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  After the Blaze

  Louisa Masters

  After the Blaze

  Copyright © 2020 by Louisa Masters

  First published March 2020 in the When the Smoke Clears anthology

  Editor: Hot Tree Editing

  All rights reserved.

  No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written consent of the author, excepting brief quotes used in reviews.

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

  To the extent that the image or images on the cover of this book depict a person or persons, such person or persons are merely models and are not intended to portray any character or characters featured in the book.

  Contents

  After the Blaze

  Acknowledgments

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Hi from Louisa!

  Also by Louisa Masters

  About the Author

  After the Blaze

  Friendship can be everything… until it’s not enough.

  Charlie Madden left his city life behind to help his great-aunt run a quilting shop in rural Lakes Entrance. He loves his quieter new life… almost as much as he loves Archie Tucker.

  Archie, his closest friend in town and everybody’s favourite person, has no idea how Charlie feels, and Charlie’s not willing to risk their friendship by making a move. He can be content to love from afar as long as Archie’s still in his life.

  But then bushfires sweep the region, and CFA volunteer Archie is called out to battle the blaze… and as Gippsland burns, Charlie realizes that some things are worth the risk.

  Acknowledgments

  Thanks to Meg Bawden for conceiving of and coordinating the anthology that spawned this story, and to all the amazing authors involved. It was such a pleasure working with you all.

  Hugs always to my amazing editor, Becky at Hot Tree Editing, and to my newsletter subscribers, who supported my decision to write this story instead of the freebie I promised them.

  And lastly, thank you to all our CFA (Country Fire Authority) volunteers, who are such an essential part of every rural community. I cannot think what Australia would do without you.

  Chapter One

  December 31, 2019

  Have you ever felt completely and utterly helpless? Not for yourself—for someone else. Forced to stand by and watch them suffer, unable to do anything to help?

  I never have before, but this summer seems to be all about helplessly wringing my hands while others suffer.

  “I’m sorry, honey,” I croon, patting the little girl’s back as she sobs against my neck. “I’m so sorry.” Three feet away, her harried and exhausted mother shoots me a grateful look as she tries to calm her screaming infant. He doesn’t want to be calmed, of course—he’s tired, his routine is shot to hell, the air is hot and smoky, and nothing around him is familiar. It’s noisy and crowded here at the evacuation centre; not exactly conducive to him taking a nap.

  Maisy, the toddler in my arms, mumbles something about her “pretty princess bed,” and even though I know the loss of a bed is nothing compared to whole towns and lives, my heart breaks for her. She’s not quite three. That bed mattered to her; more, it’s symbolic of everything else that’s gone.

  Finally, her sobs peter out, and a little while later, she goes slack and heavy. I wait a few minutes, then carefully lay her on the camping mattress in the back of her mother’s SUV. Theirs isn’t the only car parked here at the reserve and doubling as a home. The place is packed full—last I heard, evacuees were being sent on to Bairnsdale because there just isn’t room for so many people. Not exactly a great way to spend New Year’s Eve.

  “Thank you, Charlie,” Emma, the overworked mother, whispers. Her son has finally stopped screaming, and I really hope for all their sakes that they manage a decent nap. Or at least some quiet time.

  “No problem. Can I get you anything, or do anything else?”

  She shakes her head. “Just… if you hear anything about my husband?”

  “Of course,” I assure her. “I’ll be here for a few more hours, and I’ll let you know if any news comes.” Her husband is a volunteer firefighter for the CFA, and he’s been busy the past few days—well, weeks, really. There’s a very good chance he doesn’t know yet that she and the kids are here and their house is ashes. Emma got out of Buchan only an hour before the fires swept through. Happy New Year, right? She’s left messages on his phone and with the relevant authorities, but the firefighters are overworked right now.

  Desperately so.

  I make myself smile at her and then move on. I’m not here at the Lakes Entrance evacuation centre in any official capacity. There are a bunch of us locals who just come when we can to help out in any way we’re needed. The “official” volunteers know what they’re doing, so we make ourselves available when they need extra hands and try to help the evacuees with anything they might need the rest of the time—like rocking fractious children. It’s not much, but it’s better than sitting at home watching East Gippsland burn around me and wondering how Archie is.

  If he’s okay.

  I’m getting ahead of myself. My name is Charlie Madden. I’m twenty-six years old, blond hair, brown eyes, and I live in the coastal town of Lakes Entrance, Victoria, with my elderly great-aunt. I used to be a city boy, but when Aunt Hannah broke her leg three years ago, right when my job was downsized, I came out to look after her quilting and haberdashery shop… and just never went back. I’ve always been into crafts, and it turns out quilting is something I’m particularly good at—along with other sewing. I made a decent amount of change last year making wedding dresses for local brides. It’s a great little side business. So now I manage the business, and Aunt Hannah reigns over the shop with her expertise and gossip and teaches everyone fancy stitches in the quilting classes we offer.

  Until a year ago, I was living with her in her cosy two-bedroom cottage, but we finally decided that since I wasn’t leaving, we should make more permanent arrangements, and I found a tiny one-bedroom unit not far from the shop. It’s not much, but I love it.

  My life here is comfortable and ordered and calm. It’s a small town, population right around five thousand, but because it’s a tourist destination, there’s a decent range of shops and restaurants—and in the summer, the population surges to over twenty thousand as all the city people come to visit. This year, the population bump is due to bushfire evacuees from nearby towns, not tourists, and many local businesses are already struggling.

  Do I miss the benefits city living has for a young gay man? Yes. No doubt there. The year-round gay community here is much smaller, and worse, everyone knows everyone else and their business. It’s a lot harder to keep anything private.

  For example, everyone who frequents the shop knows about my adoration of Archie Tucker, and believe me, I never told anyone. They just know.

  Who is Archie? Archie is… perfect. (Cue besotted sigh.) Well, he’s not actually perfect, but he comes damn close. He’s a scion of one of the wealthier families in the area. The Tuckers own a five-star resort, function centre, and golf club just out of town, and it’s not uncommon to see helicopters whirring over town, ferrying the elite from Melbourne. It’s that kind of five-star resort, not one of the ones ordinary people splash out on for a special weekend away. There are no prices listed on their website—I checked once, right after I moved here. For a friend. Well, okay, it was because I was trying to come up with ways to ac