Authors: Barbara Freethy
Tags: #Contemporary Romance
"What is it?"
He really shouldn't say anything. Getting Jessica involved in his past was only going to bring her deeper into his life when what he needed to do was keep her out. But there was something about her open, honest gaze that made him want to confess a terrible secret.
He swallowed hard, and then said, "It's my fault that Stacy died. If it weren't for me, she'd still be alive."
Jessica's eyes widened as Sean's unexpected words ran around in her head. "What are you talking about? Wasn't the fire an accident?"
"It was, but Stacy shouldn't have been here in the house."
Tension tightened his jaw. The easygoing, free-spirited musician she'd seen on the stage last night had disappeared. This house, and all the memories that went with it, had taken Sean to a very deep and intense space, and she was almost afraid to go there with him. But how could she not? The fact that he wanted to tell her something personal touched her deeply.
"Tell me what happened," she said quietly.
His chest heaved with the stress of taking another breath. Then he said, "We were playing together at my house that day. Stacy's mom had taken her brother, Blake, on a field trip, and Stacy was supposed to stay with me until her mom picked her up, but we had a fight. It was a stupid eight-year-old fight. I wanted to build a fort in my room, and Stacy wanted to play catch in the backyard. She got mad, and I told her to get out."
Jessica nervously licked her lips. She had a feeling she knew where this was going, and it wasn't to a good place.
"I didn't know right away that she actually left the house," he continued. "I thought she just went downstairs to find someone else to play with. There were always a lot of kids around, not just my siblings, but also half the neighborhood. I think it was about an hour later that I looked out my bedroom window, and I saw smoke coming over the trees and a weird light in the sky. I knew there was a fire close by, and I wanted to see it."
"So I left the house," he continued. "I ran down the street and around the corner. I wasn't supposed to go that far by myself, especially after dark, but I had to see what was going on. I was fascinated by fire. My father was a firefighter, and he was working that night. I thought I might see him charging to the rescue on his big red fire engine. I was excited at first. And then I got closer." Sean walked over to the small attic window. "I was over there."
She joined him at the window, following his pointed finger to the house across the street.
"When I got to that tree I realized it was Stacy's house that was on fire. I couldn't believe it. I just stopped and stared. The fire was huge, much bigger than what I'd seen from my window. And then Stacy came running through the front door." He turned to Jessica, his eyes bleak and filled with pain. "Stacy's clothes and her long blonde hair were on fire," he said, his voice rough with emotion. "There were orange-red flames surrounding her. It was the strangest sight. It didn’t seem real. But she was screaming in terror and running around in a crazy circle."
"Oh, God," she whispered, putting her hand to her mouth, his words painting a very vivid picture.
"The fire engine pulled up in front of her house. I saw my dad run to Stacy. He wrapped her in a blanket and rolled her on the ground. Someone else beat at the flames shooting off of her. And then she wasn't screaming anymore."
She put a hand on his arm. "You don't have to do this, Sean."
"I do. I have to say it all. I can't stop now."
"Okay. What happened next?"
"I watched them put her on a stretcher. She was quiet, really quiet. I knew it was bad, because Stacy talked more than anyone I knew. That's when I ran. I don't remember how I got back to the house or what I did when I got there. I think I went up to my bedroom and hid under the covers. Some time passed. Then my mom came to my room. My dad was with her. He smelled like smoke. His face was black with soot. They told me there was a fire, and Stacy was hurt. They didn't tell me then that she was dead. Maybe they didn't know yet." He let out a breath, then added, "My mom put her arms around me. She was kind and sympathetic, but my dad was furious. He wanted to know why Stacy was at her house when she was supposed to be playing with me."
"Oh, Sean." She felt a wave of anger at Jack's callousness. She understood why he'd be angry, but Sean had been eight years old, barely older than Kyle was now. She searched for comforting words that would make him feel better, but there were none. Sean had witnessed something no one should see. He'd clearly been traumatized. No wonder he'd been so shaken to come into this house, to relive that night.
"I told my father that I didn't know she'd left, but he didn't care about my excuses."
"He was upset. I'm sure it hurt him to see Stacy in that condition, too. He took it out on you, and he shouldn't have done that. Did you tell your parents that you saw Stacy?"
"No. I was already in enough trouble. And I can't say I didn't deserve everything my father dished out. It was my fault that Stacy was at home. If I had told someone, maybe my mom would have come over here and seen the fire before it became too big. Maybe Stacy would be alive now. Maybe her dad would be, too."
"That's a lot of maybes."
He ran a hand through his hair. "I have more of them running through my head. You don't know how often I've relived that night. I had nightmares for months. I'd see monsters in the shadows of the trees. I'd hear voices whispering that it was my fault. I'd see lights flashing in my head. And Stacy always showed up at the end, screaming in terror."
"I'm so sorry, Sean," she said, feeling his pain. "I know you blame yourself, but you were a child. The fight you had with Stacy is one I have witnessed with Kyle and his friends a dozen times. It's normal for kids to tell each other to go home or go away. You couldn't know what would happen to Stacy when she ran out of your room. You certainly couldn't have predicted that she'd go home and get caught in a fire."
"Logically, I know what you're saying is true, but I can't shake the guilt, Jess. I thought I had gotten the dreams out of my head. But when I heard you were moving in here, all the memories came rushing back. It's like it happened yesterday and not two decades ago."
"Now, I know why you looked like you'd seen a ghost last night."
"I did see a ghost—I saw Stacy." He blew out a breath. "But I will get over it. The shock is already starting to wear off. Thanks for listening."
"Thanks for sharing."
He moved away from the window, walking back toward the center of the room. "It looks like Mrs. Emery kept some of Stacy's things. I wonder what she'll want you to do with them."
"I have no idea. I'll know more what's here once I start going through the boxes. Then Helen and I will have to have a long talk." She paused, watching as he poked around some of the boxes. "How did the fire start, Sean?"
"I don't really know. All I ever heard was that it was an accident."
She nodded, thinking about what he'd told her. "So, you said Stacy got out of the house but didn't survive her injuries. What about her father? What happened to him?"
"They couldn't get to him until the fire was out. He was trapped in the garage. By the time they got in there, it was too late."
"It must have been a fast-burning fire if he couldn't get out of the house."
"It looked like a monster to me, but I was eight years old. Everything seemed bigger then."
She sighed. "I had no idea that I was moving into your nightmare."
He gave her a tight smile. "That pretty much describes it."
"I wish I could tell you that I'd move out, but I signed a lease."
"I understand. This isn't your problem, Jessica, and there's no reason you shouldn't live here. It's just a house. I'm seeing that more clearly now that I'm inside."
She didn't know if she entirely believed him but hoped what he'd said was at least partly true. "I'm glad that being here is helping you come to terms with the past. I think you should also tell your parents what you saw that night. Your dad might be able to help you deal with the images in your head. As a firefighter he's seen people get burned. He's had to find a way to live with those kinds of memories."
"I don't know how he does it. After what I saw that night, I lost all interest in being a firefighter and I couldn't understand why anyone would want to run into a burning building. I refused to go down to the station or go out for junior firefighter in school. My father was so angry with me. Firefighting is the family business. Generations of Callaways have been firefighters, including four of my siblings. It's in the Callaway blood, but not in mine."
"If you'd told your dad why you couldn't be a firefighter, don't you think he would have understood?"
Doubt flashed in Sean's eyes. "I think he would have told me to suck it up and get over it."
"Really? Your dad has high expectations for his kids, I know that, but he loves you. Would he be that harsh?"
"Yes. And my father's love comes with strings. If you do what he wants and you honor him, he'll have your back until the day you die. If you go against him, he'll never let you forget it. And it's not just about firefighting, it's also about serving the community, choosing a noble profession. That's the Callaway way. Nicole isn't a firefighter, but she's a teacher. Shayla is going to be a doctor. Those are acceptable careers in his mind. But me, I play guitar at nightclubs. I'm not changing the world for the better, and I'm fine with that, but my father is not."
"I still think you should tell him what you saw."
"My problems with my dad are not based on that single event. There's a lifetime of crap between us. And it would take forever for me to explain it all to you. While my dad might love me, because he's my father and he feels he has to, he doesn't respect me. He doesn't listen to me. He has no interest in my interests. That's why we can't have a relationship."
"It doesn't sound like you respect him either," she couldn't help pointing out. "Or that you have an interest in his interests. Maybe your relationship isn't about that one event, but you can't deny that that event wasn't hugely important in framing your opinions about firefighting as a career choice." As she finished speaking, she saw angry thunderclouds gathering in Sean's eyes and realized she was getting far too deep into his life. "I'm probably overstepping here," she added quickly. "But I don't think I'm wrong." She let out a breath, a little shocked that she'd been so blunt. She was usually better at keeping her opinions to herself, but she hated seeing Sean in pain or turmoil, and he was clearly in both.
"You're right, you are overstepping. You've known my family for about five minutes, so don't presume to think you know everything about us."
She slowly nodded. "Okay. That's a fair point. I never had a father who cared a speck about me, so maybe I don't know what I'm talking about."
He let out a frustrated breath. "Look, I'm sorry, Jess. This house has been making me crazy for years. And now I'm taking that crazy out on you."
"I did stick my nose into your business," she conceded.
"Only because I put my business right in your face."
"How about we call a truce?" She held out her hand.
He hesitated, then her took her hand, squeezing his warm fingers around hers.
The truce had been a good idea, but not the handshake, because neither one of them could seem to let go. The sparks that had flared the night before were back, heightened by the emotion of the last few minutes.
"What am I going to do about you?" he murmured.
It was the same question he'd asked last night.
A few possibilities ran through her mind, but thankfully she didn't say any of them out loud, because all of them were bad ideas.
"I like you, Jess. You're beautiful and smart, a little more outspoken than I thought, but pretty damn amazing."
Her nerves tingled at his words. "I feel the same way about you. Although, I'd substitute handsome for beautiful," she said lightly.
He gave her a smile, but as the seconds ticked by his smile faded. "You and me—we don't go together, Jess. You're tied to my family forever through your son and my nephew. If we started something, and it didn't work out, it would be awkward and uncomfortable for a lot of people. And I don't want to ruin what you have going with Nicole and Ryan, this little family unit you have set up. It's good for the boys. We can all see that."
"I understand." Nothing he'd said was a surprise. And he was right, any relationship between them would be complicated, but that wasn't the only reason they wouldn't work. "It would be best if we just remained friends. And not just because of the family ties."
"What do you mean?"
"While you're very attractive and there's a connection between us, I could never have a relationship with a musician. I know what loving a musician looks like. My dad took off before I was born, and my mom fell in love every other year after that. Her favorite guys were guitar players with long hair and soulful voices. She always thought they were singing to her and about her. But they weren't. They were singing for themselves. I saw her get her heart broken a lot. And to be honest, my heart got broken, too. There was one guy I really wanted to stick around. He was the closest thing I'd ever had to a dad, but he couldn't stay, because the road called to him, just as it calls to you. So while you might be a good time, Sean, I can't be with a man who's always leaving. I've watched too many doors slam in my face, and I don't just have myself to think about now. I'd never put Kyle through what I went through."
"Are you done?"
"Okay," he said, an odd expression in his eyes. "It sounds like we're on the same page."
"Then you should let go of my hand."
Instead of loosening his grip, his fingers tightened around hers. "Just for the record, I wouldn't be a
time, I'd be a
"So cocky," she murmured, refusing to admit that his words had sent a thrill down her spine. "That's another strike against you."