Authors: Sherryl Woods,Sherryl Woods
“Ask you on a date,” she said, her expression innocent. “Wasn’t I clear enough?”
He studied her suspiciously. “What if I said I’d take you to some other pub in the city?”
“Then I’d say you’re avoiding your brother,” she responded. “And you certainly wouldn’t want me to get an idea like that, would you?”
Sean held up his hands in a gesture of surrender. “We’ll go the first weekend I’m off,” he said.
To his surprise, instead of feeling trapped, he felt a faint stirring of genuine anticipation. Maybe it was Sean’s turn to take a risk and keep the lines of communication open.
He met Deanna’s penetrating gaze, saw the warm approval in her eyes and realized that there could be yet another benefit to taking a tiny chink out of the wall around his heart. Eventually there just might be enough room for a woman like Deanna to squeeze through.
Silhouette Special Edition
Never Let Go
Edge of Forever
In Too Deep
Miss Liz’s Passion
Tea and Destiny
My Dearest Cal
Joshua and the Cowgirl
A Daring Vow
A Vow To Love
The Parson’s Waiting
One Step Away
Riley’s Sleeping Beauty
Finally a Bride
A Christmas Blessing
Natural Born Daddy
The Cowboy and His Baby
The Rancher and His Unexpected Daughter
A Ranch for Sara
Danielle’s Daddy Factor
The Littlest Angel
Natural Born Trouble
The Cowgirl and the Unexpected Wedding
Natural Born Lawman
The Cowboy and His Wayward Bride
Suddenly, Annie’s Father
The Cowboy and the New Year’s Baby
Dylan and the Baby Doctor
The Pint-Sized Secret
Marrying a Delacourt
The Delacourt Scandal
A Love Beyond Words
Do You Take This Rebel?
Courting the Enemy
To Catch a Thief
Wrangling the Redhead
Not at Eight, Darling
Come Fly with Me
A Gift of Love
Can’t Say No
One Touch of Moondust
Silhouette Summer Sizzlers
“A Bridge to Dreams”
“The Paternity Test”
The Unclaimed Baby
The Calamity Janes
has written more than seventy-five novels. She also operates her own bookstore, Potomac Sunrise, in Colonial Beach, Virginia. If you can’t visit Sherryl at her store, then be sure to drop her a note at P.O. Box 490326, Key Biscayne, FL 33149 or check out her Web site at www.sherrylwoods.com.
ean Devaney’s eyes were stinging from the smoke at the still-smoldering ruins of a tumbledown Victorian house that had been converted into low-rent apartments. Bits of ash clung to his sweat-dampened skin and hair. Even after stripping off his flame-retardant jacket and coveralls, Sean continued to feel as if he’d just exited an inferno…which he had. The acrid smell of smoke was thick in the air and in his clothes. Even after ten years with the Boston Fire Department, he still wasn’t used to the aftermath of fighting a blaze—the exhaustion, the dehydration, the stench.
He’d been young and idealistic when he’d joined the department. He’d wanted to be a hero, craved the rush of adrenaline that kicked in when an alarm sounded. Saving lives had been part of it, but so had the danger, the thrill of putting his own life on the line to do something that mattered. In fact, it seemed Sean
had spent most of his life trying to matter in one way or another.
Now, though, with the adrenaline wearing off, all he wanted was a warm, pounding shower and about sixteen straight hours of sleep. Unfortunately, until these last hot spots were thoroughly dampened and the location made secure, Sean was destined to stay right here just in case there was another flare-up.
The landlord was damn lucky no one had been killed. Indeed, from what Sean had observed inside, the landlord of this building himself ought to be shot. Even in the midst of battling heat and flames, Sean had noticed that there were so many code violations, he couldn’t begin to count them all. Though it would be another twenty-four hours before investigators pinned down the cause of the blaze, in Sean’s opinion it was most likely the outdated and overloaded electrical system. He hoped the landlord had a healthy insurance policy, because he was going to need it to pay off all the suits from his tenants. Most had lost just about everything to flames or to extensive smoke and water damage.
Sean scanned what remained of the crowd that had gathered to watch the inferno to see if there was any sign of a likely landlord, but most of the onlookers appeared to be more fascinated than dismayed by the destruction.
“Hey, Sean,” his partner, Hank DiMartelli, called out, a grin splitting his face as he gestured toward something behind Sean. “Looks like we’ve got a new helper. He’s agile enough, but I doubt he meets the department’s age and height requirements.”
Sean turned around just in time to catch a kid scrambling inside the fire truck. By the time Sean
latched on to him, the boy was already reaching with unerring precision for the button to set off the siren.
“Whoa, fella, I think this neighborhood’s heard enough sirens for one afternoon,” Sean said, lifting the boy out of the truck.
“But I wanna do it,” the child protested, chin jutting out in a mulish expression. With his light-brown hair standing up in gelled spikes, he looked a little like a pint-size member of one of those popular boy bands.
“Another time,” Sean said very firmly. He set the boy on his feet on the ground and was surprised when the kid didn’t immediately take off. Instead he stood there with his unrepentant expression and continued to cast surreptitious glances toward the cab of the engine. Sean had a hunch the boy would be right back up there unless Sean stuck close by to prevent it.
“So,” he said, hoping to drag the boy’s attention away from his fascination with the siren, “what’s your name?”
The kid returned his gaze with a solemn expression. “I’m not supposed to tell it to strangers,” he said automatically, as if the lesson had been drilled into him.
Sean hated to contradict such wise parental advice, but he also wanted to know to whom the kid belonged and why he was wandering around the scene of a fire all alone. “Normally I’d agree with that,” he assured the boy. “But it’s okay to tell me. I’m Sean, a fireman. Police officers and firefighters are good guys. You can always come to us when you’re in trouble.”
“But I’m not in trouble,” he responded reasonably, his stubborn expression never wavering. “Besides, Mommy said never to tell
unless she said it was okay.”
Sean bit back a sigh. He couldn’t very well argue with that. “Okay then, where is your mom?”
The kid shrugged. “Don’t know.”
Sean’s blood ran cold. Instantly he was six years old again, standing outside a school waiting for his mom after his first day of first grade. She had never come. In fact, that was the day she and Sean’s father had disappeared from Boston and from his life. Soon afterward, he and two of his brothers were sent into foster care, separated forever. Only recently had Sean been found by his older brother, Ryan. To this day, he had no idea what had become of his younger brother, Michael, or of the twins, who’d apparently vanished with his parents.
Forcing himself back to the present, Sean looked into the boy’s big brown eyes, searching for some sign of the sort of panic he’d experienced on that terrible day, but there was none. The kid looked perfectly comfortable with the fact that his mom was nowhere around.
Pushing aside his own knee-jerk reaction to the situation, he asked, “Where do you live?”
“I used to live there,” the boy said matter-of-factly, pointing toward the scorched Victorian.
Dear God in heaven, was it possible that this child’s mother was still inside? Had they missed her? Sean’s thoughts scrambled. No way. They had searched every room methodically for any sign of victims of the fire that had started at midafternoon and raged for two hours before being brought under control. He’d gone through the two third-floor apartments himself. His partner had gone through the second floor. Another team had searched the first floor.
“Was your mom home when the fire started?” Sean
asked, keeping his tone mild. The last thing he wanted to do was scare the boy.
“Don’t think so. I stay with Ruby when I get home from school. She lives over there.” He pointed to a similar Victorian behind them. “Sometimes Mommy doesn’t get home till really, really late. Then she takes me home and tucks me in, even if I’m already asleep.”
The kid kept inadvertently pushing one of Sean’s hot buttons. Another wave of anger washed through him. How could any mother leave a kid like this in the care of strangers while she cavorted around town half the night? What sort of irresponsible woman was she? If there was any one thing that could send Sean’s usually placid temper skyrocketing, it was a negligent parent. He did his best to stay out of situations where he might run into one. The last time he’d worked a fire set by a kid playing with matches while his parents were out, he’d lost it. They’d had to drag Sean away from the boy’s father when the man had finally shown up, swearing he’d only been away from the house for a few minutes. Sean had really wanted to beat some sense into him. A few minutes was a lifetime to a kid intent on mischief.
“Is Ruby around now?” Sean asked, managing to avoid giving any hint about his increasingly low opinion of the boy’s mother. He even managed to keep his tone neutral.
The boy bobbed his head and pointed down the street. “Ruby doesn’t have a phone, ’cause it costs too much. She went to the store on the corner to call Mom and tell her what happened. I went with her, but then I came back to see the truck.”
Great! Just great, Sean thought. The baby-sitter had let the kid run off alone, too. He had half a mind to
put in a call to Social Services on the spot. The only thing stopping him was his own lousy experience in the system. Plenty of kids were well served by foster care, but he hadn’t been one of them, not until the last family had taken him in when he was almost ten.
The Forresters had been kind and patient and determined to prove to him that he was a kid worthy of being loved. They had almost made up for his having had his real parents walk out on him and two of his brothers. The Forresters had made up for some of the too-busy foster parents who hadn’t had the time or the skills necessary to reassure a scared kid who was fearful that every adult in his life was going to leave and never come back. Foster care, by its very temporary nature, only fed that insecurity.
Since this child, despite wandering around on his own, showed no other apparent signs of neglect, Sean decided to check things out a bit more before taking a drastic step that could change the boy’s life forever. He looked the kid in the eye. “So, how about I call you Mikey? I had a kid brother named Mike a long time ago. You remind me of him. He was pretty adventurous, too.”
“That’s not my name,” the boy said.
Sean waited as the kid hesitated, clearly weighing parental cautions against current circumstances. He was probably trying to calculate the odds that Sean would let him back into that fire truck if they were on a first-name basis.
“You really don’t think my mom would be mad if I told you my name?” he asked worriedly.
“I’m pretty sure she’d tell you it was okay, since I’m a firefighter,” Sean reassured him. “You can at least tell me your first name.”
The boy’s brow knit as he considered that. “Okay,” he said at last, his expression brightening. “I suppose it would be okay if you called me Seth.”
Sean bit back a grin at the reluctant concession. “Okay then, Seth, why don’t we sit right here on the curb and watch for Ruby to come back?”
Seth regarded him eagerly. “I could go get her. She’d probably want to meet you. Ruby’s really beautiful and she’s always looking for a new boyfriend. Are you married?”
“Nope, and I think it’s best if we wait right here,” Sean said, praying for protection from the too-available Ruby and her pint-size matchmaker. “So, Seth, you haven’t told me about your dad. Is he at work?”
For the first time, the boy showed evidence of real dismay. His lower lip trembled. “I don’t have a dad,” he said sadly. “He went away a long, long time ago when I was just a baby. I’m almost six now. Well, not till next March. I know that’s a long time from now, but being six is going to be really cool, ’cause I’ll be in first grade.”
Sean struggled to follow the conversation. He wasn’t sure what to say to the announcement that the boy’s father had abandoned him, but Seth didn’t seem to notice. He kept right on chatting, spilling the details of his life.
“Mom says my dad loved me, but Ruby says he was a no-good son of a something. I’m not sure what.” He regarded Sean with hopeful eyes. “Do you think Mom’s right?”
Old emotions crowded in, and Sean bit back a string of curses. “I’m sure she is,” he reassured the boy. “What dad wouldn’t love a great kid like you?”
“Then how come he went away?” Seth asked reasonably.
“I don’t know,” Sean told him with total honesty. It certainly wasn’t something he could understand. Not in Seth’s case, not in his own, even with an adult’s perspective on it. He told Seth the same thing he’d been told on countless occasions. “Sometimes things happen that can’t be helped. And sometimes we never find out why.”
Sean sighed. He certainly hadn’t. And until Ryan had come back into his life, he had told himself he didn’t care. In fact, he’d gone out of his way not to be found, in case his folks had ever gotten around to looking. He’d stayed in Boston, but he’d maintained a deliberately low profile—an unlisted phone number, no credit cards. Anyone looking for him would have had to work hard to find him. That way, when no one had come knocking at his door, he’d been able to tell himself it was because he’d been all but impossible to find. He’d never had to deal with the possibility that no one had cared enough to look.
His brother Ryan had apparently erected the same sort of walls around his heart. Then he’d fallen in love with Maggie, who had prodded him into searching for the family he’d lost. Sean’s safeguards hadn’t been enough to stop a determined investigator from finding him, which told Sean that his parents had more than likely never bothered to try. Most of the time he could convince himself that that didn’t hurt, but there were times like this when the wounds felt as raw as they had more than twenty years ago.
Just when he was about to sink into a disgusting bout of self-pity, a dark-haired woman wearing a waitress’s uniform came racing down the street, her ex
pression frantic. She was trailed by a sexy blonde wearing tight jeans, a bright pink tank top and spike heels.
“Mom,” Seth shouted, leaping up and racing straight for the petite, dark-haired woman.
She scooped him up, smothered his face in kisses, then held him out to examine him from head to toe. Only then did she speak. “What are you doing back here, young man?” she demanded, her expression stern. “You know you’re never supposed to go anywhere unless Ruby’s with you.”
“I came to see the fire truck,” he said, then pointed accusingly at Sean, who’d risen to join them. “He wouldn’t let me play with the siren, though.”
The woman turned toward Sean and held out a hand. “I’m Deanna Blackwell. Thanks for keeping an eye on him. I hope he wasn’t any bother.”
“Sean Devaney,” he said tightly. Looking into huge brown eyes filled with sincerity, Sean couldn’t bring himself to deliver the lecture that had been forming in his head from the moment he’d run across the kid. Before he could say anything at all, the second woman stepped forward and slid a hand provocatively up his arm. The muscle tensed at her touch, but beyond that he was pretty much immune to the invitation in her eyes.
“I’m Ruby Allen, the baby-sitter,” she said, regarding him seductively. “I’ve always wanted to meet a real, honest-to-goodness firefighter.”
Deanna rolled her eyes at the provocative come-on. “You’ll have to excuse Ruby,” she apologized. “She’s basically harmless.”
A lot of men would fall for Ruby’s sex-on-the-run attitude, but Sean wasn’t even tempted. His dates
tended to be smart, independent types who weren’t looking for a future. Ruby had desperation written all over her. She might act as if she were looking for nothing more than a roll in the hay, but instinct—and Seth’s innocent remark—suggested otherwise.
Deanna Blackwell was another story entirely. With her fragile features and huge eyes emphasized by dark curls that had been cropped very short in a no-muss, no-fuss style, she looked about as innocent as her kid. The stay-out-all-night playgirl mom he’d been anticipating was, instead, an angel with smudges of exhaustion under her eyes.
was a combination that could get under his skin. That was one reason he avoided the type at all costs.