Authors: Sloane Meyers
Tags: #Contemporary, #Romance, #Fiction, #Paranormal, #Bear, #Werebear, #Adult, #Erotic, #Shifter, #Mate, #Firefighter, #Wildfire, #Sexy, #Boyfriend, #Secret, #Risk, #Smokejumper, #Beast, #Nurse, #Dreams, #Biggest Desire, #Tough Times, #Crashes, #Run Away, #New Life, #Rethink, #Future, #Intersects Past, #Past Demons, #Heartache, #Lonely, #Scared
Sophia shrugged, and didn’t seem to show much interest in what Mindy was saying, so Mindy gave her shoulder one more squeeze and then returned to where Mr. Stewart was standing. Mindy had never seen Mr. Stewart appear so anxious. He twirled his thumbs around each other in rapid little circles and let out a nervous laugh.
“So, what did you think?” he asked. “She seems like a bright girl, doesn’t she?”
“She does. I think she’s a smart, sweet little girl. Let’s go back inside and discuss this,” Mindy said, and started walking back toward the building. Mr. Stewart followed silently. For the first time since she’d known him, Mindy felt like she had the upper hand in the conversation. Mr. Stewart sat meekly in his desk chair and waited for Mindy to speak.
“What’s the deal with her, really?” Mindy asked. “She said she’s been bounced around several places, and she doesn’t think that she’ll be staying here long, either. She told me that she was not supposed to say why. Do you know anything about that?”
Mr. Stewart let out another nervous laugh. “I’m not sure what she means by saying she isn’t supposed to talk about it. She’s been through several orphanages in the short amount of time that she’s been without her mother because she doesn’t get along well with any of the other kids, that’s all. That’s exactly why I think she would do better in an actual home, and I was hoping you could take her.”
Mindy could smell Mr. Stewart lying from a mile away. She knew he was hiding something from her, but maybe it didn’t matter. Whatever it was, she was sure she could handle it. After all, she handled all types of people with all types of attitudes every day in her job as a nurse.
“And you’re sure that nobody knows anything about the family?” Mindy asked. Something about the way Sophia looked like Zach was nagging at the back of Mindy’s mind.
“We can’t find any information about any extended family. The mother’s name was Rita Wilcox, and she had an expired Idaho driver’s license. She’d been in a small town in Idaho for a few years, apparently. But no one knew where she lived before that. The girl’s birth certificate is from Idaho, and, like I said earlier, only has the mother listed.”
“And no one has any idea who the father might be?” Mindy asked.
Mr. Stewart shook his head. “No, no one has any information. I think it’s likely that Rita didn’t know who the dad was. But, in any case, we have no leads on anyone else who might be even remotely related to Sophia.”
“Okay,” Mindy said. “Well, I’d like to bring Sophia home as a foster child, and see how things go. If she likes me and we seem to click, then we can start the adoption process. How long will everything take?”
“Well,” Mr. Stewart said. “You’ve already done a lot of the legwork for adopting and fostering. You’ve done a home study, filled out the necessary paperwork, and done the necessary background checks, so we should be able to get Sophia home with you as a foster child within a matter of days. The adoption will obviously take longer, and we’ll have to get a court date set for that. The average time to finalize everything is about six months. But Sophia should be able to live with you during that time.”
Mindy nodded, and stood. “Okay,” she said. “Let me know if there’s any more paperwork you need from me, and I’ll get it done right away.”
Mr. Stewart slid a folder across the desk to her. “There are a few more things we need. Here’s a folder of forms for you to fill out. It should be pretty straightforward, but, of course, feel free to ask me any questions or to consult a lawyer. You can fax it over when you’re done. As soon as I get approval from Sophia’s caseworker, we can set things up for her to go home with you.
Mindy took the folder and thanked Mr. Stewart, then left his office. She stuffed the folder into her large purse, and went to the back door of the building that looked out at the play yard. She saw the familiar faces of the kids she spent time with every week as they ran around playing tag. A small group of them sat in the sandbox building a large mound of sand that Mindy assumed was intended to be a sandcastle. The swing set was empty, except for Sophia, who still sat slowly pushing herself back and forth with the scuffed toes of her black canvas sneakers. Mindy decided that she would play with the children for a few minutes and then go home and start on the paperwork. Whatever the issues were that Sophia was facing, Mindy would help her through them. Mindy couldn’t imagine what it must feel like to a four-year-old girl to lose her mother, the only family she had ever known. The poor girl probably felt traumatized and very alone. The best thing anyone could do for her at this point was to give her a permanent, stable home—and that’s exactly what Mindy would do. As soon as Mindy set her purse down on a bench near the building wall and started walking toward the sandbox, Drew spotted her and shrieked in delight.
“Miss Mindy! Miss Mindy! Come over and play in the sambox,” he said.
Mindy smiled and nodded, heading in his direction. But when she glanced over at the swingset to invite Sophia over as well, the little girl was gone. Mindy glanced at the door just in time to see Sophia’s small, slender form disappearing back into the building. Sophia somehow walked the same way that Zach walked. Mindy couldn’t quite explain it, but the resemblance was uncanny.
Mindy told herself that she was crazy, but she couldn’t shake the feeling that Zach was somehow connected to this girl. She watched Sophia’s silhouette until the door closed behind it. She finally tore her eyes away when she felt Drew’s little hand grabbing hers and pulling her toward the sandbox. But, long after she had stopped looking, the image of Sophia’s walking into the building with slumped shoulders remained etched in her mind. Mindy already felt her heart filling with love and concern for the child, and she determined that no matter what it took, she would provide the love and safe place to land that Sophia needed.
Whatever trouble Sophia might cause, Mindy would love her through it.
A few days later, after a whirlwind of filling out paperwork and setting up childcare for the hours she would be at work, Mindy got the approval to provide foster care for Sophia. It was Tuesday morning when Mr. Stewart called her with the news, and Mindy almost forgot about her lunch date with Zach amidst her excitement. She was tempted to cancel, but thought better of it. She needed to eat, after all. And, although she had received the approval to bring Sophia home, she wouldn’t officially be able to pick her up until that Friday. In the meantime, she might as well keep herself as busy as possible to help speed up the wait.
Mindy arrived at the pizzeria before Zach, and found a booth in the back corner. She sat facing the door so that she could see Zach when he walked in, and then started looking over the menu. Right before their scheduled meeting time, the bells above the front door jingled as Zach entered the restaurant.
Mindy let her eyes skim appreciatively over the outline of his body. He was wearing a snug-fitting, long-sleeved black T-shirt that showed off his bicep muscles. He also wore a pair of relaxed fit blue jeans, and Mindy noticed again how long his legs were. She couldn’t deny that she loved looking at him. Although he acted like an asshole the majority of the time, and she would never actually date anyone like him, that didn’t mean she couldn’t enjoy the eye candy.
Zach looked around the restaurant with a tense expression that relaxed into a smile when he saw Mindy. He gave her a little wave, and hurried over to the booth.
“Hey there,” he said. “Thanks for meeting me. How’s your day?”
“Pretty good so far,” Mindy said. “I just got some good news that I’ve been waiting several days to hear.”
“Nice,” Zach said, flashing Mindy a bright smile. “Are you going to be vague and annoying and leave it at that, or are you going to share what the news was?”
Mindy laughed. “Well, believe it or not, I’ve actually been trying to adopt a child for quite some time. It looks like I’m finally going to be able to adopt a little four-year-old girl. I just got approved to bring her home on Friday as a foster child, and I’ve started the legal process to formally adopt her. I’m so excited to be a mom. I know it’s probably a little weird to tell you all of that, since I don’t know you that well. But I’ve waited so long for this that I just want to tell everyone who will listen.”
To Mindy’s surprise, Zach seemed somewhat upset by her statement. He coughed a few times before speaking.
“That’s great,” he said. “I’m so happy for you.” His voice sounded sincere, but all of the color had drained from his face.
“What’s the matter?” Mindy asked. “Are you okay? You look really pale all of a sudden.”
Zach looked up at her, and managed a weak smile. “I’m great,” he said, even though it was obvious that he wasn’t.
Mindy resisted the urge to press him for details, and instead went back to studying the menu. Zach’s emotions seemed to be on a never ending roller coaster ride. From the moment she had met him, he’d been angry one minute and happy the next. Or he’d acted rude and then just as suddenly switched to friendly. The guy needed to get his act together. Mindy had never met a man whose emotions were all over the place as much as his. Which was yet another reason that she might admire his good looks, but she would never date him.
This time, Zach seemed to recover quickly from whatever had caused his sudden shift in mood. After a few minutes of silently perusing the menu, he returned to his normal, chatty self. They ordered drinks and pizza, and then he started talking Mindy’s ear off about his preparations for the smokejumping season. He detailed how he had checked and repaired his gear, and how he was intensifying his workouts to be ready for the physical demands of the job. Mindy didn’t quite understand how he could possibly need to be in better shape than he already was, but he seemed pretty adamant about the fact that he was not in top firefighting form.
Their pizza arrived, and the conversation lulled for a moment as they each put a steaming hot slice on their respective plates. Zach seemed to realize at that moment how much talking he had been doing.
“Enough about me, though,” he said. “Tell me more about yourself.”
Mindy shrugged. “There’s not much to tell, other than what you already know. I work as a nurse, and now work making jewelry with Bailey on the side.”
“What are your hobbies?” Zach asked.
“Um, I used to be really into painting, but it’s been a long time since I’ve had the free time to pursue that hobby. So, working is pretty much it. Oh, I also volunteer at the orphanage at least once a week. I’m not sure if that’s what you’d consider a hobby, but it’s how I spend most of my free time.”
“I’m impressed,” Zach said. “You sound like a really giving person, and those kids are lucky to have you around.”
Mindy blushed, and looked down at her pizza. “Well, I had cancer, and can’t have kids of my own anymore. So those kids are kind of like my family. I’d adopt them all if I could.”
Zach leaned back in his chair and raised his eyebrows. “So, you survived cancer, and, instead of being bitter about not having your own kid, you volunteer to help kids who don’t have families. You’re a stronger person than I am.”
Mindy shrugged. “I’m proud of myself for what I’ve made it through, and I do think I’m a strong person. But I don’t think I’m anything out of the ordinary. You’d be surprised how much hard situations can help you grow. You probably would have reacted the same way if you’d had to face something like I faced.”
“No, I wouldn’t have. I’d be a bitter, broken man,” Zach said. He stared off into space with a faraway look in his eyes while he spoke, and Mindy got the feeling that he was talking more to himself than to her.
“Well, anyway, enough serious talk. This pizza isn’t going to eat itself,” Mindy said, and grabbed another slice.
Zach grinned and did the same, and the conversation once again turned to lighter topics. Mindy found herself enjoying Zach’s company, and she started to think that maybe they could actually be friends. She remembered how fun he had been at the bar the night they met—until he got to the point of blackout drunk, that was.
When the bill came, Zach grabbed it and insisted on paying. “I invited you out,” he said. “Let me cover it.”
Mindy smiled. “Okay. I’m not going to pass up free pizza.”
After Zach paid, they walked out into the bright, March sunshine.
“I know it probably sounds silly to say this, because it’s never really cold here, but I love when the weather starts to turn warmer. The bright sun rays feel amazing, and I love spring so much,” Mindy said. She closed her eyes and breathed in deeply.
Zach smiled. “I love spring, too. The warmer weather means the wildfires are coming back, though. Which is good for me, since I’ll have work. But it’s bad for the forests.”
Mindy’s face turned serious. “Do you get scared when you have to go fight a fire?”
“I get nervous, which I think is good. You never want to get too comfortable around a giant fire. But I never feel scared anymore. I used to, when I first started. Now, it’s kind of just a job.”
Mindy shook her head. “Play it down all you want to, but I’m still amazed at how brave you all are.”
Zach shifted his weight nervously from one foot to the other. “I’m amazed at you. You save people’s lives every day at work, and then you go spend your free time with kids who have no one else. That’s pretty remarkable.”
Mindy shrugged and looked down at her feet, feeling a little self-conscious. “I just want to make my time here on earth count, you know? After I almost died from cancer, I realized that every day I have is such a gift. I think that’s why I get along with Bailey so well. She knows what it feels like to think you’re going to die, but then miraculously have the chance to keep on living. In her case it was the hotel fire that almost killed her, but I think the feeling of getting a second chance at life is the same.”
“Yeah,” Zach said. “Speaking of Bailey, I’m really sorry about the way I reacted the other day when you came to help her with her jewelry. It’s not you personally. It’s just that I have some things in my past that can make it hard to trust strangers.”
“Bailey kind of mentioned that,” Mindy said with a shrug. “No hard feelings. And don’t worry about me, by the way. I’m as harmless as a fly. I’m not going to cause you any trouble.”
I know,” Zach said. “And I know most people are harmless. But every time I meet someone new, I have a hard time trusting that they’re not going to be one of the bad apples.”
Zach looked down at the ground, and the pair fell silent for several moments. Finally, Zach looked up at Mindy with a sheepish smile.
“Look,” he said. “I know we kind of started off on the wrong foot. Well, actually we started off on a good foot at the bar, but I quickly ruined that. And then I made it worse by the way I acted at the hospital and the hangar. I’m really sorry, and I hope you can forgive me. I mean it when I say that I’m really impressed with you. The more I talk to you, the more I realize that it’s completely unfair for me to treat you the way I have. You’re a good, genuine person. To be frank, not only am I impressed with you, but I’m very attracted to you. I don’t know what it is, but there’s something about you that just draws me in.”
Zach looked down at his feet for one more moment before looking up again and taking in a loud breath. “Do you think that there’s a chance that there might be something between us?”
Mindy suddenly felt played. Had this whole lunch just been some fancy scheme to get her to spend time with him?
“Are you kidding me?” she asked angrily. “You told me that this wasn’t a date.”
“It wasn’t,” Zach said. “I honestly just wanted to have lunch with you as a friend. But the more I get to know you, the more I can’t ignore what an amazing individual you are. Sitting here talking to you over lunch today made me realize how wrong I had been about a lot of things, and how much I want a chance to get to know you better on a deeper level.”
Mindy laughed sardonically. “Well, that’s sweet. But when I said I wanted this to be just a friend thing, I meant it. I don’t know what your deal is. Obviously, you’ve been very hurt by someone. But we all have things in our life that are painful, and it’s not an excuse to fly off the handle or treat people the way you’ve treated me. We can be friends, but I’m not interested in a relationship with a guy who thinks it’s okay to just yell at people whenever he feels like it. Apologizing to me is a good start, but how do I know that tomorrow you’re not going to be off on one of your angry tirades again? No thank you.”
Zach’s face fell. “I’m really sorry,” he said. “If you knew what I’ve been through, I think you would be more understanding of the way I’ve acted. Just give me a chance. I can change, and I can show you that deep down I’m actually a nice guy, and loyal to a fault to those I care about.”
Mindy shook her head. “Sorry, Zach. Actions speak louder than words, and your actions over the last several times I’ve seen you have shown me that you’re not the kind of person I want to be in a relationship with. I wish you all the best, and I hope that we can continue to be friends. But just friends. I don’t want anything more than that.”
Zach’s eyes darkened and his face contorted into a scowl—a look that was becoming all too familiar to Mindy. Just more proof that he couldn’t be trusted not to go into a rage whenever he felt like it.
He didn’t say anything, so Mindy turned around and headed for her car. Seriously, why did good-looking guys always think they could act however they wanted to and get away with it? Maybe that worked on some girls, but not on her. She already had too many things in her life to juggle without adding bipolar boy toy to the list. Nope, nope, nope.
Mindy couldn’t resist one last look over her shoulder before stepping into her car. Zach stood in the same spot she had left him, with his arms crossed and the same scowl etched onto his face. Nice try, buddy, Mindy thought. It’s going to take more than a couple minutes of sweet talking to win over a girl like me.