Not asking questions proved to be a challenge. As she drove past the turn-off to the resort where he had grown up, she glanced at the large log posts holding up the sign proclaiming, Tailwind. Solar lights lined the long curving driveway to the top of the hill where the resort sprawled across thirty-five acres that backed up against the National Forest.
He said nothing. Made no sound at all.
Sighing, she looped one hand over the top of the steering wheel and rested her other elbow on the open window. Fresh pine air laced with the ever-present smell of smoke wafted into the car and the breeze tossed her hair away from her face. Tears welled up in her eyes at the memories that swarmed in her mind.
"Darby, you need to listen to me. Ted's a bad guy." Devon stood in her dressing room in the back of the chapel. He looked like he hadn't slept in days. His button-up shirt was unbuttoned, displaying his Trust tattoo across the left side of his chest. They had both gotten one during spring break in Cabo their junior year at CU—his on his chest, hers on her wrist. His black jeans were smeared with dirt as if he had just crawled out of a ditch. Dead pine needles stuck here and there in his sandy blond hair.
"Ted was alone with Brandon, not me. He got the drugs, not me. I don't do drugs, never have, and you know it. I—"
"No, you just get wasted every night and act like you don't give a damn about anything."
"—Ted bullied Brandon, always did and we had more than one fight about it. Brandon got to the apartment early and I was too late, but that's the extent of my guilt. You have got to believe me."
She stumbled forward, nearly tripping on the lace gown of her wedding dress. Out of sheer frustration, she whipped his chest with her bouquet, sending white rose petals flying across his shoulders. "For months you've been silent. Months!"
"I didn't want to hurt you, okay? I was confused, sad, stupid—"
"Why would you do something like this?"
"Ted left before the ambulance arrived. He just took off! He is a rotten—"
"You didn't even come to Brandon's funeral!"
"I wasn't wanted, the good ol' Ross family made that clear." He grabbed her wrists and yanked her toward him. His eyes searched hers for something. Maybe hope? Maybe love? Maybe understanding? Maybe all three? "Come with me, Darby. Come on. You don't want to do this, not really. I know you. Come with me."
"Today is my wedding day, you jackass!"
"People assumed it was my fault and I let them. I figured if they thought I was capable of killing my seventeen year-old brother, they aren't people I care to know anyway. Fuck them all. If someone thinks that little of me, they aren't worth the energy to convince otherwise. I never thought you would believe it, though."
"Who says I believed it?" Her voice hitched on the last word.
"Then come with me. I'm sick of this place and all these people with their twisted expectations. We'll drive until we hit the Pacific. Come on. Leave with me, let's see what happens."
She pulled the 4Runner onto the side of the highway and took a moment to breathe. Those words...let's see what happens...sometimes woke her from a dream.
She looked toward the passenger seat expecting to see his mocking expression at her abrupt stop, but instead he slept. His head against the window, his chest rising slowly, his long legs tucked at an odd angle in the space in front of him—definitely asleep.
The lights from the dashboard illuminated his face in a perfect contrast of shadows. She had always thought he was too pretty for his own good. High cheekbones, long eyelashes, full lips and a nose made to be flicked with her finger while lying in bed.
She glanced down at her own Trust tattoo on her left wrist and traced it with her right fingertip. Best friends forever, that's what they had promised, but even then she had known their feelings went much deeper than that.
Ted had hated that tattoo, had made her cover it with make-up and bracelets when they went out with people from the firm.
She traced the ink with her fingertip, her mind racing with questions.
"Are we here?" he slurred his question, his eyes opening as he shifted upright in the seat. "Fell asleep. Sorry."
"I pulled over—there was a deer in the road."
He scrubbed his eyes with a closed fist. "You okay? Did you almost hit it or something?"
"I'm fine." She blew out a long breath.
"Animals run ahead of the fire," he muttered more to himself than her. "Wind has died down, though, hasn't it?"
"Seems to, yes." She hadn't really been paying attention to the wind.
"Hope it stays that way so the slurry bombers can resume in the morning. This afternoon was too windy for a decent air attack." He shifted in his seat and rolled down the window. "I could really use a long, hot shower and a nice, king-sized bed."
She laughed. "That doesn't sound very van-like to me."
"Don't tell anyone, but I live in an actual house. I even have running water and indoor plumbing."
"Wow, you're rich then?"
"Yeah, we firemen are known for our immense wealth."
She shot him a smile and resumed her promise to be silent.
But, oh, the questions that rolled through her mind.
"San Luis Obispo."
"That's what you're wondering, right? Where I live?"
"I promised no questions so I am sticking to it."
"Or you Googled where the Flame Slayers were based already and don't want to admit it."
"Hey, when you have a reason, is it really cockiness or self-awareness?"
She caught her lip between her teeth and squirmed in her seat. Desire flickered in her gut, warming her in all the wrong places. She inhaled sharply when he snagged a strand of her hair beneath his fingertips.
"I like your hair shorter like this. It flatters you."
Acting on instinct rather than common sense, she slid the driver's seat back a few notches, undid her seatbelt, and twisted to face him.
Alone in the dark in the confines of the front seat of her SUV nothing outside mattered. He took the hint, grabbed her face between his hands, and kissed her as if the world were ending and they only had a few more minutes before dying. Mouths slid together, hands squeezed, breath tangled, tongues danced against one another.
Somehow she ended up straddling his lap. She couldn't stop touching the hardness of his body. Lips locked with his, she moved her hands over his shoulders, over his thick biceps, down his chest, around his neck, into his hair. Her movements were frantic and needy.
His hands were under her shirt—sliding over her back, over her bra—slipping beneath the waistband of her jeans—and back again.
The loud honking of a passing vehicle paired with a chant of "Darby and Devon" forced them to break away abruptly and gape at each other.
"Bastards," he muttered with a brief glance at the taillights.
"Who else would be that obnoxious?"
She slid off of him and collapsed into the driver's seat, her legs still across his lap, and closed her eyes. Her shirt was still pushed up past her bra. Cool night air kissed her abdomen. She struggled to gain control of her raging emotions. Her rapid heartbeat thumped hard in her throat.
He slid his hand along her thigh. "That was unexpected."
"I didn't say that." He squeezed her knee.
They studied each other for what seemed like an eternity in the dark.
"It's been a strange day," she whispered.
"I expect nothing less when I'm around you."
"You haven't been around me in a long time."
"I feel like I should make a confession of some kind."
"What would you confess?" He laughed low and soft. "I'm the kind of guy who lives in the present, Darby. Maybe it's best if neither one of us dwells in the past."
"Yeah, the past is somewhat convoluted."
She shifted until her legs were under the steering wheel and her shirt was pulled back into place. "I had better deliver you to your camp as promised."
"Yes, it would be a shame if you broke a promise."
She shot him a look and drummed her fingertips against the steering wheel. For a man who didn't want to talk about the past, it was obviously on his mind. But now was definitely not the time or the place to bring it up, she knew that much even if she was the biggest fool in Colorado.
"Maybe tomorrow night you can stay with me? I have a queen-sized bed and a shower."
"Ooo...tempting me with creature comforts." He smiled, his teeth eerily white in the dashboard light. "What else is on that menu of temptations?"
"Let's see what happens..."
"What about Ruby?"
"We have a huge place, she'll never know. I'll sneak you out before dawn."
"It's been a long time since a woman has had me sneaking out before dawn."
"You're so evasive these days." Resting both hands on the steering wheel and forcing herself to look straight ahead, she took a deep breath and tried to concentrate.
Did I really just ask him to come to my place to fuck? I could have just texted him DTF. What is wrong with me?
Exhaling, she turned the car back onto the highway.
He might be gone in a week. He might never come back.
"I can't make any promises," he said so softly she wasn't sure she had heard him.
"Promises about what?"
"Tomorrow night, or the next night, or anything after that. I'm not here socially, you know. I have a team and a big job...it's an unpredictable situation." He dropped his hand on her leg and leaned across the seat to bite her shoulder before moving his mouth to her ear. "But I'll be there if I can."
A ripple of excitement quaked over her skin from the top of her head down to her toes. Not turning her head to look at him, she smiled and leaned her left elbow on the open window.
As a single mom, she knew she needed to be careful...but there was a big part of her that was sick to death of being careful.
When she stopped at the front of the camp, she glanced at him. "What does it mean if they relocate this camp?"
"I heard that they might be relocating you all tomorrow to the High Meadow Ranch north of town."
He removed his seatbelt and took his time in responding. "They like to keep us and the equipment in a guaranteed safe spot."
Guaranteed safe spot. She gnawed her lip. Tailwind was only a few miles down the road.
"Where did you hear we were being relocated?" He had his phone in his hand and scrolled through texts. "I haven't...oh...here it is."
"So you're being moved?"
He met her gaze through the shadows and nodded.
"That's bad isn't it?"
"Not as bad as you are letting yourself think." He flashed her a smile. "It's all about safety, that's it. No need to freak out the town."
"Lester told me."
His smile faded at the mention of his father.
"They have two weddings at the resort this weekend and are booked to capacity at the resort. He is worried about getting everyone out if he needs to do so fast."
"The fire has to get passed us first." He motioned toward all the tents set up and the vans lined along the perimeter. Two helicopters rested at the far end of the meadow.
"But you're moving."
He leaned forward and cupped the back of her head with his palm before leaning close to her face. "Don't overthink this. I need to go. I am bone tired and need to be up before dawn."
She grabbed his wrist and held him still for a moment longer. "I missed you, Dev."
He smiled against her lips before kissing her long and slow.
She moved her hands from his wrists and slid them along his hard arms and over his biceps. She wanted to hold him close, simply hold him until the sun came up and then keep holding him so he would never leave again. With every stroke of her lips against his, she tried to communicate that without needing to put that into words.
"I need to go," he whispered into her mouth.
He pressed his forehead to hers, eyes closed, and sighed.
"We'll just see what happens," she whispered, her fingers sliding down his chest before gently pushing him away.
"We'll see what happens," he repeated with a slow smile. "Where have I heard that before? Hey," he snagged her hand and squeezed, "thank you."
He shrugged, released her hand, and opened the door without another word.
She leaned her arms against the steering wheel and watched him walk away. His body in silhouette, she grinned at the knowledge that she would recognize him anywhere —the saunter, the way his arms swung at his sides, the way his heels came off the ground, the shape of his shoulders — all the details that made him Devon.
What would he do if he knew that she had run after him that day? Would she ever tell him or would that forever remain her burden to bear?
"Are you telling me no?" He stood there in her dressing room, scream-whispering at her. "Are you seriously staying behind? I'm leaving, Darby, do you understand that? C'mon. Say you'll come with me."
"What do you expect? This is my wedding day." She waved her now tattered bouquet through the air. "My wedding day! We have two hundred guests out there. My parents paid a fortune for the caterer—"
"Who the hell cares?" He grabbed her forearms and squeezed. "Just say fuck it all and come with me."
"Look at you." She twisted free and gaped at his open shirt and dirty jeans. "You look like you have been crawling through a ditch all day, or did you sleep in one? You've been a wreck since Brandon died, a complete disaster."
He dragged a hand down his face and moaned. "I know that, Darby, and I'm sorry I screwed up so bad. So many things I screwed up." He turned his back on her and paced in front of the door. "I'm going to turn it around, you need to trust me. That's what we do, right? We trust each other."
She didn't know what to do. Seeing him like this shattered her heart into a billion bits of searing pain.
"What do you want from me? A traveling buddy? I want more, Devon. I want a life, a good life, stability and a career. We're too old to be roaming aimlessly around the country. It's time to grow up. We're twenty-three, college is over."
"Do you hear yourself? Twenty-three is young, too young to be getting married –especially getting married to that asshole."
"Why are you doing this to me now?"
"Why are you marrying him when six months ago you told me that you loved me?"
"That was before."
"Before Brandon. Say it."
"You're a walking disaster, Devon Ross."
"So are you, Darby Shaw, you just hide it better."
She shoved bits of bent flowers back into her bouquet while fighting back tears. "I've made a commitment."
"To the wrong man."
"And you're the right one? You still smell like beer, Dev."
He stopped his pacing and faced her, a grim look on his face. "Yeah, I probably do. I needed to get the courage up to stop you from making the biggest mistake of your life. I guess I failed at that, too."
"Damn it, Dev." She tossed the flowers onto the floor and stomped her foot out of sheer frustration.
"No, I get it." He held his hands up in surrender. "I'm out. You will never see me again, Darby Shaw. No one in this fucking town will ever need to put up with my presence again. I promise you that."
He turned abruptly and stormed out of the door.
She heard her bridesmaids entering the bridal cottage and calling her name.
"Devon, stop." She didn't want to yell to draw attention from the guests walking toward the ceremony site at Tailwind. She winced at the significance of getting married at his parents' resort, the place where they had played as kids, where they had sneaked into vacant guest cabins to fuck when they were teenagers. It must all seem like a giant 'screw you' to him.
He disappeared around towering hedges and the idea that that would be the last time she would see him terrified her.
Uncaring of anything but stopping him, she kicked off her high heels, lifted up her dress, and ran across the grass. He was already getting into his truck when she turned the corner.
She ran faster, not knowing exactly what she would do when she reached him, but knowing that if the choice was between living with him in her life or without him in her life, she would choose the former.
She waved her hands in the air as he turned the truck onto the driveway.
He didn't stop or look back.
He simply drove away.
Devon turned back now, as if sensing her watching him, and lifted a hand in a brief wave goodbye.
She blinked back the tears, thankful that he couldn't see them, and waved back.
No, she wouldn't tell him about that day. Him knowing wouldn't change the past ten years. Sometimes keeping secrets saved the day.
Blurb from the back cover...
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.