Line of Fire, An Autumn Rain Novel


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Winter Fire

Sample Chapter
Copyright ©2005 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

Amanda Huntington's quick footsteps echoed eerily in the nearly deserted hallway of Grovecrest Elementary where she taught fourth grade. Though it was barely four o'clock, the school was darker than usual, signaling that clouds had moved in to cover the sun. The artificial lights overhead did little to cut through the resulting gloom. Snow was definitely on the way.

"Did the fire alarm go off?" James Hill emerged from the other fourth-grade classroom and hurried on his shorter legs to catch up to her. "Oh, I know. I bet you have a hot date—eh, greeny?" He called her that because her eyes were green and because she was the newest teacher at the school.

"Not hardly," she retorted. James was always teasing her about finding someone special. He said he couldn't understand why a woman as attractive as Amanda wasn't dating. In the few months she had taught at the school, James, abetted by his wife, had repeatedly tried to set her up with a seemingly endless slew of available bachelors. Amanda wasn't interested.

Her history with men wasn't good. She'd experienced one brief, misguided engagement right after high school, and then last year, worried about growing older, she had nearly married a man she cared for but really hadn't loved—not totally and completely in the way she'd always dreamed. She'd been saved from making that terrible mistake by a chance encounter with an old high school flame, Tanner Wolfe. As they began dating, she discovered that he was the man of her dreams—everything she could want. She fell in love, quickly and hard, only to realize too late that he cared for someone else. In the end she had let him go. The experience had been painful, to say the least.

No, for the time being, she was satisfied with her single existence. She alone decided what she wanted to do and when, what she wanted to eat and where, and she was becoming independent. That was good. She hadn't even joined the singles ward in the area yet, preferring a family ward because it gave her the opportunity to get to know her neighbors. It also gave her time to... well, heal.

There was a part of her who hoped for—and even planned for—a relationship in the future. Growing up in the Church, she had long envisioned herself as part of a growing family, surrounded by children to love and to raise.

Well, she was surrounded by children every day. That part, at least, had come true. Twelve long months had passed since she'd said good-bye to Tanner, but, if she were truthful, sometimes she relived the memory as though the events had occurred only yesterday. Oh, how her heart had broken, seeing him walk through her apartment door and out of her life! She wondered if she would always regret letting him go, always regret allowing him to believe she had accepted Gerry's proposal, when the reality was that her love for Tanner had been the determining factor in her refusal. How could she marry Gerry when she had caught a glimpse of true love? Yet how could she make Tanner stay when his heart was elsewhere? When Tanner had married a few months later, she knew she had done the right thing. Part of her wished him the best, but another part had cried into her pillow for months until there were no tears left.

That was then. She was over him—or so she reminded herself for the millionth time.

"So how'd class go today?" James asked.

"What?" Amanda forced herself to return to the present.

"The kids. You know, the ones you teach." James's large nose and receding brown hairline made his bright hazel eyes stand out in his thin face. "How'd it go?"

She smiled wearily. "They were all really restless. And it's only Wednesday. We still have two more days to go before the weekend."

"It's the change in the weather. Once it snows they'll settle down soon enough. You'll see."

Amanda hoped so. She'd taken this post at the end of August when Rilla Thompson had become ill and opted for early retirement. Amanda knew she'd only been offered the job because she'd worked with Rilla at the school last year while doing her student teaching. This was Amanda's first real teaching post, and she worried about succeeding. So far she'd made it to November.

"They're great kids," she said.

James shifted the small stack of papers he carried to his other arm and opened the outside door for her. "Yeah. Lot of energy. Keeps me young." He was barely in his forties, but Amanda laughed as he'd intended, though she didn't find it funny. She'd be twenty-five next month and was just beginning to comprehend how fast the years really did pass.

"Well, it's home to the new baby," James said, taking a step toward his car. "My wife'll be ready for a break. I tell you, we're too old for this again. Eight years between number five and number six. That's just crazy."

"I thought it kept you young," she quipped.

James laughed and unlocked his car door. As Amanda watched him leave, her smile died. At least James had someone home waiting for him.

Maybe it had been a mistake, moving out of her shared apartment in Orem and buying a house in Pleasant Grove. Yet she had wanted to move on with her life—not hang in limbo while she waited to meet someone special. Truth be told, she had come to the point where she didn't even want to meet someone special. She wanted to be whole and well. She wanted to depend on herself. Never mind that most of her friends were married. Never mind that her sister, barely two years older, had a perfect husband and three perfect children to live in her perfect house. Yes, three perfect children spaced exactly two years apart—just like their mother had timed her four babies. In another two years, another baby would appear. It was a good thing for Amanda that the oldest of her younger brothers hadn't married yet. At twenty-three and two years off his mission, Mitch was finally beginning to draw some of the heat at family gatherings.

Amanda had her hand ready to open the door to her green Audi when she noticed a change in the sky. The mountains were edged in mist and gloom, but right in the middle there was a break in the clouds where the sun lit up the steep slopes. Her breath caught in her throat, and her spirits lifted. This was why she had moved to the East Bench in Pleasant Grove—so she could view the majestic mountains from her kitchen window every day.

After a moment the clouds closed again, and Amanda slipped inside her car. On the drive home, her thoughts drifted toward dinner. The idea of cooking exhausted her. Once, she had enjoyed cooking and creating something special for a date or her roommates, but living alone had squeezed much of that pleasure from her. She always ate too much and ended up with leftovers that went to waste. It was more economical to throw a ready-made meal into the microwave oven.

Then she remembered that her sister, Kerrianne, was feeling sick, and with a new two-month-old baby, even her perfect sister might need a little help. The thought of seeing her niece and two nephews brightened Amanda's thoughts. Though she spent much of her day with children, her niece and nephews were the most important children in her life.

It's my stupid biological clock, she thought. Of course, her mother's weekly phone calls and overt questions about her personal life never helped matters.
Amanda made a silent vow to get out more with her friends. Generally, her life was filled with laughter and important things to do. Only in this past month as the first anniversary of her break with Tanner loomed had she become so melancholy.

She whistled to herself as she went inside her small, three-bedroom house. Facing the west and nestled on a hill above newer, much larger homes, the house was her dream. She had the best of a good neighborhood, a low mortgage, and when there wasn't fog, a view to die for. The only thing she regretted was the lack of a garage. Hopefully, the coming winter wouldn't be too severe.

In the kitchen she turned on the gas oven before walking into the attached family room where she put in her new Josh Groban CD. The music bore little resemblance to the new wave rock she had adored in high school, but her tastes had refined as the years passed. A companion she'd had on her mission to Georgia had introduced her to Groban, and now she was hooked. She especially loved the rare songs he sang in French. They were so romantic.

Her smile faltered, but she forced the thoughts aside. So what? She was listening to romantic music alone. That was perfectly okay.

She rummaged through her freezer, finding several small packages of chicken. Hmm, what else did she have? In the refrigerator she found sour cream, milk, and fresh broccoli. In the cupboard she had a large container of rice. Perfect. She would defrost the chicken in the microwave and then rustle up her tasty chicken rice casserole, liberally decorated with broccoli florets and topped with cheese. Her mouth watered.

Kerrianne lived only three streets over, and the meal would still be piping hot when she arrived. Amanda would feed the children and her brother-in-law at the table, take Kerrianne a plate to her room, eat a bite herself while cleaning up, and then play with the children until bedtime. After that she'd come home, call a few friends, and arrange to go out for lunch or dinner over the weekend. She might even go dancing. Pausing a moment to listen to a particularly beautiful passage of music, Amanda swept up the telephone, pressing the button that held her sister's number in memory.

"Hello, Kerrianne? Hi, it's me, Amanda.

How're you feeling?"

"Yuck and yuck and more yuck," came Kerrianne's tired voice. "My nose is running like a faucet, and my head feels like it's going to burst."

"Well, I'm bringing dinner, so don't worry about that. I've got it all planned. Remember that chicken broccoli casserole you love so much? Well, if I get started right now, I can bring it over by six."

"Oh, that's so sweet of you, Manda! But Adam's bringing food home. He called a few minutes ago before he left work to tell me he was coming early with dinner."


Amanda's smile faded. "Oh, that's nice of him." Leave it to Adam to play the role of the perfect husband.

"Oh, but I'm sure I'll still be feeling lousy tomorrow. Do you think . . . would you mind bringing your casserole then? The children loved it that time you brought it when the baby was born. If I remember, we ate it for three days. I appreciated it so much!"

"Well, only if it will help." The last thing Amanda wanted was to be an annoyance with her casserole.

"Of course it will! In fact, Adam has a late meeting at the district office tomorrow with some of the other school administrators, and afterwards he has to go to the church for Scouts. If you bring dinner, it will really help out. And if you could stay a bit and help get the kids to bed when Adam's gone, I'd be so grateful. I'll understand if you can't. Believe me, the casserole alone is plenty. They're so picky nowadays, it's hard to find something they love to eat. I wish I could cook as well as you do."

Kerrianne could make table scraps into a gourmet meal, but Amanda was already feeling better at her sister's assurances. The chicken would thaw out better in the refrigerator anyway—that way she wouldn't accidentally cook parts of the meat before the casserole went into the oven. "Okay, I'll bring it tomorrow. And I'll stay for a while. Be glad to."

"You're so good to me."

Amanda felt content as she hung up. Kerrianne always did that for her. No matter how lost or unneeded Amanda was feeling, her big sister turned things around. Humming with the Groban CD, Amanda returned the casserole ingredients to the refrigerator and the cupboard. Hmm, what to eat now that the oven was hot? She didn't want to waste electricity. How about pizza? She had leftovers from Monday when her brother Mitch had picked up take 'n bake. She hadn't eaten the leftover slices yet because she didn't like pizza warmed in the microwave. It just wasn't the same. "It's fate," she told the pizza, as she threw the pieces onto a round baking pan and slipped them into the oven for an early dinner.

When she returned ten minutes later, worrying about the possibility of having left the pizza in too long, she found smoke snaking out from the cracks around the oven door. "Oh no!" She opened the door and the smoke billowed into the room, momentarily blocking her view. When she could see again, flames engulfed the pizza, growing larger now that she had opened the door and allowed more oxygen inside.

What should I do?

She had never started a fire in her oven before, and several scenarios presented themselves. If she closed the door, would it eventually burn itself out? Or would it burn down the whole house? She couldn't risk that. Amanda reached in with her oven mitts to remove the pizza, only to watch as they too blackened and started to burn. She released the pizza immediately. At that moment the smoke detector went off, adding its shrill scream to the confusion. Shaking the mitts to put out the flame, she darted to the sink, dumped the singed gloves, filled a cup with water, and threw it on the pizza inside the oven. The water sizzled as it hit the hot metal, sending steam into her face. To her relief, the fire around the pizza seemed to be dying. Amanda threw in another cup of water to make sure. Finally, she dared to take the pizza out. Underneath the edge, caught between the pan and the pizza and hanging down over the edge, was a smoldering dishrag. She groaned. When she'd thrown the pizza onto the pan, she must not have been paying much attention.

"Of all the stupid things." She shook her head. Kerrianne would never have done something so brainless. This was one secret Amanda meant to keep. If Mitch got a sniff, he'd never stop teasing. Just thinking about that made her giggle almost uncontrollably. She had to admit that now danger had passed, it was kind of funny.

Only a little water had escaped outside the oven, and Amanda mopped it up quickly. Then she looked inside, frowning. There was more water than she remembered throwing in. Most of it should have boiled out, right? Looking at the temperature gauge, she realized that though she hadn't turned off the oven, it was quickly growing cold. She flipped the switch off, gave it fifteen minutes with the door open to cool, and then sopped up the water with paper towels. When everything was returned to order, she turned on the oven. A few minutes were long enough to tell her something was wrong. The stove top was fine, the flames leaping to life when she turned on the gas. But the oven didn't begin to get warm. Had the pilot light gone out?

"Should have used the fire extinguisher," she muttered, belatedly remembering her father had bought one for under the kitchen sink. "Great. Just great."

How much would it cost to repair? Then again, she didn't use the oven that much. Maybe it could wait. Her eyes fell on the baking dish she had been going to use for her sister's casserole. "Oh, no," she groaned. She couldn't go back on her word now, not when she'd practically begged Kerrianne to let her bring dinner. Maybe if she explained. "It was a huge fire," she'd say. "I have no idea how it started." But that would be a lie.

Maybe she could prepare the casserole and take it to Kerrianne's to cook. But Kerrianne would instinctively know something was wrong, and Amanda wouldn't have time to grade the test she was giving tomorrow if she spent the entire evening at her sister's. What to do?

She'd only bought the house at the end of the summer, and it was her first experience being responsible for appliances. This time there was no owner behind the scenes to ask for help. She ran through the possibilities in her mind. Call her dad. No good. Kerrianne would somehow find out and tell her not to worry about dinner. Call Mitch. Yeah, right. He was worse than she was about being independent. He had barely left home a month ago after two years off his mission. She could call her home teachers, but what could they do besides recommend a repairman?

"I have to get you fixed!" In frustration Amanda kicked the oven door. All she accomplished was to hurt the big toe on her left foot.

What would Kerrianne do?

Amanda grimaced. Kerrianne would have paid attention to what she was putting in the oven, but if there ever was a problem, she'd probably let Adam deal with it—and Amanda didn't have an Adam. I can do this myself. She reached for the phone book and turned to the repair listings, finding only one for Pleasant Grove. There, not even a choice. How easy can this be? Smiling to herself, she dialed the number, glancing at the clock on the microwave. Five minutes after five and the shop was open until six. See? It's not that hard to be independent.

"Doug's Appliance and Repair, Blake speaking," came a man's voice, deep and rich. It was a voice that didn't belong at a repair shop but would have seemed more at home on the radio.

"Hi. My oven's broken. Do you make house calls?"

"Yes. We charge thirty-five dollars for a visit, plus parts and installation if we fix anything. What's the problem exactly?"

"Well, I had a fire."

"A fire?"

"Yes, a small one. I accidentally put a dishcloth in with my dinner." She shut her eyes and groaned inwardly. That was supposed to be her little secret.

A few heartbeats passed before he replied. "Can you tell me anything else? Exactly what doesn't work?"

Amanda wondered if he thought she was crazy. "I think the pilot light is out or something. It looks good—there's no fire damage—but the oven won't get hot. I think it might not light because of the water."

"The water," he repeated with a low chuckle that sent warm shivers up her spine.
Irritated, Amanda snapped, "So are you coming or not?"

"Sure. Let's see . . . I can make it tomorrow about one. Would that be all right?"

"You can't come tonight?" Amanda hated herself for sounding so desperate.

"You need it tonight?"

"Not exactly. It's just that I work tomorrow, and I need my oven tomorrow night for sure."

"Oh, you need it tomorrow."

Amanda stifled a sigh at his annoying way of repeating half of what she said. "Yes, I'm taking dinner to someone."

"What kind of stove is it?"

"A gas stove."

"I meant what brand. You already said it wouldn't light. Has to be gas."

"Oh. Well, I don't know what brand. Does it really matter?" She walked over to the stove.

"It could. Does the stove top still light?"

"Yes. It's fine."

"Good. A least you won't starve." He gave another of those delicious chuckles.
His attempted joke did not amuse her. "It's an Amana," she said. "I just looked."

"How old?"

"I have no idea. I just bought the house a few months ago. But it doesn't look old."

"Uh-oh," he said. "Can you hold a minute?"

"Yes." She wondered what was so wrong about owning an Amana. Maybe he wouldn't work on that brand.

"You're not supposed to be up there," came his muffled voice. "Get down now! Watch i—"

There was a loud crash of what Amanda imagined came from a box of supplies tumbling to the ground, followed by a brief, high-pitched scream. She shook her head. Was he ever going to come back? What kind of shop did he run anyway?

After a very long time, he returned to the phone. "Hello?"

"I'm still here."

"Sorry about that."

His apology did nothing to soothe her growing irritation. "So, can you come any sooner?" She was calculating the possibility of running home at lunch, or perhaps having her neighbor let him in.

"I leave here at five-thirty. I'll come by then. Would that work?"

Amanda sighed. "Yes. Thanks. I'll see you then." She started to hang up.

"Uh, I'll need your name and address."

Amanda bit her lip. She was a complete idiot! Of course he needed her address. "Amanda Huntington," she said.

"Amanda with a broken Amana," he said, obviously amused.

She laughed politely while making a sour face. What a comedian!

After giving him her address, she hung up the phone before she could embarrass herself further. Not that he would even understand her embarrassment. He was probably a high school dropout, whose only dream in life was to study the latest models of appliances. Amanda bet he wasn't even aware of his incredible voice. Maybe she'd enlighten him. She would, if he was nicer to her when he came.

During the next hour, she changed into an old pair of jeans and a worn T-shirt that said Number One Teacher, tidied her kitchen, threw in a load of laundry, and began correcting papers on the floor of her family room. She was lying stomach down on the soft beige carpet, her mind engrossed on the capitals of each state, when the doorbell rang.

She arose, tucking her shoulder-length blonde hair behind her ears. "Yes?" she asked, opening the door. "I'm Blake Simmons from Doug's Appliance and Repair," said the same voice she had heard earlier on the phone. "I'm here to look at your oven."

He looked like no repairman she had ever seen or imagined. He was taller than she was by several inches and broad-shouldered enough to make her feel small. Long legs were clad in snug Levi's that crinkled at the bottom where they met black work boots, topped by a blue button-down shirt boldly reading Doug's Appliance and Repair. A small oval patch declared Blake in red italic letters.

Her eyes wandered to his face. Drop-dead gorgeous he wasn't, but he was more ruggedly handsome than she cared to admit. His cheeks sported a day-old beard growth, and his brown hair was slightly mussed, giving him an adventurous air. He reminded her vaguely of her English professor in college—on whom she'd once had a secret crush. Her heart flopped inside her, something that hadn't happened for a very long time.

"My oven," she found herself saying. Her breath made white clouds in the cold air.

"I am at the right house, aren't I?" Blake's brown eyes held hers, his lips curved in a gentle smile as though perpetually amused.

"Yes."

For a long moment, neither spoke. Amanda was intensely aware of him, of the way he steadily met her gaze. She became suddenly conscious of her jeans and worn T-shirt. Why had she chosen that outfit? Not that he was dressed up, but he'd look handsome in anything.

"Okay," he drawled finally. "I guess I'll get my toolbox from the truck."

"Right." She followed him with her eyes, craning her neck to see if he was wearing a wedding ring. She couldn't see one, but a lot of repairmen might not wear a ring for fear of getting their hands caught in a machine. Right? Or maybe he wasn't married. The thought was unsettling.

He had pulled a toolbox from the back of his blue pickup and was heading back over the lawn when her eyes went beyond him to the passenger side of the car. A small face peered out at her, framed with short blond hair.

He had a child.

That meant he was taken.

In that instant of discovery, Amanda realized that she was profoundly disappointed.

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