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Authors: Georgia Bockoven

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“I hate to ask, but I don’t want to involve the rest of my family in this until I absolutely have to and I’m going to need to get my car tomorrow. Do you know if it’s still drivable?”

“No, but I’ll ask when I call to see where it was towed.”

“Shit—something I didn’t think about. I don’t know any body shops. Where do I go to get it fixed?”

“Check with your insurance agent. They may want you to take the car to one of their approved shops.” Sentence by sentence, he became more
involved in her life. If he had any sense, he’d run like hell. Lyn had given him the option that morning. A female firefighter had become available to take Lynda’s case. He’d declined the offer.

But he could still change his mind. He’d earned a free summer. His house needed him. Hell, Blue needed him. The dog was as neglected as the garden he’d started the week before he met Catherine and Lynda. If he didn’t spend a little more time with Blue, he was going to move next door permanently.

Then he looked into Catherine’s large brown eyes and saw the fear and confusion and pain. She’d lost the protective veneer of the belief that bad things happened to other people’s children. She triggered a protective streak he had no business feeling, one he’d be crazy to act on. She had family to take care of her. She didn’t need him.

She covered her face with her hands as if trying to close out the overwhelming onslaught of problems. Seconds later she dropped her hands back to her sides. “I’d better take that call—I need to ask Tom who he’s insured with if I’m going to get started on this thing tomorrow.”

“Do you have a way home tonight?”

“It’s out of his way, but I’m sure Brian would be willing to take me.”

He nodded. “Let me know what time you need to be picked up in the morning.”

“You’re sure you don’t mind?”

“I’m sure.”

“Thank you.” She offered him an accompanying smile. “Yet again.”

“It’s nothing I wouldn’t—”

“Don’t you dare tell me you’re only doing your job. What you’re doing goes way beyond what you signed on to do. I know it and you know it. I promise I won’t put you in this position again.”

He wasn’t sure if he felt relieved or disappointed.

On his way back to the engine, Rick decided Tom was an ass, pure and simple. Someone who couldn’t see what he had in Catherine and Lynda sure as hell didn’t deserve them.

12

J
ANET STEPPED OFF THE RUNNING BOARD ON THE
engine when she saw Rick come out of the hospital. “Everything okay?” She climbed into the back with the rookie, Paul.

“Yeah, everything’s fine.” As soon as he was inside the cab, Steve pointed to the computer.

“Dispatch called a couple of minutes ago. They wanted to know if we could take an animal rescue call.”

“What is it?”

“Cat in a wall.”

“What did you tell them?”

“That we’d be there as soon as you put us in service again.” He grinned. “Figured we should make sure Paul has a full range of experience before he leaves us.”

Rookies spent six months at each of four different stations their first two years in the department. Paul was a week shy of two months on his first rotation. He was the only one of his graduating class of
twenty to have actually fought a fire and the only one to go overboard on a white-water practice drill.

Rick put on his headset and pressed the microphone button on the dash. “Engine seventy-six responding.” He hit the Enroute button on the computer and the button on his headset that cut him off from his crew. He’d already sustained a significant hearing loss in one ear from the sirens and air horn, and he fanatically protected what was left.

Usually he enjoyed the enforced silence. It gave him time to think about whatever project he had going at the moment, especially if it was something that needed finessing. He tried concentrating on the half-finished texturing, but his mind kept drifting back to Catherine. He’d dated off and on in the ten years since his divorce, but never seriously. He kept waiting for the stars to spin, to hear a symphony in the wind, to know in his gut that he’d found someone who, when they were both eighty-five, would still tell jokes and take showers with him and lay on the grass to watch meteor showers in August. He refused to settle for the moment, or for someone who wouldn’t stick through the hard times. He wanted a relationship, a lover, a friend to last forever.

He’d been through the death of love once; he didn’t have the heart or the courage to go through it again.

Steve stopped in front of a two-story brick house and remained with the engine while Rick and the two firefighters went up to the front door. A woman Rick guessed to be in her eighties opened the door seconds after he knocked.

“Oh, I’m so glad you’re finally here. I’m so sorry about calling this late, but I didn’t know what else to do.” She glanced up and saw the engine. “Oh dear, I didn’t know you would be coming in that. I told them it was only a little emergency. You could have come in a car. Now the neighbors are going to think I left something on the stove again.”

“Sorry—this is all the city gives us. We come in the fire engine or not at all. Now, why don’t you tell me what you’ve got going on in here?”

She held open the door and stepped out of the way. “Come in, come in.” When the three of them were inside, she closed the door and led them to a back bedroom. “My son is out of town. He’s the one who usually takes care of things like this for me—or my neighbor does. But he works at night, so he’s not home, either. So you see I really didn’t have any choice but to call you.”

“What makes you think you have a cat in the wall?” Rick asked.

She gave him a chastising look reminiscent of his mother’s response to dumb questions. “Listen for yourself.” She tapped the wall by the closet door and put her finger to her lips motioning for quiet. Sure enough, several plaintive wails followed. “Well?”

“You’re right,” Rick admitted. “It sounds like a cat.” He went to the wall and tapped again to try to pinpoint its location.

“Would you like me to do that, Captain?” Janet said.

He chuckled to himself at her veiled attempt to
cover for him. She’d picked up the results of his city-required hearing test a month ago and was convinced he was going deaf. “I think I can handle it. You can get the saw and a couple of tarps out of the rig.”

“What are you going to do?” the woman asked.

“Cut a hole in the wall. The cat is too far down to try to reach it from above.”

“Oh dear, what am I going to do with a hole in my wall?” She put her hand to her ample bosom. “Or were you going to fix it for me, too?”

“No, I’m afraid we don’t do that.”

“Are you sure there’s no other way?”

“Not any that I know of.”

“What would happen if we just left it there? Isn’t it possible it could climb out by itself?”

“If there were any way that cat could get out of there on its own, it would be out by now.” He could sympathize with her reluctance to see her wall damaged, but he wasn’t about to walk away knowing an animal would starve to death because it was inconvenient to rescue it. “Now, I can’t force you to let us cut a hole in your wall, but I can promise you it’s going to happen one way or another. If that cat dies in there, the smell is going to drive you out of the house. You won’t be back until you find someone to tear down the wall and clean it up.”

“Oh dear. I had no idea.”

“I take it the cat isn’t yours?”

She shook her head. “I always wanted one, but my husband was allergic. Then when he died, I started going here and there—places he’d never go
with me—and I was hardly ever home.”

Janet and Paul came back. Rick had them cover the bed and floor with the tarps. He found the studs by tapping and listening to the sounds change from hollow to solid. After marking the position with a pencil, he cut a straight line down the wall. Moving the saw to the second stud, he caught the look on Paul’s face. His eyes were enormous, his mouth open, his expression one between horror and fascination. Clearly he expected blood to come spurting from the cut.

Rick made the second slice down the wall sixteen inches from the first, and then one across the top. Wedging the tip of the pry bar into the third cut, he levered and pushed. The wall broke at the seam, two feet above the cat. He shined his flashlight into the hole. Two terrified eyes shined back. The cat was wedged upside down, its feet pointing toward the ceiling, its black fur covered in white dust. It started purring, the rumble loud enough for Paul and Janet to hear on the other side of the bed.

“Is it okay?” Janet asked.

“Far as I can tell,” Rick told her.

“May I see?” the woman asked.

Rick moved out of the way. “Don’t touch it,” he warned.

“Oh my, it’s a pretty little thing, isn’t it?” she said, the hole in the wall temporarily forgotten.

“Would you like me to get it out for you, Captain?” Paul asked. “Cats like me.”

Rick had seen too many animals in crisis to trust one, no matter how loud it purred. But he was will
ing to give the rookie a chance. “All right, but put your gloves on.”

“No disrespect, Capt’n, but if I go sticking a glove in there I’m only going to scare the poor thing. I do know what I’m talkin’ about when it comes to cats. I tell you, they like me.”

There were some things you just couldn’t teach; they had to be learned by experience. Rick shook his head and backed away. “All right—have at it.”

“Hey, kitty,” Paul crooned softly. “That’s a good boy.” He slowly reached inside, talking the entire time. Everything went fine for about a second and a half. Then, as if on cue, the cat let out a high pitched snarl, spit, growled, and latched onto Paul’s arm. Paul jerked his hand back and hit the dresser with his elbow. For a second, Rick wasn’t sure whether the howling was coming from Paul or the cat.

“Jesus,
get him off of me.”

Rick figured the cat no more wanted to be on Paul’s arm than Paul wanted him there, so he stood back and waited. Sure enough, the cat used Paul for a launchpad, hitting the bed and then the floor.

“Ungrateful little—”

“Watch it,” Rick warned.

Janet couldn’t hold back any longer and doubled over laughing.

The old woman went to the cat where it had settled in a corner. She spoke to it for several seconds, stroked its head, and lifted it into her arms. “Cats like me, too,” she said to Paul.

It was too much for Rick. He roared.

“Look at this,” Paul said indignantly, holding out
his hand. “Look what that thing did to me.”

“Oh dear,” the woman said. “You really should have a doctor look at that. I once heard that a man lost his thumb to a cat bite.”

“Is that true, Captain?” Paul asked, his outrage turning to concern.

“True enough,” Rick said. “Once we get this place cleaned up we’ll take you to the hospital and get you started on an antibiotic.”

When they were back at the rig, Janet went up to Steve. “You missed a good one. The rookie got baptized.”

Steve grinned. “And earned himself a new name in the process no doubt.”

“Aw, come on, you guys. I was only trying to help out,” Paul groaned.

Janet gave him a no-mercy grin. “The long of it is—Paul ‘Cats Like Me’ Murdoch,” she told Steve. “But I think plain old ‘Cats’ has a nice ring to it.”

“You’re not going to tell anyone else about this, are you?” Had he been in the department longer, he would have known that the pleading tone in his voice would be his undoing. “I’ll never live it down.”

“Sure you will.” Rick slapped him on the shoulder. “Ten or fifteen years after you retire, no one will remember anything about it.”

On the way to the hospital, Rick thought about his first house fire: how he’d gone inside so excited he never felt his feet hit the ground; how his captain had taken the hose and given him the nozzle; and how his heart had pounded so loudly he was sure everyone
could hear. He’d spotted the fire right away—a deep orange glow against the far wall. He’d hit it with a smothering fog, but it hadn’t been enough. He’d hit it again. And then again. Still it had burned as if fed by embers from hell.

He’d heard the truck crew cut into the roof. Someone had yelled from the back of the house that they’d found the fire. Confused, Rick had closed the nozzle handle, cutting off the water. The smoke had been drawn through the ventilating hole in the roof and the room had cleared as they’d backed out. Rick had stared slack-jawed at his fire: the neon light in a built-in fish tank.

His captain, a crusty man two years short of retirement, had told Rick that he’d just learned the most important lesson he would ever learn in the fire department. Never take anything for granted.

Rick had not entered a burning building since that day without reminding himself of that lesson.

13

C
ATHERINE LEANED FORWARD IN
B
RIAN’S
F
ORD
Explorer and waved to the guard at the gate. He smiled and pressed the button that started the heavy metal bars sliding along their tracks, letting them enter the Estates at Granite Bay. She glanced at the dashboard clock. They’d stayed at the hospital later than usual, and when Brian found out she’d decided to call a cab to take her home, he’d insisted on taking her himself. It would be two in the morning before he finally made it home.

“Did you call your mother and tell her you were going to be late?” She’d never asked Lynda’s friends that kind of question. Just one of the differences three weeks with a daughter in the hospital had made. It seemed she worried about everything now, no longer leading a life where accidents always happened to other people.

He drove past the gate and started up the hill to Catherine’s house. “She’s at the lake this week.”

“Don’t you miss being there?” she asked care
fully. She didn’t know Brian well enough to understand his motives for being at the hospital every day, she only knew how grateful she was when she found him there. The last thing she wanted was to say or do something that might make him feel unwelcome. Lynda still wouldn’t see any of her friends, including Wendy, her lifelong best friend. She even refused to talk to them on the phone. She said she wasn’t ready and Catherine didn’t push, confident that once Lynda was away from the hospital she’d start feeling more like herself again.

“Sometimes,” Brian admitted. “But it wouldn’t be the same.”

Her heart went out to him. “It will be. You just need a little time.”

“You think that’s all Lynda needs, too?”

She sighed. “I wish I knew what she needs. I’d move heaven and earth to get it for her.” The one thing she knew for sure Lynda hadn’t needed was Tom walking out on them.

“She’s scared.”

“I know…”

“I keep telling her that no one is going to care how she looks, but she doesn’t believe me.”

“She cares. When she looks in a mirror she doesn’t recognize the girl looking back and she’s afraid her friends won’t, either.” She hadn’t recognized what was happening until she’d gone to the meeting that night. She’d listened to other parents talk about their children and in bits and pieces heard them describe and explain Lynda’s feelings.

“That’s crazy.”

“To you and me maybe, but not to her. It’s her head that was shaved, her body that’s wrapped in bandages, her back that’s scarred for life. We can’t really know what she’s going through, any more than she can know what it feels like for us to watch her going through it.”

“I thought about not coming so much.”

They were the words she’d feared hearing. “But?”

“I couldn’t stay away.” He pulled into the driveway but left the car running. “She keeps saying she doesn’t want anyone there, but if I’m late, she always asks why.”

Brian comes because he feels sorry for Lynda.
Catherine had hoped it was because they were friends. She felt a flash of protective, misplaced anger, but thankfully it was gone before she acted on it. Of all the men in Lynda’s life, Brian had proved the most loyal; his motivation didn’t matter. “She’ll be home soon.” The rest of her meaning—that he could move on with his life when that happened—was implied.

“Did you know she told me she didn’t want me coming around when she left the hospital?” He ran his hands over the leather-covered steering wheel and stared straight ahead.

“No.” Catherine didn’t know what else to say.

He turned and gave her a self-conscious grin. “I told her I wouldn’t be coming to see her, that I had a thing for older women.”

Another night, any other night, and Catherine would have laughed at the outrageous statement.
Though she knew there wasn’t enough truth in what he’d said for a con man to squeak past a lie detector, being dumped by Tom had left her just vulnerable enough to feel oddly flattered. “And what did she say to that?”

“I don’t remember.”

“That bad, huh?”

He laughed. “She thinks you’re pretty cool.”

“I think she’s pretty cool, too.” Catherine reached for the door handle. “Thanks for the ride.”

“Rick is picking you up tomorrow?”

She nodded. A month ago she’d barely known Brian and hadn’t even met Rick. Now, with the exception of Gene, she counted on them more than men she’d known her entire life. Maybe she should stick to short-term relationships. They seemed to work out the best.

Catherine told Brian to drive carefully, said good-bye, and stood at the front door until he was out of the driveway. When his taillights disappeared around the corner, she sighed and went inside her empty, silent house. The security lights, a lamp in the family room and one in the back office, guided her to the hall closet where she put away her purse. A faint, lingering smell of cleaning products reminded her that it was Wednesday and that Juli, her three-times-a-week housekeeper, had been there to scrub and polish a house full of unused rooms.

Despite their decision not to live together until they were married, Tom was woven into Catherine’s and Lynda’s lives like the third strand of a braid. Everywhere she looked she saw him, from the
humidor on the coffee table filled with his contraband Cuban cigars to the unread
Wall Street Journals
piling up by the sofa to the Bombay gin at the bar. She could feel his presence in the furniture he’d talked her into rearranging, the cupboards filled with his preferred brands of food, and even her own closet where his taste prevailed in the gifts he’d given her.

Seeking escape, if only for a moment, she grabbed her key and went to pick up the mail. Dry, warm air wrapped around her possessively as she stepped from her island of air-conditioning. Crickets, frogs, and air conditioning compressors created a familiar, discordant harmony. A full moon cast lurking shadows among the heritage oaks. As always when she ventured outside at night, Catherine felt a niggling warning. Her fear was more primal than reasonable, instigated and perpetuated by reports of yet another mountain lion being sighted in yet another foothill community, reports that became lead stories on slow news days.

Wild turkeys, brought to California and released by hunters, provided the lure for the half dozen sightings they’d had in their area. The turkeys freely wandered the manicured, acre-sized lawns during the day, a cross between curiosity and nuisance, tolerated by most, sworn at by others.

Catherine had never spotted the mountain lion that visited them periodically, but she’d seen his pawprints at the koi pond and secretly liked that something wild and free existed in her ordered life. Without the mountain lion she would enter the
night without listening, look into the shadows without seeing, and never know the kind of wariness that made her forget, if only for the time she walked to the mailbox, that her ordinary, everyday life was falling down around her like windows in an earthquake.

She waited until she was back inside again to look at the inch-thick stack of mail. Most of it was for Lynda, cards and letters from friends determined to get through to her one way or another. The rest was an assortment of flyers and bills. The flyers went into the garbage, the bills into an ever growing stack she promised herself to get to one day. Soon.

She looked at the stack and decided it had better be damn soon. Right then, preferably. Instead she went to the refrigerator, took out the bottle of chardonnay she’d opened the night before, and poured herself a glass. She was headed for the back deck when the phone rang.

“Don’t you ever pick up your messages?”

Her mother. Just about the last person she wanted to talk to. “I’m fine, Mom. How are you? And what are you doing up at this hour?”

“The hour doesn’t seem to bother Tom. He’s called three times tonight looking for you. He said he left half a dozen messages on your machine. I know it’s none of my business, but have you two had a fight?”

“Can we talk about this tomorrow?”

“So you did have a fight.”

“Mom—please. I really don’t want to talk about Tom right now. I’m tired and I want to go to bed. I
have a big day ahead of me tomorrow.” There it was. She’d given her mother an opening.

“Do you want me to come over?” she asked, her voice gentle with understanding.

The kindness nearly undid Catherine. “No, I’m okay. I just need some time alone.”

“Well, I’m here if you need me. Anytime. Don’t worry about waking me up. I’m in the middle of a great book that I can’t seem to put down, so I’ll probably be up all night anyway.”

As much as Phyllis Martin loved to read, there was no way she would ever let a book keep her up all night. She relished the daylight too much and would never give in to a nap. “I love you, Mom.”

“Oh, baby, I love you, too.” She waited several seconds and added, “This doesn’t have anything to do with Lynda, does it? I’m sorry, I had to ask.”

“Lynda’s okay. Actually, she’s better than okay, she’s fantastic. I think my daughter and I are on the path to becoming friends.”

“I told you it would happen. Wait long enough, keep the path clear, and mothers and daughters will find each other eventually.”

Catherine took a sip of wine. She let the liquid linger on her tongue, taking a second to savor the delicate flavors. Tonight it wasn’t the flavor of the wine she was after. The sip was followed by a large swallow. She tucked the portable phone under her chin, took the bottle in one hand and her glass in the other, and went outside to sit on the deck.

Settling into a chair, she asked, “Are you still leaving on Friday?” Her mother made a yearly pil
grimage to Washington where she and several of her old sorority sisters rented a house on Bainbridge Island. They took the house for a month with no set arrival or departure date.

“I thought I would—unless you need me here. I’m not staying as long this time, though. I want to be around for Lynda’s homecoming. We should do something to make it really special.”

“Let’s wait a while before we make any plans.” First the car and then a party. Catherine filled her glass again, leaned back, and stared at the flood of lights that filled the valley between her and Sacramento. Heat rose in undulating waves from the acres of concrete and asphalt that now blanketed rich farmland, distorting the lights, making them blink like distant stars.

“So what are you going to do instead?”

“I don’t know,” she said, hearing the weariness in her own voice.

“What’s wrong, Catherine? Is there something you’re afraid to tell me?”

“I’m just worn down, Mom,” she said evasively. “I’ll sound better in the morning. After I’ve had some sleep.”

“I’m sorry. I said I wouldn’t push. You’ll tell me when you’re ready.”

“Thanks.”

“Well, I guess I’d better get back to my book and let you call Tom.”

“I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” Catherine pressed the Off button and put the phone on the table. At least she’d been warned that Tom was looking for
her again. Now she knew not to answer the phone.

Later, as she put the last of the wine in the refrigerator and washed her glass, her gaze fell on the stack of unpaid bills. How could she have been so stupid to let Tom talk her into quitting her job? Her piddling paycheck—as Tom had called it—had made the difference between tight and comfortable for her and Lynda every month. They could make it without that money, but just barely.

In a moment of excitement over his upcoming freedom and guilt over her discovering him in bed with another woman, Jack had agreed to her attorney’s wildly optimistic divorce settlement proposal with only minor changes. He’d regretted his generosity from the moment the first month’s funds were transferred from his account to hers, and had taken her back to court in an unsuccessful attempt to get it reduced. Of all the good wishes that had come her way with the news that she was getting married again, none had been more enthusiastic than Jack’s.

If there was a silver lining to the day’s events, it was the prospect of telling Jack that the wedding was off. Catherine let herself luxuriate in the prospect for a moment, aware it wouldn’t last. She hated being dependent on Jack since their divorce, and had looked forward to the day the alimony would end almost as much as he had. It didn’t matter that the settlement came wrapped with self-righteous claims that she deserved what she received from Jack; she couldn’t escape the fact that he earned the money that paid her bills. When they
were married she’d felt she more than earned her share of the income, the way she would have with Tom.

She lived in financial bondage. She’d talked herself into believing Tom represented freedom. But all he’d really offered was a new cell. Funny how the tarnish of facts diminished whatever glow of love still remained.

Alone in the dark, silent house with only her thoughts for company, Catherine struggled for answers.

How could she have fallen in love with a man like Tom? What flaw in her personality, what deep-seated need, what compulsion had come into play to blind her to the real man inside the stunningly handsome package?

Of everything she’d lost that night, her confidence had suffered the most damaging blow. Twice she’d given her heart to men who’d abandoned her. Who bore the real blame for their actions—her or them?

One of her father’s oft-used homilies came to her.
Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

She caught her breath in a quick sob.

She was alone. Again. The joy that came with knowing there was someone to share her day with was gone. For years she’d tried to keep
alone
from meaning
lonely
and had never found the formula, finally accepting that she functioned best as half of a pair. What irony that she lacked the ability to find someone who felt the same.

At least she understood her failings now. She wouldn’t try again. Once she’d believed in love over self-preservation, but the pain demanded too much, stole too many years.

She would go back to work because she had to, but this time it wouldn’t be just a job she went after; she would find a career even if she had to go back to school. She’d fill her days with the stimulation and challenge of making money the way Jack and Tom and Gene and every other man she knew did. To hell with the nights. She would find a way to get through them until the loneliness became as natural and unimposing as breathing.

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