Excerpt: Mistletoe Cottage
Sirens wailed, the fire engines’ red and white lights bouncing off the clapboard Colonials on Main Street. People strolling along the tree-lined sidewalk turned to watch the rigs careen around a corner while cars veered to the side of the road. Ladder Engine 1 and Engine 6 were headed west of Harmony Harbor to Greystone Manor.
Three hours earlier, Liam Gallagher had been heading home to Boston. He’d stopped by the station to say goodbye to his father, Fire Chief Colin Gallagher, on the way out of town. But, because he loved his old man, who had put up with Liam for the past month, he’d made his first mistake. He’d let his dad convince him to stay another day. Taking his father up on his challenge had been a bigger one. Under the watchful eyes of the three men who knew him about as well as he knew himself, Liam would be battling his first fire in more than five weeks. Built in the early nineteenth century and modeled after a medieval castle, Greystone Manor was a firefighter’s worst nightmare. And over the last month, Liam had been battling one of his own.
The chief disconnected his cell phone call and shifted to face Liam and Marco DiRossi, Liam’s childhood best friend. The rest of the crew followed behind in the ladder engine. Fergus MacLeod, a burly beast of a man with russet hair and beard who’d known Liam since he was in diapers, blasted the horn at three second intervals to clear the intersection up ahead. Liam’s father raised his voice to be heard. “Manor’s full of smoke, but the sprinklers haven’t kicked in. Lights went out, and the generator took longer than it should to come on. A couple of guests sustained minor injuries evacuating—”
“GG and Grams?” Liam asked, unable to conceal the anxiety in his voice. He wasn’t worried his father would misconstrue the reason for it or reprimand him for interrupting his brief. Liam’s great-grandmother Colleen owned and operated Greystone with the help of her daughter-in-law and Liam’s grandmother, Kitty.
He’d never understood what had possessed his great-grandmother to turn the manor into a hotel. If it was up to him, she would have sold out years ago. Especially now that his grandfather Ronan was no longer there to help run the place. Liam hoped she’d be more open to the idea after tonight.
“Jasper got GG out, but your grandmother, a woman, and a young child are still inside. They can’t find the little girl. Kitty and the woman refuse to leave without her.” His father looked at Marco. “Jasper says she’s your sister, son. And the little girl is her daughter, your niece.”
Liam blew out a silent whistle. Sophie DiRossi. He hadn’t thought about her in years, and there’d been a time when she’d been all he thought about. He glanced at Marco who sat in the jump seat across from him.
Beneath an inch of dark scruff, Marco’s jaw tightened. “Jasper’s gotta be mistaken, Chief. Sophie and her kid live in LA.”
“Just wanted to give you a heads-up in case it’s true,” his father said, then glanced at Liam and lifted his chin at Marco before facing forward.
Everyone in Harmony Harbor knew how the DiRossis felt about Sophie and her mother’s defection. Within six months of Sophie and her mother taking off, the oldest of the DiRossi siblings, Lucas, had left Harmony Harbor, and a year later their father, Giovanni, remarried and moved to Italy.
“You okay?” Liam asked his best friend.
Marco took off his helmet to stab his fingers through his dark hair. “Jasper has to be wrong. There’s no way it’s Sophie.”
If Jasper said it was Sophie, Liam had no doubt that it was. Nothing got past the old man—a fact Liam, his brothers, and cousins could attest to. Jasper, or Jeeves as the Gallagher grandchildren referred to him, had been at Greystone for as long as any of them could remember. A tall bean-pole of a man with stiff, overly proper manners, he ruled the manor and Gallagher family with an iron fist hidden inside a velvet glove.
Since Marco knew Jasper almost as well as Liam, either his friend was in denial or he held a grudge longer than Liam had given him credit for. Noting the angry bounce of Marco’s right leg, he was going with the latter. Then again . . . “They’ll be okay, buddy. We’ll find your niece. Get them out of there.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know. What I don’t know is why the hell Sophie’s here. After eight years, she just shows up out of the blue . . .” With a white-knuckled grip on his helmet, Marco gave his head an angry shake.
So Liam had been right after all. “I don’t get it. Aren’t you happy she’s finally come home?”
“Give me a break. You have no idea what her leaving did to my family. For two years we never heard a word from her. Now we’re lucky if she calls a couple times a year. And for the amount of time she talks, you’d think we were putting a trace on her phone calls.”
“So, what, you don’t believe in second chances? Don’t be a hothead and blow it. At least you still have a sister.” Liam sensed his father glancing his way and Fergus’s eyes on him in the rearview mirror.
“You’re right. Sorry, I didn’t think.”
Fergus blasted the horn as he drove beneath the vine-covered stone arch, past the iron gates leading into the estate. The emergency lights sliced through the gloom of the late October night and Liam leaned forward. What held his attention wasn’t the sprawling mansion built of local granite or the people scattering from where they’d been standing on the circular drive. It was the white smoke billowing from the manor’s entrance. He opened the door as the engine rolled to a stop and smelled the air--chemicals, not burning wood. “There’s no fire,” Liam said to his father as he jumped onto the asphalt.
“Not yet, but could be electrical. Breathing apparatus on, Liam,” his father called after him. Liam raised his gloved hand, indicating he heard him as he jogged to where Jasper was leading Kitty from the manor. “You okay, Grams?” he asked once he reached them.
She nodded through a coughing fit.
He rubbed her arm and looked at Jasper. “Sophie and the little girl still inside?”
Jasper gave him a clipped nod. “We’d gone through most of the upper and main floors before Miss Kitty was overcome.”
“All right. Go let Dad check you both over,” Liam said as he started into the building, then pivoted when it hit him what he was smelling. “Jasper, you didn’t have the fog machine going, did you?”
“Certainly not, Master Liam. As your father directed, I expressly forbid Miss Kitty and Madame from using it this year.”
Since Madame didn’t like to be told what she could or couldn’t do, Liam didn’t rule out the possibility Colleen and a fog machine were behind the smoke. As he walked into the entryway, he tapped the switch on his helmet twice. The beam of light cut through the haze, providing him with a 180-degree view. He jogged down the steps into the lobby calling for Sophie while trying to get an idea where the smoke originated from. He spotted what he believed was the point of origin at the same time he heard someone cough.
A woman with long, dark hair stumbled out of one of the sitting rooms. “Sophie, it’s Liam.” He tipped up his helmet as he closed the distance between them.
She lowered a denim jacket from where she’d held it over her mouth and nose. Her face was pale, her golden-brown eyes red-rimmed. She looked exhausted and utterly terrified. “My little girl. I can’t find my little girl. You have to help me—” She started coughing again.
“I’ll find her, Sophie. But you need to—” He broke off as a second beam of light joined his. “Marco, get her out of here,” he ordered his best friend.
Marco nodded, his expression unreadable as he reached for his sister.
She pulled away from her brother and frantically shook her head. “No, I can’t go. I have to help you find her. You don’t—”
Marco cut her off. “Dammit, Soph, don’t be stubborn. We’ll find her, but you have to—”
“No, no, you don’t understand. She’s terrified of fire . . . and firemen. And she can’t . . .” A sob broke in her voice. Liam saw the herculean effort it took for her to regain control, but she did, and then she finished what she’d been about to say “. . . she can’t talk.”
He and Marco shared a glance. Their job just got a whole lot harder. “Sophie, I’ll take off the breathing apparatus and my helm—”
“Like hell you will,” his father said through his com. Marco said the same thing beside him.
Liam knew the reason for their concern and ignored them. He couldn’t think about that now. Couldn’t let the memory of the warehouse fire into his head. “I’m going to find your little girl. What’s her name?”
She held his gaze as though she believed him and swiped at her eyes. “Mia. Her name’s Mia.” Overcome by another coughing fit, Sophie struggled to take the knapsack off her shoulder. Waving off his offer to help, she dug around inside and pulled out a pink pig with a singed ear. “We had a fire at our apartment in LA. Other than Mia, Peppa Pig is pretty much the only thing that survived. It might help if you show her . . .” She bit her lip, and then handed him the stuffed animal. “Please, Liam, please find her. She’s all I have.”
He slipped the pink pig into his pocket. “Right now it doesn’t look like we’re dealing with a fire. She’ll be okay, Sophie. I’ll find her,” he promised.
“Jesus, Soph. Why didn’t you call us? Why didn’t . . .”
Liam didn’t waste time waiting for Sophie to answer her brother. He jogged toward the door behind the grand staircase. It led to the basement, a place that as a little kid had featured prominently in his nightmares. Probably because his older brothers and cousins had traumatized him with stories about the long-dead pirates that haunted the narrow passageways and secret tunnels. Since the upper levels had already been searched, it’s possible he’d find Mia down there.
Smoke billowed through the partially open door, and Liam adjusted his breathing apparatus before opening it wide. As soon as he did, he was hit by a thick wall of smoke. The beam of light cut through the fog and illuminated the spiral staircase.
Liam started down the stairs and the stone walls closed in around him, transporting him to a wide-open space filled with movement and noise. Voices came over his radio—yelling, the rapid repeat of gunshots. Faint at first, and then the gunfire became louder. Get down. Get down. He belly-crawled to where Billy lay in the middle of the floor, laser beams zinging overhead from one side of the warehouse to the other. Shouting. Everyone shouting. A bullet shattered the concrete an inch from his head, and then another one . . .
Something repeatedly bumped his leg, getting harder with each jab, and the flashback started to fade. Liam looked down. A pair of small blue eyes stared up at him. It was a black cat. It took a moment for his head to clear and to get his bearings. He wasn’t in Boston; he was on the stairs at Greystone.
Someone yelled over the radio. “Liam, are you all right? Liam, goddammit, answer me.”
“Good. I’m good, Chief. I’m in the basement. Must have played havoc with the com.” He lied to his father who must already suspect what Liam had been denying. He was so far from good it wasn’t funny. “Found the problem,” he said as he reached the bottom of the stairs.
To his left, barely visible behind cardboard boxes piled precariously close, sat two overheating commercial fog machines. They were damn lucky the units hadn’t caused a fire. He reported his findings to his father over the com at the same time Marco thundered down the stairs.
When he reached the bottom, Marco searched Liam’s face and stabbed an angry, gloved finger in his chest. “Get your head out of your ass, Gallagher, before I do it for you.”
“I know. I know. But now’s not the time to—” He broke off and frowned down at the cat head-butting his leg. For a second, Liam was afraid he’d zoned out again. But no, Marco would have seen it coming on and shook him out of it. The cat meowed and looked toward the tunnels. Liam didn’t read minds, cat or human, but somehow he knew this was about Mia. As though the cat sensed he’d clued in, he took off. Liam ran after him.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Marco called out.
“To find Mia,” he shouted back. His voice sounded like he’d been hacking up a lung. Maybe he had been during the flashback. Though now wasn’t the time to think about those missing minutes and what they would have meant had they been battling an actual blaze. He’d beat himself up over it later.
As he made his way deeper into the tunnels, the smoke wasn’t as bad. He pulled off his breathing apparatus, stopping briefly to remove the tank and rest it carefully against the damp stone wall. He thought he’d lost the cat until he heard an impatient meow up ahead. The beam of light from Liam’s helmet caught the end of the cat’s tail just before it disappeared down a narrow passageway.
As soon as Liam rounded the corner, he spotted the little girl. Sophie’s daughter sat with her back to the wall, her forehead resting on denim-clad knees that were pressed to her chest. She slowly raised her head and blinked into the bright light.
“Hey, Mia.” He didn't want to frighten her and crouched a couple yards away. Then he took off his helmet and set it on the ground, angling it so the light didn’t hit her in the eyes. He smiled. “I’m Liam Gallagher, a friend of your uncle Marco. Your mommy too. I’ve known her since she was a little girl not much older than you are.”
She scuttled away from him then came to her feet, her eyes darting from left to right. His chest tightened. He recognized the look on her face, the wide-eyed panic and fear of someone who’d suffered a trauma. He should know, since after tonight, he could no longer deny he’d suffered the same. “Your mommy gave me”—he wracked his brain for the pig’s name— “Porky.” She looked at him “Peppy the pig?”
The faintest hint of a smile touched her adorable heart-shaped face. “Do you want your pig?” he asked, reaching in his pocket.
She gave her head a quick shake, and Liam withdrew his hand from his pocket. He got it. The singed ear was a reminder of what she and her stuffed animal had been through. “You don’t have to be frightened, sweetheart. There wasn’t a fire, just a lot of smoke from the fog machines.” Within minutes, there might have been a fire. But looking at Mia, he couldn’t let his mind go there. Couldn’t think of her down here trapped and alone. “I know you’re scared, and you don’t know me, but your mommy’s worried about you so whaddya say we get out of here?”
She looked down, her long, dark hair shielding her face, but not enough to hide the slight flush pinking her cheeks. He frowned and followed her gaze, wondering what . . . He briefly closed his eyes. She’d wet her pants.
He cleared his throat. “Mia. Sweetheart.” Her big blue eyes flitted to his face, then darted away. “If I tell you a secret, do you promise not to tell anyone?” She glanced at him, then gave him a hesitant nod. “Okay, I’m holding you to that. When I was around your age . . . Now that I think about it, I was way older. Like ten.” He’d been five. “My brothers and cousins brought me down here to hunt for buried treasure. We had flashlights and shovels, and while we were digging, they told ghost stories. Really spooky ones. And then they turned the flashlights off. They left me down here for hours all by myself in the dark. I was so scared, I wet my pants.” That part was true. “So you see, you have nothing to be embarrassed about. Happens to the best of us,” he said with a smile, and shrugged out of his jacket, holding it open for her. “You can put this on, and no one will know. It’ll be our secret. Sound good?” He’d find a way to tell Sophie without embarrassing Mia.
She took a couple hesitant steps toward him. “Thatta girl,” he said, and leaned over to wrap the jacket around her tiny, delicate frame. “It’s pretty long. Is it okay if I pick you up so you don’t trip?” She nodded, and he lifted her into his arms. “You know what, you’re as brave as any firefighter I know, so you should probably wear this.” He put his helmet on her head, grinning when she disappeared beneath it. He tipped it up. “There you are.”
She rewarded him with a smile that lit up her face and wrapped around his heart, squeezing tight.
“Mia DiRossi, you’re going to be a heartbreaker just like your mother.”