Monday, May 6, 2019

Mercy Upon Us #NewRelease #RomanticSuspense

Turning the spotlight on my new release, Mercy Upon Us, a romance thriller. Take a look below!

Back cover copy...

Doctor Riana Wolfe has a perfect life--a private practice in Dillon, Colorado, two cute kids, and a handsome husband--until one night unravels it all. Her husband's suicide rolls back the curtain on a web of lies so elaborate that she begins to question her sanity. Trapped in a spiral of deceit and betrayal, she and her children become targets and she has no idea why or who is behind it. 

Brody Dalton has no interest in drama. A retired ski champion, he is rehabilitating his shattered leg and nursing a wounded ego when he hears the gunshot come from next door. He rushes to the aid of his former childhood friend, Riana, without thought of the consequences. Rumors in the small community abound about why Riana's husband committed suicide and about what other secrets she may be hiding. He is battling his own demons, yet cannot stay away from his former friend's obvious distress. As the rest of the community shies away from the widow, he puts himself in danger to help. 

Drugs, secrets, and death chase Riana and Brody as they delve deep into the mysterious shadow life of her deceased husband. Through it all, they realize their bond from decades ago has never truly subsided, but the timing for love couldn't be worse. As Riana struggles to save her children from harm and to salvage what is left of her shattered life, can she open her heart enough to trust Brody? Will they be able to overcome--and outrun--the darkness that haunts them both? 

**may contain emotional triggers regarding suicide and drug abuse**


Excerpt
Bam, bam, bam, rattle, rattle, rattle. She opened her eyes, confused about where she was and what the sounds were. She blinked at the surroundings, untangled herself from the chair, stubbed her toe on the toolbox and peeked down the hallway toward the front entrance.  
Brody stood at the door, hands cupped around his face that pressed against the glass.
For someone she hadn’t seen in years, he certainly appeared everywhere lately. She glanced over her shoulder at the toolbox before closing the door to Marshall’s office.
He knocked again. Groggy from her nap, she wondered what time it was and why he stood outside the office door.
“Let me guess,” she said when she unlocked the door for him, “you are in desperate need of counseling and can’t wait until I am officially open for business again?”
“Exactly. I know you’re the best in town.” He grinned and for a minute she forgot the chaos that was now her life. Brody Dalton definitely had a way about him, an I-Have-It-All-Under-Control-You-Can-Count-On-Me way.  
“What are you really doing here?” she asked, opening the door all the way to allow him access before locking it again.  
“I’m on my way home, stopped at the market, spotted your car and thought you might need my help.” He glanced around at the quiet room. “But now that I’m here it looks more like I have interrupted a nap than a packing.”
“Packing?” Back to him, she combed her hands through her hair and walked back to her own space. “Why do you think I am packing?”
“Marshall’s office…sorry…it’s probably too soon for that. I thought you were here going through his things.”  
"No one sent you here?"
"Why would anyone send me here?"
Instead of sitting at her desk, she sank into her therapist chair, which was burgundy suede with rolling arms. She loved this chair because it was easy to curl into, feet tucked beneath her.  
Brody sat on the sofa, his gaze scanning the room.
“I needed peace. It’s a little noisy at my house these days.” She smoothed her hands over the arms of her chair. “How was work?”
“Good.” He smiled without looking at her. “Do you know how many times I have driven by your office since I’ve been back and thought about stopping in to say hello?”
“How many?”  
“Dozens and dozens.” His gaze returned to her face. “I suppose you’ve heard I have a date with your cousin tonight. That’s okay, right? You don’t feel like I’m invading your personal life or anything, do you?”
“Are you trying to invade my personal life?” 
"Maybe so." His grin faded. Their gaze locked.
Rattled by his presence, she jumped from the chair and walked to the mini-fridge behind her desk. “Water? Juice?”
“Juice would be great. And, um, I should probably tell you that some people think we've been having an affair."
She froze in mid-motion, uncertain as to if she had heard him correctly. “I'm sorry, what did you say?"
"The sheriff stopped by my work today and—"
"The sheriff did what?" She spun around and gaped at him. The hairs on the back of her neck stood on end. 
"I shouldn't be telling you this."
"You definitely should be telling me this."
"He had a lot of questions about how I ended up at your house before the police arrived."
"You did?" She frowned. She had no memory of him being there, only the sensation of someone comforting her at one point. Everything else blurred after Marshall had put the gun to his head. 
Brody's face softened with understanding. "It doesn't matter, Ri. People are going to say whatever they're going to say, but we know the truth and that's all that matters."
"Maybe not." She returned to her task of getting him a drink. 
“I want to help. You didn’t deserve any of this and neither did your kids. I want to be here even if it makes people talk. Is that lame?” 
She handed him the juice without meeting his gaze. “Yeah, it’s pretty lame, Brody.”  
“Seriously?” He laughed before taking a drink of the juice. “You’re calling me lame?”
“You called yourself lame and asked if I agreed.” She settled into her chair. “Piper?  Seriously?”
They chuckled together in the quiet of the office, drank their cranberry juice and sat for a few minutes without need for another word. 
“Piper seems nice. I’m sure we’ll have a good time.” He studied the empty juice bottle in his hand.  
“Oh, I’m sure you’ll have a good time,” she muttered. “I thought you were going to cut wood for me and here you are slacking off in my office drinking my juice and dating my cousin.  Something is wrong here, Brody. Piper is probably pacing the driveway waiting to see you wield a chainsaw.”
“Do you think so?”
"I guarantee it. She's practically drooling over seeing you all hot and sweaty."
"Hot and sweaty? It's like ten degrees outside."
"You're a mountain guy—you'd probably rip your shirt off if it was minus ten."
Again, they laughed as if the years between them had never existed. 
She found herself wishing they hadn’t dropped out of contact. 
“Why did we lose touch?” she asked, after the laughter had lapsed into silence.
“You were a college chick and I was a no-good ski bum. I never thought you would be back here. You used to talk about living in California, somewhere hot with palm trees and sunsets on the beach.” Again his gaze traveled around her office. "I actually never thought I'd be back here, at least not under my current circumstances."
"Yeah, I thought you had house in Lake Tahoe or somewhere like that."
"I still do." He nodded, gaze averted to the carpet. "I needed so much physical therapy that my parents convinced me to stay here for awhile."
She frowned. "Aren't you going back to Tahoe?"
"People in Tahoe keep expecting me to make a comeback and I hate to disappoint." He grinned and spun the now empty bottle of juice against his knee. "So why didn't you end up on a beach somewhere?"
“Marshall thought we should raise the kids in Colorado, close to his parents, back in my hometown—he sort of liked the idea of reconnecting with our roots. End of story.” 
But it wasn’t the end of the story, not even the beginning or middle. She rubbed the tightness in her shoulders and closed her eyes. He had toyed with the idea of leaving, but she had brushed him off, had become complacent in her own life.
Why did I do that? I don't even remember my reasons for staying. The kids? The practice? Why can't I remember? 
“That doesn't sound like you.” He stepped toward the windows. “You always had such ambition, such clear ideas of what you wanted your life to be like. Coming back here—a place you always wanted to flee when we were kids—seems like a strange move."
"Yet here I am."
"And here I am."
"Exactly."
"Two fucked up individuals who have no idea what the next move is. Perfect."
She cleared her throat. 
“Well, at least we can spare each other the small talk and bullshit.” She grinned at the easy way they had fallen into their old communication style. “Since we’re being so honest with one another, tell me if you agree with everyone else and think I have lost my mind.”
He turned abruptly at that but didn’t answer right away. He leaned his hip against her desk and studied her upturned face. “I think anyone would go a bit crazy in your situation.”
“That is not reassuring, Brody.” Her gaze drifted through her open door, across the hall and onto Marshall’s door.  
“Any more news about possible suspects?”
Her gaze shot back to him. “Suspects? For what?”
“The break-in.” He motioned to her face. "Any news?”
“No.” Her fingers touched her lip as if she had forgotten.
“I get the impression that there’s something you want to tell me…what is it?”
“Who’s the therapist now, Brody Dalton?” She pushed from the chair and moved around the office as if looking for something else to do. “It’s almost dinner time. I promised the kids I’d bring home a pizza so…I should go.”
“I’ll walk you out.”
“That’s okay. I have enough babysitters waiting for me at home.” She hovered next to Marshall’s door. She needed to get the toolbox.  
“I am not your babysitter.”
"What are you then?"

"Some say I'm your secret lov-ah." He winked. "But in reality I am your friend." 
"It's good to have a friend," she whispered, lost in his eyes and in the ease of his presence. He made her feel safe even when her entire world crumbled around her like the Apocalypse. Maybe it was their history as two brats ripping up the mountainside back in the day or maybe it was simply the fact that he wasn't judging—whatever it was, she appreciated it. 
He folded his arms over his chest and stared at her. “What’s in that room?”
“Nothing. Marshall’s office.” She leaned her shoulder against the frame and waited for him to leave. “I’ll see you at the house.”
“I’ll wait.” He leaned his shoulder against the wall and grinned. “I want to see what’s behind door number one.
They stared at each other for a minute before she decided to open it. He had no idea what was in the toolbox. With as much casualness as she could fake, she retrieved her purse and the toolbox.  
“Let me take that. It looks heavy.” He reached for the handle of the metal box, his hand covering hers. When she refused to let go, he looked her in the eye. “It’s okay to let me carry some of the load, spitfire. I know more than you think I do.”
“What’s that mean?” she whispered, unwilling to release the handle.  
“I lived across the river from the two of you for the past year and I don’t sleep much. I heard things. I saw things.”
“Meaning?” 
“Meaning that I know that you didn’t exactly have an equal partner in the marriage.  Meaning that I know you carried more than your fair share and tolerated more than most people ever would have. Meaning I know he lived in the garage apartment for at least as long as I've been back in town.” He managed to pull the toolbox from her fingers. “So let me carry a toolbox to your car for you, chop your wood, and don’t think twice about it, okay?”
She nodded, mind too busy with possible scenarios of what he could possibly know for certain to speak. The arguments that had occurred late at night after one of Marshall’s disappearances…the strange comings and goings of Marshall and his buddy Ron… She stopped abruptly in the doorway.
Ron. It could have been Ron this morning. Same height. Same build. He had acted so strange yesterday, guilty almost.  
Guilty. 
“Riana.” Brody’s hand gripped her forearm. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” She shook off the thought, determined to call the police detective who had given her his business card this morning.  
She had never liked Ron. There had always been something dark about him, an aura of doom. She activated the alarm and double-checked it before walking from the curb. She swallowed the fear that welled in her throat and looked around the parking lot.
Someone watched her, she knew it.  
Too many cars. Too many people coming and going. Too much to think about.  
“Hey, your tire is flat.” Brody stooped to the front tire. “Actually, all of your tires are flat.  It looks like someone let the air out.”
Dread expanded through the hollowness in her chest until she felt gutted with the icky sensation.  
“A prank,” she said, not believing it for a second.
“Have there been many pranks like this since you’ve worked here?”  
“No.”  
Brody looked up at her from where he squatted on the ground. He didn’t need to say a word for her to know what he was thinking. The man from this morning wanted something from her and was determined to get it.  
Hands on hips, her gaze locked onto the toolbox. They wanted the stash…or money…or maybe something she had yet to discover. She needed to trust someone other than Piper and Jenna, needed a confidante but…not Brody with his shaggy chocolate-colored hair, brown eyes, lanky body, and irresistible grin. He was too...too Brody. And if people were already concocting stories of some mad, passionate affair, she didn't need to add fuel to the fire. 
What would people say if she started getting openly close with Brody? Maybe the police would reconsider the suicide conclusion and think they had staged the whole scene? Maybe they already did suspect that if they were questioning Brody at his work. She swallowed the panic rolling in her chest. 
People loved to talk, to speculate, to create fiction from thin air to entertain themselves. 
Marshall was right. I'm consumed with what other people think of me.
"Fuck it," she muttered. She rubbed a closed fist against the center of her chest and willed herself to calm down. 
“C’mon. I’ll deal with this. We’ll pick up that pizza you promised the kids, I’ll drive you home and come back here. Don’t worry about it.” He put the toolbox into the back of his truck.
“I need that up here with me,” she said about the toolbox. “I don’t trust it back there for anyone to take.”  
Without questioning her, he handed it back before walking to the driver’s side. She stared at her car as they backed from the parking lot. While she had been napping, someone had been tampering with it in broad daylight.  
Or maybe that someone sat next to her pretending to be her good old buddy from the past. He had needed physical therapy, perhaps had been addicted to painkillers. Maybe the real reason Marshall couldn't stand Brody was because they had shared a shady secret. 
Maybe Brody had hit her this morning. 
Maybe Brody knew what was in the toolbox. 
She pressed her fingers against her forehead and wished she could think properly. As it was, all thoughts seemed either forced or out of control. No steadiness. No calm. No absolute answers. 
I'm a little unsteady.
Damn it. She was better than this.  
“Don’t worry about the car. There’s enough air for me to drive it over to the gas station in the parking lot or I’ll tow it with the truck. I’ll have dad drive me back and take care of it in no time.” Brody’s fingers thumped against the steering wheel as he talked to the windshield.  
“Marshall…” she began.
“Marshall what?”
“He wasn’t everything I thought he was.” She rested her feet on top of the toolbox. “I keep finding out how much I didn’t really know him. I could have helped him. I really could have. I would have. He never told me what was going on. He never told me how much trouble he was in.” She met Brody's gaze. "That's what I do...I helppeople. Did you take a lot of painkillers after your accident, Brody?"
“What kind of trouble was Marshall in?” he asked without answering her question.
“Ever since he died I keep uncovering new information, new clues about this man who I spent my life with…and I didn’t know him.” She shook her head back and forth and back and forth. "It's amazing how you never truly know another person, not even if you live with them, no matter how much you love them."
"I suppose that's true."
"Did you need a lot of painkillers after your accident?"
He glanced at her with wariness in his eyes. "Yeah, I did."
None of this felt real. If she hadn’t known her husband, then how could she ever trust that she knew anyone else at all? His death had pulled the string that had unraveled the structure of her life and she had no idea when it would stop or what would be left except a pile of tangled debris.  

NEW RELEASE! Keep reading and download your copy now. Paperback coming soon. 




Thursday, February 21, 2019

A Hotshot Smokejumper Meets His Match with an Old Flame from His Past #RomanceReaders

He may battle wildfire for a living, but confronting his old flame is the most dangerous thing he has ever done. 
SEDUCING THE FLAME
Here's a peek into the first chapter 


(the blurb)
Flames rip through southern Colorado and fire crews from across the US rush to battle the Million Dollar Fire. Devon Ross never thought he would step foot into his hometown of Ouray again, but as captain of the Flame Slayers—an elite fire jumping squad out of California—his call to duty thrusts him onto a collision course with his past.

Darby Shaw can't believe her eyes when she sees Devon at the makeshift camp for the fire crews. He had disappeared—literally—ten years ago and his possible whereabouts had become a source of town lore. Seeing him here, now, under these crisis conditions, creates a whirlwind of conflict within her. The last time she had seen him face-to-face, she had whipped him with her wedding bouquet. 

There is an arsonist in their midst. When a second fire develops southeast of town, the life and death struggle intensifies. 

Devon may be brave when facing down a fire, but is he courageous enough to confront his reasons for cutting ties with his family and friends? Can Darby come to terms with the depth of her past betrayal? Will the seduction of the flame be more powerful than love? With the fire roaring its way through the mountain landscape, time works against them as they struggle to heal what went wrong between them for a second chance at a what-if. 


Chapter One

Some men simply have that special something that makes a woman want to simultaneously kiss him mindless and skin him alive with her fingernails. 
Darby Shaw dropped the case of cold water she had been carrying. Bottles scattered, a few split open and leaked onto the ground. She knelt as if in slow motion, praying that her eyes were playing tricks on her. She squeezed them shut, counted to ten, took a few deep breaths, and slowly opened them. 
Nope. No trick. There stood Devon Ross. 
Covered in black ash, his blue eyes flashing with laughter at something his pal next to him said while he used his teeth to pull off one of his dirty gloves, he looked remarkably the same as he had ten years ago. He shrugged out of his gear, his focus still on his fellow firefighter, and dropped his helmet to the ground at his feet. Blonde hair matted with sweat and grime twisted around his forehead and stuck out in wild spikes over his ears. 
It was as if a ghost had stepped from the smoke and smacked her across the face. 
Woosh, woosh, woosh. Helicopter blades churned in preparation for takeoff at the clearing situated at the far end of the clearing. Side doors open, filled to capacity with firefighters, the copter swayed slightly as it lifted into the air. 
Darby covered her eyes with her hands, the reality of what she had seen smashing up against fantasy. Devon Ross couldn't be here, couldn't be a fireman, couldn't be standing twenty feet away. He had disappeared, dropped off the face of the earth, had cut all ties with this place. 
"Darby, what's wrong? Do you have something in your eyes?" Glenda tapped her shoulder before kneeling to help with the scattered bottles. 
She lifted one palm and then the other.
Yep, he was still there, definitely not a figment of her imagination. 
Devon Ross, I'll be damned.
The last time she had seen him she had been pelting him with her wedding bouquet and telling him to go to hell. He had stood there, white rose petals smashed against his shoulders, pleading with her to run away with him, asking her to leave her groom at the alter. Then he had been gone—poof! Vanished. Never to be seen or heard from again. 
Until now. 
She ripped her gaze away and rushed to gather the remaining bottles. 
"Darby, what is wrong? You look like you're about to faint. Are you sure you're okay?"
"I'm fine, I dropped all of this water." 
Maybe he won't recognize me, she thought to herself. Then again, why should I care if he does? I have no reason to hide.
Except she did. Sort of. 
Wincing, she scrambled to her feet, adjusted the case, and carried it into the supply tent set up at the south end of the Hawkins' Ranch. Many ranchers in the area had offered their land for the fire crews and all the equipment needed to fight a fire of this magnitude. Inside the tent, Darby placed the crate on the table and glanced around at all the supplies that had been donated for the men who had spent hours fighting the Million Dollar Fire that ripped across the forest down deep ravines and up treacherous cliffs. Currently at sixty thousand acres, the fire was a beast and many out-of-state crews had been called in to help. 
Devon Ross is a firefighter?She leaned heavily against the table and struggled to catch her breath. 
The smell of smoke warred with the scent of pine in this meadow made into a makeshift camp dotted with tents. Music drifted over the chatter of men and women who sat in various circles to eat sandwiches and share stories of their fire battles that day. 
Darby ran a hand across her forehead and grimaced. Maybe it wasn't Devon, maybe just some other guy who sparked that inner fire in her gut at first sight. 
Yeah, that's it. A doppelganger. A freaky coincidence that his look-alike would be here. 
God, she hoped that were true. 
She knew in her gut that it wasn't. 
"We should be getting back to town," Glenda said before taking a break to rub a purple scarf across her head. "Damn, it's hot. We really need a break in the weather. I don't know how these guys are still standing wearing all that gear and facing the fire down like they do. I heard that an elite fire jumping crew from California is here, they got in last night and were the first to hit the frontline this morning."
"Is that so?" She busied herself with shoving the water into the troughs of ice that had been set up. The sooner she finished unloading this last crate, the sooner she could escape. 
"They call themselves the Flame Slayers — I saw their flag near their tents when we drove up. All these people are so badass, I feel like I'm wasting my life as a yoga instructor and your very best bar manager."
"Lots of people like yoga, Glenda, and they definitely like bars. Both serve their purpose." She blew a strand of hair from her eyes as she glanced toward the tent entrance. "I think we really need to get going."
"You're acting really strange. Maybe you have heat stroke." Glenda grabbed a handful of ice and slid it down Darby's tank top. 
"What the hell, Glenda?" She leapt back, pulled the fabric from her skin and gasped at the shock of having ice slide between her breasts. 
"Just trying to lighten the mood."
"Yeah, well, don't." She strode toward the entrance and peeked outside to see if she had a clear shot to her 4Runner. 
Sinewy arms, wide shoulders, tanned muscles revealed by the gaping rip in the back of his t-shirt, tight ass, long legs—she would recognize that physique anywhere. No, he didn't look like any other physically fit man out there. That was a body she had memorized with her tongue, explored with her fingertips, and clenched between her thighs. 
"Hiding from someone?"
"I think so."
"Did you trip and hit your head or something?" Glenda joined her at the flap. "Who is it that we're hiding from?"
"Devon Ross."
"No shit? Are you sure? Where?"
Darby jumped back inside the tent when Devon started walking toward them. 
"We need to go," she whispered.
"Where?"
"Out of here."
She glanced around at the troughs full of ice and the tables stacked with food. Volunteers, firefighters, and reporters crowded inside. 
There was only one way out and Devon Ross had just stepped through it. 
"Darby Shaw," he whispered as if in a trance. 
Tension wrapped them in a bubble full of surprise and regret. Neither seemed able to speak or move as others moved around them. 
She fought the urge to touch him to make sure he wasn't a figment of her imagination. Grime layered his face and neck, but those blue eyes of his were his trademark feature. 
"I'd ask what you were doing here, but it's fairly obvious." She forced a grin and faked a casual attitude. 
"Did you know I was here?"
"No, I thought maybe you were dead."
His eyebrows shot up. Glenda jabbed her with an elbow. 
"Don't go writing my obit just yet, Darby Shaw."
"That's not what I meant. I-I-I didn't mean dead as in dead." She realized that telling a man who had spent the day risking his life that she had assumed he had been dead was a major faux paux. 
"It's pretty point blank." His gaze roamed over her face before sliding over the now wet tank top. 
I can't be talking to him. I need to run—fast! 
Devon Ross visited her every so often in her nightmares.
Fear — the kind a person gets right before jumping off a cliff — shrunk her lungs to the size of raisins. Her legs refused to move. 
"I am shocked to see you so I'm blurting out all the wrong things. Satisfied that you have me rattled?" She patted at the wet fabric and hated that the ice cubes continued to melt in her bra. 
"Do I have you rattled?" He stepped closer. 
Glenda muttered something about catching up with the other volunteers and dashed out of the tent. 
Coward.
He grinned when she pulled the front of her tank top away from her wet skin as if he enjoyed her discomfort. "What are youdoing here?"
"Delivering supplies."
"But why? I thought you lived in Denver."
"Moved back to Ouray a few years ago."
"How's Ted?"
 She tilted her head to the side and squinted at the cocky smile that slid back onto his face. "How was the fire?"
"Hot."
She gritted her teeth, lifted her head a bit higher, and forced one foot in front of the other until she had exited the tent. She fought the urge to sprint.
Be cool. Head high. Remain calm. 
"I always loved watching you walk away from me, Darby Shaw."
She stopped dead in her tracks and slowly turned around. "Does your family know you're here playing hero?"
"I'm not in the mood for a big reunion." He slowly walked toward her, his smile growing with every step. "And I'm not playing at anything."
She took a step backward. "I know you're not...I didn't mean to say that."
"What doyou mean to say?"
"Damn it, Dev, don't make this so hard."
"Why would I do you any favors?"
She shifted her weight from foot-to-foot yet lifted her chin a bit higher. "You owe me."
"For?"
"Disappearing like that."
He squinted as if her answer surprised him. "Are you going to tell anyone that you've seen me?"
"Where have you been all this time?"
"Around."
"So infuriating." She gritted her teeth and balled her fists at her sides. She wanted to smack him...then hug him. 
Damn it anyway. 
She slid her gaze toward the white van where his youngest sister unloaded more donated food. Her long blonde hair had been twisted into a messy bun and she had knotted her t-shirt against her abdomen. She felt like shouting, hey, Kiley, you're wayward brother is here and he's some kind of hero fireman who's going to save us all. 
How ironic when he had been the one to destroy them all once upon a time. 
He followed her gaze and squinted. "I'll let you get back to what you're doing," he said, obviously not recognizing his youngest sister who had only been twelve when he had skipped town. 
"You're a grown ass man, Devon, who is still hiding from daddy. If you want to break the news, that's on you, not me." 
 "So self-righteous." He mocked her with a slow-clap. "Yes, I am a grown ass man, thank you for noticing. Nice seeing you again, Missus Reecher. Tell your husband that his former best friend said hi."
"So you want to dive right into it?"
"That's kind of what I do." He stepped so close to her that she needed to tip her head back to look him in the eye. Of course, the top of her head barely came to the middle of his chest so it was easy for him to tower over her like a menacing beast.
"You disappeared—you're like a myth around here. Everyone has a story about what happened to Devon Ross, and now here you are acting like a...like a..."
"Like a what?"
"Asshole."
"How do you expect me to act at the sight of you?"
She flinched as if slapped and took a step backward. "That's not fair."
"It's fair enough."
"Don't you have a team to lead or a meeting to attend?" She motioned toward the group of firefighters, law enforcement, and forest rangers gathering in front of a long table in the makeshift headquarters. 
"Yes, I do, but not until I've had a chance to sit the fuck down for ten minutes. I've had a busy goddamn day and, remarkably, you have managed to make it worse." He stepped around her and walked toward the tents emblazoned with the Flame Slayer flags. 
The wind moved the back of his t-shirt where the rip gaped open and she glimpsed a tattoo or two on his lean muscles. She doubted the man had an ounce of fat on him, but then again, with the kind of workout these people did for a living, how could he? 
She noticed then that he had a large cut on the back of his left arm and the blood had already dried. 
Leave him alone, let him rest, walk away.
Too many memories flickered from the recesses of her mind—him licking her skin in the moonlight, them pulling at each other's clothes in the back of her dad's truck, him laughing with another girl in front of a bonfire, him breaking her heart over and over again. 
She strode toward him, angry at so many things long repressed. She didn't care about the people starting to notice their little drama unfolding in the middle of the camp. 
"Devon, stop."
He gulped down a bottle of water before glancing over his shoulder at her. "What do you want from me?"
"Your family should know you're here."
"Why?"
She shrugged. She didn't have the right words to communicate what she truly wanted to say. She looked back toward the van where Kiley joked around with the other twenty-somethings and sighed. When you've been missing for a decade, coming home again gets complicated. Add a wildfire and a potential crisis situation into the mix, and it's more than complicated—it could be a catastrophe. 
More than most, she knew exactly why he had left town, but she had never anticipated him dropping off the face of the earth and disconnecting from everyone who loved him. Rumors flew in such a small town. Some said he lived in a van and spent his days rock climbing and skiing. Some said he had gone to South America and ran a tour company in Peru. Yet here he stood, staring at her against a backdrop of pine trees and smoke, sweaty and dirty, and just as cocky as he used to be. 
"Forget you saw me, Darby." He turned and resumed walking toward his crew. 
She jogged after him and managed to block his path. Why she chased him when her instinct had first said to hide, she didn't know. Curiosity had always been her downfall, though. 
"Stop. For one minute, just stop."
He sighed and put his hands on his hips. He frowned down at her and shrugged. "Spit it out. I am not in a mood for a chat."
"Do you really live in a van?"
He stared at her a full minute before bursting out in laughter. "What? God, you can still surprise me, that hasn't changed." 
She smiled, too, because she knew she sounded like an idiot—but her strategy worked and he cracked a genuine smile. They had grown up together in a small town, but they had also had ten years of life apart. They were strangers who once knew each other a long time ago when life had been easy and innocent...well, somewhat innocent. 
"You are still keeping it weird, aren't you, Darby Shaw?" 
"I try." His gaze skimmed over her again. "Want to tell me why you have ice cubes in your bra?"
"How did—" Embarrassed, she glanced down at herself and folded her arms across her chest. 
His smile widened, his teeth looking overly white against the dirt on his skin. "Want to meet my crew?"
"Your crew?"
"Yeah, I'm the boss man these days." 
When he looked into her eyes, it was like going back in time when things had been simple between them. She wanted to smile and give him a high-five for being the boss. She wanted to grab his arm and look at that cut. In that instant, she wanted everything that was out of reach. 

"Darby!" Glenda waved at her. "We need to go. Ruby gets out of day camp in an hour."
She looked toward the tents marked with a flag designed with two axes engulfed in fire and the group of men and women who watched them. She didn't really know him at all, not really, and had no business stopping him from relaxing with his friends after a long battle on the front lines. They had become strangers with history—nothing less, nothing more. 
She fixated her gaze back on his face, noticed the exhaustion in the depths of his eyes, the weariness in his grin, and suddenly felt like a jerk. 
"I need to pick up my daughter."
"Daughter?" He winced and looked away. "Yeah, you had better get back to your family. I need to sit, eat, see what the latest updates are, and then nap for a few hours. Say hi to Ted for me."
"I own the brewery in Ouray now," she fell into step next to him, unable to stop talking. "It's called High Altitude Brewing Company. It's become the place to be in town. Your team is welcome anytime."
"We don't usually stray too far from camp when we're on the job."
Disappointment fluttered in her heart. "I suppose not. You're a local legend. Everyone whispers about what ever happened to Devon Ross."
"And I live in a van in these legends?"
"Among other things."
"Good to know Ouray is still short on entertainment."
"Come down the hill if you can break away—free food and beer for any firefighters at my establishment." She did a mock bow and tried her best to salvage this encounter.
Keep it light, keep your cool. 
He kicked the dirt with the toe of his boot. "I would love to know what ever happened to my good buddy Ted. How does he feel about being back in Ouray? He hated this place."
"You have your secrets and so do I." Her already shaky smile disappeared at his words.
"Trouble in paradise?""
"Divorced. Five years now." 
A look of genuine shock transformed his face. Curiosity churned in the blue depths of his eyes. 
"Don't tell me I told you so...I don't want to hear it," she whispered, for his ears only. 
"I'm sorry," he whispered back. 
For a brief second, she forgot the years of absence and swayed toward him. 
He took a step back, as if repelled. 
Snapping out of the brief spell she had been under, she waved at his friends who studied them intently. "Free beer at my place if you guys can get this one," she jabbed a thumb toward his chest, "to bring you to his hometown one of these nights." 
"Thanks for that," he muttered low enough to be heard by her ears only. "None of them know I am from Ouray."
She tilted her head and studied him. "I think it's time you come home, Devon Ross. Would it really be so bad?"
"Oh, I think it would be pretty bad." He popped a pair of sunglasses over his eyes, smile gone, and nodded toward Glenda. "You had better get going. Your friend looks worried."
She took him up on the chance to leave. Nerves quaked beneath her skin over their brief interaction. Sweat slid down her back into the waistband of her jeans. Her skin burned. Pinpricks of awareness skittered up her neck. She fumbled for the keys that she had jammed deep in her front pocket.
She gnawed on her lower lip, angry with herself for basically bribing him to come to town. She kicked some dirt out of her way before yanking open the drivers' door. 
"What was that all about?" Glenda asked.
"Devon Ross."
"And?"
"History."
"I figured that out. And?"
"More than a fire is threatening to burn down Ouray, let's leave it at that."
"Um...no. Let's not leave it at that."
"Glenda. Stop." Her trembling fingers dropped the key to the floorboards beneath her feet. She smacked her head against the steering wheel. She pounded the dashboard with the palms of her hands. "Fuck me! I can't believe I just saw Devon Ross."
"I heard he ran a shark diving business out of Australia."
"Worse. He jumps out of helicopters into wild fires." 
Darby glanced into the rearview mirror and saw him staring at them as they drove away. Backed by tents and firemen and news vans, he stood there watching them leave. 
Stay there, she silently prayed to herself. I like knowing where you are, even if it's only temporary. 


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