Those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on the wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.
"Oh no," Kyle said, staring at something in the distance.
"What? What is it?" But she could already see smoke rising from the stables, and the telltale flicker of flame.
"Go and get Aiden," Kyle said, beginning to jog to the fire.
"But-but," she said, wanting to call him back, to tell him not to go near the rapidly growing inferno.
"Go," Kyle said forcefully, and Rachel caught a glimpse of the intense, determined man that he kept well hidden from the world. He didn't even wait to see if she obeyed him, he just turned on his heel and loped to the stables.
He could feel the heat of the flames a few feet from the entrance. He could hear the panicked screams of the horses, and he knew he had to help them. He charged inside, using the end of his shirt as a face mask. The smoke filled the air, but he still had decent visibility. The fire hadn't reached the far end of the stable yet, thank god, where all the horses were kept. He rushed over to the first stall, it belonged to a mare named Rosemary, and opened the gate. Rosemary, whinnying frantically in fear, charged out the burning doorway.
Michaela ran out her front door, bone-deep fear running through her. She saw the fire and sprinted for it. She had been caught in the throes of another nightmare when she heard Rachel's pounding. All she heard was the word fire and she was rushing to put her shoes on. Aiden was right behind her. Her breath came in short little bursts as she saw the damage the fire had caused already. She could see Rosemary running around the outside and saw another one of her horses, Socrates, run out of the blaze.
The horses were in there; she had to get them out. She reached the doorway, and without hesitation, she ran inside smoldering building. Aiden was halfway across the yard when he saw her rush into the building. His heart stopped. He knew what she was going to do; she was going to try and save the horses, even if she got her herself.
"Michaela," he shouted, running for all he was worth. "Idiot woman," he muttered.
He ran inside and thought that he had entered Hell. Flames greedily licked up everything in its path, devouring, consuming. Another horse rushed by him and he headed to the back of the stable. He tried to stay low to the ground for the smoke was becoming thicker and thicker.
He saw Kyle, his face grimly determined, trying to unlatch the gate of another stall. Michaela had run past him to the next stall, frantically trying to hurry. She unlocked the gate and managed, just barely, to jump out of the way of the terrified horse. Aiden knew he wasn't going to be able to make Michaela get out of there until all her horses were safe. He knew that there had only been fifteen horses staying in this stable and he figured there were about ten more still inside. He ran to one of the stalls and recognized Balor's Revenge, his eyes rolling back in fear. Aiden unlatched the door and jumped back as Balor burst through. Aiden barely escaped being trampled by those huge, powerful hooves.
The heat was beginning to become unbearable.
He could barely make out the shapes of Michaela and Kyle. His eyes were stinging with smoke and tearing up. A piece of burning wood fell onto his shoulder. He had neglected to pull on a shirt and the pain was instantaneous. He brushed it off, gritting his teeth, and ran to the next stall. All he could think was, hurry, hurry, hurry. He looked around and could make out Michaela struggling with the last stall. J.T. was rearing up, and she had to dodge him to set him loose.
He yelled to Kyle, "It's the last one, get out of here! I'll stay with Michaela."
"I'm not going without you both!" Kyle yelled back.
"Leave now! That's an order, Grant."
He saw the look of fury cross Kyle's office, but was relieved when he ran to the entrance. Michaela finally had J.T. loose, and he ran to her.
"We have to get out of here now!"
"Sounds good to me," she said, her voice hoarse.
She had smudges of soot all over her face, and she was holding her arm painfully. It was most likely she hurt it trying to open one of the gates. A falling piece of timber hit the ground no more than a foot from her, causing her to jump aside. He grabbed her arm and propelled to the opening. Flames shot up all over, causing a roaring sound that terrified Michaela. It was like the fire was alive and wouldn't be satisfied until it had taken everything.
The smoke was so consuming that they had to drop to the ground and crawl. Freedom was only fifteen feet away…ten feet.
A cracking sound made her head snap up. She barely had time to blink before Aiden threw himself over her and one of the beams fell practically on top of them with a huge crash. She felt him tense above her, and it didn't register that burning embers were falling onto his unprotected back. Aiden painfully made his way to a kneeling position and hauled Michaela up with him. They had to crawl around the burning beam, which took up precious moments that they could scarcely afford to spare. She could barely breathe for the smoke, her throat burning and inflamed. The pain was made worse because her throat was still swollen from Pete's attacks. She was becoming more sluggish, and was beginning to think that it would be quite nice to stay right there on the ground. As long as she didn't have to move anymore, she would be happy.
Aiden could feel her becoming lethargic, and tried to keep the panic at bay. They couldn't give up now, not when they would be free in five feet. His back appropriately felt like it was on fire. His head was becoming light from the lack of oxygen. His body was beginning to feel like it was shutting down. He started to pray.
Lord, don't take me now. I've just found You again, and for that I'm grateful, but I just found Michaela too. I want to have a life with her, to bring her to You too, and I can't do that if You take us. Help us…save us…
With Michaela's feeble help, he managed to drag them another foot closer.
Save us…save us…
The outer edges of his vision began to blur. His lungs were desperate for fresh air, but he was functioning on instinct now.
Save us…save us…
He reached out a hand to drag them forward, and came in contact with another hand. He looked up and looked into the eyes of Kyle.
"I thought I told you to go." His voice was low and gritty.
Kyle smiled slightly. "When have I ever followed orders?" He helped Aiden to stand, and Aiden helped Michaela. All three of them managed to run the last few feet out into the cool night air. Aiden took in greedy gulps, hearing Michaela cough violently on the ground beside him. He dropped his head in his hands, and thought one simple thought.
Thank you, Lord…thank you…
Less than ten seconds later, he heard a shout. He saw Noah, leading a group of men bringing water, waving for everyone to get away from the building. Aiden saw why in a moment. The entrance collapsed with a deafening roar. Aiden knew that if he and Michaela had been in there, they would have been crushed. He was slowly getting his strength back, and Michaela too, it seemed. They both roused themselves up from the ground and went to join Noah, Kyle, Rachel, and all of the ranch hands in getting out the hoses and bringing buckets of water.
"I called the Fire Department," Rachel said as they started a bucket chain. "They should be here in fifteen minutes." Aiden looked over at Michaela and knew that she realized what he was thinking. That wasn't enough time to save any part of the stables. They would be burned to the ground by the time the firefighters got there. He grimly handed another bucket of water to Noah. The storm finally broke loose. Thunder was rumbling in the distance, and lightning streaked the sky, aiding the light of the fire. Rain began to pour down, and Aiden welcomed its blessedly cool pounding on his face and back. Michaela welcomed the rain because it would help put out the fire faster. She heard a shout and whirled in the direction it came from. She saw two of her men dragging a third behind them. She gestured to Aiden and Noah and they jogged over to them.
"Devon, Tony, what's up?"
She saw the man was struggling to get out of their grasp. However, Devon and Tony were very big men. Each of them weighed more than two-fifty, and both topped six feet. She gasped when she saw the face of the man they were imprisoning.
"We were on watch tonight, and we saw what he did."
"And what did he do?" Aiden asked quietly.
"We saw him go in the stables and he came out a minute later. He was carrying a can. We'd seen him around here a couple of times, and we knew he was with you, but we wondered what he was doing in the middle of the night, skulking around. We followed him, and caught him by his car. The can smelled of gas, and we saw smoke in the distance. We put two and two together and brought him back here. Figured you could take care of him."
"Thank you," Aiden said.
They dumped him on the ground and left to join the group helping to extinguish the fire.
Malone was soaking wet and furious. They weren't supposed to catch him. He was supposed to go free and laugh at the big prank he had pulled. He wasn't supposed to be facing O'Brian, who had a dangerous light in his eye, or Michaela, who looked at him like he was something that had crawled out of the sewer.
"Why?" was all that she asked.
"Because of him," Malone spat, glaring at Aiden. Aiden glared stonily back. "I got fired because of you, O'Brian. My father won't ever speak to me again. You've ruined my life."
"So you decide to punish me by setting her building on fire? Do you know that you almost killed us?"
"That wasn't the plan. I was just going to scare you a little bit. You brought it on yourself."
Aiden wanted so badly to punch him, but knew it wouldn't be right. Malone started going off in a stream of curses. He was in so much trouble now.
He knew he wouldn't survive in jail. He cursed even more at the thought of what his father would say.
Noah, who had no such qualms as Aiden did about what was right and wrong, shut him up the only way he knew how.
He moved so fast, Michaela barely had time to blink. She heard the dull thud of flesh hitting flesh, and she saw Malone stagger back, holding his jaw. Noah just looked at him calmly, almost daring him to speak. Aiden, who took the whole thing in stride, as if Noah hitting a man were an everyday occurrence, said to Malone, "You were going to kill innocent animals and destroy a building just to pay me back for your own stupidity and irresponsibility?"
"They were just horses," he said sullenly.
This time it was Michaela who flew forward. Aiden barely had time to catch her before she was fighting against him, struggling to get to Malone.
"Just horses?" she shouted, rage sparking in her eyes. "They were living, breathing animals, you monster. You were going to kill them when you knew they had no way to defend themselves or escape. Let me go!" This she yelled at Aiden. Aiden was having a hard time keeping her from scratching Malone's eyes out. Even though the woman was small, years on a ranch didn't make her weak. Rage added additional strength. Malone had wisely backed up, but was warily eyeing Noah, who looked like he wanted to punch him again. They all heard sirens in the distance, coming steadily closer. Michaela stopped fighting.
"Let me go," she said dully now. "I'm not going to hurt him."
Aiden warily let go of her, and she stood there, quietly shooting daggers at Malone with her eyes. If looks could kill, Aiden thought.
The fire truck was first to arrive, followed by an ambulance and a black and white cruiser. Aiden called Devon and Tony back over and said curtly, "Watch him."
He took Michaela's hand and led her over to where the ambulance and cop car was waiting. The firemen were already hosing down the flames, which the rain had already driven down considerably. He saw Denny come out of the cop car, and he stopped, surprised.
"I heard the address over the dispatch and decided to come along. You okay?"
"Fine," he said shortly, hoping that Denny didn't notice the pain in his eyes. He didn't want Michaela aware of how much his back was burning. He could tell that Denny had seen, and quickly shook his head, nodding at Michaela. Denny understood, and kept quiet.
"Thanks for coming out, Denny," Michaela said.
"No problem. Are you hurt anywhere?"
"My throat feels like it's on fire," she admitted. "I think I did something to my arm. One of the gates hit it or something."
"Let's get that looked at then," Denny said kindly, and let her to the ambulance. Aiden watched her go for a moment, and turned to more pressing matters. He motioned to Noah, and they walked back to Malone.
"Well, Robert, you did a very stupid thing tonight."
"I think that's an understatement," Noah added.
Malone gave them a nasty suggestion, which Aiden ignored.
"I believe that we can book you on arson, destruction of personal property, and attempted murder."
"They were just a couple of horses!" Malone protested.
"Shut up," Aiden said mildly. "You've gone too far this time, boyo. Have fun being on the other side of things."
He walked away, leaving Malone cursing at him. He asked Noah to make sure he kept an eye on him, and Noah gladly agreed.
Aiden searched the yard, where many people were still running around busily, and found Michaela next to and EMT, sitting on the bumper of the ambulance. He walked quickly over to her just as the EMT was leaving. He sat down next to her and gently picked up her wrist. It had been place in a brace, and looked abnormal on her delicate arm. When he started to think about how much worse it could have been for her, for both of them, he had to place her arm back in her lap because his hands had started to shake. The adrenaline was wearing off, he felt exhausted.
"Are you okay?" he asked gently.
"I'm fine. My stable isn't," she said ruefully.
"I'm sorry. This is all my fault."
"Is it?" she said thoughtfully. "Funny. I thought it was Robert's fault. I mean, you didn't bring the gas and light the match. He did."
"But he did it to get back at me. And for that, I'm sorry."
"You were doing what you thought was right. And it was right. He deserved whatever he got. The stables can be rebuilt, Aiden, and none of the horses were hurt." She pointed a finger to one of the corrals, where he could see John and a few other men trying to calm all the still-scared horses down. After a while they would settle.
"You got hurt," Aiden said. "That's not supposed to happen."
"Let me tell you something so you can stop blaming yourself. When you have a psychotic serial killer after you, a jealous ex-boyfriend, and a revenge-bent cop out to get you, you're bound to get hurt. I think that the only reason I'm not dead is because you're here."
Aiden could say nothing to that, and he got up to check on the progress of the firefighters. He had forgotten about his back, and that the fire and sirens provided adequate light, so when he heard her gasp, he winced. He was caught.
"You're hurt!" This was said almost accusingly. Angry, red, blistering welts rose up all over his back from where the burning timbers had scored his skin.
"It's nothing," he began, but she shushed him. She made him sit where she was and gestured the EMT over.
"You're going to stay there and get taken care of."
No matter how much he tried to argue with her, she wouldn't give up. She glared at him when the EMT whistled over the burns on his back and shoulder, and made him stay put when some ointment was place on them. Some gauze was placed over the ointment and wrapped in place around his ribs.
"You finished?" Aiden asked impatiently. He hated being fussed over.
"All done," the young man said cheerfully, well-used to the surliness of cops. "Don't get them wet."
"Fine. Great. Go away."
"Aiden," Michaela said, exasperated. "Stop being such a baby and be nice."
"Fine," he said grudgingly. "Thanks."
He looked at her with a harassed expression, seeing if his thanks was adequate enough. She nodded regally and smile at the technician, thanking him for his help.
"You know, you should really go to the hospital," he said. "You both have a mild case of smoke inhalation, and some of his burns look pretty serious. They'll at least want to keep you for overnight observation."
"That won't be necessary," she said quickly, and she heard Aiden silently chuckle behind her.
She heard him murmur, "Now who's being a baby?"
She shot him a withering stare over her shoulder and thanked the medic again for his help. Kyle came up after the young man had left and handed Aiden a spare shirt. Thankfully, it buttoned up, and didn't give him too much trouble. There wasn't much to do now that everything was under control. The fire was down to a low and controlled blaze. Michaela's cooks were setting out some food and water for the firefighters. Aiden caught up with Denny, and explained to him about Malone. Denny was silent, seething with anger, and all he said was, "I'll take care of it." He left with Malone in the backseat of the cruiser at around four o'clock in the morning. The sun wouldn't rise for another two hours, and everyone was bone tired. She gave the men the day off, and thanked everyone for there help. She, Kyle, Rachel, and Aiden went inside to get some rest. There was nothing else to do now. She went into her room, and stripped off her clothes. She threw them in the trash because she knew that they would forever smell like smoke. She took the longest shower on record, grimacing at the fact that her hair would probably smell like smoke too for a couple of days. After her shower, she thought that she would please Aiden by flopping into bed. He would nag her for not getting any rest, so she decided to take a well-deserved nap. She could hear the others moving around the house, the sound of water being run as they took their respective showers, the sound of the microwave running and pots being rattled. Obviously, somebody was hungry.
She could hear the drone of the television, and the low murmur of voices. She could hear the shouts of the firemen outside, and the occasional snap of the fire. Her stable would be a pile of dust by sunrise. The thought made her want to cry, but she forced the tears back. She heard a burst of laughter, and smiled in reaction. It was nice that someone could still feel humor in all of this. She herself felt far from amused. She would have to rebuild so many things. That thought alone made her so tired that she fell into an exhausted, dreamless sleep, lulled by the sound of spraying water.
She woke up close to three hours later, groggy and disoriented. The sun had just broken the horizon, and it was a glorious day. How come it always seemed like the weather never suited her mood? It should be gloomy, depressing, not sunny and cheerful. She yawned and scrubbed her hands over her eyes. Her eyes felt dry, itchy, and when she looked in the mirror, she let out a little yelp over how red and bloodshot they were. Then she winced over what her little sound of distress did to her throat. She took a closer glance at her face and noticed that it looked like she had a serious sunburn. It must have been the intense heat from the fire that made her face red.
She put several drops of eye drops in each eye, and blinked furiously over the increased stinging they caused. In a few moments, however, the stinging stopped and she could see a decrease in the redness. She drank three full glasses of water to help the burning, even though it hurt to swallow. Her throat was still visibly swollen, and the marks that Pete made stood out starkly against her fair skin. It crossed through her mind that she had been hurt more in the past few weeks than she ever had in her life. Even when she was stuck in the cabin, all she was stuck with afterwards was a broken ankle, a case of pneumonia, and emotional distress.
But you met Aiden because of it all, she reminded herself.
Even though she still had her doubts about him loving her, she knew that she loved him, and only him. She was glad for his strength, his dependability, his humor. She was even glad for his temper, although not when it was directed at her. Even his faith in God was comforting. Since he had told her that he was asking God back into his life, she had notice something different about him. Noah had said that when someone trusts in Jesus and gives their life to Him, they have some sort of inner peace or something. That had to be what Aiden was experiencing. She had to put some serious thought if she wanted that peace too. But not now. She had too much to do today. She took another quick shower in the hopeless thought of ridding her hair of smoke. It smelled marginally better after she was finished, and to top off her time in the bathroom, she took three extra strength aspirins. She had a feeling she was going to need them. She hurriedly put on her oldest pair of jeans and a ratty T-shirt knowing that after clearing up the mess of the stables, she would have to throw them away. She put on her boots and grabbed her hat on her way out of her room.
Apparently, Kyle and Rachel didn't go back to the cabin they were using because she found him on the couch, dead to the world. His bare feet hung off the end by a good six inches, and he had flung his arms over his eyes to keep the sun out of them. She went to go close the curtains for him and went to the kitchen. She found Rachel sitting at her table, drinking a cup of coffee, and still looking shell-shocked.
"Rachel, have you had any sleep?"
"Hmmm?" She looked at Michaela as if seeing her for the first time. "Oh, no, I couldn't go to sleep. I knew I would most likely have nightmares."
"Do you want to talk about it?" Michaela snagged her own cup of coffee and sat down across the table from her. Rachel was silent for a moment, trying to sort out her own thoughts.
"It's just strange. Kyle has always been my annoying partner who never takes anything seriously."
Michaela blinked. She had been expecting Rachel to talk about herself, not Kyle.
"But last night," Rachel continued, "when I came back outside after calling 911, and I knew that he was in the stables with you, I don't think I've ever been so scared in my life. I love him." She let out a slow whoosh of breath after saying that. "I don't even like him most of the time, but I love him, and it took the thought of losing him to make me realize it. He could have died last night, all of you could have. I would never see you, or Aiden, or him ever again. He wouldn't be on your couch right now, most likely snoring."
"Are you going to tell him?"
"Are you kidding?" She let out a small laugh. "And be humiliated?"
"Why would you be humiliated?" Michaela asked, confused.
"Because he doesn't love me. He never will, and I'm not going to lay my heart on the line for nothing."
"But he deserves to know," Michaela protested.
"If I told him I loved him after all the times I've criticized him, he wouldn't believe me. Or worse, he'd turn the whole thing into a big joke. I'd rather him not know I love him than be laughed at."
"So you're going to let pride get in the way of love?"
"When the love doesn't go both ways, yeah. Promise me you won't say anything to him."
"I still think he deserves to know-"
"Promise me, Michaela," Rachel said in a strong voice.
"I promise," she said reluctantly. "Where's Aiden?"
"He's outside. He's been out there almost all night."
"He didn't get any sleep?"
"Nope. He came in a while ago to get a cup of coffee, and went right back out."
"And he gets on to me about not getting enough sleep." Rachel smiled at Michaela's disgruntled tone. "I better go out there and see what he's up to."
She stepped quietly outside so as not to disturb Kyle's sleep and was greeted by a cacophony of sounds. Although she gave the men and women the day off, all of them had dedicated themselves to clean-up duty. The fire engine was still there, even though the fire was out and all that was left was a charred mess. The men shouted back and forth to each other, figuring out the best way to clear out the mess. The women were gathered around the table they had set up filled with food and water for everyone, and they were chattering away about the events of last night. Max was barking madly around everyone, and Michaela was surprised to see him. Even though Aiden had told her to keep him by her side, she knew that Max was never one to stay in the house. He would go on his own excursions around her land that have lasted weeks before. The fire must have called him back. He saw her and let out a loud bark, sprinting toward her. She crouched down until she was eye-level, which wasn't that far, and patted him.
"Hey fella. What are you doing back so soon? Were you worried about me?"
Max let out a low hum of pleasure, and ran off again. Michaela shoved her hat on, and looked around for Aiden. She saw him standing with one of the firefighters and they were looking over the debris. She saw that he was still wearing the shirt he had put on last night, even though he had to leave it half unbuttoned because of the burns on his back. He looked a little red around the face like she did, but his dark tan helped cover most of it. He had soot smudges all over his face and arms from where he had the sleeves of his shirt rolled up. Even though she was several yards away, she could tell he was exhausted. His shoulders drooped a little, and he looked like he was about to collapse. He had never looked more beautiful to her than he did in that moment.
Her Celtic warrior wouldn't give up or rest until all the details were taken care of. She walked to him when he was done talking to the firefighter.
"Shame on you for always ordering me to get more sleep when you haven't even been to bed yet," she chided gently.
"And by my count, you've only had about three hours, so you should go and get some more," he replied, smiling tiredly.
"Yeah? I'd like to see you try and make me right now when you can barely keep your eyes open."
He started toward her and she took a quick step back, laughing.
"I was kidding. So, what's the damage report?"
"What do you think?" he asked, gesturing to the smoking ruins. "I hope you have good insurance. Nothing is going to be salvable in that mess."
"Well, we won't know until we clean it up."
"The firefighters want to douse it one more time to make sure every fire is completely out, and then they'll let us start clearing it out."
"How long is that going to take?"
"'Bout an hour. You should go call your insurance company."
"Later," she murmured, distracted. "Where are my horses?"
"They were put in the other stables with the rest of your horses. It was a little crowded, but it worked out."
"I'll be over there then. I'll call my insurance after I check on them."
"Of course. I'll call you when we can clear out."
She loped over to her second stable, calling out greetings to her workers and assurances that she was okay. She walked quickly through the doors and took a look around. She knew she had close to twenty-five horses, and now all of them were cramped into one building. She looked over the horses that were regularly stabled there, making sure that last night's excitement didn't spook them. Some were jittery and skittish, and Michaela started humming a quiet song to sooth them. She reached Snow's stall, and was glad that Snow didn't jerk away from her outstretched hand. In fact, as soon as Michaela held out her hand, Snow nuzzled against it, whinnying softly.
"There now, love. Everything's fine now. We'll have you a new home in no time."
J.T was exactly the same as Snow, which surprised Michaela. J.T. was never a horse to show affection before. Michaela supposed that the fire spooked him enough to need reassurance. She made sure that both of them had enough water and food, and after one last pat, she reached the stall she was dreading. Michaela had worked so hard to earn Balor's trust, and she didn't know how he took last night. He would be more wary of humans than ever, and Michaela needed to be cautious around him. She didn't want to lose his trust. It was too important to her.
He was staring at her, warily watching for her to make a move. She stood still for a few moments, lightly humming, letting him get a feel of her presence. After standing like that for a good five minutes, neither one of them moving, Michaela took the initiative. She took a step forward. As soon as she did, Balor took a step in retreat. Michaela didn't let that deter her, knowing the value of patience. She stilled, and waited. She expected him to realize that she meant him no harm and step forward to her outstretched hand. She frowned when he remained where he was. She took another step forward and held her hand out farther. Balor reared unexpectedly. He snorted and stomped and Michaela took several steps back in retreat. Even when she was a good distance away, he still continued to panic, and she saw fear, and worse, anger in his eloquent eyes.
Tears filled her own.
It was as she had feared. Balor no longer trusted her, his confidence in her shattered.
Detective Malone had hurt her more than he realized. She didn't care about the stables, she cared about the horses, and he destroyed her relationship with Balor. Now she would have to start all over again, and with more care, to start to rebuild the crumbled trust. She glanced at Balor again, who was pacing his small stall, yearning to escape. As she watched, something began to replace her despair: anger. Hot, white anger that made her unbelievably calm.
"It took a good hour to catch him last night, and five men to get him in the stall."
She turned to the voice and saw John melt out of the shadows.
"I don't doubt it," she replied. She saw John look over her subtly, evaluating how she felt. Suddenly, she felt tired of everybody looking at her as if she were about to fall apart.
"You don't look it," he said bluntly. "Your face is red, your throat is big and purple, and it sounds like you've swallowed stickers. You look exhausted. You should get some rest."
"Thanks for the beauty advice," she said tiredly. "Is noticing that I look like death warmed over all you wanted, or was there something else?"
She saw the hurt move into his eyes and cursed herself for it.
"I'm sorry, John. It's been a long night."
"I was worried about you," he said roughly. "I came running when I saw the fire, and someone told me you were in there. I've never felt so scared in my life. I was about to go in after you, but they held me back."
She stared at him, amazed. He was going to go in after her?
"I'm sorry if I scared you," she said slowly, unsure of her position.
"All I could think about was, dear God, not another one. You've already taken one daughter from me; don't take the one woman I consider as a daughter."
He turned to look at Balor, his eyes unfocused. Michaela started to say something, but stopped herself.
"When Kat died, a part of me died too. She was my flesh and blood, an extension of me. I wanted to get away, to die, to do something. Anything to get away from the grief I felt. I felt like I would never feel any happiness again." He turned sharp eyes back on her.
"And then there you were. I had always just thought of you as a boss, nothing more, but you cared enough to help my family out. You were always there for me. I started to feel other emotions than grief when you were around. I started to live again, to love again. I loved you as if you were my own daughter. You became a daughter to me."
Michaela's eyes filled again with tears. Emotion made her throat close and she couldn't speak.
"And when I heard that you were in that fire last night, it almost killed me again. I don't know what I'd do if I lost you, Michaela."
All she could do was sob and throw herself into his arms.
"I didn't mean to scare you," she babbled. "I only wanted to save the horses. I didn't know you felt that way about me. I'm sorry I scared you…I'm so sorry." She sniffled, wiped her eyes, and took his face in her hands.
"After Granda died, you were there for me. You've always stood by me in whatever decision I've made. I should have told you before; I love you too."
She watched in amazement as the rugged old man's eyes slowly began to fill and his lower lip began to wobble. He grabbed on to her and squeezed. They stood that way for several moments, locked in a fierce embrace. He was the first to step back, looking uncomfortable at all the emotion he had spilled in their few minutes together. She wanted to smile because this was the John she knew. Rough, burly, and blunt. Except for that he still had traces of tears in his eyes. She scrubbed her own furiously.
"I guess I better go call my insurance company. I'll probably have to make a list of all that got destroyed."
Back in a situation where he knew what was what, John looked around the stable.
"You can use this place as a reference. The other stable was almost exactly like this one and stored the same things."
Michaela took a slow stroll around the building, muttering to herself now and then.
"Lumber, gate latches, about five new saddles, harnesses, bits, feed, a new office for you, and every thing that went in it. A new computer, desk, chairs." She gave hefty sigh. "So much work to do from the stupidity of one man."
"I heard Malone was the one that did it, but I didn't want to believe it. You know, with him being a cop and all."
"Oh, he did it. Devon and Tony caught him red handed. We were lucky Kyle and Aiden were there, otherwise, we would have lost the horses."
"We would have lost you. That Aiden sure is a good guy to have around." He glanced slyly at Michaela, and she didn't miss the implication of his words. She said nothing, but John didn't let that deter him. It was time his girl got settled down with a man.
"He seems strong, smart, funny. A real decent kind of guy."
"John," she began warningly. He ignored her.
"Seems to me like you two get along well. Everyone here likes him, except Brandon Harris, and that's only because he's stuck on you."
"John!" Her voice was exasperated now.
"It's a shame that he can't stick around."
"If you like him so much, marry him." She gave a grimace. "I haven't said something like that since the fifth grade."
"I was more hoping that you would marry him." John figured that he had always been a frank man, and sometimes that was the only way to get through Michaela's stubborn head. "I know he loves you. Why don't you give him a chance?"
"You don't know how much I want to," she said wistfully. "But I'm not meant for that kind of love, John. The only two people who have ever loved me were Granda and you."
"That's the biggest load of bull I've ever heard. You're a smart girl, Michaela, but sometimes you say the stupidest things."
"Just leave it alone, John. Wait until this whole thing blows over."
"What if this whole thing doesn't blow over like you think it will," he asked angrily.
"I knew the dangers of doing this when I suggested it. Do you think I'm an idiot?" She started pacing in agitation. "I know that there is every chance that the police might not catch the man who killed Julie, and that he'll come after me, but I don't care. I'd rather put myself in danger than allow him to walk free. He killed my best friend. Do you think that I'm just going to lie around and do nothing?"
"But you're making him come to you."
"He would come after me anyway. I'm just making him come faster instead."
"Just be careful, okay? I don't want you getting hurt."
"With all the bodyguards I have?" she asked, joking. "I'll be fine. I should go now. Can you come to dinner tonight?"
"Good." She started heading for the door. "Bring Mikey too. It'll be nice to see him."
"You're that child's hero ever since you gave him the riding lesson."
"I was happy to. Dinner is at six." With that she gave a little wave and left.
The smell of smoke still lingered heavily in the air, and she wrinkled her nose at it. The ground around the wreck was soaked and muddy, and Michaela was careful not to step in the mess. She didn't see Aiden anywhere in the group of men, but she did see Noah, and waved. He gave her a little salute, and went back to talk to one of the firemen. She entered the house a moment later and figured out where Aiden had been. Kyle must have woken up sometime during the morning, because Aiden was now residing where he had been. He was fast asleep. The exhaustion must have finally caught up with him. She left him to his dreams and entered her office, and wished futilely for a nap of her own.
Aiden woke up with a gasp and a swinging fist.
"Whoa, hold it." Noah stood above him, amazed that he had managed to dodge Aiden's blow. The man had the fastest fists he had ever seen.
"It was just a dream."
Aiden stared at him a moment longer and let out a long breath.
"Just a dream," he repeated, squeezing his eyes shut. Noah stood silently while he watched his friend gain control over himself and his emotions. Aiden had always been good at controlling his emotions with a tight leash.
Aiden sat there for several moments, going over his nightmare with a detached and clinical air. It had started in the apartment he and his mother had shared, and Aiden had just reached it after hearing the shot. He had run in, panic tearing at him, only to find his mother lying on the ground. There was blood all around her, as it had been in reality, but it was also all over the walls, and splattered onto the pictures that she loved so much on the coffee table. It had been on his white tennis shoes as he knelt down beside her, on his pants, shirt, and worst of all, his hands. His harsh breathing started coming faster as he remembered all the blood. He counted to ten slowly, and went back to the dream. He had picked up the phone to call an ambulance, and the blood had left a handprint. There had been no dial tone, so he had hung up, only to find that his mother had come off of the ground to stand behind him.
Blood had been streaming down all the knife wounds she had received, but there had been infinitely more coming out of the gunshot wound, which was a big, gaping, black hole in his mother's chest. She had looked at him with wide and accusing eyes before he was transported to the warehouse where he saw Liam standing with a gun. He was chanting, "Your fault, your fault, your fault!" Aiden had drawn his own gun, but before he could pull the trigger, Liam had shot. Aiden was jolted from the impact just as Noah had shaken him awake. He counted to ten again, and put the dream away in his mind.
"You've started to have them again, haven't you?" Noah asked softly.
"Aye," he said, his voice hoarse. He had had the dreams for months after his mother's death, and only Noah had known he had them. He hadn't had one for months, but the fire and the excitement must have made them come back.
"How bad was it?"
"Bad," was all he said, and knew that Noah understood that he couldn't talk about it yet.
"Well, the firemen said that we could get to work clearing out all the rubble. I knew you wanted to help."
"I'll go get Michaela, and we'll meet you out there."
"Fine." He watched as Aiden stood up and left the room. He knew how bad the nightmares were for his friend, and knew that they made him guilty all over again for his mother's death.
Lord, make him strong. Don't let him believe that he was responsible for her death. Or worse, don't let him believe that You were the one who allowed it to happen. He just came back to you; don't let him go.
Aiden walked into her office just as she was finishing her conversation. He leaned in the doorway, and just looked at her. He was sitting Indian-style in her chair behind her computer, slouched over her desk. Her head was leaning on her hand with the phone at her ear. Her hair was pulled back, and a little bit mussed from running her hands through it. There were smudges under her eyes from lack of sleep. She was beautiful
"No, Richard, I'm fine. No one was hurt too badly, and all the horses are fine…I swear I'm fine…Would next Thursday be all right for you to come and look at the property?...Thank you, Richard, I'll see you then."
She hung up the phone and lifted her arms to stretch out the kinks that had appeared in her neck in the last five minutes. She stopped in mid-stretch when she saw Aiden in the doorway, and lowered her arms self-consciously.
"What's up?" she asked.
"You wanted me to tell you when it was okay to start clearing out the mess."
"Oh. I guess we'd better get started then."
They worked for long hours in the sun, sifting through charred wood and burnt metal. The firemen had left long ago, but everyone else showed up to help. They used one of the pickup trucks to put all the trash in. Half of the structure still stood upright, and no one was allowed to pass under it. It was too unsteady and could collapse any minute. Most of the people were cheerful, in spite of the situation. Michaela knew they were only putting on a good face to ease her mind. Looking at the ruins of one of her buildings was depressing, and she kept on feeling down until one of them came up to her with a kind word or a joke. In spite of herself, Michaela was smiling.
Towards the middle of the afternoon, all the kids of the adults came out to help. Anjuli marched straight into the middle of the wreckage before her brother ran after her and told her that she wasn't allowed near the destruction; none of the kids were. There was too much risk that one of them could get hurt walking around. They, of course protested, Mikey and Anjuli especially, saying that they, "wanted to help Miss Michaela."
Regina, bless her, took charge as the oldest of them and led the kids away to play a game in the fields. Michaela shot her a grateful look, and assigned herself the task of finding old tools in the burnt wood. Five minutes into it, her hands were black because of the soot and charcoal. She found an area where there were about a two-hundred nails were scattered on the ground. She got a pail from the other stable and went down on her knees. Her clothes were long past dirty, and it wouldn't hurt to get them dirtier. She started picking out the nails one and two at a time, knowing that if she didn't get them all, one of her people could step on them and get seriously hurt. It seemed like she was at it for hours when a shadow covered her. She shaded her eyes from the sun and glanced at Aiden staring down at her. He knelt down beside her, heedless of his jeans, and held out a sandwich.
"Eat," he ordered.
"Bossy, bossy," she said under her breath, and held out her hands. "I can't."
"Open up." She barely had time to comply before she almost choked on a mouthful. She glared at him while chewing, knowing that he was trying not to laugh at her face. His eyes gave him away. They always either turned to fire or ice when he was angry, and twinkled when he was amused. Right now, he was amused. She finished chewing and slowly picked another nail out of mess. She dropped it in the bucket and turned to him again, planning on telling him to give a person more warning if he was going to go shoving food down their throat, but as soon as she opened her mouth, he shoved in another mouthful. This time he laughed out loud at her disgruntled expression. She wiped her mouth with the back of her arm, and smiled sweetly, which should have been his first warning that something was going on. She put her hand on his knee as he was still crouching beside her. She leaned to him, and he leaned forward, thinking she was going to whisper something in his ear. Suddenly, she pushed the knee her hand was on and he lost his precarious balance and toppled onto the ground. This time it was her burst of laughter that filled the air as she looked down on him. He shoved himself into a sitting position. Max had run toward them, seeing what all the fuss was about, and he saw Aiden sitting on the ground and immediately taking that as permission to start licking his face. She laughed harder. Aiden was a strong man, but even he couldn't get a determined Great Dane off of him when he was in his position. Finally, Max saw the sandwich Aiden had dropped, and a quick as a thief, snatched it and ran off. Aiden sat up again, and looked at his once-clean, now-dirty hands. Michaela tried to hold in her giggles, but it was too hard.
"I bet you thought that was funny, huh?" he asked softly. Michaela was gasping for air as she answered, putting two of her hands up in defense. "Now, don't do anything rash, Aiden. You got me, I got you, we're even."
"You would think that wouldn't you?"
"Aiden," she said again, recognizing the determined glint in his eyes. "Don't do anything you'll regret later."
"You mean like this?" he asked and smeared his hands all over her face. She was speechless with shock, until she heard some of the people around them try to muffle their own giggles. Aiden, however, had no such thing as dignity. He was roaring with laughter.
She knew she must have looked ridiculous with streaks of black all over her face. She deliberately put her hands in a pile of soot, and gave as good as she got. His laughter stopped immediately while hers burst forth again. If she looked as half as ridiculous as he did, she wouldn't have blamed everyone for laughing.
By now, they had an audience, and she could hear people making bets on who would win. She felt pride when she heard someone bet five bucks on her. As she stood up, so did he. Although he topped her by a good six inches, she stared straight into his eyes.
Then he did the unexpected; he stuck out his hand.
"Truce?" he asked with a boyish grin on his face. She didn't know if she could trust that smile, or the look in his eyes. However, she had always considered herself a good sport. She stuck out her hand warily. He grasped it and the next thing she knew, her world tilted and she found herself upside down over his shoulder. She heard the laughter of their audience and started squirming.
"Put me down," she said through her teeth.
"Nope," he said easily, and started walking towards the house.
"You're going to hurt your back."
"It doesn't hurt much right now." Of course, it did, but he was having more fun then to think about the burns on him. He walked through the front door without breaking stride, and Michaela had to throw her hands over her head to stop the screen door from slamming on it. She tried to get away from him, but his grip was too strong. She tried lifting her head and caught the looks of astonishment on Rachel's face, and the grin on Kyle's. The more she thought of how ridiculous the whole situation was, the harder it was to keep the smile on her own face. Her smile disappeared when Aiden strode into the bathroom, turned the shower full blast on cold, and dumped her under it. She wiped the hair out of her eyes, sputtering.
"Why you-you-," She couldn't even speak.
"You're all dirty." He said it innocently. "I thought you might want to get cleaned up." He was laughing as she picked up a shampoo bottle and hurled it at him. He slammed the door just before it hit his head. She turned the shower off, shivering. She grabbed one of the towels on the rack, and started drying her clothes and hair off. Still wet, she walked outside the bathroom. She could hear the cheers of the men as she walked upstairs, and glanced out the window. Aiden was taking a bow on the front porch. She was stewing as she changed into sweat pants and a T-shirt.
She went downstairs and saw Rachel on her computer in the living room. All she asked was, "Where?" Rachel pointed to the kitchen and watched Michaela storm off. Aiden had better be careful, she thought. That is one mad lady.
Michaela calmed herself down when she reached the kitchen. Aiden was at the sink, washing the effects of her hands off of his own face. Kyle was sitting at the table, reading a magazine. Michaela sauntered past Aiden, and knew that he knew that she was there from the way he tensed his shoulders. He was waiting for her to attack, but he didn't look at her. She could almost hear his sigh of relief as she walked past him into the pantry. She got a bag of potato chips and walked to the table. Kyle cleared a space for her at the table and she sat down to begin munching. Aiden began soaping his face.
The sound seemed like it echoed through the room. Aiden paused when he heard it, and when he heard her crunching away at the chips, he began again.
Kyle flipped a page in his magazine after stealing a glance at her.
Aiden began to splash water on his face to rinse it.
As he grabbed a towel, Michaela stood up and walked to the refrigerator, taking the bag with her. Aiden didn't tense this time when she passed him, and she almost smiled.
She opened the fridge to get a soda, and grabbed something else while she was at it. She closed the fridge and turned to lean on it. She opened her can of soda and almost started laughing at the face Kyle made when he saw what she held in her hand. He slowly got up from the table and backed away to the doorway. There was no way he was missing this.
"Hmmm?" he asked, turning around, taking the towel off of his face.
He only had time to blink before his face was covered in white. When it stopped, he grabbed blindly for the towel and wiped his eyes off. He saw Kyle, using the doorway to hold himself up as he laughed. He glanced at Michaela who was wearing a big grin on her face, holding a can of whipped cream. She flipped it in her hand and blew on the nozzle like a gunslinger in the old west.
"What is going on?" Rachel stood in the doorway with a confused expression on her face. "All I heard was Kyle laughing like a lunatic and…" Her voice trailed off as she got her first look at Aiden. His entire face was white and fluffy except for his eyes. She tried to hold the giggle in, but it escaped before she could help it. Many others soon followed, and soon she was leaning on the other side of the doorway, laughing so hard that tears were coming out of her eyes. Michaela took a dramatic bow, and they both began to applaud. Aiden started methodically wiping his face off until there was only white around the edges on his face. He set the towel down, and tasted a bit of the cream that he had missed from his nose.
"That's just great," he said, and turned to the sink. There was a sprayer connected to a hose on the sink and inspiration struck. As quick as lightning, he grabbed it and turned on the water. The first spray caught her right in her laughing face. He had always been a crack shot. She squealed and began spraying him again with the whipped cream. The next few moments were pandemonium and it got even worse when Rachel got whipped cream on her blouse. Kyle started laughing even harder, but he stopped when he realized that both Michaela and Aiden had stopped their fight to see what she would do. Would she shrug it off? Would she storm out in a fit of female temper? She shocked everyone when she grabbed the squeeze jar of honey on the table and squirted Kyle right between the eyes. His mouth dropped open, and both Michaela and Aiden cracked up.
He grabbed the abandoned potato chips that were lying on the counter and crushed them into her hair. She gave a war whoop and returned fire. Chaos reigned again when Michaela and Aiden continued their fight. Rachel made her way to Michaela and said, "Switch." Soon, Aiden was covered in honey while Kyle was getting a mouthful of whipped cream. Noah walked into the house to hear shrieks and shouts of laughter, from both men and women. He walked into the kitchen, and his mouth dropped open. It had become a war zone, and the fight had turned to guys against girls. It looked like the guys were getting creamed. Literally. He put two fingers in his mouth, and whistled shrilly. Suddenly, everyone was looking at him. Michaela and Rachel were dripping with water and flecks of potato chips and Aiden and Kyle were covered with honey and whipped cream.
"Being the voice of reason here-," he began, but stopped dead when he saw the look that passed between the four of them. He started backing away. They all slowly advanced.
"Don't you even think about it." They wouldn't turn on him, he was sure about it…
He got hit simultaneously by all four of them.
"This is war!" he yelled and brought out a squirt gun that he had confiscated from one of the kids after he got shot with it, and realized that it wasn't filled with water, but soda. The battle was fierce, loud, and messy.
Michaela had never had so much fun in her life.
"Wait, wait. Look at ourselves," Kyle yelled. "We are full-grown adults, most of us cops I should add, and we're having a food-fight, in the middle of the work day, in broad daylight. We need to stop."
"You're only saying that because you're losing," Rachel taunted while Michaela stifled laughter behind her.
Kyle, although Aiden had no idea how, managed to have some sense of dignity, even though a blob of honey fell from his ear onto his shoulder. "I wasn't losing, and this is ridiculous."
"He's right," Noah said. "We should start cleaning up."
They slowly complied, even though two more fights started between Michaela and Aiden when Aiden squirted water at her when no one was looking. They were both laughing when the phone rang. Rachel was giggling when she answered.
She paused and the smile disappeared. They all gathered around her and she held out the phone.