Ian McKinnon was just getting steady on his feet, looking forward to the opening of the Wounded Veterans Center and a big McKinnon wedding celebration, when tragedy struck again. The soldier who'd saved his life while in the military has died. He's charged with his most important mission: find his friend Carlos's family in Mexico or become guardian and raise Carlos's children. The only mandatory stipulation of his friend's will was that Ian live under the same roof with Abby Townsend, a firefighter from Carlos's firehouse. Abby knew the kids well and she could help ease them all through the transition of becoming a family. Okay, so Ian may not be daddy material, but he'd grown up with a whole lot of McKinnons running around. He could handle the kids just fine. The beautiful Abby Townsend was another story.
Abby took one look at Ian and shook her head with utter disbelief. What were her dear friends thinking by naming a man whose nickname was "The Hazard" as guardian of their three small children? She only needed to spend one year in Ian's house in South Dakota. She had to either find Carlos's family, or convince Ian that she was the better person to raise the children. Abby knows how hard it is to lose someone you loved. She'll be there to protect the children in any way she can. But can she protect her heart from falling in love with a man known for taking too many risks...and risk heartbreak again?
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Chapter One Excerpt:
There was a time when the prospect of standing on two feet was beyond Ian McKinnon’s imagination. That had been a darker time in his life. A time he didn’t ever want to go back to again.
As he made his way up the driveway leading to the home he’d spent the last year refurbishing, feeling the early autumn sun on his face, he could finally see light. He felt at peace.
His cousin’s SUV sat next to his Jeep in the driveway. As he rounded the corner, he found Hawk sitting on the porch overlooking the river in the back yard.
Hawk smiled and stood up when they made eye contact. But the look on Hawk’s face immediately told Ian he wasn’t here for a social call.
“Can we go inside and talk?”
Ian sighed and tried to force a smile. “Something tells me I’m not going to like this conversation. So if it’s all the same to you why we just have it right here on the front porch?”
“I was hoping to spare you.”
Ian laughed without any humor. “That bad, huh? Just give it to me straight.”
Hawk shook his head and chuckled low. “You always did things your own way.”
Ian climbed the few stairs and pivoted so he could sit opposite Hawk on the porch. He braced himself for whatever news he was about to get.
“You got a call from Vermont this morning. Your mom took the call. No one has your new number.”
“I didn’t get the new number until last week. I haven’t had a chance to call Carlos and Brenda yet. Both of them are excited to come out and see the house and the Wounded Veterans Center now that it’s nearly complete. But both of them have my cell phone number. They could have used that.”
He was rambling and his stomach hurt just looking at Hawk as his cousin struggled with what he was about to say.
“Carlos and Brenda’s lawyer only had your parents’ telephone number."
Hawk nodded, taking a deep breath. “Carlos and Brenda are dead.”
* * *
Ian couldn’t breathe. He glanced at his reflection in the bathroom mirror and wiped the cold moisture from his face with a crisp clean towel he’d just purchased at a fancy department store in Rapid City last week.
Two years after a mortar blast in Afghanistan took part of his leg, Ian was not only standing, he was running. And he was looking forward to life again. Soon the Wounded Veterans Center he’d worked tirelessly on with his cousin, Ethan, and Hawk’s girlfriend, Regis, would be open, and they’d be celebrating the McKinnon way with the wedding of Logan McKinnon and Poppy Ericksen. They all couldn’t wait. No one more than Ian. The entire McKinnon clan was coming in from all over the country just for this celebration. Life was finally righting itself.
And now the man who’d given Ian a second chance at life was gone. Dead at the hands of a drunk driver on a winding Vermont road. One day he was enjoying life. The next he and his beloved wife were gone. The only thing left were three children who no longer had their parents.
The knock on the door pulled him out of his thoughts.
“Ian, it’s me. Everything okay in there?” Hawk hadn’t left. Ian knew he wouldn’t. Hawk would stay all day and all night until he knew Ian was steady on his feet. Like always. Hawk had a medical clinic in town. The people of Rudolph depended on him. But they were McKinnons and McKinnons stuck together through everything. Barring an emergency, Hawk would stay as long as Ian needed him or at least until one of his brothers or cousins could come and relieve him.
Ian wiped his face with his towel again, still feeling the jolt of the news. “I’ll be just a minute.”
Closing his eyes, he fought the wave of nausea he hadn’t felt in a long time. But the feeling of loss overwhelmed him. And for the first time in more than a year, Ian wept.
* * *
It’s just a well, Abby thought as she looked down into the hole where Marissa had been standing for the last half hour.
“Go get him, please?” Marissa looked up at Abby as if she were her only hope.
The entire Stockington Falls fire department had managed to get through one of the worst weeks of their life, mourning the loss of a member of the department. It was like losing family. Now Abby had to call them to help Marissa so she could be on time for her afternoon appointment, or rescue the cat herself and be a few minutes late.
She decided on the latter.
Looking around she saw some neighbors who’d been curious enough about Marissa’s cries to come outside.
“Does anyone have a fifty-foot rope and a pillowcase I can borrow?” she called out.
Marissa ran into her house and slammed the door.
As if Sean Pierce had read her mind, he suddenly came out of his garage with a rope. He handed it to Abby and said, “If I were thirty pounds skinnier I’d try to get down that well myself. But then you’d probably have to rescue me.”
Abby took the rope and unwound it. “I don’t have time for that today, Sean. But I thank you for the rope.”
Marissa’s mother, Karen, came out of the house with a pillowcase and a towel in her hands. “Abby you should let me call my husband. You don’t need this right now. I told him a thousand times this well is dangerous. And now the cat has gone down there. I’m going to make sure he fills this thing as soon as he gets home from work.”
“Let’s take care of the cat first.”
Abby zipped her sweatshirt up to her neck and then tucked the pillowcase into the pocket. When Sean finished tying the rope around a big maple tree about fifteen feet away, Abby climbed over the rock side and dropped the length of the rope into the well.
This wasn’t her first time rescuing a cat. It probably wouldn’t be her last. She gripped the rope in her hands and eased herself down the fifteen feet to the bottom where Marissa’s kitten had fallen. Although the well was thought to have dried up, there was a puddle of water at the bottom.
“Did you find him?” Marissa called down to her. Abby looked up and squinted as debris on the edge of the well rained down on her.
“Honey, let Abby do her job,” Karen said.
Abby tasted dirt on her lips and unsuccessfully tried to wipe it on her collar. “Not yet. Step away from the well, Marissa.”
“I can hear him crying!”
Abby could hear the cat, too, although the cat’s meow had been drowned out by Marissa’s cries until Abby had climbed a little deeper into the well.
“What’s the cat’s name again?”
She heard both Karen and Marissa call down to her, “Baxter!”
“Okay, Baxter. How far down are you?” she said. And then she listened.
Baxter meowed long and loud, a sound that echoed in the confines of the well.
Good. Baxter could meow all he wanted if it would make it easier for Abby to find him.
The ick factor of the well was starting to get to her, as the smell of wet earth. The more she slid down the rope, the slipperier her hands felt, making it hard to hold her grip.
And then she heard the cat’s meow loud near her ear. She turned quickly, holding the rope tight. But Baxter jumped on her back and dug his claws through her sweatshirt to her tender flesh. Abby fought the pain so she could hold onto the rope, trying to find a foot hold in the side of the well so she could maintain her position. But as she struggled with the rope, Baxter fell off and dropped into a puddle below. That was enough to upset her balance. She lost her grip on the rope and slid to the bottom until her feet hit the cold water below.
“Is Sean still up there?”
Abby looked up at the opening of the well. A man’s face appeared there. But it wasn’t Sean.
* * *
His morning run had taken an interesting turn when Ian spotted a crowd in front of a well on the tree-lined street where he was staying while in Stockington Falls, Vermont. The Maple Farms Inn didn’t have more than six guest suites, and was nothing more than a large Vermont farmhouse, not that much bigger than his own house in South Dakota. But given so many people had come into town for Carlos’s funeral, Ian had been grateful there had been a vacancy.
He’d arrived two days ago and managed to get through Carlos and Brenda’s funeral while avoiding most everyone, even during the funeral which had been attended by just about everyone in town.
There were no words in him. Ian didn’t know what he could offer to the crowd of people who’d lived with Brenda and Carlos these past few years to bring them comfort when he needed so much of it himself. So he’d stayed to himself and decided to deal with his grief through exercise. Carlos had always encouraged that.
The run had done him good. It burnt off nervous energy he hadn’t been able to shake since he’d arrived in town. But as he approached the crowd, Ian found it hard to ignore the cries of a small little girl.
He stopped near the crowd and approached the woman who was trying to console the little girl.
“What’s going on?”
“My daughter was playing with her cat in the front yard and he fell into the well.”
It was then Ian noticed the narrow wishing well and the rope that was attached to a nearby tree and dropped into the well.
“Someone is down there?” Ian asked.
“Abby went to save Baxter,” the little girl cried, swiping at her wet cheeks.
“Who’s going to save Abby?”
The woman didn’t find the humor. “Abby is a firefighter in town.”
He lifted a sweaty brow. “A firefighter put this contraption together?” he asked, pointing to the ropes.
“No, my neighbor did. But he had to go to work so he left.”
He groaned. Ian had seen too many accidents from overzealous trainees who didn’t want to take proper precautions. He couldn’t imagine Carlos sitting well with a woman this reckless working under his command at the fire department.
A dull pain grew deep in his chest just thinking of Carlos. But he couldn’t think about him now. Ian walked over to the well. It was old, possibly as old as the farmhouse it was standing in front of, and some of the stones on the top were missing. The concrete holding it together was crumbling in places.
He peered over the mouth of the well and saw a long length of rope and the head of a person with a ponytail. “Don’t you think you should have waited until the fire department got here?”
The woman lifted her head, squinted, sputtered, and spit dust out of her mouth. “I am the fire department,” she called out.
He rolled his eyes. “I heard. You don’t actually have anyone trained in search and rescue?”
“Funny. Look, you can either help or get out of the way. Whether or not you know it, you’re dropping debris into the well. The rocks down here are slimy,” the woman called up. “I hadn’t anticipated that or I would have gotten a winch first. It’s been a lousy week here in Stockington Falls so if it’s all the same to you, I’d rather you help instead of criticize.”
“Can you find any foot holds on the wall?”
“This cat is pretty scared. He’s clawed up and down my arm and back and is drawing blood. It’s a tight squeeze down here, too. It’s going to be hard for me to hold onto him and get out.”
“You didn’t think of this before you went down the hole, Squeeze?”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Never mind,” he muttered. Ian looked at the rope securely tied to the tree and pulling against the mouth of the well. At least she thought to get a strong enough rope before going down. “How much do you weigh?”
“Excuse me?” she called up.
“Are you having trouble hearing me? Your weight. I’m going to try to pull you up but I need to know how much pressure I’m putting against the stones and the rope. I don’t want the walls of the well to cave in on you.”
He sputtered, “I’m not looking for the exact number.”
“I’m not sure. One hundred and twenty pounds depending on the day. Let me get a firm grip on Baxter. He’s soaking wet. And be careful when you pull. I’ve already been clocked on the head with a rock from the well.”
Ian surveyed the area of the well where it looked like rocks were missing. He could use that spot to secure the rope while he was pulling.
“Would you mind handing me that towel?” he asked the little girl’s mother. He crouched down to eye-level of the little teary-eyed girl. “I have a big job for you. Could you got fetch me two more towels?”
The little girl nodded and complied by running into the house. He didn’t really want her here while he tried to pull the woman from the well, just in case she somehow lost her grip on the cat. It wouldn’t be easy to do this with a hysterical child and woman at the same time.
“You ready with the cat?” he called down.
“As ready as I’ll ever be,” she called up. Then she muttered something unintelligible as if she were talking to the cat.
He placed the towel on the concrete section of the well beneath the rope to keep the rope from fraying as he pulled. He only hoped that he could firmly stand in place while he was pulling. Turning to the little girl’s mother, he said, “I’d like you to hold the towel in place while I pull.
When she moved into position, Ian gripped the rope and started to pull. The woman in the well was not kidding about her weight. Ian had pulled and carried many soldiers during his time in the army and this woman was as light as a feather. No wonder she thought she could climb down this narrow hole.
By the time the ponytail was visible, the little girl had emerged from the house with two big towels in her hand.
“Baxter!” she cried with delight when the woman in the well came into view. Her sweatshirt was tight around her like a pouch. The cat’s head was sticking out the top of the sweatshirt. Baxter meowed when he saw the little girl.
“Wait until I get all the way out of the well, Marissa,” the woman said. “I don’t want Baxter to get scared and fall back in.”
Despite worrying about having a firm stand on the ground with his prosthetic limb, Ian felt steady. One more grunt and tug and the woman grabbed the side of the well, pulling herself up so she was resting on the wall of the well. Only then did Ian let his grip on the rope go so he could wrap his arm around her waist and help the woman climb the rest of the way out of the well.
The woman put her feet on the ground and faced Ian, looking up at him with blue eyes that were full of surprise. She felt petite in his arms, but her grip on his arm was strong.
“Thank you,” she said. Glancing down at the squirming cat tucked inside her sweatshirt, she added, “If you don’t mind.”
Ian let go of his hold on her and took a step back. “Oh, sure.”
She quickly unzipped her sweatshirt and the cat jumped onto the ground. The little girl dropped one of the towels to the ground, scooped Baxter up in her arms and wrapped the cat in the towel. The crowd gathered around the well started clapping.
Ian took a step back to give the woman some space and to get a good look at her. Then he let out a belly laugh that finally lifted his spirits for the first time in a week.
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