Gabe Deveraux met Maggie Callaway halfway down the steps to his beach house and regarded her with embarrassment. "Thanks for coming," he said, waving as the last of the Isle of Palms fire trucks drove away.
"You said it was an emergency." Maggie looked at the charred interior of the rear of his house, then turned back to him. She was dressed as she always was when working - in work boots, nice-fitting jeans, a long-sleeved cotton shirt and an open khaki vest with multiple pockets. Her honey-blond hair framed her piquant face in tousled waves. Her kissable lips were softly glossed, her lively light-green eyes alight with interest as she looked him over from head to toe. "What happened here?" she asked, her gaze roving the wrinkled state of his clothes before returning once again to his unshaven jaw and weary eyes. At five foot five, she was some seven inches shorter than he was. "Did you finally decide to learn how to cook?"
Gabe grimaced and shoved a hand through the short layers of his hair as he led Maggie all the way inside. "Actually, I'm not really sure how it happened," he admitted.
"Well, I am." Penny Stringfield emerged from the master bedroom on the second floor and walked down the hallway overlooking the first floor to the stairs. The petite redhead was dressed in a hospital nurse's uniform and carried a suitcase in one hand, a smaller toiletries bag in the other. "I put some soup on to boil and then forgot about it," Penny explained to both Maggie and Gabe as she came down the staircase and walked over to them. "The pan boiled dry and the wallpaper caught fire, and the next thing I knew it was time to dial 911."
Her face filled with regret, Penny set her things down, propelled herself into Gabe's arms and hugged him fiercely. Over the top of her head, Gabe saw Maggie's faintly disapproving expression as she watched what was going on between him and his houseguest.
"I'm so sorry, Gabe," Penny said, in a voice still scratchy from the voluminous tears she had shed the night before. "I never meant to set your kitchen on fire while you were at the hospital. Especially after last night. If you hadn't been here for me, well, I don't know what I would have done."
"I was glad to help," Gabe said, knowing even as he spoke the soothing words how they would likely be misinterpreted by Maggie. He grasped Penny's shoulders and drew her back so she had no choice but to look into his face. "You know that. But -"
"But nothing," Penny sniffed indignantly. "I'm moving to a hotel now."
"You don't have to do that," he said firmly. Recalling how devastated Penny had been the night before, when she had first showed up on his doorstep, Gabe's heart went out to her. Although why Penny felt that Lane Stringfield was about to stop loving her, Gabe still didn't know, because she hadn't explained. All he knew for sure was that Penny was very upset, very frightened and agitated, and still very in love with Lane. People in that condition needed a friend. And since he was the one Penny had turned to, he felt bound to do whatever was necessary to help her.
"Yes, I do, Gabe." Fleeting regret crossed Penny's face, as she wiped her tears away. "We both know it's for the best," she said, pausing to blow her nose delicately. "I never should have agreed to stay here with you in the first place. The last thing I want to do is drag you into the middle of the breakup of my marriage."
Gabe wasn't so sure the Stringfield union was ending - after all, the two had been man and wife for five years now. Happily espoused, as far as he and everyone else could see. Surely, whatever the misunderstanding was, it could be cleared up.
Catching the curious, slightly jealous expression on Maggie's face out of the corner of his eye, Gabe faced his houseguest determinedly and tried again. "Penny -"
"I'll be fine, Gabe." Penny stepped back and away from Gabe. "Really. I'm not so sure about your kitchen, however."
"Oh, we can fix that," Maggie said, already eyeing the devastation with a professional kitchen designer's unerring eye.
"Good. Because I want to help pay for it," Penny said emphatically. She picked up her bags, stepped past. "I'll talk to you later, at the hospital, Gabe."
Gabe waited until Penny had driven away, then turned back to Maggie. As he had suspected, she did not look happy with him at all. "It's not what you think," he said quietly, guessing from the downturned corners of her soft lips what her thoughts were. "Penny Stringfield and I are not romantically involved." He had not come between Lane and Penny the way he had inadvertently come between Maggie and his brother, when she and Chase were just days from saying "I Do."
Maggie shrugged her slender shoulders as she plucked a small spiral notepad from one of the pockets of her khaki cargo vest. "Did I say you caused the breakup of Penny's marriage?" she said coolly as she removed a pen from another pocket, flipped back the cover on her notepad and began to scribble notes to herself.
"You didn't have to." Gabe followed Maggie around as she inspected the damage the licking flames had done to his appliances, cabinets, walls and windows. Although all were still standing, all were so smoke-, flame- and water-damaged they were going to have to be ripped out and replaced. Needing some fresh air, Gabe tried to open the window and found the frame so warped it wouldn't open. He went to the patio door opposite and opened that to let more fresh ocean air blow in. "I can tell by the look on your face that you've jumped to the conclusion that I'm responsible," he continued as the first floor filled with the cool ocean breeze. "But it's not true. Penny and I are just friends. All I was trying to do was help her out by giving her a place to crash until she calmed down." And came to her senses, Gabe added mentally.
"Look, Gabe, it's really none of my business." Careful not to back up against anything, Maggie tipped her head back and studied the soot clinging to every inch of his kitchen ceiling, "Since you and I are just friends, too."