Slow Burn



Victoria Woodley is done with men. Fresh off a dating nightmare, sheflies from her home in Chicago to Scarlet Springs to take part in her best friend’s wedding. Who picks her up at the airport? Eric Hawke. Of course. She made a fool of herself over him last time she was here. He’s cocky, charming, and sexy as sin. But the fact that she’s attracted to him is all the proof she needs that he’s bad news. She would ignore him if she could. But he’s the best man, and she’s the maid of honor.She can’t just tell him to jump in a lake—especially not when her lips are locked with his.

Eric isn’t looking for a relationship. Between running the firehouse and volunteering for
the county’s search and rescue team, he has enough on his plate. He doesn’t need to get tangled up with a woman from the big city,especially one whose idea of roughing it is going without designer coffee. Yet from the moment he looks into Victoria’s big brown eyes, the attraction he feels is too strong to deny. Faster than he can imagine, the spark of desirethat has smoldered between them since the first day they met will flare into full-blown passion.  

But can Eric convince Victoria to set aside her doubts and trust him with her heart before their time together runs out?




OUT NOW!


Order your copy today!

   



Read an excerpt below...



Excerpt

 

PROLOGUE

June 23

Denver, Colorado

 

Eric Hawke parked his blue Ford F-150 on the upper level of the parking garage at Denver International Airport, then looked up Vic Woodley’s flight info on his smart phone. He glanced at his watch.

Shit.

The guy’s flight had landed thirty minutes early.

Eric grabbed the little cardboard sign he’d made, climbed out of his truck, and moved in long strides toward the terminal, the late afternoon heat stifling.

Well, he couldn’t have gotten here any sooner. Traffic coming down the canyon had sucked, and it had only gotten worse when he’d hit Highway 36. Besides, picking this Woodley guy up hadn’t been on his list of things to do this morning. He wished Woodley would mind his own business and fly back to Chicago. From what Taylor had told Eric, the bastard was here to convince Lexi to leave Scarlet Springs and Taylor behind and return to Illinois with him.

Yeah? Well, let him try.

Austin Taylor had been Eric’s best friend since preschool, and Lexi Jewell was the woman Taylor had loved since he was seventeen. Eric wasn’t about to stand by while some slick hipster dude tried to convince Lexi that staying with Austin was wrong for her. She and Austin were crazy in love, and they’d been through too damned much to put up with more bullshit.

Eric was only picking the guy up as a favor to the two of them. They were still dealing with the aftermath of Lexi’s near-death ordeal. Lexi couldn’t drive because of her broken leg, and Taylor couldn’t pick Woodley up because he was taking Lexi to a follow-up visit with her orthopedic surgeon. Eric had offered to dump Woodley in a ditch somewhere, but Taylor had been against the idea. In fact, he seemed awfully chill about the thought of another man coming to visit Lexi.

“I can handle the competition,” he’d said. “Besides, if Lexi stays in Scarlet, it needs to be because she wants to live here, not because we murdered her friend.”

Okay, so Taylor had a point.

Eric stepped into the crowded terminal, air conditioning blasting him, bringing relief from the heat. He glanced around, fairly certain Woodley would have made his way to baggage claim by now.

How was Eric supposed to recognize the guy?

He had planned to stand at the top of the escalator in the main lobby holding the little cardboard sign with Woodley’s name on it so that all new arrivals would have to pass by him. Woodley would have seen his name, and that would have been it. Nice and easy. But now Woodley could be anywhere—sipping chardonnay in a restaurant, getting his nails buffed, waiting for his baggage.

Ah, hell.

Eric walked over to a white service telephone, dialed Paging Services, and asked the woman who answered to page Vic Woodley. She told him the airport had switched to a visual paging system and said his page would be visible within the next five minutes.

Left with nothing to do but wait, Eric ended the call and headed down the center hallway toward the coffee shop in the lobby. He’d spent most of the day working a controlled burn and was thirsty enough to drink a water tender dry. He hadn’t even had time to take a shower or put on a clean T-shirt and probably reeked of sweat and smoke.

He reached into his back pocket for his wallet—and then he saw her.

Whoa.

She entered the coffee shop ahead of him, pulling two blue suitcases behind her, one strapped to the other. Her thick, dark hair fell in soft layers to below her shoulders, a short black tank dress hugging her curves, strappy black heels clicking on the stone tiles. He walked to the cooler, grabbed a bottle of water, then got in line, watching as she tried to decide which flavor of bottled iced tea she wanted. Finally, she made up her mind and maneuvered her way through the shop to stand in line behind him.

God, he could smell her, the sweet scent of her skin and the faint musk of her perfume warming his blood.

 

He turned to the side and looked over his shoulder toward the lobby as if searching for someone. He looked down and found her gaze right where he wanted it—fixed on the Scarlet Springs Fire Department logo on his T-shirt. She had a sweet face. Long lashes, high cheekbones, flawless skin. Her nose was small and slightly upturned at the tip, her lips full and covered with shiny gloss. 

She looked up at him through big brown eyes, then leaned in as if to tell him a secret, those lips slowly curving into a smile. “Firemen are my favorite color.”

Her flirty words hit him right in the solar plexus.

Jesus!

His brain must have shorted out because all he could say was, “Yeah?”

“What’s your name?”

He’d left his name pin and badge in his truck. “Eric. What’s yours?”

“Victoria.”

“I like it.” A classy name for a classy female.

“Can I help who’s next?” a voice said.

Eric turned to find the kid at the cash register—a barista with dyed black hair and black plugs in his earlobes—waiting for him to step up to the counter and pay. He closed the distance with a single stride, set the bottle on the counter, and took a five out of his wallet. “Just the water.”

“That’ll be four dollars and four cents.”

It was a sign of how distracted he was that he didn’t complain about the price.

He cranked the bottle open and drank, while the kid with the earlobe plugs counted out ninety-six cents in change. “Thanks.”

He shoved the change in his pocket and left the coffee shop, stopping just outside the door. Victoria would come over to him. He knew she would.

He raised the bottle to his lips again, finishing it off with big gulps.

From behind him came the clicking of heels and the scrape of suitcase wheels.

“Thirsty?” She stood beside him, iced tea in hand.

He nodded, wishing he’d bought two bottles of water or maybe four. “I spent most of the day working a controlled burn.”

She opened her tea, smiled up at him. “I can smell the smoke.”

“Yeah, sorry about that. I’m picking someone up for a friend and didn’t have time to shower or change.”

“Oh, don’t apologize. I like it.”

Holy shit.

Eric wished he could forget about Woodley and take Victoria out for a drink—and maybe something more. In his line of work, the only relationships he had time for were the casual kind. Still, hooking up with someone he’d met two minutes ago would be fast, even for him. It wasn’t going to happen—not in the middle of the airport with Woodley waiting for him somewhere. Besides, he knew nothing about Victoria—where she was going, where she was from, whether she was in a relationship.

He motioned toward one of the nearby tables. “You want to sit for a minute?”

It wouldn’t kill Woodley to wait another ten minutes.

“Sure.” She glanced at her watch.

“Waiting for your boyfriend?” Eric had to know.

Her little laugh told him she saw right through his question. “I’m not attached.”

Wasn’t it just Eric’s luck? She was beautiful, available, and completely beyond his reach at the moment. Unless she was staying here in Denver…

They walked over to a vacant table and sat.

He tried not to be Captain Obvious. “So are you coming or going?”

“I’m coming.”

The word lingered in the air between them for a moment, and Eric could tell by the flash of color in her cheeks that her mind had latched onto the double entendre just like his had. An image of her lying beneath him, lost in bliss, flashed across his mind, the thought sending a surge of raw lust through him.

Oh, didn’t he wish.



Victoria Woodley felt her cheeks burn. She could see in Eric’s blue eyes exactly where his mind had gone. Her mind had gone to the same place. She wasn’t into casual hook-ups, but in his case she might be willing to make an exception.

Good freaking grief!

Lexi hadn’t exaggerated when she’d said the men in Colorado were hot.

Well over six feet with thick brown hair, Eric had a rugged outdoorsy vibe she liked. She could see the outline of his pecs through his T-shirt and was willing to bet they came with a six-pack. His biceps, forearms and even his hands were muscular and so much bigger than her own.

If what they said about the size of a man’s hands was true…

Belly flutters.

“You said you came to pick someone up?” She willed herself to quit undressing him with her mind and focus on his face, but even his face was sexy. His brown hair hadn’t been cut recently and had a tousled look, as if he’d brushed it out of his eyes with his fingers. His eyebrows were dark slashes against tanned skin, his square jaw covered by a growth of stubble. His masculine features were softened by long lashes, a full mouth—and a dimple in his chin. And he was a firefighter.

Some men had it all.

She’d always had a thing for firefighters, but she’d never been this close to one, much less sat down to have a conversation with one.

“Yeah. I’ve never met him. I think he’s here to try to break up my best buddy and his girlfriend. I offered to dump him in a ditch, but my buddy wouldn’t go for it.” The grin on his face told her he’d been joking—mostly.  “My buddy would have come to pick the jerk up himself, but his girlfriend was almost killed last Sunday, and he’s taking her to a checkup with the surgeon.”

“What happened?”

“A fugitive took her hostage, dragged her into a mine shaft, and the shaft collapsed. The bastard who kidnapped her was killed, and she came close to dying too. We were able to get her out, but she has a badly broken leg.”

Vic stared at the man across from her, his story one she already knew. Anger made her face burn. “What’s the name of the guy you’re supposed to pick up?”

He held up a cardboard sign that read, “Vic Woodley.”

She found herself on her feet. “That’s my name.”

He gaped at her, astonishment on his face. “You’re … ?”

“Lexi Jewell is my best friend.”

A look of understanding crossed his face, followed by an angry frown. He muttered something that sounded suspiciously like, “Taylor, you bastard.”

“I’ll catch a cab.” She took hold of her suitcase handle, turned toward the door, and hurried toward the sign with the taxi on it.

He caught up with her in a single stride. “Victoria, hey, I’m sorry. It was a misunderstanding. My buddy let me believe you were a guy.”

“Yeah, I figured that part out for myself.” But that wasn’t the problem.

She stepped through the automatic doors, dry heat hitting her in the face.

He followed her to the curb. “It’s two hours to Scarlet Springs. Do you have any idea how much a cab will cost?”

She hadn’t realized it was that far. Still, she wasn’t going anywhere with him. He had joked about dumping her in a ditch. “That’s okay. I can afford it.”

She’d been born with more money than she could ever spend.

She stepped out to the curb to hail a cab—only to see that there were no cabs. She turned to look the other way and found herself looking at Eric’s chest.

“Come on, Victoria. You can’t be that angry with me. It was a simple misunderstanding.”

“You think I’m angry because you thought I was a guy?” She peered around him, his broad shoulders blocking her view.

No taxis there either.

What did it take to get a cab in this state?

Eric’s eyes were hidden behind mirrored aviator-style sunglasses now, but there was a slight grin on his face, as if he found all of this amusing, “I wasn’t serious about dumping you in a ditch, you know. I’m not going to hurt you.”

Men could be such idiots.

“Before she came to Colorado, Lexi made me promise that I wouldn’t let her get stuck in Scarlet Springs. She’s my best friend. She tells me everything. I know how much she hates it here.”

“I get it. You came to keep your promise.”

“You’re afraid that spending time with me will remind Lexi how much she loves her life in Chicago, and you and Austin wanted to keep me away from her. That’s manipulative and just plain wrong.”

His smile vanished. “I was joking. You know, a joke? If you think Austin or I can make Lexi do anything she doesn’t want to do, you don’t know her as well as you say. Whether she stays or goes is up to her. Austin won’t stop her, and neither will I. But I’ll admit that I wasn’t excited about you coming here. Lexi has been through enough. She doesn’t need you making things more complicated.”

He turned and started to cross the street toward the parking garage.

Vic stood there in the heat, the glare of the sun almost blinding. She glanced left and right. Still no taxis.

Well, hell.

She called after him. “You’re just going to leave me here?”

He stopped, looked over his shoulder. “I thought you were going to take a cab.”

“Do you see any cabs?”

He turned and strode back to her, reaching for her luggage.

“I can manage.”

A muscle clenched in his jaw. “Fine by me.”

Vic followed him, dragging her suitcases behind her, her temper as hot as the air around her. Okay, so maybe she had been planning on campaigning pretty hard for Chicago—the tickets she’d bought for the Adele concert, Taste of Chicago, shopping on the Oak Street, the beach, Lou Malnati’s deep-dish pizza—but she knew Lexi would be turning her back on so many things she loved if she stayed in Scarlet Springs. What were best friends for if not to warn you when you were about to make a big, fat mistake?

Vic followed Eric until they came to a blue pickup with a handful of bumper stickers on the back.

Support Search & Rescue. Get Lost.

Climbing: It rips the screams from your throat.

Firemen find ’em hot and leave ’em wet.”

Someone certainly had a high opinion of himself.

“You advertise you prowess on bumper stickers?”

“Bumper stickers? I put them on my truck because I think they’re funny, not because I’m advertising.”

“I’m surprised you don’t have one that just says, ‘Hey, I’m a fireman. Want toplay with my hose?’”

He laughed. “That’s pretty good. Do you want to play with my hose?”

She rolled her eyes in disgust.

“I’m joking! For God’s sake.” Eric jerked open the passenger side door and stepped aside to make room for her. “Just leave your luggage. I’ll put it in the back.”

“I’ll do it. I don’t need some big muscle man to save me.”

“Okay.” He walked to the rear of the vehicle and lowered the tailgate, then stood a few feet away and watched her, arms crossed over his chest.

She unstrapped the bags, and then lifted the smaller one onto the tailgate and rolled it into the bed of the truck. The bigger one was a lot heavier, however, and she struggled to lift it high enough to get it onto the tailgate. She only needed to lift it a few … more … inches…

Damn.

Eric walked around to the tailgate, took the bag from her, and lifted it into the back of his truck with one hand. He slammed the tailgate shut. “I can see why you and Lexi are friends. You’re as stubborn as she is.”

Embarrassed that she’d needed his help after all, Vic ignored his comment. She walked around to the passenger side and climbed inside, the truck hot and stuffy from sitting in the sun. She opened her tea and drank, the liquid cool and sweet in her throat.

Eric climbed into the driver’s seat beside her and jammed his keys into the ignition. “You need to be drinking water. It’s pretty dry here. If you don’t stay hydrated, you’re more likely to get altitude sickness.”

Whatever.

“I’ll be fine.”

“Suit yourself, city girl. I’ve been a paramedic for a decade. You’d be surprised what altitude and dehydration can do to a person.”

So he was a paramedic as well as a firefighter.

And a jerk.

No. way would she let him come between her and Lexi.

He started the engine, backed out, and drove down a succession of ramps to exit the garage. She took out a few dollars to cover the parking fee, but he refused it, paying with his own money.

She tucked the cash away. “I’m not the only one who’s stubborn.”

 He drove the two of them out of the airport and onto the highway. For a long time, neither of them spoke, classic rock playing from an iPod plugged into his dash.

Vic watched through the window, the cute little cluster of skyscrapers that must be Denver off in the distance to their left, the landscape around them a mix of farms and new residential developments, plains and rivers. “Those are the mountains. They’re not so tall.”

“You’re a good hour’s drive away. They’ll look a lot bigger up close.”

They looked small from here and very far away.

He was right. The longer they drove, the bigger the mountains became. Then at last they came to the top of a hill, and a valley opened before them, the mountains rising out of nowhere to touch the sky, snow on their jagged summits.

“Oh!” The breath left Vic’s lungs in a rush, and she stared, overcome by a sense of awe. “I didn’t know it would be so beautiful.”

Eric’s lips curved in a grin, his gaze on the highway. “I guess Lexi doesn’t tell you everything.”


 

 

CHAPTER ONE

One year later

Victoria Woodley waited with her luggage in baggage claim at Denver International Airport, scrolling through work emails on her smart phone. She looked up from the small screen every few seconds, checking her surroundings. No one had recognized her so far, but she couldn’t help feeling self-conscious in public.

She worked through the emails, answering them as fast as she could typing with one finger. In the two-and-a-half hours since she’d left Chicago, Abigail had sent her no fewer than seven, all of them about the Merced Capital campaign Vic would be spearheading when she got home. Abigail was a decent boss, but she seemed to believe that everyone wanted to spend every waking hour working like she did.

It had been almost a year since Vic had seen her best friend, Lexi Jewell, and more than a year since she’d had more than a long weekend. Now Lexi was marrying her high school sweetheart, and Vic was her maid of honor. After the hell of the past year, she really needed the time off. Lexi and Austin had planned a week of fun leading up to their wedding, and Vic wanted to spend those days relaxing and celebrating Lexi’s happiness, not working.

Vic had just hit send, when a shadow fell over her. Her head snapped up.

“Hey, Victoria. Whoa. Sorry to startle you. You got everything?”

Eric Hawke.

Her pulse skipped.

He stood there looking hot as hell in a navy T-shirt and blue jeans, hands on his narrow hips, black mirrored Revos concealing his eyes. He hadn’t shaved, a day’s growth of stubble on his chin. “It’s déjà-vu for me, too, city girl.”

She’d known she’d see him again. He was Austin’s best friend and his best man, so of course she’d see him. But it was a two-hour drive to Scarlet Springs. She hadn’t expected to spend time alone with him. He might be sexy as sin and a firefighter, but he was cocky, arrogant, and too much of a lover boy.

Last time she’d been here, Lexi had told her that Eric had been with his share of women, but had never been serious about anyone. He’d even asked Lexi out before she and Austin had gotten back together. Vic wouldn’t be surprised if he’d left a trail of broken hearts behind him. Regardless, none of it mattered.

Vic was done with men.

You’re attracted to him.

Okay, yes. She was. And thatright there was proof positive that he was bad news. Her ovaries always got her into trouble.

Firemen are my favorite color.

Her own words came back to her, making her cringe inside. She’d only said that because she’d thought she’d never see him again—and, well, because he was smoking hot. What an idiot she’d been!

She’d learned her lesson, hadn’t she? She would never say anything like that now. She knew firsthand how much ugliness a handsome face and sexy smile could hide.

Her feelings must have shown on her face, because Eric laughed. “Sorry you’re stuck with me, but Lexi’s dad started having palpitations while he was mowing the lawn. She and Kendra took him to the ER.”

“Oh, no.” Vic slid her phone into her handbag and got to her feet. “Is he okay?”

“He’s fine—just dehydrated.”

“Thank goodness!”

Lexi would be crushed if anything happened to her father, especially the week of her wedding. The two of them were just getting to know each other.

“That’s what happens when you have whisky for breakfast.” Eric’s gaze moved over her luggage—a garment bag and three suitcases. “Exactly how long are you planning to stay?”

With all the arrangements for their wedding under control, Lexi and Austin had decided they wanted to spend the week before the ceremony having a good time with their friends—rafting, hiking, swimming, horseback riding. Vic had never done most of those things, so of course she’d had to go shopping. Uncertain what she’d need, she’d brought an entire Athleta shop with her.

She slipped on her sunglasses. “Lexi told me to be ready for anything.”

“You sure did take her seriously.” He reached for her bags, hesitated. “Are we going to fight about who carries these this time?”

She picked up the garment bag, leaving the others for him. “Knock yourself out—and thanks.”

She followed him out the automatic doors into a cool and breezy Saturday morning, not a cloud in the sky, the mountains topped by puffy clouds. She couldn’t wait to be up there again, to smell the fresh mountain air, to look up at the white summits of the high peaks. Scarlet Springs might exist in a different reality than the rest of the world, but it was beautiful.

Eric’s pickup truck was parked at the far end of the center row, its bumper sporting yet another sticker.

Feel safe at night. Sleep with a fireman.

Had she mentioned arrogant? Because, oh, yes, he was arrogant.

While he settled her bags in the truck’s bed, she climbed into the passenger seat and laid her garment bag over the narrow bench seat in the back of the cab. By the time she had her seat belt on, he had the keys in the ignition.

He turned toward her and held out his hand. “Hey, Victoria, I know we didn’t get off to the best start last time, but I hope that’s behind us. I thought you were here to pressure Lexi. You thought I was doing the same thing. We were both trying to protect her. As it turns out, she managed just fine without us. I hope we can be friends.”

She supposed he was right. She could respect his loyalty. Besides, he was the best man, and she was the maid of honor. For Lexi and Austin’s sake, the two of them needed to get along.

“Sure.” She took his hand.

Heat arced between them at the contact, unexpected and startling, and she had to fight not to jerk her hand away. But then his lips curved into a devastating smile, and she felt her ovaries begin to purr.

Oh, no. No way.

Right then she made herself a promise. No matter what Eric said, no matter how nice he seemed, no matter how good he looked without his shirt, she was not going to sleep with him.



Eric Hawke drove down the E-470, Joe Walsh playing on the radio. He glanced over at the woman who sat beside him. He’d had the same visceral reaction when he’d seen her today that he’d had a year ago, because …

Damn.

She wore a short, sleeveless dress that hugged her lethal curves, its color caught somewhere between red and hot pink. Her dark hair spilled around her shoulders in long layers, except for where it was pushed away from her face by her sunglasses, which sat perched on her head. Her legs were bare and silky-smooth.

Eyes on the road, dumb shit.

He had no business letting himself get hot and bothered. For starters, she was Lexi’s best friend. If things got messy, it could hurt his friendship with Lexi. And then there was the little warning Taylor had given him.

“Be careful with Vic, okay? She’s had a hard time lately. She’s a little fragile.”

Taylor hadn’t bothered to explain what he’d meant by that, but Eric had gotten the message loud and clear. Victoria was off-limits.

Okay, fine.

She wasn’t the least bit interested in him anyway. Her face was buried in her phone, her fingers tapping out a message. She hadn’t said a word since they’d left DIA, but was preoccupied with checking emails or text messages or some damned thing.

What was it with people and their phones? Life was happening around them, but they missed it, their attention focused on itty-bitty screens. What was the point?

She let out a breath, irritation flashing across her features.

“Everything okay?”

She looked over at him, phone still in hand. “It’s just work stuff.”

“Public relations, right?” He remembered Lexi saying something about that last year when Victoria had come to visit.

She nodded. “I work for Jensen West Communications, the biggest public-relations firm in the city.”

“You must really love your job to bring it with you on vacation.”

She gave a little laugh, looked down at her phone again. “It’s not by choice, believe me. My boss works eighty hours a week and thinks everyone else should too. I don’t think the word ‘vacation’ is in her vocabulary.”

“That doesn’t sound healthy.”

“Says the man who runs into burning buildings for a living.”

Okay, so she had a point.

He found himself grinning. “But you love the job, right?”

“Does anyone love their job? You go to college, get a degree in something you hope you’ll enjoy, then bust your butt to find work in your field. Ten years later, you wonder how you’ll be able to stand showing up at the office every day for the rest of your life. You know how it is.”

“Actually, I don’t.”

“Really?”

“I love what I do, and I didn’t go to college.”

“You didn’t?”

“Nope.” Her surprised tone of voice made him grin. “I didn’t want a desk job so I didn’t see the point of college. I put myself through firefighter academy and got certified as an advanced life support paramedic. I worked on a state hot-shot crew for a few years, traveled a lot, got to see a lot of cool places.”

“Weren’t they burning at the time?”

He laughed. “Yeah, I guess they were.”

So, she had a sense of humor. It was dark and a little twisted, but he liked that.

“How did you become fire chief? Aren’t you kind of young for that? You’re Lexi’s age, right?”

“Ah, let’s see … ” He took her flurry of questions in reverse order, pleased that he’d momentarily become more interesting to her than her phone. “I’m thirty-three. I’m the youngest chief in the department’s history. I volunteered for Scarlet FD until a position opened up. I made shift captain in four years and was promoted to chief two years ago when the old chief retired.”

“I’ve always wondered how it works. Do you live at the fire station?”

“Near enough.” He laughed. “We all work forty-eight hour shifts with four days off in between. I’m at the station on a lot of my off days because I’m chief, but right now, I’m on vacation.”

“You’re part of the Team, too, aren’t you? You helped save Lexi.”

“Yeah, I was there.” That had been one hell of a day. He’d been on a lot of calls, but that one had shaken him to his core. “I’ve been with the Team since I turned eighteen.”

The Team—Rocky Mountain Search & Rescue Team—was an all-volunteer nonprofit that handled searches, technical rescues, and evacuations for the region. It was widely regarded as the best S&R team in the nation. It gave him a chance to put his climbing and paramedic skills to work in high-risk situations.

Yeah, he’d do just about anything to get in some rock climbing.

“How can the Team function with you and Austin gone at the same time?”

“There are almost fifty people on the Team. Some are provisional members, not primary members like Taylor and me. Our being away actually gives them a chance to get out in the field a little more.” He glanced over, saw she was watching him. “What?”

“I think that’s cool—the work you do. I guess I never imagined someone could skip college and still be so successful.” She squeezed her eyes shut, opened them again. “Wait. That sounded snobby, didn’t it?”

He couldn’t help but laugh. “My mom says that the path to success is the one that enables people to feel at peace with themselves, and I can’t complain. But there are times when I wonder if I missed out on something.”

“Like what?”

He said the first thing that popped into his head. “Computers. I’m not great with all that electronic stuff. We have a volunteer who handles IT at the firehouse, but there are times I wish I could manage more myself. I’m working on a project right now—a video project—and I don’t know what the hell I’m doing.”

“What are you having trouble with? I have experience doing film editing for video marketing campaigns. I might be able to help.”

God, that would make his life easier. But could he trust her?

“Can you keep a secret from Lexi?” He could see that she was curious.

Then her big brown eyes went wide. “It’s something for the wedding.”

She wasn’t slow. He’d give her that.

“Promise you won’t tell anyone, especially not Lexi. I know you two are close.”

She gave an impatient wave of her hand. “Yes, yes, I promise. Tell me.”

“I’ve done some interviews with people around Scarlet, people who knew her mother, asking them what they think she’d say to Lexi on her wedding day and how she’d feel about Lexi marrying Austin.”

Lexi’s mother had died when Lexi was only four, killed by a drunk driver.

“Oh!” Victoria’s gaze went soft. “What a sweet thing to do. That will mean the world to Lexi.”

Eric had thought the same thing. “Trouble is, at this rate I won’t be done editing the footage until their first kid goes to high school. The video editing software is such a pain in the ass.”

“Can I help? I’d love to be a part of that.”

“I’d appreciate that.” As he turned off E-470 onto Highway 36, Eric couldn’t keep the smile off his face. He and Victoria were going to be spending a lot of time together over the coming week.



An hour later, they pulled into the long driveway of the Forest Creek Inn, the historic bed and breakfast owned by Lexi’s family. The enormous three-story Victorian house with its yellow paint and neat white trim stood proudly against the mountain backdrop and was one of the most photographed spots in town.

But Vic’s gaze wasn’t on the inn. Garment bag in hand, she hopped to the ground, as stunned by the beauty of the mountains as she’d been last year. “God, it’s beautiful.”

Behind her, Eric unloaded her bags. “I grew up with that view, and I can’t say I’ve ever grown tired of it.”

“I don’t think I would either.” She inhaled the fresh air, the scents of pine and sunshine filling her head.

Scarlet Springs—population 1,448, give or take a few—might not have a Starbucks, but what it lacked in lattes it more than made up for in scenery. The town sat in a valley at 8,936 feet elevation surrounded by the Indian Peaks, the summits of which were covered with snow year round. Lexi had taught Vic their names last year, but Vic had forgotten them.

The door of Rose’s New Age Emporium opened, and a woman Vic recognized as Rose stepped out and hurried across the street, all flowy skirts and long gray hair. Austin and Lexi had asked her to officiating the wedding.

She embraced Vic, kissed her cheek. “It’s so good to see you again, Victoria. I’m glad to see you two together.”

Vic tried to explain. “Oh, well, we’re not together—”

“Come by some time and I’ll give you a free reading. I’m doing that for everyone in the wedding party.”

“That’s sweet of you. Thanks.”

 “Vic!” The back door to the Forest Creek Inn flew open, and Lexi ran out, wearing a tank top and shorts, a bright smile on her face, her long red hair pulled back in a ponytail. She gave Vic a big hug. “Sorry I couldn’t pick you up myself.”

“Eric told me what happened. How’s your dad?”

From inside the house came a man’s raised voice. “Leave me be, woman!”

Lexi rolled her eyes. “He is himself.”

“Too bad the doctors couldn’t cure him of that.” Eric chuckled at his own joke. “Where do you want her bags?”

“We put her in the Matchless Suite,” Lexi answered.

Eric gave a low whistle. “Someone’s getting the special treatment.”

Vic lifted her chin, teasing him. “I am the maid of honor.”

She waved farewell to Rose, then followed him and Lexi through the door into the Jewell family’s kitchen, where Bob, Lexi’s father, sat at the table glaring up at his wife, Kendra, Lexi’s stepmother, while Britta, Lexi’s younger sister, sliced tomatoes. The three of them looked toward the door, their expressions turning to smiles when they saw her.

“Welcome back, Victoria.” Bob got to his feet. “How was your flight?”

“It was fine. Thanks. How are you?”

“If the females of this family would quit pestering me, I’d be fine.”

“Just ignore my father.” Britta glanced up from her slicing. She looked so much like Lexi they might have been twins, though her hair was strawberry blond rather than outright red. “He scared the bejesus out of us this morning.”

Kendra stayed where she was—standing, hands on her hips at her husband’s side. “Nice to see you again, Vic. I’m trying to get Bob to lie down, but he won’t budge.”

“The doctor said to rest. He didn’t say to lie down.”

“Mmm-hmm.” Kendra’s eyes narrowed. “And you think standing on your feet doing dishes counts as resting?”

Bob chuckled, and it was clear to Vic that he was enjoying the attention. “Does that mean you don’t want my help doing dishes?”

“Not today.”

Bob grinned, settled back in his chair. “Okay. If you insist.”

Kendra shook her head. “The man doesn’t have a lick of sense. Lunch will be ready in about ten minutes if you want to get settled.”

The Jewell family’s home was on the bottom floor of the house, while the bed and breakfast was run out of the top two floors. Vic had stayed here last year and had no trouble remembering her way around. The upper levels could be reached by the great staircase just inside the front entrance, a circular staircase served by a private side entrance, or by a small elevator.

Vic, Lexi, and Eric took the elevator together. If it had just been the three of them without luggage, this would have been easy. But the three of them, together with Vic’s bags, meant they had to crowd together. By the time the doors closed, Vic stood with her back pressed against Eric’s chest, his body hard against hers, the spicy scent of his shaving cream or aftershave teasing her.

Her ovaries sighed.

She ignored them. “It looks like those two are getting along.”

Last time she’d been here, Kendra had just filed for divorce and was living somewhere else.

Lexi nodded. “He’s drinking again, but, yeah, it looks that way.”

Eric chuckled. “Are you kidding? They’re crazy about each other.”

The elevator stopped, and the doors opened.

Vic had to wait for Lexi to exit first. When it was her turn, she all but ran, following Lexi across the hall to her room.

“The Matchless is our best suite. I hope you’ll be comfortable.” Lexi pulled a key card from the pocket of her shorts. “It’s named after the Matchless Mine, where Horace Tabor made his fortune in silver.”

“And where his wife Baby Doe froze to death, alone and penniless, many years later,” Eric said.

Lexi glared at him. “Nice.”

He shrugged. “Hey, just finishing the story.”

Lexi opened the door and stepped back to let Vic enter.

“It’s … beautiful.” Vic had stayed in plenty of five-star hotels in her life. Her father was a wealthy man, and she had traveled the world with him before she’d left home. But nothing could surpass this little suite for comfort or charm.

A living area with antique wood furniture led to a bedroom with a fireplace and a king-sized brass bed and, beyond that, a bathroom with modern fixtures, including a tub big enough for two. Everywhere there were beautiful touches that made her feel welcome—a bouquet of pink cabbage roses on the coffee table, a coffee mug with a bow on it that said “Keep Scarlet Weird,” and a box of …

“Estes Park taffy! You really do love me.” Vic had tried it during a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park last time she was here. Handmade the old-fashioned way, there was nothing else like it. She unwrapped a pink one, popped it into her mouth, and chewed. “Mmm. Cherry.”

Eric left her bags near the bed. “Why doesn’t the best man get digs like these?”

Lexi looked over at him, straight-faced. “Eric, you live here.”

“Oh. Right.” He took his cell phone out of his pocket, glanced at his text messages. “I need to get going. We’re hitching Morreti’s boat trailer to my truck. I’ll see the two of you at the reservoir in a couple of hours.”

That’s right. Today was Reservoir Day. Tomorrow they were going up to Rocky Mountain National Park, then on Monday they were going horseback riding at a Cimarron Ranch. That would be fun. Tuesday was set aside for a whitewater rafting trip, which Vic was not looking forward to one bit. The idea of getting tossed around on rough water was scary, not fun. Wednesday they were renting the rock gym for a climbing party. Vic didn’t climb, but she would watch. Then on Thursday, it was Casino Night. She had a surprise planned for Lexi and Austin that night and couldn’t wait. Friday was Spa Day and the wedding rehearsal. The wedding was Saturday morning.

“Terrific,” Lexi said. “See you there.”

Eric turned to go.

It took Vic a moment to pry her jaw open, her teeth stuck together by taffy. “Hey, Eric. Thank you.”

He gave her a nod. “Any time.”

The door shut behind him, leaving Vic and Lexi alone.

“This is amazing, Lexi. Thanks so much.”

“I’m so glad you’re here. How are you? I’ve been so worried about you.”

“I’m okay.” Vic left it at that. There was no way to talk about it without crying, and she didn’t want to open up that emotional Pandora’s box this afternoon.

Lexi’s gaze hardened. “It’s a good thing he’s in prison, or I’d hunt him down.”

Vic didn’t want to think about this. “Let’s just pretend for now that it never happened, okay?”

Lexi reached out and gave her hand a squeeze. “We’ll have lunch as soon as you get settled in. Then we’ll go have some fun at the res. How does that sound?”

“Can we swing by your new office?”

That made Lexi smile. “Sure. I’d love to show you around.”

Lexi had started her own accounting firm in Scarlet last summer, renovating an old Victorian house to serve as her office. She’d sent photos, but photos weren’t the same as seeing it in person.

“Terrific. I’ve missed you so much.” A rush of bittersweet joy ambushed Vic, leaving a lump in her throat. “Oh, my God, Lexi, you’re getting married!

Lexi gave a little squeal, her face radiant. “I know! Isn’t it amazing?”