Chaper One Twenty Minutes Earlier
Diana Sheridan had watched from behind her windshield as the horizon turned from bright blue to dusky lavender to violet, before the sunlight completely disappeared behind the tree-covered Appalachian Mountains. Now night had come and she was relieved to be almost home, her late arrival caused by a three-car collision on the interstate.
Behind a pile of crushed metal, and police cars and emergency ser vice vehicles, Diana had waited in a line of cars full of people who were at first curious, then sympathetic, then cranky, trapped behind the wreck for over an hour in the August heat and humidity of Friday afternoon. Diana had stopped a passing state trooper and learned that one person had died in the accident and three were critically injured. Getting victims out of the mangled cars was a time-consuming feat requiring many expert hands, as well as the Jaws of Life.
Now, nearly two hours later, Diana soared off an exit ramp, happy to leave the speeding highway traffic. She spotted a fast food restaurant and longed to make a quick pass by the drive-thru window and order french fries. Her growling stomach reminded her that she hadn't eaten since the morning.
A glance at the dashboard clock stopped her, though. Nine fifteen—almost the exact time that her friend Penny had called Diana's hotel room the previous night and, in an anxiety-edged voice, said she needed to talk in person as soon as possible.
"Is Willow worse?" Diana had asked, referring to Penny's five-year-old daughter who'd had an appendectomy late Tuesday afternoon. No, Penny had assured her, the sound of distress giving way to relief. Willow had undergone laparoscopic surgery without complications. They were releasing her from the hospital in the morning.
Something else was terribly wrong. "Diana, please come by my house before you go home," Penny had begged almost pitifully, her voice rushed and breathless again. "I can't talk about this over the phone, but I have to give you an explanation. I can't just leave you and Simon wondering what's become of us. . . ." Penny had paused. "I'm involved in a situation that could be a matter of life and death."
Deeply alarmed, Diana had urged Penny to go to the police, but Penny nearly shouted no, so Diana had promised to come by as soon as she arrived back in Huntington the following evening. She had said she'd be there by eight at the latest. Penny, sounding on the verge of tears, had thanked her and hung up so fast Diana didn't have time to say good-bye—or ask more questions, Diana thought later, puzzled. If Willow was on the mend, what could have gone so wrong in Penny's world during the last three days?
Diana grabbed her cell phone to let Penny know that she was on her way, even though she was running late. She cursed softly when she saw her phone battery hovering at death's door. Unfailingly, she'd misplace the phone, she'd need to use it in an area with no reception, or she'd forget to recharge the battery. Diana kept it only because her great-uncle, Simon Van Etton, a retired archeology professor with whom she currently lived, had been aghast when he learned that she didn't have a cell phone, and immediately presented her with one he'd chosen especially for her. At seventy-five, Simon was obsessed with every new technological gadget that hit the market. Diana looked hopelessly at his latest gift—an iPhone lying on the seat beside her. She'd never even tried learning how to use it. Her technical acumen seemed confined to cameras.
Diana sighed as she stopped at a red light. Another delay. When the light finally turned, she pressed the accelerator, concentrating on "Layla," by Eric Clapton, pouring forth from her CD player. She wouldn't be lucky enough hear anything like "Layla" at the country club dance club tomorrow night, and she wished she hadn't agreed to go with Glen Austen, a university history professor. Glen was nice looking, intelligent, warm-hearted, unfailingly courteous, and utterly predictable.
Even her great-uncle Simon kept telling her to stop seeing him. "I introduced you to Glen, although not as a potential love interest," he often said. "He's a nice fellow, but you need a man with some fire, girl. Someone more like me when I was twenty-five!"
To which Diana always replied, "Glen is thirty-five, but I'm sure even at that age you would have had too much fire for me!" The remark never failed to delight Simon, bolstering his already robust ego and sending him into a gleeful .t of laughter as he agreed with her.
Besides, she'd had " fire" once. She'd had passion and excitement, and for a short time, what she'd thought was true love. After a short engagement and three years of marriage, though, Diana had realized how naive she'd been. She'd tied herself to a man who resented her career and her deep ties to her family. He wanted to be the only meaningful part of her life. When he'd unceremoniously left her for an eighteen-year-old who thought the sun revolved around him, Diana had been almost relieved. Almost.
Annoyed with herself for dredging up an unfortunate part of her past, she cleared her mind of the old memory of disenchantment and concentrated on driving. Penny lived in Rosewood, a housing project built quickly at the end of World War II, like hundreds of others throughout the United States, when returning soldiers needed homes. In the late 1940's, the 1950's, and even the early 1960's, the houses had looked neat and were considered pleasing, if not fashionable. But now neighborhoods like Rosewood had begun to decline, the houses no longer looking fresh and inviting, and nearly a third of them displaying "For Sale" signs, as the paint peeled and shingles fell disconsolately from neglected roofs.
Which is why Penny had chosen this particular place to live. "I don't want to be cooped up in an apartment," she'd told Diana. "I want Willow to have a yard and space for a swing set, and Rosewood has the only houses within range of my budget."
Penny had told Diana that her young husband died instantly when he plowed his car into a telephone pole on a slick road. He'd left only a twenty-thousand-dollar life insurance policy and little savings, so money had become a problem for a woman with no conveniently well-off relatives and no college education. Penny had worked as a part-time waitress in a diner before she decided to get a college degree and began taking a summer composition class at Marshall University, where she had seen Simon's advertisement for an editorial assistant posted on the bulletin board. She applied for the job she found interesting, hoping it would allow her to build a regular schedule around her child.
The day Penny Conley came for her interview, Diana took an immediate liking to the attractive, vivacious woman, although when Diana glanced over her résumé, she'd felt that Penny didn't stand a chance of being hired. The composition class was her first brush with college, she had no secretarial or research experience, and she'd never held a job other than waitressing. Diana doubted that Penny had the skills Simon required of someone helping him write his fourth book about ancient Egyptian culture and his archaeological expeditions.
Diana had held her breath as Simon scanned Penny's résumé, afraid he might dismiss her without her a chance, although later she'd chided herself for not giving her great-uncle more credit. The man did not make hasty judgments, which was a blessing for Penny, because after she'd answered his first few cursory questions, he'd begun merely chatting with her. Half an hour later, Penny had left the house with orders to report to her new job on Monday morning. That had been over a year ago, and aside from her good looks and charm, Penny had proved to be the most conscientious and astute assistant Simon had ever employed. She and her daughter had also become like members of the family.
Diana reached Penny's neighborhood at last. She stretched behind the wheel, feeling like she'd been driving since early morning instead of early afternoon. The photo assignment she'd taken on had been more grueling than she'd expected. She'd thought it would be simple—just photos for a city tourism pamphlet. But almost every time she'd focused her camera and started to take a picture, the fussy male head of the tourism center would screech "Stop," after he'd spot a cloud moving to an unsatisfactory position or observe a shriveling petunia in a flower border. At the end of the first day, Diana had been ready to strangle him.
By the time she finished on the third day, she'd .ed the town, her muscles aching with tension. She vowed that within the next year, she would take only the commercial assignments she found appealing. A few galleries in New York City, Chicago, and San Francisco were already showing her photographs, and in the last year, sales had begun to climb beyond Diana's expectations, if not beyond her hopes. She no longer had to scramble for money.
She turned onto Penny's street—dark without streetlights—and felt a chill pass over her. Diana stiffened, hearing her grandmother's dreamy voice from long ago: "I feel like someone just stepped on my grave," she'd say, after which, Simon, always the earthbound empiricist, would tell her affectionately such remarks made her sound like a simpleton. Now, though, Diana knew exactly what her grandmother had meant. Suddenly she felt weak, cold, frightened, and doomed, as if Death were whispering in her ear.
As if Death were whispering in her ear? The phrase caught Diana by surprise. She shook her head and told herself she was even more tired than she'd realized.
Diana sighed in relief as Penny's house came into view. Penny had turned on the outside light, which showed off an urn of red geraniums and the porch swing she'd painted light blue at Willow's request. Diana remembered stopping by during the painting process to find Penny impressively splattered with blue paint. Penny had laughed, saying this was her first experience with painting and should probably be her last.
Diana parked at the curb, avoiding a skunk sitting stubbornly in Penny's driveway. She turned on the interior car lights, looked in the rearview mirror, fluffed her long, curly honey-brown hair that had frizzed in the humidity, and wiped away a smudge of mascara beneath one of her heather-green eyes. Even in the dim light, she thought she looked tired and older than her twenty-eight years.
Later, Diana couldn't remember whether she first saw or heard the explosion. She'd turned off the engine and was reaching for her tote bag when Penny's small white house suddenly erupted into a blinding ball of fire. Diana screamed as her car rocked, burning debris raining over glass and metal. At first she ducked. Then she raised her head slightly to see gold and red flames devouring the house, igniting surrounding shrubbery, shooting across the lawn, leaping and frolicking with deadly joy against the still, ebony sky . . . creating a glittering, voracious inferno that Diana was certain no one could survive.
Thick, gray-black smoke plumed from the towering burst of flames, slowly floating away after their first, shocking eruption. The smoke spread in layers, the breeze sending it wafting toward Diana's car, enclosing her in a gauzelike shroud. She heard a pitiful mewling sound, then realized it came from her as she sat shuddering, clutching the steering wheel, waiting for . . .
Waiting for what? For Penny to come running toward her, holding Willow's hand?
Diana fumbled with the handle and opened her car door. She stepped out, realized her legs were too shaky to bear her weight, and dropped back onto her seat. She didn't even feel the swinging car door bump against her legs dangling outside of the car. I should do something, she thought. I have to do something. She looked at the cell phone with its dead battery, and which she didn't know how to use anyway. She looked at the little house, still burning gaudily in the hot night. Diana had closed her eyes for a moment when someone jerked the car door completely open and yelled, "Are you all right?" She jumped.
She saw a man with sun-streaked blond hair combed back from a wide forehead, and steely-blue eyes that were watering slightly from the smoke-filled air. "Miss, are you all right?" he asked again, his voice rough-edged and slightly Southern.
Diana swallowed. "My friend Penny. It's her house. I just pulled up and—" Her throat closed.
"Penny," the man repeated.
"Penny C-Conley," Diana managed.
"I don't live here. I was just turning onto this street when I saw the explosion." The man spoke rapidly. "Did you call nine-one-one?"
For a moment, Diana went blank. Call 911?
"Lady, did you call nine-one-one?" the man nearly shouted. "No. My cell phone is dead." The words .owed out of Diana's mouth in a voice she barely recognized as her own—thin, high, without emotion. She sounded as if the explosion held no horror or surprise for her, but as the man nodded and disappeared, Diana realized she was crying. Tears .owed down her face to her trembling mouth and dropped off her jaw onto her blouse. She wiped her cheeks with her hands but more tears streamed, and finally she dropped her hands and simply sat, weeping silently, hating her helplessness.
The man returned a moment later. "Help is on the way, but we have to move your car and make room for the emergency vehicles," he shouted. Diana nodded and reached for the ignition. No keys. She'd dropped them when the house exploded.
"Scoot over." Diana did so without a thought. He jumped into the driver's seat, bent down and retrieved the key chain from the floor. "I saw it when your interior lights came on." Without looking at her, he said, "My name is Tyler Raines, by the way."
"Diana . . . Sheridan."
He started the car and pulled forward to the third house beyond Penny's. Diana again swiped at her tearstained face, then opened her window and peered out. An overweight fortyish man wearing baggy sweatpants and holding a beer can stood on his porch, gaping at the fire.
"Where's everyone else?" Tyler Raines yelled to the man as he leaped from the car. "Where are the people who live on either side of that house?"
Sweatpants gaped a moment longer, then said, "House on the right's vacant. Just an old lady lives on the left. Miz Hanson. Got rheumatoid arthritis."
Mrs. Hanson. Clarice Hanson, Diana thought. Penny's friend and frequent babysitter for Willow.
Tyler Raines began running toward Mrs. Hanson's house. Sweatpants squinted at Diana. "Wha' happened? Will fire get my house?"
By now Diana had managed to remove herself from her car and stood clutching the door for support, her stomach in a knot, although she'd finally stopped crying.
"Hey!" the man yelled blurrily at her. "I asked if the fire will get my place."
"I don't know!" Diana snapped. The beer he held was clearly not his first. Probably not even his fourth or fifth. "If you have a family, get them out!"
"But my house . . ."
Diana didn't need to argue anymore. A woman and an adolescent girl ran past the man on the porch, nearly knocking him down. He rocked unsteadily before his wife yelled, "For God's sake, Clyde, to hell with the house! Or do you care more about it than us?"
The man frowned as if he were pondering this dilemma, continuing to weave and peer at Penny's blazing house. Diana also looked toward it, feeling sick as she pictured Penny and Willow inside the inferno. Something else in the house had caught fire and shot another column of smoke toward the night sky, throwing sparks as it rose. The breeze turned into a sudden gust of wind that caught a piece of burning debris and sent it flying to Mrs. Hanson's house.
Fire began eating the old shingles, creeping across Mrs. Hanson's roof. How fast could that tiny line of fire burst into a blaze? Diana's heart beat harder before she saw Tyler Raines carrying a woman from the house. He headed toward Diana's car. She opened the door wider and he set the woman on the front seat, positioning her body straight ahead, directing her gaze forward, away from the fire. Penny had told Diana that Clarice Hanson was just over seventy. She had small, delicate features and amazingly clear, violet eyes, huge in her pale, horrified face. "My lord, what happened?" she quavered.
Diana crouched, enfolding the woman's frail hands with their swollen joints within her own larger hands. "Mrs. Hanson?" The woman nodded. "We don't know what happened. Penny's house just caught on fire."
"No, Penny's house exploded!" Mrs. Hanson's chin trembled. "I didn't have my draperies drawn shut. I saw it!"
"The fire trucks will be here any minute." Diana looked at Tyler Raines over the roof of her car and mouthed, "Her house." His vivid blue eyes shot in the direction of the house from which he'd just emerged. He glanced back at Diana and nodded.
Suddenly, Diana heard the blessed sound of sirens. She thought of the irritation she always felt when sirens awakened her at night, and knew she'd never experience that irritation again. Lights flashed in the night as a fire truck screamed its way toward them.
"Oh dear." Mrs. Hanson's voice wavered. Tears brimmed in her eyes. With shaking hands, she fumbled in the pocket of her much-washed flowered cotton dress and withdrew a dainty handkerchief. "I've never seen anything like this."
"I haven't either." Diana realized her own voice sounded thin and old. She wrapped her arm around Clarice Hanson's narrow, trembling shoulders, holding her firmly, blocking her view of the fire. "Everything will be all right, Mrs. Hanson."
"How can you say that when Penny and that sweet little girl—"
"Shhh." Diana tightened her arm around the woman. "We don't know anything about them yet. Maybe they weren't home."
"Yes they were." Mrs. Hanson stopped dabbing at her tears, her voice suddenly vehement. "Willow's room faces my house. Willow's light was on and I saw Penny come in and kiss her good night. Willow just got out of the hospital today. Penny wouldn't leave her alone. Penny is a good mother."
Penny wouldn't leave her alone. The words tolled in Diana's head. Penny is a good mother.
Of course Penny and Willow had been in the house. Where else would they be while Willow recovered from surgery? While Penny anxiously waited for Diana to come? Diana tried to draw a deep breath, failed, and mechanically patted Mrs. Hanson's shoulder. The woman buried her face in her handkerchief, and Diana turned to watch the firefighters leaping from the truck, yelling, connecting a huge hose to the nearby fire hydrant and sending a powerful blast of water at the blaze.
An emergency ser vice van pulled in just ahead of the fire truck. Mrs. Hanson lifted her head from her handkerchief-covered hands and whimpered, "I wonder if they've found Penny and Willow."
"I don't know." Diana frowned in frustration. "I wish Mr. Raines would come back and tell us what's going on, but he seems to be helping the firefighters. I don't know what he's thinking—he doesn't even have on protective gear."
"Oh dear, he doesn't, does he?" Mrs. Hanson sounded tearfully resigned and yet admiring. "It's foolish for him to be helping, but men are so brave."
"Some of them are brave." Diana looked at Sweatpants finally stumbling away from his house, clutching his beer can as he passed in front of Diana's car. His wife and daughter were long gone. "Others don't know the meaning of the word."
Mrs. Hanson glanced at Sweatpants. "Oh, you mean him," she said scathingly. "I'm so glad that blond man came along to help us. Mr. Buckner, the drinker, is a waste of space, as my Henry would have said."
Mr. Buckner, who was more worried about his house than his family. Diana was surprised he hadn't gone back into his house for another can of beer to tide him over until he could safely return home. He was indeed a waste of space, Diana thought, and suddenly remembered Penny saying that he was the laziest man she'd ever known, although he always found enough energy to make passes at her. The other man, Tyler Raines, was a different breed. Diana wondered how she and Mrs. Hanson had been so lucky to have him appear at the exact moment when they needed him.
Mrs. Hanson said weakly, "You're Penny's friend, Diana."
"Yes. I was coming to visit." Her throat tightened. "I was late."
"Then thank the lord, child. Otherwise, you would have been in that house."
I would have been in that house. The full impact of the realization suddenly hit Diana with dizzying shock. She felt sick with horror. If she'd exited her car one minute earlier . . .
Mrs. Hanson looked up at her, and obviously seeing Diana's stricken expression, she reached out, gave Diana's hand a squeeze, and quickly changed the topic. "Pardon me for being nosy, but is the blond man who's been helping us your . . . admirer?"
"You . . . You mean my boyfriend?" Diana said slowly, trying to focus on Mrs. Hanson again. "No. I've never seen him before. He said he'd just pulled onto this street to turn around when the house caught fire. His name is Tyler Raines."
"Tyler Raines. I've never heard the name, although he looks vaguely familiar. . . . At least I thought he did at first. My memory isn't what it used to be. Thank goodness he was here. I've been having a bad bout with my arthritis this week and I need my walker. I was shaking so much, though, I turned it over and I was standing there wavering back and forth, ready to fall on the blasted thing, when he swooped in and picked me up, as if I was no heavier than a little bird, and carried me out to you. If he could have only gotten to Penny and Willow. . . ."
Mrs. Hanson broke off, her hands trembling violently. "Oh, dear heaven, that little house simply blew up! We both have gas furnaces. Could her furnace have exploded?"
"Penny wouldn't be running the furnace in the summer. Maybe it was the water heater. It was gas, too, and in the basement as I recall. It could have been leaking all day and Penny didn't notice. All it would have taken was one spark to set off all that gas."
"A spark from what?"
"A frayed electrical cord or the water heater flipping on or a pressure valve malfunction or . . ." Diana glanced helplessly at Mrs. Hanson, who was looking at her expectantly. "I'm not an expert. I'm just speculating."
The woman's shoulders sagged. "Knowing the cause won't help Penny and Willow anyway. Oh, my lord, those poor things." Mrs. Hanson's voice shivered. "That explosion even made my house shake. My daughter makes beautiful ceramics and she gave me a figurine that looks just like Willow. She said it was the best thing she'd done. It fell from the curio cabinet and I know it shattered. It's like a sign from heaven."
The woman suddenly began to shake and sob, again raising her drenched handkerchief to her face. Diana, still crouching, stretched into the car and enfolded Mrs. Hanson in her arms, making comforting sounds that she would to a child.
Diana continued to rock and croon absently while keeping her gaze on the uproar around Penny's house. Emergency workers had hooked up giant lights that somehow made the scene look almost artificial, more like a movie set than Penny's familiar and very real house—or shell of a house. The right side had completely collapsed, and only two-thirds of the left side remained standing, drenched in water sprayed from the giant hoses. From where Diana stood, the insides of the house were black and glistening. The back of the house disappeared into darkness.
A few small fires still burned inside, and three firefighters entered, dousing the flames. Beyond the destroyed right wall, Diana could see that the three men walked along the inner left side of the house, taking small steps and repeatedly looking downward. She realized most of the living room floor must have collapsed, and the men were peering into the basement. They looked upward, too, dodging charred boards and shingles crashing from the roof. The men were obviously scanning the ruins for survivors, Diana realized. She closed her eyes. How she longed to hear one of them yell, "We've found a woman and a little girl and they're not hurt!"
No one said anything about a woman and a little girl, though. They simply moved slowly and silently through the ruin that half an hour earlier had been Penny's cozy little house where Willow had lain recovering from surgery, and her loving mother had hovered over her.
They had extinguished the fire at Mrs. Hanson's house, although Diana couldn't judge how much destruction the structure had suffered. The woman still didn't know that the conflagration had reached her own home. Diana dreaded telling her or letting her see it, no matter how minor the damage. The shaken woman seemed as if she couldn't handle more bad news. Still, someone had to inform her.
Diana took a deep breath and strove to speak as calmly as possible. "Mrs. Hanson, I'm afraid the fire got to your house. Or rather, to a small part of it." The woman gasped, but Diana smiled reassuringly. "A chunk of burning debris hit your roof. The firefighters immediately started spraying, and I think they've completely put out the fire," she said quickly. "Still, if you wouldn't mind sitting alone in the car for a few minutes, I'd like to see how much damage was done."
Mrs. Hanson clutched her arm. "Oh, no, Diana! You mustn't leave the protection of this car. It's dangerous out there. My house is just a little old thing, not worth getting yourself hurt over."
"I'll be extremely careful. Mr. Raines hasn't come back for a while. Maybe they've found . . . something."
"You mean someone," Mrs. Hanson said dully. "And if they'd found Penny and Willow, I'm sure that young man would have rushed right back to tell us." Her throat worked as if she were choking back a sob. "Oh, I just can't bear it," she blurted.
"Maybe Tyler Raines is helping and he couldn't come back. I have to know something, Mrs. Hanson. That's why I need to go check for myself. Will you be okay if I leave for a few minutes?"
Mrs. Hanson drew a deep breath and said with feigned strength, "Certainly I'll be okay, dear. My joints are swollen but my heart is in good shape." She patted Diana's hand. "You go take a look if you want. I'll sit here quietly."
And cry, Diana thought as she stood, her legs cramping slightly from the crouching position she'd held so long. She closed the car door, hoping to shut Mrs. Hanson away from some of the noise and smoke. She wished she could just as easily block out the sight of the ruined house.
She glanced back and saw that she needn't worry. Mrs. Hanson held her head high and .rm. Diana was certain the woman was gazing straight ahead with her lovely eyes—eyes that apparently didn't need glasses even though she was in her seventies, Diana thought as she tucked her thick, windswept hair behind her ears and tried to walk steadily toward the burned houses.
"What are you doing?"
Diana jumped at the sound of Tyler Raines's razor-sharp voice. She'd been trying to keep her mind off Penny and Willow by thinking only about Mrs. Hanson. She hadn't even seen Raines striding toward her. She drew herself up to her full five-foot-six frame, but she had to look up at least another six inches to glare at him. "I want to see Penny's house."
Tyler Raines stood firmly in front of her. Sweat streaked his dirty face, soot had settled into three shallow creases across his forehead, and his light blue T-shirt had turned an indeterminate shade of gray and stuck clammily to his wide chest. His damp, longish hair had parted unevenly in the middle and hung below his high cheekbones, almost to his earlobes.
The man looked exhausted and, to Diana's mind, surprisingly distressed about people he didn't know. But worst of all, he looked as if he was going to argue with her. She narrowed her eyes slightly and set her jaw.
They gave each other long, measuring looks. Then Diana thought she saw a flicker of understanding in Raines's eyes before he sighed and stepped aside. "Oh, all right, dammit. Go ahead. Be careful, though. Hoses are lying around, everything is soaked—"
"Which I can very well see for myself. I am not a child. I'm not going to run around willy-nilly—"
"I'm not afraid of you running willy-nilly. I'm afraid of you fainting."
In spite of the situation, indignation flashed through Diana. "I am not one of those silly women who faint! I have never fainted in my life, and I've been on archaeological expeditions to Egypt!"
"Egypt, eh? Well, that's impressive, but you weren't far from fainting when you tried to get out of your car after the house exploded." Raines gave her a hard stare with his azure eyes, and Diana flushed at the memory. "If you insist on getting a closer look at this mess, though, I guess
I can't stop you."
"No, you certainly can't," Diana huffed, grasping at her waning bravado. "And I'm not just some stranger who wants to get 'a closer look at this mess,' as you put it. My friend Penny and her five-year-old daughter were in that house, for God's sake!" Diana's voice cracked but she plowed on. "Do you expect me to just sit in my car for an hour until someone gets around to telling me something like whether or not they're still alive?"
Diana was almost certain the man .inched. Then his gaze softened a fraction. "Sorry about my wording. It's natural that you want to see about your friend, Miss . . . I forgot your name."
"Diana Sheridan," she snarled, exasperated with him, furious that again she was on the verge of bursting into racking, useless sobs—just what he'd expect from her. "Now will you stop blocking my way to the house?"
"Okay, but I'm going with you. I don't want you falling down and breaking an arm or a leg. People are too busy to stop and patch you up, on top of everything else."
"I know to be careful about where I'm walking, Mr. Raines," she seethed.
"It's Tyler. And I'm sure usually you are careful about where you're walking, but to night you're upset and the area around the house is dangerous." He reached out and tightly closed his hand around her forearm. She stiffened, glaring at him. "Don't fight me about this," he said in a steely voice. "If you haven't noticed, you're trembling all over. Even your lips are twitching. You're more upset than you realize."
Diana made a sound she hoped conveyed supreme contempt for his appraisal, but secretly she felt grateful for the large, sturdy hand holding her arm as they began walking. Everything inside of her seemed to vibrate and her legs were shaky. She'd always been strong, emotionally and physically, which is why Great-uncle Simon had allowed her to accompany him on her first Egyptian expedition when she was only eighteen. Now, though, she felt weak and vulnerable, although she was doing her best to hide her unusual fragility.
Diana kept her gaze on the ground, determined not to trip over anything, as Tyler Raines had predicted she would. She wanted to show him she was totally in control. But she wasn't. She jerked to a stop as they neared the house and she heard wood cracking. A man screamed hoarsely before a crash came from inside the house, and Diana knew the floor had given way under one of the three firefighters who'd entered the building.
A general shout of distress mounted into the night, men rushing to the front of the little house, not daring to step inside and put more weight on what was left of the living room floor. Two .firefighters, looking unreal in the glare of powerful electric lamps, stood plastered against the wall. Both gazed into the basement and one shouted, "Davis, you all right?"
Everyone seemed to hold their breath for at least ten long, silent seconds. "Davis! Are you all right?" the man yelled again.
After a moment, a feeble, breathless voice floated from the depths of the house. "I'm alive. Landed on my side." A pause, then a soft moan of pain. "Think I broke . . . couple of ribs."
"Don't move. You might puncture a lung." Pause. "Paramedics!"
No one came and someone else called. Once. Twice. Then two men and a woman came around the side of the house pushing a gurney. A firefighter rushed to them and began bellowing as if they weren't standing three feet away from him. "One of our guys fell through the floor! He thinks he's broken some ribs. You've gotta help him!"
The female paramedic looked at the firefighter. "I'm afraid your man will have to wait a few minutes until the second emergency team arrives," she said quietly, her young face immobile. "We found a woman in the backyard."
"Penny!" Diana broke away from Tyler and ran toward the gurney where a motionless .gure lay. She reached the gurney and looked at the motionless form covered by a white sheet, only the head exposed. The sight hit Diana like a hammer blow. A paramedic had brushed back what was left of Penny's short mahogany-brown hair to reveal her once lovely face, the left side of which now seemed to bubble with vicious, searing burns that stretched halfwayacross her forehead, destroying a cheek, annihilating her nose, obliterating the left eye.
Diana stepped back in shuddering horror. She went cold and rigid, as if turned to stone. Finally, she whispered desolately, "My God, Penny."
The female paramedic looked at Diana with compassion. "She was lying in a little rubber pool with a couple of inches of water in it. The right side of her face was in the water, but her nose was exposed or she would have drowned."
"Penny?" Diana leaned toward the burned woman, saying uselessly, "Penny, it's Diana."
"She's unconscious, thank the saints," the female paramedic said gently with a slight Irish accent. "She can't hear you, ma'am. Don't look at her any more than you have already. She wouldn't want you to see her this way, and you won't want to remember her this way, either."
" 'Remember her' " Diana asked vaguely, then louder, "She's not dead, is she?"
"No, but . . ." The woman trailed off and looked down at the wreckage of Penny's face.
A male paramedic intervened. "She's not dead, Miss, but she's sustained some bad burns."
"Not just to her face?" Diana demanded in agony.
"The whole left side of her body was exposed." The man gave Diana a sympathetic but authoritative look. "The burns are bad. Let's leave it at that. Right now, it's vital that we get her to the hospital as soon as possible. The doctors can tell you more later."
As they began cautiously moving the gurney toward the ambulance, Diana felt herself going limp. By now, Tyler Raines stood behind her and placed a firm hand under her elbow. She sagged against him, barely aware of his presence, only of his strength holding her upright.
As the paramedics wheeled Penny away into the hot, smothering darkness, Diana drew a deep breath and called, "Penny has a little girl. She's five. Have you found her?"
The female paramedic looked back at her. Their eyes met and Diana knew the answer even before the young woman said, "We've found no signs of a little girl. Maybe inside . . ."
Maybe inside, where the fire had raged in unchecked ecstasy, consuming everything in its ravaging path, Diana thought, including a sweet, innocent five-year-old girl.
And for the first time in her twenty-eight years, Diana fainted.
Excerpted from You Can Run by Carlene Thompson
Copyright © 2009 by Carlene Thompson
Published in March 2009 by St. Martin's Press
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher. Carlene Thompson
is the author of Last Whisper
, Black for Remembrance
, Nowhere to Hide
, and Don’t Close Your Eyes
, among other books. She attended college at Marshall University and earned her Ph.D. in English from Ohio State University. She taught at the University of Rio Grande before leaving to focus on her writing full-time. Besides writing, she spends her time caring for the many dogs and cats she's adopted. A native West Virginian, she lives with her husband Keith in Point Pleasant, West Virginia.