Rescue Me | Chapter 7 of 25

Author: Susan May Warren | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 1934 Views | Add a Review

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IT FELT DOWNRIGHT SINFUL that the search committee for the new youth pastor should meet in the back room of the Summit Café at lunchtime, on a Friday afternoon.

During Willow’s shift.

In her area.

It was probably God’s punishment for her betrayal of Sierra. Not that God was vindictive, Willow knew that. But she’d been walking around with the memory of kissing Sam in her heart for a week now—a sharp-edged burr that stung every time she looked at Sierra.

Willow deserved a little punishment, and would take it with a smile. Even if it nearly dismantled her watching her dream job being handed over right before her eyes to a twenty-year-old preppy Bible school youngster in blue jeans rolled up at the ankles, a printed black T-shirt, and suit jacket. He had such a baby face he could double for Justin Bieber. He drank a caramel latte as he talked about his plans for the youth program—to start a Bible certificate program and a youth choir.

She put his Reuben sandwich in front of him, then looked at the gathering around the table, doing a quick appraisal.

Grilled cheese and tomato soup for Pastor Hayes, a pastrami on rye for Nora Webster, the associate pastor’s wife, and a chicken salad sandwich for Chet King—he looked up and smiled at her. At least she had one friendly face in the crowd.

Her jury, the ones who had ruled her unworthy.

She pasted on a smile. “Can I get anyone anything else?”

“I’ll take more water,” Nora said, tapping her glass.

“Can I get some Coke?” This from the youngster. Oh, she should probably start calling him by his name. “No problem, Josh.” She headed out of the room to the long soda fountain counter.

The Summit Café hummed with conversation on this Friday afternoon, a day off for Mercy Falls schools for some sort of teacher training day. The smell of burgers on the grill, crunchy onion rings, fresh-spun malts, and house-ground coffee made the café one of her favorite places, ever, to work.

She’d made the rounds, from the convenience store, working at their twenty-four-hour kitchen, deep-frying wings and assembling pizzas, to summers working in the park as a trail guide, to pulling espresso shots at the Last Chance Coffee Shop. Even that one stint as a waitress at the Gray Pony Bar and Grill. After all, a girl without a formal education couldn’t turn down a job.

She should probably see if she could get back on staff at the Pony for the winter. After all, given the conversation in the next room, she’d no longer have to keep her weekends free for youth activities.

Apparently, they didn’t need her anymore.

Willow filled a glass with Coke, grabbed the water pitcher, and headed back to the room. The group stopped talking when she entered—small mercies—and she set the glass down in front of Josh, then filled Nora’s glass.

Pastor Hayes touched her arm as she passed by. “Bella comes home today,” he said quietly. “She was hoping you’d call her.”

Willow smiled, nodded, crazy tears burning her eyes as she fled the room.

Silly. It wasn’t like she wouldn’t see these kids again. But Carrie’s words had rung in her head all week. “She’ll never be on staff at the church, because frankly, she can’t be trusted to make wise decisions.”

She tried not to let the words dig a hole in her chest but . . .

It might be true. After all, she’d stranded them on a mountaintop only a few months ago during the flood of the century.

She wandered by the rest of her tables—a family on vacation, a group of teenage boys fresh in from some grass-stained practice. Maybe rugby players. She thought she might have recognized one from a youth event, but he said nothing. Another table of ladies—they held books and were in rapt discussion—ignored Willow as she filled their glasses.

She put the pitcher down on the table at the booth where Jess and Sierra sat. Sierra was finishing the last of her banana chocolate shake, and Jess was picking at her tater tots. As usual, Jess hadn’t quite gotten all the paint off her hands—Willow spotted a smudge of pink.

“Paint break?” she asked.

Jess looked up at her, her mind clearly somewhere else because she blinked a moment, then smiled. “Yeah. I think Pete is coming over later to start tackling the upstairs. We need to gut the bathroom.”

“I can’t believe he’s doing all this for free,” Sierra said.

Willow glanced at her tables and slid in beside her sister, just for a moment. “Oh, I know why he’s doing it—he’s getting paid in hang-out time with Jess.”

Jess’s mouth opened, then closed, and she frowned. “No—I mean, sure, we’re friends, and we have a good time together, but we’re teammates. I promise you, he doesn’t think about me in any other way.”

“Right,” Sierra said, and Willow glanced at her.

“Seriously,” Sierra continued. “I see the way Pete looks at you at the ranch. And yeah, you two have fun, but under all that teasing, I think he’s looking for a way to ask you out.”

“Oh trust me, that’s not what’s happening here.” Jess added a shake of her head, a wry smile, and picked up a tot.

Silence filled the wake of her denial, and she looked up. “What?”

“No, you tell us, what,” Sierra said, and Willow nodded.

Jess lifted a shoulder. “Nothing, just . . .” She sighed. “After the bear attack, he brought me home and . . .”

More silence.

“Jess, do I need to take those tots away?” Willow said.

Jess looked up, wrinkled her nose. “Fine. I thought he was going to kiss me, and . . .”

For a second, just a flash, Willow was back in Sam’s arms, tasting his mouth on hers.

“He kissed you?” Sierra said.

“No. I thought he was going to kiss me. We were goofing around, as usual, and then things just got real serious, real fast, and he took a step toward me—close enough so that we probably could have kissed . . .”

“Would you have let him kiss you?” Willow said.

Jess looked past her, out the front window. “Maybe.”

“Jess,” Sierra said.

“Why not? I mean, I know you guys say he’s such a womanizer, but really, I haven’t seen it. Yes, he flirts—but that’s just his personality. And . . . oh, I don’t know. You’re probably right. I don’t want a guy who just wants to have fun. I’m not that kind of girl. Except, maybe I am, because the last thing I need is to get tangled up in a relationship.”

Willow watched her as she wiped her mouth, crumpled her napkin. “Jess, why didn’t he kiss you?”

Jess tossed the napkin on her plate. “He asked if I’d help him write a résumé. He wants to be an incident commander for the PEAK team.”

“That’s a great idea,” Sierra said. “Sam’s always saying that they need a backup, in case Miles is unavailable.”

“Yeah, well, I mentioned that Sam would have to hire him, and Pete sort of shut down. There’s bad blood between them, but Pete never talks about it.”

Sierra was nodding. “Sam doesn’t either. I don’t know what their problem is.”

Willow stared at her sister. “What are you talking about? Of course you know—it’s about their dad. And the fact that he got lost on the mountain chasing Pete.”

Sierra frowned at her. “I guess I thought he was over that.”

“What are you talking about?” Jess asked.

“What do you mean over that?” Willow said to Sierra.

“I don’t mean losing his dad, but the fight between him and Pete—”

What fight?” Jess said.

“I guess I didn’t realize he really blamed Pete. I thought it was an accident,” Sierra said.

“They got in a huge fight. In front of everyone!” Willow said.

“Pete and Sam?” Jess interjected.

Poor Jess. Willow turned to her. “Yeah. It was about twelve years ago—I remember because I was at Dad’s that weekend. He was called out to find a skier who’d gone missing in the backwoods off a nearby ski resort. A storm blew in that night, and they didn’t find the skier for two days. He’d fallen in a tree well and frozen to death.”

“Oh my gosh—and that was Pete and Sam’s dad?” Jess said.

“Yeah. Apparently, when they found him, Sam blamed Pete, publicly. It was pretty ugly.” She left off the rest, the more private information he’d shared with her in error. “Sometimes I think I hate him. So much it makes me want to scream. I want to throw my fist in his face.”

His wretched tone could still shake her. Oh, Sam.

She refused to think about the rest. Especially when she was sitting next to Sierra.

But her throat burned.

“Sam was out of school for about two weeks, right in the middle of our senior year,” Sierra was saying to Jess, finishing the story. “His uncle took over the lumber company. Maybe that’s why Sam didn’t go to college. Stayed local.”

“Probably to help his mom. Especially after Pete took off.” Willow saw the teenagers in need of a checkup. She got up and delivered them more water, then fished around in her apron for the check. Ripped it off. “No hurry.”

She swung by the counter, picked up the coffeepot, and refilled mugs for the book ladies. Then stopped by the family, whose children were still finishing their chicken nuggets.

“Don’t forget to pick a candy from one of the bins. It comes with the kids’ meals,” she said and pointed to the baskets of old-time candies, one of the Summit’s novelties.

She debated swinging into the back room and instead headed back to Jess and Sierra. She picked up Jess’s plate.

“Hey, what’s happening back there?” Sierra said. “You get a glimpse of the new youth pastor?”

“Yeah. He’s about three years old. Perfect Bible name—Josh Blessing. He’s a newlywed and apparently he and his wife, Ava, just found out that she’s expecting.”

She stacked Sierra’s malt glass on the plate. “I shouldn’t judge—they’re probably super nice. The kids are going to learn lots. I’m just going to miss everyone.”

She turned, but Sierra reached out, touched her arm. “Willow, what are you talking about? You’re not stepping down as a youth leader just because they have an official youth pastor, are you? Those kids know you—they need you. Probably Josh could use your help settling in. Don’t let the committee’s rejection keep you from doing what’s right for these kids.”

And see, this was why Sierra deserved a happy ending—although maybe if she’d heard Sam’s words in the stairwell, she might not be so thrilled with him. But still, Sierra had nothing but mercy, nothing but a generous spirit.

Case in point, her almost tireless search, on and off the clock for the last three years, looking for billionaire Ian Shaw’s missing niece, Esme. If they hadn’t called off the search, and if Ian hadn’t fired her, Sierra would probably be at the Shaw ranch right now, making calls, following leads.

Unable to extricate herself from her crush on her billionaire former boss.

No, Sam and Sierra had to work out—for Sierra’s sake. She needed a fresh start, something to show her she didn’t need to be at Ian’s beck and call.

Besides, Willow just knew Sam wasn’t the guy she’d heard with Senator Starr. She’d worked it all out as she stared at her darkened ceiling so many nights this week. Sam had just been trying to appease Senator Starr. Trying to tell him what he wanted to hear.

Because Sam was a cop and knew how to talk people away from their dangerous emotions.

Unlike her, who apparently dove right in.

“Don’t you have a hike scheduled for this weekend into the park?” Sierra asked.

Willow set the dishes down. “I did. I thought maybe I could use it as an object lesson—something about teaching the kids to look at life from God’s perspective. To let him guide them, since he sees the entire picture.”

“Right—see, that’s good. And exactly what they need. You should go in there and tell Josh and the committee that you’ll take them on the hike. Josh can go with you, a sort of introduction to the group. Then, on the hike, you can prove to Josh that he needs you. That you’re still part of the team. You want that, right?”

She didn’t want to admit it, but . . .

Okay, she might just be feeling a little sorry for herself. It just felt that, with her father finding a new family and Sierra finding true love with Sam, the youth group seemed the only family she had left.

“They’d never let me be the only adult who knows the park on the hike.”

“What if I went with you?”

Ah, see, she didn’t deserve her sister. “I don’t—”

“And I’ll get Sam to join us. They can’t turn down Sam’s involvement. Who better than a cop to keep them safe?”

Willow managed to find a smile. “Yeah, but he’s so busy.”

“No, he’s not. He just doesn’t slow down. It would be good for him, I promise. I’ll ask him tonight, on our date.”

There it went again, the burr crawling through the walls of her heart. Somehow she managed an “Oh . . . okay.”

“Go in there—right now,” Sierra said. She actually slid out of the booth, pressed her hand to the small of her sister’s back. “I’ll go with you if you want.”

“No. I . . .” Willow blew out a breath. “Okay, fine.”

But she picked up the water pitcher on her way, just for fortification.

Most had finished their food. Chet asked for a box for his chicken sandwich and chips. Josh had left half his Reuben on his plate.

She filled Pastor Hayes’s water, then stepped back, waiting for a pause in the conversation—an innocuous discussion about the current winning streak of the Mercy Falls Mavericks.

Nora was the first to look up at her. She gave her a smile. Willow tested it for warmth, couldn’t decide.

“The check is on me,” Pastor Hayes said quietly, glancing up at her.

“I know,” Willow said. “Actually, I wanted, while you were all here . . .” She swallowed. “I wanted to talk about the youth hike we have scheduled tomorrow.”

“It’s not another overnight, is it?” Nora said.

“No, just a day hike. Sort of an end-of-the-season wrap-up. I wanted to take them up to the lookout on Huckleberry Mountain and talk about God’s perspective and . . .”

Now it sounded so lame. A feeble attempt to build some faith activity into a fun trip. “There’s more to being a youth leader than just being one of the girls or planning fun events and object lessons. You have to actually know and teach the word of God.”

“I don’t know, Willow.” Nora was shaking her head. “With the recent bear attack, and the last hike you were on . . .”

It didn’t help that Nora’s son, Nate, had gotten lost on said hike and ended up breaking his ankle in two places.

She should probably slink from the room.

“That sounds fun.” The voice came from the other end of the table. Josh, slick, skinny, and about as city-bred as a guy could get. “I’ve never been in the park, and it would be a great way to bond with these kids. Nothing builds friendship like a challenging activity together.”

“Not too challenging, I hope,” Nora said.

“I don’t know,” Pastor Hayes said. “Josh doesn’t really know the park—”

And that’s when Willow got desperate, when Sierra’s idea suddenly turned from wretchedly awkward to brilliant. “Deputy Sam Brooks would be going with us, along with my sister, Sierra.”

It had the effect she was hoping for.

Nora settled back in her chair, nodding. Chet glanced past her, perhaps at Sierra, and offered a shrug.

“All right, Willow,” Pastor Hayes said. “You coordinate with Josh. But yeah, if Sam’s going, then you can take the kids up the mountain.”

She was reaching to gather up their plates when she heard Nora add, “And back down again, safely.”

Willow had a feeling she wasn’t kidding.

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He wasn’t going to sing hallelujah or anything, but Pete could admit to a rush of relief when Jess didn’t answer her door.

At least then he didn’t have to spend the day pretending that something hadn’t changed between them the night he’d driven her home.

He pulled out his cell phone, checked for a text from her, but his messages were empty.

Huh. She was probably out getting supplies. Which meant he could sit on the porch and wait for her, or . . .

Or maybe she, too, felt the awkward shift in their friendship.

Which meant he should leave it alone. Give them time to find their footing again. He didn’t know how the teasing turned from fun to fire. Probably when she’d asked him what kind of girl he wanted and he’d answered with the truth.

He blamed it all on fatigue and nearly being eaten by a bear—but he’d let it spill out. “I’m partial to blondes. Grimy, sort of feisty ones with no real social life. The kind I can beat in a game of horse.”

Really? Oh, he wanted to bang his head on something solid, maybe the oak doors to her house, and knock his brains back into place.

She’d laughed it away, but it was too late because she’d already stirred up longing like a live coal inside him when she’d shaken out her long blonde hair.

His heart had thundered, his entire body began to hum, and it turned deafening when he’d walked her to her door, despite his instincts screaming at him to run. Or actually that was his brain—his instincts whispered a completely different song.

Then, in the kitchen of her wreck of a home, she stared up at him, her beautiful aqua blue eyes in his, her golden hair in waves, and he heard the whispers begging him to weave his fingers into her soft mane, to pull her to himself.

The desire crashed around inside him, tried to take control, and he’d nearly surrendered. Nearly put his hand to her neck, touched his lips to that beautiful mouth.

Shown her exactly the kind of girl he wanted.

In desperation he’d come up with the lame question about the résumé. Not that he hadn’t been thinking of asking her for help—but suddenly, it became his lifeline.

He needed something, anything to save their playful, perfect friendship, to keep himself from doing something stupid that would someday make her regret knowing him. Because eventually he’d end up hurting her—he knew that too well about himself.

What was it that his smoke jumper friend Kate had once said to him? “Pete gives them just enough to stay interested, but not enough for them to show up on his doorstep the next day.”

He’d laughed it off then, but really, his image as a good-timing guy protected everyone, including himself. He could admit that having women jockey for a turn with him on the dance floor put a Band-Aid on the wounds. It kept him smiling. Moving forward.

Until Jess. She’d somehow made him believe that he could actually be a good guy. It started with him fixing up her house, but since then had morphed into a late-night, pizza-eating, basketball-shooting, let’s-watch-football, buddy friendship, the kind he hadn’t had since leaving the Jude County Smoke Jumpers last fall.

He wasn’t going to jeopardize that. Besides, how could they work together if they were, well, together?

It had been heaps easier when his teammates consisted of just the guys—Reuben and Conner, even Jed, fellow members of the Jude County Smoke Jumpers. Maybe he should have stayed, but coming home to help his mom recover from her fight against cancer seemed the right move.

The fact that Sam hadn’t sent him packing only lit the crazy hope inside Pete that he could actually repair his mistakes, restart his life, become that guy he thought his father would want him to be. Dependable. Serious. Responsible. A guy who valued relationships and stuck around for the hard stuff.

Instead of running.

Although, as he pulled away from Jess’s house and headed for the PEAK ranch, he could admit that, given the amount of relief that gusted through him when Jess didn’t answer, running felt like the right move.

He still felt like a jerk. He should probably stick around and wait. Or . . . maybe he’d double back later.

He turned out onto Main Street, away from town.

Truth was, not only did he want to take a sledge to that rank bathroom, but he really did need Jess’s help with the résumé, despite the fact that her comment about his brother choosing the new incident commander pulsed in the back of his mind.

Sam probably wouldn’t hire him to park cars, let alone lead the team during a callout.

Unless Pete could prove to his brother that he had changed.

He turned onto the highway and flicked on the radio. Chuckled when a Ben King song came on. One of his new singles, cut right here in his new studio in Mercy Falls.

We said good-bye on a night like this

Stars shining down, I was waitin’ for a kiss

But you walked away, left me standing there alone

Baby, I’m a-waitin’, won’t you come back home.

Pete found himself tapping his hand on his steering wheel. See, if Ben King could turn his life around after getting his high school girlfriend pregnant, after leaving her for a decade, only to come home and woo her back into his arms, then certainly Pete could figure out how to earn Sam’s forgiveness.

Maybe.

He pulled off the highway toward the PEAK ranch and slowed as his tires rumbled over the cattle grate, then crunched on the dry dirt road. The ranch house and barn had once belonged to the family of Chet’s now-deceased wife, and when billionaire Ian Shaw bought the ranch, he gave the ranch house and barn to PEAK Rescue.

The white barn loomed pretty and clean against the backdrop of blue sky and the hazy purple rise of the Cabinet Mountains to the west.

Pete had spent most of the last five summers fighting fires in those mountains.

The words “PEAK Rescue” written in red against the white of the barn shone against the morning sunshine, a beacon of hope.

In a way, the team had pulled Pete back from the crazy, dangerous edge he had treaded, jumping from planes and fighting fires.

That part of him that loved the taste of danger, the rush of holding his life in his hands.

Okay, he still loved it—hence the BASE jumping trip a couple weeks ago with Tucker Newman off Vulture Peak. But he’d mostly agreed to the trip because Tucker was passing through and needed a jump buddy.

Pete had told Jess where he was going, just in case their jump went south. But he’d been extra careful, even attached a secondary chute.

See—responsible.

Although today, he could taste the need for something to take the edge off this crazy, frustrating week.

Maybe purge the roar of the grizzly from his brain too.

He pulled up to the white, two-story ranch house next to Kacey’s Ford Escape and Gage’s Mustang.

Pete checked his phone one more time before heading inside.

Still no text from Jess.

Really, it was for the best.

The renovation of the ranch house included a new kitchen area, open to the main room. A huge map of the entire Glacier Park area spanned the far wall, with radios and Doppler radar and two computer stations that fed information about current weather conditions.

A scanner hummed in the corner, quiet for the moment.

Chet King, their boss, stood at the counter in the kitchen, putting a Styrofoam takeout box in the refrigerator. “Pete,” he said as he closed it, then moved over to reach for a freshly poured cup of coffee.

“I got that,” Pete said, and reached for the coffee to carry it into Chet’s office.

“Thanks,” Chet said. “My physical therapist says I can upgrade to a cane soon.”

The fact that Chet had not only survived a chopper crash last spring but managed to be moving around after breaking both hips spoke to the toughness of the old Vietnam vet. Chet swung himself into his office, set the crutches against his desk, and eased himself into his seat.

Pete set the coffee down. “What are you working on?”

“Next year’s budget,” he said. “Now that we’re under the control of the city government, we have to submit an open budget to the city council for their approval. It was a lot easier when Shaw footed the bill.”

Back when his niece went missing, Ian Shaw founded PEAK to search for her. He kept the doors open when the search came up empty.

After three years, they’d located a body earlier this summer in the park. While Sheriff Blackburn wanted to close the case, the body still hadn’t been identified. And Shaw refused to give up hope that he’d find Esme alive.

“Kacey and Audrey are in the hangar. I think Ben’s out there too—they’re doing some inventory for us.”

“I saw Gage’s Mustang.”

“Yeah. He’s resupplying some of the packs.”

Pete looked out the window toward the barn, which housed their chopper, the pretty blue Bell 429. “Chet, can I ask you something?”

“Mmmhmm.” Chet put down his coffee.

“I’d like to be an incident commander.” Pete turned and sat on the sill, his arms akimbo. “Do you think Sam would hire me?”

Chet considered him a moment, then reached over and picked up the newspaper folded on his desk. “You’re certainly on your way to proving yourself.”

Pete took the paper, unfolded it.

And there he was, just below the fold, a picture of him in all his bear-tousled glory, ripped shirt, the scrub on his chin, his long hair down and scraggly. He was looking away from the camera as if contemplating his next big save.

If he remembered the moment correctly, he’d glanced at Jess right about then, seen her edging toward the door and wanted to catch her for that late-night pizza run.

“Nice write-up. Makes us look good—and good timing too,” Chet said.

Pete handed the paper back to Chet without reading it. “Hopefully Tallie didn’t embellish too much.”

“Well, I think she’s taken a shine to you—there is a smidgen of a heroic slant to the piece. But pretty much all true.”

“Yeah, well, what can I say?” He wasn’t sure why those words emerged—habit, maybe.

Chet rolled his eyes.

Pete turned away, and through the window he spied Ben coming out of the barn, a football in his grip. A moment later, Audrey came running out, Jubal barking at her heels.

Even from here, he could make out the words from Ben. Go long, with the wave of his hands. I’ll catch it, from the way Audrey raised her arm.

A beautiful spiral, and Pete laughed when Jubal left the ground, arching for it.

Great defensive play by the chocolate lab.

“Everybody deserves a shot at a second chance,” Chet said quietly, and when Pete glanced at him, Chet too was watching the scene.

Then his gaze fell on Pete. “I know it feels good to be liked. But the question is, are you interested in the IC position for the limelight? To be the hero?”

Pete frowned. “Of course not.” He didn’t know why Chet’s words irked him.

“Good. Could you bring this out to Kacey?” Chet handed him a clipboard. “I need a list of all the improvements and supplies she needs to procure this year.”

Pete leaned up, took the clipboard. Headed outside.

He didn’t have to be the hero.

In the yard, he nearly intercepted another pass from Ben to Audrey, who bumped him out of the way for the catch. “Good nab.”

She giggled, and he winked at her.

He found Kacey in the barn and handed off the clipboard.

Gage had supplies from their packs spread out on the counter in the back room and was methodically repacking the overnight packs.

Binoculars, a folding saw, fire starter, webbing, cookstove, one-man tent, chemical light sticks, trail tape, along with maps, first aid kit, signal mirror, space blanket, MREs.

“Need help?”

Gage pointed to a pack. Pete began to fill it.

“By the way, nice write-up, Pete,” Gage said, looking over at him. “You get all the love. It’s just not fair.”

“The reporter has a mad crush on me, so what can you do?”

He wondered why those words chose to come out of his mouth.

“I think you need to call her, tell her ‘thank you’ for making you look like a SAR god. You’ll have women lining up outside the barn. Maybe we should set up a kissing booth, make some money.”

Pete laughed, but Gage’s words burned a little in his chest.

A little shorter than Pete, Gage had honed his body and reputation on the slopes as an all-terrain snowboarder and champion freerider. Pete couldn’t imagine the steel nerves and concentration it took to ride down a powdery, jagged-edged mountain face, do a flip or two off a fifty-foot cliff, land in a pillow of white fluff, and make it look good. Not only that, but Gage could also work the half-pipe—had landed a McTwist on national television. Gage Watson had lived in the world of sponsors, posters and interviews, winning two world freeriding championships before heading home for a different life.

Pete knew a few of the details; an accident that cost Gage his life savings and his reputation. But he hadn’t put all the pieces together and more, appreciated Gage’s need for privacy. They all deserved to keep a few secrets, nurse their wounds in private.

Pete looked at the checklist, the order of packing, and put the heavier items in first. “So, what if—hypothetically—you had a friend who you liked, but you weren’t sure she liked you back. What would you do? Go for it?”

Gage tightened the top cord on the pack. “Well, how good of a friend? And has she already put you in the friend zone? Because if you’re there, pal, you’re stuck. If you try to move out of that zone and she gives you the stiff arm, there’s no going back.”

Right. “You’re not exactly my type.” Jess had been uber quick to point that out, hadn’t she? Gage was probably right—they were stuck.

If Pete hadn’t already destroyed it.

“Besides,” Gage was saying, “why would you ever venture into that no-man’s land when you have someone like Tallie hunting you down?” Gage was looking past Pete and gave a little nod. “Howdy.”

Pete turned, and there she stood, Tallie Kennedy, dressed in a pair of jeans, cowboy boots, and a T-shirt that hugged her in all the right places. The kiss of the sun streaked her doe brown hair, and she leaned against the doorjamb, holding out a manila envelope, her blunt fingernails a shade of red.

“Hey, Pete. I’m not sure if you subscribe to the paper, so I brought you a copy of the article.”

Oh. He reached out for the envelope. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome.” She glanced at Gage and stepped into the room, closer to Pete. So close, actually, that he could smell her perfume, sweet, with enough spice that it twined around him.

A whir of curiosity stirred inside him. Her eyes were shining, and a tantalizing smile tugged up her face.

“I saw Ben in the yard, and he said he was releasing a new single tonight at the Gray Pony. I was thinking that maybe I could buy you that pizza . . .”

It feels good to be liked.

Yeah, it did, actually. Felt real good to have a pretty girl like Tallie look at him with a smile that suggested anything but the friend zone.

He swallowed, felt himself relaxing into old habits. “I might like that.”

A lot. In truth, he hadn’t had a date in months.

All his time was spent at Jess’s.

No wonder he’d let himself read too much into that friendship. He just needed time with a girl who didn’t see him as a teammate. A buddy.

Pete wanted, suddenly, to be the guy he saw in Tallie’s pretty amber eyes.

She had inched closer now, raised her face to just inches from his. “And maybe, before that, we could take a drive into the park? You could tell me all about what it feels like to wrestle a grizzly?”

“I have to help a friend with her . . . bathroom.”

Wow, that sounded flimsy, even to him.

“Really? C’mon, Pete. It’s a gorgeous afternoon, and I have it off. Spend it with me.”

She put her hand on his chest, right over his heart.

He exhaled, glanced behind him at Gage, who had his attention buried in the packing list.

But Gage gave a furtive glance at Pete, a tiny nod of go for it.

With Tallie, there were no games, no threats.

Pete could spend the day, even the evening with her, laugh, dance, have fun, and walk away.

He fished his phone out of his pocket and turned it to “do not disturb.”

“Okay, Tallie. I’m all yours.”

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A Friday night, burgers on the grill, tickets to Ben King’s debut single party at the Gray Pony Saloon and Grill, the sun dropping lazily behind the hazy purple outline of the Rocky Mountains, and Sierra in the kitchen with his mom, tossing a salad. Yes, tonight Sam would finally shake off the stress of the crazy week.

Break free of the lingering effects of the bear attack, his horror at kissing Willow, even his residual frustration at Pete for not reporting the wounded bear.

Sam didn’t want to blame his brother—probably just a coincidence, the two bear attacks. But the fact that his irresponsible brother got his mug on the front page of the weekly Mercy Falls Register irked him more than he wanted to admit.

The angle of the article made it sound like Pete alone had saved them all from a mauling. Pete could have probably left out the part where Sam came to a callout dressed for a dinner party.

Tonight Sam planned to resurrect the abysmal crash-and-burn date from last week with romance, country music, and hopefully Sierra in his arms on the dance floor.

He’d finally burn from his mind any lingering memories of kissing Willow, and along with it, the ember of shame in his chest.

“How are the burgers coming along?” Sierra stepped out onto the deck carrying the Caesar salad. She wore a lime-green Ben King T-shirt, fan gear she’d probably procured from Kacey, faded jeans, and a pair of cowboy boots. He liked her dark hair shorter, hanging in soft waves around her face, reaching to her chin. It made her appear sweet, just a little fragile. Like she might need protection.

Like she might need him.

Except Sierra didn’t possess a fragile bone in her body. Small but tough, she’d spent the past five years organizing Ian Shaw’s life as his personal assistant, and the last summer turning PEAK Rescue into a shipshape operation.

Probably that’s what drew him to her—she reminded him a little of himself.

From organizing their weekly barbecues to putting together the early-alert system, from PR to baking cookies, Sierra stepped into the role of den mother for his sometimes unruly crew.

Not that he didn’t appreciate their skills, but every one of them, starting with Pete, had the mind-set of a star football player: Give me the ball, Coach! Put me in, Coach!

They needed teamwork. As the liaison between the team and the sheriff’s department, Sam kept pounding the word into their heads. He understood, really. The team had fractured after the chopper crash last spring. The frantic search for Chet and Ty, the differing opinions of how to find them. Sam hadn’t made any friends when he brought in Miles Dafoe as incident commander this summer.

Pete had wanted to take point—Sam knew that. But his brother was the most alpha of them all, always fighting to be lead dog. If he wanted to lead, he had to prove he was trustworthy.

As if.

Sam flipped the burgers, the smell of hickory rising in a rush of smoke. Flames curled around the meat, sizzling. Sierra brought a tray of buns over and set it on the side table. “Looks good.”

“Thanks for letting my mom join us. Pete was supposed to pick her up from her chemo today, but as usual . . .” He lifted a shoulder.

“I think it’s sweet how you help your mom,” Sierra said, smiling up at him.

And in that moment, Sam let Pete live. This time.

“But should we be worried about him? Because he was supposed to show up at Jess’s today and help her tear out her upstairs bathroom. Last I saw her, she was wrestling with the old commode by herself.”

“That’s typical Pete—his promises are sort of like wishes on stars. Don’t count on him for anything.”

Sierra frowned, then gave a nod and headed back inside.

Maybe his words had emerged too sharp, but really, Jess should figure out she couldn’t count on Pete to help her fix that money pit.

He was probably out doing something crazy—BASE jumping, fatbiking down some trail, maybe even speed-climbing Grinnell Glacier.

Or, more likely, he’d picked up some girl along the way, ditched the hike for a more scenic view.

Poor Jess. Sam dearly hoped she didn’t expect more from Pete than he could give.

Sam pulled the burgers off the grill, slipped them into the buns, and set them on the glass deck table. Sierra had set a pretty table—red place mats, white dishes, a spray of white hydrangeas in the middle, probably cut from his mother’s bush out in front of the townhouse.

He rapped on the sliding glass door, spied his mother laughing with Sierra.

It warmed his entire body to see his mother smile. She looked good today. Despite the chemo, she hadn’t lost her dark hair, although the treatment had definitely stripped pounds from her already thin frame. She always took time to look her best too—putting on her makeup before she went into the clinic. She simply refused pity for the cards life dealt her.

Thankfully, the worst of it was over—now, she just took chemo once a month to keep the cancer from resurging and stopped in weekly to check her blood levels.

Sierra opened the door, carrying a pitcher of iced tea. “Oh, that smells so good, Sam.”

He took the tea from her, set it on the table, then came back to steady his mom, putting a hand on her elbow.

“I’m fine, Sam,” she said. But Rachel Brooks had been saying that since the day his father died. “I’m fine, don’t worry about me, Sam.” She’d smiled through her grief, helping his uncle take over the Sweetwater Lumber and Construction Company. She hadn’t deserved what Pete put her through, or his absence during her year-long battle with cancer.

Sam didn’t know how she’d opened her arms, welcomed his kid brother home without a word. But Sam had done the same, just for Mom.

She deserved at least a snapshot of a happy family.

He slid a chair out, held it for her.

“Sam, I feel terrible to cut in on your date with Sierra,” she said as he scooted her up. “You don’t have to cook for me.”

“Aw, Mrs. Brooks, I love seeing you,” Sierra said, so much warmth in her voice, Sam believed her. “And we love to eat together.”

She left unspoken the fact that Rachel still struggled with a meager appetite, probably wouldn’t eat at all if Sam, or Pete, didn’t cook.

When Sam took his place at the table, his mother took his hand and said grace.

He tried to concentrate on the prayer and not on the fact that if Pete had shown up when he was supposed to, he and Sierra might be having dinner at his place.

Although, Mom’s view was definitely better than his untamed backyard forest.

Mom squeezed his hand, then reached for the iced tea. “I hear you’re going to listen to Ben King tonight.”

Sierra helped herself to salad. “He has a new single. He’s releasing them one at a time, sort of like teasers to his new album. He’s only doing three releases. The rest will be on his album. It comes out next spring, I think.”

“How are Ben and Kacey’s wedding plans?” Rachel asked.

“Kacey’s fully recovered from her injuries, so I think they’re planning a wedding sometime this spring.”

Sam well remembered Ben’s panic when Sierra’s rickety old house collapsed after a flood, trapping Kacey and their daughter, Audrey, in the basement.

“I love happy endings,” his mother said. She looked at Sam. “Speaking of, did the forest service track down that bear?” She kept her smile, not mentioning how close she’d come to losing both her sons.

“No. I went out with some forest service trackers. Usually bears stay in one area, but they must have wandered back into the park.” Sam loaded his burger up with onions, lettuce, mayo. “Those kids were lucky. They shouldn’t have been out there in the woods alone.”

“Oh, that reminds me, Sam,” Sierra said, reaching for her burger. “Willow is taking her youth group on a hike tomorrow and she needs adults to go with her. I told her I’d go, and . . .” She made a face, looking up at him as she cut her burger in two. “I volunteered you.”

He kept his smile.

Perfect. He would have been content never seeing Willow again.

Yes, never. Because he still couldn’t purge from his mind the way that, for the briefest of seconds, Willow had awakened in him exactly the sparks he’d hoped to share with her sister. Worse, she’d left a residual strum inside him that was only just starting to subside.

Oh boy.

“It’s just a day hike up to Huckleberry Mountain Lookout,” Sierra said.

“I heard we have a new youth pastor at the church. What happened to Jared?” his mom asked.

“He left for a year of missions in Scotland. Apparently this new guy—Josh Blessing and his wife, Ava—are fresh out of Bible school and full of ideas. Willow was hoping they’d hire her, but she isn’t exactly qualified, so . . .”

“Why not?” Sam didn’t know what made him ask.

“Well, for one, she never graduated from high school.”

Really? “She didn’t?”

Sierra took a bite of her burger, washed it down with iced tea. “It’s my mom’s fault. She didn’t believe in formal education—preferred the unschooling approach. Took Willow out of school right after I graduated, kept her at the commune, insisting she’d learn more there.”

“Your mother is so interesting.” Mom, the polite one.

“She sings her own tune, that’s for sure. She and Willow are actually a lot alike. They both sort of live by their passions. Except Willow’s is Jesus and the youth group. She loves these kids—understands what it feels like to be forgotten, I think. She has a real heart of compassion.”

That made Sam temper his judgment, just a little.

Whatever offense he’d taken to her impulsive kiss, probably it had something to do with the way he’d unloaded his fear, his frustration, even his hurt, on her.

So maybe he’d forgive her. And himself. Because it meant nothing—he loved Sierra.

Okay, love might be too strong, but he wanted to love Sierra.

“I know it’s an imposition, Sam, but would you come with me on the hike?”

Sierra looked at him, her hazel-green eyes in his, her dark hair in soft, touchable waves around her face, her smile whispering up on one side . . .

“Yeah. Sure. I could use a hike in the park.”

Her smile widened, and with it came the slightest simmer he’d been hoping for. Yeah, this night had the makings of romance.

divider

Pickups, 4Runners, and SUV hybrids jammed the parking lot of the Gray Pony Saloon and Grill, just outside Mercy Falls. The sultry country tones of some warm-up artist spilled out of the doors into the star-sprinkled night as Sam went around to help Sierra out of his truck. They headed inside, his hand tucked into hers.

Ben had rented out the saloon for his release party, and Sam handed over his tickets to the bouncer at the door. The Pony hummed with conversation, the air smelled of beer, onion rings, burgers, and Roy’s famous tangy-sweet barbecue sauce. Sam searched for—and found—the PEAK team, or at least a few of them, in their familiar alcove near the front. Kacey sat next to her daughter, fourteen-year-old Audrey, who was wearing a cowboy hat and a plaid snap-button shirt, her dark blonde hair in braids. Like father, like daughter. Audrey had made her debut only last month, recording a duet with her country star dad.

Ty, the team’s bona fide cowboy, was shooting darts with Gage. Ty’s family owned a cattle ranch south of Mercy Falls. Clean-cut in a dress shirt and jeans, Ty still hadn’t shaken off the accident that had nearly cost Chet his life.

Even if he’d hiked out in a blizzard, on a broken knee, to save him.

“Bull’s-eye,” Gage said as his dart landed in the circle. “That’s twenty bucks, Rem.”

“Game’s not over yet,” Ty groused.

Gage grinned, glanced at Sam, and raised his hand in greeting.

Sam nodded at him.

Willow sat on the windowsill nursing what looked like a Coke, every inch her hippie self in a pair of cutoff overalls over a sleeveless white shirt, her long tanned legs bare all the way to her red Converse tennis shoes. She sported a thematic black cowboy hat, and her brown hair was down and tumbling over her shoulders.

He had the sudden, very vivid memory of the silky feel of her hair between his fingers.

Willow had followed Gage’s wave, and for a second, her gaze fixed on Sam.

Deer in the headlights.

He tried not to have the same panicked expression. Found a smile.

Willow looked away, back at the game, but he saw her entire body stiffen. “I promise I’ll never talk to you again if you don’t tell Sierra.”

No problem.

“Let’s go sit by the team,” Sierra said, and tugged him toward trouble.

“I’ll get us drinks,” Sam said and escaped.

On the front stage, on the far end of the room, the warm-up singer—a clean-cut cowboy with styled short brown hair wearing a white shirt, jean jacket, and tie for his set—settled into a cover.

“Who’s that?” Sam said to Gina after he ordered a couple sodas. Her dad, Roy McGill, owned the place.

Sam remembered a few times, back in high school, when Gina would open up the place after hours, let them dig in to the leftovers. She’d lost about fifty pounds since then, dyed her hair black, added a couple tattoos.

“Easton somebody, up from Nashville. Mountain Song Records has tryouts here sometimes.”

“Be my love song, my all night long . . .”

Gina handed over the drinks, and he gave her his card, started a tab. Then he headed over to the table, eyes on Sierra, who was laughing with Kacey and Audrey.

Willow sat at the edge of the group with a tight-lipped smile.

Sam set down the drinks, slid in next to Sierra. Put his arm around her.

“I told Willow that you said yes, by the way,” Sierra said, smiling up at him. Sierra had such a pretty smile, the kind that told a guy he could hang the moon.

Almost on reflex, Sam glanced over at Willow. She was staring into her cup, looking miserable.

He felt like a jerk. Because clearly she felt as wretched about her actions as he did for reacting to them.

The kissing part ended up being just as much his fault as hers.

“We’re going to have a great time, Willow,” Sam said, raising his voice over the music.

She looked up then, startled, with the slightest hue of fear in her hazel-blue eyes.

He gave her a smile, offered a message in it. See, we can forget the past, just move on.

He received a hint of a grin in return, sweet relief in it.

Easton wrapped up the song, started another, something slow and romantic.

“Your sunset kiss, on a night like this, come on over, we’ll stay up late . . .”

Sam leaned over to Sierra, whispered in her ear. “Let’s dance.”

She looked up, her eyes shining.

He took her hand, and they slid out of the booth.

Apparently, they weren’t the only ones with the idea, because as they scooted around tables and chairs to the front, the dance floor began to fill up with couples swaying to the music.

“It’s a perfect night, out in the moonlight . . .”

Sam found them a pocket near the back corner, and Sierra wrapped her arms around his neck, tucked her head into his shoulder.

Yeah, a perfect night.

Sam closed his eyes, sinking into the music. And wouldn’t you know it, there was Willow smiling up at him.

He opened his eyes. Swallowed against the tightening in his chest.

In his arms, Sierra stiffened, and for a second he thought maybe—crazily—that she could see inside his mind.

But as he lifted his head, he saw her look away. He followed the trail of her gaze, and a fist landed in his gut.

Ian Shaw, back from his hunt for Esme, taking a turn on the dance floor with a blonde caught in his arms. Her high heel boots, shimmering black tank top, and tight sequined jeans over her too-thin model form evidenced that the woman wasn’t from around here.

Sierra turned her face the other way, settled her head back onto Sam’s chest, and Sam suppressed the urge to go over and tell Ian and his floozy to get lost.

That would only bring to a fine point the fact that it still bothered Sierra. Which meant that she probably wasn’t over the man.

Someday, Sam hoped to make her forget Ian Shaw.

Sam turned his back to Ian, protecting Sierra from the view, and Sierra looked up at him, smiled.

He should kiss her. Erase, finally, the feeling of Willow in his arms.

He leaned down, brushed his lips against Sierra’s. Softly, sweetly.

She kept her mouth closed, but she received his kiss, a gentle, polite response.

Okay. They were in public, so . . .

Still, when he lifted his head, she gave him a smile so darned perfunctory that he suddenly felt patronized. Like, Phew, we got that over with.

Huh.

It didn’t help when someone bumped into him. He nearly stepped on Sierra’s foot, and caught her as she fell back.

“What the—” He rounded on the club-footed dancer.

Stopped.

Pete held up his hand in surrender. “Sorry, bro. Tallie and I are just getting our dancing legs.”

Sam stared at his brother. Pete wore his baseball cap backward, and he had that reporter from the other night in his arms. She giggled as she stared up at Pete, so much infatuation on her face it was embarrassing.

“Just stay in your space,” Sam said, turning back to Sierra.

But Sierra was standing there, her mouth open. “Are you kidding me?” She glared at Pete. “You told Jess you’d help her today. The only time we were gone was for lunch. And now she’s at home, tearing out tile, and you’re here . . . dancing?”

He didn’t want to, but Sam gave Pete credit for the flash of guilt that crossed his face. It vanished in a second, replaced with a shrug. “That house is her mess. I didn’t sign on to spend every waking hour repairing it.”

Sierra’s mouth opened, and even Sam stared at him.

Huh?

Pete turned back to Tallie, who wrapped her arms up around his neck. He leaned into her for a very slow dance.

And that was just it.

“Seriously, Pete? It’s not just Jess—you were supposed to pick up Mom today too.” Sam didn’t know why he suddenly had his hand on Pete’s shoulder, turning him. “I swear, you’re the most irresponsible person I’ve ever met!”

Pete came around fast, his eyes dark, sparking.

Sam couldn’t stop himself or the derision in his voice. “You’re just out for yourself—always good-timin’ Pete, right?”

A moment too late he recognized Pete’s expression, the same defensive posture he’d seen so many nights when he dragged the idiot home from one too many parties, even a few ER visits.

Guilt.

Masked oh-so-perfectly by anger. “Step back, Sam. I know you think you’re the boss of me, but guess what, my private time is mine. I’m sorry I forgot to give Mom a ride, okay?”

Sam should have just left it there, ignored the shove Pete gave him, maybe pulled Sierra off the dance floor.

Anything, really, to grab the fraying ends of his perfect night before it all unraveled. After all, he was a deputy and knew how to rein in trouble.

But not tonight. Because it all piled up—fear, guilt, frustration, and not a little disappointment—and came out in a fist, balled and headed for Pete’s chin.

Pete ducked and hooked him around the waist, tackling him back into the wall, slamming him so hard, his breath whooshed out.

Then Pete planted his fist into his gut, and Sam doubled over.

But he hadn’t been Pete’s brother without learning his tricks. Sam rebounded fast with an uppercut that had Pete spinning.

“Stop it!” Sierra leaped in front of him, cutting through the haze of fury.

Heaven help him, Sam nearly pushed her aside and went after his brother on the floor.

But Tallie was screaming, and the party had come to a screeching halt. The dancers parted, and Ian grabbed Sam by the collar and pressed him up to the wall. “Let it go, Sam!”

Pete pinched his nose, blood flowing into his hand. He climbed to his feet, and Tallie tried to help.

Pete brushed her off. Came at Sam.

Ian stopped him with a hand to his chest.

Pete shoved it away. “I don’t know why I bother to try and impress you,” he spat. “I’ll always be a screw-up to you.”

“Yeah, actually, you will. And seriously—impress me? We’re way past that, Pete. Now I just desperately hope that you don’t kill anybody.”

Gage and Ty broke through the crowd; Gage headed for Pete, Ty for Sam.

Gage worked Pete into his corner, shoving napkins at him for his nose.

“What’s the deal?” Ty said, his hand on Sam’s collar.

Sam shook free of them all. “It’s nothing.” He pushed through the crowd, headed for the door, and didn’t stop until he was on the porch, bent over, still trying to catch his breath.

His insides ached.

And not only from Pete’s punch.

Sierra came out. She said nothing as she stood there.

Finally, “You want to talk about it?”

He looked up at her, the grim set of her mouth, tight expression of disappointment, her arms folded over her chest.

“No.”

She sighed and looked away, her eyes bright with tears. “Then I think this night’s over, Sam. Take me home.”

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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