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It wasn’t a long way from Missoula to Dex McCoy’s hometown of Glacier Creek, Montana. Only two and a bit hours, if he took the most direct way. Today, Dex needed to take the long way, along Highway 35, which curved along the east side of Flathead Lake, Big Mountain right there where it had always been, the blue waters of Flathead Lake calling him home. As he drove, he listened to nothing but the throaty rumble of his truck and his breathing. No music on the radio. No company in the passenger seat.
When he’d left three months before to do a smokejumper exchange with another crew in Missoula, an important part of his graduation from rookie to full-time crew member, the Flathead Valley and the mountains all around it had been every possible shade of green. Now, the aspen, cottonwood, and tamarack trees were showing their fall colors—yellow and gold and a shimmering orange. As he drove, Dex thought there was nothing sweeter than seeing once again what felt like his mountains, his sky, his forests laid out before him, as far as the horizon could stretch. The turning of the seasons also reminded him that the more things changed, the more they stayed exactly the damn same.
Dex could have stopped in at the Glacier Creek service station on Flathead Lake, checked in with his captain, Sam Gaskill, and his buddies, dropped off his gear, and stored it in his locker, so he would be ready for the next call out. But he didn’t. He could have driven on out to North Fork, the family ranch where his brother Mitch lived with his wife Sarah and their daughter Lila, but that would have turned into dinner and a conversation about their old man, and playing with Lila, and that sweet kid deserved every bit of his attention, not some bone-tired uncle who probably still stank of smoke. Definitely still stank of smoke. He’d call them when he got home, make plans to invite himself over for Mitch’s famous barbeque and some much needed hugs from his niece. After a much needed night’s sleep, he was due back on base tomorrow and, right now, he needed to get home to his apartment in Glacier Creek and crash in his own bed. He needed to dig out some clothes that hadn’t been on high rotation for the three months he’d been away, that didn’t reek of smoke and pine and sweat, and he needed to sleep.
He was nearly there.
He wound down the window, rested his elbow on the door, and stuck his head out into the wind like the family dog Rusty used to. Rusty had loved riding shotgun in the truck. The mutt would whimper and whine to have the door opened so he could jump up into the cabin, and would then shove his wet nose against the glass until Dex leaned over and wound it down all the way. With narrowed eyes and his tongue hanging blissfully about as far out of his mouth as it could get, the dog was never happier than when he was sitting in the truck with Dex. He smiled at the memory of that damn dog, now gone, buried under a cottonwood tree at North Fork. He leaned out into the wind, sucked in the cool, crisp Montana air he loved, but was careful to keep his tongue in his mouth.
Come to think of it, he’d spent a lifetime holding his tongue.
After his Mom died when he was eighteen years old, he didn’t ever tell anyone how much he missed her and her hugs at night, her whispered goodnights and kisses on the forehead where his hair met his skin.
When Mitch, older by five years, had taken over the running of North Fork, Dex hadn’t complained or been envious of his brother. Mitch had already been working with their father, learning all there was to know about managing the ranch. They’d agreed it was the most practical thing to do and anyway, there was an adventuresome spirit in Dex that he couldn’t define back then, but he knew he didn’t want to be tied to the ranch. Or Montana.
He’d held his tongue about that, too, seeing his father had still been trying to cope with their mother’s death, trying to hold it together for his two sons. The last thing he’d needed back then was for Dex to announce he was leaving.
Dex was practiced at not saying what he needed to or wanted to. When the other guys in the squad—or his Captain, Sam—had given him good-natured shit for a mistake or a slip, he took it on without backbiting, vowing to learn from it, to get better, not get even.
The only time in his life when he hadn’t held his tongue, when he’d told someone what he really thought, he’d seriously pissed off Cady Adams.
Yeah, Cady Adams of Cady’s Cakes on Main Street, Glacier Creek. Cady of the wild green eyes and russet brown hair and the mouth he hadn’t been able to stop thinking about every minute he’d been in Missoula. Cady Adams, the woman he hadn’t spoken to in the entire year he’d been home.
Yeah, that Cady.
Dex eased his truck into the drive of his apartment building and turned off the engine. He rested both wrists on the top of the steering wheel and peered out the front window into the fading, early evening light. He’d been living there since he’d come home to Montana, since he’d begun working as a smokejumper. It was a modern apartment in a modern complex with everything a regular person could ever want—stainless steel appliances, a brick fireplace, gas heating, a walk-in master closet, and a fenced yard. Everything he could ever want, that was, if he wanted to keep things simple, and it was only thirty minutes to base. It suited him for now. Who knew what he might want to do in a year’s time?
He got out of his truck, stretching out the stiffness from the drive, and began unloading his gear inside. He had decided to secure his fire fighting equipment in his living room rather than leaving it in the truck. He took a look around. Yeah, everything was still the same. Dex didn’t have much stuff. He hadn’t even bothered to make this place look like home in the year he’d been here. There was a big TV, a big old leather sofa, a rug and a coffee table where he usually ate dinner leaning over his plate.
Dex rubbed a hand over his chopped, dirty blond hair, scratched the stubble on his jaw. Didn’t bother to stifle the yawn.
He was home. And tomorrow, he’d be back at base, ready and more than damn well willing to get into the nearest DC-3 and jump into the middle of the big, Montana sky with a parachute harnessed to his back, all in the name of keeping people and property safe.
But right now, he needed some shut-eye.
He showered, went to bed, and was asleep in twenty minutes, trying not to dream familiar dreams about Cady Adams’s green eyes and her sweet pink lips.
Cady Adams started work each day before the sun came up. She didn’t rise with the birds. She’d already had two coffees, made trays of cupcakes in the most popular flavors—double chocolate chip, red velvet, and vanilla—rolled out miles of buttery dough and pinched it over racks of pies, when the first bird song of the day echoed between the buildings of her home town.
She’d always been an early riser. Even when she was a teenager, she would be awake before her mom and gran were up. By the time they were coming down the stairs in the morning, complaining with a smile about their old bones creaking, she would have been in the kitchen for an hour. A pot of coffee would have already been brewed and Cady would have made them something special for breakfast before she went off to school. Gran’s favorite was pancakes with maple syrup and blueberries with just a dash of whipped cream on top, which she’d tried to convince them she didn’t want, but ate with a wicked grin anyway. Her mom’s favorite had always been granola muffins. “They’re healthier.” She would tell Cady with a lecturing tone in her voice but a grin in her eyes. From them, the two most precious people in the world to her, she’d learnt the all-important balance between sweet and savoury, between pleasure and restraint.
So, every morning Cady had prepared food for both. To show how much she loved them. It was a small thing, but it had been a tangible way of showing them how much she appreciated all they had been doing for her. The three of them were all they had but they were happy. Cady’s grandfather had died young in a car accident, well before she was born, and Cady had never really known her own father, who’d run off to Florida with a sales rep before his daughter had started school. Her mom and grandmother made up for the lack of men in the household by making sure Cady never missed out. Both had worked long hours—her mom as a pharmacy assistant in Glacier Creek, and Gran part-time in a florist shop next door to the pharmacy—to help supplement what Cady was earning from her various part-time jobs. They gave up their time and got creaky, old bones so they could put together a college fund for the only Adams child.
Their dream was for her to work hard and get accepted into a great east coast school.
“Dream big.” Her mom had always urged her. “Get out of Montana. Go get a career and see the world.” They wanted her to be a lawyer or a doctor. Something that screamed success.
But Cady had different dreams. They were big, too, but they didn’t involve courtrooms or operating theatres. She’d been afraid to tell them at first that the more she studied, the more she liked food. Home economics had become her favorite subject at high school and nothing else had ever stuck in her head like the science and art of baking.
One day, when she was in her senior year, Cady had gathered her mom and gran to the kitchen table. She’d made a delicate sponge cake, its layers smeared with sweet strawberry jam and whipped cream, and had made coffee. And then she’d broken the news to them that her dream wasn’t law school or med school but that she really wanted to go to one of the best culinary institutes in the United States and learn how to bake.
One bite of that sponge and they’d each agreed. Cady finally got to follow her big dreams, leaving Montana four years ago to go to that fancy school, once they’d all saved up enough for her tuition fees. Her fancy dreams hadn’t worked out quite the way she’d planned, so she’d come home a year ago to start her own business in a safe place.
And now, Cady got to go to work every day in her bright pink shop which had her name emblazoned across the front window. Kinda funny because she wasn’t even remotely close to being what some people might describe as a girly girl. Her style was practical and simple. She spent most of her time elbow deep in dough and pastry, for Pete’s sake. It was all she could do at work to smudge on a bit of tinted lip gloss. She loathed high heels, preferring chef clogs when she was whipping up her creations. She had never once in her life ever worn the color pink and was more usually found in T-shirts and worn through the knee jeans than anything that might be mistaken for a dress.
But she knew, from the moment she’d signed the lease on the shop, that it had to be pink. She had dreamt about her shop before she had ever owned it and she created it exactly as she’d dreamt it—sweet and pale pink like the icing on a little girl’s cupcake. If the little girl was a girly girl, of course. And if she wasn’t? Easy. Cady had made all kinds—with smears of brown and khaki camouflage for children who liked playing soldiers; red, blue, yellow and purple for Wiggles fans; and she couldn’t count how many she’d iced in the pale blue and silver of the character from that super popular animated film with the princesses, the name of which escaped her.
Cady surveyed her shop with a ridiculous sense of exhausted satisfaction. Cady’s Cakes look as sweet as the cookies and cakes and muffins she baked. As tantalizing as sugary icing and donuts, as tempting as the chocolate and mint slices she stacked neatly in her display cabinets. Its white painted bentwood chairs and wooden tables, photographs of the Montana sky framed in rows on each wall, its pale pink painted walls and its high ceilings were exactly as she’d imagined, but only better because it was real and it was hers. Her cake shop was light and big and the counter with glass display cabinets on top ran down one side, the cash register at the counter dogleg at the front. She’d painted the chairs, sewn the pink gingham curtains and hung them, and decorated the place all by herself and she still shimmered with delight every morning when she came down the stairs of her apartment above, turned left on the sidewalk and slipped her key into the front door lock and flicked on the lights. Even when she was tired. Even when snow was piled up on the footpath and she had to jump over it to push open the half-frozen front door. Even when she’d had an ill-advised extra glass of wine at The Drop Zone the night before and was still feeling just the teensiest bit lightheaded.
None of that got in the way because Cady’s Cakes was hers.
Every day, she was her own boss. Every day, she was in control of her own destiny, her own career, her own choices, her own life. All of that had become super important to her after what had happened. She knew if her mom and gran were still alive today, they’d be so proud of her. Even in Glacier Creek, Montana, her customers expected nothing but the freshest cakes and the hottest coffee—every day except Sunday—when she had her one and only sleep in day of the week, and she made sure she lived up to the expectations of her customers.
That getting up before the birds thing she had going on? Early nights were a small price to pay for this freedom, this independence, this strength in herself that having her own business gave her.
So, when Dex McCoy drove slowly down Main Street on Saturday morning, Cady was already wide awake and alert to everything happening in her shop and in the street out front. She’d just served a crew of smokejumpers from Glacier Creek service station, a bunch of guys who were regulars—black coffee and sugared donuts—when she saw him.
She had some kind of sixth sense when it came to that man. The connection was made the day after his mom’s funeral, their senior year at high school. He’d looked so wounded, so hurt and so angry. Until he’d seen her, until he’d let her wrap her arms around him because she couldn’t say anything meaningful enough to take away his pain.
He’d left Montana soon after, still wounded and hurt and angry and they hadn’t really spoken again until four years ago at The Drop Zone, the bar in Kalispell where all the smokejumpers hung out. She tried to push the memory of that night aside.
Cady tried to shake off the awareness of him but it was stuck in her head like a sliver of sliced almond in between her teeth. Her attention caught like a falcon seeing a mouse scamper in the grass a hundred feet below its extended wings. She looked outside, past the display of cupcakes on top of her glass counter, and the heads of her customers, and saw him in his truck, driving slowly past.
Without realising it, Cady let out the breath she’d been holding for three months, since Dex had driven off to Missoula to smokejump with another crew. There was absolutely no reason she should have been scared for him. She was born and bred in Glacier Creek and her best customers were the smokejumpers who parachuted out of DC-3s to tackle wildfires in the Montana mountains before they became truly wild and even more dangerous. She knew those men and women were highly trained, extremely skilled, strong as oxen, and fit.
So why had her heart been in her mouth the whole damn time he’d been away? Why had she dreamt about him, so vividly, over and over? Why had a tall, scarred smokejumper called Dex McCoy, a man who continued to cross The Drop Zone with a whiskey in his hand rather than say hello to her, gotten inside her head like he had? She huffed. It was inexplicable. How could she be so worried about a man who—not once, ever—had come into Cady’s Cakes and bought one single damn thing?
Cady tore her attention back to the familiar face staring at her across the counter.
“Sorry. Did you say something, Jacqui?”
“Honey, you gave me too much change.”
End of Excerpt