For fans of Pamela Clare’s acclaimed I-Team and Colorado High Country series…
An I-Team/Colorado High
Country Crossover Novel
Fire chief Eric Hawke knows it’s only a matter of time until the next big wildfire. He’s done everything he can to prepare his crews for the inevitable. When high winds turn a small blaze into a raging crown fire that threatens Scarlet Springs, he, Brandon Silver, and the rest of Scarlet FD put their lives on the line to save the town and its citizens. But the one thing Hawke hadn’t planned for was bureaucratic red tape and waffling from higher-ups that could turn this crisis into a catastrophe. When his requests for support go unheeded, he’s faced with the prospect of watching the town he loves burn to ashes.
But sometimes help comes from unexpected places.
Marc Hunter, Julian Darcangelo, and Zach McBride are in the mountains above Scarlet Springs for an interagency training exercise when they see a single wisp of smoke to the west. What begins as a fun day of playing cops and bad guys soon becomes a battle against time, as they join forces with Hawke and members of the Rocky Mountain Search & Rescue Team to save friends trapped by the fire.
Together, they pit their strength and courage against a terrifying and unforgivingforce of nature. Will it be enough? Or will the ravenousflames claim lives—and leave the people of Scarlet Springs forever scarred?
Read an excerpt below...
A thunk woke Eric Hawke.
Beside him, Vicki moaned and stretched, the sheet slipping below her bare breasts. “He’s awake already?”
As much as Eric would have loved to start his day with a little sex, the toddler was loose in the house again. And that was the irony. The sex act produced children, which, in turn, made it hard to find time to have sex.
Eric glanced at his alarm clock, saw that it was just before six in the morning. “Go back to sleep. I need to get up anyway.”
He didn’t mind being the first one out of bed. He’d worked in search-and-rescue all his adult life and had been fire chief for the past seven years. He was used to odd hours and early mornings, and he loved this time of day. Besides, given how often he was away from home, he enjoyed the time with his son, and Vicki deserved a break.
He kissed her cheek, climbed out of bed, and pulled on a pair of boxer briefs and shorts.
Another thunk sent him hurrying down the hall to Caden’s room, which he found empty, a wet diaper sitting in the middle of the wooden floor together with a pair of pajama bottoms. It figured. At twenty-three months, Caden was a world-class escape artist and, apparently, a budding nudist, as well.
Eric hurried downstairs past the living room with its big fireplace and cathedral ceiling toward the kitchen, his heart skipping a beat the moment he saw. “Jesus!”
Caden had pushed a chair over to the kitchen counter and now sat on top of the refrigerator, naked from the waist down, a box of graham crackers in his hands. “Tookie.”
“Hey, little man, what are you doing up there?”
No wonder people got gray hair after having kids.
“Tookie,” Caden said again.
“No cookies before breakfast.” Hawke took away the box of graham crackers, lifted his son into his arms, and headed back upstairs. “We need to get you dressed.”
While Caden chattered about Thomas the Tank Engine, Eric dressed him in a pair of dry training pants, shorts, and a little T-shirt that read, “I’m proof my mommy can’t resist firefighters.”
Eric wouldn’t lie. He liked that T-shirt.
“You’re all set.” He tousled his son’s dark hair. “Try to keep your britches on, okay?”
Back in the kitchen, he settled Caden in his high chair with some loose Cheerios and got busy scrambling eggs, making toast and coffee, and washing fruit. He enjoyed this morning routine, his life richer now than he’d imagined it could be. Vicki had entered his world, and everything had changed.
“Want some blueberries?” He put a few berries on Caden’s tray and couldn’t help but smile at the look of concentration on his son’s face as he picked up each berry to put it into his mouth. “You like those, don’t you?”
“He loves them.”
Eric glanced over his shoulder to find Vicki leaning against the door jam in her white bathrobe, her shoulder-length dark hair tangled, a smile on her sweet face. “Do you know where I found him?”
“On the table?”
Eric shook his head. “On top of the refrigerator.”
Vicki’s eyes went wide. “Good grief! We have to do something. He can’t have the run of the house when we’re asleep. If he had fallen…”
Eric had been a paramedic for as long as he’d been a firefighter. He knew what even a short fall could do to a small child. They lived in a huge, two-million-dollar multi-level house—a wedding present from Vicki’s gazillionaire father—and there were so many ways for an unsupervised toddler to hurt himself. They’d tried a dozen different kinds of baby gates, but Caden had climbed them all. They had a baby monitor, of course, but the little stinker was quiet when he got up to things he knew he shouldn’t be doing.
“I’m not sure what to do. Put iron bars over his door? Install a motion detector?”
Why did children gain mobility before they acquired sense?
Vicki’s eyes narrowed. “He takes after you, you know. Robin says you used to climb out of your crib, too. She says you climbed everything.”
Eric’s mother lived in a cabin on their property and watched Caden when he and Vicki were both at work. It was a convenient arrangement for everyone, but his mother talked too much. He opened his mouth to defend himself, but what she’d said was true. “Hey, it’s all good. I turned it into a career, didn’t I?”
His love of climbing had become serious when he was a teenager, landing him a coveted spot on the Rocky Mountain Search & Rescue Team straight out of high school. Rescue work had led him to wildland firefighting and then the Scarlet Springs Fire Department. Eventually, he’d become the youngest fire chief in the history of Scarlet Springs.
He got breakfast on the table and went back for the coffee, pouring half-and-half in Vicki’s and leaving his black. When he turned toward the table again, he found a small gift bag sitting beside his plate. “What’s that?”
Had he forgotten an anniversary or something?
Vicki smiled, an excited sparkle in her eyes. “Open it and see.”
He handed Vicki her coffee, took a sip of his own, and sat. “Is it a new cam?”
Vicki laughed as if he’d said something stupid. “No. You don’t trust me to buy you climbing gear, remember?”
“Oh. Right.” He took the bag, reached inside, and searched through the tissue paper, his hand closing around something small and oblong that was made of hard plastic.
He drew it out—and stared.
Heart thudding, he met Vicki’s gaze, saw the joy in her eyes. “This is… Are you?”
She nodded. “I’m pregnant.”
A pang of tenderness filled his chest. She’d had such a rough time with Caden, twenty-six hours of labor ending with an emergency C-section. Eric wouldn’t have blamed her if she’d refused even to consider having another baby and demanded he get a vasectomy.
“But … how?”
She laughed. “You know how. You were there.”
That’s not what he’d meant. “It took so long with Caden, and you only went off the pill last month. I thought it would take six months, maybe a year.”
“I guess we’ve gotten better at making babies because we nailed it on the first try.”
“Well, that takes some of the fun out of it.” Eric meant that as a joke, but the moment his words were out, he saw that Vicki hadn’t taken it that way.
Good job, dumbshit. Any other stupid things you’d like to say?
“That was just a stupid joke.” He reached across the table and squeezed her hand. “How are you feeling?”
She’d had terrible morning sickness with Caden.
“Fine so far.” Her smile returned, but there was a hint of vulnerability in those brown eyes now. “Are you happy?”
“God, yes! I’m elated, stunned. I’m so excited that I’m acting like an idiot.” Eric got out of his chair and knelt before her, taking her hands in his, and kissing them. “I love you, Vicki. Because of you, I’m the happiest man on earth. Never doubt that.”
Behind him on the counter, his pager went off.
He got to his feet, crossed the room, scrolled through the message, not liking what he read, but not surprised either.
“What is it?” Vicki asked.
“Another red flag warning.” They’d had red flag warnings every day for the past ten days thanks to this endless dry, hot, windy weather.
The mountains that surrounded Scarlet were in prime condition to burn.
Marc Hunter toweled his hair dry, wrapped the towel around his waist, and stepped out of the bathroom into the bedroom. He headed to the walk-in closet he shared with Sophie and tossed a navy-blue Denver Police Department polo and a pair of dark green tactical cargo pants onto the nearby chair.
Today, he and Julian Darcangelo were heading up to Scarlet Springs, a weird little mountain town known for its good beer, to take part in a joint training exercise with the US Marshals Service and other law enforcement agencies. The exercise was intended to foster interagency cooperation or some shit, but Marc had signed on as a way to escape the heat and spend a day in the mountains with friends.
He and Darcangelo had known each other for eight years now, both of them employed by the DPD—Darcangelo as head of vice and Marc as SWAT captain. Okay, so that’s not how they’d met. Marc had been an escaped convict at the time, and Darcangelo had hunted his ass down and brought him in.
It had been the start of a beautiful friendship.
The bedroom door opened and Sophie stepped in, still wearing that lavender silk robe he loved so much, her strawberry-blond hair damp. She closed the door behind her and locked it, her lips curving in a sexy smile.
She walked over to him with slow, seductive steps, took hold of his towel, and yanked it from his body, letting it fall to the floor. “The kids are still asleep.”
He liked the way her mind worked. “We shouldn’t let that go to waste.”
God, he loved her—her mind, her body, her big heart. She was a wonderful mother to their two kids, Chase and Addy, and no man could ask for a better partner. She’d stood by him when the rest of the world had condemned and forsaken him, risking her career and her life to save his. Without her, he’d have rotted in prison—or died with a shank in his back.
What a damned lucky thing it was that he’d given her a ride home from that stupid high school graduation party all those years ago. He’d wanted to protect her from a group of asshole guys who’d been hopped up on meth, but in the end, it was she who had saved him.
He’d given up worrying about whether he was worthy of her and focused instead on being the man she thought he was. He’d made it his life’s work to please her, both in and out of bed. He knew her moods, her fears, her dreams. He knew how to make her laugh, how to comfort her. He knew what made her scream, how to make her come fast, how to hold her on the edge until her nails dug into his back and her every exhale was a plea for release.
He watched as Sophie took his cock in hand and stroked him to readiness, desire naked on her beautiful face.
His gaze locked with hers, Marc grasped her wrist, drew her hand from his aching cock to his lips, and kissed her palm. Then he gave her a little shove, toppling her backward onto their queen-sized bed.
She gasped as she hit the mattress, her robe falling open to reveal paradise.
Without breaking eye contact, he dropped to his knees, forced her thighs wide apart, and stroked her just where she needed it most. “Mmm. You’re wet.”
“Get inside me already!”
Her impatience made him chuckle. “What’s the rush?”
He lavished attention on her clit, watching with satisfaction as she raised one clenched hand above her head, her eyes drifting shut.
He kept up the rhythm until his fingers were drenched and she was writhing on the bed. Then he lowered his head, drew her swollen clit into his mouth, and suckled.
Her hips jerked, her hands flying to fist in his hair. “Marc!”
She’d always been passionate, the most responsive woman he’d known. She’d been only sixteen the night he’d taken her virginity, and still, she’d blown his eighteen-year-old mind. Somehow, sex with her just kept getting better.
She was close now, the tension in her body building, her clenched fists pulling almost painfully at his hair, her breathing ragged.
He withdrew his mouth from her, laughing at her moan of protest, her scent filling his head, her taste in his throat. Then he settled his hips between her thighs, the breath rushing from his lungs as he entered her with a single, slow thrust. “Sophie.”
She drew her knees up to her chest, opening herself to him fully. “Fuck me.”
“Hell, yeah.” There was no need to take it slow, no need for subtlety or finesse. He drove into her hard, her body gripping him like a fist, pleasure making his balls draw tight.
She bit back a cry as she came, bliss shining on her sweet face. He rode through it with her, then let himself go, his body shuddering as climax burned through him, white-hot and incandescent. They lay there together for a moment, breathing hard, hearts pounding.
Sophie smiled, laughed, her eyes still closed.
Marc pressed kisses to her bare breasts, smiling, too.
Then Chase’s voice came from the hallway outside their bedroom, and the doorknob jiggled. “Mommy, are we going to the Cimarron today to see the horsies?”
Chase was seven years old now and fancied himself a cowboy, due to the influence of his Uncle Nate, who’d married Marc’s younger sister, Megan. Nate and his father, Jack West, owned the Cimarron Ranch, where they ran black Angus cattle and bred champion quarter horses. They also spoiled the hell out of Chase and Addy.
The plan was for Sophie and Tessa, Darcangelo’s wife and Sophie’s closest friend, to take the kids up to the Cimarron for a day of fun. After the training, Marc and Darcangelo would join them for cold beer and grilled steaks.
No one could grill a steak like Jack West.
Sophie bit back a laugh. “Yes, honey. Get yourself dressed, okay? I’ll be right out.”
Marc pulled out, got to his feet, and drew Sophie up with him. He took her into his arms and held her close, the love he felt for her glowing inside his chest. “You sure got my day off to a good start.”
She drew back, looked up at him, worry darkening her blue eyes. “You’ll be safe up there, won’t you?”
His wife was one of the strongest people he knew, but his last brush with death had left her grappling with post-traumatic stress. She’d watched terrorists drag him away to kill him, had heard a gunshot, and had believed him dead for long, agonizing minutes. She was doing much better now, nineteen months later, but she still worried every time he left home.
He smoothed a strand of hair from her cheek. “This is just a training exercise. We’re going to run around in the forest pretending to chase bad guys—just a bunch of boys playing with toys.”
What could possibly go wrong?
Naomi Belcourt stepped out of the women’s staff bunkhouse and walked toward the Dining Hall, rubbing the ache in her lower back. She’d never been seven months pregnant before and hadn’t realized how uncomfortable it would be to sleep in a bunk. But there were only four days left before this second session ended. She could deal with it.
The day was bright and sunny, the sky overhead blue, the air fresh with the scent of ponderosa pines. Ahead of her, groups of campers ran, hopped, skipped, and jostled their way to breakfastwith their counselors, their happy laughter making her smile.
This was her dream.
Naomi had grown up not knowing who she was. Abandoned in an alley as a newborn by her birth mother—a teenage white girl—she’d been adopted by a family of religious extremists who had raised her with warped ideas about womenand “heathen Indians,” beating her when she dared to challenge them.She’d run away from home at the age of sixteen when her adoptive father had tried to marry her off to a much older man against her wishes. She had waited tables to put herself through art school, but she hadn’t known anything about her true heritage until she’d met Chaska.
Chaska and his sister Winona had saved Naomi’s life after a couple of escaped cons had attackedher while she’d been camping not far from Scarlet Springs. As she’d recovered,Chaska had helped her uncover the truth about her past, finding her biological father, teaching her about Lakota traditions, and sweeping her off her feet. He’d married her in a traditional Lakota ceremony, giving her father a bride price of twenty-two horses—or rather, a 22-horsepower riding lawnmower.
She’d spent time on the reservation with Chaska, had learned to speak Lakota, and had gotten to know her blood family—her father Doug, his wife Star, and her half brothers and sisters—Mato, Chumani, Chayton, and Kimímila.
Somewhere along the way, the idea for this camp had begun to form in her mind. She had held several fundraisers and written dozens of grant applications to get the start-up money. Once she and Chaska had gathered the funds, they’d bought this old summer camp, repaired the cabins and dining hall, erected a tipi in the center, hired a crew to build an archery range and ropes course, and recruited Lakota counselors to run the day-to-day operation.
Now, Camp Mato Sapa—Camp Black Bear—was in its second year with three, two-week sessions that served 120 kids each summer. It was a place where Lakota children could comeat no cost to their families to learn about their culture and traditional values, have fun in the outdoors, build their confidence, and escape the hardship that many of them faced at home.
Naomi served as the camp’s director and taught art classes, while still running her shop, Tanagila’s. She had never imagined that her life could be so rich and full.
She looked for Chaska but didn’t see him. He was an early riser and had probably beaten her to the Dining Hall. Then Naomi spotted Kat James. Kat, a Navajo, was there with her husband, Gabe Rossiter, and their three children, Alissa, Nakai, and Noelle, who rode on her father’s shoulders. They had spent the night in one of the guest cabins so that Gabe could be here to help Chaska supervise the kids on the ropes course this morning. The two men knew each other through the Rocky Mountain Search & Rescue Team—called the Team by locals—and both were world-class rock climbers. Hanging on ropes was their idea of a good time.
Naomi waved. “Was the cabin comfortable?”
“It was great. Thanks.” Gabe swung little Noelle to the ground.
Kat took the toddler’s hand. “It was really windy last night.”
“Did it keep you awake?”
“Oh, no. I kind of like it.”
Naomi and Kat talked about odds and ends as they walked the rest of the way to the Dining Hall—how Naomi was feeling, how fresh the air was high in the mountains, how vital it was for children to spend time in nature.
Naomi watched Gabe as they walked, amazed at how confidently hemoved on his prosthesis. He’d lost his left leg below the knee in a desperate attempt to save Kat’s lifemany years ago, but it hadn’t slowed him down.
“I heard we’ve got a red flag warning again today.” Gabe, who’d once been a park ranger, reached out to open the Dining Hall door for them, the mingled scents of bacon and coffee making Naomi’s stomach growl.
“Let’s hope we get rain soon. The land needs it.” She followed Kat through the door into the Dining Hall—and stopped short.
Chaska and another camp counselor were breaking up a fight between two of the older boys, the other children watching with wide eyes from the food line.
Gabe hurried to help, stepping between the two boys.
Chaska caught hold of Dean, the bigger of the two, and held him back.
“Let me go!” Dean struggled to free himself.
Dean had been a problem since he’d arrived, breaking the rules, using rough language, and bullying the other children. Naomi could haveexpelled him, but she suspected that what they saw in his behavior was only a reflection of the violence he experienced at home. She didn’t have the heart to send him back to that.
“He punched me!” Mervin, the smaller boy, got to his feet, fists clenched.
“Iníla yaƞká po! Quiet!” Grandpa Belcourt bellowed.
The room fell into startled silence.
“Let’s talk about this like human beings.” Grandpa looked sharp in his white shirt, beaded vest, and bolo tie, a single eagle feather in his long gray hair. “I saw you hit this boy.”
Dean’s face was still flushed, and he was breathing hard. “He called me stupid.”
“No, I didn’t!” Mervin’s lip was swollen. “I said, ‘Don’t be stupid.’”
Grandpa held up a hand for silence and turned to Dean. “This is what you do when someone says words you don’t like? You hit them?”
Dean’s chin came up. He probably looked like a delinquent, a troublemaker, to most of the adults. To Naomi, he seemed like a scared little boy. “My father raised me to be a warrior.”
“You think hitting another boy makes you a warrior?” Grandpa Belcourt chuckled, moving toward the center of the room. “Listen, children, all of you. Too many of our people have forgotten what it means to be a true warrior, so I will tell you.”
Chaska released Dean. “Listen to Old Man now.”
Naomi got a knot in her chest. God, she loved Chaska. He was a mechanical engineer who spent his workday building satellites, not a camp counselor or referee. Still, he’d jumped headlong into this whole summer camp adventure because it was important to her.
After waiting a moment to let the tension build, Grandpa spoke again. “A warrior isn’t a man who hits people or fights with other men. A warrior is someone who sacrifices himself—or herself—for the well-being of others.”
Dean rolled his eyes. “Yeah, right.”
“Listen.” Chaska rested a hand on Dean’s shoulder.
Grandpa continued. “A man who protects the sick and the weak is a warrior. A woman who has a baby is a warrior because she suffers to bring life into the world.A boy who watches over his little brothers and sisters is a warrior. You want to be a warrior? Shovel snow from your grandma’s sidewalk and carry her groceries without being asked. Watch over those who are younger and weaker than you are—two-legged, four-legged, and winged ones. Think of others before you think of yourself. Then you will be a true warrior and worthy of respect.”
“Aho.” Chaska nodded.