Nicole paused outside the open doorway. A speaker over the entrance blasted the sound of clown laughter over calliope music playing throughout the carnival. Glancing over her shoulder, she put on a brave front and laughed. The sound came out more like a cough.
“You okay, Hawk?” her new friend asked.
“Yeah, but don’t you leave me.”
Arnold grabbed her hand and, when he spoke, his voice held the warmth of a summer day. “I’m right here, and I am not going anywhere without you.”
As he fell into place beside her, Hawk looked into his eyes and nodded. “Well, let’s go through this fun house,” she said aloud. Although whoever came up with the name had a warped sense of humor.
The entryway looked normal enough but the only way to continue was down a narrow lined with plastic jack-o-lanterns, their incandescent eyes casting an eerie glow across the floor. Turning the corner, Nicole came face-to-face with a pair of animatronic twins whose too-wide grins revealed rows of teeth sharp enough to make the most ferocious great white shark jealous.
“Ah!” Nicole screamed and jumped back as the head on one of the twins turned to stare at her. Feeling Arnold’s arms go around her waist in a hug from behind, she leaned back against him.
“Hey, it’s okay,” he murmured close to her ear. “I’m here and I won’t let anything happen to you.”
For that fleeting moment, with the handsome police officer’s arms around her, it would be so easy to forget the events leading up to this. If she closed her eyes Nicole could picture herself and Arnold facing one another, leaning in to share a kiss. Except that in her daydream, she retained her beautiful features instead of looking like something out of a horror movie. She had no business thinking they could be anything more than friends. It would ruin his life, as the fire had not only ruined her career as a firefighter but also any chance of going back to her former job as a swimsuit model.
Stepping forward, Nicole forced a smile. “Thanks. I’ll be okay from here.”
“You’re sure?” Arnold raised an eyebrow.
“Positive. It’s fun!”
“Well, okay, if you say so. The hall splits here. Which way would you like to go next?”
Nicole pointed at a raven sitting on a directional sign displaying the message, Certain Death This Way!
“Really? Certain death?”
“Yeah. I’ve faced actual certain death and lived to tell about it. This fun house has nothing on what I’ve been through.”
Arnold patted her on the shoulder. “That’s my girl. When we’re done, want to head back to my place? I’ll make you the comfort food of your choice.”
“Lasagna and cheesy garlic bread?”
“Is it okay if it’s the frozen kind that I heat up in the oven?”
“What do you know? We use the same recipe.” Nicole linked her arm through Arnold’s and grinned. No matter what the future held, having a friend by her side helped.
For the first time since the fire, she felt a flicker of hope, the sensation as warm and fragile as the golden retriever puppy she spent time with during her hospital stay.