Since her divorce, busy ER nurse Carlie Thomas has been only too happy to spend Christmas on duty. This year, however, she’s decided to take a much-needed break. What she gets instead is an unexpected houseguest, courtesy of her Uncle Rick.
Derek Pierce, a fireman with no family, needs some special care after being injured in a fire. As Christmas approaches, Carlie discovers that she has more in common with Derek than being alone. But Derek’s wounds are more than just skin deep. Will they spend the holidays haunted by the ghosts of the past, or could this Christmas spark a new, beautiful friendship…or even something more?
The box was being so damn stubborn. Lights, it said on the side. Couldn't have a tree with no lights. And this year, Carlie was going to have a tree. It seemed like every year getting the decorations down got worse, and there was nothing she could do to make Christmas any easier. The box was just symbolic of how bad everything had gotten over the last three years since Dan left her.
Carlie blew a strand of hair out of her face and balanced on the pull-down ladder. This shouldn't be so hard. She really didn't have that many Christmas decorations. Every time she put things away after Christmas, she got rid of something. Lights that had worn out, or ratty garland...something always went in the trashcan or the donation box. Usually, both. And she hadn't bought any new decorations during the last four years.
She'd known her marriage was headed due south then. A year later, she was divorced. Being alone every year didn't get any easier than dragging all this damn Christmas stuff out of the attic. Sometimes, she thought maybe she was getting rid of Christmas, little by little. It would take a miracle to make her care—really care—if Christmas even came next year. But this year, for the first time in the memorable past, she had the week off.
She pulled hard, and the bulky box freed up quickly, nearly sending her sprawling backward off the ladder. She caught herself just in time, adrenaline pumping through her. She backed down the ladder, the box in her arms.
Just as Carlie managed to set it inside the laundry room, the phone rang.
"Oh, huh-uh. I am not going back to work." She'd put in for a week's vacation over a year ago. She hadn't had Christmas off for the last four years. Working as an ER nurse in one of Oklahoma City's major hospitals had not afforded her much opportunity for any time off at all over the last eight years—especially not during the holidays.
She reached for the phone and checked the caller ID, a smile replacing the earlier scowl as she pushed the 'talk' button. "Hello, Uncle Rick. How's my favorite uncle?"
"I hope that's true."
Carlie could hear the smile in his voice. "You know it is."
"I've got a favor to ask, honey."
"Anything." The hesitation in his tone made her curious.
"Well...don't promise it before you know what I'm going to ask." He drew a breath, then said, "Remember a couple of days ago, when two of my men were brought in there at Mercy for smoke inhalation?"
"Yes. That fire over on Shartel—"
"That's right. Kevin de la Rosa and Derek Pierce."
Carlie had been on duty that night. The two firefighters' equipment malfunctioned and they barely made it back outside the burning home before they collapsed. Carlie had taken a keen interest in them, since they'd been under her uncle's command. He'd been sick with worry.
"Kevin's back home with his wife and kids."
"But Derek—" He broke off, and Carlie knew he was unsure as to how to proceed.
She smiled. "I know he was supposed to be released today or tomorrow. He was a little more severely affected." I know because I checked up on him.
"Yeah, they're gonna release him this afternoon. But he needs someone with him. I mean, he has to do the breathing treatments every four hours— I know he won't do that on his own."
"Typical man," Carlie teased.
Rick laughed, then sobered. "There's more to it than that, though, honey. A year ago, he lost his brother, sister-in-law, and two nieces to a Christmas fire. It's coming up on the first anniversary of their deaths, and he's alone. He's recovering from the smoke inhalation, and by the way, you were right. He did have a couple of busted ribs. I know your team was the first to see them when they were brought in."
Carlie's mind went back to the night when Derek Pierce and the other firefighter, de la Rosa, had been brought in. Derek had been in worse shape than his buddy. His dark hair was matted with sweat and grit from battling the flames. Soot and grime smudged his face, layering on his olive skin across his cheekbones. He had been handsome, even in that condition. She remembered the tingle that ran through her when his eyes cracked open and met hers.