Embers of Hope
Savanna Thompson knows what it’s like when you blink and your life shatters. She’s been hiding her divorce from her best friend Cassie, but she knows she can’t any longer. Cassie’s husband, a firefighter, just died. Savanna rushes home, along with her one-year-old daughter to help, and now she’s staying with Cassie in a nursery meant for a baby that won’t ever exist.
She will fix their relationship, but it’s complicated with Jason around. He’s the firefighter who saved Savanna’s life two and a half years ago. He just lost his best friend, and like Cassie, he blames himself for Mike’s death. When he convinced Mike to remain with the department, how could he know Mike would die fighting a house fire?
Though hurting herself, something deep inside her won’t let her walk away. Jason needs her but she’s off limits on so many levels. She’s falling for this sexy firefighter but he confuses her to no end. Being stuck in the middle is enough stress, plus her own problems are festering behind her helping smile. Can Savanna find the balance between loving Jason, helping Cassie, and taking care of herself and her daughter? Or is she going to lose this bet and her best friend?
A screaming alarm jarred Savanna from a deep sleep, and she stumbled out of bed, moving before thinking. It was only 3 a.m. She groaned and fumbled toward her bedroom door to go turn it off but paused when she coughed. Her eyes stung and the air felt dry and hot, sucking her breath away.
Smoke! Her heartbeat skyrocketed into a painful and fast sprint. Where was it coming from? She stretched out her hand, planning to test the shut door, but she felt heat before even touching it.
Whipping around, she ran to her bedroom window and tried to pry it open. She could jump from the second story. A broken bone wasn’t as bad as facing the flames on the other side of the door. She could probably land with just a few bruises anyway. Right?
Why wouldn’t it open? She pried and yanked the window, cursing, until she felt it give. It slid up a few inches, just enough to let in more smoke. How could the smoke come in from her bedroom door and through the window? There had to be some way to get out. With her face pressed to the window, she could see an orange glow from flames billowing out of the apartment right below her.
She was smack on top of the fire.
The buzzing fear in her chest spread all over her body. Enough smoke had made its way into her room for her to see it now, and it grew thicker by the second.
She couldn’t get out this way, and there was no way she wanted to sit and wait for the flames to burn through the door.
Getting down on her hands and knees, she approached the door. At the last second, she thought to grab something to cover the door handle. Using the shirt she found on the floor, she turned the handle and cracked open the door enough to look into the hallway.
Heat hit her face, stinging her eyes. It threw her backward into the room, but she scrambled back up onto her knees to stare down the fire. Smoke poured in above her. Flames licked up both sides of the door frame, leaving only a small gap to run through.
Red and orange flames and sparks danced up the walls in the living room, on the ceiling in places, and around some of the furniture.
She pulled herself up on her feet but didn’t stand up straight. If she did, her head would be in the thick smoke above. She breathed through the shirt.
Okay, she had twenty feet between her and the door. Ready, set, go.
“Ahh!” A wood beam crashed down in front of her. When she pulled her hand back to her mouth, she found she’d dropped the shirt. Coughing, she looked for a new way out.
Wait a minute – why didn’t she just break the window? How on earth had she missed that? She turned to go back but found solid flames eating the hallway behind her. In fact, the fire now engulfed most of the hallway in front of her as well. She didn’t have anything to shield herself with, and her only chance was to run through the flames.
If she went forward, she’d have scars the rest of her life if she made it out alive, but what choice did she have?
“One, two, three, run!” She tried to move, but her body wouldn’t obey her. “One, two, three, run!” She froze again.
Crying, she counted again and jumped. She ran into a geared-up firefighter, a sight almost as scary as the fire itself.
Oh, thank God! She felt a wet blanket around her before he pulled her up into his arms. Water shot in through the open door and doused out flames as they proceeded out. Instinct had her shrinking into him, clinging to his gear as he rushed for the door, holding her tight.
The heat subsided. They made it. She closed her eyes, trying to block out the bright inferno and the way she’d panicked. It very well could have killed her.
Whoever carried her had strong arms, a broad chest. His mask had scared her that first second, but she clung to him now.
Once clear of the building, he went straight to the ambulance and laid her on a stretcher. He pulled his mask up then. “Everything’s okay now.”
His fiery brown eyes reflected the burning building as he stared into her face.
“Miss?” He bent over her, concerned. His strong nose, slightly bent, fit right in with his wide cheekbones and square jaw. Savanna didn’t answer, just stared at the man who had saved her life.
She still couldn’t take her eyes off him.
He turned to someone else and said, “She might be in shock.” He leaned over her one more time and squeezed her shoulder. “You’re all right now. It’s okay.”
And then he left.
Savanna stood at the counter of the rental agency, waiting to finish the paperwork for returning her moving truck. This so-called new beginning felt more like an ending right now. She’d spent the last few days driving from Texas back to her hometown of Eugene, Oregon, in the late August heat.
The trip itself wasn’t the worst experience of her life. After all, it wasn’t like she’d walked here, but emotion after emotion had skipped through her, sending her into nervous worry or dark sadness. Stress had caught up with her when she stuffed everything she owned into a small self-storage storage unit before coming here.
Though tired, she smiled at the toddler propped on her hip. A warm breeze blew in through the open door and played with Aubrey’s short brown curls. At last, the man slid a paper across the counter for Savanna to sign. She thanked him and sat down in the small lobby to call Cassie’s house, anxious to talk to her friend.
She didn’t get Cassie, though. Someone else answered and said they’d send a ride, a man named Jason. She should have figured out another way to get to Cassie’s house, but that was an idle thought that wouldn’t go anywhere. It was a bit late for trying to cover things now. She hadn’t told anyone she was moving back. Everyone would assume she was just visiting and then returning to Texas.
Not only was she dirty and worn out, but her baby girl was yawning and rubbing her eyes. Savanna headed to the bathroom to freshen up, though she doubted it would revive either of them much. She splashed cold water on her face. Aubrey looked hot, too, so Savanna rubbed water on her short curls, making brown tuffs stand up all over her head. While she couldn’t imagine Aubrey with anything but her big brown eyes and brown hair, they always reminded her of Aubrey’s father, someone she didn’t want to think about anymore.
Aubrey wiggled from her arms and slid down, which left Savanna staring at herself in the mirror. Something about looking into her own eyes made her face the truth of the situation. A sob started up her throat. Determined to keep it in, she yanked a paper towel from the dispenser and held it over her mouth, but still the tears came. She felt so lost.
“It’s fine, baby. I’m fine. I’m fine,” she said a few times too many and splashed more water on her face.
“Bobby Boo, up,” Aubrey said softly, too seriously, while watching her mama with dark brown eyes.
She wiped her smeared mascara with a wet paper towel, trying to smile. “Come on, kiddo. Let’s go outside.”
Her “Bobby Boo” smiled at that. Savanna hauled Aubrey up into her arms and grabbed the car seat and the strap to her suitcase. It didn’t look graceful as she pulled her suitcase, but it got them outside. The day’s heat was fading somewhat, leaving a tiredness in the air. She found a bench against the building where they could sit in the shade.
A pulsing headache started in her temple, so she closed her eyes but listened to Aubrey’s babbles. What a long, crazy week, but she’d made it through it all for Cassie. She’d been looking for a reason to come home to Oregon, so when she heard that Mike, Cassie’s husband, had died, she quit her job, packed up her apartment, and raced over from Texas.
All the packing and moving didn’t keep her busy enough to ignore the guilt. She had showed Cassie a fake front the last few years, pretending everything was perfect was it was falling apart. She’d neglected her best friend and the real parts of their lives, but now it seemed like a great time to renew their friendship and focus on someone else’s problems and needs. Maybe she could lose herself in that.
Aubrey climbed into Savanna’s lap and sang her rendition of “Baa, Baa, Black Sheep” for a minute and then laid her head on Savanna’s shoulder.
“Getting tired, Bobby Boo? That was a big trip, huh?” She pulled her baby close to hug her chubby little body and then rubbed her back until Aubrey dosed off. Hopefully, her daughter saw all this as a big adventure.
She wasn’t just worried for Cassie. She was also haunted once again by memories of the fire that had almost taken her life. It’d happened right here in Eugene, shortly before she moved to Texas.
Poor Cassie. Her husband had been a firefighter, and Savanna wondered if Mike was trying to save someone when he died. Savanna felt sick again, the same sickness she’d felt in that fire as she thought of dying. She couldn’t escape the torture of those memories today or the dread of facing all her old friends again. The truth would come out, whether or not she decided to tell it, because people always ask questions.
Why on earth did you stay there in Texas? Why didn’t you come home? Why didn’t you at least tell anyone?
A feeling jarred her into opening her eyes. Sure enough, someone was coming. A man with striking brown eyes walked her way, looking her over. She tried to say Jason to see if he were her ride, but she never heard herself speak. He had a strong face, a square jaw, and a body that looked like he worked out every day.
His eyes and mouth were familiar, but how could that be? The firefighter? His T-shirt fit snugly, and its forest-green color made his eyes look a deep, deep brown.
Since Aubrey still slept on her shoulder, she had to tilt her head back to look up at him as he stopped in front of her.
“Savanna Stauffer?” His low voice resonated in her ears. Yes, the same voice, and here she was, staring up at him like an idiot for a second time.
“Yes.” Oops, that was her first lie here. For a second she thought she should tell him her name wasn’t Stauffer anymore, but the words stayed inside her head. “This is Aubrey.”
His face had been so clear in her mind during the last two and a half years. This man had saved her life . . . and filled her dreams with his intense and focused eyes. Of course, there wasn’t any telling how many people he had pulled from burning buildings. It was silly to think that he’d remember her.
He offered his hand. “Jason Lancaster.”
She finally knew his name. Now she just needed to think of something, anything, to say. She managed to get her hand out there and found he had a firm handshake that ended quickly.
He studied her, up and down, with a quizzical face. Boy, it was a great day to be sweaty and dirty. He turned the same questioning look up at the building’s sign. “You rented a truck for the trip?”
She nodded but didn’t offer anything more.
“Didn’t want to tow your car?” He put his hands in the pockets of his jeans and rested a foot on the bench as if he planned to stay a few minutes.
“I sold it to pay for the truck.” She looked out at the road instead of him. “The engine needed work anyway.”
He seemed to notice her mood then. “Tammy asked me to come get you.”
“Tammy Clareborn? That’s who answered Cassie’s phone?” She was too tired to think straight but wondered if Tammy were still around and still friends with Cassie. Tammy hadn’t like Savanna all that much.
“I think that’s her last name. You know her?”
“We went to high school together.” Savanna sighed. “She was friends with Cassie, but we didn’t get along.” Tammy had called Savanna “Little Miss Pageant Queen” more than a few times. Savanna had never understood why it annoyed other people if she had big dreams. She had planned on going places, being someone. Funny how that one turned out.
“Are you all right?” Jason sat down next to her and sagged back against the bench.
“I’m sorry, just tired from driving over here . . . worrying about Cassie . . . wondering what I’m going to do.” The last part slipped out. “Sorry, I’m tired.” She gave an apologetic laugh.
“Then let’s get you to Cassie’s house.” He took her suitcase and Aubrey’s car seat from by her feet. In the process, he let his gaze linger on Aubrey. “Cute kid.”
Savanna stood and the movement woke Aubrey. Jason turned and started toward the parking lot, so she took long strides to catch up with him. “Jason?”
He slowed his pace.
“You don’t recognize me?” She switched Aubrey to the other hip. Why didn’t he say anything?
Jason glanced at her, right into her eyes, and looked like he read her mind. Then he glanced down at her hand on Aubrey’s back. When his brows creased, she remembered she’d taken off her wedding ring. A year ago, actually, when Eric asked her to give it back to him, ending their marriage before they even hit their first anniversary. .
Without answering, he turned and led the way toward the parking lot. She realized he was headed to a red jeep. Jason glanced back at her to say, “I hope this is okay. The wind’s not bad at all in the backseat.”
Savanna hesitated and then decided to give it a try. Aubrey’s car seat faced the back anyway, so the wind wouldn’t be directly on her. “Sure, I think it’ll be fine.” Jason lifted the car seat to put it in, so she offered, “I can do that.”
“That’s all right.” He buckled down the car seat base and then let her settle Aubrey into her seat. “Hi there, Aubrey. I’m Jason.”
“Close enough, cutie. Want to go for a fun ride?”
Savanna almost caught his smile before he turned around. Instead she saw just the profile of it.
Soon they were driving, and a light breeze cooled them between stoplights. Despite her weariness and the circumstances, she felt invigorated. Her hair danced in the breeze. As they accelerated from a stop, Jason called out, “Aubrey, having fun back there?”
Little-girl squeals of delight answered back. It hit Savanna that she’d never ridden in a jeep either. She glanced at its owner, curious about him and what he must think about her. This sure was every girl’s dream: A tall, dark, and handsome man picked her up, and she was a sweaty mess. He glanced over, and she had the horrified thought that she’d actually said that out loud.
“So, how do you know Cassie?” she asked, and memories swamped back into her mind as she spoke. Cassie had mentioned Mike’s friend, Jason, during their phone calls, come to think of it. Cassie had shared about her life while Savanna had fabricated hers.
“We’ve been good friends a few years now, ever since she met Mike. He and I go way back.”
“Oh, right, because you’re both—” Firefighters. Why couldn’t she tell when to quit?
If his appearance said anything, they must have been close. She could see dark circles around his eyes, and he needed a shave, but that part looked good on him. “I still can’t believe it,” she said, referring to Mike. Maybe he needed to talk about it. She glanced over. Nope. His jaw muscles worked, and it made him look mad. Now she was sorry she’d spoken. When he didn’t answer, it confirmed her thoughts.
He glanced at her through dark sunglasses, the wind teasing his hair. It looked like he glared at her, but she attributed it to his mood.
“So, are you planning to stay with Cassie a while?”
“As long as she needs me.”
“That’s good. She needs someone there with her.” He drummed the wheel. She rolled her neck and then settled back into the seat. Every time she blinked, her life changed. The unexpected trip home, and now him. He gave off a controlled energy, an intensity that yelled out of his silence.
Her old hometown slid past. She had missed Oregon’s green summers that weren’t too hot. She loved the hills, the tall evergreens and the clear, cold rivers. Eugene was a university town, but not like others she had visited. It was busy with business traffic, Oregon Duck fans, hippies and crowds of shoppers coming in from the surrounding hundred-mile radius.
“How is Cassie?” She was afraid to know but she also needed to prepare.
“She’s mad.” His voice sounded low, controlled.
He sighed and brushed the hair back from his temple. “Mike and Cassie had a lot of plans. Now he’s gone. She blames the fire department. Me. Mostly me.”
His sudden honesty took Savanna by surprise. “Emotions are running wild right now,” she said, “Maybe she’s venting.”
“It’s my fault.”
When she couldn’t take the silence anymore, she whispered, “Why?”
Even with the engine noise and wind he heard her.
“I should have kept my mouth shut and let him make his own decisions. First, I lose my best friend, and then, Cassie’s friendship, too.” He sighed and rested his hand on the gearshift, touching her leg on accident. She jerked at his touch, enough for him to glance down and move it.
A minute later, he said, “I’ve heard a lot about you from Cassie. All this time, I didn’t realize I had seen you before. I don’t know if you remember that . . .”
“Yes, of course.” He remembered! So many other things sat on her tongue, ready to say, and yet she couldn’t speak. She couldn’t even turn and look at him. If he saw her face, he’d instantly know how many times she’d thought about him. That terrifying night came back every now and then, but mostly she saw his face looking down at her. She’d been so scared one second and then safe in his arms the next.
“How do you like Texas?” He politely saved her.
She shrugged. “It’s hot.”
Next he would ask about her husband, and she didn’t want to tell him about her fake “fairy tale” life that she ruined by wanting a baby, in her ex-husband’s words.
Jason never asked. Her mind went to the next thing to talk about, but she couldn’t ask him about his job.
They were quiet as they drove over the Willamette River and across Eugene to Cassie’s lavender-with-white-trim house. Wild flowers grew in the flowerbed, some of them lavender to match. A sign dangled under the mailbox with Fisher painted in pretty letters. A new picket fence lined the yard. You couldn’t find a more perfect starter home.
“Thanks for getting me,” she said, as they got out. After she pulled Aubrey from the car seat, Jason sat it next to the front door.
He responded with a short, “No problem,” and took her suitcase to the door as well. “I’d better go.”
“Cassie’s that upset at you?” Why did she say that? He probably just had somewhere he needed to be.
“I talked Mike out of quitting the department. She was mad even before he died. And she’s right. It’s my fault.”
Savanna tried to speak, to say it couldn’t be his fault, but the proper timing slipped by with her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth. He slid his hands into his pockets and watched her hold her little girl.
Searching for one good thing to say, she remembered the fire. “I always wished I could have thanked you. For pulling me from that fire, that is.” She barely finished before his eyes went hard. Jason nodded and walked back to the jeep.
“What the hell?” she murmured after him, but he didn’t hear. He drove off as the door opened behind her.
She turned at the voice. Tammy still had a mass of dark red curls, and she still looked like she disliked Savanna.
“Tammy, it’s been a long time.” She grabbed her bag with one hand while balancing Aubrey on her other hip and entered.
“I’ll go get Cassie. I need to get home to my family.” Tammy spoke in a hurry while she walked away.
Aubrey threw herself back and forth to get out of Savanna’s arms so she could run around. The suitcase and Aubrey both landed on the floor with a thud, and Aubrey took off to explore.
Savanna was about to chase her daughter when Tammy returned. Trying to smile, Savanna asked, “So do you have a family now, Tammy?”
Tammy gave her a frown and said goodbye. Savanna wanted to throw open the front door and say, “Hey Tammy, why did you always act like I was some spoiled rich kid? I grew up without a dad, did you know that?” But she didn’t. Cassie had said several years back that Tammy had to be jealous of Savanna’s looks, but Cassie was pretty too. She was tall and elegant, like Savanna’s mom.
Cassie’s house smelled of fresh flowers, and Savanna would rather think about something other than her old high school problems. Ceiling fans whirled quietly but effectually so that the house felt cool compared to the warmth outside. The home’s atmosphere wasn’t cool, though. Colors and happy patterns marked the place, like the bright watermelon rug under her feet. Savanna longed for a beautiful, welcoming place like this for her and Aubrey . . . and maybe a husband and father someday.
Savanna took in the living room, painted pastel blue, and saw Cassie had childproofed the place. She’d been serious about getting pregnant. A picture frame next to the door held two photos. One was Mike and Cassie’s first picture together. They grinned in a picture booth at the fair. The other was a shot from their wedding. Underneath the pictures, it read, “Michael James Fisher and Cassandra Grace Thompson . . . Forever.”
With fresh tears, Savanna noted that wedding pictures of Mike and Cassie plastered the inside of the house, along with a beautiful quilt hanging on one wall, and a few paintings of mountains and rivers.
She turned around and saw Cassie coming out, wearing gray sweats and a baggy T-shirt that had to be Mike’s. She had pulled her long, dark hair back in a messy ponytail, but what did Savanna expect? She was impressed Cassie was out of bed.
“Hey.” She hugged her friend, who looked like she might break down into sobs.
“Thank you for coming.” Cassie didn’t step away from their embrace. She still smelled like her lavender shampoo.
“Don’t even think about it,” Savanna replied, not wanting Cassie’s thanks. “How could I not come?”
They stood, hanging onto to each other for a long time, letting the tears fall. Sometimes you need that release.
“He didn’t have to die. He should have quit that job,” Cassie said, her voice breaking several times.
There wasn’t anything to say to that to make it better, so Savanna just listened and held her.
Finally Cassie stepped back, wiping her red, swollen eyes. “Eric must be busy with work.”
That took Savanna by surprise because her mind was focused on Cassie. She nodded blankly. She couldn’t tell Cassie she had lied to her all this time. Not yet.
Cassie glanced down at the large suitcase and asked, “You can stay a while?”
Just as Savanna started to answer, Aubrey squealed, “Mama!” She had a TV remote and bounced up and down with excitement. “Buttons!”
“She’s talking.” Cassie stayed put, watching Aubrey from across the room.
“A few words,” Savanna answered, noticing Cassie’s stiff posture.
Aubrey stumbled forward toward Cassie, who didn’t bend down to hug her or pick her up. Next, Aubrey ran for Savanna’s arms. “Bobby Boo, up!”
“Come on, I’ll show you to the guest room.” Cassie picked up the suitcase and led the way down the hall. Savanna stepped into the guest room behind Cassie, but it wasn’t a guest room. It was painted pastel yellow to coordinate with the rest of the house, and it had a balloon border three feet up from the floor.
“Oh, Cass.” Fresh tears slid down her face.
Cassie cried too. “It’s okay, please don’t cry.”
The irony of Cassie’s statement crushed Savanna even more, but Cassie turned away.
“Sorry it’s not pumped up yet,” Cassie said about the flat air mattress lying on the floor.
“No problem, I’ll do it.” Savanna jumped at the chance to do something and break the heavy mood.
“Okay, Miss Bobby Boo, want a drink?” Cassie took Aubrey’s hand and led the way to the kitchen to fill her sippy cup and get a snack, while Savanna got the bed ready. She heard Cassie talking and hoped her friend just needed to warm up to Aubrey. After playing for an hour, Aubrey tried out the bed and promptly fell asleep.
“Poor tired baby.” Savanna kissed Aubrey’s cheek and pulled a blanket over her. She joined Cassie in the living room while Aubrey took her nap. They sat in silence, but it had to be better than talking about Mike. Or why Eric didn’t come with her.
The house was full of reminders of Mike, from pictures on the walls, to his shoes still on the shoe rack, and even a to-do list on the kitchen counter with half the items crossed off. The worst was a handwritten sticky note on the fridge that said, “Might be late tonight. I’ll call. Love ya Cass. And someday you’ll make a great mother!”
Savanna wanted to tuck these things away so they wouldn’t hurt Cassie, but that wasn’t her place. It tugged at her heart, but it also made to think of her old home with Eric when they were married. Had all those little personal touches been there? It hadn’t seemed like a home to him at all.
The next day, Cassie’s parents came by. They’d be leaving after the funeral, and even though Cassie’s mom offered to stay, Cassie wouldn’t hear it. “Savanna will be here.”
Savanna felt like she stood on an Olympic podium while someone hung a gold medal around her neck . . . only she didn’t deserve the prize. She also noticed Cassie didn’t want help from others. It meant a lot that she’d let her guard down for Savanna.
People came and went, so Savanna greeted them and filled the hostess role. Her feet ached by day’s end, but even keeping busy didn’t keep her from thinking about the brooding firefighter and wondering if he had anyone with him. For some reason, she worried he was alone.
Get the book at http://amzn.to/EmbersOfHope
Kristen James www.writerkristenjames.com
Also by Kristen James:
A Cowboy for Christmas
More Than Memories
More Than a Promise, Bk 2, Second Gift Series
The Cowboy Kiss – novella
A Special Ops Christmas – novella
A Spy for Christmas - novella
Buy Now @ Amazon
Genre - Romance (women’s fiction/ family drama)
Rating – PG13