Did you miss the Prologue and Chapters 1-4? You can find them here.
Afghanistan—Five days earlier
The day was treacherous, the temperatures capable of frying eggs on the goddamn sand. I was in a foul mood, pacing the outside of the barracks as I’d done for two solid days. I knew the shit was going to hit the fan, I just didn’t know when.
We were contractors, having served our country in various ranks as well as in several countries. We now served as liaisons, our expertise and skills sought after. We were also considered dangerous, soldiers who could erase the very souls of our enemies. Unfortunately, we were also expendable.
Incapable of rehabilitation.
I’d heard all those words and more shit during the last three days. Three fucking days of interrogations, finger pointing as to what the fuck we’d done. My answer had been the same during every heated discussion.
We had continued to serve our country and the men and women behind enemy lines, and we would do so no matter the cost.
I had no doubt the entire group would be quietly released, our contracts terminated in order to avoid a scandal.
And it pissed me the fuck off.
Today was the day my number would be yanked. I had no doubt, none at all. I was the leader, the man in charge and almost everyone said I’d fucked up. Our actions didn’t call for a slap on the hand. What we’d exposed had created a ripple action, although the extent we might never know. The major in charge of our skilled camp had been called to his quarters and had been there for some time. That was never a good sign.
“It’s going to be all right, bubba.” Holt ‘Mustang’ Wills had a way of making me feel better, but not today. Even his boisterous laugh couldn’t drag me up from the hell I’d placed myself in.
“You did what you had to do,” Reaper added. “I’d do it again. We all would.”
I turned to look at him. He’d argued with me, giving me shit for the decision I’d made. Nash Carter had always been the glass-is-half-empty kind of guy, but as a Marine, his instincts had come in handy.
They were almost always spot on.
If only I’d listened to him.
The decision hadn’t been easy, but it had been one that was required. Even if the upper brass thought differently.
“The brass has a funny way of handling things we have to do in the field,” I answered, eyeing Major Wallace’s barracks.
“Look, you can’t second guess the decision that you were forced to make. We’re alive because of it,” Scorpion added. He shot a glance toward Vader, giving him a nod. Of all the men who served with me, Cooper McKenzie had transformed the most, his nickname of Scorpion well deserved.
Then there was Vader. Always moody. Always getting himself into trouble. Refusing to follow the rules. His brazen attitude had almost gotten him killed in the line of duty. Austin Bridges was a name he refused to own up to, his difficult upbringing pushing him into acts of violence back home. Everyone knew that if he hadn’t signed up for the military, he’d likely be serving a lengthy prison term.
This time, his number had almost been called permanently.
Still, there was no recourse. We would lose our jobs, a passion that every one of us had embraced all those years ago. Now we’d be forced to face pasts that we’d avoided, even pretending that our previous lives hadn’t existed.
But I had no doubt that the four men flanking my side would do it all over again.
We were one unit, all for one and one for all.
The words both haunted and inspired me.
Vader stood still, his lips pursed and his eyes covered by a pair of dark shades. He’d said very little after returning from our mission. Fortunately, his injuries weren’t life threatening, something the major had called a happy accident.
Actually, his words were along the lines of a ‘freaking ridiculous happy accident.’ That’s how I knew that the shit was going to hit the fan. Maybe I’d been too aggressive in my actions, pushing my unit too hard. Then again, I also shouldn’t have listened to the freaking informant. I’d known something was up, his grubby hand seeking more money than we were willing to shell out for ‘special’ information.
I’d been the one to push the boundaries, no longer caring for the required protocol. Look where it had gotten us as a team.
I heard the sound of a Jeep headed in our direction and my blood boiled, my stomach churning.
“Here we go,” Mustang huffed. “Just remember, we have your back, Hawk.”
And I knew they did.
I thought about the four men standing beside me and sighed. Every one of them would die for the other, our bond stronger than any force of nature or freaking Taliban enemy. We’d all earned our nicknames from the years spent behind enemy lines, accepting re-ups without any questions. We were men of honor, men of steel. Each sequestered to a different location, fighting the same enemy. Then we’d ended up here, accepting military contractor positions in order to round out our careers. This shit had been more dangerous than standing on the front line.
We were nothing but sad and damaged assholes who’d attempted to make something good out of their lives. I turned to gaze at my buddies, proud to have served with them in an effort to protect all that America stood for.
All around the same age. All living in the same town in Montana, growing up close to each other. We’d built forts and fought off imaginary aliens and monsters from the time we could walk. We were true cowboys in every sense of the word. Even our trucks had been similar.
As well as our taste in women.
We also had our share of problems, the reason for enlisting together, promising never to set foot in Montana again. I wouldn’t know what to do if I couldn’t fight for our country.
That decision was out of our hands.
As the Jeep screeched to a stop, I darted a glance at the others. They knew how hard the last couple of days had been on me. They also knew I had no method of expressing my sadness. That wasn’t part of my makeup and had never been.
“Sergeant Travers, the major would like to have a word with you.” The lance corporal’s salute felt stiff, or maybe I was searching for answers.
I saluted him in return, moving to the passenger seat and dragging my sunglasses from my shirt pocket. The short drive felt like it was interminable, my heart skipping several beats. When the lance corporal remained in his seat, I knew this was bad news.
I said nothing as I walked into the barracks, merely holding my breath. The major stood at the window, peering out at his troops. I could tell he was tense, his shoulders and back rigid.
“Major Wallace.” I stood in formation, trying to calm my nerves.
He didn’t bother looking around. “At ease, son.” When he finally shifted to face me, there was extreme sadness in his eyes.
There was no way he could be any more disappointed in me than I was in myself.
“Sergeant, these last few days have been difficult,” the major said in an offhanded manner.
“I’m well aware, Major. Why don’t you cut to the chase?”
He sighed, shaking his head. “I always respected you, Sergeant.”
I opened my mouth then held my tongue as he held up his hand.
“While your actions and those of your men are under scrutiny, the reason I called you into my office has nothing to do with the last mission you were hell bent on taking, son. You have a phone call from the States.”
My gaze shifted to the phone on his desk, confusion setting in. “I’m sorry?”
“Go ahead and take it. I’ll give you some privacy.”
He walked around me and toward the door, leaving me in the uneasy quiet of his office. I hesitated before walking toward the phone, my instincts on high alert. “This is Sergeant Travers.”
“Sergeant Travers, this is Kelsey Simons. I’m an attorney with Simons and Caufield in Missoula, Montana.”
What the hell?
“I know who you are, Ms. Simons. What can I do for you?” The firm had represented my parents for years before their death, making certain the ranch was protected.
“I’m sorry to bring you bad news, Sergeant, but I was the only one who knew where you’d been assigned.” She hesitated before continuing. “Your brother was in a horrific accident.”
“What?” Flashes rushed into my mind. I hadn’t spoken to Drake in… Shit, years. “What happened?”
“There was an explosion at a building that he and his fellow firefighters were working on.”
“Fellow firefighters?” The last time I knew, my brother had taken over the heavy load of supervising my father’s ranch.
“Yes. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to call sooner. Things have been… difficult.”
“How is he? Is he okay?” When there was another hesitation, I couldn’t hold back my anger. “Tell me!” What the hell did she mean by difficult?
“I hate to inform you but your brother… didn’t survive the explosion.”
Another round of images rushed all around me.
The last time I saw him laugh.
The last horseback ride we’d gone on together.
The last time we’d shared a beer against my parents’ wishes.
The last time I’d seen him.
And the anger between us.
As I fell against the desk, I knew my world had just imploded. I had no other family. They were gone. They were all gone.
I was alone.
“There are extenuating circumstances and I’m certain you’re going to want to come back home and deal with them.” The attorney’s words were almost lost in a massive haze.
“Yes, I…” What the hell was I supposed to say?
“Major Wallace has been helpful in arranging your transport. When you arrive in Missoula, we will talk further,” Kelsey offered, her tone full of sympathy.
I wasn’t even aware I’d hung up the phone, nor the fact the major had returned until he cleared his throat.
“Sergeant, I’m going to put in for your release papers given the emergency family situation. I’m certain I can arrange a termination of your contract without incident,” Major Wallace said with absolutely no inflection in his voice.
Which meant the timing was perfect to sweep the tragedy under the proverbial rug. I was being fired from the only life I’d known for years. Because of a single mistake.
Because I remained the fuck-up I’d been my entire life.
What the hell was left?
I stared out the window, seeing absolutely nothing. I remained sick to my stomach and had since the night before. There were no emotions to describe what I’d seen or the nightmares that had plagued me even though I hadn’t had a minute’s worth of sleep. My mind had drifted back continually to the day I’d found out about Drake’s death, the phone call in the middle of the desert the last thing I’d expected. While Major Wallace hadn’t indicated there’d been an outcome to the investigation in what had occurred during the mission, he’d reminded me that I’d served my country well and that my brother’s death had been merely a sign that it was time to move on.
Interpretation. My days in the military were finished on every level. I suspected my buddies would be forced to return to the States as well. Fuck. Everything was one big mess.
At least I’d had company during the remainder of the night, even though my ability to handle emotions had been clipped a hell of a long time ago. And through all this bullshit and sadness, my cock ached for her.
A handful but caring.
A woman who knew no bounds.
Sighing, I was grateful that she’d known when to talk and when to leave it all the fuck alone. Today was going to be much harder than I’d originally thought. What the hell did it all mean? She’d insisted on leaving very early, the battery in her beat-up truck taking a charge after all.
For the first time in years, I’d felt true loneliness with her absence, the house cold and uninviting, even though I’d kept the fire going all night long. What I hadn’t been able to do was venture into any other part of the house. Summertime in Montana was a hell of a lot different than the desert heat in Afghanistan. I’d felt as if I was intruding even more, prying into a life that I had no business in.
“Mr. Travers? Ms. Simons will see you now.”
The receptionist’s voice was far too happy. I shifted to face her, following her lead as she took me down a long hallway and toward an open office door. Once I was inside, she immediately closed it behind me.
I stood watching the attorney as she sorted through a group of papers, shoving them into a file. When she finally looked up, her expression was grim. She rose to her feet, moving around the desk and offering me her hand. “Sergeant. I’m so sorry for your loss. Drake was truly a special man.”
While I shook her hand, the anger remained furrowing inside of me. “You didn’t tell me everything, Ms. Simons.”
“Please call me Kelsey and I don’t understand.”
“I went to my brother’s house last night and what do you think I found?”
She shrank back, pointing to one of the chairs opposite her desk. “Why don’t you have a seat, Sergeant? We have a lot to discuss.”
“I’ll remain standing.” I moved closer as she sat behind her desk, leaning over and planting my hands on the surface. “Why didn’t you tell me about the little girl?”
Her face paled and she blinked several times. “I didn’t think that telling you that Drake had a daughter was something I should do over the phone. He’d indicated that you weren’t aware.”
“The understatement of the year,” I snarked, finding it difficult to temper my tone. “Where the hell is she?”
“Ashley. Her name is Ashley and she’s staying with good people that I trust. I assure you of that.”
“What the hell does this all mean? I don’t understand a damn thing. Since you worked with Drake, you knew we weren’t close. Why did he bother bringing me into his life now?” Seeing the beautiful pink and purple room the night before had toppled my world once again. Drake had never told me he’d had a child. Then again, I hadn’t bothered to ask how his life had been going. Guilt riddled me in a way that was strangling.
“You were his family, Sergeant. His only family.” Kelsey opened the file, pulling out the top paper and handing it to me.
She said nothing while I darted my eyes over the lettering. “I don’t understand.” My whisper was hoarse, barely audible, flashes of light racing past my eyes. None of this made any sense.
“It’s fairly clear, Sergeant Travers. Drake has left the guardianship of Ashley Travers to his only living relative. That would be you.”
I shifted my gaze, searching her eyes for any sign of actual life. Did she not understand what this kind of news would do to me, to my life? I could no longer feel my legs, forced to drop into the chair. My hand shook to the point I had difficulty reading the paper again. “You’re certain?”
She smiled, her expression softening. “Absolutely. I drew up the papers myself last year. Given your brother’s dangerous second occupation, he wanted to make certain that his affairs were in order at all times. I have all the documentation on her. Doctor’s visits. Kindergarten records. Everything that you’ll need. In addition, the ranch and all Drake’s worldly possessions were left in his will to you as well. I believe that I have everything together. I’m certain you’re going to need to take some time looking everything over.”
My niece. I grabbed the file, flipping through the papers. When I saw the picture of the little girl, I was forced to suck in my breath. She was adorable, her little blonde curls and happy eyes staring out at me driving tears to my eyes. Oh, God. What had I done all these years? Why wouldn’t he tell me?
Because you were an asshole.
“What about her mother?” I managed.
“Oh. I thought you knew about Jaime. Unfortunately, Jaime was killed in a horrific fire two years ago. It was a terrible tragedy for the family. I mean…”
Hissing, I knew what she was getting at. “As I said, Drake and I weren’t close and haven’t been for some time.” Another fire. Jesus Christ.
“That happens, Sergeant. I suggest you take some time looking over the papers. I’m certain you’ll have questions.”
“I can’t do this,” I said. “There has to be someone else to look after her… after Ashley. I don’t know anything about children. I wouldn’t be a good father. I have a life.”
Kelsey exhaled. “Sergeant, sometimes things happen for a reason. Often, we don’t know what we’re capable of until we’re forced to face a crisis or a tragedy such as this one. While she might be a good candidate for adoption, she would be forced to stay with foster parents for an undisclosed period of time. I’m certain you wouldn’t want that for your niece. Your brother had no doubt that you were the only person he wanted to take care of his little girl.”
I closed my eyes, shoving aside the guilt and anger. Of course I wasn’t going to allow my niece to live in some goddamn foster home. Not a fucking chance in hell.
“What about the funeral?” I finally lifted my head, taking shallow breaths. Ashley’s face would haunt me as much as my brother’s had and would continue for some time to come.
“Upon Drake’s request, he was cremated.” Kelsey shifted her eyes back and forth, likely searching for my emotional state.
I felt nothing inside. Not a damn thing.
“And a service?”
She seemed put off by my question. “Again, at Drake’s request, he didn’t want one. Your brother believed in celebrating life every day. Also, he didn’t want to put Ashley through anything.”
“It sounds like he was preparing for his death.”
Kelsey shrugged. “I think when you have no one else to look after your child, you worry to a more significant degree. At least that’s the way it seemed with Drake.”
Uh-huh. My brother was meticulous in all things but given the conversation I’d had with Bryce and now this, my gut continued to churn.
Was this nothing but a message sent from the grave?
That was the last thing I needed to think about.
I patted the picture and put the file back on the desk, unable to stop the adrenaline flow. There was no way to take in what she’d just told me. Why wouldn’t Drake bother telling me that he had a daughter? And why would he list me as the guardian when he never wanted to see me again? What about his wife’s family?
“About the ranch,” she continued, pulling another set of papers from the file. “Drake has done exceptionally well during the last few years, adding almost a thousand acres. He was lucky that two parcels came up for sale, both adjacent to the current location.”
“I’m sorry. What did you say?” I was pulled away from my thoughts on Ashley, shocked at what she’d said.
Kelsey smiled. “Yes. Your brother was an astute businessman. He set out to make something of the ranch and that’s exactly what he did. While he kept the quota of horses and various livestock that your parents had when they were alive, he added prize steer to the small herd of cattle. They come in at a premium price, the meat used for some of the finest selections of beef in the country. After a single year, the ranch was profitable.” She pushed a series of photographs across her deck, flipping from one to the other.
“That’s almost impossible.”
“You would know better than I,” she said, grinning. “What I know is that through a couple of investments and deals he made, Drake was able to turn the ranch around. You should be very proud of your brother, Sergeant.”
She had no idea what emotions were rushing through me. Drake had certainly proven me wrong.
The aerial shots were beautiful, highlighting some of the prettiest settings I’d ever seen. I remembered how much my father had wanted to purchase the ranch closest to us, even making two offers to the owner. Unfortunately, the two ranch owners didn’t get along very well. “How did Drake get old man Weatherby to sell? He hated my father with a passion.” That was an understatement. The ugliness between the two almost got comical after a few years. I’d never really understood why.
“Not only was your brother a slick talker, and I assure you that I mean that as a compliment, but he had a little help from Weatherby’s daughter.”
She nodded. “I think the rest is history. Mr. Weatherby retired, although he lived on the property for almost three years. Until Jaime died. She was an only child, her mother passing away a few years before. I don’t know about other family. In truth, Drake never mentioned them.”
“Where is he now?”
“It’s my understanding that Mr. Weatherby bought a townhouse across town. I think he wanted to be close to Ashley instead of moving away. I honestly don’t know anything about him, except that Drake didn’t consider having him as Ashley’s guardian.”
The bad blood between the families continued long after death. Jesus.
I looked toward the window, shoving the pictures away and clenching my fist. Focusing was almost an impossibility. I simply hadn’t been prepared. “What’s the ranch worth?”
“While Drake didn’t have it recently appraised, with the various buildings I would say for tax purposes around six point five million.”
Now I was stunned. “I’m not talking for tax purposes, Ms. Simons.”
Kelsey seemed flustered.
“You can’t be serious. You’re going to sell the ranch?”
I closed my eyes, flashes of my life sweeping through my mind. “I don’t know what I’m talking about at this point, but I will explore the options.” I didn’t need to glance into her eyes to know how perturbed she was.
“All right. I do understand, Sergeant. I do hope you’ll think of the child’s best interests. While there are some additional financial records that you will need to look at soon, we can do that another day.”
“Is there anyone working the ranch?”
This time, she chuckled. “I have a list of the entire employment roster for you as well. They have all been working with your brother for years, so they are continuing with their duties and payroll is handled through an outside service.”
“I’m confused. I thought my brother was a firefighter?”
Kelsey lifted her head. “Volunteer. After Jaime died and the way she did, he was crushed, unable to handle life without her. One of his buddies was a volunteer and suggested he train and maybe consider doing a couple shifts a week. From what I understand, Drake fell in love with the job. I certainly didn’t talk to him about it, but he managed to juggle everything in his life. If you ask me, I think he needed to keep his mind occupied.”
I shook my head, still trying to wrap my mind around the changes. My brother had been a carefree kid, always studious instead of rugged, even though he adored the ranch. He certainly grew up while I was gone.
“What about… Ashley? When do I need to get her? Do I sign something? Do I…”
“As I said, you’re going to need some time. The woman who’s caring for Ashley is state approved and is happy to care for her for a few more days until you are ready.”
I nodded, the shock kicking my ass. “Okay.” I was numb as I rose to my feet.
“By the way, I’m not certain that you would want this kind of publicity since the explosion was ruled an accident. I can certainly write a cease and desist letter if you’d like.” When she pushed the morning’s newspaper across her desk, the headlines were all I needed to see.
Is there a Serial Arsonist in Missoula?
Byline: Bryce Myers
“Evidently, her story from Channel 9 was picked up, the copy she wrote turned into an article. I’m not certain why this reporter is pushing the situation, but Drake’s name is plastered all over it. Granted, there was limited mention on the morning news, but I have a feeling that’s going to change. You might imagine that folks around here are going to be very angry. There’s been enough bad press and even worse karma the city had been forced to handle over the last few months.”
While I had no idea what the hell she was getting at, my hackles were immediately raised as I tried to process the article.
The bitch. She lied to me. She made a promise, sat with me all night long and it was all lies. I was sick inside, the anger rolling through me like wildfire. “That won’t be necessary, Ms. Simons. I’ll take care of the situation. I appreciate all you’ve done already.”
I yanked the file into my hand, trying to calm my nerves. I had no idea what time of day it was or what the hell I was going to do.
However, Bryce and I would have a discussion, and one she wouldn’t like.
“There’s one more thing, Sergeant. It’s about Ashley.”
I shot her a look, still trying to rein in my rage. “What?”
“She hasn’t spoken since she was told about her father’s death. The doctors aren’t entirely certain if she’ll ever speak again.”
I’d felt moments of rage in my life on and off since I was a boy. I’d been the one to defy the rules, seeking adventures against my parents’ wishes, then hating them for restricting me. I’d been the bad boy at school, acting as if math and English meant nothing. Thank God my parents had been strong individuals, refusing to give up on me.
However, they’d never been able to cease the burning deep inside of me. Fight the wrongs. Retaliate against the assholes who even considered threatening my way of life.
The worst in my book were people who made promises they didn’t keep.
Bryce Myers fit into that category to a T.
I refused to allow any other emotions to grasp ahold of my psyche. If I did, I would lose my shit. My brother was gone. There was no chance to apologize for the ridiculous argument we’d had or the misunderstanding that had gotten in the way of our once close friendship. We hadn’t just gone separate ways. We’d altered the course of our combined futures.
Then there was Ashley.
And I was her guardian.
Snarling, I pressed down on the gas as I headed in the direction of the Channel 9 offices, the local television station where Bryce worked. I no longer cared about protocol or offending her. I was going to give her a piece of my mind, as well as helping her once and for all to understand that she would not cross me.
As I drove into the parking lot, I was unable to curtail my anger, my heart racing as I thought about what I wanted to say to her.
There were dozens of people in the building and while I tried to plaster on a smile, I could tell the receptionist felt intimidated. “I’m here to see Ms. Bryce Myers.”
“Um, do you have an appointment, sir?”
I leaned across the counter, locking eyes with the buxom blonde. “I’m here to surprise her. I’m an old friend just back from Afghanistan. I’m certain she would hate to miss an opportunity to spend time with me.” I was actually grateful that only a few people had recognized me. That could work to my benefit as I tried to figure out what the hell was actually going on.
She seemed flustered then finally smiled. “Let me see if she’s in. I don’t think she is.”
“Then I’m happy to talk to her producer so I can plan a surprise.” I winked, widening my smile. “I have something extremely special in mind, if you know what I mean.”
My comment seemed to relax her and while she turned her head, I could still hear her comments to whoever answered the phone.
“Did Bryce come in this morning?”
I hummed a little tune, pretending like I didn’t care what was being said.
“No, it’s just that a soldier is here trying to surprise her. His name is Hawk. He’d like to talk to you if that’s okay. He’s planning a surprise.” She darted a quick look in my direction then smiled. “I’ll send him right up.” After hanging up the phone, it seemed she’d changed her tune completely. “Mr. Keller is happy to talk to you. Fifth floor.”
“You are amazing. Thank you so much.” My smile dropped as soon as I walked away, heading for the elevator. As I moved inside the tin box, I was forced to swallow. After everything that had occurred during the last few months, I hated tight confines. I closed my eyes, waiting until the elevator stopped, half laughing as I walked off.
The poor producer had no idea who he was about to face.
I pushed my way into the office, noticing a lanky dude standing as if waiting for me, a smile on his face. “Mr. Keller?”
“Yes, you must be Hawk.” He held out his hand. “I heard you’d gotten back in town. I am so very sorry that it was under such tragic circumstances.”
“If it’s alright with you, let’s go to your office.” I certainly didn’t want to make a scene. My idea wasn’t to have my name on national television again.
He narrowed his eyes as he dropped his hand, scanning my face, a different level of recognition settling in. I had to assume that meant her footage from the day before had been delivered into his hands. Another reason to punish the… damn sexy woman.
“Ah, of course. Come with me.”
Mr. Keller led me down a short hall, moving into a small office. Obviously, he wasn’t the big fish. “I’m sorry that Bryce isn’t here yet. She’s been working a lot of hours.”
“I’m certain she has.”
“I understand you plan on surprising her? I wasn’t aware that you two knew each other since she’s only been in town a few months.” His question was now laced with apprehension.
“Where does she live?”
He seemed astounded by the question. “I’m sorry?”
“I need to know where she lives.”
“I’m not allowed to give out that information.” Mr. Keller shifted to his desk, moving behind it as if that would keep him safe. “I’m certain that you can understand.”
“What I understand is that your network is providing false information about my brother’s death. As you might imagine, I don’t take to that kindly. Ms. Myers and I were working on providing the truth. I need to speak with her. It’s imperative since I have brand spanking new information that will certainly provide a much better story.”
His eyes flickered both an understanding of what I was saying as well as a hint of fear. While he sputtered initially, he finally nodded, yanking a piece of paper from his notepad. “I’m certainly happy to see that you’re back in town, Mr. Travers. Your brother was an amazing hero in so many ways.”
A hero. My brother who never wanted to be in the limelight, who refused to have any level of notoriety when he was growing up. Even though he’d been a top scholar, some said brilliant. I’d been the damn troublemaker, giving my parents heartache from the time I could ride a bike. The right brother had stayed to maintain the ranch.
I waited until he slid the paper across the desk before answering. “I can’t say I’m happy about being home, Mr. Keller, but this will go a long way in righting the wrongs presented regarding the situation. Thank you.”
As I walked to the door, I could hear his heavy exhale. “Mr. Travers.”
“That’s Sergeant Travers.”
“Sergeant… Travers. You won’t like me saying this, but there is a significant amount of suspicion surrounding your brother’s death. I hope you can find what you’re looking for and if any reporter can help you, it’s Bryce Myers. She’s one tenacious woman.”
I laughed softly to myself as I walked out. Tenacious was one word for her.
I had several others.
The lovely reporter had finally unchained the beast dwelling inside and the lesson I planned on teaching her was one she’d never forget.
“You never gave a shit about your family, Jake, or the ranch. Dad worked himself to the bone to make something of it and you’re just throwing it away. You have responsibilities.” Drake glared at me, his expression accusatory.
“You have no idea what I give a damn about and my responsibilities are to have a life.” My retort had been the same for two years. Nasty. I couldn’t wrap my arms around the demons furrowing inside, clawing to get to the surface.
“Maybe you’re right,” he huffed. “You won’t allow anyone inside. You’re going to end up alone and wallowing in a bottle. Some kind of life.”
The words rang true, more horrific now that Drake was gone. I eased off the accelerator as I stared at the cabin only a couple hundred yards away. The tiny building was in desperate need of work, the location likely a former ranch foreman’s quarters. Usually a perk, I wasn’t certain I’d call the dilapidated house anything but a pain in the ass. Maybe she was happy here, although I doubted Montana living was exactly what she’d planned it to be.
I rolled the truck down the poor excuse for a driveway, the gravel all but gone, weeds growing over almost every inch of the narrow pathway. Her vehicle was parked directly in front, altogether bypassing the intended spot. It was a wonder she’d gotten home. Hell, maybe she’d waylaid a hungry cowboy, begging for his help.
Goddamn, I was in a foul mood.
I tossed open the door, thumping both feet onto the ground at the same time. I yanked the newspaper I’d purchased into my hand, staring at the photo before ripping the page off, taking shallow breaths as I folded and shoved the section into my back pocket. There was no chance she hadn’t purchased herself several copies, likely thrilled to death that she’d made the front page of Missoula’s prominent newspaper. She was nothing but an attention grabber, stepping on anyone in order to get her name in lights.
I growled as I tossed the rest of the rag into the cab of the truck, slamming the door.
Inhaling, I studied the front façade, still debating what the hell to say to her. Fuck. I was stalling. I’d usually charge to the door, pounding on it like some crazed animal. I laughed softly to myself as I ventured closer, moving up the single cracked stair and onto the weathered porch. Even the front door needed some spit and shine, the peeling paint adding to the sad-looking appearance.
Fisting my hand, I was ready to pound with ferocity then realized I’d simply knocked twice. What the fuck was wrong with me? She didn’t deserve my patience or any level of kindness. The article was blasphemous to the fire department as well as the lead investigator who’d checked into all three fires. I’d be surprised if Bryce wasn’t tossed out of town.
Snickering, I moved from foot to foot as I listened for any sign of footsteps. There was nothing. I knocked again, finally over playing nice. I tried the door, finding it locked. Maybe she was hiding out after all. She was here all right. I could sense her presence, the same damning electricity dancing through every muscle like some frigging grenade ready to explode. My heartbeat matched the throbbing in my cock, both ridiculous in my mind.
Craving a traitorous woman wasn’t in my best interest.
I pounded three times, my impatience only increasing. When the wind shifted direction, I could swear I detected music coming from somewhere within the house. The realization made me more determined. I took long strides around the building, glaring at the long grass and what had obviously been a garden once. It appeared that she’d attempted to clear a portion of the weeds, a set of clippers tossed to the side.
There was no one in sight, but I did notice the back door was open, only a thin screen door keeping me from reaching her. At this point, nothing was going to keep me from defending my brother’s honor. The music was loud enough it masked my approach and while the thin wooden door was locked, it took almost no amount of energy to yank it open.
I moved inside, scanning the small living room, furniture that had likely been produced in the eighties. This certainly wasn’t living high on the hog, which is what I suspected she was used to. My breath scattered, I moved toward what had to be the kitchen door, stopping short when I heard Bryce’s lilting voice.
She was singing.
I found myself unable to move for several seconds, the raging bull kind of desire I’d felt the night before resurfacing. I continued to move like a predator, inching closer until I was able to catch sight of her. In her jean shorts and simple red tee shirt, her long hair in a ponytail, it was obvious she wasn’t planning on going in to work. Maybe this was her day to celebrate. I took a step into the kitchen, loathing the fact my mouth watered from the sight of her.
While I enjoyed a woman in a beautiful dress, there was nothing better than a woman in casual attire, especially a flannel shirt.
My mind drifted to the night before, the way a single touch of her fingers against my naked skin had driven me close to madness. It had been far too long since I’d been with a woman and tasting her had been… exquisite. I shoved aside the lurid thoughts as I inched even closer. She wasn’t paying a damn bit of attention, her beautiful voice belting out over whatever music she was listening to as she cleaned, earbuds in her ears.
The second I took another step forward, finally able to figure out just how tough I was going to be on her, her body froze. Even I could see my reflection in the wall-hung microwave. Instead of quivering or yelping there was an intruder in her house, she swung around with all the ferocity of a warrior, lashing out, her hand firmly planted around the handle of one large butcher knife.
“Argh!” she yelled, lunging forward.
Her actions ripped the cord from around her, the player falling to the floor.
I was shocked at her direct aim as well as the strength of her resolve. Her hand wasn’t shaking and there certainly was no level of fear in her eyes. The scene played out in slow motion, the knife coming dangerously close to my neck. I managed to snap her wrist, twisting until she was forced to drop the piece of steel, wrangling her until I yanked her into my arms and against my chest.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” I demanded.
“Ugh. What… What are you doing here? How did you find me?” Bryce’s voice was riddled with anger as she struggled in my hold, even kicking out by reflex and catching me in the shin. “Let me go!”
“You’re in no place to demand one damn thing,” I countered without hesitation.
“This is my house. You broke in this time.”
“The door was open.”
“Bullshit! I know better.” She fought hard, punching me in the gut, the jab of pain just enough my fingers relaxed, and she managed to tumble out of my hold. Her eyes narrowed, she moved from foot to foot in a fighter’s stance. Even her hands were fisted.
What the hell did this girl think she was going to do, beat down her intruder? I outweighed her by a solid one hundred and fifty pounds. I was forced to bite back a laugh, the hunger building into a frenzy. “You are one bad girl.”
“And you can be an asshole.”
I hated the way she could disarm me, even if the knife was still nestled in my hand. Huffing, I put the sharp blade on the counter, folding my arms and walking to within a foot of her.
“And a jerkoff,” she added. “Would you like to go for bastard?”
That was it. She needed another hard spanking. Eventually, she’d learn not to cross me. “You need to learn some manners.” I grabbed both her hands, yanking her forward and over the edge of the counter.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?”
“The same thing as last night. I told you that when you lie, cheat, steal, or deceive someone that there will be consequences. Maybe this will teach you that you have to have respect.” I wasted no time, smacking her bottom with the flat of my hand.
Obviously stunned, she didn’t move a muscle for the first ten seconds. Then all hell broke loose as she tried to fight me, swinging her arms as she issued ferocious growls. “Get the fuck off of me, you big brute. You have no right.” She pushed her hands against the counter, using the full weight of her body as she jerked back.
Jesus. The woman was strong, but she was no match for me.
I was forced to wrangle her over the counter once again, peppering her ass with hard smacks. “I suggest you take this like a good girl, or I’ll spank you naked.”
“Like hell you will!”
Every time she wiggled, her arms flailing in an effort to find something sharp to stab me with, my cock only ached more. However, I was thankful I’d shoved the knife onto another portion of the counter. “Stop fighting me.” I sucked in my breath as I moved from one side to the other, the scent of her feminine wiles almost too much to bear.
“Ugh! Stop. I don’t deserve this!” she yelped, losing a portion of the fight within her.
“You deserve this all right and a hell of a lot more. I can’t believe you betrayed me.”
She gasped, struggling to look back at me. “Betrayed you? How? No way. I’m not that kind of girl.”
“Need I remind you about last night?”
“Damn you, asshole. I paid for my sins already.”
I moved my hand back and forth rapidly, refusing to take any of her guff, even as my eyes drifted to the redness staining her cheeks from intense embarrassment. “Not nearly enough since you refused to learn.”
“You are so fucking mean!” Panting, she tried to fight me one more time before flopping down on the counter, tossing her hands over her head.
I continued the spanking for at least a full minute, barely able to focus as the hunger became insatiable. Everything about this girl drove me to the very precipice of my sanity. I’m never been so flustered or uncertain of how to handle a woman in my life. Growling, I had the distinct feeling that this wasn’t going to work either. Besides, my hand ached like a son of a bitch. I moved away from her, rubbing my fingers as I started to pace the kitchen floor. “We’re done. For now. But I reserve the right to provide another round of punishment when I deem it necessary.”
As if this was some kind of negotiation. I shook my head, trying to get her out of my system. I couldn’t go off halfcocked like some damn Neanderthal with a crush. She’d pegged me pretty damn well. She wasn’t going to help the situation at all. I knew the folks of Missoula. While there were certainly plenty of new people, including college kids, the families who’d been here for a long time wouldn’t take kindly to a reporter sniffing around, trying to start her own kind of fire for no reason.
Bryce remained where she was for a few seconds before smacking her hands on the surface of the counter, pushing herself into a standing position. “I think I hate you.”
“Yeah? Well, the feeling just might be mutual, sweetheart.”
“Damn you! Stop calling me that. I’m not going to be anything to you, especially someone you adore.” Her words were spit out with the kind of venom that should melt me into the floor.
“You and I are going to have a talk,” I finally said quietly.
“About what?” She moved to a standing position, shifting away from me immediately as she rubbed her bottom.
I wanted nothing more than to feel the heat in my hand, to see the blush covering her skin. That had to make me one hell of an asshole. “About my family.”
Her face softened, the defiance leaving. “Did you find out about the little girl? Is that why you’re here, to tell me?” She dared inch closer, her eyes opening wide. There was such concern in them, exactly what I’d seen the night before.
Fuck me, the scent of whatever shower gel she’d used that morning was enough to increase the ache in my cock by a thousand percent. She and the situation were infuriating. “This has nothing to do with Ashley.”
“Ashley,” she said in a faraway voice. “Beautiful name.”
“Cut the crap, Bryce. You have to know why I’m here.”
She narrowed her eyes then shrank back, her rebellious side returning. “What are you trying to get at, Hawk?”
“The article in this morning’s newspaper? The accusations you levied. While I certainly want to know exactly what happened, you and I had a deal. I need time to figure this shit out and you promised to keep my brother’s name out of the press.”
Blinking profusely, she seemed genuinely confused, but I knew looks could be deceiving. “I… don’t understand. What article?”
“I think you do.”
“I told you, I don’t work for the newspaper. Or wasn’t the camera and microphone a clear enough indication for you?” she snapped.
I yanked the paper from my pocket, shoving it in her direction. “Then you want to explain this?”
Her lips pursed, she finally reached out, pulling the ripped portion out of my hand and smoothing it out.
I watched as she skimmed the article, her face paling with every line she read. When she finally found the courage to look at me, she shook her head several times. “I honestly have no idea how this happened.”
“Uh-huh. Why don’t you tell me another lie?”
“I’m not lying to you. Why would I? You might think you’re the only person who has honor, Hawk, but that’s just not true. I’d never go back on my word. Never.”
I tapped my foot, waiting for her to explain how it could have happened.
“I mean, I know the newspaper sometimes takes the copy from the newscast for an article or two, but this story is embellished. I didn’t have time to finish it. I even called my producer last night and left him a message that I wasn’t ready to do anything with the information.”
My memory kicked in. She’d made a call very late into the night, insisting it was important. “What seems funny to me are the details within the story. Notice my name and what’s said?”
She closed her eyes, groaning. “I swear to you. I tried to put a stop to the entire piece, at least until I could change how it was going to be presented.”
“Funny how I don’t believe you.”
“My God. You really are an asshole. You break into my house without warning. You accuse me of something I didn’t do, something horrible that I’d never do to anyone that I actually liked, and you spanked me. You fucking spanked me. Again! I don’t what kind of women you are used to dealing with, but where I came from, that shit just doesn’t fly. So either you issue me one big ass motherfucking apology or…” Her voice faltered, even as her chest continued to rise and fall, her eyes flashing with the sexiest concept of hatred that I’d ever seen in my life.
I wasn’t just aroused. I was famished. “Or what, Bryce?” I asked, dropping my tone of voice dangerously low.
“Or I’m going to toss you out of my house, and you will never see me again. Ever. So help me God.”
“Is that what you want?” I inched closer, unable to catch my breath. The level of adrenaline was driving into me like rocket fuel, sizzling every nerve and cell. I’d never felt so damn wired, incapable of processing why I had this kind of reaction around her.
Her lower lip quivered from anger and frustration, her eyes still flashing but in them I noticed the same kind of unbridled lust I had sweeping through me.
“Want?” She repeated the single word, her body swaying toward me. “What I want is for you to…”
I was surprised she was still unable to finish her words, her mouth caustic as hell. All I could think about was taming the wild beast, turning my ferocious lion into one giant pussy cat. “To what?” I dared as I cupped both sides of her face, stars floating in front of my eyes.
“Do you really want me to stop, sweetheart?”
Quivering, she closed her eyes. “Hawk. What’s happening between us?”
“It’s called desire, baby, but you and I need to get a few things clear.” I tilted her head, forcing her to look into my eyes. “Are you listening to me?”
“Uh-huh. I mean, yes, sir.”
“Good, cause I’m not going to say it twice. You belong to me. Period. Mine. Mine to kiss and mine to fuck. But there are going to be some rules and you will follow them.” I lowered my head, brushing my lips across her skin, my balls tightening.
“Okay. Yes, sir. Rules,” she whispered, her voice barely audible.
“If not, then you know exactly what happens to bad girls with no self-control.” I couldn’t take it any longer, rubbing my lips across her cheek as I dug my fingers in.
She rose onto her tiptoes, clasping her hands around my wrists, her breathing rapid. “Understood.”
Whether or not she did would remain to be seen. Right now? I was going to fuck her. I captured her mouth, dragging her into the heat of my body as I held her lips in place. I wanted to enjoy the moment, to savor the sweetness of her.
She shuddered, a moan slipping past the embrace as she rolled her fingers down my arms. There wasn’t a muscle in my body that wasn’t twitching, my cock pressed so tightly against my jeans that I had difficulty moving.
We were both live wires dancing in the middle of a raging thunderstorm, the connection dangerous as fuck, but there was no way to stop what was about to happen.
Or anything in the future.
I wanted to devour her, ravage every inch of her luscious body. As I thrust my tongue inside, she yanked at my shirt, shoving her hands underneath. A growl rumbled up from my throat from the sparks of electricity shooting down my back and into my legs. That only fueled my barbaric actions. I dominated her tongue as I explored the dark recesses of her mouth, savoring every second of the taste.
She undulated her hips, grinding against me provocatively, her touch becoming more intense.
I entangled my hands in her hair, ending the kiss and allowing the growl to permeate the air around us. “I’m going to fuck you again and again.”
“Uh-huh,” she managed, her eyes darting back and forth.
I pushed her against the island, breaking our connection long enough to jerk the tee shirt over her head, flinging it aside. She hadn’t worn a bra, her beautiful breasts drawing my attention. I cupped one with my free hand, rolling my finger around her already hardened nipple as I watched her facial expression.
“Mmm… Oh. Oh…” A sly smile crossed her face as she crawled her fingers to my chest, sliding them ever so slowly down my jeans.
“Fuck me,” I said hoarsely when she cupped and squeezed my cloth-covered cock, driving the sensations to an entirely different level. I knew I’d have difficulty controlling my beast, the need to feast explosive.
“Isn’t that what you plan on doing?” she asked, her laugh sultry and inviting.
“In every. Single. Hole.” The guttural sound erupting from my throat was nothing but an animal in heat as I pinched her nipple between my thumb and forefinger, twisting and pulling until her mouth opened in a perfect ‘O.’ I adored her cries of passion, her desire bridging the surface to her own point of madness.
I’d never shared this kind of appetite with another woman, the thought driving me further into my predatory stage.
She finally fought with me, struggling to tug my shirt from the tight confines of my jeans, her tiny growls and frustrated pants filtering into the air.
“Remember who’s in control,” I muttered even as she continued to slide the shirt up the length of my chest.
The look she gave me was dancing with a hint of evil as she crowded my space, jerking out of my hold. She peppered my chest with licks and kisses, dragging her tongue in lazy circles.
I closed my eyes, trying to control my breathing as I allowed her to play. As I cupped her other breast, kneading both. They fit perfectly into my hands, so voluptuous, my thirst increasing. When I pinched both nipples, her body quivered, her tongue working even more feverishly.
“So hot. Are you hard for me?” she teased as she rolled the shirt over my head, her own bobbing as she licked up and down. Taking her time, she finally eased the shirt from my arms, merely dropping it behind me.
“Are you wet for me, sweet little Bryce?” I countered as I twisted and rolled her hardened buds. The harshness of her breathing was a beautiful reward. “Do you crave both pain and pleasure?”
She didn’t answer immediately until I released the squeeze. Then she gasped for air, shifting her head until she was able to rest her lips against my neck. “Yes, sir.”
“Good girl. You will always tell me the truth. Always.”
“Umm-hmmm…” Bryce murmured.
While I adored her touch, my cock was in too much agony. I shifted my hands to her shorts, unfastening them with ease.
She purred as she once again lowered her hands, rolling her fingers across the rough grain of my belt.
“The perfect strap for the most devious girl in the state,” I whispered, laughing softly as I pushed her jean shorts past her hips, forcing them to the floor. The moment I shifted my hand between her legs, cupping her lace-covered mound, her shoulders stiffened, a soft laugh pushing past her lips.
“Not devious. Just…” She lifted her head, dragging her tongue across her lips as she kicked out of the shorts then opened her legs. The invitation was blatant. “Naughty.”
“I’ll be the judge of that.” I rubbed my hand lightly at first, enjoying the fact her panties were soaked. Then I rubbed more vigorously, pushing the material of her thong between her swollen folds.
She had difficulty continuing her task, her eyes now half closed as she released a series of moans. I wanted her soaked from need, her pussy dripping with her ambrosia-like juice.
“Uh. Uh. Uh. Mmm… Yes.”
“You are wet,” I murmured, the whisper hoarse. “Are you hungry for my cock? Do you need my shaft buried in your tight little pussy?”
“Oh, God. Yes. Yes. Yes!”
Chuckling darkly, I drove my finger through the lace, catching her off guard.
Her eyes flew open, her entire body tensing. Then she bit her lower hip as she fumbled to unzip my fly, rolling back the edges of my jeans and immediately wrapping her long fingers around my shaft.
“That’s it, baby girl. Stroke it. Pump my cock.”
She didn’t need my instructions, her hand twisting back and forth as she moved it up and down. The bad girl knew how to create the perfect friction. I was almost insane with need as I plunged a single finger into her, shifting it back and forth. There was nothing like how her muscles clamped around the slender invasion, pulling me deeper inside her tight little channel.
But I wanted more.
Was crazed for more.
I ripped at the thin lace until I was able to jam three fingers into her, pumping hard and fast.
She seemed determined to stare at me, biting her lower lip as she pumped exuberantly, squeezing the tip with every pass up and down.
The feisty creature was testing me, challenging me. A heady growl roared up from my chest, pushing past my lips. I was nothing but a savage, unable to focus or think rationally. All I could think about was shoving my cock deep inside.
She rocked her hips, her moans escalating as I finger fucked her, picking up the pace. As her hand slipped, she became frustrated, finally tugging on both sides of my jeans until they fell past my hips.
“I think my girl is hungry.”
“And I think you’re still one hell of a mean man.”
I flexed my fingers open, pumping several additional times as I swirled my thumb around her clit.
“God. Oh, God.” Her body swayed and she shifted her hand under my cock, rolling my balls between her fingers.
I was forced to suck in my breath. I could tell she was on the verge of climaxing. “Are you ready to come, my baby girl?”
When I removed my hand, she whimpered.
“I mean, yes, sir.”
I resumed my actions, thrusting into her hard and fast, swirling my thumb around her clit. “Then what do you need to say to me?”
“Please let me come. Please, sir.” While I could see such utter defiance in her eyes, her mouth quivering in frustration, she struggled to continue pumping my cock, her hand squeezing my testicles.
The little brat was trying to take control.
I fisted her hair, forcing her to look into my eyes as I pumped in long and slow actions, pulling her to the very edge. “That’s it. Now, I want you to come. Come for me, Bryce. Come.”
She was forced to stop her sinful actions, instead gripping my arms, her fingers digging in. “Oh, God. Oh. Oh.” As she closed her eyes, her entire body tensing, I picked up the pace. “Yes. Yes!”
Her scream was powerful, the sound like perfectly orchestrated music. Smiling, I refused to stop. There was nothing quite like the way her muscles clenched then released in a beautiful dancing pattern. “Come again for me. Now.”
Her grip continued to be firm, her entire body shaking as another orgasm rushed into her, driving her back onto her toes, her hips jutting forward.
“Oh. Oh. Oh. Oh…” Her breathing ragged, the words died off, a smile crossing her face.
Only when she was finished coming did I slide my hand away, wrapping two fingers around the thin elastic of her panties. The single hard jerk freed her of the useless material. “You won’t be needing these any longer.”
Bryce issued another raspy moan, her eyes remaining closed.
“Now, open your mouth, bad girl.”
She did as she was told, parting her lips, yet she teased me once again, floating her tongue around the edge.
I slid my soaked fingers just inside with a harsh growl. “Suck on them. Make certain they’re clean.”
Her body undulated as she obeyed me, the sounds exaggerated as she licked and sucked.
I watched in utter fascination as she dragged her tongue up one side then down the other, taking her time before moving to the next finger. She wrapped her hand around my wrist, continuing to exaggerate her actions.
No one had ever turned me on this way, but I was finished with playing around. I pulled my hand away, surprised to see her forlorn expression then pushed her over the edge of the counter. I wasted no time removing the rest of my clothes, kicking them aside and moving behind her. “I can’t wait to claim that tight little ass of yours.”
I kicked her legs apart, immediately placing the tip of my cock just past her swollen folds. My restraint gone, I thrust the entire length inside of her, the force shoving her hard against the edge.
“Oh. Fuck. Oh…” She flung her arms out, knocking over her bowl of fruit, the pieces tumbling over the edge and spilling onto the floor.
My entire body shook as I pulled out, trying to catch my breath before slamming into her again.
Every muscle was strained, on fire, my balls ready to explode. I pumped into her hard and fast as her whimpers echoed in my ears. I couldn’t seem to get enough of her, driving until I forced her onto her toes. Everything was foggy, my mind only able to think about fucking her. I knew I wasn’t going to last long, the naughty vixen having pulled out all the stops.
I smacked her naked bottom several times, the heat searing my fingertips, the electricity powering into both of us. Our connection was intense, the moment shared nothing but two beasts mating in the wild.
Yet I was ready to take her, to claim her dark hole.
I shifted the tip of my cock up along the crack of her ass, using one hand to press apart her ass cheeks. When I placed my cockhead against her asshole, she moaned, pushing up from the counter. The moment I slipped it just inside, she squealed.
“Relax, baby girl. I’ll take it slow and easy.”
Panting, she tossed her head to the side in an attempt to watch what I was doing, her mouth twisting as she gasped for air. “Oh, God.”
“You’re so tight. So damn hot.” I slipped in another inch, allowing her muscles to get used to the thick invasion.
She wiggled and moaned, clawing the counter as she struggled to become accustomed to the mass.
I smacked her bottom several more times, enjoying the way she smiled, shifting her hips back and forth. As I pushed in another two inches, she threw her head back, opening her mouth to a silent scream.
There was no holding back, no way I could stop the tide. I thrust the remainder inside, shuddering from the way her muscles reacted. “Yes. Perfect. God, you are perfect.”
She continued making strangled breath sounds as I kept my cock inside, finally gripping her hips as I pulled out until the tip was just inside.
Then I thrust into her again, unable to stop the series of savage growls. I became the brutal beast, driving into her hard and fast, my fingers digging into her skin.
She moved with me, still breathless but meeting every hard thrust with one of her own. As the actions became a perfect rhythm, she opened her eyes, purring like the wildcat I knew her to be.
We were as one, moving together, our sounds floating up to the ceiling.
“I can’t hold it for long,” I managed, every growl and syllable echoing. The moment she squeezed her muscles, she sent me into a true moment of raw ecstasy.
I threw my head back with a savage roar. Whatever this was, we were explosive together, shared passion that refused to be denied.
Sadly, I had no doubt this couldn’t last. I had to concentrate, to understand what it meant to be a father.
And the thought terrified me to death.
As if he held a terrible secret that kept him from aspects of his life. Whatever he’d gone through with his brother, finding out there was a child involved had obviously dredged up various emotions, including additional guilt. I watched as he stood outside on the little deck, able to tell he was barking into the phone.
The same electrified shiver skated down my arms and legs as I’d felt the entire time that he was fucking me. Hawk was an absolute powerhouse, his needs insatiable. And how could anyone look so damn hot in a pair of worn blue jeans? If I didn’t know better, I’d say that blue jeans had been created with his perfectly carved ass in mind. The fact he hadn’t shaved in at least three days wasn’t lost on me either. He was a walking talking picture of a rugged cowboy.
I bit back a moan, trying to drag my eyes away from his physique, finally forcing myself to turn away and allowing my thoughts to drift to my job.
I couldn’t believe my producer had lied to me, allowing the information I’d specifically told him to hold out in the public. Not only had I pissed off Hawk, but I was beginning to believe that there were a hell of a lot of people who would just as soon sweep the entire situation under the rug. What the hell were they hiding?
Hissing, I yanked two glasses out of my cabinet, shoving them onto the counter. I laughed seeing the knife, as if I was going to ward off an intruder with a blade. I should be shocked that Hawk forced himself inside the house, but nothing about the rough and tumble man surprised me at this point.
He took what he wanted.
What he believed he deserved.
And he wanted me.
I shivered and held my arms, my bottom still aching from both the spanking and the hard fucking. God, I’d enjoyed every second, even though a part of me had still wanted to push him aside. I felt an odd sense of my own guilt, embarrassment for the fact my body had betrayed me. He was all male in every sense of the word, determined to push every boundary. But for some reason, a nagging sensation had formed in the back of my mind. I had terrible feelings that whatever was going on with the explosions was a ticking time bomb and he was going to get himself into the middle of it.
I studied him again before picking up my phone and dialing my producer. He was going to hear a thing or two from me and none of it was going to be nice.
“I thought you might be calling,” Jason said without bothering to offer a greeting.
“What the fuck did you think you were doing?” I snapped, my blood pressure already skyrocketing. “That article is horrible and untrue.”
He snorted before answering. “Somehow, I thought you’d be pleased. You might not be keen on ratings, but the station is. We’re in a highly competitive market, Bryce. You of all people should know that. There was an opportunity and I took it.”
“You didn’t get my message? I don’t think some of the information is correct.” I should have known better than to give him the details before I’d finished my story. None of the pieces were a perfect fit and the way the article came out made it look like there was a huge conspiracy. If that didn’t piss people off, I had no idea what would.
“I got the message, all right. However, it’s my job to weed through a reporter’s basic fear of telling the truth,” he retorted. “We were on a deadline and you knew that. I expected you in front of the camera today instead of taking some emergency vacation day.”
“You knew exactly what I was doing. What if what you sent out wasn’t the truth? What if it looks like I’m accusing the owners of the building of collusion in fraud?”
“Well, isn’t that what you were alluding to? I simply moved on your idea before another network scooped us.”
I turned away after noticing the level of rage on Hawk’s face. “I thought you weren’t a sensationalist, Jason. We report the facts. I might have told you what I suspected—”
“Based on a qualified informant who knew details that only someone either involved or with firsthand knowledge would be privy to,” he said, interrupting.
“My God. You will stoop to any level. Won’t you? How the hell do you know he’s qualified? Is there something you’re not telling me?” When Jason hesitated, my skin crawled. I’d been working so hard to get a chance at covering the six o’clock news that I might have just sold my soul. “Oh, my God. That makes me sick. I thought the station valued quality work, not bullshit and lies. I can see I was wrong.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about, Bryce. You went over the details of your two conversations with the informant. I took notes. Remember? I suggest you take a couple days and figure out if you really want to work for the station. I thought you were an aggressive reporter who knew exactly where she wanted to be in two years, not a woman still living in her past. If you’d played your cards right when you were in Philadelphia, you might be reporting on real stories instead of bottom feeding for scraps.”
How fucking dare he bring up my past. I was shocked at his venom. I’d seen the numbers. I knew what was being said around the water coolers and in the cubbyholes used as offices. If ratings didn’t go up within three months, the station would close.
Or at least everyone involved would be reassigned and Jason would be tops on the list. This wasn’t my ticket to fame and fortune. It was his.
“You know what, Jason? I do know where I want to be in two years, but I’m not going to count on some informant giving me details about explosions and consider them gospel. And you shouldn’t either, unless this is about nothing more than the gloating you do when you walk into a bar and are recognized, fawned over by the woman you seem to enjoy tasting. I guess that could all go away. I suggest you think about that tonight.” I ended the call, my hand shaking. I might or might not have a job in the morning and that just might be okay with me. “Fuck.”
I swallowed hard hearing Hawk’s voice. My day had just gone from bad to worse in the space of two seconds. My mouth always seemed to get me into trouble. “I can explain.” I expected him to fly off the handle, enraged that I didn’t tell him every single detail. When I turned around, I was surprised that he was calm.
Too calm. The kind that came before a nasty storm rolled in.
“I hope you can because this shit is starting to stink.” He took a deep breath, studying me intently.
I glared at the glasses, moving toward one of the cabinets and yanking out the vodka. I had a feeling this conversation needed something stiffer than plain lemonade. “Yes, it is,” I said as coolly as possible. “How much of that did you hear?”
He snorted as he walked closer. “Enough to know that you probably just got yourself fired.”
“Yeah? Well, whoopdy-do. Believe it or not, I do want to work for a decent affiliation where I can provide the truth. I was out of my mind for moving here.”
“What did this informant tell you?” he asked. While his tone wasn’t demanding, I knew he wasn’t going to let it go without me telling him every detail.
For a few seconds, I thought about my former life. Lies and deceit had driven me here. And what was I doing? Following along a similar path, one that I’d promised myself I would never go down. Maybe confessing would do my heart some good.
Or maybe I’d shove Hawk so far away that there was absolutely nothing left between us.
I mixed the drinks, moving slowly as I attempted to think about what to say to him. Nothing was going to come out right. I slid the glasses onto the counter, chewing on my bottom lip. “I had a call after the first explosion, one that was anonymous. It didn’t make much sense to me since the fire was in an old warehouse that seemed to have no value. It’s in a place in town that’s going to be renovated but the plans aren’t far along by any means. The fire was put out fairly easily, although given the condition of the building, it was condemned.”
“Okay. I know there’s more,” he said with absolutely no emotion.
“The caller simply said that it was arson and nothing more. I pushed that out of my mind after a single phone call to the fire inspector. Arsons occur in every city several times a month. When the second fire happened, I got another call from this mystery person. Same words with more urgency. This time, two firefighters were injured, one critically and unfortunately, he died at the hospital. Still, there was very little to go on, but my subconscious wouldn’t allow me to walk away from the situation. I started talking to my producer at that point and he laughed at the entire scenario, chastising me for what he called my amateur attempt at private investigating.”
“And he would be right.”
I gave him a dour look before continuing. “I told you, I had a nagging feeling, okay? I checked into the building owners and there’s nothing there that added to the informant’s accusations. They are owned by two different people. One is actively trying to sell the building for the land, although given the tough times, it’s been difficult. From what little I know, the other is prepared to renovate when all the permits come in.”
“And?” His grip around the glass was firm, his breathing becoming more ragged.
“When the third fire happened, in a completely different area of town, I waited for the phone call. It didn’t come. At least not for two additional days. By that point, I was sick of the innuendoes,” I said, laughing. “So when he did call, at least I think it’s a he given the voice is always disguised, I lit into him, finally hanging up. It wasn’t two hours later I had a call on my personal phone from the guy, which scared the fuck out of me.”
He tilted his head, finally taking a sip of his drink and remaining quiet.
“Anyway, I challenged the asshole to give me proof. He went on this song and dance about certain firefighters trying to put together several fires, not just the ones that had occurred recently. This informant told me that the two men who died in the fire were targeted.”
“Meaning that they were murdered,” Hawk said blandly.
I nodded. “Pretty tall accusations but I dug into the owners of the buildings. I still can’t find a direct connection.”
“But you believe there is one.”
“My gut tells me that there is, but I don’t have enough to prove anything, and my producer knows this. It might be a big story to him, but my idea of a good newscast isn’t tossing out spitballs to see where they land.”
“Your producer is trying to draw whoever is responsible into the open.”
This time I laughed. “Jason Keller isn’t that smart, but he is that conniving. He simply needs ratings in order to keep his sweet little job. You see, we’re number three in the market. Not good enough for the owners of the station. A sensational story will certainly draw people in and save his ass. It doesn’t matter if lies are told and accusations thrown around without proof.”
“Then why stay?”
“That’s a very good question. I don’t know what to think at this point. I haven’t had enough time to try and gather any additional information. Not that I might have the opportunity any longer. I may not have to worry about deciding on my job anyway. Jason doesn’t like to be confronted.” I also had my doubts I could get another job in the area. Then what the hell would I do? Crawling back home wasn’t going to happen. Not now.
“I don’t think Jason wants to tangle with me,” he suggested.
I studied Hawk’s face. The man believed he could be some knight in shaking armor or superhero. “I don’t think beating him up is the answer.”
“Don’t worry. I’d only hurt him a little bit. What about the sheriff? You made comments that you didn’t trust him. Why? What little I know about the fire department means that unless a crime was committed, the fire inspector’s report is gospel.”
The man had a way of cutting through the bullshit. I was beginning to adore his barbaric methods.
“Yeah, you’re right about the investigations but the sheriff is a woman. Sheriff Robertson showed up at the third fire. I asked her questions and she pushed me off telling me to mind my own business. As you might imagine for a reporter, that seems suspicious.”
He gave me a hard look. “Did you ever stop to think that one of the firefighters lost might have been her friend?”
I bit back a groan. He was making far too much sense. “Maybe. Just the way she acted certainly made it seem… strange. I’ve been around people for a long time and I’m pretty observant. I follow my gut. Maybe you should try it sometime.” I was exasperated from being second guessed, even if the pieces of the puzzle of my creation weren’t fitting together.
“Did you know that Drake was just a volunteer firefighter?” Hawk asked, hissing under his breath.
“Yes, I knew. Your brother never told you that, did he?”
“There’s a hell of a lot I don’t know about Drake and his life, including the fact he was married and had a child. Also including the fact that he ran a multimillion-dollar ranch. Why would he risk his life and his livelihood by fighting fires?”
“What?” I was absolutely shocked, and he was right. Why volunteer for a dangerous job? “You’re kidding?”
“No. My brother parlayed what had been only a few hundred acres into almost two thousand. He had… I have dozens of employees, although some are only part time.” He shook his head as he closed his eyes.
He snorted. “That’s what the family attorney wanted to make certain I realized.”
“You have no desire to be a cowboy, do you?” As soon as I asked the question, he bristled. A subject that was off limits.
Like the majority of everything I talked to him about.
“Do you have any information on his wife?” I asked.
“Other than she died a couple of years ago and that she was the daughter of a man my father wasn’t too fond of, not a damn thing.”
“What’s her name?”
“Oh, no, you don’t. I’m not going to allow you to snoop around my brother’s life any longer. You’ve done enough damage. Any idea who this informant is?” he asked, his stern look returning.
I thought about the question even as I stored away the fact Drake had been married. “Honestly, no, except I think he knows his shit about fires. Just some words he used.”
“And the number he called from?”
I shook my head. “I already tried. Every time he called it was from a different number.”
“He used a damn burner phone, Bryce, a classic sign of someone who is afraid of being identified. What the hell is going on?” Hawk snarled.
“I don’t know, Hawk, but maybe you see why I’ve been trying to get any corroborating information. I really don’t go off halfcocked.” I also wish my gut didn’t continue to churn, the inner voice telling me to continue investigating, but it did.
“Why did you confront me yesterday? How the hell did you know where to find me in the first place?” His dark eyes were pinned on mine. They were so cold, completely untrusting.
“I already told you that I knew who you were and that you were coming in town, which is why I recognized you in the store and why I called you. Your attorney was nice enough to offer her help.” I blushed after saying the words. I’d crossed another line with him.
“I should have known.”
“The truth is that I was there to try and talk to a witness from the fire that killed your brother.”
His chuckle was just as unexpected as every other reaction. “Another lie. Do you even know how to tell the truth?”
“That’s not fair, Hawk. Of course I didn’t lie about that. I just didn’t tell you. Besides, there was a snowball’s chance in hell that the woman would have gone on camera. I’d tried three times by phone to get her to talk to me, just like I did with you. I’m not fond of confrontations.”
A slight laugh pushed past his lips. “Could have fooled me.”
“Not funny. When I saw you, I thought my luck had changed, although I admit, I would have tracked you down eventually.”
I could tell he was processing the information, his brow furrowing.
“What did this witness see?” His tone continued to be commanding, edgy.
“I don’t know.”
“Another informant scrap of bullshit.” His upper lip curled.
Shrugging, I had to accept that as a possibility. “Maybe. Hell, I think I’m way out of my league here, but I swear that something is just off. I can’t put my finger on it. I’m not trying to dredge up whatever issues you and your brother had in the past or bring you additional grief. That’s the last thing I would ever want to do.”
He took a deep breath, swirling the glass. “I appreciate your honesty and I’m going to have to trust you on this. If I find out you’re lying to me, there will be hell to pay, sweetheart.”
“You really thought I was lying to you about what little I know, didn’t you?”
He took a minute before answering. “In my line of work, you don’t trust many people. It takes a lot for me to do that. Whatever happened to my brother is tragic, no matter if he was murdered or if the explosion was an accident. Neither of us knows at this point. What I do know is that it’s changed my life forever. There are years that I can’t replace, decisions that were made out of haste and anger. I’m going to have to pay the price for what I did for the rest of my life. However, I won’t have his name run into the dirt for any ten minutes of fame. No matter who the fuck you are.”
His words were heartfelt, even though there was little emotion in them, yet I could tell in his eyes that he was hurting terribly. I swallowed, giving him a single nod.
“Who is Ashley?”
He lowered his head, his hand shaking when he brought the glass to his lips. I knew better than to push him in any manner. This was his fight, not mine, although for some crazy reason I already cared about him.
“She is my niece.”
“Did you… know?”
His exhale was ragged. “Nope.”
“Oh, God. What’s going to happen to her?” A niece. I hadn’t bothered to even look to see if Drake had any children.
He shook his head. “Now, she’s my beautiful little girl to take care of, my responsibility.”
I sucked in my breath, knowing that he was waiting to see what I would say. “You’re going to be a great father, Hawk. I know that without a shadow of a doubt.”
He sagged against the counter, his face still stoic. “She doesn’t deserve this shit. First, her mother. Now, her father. She has no idea who I am. I had no idea she existed. I have no damn clue how to handle a kid.”
I walked closer, longing to take his hand but knowing he wasn’t ready for any type of comfort. “The last part is pretty easy. You will show her what a wonderful man you are. You will tell her stories about her father and what he meant to you. You will provide for her with all the love in your heart and she in turn will give you the greatest joy you’ve ever experienced.”
The silence that ensued was wretched, my heart aching even more.
“The trouble is I’m not a good man. In fact, I am a monster.”
The word continued to reverberate in my mind. Why in God’s name would he think such a horrible thing? I wanted to pepper him with questions, to find out everything that had occurred with his brother, but I knew he wouldn’t answer. Hell, I wouldn’t answer me either.
How had I managed to snag the only job that was dirtier than the one I’d come from?
I wanted to lash out at everyone, but that wouldn’t make me feel any better. At this point, I wasn’t certain if anything could.
“You shouldn’t have come,” Hawk stated as he stared at the firehouse.
“And I told you that you weren’t going to leave me behind. This is my reputation we’re talking about,” I retorted, instantly regretting my words. While I could appreciate his need for finding out exactly what happened to his brother, I also realized he was consumed with rage. If I had to guess, it was more from guilt than anything.
He turned his head, staring me straight in the eyes. “And this is my life and my niece we’re talking about. She deserves to know the truth about her father at some point in her life.”
“So do you. So do the people of Missoula as well as the family members of the other injured and deceased men. You know that.”
His deep sigh told me I was pushing boundaries again. I remained quiet, even though there were dozens of questions I wanted to ask him. He hadn’t said another word about his niece since our discussion, preferring to sulk in his misery in silence. I couldn’t imagine what he was going through and certainly had no words of wisdom. The single duffle bag he’d brought with him indicated he wasn’t ready for a surprise family though. He’d planned on going back to Afghanistan after dealing with Drake’s will.
“You said you met my brother,” Hawk asked.
“Briefly. One time was actually at another fire just after I arrived in town. Nothing like the one where he was killed, but he was the first and only firefighter who would talk to me.”
“And the second?”
I darted a glance in his direction, noticing the way his grip was white-knuckle firm around the steering wheel. “A fundraiser. A few of the firefighters were outside the grocery store I go to. We didn’t really have a conversation, just a hello and ‘I recognize you’ kind of thing. He seemed very nice, professional. I do remember his laugh. He had a wonderful deep baritone laugh, much like I guess you would have. If you ever had a reason to laugh.”
I cursed myself inwardly, loathing the fact I always issued a harsh jab.
“Hear me and do not fuck with this. Just stay quiet and let me do the talking. My guess is your story has already been read by pretty much everyone in this town and if you push, the chief won’t be inclined to provide any information,” he commanded before getting out of the truck. “And that will piss me off.”
“He has to. You’re family.”
His look was just as harsh as before, the hard thud as he closed the door reverberating into my ears.
I stared out the window at the fire station, butterflies sweeping back and forth in my stomach. I’d always followed my instincts with regard to a story. I had a very bad feeling about this one. There was a layer of darkness surrounding it as if someone had gone to extreme lengths to cover up what had really happened. Still, I couldn’t leave the accusations out there without a follow-up. I cursed Jason all over again for putting me in this wretched place.
All eyes were on us as we walked into the firehouse, the four firefighters washing one of the engines giving me a nasty glare. The damn article and limited television report were already doing damage. I’d never felt more like finding a rock to crawl under.
“Is the fire chief here?” Hawk asked one of the firefighters.
“Yeah. Likely in his office,” the firefighter responded, pointing toward a door in the back.
I could feel the firefighter’s nasty glare as I walked by.
Hawk took long strides, giving me a single look before knocking on the door. While I didn’t know the Marine well, I had no doubt he was reminding me to stay quiet. That could prove to be difficult. I’d also attempted to contact Chief Kincade, my calls unanswered.
“Come in,” the gruff voice said.
There was instant recognition when we walked inside, the fire chief’s eyes moving from annoyance at being interrupted to riddled with sadness.
“I’m Jake Travers,” Hawk stated. “I need to talk to you about a fire.”
The chief walked around his desk, darting a glance in my direction. “Chief Kincade, and I know who you are. Drake talked about you quite often. He said you were a war hero. I guess this is where I should say thank you for your service.”
When Hawk remained quiet, the chief seemed uncomfortable.
“I’m so sorry for your loss, Jake,” the chief continued. “Drake was a wonderful guy and one of the best firefighters I’ve ever had the privilege of working with. He might have been a volunteer, but he gave every shift his all. He had a natural gift, as well as a drive to fight back the beast more than any man I’ve ever known.”
“The beast?” I asked.
The chief smiled. “The majority of firefighters refer to every fire as a living thing, a creature. Have a seat if you like.”
I’d often seen men reduced to dark and brutal emotional states given whatever horrific news they’d been told, but Hawk remained stoic, rigid, as if the words of sentiment hadn’t registered.
He also remained standing.
“Then you know why I’m here,” Hawk said as he stood behind the chair offered.
“I’m Bryce Myers,” I said in passing.
The disdain on the chief’s face was apparent. “I know who you are, Ms. Myers, and I obviously know what you do for a living, although I can’t say I’m a fan,” he stated dryly.
“Today, I’m just here as a friend,” I retorted.
“As I was saying,” Hawk half barked. “I have some questions about the fire.”
“I’m sure you do, given the ridiculous article in the paper,” he retorted, shaking his head. “All I can tell you is that the fire was tragic, but it was an accident. There were no accelerants found, no explosives of any nature or even gunpowder located. The fire investigator was very thorough.”
“Then what caused the fire?” Hawk demanded.
“Chemicals. The building was in the process of being renovated and a careless worker left several cleaning chemicals together overnight. It didn’t take long for a reaction to occur, enough so that it blew out an entire half of the building,” Chief Kincade continued. “As you likely can understand, chemical fires burn hotter. While my crew is highly trained to deal with those kinds of situations, there was no way to prepare for the condition of the building. A floor gave way, taking your brother and another firefighter down three flights. They didn’t have a chance.”
Hawk took a deep breath, staring at the man as if trying to determine whether he was lying. I couldn’t stand the silence, the tension that surrounded the man. He was suspicious of everything, unforgiving on every level.
“And the other two suspicious fires?” I pressed.
The chief turned his head slowly in my direction. “I wouldn’t know about that, Ms. Myers. The two fires I think you’re talking about were in another jurisdiction.”
“Do you think there is a chance that I can tap you for an interview, Chief? As you might imagine, I’d like to make certain the real story gets out.” My words were instantly met with harsh glares from both men.
“Ms. Myers, I learned a long time ago that talking to the press is like willingly jumping into a pit of venomous snakes. I have no intention of providing any kind of interview. However, I do suggest that you retract your story before things get ugly. The people of Missoula have long memories and the last thing they need is some crazy fear about a serial arsonist.”
“I would think that the people of Missoula would want to hear the truth. There is something fishy about the other two fires and I intend on finding out exactly what that is. That’s called good reporting. I would hope that if any evidence is found regarding the fire where your men died that you’d hunger for the information,” I shot back. “And just so you know, I’m a big girl who can handle herself. If you’re trying to threaten me, that’s not going to work.”
Hawk sucked in his breath, a snarl curling on his lip. “You’ll have to forgive Ms. Myers. She often spouts off without thinking.”
“I can handle myself, Hawk, thank you very much,” I said under my breath.
“I’m not threatening you, Ms. Myers. I’m just warning you that you might not be well received in all locations in town. Just something for you to think about,” the chief added.
I was ready to issue a cheeky reply then decided against it. I certainly didn’t need to fan the flame. Hawk was right, this wasn’t about a newscast.
At least at the moment.
However, I didn’t like the man very much. If I went on my gut, I’d say he was hiding something.
“Just out of curiosity, the second firefighter who died. Were he and Drake close?” Hawk asked, making me more than curious.
The chief sighed. “They were best buddies. As a matter of fact, Camden introduced Drake to the volunteer program.”
“Interesting,” Hawk whispered.
I could tell that there was more to the question. Perhaps my concerns were getting to him.
The chief lifted a single eyebrow then smiled warmly. “I do have Drake’s things if you’d like them. I wasn’t certain what to do with them.”
Hawk finally faltered, at least enough I could see his hand shaking. “Sure. I appreciate that.”
“I’ll get them for you.” The chief gave him a nod of respect before walking out the door.
I could feel Hawk’s increasing anger from where I stood. He rubbed his eyes but said nothing.
“Just say it, Hawk. I didn’t follow your orders. I made a fool out of myself. I’m not winning any friends.”
“I don’t think I need to say anything to you, Bryce. You’re not doing yourself any favors, but I admire your verve more than you know.”
The words couldn’t have been any more surprising.
“Why did you ask about the second firefighter?”
Hawk exhaled. “I have my reasons.”
Of course he did.
The chief walked back into his office, carrying a single banker’s box. “There are some pictures and some of Drake’s clothes in here, as well as a hat he seemed to wear anytime he wasn’t working a fire.”
Hawk hesitated before taking it from him. “Thank you.”
“Look, I know that your brother didn’t want a funeral, but a few of the firefighters have approached me about a memorial of some kind. I know it’s too soon, but maybe something you want to think about for the future. You know him best.”
“No, Chief. It would appear that I didn’t know my brother at all.”
The chief frowned. “All I can tell you is that he adored his little girl. She was the brightest little star, such a joy to be around. I just… I hope that everything will be all right for her.”
“I do too. Thank you for your time.” Hawk moved toward the door, leaving without another word.
I hung back, watching him walk away. He wasn’t the kind of man who wanted to get to know anyone.
“Let me offer you a piece of advice, Ms. Myers. I’ve been fighting fires since I was eighteen years old. It’s all I ever wanted to do. Sometimes bad things happen, but life has to move on. I suggest you try and remember that.”
“You’re right, Chief. Things do need to move on. I have one question for you then I’ll leave you alone.”
He eyed me warily. “I’ll answer if I can.”
“I understand there was a witness who noticed something unusual around the fire your firefighters handled. Is that true?”
He seemed genuinely confused. “Ms. Myers. When we roll up to a scene, by that point there are often dozens of people watching. If I stopped to pay attention to even one of them, people could lose their lives. The business of fighting fires isn’t a game.”
“Neither is the business of arson.”
His nostrils flaring, he shook his head. “Have a good day, Ms. Myers.”
I’d been ceremoniously dismissed.
There was more to the story and I knew one person who might able to help.
As I walked into the café, I felt like all eyes were on me and none of them were friendly. Maybe Hawk was right and the hornet’s nest I’d stirred would come back and zap me. I remained furious with Jason, his tactics unethical. While he hadn’t gone so far as to mention any names, the overall impression I’d gotten from reading the story alluded to the fact there was some kind of conspiracy.
I noticed my friend sitting at one of the rear tables, sequestered from view from the all-glass front. She hadn’t wanted to come to lunch at first, citing her workload, but I’d been able to read between the lines, finally pushing her into joining. I knew her well enough to realize that she had information on the fires. However much she could share could prove helpful. As I approached, she tried to offer a smile, her gaze immediately scanning the small space.
“Becca. Glad you could meet with me.” I squeezed her arm before sitting, surprised to see she’d ordered us both a glass of white wine. Drinking on a workday certainly wasn’t Becca Sampson’s style. As an up and coming attorney for the district attorney’s office, she had her sights set on a political career. She was also the only person I’d spent girl time with since my arrival, her ability to knock back margaritas impressive.
“I can’t say that I was surprised to get your call given the tone of your article. I’m not sure how I can help you,” Becca said louder than I would have expected, immediately reaching for her wine.
“As I mentioned,” I said in a quiet tone, “I didn’t write it. My producer did.”
“Why would he do that?”
She rolled her eyes. “Men are all pricks.”
I couldn’t help but laugh, my thoughts drifting to Hawk. “They can be.”
“Look, Bryce, I don’t know what kind of information you want from me, but I can’t divulge details about an ongoing case.”
“That means your office is investigating the persons behind several fires listed as accidents?”
She wagged her finger at me. “Don’t be a reporter here or I won’t answer a single question. I can’t and you know that.”
“People are dead, Becca, including the father of a five-year-old girl who lost her mother to a horrific fire two years ago. Doesn’t that seem strange to you?”
When Becca nibbled on her bottom lip, I could tell just how nervous she was. “Drake Travers. I knew his wife, Jaime.”
I pushed my wineglass aside, leaning over as far as possible. “Fires destroyed a family. Everyone is acting suspicious. What the hell is going on?”
Her hand was shaking as she lifted her glass, surprising the hell out of me. Becca wasn’t afraid of anyone. Ballsy and opinionated, nothing seemed to ruffle her feathers.
“I heard there was a witness at the recent fire. Did you talk to her? Did you find out anything?”
Becca exhaled. “I can’t share that with you.”
“Uh-huh. Why don’t I try my hand at this? The land underneath these buildings is worth more than spending time and money to renovate them, insurance likely to cover the fires since they were deemed accidental. If a single entity owned all of them, that would certainly be motive to have them torched. However, that might draw so much attention that the fires were investigated again by experts hired by the insurance company. But three owners are listed on the titles and from what I could tell, there is nothing that connects them. They are different ages, came from different backgrounds. Hell, I even checked what colleges they went to. No connection whatsoever. Then we have a firefighter, volunteer I might add with a young daughter he’s raising by himself. Grandparents dead. Estranged brother in the Marines in another country. Wife killed in a horrible accident. Multimillion-dollar ranch to run. Yet with all those variables, he decides to become a volunteer firefighter and winds up dead in a tragic fire. Now, his brother is forced to come home to a city he no longer knows in order to run a ranch he stopped giving a damn about and suddenly becoming a father, which is something he never wanted. Am I raising any hackles yet?”
“You’ve been doing your homework,” she finally offered, barely darting a look in my direction.
As a waiter approached, I waved him off. I definitely wasn’t hungry.
“I’ll continue. Your office is investigating but of course it’s all on the down-low because those suspected to be involved are prominent members of society, probably including the fire inspector, paid to provide false reports. How warm am I getting?”
“You need to back off, Bryce. I’m telling you. Just walk away from this story,” Becca half whispered.
“That’s not something I can do.”
“Why, your work ethic? It’s dangerous.”
“This isn’t just about work, Becca.”
She narrowed her eyes. “Wait a minute. I know you far too well. Is this about Jake Travers?”
I shot her a look, already feeling a warm flush threatening to give me away. “This is about truth and justice.”
“It is about Jake. Wow. Jake Travers.”
“Sounds like you know him.”
Becca smiled. “One of the resident bad boys of Missoula. He ran with a group of boys who caused all kinds of trouble. I’d heard he’d joined the military.”
“My turn to say that it sounds like you were sweet on him.”
Her faraway look gave me an answer I was surprised bothered me. “Jake was one of those guys that every girl longed for, drooled over. He was eye candy on steroids, girlfriend. He just had a wild streak.”
“And you were into bad boys,” I half whispered, finally taking that sip of wine.
“For a magical summer,” she breathed, fanning her face. “I take it that means he has returned to town and you’ve talked with him.”
I couldn’t have felt any more uncomfortable. “I’ve talked with him.”
She narrowed her eyes, finally slapping her fingers over her mouth. “Oh, no. Don’t tell me. You’re seeing him.”
“He’s been in town a couple days. We’re not seeing each other.”
“You’re fucking. Even better,” she quipped. “Wow. I don’t know what to say.”
“Just tell me what the hell is going on. I have a very bad feeling about this.”
“And you should. I meant what I said. Stay as far away from this as you can.” Once again she appeared uncomfortable. “I’m telling you this as a friend only. The people who are involved are dangerous. They won’t hesitate to eliminate any threats they have. That would include a reporter hell bent on getting her name in lights.”
“You know I’m going to keep digging.”
Becca huffed, shaking her head as she looked away, scanning the café. I’d never seen her so nervous. “I can’t help you with any details about this other than to say there is a case being built. These things take time. Far too much time if you ask me, but my boss is methodical.”
“You mean two years’ worth of time?” I asked. Becca knew exactly what I was talking about. “What would cause a man with everything to live for after two years to suddenly change careers?”
I noticed a bead of perspiration trickling down the side of Becca’s face. Whatever she was working on had her spooked as hell.
“Just tell me this, Becca, and it isn’t for an article. This is to help a man release years of guilt and anger. What happened to Jaime? Was her death really an accident?”
“I can’t, Bryce.”
“Come on. That was two years ago.”
“Damn it.” Becca closed her eyes and as she began to relay a story, she kept her voice quiet, but I could hear the fear increasing.
Somehow, I knew all hell was going to break loose.
And more people could lose their lives.
That’s all until next week’s installment! If you’re aching to finish right now, though, just click below and buy the book!
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