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Smiling, Echo Rose let up on the SUV’s gas pedal and pressed the brake. Her repaired ankle protested, prompting her to shift into Park. As the too-familiar discomfort faded, she studied the doe and her fawns. The trio stood at the side of the road as if waiting for their turn to cross. Fortunately no other vehicles were on the two-lane road which was a bit unusual since it was summer and the Lake Serene area attracted a large number of visitors this time of the year. Any moment a vacationer or a resort employee could come along. With afternoon shadows leaching across the road, they might not see the wild animals in time.
Wishing she didn’t have to, Echo tapped the horn. The doe stared at her with moist, chocolate eyes. One of the fawns scurried to hide behind its mother while the other spun in a half circle.
“What was that maneuver?” Echo asked through the open window. “Pay attention. Mom’s trying to teach you survival skills.”
Instead of disappearing into the close-growing pines, the trio continued to study the human. That was what came from living so close to what passed for civilization in Montana’s Flathead National Forest. Wildlife here was accustomed to two-legged intruders.
“What am I going to do with you?” She rested her forearms on the steering wheel. “Just because the three of you are terminally cute doesn’t mean I can let you get away with ignoring me. Go on, scat!”
The fawn that had been hiding behind Mom scurried up the slope and disappeared into the forest. However, the jumper stepped into the middle of the road, tiny hooves clattering on pavement.
She laughed. “Defying me, are you? If you were human, you’d be on your way to the principal’s office. Come on, Mom. Teach him to respect his elders.”
Obviously not interested in having her parenting skills challenged, the doe dug her hooves into the rocky slope soil and started climbing after her fawn. Tail twitching, the other charged after them. The woods swallowed them.
“That was wonderful,” Echo muttered as she reluctantly shifted back into Drive. “Much preferable to what’s ahead of me.”
The thirty-miles-per-hour speed limit meant she barely had to put any pressure on the gas pedal, which left her mind free to focus on what was next on a day that had started at dawn. As a Forest Service employee, she was accustomed to working long hours. She thrived on physical activity, but last summer’s accident still limited what she could do.
Determined not to go down that emotional road today, she slowed at the small numbered wooden signs identifying the private cabins that were across Lake Serene from the large public resort. Thanks to the never-ending paperwork in her Kalispell office, she hadn’t been to the lake for a couple of weeks. She’d still be chained to her desk if she hadn’t tossed the latest governmental communication in an I’ll-deal-with-that-tomorrow file and taken off for the lake yesterday.
Her decision had been a simple need to escape four walls and immerse herself in nature. High altitude afternoon’s heat filled the SUV’s cabin, but this was what she loved, trees all around and the air smelling of mountain life. Feeling alive and real.
Pine needles and dry grasses littered the forest floor and fire danger had just hit the extreme level. The thought of a cigarette or spark landing on the tinder-dry carpet tightened her throat. Fortunately before memories could get the better of her, she spotted the turnoff to cabin number six and eased onto the narrow dirt road.
After the last time she’d been here, she’d written the cabin owner informing him he risked being fined if he didn’t improve his road so fire-fighting equipment could travel on it. Then she’d learned the elderly owner was in a nursing home and his children had decided to sell. As a result, the dilapidated structure now belonged to the wealthy man who was spending tens of thousands of dollars to upgrade the resort.
Robert Chamberlin wasn’t easy to work with, in part because he seldom came to Lake Serene. When she’d approached Robert’s nephew and manager Shaw Chamberlin requesting information about Robert’s plans for the cabin, Shaw had told her to talk to the resort’s contractor which was why she was here today.
Meeting with Rey Bowen.
Rey Bowen of the unsmiling mouth, deep-set, dark blue eyes, thick reddish brown hair, probing stare, and mysterious past.
A past. How well she understood.
The SUV jolted over a root and dropped into the deepest rut she’d encountered so far. The undercarriage grated against something. Teeth clenched against her throbbing ankle, she rode the brake and shifted into four-wheel drive. Fresh sawdust around tree stumps told her someone had recently cleared away some trees growing close to the road. In part, she was here to tell Rey he had to cease and desist doing that until fall rains started. No wonder she wasn’t looking forward to what might turn into a confrontation.
By the time she left the densest tree groupings and got her first glimpse of Lake Serene, her ankle was on fire. She stopped long enough to flex it then drove the short distance to the cabin.
Two trucks, one with a trailer loaded with lumber, were on the cabin’s south side as was a motorcycle. She recognized the dusty three-quarter ton rig as the one Rey drove. It fit him. A no-nonsense vehicle for a no-nonsense man.
She parked near the trailer and got out, wincing as her weight settled on her right foot. It was her fault. She shouldn’t have hiked as far as she had yesterday, but the chance to go into the back country with Fish and Wildlife biologists tracking elk movement had been too intriguing to turn down.
She shrugged off memories of flattened pine needles where an elk had spent the night and reminded herself of the responsibilities that had brought her to what would become part of the resort complex once the cabin had been remodeled. If she was on her honeymoon—a dream that had fallen apart before she’d gotten to the I do part—she couldn’t think of a more romantic setting.
The high scream of a power saw had her heading toward an opening in the cabin where the front door had been. Wooden stairs used to lead to the interior but those were gone, forcing her to grab the door jam and hoist herself into the building. She caught the scent of fresh-cut wood and cigarette smoke.
She headed toward the sound. A table saw had been set up near a window opening, and a sawdust-flaked man with a greying beard and a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth was feeding a length of four-by-four through it. Another man stood on the table’s opposite side, holding onto the halves emerging from the whirling blade.
Neither man was Rey.
She looked around, but her eyes hadn’t had time to adjust from being in the sun to the shadowy interior. She hated feeling trapped, wished she’d get over it.
“Ranger Echo Rose,” a rumbling voice said.
Taking it slow, she turned in the direction the words came from.
Rey Bowen was looking at her, or rather looking down at her. He wasn’t a giant of a man, just a shade over six feet, but that didn’t stop her from remembering she was at least seven inches shorter and only one hundred twenty pounds. For reasons she was careful not to examine too closely, she’d told herself the breadth of his chest and width of his shoulders were responsible for her unsettling reaction to him.
What was she thinking? Hadn’t she learned, painfully, to keep emotional distance between herself and men? She had, darn it. She’d never drop her guard.
Until she’d done in her ankle, she’d spent much of her time around physical people, most of them men. She still was around more men than women, but in recent months she’d mostly rubbed shoulders with people who spent their days behind desks.
Despite how she’d been forced to earn her living since last summer, she believed she still understood the physical male. When he was around women he was trying to impress, the breed carried himself as if he was a bull elk, strutting a bit, hard muscles pushing against too-tight T-shirts, and gazes giving out bedroom vibes.
Rey did none of those things. Instead, it was as if he’d built an emotional wall around himself. The reason was none of her business, darn it. She had enough to do dealing with her own life. At least as long as the conversation was about resort remodeling, he was relatively easy to carry on a conversation with. Apparently, he never talked about his personal life and didn’t encourage others to do so. Rumor was he was divorced and didn’t have children. As for why she’d asked about his story and had held onto the details…
Today he needed a shave which added to the aura of masculinity. His shaggy hair went every direction except straight, and his T-shirt was overdue for a washing machine. His jeans, faded but well-fitting, had a layer of sawdust on them. Before she could get a handle on the thought, she pondered what she’d encounter if she brushed his shoulders.
You’d like to do that, wouldn’t you?
“Did you get my message?” she asked. “I’d said I hoped to get out here today.”
He tapped his front right pocket where he carried his phone. “You didn’t say what time.”
“Because I wasn’t sure how long I’d be at the Snowshoe campground.”
Rey didn’t respond. He probably didn’t care about her agenda so she decided to get right to the point. “You heard that the fire danger’s been increased to extreme didn’t you?”
He fixed his gaze on her face. There was something in his eyes, something more than surface deep. Complex.
“Yeah,” he finally said.
The screaming saw sound had changed to a hum when the men finished ripping the board they’d been working on. Otherwise, Rey and she wouldn’t have been able to hear each other. As the men started to feed another board through the metal teeth, Rey indicated the two of them should go outside.
He stepped back so she could exit ahead of him. Wishing she didn’t have to attempt the maneuver with him watching, she took hold of the door casing, balanced her weight on her right leg, and reached out and down with her left. The maneuver kept her tweaked ankle from taking too much punishment, but she had to work at keeping her balance. Had he noticed?
She was still holding on when she spotted a chipmunk on the dry grasses between the cabin and lake. Considering the saw sounds, she was surprised the little rodent was around. Seeing it reminded her of her responsibility for its wellbeing, but it represented more than that. The chipmunk and she were part of the same wild and fragile world. If she told Rey what she was thinking, would he understand and why did she care what he thought? It wasn’t as if she’d let him past the barriers she’d erected around her emotions.
When Rey joined her, she plowed into her explanation. Extreme fire danger meant no outside use of machinery or taking anything motorized into the back country. Campfires and outside smoking wasn’t allowed. All tree falling would have to wait until it rained.
“Wait a minute,” Rey said from where he leaned against the wall near the front opening. “What’d you just say? We have a problem.”
“What do you mean, we?”
“Not you and me. I’ve arranged to have a stump grinder work on the road in. He’ll be here Friday.”
“You’ll have to cancel.”
She’d suspected he’d react like this. Rey took his job seriously to the max. He resented any insinuation that he needed supervising. He wanted—no, he practically demanded he be left alone. He’d locked horns with Forest Service personnel more than once over federal regulations. She hadn’t had to deal with him but she’d been warned he didn’t have much patience with what he called rules for the sake of rules. In some respects she got how he felt but since the service paid her salary, she wouldn’t say anything.
One thing about the conversation’s direction, errant thoughts about him would no longer distract her.
“This isn’t up for debate. A single spark and this tinderbox will blow up. Not might, will.” She pointed at the horizon. “I get nervous every time thunderheads show up. Lightning, including dry lightning is a huge enemy because it often strikes in the middle of the wilderness, but man’s the greatest danger.”
“I’ve made arrangements to have fire extinguishers near the stump grinders.” He hadn’t stopped studying her since they’d come outside. “As long as they work early morning when there’s dew on the ground—”
“What dew? Things are too dried out for that.”
“In other words you’re hamstringing me.”
“Not me. It’s the law. I’d lose my job if—”
“And I can’t do mine if I can’t get what I need in here. The roof has to be replaced. Trusses take a lot of room.”
“I know.” No way could anything wider than the pickups and trailer make it down the dirt road. “Rey, this isn’t negotiable. Arguing with me won’t change anything. On my way here I saw a doe with twins. They might not survive a forest fire.”
“Damn,” he muttered. “Don’t play that card.”
She was tempted to pull up her pant leg and spell out her personal battle with a wildfire. Before she could make up her mind, he struck off for the lake, leaving her shocked at the thought of showing him her scar.
Rey Bowen was a near stranger, not someone she’d confide in.
Because she hadn’t finished doing what she needed to here today, she followed him. He took long, strong strides that tightened the denim against his buttocks and legs. She couldn’t catch up with him but, fortunately, the lake would soon stop him. She’d finish her practiced speech, study the lake for a moment as she always did, return to her vehicle, and wrestle it back onto paved road.
He reached the bank, rammed his hands in his back pockets, and stared out at the glass-like surface. When whitecaps churned Lake Serene, she wondered at the name choice, but today, without a breeze to cut the heavy heat, the lake sent out an invitation she longed to accept. How she’d love to step into the water and start swimming. She’d swim and float until her fingers turned wrinkly, let her legs dangle to see if any fish nibbled her toes.
Feel newborn and free.
Maybe Rey was trying to get to her by not acknowledging her presence but maybe the setting was speaking to him. If she admitted that seeing Lake Serene always calmed her, would he nod in understanding?
Stop seeing her as the enemy.
Wishing that didn’t matter, she willed herself to concentrate on her reason for being here. She was still more aware of him than she wanted to be, but she wouldn’t let that stop her. Not looking in his direction, she pointed to the south, specifically a narrow valley between two distant peaks. “Have you ever been to Wolverine?”
“What?” He slowly turned from the lake and faced her. His expression was neutral.
“I don’t know where the name came from,” she said. “Maybe long ago someone saw a wolverine in the area.”
“That doesn’t often happen?”
“No. Wolverines are unsocial creatures. They don’t want anything to do with humans. The point I’m trying to make is that several summers ago some fool campers didn’t make sure their illegal cooking fire was out. It was late August, and everything was tinder dry so of course flames spread. Fortunately the fire lookout tower was manned. Otherwise, it makes me sick thinking about what might have happened. It was bad enough as it was. The service got several air tankers and helicopters on it right away.”
It always surprised her that other people weren’t as intimately acquainted with firefighting techniques as she was. Glad she had his full attention, she explained that the helicopters had been equipped with buckets the pilots filled by dipping them into Lake Serene. The planes skimmed the lake, sucking water into their bellies via open doors on the underside. She was no stranger to the screaming energy of flying beasts. She knew even more about the ground crews.
“I wish you could see what happened at Wolverine,” she told him. “Maybe then you’d understand how necessary fire prevention is.”
“I don’t need a lecture.”
Need or want? “I won’t give you one—as long as you promise not to fight me on this.”
He glared at her. “You?”
What point was he trying to make? That he held her personally responsible? Maybe he thought she could and should bend the rules for him. Even if she could, she wouldn’t. Granted, he was everything the word masculine represented, but fire prevention touched her at her core.
“I don’t make policy. I’m charged with making sure it’s followed.”
“In other words, you don’t concern yourself with the consequences for people trying to make a living who are impacted by those policies—or give me credit for setting up procedures designed to make sure nothing bad happens.”
Before she could reply, he turned his attention back to what little he could see of Wolverine. From here, there was no sign of the blackened area.
“I’m under pressures you’ll never understand,” he said so softly she had to strain to hear. “Pressure that goes much deeper than being able to bring in roofing trusses.”
Both fascinated by what he hadn’t said and determined not to go beneath the surface with the big, distant man, she started back toward her vehicle.
“We all do what we have to,” she said over her shoulder. “Priorities that drive us. I’ll leave a printout with you so you know exactly what you can and can’t do until the restrictions are lifted.”
“Who made up those rules?”
She was tempted to counter that the rules hadn’t been fashioned out of thin air as he seemed to be indicating but that wouldn’t get them anywhere. For as long as Rey and she were at Lake Serene, they’d have to work together. She had no control over how he handled his side of the relationship, but she intended to be as professional as possible.
Easier said than done, because he’d joined her and was matching his stride to hers, his arm occasionally brushing hers. Touching her in ways she’d nearly forgotten were possible. Reminding her she was a woman.
She started to put distance between them but was distracted by what might be the chipmunk she’d seen earlier. Its life could depend on what she said today.
“Your employee can’t smoke outside,” she told Rey as they neared the cabin with the cigarette-smoking workman now standing in the doorway. “That’s one of the regulations.”
He stopped, gave her no choice but to face him. “That goes without saying. I’m not an idiot.”
End of Excerpt