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Molly Cordero wasn’t much for hiking. Never had been. But her new boots were cute—a plus, even if they were giving her a gigantic blister on her pinkie toe.
She stepped around a boulder the size of a VW bug and looked up at Copper Mountain towering in the distance. The sun was bright this morning, and the sky was the exact color of Miracle Lake below—an infinitely deep blue that hurt her eyes and made her heart ache a little.
Montana. She never would’ve thought she’d end up anywhere close. But it had seemed like the only safe place. The only place out of the giant, overwhelming, and now deeply judgmental public eye that she’d come to hate. Thank God for Becky. If it weren’t for her, she really didn’t know where she’d be. Probably on a fast track to jail, or somewhere just as bad.
Molly shielded her eyes from the sun and felt her mouth go slack. Damn, that thing was big. Craggy and steep, with plenty of patches of icy snow left over from winter. It looked like a place to get killed, was what it looked like. But it was beautiful, and beauty was what she’d craved this morning. A hike had sounded nice and the boots had seemed like a good idea at the time. So here she was. Out in nature, in the middle of Nowhere, Montana.
She slapped at a bug and caught the faintly comforting scent of sunscreen coming from her skin. It smelled like summer, like childhood. It smelled like swimming at the community pool with her friends from the old neighborhood.
It smelled like diving.
She put her head down and began climbing again before that particular thought could take hold. One foot in front of the other. Just shut up and hike, girlfriend.
She walked like that for the next ten minutes, maybe fifteen, before the blister inside her brand-new boots began screaming her name. With a few expletives thrown in for good measure.
Limping to the nearest rock, she plopped down and took her backpack off, digging around for the bottled water she’d stuffed in at the last minute. In her own defense, she wasn’t used to exertion these days. And she certainly wasn’t used to the weather here. It was downright cold leaving Becky’s house this morning and she hadn’t thought she’d be out long enough to need water anyway. But she’d taken some regardless, and now she was glad. Her throat was parched and the water felt delicious going down.
She looked up at the sound of a twig snapping. The thought of bears or any other wild animals hadn’t occurred to her until now. Of course it hadn’t. Mentally, she was still in San Diego. Standing on a podium and blinking at the flash of cameras in her eyes. Not sitting in the shadow of a mountain that looked like something out of The Land of the Lost.
Lowering the bottle, she swallowed a sudden knot in her throat and tried to remember what to do in case of a bear encounter. Raise your hands over your head and yell like a lunatic? She frowned. No, that was a mountain lion. For a bear, you were supposed to play dead, weren’t you? Well, that was easy enough, since she’d probably be dead soon anyway.
Another twig snapped, then the bushes to her right rustled. And footsteps. Definite footsteps. Not the kind a bear would make, unless it was the circus kind, walking on its hind legs.
Molly craned her neck. “Hello?”
After a second, a man, not a bear, walked through the vegetation a few feet away. And not just any man. A forest ranger man, by the looks of his army green cargo pants and taupe campaign hat. And a hot forest ranger man, on top of that. Dark eyes, darker hair, strong jaw with a five-o’clock shadow at ten thirty in the morning. Heavy jacket that did nothing to mask a broad set of shoulders underneath.
Molly didn’t let any of this throw her, as some of her trademark entitlement came bounding back with a vengeance.
“I thought you were a bear,” she said, pushing herself up off the rock and wincing at the pain in her toe, which felt like someone was pinching it with tweezers. “You could’ve said something.”
Forest ranger guy took a few more steps, then stopped with his hands on his hips. Trim hips, tapering from a thicker, muscular core. He tipped his hat back and studied her with furrowed brows.
“Did you hear what I said,” she bit out, “or are you ignoring me to make a point?”
He nodded, then pulled something out of his back pocket. “Making a point.”
“Is this yours?” he asked, his voice a rich, deep baritone that matched his looks perfectly.
She let her gaze drop to what he held between his fingertips. Disdainfully. Like it was poison.
Her granola bar wrapper. It must have fallen out of her backpack. “I don’t know. I guess.”
“That’s what I said. But I’m sure there are other hikers out here who enjoy Quaker Chewy bars, too.”
“But this particular one is yours.”
Was it possible that he hadn’t recognized her yet? Her hair had grown some and she’d gained a little weight, but still…
“Do you know the fine for littering in Montana?” he continued.
It was like a bad movie. She was the heroine, and he was the hero from hell. She laughed before she could help it. Probably not the best idea since he was wearing a badge.
“No, I don’t, officer. But I have a feeling you’re going to tell me.”
“Up to two hundred dollars. You have two hundred dollars you feel like flushing down the toilet?”
No, she most definitely did not.
“Give me a break. It fell out of my backpack.”
“Ordinarily, I might believe that. But in this case I don’t.”
“Don’t you have anything better to do? Like stop a forest fire or something?”
Reaching inside his coat, he nodded again while watching her with those smoky brown eyes.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Well, here’s the thing. I was going to give you a warning. But you’ve got quite a mouth on you and I’m in a piss-poor mood. So that means a ticket.”
“Are you kidding?”
“I don’t kid.”
Molly felt her neck heat in that old, familiar way. Followed by her cheeks, and then her ears. She knew she probably looked like a cherry tomato, and she forced a deep, even breath. It was something she’d learned in the anger management classes. Calm yourself down when you begin to feel upset. Express your feelings and needs assertively, but not aggressively…
She put up a hand and smiled her best smile. It used to charm the socks off people, even the crustiest ones. But she and charm school had recently had a parting of ways, so there was no telling how this would go.
“Look,” she said. “I think we got off on the wrong foot here. I’m Molly Cordero. I’m new to this area, just out on a hike. I’d never think about defacing this lovely trail with trash.”
He flipped open the ticket book and clicked his pen, not bothering to look up. “I know who you are.”
So he had recognized her, but wasn’t going to show it. No smile or awkward request for an autograph. She supposed the Molly Cordero as of late didn’t command as much attention as the old one with the tight body and cute pixie cut. And that was depressing as hell.
With as much dignity as she could muster, she lifted her chin. She could thank her attitude for this one. Again. She’d once been sweet, she had. But now she was as bitter as a bad grape.
Before she could feel any more guilt, she shoved it aside. Who cared what people thought of her? Especially this dreamy, if somewhat standoffish, forest ranger.
If this was what people expected, this was what she’d give them.
Todd wrote slowly and methodically in his ticket book. Something he knew drove people batshit crazy, but he did it just the same. It messed with them a little, and that part was fun.
Molly Cordero didn’t know it yet, but she was getting a warning after all. It was true that he was hardened by those years in Chicago. He didn’t have much time for excuses, and even less for people who felt sorry for themselves. But as much as he wanted to throw the book at her—and let’s face it, there wasn’t much of one to throw for littering—he couldn’t bring himself to do it.
He concentrated on filling out the warning, well aware that those sharp blue eyes were boring a hole right into his skull. She was even more beautiful than she’d been on TV. She’d gained some weight, but he found the curves looked good on her. Like she might be comfortable for the first time in a while. Her hair was different, though. Gone was the short, blonde cut that so many girls had tried to copy after the London Olympics. It had grown into a chin-length number that she kept pushing out of her face.
Every now and then he heard her pull in a breath. Maybe trying to calm herself down. Or maybe she was just winded from the hike up the side of the mountain. Rabbit Loop wasn’t nearly as strenuous as some of the trails on the other side, but still. Although he had a hard time believing someone who’d been in such great shape just a few years ago would have trouble with anything like this.
“Are you almost finished?” she said. “I have things to do.”
At that, he looked up and glanced casually around. “Have a meeting or something?”
She scowled at him. There was that look he and his fellow Americans had grown so used to on the news lately. That holier than thou, get out of my face, I’m much more of a badass than you think I am look.
But underneath that hard line, those lips appeared full and soft. Her eyes, so strikingly blue they reminded him of Miracle Lake in the winter. Her face was flushed pink from anger, but he could tell her skin was normally pale and smooth.
Yeah, Molly Cordero was a looker, all right. Too bad she had the temperament of a rattlesnake with the tongue to match.
He tore the small, yellow piece of paper from his ticket book and handed it to her. She took it and shoved it into her pocket.
“You know, I’m just staying with my cousin for a while. I’m not going to be here forever, so if this requires anything but a fine, I’ll probably have to skip it.”
“And deny us more of your charming personality?”
A shadow passed over her face and was gone before he could tell what it had been. She squared her shoulders and looked him straight in the eye. She wasn’t very tall, so that required looking up. By a lot.
“What’s the easiest way down?” she asked. “My toe’s about to fall off.”
He looked down at the boots that probably hadn’t been broken in until an hour ago. “Turn around and go back the way you came.”
“That’s the best you can do?”
“It’s killing me. I can barely walk.”
“A little dramatic, don’t you think?”
She leaned down and untied the boot, then wiggled her foot out. Son of a bitch, if the pristine white sock didn’t have a smudge of blood on it.
She sucked in a breath. “See?” Leaning forward, she squinted at his name tag. “If I bleed out, Officer Harris, I’m blaming you. Then you’ll have to live with the guilt of knowing you helped kill me.”
He stopped himself before smiling at that, reminding himself she was a spoiled brat. He knew what she’d done to land herself in Montana, and it wasn’t “exhaustion” like her publicist said. She’d been major tabloid fodder for weeks. Her life had begun to spin out of control and she’d finally had to find somewhere soft to land.
All of Marietta knew that Molly was staying with Becky and Calvin Reese just outside of town. But nobody had spilled to the press so far, so she was successfully under wraps. For the time being. Todd guessed she had a love-hate relationship with the paparazzi. She craved the attention, even if it made her miserable.
She leaned back and shielded her eyes with her hand. The sun was making her hair glow like a halo, which was misleading at best.
And then she smiled. Even, white teeth, small dimples at the corners of her baby pink lips. For a second, she was that audacious spark of a woman leaning forward to accept her gold medal in front of a country of adoring subjects. She was the girl on the Wheaties box, who came home to guest star on Thursday night sitcoms. She was the biggest wet dream of every man in the world.
And he couldn’t quite believe she was standing there smiling at him. The realization made him nervous. But what made him more nervous was the knowledge that his emotions had betrayed him for a second. His carefully crafted guard had been let down a little to allow her access, and he could see it on her face. She knew she’d affected him.
He didn’t smile back. Instead, he brought his hat down low over his eyes and put the ticket book back in his jacket pocket. He’d only been up here for a routine look around. Never in a million years could he have prepared himself for an interaction like this. It was giving him a headache. And all of a sudden, he couldn’t wait for this day to be over with so he could go back to the cabin and have a beer with Bug. Bug didn’t give a shit about anything. And that was just the kind of mind-set Todd wanted to adopt right now. He’d had enough of people for the day. For the whole goddamn month, for that matter.
“Have a nice day,” he said more gruffly than he meant. He touched his brim, and caught the change in her expression. The unmistakable sting in her eyes. She probably wasn’t used to being dismissed so quickly.
He turned to make his way back to his truck, but before he could take two steps, she cleared her throat.
Stopping, he turned back.
“The guitar thing?” she said, her voice surprisingly soft. “That wasn’t me. That’s not who I really am, you know.”
He watched her for a second. The way her hair moved with the faint breeze, the way her head was tilted so that she looked like she was trying to protect herself.
He didn’t know why, but he wanted to believe that.
End of Excerpt