Cover of the new book "Love Me Tender"

Ring of Fire

 

Excerpt from Ring of Fire

Chapter 1

Lark Cantrell snapped awake at the familiar bleep of her pager and grabbed the device from the bedside table. A residential structure fire on Tannen Road; occupancy undetermined.

In a flash she responded and jumped out of bed. She ran down the hall, clad in her checked cotton sleep pants and blue tank top. Tannen was out in the country, ten or more minutes’ drive from the town of Caribou Crossing.

She shoved her feet into a pair of sandals that sat by the front door. No need to leave a note for her family. Lark’s ten-year-old son and mom were used to the unpredictable schedule of a firefighter. As for a man, there hadn’t been a significant guy in Lark’s life since Jayden’s dad walked out on them when he was a baby, and she intended to keep it that way.

She sprinted next door to the fire hall, the mid-July air warm on her skin. As chief, she worked regular weekday hours and didn’t have to respond to after-hours callouts. Although no one staffed the fire hall at night, she trusted her volunteers to show up when paged. But she lived beside the station, and with the fire so far outside town, every second counted.

Besides, firefighting was way more exhilarating than sleeping.

She raced into the apparatus bay, kicked off her sandals, and jumped into her boots and turnout pants. By that time, Javi Sanchez had joined her, and moments later Daniels and Mason ran in. As the volunteers dressed, Lark contacted dispatch to report their status, and learned that Captain Tom Weston, tonight’s on-call duty officer, was on his way to the scene in the duty vehicle. He’d likely arrive five minutes before Lark’s team, but he wouldn’t have a mask and breathing apparatus so he couldn’t enter the structure. Still, he’d provide valuable information while the other firefighters were en route, so they could plan their strategy.

Usually, Lark took the command role, but tonight she wanted the adrenaline buzz of active firefighting. Besides, it was good to give learning opportunities to some of the others. As she gathered her balaclava, mask, and breathing apparatus, she called out, “Engine 4. Daniels, you’re driving.”

“Yes, Chief.” Sharon Daniels raced for the pumper truck. As driver, the volunteer would also be responsible for operating the pump once they were on-scene.

“Sanchez, you’re Command,” Lark continued. He was a great firefighter and he’d relish the chance to be in charge. “Mason, you and I are the attack team.” She and Mason would be the first team into the structure, assuming it was safe to enter when they arrived. Cal Mason was only a couple of months out of training and Lark wanted to work with him, help him out.

More firefighters were arriving, including Manny Singh. Captain Singh was one of the paid personnel; like her, he worked regular weekday hours but also often responded to after-hours callouts. “Engine 3,” she told him. His team would follow Engine 4, bringing the additional water supply that could be needed out in the country where there were no hydrants.

Lark jumped into the back of Engine 4, joining Mason. Daniels drove the truck out the open doors with flashing lights and a whoop of the siren. Sanchez, beside Daniels up front, was on the radio. He relayed information to the firefighters. “Dispatch says a guy was driving home after a late shift at work. Saw flickering lights in a back window of a two-story residence. Said it looked to him like fire, maybe in the kitchen. The house is owned by the Hoppingtons, an elderly couple. The guy thinks they moved into an assisted living facility two or three months back, but he’s not positive.”

The engine raced through the residential outskirts of the small town, and onto a country road leading northeast. One good thing about night callouts: the roads were virtually empty.

“Even if the couple did move,” Lark said, “there might be family staying there, or they could’ve rented it out.”

She checked her watch. They’d made excellent time. It had been only five minutes since she’d received the page. “Wonder how old the house is?” Older houses burned more slowly and cleanly. With a new home, once it had been burning for twenty minutes, it often wasn’t safe to enter.

They were five, maybe six minutes from their destination, driving through ranch land where there was only an occasional building. She and Mason pulled on their balaclavas, and then donned their masks and breathing apparatuses.

Weston’s voice crackled over the radio. “I’m just arriving. Jeep parked in front. No one outside. Smoke and flames pouring out the back of the house.”

Damn. It seemed the house was occupied, and the residents hadn’t managed to get out. Lark leaned forward, readying herself to leap out of the truck the moment it stopped.

*  *  *  *  *

Major Eric Weaver eased through the doorway and stepped over a broken piece of wood, careful to walk in the boot prints of Sergeant Danny Peller. Their unit was on a training mission with the Afghan local police, searching an abandoned compound after receiving a tip that insurgents had a weapons cache there.

The vacated room was a mess of broken furniture and equipment. Peller stopped to assess the situation, and Eric glanced over his shoulder to make sure Sharif, the Afghan police officer who was following Eric, held back. Sharif was young and eager, and could be too impetuous.

Peller moved forward. Eric started to follow and—

The world exploded. He was flung into the air, crashing against the wooden wall. For a moment, he was too stunned to move, even to think.

Then . . . fuck. Where’s my weapon? In the explosion, it had flown out of his hand. What the fuck happened? Was it an IED? A grenade? A truck bomb? Were they under attack? When he sucked in a breath, it carried the scent of smoke. Was the building on fire?

Where were Peller and Sharif?

He managed to sit up, blinking against grit in his eyes. His gaze landed first on the Afghan, who’d been blown back out the doorway and lay on the ground, either unconscious or dead. Fuck. Through a haze of dust and smoke, Eric searched for Peller and found him sprawled on the floor a few yards away with—oh, shit—his fucking right leg blown away from above the knee. Peller’s gaze, wide-eyed with shock, was fixed on Eric.

A tourniquet. Gotta get a tourniquet on him or he’ll bleed out before the medics get here.

Automatically, Eric made to rise, but his legs didn’t work. For the first time, he looked down at his body. His legs were there, but from his knees down, both of them were a mess of torn flesh, blood, and—oh, fuck—even shattered bone.

And then the pain came. Agonizing pain.

But he couldn’t surrender to it. Eric pulled himself onto his side and, using the strength of his arms, torso, and hip, dragged himself toward Peller.

Where were the other men? Were they taking fire, unable to reach him, Peller, and Sharif? Or were they dead, or injured? What the hell was going on out there? His ears rang, making it hard to distinguish sounds. One thing he knew: the building was on fire. Smoke scratched his throat and flames licked the closest wall, spreading quickly. At least the Afghan officer—alive or dead—was outside and should be safe from the fire.

Peller’s gaze was fixed on Eric like he was his salvation. This morning, the kid had been joking about how he’d have to quit smoking before he went home, or his pregnant wife wouldn’t let him back in the house. And that homecoming was only a couple of weeks away. Canada had almost finished pulling out of Afghanistan. Back on home soil, Peller would finish out the few months left on his Terms of Service contract, and then he planned to leave the army and find a job where he could be home with his wife and baby. As for Eric, he was a career soldier with no obligations other than to the army. After Afghanistan, he’d have a new posting.

As Eric dragged himself toward Peller, the sergeant’s lips moved. Eric shook his head, trying to clear the ringing. With the aid of a little lip-reading, he made out Peller’s next words. “It’s bad, Major.” There was blood on the kid’s face; he’d been cut by debris. Peller twisted in pain. He coughed and choked out, “Real bad.”

Yeah, it was bad, but agreeing with the kid wasn’t going to help. “Hang on, Peller.” Fighting against his own pain, Eric reached the sergeant, pulled out the tourniquet that all soldiers carried, and wrapped it around what remained of Peller’s right leg. The left leg was in bad shape, too, and he got Peller’s tourniquet on it.

As for his own legs, they’d have to wait. The fire was a hungry crackle, a rush of flames relentlessly consuming the derelict building. Smoke clogged his throat and lungs. His brain, on overload from shock, pain, smoke, and urgency, struggled to form a plan of action.

No one’s gonna get here in time. Have to get Peller out before this place burns down with us in it.

The kid shouldn’t be moved, not without a stretcher, but what choice did Eric have? He needed to drag him, and hope the fire didn’t cut off their path to the exit. “Gonna get you out now, Danny-Boy. Get you to a medic.”

“Wish I could see Ellie,” Peller mumbled, his face white and sweaty, streaked with dirt and blood.

“You’ll be home before you know it.” It was hard to concentrate on anything but the excruciating pain in his own legs.

“Not g-going home, Nails.” He forced the words out.

“Sure you are.” And if Eric had anything to say about it, it wouldn’t be in a body bag. His nickname was Nails because, when he was green, he’d been so dumb that he’d said he was tough enough to eat nails. Well, he was a hell of a lot older now, and damned tough, but the task ahead of him was formidable.

Damn it, where were the others? He could sure use a little help in here. Even though his hearing had improved, he still couldn’t make out any sounds from outside—not above the noise of the fire. He maneuvered his body into a position where he could try to drag Danny by the back collar of his uniform.

Soldier up, boy, and get your man out of there! This time the harsh command ringing inside his skull was in his father’s voice. The Brigadier-General had no patience with wimps.

Eric grabbed on to Danny’s uniform and braced himself to tug, but then the sergeant’s mouth opened again. Eric leaned closer as words came out slowly and clumsily.

“Tell El-lie . . .” The life faded from Danny’s voice before he could finish the sentence. It was fading from his blue eyes, too, yet Eric saw the plea in them and knew exactly what Danny had wanted to say.

Shit. The cocky young sergeant was SOL. He was one of Eric’s men, and Eric had sent him into danger. He’d failed to protect him, and now he couldn’t save him. Couldn’t send him home to his wife and unborn kid. All he could do was respect this dying wish.

“I’ll tell her you love her and the baby,” he said gruffly, resting his hand on Danny’s shoulder. I’ll tell her—if I don’t burn to death or die of blood loss myself. “She loves you, too, Danny-Boy. You know that.” But as he spoke the last words, he realized he was talking to a dead man.

Eric lifted his hand from his sergeant’s lifeless body and raised clenched fists as he let out a howl of fury. And then—

He fell, landing hard, fierce pain in his right leg jolting him to awareness.

What the hell? What now? Another explosion?

Smoke burned his eyes and clogged his throat, making him cough. Everything was dark, but doing a quick assessment of the situation, he felt a rough texture under his hand. Not concrete, wood, or dirt, but . . . carpet?

Gradually, he came to his senses. He’d had another nightmare. A flashback to the IED explosion that had taken Danny Peller’s life.

Eric used the tricks he’d been taught for coping with PTSD flashbacks. Ground himself; orient himself in the present.

“I’m Eric Weaver and I’m not in Afghanistan. This is not the f’ing sandbox. I’m in British Columbia, in Caribou Crossing.”

Repeating those words didn’t make the smoke go away. He coughed as he rubbed the floor again and felt the well-worn carpet. “I’m in the master bedroom of the farmhouse I rented.” And, damn it, he’d fallen out of bed again.

His right leg hurt fiercely. “It’s phantom limb pain,” he muttered, coughing. “That leg’s long gone.” Was there some kind of justice or divine irony in the fact that he, the major who hadn’t been able to save Danny after the sergeant’s right leg was blown off, had lost his own right leg? Eric curled his body so he could massage the stump where his leg ended midthigh. Sometimes that helped ease the pain. His left leg, which had undergone multiple surgeries, didn’t feel a hell of a lot better than his phantom limb.

Smoke still choked his nose and filled his lungs, and he coughed again, struggling to expel it. “There’s no smoke. I’m not in Afghanistan. It was a nightmare.” Except . . .

Oh, fuck, that smoke was no dream; it was real. So was the roar and crackle of flames. The house was on fire.

And had been for some time, he realized, while his fucked-up brain had been back in Afghanistan.

Call 911.

Damn it, he’d left his phone downstairs in the kitchen. Besides, from the noise and smell, he wasn’t sure the Caribou Crossing fire department would be able to reach the remote farmhouse in time. Might any distant neighbors be awake in the middle of the night and have seen the glow of flames in the sky? He sure as hell wasn’t going to wait around and see if rescue came.

Disoriented by the darkness, smoke, and the lingering effects of the flashback, he tried to get his bearings. Reaching out, he found the side of the bed. He’d thrashed around so much in his sleep that he’d fallen out on the side farthest from the door.

His T-shirt was at the foot of the bed, where he’d tossed it when he racked out. He grabbed it and held it to his face, trying to block the smoke. He’d already inhaled so much while caught up in his flashback that his burning lungs and throat kept him coughing, and his eyes watered.

He did a quick situation analysis. The bedroom was on the second floor. If he shut the door—that sturdy wooden door—it’d hold the fire back. But there was no fire escape outside the window. Though the bedroom was on the second floor, the way the house was situated atop a hill meant that it was a three-story drop from the window to a concrete patio. He was strong enough to pull himself up onto the roof, but the fire could trap him there if rescue didn’t arrive soon. If he donned his prosthesis, maybe he could find a way to climb down, or he could take his chances on jumping. No, wait. Shit. The batteries that operated his high-tech leg were in the charger.

He was running out of time.

The only other exit was down the hall and stairs to the front door—if the fire didn’t block his path. Deciding on that course of action, Eric crawled lopsidedly around the bed, using his good knee, his stump, and one hand. Clad only in cotton boxer briefs, he kept his head low, using his other hand to hold his tee to his nose, but smoke filtered through the cotton. Deep, wrenching coughs racked his body. There was crap in this house, toxic crap. Smoke inhalation messed with your body and your brain. He didn’t have a moment to spare.

He made it to the door into the hall. The smoke was even thicker, and orangey yellow flames engulfed the end of the hall directly above the kitchen. How the hell had the fire started? Faulty wiring in the kitchen, maybe? It was an old house; when he rented it, he hadn’t cared that it was run-down.

The fire ate its way toward him, but didn’t cut off his escape route to the top of the staircase. Coughing into his T-shirt, he crawled as fast as he could. His coordination was getting worse, a side effect of smoke inhalation.

Stairs were good exercise. He’d been drilling himself running up and down them, getting used to his fancy prosthesis, building his strength, striving for a balanced gait. Improving every day. Now, without that leg, he’d have to “bum it down” as patients referred to it in rehab—plopping on his ass and bumping down step by step the way a toddler would. It’d only take a few seconds, and then the door would be right in front of him.

He forced himself onward. Both his legs—the one that had been seriously injured and the missing one—hurt fiercely. What with the smoke and his coughing, he could barely catch his breath. His head ached so badly he had trouble thinking, and he was dizzy, disoriented, and nauseous. Did he hear a siren, or was he hallucinating?

At the top of the stairs, a coughing fit brought him to a stop. It was so severe he couldn’t catch his breath.

Mind over matter, soldier.

Yeah, Dad, I know.

Peering downstairs through burning, watering eyes, he saw that it was less smoky there, but that flames and smoke were spreading down the hallway from the kitchen. He’d left the heavy kitchen door closed and it had blocked the fire for a while, but now the monster had breached it. He had to get to the first floor before fire blocked the front door.

[continued at top of right column]

 

 

 

 

[con't from bottom left column]

Goddamn it, he’d survived an IED in Afghanistan. He wasn’t going to die in a house fire out in the middle of the Cariboo. Dizzy, fighting nausea, he struggled to stop coughing, to breathe shallowly through the protective barrier of his cotton tee, to focus, to push onward.

Downstairs, there was a crash. Breaking glass. Had the fire blown out a window? An instant later, the front door slammed open and two firefighters dashed into the smoky hallway. “Fire Department,” a voice yelled. “Call out!”

He tried to respond, but instead coughed like he was hacking up a lung. A haze swam across his eyes, through his brain. He was fading, losing consciousness.

But one of them had seen him. A figure clad in bulky turnout gear raced up the stairs. The other manned a hose, aiming a powerful stream of water down the hallway, attempting to hold back the fire.

The first firefighter knelt beside Eric, reaching for something in the pocket of his turnout pants. “You’re okay,” he said, his voice muffled and distorted by the face mask. “Is there anyone else in the house? Nod or shake your head.”

Eric, still hacking, shook his head while the firefighter pulled out a strap.

“Got an adult male,” the firefighter reported to someone. “He says that’s all.”

Through the visor of the mask, dark brown eyes stared into Eric’s. “We’ll get you out,” the man said. Despite his wonky vision, Eric read confidence and reassurance. A sense of peace stole over him. The hand that held the tee to his nose dropped away. He began to fade . . . His last conscious thought was, I’m safe.

His lapse in consciousness didn’t last long. When he came to, he was being pulled headfirst down the stairs. The firefighter had wrapped the strap under his armpits and was tugging him, supporting his head and neck. Eric’s lower body bumped each step. Pain jabbed him. His body struggled to expel smoke, but he tried to hold still, to not make the rescue more difficult. He hated being helpless, being somebody’s burden. Making this other man risk his life to rescue him. Eric was the soldier, the one who was supposed to be tough and self-sufficient.

He was aware of the second firefighter still spraying water, and then his rescuer was pulling him through the open front door. Other hands were there, ready to take him. Fresh air touched his skin. Red and blue lights swirled; water arced from a hose pointed at the house; voices called out.

He was on a stretcher, an oxygen mask being hooked over his face. Needily but cautiously, he sucked air through his scorched airway. Someone draped a blanket over him and fingers checked his pulse. Paramedics, he realized. A man and a woman in blue uniforms.

His rescuer was still there, too, addressing him. “You said there’s no one else in the house. Nod if that’s correct.”

He nodded confirmation.

“Any pets?”

He shook his head. Damn it, his prosthesis was in there. The high-tech one designed for soldiers to help them be fully functional—and to return to active service if they chose to do so. It was his mobility, his freedom; it was his chance to reclaim his career, his life. But he couldn’t ask firefighters to risk their own lives for a damned leg. The prosthetist would make him a new one, but it would take time. Another setback. It was the fucking story of his life these days.

Dimly, he was aware that his rescuer was relaying Eric’s report to the other firefighters. Oddly, the man’s confident voice had an almost feminine sound.

Eric wanted to lift the oxygen mask and thank the guy, but the firefighter was hurrying away to help the others who were trying to control the blaze.

“You’re going to be okay,” the female paramedic, youngish, with blond hair pulled back from her face, said calmly. “We’ll get you to the hospital and they’ll treat you for smoke inhalation.”

He nodded his understanding.

She glanced toward the house. “It’s fully involved. You’re a lucky man. Lark got you just in time.”

Lark? An unusual name, especially for a guy.

The other paramedic, a stocky guy with graying hair, said, “Caribou Crossing’s sure lucky to have her.”

Her? Well, shit. He’d been rescued by a woman.

He had nothing against women. He’d served with a few; they were as capable as the men. But now, for whatever reason, discovering that he’d been saved by a woman felt like the final blow to his ego. Grateful as he was to be alive, could he be any more humiliated?

Chapter 2

Lark Cantrell reached for her son’s hand and clasped it, feeling the answering pressure, discernibly stronger now than two months ago.

Sitting in his wheelchair, ten-year-old Jayden nodded eagerly as his physiotherapist, Monique Labelle, spoke in her charming French-Canadian accent. She listed the benefits they’d seen from a couple of months of therapeutic riding: increased confidence; strengthening of Jayden’s back, core, and legs; better posture and coordination.

Lark stifled a grin when Jayden, listening, straightened his shoulders.

Her son, born prematurely, had been diagnosed with cerebral palsy, a neurological disorder, as an infant. Though his symptoms weren’t as severe as those of some kids with CP, they were disabling enough that he had never been able to walk.

Monique smiled, tucked a wayward strand of black hair back into the ballerina-style knot at the back of her head, and outlined a few suggested changes to Jayden’s riding lessons.

The physiotherapist, a strong, graceful woman who’d been an Olympic figure skater in the early 1990s, had joined Jayden’s therapy team three years ago. For reasons known only to her, she had forsaken the big-city life in Toronto to move to the small town of Caribou Crossing in central British Columbia. The town had certainly benefitted. Monique was highly qualified, having trained in occupational therapy as well as physiotherapy, and having worked for many years at one of the best rehabilitation centers in the country.

This afternoon, Monique’s audience consisted not only of Lark and Jayden, but also Lark’s mom, Mary, and Jayden’s riding teacher, Sally Ryland. They clustered in a circle in the physio’s office, listening intently to her.

When Monique finished, Sally said, “Yes, we’ll incorporate those changes. I’m sure Jayden will do well with them. He’s one of my best students.” Sally, an attractive strawberry blonde dressed in a blue Western shirt, slim-fitting jeans, and cowboy boots, was two or three years younger than Lark’s own thirty-five. “He has a great attitude, both toward horses and toward learning,” Sally added.

“We’re all so glad you could take him on,” Lark said. Sally wasn’t a specialist in therapeutic riding—there was no such person in the small community—but she was an excellent riding teacher and she’d worked closely with Monique to design a program for Jayden.

“It’s my pleasure,” Sally said.

Jayden—small for his age and adorable with his mop of dark brown hair, wide brown eyes, and engaging grin—bounced a little in his chair. Lark knew he was dying to interrupt, but was trying hard to remember his manners.

Monique turned to him. “I can see you want to say something, Jayden.”

“I love horses!” The words burst out. “I love riding! I don’t have to be in my chair and itmakesmefeel—”

“Hold on now,” Monique broke in, raising a hand. “Remember what your speech therapist told you?” Jayden’s therapy team included a speech therapist in addition to Monique and his pediatrician. Occasionally, other specialists needed to be consulted as well. A one-time injury to Jayden’s brain—occurring while he was in the womb or during or shortly after birth—had affected his motor development. He would be working with health care professionals for the rest of his life as he strove to be as healthy and functional as he possibly could.

Jayden huffed out a sigh and said, more slowly, “When I get excited, my words run together and get gob . . . garbled, and I don’t e-nun-ci-ate properly.”

Lark grinned at her son. “Well said. Now, what did you want to tell us about not having to be in your wheelchair?”

“I feel like everyone else,” he said. “Like I’m not different.”

Her heart aching for her boy, Lark exchanged glances with her mom. Mary Cantrell spoke softly, but confidently. “I keep telling you, Jayden, everyone is different. Unique and special.”

Lark smiled a thank-you to her mother. Mary, a petite, soft-spoken Native Canadian woman, was anything but diminutive when it came to strength of character. She’d raised Lark by herself, and now was helping to bring up her grandson.

“I know, Granny,” Jayden said. “But I get tired of my kind of special. I get tired of my chair.” He had slumped forward, but now straightened his shoulders again. It used to be that he needed frequent reminders to correct his posture, but since he’d started riding he’d been much better at self-correcting.

“Your body’s getting stronger every week,” Monique said. “There’s a good chance that one day you’ll be able to do away with the chair and the walker.”

It was the goal they were all working toward. Once Jayden reached it—which Lark was increasingly confident he would—there’d be another goal. To run, maybe. To ride a bicycle. To dance. To do things that other children took for granted.

In her mind, her boy had always been perfect. But she understood his frustration about being different and having limitations.

“There’s something else I’d like to talk about today,” Monique said, rising. She walked to the window and turned to face them, leaning her toned butt against the sill. In her black leggings and stylish burgundy top, she had an air of understated elegance. Resting graceful, short-nailed hands on her thighs, she said, “I have an idea I’d like to run by all of you. I have another patient in mind for therapeutic riding. I wondered how you all might feel about Jayden sharing his lessons with someone else.”

Lark frowned. Jayden was doing so well. Why would Monique want to change things?

“Monique,” Sally said, “I’d be happy to give private lessons to this other patient.”

“That’s good of you,” the physio said, “but I think it would do both Jayden and my other patient good to learn together.”

Jayden cocked his head. “Is this someone else with CP?”

“No, his issues are quite different.” She glanced around the room, including the others as she explained, “He was injured and lost a leg, and he’s getting used to wearing a prosthetic limb.” She focused again on Jayden. “Do you know what that is?”

“An arti-arti-fi-cial leg, right? Like Amanda has.”

“Exactly,” Monique said.

Amanda, who was three years older than Jayden, had been a member of one of Sally’s riding classes before losing her leg in a car accident—an accident that Lark and her crew had responded to. They’d been able to cut the girl out of the mangled car, but there’d been no way to save her leg. The child was gutsy though, and after taking private lessons with Sally she’d recently been able to rejoin her regular riding class. She’d told Jayden she planned to be a barrel racer, just as Sally had once been.

Monique pushed herself off the windowsill and squatted in front of Jayden, putting her face at his level. “I thought it might be nice for both of you to have someone to ride with, and learn with.”

“Who is this child?” Lark asked. “Is the family new to town?” As far as she knew, Amanda was the only Caribou Crossing child who’d had a leg amputation. The only other person who was missing a leg was . . . Wait a minute. “Is this a child or an adult?”

“An adult.” The physio sat back down in her chair and gazed across at Lark. “A soldier who lost his leg in Afghanistan.”

“Cool! A soldier!” Jayden said.

Lark knew exactly who Monique was talking about: the man who’d been in the house fire out on Tannen Road a couple of months back. Eric something-or-other. He was new to Caribou Crossing and kept to himself, but occasionally Lark glimpsed him around town. In this land of trucks and family-style SUVs, he drove an old Jeep, with the top down unless it was raining. But more often he was on foot, and usually running. Like Amanda, the soldier clearly didn’t intend to let a missing leg slow him down. When he ran, he ran hard, sweatpants covering his prosthetic limb, his loose tank top soaked with sweat and sticking to an impressively muscled torso.

Lark might have sworn off “relationships”—the Cantrell women had a horrendous track record when it came to happily-ever-after—but that didn’t mean she didn’t appreciate a good-looking guy. She’d even been known, from time to time, to get down and dirty with one, on a total no-strings basis.

Not this man, though. There was something about Eric, a sense of distance and self-containment. He was a touch-me-not guy if she’d ever seen one.

“I’m not sure it’s a good idea,” she said. “That could be pretty heavy for Jayden, being with a man who’s been in Afghanistan.”

“Jayden’s mature,” Monique said. “He’s dealt with a lot more than most kids who are much older than him.”

“I have, Mom!”

“I know, sweetheart. But still . . .”

Lark’s mother reached over to touch her hand. “This man was injured serving our country,” she said quietly. “He needs help, and maybe our Jayden can provide it.”

“I want to help!” Jayden cried. “I never get to help anyone. They always havetohelpme.” Again his words ran together, but this time no one called him on it.

Conflicted, Lark turned to Sally. “What do you think?”

The other woman’s greenish gray eyes met hers with sympathy and understanding. “I can see why you’d be wary, but Monique’s been right about everything else. We could do it on a trial basis. A couple of lessons, then evaluate how it’s going.”

“Please, Mom.” Her son could do puppy-dog eyes better than anyone she’d ever met.

She had to admit, Jayden didn’t have a lot of male influences in his life. He lived with his mom and granny; the core members of his therapy team were women and so were most of the teachers at his elementary school. Lark didn’t socialize with the firefighters in anything more than a very casual way, and she’d never brought any hookup-type guy home to meet her family.

“We’ll give it a try,” she agreed. “Two lessons, on a trial basis.”

“Yay!” Jayden cheered.

“It’s not a done deal yet,” Monique cautioned. “I haven’t talked to my other patient about it, because I wanted to check with all of you first. I hope he’ll see the benefit, though.”

“Tell him it’s fun,” Jayden said.

Monique’s lips twitched. “Somehow I don’t think that’ll be a selling point for him.”

Lark nodded. To her, Eric looked driven. Like the word fun wasn’t even in his vocabulary. Hmm. Maybe part of Monique’s goal was to get the man to lighten up a little.

The physiotherapist confirmed it with her next words. “But I hope he’ll discover for himself how much fun riding can be.”

“You really figure that’s likely?” Lark couldn’t help but ask.

Monique grinned at her. “What rule do we live by here?” She turned to address Lark’s son. “Jayden?”

“Think positive!” he responded.

Of course they were right, Lark thought. “I’ll do my best.”