Line of Fire, An Autumn Rain Novel

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Bridge to Forever

Sample Chapter
Copyright ©2001 Rachel Ann Nunes.
All rights reserved. No part of this text may
be reproduced, in any form or by any means,
without permission in writing from the author.

Chapter One

Mickelle Hansen started her blue Metro and backed out of her American Fork driveway, past the ancient gold station wagon parked by the curb. Her stomach churned with a mixture of excitement and nervousness. What was she doing getting involved with someone so soon after her husband's death?

She had known Damon Wolfe less than six weeks, but already he had become a regular and vital part of her life. He was continually on her mind, and just thinking about him stirred a range of emotions her deceased husband had never evoked.

Was this really love?

She thought it was, prayed that it was, but she had been mistaken before—with Riley. And neither she nor their children had been happy living with him. Riley hadn't been happy, either, for that matter. A hard knot of anxiety formed in her stomach.

Damon is not Riley. She had said these words so many times, she had hoped to believe them by now.

Her feelings about Damon's two children were not so troubled. She loved them with all her heart, especially smart little Isabelle—Belle for short—who had quickly become the daughter she had always craved. She was grateful for the opportunity to earn money by tending Belle and her older brother after school each day until their father picked them up on his way home from work. When for some reason they didn't come to the house—like today because Damon had taken time off work to spend with his children during the teachers' UEA conference—she missed them terribly.

Of course, watching his children gave Mickelle the fringe benefit of seeing Damon every day, and more often than not they shared dinner—either a home-cooked meal at Mickelle's or at any restaurant of her choice. Although these evenings weren't official "dates" and the children were always present, she felt loved, needed, and protected as she had never felt during her fourteen years of marriage to Riley.

Damon had actually said the words "I love you" to her several times when he had taken her out alone on real dates, and while she had thought the same about him in her heart and had wanted to say it back to him, she hadn't allowed herself that luxury. There was so much she still needed to know about this widower before she could commit herself and her two sons to his care.

They had discussed marriage, and vaguely talked about their separate temple sealings to their deceased spouses. But as yet they had kept their plans abstract rather than concrete. Mickelle suspected this was mostly due to her own hesitancy, stemming from the fact that the last time she had trusted her future to a man, the results had been tragic. She now believed deep within her heart that the only person she could truly depend on was herself—and the Lord.

Not a bad place to be, but she had quickly learned that Damon wanted to be depended on. And Mickelle was beginning to trust him, too—at least a little. Was she ready for the next step?

Damon was. She knew that. The thought made her heart jump.

"Mom, there it is!" Jeremy's thin arm pointed to the beginning of the Wolfe's Alpine driveway, his voice quivering with all the excitement and anticipation of a nine-year-old.

Mickelle glanced in the backseat and smiled at her son in appreciation. His blue eyes danced and his grin was so large it seemed as though it would split his face in two.

"Am I right?" he asked, bouncing on the seat.

Bryan, Mickelle's older son nodded. "Yeah, that's it. Can't you see that metal arch they put up. See? It says Wolfe Estates. Now stop bouncing my seat." Although the stocky thirteen-year-old was trying hard to act indifferent, Mickelle detected a hint of anticipation in his brown eyes. She knew that meant he was looking forward to visiting the mansion where the family lived, despite his reluctance to let Damon into their lives. Except for his blonde hair, her son Bryan looked like his deceased father more and more each day. This didn't bother her, though sometimes she wondered if he had inherited his father's tendency toward sullenness as well. She prayed that he hadn't, and that his wounds from his father's death wouldn't be permanent.

"You got your towels?" she asked, turning into the long drive lined by tall paper birch trees, their white trunks contrasting with the bright green foliage.

"Of course we got the towels." Bryan's voice was impatient. "You asked us a million times."

"Oh." Mickelle recalled asking, but never remembered hearing any response. She had been too worried about her own attire and wishing she had bought a new suit for the occasion. A few thousand sit-ups wouldn't have hurt her, either. Too late now. Damon would have to accept her as she was.

She brought her attention back to the boys. "Now remember what I said about swimming. I know they have two pools, but I want you two to stay in the indoor one with me."

"Well, of course, Mom," Jeremy said. "It's too cold to swim outside. Gosh, it's almost Halloween already."

"Not for weeks and weeks," Bryan corrected. "And Tanner said the outdoor pool was heated." He referred to Damon's son, who was nearly sixteen. "And it's really not too cold yet. I had to leave my window open last night, and look, I'm wearing shorts. Jeremy, too."

Jeremy must have sensed the worry in her silence. "Don't worry, Mom. Damon said no one can swim by themselves in any of the pools. It's a rule. Nothing's going to happen to us."

Tears burned behind Mickelle's eyes. Jeremy had pinpointed her worry perfectly: she couldn't bear the idea of losing either of her sons. Each night she prayed fervently for their protection. She tried not to be overprotective, but knew she was failing. Once, last week, she had even frantically called the police when Bryan hadn't come home from school on time. They had found him at the school in an extracurricular activity she had given him permission to attend.

Not one of my better moments, she thought.

Yet she had come a long way. Riley died the first week in May, and she would never forget the day the police officers had come to break the news. Though her husband had been verbally and emotionally abusive, she had high hopes for change, and so his death had robbed her of her deepest dreams. It had taken four months for her to get out of bed and face the world. She told herself that meeting Damon almost six weeks ago had only coincided with her decision to get over Riley and make a better life for her children. But had it? A part of her wondered what might have happened if he hadn't come along, if his son Tanner hadn't banged into her old station wagon, the Snail, while he was driving without a license. Would she still be in bed most of the day, a prisoner of the panic attacks that had plagued her?

So am I just grateful to him, or is there more between us?

The question couldn't be answered to her satisfaction, try as Damon might to convince her. When she was with him, all doubts faded; but when she was alone, her fears continued to eat at her.

"I can't believe we're finally getting to swim here. And watch videos after! I'll bet he has some great food for dinner." Jeremy's voice pulled her attention back to her driving. Damon's residence had come into sight now through the lofty trees, and its magnitude struck Mickelle as forcibly as the first time she had seen it.

The mansion was decidedly Victorian, made of gray bricks and white wood, with huge windows and two tall rounded sections on either side that gave the impression of castle turrets. A perfect residence for a princess. (Oh, how she had always wanted to live in a castle!) A covered porch ran the entire length of the house, wrapping around the turret on the right side and continuing on to the back of the house. Tall trees—black walnut and more paper birch—were scattered invitingly over the sculptured lawns, and beautiful flower beds surrounded the house.

Mickelle checked the mirror, making sure her lipstick still looked fresh, and that her shoulder-length, honey-blonde hair was in place around her oval face. She had used a new eyeliner too, a blue to match her eyes, and she wondered if Damon would notice.

The boys left the car and skipped up the flower-lined walk. Mickelle hefted her canvas bag with her swimming supplies and followed more slowly, eyes roving appreciatively over the groundskeeper's work. Of all the varieties of flowers at Damon's, she loved the miniature roses the best, particularly the way they inched along the white-painted wooden railings of the porch. Roses of all colors still bloomed, holding out against the increasing night cold. But she especially loved the tiny blossoms that were yellow in the center and red on the outer half of the petals. Their colors were still vivid enough to match the vibrant red and gold leaves that clung to the trees. Someday she would look up the name of the miniature roses, buy as many as she could afford, and plant them around her backyard fence.

She had been to Damon's several times before, and coming here was always a jolting reminder of the disparity between them. He was so incredibly wealthy. Her sister, Brionney Hergarter, had joked that everything he touched turned to gold. It certainly seemed so, if Hospital's Choice Incorporated—the company Damon and Jesse, Brionney's husband, had started—was any indication. After only six months of full-time operation, they were already close to paying back their initial three-million-dollar investment.

The fact was, Damon probably paid more in tithing to the Church each month than Mickelle's first husband had made in a year. He was generous, stable, an excellent father, and more than a good catch for any woman. Yet instead of Damon's wealth reassuring her, it made her wonder what he saw in her. Could it be she had captured his pity rather than his love? His charity rather than his heart?

She sighed and hurried up the cement walk, recalling how Damon was planning to replace it with gray cobblestone to match the house. The idea had been hers originally, and Damon had called Old Bobby, the groundskeeper, the next day. That was one of the things she loved so much about Damon: he listened to her.

Mickelle arrived at the bottom of the porch stairs before the front door opened, though she was sure the boys had rung the bell—probably several times. Damon should be answering soon. Her breath caught as she imagined his angular, good-looking face with his strange eyes that were more dark amber than brown, staring at her with that longing intensity that threatened her newly earned self-reliance. Vividly, she remembered the times he had kissed her, the feel of his trim blonde moustache on her skin, and the way his yellow hair, long overdue for a haircut, felt against her fingers.

The last time she had seen him, two days before on Wednesday, they had joked about when he would find time from his busy schedule to get his hair cut. Mickelle had pulled out some shears and offered to do the job. She meant it too—hadn't she cut Riley's well enough?—but kept her voice light in case he refused. The man probably spent more on a haircut than she did on an entire dress. He had laughed with her, and the conversation had rolled on, leaving her with a loss she couldn't name. Perhaps the intimacy was inappropriate, but oh, she had wanted to feel his hair beneath her fingers! Of course, she could have done that by letting him kiss her again, but that would more directly involve her heart. She couldn't even think straight when he held her in his arms.

Now her heart threatened to jump out of her chest as she waited for what seemed an interminable time for someone to answer the door. At last it moved a little hesitantly, then inched open slowly. Instinctively, she ran a hand through her blonde locks to fluff them. She kept hoping that her legs didn't look quite as flabby as they had at home in the stark light of the bathroom mirror.

Damon wasn't behind the door. Instead, little Belle tugged at the heavy wood, using only her left hand. She wore a swimsuit, and under her right arm she carried a large brown teddy bear and a cream-colored plastic horse. "You're here! Finally." She dodged past the two boys and threw herself at Mickelle. "I missed you!"

Mickelle's arms closed around the girl's small body. Belle was a beautiful child, with curly brown hair, a round cherubic face, and brown eyes that held a hint of her father's amber. The precocious five-year-old had skipped kindergarten to enter the first grade, where she often drove her teacher crazy as she struggled to keep Belle's interest.

"Look!" Belle held up her right arm. "See? I got the cast off! Now I can really take piano lessons." The toys under her arms clattered to the wood steps. "Oops, sorry Bear, sorry Horse." As she reached for them with her left hand, she nearly toppled Mickelle over. Her clear laughter rang out, and two dimples appeared in her cheeks. "I keep forgetting I can use my other arm now," she explained. "That's why it took me so long to open the door."

"And because you were carrying Bear and Horse." Mickelle helped her gather the toys. "Let's see that arm."

Belle's smile died. "It's so skinny," she said mournfully. "And white. I just hate it!"

"She cried when they took off the cast," said another voice from the open doorway. It was Tanner, Belle's older brother. His tall frame was clad in oversized shorts and a white T-shirt. Normally, the lower half of his brown hair was close-cropped, with the top hanging all one length an inch above his ears, but he too was in desperate need of a haircut.

"Well, it looked so awful," Belle countered with feeling. "Worse than now. And it had yucky stuff on it." She stared down at her arm sadly. "Daddy had to rub it off in the bathtub."

"It was dead skin that couldn't flake off inside the cast," Tanner said, rolling his eyes. "She wacked out about it."

"Oh yeah, I remember that from the two times Bryan broke his arm." Mickelle examined Belle's arm more closely, wishing that she could have been with the child during this small crisis. Damon would have let her, if only she had asked, but she had been worried about seeming too forward. Belle was not her daughter, no matter how much she wanted her to be. At least not yet, a voice inside her said.

Mickelle ran a gentle finger over the little girl's arm. "Hmm, it looks like your dad did a good job. I don't see anything wrong with this arm, other than it needs a little sun."

"It doesn't look too skinny to you?" Belle demanded, frowning.

"Nope. And see how straight it is? I think the doctor did a great job."

Belle moved her arm back and forth a minute, then apparently lost interest. "At least I can swim now! Come on inside. Let's tell Daddy you're finally here." She hugged her animals to her small chest, but Mickelle noticed she still favored her right arm. Bryan had done that too for a while.

"Dad went out to the pool house to check if the water is warm enough," Tanner told her as they entered the house. With his brown eyes and hair, only the angular planes in his face resembled his father's. In fact, both of Damon's children had their mother's brown hair. Mickelle mused that if she and Damon had children together, they would likely have blonde hair like her children.

His child?

Mickelle sighed. She was almost thirty-seven and thought she had put those dreams aside. Riley hadn't wanted any more children. Did Damon? She should know that much already, if she was really in love with him.

"He got tired of waiting for you," Belle added, bringing Mickelle's thoughts back to the conversation at hand. "He thought you were going to be here hours ago." She put her hand in Mickelle's and led her through the two-story entryway. The sun shone through the stained-glass window far overhead, washing the walls with a brilliantly lit rainbow of colors. They passed the sweeping main staircase, going in the direction of the kitchen. Mickelle barely had time to glance through the sitting room to the music room where a full-sized Steinway Concert Grand stood in beckoning elegance. Her fingers itched to try it out, though she only knew one decent song, "The Entertainer."

"He's been waiting?" Mickelle said distractedly. Damon had asked her over after lunch and although she and the boys had been ready to go since ten, she had waited until two, so as not to appear too anxious. Now that seemed silly.

As Mickelle remembered from several prior visits, the kitchen and adjoining family room were immense, full of windows, deep hues, and quality furniture. Today, she had little time to take in any details, except a huge bowel of fat red grapes spilling over onto the counter. Belle grabbed a few and popped them into her mouth on her way by. "Dad says these are to eat in the hot tub," she announced. "I don't know why. I think it's something romantic."

"Belle," Tanner warned, but he flashed Mickelle a smile. She knew that he approved of her relationship with his dad.

Bryan glowered at the reference, but Jeremy skipped blithely ahead. "I don't care much if the pool is cold," he announced. "I'm just going to jump right in."

"I'll have to change first." Mickelle had felt awkward about wearing her swimming suit over to the house. Besides, she would need clothes for afterwards.

"Well Damon can watch me until you get changed, can't he, Mom?" pleaded Jeremy.

"I suppose. If he's willing."

"He will be," Belle replied confidently.

The group went outside, over the back patio and along the covered walkway to the pool house, which was nestled behind a row of pink dogwood trees on the far side of the yard. Behind the pool house lay a tennis court, too, according to Belle and Tanner. Mickelle had always meant to challenge Damon to a game, though neither of them really knew how to play. Perhaps today they would have time for Tanner to show them a few moves.

The warmer air of the pool house hit them as they opened the door. Mickelle wrinkled her nose at the strong chlorine smell.

"Yippee!" yelled Jeremy, gazing at the pool. While not as large as the public pool in American Fork where Mickelle lived, this one was certainly more than adequate for several families to swim in comfort.

Damon was nowhere in sight. Mickelle looked around, eager to be with him after so much waiting. Through the large, floor-to-ceiling windows on the right side she could see the outdoor pool, covered now, and an area for barbeques. Damon wasn't on any of the lounge chairs there.

"Daddy!" Belle shouted.

"He must have gone upstairs or somewhere." Mickelle shot a glance over her shoulder at the house through the open pool house door. She didn't even know where his room was located. She knew the house had two separate wings on the top floor and an entire basement where Tanner and their live-in maid had their rooms, but where Damon slept in all that hugeness was still a mystery.

"He just came out here," Tanner told them. "He said he had something to do before you got here—besides checking the water temperature. He acted nervous."

Mickelle's heartbeat, which had finally settled to a normal pace after expecting Damon at the front door, resumed thumping again erratically. Goose bumps covered her skin, and her stomach felt queasy. She pushed past the children, searching the pool with her eyes. "Damon!" she called forcefully.

No answer.

Something wasn't right. She could feel it in the tingling of her spine, in the thundering of her heart.

"You kids check the house," she ordered. She hurried along the side of the pool, praying as she went.

Then she saw him, floating face down in the pool under the diving board. She must have screamed because the children hurtled toward her. Not waiting for them, Mickelle forced her fright-frozen limbs to work, and rushed toward his unmoving body.

Not Damon, please not Damon!

This wasn't happening! This wonderful, attractive, alluring man couldn't leave her too!

Like Riley.

She heard a splash and realized that Tanner was in the water, swimming at high velocity toward his dad. Spying a lifesaving hook on the wall she dived toward it and reached for Damon at the same time Tanner arrived at the inert form. Together they began pulling him to the side. Belle and Jeremy were sobbing and clutching at Mickelle, making her job more difficult.

"911!" she shouted at Bryan. He glanced at her, eyes wide with shock, as though he couldn't hear. Reaching now for Damon, Mickelle caught Belle's tearful gaze with her own. "Belle, call 911. Your daddy needs help—now!"

Little Belle galvanized into action, racing for a phone on the wall near where Mickelle had found the hook.

With great effort Tanner and Mickelle pushed and dragged Damon from the water. She knelt beside him, trying to remember what she should do.

"Heartbeat!" yelled Tanner. He was pale and shaking as he pulled himself out of the pool.

Mickelle felt for a pulse, and nearly cried with relief. "Yes! He's got one."

Together they rolled him onto his stomach, trying to force water from his lungs. A flood of liquid gushed onto the cement. Still, he didn't start breathing. Mickelle willed him to open those intriguing amber eyes, but they were unmoving beneath the thick, expressive eyebrows.

"Mouth-to-mouth," she said faintly.

With a quick nod, Tanner helped her roll Damon to his back. He was on the tall side for a man, with broad shoulders, but she had never dreamed he weighed so much. She tipped back his head as she had seen people do in the movies, and pinched the end of his slightly hooked nose. Please let me be doing this right! Why hadn't she ever taken a course on lifesaving?

She put her mouth to his, and fleetingly recalled those other moments when their lips had met—firmly, passionately, sending heat throughout her body. The heat was utterly missing now. His lips were slack and cold. Oh, so cold! Deathly cold. The coldness slammed into her, made her shiver and gasp for breath. Above all there was the blind urgency and the terrible, looming fear.

"Someone's coming!" Belle called from her place by the phone. "They said to keep doing mouth-to-mouth."

Mickelle didn't look her way, but continued forcing air into Damon's lungs. I can't do it, she thought. But she tried anyway.

She hadn't been able to keep Riley from dying. Where had she been when his truck went off that cliff?

It wasn't my fault. She knew that, but sometimes the guilt still ate at her. She had threatened him with divorce.

"Dad! Dad!" Tanner cried, losing his composure. "Don't die! Oh, it's too late! We're too late! Oh, no! Oh, no!"

Mickelle wanted to soothe him, to tell him what a good sign it was that his dad's heart still beat in his chest, but she couldn't stop breathing for Damon long enough to explain.

In. Out. In. Out. Never faltering. And while she worked, she prayed.

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