Jacqui Edwards read for most of the flight, but as her ears began to pop and her seatmate leaned into the window, she tried to see around the older woman’s curly hair to the view.
A dusting of snow covered the valley, cut here and there by the lines of roads. Any ice that had formed along the margins of Flathead Lake through winter was gone. April sunlight bounced in sparkles off the rippling water.
The plane banked and, a second later, there were the Rockies. They jutted like sooty fists of triumph, gray and white against an intense blue sky.
The word, the feeling, washed over Jacqui with such force, tears bit her eyes and her heart began to pound.
She had expected emotion. Coming back to empty her dream home of its dreams was bound to be seven levels of hell. There would be tears, fresh ones on top of the countless ones she’d shed since she’d left. She had braced herself for the agony.
This wasn’t pain. It was relief.
She was home.
She sniffed and wiped at the tickle on her cheek.
The woman at the window turned with a concerned smile and offered a tissue.
Jacqui was so used to crying—in public, in front of strangers, whenever the tears arrived—she only murmured, “Thank you.” Grief was exhausting enough without fighting it out of embarrassment.
These were not tears of grief, though. Russ was always there as a heavy, solid absence crushing her heart, but in Florida her entire life had been empty. She had grieved and grieved and grieved the utter emptiness of her existence. No husband, no baby, no job, no home. Not even her freaking dog.
Her father and stepsister wanted to help her rebuild. They loved her and, behind her curtain of pain, she loved them back. Maybe she didn’t have any real hope that she could find a fulfilling life on the other side of the country, but she trusted them to walk her through the steps toward one.
In this minute, however, in this breath, she saw the foundation for that rebuild. It wasn’t in Florida. It was here.
Montana was where her childhood memories resided. Where her mother’s gravestone was planted to watch over the receding glaciers. Where her husband’s ashes were scattered among the forests he had tried to protect.
Montana was home.
She was home.
As Vincent Kingston watched travelers come off the plane and walk straight into the arms of loved ones, he felt the way he always did—like an observer. He had vague memories of his parents hugging him, but after they died, he’d mostly found physical affection with women, his latest being his soon-to-be-ex-wife. He wasn’t feeling very affectionate toward her these days and thus all women were being held at arm’s length.
Hugs were not welcome.
He scanned through the bodies beginning to crowd the luggage carousel.
Jac was short. It was no surprise he couldn’t see her. He thought he did for a sec, but that was a kid with short hair. He scanned for the two snakes of her braids—
She stepped in front of him and his heart took a bound the way it did when he shoved himself out of a plane.
“It is you.”
She was even skinnier than she had looked on the tablet all winter and was drowning in an oversized, mustard-colored sweater. Her cheeks were hollow, her chin sharp, her warm, brown eyes wet with emotion. She had her hair cut to something like Peter Pan’s, which made her look even more fragile, tugging at his tough knot of a heart.
But she was smiling that big smile he hadn’t seen since last summer and said, “Oh, Vin!” She threw herself at him.
She was light, wispy as smoke, but she hit him like a mallet in the middle of his chest, winding him. He held her carefully. She was like a fine-boned fairy, smelling like magic yet her wiry arms were surprisingly strong, hugging him with a firm grip she kept around his neck a long time.
He hugged her back, enveloped in a desire to shield her from all the hurt she was facing by coming back here. The words I miss him, too, formed on his tongue, but he hesitated. He wasn’t someone who expressed much emotion. Hell, he might make himself cry if he said something. He sure as hell didn’t want that. His chest ached enough as it was, just holding her, but he found comfort in the embrace. The yawning emptiness hanging like a mist in front of his future became less gloomy.
He caught the eye of an older woman with curly, dark hair. She was smiling at them.
This isn’t want you think, he wanted to protest. This was his best friend’s wife. He and Jac were friends. That was all.
If he happened to be aware of her small breasts flattened against his chest, or her soft hair against his jaw, that was just his starved libido whimpering on its chain. He ignored the signals and set her on her feet before his twitching wood became obvious.
Jac was totally off-limits.
Jacqui felt her feet touch the floor and the emotion charging her grounded out, but she was still shaken. That had felt weirdly good. Her father was paunchy, so hugging him was pure comfort, but Vin was built the way Russ had been. He was vital and strong and pure man. Hugging him had felt like a lover’s embrace.
He smelled different from her husband, though, beneath the fragrance of snow and pine that clung to his clothes. Which was stirring in its own way. Recognizable, yet exotic.
She hadn’t felt so much as a hint of sexuality since—
Okay, she wasn’t going there. This was all just really overwhelming. Arriving home to have all her hard-made decisions wobble was taking a toll.
“Hey,” Vin greeted lightly, and sent the back of one finger along her jawline, sweeping away a tear. He bent and shouldered the carry-on bag she’d dropped when she’d thrown herself at him. “Your luggage is blue, right?”
“Yeah. Shar put a pink and yellow ribbon on it. I kept telling her this isn’t Denver, but she’s used to big airports.”
Jacqui was babbling as she tried to pull herself together. She couldn’t even explain the emotion that had overwhelmed her when she’d seen him. Homecoming times a million and completely unexpected. In the last months, she and Vin had connected regularly over Skype, mostly so she could see Muttley. Usually, they had talked about incidental “how is your day” stuff. He was working on the house in his spare time so he gave her updates, showed her tile samples and paint chips. Sometimes they talked about more personal things. He always made her laugh at least once. She almost always cried at least once.
Vin took it all in stride, never ruffled beyond his black, spiky hair. His brows were steady, straight lines over blue eyes that never missed a thing. His nose was a reliable bridge, his jaw strong and shadowed with a hint of stubble, his mouth… She had never looked at his mouth up close like this. His upper lip was a line of masculine perfection, deep at the corners, the sexy peaks accentuated by his stubble, his lower lip not quite as wide, but a little fuller.
The weird little catch of sexual attraction pulled at her again.
Vin was good-looking. Of course, she had always been aware of that; she wasn’t blind. But she had never been so struck by how hot he was.
Get a grip, Jac.
Wiping at her cheeks, she said, “Thank you for coming to get me. I know I could have asked…” She shrugged. There were a dozen friends and in-laws she could have asked. “But I knew you’d be easier to be with. You don’t care if I cry.”
He brought his gaze back from scanning the carousel. His brows went down and he tucked in his chin, admonishing. “I care.”
“I mean you let me cry. Dad and Sharlene don’t know what to do with me when I’m like this. I’m really not looking forward to…” Talking. Seeing everyone. All the hugging and explaining and processing. She sighed and looked around, dreading bumping into someone they knew.
“It feels strange to see you in person.” He commented with a faint smile. “You’re not much taller than when you’re sitting on the coffee table. And what the hell is this?” He chucked his chin at her hair.
“Last minute madness.” She touched the silky tails at the back of her neck. “I was going for a job interview so I let Shar sheer me. It felt like a clean start at the time, but I wasn’t considering that I was coming back to Montana in April. Look at me.” She plucked the sweater off her mosquito-bite breasts. “Dressed for Florida. I left in the summer so I didn’t take any of my warm clothes. I had to borrow this from Shar so I wouldn’t freeze to death on arrival.”
“Snow’s melting. It’s not too bad.” He commented, and set down her carry-on to shrug out of his plaid shirt.
“Oh, don’t.” She protested.
“I’m acclimatized. I’ll be fine.” He wore a white T-shirt with a smokejumper crest over his heart. It clung to his tight frame, accentuating his muscled chest and flat stomach.
Seriously, Vin was so hot.
And so familiar in a million ways she wanted to cry all over again.
He swung his shirt around her and hung it off her shoulders. It was warm and held the smell of clean laundry and Montana spring and man deodorant along with the scent she’d already picked up as foreign. Not the man she slept with.
Used to sleep with.
She pushed her arms into the sleeves, blushing a little, liking how it made her feel like he was still hugging her. “You’re the best, Vin.”
“I hear that a lot,” he said with a wink, then nodded at the carousel. “That your bag?”
Vin wanted to take back the wink. What the hell was he doing? There was no flirting with the widow of your best friend. Jesus.
He retrieved Jac’s bag and said, “Is this it? You don’t pack like any woman I know.” He gave it a few pumps like a free weight, judging it to be under thirty pounds.
“I didn’t take much with me and mostly brought that one back so I’d have something to pack for the return.” She frowned at the bag, mouth pursing in dark thought. “But I can carry the small one.”
He gave her a look, not bothering to spell out that he regularly shouldered gear that weighed more than she did and carried it for miles over hilly terrain. She knew.
She even rolled her eyes a little as she met his disparaging look. “Always so macho.” She teased as they started toward the exit.
“Gotta stay in shape in the off season.”
“Yeah, you guys. Married to your muscles. I miss real men, you know. There are tons of ripped guys in Florida, but they don’t do anything with it except strut around the beach kissing themselves. Oh!”
She stopped as they exited the airport. The biting wind off the glaciers hit them in the face like a mean slap.
“Yeah, that feels like home,” she said in a strained voice. “Sometimes I think April is the coldest month here, because of that wind. Ugh.”
They hurried through the crosswalk, heads down, while the cars were stopped. “Where—?”
He pointed his key fob at short term parking where his blue pickup sat. When he pressed the button so the lights blinked, the click stirred Muttley. He jerked to his feet and paced in a ripple of shadow behind the reflection on the windshield.
“Vin! Did you bring—?” She ran toward the truck and jerked the driver’s door open. “Mutt!”
Her dog proceeded to go bananas, moaning and whimpering and licking Jac’s face while she laughed and probably cried. Happy tears this time, but still.
Vin cared that she cried. Her saying he didn’t bothered him. He knew he was reticent with his own emotions, but he felt hers. Her grief broke his heart. She and Russ had been his icon, the couple he aspired to be. His own marriage had fallen apart not even two years in, but that was because he wasn’t meant to have the happily ever after family that most people had. All those people in the airport, the Jacs and Russes of the world… They were born for that kind of happiness.
He was made for fighting fires. It was cellular, DNA level stuff.
But losing Russ had undermined Vin’s sense of how the world worked.
And Vin’s career, the family he’d made with the smokejumpers, was supposed to be inviolate. After Tori had kicked him out—for being away fighting fires too much—he had made a deal with the fire gods that he wouldn’t chase the picket-fence dream again. The men and women who cut line beside him were his brothers and sisters and that was enough.
But with Russ’s death, he’d been brutally schooled that even his best friends were temporary and could be taken away.
Their work was dangerous. Everyone knew death could happen, but it was supposed to happen to him. Vin. He wouldn’t be missed. Losing Russ? It had shaken the whole town.
It had leveled Vin. He didn’t know what he was supposed to believe anymore. Life didn’t have any meaning at all.
They got themselves settled in the truck. Muttley was way too big to be a lap dog, but he was trying to curl up his mass of yellow fur on Jac’s thighs, black muzzle lifting to keep up with giving her kisses, his tail thumping madly.
She hugged the goofy rescue. “Thank you so much for bringing him.”
“I had to. He’s been excited to see you. It’s all he’s talked about for days.”
“Really? Been counting sleeps, have you?”
She was continuing the silliness Vin has started, but Vin had been counting the days, he realized uncomfortably. He told himself he was merely eager to settle the house purchase and feel like he was finally putting down roots, but he’d been keyed up for days, anxious for her arrival.
“Oh, Christmas,” Jac said on an exhale as he turned out of the airport onto the highway.
“What? No, I mean it looks like Christmas. I pretty much gave that holiday a miss this year. We had dinner with the neighbors. They barbecued. I was glad it didn’t feel real. But now, here it is. So pretty.”
She brightened as she waved at the trees that were already losing the sparkle of this morning’s late-season flurry. The roads were clear and the snow mostly reduced to patches on shady lawns and piles in grocery store parking lots.
“Are we heading straight to the house or do you need to make some stops?” he asked.
She was quiet for a long moment, hand stroking the dog’s head.
“I think, since we’re driving right by…” She sent him an apprehensive look. “Can we stop at the base?”
End of Excerpt