“Very well, except the service man hasn’t arrived to fix the heater,” Rose said. “It’s gas and I’m really concerned about the safety if—” She broke off. “Oh, hello,” she said, her voice a bit breathless. “Can I help you?”
“I wondered if you could use two more hands,” Michael said.
Surprised, Bella whipped around and kicked over her paint can. “Oh, no.” She bent down to right it, but he caught it first. Her face mere inches from his, she felt her heart race.
He gave a half grin that made her stomach dip. “I didn’t know you were planning on painting the floor.”
She scowled. “It’s your fault. You surprised me. I was sure you weren’t coming. What made you?” Realization hit her and she answered for him. “The dare.”
“I don’t accept every dare. It depends on the source and actual dare.”
“Well, I feel honored,” she said and picked up an extra brush and put it in his hand. “Rose, this is Michael Medici. Rose’s son takes part in the center’s activities,” Bella said.
“Good to meet you,” he said.
Rose’s eyes were wide with admiration. “Good to meet you, Mr. Medici. I’m so grateful for your help. Excuse me while I check on my son.”
“I’m thrilled for you to finish the edging,” Bella said, wondering how he would respond to the not-so-desirable task.
He glanced around the room and shrugged. “Should be cake.”
Surprised again, she watched him begin and noticed he worked with speed and ease. “When did you get your painting experience?”
“Painted the entire group home twice. Once while I lived there as a teenager and once after I left. Nobody else wanted to edge, so I took that job.”
“And became an expert,” she said, envying his skill. “You can do it freehand.”
“Part of my philosophy. If you’re going to do something, be the best at it.”
She should have expected that. His competitiveness was born not only from the need to survive, but from his determination to thrive. She still wondered though, why had he accepted her dare? Was there a secret tenderness underneath his hard, cynical exterior? Or was she just dreaming? She felt a hot rush of embarrassment. Why was she dreaming?
“Do you want anything to eat or—” A loud explosion rocked the building. “What was that?” She ran toward the door.
Michael snagged her hand. “Whoa, there,” he said. “You need to get out of here and dial 911.”
“I can’t leave. What about the rest of the volunteers?”
“I’ll work on that,” he said and glanced down the hallway. “Smoke’s coming from the back of the building. We don’t have time to waste. Get out.”
He turned and looked her straight in the eye. “Do I need to carry you out? Because I will.”
“No buts,” he said. “Get out and make the call.”
Frustrated and afraid, Bella saw the rock-hard expression on his face and knew further protests were futile. She ran from the house, checking rooms for volunteers on her way to the door, but it appeared that most people had already left. Punching the numbers for help on her cell phone, she looked at the center and watched in horror as flames shot out of the back of the building.
Less than a moment later, a man pulled Rose out the front door. “My baby,” she cried. “My baby. He’s still in there.”
A knot of dread formed in the back of Bella’s throat. “Oh, no,” she said, reaching out to Rose and taking the sobbing woman into her arms.
Sirens shrieked in the distance. Bella glanced toward the building. Where was Michael?
“I have to go back,” Rose said. “I can’t lose him.”
“You can’t,” Bella said, wishing she could go in and look for the boy. “You need to be waiting for him when he comes out.”
Rose looked at her with tear-stained eyes. “But what if he doesn’t come out? It was so smoky in there. I could hardly breathe.”
A slice of fear for Michael’s safety cut through her. Why was he still in there? The sirens grew louder as the first red truck pulled in front of the center. Another explosion roared from the back of the house. The volunteers standing outside yelled “No!”
Bella felt her stomach dip to her feet. What if Michael—
Smoke billowed through the front door as the firemen opened it. Michael, coughing hard, stepped outside with a small child in his arms. His T-shirt covered with soot, he quickly stepped away from the building. A medic raced toward him.