vowed never to inflict that pain on anyone, especially Maggie. When she'd begun talking kids, marriage, it'd nearly killed him to break things off. But how could he take the risks his job required, if he worried about a family counting on his safety?
They stopped in front of a display of paper tablecloths.
Their hands brushed when they reached for the same one and his fingers burned at the contact. She was so soft. Skin like silk and cream. The need to hold her again whipped through him. Hit the pedal on his racing pulse. Suddenly his arms felt empty and he grabbed another cloth.
"This one!" they announced at the same time.
"Turkeys don't dance," he observed, nodding at her pick.
She huffed and scrunched her nose adorably. "Hello? Yours has Santas wearing pilgrim hats."
He stared at the plastic package crinkling in his hand and laughed. "What were they thinking when they made this?"
Her expression relaxed and she chuckled, the sound setting off familiar fireworks in his chest. "It's more like what were they drinking? These are all terrible."
"There's something to be said for the understated option." He gestured to the plain white coverings farther down the aisle.
Maggie twisted her rose pendant then snapped her fingers. When she turned, her grin stole his breath. "Let's have the foster kids decorate them. It'll take their minds off everything."
He nodded slowly. Though what would keep him from thinking of Maggie?
Ice water overflowed a bucket as Maggie dropped the last bird in its brining solution and covered it. "Not enough?"
Eric shot her a surprised look from the other side of the screened-in porch behind The Homestead. Outside, a light frost still covered the ground, glittering amongst shifting piles of brown leaves.
"Too much. How many people are we talking? Fifty?" White puffs of air emerged with each word.
She shoved frozen fingers into her wool coat pockets. "Plus the fire department."
"They're the waiters."
The early afternoon sun emerged from heavy cloud cover and shone on the last blazing maple to hold its leaves. In the distance, geese honked.
"Right. None of those big guys will be hungry after hours of work." She slapped her forehead with the heel of her palm. "What was I thinking?"
At Eric's deep chuckle, her heart thumped erratically. Stop it, she warned herself for the millionth time today…and yesterday.
Dimples dented his cheeks and his brown eyes twinkled, warm as chocolate. "We'll make them eat the leftover Jell-O salad," he said.
"Your favorite was lime, right?"
When he stepped close, her breath caught in her throat. His gaze dropped to her mouth. Lingered. "I was always partial to cherry."
She licked her lips, nervous at his proximity. Excited, too. If she stood on tiptoe, and he lifted her a bit like he used to, she could kiss him.
And did she want to kiss him.
When he traced the side of her face, she shivered, awareness fox-trotting up her spine.
"You haven't changed, Maggie."
"You say that like it's a good thing." Despite herself, her answer came out breathy. Shaky. Another inch closer and she'd be in his strong arms again.
"Isn't it?" He dropped his hand and stared at her with that confident, trust-me expression that reassured those he rescued but set off every one of her alarm bells.
"Wasn't it six months ago that you decided I wasn't wife material? Not suited to be the mother of your children?"
He tilted his head toward her, his voice low. "I don't want children."
"Or a wife." In the hush, she could hear her heart thumping.
"That doesn't mean I didn't want you."
Her skin burned where his gaze landed on it. "I'm a package deal. Wife. Mother. That's me. Or will be. Someday." She'd grown up vowing to have the traditional, nuclear family her loving parents provided.
Eric's eyebrows crashed together and faint lines appeared around his mouth. "With whom? Are you seeing someone?"
"Maybe…" When she pivoted, he gripped her upper arm.
"Is it serious?" he asked, his words rapid fire.
"Why do you care?" She stared at his hand until he let go, wishing she hadn't lied in the first place.
A strangled sound escaped him. "It shouldn't."
"But…" she prompted, knowing she was playing with fire but unable to stop.
A cloud passed over his face and a small tic began in his jaw. He stared at a distant spot over her shoulder. "Forget it."
"Right. And I'm not seeing anyone." She forced a nonchalant tone. What would Hepburn do?
Put on an awesome hat for starters…
She yanked on the rainbow-colored wool hat that'd been her disastrous first knitting project. The epitome of sophistication to be sure… At least it partially covered her burning cheeks.
When her fingers bumbled on the strings, he brushed them aside and tied a knot below her chin, his touch lingering.
"What are we doing, Eric?"
"Planning a Thanksgiving dinner," he murmured, his voice growing rough. She could feel his gaze run over her cheekbones, her neck, her mouth. He tipped her chin up and it felt as though his eyes reached right through hers, down deep to her heart.
"We should get back to it," she whispered, her voice unsteady.
"Yes." He lowered his lips to a breath above hers. She felt electrified, as if each part of her were fizzing, transparent. "Yes, we should."
She barely heard him. Her thoughts blurred, her senses narrowing to his proximity, the heat that seemed to radiate from him. She drew his face closer and the world evaporated around them.
She felt the rasp of his bristles under her palms, the warmth of his breath on her skin. His eyes studied her own, so seriously, a question in them. It felt as if he had only just seen her again and the past couple of days, circling each other like strangers, evaporated.
When she leaned forward, just a few inches, her lungs stilled, and she placed her lips on his. His hands came to rest on her waist and tightened reflexively. Then their mouths met, and she inhaled his breath, its traces of cinnamon and maple from breakfast.
Her eyes closed, her body sparked and shuddered. He dragged off her hat and his hands tangled in her hair, his mouth dropping to linger where her neck met her shoulder. Her lungs burned, unable to get enough oxygen. Customers out in the front parking lot burst into noisy laughter, and as leaves flew in the autumn breeze, something in her altered forever. Or changed back…
"I could kiss you every day of my life," he murmured into her skin. "Hold you."
"So why don't you?"
He stroked her back. "I would if you let me."
"I would if you saw a real future together."
His tender expression faded and his hands stilled. "Why does that have to include a ring? Children?"
Anger rose. Regret fast on its heels. Why had she kissed him? When she spoke, her voice was thick, tremulous. "Because that's what people do when they're really in love."
"Not all people."
She tore herself away and leaned against the back wall. "Well, this one does."
He averted his eyes and clenched his jaw. It made her want to run to him. Tell him she could compromise…but she couldn't.
"That's it, then," he said, his voice low but firm.
"Right." She yanked on her hat, pulling the brim low. "Now we've got that out of our system, we can focus on the dinner. We'll just chalk it up to being caught up in the moment."
He nodded slowly, tossed the salt containers in the trash and turned. "Soaking turkeys will do that to you every time."
Despite herself, her mouth quirked. "Their rubbery flesh."
"It's a real turn-on."
His faint smile jacked up her heart rate. "How could we help ourselves?"
"Exactly. So, I'll see you later, at the tablecloth painting?"
He nodded. "I'm heading over to pick up the kids now. And don't come near me with the giblets." He winked then turned, speaking over his shoulder. "I won't be responsible for what happens."
She laughed to herself and stared at the porch door long after it'd closed behind him.
How could she act responsibly around him? Exes didn't kiss. Or shouldn't. She knew better.
Yet Katharine Hepburn once said that you couldn't have fun without breaking the rules.
And it'd been a long time since she'd felt happy like this. Did she dare indulge in a no-strings flirtation with Eric while they worked together?
Everyone deserved a little love during the holidays, didn't they? Just not the heartbreak sure to follow…
"That's a nice, ah, pumpkin, Taylor." Eric peered over the boy's shoulder at the white tablecloth stretched over the diner's counter. Newspapers shifted underfoot, catching the drips as foster kids jostled each other and painted the tablecloths.
He couldn't get over how unfazed they seemed. Despite suffering a huge loss, they argued and joked, concentrated and acted out as if their world hadn't just burned to the ground.
Kids were much more resilient than he gave them credit for. When his mom had checked out, he and his brothers had each other. But these children held it together without any parents or siblings… Maybe he needed to adjust his thinking about their coping abilities.
"It's a fire engine," Hannah snapped. "Sheesh." In her plaid shirt and loose jeans, she looked as tough as she acted.
"Right. I see it now."
Hannah snorted. "No, you don't."
"Yes, I do."
She balled her hands into fists and propped them on her hips. "Then where's the ladder?"
"Umm…" Was it that brown, blobby bit?
"Psst." Taylor cupped his hand to hide his finger from Hannah and pointed at a black streak. His large brown eyes glimmered beneath a white-blonde buzz cut.
"There it is!" Eric traced the streak triumphantly, playing along. "A ladder."
"Liar, liar, pants on fire." Hannah's small mouth turned down in disapproval.
"My dad used to say that."
"Is your dad a fireman, too?" Taylor asked.
"He was, but he died when I was very little. Hannah's age."
He waited for the usual sympathetic noises but heard only the slap of more paint hitting the tablecloth.
"Well. At least you had a dad," Hannah observed, her tone off-hand, as she applied black rungs to Taylor's "ladder."
"My mom says I don't have one," Taylor piped up.
"Me neither," Hannah put in, her round cheeks puffed out farther. "Did your father ever say 'I love you'? Sometimes I pretend I have a dad who says that."
Eric nodded, a lump forming in his throat.
"Did he read you stories?"
Taylor jumped, splatting Eric with red paint. "I love Peter Pan."
Eric nodded again,unable to speak. It was as if his tongue had swollen, filling the entire space within his mouth.
"Buy you ice cream?"
Taylor clutched the brush to his chest. "No one ever played catch with me. Did your dad do that?"
The backs of Eric's eyes pricked. Yes. His father had done all that and more. "Yeah. He did."
Hannah sighed and her shoulders drooped. "Then you're lucky. At least somebody wanted you."
Eric's mouth fell open and he dragged in a quick breath. Lucky? He'd never thought of it that way, but they were right. By focusing on his father's death, Eric had lost track of the difference his father's life had made.
Maybe that was the real tragedy.
What if Eric's father had decided never to have kids? A much greater loss, he saw now. Maybe he was wrong to rule out a family. A wife.
"Who wants cider?" Maggie called out. She emerged from the kitchen, a gallon jug swinging from each hand. In slim black pants, ballet flats and a white dress shirt tied at the waist, she resembled that movie star she always used to make him watch. Katharine something or other. Her idol, she'd said.
Only Maggie was much more beautiful. Vibrant. Colorful, from her hair to her bright lips. She glowed from within and drew his eye, like a brilliant gemstone catching the light.
He'd ruled out marrying for so long, but now he wondered. Was Maggie strong enough to manage if the worst happened or would she fall apart as his mother had?
Maggie's car fishtailed to a stop in front of the fire station. A steady drizzle—rain mixed with sleet—was tapping on her roof and windshield and, the instant she snapped off her defroster, it coated the glass.
She pulled up her jacket's fleece hood then ducked outside. Cold blasted her face as she slid, shivering, across the skating rink of a parking lot to yank open the door.
Nasty, awful weather. Fall to winter…always unpredictable in the North Country.
Under the large overhead lights, two fire trucks gleamed. The smell of diesel and polished metal stung her nose. She heard muted voices overhead. Gripping a large bag of fresh cider donuts, she clomped up the steps. Boisterous men playing cards around a large table quieted when she emerged.
"Maggie James!" boomed the flushed fire chief before he fanned out what looked like a straight. The other men groaned and tossed their cards on the discard pile. "What brings you out this evening?"
Her eyes flashed to Eric, who watched her from the end of the table. His gaze was direct and steady, his expression inscrutable. Was he happy to see her? Palms sweating, she handed over the deserts to a new guy she didn't recognize.
"Vivie and I wanted to thank you for serving the kids tomorrow."
"Kind of you," the chief mumbled around the half donut he'd already shoved in his mouth. "Though no thanks are necessary. We're all in this together."
The rest of the firemen chewed and nodded.
"Still. It's nice of you to leave your families."
"This is our other family," one of the veterans said, chortling. "Plus, gives us an excuse to have two meals."
Exclamations of agreement erupted. Maggie's gaze swerved to a silent Eric. This must be how he felt. The only family he wanted.
Though he'd said he wanted her, too…
Was that enough?
In the past, she would have said no, but after their kiss, she couldn't shake the sense of rightness. The feeling of coming home. Was she doomed to care about the one man who was every kind of wrong for her? And how adorable had he been with the kids today?
"Here. Take my seat." The new guy pulled out a chair. Sandy blonde hair sprang at odd angles around his handsome face, as if he'd just pulled off his helmet.
"No. I've got to drive out to the VFW hall. I forgot to give the kids their pilgrim hat materials."
"Well, at least warm up first," the chief urged. "Dean here's turned out to be quite the cook. Have a cup of chili."
"Really. I should be—" But before she could finish, Dean shoved a steaming mug in her hand. His fingers lingered over hers. For an embarrassing moment, he simply stared at her, his smile widening.
Maggie studied the perfect symmetry of his features, his finely shaped nose, his height and strong build. Everything about him should attract her but didn't. He lacked one thing… He wasn't Eric.
"Are you going to spoon feed it to her, too?" Eric growled. At his thunderous expression, Dean stepped back and looked between the two of them. The rest of the crew burst out laughing.
"And what if I do?" Dean asked, his jaw jutting out. "Though I'd rather take her to dinner." He turned and his blue eyes twinkled in a way that probably made lots of girls swoon. Just not her. "How about this weekend?"
"I—I—" she stalled, realizing it'd be stupid to turn down the first date she'd had in months. And with a gorgeous man.
Was she crazy?
She slid a sidelong glance at a narrow-eyed Eric.
No. She was just a girl head over heels in love. Six months hadn't changed her feelings for him. Dating another guy wouldn't help, either. She'd been wrong to let Eric go. A family alone couldn't make her happy, or a ring. Maybe what she really wanted—needed most—was just him. Working with the foster kids proved there were other ways they could have children in their lives.
Would it be enough?
"Not happening, buddy." Eric's chair scraped back and he reached Maggie in a couple strides. He placed his hand on the small of her back, warm and firm.
Some of the firefighters quieted and a few whistled, the air suddenly electric as the men eyed each other.
"I'll drive you to the VFW," he said. "Dean and one of the other guys will bring your car back to the diner. I don't want you out on those roads."
She nodded and Eric gripped her hand as he pulled her down the stairs. Inside his truck, he started up the engine and turned, shadows pooling under the masculine angles of his face.
"All set?" he asked after she buckled up.
"Yes." She nodded firmly, despite the frightening weather and the unknown path ahead of them. She trusted him. Believed in them.
One thing she knew for sure: she was miserable without Eric.
Better to have him in her life in any way possible.
"Oh, the kids will love these!" One of the foster home counselors gasped when Eric handed her Maggie's box of pilgrim hat-shaped cutouts and other craft materials.
"I wanted the kids to make them at the diner, but the tablecloth painting went too long. Then I forgot to give these to you so…" When Maggie trailed off, Eric followed her gaze to a dimly lit room where children listened to a woman reading a story.
At the wistful expression on Maggie's face, Eric's chest tightened. She loved kids. Had he been wrong to deny her a family? Separate himself from the only woman he'd ever loved?
There wasn't a chance in hell he'd let that guy, or any guy, date Maggie. He couldn't catch his breath. How could he convince her to give their relationship another shot?
"Story time's nearly over. Would you like to sit in the back and give them the materials for the hats when this activity's done?" the counselor asked.
"I'd love to, but Eric drove me and—"
"I'd like to stay," he cut in, earning a wide-eyed glance from Maggie.
"Great. Go on in."
"You don't have to do this," Maggie whispered as they tiptoed inside the darkened room.
He reached out slowly, enfolding her hand in his. "I want to be here," he murmured and led her to a spot behind the rapt children.
They sat in a couple of chairs, their fingers entwined. Her proximity sent his thoughts scrambling. When he breathed in her fresh scent, his chest rose and fell, as if he could take all of her in. Soul deep. Where she belonged.
"Why?" she asked without turning. In the gloom, he could make out her delicate profile and the slight tremble of her bottom lip. His pulse throbbed in his temple as he recalled the taste of her mouth on his.
"I don't want to leave you."
After a long gut check of a pause, where the storyteller droned on and Eric listened to his drumming heart, she said, "I don't want to leave you, either. Ever."
There were tears on her cheeks and he brushed them away with his thumbs. His heart ached when she turned to him, her expression open and vulnerable. Gone was the brittle veneer she'd worn around him the past two days. Instead, she looked fragile and he knew, down to his marrow, that he'd never break her heart again.
He took her face in his hands. "I should have never let you go."
She turned her cheek in his palm and pressed a kiss to its center. "We let each other go."
The corners of her eyes crinkled as she grinned faintly. "Huge."
Unable to resist, he pulled her up, out of her seat and into a smaller room in the back. With the door shut, he cupped the back of Maggie's head and kissed her, kissed her tears away, his lips urgent against her soft skin, promising a future. He kissed her until they were both smiling and she swayed slightly in his arms.
"I can't feel the bottoms of my feet."
"Then I've done my job." He grinned, barely able to hear himself over the blood thundering in his ears.
She gave him a cheeky salute. "Lieutenant Langley reporting for duty."
"I live to serve my country…and you."
Suddenly she sobered. "I want us to be together, Eric. However that is. All of those other things I thought were important… Well, they don't mean as much as you do."
His breath caught. Was she saying she'd give up marriage and kids for him? Deep down he knew it was too much of a sacrifice. On the other hand, was he ready to make a real commitment for her sake? His head buzzed.
"I feel the same way." He leaned his forehead against hers. "These past six months were the loneliest of my life. I don't want to be apart again."
"So you're saying…" Hope lit a match in her eyes. Made them flare and glow.
He trailed a finger along her silky cheek. "We'll find a way to make this work. For both of us. You mean everything to me, Maggie."
Standing on tiptoe, she pressed her mouth to his and his cell phone chirped. A nature ringtone he'd programmed to alert him when his volunteer search and rescue team called.
He swore under his breath and snatched his phone from his pocket. Holding up a finger, he turned.
"We've got a missing hiker on Whiteface," Mitch said. He was the owner of a local rock and ice climbing business.
"How long has he been gone?"
Eric's hand tightened around the cell. "I'll meet you in fifteen."
He punched off the call and turned to a pale-faced Maggie.
"What's going on?"
"Lost hiker. I'll drop you at the diner on my way to Whiteface."
"I'm sorry, Maggie." He stepped closer and brushed a kiss over her mouth.
"To be continued?" she murmured and threw her arms around his neck.
He pulled her close and spoke against her temple. "To be continued," he vowed.
A tinkling sound woke Maggie. Cold air curled over her skin when she threw off her quilt. Had the furnace shut off? And what time was it? She glanced at her alarm clock. Its face stared back at her blankly. With the cord still in the wall, it meant one thing: power outage.
Maggie groaned and padded to her window. Outside, crystallized water coated every surface and turned the world into an ice-sculpture of itself.
Last night's storm must have knocked out the power, but the sun shone and the worst seemed over, thank goodness. Hopefully the roads would be passable later on. Maggie bit her lip. The foster kids deserved this dinner and she'd make it happen, even if she had to cook over an open fire.
Had Rowdy bought gasoline last month for the back-up generator?
An engine sputtered then revved, choking until it caught.
She could always count on Rowdy.
She hurried to dress, her thoughts on their interrupted conversation. Her insides danced with excitement as she imagined ending the day together, planning a future, never being without him again…
But shouldn't his pickup be here? She'd only seen Rowdy's plough truck in the parking lot. Had Eric's team recovered the hiker before the worst of the storm? If not, they would have called off the search but resumed it at daylight.
She snatched up her cell and frowned. The battery was dead. Maybe the landline still worked? A moment later she returned the silent handset to its cradle and sighed. She'd have to be patient. In the meantime, she had to get Thanksgiving started.
Maggie tromped downstairs, cell phone and a battery-operated charger in hand. Her breath frosted in the air as she called to Rowdy. A moment later, he appeared through the porch's storm door.
"That's one mother of a storm," he grumbled, pulling off gloves that reeked of gasoline. "Generator's up."
She tied on an apron. "So we can cook?"
His mouth twisted below a horseshoe mustache. "Power went out around four hours ago, so the food's still good. Might have enough juice for the turkeys."
"And we made the stuffing yesterday."
"And the butternut squash."
"And the mashed potatoes. We'll put them in coolers on the porch to keep them from spoiling," she added and breathed easier. Okay. They would manage, even if she couldn't reheat in the microwave as planned. Good thing they'd brought in the brined turkeys last night as a precaution.
"The oven takes four thousand watts so we can't run the furnace, too," Rowdy grumbled.
She thought fast. "What about the wood stove?"
Rowdy considered that for a moment and nodded. "We've got a couple cords left over from last year. That should keep the restaurant warm."
"And the ovens will heat the kitchen."
"Have you seen Eric?"
Rowdy frowned. "Nope."
She swallowed down a rising ball of fear. He was fine. If he'd headed out to search again, he'd send word.
At a knock on the front door, Maggie's heart beat like a wild thing. Eric.
But another fireman stood at the entrance, twisting his cap.
He smoothed his white beard. "Maggie, I—"
"Have you seen Eric?"
He exhaled heavily and she noticed the dark circles under his eyes. When his large hand settled on her shoulder, she flinched. Braced herself.
"Eric didn't report in last night when we called off the search."
"You mean…" She couldn't finish the dangerous thought.
"He's been out for over twelve hours. We resumed the search at dawn, but in these conditions—"
"No," she said, stopping whatever bad thing he intended to say. "You'll find him. Or he'll find you. Either way, he's going to come through this."
Certainty fired every word, fear a silent shadow behind it. But she couldn't fall apart. She had to hold it together for the kids.
"He's a tough son-of-a-gun."
"That he is."
The chief raised a tired smile. "Keep thinking positively and we'll send word when we get it. You're still having the dinner?" He raised a thick eyebrow, white against his florid skin.
She nodded firmly. "Absolutely. We're not letting the kids down no matter—" her throat tightened and she paused "—no matter what. And when you see Eric, tell him he's late."
The chief's mouth quirked. "You're one tough cookie."
It was the highest compliment he could give her. Katharine Hepburn had been tough, too. "Thank you, sir. Happy Thanksgiving."
He donned his hat and headed out the door, calling, "Happy Thanksgiving" over his shoulder.
When Maggie turned, Rowdy stood in the kitchen doorway, concern creasing his face. "You going to be okay?"
She grabbed one of her kerchiefs, tied back her hair and marched Rowdy's way.
"Fine," she said, nearly meaning it. She had to focus on the kids and trust that Eric would come back to her.
Eric stared at his cell phone's blank screen and lurched forward on stinging legs. A deep shiver rose from the base of his spine and rattled his teeth. His boots slipped on the bottom of the narrow crevice he'd rappelled down last night to rescue the injured hiker.
Would they make it out alive?
His broken anchor latch, lodged in the rock fifteen feet overhead, mocked him. Beside the prone hiker lay Eric's radio, shattered when his rope gave way and he fell.
Had his search partner gotten Eric's SOS before he'd lowered himself for the grab? After twelve hours, the possibility looked grim.
Eric took stock: Remote location. No communication. Inclement weather. Inaccessible escape route. Deteriorating health. A bad situation. One of the worst he'd ever faced.
He'd lost feeling in his hands an hour ago. His legs would give out soon, too. Even if the ice coating the walls melted, he couldn't climb out. Plus, the hiker, Larry, had a broken leg. At Larry's moan, Eric squatted, his pulse speeding.
"Hang in there, buddy."
Larry's eyelids fluttered then closed again. "Don't sleep," Eric said. He struggled to remove his gloves then ripped them off with his teeth. He pressed his shaking forearm to Larry's burning head.
Lack of consciousness.
Hypothermia and shock.
Eric peered at the azure sky peeking between the cedar-scented boughs overhead. The weather had improved but his circumstances couldn't be worse. Larry needed medical attention stat or he'd die.
A scream ripped from Eric's lungs. The world closed in around him and he strove to control his breathing.
He struck his fingers against his thigh, tried maneuvering them into his gloves and quit. Were they cold? He could hardly tell. Panic stole into his gut. Another violent shudder tore through him.
He had to keep his wits. Walk. Move. Frosty breath ghosted the air as he marched around the dim space. Numbness dulled his toes and he stumbled over loose rocks.
If these were his last thoughts, let them be of her.
Had his text to her gone through? Last night's sleet had interfered with his signal, dropping his calls to the search and rescue team.
"I'm sorry," he'd typed when it became obvious he might not make it back. "I was wrong to raise your hopes about a future together. Even if I make it out, this could happen again.I should never have done this to you."
If she got the message, would she understand?
He pictured his mother, crying for months after his father's death and then, worse still, her silence as she'd retreated to her bedroom. She'd rarely come out until she'd finally checked herself into a mental rehabilitation facility.
Would Maggie fall apart like that? She was stronger than his mother, but she'd never been tested like this. It killed him to imagine the woman he loved fading away as his mother had.
He'd caused it.
He shouldn't have gotten involved with Maggie again.
Even if a miracle happened—even if he did get out of here—he'd never be the safe family man Maggie deserved. And worrying about her would steal the focus his risky job demanded.
Regret settled hard and cold in his gut. Raising Maggie's hopes for a committed relationship was dead wrong when he knew, deep down, he'd never be able to leave his job. It was in his blood.
Suddenly, a shout interrupted his thoughts.
His heart leapt then fell. If his future couldn't include Maggie, it was already too late to save him from the empty life that stretched ahead.
Ten hours later, the chief drove Eric back from the hospital. Most of the ice had melted and the world glistened in the purpling twilight.
"Surprised they released you that quick." His boss cranked up the defroster on the fogging windshield.
"I didn't give them a choice." He needed to get to Maggie. "How's Maggie holding up? Not doing too bad?"
Chief Redmond stopped tapping along to country rock music and glanced at him sideways.
"Maggie? She's doing great."
"Great?" Surprise stiffened Eric's joints. "Have you talked to her?"
The chief slapped his knee. "Son, I'm the one that told her you were missing."
He flinched, imagining the tears. The chief's inept attempts at comfort. Poor Maggie. "Sorry about that."
"Don't be. She took the news like a trooper. Didn't bat an eye. Told me the dinner would go on as planned. In fact, she wanted me to tell you that you were late."
A chuckle rumbled from the chief. "Yep. She never doubted you'd be back. That gal's got guts."
Chief Redmond's words bounced around Eric's head, knocked the wind out of him. Maggie had faith in him while he'd doubted her. Could she be as strong as the chief described?
Minutes later, he paused in The Homestead's threshold. The smell of roasted turkey greeted him like a handshake. Heat emanated from a roaring woodstove, warming him fully, for the first time all day. Chattering children wiggled on seats around painted tablecloths where candles glowed in the centers.
And then…Maggie emerged wearing a blue dress, her hair swept into a loose side bun that highlighted her beautiful face. He coughed, realizing he'd stopped breathing.
He returned Vivie Harris's greeting and shook hands with her husband, Liam, without tearing his eyes off Maggie.
She'd done it.
Pulled off this incredible meal without power and without knowing if he'd come home…
Chief Redmond was right. She was a gutsy gal.
And Eric was an idiot.
Had she gotten his text?
Maggie fumed as she delivered the last of the cranberry sauce, trying to ignore Eric.
Of course she'd been relieved when her recharged phone buzzed with word he'd been found. Her knees had given out and she'd sat on the ground, her head spinning, until Rowdy helped her up.
But then, she'd noticed a new text message.
Reading between the lines, she understood that, "I shouldn't have done this to you" meant "We shouldn't have gotten back together because you can't handle tough times."
At her angry sigh, Hannah grabbed the listing cranberry sauce and placed it on the table.
Didn't Eric have any faith in her at all?
Had he thought she'd fall apart…like his mother?
She avoided his stare and headed back into the now empty kitchen.
She glanced up as Vivie's concerned face emerged around the swing door. "We're ready for the blessing."
Maggie released a long breath. "Yes. Coming."
"Are you alright?"
Maggie forced a smile at her pregnant friend who, according to the most recent doctor visit, should not be on her feet. "Great. Really. I'll be right out."
Vivie advanced, cradling her round belly. "I'll wait."
Maggie's mouth dropped open. "So you're playing the pregnancy card?"
Vivie shrugged, looking pretty in a rose-colored maternity dress. "Whatever it takes to get you out there. Are you still upset about the text?"
"He's an idiot."
"He's a man."
"You say that like it's the same thing."
"Sometimes it is."
Maggie sighed. "True enough. Thank goodness for friends." She slid an arm around Vivie. "Happy Thanksgiving, sweetie."
Vivie smiled and hugged Maggie back. "Happy Thanksgiving."
As they entered the room, the sound of a fork clanging against a glass quieted the noisy group. Maggie sat next to Liam and Vivie, noting Eric's close position.
"First of all," the chief said, "I'd like to give thanks to Maggie and Vivie, their staff and the guys from my company who managed not to screw—"
At his wife's sharp glance, he checked himself.
"Who managed not to mess up putting on the best Thanksgiving dinner I've ever seen, despite the weather. I also want to thank the search and rescue team for saving our missing hiker who, I'm glad to report, is recovering in the hospital with a meal not as good as this. Still. He's alive and that's thanks, most of all, to Lieutenant Eric Langley, the most thick-headed, stubborn son-of-a-gun I've ever had the honor to work with."
"Hear, hear!" the adults shouted while the children whooped and clapped their hands.
Eric's face reddened and his eyes swerved to hers. When he stood, the applause tapered off.
"There's a lot I'm thankful for," he began.
She flushed and studied her hands, twisting them in her lap. She loved him so much…but she wouldn't be with a man who didn't believe in her.
"A great woman once said that love isn't about what you expect to get; it's what you expect to give—everything."
"Katharine Hepburn," Maggie exclaimed, glancing at Eric sharply. By now even the littlest kids gaped at the two of them.
He nodded, a slow smile drawing up the corners of his mouth. "I was actually thinking of you, Maggie. You shared that quote with me. In fact, you've given me everything. Support, love and most of all, your faith. You've always believed in me and I'm sorry for ever doubting you. I want to give you everything, too, including me, if you'll have me."
When he pushed back his chair, the kids oohed and aahed around them. Maggie flushed. What was he doing? She tried to read his expression, but all she saw was his love for her. He wanted her forgiveness. Knew he was wrong to doubt her. And when he'd said "give you everything" did he mean…
He got down on one knee before her, held her hands in his, and her heart skipped more than a few beats at the tender expression on his handsome face. "Maggie James. You're the only one who knows my heart from the inside. Better than me. I love you with all that I am and can't imagine me without you. Will you make me the happiest man…do me the honor of being my wife and the mother of our children?"
A loud whoop broke out. Tears overflowed her eyes and dripped down her cheeks. He wanted her. Wanted a life with her. A real one, full of children. It was too much and, for the second time in three days, speech failed her.
"She can't say yes. You don't have a ring!" Hannah hollered. She stood atop her chair and swished her arms like a referee calling foul.
"Here. I won this from a machine." Taylor tossed a plastic ring at Eric. "Can we eat now?" He waved a fork that dripped suspiciously with gravy.
Laughter rang around the table. Eric cocked his head as his voice took on a playful note. "If Maggie says yes." He brushed a soft kiss against her knuckles and his brown eyes rose to search hers. "Will you, Mags?"
She nodded hard and, as he slid the ring on her finger, peace stole through her, followed by the sweetest happiness. "One lifetime with you isn't enough, but it will have to do," she teased back, her voice hoarse from emotion overload. "I love you…so… Yes."
"Kiss. Kiss. Kiss," the firemen chanted, and to her utter delight, Eric swept her into his arms and did just that.
"You know," she whispered later, when they sat across from Taylor and Hannah. "We could start a family sooner rather than later."
He followed her gaze and smiled, the light in his eyes melting her heart. "Funny. I was thinking the same thing…"
part of the Winter Wedding Bells anthology, available now, as well as the upcoming His Kind of Cowgirl,
out in March 2016 from Harlequin Heartwarming.
Available in paperback and digitally at Harlequin.com and at your favorite ebook retailer.
Starting January 2016, Heartwarming will also be available in select Walmart stores.