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
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.
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.
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?"
"No shit? Are you sure? Where?"
Darby jumped back inside the tent when Devon started walking toward them.
"We need to go," she whispered.
"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.
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?"
"But why? I thought you lived in Denver."
"Moved back to Ouray a few years ago."
She tilted her head to the side and squinted at the cocky smile that slid back onto his face. "How was the fire?"
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."
"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?"
"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?"
"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.
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."
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?"
"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.
"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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