Excerpt from Mr. May

Book #5 of the Heroes of Rogue Valley: Calendar Guys Series

Chapter One

     For the first time in almost a year Deanna Oliver felt like her old self—determined and ready to make her dream a reality. Her mind spinning with ideas, she exited the General Hardware parking lot and turned toward home. An almost twenty-mile round-trip drive, but the class she'd taken for do-it-yourself remodelers this morning had been worth the time.
      Patching walls, priming and painting—she had those down now. She also had names of reputable experts, people far more knowledgeable than Rusty, to help renovate the B&B, aka Oliver's Bed & Breakfast.
      Who needed him, anyway? She could and would do this alone. Deanna raised her chin. Unlike her mother, she refused to turn a blind eye on a man who lied and cheated—nor was she going to leave Guff's Lake. This was home and always would be.
      Horn blaring, siren screaming, and lights flashing, a fire truck some distance behind her warned vehicles out of its way. Deanna pulled her hatchback onto the shoulder of Kirkdale Road. Somehow when she hadn't been looking fall had crept up. The fields and trees in the Rogue Valley had responded with their usual array of autumn colors, brightening the otherwise gray morning.
      The truck roared past. Another soon followed. A fire requiring two trucks must be a bad one. Feeling for the poor family or business owner involved, Deanna shook her head. Once the vehicles barreled by and passed out of view, she returned to her thoughts.
      The down payment on the property and additional costs of fixing up the bungalow adjacent to the bed & breakfast so that she and Rusty could move in had all but emptied her savings account. In the year since he'd left, thanks to careful budgeting and her two jobs at the Guff's Lake Resort Hotel, she'd replenished it enough to continue with the renovations.
      By nature impatient, she preferred immediate results for her efforts. But making her dream into reality? For that she had abundant patience. As long as she moved forward, slow, steady progress would do.
      She'd already decided on a color palette—soft, soothing colors for the bedrooms, bright, cheerful colors for the bathrooms, the glistening warmth of the natural wood wainscoting for the living and dining rooms, and for the stairs leading to the second floor. Faux oriental rugs over the wood and new carpeting in the bedrooms would add a homey touch and mute footsteps, with new lighting to further enhance the feeling of comfort and welcome.
      She would use the rest of today and all day tomorrow, her days off, to line up bids for installing drywall and, even if she didn't have the funds yet, for refinishing the wood floors and the risers. Maybe she'd check out carpeting for the bedrooms.
      The exit for Guff's Lake Resort was just ahead. Deanna's property lay five miles south of the resort, which made commuting quick and easy.
      She signaled and headed toward the lake, which lay nestled in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains. Despite the thick clouds obscuring the snow-dusted peaks of the majestic mountains, they and four-mile diameter lake made for a spectacular view she never tired of.
      The siren's howl again interrupted her thoughts, growing louder by the second before it abruptly stopped. Where was it coming from?
      Not the resort, she hoped. She pulled into the parking area and drove slowly around the premises. To her relief, everything looked normal.
      Then where? Alert and seeking the source of whatever had summoned the two fire trucks, she cracked the window open and continued toward home. No scent of smoke or signs of a fire anywhere—until she approached Ridge Road, where she lived.
      There it was, the ominous smoke she'd sought out. It shrouded the windshield and all but obscured any visibility. Deanna slowed to a crawl. The acrid smell filled her nostrils.
      A sudden gust of wind cleared the air and she could see again. The smoke seemed to be coming from her neighborhood.
      Oh, no. Please don't let it be Bea's place. Her elderly friend lived on a fixed income and was in no shape to deal with a fire.
      Sick with dread, Deanna drove the last few miles to Ridge Road. Bea and a handful of neighbors had gathered around the fire trucks, one parked on the street and the other in the driveway at Deanna's house—what was left of it.
      The tiny bungalow she'd called home for the past fifteen months was a pile of smoking debris that reeked of loss and ruin. The adjacent bed & breakfast still stood, but the side facing the bungalow had been damaged.
      With a mounting sense of horror, Deanna jumped out of the car and dashed forward.


      Hank Gardener was coiling hose when a hatchback screeched to a halt in the middle of the road. The woman who exited and flew toward him looked to be in her mid-twenties. In her haste her open trench coat flapped wide at her sides, revealing a willowy body.
      She raced right past him—or would have if he hadn't snagged her by the arm. "Stay back, ma'am."
      Barely reaching his shoulder, she stiffened, her eyes wide with shock. "But that's my house. Or was."
      She buried her head in her hands, locks of sandy blond hair curtaining her face as if she couldn't bear to see the smoking pile of destruction.
      Hank understood. Since joining the Guff's Lake Fire Department four years ago he'd witnessed the pain of similar losses up close and personal many times.
      Yet before today he'd never been responsible for the disaster.
      Every firefighter worth his salt knew how to read the smoke caused by a fire. The color, speed, and direction spoke volumes and indicated changing fire conditions. Yet he'd misread the warnings.
      Scratch that. He hadn't read them at all.
      People reacted in different ways. Some seemed shell-shocked, while others collapsed in grief. She looked ready to cry.
      Hank wanted to pull her into a comforting embrace. This woman he'd never laid eyes on. He didn't even know her name.
      "I'm sorry," he offered. Not much of a consolation, but it'd have to do.
      She straightened, nodded, and blinked hard as if damming up the tears. "I made a point of turning off all the baseboard heaters before I left this morning. How did the fire start?"
      "We don't know the cause yet. According to your neighbors there were no pets inside."
      "That's right. But my clothes and other personal things, records for what I've spent on remodeling Oliver's—the B&B next door—everything except what I'm wearing now, my laptop, and cell phone was in there. Oh, God—Froggy. Please let him be safe."
      "You do have a pet," he said.
      She shook her head. "Froggy is ceramic and very dear to me. Surely he survived. I have to find him!"
      He winced at the bleak devastation on her face, hated that he couldn't go back and redo the last forty minutes. Story of his life. "You can't go near the rubble for at least twenty-four hours," he said. "It's too hot. Plus the claims adjustor will want to look around first. You should call your insurance company right away."
      "I will. What do I do now?" she muttered as if to herself. "Where am I going to sleep tonight?"
      "Do you have family in the area?"
      She shook her head. "I guess I'll ask one of my friends or check in at the hotel."
      "The one at the Guff's Lake Resort. When can I get into the B&B to assess the damage?"
      "It'll be a while yet. First a crewmate and I need to inspect the premises. We'll let you know if it's safe for you to enter. I need to get back to the job."
      "Of course."
      After parking her car up the street, she trudged toward the neighbors huddled nearby. They greeted her with sympathetic looks and warm hugs.
      Max, Hank's best bud, approached and nodded at the woman. "Who's that?"
      "I didn't catch her name. She's the property owner."
      Of the worst kind. And Hank's sorry ass was to blame. His first failure as a firefighter, but face it, he was always screwing up something. Rarely on the job, and never this bad. Sure, back when he'd worked as a full-time paramedic he'd made a few rookie mistakes, but nothing dangerous or harmful. Pretty much everything in his love life, though.
      Early on, his parents had pegged him as a major disappointment. Hell, his being born at all had been a major inconvenience. According to them he'd been a surprise and throughout his childhood, he'd often felt like an afterthought. He'd always suspected they'd wanted only one kid—Hudson.
      Time and again he'd let them down, until the day he'd shattered any chance of redeeming himself. But he didn't like to think about that.
      Then there was Gretchen. Not gonna think about his most recent ex, either. "If I'd been on the ball we could have saved her house and prevented damage to the bed & breakfast," he muttered.
      "Hey, you weren't the only one battling that blaze. It was a team effort."
      "I was the one with the hose."
      "Gus, Tony, and Nate don't count?"
      "They were inside. I was out here." Hank's failure to note the changing smoke patterns and density had endangered his teammates and cost precious minutes that could have been used to save the bungalow. He kicked at the ground.
      "Cut yourself some slack, man. In all the smoke it was difficult if not impossible to see what was happening. Reduced visibility has always been a bitch. Yeah, it sucks that we lost the house, but the crew is okay and we saved the other structure. Let's grab our gear and inspect that mother."
      At the fire truck Hank exchanged the hose and SCBA, or self-contained breathing apparatus, for an infrared device designed to check for undetected heat inside the walls. Max brought other equipment and a clipboard for the inspection report. They headed over.
      Five bedrooms and five bathrooms, and the large living and dining rooms made for a perfect bed and breakfast—or would at some point.
      Currently, the kitchen floor was stripped down to its studs, and the floors of the living and dining room were scarred up and in need of TLC. On the steps leading upstairs and in the bedrooms, old carpeting lay in piles over fir boards, and a good seventy percent of the walls had been stripped to the studs.
      But the structure was sound enough. No discernable fire damage except for the chunks of siding that had been hacked up, two broken windows on the south side of the house, and the pool of water on the floor under the windows.
      "I'll give her the structure status," Hank volunteered after they stowed the infrared devices and other equipment in the truck.
      Max nodded. "I'll finish writing up the report."
      The property owner broke away from her neighbors and moved quickly toward Hank. He hadn't really looked at her before. She was pretty, her stride purposeful, giving her an air of a woman who didn't waste time.
      On the way she fiddled with her shoulder-length hair, gathering it into a low ponytail. "Well?" she asked, her expression hopeful.
      "The exterior damage is contained to the siding and two main floor windows on the south of the building, plus a fair amount of standing water on the main floor from containing the fire before it spread," he explained. "You'll want to get it off the floor as soon as possible. Your insurance company will know who to call.
      "Without furniture, carpeting, or drapes, the interior smoke damage is minimal. A good airing out should take care of it."
      She nodded and her shoulders bowed for a moment as if under an invisible weight. "I suppose that's something to be thankful for."
      "You lost a great deal this morning," he said, briefly squeezing her shoulder. Through the trench coat he felt her clavicle. She could use some meat on her body. "Have you heard about our benefit fund?"
      She nodded. "For people who have lost their homes and other things in a fire. That's why you sell calendars, to raise money for the fund. Shoot, now my copy is gone, too. You're Hank—Mr. May."
      The calendar had made him a familiar face and he was used to people recognizing him. "That's me. And you are—"
      "Deanna Oliver. I appreciate what you and the other firefighters did today."
      Feeling like a fraud for his failings, Hank avoided her gaze. "Nothing will make up for what happened today, but we can help. If your insurance falls short of what you need, and it most always does, go to our website for our online assistance form. Or stop by the station and pick up a hard copy."
      "Beyond what the insurance covers, I don’t need help." Her chin rose to regal heights. "I've been in bad situations before and I managed all right on my own."
      Hank wanted to know more, but her past wasn't his business. Whatever had happened had made her tough and proud, and for what she was dealing with she'd need every ounce of both. "I would, but suit yourself. Did you find a place to stay?"
      "Miss Beasley, the short, white-haired woman over there, offered me her couch for a couple nights."
      Relieved she had a place to bunk at least temporarily, he nodded. "If you have questions about anything, here's my card." He dug into his pocket and extracted two. "One for you and one for the insurance company."
      She dropped both into her purse. "My insurance man said he'd meet me here shortly."
      "That's good. Best of luck to you." Hank rejoined his buds and helped pack up the gear.
      By then Max had completed the inspection report and handed a copy to Deanna. Just before Liam, the engineer driving the truck, pulled away from the property, thunder boomed and the rain started.
      Now the rain comes. Deanna was suffering enough. She didn't need to get drenched and catch cold. If Hank had had an umbrella with him he'd have given it to her. He didn't. She pulled up the hood of her trench coat and hunched up inside it.
      As if sensing his scrutiny she raised her hand in a universal sigh of thanks and good-bye. He didn't tear his gaze away until the truck rounded the corner.


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