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Authors: Georgia Bockoven

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BOOK: Disguised Blessing
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36

C
ATHERINE SMOOTHED THE SHELF PAPER IN THE
linen cupboard and stood back to admire her handiwork, a part of her amused at how little it took to please her nowadays. They’d been in the new house two weeks, and she was finally through unpacking and putting things away. The boxes still in the garage were headed for storage. What she didn’t use or miss in a year she would give to the battered women’s shelter she’d already overwhelmed with a truckload of furniture.

Lynda came up behind her. “I’m going downstairs to watch
General Hospital
and then do my homework.”

“Did you check to see if it recorded today?” Yesterday, the tape had been blank when Lynda went to watch it, and Catherine wasn’t sure if she’d made a mistake setting it up or if the VCR was on its way out.

“Not yet.”

“Let me know.” Lynda started to walk away and
Catherine called her back. “Want to see the shelf paper I bought today?”

Lynda’s eyes widened with disbelief. She shook her head. “Mom, you have got to get a life.”

“It’s really pretty. And smells good, too. It was on sale at William Glen.”

“Oh…
William Glen.
You should have said so.”

“Sarcasm gives you pimples,” Catherine told her.

“And pizza clears ‘em right up.” With exaggerated reluctance, she came back, looked in the cupboard, and sniffed. “Incredible. The best shelf paper I’ve ever smelled.”

“And?”

“Oh, the most beautiful by far.”

Catherine laughed. “Go watch your soap.” Alone again, she picked up a stack of bath towels and put them in the cupboard. Next came the hand towels and washcloths and then, on the next shelf, the sheets and pillowcases.

She broke down the empty cardboard box and was on her way to put it in the garage when she heard Lynda scream. The wrenching sound tore through the quiet house like a spear through silk.

“No…no, no, no—”

The heat drained from Catherine’s body.

“Please
no.”

She tried to move, but the message was lost somewhere between her mind and her legs.

“Not Rick.
He can’t be dead.”

Her knees buckled; she slid down the wall to the floor.

The hospital was organized chaos, with two ambulances in the bay and another pulling in. Medical personnel stood to the side as the patients were unloaded, then moved in to begin their assessments.

The firefighter paramedics yielded their precious cargo but stuck close as they rolled deeper into the emergency room, reciting the field reports taken at the scene—blood pressure, pulse—desperate, determined steps taken to make sure one of their own did not die.

“Let me off of this thing,” Rick said as he struggled to remove his oxygen mask.

A stern-looking nurse with yellow pencils behind both ears glared at him. “You’re mine now, big boy. You will do what I say. Do you hear me?”

“Yes, Sergeant.”

She smiled. “Glad you got the picture.”

Rick had no intention of obeying. As soon as they left him alone, he would be on his feet and off to find Paul and Janet. He had to see for himself that they were all right. No one would tell him anything except that they’d all made it this far.

When they were in the examining room, a male nurse picked up a pair of scissors. “What are you going to do with those?” Rick asked him.

“You know the routine. I’m going to cut off your clothes.”

“Do you have any idea how long it takes to get a set of turnouts replaced? It could be six months. Even longer. And while I’m waiting, I’ll have to use a loaner set from the tower, and then—”

“All right, all right.” He put the scissors down. “If you can sit up, I’ll help you get this stuff off. If not, it’s back to the scissors.”

“Fair enough.” Rick started to roll to his side. For an insane moment he thought someone had come in behind him and punched him in the ribs. The pain wasn’t so bad he couldn’t work through it, but it wasn’t anything he wanted to have to live with for long. As soon as he was upright, his personal, invisible boxing champion started throwing punches at his head.

He was sitting up, but the way the room was swaying, he knew he wasn’t going to stay that way for long. He shrugged out of his jacket and shirt. When he was prone again, he unsnapped his suspenders, lifted his hips, and the nurse tugged his pants off.

With more patience than he felt, he went through the triage exam—the flashlight to check his pupils, the taps and scratches to test his reflexes, the pokes and prods for pain—knowing they wouldn’t find anything serious.

The doctor ordered Xrays and bloodwork. “Looks like you’re going to get away with a couple of cracked ribs and a mild concussion. The head wound is going to need a couple of stitches. I hope you’re a side sleeper.”

“What about the others?”

“I’m going to check on them now. As soon as I find out anything, I’ll let you know.”

“Thanks.” Rick settled against the pillow, too tired to pay attention to the pain it caused. Sounds
from an examining room down the hall drifted to him in unrecognizable snatches. He concentrated and picked out a voice asking for a name, over and over again. “Can you tell me who you are? What’s your name? Hey, fella, can you give me your name?”

Fella? It had to be Paul. He was either unconscious or unresponsive. Rick turned his good ear to the voices, sending a silent message to his rookie, urging him to wake up. He focused so intently, he didn’t hear the nurse come in to take his blood, wasn’t even aware of her until she reached for his arm.

She started to say something and he cut her off when he heard one of the distant nurses say, “What did he call himself?”

“I’m not sure.”

“Tell me again,” the nurse urged. “What is your name?”

This time, as clearly as if they were lying side by side, Rick heard the answer.


Cats…
” Paul said with unmistakable pride.

“They won’t tell me,” Catherine said, turning to Lynda as she hung up the phone. “They said they won’t release the names or any information about their condition until the families have been notified.”

“I know it’s him,” Lynda said. “I saw him when they were putting him in the ambulance.” She broke down again. “He had…he had blood…all over his face.”

Desperate, Catherine tried the firehouse. No one answered. She didn’t know who else to call. She took Lynda’s arm and steered her toward the front door. “We’re going down there.”

“They won’t let us in. We’re not family.”

“The hell they won’t. Just let them try to stop us.”

When they were in the car, Catherine turned the radio to an all-news station. They were in the middle of a report on rising interest rates when the local newscaster broke in.

“Three firefighters were taken to the hospital this afternoon after being trapped in a house fire. The firefighters, one of them female, were attempting the rescue of a seven-year-old boy reported inside.

“The mother of the boy told reporters she’d gone next door to visit a friend while her son—who had stayed home from school with an upset stomach—was taking a nap. The boy was found later by police hiding in the backyard of a nearby house.

“The source of the fire is under investigation.

“Stay tuned for updates as they happen. Now back to our regularly scheduled program.”

“That stupid woman,” Lynda raged. “This is all her fault. She had no business leaving—”

“Rick’s okay,” Catherine said.

“How do you know?”

“I can feel it,” she said with absolute conviction.

Lynda turned to her. “I know you love him. When are you going to do something about it?”

For thirty-nine years she’d planned and thought
and considered, following the dictates of her mind. It was time to let her heart take the lead.

She looked at Lynda. “I do love him. And I think it’s time I told him that.”

Janet winced as she turned her head to look at Rick. She was still in the examination room, waiting to be transported to the orthopedics floor. An expert on joint surgery was on his way in from the golf course to look at her shattered knee. “Did anyone say how long Paul’s going to be off?”

“No one has said anything to me.” Rick sat forward in his chair, looking for what had become an oxymoron—a comfortable position. “Having the burn on the same leg that’s broken is going to present some problems.”

“Did they get your X rays back yet?”

“Two cracked ribs,” Rick told her.

She nodded. “What about the head?”

“A couple of stitches. Nothing to get excited about.”

“Shit—” She pinched the bridge of her nose, trying to hold back tears. “I just get you guys doing things the way I like around the firehouse and look what happens. Now someone else is going to come in and get the benefit of all my hard work.”

Rick accepted the bravado for what it was—a potent mixture of fear and regret. Janet loved her job and was facing the possibility of never going back. “I’ll do what I can to make sure there’s no backsliding.”

An awkward silence followed. “Steve told me what you did. I suppose now you’ll be expecting me to bake you a cake or something.”

He laughed. It hurt like hell. “If you’re looking for a way to thank me, one of your cakes isn’t it.”

Steve came in. He touched Rick’s shoulder. “There’s someone out there looking for you.”

Rick didn’t feel like moving. “Who is it?”

“Trust me, it’s someone you want to see.”

Puzzled, Rick stood and stiffly moved past him. He pulled the curtain aside and barely had time to brace himself before Lynda was in his arms. He let out a soft groan at the impact but the pain wasn’t near what he would have expected. She felt good where she was.

He looked into Lynda’s face and could see that she’d been crying. “I’m sorry if I scared you,” he said softly.

“Scared doesn’t begin to cover it,” she said. “When I saw you on television, I thought for sure you were dead. Thank God Mom was there. I don’t know what I would have done if I’d been by myself.”

“Where is your mother?” Rick asked carefully. Before she had a chance to answer, he looked up and saw Catherine watching them. She was crying, and smiling, and walking toward him.

“She’s in love with you, you know,” Lynda said, stepping aside.

“Yeah,” he said. “I do know.”

Catherine looked up at him, her eyes filled with
the wonder of finally knowing what it was to be in love and to be loved for the first time in her life. She touched his face gently, longingly, and then kissed him. “I’ve come to take you home.”

He looked deeply into her eyes. “It’s your home, too. As soon as you’re ready.”

“I already feel as if I belong there.”

He brought her closer, the pain in his ribs forgotten in his need to feel her, to smell the perfume of her hair, to mark the moment that their life together began. “I’m a forever kind of guy, Catherine. You can have as much time as you and Lynda need. I’ll be right here waiting when you’re ready.”

She lifted her chin, touched her lips to his, and whispered, “I love you.”

“You’re going to have to tell me again,” Rick said. “I’ve waited too long to hear it only once.”

She kissed him again. “I love you…I love you…I love you.”

“That’s a fine start,” he told her. “Now you can take me home and tell me again.” He held an arm out to Lynda.

They left the hospital together. A family.

Thirty-five miles away, Blue awakened from a deep sleep. He stood and stretched, looked at Sandra and Walt for several seconds, whined softly, and let himself out through the garage door. Pausing for one questioning, backward glance, he trotted across the lawn and through the opening in the fence that separated what had been his two homes.

Innately, he knew his wandering days were over. With long, purposeful strides he made his way through the abandoned vegetable garden, past the heritage oak, and around the house to the driveway.

There he sat and waited, his tail slowly, steadily sweeping the dust in a wide, welcoming arc.

Praise for the stunning novels of Georgia Bockoven

Things Remembered

“I closed this book with a tear and a smile on my face,
feeling that I had learned a little more about my own
feelings towards the women in my family.”

Under the Covers

The Beach House

“Visit
The Beach House
and you won’t want
to leave, ever!”
—Catherine Coulter

“Marvelous!”
—Romantic Times

Books by Georgia Bockoven

A Marriage of Convenience
The Way It Should Have Been
Moments
Alone in a Crowd
Far from Home
An Unspoken Promise
The Beach House
Things Remembered
Disguised Blessing

Published by HarperPaperbacks

Copyright

HarperPaperbacks
A Division of
HarperCollins
Publishers
10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022-5299

If you purchased this book without a cover, you should be aware that this book is stolen property. It was reported as “unsold and destroyed” to the publisher, and neither the author nor the publisher has received any payment for this “stripped book.”

This is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogues are products of the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Copyright © 2000 by Georgia Bockoven

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. By payment of the required fees, you have been granted the non-exclusive, non-transferable right to access and read the text of this e-book on screen. No part of this text may be reproduced, transmitted, downloaded, decompiled, reverse engineered, or stored in or introduced into any information storage and retrieval system, in any form or by any means, whether electronic or mechanical, now known or hereinafter invented, without the express written permission of HarperCollins e-books.

EPub Edition © AUGUST 2010 ISBN: 978-0-062-03127-3

HarperCollins
®
, and HarperPaperbacks™ are trademarks of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

First HarperPaperbacks printing: April 2000

Visit HarperPaperbacks on the World Wide Web at
http://www.harpercollins.com

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