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Ellie Bloom’s shoe broke halfway up the stairs to her apartment. One minute she was racing to her front door, the next her stiletto heel snapped clean off and her foot hit the stair hard. Her ankle twisted on impact and she sucked in a breath, her eyes watering from the flash of pain.
Then she hoisted her purse higher on her shoulder and kept going, taking the stairs two at a time.
She slammed through the door to her one-bedroom apartment, slung her purse on the table, and kicked off her shoes—or, shoe and a half.
Her fridge held the carefully curated ingredients for what the TV cooking-show host described as a decadent recipe for champagne risotto with wild mushrooms, followed by a rich, flourless chocolate cake. She had candles at the ready, a bottle of wine in the fridge, and two brand-new, pristine white plates to replace her mismatched thrift-store staples. Everything she needed for the perfect romantic dinner and, inevitably, the moment Jeff asked her to be his girlfriend.
Everything she needed—except time.
When she’d parked her budding acting career to take a job as an executive assistant to a senior executive at a bank, she knew her work-life balance would tilt dangerously toward the former, but she was desperate. Her mom’s medical bills were mounting, her brother-in-law had just been laid off, and the payout from her dad’s life insurance policy was a distant memory. Her salary plugged the financial hole and kept the whole family afloat.
Then it paid for the funeral.
Now the zeroes in her paycheck piled up in a special savings account, nicknamed “Hello Hollywood” on her banking app. It had been two years since her mom died, but with each passing week she felt more ready to finally wave goodbye to St. Louis and start over in Los Angeles. She’d redone her headshots, found an agent, even taken a couple of acting classes to refresh her skills. A couple more months of saving and she would have enough to sustain her while she looked for work. As soon as that day came, she’d pull the trigger—quit her job, book the flight.
And broach the subject of continuing their relationship long-distance, Ellie supposed, belatedly remembering her almost-boyfriend.
No need to get ahead of herself—first she had to get through this evening. Her boss had an annoying habit of meandering over to her desk on his way out of the office and unloading a massive, last-minute to-do list on her, and tonight was no exception. She’d spent an hour and a half scrambling through as much as she could get done, and she’d have to go in early tomorrow to finish, but she was home with just enough time to throw something together before Jeff arrived.
Meticulously simmered risotto and tenderly baked cake were out. She yanked open the fridge and stared hard at its contents, eventually choosing the fanciest-looking meal kit from her subscription service. She could bulk it out with rice and a salad.
Hardly the Michelin star–worthy effort she planned, but desperate times.
She ripped off the cardboard cover and chucked the aluminum tray in the oven, then poured rice and water into a pot and stuck it on the burner. She had opened the cupboard in search of something dessert-ish when her phone rang.
Jeff’s number flashed on the screen. She took a breath, stepped away from the range to minimize the background noise, and answered.
“Hey, you. How was your day?”
A pause. “Fine. Do you have a second?”
“Of course, I’m just putting the finishing touches on dinner. If you’re caught up at the office, don’t worry, I’m honestly running a little—”
“I don’t think this is going to work, Ellie.”
She blinked. “Tonight? That’s okay, we can reschedule.”
“I mean us. We’re not going to work.”
Ellie’s heart seemed to drop into her stomach, then rise up again, borne on a swelling tide of anger and irritation. “You’re breaking up with me?”
“We weren’t exactly together, but—”
“You’re telling me this now? You’re supposed to be here for dinner in less than half an hour. I’ve got a whole meal planned.”
“I’m sorry, Ellie. I was thinking about this the whole day. I don’t want to lead you on if I don’t see a future for us, and I don’t.”
She closed her eyes and pinched the bridge of her nose. She hadn’t necessarily imagined Jeff would be the love of her life, but she thought he’d at least be someone she could bring to the office holiday party.
Now she’d rushed home from work, run up four flights of stairs, nearly broken her ankle, wasted a bunch of money on stupid candles, and he didn’t even have the decency to show up and speak to her face-to-face.
What else could possibly go wrong?
“Listen, Jeff, I don’t think you…” She trailed off, sniffing suspiciously.
Was that smoke?
She whirled toward the range and gasped. She’d accidentally flung the cardboard packaging too close to the gas flame, and the corner was beginning to burn.
“I have to go.” She cut the call and darted forward, her fingers just an inch from the cardboard when it suddenly caught fire. The orange flame surged upward, catching the decorative, hand-painted tea towel she’d hung there—which also promptly ignited.
“Oh no,” she muttered. “Oh no.”
The smoke alarm shrieked to life, and she clapped her hands over her ears as the fire spread into a raging, insatiable beast rapidly consuming her kitchen. She heard pounding on the door and found the presence of mind to grab her purse and sprint out of her apartment, nearly colliding with her neighbor, Deshaun.
He looked past her to the wall of orange flames growing bigger by the minute. His eyes widened and he kicked the door shut, then took her by the arm and rushed toward the entrance to the stairwell.
“I’ll call 9-1-1,” Deshaun told her, phone already in hand. “Are you all right?”
Ellie looked down at her bare feet, then blew a lock of wavy hair out of her eyes before looking up at her neighbor. “Honestly? I’ve been better.”
Ellie and Deshaun were already at the curb when the rest of the occupants of the building began spilling out onto the street, but when the first person reached them—a pissed-off-looking man in a bathrobe—and asked what happened, she simply shrugged. Her night was going badly enough—she didn’t need to incur the ire of the forty or so irritated residents shivering in the December chill. Deshaun, ever loyal, also kept shtum.
A moment later a fire truck zoomed toward the building, lights flashing and horn blaring, before jerking to a halt at the curb. Ellie watched in mute horror as a team of helmet-clad men poured out of the truck and thundered into the building, her neighbors parting to clear their way.
Suddenly the enormity of the situation—the likely scale of the damage, the cost of putting it right, and the subsequent cancellation of any and all plans she had to make a clean break and start over—hit her like a sandbag. Would her insurance cover an entire building’s worth of torched possessions? How would any of her neighbors ever forgive her? Ellie couldn’t bring herself to turn around and look at her apartment building, terrified to see the reality of flames leaping around the jagged edges of broken windows. Instead she sat down hard, barely cognizant of the rough, cold asphalt beneath her bare feet, and put her head in her hands.
For so long she’d just about managed to hold everything together. Now it was all falling apart.
“Ma’am?” A man’s voice, a hand on her forearm.
Ellie lifted her chin, unsure how long she’d been wallowing in her own personal darkness, and squinted at the firefighter crouched in front of her. Then she took all leave of her senses.
“Eliana Bloom?” he asked.
Ellie barely heard him, too distracted by the most perfect face she’d seen in a long time—maybe forever. Thick, dark hair, delightfully mussed by the helmet he’d propped under one arm. Equally dark eyes, nicely wide-set, and a soft-looking, playful mouth with a luscious lower lip she could just imagine—
“Eliana Bloom, is that you? Apartment 4C?” he asked again, snapping Ellie back to attention.
“The fire’s out. I’ll take you upstairs and walk you through the damage. It’s not great, but it’s not the worst I’ve seen.”
She blinked up at him, struggling to process what he said. “Not the worst? What about all my neighbors?”
He tilted his head to the side, a single line of confusion appearing between his eyes, and she realized everyone else was slowly plodding inside, shepherded by two other firefighters.
“Wait, it was just my apartment? The fire didn’t spread?”
He shook his head. “This is a fairly new building, so the insulation is all fire-resistant. Everyone had to evacuate for safety, but yours is the only apartment with any damage. Sorry,” he added.
“No, that’s great news. I thought everyone else’s apartments went up in flames, too. You said I can go in and check?”
He pushed to his feet, then extended his hand to help her up off the curb. His grip was firm, warm, and steady. Their gazes met along the length of their arms, and as her bare feet flattened on the asphalt all the chill fled from her bones.
He smiled, easy and reassuring, and although the fire was out, she could’ve sworn she felt the heat of its flames.
She joined the crush of people squeezing through the front door and up the narrow staircase, Deshaun in front of her, Sexy Firefighter at her back. The crowd thinned as her neighbors stepped out of the stairwell to return to their apartments, and by the time she reached the fourth floor only a handful remained.
Immediately Ellie saw that her door was propped open. Deshaun touched her shoulder as they approached, and murmured, “I’m right across the hall if you need anything,” before disappearing into his own apartment.
Slowly Ellie approached the entrance to her apartment, visions of apocalyptic destruction dancing in her mind. She took a deep breath, touched the mezuzah on the post for luck, and then peered around the doorframe.
It was bad.
Not quite as bad as the scorched wasteland she’d imagined, but still very, very bad.
The kitchen was a blackened mess. Charred cabinets, bits of the stove melted and warped, counters and backsplash caked in soot. The whole open-plan living room stank of thick, pungent smoke.
But that wasn’t the worst of it. Evidently her apartment was fitted with a sprinkler system. On the plus side, it seemed to have limited the impact of the fire in the kitchen. The downside, however, was that it had absolutely soaked everything else she owned.
Her beloved turquoise area rug squelched under her feet. On the arm of the couch, water dripped from the ends of the blanket her grandmother had knitted. The brand-new leather tote she’d splurged on as her signing-an-agent gift to herself was full to the brim, its supple suede interior probably beyond repair.
And the soft-focus, thirty-five-year-old, smiling photograph of her mom and dad when they were dating—before the heavy expectations of marriage and children and careers, before the ugly intrusions of illness and death—was wavy and blurred and ruined on the bookshelf.
She picked up the photo gingerly, her eyes welling, cursing herself for not taking the time to get it framed, to have afforded it even that slight protection. She was just always so busy with work…
No, she told herself sternly. Enough lying to herself. She hadn’t gotten it framed because some days she could barely look at it. The broad smile of the father she increasingly couldn’t remember, his arm around her mom, his posture relaxed and loose, like he didn’t have a care in the world.
And her mom. So young, baby-faced, yet her smile was subtle and mature, as if she knew the future wouldn’t be perfect, that bumps and bruises and outright catastrophes lay ahead, but that it would all be worth it. Every awful, beautiful, unforgettable minute.
She slapped the photo back onto the shelf and pressed her hand over her mouth, stifling a sob. She missed them both so much.
“I’ll leave a copy of the fire incident report for your insurance company.”
The soft words were clearly not meant to be intrusive, but Ellie pivoted sharply anyway, yanked out of her reverie. She’d forgotten all about Sexy Firefighter, who stood beside her small kitchen table, which was already buckling from the water pooled in its center.
“That would be great, thanks.”
“The structure is sound, but I don’t think this place will be inhabitable for a while. With the water damage, the city might ask you to get a damp report before you can move back in. The building owners have been notified, and the super should be up here in a minute. They’ll probably get a service company out here to drain the water and start the drying process.”
She nodded as if she had any idea what the drying process could possibly entail. “Of course.”
He shifted his weight. Was he hesitating? He seemed like there was a lot more he wanted to say, but he only asked, “Do you have somewhere else you can stay tonight?”
She did—and her heart sank at the thought. “My sister’s. She lives in Orchard Hill. It’s a suburb just past—”
“I know it well. I just bought a house out there.”
Of course he had. Good-looking guy like that, probably had a fiancée and a brand-new sofa and a quirky but adorable passion for home-brewing beer in the basement. She bet Sexy Firefighter knew exactly who he was and where he was going, and never, ever gave in to even a second of self-doubt.
Must be nice.
“What a coincidence,” she mused.
He smiled politely. “Well, I’ll leave you to it. Any questions, feel free to call the department’s main number.”
“I really appreciate you and the team coming out so quickly. Please pass on my thanks.”
“Sure thing.” He ducked his head in a farewell gesture as he headed out of her apartment, but stopped in the doorway. He touched her mezuzah, then turned back, their gazes locking across the room.
“Did you know that some farmers burn their fields every year to prepare for planting? The fire kills all the weeds, clearing out the soil so it’s ready for new seeds.”
She shook her head faintly, wondering why that random fact didn’t sound as weird as it should. “I did not know that.”
He scanned the apartment behind her, then his gaze returned to hers. “This probably feels like a total disaster. But sometimes you have to burn it all down before anything new can grow.”
She smiled weakly. “I hope you’re right.”
“I usually am.” He winked, then rapped the doorframe beneath the mezuzah three times before disappearing down the hall.
Ellie stood still in her apartment, silent now except for the drip, drip, drip of water from what seemed like every possible surface. She had nothing—no clean clothes, no salvageable food, oh, and no almost-boyfriend, although that particular mess now paled in comparison.
She couldn’t remember the last time she’d asked for help from anyone, let alone her younger sister. But now she had no other choice. She had to swallow her pride and pray that firefighter was right—that this fire would finally be what pushed her out of her hometown, not drop her all the way back to where she started.
End of Excerpt