Barely Breathing 

Lexi Jewell left Scarlet Springs twelve years ago, vowing never to return to the small Colorado mountain town where she grew up. Now, here she is—over thirty, out of a job and with little choice but to move back in with her eccentric father. Lexi knows it’s just a matter of time before she runs into Austin Taylor, her first boyfriend and her first heartbreak. She’s determined to show him she’s over him—until he steps out of a pickup truck and back into her life, looking sexy as hell in his mountain ranger uniform.

As far as Austin is concerned, Lexi can turn her snazzy little convertible around and drive back to Chicago. After all, she ripped his teenage heart to pieces and turned her back on the town he loves. But from the moment he sees her again, he can’t get her out of his mind. Even her smile messes with his head.

When an evening of conversation turns into something else, Lexi and Austin agree to be friends again—with benefits. But as Lexi starts making plans to return to the big city, Austin realizes he’ll lose her a second time unless he can show her that what she’s searching for has been right here all along.

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Lexi Jewell drove her silver Lexus IS convertible up Forest Canyon, top down, sunlight spilling from a clear Colorado sky. The late May breeze was warm in her hair, the air rich with the scent of ponderosa pine. Big Head Todd and the Monsters’ “Broken Hearted Savior” blasted on her sound system, a nod to the fact that she’d spent last night in Boulder, the group’s hometown.


She glanced in her rearview mirror, the blue SUV behind her riding her bumper hard. Clearly, the driver thought he had superpowers and didn’t need to worry about the speed limit, the hairpin turns, the sheer cliff walls, or the steep drop-offs. But Lexi had grown up here and knew only too well how deadly these roads could be.


She saw a slow-vehicle turnout ahead and pulled over, letting the speed demons pass. An SUV with three mountain bikes in a bike carrier on back. Another SUV, this one with two kayaks perched on top. A battered blue Ford carrying bales of hay, its dented bumper sporting a faded sticker that read, “Keep Scarlet Weird.”


Well, no problem there. If “weird” were a country, Scarlet Springs would be its capital, its shining city upon the hill. Home to hippies and hikers, preppers and potheads, it had one foot back in its mining days and the other permanently stuck in the 1960s.


And Lexi was moving back there.

No, she wasn’t moving back. This was temporary. She’d brought only three suitcases—clothes, personal stuff, her computer—and a box of books she’d never gotten time to read. Most of her things were still in storage in Chicago, where they would stay until she’d had time to regroup and get the situation with her father and stepmother under control.


Chicago, not Scarlet Springs, was her home now.


She hadn’t been back to Scarlet since the Christmas before last. She’d been weeks away from making partner at Price & Crane, or so she’d believed. Her sister, Britta, had come home, too, and the two of them had spent hours snuggled in front of the upstairs fireplace, getting to know each other again. They’d promised to spend their next Christmas together, just the two of them, either in Lexi’s Bucktown condo, or in Britta’s apartment near in San Diego. It was a promise Lexi hadn’t been able to keep.


By her thirtieth birthday that following March, the life she’d built for herself had fallen apart, thanks to Mr. Crane of Price & Crane. Now, she was thirty-one and had no job, no condo—and she was on her way back to Scarlet, the town she’d spent her entire childhood wanting to escape.


How did big-city life work out for you, Lexi girl?


She could almost hear her father’s voice.


None of this had been her fault. Her work had been outstanding, her initiative and work ethic excellent, her performance reviews stellar. She’d never broken a rule or violated a single corporate policy. No, none of it was her fault, but you wouldn’t know that from the way that people at the firm had treated her.


As soon as the news had leaked, her co-workers had started tip-toeing around her, giving her the side-eye in the hallway and the break room, whispering behind her back. People she’d thought of as close friends had suddenly stopped returning calls and quit inviting her out, afraid for their own careers. Chris, her boyfriend and a junior partner at the firm, had blamed her for the whole thing and dumped her.


“Maybe if you didn’t dress like you were looking for a fuck, Crane wouldn’t have gotten the wrong message. You should never have reported him.”


She couldn’t help feeling like some pathetic stereotype of the small-town girl who’d gone off to the big city full of dreams only to be chewed up and spit out.


That pretty much describes what happened, doesn’t it?


And now, as an extra bonus, the father she’d never been close to had apparently gone off the deep end since his wife, Kendra, had left him. He drank too much, neglected the inn, and, if Kendra hadn’t exaggerated, had taken up shoplifting.




What a brilliant idea, Dad.


This was his way of showing Kendra how much he needed her, but turning into the world’s biggest loser was not the way for him to win her back. If he didn’t watch it, she’d divorce him. If that happened, either Lexi or Britta would have to move back home to help him run the inn, something neither of them had any interest in doing.


She turned up the music, trying to drown out her worries, the next curve sending her past the Mine Shaft, a little roadside pizza place that catered mostly to bikers and had been in business as long as she could remember. “World’s Best Pizza” read the hand-painted wooden sign out front.


Not even close.


Though the pizza there was better than frozen, store-bought pizza, it was nothing compared to Lou Malnati’s deep-dish pizza—her favorite.


A wave of homesickness washed through her, so many of the things she’d come to love now far behind her—the city lights reflecting off the Chicago River at night, walking on the beach in the summer, the culinary thrill of Taste of Chicago.


Victoria Woodley, her best friend and former college roommate, said she needed to look at the silver lining. “After all that stress, you’re getting a long vacation at the expense of those bastards at Price and Crane. You’ll have all the time you need to unwind, sort things out, and make new plans.”


Lexi supposed that was true, but this was not the way she’d planned it, not the way she’d thought her life would go. And, God, she was going to miss Vic, too.


This is just temporary. Just temporary.


The canyon began to widen, the view opening up before her, the mountainsides dotted with barren heaps of yellowish rock, mine tailings left from the days when the gold and silver rushes had brought prospectors to Colorado’s mountains.


She rounded the next curve, and her breath caught.


The Indian Peaks—South and North Arapahoe, Apache, Arikaree, Kiowa, Navajo, Ogalalla, and Pawnee. They ringed the valley that nestled Scarlet Springs, their white-capped summits jabbing toward the sky, jagged and awe-inspiring, remnants of a massive volcanic eruption that humanity had been fortunate enough to miss.


No matter how many times she saw that view, it never failed to amaze her. Some of the tension she’d been carrying lifted. She didn’t hate everything about Scarlet Springs, after all. The mountains were beautiful, and the men …


Austin Taylor.


It had been a long time since she’d thought about him.


Okay, not all that long. A few hours maybe.


Well over six feet tall with dark blond hair and the bluest eyes, he’d been her first serious boyfriend, her first lover, her first heartbreak. He’d lettered in football and had been the school’s champion skier, taking state in both giant slalom and freeride—a big deal for a senior class with fewer than a hundred students. He was a park ranger and paramedic now, or so her father had said. It was the perfect job for him.


You’re going to run into him.


Of course she was going to run into him. Scarlet was a small town with a single grocery store. Everyone bumped into everyone all the time.


Not that it would be a big deal for either of them when it happened. They were now adults with busy lives, not high school seniors in the throes of their first sexual relationship. They had both moved on a long time ago.


Well, mostly.


She was on the outskirts of town now. Highway 119 intersected with a dirt road with a brown parks sign that read, “Moose Lake.” A few yards down the road from that stood another that read, “Scarlet Springs Town Limit, Pop. 1,847, Elevation 8,936.”


Well, here you are.


Yes, here she freaking was.


She’d reached the top of the hill that overlooked town when something off the side of the road caught her eye and had her pushing on the brake. At first, she thought it was a mountain goat hanging out on the rocky embankment, but it was too small. As she got closer, she realized it was a small white dog, and it seemed to be stranded.


She pulled onto the shoulder, parked, and got out of the car. “Hey, buddy, how’d you get up there?”


The dog stood on a rocky ledge about twenty feet off the ground on what was a steep rock cut. It wagged its little tail, barked, then whined, staring down at her. If it had climbed up there, it could surely climb down. Right?


She whistled, called to it, tried to encourage it, clapping her hands against her thighs in universal doggy sign language for “come here.” “You can do it, boy. Or girl. From here, I can’t tell. Sorry.”


The dog gave a brave little wag of its tail, took a hesitant step, then stopped, whining again. The poor thing was terrified, its body trembling.


A semi drove by in low gear, using its engine to break as it hurtled down the hill toward town, the roar making the dog even more afraid. It whimpered, dark eyes looking down at her as if she were its only hope for salvation.


“I can’t come up after you, or we’ll both be stuck up there.”


The fire department.


They had trucks. They had ladders. If they got cats out of trees, couldn’t they get a dog off a rock cut?


“Hold on, buddy.” She drew out her cell phone, looked online for the fire department’s non-emergency number, and dialed, giving her location to the dispatcher and explaining the situation.


“I’m alerting both the fire department and the Rocky Mountain Search and Rescue, ma’am,” the dispatcher said. “You’re right up the road from the fire department. They should be on the scene in a matter of minutes.”


“Thanks.” Lexi slid her phone back into her pocket and called up to the dog, trying to soothe it. “Hang in there, buddy. We’ll save you.”


The morning sun beat down on her, and she remembered too late how quickly her skin burned at altitude. Being a natural redhead had its downside. Wishing she’d remembered to bring a hat, she glanced down the hill, expecting to see an emergency-response vehicle headed her way. Apart from a couple of cars, the only other person on the road was a hiker in a red hat.


Above her, the dog whimpered and whined.


“You poor baby!” Where was the dog’s owner? Lexi had no sympathy for people who neglected their pets. “Help is on its way. I promise. How long have you been stuck there? You’re probably thirsty, aren’t you?”


She glanced down the hill again. There was still no sign of either the fire department or any rescue team, but the hiker was moving quickly in her direction. He wore shorts and flip flops, his short-sleeved shirt unbuttoned, his red hat…


That wasn’t a hat. It was a fireman’s helmet.


He was the fire department’s response?


One man in shorts, an unbuttoned shirt, and flip flops.


Only in Scarlet.


He reached her in a matter of minutes, giving her a nod, only a little out of breath. He seemed to take in the situation at a glance, then stared at her, his face splitting in a wide grin. “Lexi Jewell. I sure didn’t expect to find you here.”


It took her a moment to recognize him, and when she did, she found herself smiling. “Eric? Eric Hawke?”


Oh. My. God.


What had happened to the skinny kid who’d blushed every time she’d looked at him? Eric Hawke had grown up to be … well, ripped was the first word that came to mind. Hot was the second.


There was stubble on his jaw, his skin tanned to a deep brown. A sprinkling of dark hair covered his chest, disappearing in a thin line behind the waistband of his shorts. Even his legs were tanned and muscular.


He reached for the hand mic clipped to his collar, and she saw he wore an earpiece. “Scarlet FD on the scene, made contact with the RP.”


She willed herself to look into his eyes. “So, you’re a fireman now?”


Of course he’s a fireman! Why else would he wear a fireman’s helmet?


“I’m chief of Scarlet’s fire department.” His gaze shifted from her to the dog. “Looks like we’ve got a little problem here.”


He took off his helmet and handed it to her, his dark hair damp with sweat. Then he walked around her car to the rock face and started to climb.


She didn’t mean to tell him his business, but this hardly seemed safe. “Shouldn’t you use a rope or a ladder or something?”


“Nah.” His gaze was on the rock. “This is easy.”


He’d gotten perhaps five feet off the ground when a white SUV with the words “Forest County Parks & Open Space” on the side pulled up behind her car, lights flashing. A tall man in an olive green ranger uniform and mirrored aviator sunglasses stepped out.


Lexi’s pulse tripped.




He was taller, his dark blond hair shorter, his body filled out, more muscular, but she would have recognized him anywhere—those cheekbones, that jaw, those lips.


She’d known she’d run into him sooner or later, but why did it have to be today?


She sucked in a breath and put a smile on her face. “Austin.”



Austin Taylor tried to ignore the fact that his heart had actually skipped a beat. He gave Lexi a nod, then turned his attention to Hawke. “You got this?”


“Yeah. No need to tone out the Team.” Hawke drew himself up beside the dog, took it beneath his left arm, and started down climbing.


Austin reached for the hand mic of his radio, which he kept clipped to a loop on his uniform shirt. “Fifty-six-twenty.”


“Fifty-six-twenty, go ahead.”


“Disregard that last call for SAR. Scarlet FD has it under control.”


“Ten-twenty-three,” dispatch responded, noting the time for the official record.


Hawke dropped the last few feet to the ground, the dog under one arm. He scratched behind its ears. “How the hell did you get up there?”


Lexi hurried over to Eric, handed him his helmet and took the dog, a smile on her face. “I can’t believe you climbed that in flip flops.”


“It was nothing, really, but if you want to be impressed, go ahead.” The grin on Hawke’s face told Austin he was enjoying the attention.


Hawke had once had a serious crush on Lexi, calling her “Sexy Lexi.” Okay, so Hawke hadn’t been the only one to use that nickname. All of the boys, including Austin, had used it, too, because…




She looked just like he remembered her—long hair a deep shade of red, high cheekbones, big, green eyes, a perfect mouth. Well, maybe she had changed a little. Her hair was longer, and the white tank top and denim skirt she wore clung to curves that were clearly fuller.


Holy hell.


She set the squirming dog on the ground, knelt beside it. “You’re happy to be down, aren’t you? Poor puppy.”


The dog wagged its entire body, lavishing her face with kisses.


She laughed, looked up at Austin with those big eyes. “Do you have water? I think he’s thirsty. He’s been stuck up there for a while.”


She didn’t seem to have a leash, and she hadn’t brought water either. What kind of a dog owner was she?


“I’ve got some in the vehicle.” Austin went to get it, returning with a bottle of water and a collapsible water bowl.


She gave him a bright smile that made his pulse skip again. “I guess you’re prepared for everything.”


Everything except seeing her again.


He knelt down beside her, close enough to catch the scent of her skin—clean and feminine and familiar. He lost his train of thought, his mouth struggling to find words. “I come across stray pets fairly often. Sometimes I work with rescue dogs.”


The dog drank greedily.


“You were thirsty, weren’t you?” He scratched behind the dog’s ears, disappointed to see dirt, burrs, and tangles in its fur. He would have expected better of Lexi. She had always loved animals. “Do you have a leash?”


She shook her head.


“This is Forest County Open Space. Dog owners are required to keep their dogs on leash at all times. I’m going to have to issue you a ticket for—”


“A ticket?” Lexi gaped at him. “How can you ticket me?”


Her response surprised him, made his hackles rise. Did she think he would give her a break because they’d once had a connection?


“Aw, come on, man,” Eric protested. “Cut her some slack. She just got here.”


Austin’s temper spiked. Hawke had spent five minutes with Lexi and already he wanted Austin to bend the rules for her? He was thinking with his balls—again. “That’s not how it works.”


Then Lexi’s eyes went wide, her lips forming a little O, a look of comprehension on her face. She laughed, the sweet sound stirring memories.


What was so damned funny?


“It’s not my dog.”


“It’s not your dog?” Austin repeated, stupidly.


Behind him, Hawke chuckled.


“I was just driving by when I saw the little guy up there and stopped to help.”


And the pieces came together.


“Got it. Not your dog.” He found himself laughing, too. “I guess that means no ticket. I’ll grab a leash and take it to impound.”


It was disappointing, really. He’d been working his way toward seriously disliking her—the woman who’d broken his teenage heart and didn’t take care of her dog. But she’d stopped to help a stranded animal.




He strode to his vehicle, grabbed a leash, and returned. He was about to fix it to the dog’s collar, when a young woman in a crocheted halter top and ankle-length tie-dyed skirt clambered over the opposite embankment and ran across the highway on bare feet, blond dreadlocks hanging down her back.


She glared at Lexi, her hands making fists. “What are you doing with my dog?”


Austin hadn’t seen her around here before and guessed she was with the group of transients that had camped out on Forest Service land over the weekend. Her tone and bearing had him instinctively stepping closer to Lexi.


Lexi started to answer her. “I—”


“Your dog was stuck up there.” Hawke stepped in front of Lexi. “She stopped and called for help. I believe what you’re trying to say is, ‘Thank you.’”


The woman scooped the dog into her arms, still glaring at Lexi. “You didn’t have to call no one. I’d have found him. I always find him.”


Austin would have ticketed her, but he could see the woman wasn’t carrying an ID with her. She probably didn’t have a permanent address. There was no way to be certain she’d give him her real name and no mechanism to ensure that she paid the ticket. In other words, giving her a ticket would accomplish nada.


“Take this.” He held out the leash. “Dogs must be kept leashed at all times on National Forest and county open-space land.”


She glared at him. “Dogs gotta run.”


Austin nodded. “Sure they do. Sometimes they run into packs of coyotes that tear them apart. Sometimes they run into skunks, porcupines, rabid foxes, bears. Sometimes they run across highways and get hit by cars. If you care about your dog, you’ll want to do all you can to keep it safe. If I find it abandoned again, I’ll take it to impound.”


She jerked the leash from his hand, set the dog down, and attached the leash to its collar, muttering profanities.


Austin didn’t give a damn if he made her angry. He pushed a little harder. “There’s a low-cost pet clinic in town. If the dog isn’t up on its vaccinations, take it in for a quick checkup. Rabies shots are free on the third Friday of every month.”


 “Whatever.” She shot Lexi one last dirty look before crossing the highway again and disappearing down the embankment, the dog following behind her.


Lexi stared after her. “What did I do?”


“No good deed goes unpunished.” Hawke shook his head. “You handled that well, ranger man.”


“You both did,” Lexi said. “Thanks for your help, guys.”


“That’s what we’re here for.” Hawke flashed that stupid grin of his.


Go ahead, buddy. Play it for all it’s worth.


Austin kept his voice neutral, professional, irritated by the way some part of him had reacted to her praise. He was as bad as Hawke. “Thanks for calling it in. There aren’t many rangers. We depend on people to be our eyes and ears.”


“Are you here for a while or just a few days?” Hawke asked her.


Austin already knew the answer—or thought he knew.


“I came to help my father, but I won’t be staying long.”


Of course she wouldn’t.


Still, Austin knew she and her father had never been close, so he supposed it involved some genuine sacrifice for her to put her life in Chicago on hold to help the old man. “I’m sure he’ll be glad you’re back.”


“I’m not.” There was no emotion in her voice. It was just a statement of fact. “He wants his wife, but he’s stuck with me for now.”


Austin was about to ask Lexi what was going on between Bob and Kendra, but that was too personal a conversation to have with someone he hadn’t spoken with for twelve years and, frankly, none of his business.


Instead, he bent down, dumped the leftover water out of the bowl, and shook it out before collapsing it again. He turned to Hawke. “You need a lift back to the station?”


“Nah, man, I’m good.” Hawke grinned. “Though I wouldn’t say no to a ride in Lexi’s snazzy little convertible.”


Lexi laughed. “Hop in.”


Austin glanced at his watch, feeling the need to move on. He reached for his hand mic. “Fifty-six-twenty.”


“Fifty-six-twenty, go ahead.”


“Show me back in service.”


“Fifty-six-twenty. Ten-thirty-two.”


“I imagine I’ll see you around town, Lexi.” He turned toward his vehicle. “Hawke, I’ll see you at Saturday’s training, if not before.”


Both of them were members of Rocky Mountain Search & Rescue Team and never knew when they might get called out. It was rare during the warmer months for a week to go by without the Team getting tasked with multiple missions.


Hawke shouted after him. “Hey, you want to grab a burger and a brew at Knockers tonight? Timberline Mudbugs are playing.”


That actually sounded good, though Austin might go for scotch instead of beer. “Sure. I get off at seventeen-thirty. Meet you at nineteen-hundred.”


“You’ll join us, won’t you, Lexi?”


Austin heard the trap Hawke had set for him snap shut.


You bastard.


Hawke just grinned.


Lexi looked from Hawke to Austin and back again, then shook her head. “Maybe some other time. I need to get settled at my dad’s place tonight.”


Austin tried not to let his relief show.





Lexi put her car into gear and nosed back onto the highway, Austin disappearing up the road behind her in his service vehicle. “He didn’t appreciate that, you know. He wouldn’t have agreed to meet up with you if he’d known you were going to invite me.”


She might not have seen Austin in twelve years, but she could still read him. She hadn’t expected him to be excited about seeing her again, but she also hadn’t expected him to be so … cold.


“Dude needs to lighten up,” Eric took his helmet from his head, dropped it into his lap, the wind catching his hair. “It would have been good for him. He’d have had a few beers, gotten reacquainted with you, realized you’re not an ogre.”


“He thinks I’m an ogre?” She laughed but felt a twinge of hurt just the same.


Eric gave her a “duh” look. “You did break his heart.”


“He broke my heart.” She’d never cried so hard in her life as that night he’d dropped her off in front of the inn and driven away. He hadn’t even said goodbye. “He’s the one who ended it.”


“Sure.” Eric nodded, then looked over at her. “But only after you told him you thought the two of you should date other people. What did you expect?”


“That’s not what I said.” She ought to have known Eric would side with Austin. The two had been best friends since they were little.


“Okay, so you both played a role in screwing things up, but, hey, you were just kids. That’s why I tried to get you together. I thought it would give you both a chance to let go of the past.”


“I let go of all that when I left Scarlet.”


“Uh-huh.” The tone of Eric’s voice told her she hadn’t fooled him.


Months had gone by before the pain in her chest had dulled to something bearable. God, how she’d missed Austin. She’d missed him more than she’d known she could miss anyone. She’d missed his kisses, his sense of humor, the way he’d made her feel special. Everything had reminded her of him—a song on the radio, their favorite TV shows, a couple kissing in the park. It had been a solid year before she’d even considered dating again. To this day, she never saw a box of Junior Mints—his favorite movie theater candy—without thinking of him.


If only she’d kept her mouth busy kissing him that night instead of talking, that entire summer might have been very different. It’s not like she’d actually wanted to date other guys. She’d been in love with Austin. Still, she’d known their lives were about to change and that they were headed in different directions. She’d thought she was being matureby forcing herself to face that fact, but he’d thought she didn’t love him.


What she hadn’t known, what she couldn’t have known until she’d gotten settled in Illinois, was that she would have changed her plans—just to be with him. But by then it had been too late.


“If I were you, I wouldn’t stir the pot.” She turned into the parking lot behind the fire station. “You’ll only make Austin angry.”


“I think I’ve made you angry.” He grinned, apparently untroubled by this. “Damn, it is good to see you again, Lexi.”


She let go of her irritation. “It’s good to see you, too. But, hey, if you ever actually fight a fire, you might want to, you know, wear something. I hear fires are hot and dangerous.”


Which was also a great description of the man sitting beside her.


He chuckled. “I’ll try to remember that.”


“Good.” If he dressed like this, the women and gay men of Scarlet from age nine to ninety might start setting their houses on fire just to stare at him.


“Hey, if you’re looking for a date during the short time you’re in town, I’m available.” Eric rattled off his phone number, then opened the door and stepped out. “If you can’t remember that, just dial 911.”


She laughed. “How do you know I’m not already in a relationship?”


She hadn’t been with anyone since Chris. Trust issues, Vic said.


Eric glanced at her hand. “No ring means there’s nothing I need to take seriously.”


“I don’t recall you being this bold in high school.”


The Eric she remembered had been shy.


He looked her straight in the eyes. “If I had been, Austin wouldn’t have been the one to pop your cherry.”


She gaped at him, unable to keep from laughing. “You’re sure of that, are you?”


“See you around, Lexi.” He gave her a devastating smile, then disappeared inside the fire station.


Still laughing at Eric’s brashness, she left the fire station, passed St. Barbara’s Catholic Church and Frank’s Pump ‘N’ Go, and soon reached the town’s biggest intersection—a roundabout where the Highway 119 intersected with Second Street and Highway 72. She kept to the right, driving past the fossil store and the New Life Institute, where people paid thousands of dollars to have their heads cryogenically frozen after death so they could be brought back to life. Then she took a right turn onto West First Street. There, across the street from Rose’s New Age Emporium, Izzy’s Mountain Café, and a new marijuana shop called Nature’s Meds, stood the Forest Creek Inn.


Yellow with white trim, it was an enormous three-story Victorian home, one of the town’s oldest inhabited buildings and a registered historic landmark. The large yard had been landscaped over several generations with small clusters of aspens, tall blue spruce, two benches, dozens of flower beds, and a pond. The bed and breakfast was run out of the top two floors, while the family had four bedrooms, a bathroom, a family room, kitchen, and dining room on the ground floor.


Everyone assumed it must have been great fun to grow up in a stately, old house with so much history. They had no idea how much work it was to run a business out of one’s home. They looked at the inn and saw its charm. She saw endless chores and lots of rules. Toilets to clean. Beds to make. Furniture to dust. No running. No jumping. No shouting. No friends coming for sleepovers.


She turned into the long, paved driveway and headed back to the parking area reserved for the family. She’d no sooner parked the car and turned off the engine, when she caught sight of her father. He stood in the backyard watering one of the flower beds wearing nothing but his underwear.


Sweet Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!


He really had gone off the deep end.


Forgetting her suitcases, she jumped out of the car and ran over to him. “Dad, what on earth are you doing? You’re going to scare the guests away!”


He turned his head, looking much older than the last time she’d seen him, his jaw covered with gray stubble, his salt-and-pepper hair unwashed and uncombed. “So, one of the prodigal daughters has returned.”



Austin turned off the highway, drove the short distance to Moose Lake, and parked. He reached for his hand mic. “Fifty-six-twenty. Moose Lake on foot patrol.”


“Fifty-six twenty,” dispatch acknowledged. “Moose Lake. Eleven-oh-five.”


So … Lexi Jewell, huh?




He’d known she was coming back to Scarlet, had known his path would cross hers eventually, but running into her as the reporting party of a call had caught him off guard. What had surprised him most was his own reaction.


Some part of him had actually felt happy to see her.


How he could possibly feel anything for her—good or bad—was beyond him. Like cleats, ski racing, and homecoming floats, she was a part of his past, just a woman he used to know. They might as well be strangers.


Except that she hadn’t felt like a stranger.


It had been twelve years since he’d seen her, twelve years since he’d kissed her, twelve years since he’d held her, but everything about her had felt familiar—the sound of her laughter, the way she smiled, the dimple in her left cheek. He’d felt drawn to her, as if some stupid part of him—probably the part attached at his groin—recognized her and wanted to stake some kind of claim.


Well, she wasn’t his. She never had been.


She’d made that clear on July 4, 2004—a date he remembered only because it was a holiday. They’d gone up past the ghost town of Caribou—to watch the fireworks, he’d told her father—and fucked each other’s brains out on a blow-up mattress he’d tossed in the back of his old Ford. Afterward, she’d lain naked on top of him, and they’d kissed. It had been perfect—until it imploded.


“I’m going to miss you so much, Austin.”


“I’m going to miss you, too, but we’ll see each other over break.”


“I’m not coming back here.”


“What? What do you mean you’re not coming back?”


“Once I leave town, that’s it. I’m not coming back to Scarlet—not for a very long time, anyway. I can’t stand this place. You know that.”


“When will we see each other?”


“I don’t know. I suppose you could come to Champaign, and I could visit you in Fort Collins.”


 “You suppose?”


He had imagined them going to college, spending breaks together, and getting married after graduation. But she’d had a very different future in mind, one that hadn’t seemed to include him. With a few words, she’d brought his world crashing down.


If he’d had half a brain in his eighteen-year-old head, he would have let it go and taken the summer to convince her that she couldn’t live without him. Instead, he’d accused her of not loving him the way he loved her—which had been true—and had ended their relationship that night.


“I thought we’d stay together, spend our vacations in Scarlet, and maybe get married, depending on how things go.”


“Get married? Austin, we’re way too young even to think about that. We both need to see new places, try new things, meet other people. Maybe when we’re older—”


“You want to date other guys?”


“That’s not what I said. But the world is going to get bigger for both of us, and chances are we’ll change a lot. Statistically speaking, the vast majority of high school relationships don’t last.”


“Is that what this is to you—just a high school relationship? Am I just a fun way to pass the summer till you leave for college and hook up with other guys?”




“Get dressed. I’m taking you home, Lexi.”


He’d been so angry, so hurt. They hadn’t spoken a word to each other while he’d driven her home, fireworks exploding overhead, his heart in pieces.


In retrospect, they’d both been right. He truly had loved her more than she’d loved him, and she’d understood that they were far too young for serious commitment. She’d also known herself well enough to understand that the life she wanted couldn’t include him. He had to give her credit for that. But knowing all of this didn’t take away the memory of heartbreak.


First love. Why did people romanticize it? It sucked.


True, none of the handful of relationships Austin had had with women since then had been able to match the intensity of that year with Lexi. The two of them had spent every spare minute thinking about sex, reading how-to manuals about sex, talking about sex or having sex, practicing until they’d got it perfect for each other.


Had it really been that good, or was he remembering it through the rose-colored lenses of a teenager?


Hell, he didn’t know.


He climbed out of his service vehicle, grabbed his pack out of the back, and slipped into it, fastening the waist belt and adjusting its weight on his back. He checked to make sure the trash had been collected then walked over to have a look at the restrooms. The women’s room was out of toilet paper, and the men’s room…


“Son of a … !”


This day was going downhill fast.


He let the door swing shut, reached for his hand mic. “Fifty-six-twenty.”


He didn’t understand how shit like this even happened—no pun intended.


“Fifty-six-twenty, go ahead.”


“We need the water truck and high-pressure hoses up at Moose Lake. It’s time for a Code Brown hose down of the men’s room.”


There was a hint of laughter in the dispatcher’s voice when she answered. “Fifty-six-twenty, Code Brown hose down, Moose Lake. Eleven-oh-nine.”


Well, shit.





Lexi took advantage of her father’s being in the shower to search the place for booze. She’d smelled it on his breath the moment he’d spoken and knew alcohol had to explain some of his strange behavior. She found seven half-empty bottles of rum and a couple bottles of scotch, along with a few dozen mini bottles of every conceivable form of hard liquor known to humanity, carried them to the kitchen, and dumped them down the kitchen sink.


“Are you crazy, girl?” Her father’s voice came from behind her. “What the hell are you doing?”


Lexi tried to ignore the way his raised voice made her tense. “Keep your voice down. We have guests upstairs.”


“You’re dumping my hard-earned money down the drain.”


“Better down the drain than down you. No more drinking, Dad.”


“You think you can show up when you like and then go through my things? My drinking is none of your damned business.”


“When I find you standing drunk outside watering flowers in your underwear at eleven in the morning, it becomes my business.”


He gave a snort. “Should I have waited till after noon?”


She turned to face him, startled to see that he was wearing only a skimpy towel, his face clean-shaven, his hair wet. “Good grief, Dad! Put some clothes on.”


“What’s the matter?” He looked down at himself. “I’m decent.”


“Only if you’re alone with your wife.” Seeing her father half naked had never been on her bucket list.


“You been talking to Kendra?”


“She called a few times. That’s why I’m here.”


“Figures.” What he meant by that he didn’t say.


“I want to help you win her back.” She poured a little bottle of tequila down the drain, the odor of alcohol overpowering. “You can’t do that if you’re drunk.”


He frowned. “That’s why you’re here?”


She nodded. “You can’t run this place on your own. If she divorces you, you’ll have to sell the inn, and then what will you do? Do you want to move into a cabin with no electricity and no running water and live off handouts like Bear?”


Bear had lived in a cabin somewhere above Scarlet for as long as anyone could remember. No one knew how old he was or where he’d come from or what had happened to make him the way he was. He’d just always been there, and the townsfolk had always accepted him. As big as a grizzly and as gentle as a lamb, he came into town most days, Bible in hand, blessing those kind enough to donate change or buy him a meal.


Her father’s eyes narrowed. “What’s it matter to you? You don’t care about your old man, and you don’t give a damn about the inn. Are you doing this for me or for yourself and your sister?”


It sounded so harsh when he put it like that, and she felt an impulse to object, to tell him that she did care about him and the inn in her own way. But she couldn’t bring herself to say it. “If you get Kendra back, does it matter?”


He seemed to consider this. “No. No, I guess it doesn’t.”


Then his eyes went wide. “Jesus, no, not the Glenmorangie. That’s my Glenmorangie Signet.”


Lexi looked at the label. “Not anymore.”


Her father clapped both hands to his head, a look of genuine panic on his face. “You can’t dump that! That’s a two-hundred-dollar bottle of scotch!”


“Two hundred dollars?” She looked at the label, and an idea came to her. “Fine.”


She turned and walked out the back door, around the house, and across the street to Rose’s place. She opened the door to the tinkling of bells, the cloying scent of patchouli hitting her in the face. She found Rose in the back doing a tarot reading. Dressed in a gauzy pink sundress, her gray hair hanging down her back, crystals dangling from silver chains around her neck, she hadn’t changed one bit.


“A reverse card isn’t necessarily a negative thing. It can also mean change, and change can be good.” She looked up, saw Lexi. “Hey! I didn’t know you were in town.”


Lexi held out the scotch. “This is for you.”


Rose took the bottle and looked at the label, her eyes going wide. “Oh! My goodness. Thank you!”


“You’re welcome.” Lexi willed herself to smile. “I didn’t mean to interrupt. I’ll see you later, I’m sure.”


Now that Rose knew she was in town, Lexi wouldn’t be able to avoid seeing her. Not that she didn’t like Rose. Rose was kind and caring and a very good listener, but she had a tendency to share everything she heard with the rest of the town. She also had a gift for turning what ought to be a ten-minute conversation into a three-hour visit, complete with tarot reading—whether a person wanted one or not.


Lexi turned and walked out the front door into the fresh air, Rose’s voice and the reek of patchouli following her. “Come back a little later, and we’ll get caught up. I’ll read your cards!”


Across the street, her father stood in their front yard, still wearing only a towel. For a moment he stared at her open-mouthed, then he threw up his hands and walked back inside. “Son of a bitch!”



Hawke laughed as Austin recounted his day. “Oh, the glamorous life of a park ranger. Hose downs and garbage duty.”


Knockers was doing good business for a Tuesday night. Then again, it was the only brew pub in town. With great beer, decent food, a climbing wall, pool tables, and live music, it was the center of Scarlet’s nightlife.


Outsiders and tourists thought the pub’s name was about boobs. They didn’t stick around long enough to learn that it was actually a reference to tommyknockers—mythical spirits that dwelt in the mines, watching out for miners. Scarlet Springs had once been a Cornish mining camp, so knockers were just a part of the local history.


Which wasn’t to say the pub’s name had never made Austin think of boobs…


Bear was going from table to table asking for spare change, while Timberline Mudbugs was laying down a good zydeco beat up on the small stage. The music was loud enough that Austin had to shout to be heard across the table.


“If I’d known what I was getting myself into when I applied for this job... ”


Hawke grinned, took a swig of his Glacier Stout. “Hell, I know you. You’d have signed on anyway. You’d go crazy sitting at a desk.”


“You’re right about that.” Austin took a sip of scotch, felt some of the tension he’d carried with him all day ease.


They’d already polished off their burgers and fries. Neither of them had mentioned what had happened earlier with Lexi, and that was just fine with Austin. He wished everyone else would stop talking about her.


From the moment he’d finished his shift, every person he’d run into had asked him whether he knew she was back in town. Rose had seen her, and that meant the whole town knew. Twelve years had gone by, but apparently everyone still thought of them as a couple—or an ex-couple, which was even better. Even his mother had called. She’d pretended at first that she just wanted to talk about his younger sister, Cheyenne. Then she’d brought up the fact that Lexi was back in an oh-so-casual and utterly transparent way that might have made Austin laugh—if he hadn’t already been so irritated.


“You ready for Saturday?” Hawke asked.


They would be practicing a standard vertical evac with a modified brake plate up on Redgarden Wall in Eldorado Canyon State Park.


Austin nodded. “Can’t wait to see how Belcourt’s new invention works out.”


Son of a Lakota Sun Dance chief, Chaska Belcourt had come to Colorado to study engineering, had discovered rock climbing, and hadn’t looked back. He’d joined the Team a few years back and had made it his personal mission to redesign the gear they used to make it safer and more versatile. He’d come up with a few amazing modifications already, and his work was being replicated for use by rescue teams across the country.


“It tested well on the training tower last—”


Their pagers buzzed at the same time—not the emergency call-out tone, but a buzz. Austin drew his out of his jeans pocket, pushed the button to read the display. He looked up, met Hawke’s gaze. “Megs?”


Eric nodded. “I wonder what she wants.”


“She probably wants to chew us out for wasting resources again.”


The Team had been having cash-flow problems lately, donations having taken a dip these past couple of years.


Maggie Hill, called Megs by her friends, was a climbing legend. One of the first women to jump into hardcore rock climbing with the boys back in the late 1960s, she’d helped start the Rocky Mountain Search & Rescue after a climbing accident had stranded one of her friends, leaving him to freeze to death. In her early sixties and still climbing, she now served as the Team’s director.


“I guess we’d best pay the bill and find out. Whose turn is it this time?”


Hawke grinned. “I had one beer tonight, and you had scotch. It must be yours.”


“You’re so full of shit.” Austin motioned to Rain, their server.


She smiled, half-walking, half-dancing over to the table, her long blond hair tied up on her head with a paisley scarf, tattoos of roses, ivy, and skulls twining their way up both forearms, a tiny silver ring in her right nostril. Two years older than Austin, she’d dropped out of school when she was sixteen to follow her boyfriend’s rock band. After he’d dumped her, she’d hitchhiked back to Scarlet, bringing with her a baby daughter named Lark. Caribou Joe, the pub’s eccentric owner and bartender, had taken her in and given her a job, even though she hadn’t been legally old enough to drink at the time.


She crossed her arms over her chest, looked from Austin to Hawke. “Alright, boys. Who gets the damages?”


Hawke drew his wallet out of his pocket, feigning irritation. “Next time I’m paying, you drink beer.”


“Yeah? Who had the rib eye last week?” Austin countered. “Cheap bastard.”


Rain took Eric’s debit card. “Hey, Lexi Jewell’s back in town. Have you heard? I guess she came back to help her dad.”


Eric met Austin’s gaze, grinned. “Yeah, we heard.”


Austin felt his teeth grind.