Authors: Barbara Freethy
Table of Contents
ON A NIGHT LIKE THIS
(The Callaways, #1)
© Copyright 2012 Barbara Freethy
ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
For information contact: [email protected]
As a teenager, seeing her father’s car in the driveway when she came home from school had always made Sara Davidson uneasy. She would steel herself for the evening to come, never quite sure why she felt afraid. Stephen Davidson had never physically abused her, but he had been demanding, and his words cut like a knife. It wasn’t always what he said that was the worst part; it was the rejection in his gaze, and the cold quiet that usually followed his disappointment in her.
It would be different now Sara told herself, as she got out of her rental car. She was twenty-nine years old, a successful lawyer, and she hadn't lived at home in ten years. So why did she feel trepidation?
Because her relationship with her father had never been quite right.
They were biologically connected, but emotionally they were as distant as two people could be. Her mother, Valerie, had been the buffer between them, but her mom had died when Sara was nineteen years old. For the past decade it had been just her and her dad. Actually, it had mostly been just her.
While her father had paid for her education and living expenses, he hadn’t come to her graduations—not from college or from law school. The last time she’d seen him in person had been five years ago when they’d both attended the funeral of her grandmother, her father's mother.
She walked up the path, pausing at the bottom of the stairs, her hand tightening around the bottle of wine she’d brought for her dad’s sixty-fifth birthday on Sunday. She’d tried her best to get him something a wine connoisseur would appreciate – a bottle of 1989 Chateau Mouton Rothschild Bordeaux. The wine had cost as much as her monthly car payment; she hoped it would be worth it. Her father was her only living relative, and she still, probably foolishly, wanted to believe they could find a way to connect with each other.
Her nerves tightened, and she had to fight back the urge to flee. She'd flown all the way across the country to see him; she couldn’t back down. Trying to calm her racing heart, she looked around, reminding herself that this had once been home.
Her father’s two-story house with the white paint and dark brown trim was located in the middle of the block in a San Francisco neighborhood known as St. Francis Wood. Not far from the ocean, the houses in this part of the city were detached and had yards, unlike much of the city where the homes shared common walls.
Her family had moved into this house when she was nine years old, and one of her favorite places to be was sitting in the swing on the front porch. She’d spent many hours reading or watching the kids who lived next door. The Callaways were a big, Irish-Catholic blended family. Jack Callaway, a widower with four boys, had married Lynda Kane, a divorcee with two girls. Together, they’d had fraternal twins, a boy and a girl, rounding out the family at eight kids.
As an only child, Sara had been fascinated by the Callaways and a little envious. Jack Callaway was a gregarious Irishman who told great stories and had never met a stranger. Jack was a San Francisco firefighter, following in his father and grandfather’s footsteps. The Callaways had been born to serve and protect, and all of the kids had been encouraged to follow the family tradition. At least two of the boys had become firefighters and last she'd heard her friend, Emma, had done the same, but she hadn't spoken to Emma in a long time.
A wave of nostalgia hit her as her gaze drifted down the block. She'd let her childhood friends go—not that there had been that many, but she could still hear the sounds of the past, kids laughing and playing. The Callaway boys had run the neighborhood, taking over the street on summer nights to play baseball, football, or any other game they'd invent. She'd occasionally been part of those games, but not often.
She might have grown up next door to the Callaways, but she'd lived in an entirely different world—a world of quiet structure and discipline, a world where expectations for grades and achievement were high, and having fun didn't factor into any equation.
Sighing, she pushed the past back where it belonged and walked up the stairs. Time to stop procrastinating.
She rang the bell, and a moment later the front door swung open. She drew in a quick breath as she met her father's dark gaze. At six-foot-four, Stephen Davidson was a foot taller than she was, and had always scared the hell out of her. He had dark brown hair, brown eyes, and wiry frame. Today, he wore black slacks and a white button-down shirt that had always been his uniform during the week. He seemed thinner than she remembered, although he’d always been fit. His sense of discipline extended to every part of his life.
"Surprise," she said, forcing a smile on her face.
"What are you doing here, Sara?"
"It's your birthday on Sunday."
"You should have called."
"You would have told me not to come."
"Yes, I would have done that," he agreed. "It's not a good time."
It hadn't been a good time in over a decade. "Can I come in?" she asked.
He hesitated for a long moment, then gave a resigned nod.
She crossed the threshold, feeling as if she'd just gotten over the first hurdle. There would be more coming, but at least she'd made it through the door. Pausing in the entry, she glanced toward the living room on her right. It was a formal room, with white couches, glass tables, and expensive artwork. They'd never spent any time in that room as a family, and it didn't appear that that had changed. Turning her head to the left, she could see the long mahogany table in the dining room, and the same dried flower arrangement that had always been the centerpiece.
The fact that the house hadn't changed in ten years was probably a sign that her father hadn't changed either.
"You shouldn't have come without calling, Sara,” her father repeated, drawing her attention back to him.
"Well, I'm here, and I brought you a present." She handed him the wine.
He reluctantly took the bottle, barely glancing at the label. "Thank you."
"It's very rare," she said, wishing for a bigger reaction.
"I'm sure it is." He set the bottle down on a side table.
She squared her shoulders, irritated by his lack of enthusiasm. But she knew it would take more than a bottle of wine to crack the iceberg between them. "I'd like to stay for the weekend."
"You want to stay here?" he asked, dismay in his eyes.
"Why not? You have the room." She headed up the stairs, figuring it would be best not to give her father time to argue. He was an excellent attorney, who knew how to win an argument. But she was pretty good, too.
When she reached the upstairs landing, her gaze caught on the only two family pictures that had ever hung in the house. On the left was a family shot of the three of them, taken when she was about eleven years old. She remembered quite clearly how desperately her mother had wanted a professional family picture and how hard her father had fought against it, but it was one of the few battles that Valerie had won.
The other photo was of her and her mother taken at her high school graduation. Her mother had a proud smile on her face. They looked a lot alike, sharing many of the same features, an oval-shaped face, long, thick light brown hair that fell past their shoulders, and wide-set dark brown eyes. A wave of sadness ran through her as she realized this was the last photo of her and her mother. Valerie had died two years later.
Turning away from the memories, she moved down the hall. Her room was at the far end of the corridor. It had been stripped down to the basics, a mattress and box spring, her old desk on one wall, her dresser on the other. The bookshelves were empty and so were the drawers. Only a few nails revealed that there had once been pictures on the wall. There was absolutely no trace of her childhood.
She shouldn't be surprised. Her father had shipped her several boxes a couple of years ago, but it still felt a little sad to see how her early life had been completely erased.
Moving to the window, she looked out at a familiar view – the Callaways' backyard. The large wooden play structure that was built like a fort with slides and tunnels was empty now. Like herself, the Callaways had grown up. She wondered if any of them still lived at home.
"As you can see, I'm not set up for guests," her dad said, interrupting her thoughts.
She turned to see him standing in the doorway. "I'm sure there are some extra sheets in the linen closet. I don't need much."
He stared back at her, his eyes dark and unreadable. "Why are you here, Sara?"
"I wanted to be here for your birthday. It's been a long time since we've shared more than an email. We should talk, catch up with each other."
"Why on earth would you want to talk to me?"
The confusion in his eyes made her realize just how far apart they'd drifted. "Because you're my father. You're my family. We're the only ones left."
"Do you need money?"
"This isn't about money. Mom would have not wanted us to end up like strangers. We need to try to improve our relationship."
He stared back at her for a long moment, then said, "There's nothing left for you here, Sara. I wish you well, but we both need to move on. If you stay, it won't go well. We'll only disappoint each other."
Her chest tightened, the finality of his words bringing pain as well as anger. Her father was like a brick wall. She kept throwing herself at him, trying to break through his resistance, but all she ever achieved was a new batch of emotional bruises.
"You're a grown woman now," he added. "You don't need a father."
"Not that I ever really had one," she countered, surprising herself a little with the words. She was using to holding her tongue when it came to her dad, because talking usually made things worse.
"I did my best," he said.
"Did you?" she challenged.
A tickle caught at her throat and her eyes blurred with unwanted tears. She had not come here to cry. She sniffed, wondering why the air felt so thick. It took a minute to register that it was not her emotions that were making her eyes water but smoke.
The same awareness flashed in her father's eyes. "Damn," he swore. "The kitchen—I was cooking—"
He ran out of the room, and she followed him down the stairs, shocked by how thick the smoke was in the entry.
She was on her dad's heels when he entered the kitchen. The scene was unbelievable. Flames shot two feet in the air off a sizzling pot on the stove. The fire had found more fuel in a stack of newspapers on the counter that had been left too close to the burner, those sparks leaping to the nearby curtains.
Her father grabbed a towel and tried to beat out some of the flames, but his efforts only seemed to make things worse. Embers flew everywhere, finding new places to burn, the heat growing more and more intense. Moving to the sink, she turned on the faucet and filled up a pitcher, but it was taking too long to get enough water. She threw some of it at the fire, but it made no difference.
"Move aside," her dad shouted, grabbing two hot pads.
"What are you doing?" she asked in confusion.
He tried to grab the pot and move it to the sink, but she was in the way, and he stumbled, dropping the pot in the garbage. She jumped back from an explosion of new fire.
"We have to call 9-1-1," she said frantically. But there was no phone in the kitchen, and her cell phone was in her bag by the entry. "Let's get out of here."
Her father was still trying to put out the fire, but he was getting nowhere.
"Get out, Sara," he said forcefully, then ran into the adjacent laundry room.
"Wait! Where are you going?"
"I have to get something important," he yelled back at her.
"Dad. We need to get out of the house." She coughed out the words, but she might as well have remained silent, because her dad had vanished through the laundry room and down the back stairs to the basement. She couldn't imagine what he had to get. There was nothing but gardening tools and cleaning supplies down there.
She started to follow him, then jumped back as the fire caught the wallpaper next to her head, sizzling and leaping towards her clothing.
"Dad," she screamed. "We need to get out of the house."
A crash echoed through the house. Then all she could hear was the crackling of the fire.
Sara ran through the fire and down the stairs into the basement. A single light bulb dangled from a wire over the stairs, showing her father in a crumpled heap on the cement floor.
She dropped to her knees next to his still body. He was unconscious, blood under his head, and his right leg was twisted in an odd position. She put a hand on his chest. His heart was still beating.
"Dad," she said. "Wake up."
He blinked groggily. "Sara?" he asked in confusion. "What are you doing here?"
"The kitchen is on fire. We need to get out of the house." A glance back over her shoulder revealed smoke pouring through the open door at the top of the stairs. There was no way out of the basement without going through the kitchen.
Her father tried to sit up, but quickly fell back, groaning with pain. "My leg is broken. You go."
"I can't leave you here. That's not an option."
"You can't carry me. Go. Get help."
"I'll be right back," she promised.
She ran up the stairs, shocked and terrified when she saw how much worse the fire had gotten in literally minutes. The heat was intense. She could barely breathe, and there was a wall of flames between her and the only way out. She couldn't afford to be scared. Grabbing a towel off the top of the nearby washing machine, she covered her nose and mouth, and prepared to make a dash for it.
Before she could move, a figure appeared on the other side of the flames—a man.
A wave of relief swept through her. Help had arrived.
He barreled through the fire and smoke, batting away the flames as if they were troublesome bees. When he stopped in front of her, her heart jumped again.
"Aiden?" She lowered the towel from her face. He was the last Callaway she wanted to see.
"Sara?" he asked, shock in his eyes.
"My dad is in the basement. He's hurt." She waved her hand toward the open door in the laundry room. "I think he broke his leg. You have to help him."
"First you, then him," he said decisively.
"The longer you stand here arguing—"
"Fine." She took his hand, put the towel over her mouth and nose and let him lead her through the flames.
It was a terrifying pass through fire. She felt as if any minute her hair would go up in flames. She was glad she'd put it up, fewer tendrils to catch the sparks. Her eyes streamed with tears, and each smoky breath seared her lungs. She could barely see the furniture now, and she was more than grateful to have Aiden by her side. He moved with decisive confidence as if daring the fire to touch them.
When they reached the hall, he patted some lingering sparks out of her hair and off of her clothes, giving the rest of her body a quick look before saying, "Go outside. The fire department is on its way." And with that, he disappeared back into the fire.
The sound of sirens made it easier for her to leave the house.
She grabbed her purse off the hall table and saw the front door hanging off its hinges. Aiden must have broken it down to get inside. The reality of what was happening hit her again. A few more minutes and neither she nor her father might have made it out of the house.
She down to the sidewalk just as the first fire engine came around the corner, followed by two more trucks and an ambulance.
She met the first firefighter as soon as his feet hit the sidewalk. "My father is trapped in the basement," she said. "The door is off the laundry room by the kitchen. Aiden Callaway went to get him, but they haven't come out yet."
"Aiden?" the guy echoed.
She nodded, not really surprised that the firefighter seemed to know Aiden since so many of the Callaways worked in the department.
"Wait here," he told her.
She crossed her arms in front of her waist as the firefighters entered the house. Everything would be okay, she told herself. Aiden was with her father, and they were both going to be fine.
Aiden must have seen the flames from next door and in typical Aiden-fashion, he'd run straight into the house without waiting for backup. The Callaways had never been short on courage, sometimes on good sense, but not on guts. And Aiden didn't just end up in trouble; he often went looking for it. At least, he had when he'd been younger.
It had been more than ten years since she'd seen the very attractive guy-next-door, who had been the object of the most intense crush she had ever had in her life. Aiden had been a bad boy and she'd been a very good girl. But one reckless night had taken their relationship to a new level. Then Aiden had brought it all crashing down.
Her gut clenched at the memory of what had been the best and worst night of her life. She'd put Aiden out of her mind for a long time, but now he was back, and so was she.
Only temporarily, she reminded herself. This wasn't her home anymore and never would be.
She turned to see Lynda Callaway, Aiden's stepmother, crossing the lawn at a brisk pace. A tall, willowy blonde, Lynda Callaway moved gracefully, like the dancer she'd once been.
"Are you all right, Sara? I couldn't believe my eyes when I drove around the corner and saw the fire engines and the smoke. What's happened? Where's your father?"
"He's inside. So is Aiden," she added.
Lynda paled at that piece of news, her gaze flying to the house. "Aiden? Aiden's here?"
"Yes. I guess he saw the smoke. He broke down the front door." She glanced back at the house. Smoke was pouring through the front door, flames still visible through the windows in the dining room. What was taking them so long? "Aiden went to get my father. He fell down the basement stairs. I didn't want to leave him, but I couldn't move him."
Lynda put a reassuring hand on her arm. "You did the right thing."
"I think he broke his leg."
"Your father is a strong man. He'll come through this.
She'd always thought he was strong, but when she'd seen him on the floor, he'd looked surprisingly fragile and suddenly very human.
"How did the fire start?" Lynda asked.
"He was cooking. I distracted him when I showed up. We were upstairs arguing, and we didn't smell the smoke right away. What is taking them so long?"
"They'll want to be careful moving him," Lynda said, putting her arm around Sara's shoulders.
It had been a long time since Sara had felt such a motherly touch, and the emotion of it brought tears to her eyes. She'd been a strong, independent woman for a long time, but right now she felt like an uncertain girl, who was really, really happy not to be alone.
They stood in quiet for a few moments, watching firefighters attack the fire from both inside and outside of the house. She saw two men up on the roof, using axes to make some sort of a vent. Their work was efficient and apparently done without any sense of fear. She'd been inside that heat, and she couldn't imagine volunteering to go back in.
"How do they do it?" she muttered. "How do you do it, Lynda? The fire was so terrifying, so out of control, and it was only in the kitchen. How do you not worry every time your husband or sons leave the house?"
Lynda smiled. "I've had a lot of practice. I trust in my husband, my children, their fellow firefighters and their training. That gets me through." She paused, her smile fading away, her gaze turning back toward the house. "I can't believe Aiden is here. He's been impossible to reach the last few weeks. I wasn't sure when or if we'd see him again."
"He's had some trouble in his life."
"Isn't that usually the case with Aiden?"
"This time is different."
Before Lynda could explain, Aiden came out on the porch, carrying her father over his shoulders. They crossed the lawn and then with the help of another firefighter, her dad was placed on the gurney and attended to by the waiting paramedics.
Sara moved as close as she could get, relieved to see that her father was awake and able to answer questions, but it was clear he was in a lot of pain. Once they had him stabilized on the stretcher, he was loaded into an ambulance.
"I'll meet you at the hospital," she told him.
"No, I need you to stay here, Sara. Keep an eye on my house."
"I'll take care of everything," she promised. "Then I'll come to see you."
The ambulance doors closed. A moment later, he was on his way to the hospital.
"Do you need a ride?" Lynda asked her.
"Uh, no," she said, trying to pull herself together. Everything was happening so fast her head was spinning. "I have a car. I'll wait until the fire is out, and then I'll go."
"You've grown up into a beautiful, capable woman, Sara," Lynda said with an approving gleam in her eyes. "Your mom would be proud."
"I hope so. I still miss her."
"So do I. And so does your father."
"That's not easy to believe."
Lynda gave her a knowing look. "Your father is a difficult, complicated man. I've lived next door to him for twenty years, and I don't feel like I know him any better now than when he first moved in. Since your mom died, he's become even more reclusive."
She nodded, her attention distracted by Aiden's approach. Now that they were outside, she could see him more clearly. As his gaze met hers, she felt a familiar rush of adrenaline. He'd always had the ability to unsettle her, to make her feel off balance, dizzy, her heart beating too fast, her words getting choked in her throat. It was silly to feel that way now. Her teenage crush had ended long ago. She certainly didn't intend to go back there.
Unfortunately, Aiden was still a very good-looking man, even with ash in his brown hair, sweat on his brow, a three-day growth of beard on his face and tired blue eyes. Add in the faded jeans with a rip at the knee and a t-shirt that clung to his broad chest and strong shoulders, and Aiden was still as hot and sexy as ever, maybe more so.
Sara drew in a breath, trying to dampen down her physical response. She could handle it now. She didn't need to get all worked up about a man who had only once seen her as more than his sister's best friend and the girl next door, and that one time had ended in regret on his part.
Fortunately, Lynda broke the awkward tension between them.
"Aiden," Lynda said. "I can't believe you're home. Why didn't you call me back?"
"I figured you'd see me soon enough." He paused. "Are you okay, Sara?"
"I'm fine. Thank you for saving my father."
He shrugged, as if what he had done had been of little consequence.
"I've been leaving messages for you for three weeks, Aiden," Lynda said.
"I needed some time to clear my head," he replied.
"Well, I'm glad you're finally home. I've been so worried about you since—"
"I'm fine," Aiden said, cutting Lynda off. "I'll be over to the house in a minute."
"All right," Lynda said, obviously sensing that this wasn't the time to grill her son. "Sara, please stop by later and let me know how your father is doing. In fact, come for dinner. We eat around seven, but any time you get back is fine. I'll save you a plate."
"That isn't necessary."
"You won't be cooking in that kitchen tonight. Just come by," Lynda insisted. "There's always room for one more at our house."
With Lynda gone, she shifted her weight, crossing her arms, then uncrossing them, wishing that Aiden would stop looking at her with those incredible blue eyes.
"So, is the fire almost out?" she asked.
"Looks that way, but you won't be able to go inside until the fire inspector signs off."
"When do you think that will be?"
"Depends," he said. "Could be an hour or more."
"I'm lucky my dad lives right next door to firefighters. Although, it doesn't sound like you live at home anymore."
"Not in a long time," he said shortly, his gaze drifting toward his childhood home.
She stared at his profile. In his early thirties now, Aiden's features had become better defined, his jaw stronger, his blue eyes harder, and more cynical than she remembered.
His gaze returned to hers, and she couldn't help wishing she looked a little better. She knew she was more attractive than she'd been in high school, because once she'd left her father's house, she'd discovered make-up, and hair products, short skirts and high heels. Unfortunately, she'd dressed herself down to visit her father, pulling her hair back in a knot and wearing gray slacks and a button down blouse that did little to show off her shape. The fire had made her sweat and she could feel her hair falling out of her bun, so it wasn't her best moment.
Not that she cared, she reminded herself. There had been plenty of men in her life since high school, since Aiden. She was no longer his adoring fan.
She searched for something to say, something smart, witty, casual, but nothing seemed right. There had been a time in her life when she'd lived to catch a glimpse of Aiden, and another time when she'd hoped never to see him again, but now here he was, here they were, and she couldn't think of a damn thing to say.
She tucked her hair behind her ear. "So…"
"So," he echoed. "It's been a long time."
"Yes," she agreed, feeling irritated with her awkwardness.
"How did you set the kitchen on fire?"
"I wasn't the one who was cooking," she said.
Aiden gave her a doubtful look. "You're saying your father did that? Your father who lives by a rulebook and never ever takes a misstep? The man who can do no wrong and cannot tolerate failure in others?"
"Yes, apparently, he is human," she replied, not surprised that Aiden's assessment of her dad was so spot on. He'd grown up next door, and her father had yelled at the Callaway boys on more than a few occasions.
"Are you living here now?" Aiden asked.
"No, just visiting. What about you?"
A shadow crossed his eyes. "I'm not sure of my plans."
Before she could press for more information, one of the firefighters joined them. "Callaway? What are you doing here?"
"Helping out," Aiden said shortly.
Something sparked between the two men, something intense and angry. Sara felt like she'd just landed back in the middle of another fire. Aiden had always had a million friends and he'd been a guy's guy. To see someone who obviously hated his guts was surprising.
"Quite the hero. You always land on your feet, don't you?" the other man sneered.
"If you say so," Aiden said evenly.
Fury burned in the other man's eyes a split second before he pulled back his arm and punched Aiden in the face.
Aiden stumbled backward, his hand flying to his right eye.
Sara gasped in surprise, startled by the unexpected attack. "What's happening?" she asked, but no one was listening to her.
"That was for Kyle," the man said. "And this –"
Before he could finish his statement, one of the other firefighters intervened, grabbing his pal's arm. "That's enough, Hawkins. Get in the truck."
Hawkins looked like he wanted to argue, but after giving Aiden another scathing look, he reluctantly followed orders.
"What just happened?" Sara asked.
Neither man seemed inclined to answer her. After exchanging a long look with Aiden, the firefighter gave her his attention. "The inspector just arrived. He'll let you know the damage and when you can go inside."
"Thanks," she said.
The firefighter gave Aiden a hard look and then headed to the truck.
"Okay, what was that all about?" she asked Aiden.
He rubbed his rapidly swelling cheekbone. "Nothing."
"That man didn't hit you for nothing, Aiden. He said it was for Kyle. Was he talking about Kyle Dunne?"
"Leave it alone, Sara."
"What happened to Kyle?"
Aiden's jaw tightened. "He died, and it's my fault."
His blunt words shook her to the core. Kyle Dunne was the same age as Aiden. They'd been friends since kindergarten. Now he was dead? Why? How?
It was clear Aiden had no interest in giving her more details; he was already moving down the sidewalk.
"Aiden, wait," she called, but he didn't turn his head.
As he walked toward his truck, she noticed a limp in his stride. He'd suffered an injury of some sort. At the same time that Kyle had died?
Why would anyone blame Aiden for his best friend's death? There was no way Aiden would have let Kyle die without trying to save him. Aiden was a born protector. She'd just witnessed him in action when he'd rescued her father, a man he didn't even like. Aiden would have put his own life on the line for Kyle.
Memories of Aiden and Kyle together flashed through her mind. She could see them playing catch in the street until well after dark, hosting poker games in the room over the garage for all their high school friends, getting dressed up in suits for their senior prom. Kyle was dead? He'd always been so much fun, a joker and a prankster. Kyle and Aiden had caused a lot of trouble together, and they'd been closer than brothers. Aiden had to be reeling. No wonder there had been so much worry in Lynda's eyes when she'd mentioned Aiden.
As Aiden pulled his bags out of his truck, she was torn between wanting to ask him more questions and wanting to put some distance between them.
He was the one guy she'd never been able to forget, the one guy who still haunted her dreams. The last thing she needed to do was talk to him. She had enough problems to deal with. She turned her back on Aiden and headed across the lawn to talk to the fire inspector.
Aiden was relieved to get to his truck, to get away from Sara's compelling gaze. When he'd decided to return to San Francisco, he hadn't counted on seeing her again. She was a complication he didn't need.
But damn, she was pretty. His gut tightened as he sneaked another look at her, watching her move across the lawn. She'd always been cute in a girl-next-door kind of way, but she'd grown up to be a beautiful woman. He liked the way her sun-streaked light brown hair sparked with gold, the curve of her hips in her form fitting slacks, and the soft swells of her breasts that had filled out in the decade since he'd last seen her.
She still dressed like a librarian, but he knew there was passion inside of her. He'd seen it first-hand. He just hadn't handled it very well back then. In those days, he hadn't handled a lot of things well in his life. Hell, not in these days either, he thought with a frown.
Forcing himself to look away from Sara, he headed up the driveway. He'd debated coming home for three long weeks. It could be either a great or a terrible decision. So far, it wasn't looking good.
The last thing he'd expected to run into was a fire. For a split second, he'd hesitated, the events of three weeks ago still fresh in his mind, but instinct had driven him forward. And this time no one had died.
Thinking about Kyle, he put a hand to his aching cheekbone. He should have seen that punch coming. It wasn't the first fist to the face he'd taken since Kyle had died, and he doubted it would be the last. But the physical pain he could handle. It was the one deep inside that seemed overwhelming and relentless. He'd tried to outrun it, to drown it in booze, but it was still with him, and he wondered if it would ever leave.
Opening the side door, he stepped into the house and set his bag down inside the door. He grabbed a kitchen towel, swiped some ice out of the freezer and then applied it to his face.
Lynda entered the kitchen a moment later, her brows pinching together as she took in the ice and the bruise on his face.
"I didn't realize you'd injured yourself," she said.
"It's fine," he said, not choosing to explain.
He sat down at the same large, rectangular table where he'd once done his schoolwork and let the feeling of being home run through him. The large country-style kitchen had oak cabinets and hardwood floors. His mother had had the kitchen redone when he was in high school, adding tons of cupboard space to accommodate the amount of food eight children could consume in any given day. There was also plenty of open counter space including a center island that had often served as ground central for his sisters' baking adventures. He'd usually tried to stay out of those, at least until the batter could be tasted. He smiled at the memories.
This house had always been a safe harbor, but he wasn't sure it would be now. Lynda might be cheerful and welcoming, but he suspected his father and older brother, Burke, would have a different attitude. He'd already received several phone and text messages from both of them and they'd gone from initially being worried about his health to being extremely pissed off that he wasn't trying to counter some of the negative reports that were out there.
"Are you hungry, thirsty?" Lynda asked, worry in her eyes. "What do you need?"
What did he need?
He couldn't begin to tell her.
"Just sit down," he said. "I don't need anything."
"Don't you?" she challenged as she took the chair across from him. "You're hurt, Aiden, and I'm not talking about that bruise on your face, although that looks more like the handiwork of someone's fist than a fire."
Lynda had always been perceptive, sometimes more than he'd appreciated. She'd been his stepmother since he was eight years old. It had taken him a while to connect with her; he'd been really close with his biological mom. But Lynda was the one who had been there for him when he needed a mother.
"Who hit you?" she asked. "And don't waste my time denying what happened."
Her lips tightened. "Kyle's friend."
"Yeah. His cousin, Dave, was on my crew when Kyle died. He hadn't been jumping with us very long. He'd just transferred from Missoula. He wasn't a big fan of mine, either."
"Can you tell me what happened to Kyle?"
Her words brought with them a flash of memory, the roaring forest fire, the whipping winds, and the fear on the faces of his fellow smoke jumpers. Fire season was supposed to be over. It was the beginning of October. They'd been packing away their gear, preparing to move on to their off-season jobs. But a hundred unexpected lightning strikes in the Shasta-Trinity forest had changed their plans.
"Aiden?" Lynda's persistent voice brought him back to the present. "What happened to Kyle?"
"He died." The words felt as unreal now as they had three weeks earlier.
"Does it matter?" He set down the ice pack. "It was my fault."
"I don't believe that."
"Everyone else does. I'm sure Dad or Burke or someone has already told you that I'm responsible."
"I want to hear what you have to say," she said.
"And you've heard it."
She stared back at him. "I've heard nothing. You're different, Aiden. Harder, edgier, angrier—I barely recognize you."
Sometimes he barely recognized himself.
"You're going to stay for a while," she said, as if daring him to argue. "You need to be home with your family. You need to heal."
"Is there room?" he asked, not sure which of his many siblings were staying in the house these days.
"There's always room for my children," she said.
"I'm thirty-two," he reminded her.
"When I look at you I can still remember the nine-year-old who wrapped up his lizard and gave it to me as a birthday present."
"You should have been honored. It was my favorite lizard," he said, relieved with the change of subject.
"You were testing me."
"Well, you passed. You weren't at all scared. I was impressed."
"Thank goodness it wasn't a snake. You can have your old room over the garage if you want. Shayla, Colton and Emma are in the other rooms right now."
"That's fine." He'd be happier out of the main house. There would be less chaos and hopefully fewer questions if his siblings or parents had to walk down the driveway and up the stairs to talk to him.
As he rose, the side door opened, and his sister Nicole walked in with her five-year-old son, Brandon. Nicole was exactly the same age as him. It had been weird at first to have his stepsister in the same grade, but Nicole was a fun-loving, optimistic sweetheart, who always found the good in people, and he could usually count on her to see the bright side of life.
A brown-eyed blonde with a curvy build, Nicole had always been attractive, especially to his friends. He'd tried to keep them away from her and for the most part he'd succeeded, until Nicole met Ryan. They fell in love at nineteen, moved in together at age twenty, married at twenty-one and become parents at twenty-seven. Unfortunately, the first Callaway grandchild had been diagnosed with autism two years ago at age three.
Aiden hadn't seen his nephew in almost a year, and while Brandon had grown about two inches, his brown eyes were no longer curious and alive but rather dull and dark, his gaze filled with shadows from the world he had retreated to. Aiden had hoped there would have been improvement by now, but it didn't appear that way.
"Aiden," Nicole said, happy surprise lighting up her eyes. "You've finally surfaced."
"Had to come up for air some time."
"I'm so glad. Brandon, do you remember your Uncle Aiden?"
Brandon didn't answer. He was tugging on her hand, trying to get away, his gaze fixed on the door leading out of the kitchen and into the dining room.
"Honey," she said again. "Look at your uncle."
Brandon pulled harder, his expression changing from dull to determined.
"It's okay," Aiden cut in. "We'll talk later."
"Good idea," she said, letting Brandon go.
"Where is he off to?" Aiden asked.
"He likes the fish in Dad's aquarium," she answered. "It's better than television to him. He loves coming over here to see the fish. And there aren't too many things that he loves."
He could see the strain in her eyes and got up to give her a hug. She was thinner than he remembered. "How are you doing with everything?"
"I'm good," she said, but the shadows under her eyes didn't support her answer.
"Really? You look tired."
"I am tired, but there's a lot to do. For the record, you don't look much better," she said as they both sat down. "Is that a black eye?"
"Long story," he said.
"They always are."
"So things with Brandon…"
"Are getting better," she said. "Not as much as we had hoped for by now, but there are small improvements in between the setbacks."
He admired her positive attitude. He couldn't imagine what she was going through. But she adored her son, and she'd fight for him to the last breath. "How's Ryan?"
Her smile faltered. "He's… I don't know how he is, to be honest. He works a lot, and he's not as optimistic as I am about Brandon's recovery, so we tend to frustrate each other. He mentioned the other day that maybe we should take a break."