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“Bloody hell,” Darington Knight channeled the vocabulary of her Australian relatives because she’d seen enough death in the past six months, but now this—her beloved and very fit grandfather had died dealing the most brutal blow yet. She slipped into the Brisbane cathedral right as the minister intoned “let us pray.”
She stifled a totally inappropriate hoot of laughter. Pray? Her grandfather, Leonard Knight, a legend in the Australian firefighting world, a commissioner, a man who worked hard and played even harder, was dead. What good would prayers do him now? She almost expected him to toss open the lid of his coffin, scattering the ass kissing amount of flowers all over the marble floor and agilely pop out and blister the subdued mourners with a string of curse words before bitching about the crowd, the pomp, the heat, the waste of money, and the damn girly smell of all those blooms. Then he’d laugh and demand his seven sons and multitude of grandkids and colleagues join him at the pub.
Rosie’s if she remembered the stories correctly.
“I could murder a beer.” She muttered her grandfather’s favourite phrase under her breath.
She stifled her grin because no one would remotely understand a smile at the funeral of a fallen hero, especially one who fronted a fire fighting dynasty. Seven sons had become firefighters. And those men had been prolific breeders and kick ass firefighters. She was one of five daughters of the next generation—the American branch and the only one of her sisters who’d managed to make it to the funeral, but that had been unfortunate circumstances and distance not lack of love or respect or grief. Damn, though, she must have more than twenty cousins here. Aunts. Uncles. She could even see Logan, her favorite cousin, up front. His brother Duncan flanked him. And of course, more cousins, twins Caleb and Dylan. She’d always spent the most time with Logan, Caleb, and Dylan during family visits. Playing, swimming, building forts they swore they’d never leave. She wished they hadn’t.
Caleb was hissing something at Logan and a smile teased her lips. So familiar. Caleb scolding Logan for something. It was as if ten years hadn’t happened. But, damn, it had.
She could see so much family filling the cathedral, but she had no inclination to try to sit up front in the family pews. She’d had to change in the taxi on the way from the airport this morning, an easy enough feat, but the taxi driver had found it near impossible to keep his eyes anywhere near the road. She cast a quick look around. Yeah. So many family, but here she was, like she’d been for so many years, alone.
A couple of hours later Dare ducked through the hallowed door of Rosie’s, the pub of choice for Brisbane’s firefighters. She looked around. Packed with firefighters and history—like the Drop Zone, the bar of choice for her fellow smokejumpers back in Glacier Creek, Montana. Dare had never been to Rosie’s before, but her father, Seth Knight, had told tales. The beer. The trash talk. The darts. He’d taken her mother there once to say goodbye. Goodbye to his mates. His job. His family. His country. Within two weeks of meeting American model and art student Asha Leigh, Seth Knight had packed up his life, gotten engaged, and followed the nineteen year old back home to her native Tennessee where he worked as a firefighter with the forest service.
His mates had understood his sexual obsession with Asha, but love at first sight, not so much. His family had been even more dumfounded, yet looking at the Knight romantic family tree, instant, fierce, impractical yet forever love was how they rolled.
She was testament to that pattern. Didn’t matter if your soul mate died senior year of high school.
Dare bit down hard on her lip when her eyes pricked. Not today. Not ever again. She might have had only a handful of visits with her Aussie family while growing up, but Knights didn’t do tears, especially with cousins she hadn’t seen in years. And in a pub celebrating Leonard Knight, a man who was larger than life? Hell no. She got her game face on, but it wasn’t really necessary. So far she hadn’t been recognized. No surprise. She’d altered so much since her last visit at fifteen, she was apparently unrecognizable to her family, and her parents, who could have pulled her in, were cuddled together in a throng of uncles and aunts with their backs to her.
Hell, she couldn’t blame any Knight. She didn’t recognize herself as ever being that shy, quiet, youthful teen, looking for approval, and she didn’t want to.
She eyed the crush of jostling smack-talking uniforms three and four deep at the bar. How the hell did a thirsty smokejumper get a beer here? Then she spotted Logan. He nodded in recognition, his hand out in an international “wait” signal as he grabbed a second pint of beer and flanked, as always, by Caleb and Dylan, cut through the crowd towards her. He handed her the beer and then one arm hugged her hard.
“Damn good to see you. Happy you’ll be here for a few months.”
She made a face as coming to Australia hadn’t been her idea, but her commander’s back at her Montana unit as a “break.” Dare thought of it as running away, and she preferred to meet her demons head on. And her grandfather’s funeral had only moved up the timeline.
“Suck it up.” Logan laughed. “It’ll be good for you to see some real firefighters in action. Brisbane Metropolitan is the best. We’ll take you to school. Teach you some tips.”
Dare laughed and Logan shouted out for more cousins to join them.
Dare had always found Logan easy to hang out with. She’d caught up with him during his stint as a firefighter in an American/Australian exchange program a few years before. She’d never anticipated participating in an exchange program herself. Montana was home. Jumping out of planes fed her adrenalin craving and saving the forests fed her soul.
Still, jawing with Logan and teasing Caleb and Dylan felt good, and she could feel some of the heavy tension over her grandfather’s unexpected death ease even as Logan bitched about an ongoing investigation over how a deadly bushfire had been handled last year.
“We should remember him in a special way.” Dare jumped back into the conversation. “Something permanent that would link us all. All the Knights could participate if they have the balls.”
“Hate to break it to you Dare, but not all the Knights are blokes.” Her younger cousin, Kier, who’d sauntered over a few minutes ago, broke in. “Although you seem hell-bent on pretending to be one.”
Dare sipped her beer, making sure her middle finger was up high on her glass. Kier grinned back at her.
“What are you thinking?” Logan asked, ignoring Kier.
“A tattoo,” Dare said. “We could get a Knight family crest with a message in it and today’s date to commemorate all of us being back together to celebrate the life of Leonard Knight.”
“A tattoo? Just like that?” Logan finished his beer. He got up and looked at Dare. “You might want to put in a little more thought before you ink yourself. Another round?”
“Not for me,” Dare said, feeling a bit suffocated by all the socializing, and the emotions closing in with another death.
Her grandfather, though thousands of miles away, had been a strong presence for her. They’d texted, talked, and emailed often. He’d been there with her during the dark time, taking a leave of absence from his job for over a month because he’d known she needed him even though she hadn’t asked. And of all the people who’d tried to help her, her grandfather had been the only one able to reach her, able to give her the tool that helped her to find a way out. A way to remake herself and her life. No longer Darington, but Dare.
And she couldn’t go back to even pretending to be that girl. She liked who she was now. Strong. Unbreakable.
Dare smiled at Caleb, Dylan, and Kier as she stood up, leaving her half-heartedly drank beer on the table. She moved away to soak in the atmosphere, noting the positions of the windows and exits, where people sat, who was with whom, estimating the size and mood of the crowd. And that was when she felt his attention. Not unexpected. Dare was accustomed to looks from men—ranging from lusty stares, stupid lines, taunts, ass grabs, to curses and creative nasty names when she turned them down, which she usually did.
But this man was not the type any woman would turn down. Not even her best friend who was a lesbian.
Had been a lesbian. Dare shut down the memory and met the appraisal of the hunk of a man—had to be a firefighter with that bod and stance that hummed with sexual energy. She met his sexual scrutiny like she did everything else. Head on. Tilted her chin. Damn, he was hot. At least over six-foot-three. Had to be. So he had a few inches on her, which most men didn’t. And he didn’t care that he’d been caught staring. Instead, his look intensified to one of challenge with a hint of amusement as if he could tell that she wasn’t going to back down.
Hook. Line. Sinker.
She sure as hell wasn’t bait. She’d play shark.
He leaned against one of the bar’s support columns and looked relaxed, but looks were deceiving. He radiated energy, tightly leashed, and her breath tangled in her throat. Dark hair, slightly curly, a bit too long, careless. Intense stare. No idea of his eye color. Uniform jacket off. Tie off. Starched dress shirt cuffs rolled up high revealed tanned, muscular arms. Massive shoulders. Built tough. Definitely confident. Curious to see if she’d bite.
He looked like he was thinking about how she’d taste.
Flying under the radar just lost its appeal.
So did behaving and playing reunited Knight family. And no way could he be one of them. She would have noticed him before puberty. She might have given up on love, but lust, never.
Banishment to Brisbane became rife with potential sexual bliss. What better way to reacquaint herself with the land of down the fuck under?
He looked like he’d be quiet, but something in his focused stare made her think he’d like it dirty. And often, a little rough. She let her gaze heat down his body and then climb, almost reluctantly, back up to his face.
He loped, there was no other word for it, toward her.
“I can hear you thinking.”
“What am I thinking?” She took his beer and took a swig, holding his appreciative gaze. He even made beer taste good.
God, his eyes were the deepest blue. Pacific Ocean blue, churning after a storm. And his face. All hard planes. Angular lines. Her artist mom would orgasm just to sketch him.
“That you’re thirsty.” A touch of a smile quirked his sensuous lips.
Too soon to lick them?
He took back his beer. Held eye contact. Took a deep drink.
“And I’m hungry,” she informed him.
True, but no longer for anything plated. Again, she played a provocative game to see how he held up, but she hadn’t expected her own arousal to flare so fast.
“For food?” His voice was neutral. So he too was used to women checking him out and was bored by it unless he chose the target and the time.
And she’d been chosen.
Dare reached for his beer again, grazed his fingers. His hands were large. A bit rough. Long, square fingers with clean clipped nails. She bet he knew just what to do with those hands. She looked back to his face. A man built like him who could flirt and hint at dirt without being crude would just slay her self-restraint. Not that she normally practiced it all that religiously but since she’d suffered so many losses this year, the grief piling up, monks had nothing on her sensual pleasure denying aesthetic.
She’d felt dead. Just like the first time, but here she was still standing.
A Sia song wailed in her head.
“Stand up. Always stand up.” Her grandfather’s words looped in her head, lifting her. “Let the wave wash over you but always stand back up.”
The man. Back to the man. Conversation first. She could be civilized.
“For food, yes. Haven’t eaten since yesterday. I think it was yesterday, but…” She trailed off and let her voice go low and smoky. Her sister might be the country singer finally starting to chart, but Dare too had a good voice if she chose to use it. “Something else.”
Damn. He even had a cleft in his chin. More to lick and bite and touch.
His blue eyes flared.
And Dare relaxed a little. He wanted to play. This game was familiar. She knew the rules. Not like family she hadn’t seen in forever, who only knew facts not context or her at twenty-six, nine years out of the dark.
She inhaled, hoping to catch his scent but between the fried food, beer, and lots of bodies with cologne, aftershave, and perfume, it was all a sensory overload jumble.
“Let me get you a beer,” he said, turned and moved through the crowd like a knife through melted butter.
Watching him walk away pinched, but the view was spectacular. He moved like an animal. Total purpose. Efficient. Graceful. She admired the flex in his shoulders. His butt belonged sculpted and pedestalled with special spotlighting in one of her mom’s galleries, and the sexual glide of his long legs made her damp.
Wow. Just wow. And what a time for her libido to remind her that she was young, single, and in danger of her hymen growing over if she didn’t get back out there. Her grandfather’s wake. She bit her lip trying not to laugh. As usual her timing sucked.
And he was coming back. A pitcher in one hand and palming two glasses.
“He brings a pitcher. Now that’s confidence,” she murmured as he poured her a glass and himself one as well. He put the pitcher on a small ledge that surrounded the support pillar.
“I’m generous,” he said.
She’d bet he was. She wanted to chuck the beer and suggest getting the fuck out of there before any more cousins hunted her down, like Stephen, Kier’s brother. He’d been a dick at ten and at fourteen and worse at fourteen. She had no need to meet his thirty-year-old self.
Too soon to drag the hottie out?
She clinked glasses with him before taking a sip.
“What are we toasting?” he asked.
“Not death, that greedy bastard.”
But at least her grandfather had lived. He’d loved. Worked hard. Earned respect and, yeah, some enemies. He hadn’t been cut down in his prime or even before he’d been out of high school or before he got to see his kid head off to the first day of school.
“To life then.”
God, the way he watched her made her so hot. He was interested and thinking the whole time. And not bullshitting her about it. It should make her uncomfortable, self-conscious, but it really made her want to shrug out of this stupid, blue wrap dress, and give him something more interesting to look at and to think about.
He would definitely not want the lights off during sex, and he wouldn’t close his eyes when he was kissing her.
“To life,” she agreed and took a swallow, “and the view.” She held his gaze.
“I’ll drink to that.”
The heat in his eyes blistered her skin.
“Although I’m still trying to decide, which view is better.” She let her voice slide low and speculative. “You walking away or toward me.”
“Depends on if you’re a glass half full or half empty person.”
“And you are?”
“Half full.” The hint of a smile that teased around his lips was pure seduction. “And I’m just about to pour some more.”
He matched his words to action, adding beer to her glass then to his. She needed to be careful. She did not want a drunk hookup at her grandfather’s memorial. She needed to be sober for the gift in front of her that she wanted to unwrap.
Still too soon to hit it with him?
“Damn, Leonard would have loved me chatting you up during his memorial service,” she said.
“You’d likely be right about that though I never chatted him up so I’ll take your word on it.”
He didn’t know who she was. Perfect. Then his face closed down, as if he too were having bad memories, and a frisson of panic shivered down her spine that he was going to say something trite about her grandfather, which would just ruin the moment or make her cry. To head him off, she blurted something she’d been thinking, but definitely shouldn’t be saying, but it was guaranteed to derail his thought process.
“That shirt hugs you tighter than most of my panties” She kept her voice factual. “Standard issue or custom fitted?”
If she’d expected him to choke on his beer, he didn’t, and Dare was pleased. He did pause a millisecond, take a drink and then look at her. The glint in his eyes made her mentioned panties damp for real. Well, damper than they already were. She’d always been really visual. And imaginative. And he was giving her a lot to work with.
“Careful, I might ask for proof at some point tonight.” He leaned toward her; his warm breath tickled her ear, set a pulse going deep in her core.
“I would if I could,” she teased back jerking his chain and loving the way his eyes got darker, his big body stilled. She could feel his body heat jack up at the implication.
Oh yeah. Now this was the distraction she needed. Not banishment and definitely not family involvement.
“Commando at a funeral?” he said taking another swig of beer.
“Something wrong with that?” She cocked her hip wishing she had thought about that, but it would have been more than awkward in the cab.
“I would have to say…” He leaned forward so his mouth was near her ear again and, when she inhaled this time, she could almost taste him, warmth and salt and something woodsy like cedar or pine. “There’s something all kinds of right with that.” He stepped back, giving back her space, and she wanted him in close again. “Love the boots.”
Dare laughed. She had Docs on. Shiny, electric blue ones that matched her blue wrap dress. She looked shitty in black and only owned a few dresses so she hadn’t wanted to splurge on something she hated. Not like her grandfather would have cared. Black at a funeral. A dress. He was the original Knight rule breaker. She was just trying to keep up.
“Thanks. Me in heels would be something scary.”
“I could deal.” He smiled and she noticed faint lines feathering out from his eyes and creasing down his cheeks. She’d always been a sucker for laugh lines. Probably because she didn’t get much to laugh about.
“Lachlan Ryker,” he said.
He laughed and clinked her glass. “To all Knights. Thought you might be guilty,” he said. “But pretty fair guess in this place. One of the Americans.”
“That’s a southern accent?” he asked. “Louisiana? Mississippi?”
“Sweet Tea, Tennessee.” She made her voice all southern cliché. “Tiny town in the Smoky Mountains and I have four sisters. My dad, like all Knight men apparently had a lot of game and a disdain for birth control.”
“Five daughters.” He shook his head, deep blue eyes reeling her in. For the first time she felt like she understood what ‘twinkling eyes’ meant. “If genetics had any say that was beyond a Herculean task.” He laughed. “I had a sister, just one, and that near greyed me. My brothers were easier.”
Dare couldn’t help the quick glance at his thick chestnut hair that begged to be fingered, and then her gaze slid helplessly down to his ringless hand. Not taken. Free.
“I wager five teenaged daughters crashing into puberty caused a whole lot of fires that had nothing to do with arson, stupidity, or carelessness.”
“But a lot to do with nature.”
“To hormones,” he said. “And to your dad for surviving without chaining you or your troublemaker sisters in the basement.”
“Now that I can drink to.”
What god had he pleased to earn this reprieve from hell? He’d been dreading today. The official goodbye to Leonard Knight. His mentor. Father figure. Man who’d pulled him out of despair and a crushing sense of guilt and failure more than once, but never made him feel less of a man because of it.
He still couldn’t believe he was gone.
He felt as sucker-punched bereft as when his parents had died twelve years ago. And now this. Light in the dark.
Dare Knight was so beautiful she made his eyes hurt. Never would have pegged her for his type but the impossibly long, supremely toned legs capped off by the short blue dress jolted him out of his sexual lethargy like a cattle prod to his balls. He could practically imagine how her legs would feel wrapped around his hips. She vibrated with confidence, sexuality, and a sense of adventure that was intoxicating as a deep swig of Scotch. And then the blue combat boots were sexy, tough and unconventional, especially at a funeral, which just capped off her perfection.
Damn, she was tall. He bloody loved that. And thin, but the athletic kind of thin. Fit, not languid model thin. And the bones on her face looked like something only a famous sculptor could have created. Wide cheekbones, arched brows, straight nose that perched above lips that looked as if they’d been special ordered to create way too many X-rated fantasies. And her eyes. Who the hell had eyes that color? They were like something out of a Lord of the Rings movie, otherworldly. Mystical. A blue green he thought would be described as aquamarine, but what the hell did he know? He was an engineer turned firefighter and now a station officer. He could describe fires fluently and direct a dozen crew members how to safely kill the fire, but describing women and figuring out what made them tick was not his skill set. His ex still didn’t stop listing his deficiencies years after they were done.
Seeing Dare walk into Rosie’s with that edge of defiance and undercurrent of vulnerability and those legs was not something he was going to pass up easily. Her skin was lightly tanned and seemed lit from within. He wanted to touch her as much as he wanted to breathe so he kept one hand wrapped around his beer glass, and the other jammed in his pocket.
Dumb dress uniform pants. Give him work pants and a T-shirt any day. He felt edgy and itchy in the material.
“Damn, Lock.” Stephen Knight headed over flanked by a couple of his friends, and Lock had to stifle the urge to smash in his face.
Same as it ever was. Stephen cutting in on Lock’s action. Only Dare wasn’t his. Water under the bridge. And he was better off without Melissa.
“Thanks for flying in from Melbourne mate,” Stephen continued as if they were friends. “But if you’re going to hit on the hottest woman here, you are going to need to accept some competition.” Stephen laughed and body slammed Lock, which barely rocked him.
“Stephen Knight,” he said, sticking out his hand to Dare, who appraised him coolly.
“Perv much, Stephen.” Dare raised her eyebrows at Lock, letting him in on the joke. He grinned back.
Stephen’s easy smile faltered.
“For fuck’s sake, Dare.” Stephen stared her. “When did you get to be as tall as a bloody stobie pole and what the hell happened to your hair?”
“Good to see you too, Stephen.”
Her face suspiciously innocent, but Lock noticed that her eyes were watchful. Tense. And it pissed him off that she wasn’t totally sure of her reception. Stephen was her cousin. He should be hugging her.
“It’s called a haircut,” Dare said. “Hard to fight fires for weeks on end in a forest with hair down to my ass.”
“You look like a cancer patient,” he accused.
Lock’s fingers flexed into a fist, totally unlike him. The silence was thick as sludge between the cousins. He’d found himself weirdly attracted to the tight cut, with a chunk of silky platinum longer on one side so that it slid over her face every now and then. The extreme cut coupled with her tall, athletic body, plush lips, and large distinctive eyes was hot as hell. She was fucking perfect and, even though he’d known Stephen since they’d both been rookies and had been if not friends, friendly until Lock caught Stephen sleeping with his now ex-wife, they were going to bounce if Stephen didn’t make Dare feel welcome.
She reminded him of the Charlize Theron character in the Mad Max movie. Fierce, but hiding something. And who didn’t think that character had been scorching? Lock had already wondered what the shorn hair would feel like against his skin.
“Actually,” Dare drawled out the word slowly and Lock saw the long, delicate line of her throat convulse as she swallowed hard. “I did shave my head when one of my best friends, Lydia, had treatment for cancer this year. You know, in solidarity. She died.”
Stephen lips tightened as did his expression. He opened his mouth but nothing came out.
“You always were the dick Knight,” Dare said. “I feel like a whiskey,” she told Lock.
“Not going to say no.” Lock said, sliding his arm briefly around her waist to steer her towards the bar. “Although I don’t crave that taste,” he said low in her ear.
She laughed. “Scared of a little burn?”
“No.” He laughed. “I like it scorching hot.”
End of Excerpt