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"I suppose you'd better come in."
Laura McKay had a feeling that sounded ungracious. She tried to make amends by forcing a smile as she stood back to let the uniformed firefighter step into the foyer of her brick townhouse.
The man glanced through the archway to the bare, dusty area she hoped would eventually be a ground-floor shop. Searching for something to find unsafe, no doubt.
"Sorry to bother you." He consulted the clipboard he carried. "Ms. McKay, is it? I'm Ryan Flanagan, from the Suffolk Fire Department."
He didn't recognize her, then. Funny, because she'd known Ryan Flanagan from the moment she opened the door.
Ryan hadn't changed all that much from the tall, handsome football hero he'd been in high school. One of the popular Flanagan brothers, with those deep blue eyes and that cleft in his strong chin, he'd had every girl at Suffolk High School longing to be the recipient of one of his teasing smiles, including her.
Well, that was a long time ago. It didn't matter that he hadn't remembered the shy underclassman who had admired him from afar.
"I don't understand why you're here." She glanced up the stairs of the three-story townhouse, longing to get back to the work she'd set herself for the day. "I have all the necessary permits for the renovation, and the building has already been inspected by your department."
He shrugged, smiling. The smile was, unfortunately, just as devastating as it had been in high school.
"Just one of those necessary things, I'm afraid. Someone called the department with a complaint, so we're obligated to check it out."
"Someone complained about me?" That jerked her mind away from the wallpaper she'd been removing. "Who?"
"Anonymous." He shrugged again. "It happens. If you'll just let me take a walk-through and check things out, I'll get out of your hair."
He glanced at her head as he spoke, and she put up her hand to discover that the bandanna she'd tied on to protect her wiry mane was thoroughly covered with plaster dust. She swatted at it uselessly and then pulled the thing off. What difference did it make what she looked like, anyway? The important thing was to get back to work.
Her nerves tightened in a way that had become too familiar lately. Time was running out, and she had to finish the job. If not- Well, if not didn't bear thinking about.
So the sooner she got rid of Ryan Flanagan, the better. She waved a hand toward the staircase. "We may as well begin at the top. That's where I've been working today."
She started up the wooden stairwell, not touching the gritty railing. The wood was mahogany under all that dirt, and eventually it would shine. The whole place would.
His footsteps sounded behind her. "You're actually rehabbing this place yourself?"
"What's wrong with that?" She sounded tart, she supposed, but she'd heard that incredulous tone from enough people since she'd started this job.
"Nothing, I guess. But this place has been deteriorating for so long I figured eventually it would be torn down. Or fall down."
Laura touched the intricate molding she'd uncovered when she renovated the second floor landing. She loved the smooth, aged feel of it under her fingers, loved knowing she'd uncovered its beauty.
"You'd be surprised. The place has been standing since 1810, and they built to last then."
The three-story brick townhouse on the edge of Suffolk's historic district might look decrepit, but she wasn't giving up on it. It had the potential to be a showpiece. Besides, it was all she and her daughter had between them and an uncertain future.
She glanced toward the apartment door as they passed it. She'd fixed the apartment up first, so she and Mandy would have a decent place to live. Mandy was occupied right now with a new coloring book, and she wouldn't hear them.
Her heart cramped. No, Mandy wouldn't hear them.
They emerged into the open space at the top of the stairs. Ryan looked around doubtfully, and she understood what he was seeing.
The top floor looked like barren, dusty wreck. Shreds of faded floral wallpaper clung to old horsehair plaster which had crumbled away to the underlying lath in places. The May sunshine, filtering through high, cracked windows, lit up every flaw.
Ryan touched a dangling strip of wallpaper. "You think you can actually make something livable of this?"
She wasn't used to explaining herself to people, but Ryan, with his uniform and that report sheet on his clipboard, wasn't just anyone. That insignia he wore gave him the right to probe. Tension skittered along her nerves. He could shut her down.
"Yes, I do. Believe it or not, I have a degree in interior design."
His dark eyebrows lifted. "This isn't interior design. It's construction. Or maybe demolition."
"My father was a contractor," she said quickly. "I learned from the best."
He nodded, still looking doubtful, and started around the third floor. Holding her breath, she followed him. She ran a clean work site-her father had always insisted on that. He wouldn't find any junk around to complain about.
Ryan's attention to his inspection gave her ample time to take a look at the man he'd become. The seriousness with which he seemed to take his job was new. The Ryan she remembered had never taken anything seriously, but he'd always seemed able to charm his way out of the trouble his recklessness had gotten him into.
She wasn't surprised by the neat blue uniform with the Suffolk Fire Department patch that fit his tall figure so well. All the Flanagans had been wedded to the fire department. There'd never been much doubt as to what Ryan would do with his life.
He turned toward her as they reached the stairwell again, smiling. She had to fight not to respond too warmly to that smile. Ryan had added some breadth and height since high school, and the sense of maturity combined with his uniform made a powerful package.
"Looks like you've got everything under control up here. Shall we check out the rest?"
She could breathe again. She nodded and started down the stairs, feeling him behind her.
"My apartment on the second floor is completely finished and we're moved in. It's not necessary for you to go through that, is it?" She paused, looking up at him.
"I don't think-" His gaze fixed on something over her shoulder, interrupting the words.
She turned. Mandy stood there, hand on the doorknob, looking at them with a grave, questioning expression in her dark brown eyes.
Laura reached her in a few steps and touched her daughter's curly brown hair. "It's okay," she said, signing as she did so. "I'm showing the fireman around. There's nothing to worry about."
She looked toward Ryan. If she saw pity in his eyes, she'd let him know what she thought about that.
But Ryan was squatting to a five-year-old's level, and she read only friendliness in his face.
"Hi. My name's Ryan." He finger-spelled the name carefully. "What's yours?"
He spoke naturally, apparently copying what she'd done, and she appreciated that. With her two hearing aids, Mandy might be picking up something.
"My daughter's name is Mandy." She continued to sign as she spoke. Mandy should never feel left out. "You know sign language."
"You don't need to sound quite so surprised." He grinned. "Firefighters need to be able to communicate with people we run into on the job. Unfortunately you've seen almost my whole vocabulary."
Ryan seemed to have turned into a responsible member of society. Maybe she should stop thinking of him as the reckless, laughing kid he'd been in high school.
She gave Mandy a little push toward the apartment. "You finish your picture. We'll probably be done by then."
Ryan waved to her. "Bye, Mandy."
When the door closed behind her, the smile slid from his lips. "She's a beautiful little girl. Has she been deaf since birth?"
"Yes." She started down the steps, hoping he'd take the hint. Her personal life was off limits.
Apparently Ryan wasn't good at taking hints.
"My husband died a year ago."
"I'm sorry." He stopped next to her at the bottom of the stairs, and she was aware of how tall and solid he was. "It must be rough, trying to handle everything on your own."
Her smile felt frozen. "Not at all. At least, not if we can finish this up so I can get back to work."
He should have taken offense at that, but he just studied her for a moment, his deep blue eyes intent but friendly. Then he nodded.
"Okay. Let's take a quick look around the downstairs."
She followed him through the downstairs living room, mentally chastising herself. He'd just been expressing sympathy. She had to stop being so sensitive about her independence.
They pushed through the swinging door to the old kitchen, and she wrinkled her nose. She'd done nothing here yet, and the cracked linoleum and rusted sink rebuked her.
They reached the back door without speaking. Ryan pulled the door open, stepped onto the back porch, and frowned at the stack of wood and construction rubbish piled against the wall.
"I know," she said quickly. "It shouldn't be there."
"It's a hazard." His tone was uncompromising.
"I ordered a dumpster last week. I don't know why they haven't brought it yet." It was yet another of a long string of things that had gone wrong recently.
"Do you want me to call them? They might move a little faster at a request from the fire department."
He was just being nice, she reminded herself. She didn't need to bite his head off.
"I'll take care of it,"
she added more evenly. "They promised me it would be here days ago."
He nodded, scribbling something on a sheet and then handing it to her. "This just confirms that we've spoken about it. If the situation isn't remedied in a few days, we'll have to cite you."
"Don't worry." Her lips were stiff. "It will be."
He studied her for a moment and then gave her that slightly lopsided smile she'd once yearned to see. "Don't look so worried. This is just a formality. I'm sure you'll take care of the problem."
She forced a return smile. "Thanks."
He stepped off the porch. "My name and number are on the form. If you'd like me to get after the trash company, just give me a call."
"I can manage."
She could do whatever she had to do, despite the addition of Ryan Flanagan to the list of factors complicating her life since she took on this project.
Her daughter's future depended on her success with the building. She couldn't count on anyone else for help-not her family, not her in-laws, not God.
A fierce wave of maternal love swept through her. That didn't matter. For Mandy, she could do anything.
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