Tag: Firefighters of Montana

Guest Blog: Flame by Victoria Purman

Posted June 23, 2016 by Rowena in Promotions | 1 Comment

Victoria Purman is here today to wrap up our Firefighters of Montana series feature and she’ll be talking about the fires in her homeland of Australia. She wrote Flame, Book 5 in the Firefighters of Montana series and seriously, who can say no to hot firefighters or really, hot reluctant smoke jumpers? Not us!

Flame by Victoria Purman
Firefighters of Montana #5
Releases on July 5, 2016 by Tule Publishing

Cady Adams has had a crush on Dex McCoy since high school, but her ambitions were always bigger than the small Montana town they grew up in. In the years after, Cady headed to California and Dex ended up drifting from one job to another all over the US.

But when the rug is pulled from under her feet, Cady comes home to establish her business, Cady’s Cakes. What she doesn’t know is a family tragedy has pulled Dex home, too, and he’s taken a new job as a smokejumper.

Will they finally give in to what’s been burning between them for so long? Is the timing right to find out the dreamer and the drifter are really perfect for each other?

FlamI’ve had such fun writing for Tule Publishing (if you’re read my Millionaire Malones series you’ll know why) so when I was asked if I wanted to be part of a series writing about Montana smokejumpers, I replied to that email so fast I almost melted my keyboard.

I might not be from Montana, but down here in Australia, we know all too well the harsh reality of fires and the damage they can wreak.

Just this past summer, a terrible bushfire in my home state of South Australia caused so much destruction and heartache. The Pinery bushfire, as it became known, killed two people, destroyed 91 homes and burnt through more than 85,000 hectares of land (that’s about 210,000 acres). Tens of thousands of livestock were also killed.

Just as you do in the States, we have amazing and heroic firefighters, men and women, who drop everything – often leaving their own farms and businesses – to stop fires from spreading and doing even more damage.

We don’t have smokejumpers in Australia – our mountain ranges come nowhere near the size of the Rocky Mountains – so most of our firefighters drive in with trucks, and are assisted by water bombing helicopters. A famous chopper in south-eastern Australia has been nicknamed “Elvis” and can drop 9,000 litres of fire retardant foam on a fire.

All these tools are crucial in my State – the driest state in the driest continent on earth – when temperatures often reach 44 degrees Celsius (111 Farenheit) celsius for weeks on end.

I so enjoyed writing Dex McCoy, something or a reluctant smokejumper, and imagining what it might be like for the woman who loves him – Cady Adams – as she waited for him to come home from the mountain.

I hope you like “Flame”, too!

Photo: Sam the koala became famous around the world after this photo was taken during an Australian bushfire a few years ago. (Reuters) (Source: abc.net.au)

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About the Author


I write for Harlequin MIRA and Tule Publishing. If you want to know more about me and my books, swing on by to www.victoriapurman.com or follow me on facebook at Victoria Purman Author or on twitter @VictoriaPurman.

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Guest Blog: A Fresh Start with Nicole Helm (+ Excerpt)

Posted June 22, 2016 by Rowena in Promotions | 0 Comments

Today on the blog, Nicole Helm will be talking about fresh starts and starting over new. She’s also sharing an excerpt from her book Ignite from the Firefighters of Montana series published by Tule Publishing. Check it out!

Ignite by Nicole Helm
Firefighters of Montana #3
Releases on June 21, 2016 by Tule Publishing

Lina McArthur has spent her life in Marietta, Montana, in the shadow of her doctor father. But now that she’s finally broken free and moved away, she is determined to figure out who she is out of her scrubs. Then she meets the first man to ever tempt her to let him take them off…

Dean “Ace” Clark has been on the run from a troubled and tragic past. When a work-related injury sends the smoke jumper to the hospital, his wounds are tended by the beautiful Dr. McArthur. Just one problem. He knows the McArthur name, and she’s connected to the past he desperately wants to stay one step ahead of.

Ace has never been afraid to jump into a dangerous situation, but falling for Lina might just be the biggest leap of courage he’s ever faced..

Have you ever dreamed about starting completely over? New life. New name. Whole new identity. Growing up, I moved a lot, and got somewhat obsessed with the idea of fresh starts. A haircut to start the new year, a fresh notebook for every new story idea. I was always certain that a new thing could possibly change my life. I didn’t go so far as to create a whole new identity, but that idea of a fresh start was one I held onto a long time.

On top of that, I always loved stories where people assumed different identities, or police detectives went undercover as someone else, or soap opera villains who turned out to be some long lost other character. It’s a fascinating prospect becoming someone else.

While I was writing IGNITE, I finally got to explore what it might be like to have a completely new identity. And what better identity could a man trying to get away from his past choose than a smoke jumper who fights fire that destroys and makes new all at the same time?

My hero ran away as a teen and started over with a new name, a made up life story, and for a while it works out just great, but nothing is ever as easy or simple as we think it’ll be. Because that thing I learned was there are no fresh starts, and you always have to face the things you thought you’d left behind.

Have you ever dreamed about becoming someone else? Starting completely over? Did you have a new identity plan?

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Lina McArthur studied the screen of her rolling computer station, noting the patient’s information before entering the exam room. It hadn’t been a particularly busy day in the ER—late afternoon rarely was, here. Considering she’d come from the tiny town of Marietta, Montana, Kalispell was something of a change. Sure it wasn’t New York City, but it was still busier than she had been used to during her residency with Marietta Regional.

Possible concussion wasn’t exactly a gunshot wound, but it was nice to be here, to work somewhere outside the sphere of her father’s influence. She’d only been with Kalispell Regional for a month now, but living on her own, being out of the McArthur spotlight in Marietta, it was everything she’d dreamed it could be.

She stepped fully into the exam room to find a large man sprawled out on the exam table. He was wearing pants that had large tear down the side, which revealed a long if not terribly deep scratch. The pants and the loose-fitting T-shirt he wore were covered in a streaky black substance that appeared to be smoke or soot of some kind.

He had black smudges on his face as well, though mostly at his hairline and under his stubbled jaw. Someone had cleaned and bandaged the scrapes across his cheek, but the nurse had informed her that he didn’t need any stitches.

“Mr.…” She wasn’t sure why she paused over the last name. It was a very common one and just because it happened to be the last name of her best friend didn’t mean anything. She’d just been thinking about home and Marietta, and Jess was one of the few things she missed.

Besides, the brother Jess was looking for might have the last name Clark, but his first name was not Ace like this gentleman’s. It was a coincidence and silly to think otherwise.

If there was one thing Lina McArthur was not, it was silly. “Mr. Clark. I see you took a little bit of a tumble. Can you tell me what happened?”

“You mean the same story I already told the nurses? Each and everyone who came in and asked me the same damn question?” His voice was deep and edged with total irritation.

“It’s important we all get our story straight,” Lina replied, doing her best to keep her tone equitable. The hardest part of being a doctor for her was bedside manner. Especially being in the ER where people tended to take out their fear and nervousness on her. But she hadn’t made it through med school and residency in a hospital dominated by her larger-than-life father without learning how to plaster on a fake smile. “If you could just explain to me what happened and where you’re hurt.”

“This is so unbelievable,” he grumbled, sitting up straighter in the bed and glaring at her with a sharp, blue gaze.

Blue eyes, just like Jess. And half the rest of the population, idiot. “Mr—”

“Listen, lady, I have better things to do than sit in the ER telling a million people the same story. I was hurt. As I can walk, see, and think, I’ve deduced that I’m fine. No medical degree needed.”

Surly, her absolute least favorite type of patient to deal with. Probably because she’d be the same if the situations were reversed. She hated repeating herself, hated waiting. Patience was not her virtue.

It didn’t appear to be this man’s either. Though he didn’t fidget, his blue eyes were nearly vibrating with a kind of restless irritation. His jet black hair was unruly, though not too terribly long.

He didn’t even look a thing like Jess, why did she keep wondering over his last name? It would be too crazy of a coincidence.

Besides, he’s hot.

Neither here nor there, brain.

“I’m sorry you’re frustrated, Mr. Clark,” she said in the most cheerful voice she could muster. “But this is procedure, and the sooner you cooperate the sooner we can release you. Now, please explain to me what happened.”

“I’m a smoke jumper,” he grumbled, crossing his arms over his chest.

His arms were also streaked with black—smoke apparently. They were also…yum.

Argh. No. No thinking patients were hot.

“Small fire and I got caught up in the wrong wind. My chute got twisted and I landed hard, hitting my head on a tree. I’m a little banged up and apparently I lost consciousness for a second or two, but obviously I’m fine.” He swept a hand down the front of himself.

She didn’t allow herself to peruse. Oh, yes, he is fine. “How long were you out?”

“I’m not sure. The guys said a couple seconds. But the medic checked—”

“Obviously, the medic thought you should come to the ER. Have you had vomiting, nausea, change in vision?”

“Why don’t you ask the eight hundred people who came before who’ve already asked me that, lady?”

“Doctor. I am a doctor. Right now I am your doctor. So, stop calling me lady.” Once she said the words, she winced. She wasn’t supposed to snap but, oh, how she hated to be called lady or girlie.

His gaze sharpened, but his mouth, which had been screwed into a scowl since she walked in, curved upward. It was surprisingly potent, his smile. She didn’t trust it all.

“Pack a little bit of a punch for such a tiny package, don’t you, doc?”

“I’m not a package,” she replied, curling her fingers around the edges of her computer cart. “And I don’t pack any punch. I am a doctor.”

He sat up on the exam table, looking her over with a certain kind of…interest. Interest that made her feel very nearly jittery. Nervous. She’d never cared to feel either. Especially in the presence of a man who clearly thought she was something he could play with.

Lina McArthur was not toyed with. She scowled as she realized the voice in her head sounded far too much like her own father to make her comfortable.

Of course, that had always been because of who her father was, who her family was—the not being toyed with. While some people at this hospital knew of her father’s stellar medical reputation, his influence didn’t quite reach here. She’d been treated differently since moving here in that she hadn’t been treated differently at all, and it was nice to blend in. To not feel like she had to live up to the McArthur name.

That didn’t make men any easier. They were still as baffling as they always were. She slumped a little behind her cart, typing his explanation into the computer. “I’m going to examine the bump.”

“Are you now?”

She wanted to stutter at the lazy way he drawled that, but she schooled her tongue to behave as she stepped toward him. “Did you come into contact with any fire?” she asked, unable to stop looking at him. Which was…ridiculous. So, he was hot? She’d seen attractive men as patients before. But…there was something different about him. Something affecting. And pretty. And muscles.

“No, where I jumped, the fire’d already been put out. This is all old ash.”

“Ah.” Her hands wanted to shake, but she focused on the task at hand. Bump. Concussion symptoms. Deciding if she’d recommend a CAT scan.

“Ever jumped into a fire, doc?”

“No, my job is to heal fools who think they’re immortal.” Oh, that was not bedside manner.

But he laughed and something about that sexy rumble while she was gently parting his hair made her brain malfunction. Completely. She didn’t even remember what she was doing.

Focus. You’re a doctor. You’re a McArthur. The bump wasn’t alarming, and the placement on his skull made it unlikely he had internal bleeding, with no ill-effects this far after the original accident.

“So, what’s the verdict, doc?” he asked, his voice a low, silky murmur. “Do I have a week to live?”

She dropped her hands and took a few steps away from him. Okay, maybe she scurried away from him. “You probably suffered from a concussion. Over the next few days you may get a nasty headache. You’ll want to avoid any screen time—TV, phones, computers. No contact sports, or, I assume, jumping out of planes.”

That knocked all the silky ease out of him and he sat up straight. “Fire season starts this week, aside from training I have to be ready to—”

“You’ll have to miss it. For a week.”

He scowled and jumped off the bed. “Like hell.”

She shrugged, making sure to keep the computer cart between them as she typed her recommendation into his chart. “Sorry, buddy. That’s how this works.”

“I don’t think you’re sorry at all, Dr…” His gaze trailed down to her name tag, and she was sure it was her imagination his eyes took a little detour over her breasts because not only were they the opposite of impressive, but her coat covered them up fairly well.

“Dr. McArthur,” he said, as though…stunned. As though he didn’t just know of the name, as though he knew the name. Intimately.

Then his gaze returned to hers and she knew… He knew her name. He knew her family. And his last name was Clark.

It couldn’t be, but it had to be. “Your name isn’t Ace at all, is it? It’s Dean. Dean Clark.”
Ace held himself very still. There’d been a few times in the past few years someone had been looking for Dean, and he’d managed to throw them off the scent. It helped that most of the people who looked for him had a picture from when he’d been sixteen. Tall and wiry, a sneering, angry, gangly thing.

He hadn’t been Dean Clark in ten years and he didn’t plan on going back now. Ace Clark was charming, fun-loving, and an integral part of his smokejumping crew, even if he could read the suspicion in his new captain’s eyes. The rest of the guys liked him, trusted him. Mostly.

He’d embraced the life he’d made up. Even rented a place in Kalispell and stayed year-round. He’d given up Dean, and he hadn’t looked back.

Damn McArthurs, always sticking their noses where they didn’t belong. How had he run into one here? And a doctor to boot. A doctor telling him he couldn’t work for a week? The season was just starting.

He wasn’t going to sit around twiddling his thumbs if there was a fire. It had taken him twenty years to find a purpose, the past seven to work his way up to jumper.

A McArthur, of all people, wouldn’t muck up his plans. “I don’t know a Dean, lady.” It wasn’t as easy to lie to this woman as the people who’d come before. Who the hell knew why? Maybe because the McArthur name had thrown him for a loop, a painful reminder of the sister who he’d had to leave to save, or maybe it was because this woman’s dark blue eyes were sharp and intelligent.

He didn’t know what kind of relationship she had with his sister, but considering the McArthurs had taken Jess in once he’d finally smartened up and hightailed it out of Marietta, he figured this woman knew his sister well enough.

Which meant he had to get away from her ASAP. Jess couldn’t know he was here. He might have gotten his life together, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t always two steps away from blowing it all to hell again.
Jess deserved better. That was why he’d left her. So she’d stop hurting herself over the likes of him.

“Yes, you do,” she said, her voice steady and sure.

He needed to make her scramble again, so he forced himself to smile, to admire the shape of her because it made her cheeks turn pink and the otherwise solid, capable doctor demeanor fade into someone shifty and nervous.

He had no idea why the nerves were attractive on her. Usually, he liked a woman with a little more experience and a lot more overt interest in him. Easy women who knew what they were getting into. Temporary fun.

She was none of those things. And she’s a McArthur. Keep your head together. “I got a…second cousin or something named Dean, I think.” He shrugged, offering his mastered empty-headed smile. “Wouldn’t know him if I saw him though. It’s been ages.”

She frowned at that and he didn’t think she believed it without reservation, but it hopefully put enough doubt in her head she wouldn’t go spouting his whereabouts to her family.

Please, fate, be on my side for once. “Now, can I go?”

“I’ll have to print out your release papers, and the patient tech will come in and have you sign a few things.” She watched him with a brow furrowed, an intense, considering expression on her face. It did nothing to quell his interest in the sharp-mouthed doctor.

The name McArthur should.

Yeah, it should.

“A second cousin named Dean?”

“Yes. Somewhere in Montana, though I don’t know if it’s anywhere around here. My parents weren’t particularly close with his. I grew up in Oregon.” The lies were always easy, if only because, as a kid, he’d pictured a life as someone else. Anyone else. Ace Clark, smokejumper and not a total life failure, worked for him.

It damn well wasn’t going to come to an end because of a McArthur. Even if she was too attractive for his own good.

He and Jess had been with a foster home outside of Marietta when Jess had started dating one of the McArthur kids. Dean had only ever met one of the McArthurs, and only once. He’d broken his wrist trying to sneak out of the foster house, and the formidable Dr. McArthur had treated him, asking if he knew Jess.

Dean had lied, because Dr. McArthur had made it abundantly clear he would view Jess’s relation to him as a mark against her.

So, Dean had done his level best to get kicked out of another foster home, get his ass on the road, and leave Jess to a life that gave her a chance at something more than they’d ever had. More than he ever thought he’d be able to have.

He didn’t know much about this McArthur woman except she was one of them, and a doctor.

And hopefully at least a tiny bit gullible.

She studied him for the longest time and he pretended like he was the man he’d invented. Carefree, life-of-the-party Ace Clark. Lazy smiles, relaxed demeanor. None of the go-to-hell tenseness that had made up his life for the first twenty-some years.

He locked away all the irritation, the disgust at being in room with a McArthur—especially a pretty one—forced away any softening memories of his sister who’d been the only one in his life who’d ever tried to do right by him.

Much like fighting a fire, he couldn’t worry about more than the moment. More than the challenge in front of him. First, the jump. Then the landing. So, right now, all he could focus on was being unaffected.

“Well, print those papers, doc. I’ve got work to get back to.”

Her considering look sharpened into disgust. “If you care about the health of your brain, you won’t jump or do anything with high impact for a week, Mr. Clark.”

He grinned, couldn’t help it, and she must have read at least a portion of his thoughts because she blushed. Damn if he didn’t want to stick around and make her blush a few more times.
Not in the cards. Right. “I’ll see what I can manage.”

She rolled her eyes, but she clicked something on her computer than pushed the whole cart to the door. She looked back once, giving him a once-over that wasn’t nearly as interested as he’d like it to be. No, it was dissection. It was could you be Dean Clark?

“Why’d you say McArthur like it meant something to you?” she finally asked.

“You ever heard of Colin McArthur?”

Her eyebrows furrowed. “No.”

“He was a famous college football player who became a smokejumper. He’s a legend—big story in some big magazine years ago. There was a documentary about him. Thought you might be related.” He’d always thought quickly on his feet, thanks to dear, old dad’s equally quick fists and threats.

She didn’t say anything after that, simply wheeled out of the room. Ace allowed the easy smile to leave his face, to acknowledge some of that riotous fury inside of him, the tense fear she might say something to Jess. That this might be over.

“No, it isn’t over.” He’d finally built himself a life. He wasn’t going to upend this one—not because of anyone else.

Surely, since she’d left, she’d let it go, and if she didn’t… Well, he’d figured out how to deal. He’d roll with the punches. He always had.

He waited around for the interminable time it took the patient tech to go over the insurance and billing paperwork. Finally, they released him and he was allowed to walk down the corridor and out into the waiting room.

That’s the last time I set foot in the Kalispell Hospital. He’d find a way to make sure if anything happened on a jump again, they’d take him somewhere else once they got him out. Anywhere else.

“Hey, Ace, what’s the verdict?”

Ace stopped short, not realizing Sam had stayed. It had been hours now, and as much as it had surprised him the new captain he didn’t particularly care for had driven him here, he was downright shocked Sam had stayed. “You didn’t have to stay, captain.”

Sam shrugged. “You were out cold for a good minute. Wasn’t sure they’d let you drive out of here.”

“She didn’t say anything about driving.” He scowled at his discharge papers. He could refuse to give them to Sam, he could lie, it wouldn’t be the first or last time, but he found he kind of did care about the health of his brain. “But I can’t jump for the next week.”

“Sucks, man.” Sam commiserated, walking out of the hospital next to him. “We’ll keep you busy.”

Ace eyed Sam. It was hard to trust people, always had been, and losing Russ last year… Well, Russ was the first person who had trusted Ace with something. Who’d believed in him. It had been a blow and Ace had been unfair to his replacement in the interim. Maybe not consciously, but this kind gesture meant he saw it pretty glaringly now.

Maybe he should rethink that strategy. Sam had changed things up, but he was a good guy. Someone to trust. “Thanks. For staying.”

“Anytime.” They climbed into Sam’s truck, but he didn’t start the engine right away. “I mean that seriously, Clark. Anytime.”

Ace wanted to laugh. Sure, bury the hatchet with the new boss when a woman who threatened his real identity had just called him on it.

But he’d come too far, built too much. He had a place to belong, so he just had to come up with a plan. A plan no big-nosed McArthur could ruin, no matter what she told Jess.

Ace didn’t allow himself to think of his sister. Not as anything other than a problem to avoid. He watched the highway pass and focused on his lies instead.


About the Author

Nicole Helm

Nicole Helm grew up with her nose in a book and a dream of becoming a writer. Luckily, after a few failed career choices, a husband, and two kids, she gets to pursue that dream.

Nicole lives in Missouri with her husband and two sons, and writes her novels one baby’s nap at a time. She’s slightly (okay, totally) addicted to Twitter, loves watching the St. Louis Cardinals, and her dream is to someday own a barn.

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Guest Blog: Inspired Travel by Karen Foley (+ Excerpt)

Posted June 21, 2016 by Rowena in Promotions | 1 Comment

Karen Foley is being featured here on the blog today. She’ll be sharing her thoughts on inspired traveling from the books we read. She’s also sharing an excerpt from her book, Heat in the Firefighters of Montana series published by Tule Publishing. Hot firefighters? Yep, we’re in for a treat this week!

Heat by Karen Foley
Firefighters of Montana #4
Releases on June 28, 2016 by Tule Publishing

Callie McClain is back in Montana after a twelve year absence to care for her ailing father, despite the fact she can’t stand the cold and isolation. But in an ironic twist of fate, it seems Montana is finally giving her what she wants—blistering heat and a fiery glow that threatens to incinerate everything in its path. Wildfire. The only thing hotter than the advancing flames is the smokejumper who comes to her rescue, and suddenly Callie is finding reasons why Montana might just have everything she’s ever wanted.

Tyler Dodson can’t recall a time when he didn’t want to be a smokejumper. There’s nothing as dangerous—or as exhilarating—as jumping, until he rescues a pretty veterinarian from an advancing wildfire. He knows he shouldn’t get involved. He doesn’t need that kind of complication in his life, and distractions of any kind can be deadly in his line of work. So why can’t he keep his mind – and his hands – off of Callie McClain?

When the Tule editors asked me to be part of a multi-author series featuring a group of sexy smokejumpers from Montana, I jumped at the chance (no pun intended). The best part of this collaboration was creating the fictional community where our smokejumpers work and live –Glacier Creek, Montana. Given the opportunity, I would pull up stakes and move there in a heartbeat! What’s not to love about a town nestled against the majestic Rocky Mountains, with Glacier National Park and beautiful Flathead Lake just a stone’s toss away?

In fact, I became so enamored of this area while researching and writing my smokejumper story, Heat, that I booked a trip to nearby Whitefish, Montana, for early autumn, when the foliage will be at its peak and the mountain passes will still be open. But we won’t fly from Boston; we’ll take a long-distance train through the Berkshires and upstate New York, and along the shore of Lake Michigan, to Chicago.

After an overnight in the Windy City, we’ll transfer to the Empire Builder, the train line that will take us west through Minneapolis and St. Paul, across North Dakota and into Big Sky country. The train follows the “Mystery Pass” through the Rockies sought by Lewis and Clark, and finally established in 1889. We’ll cross the Continental Divide at 5,216 ft. above sea level—the lowest pass between New Mexico and Canada!

I look forward to exploring the scenic area surrounding the fictional town of Glacier Creek, and who knows? Maybe I’ll even catch sight of a sexy smokejumper or two!

Have you ever decided to travel to a certain place after reading about it in a book? If so, where did you go, and did the destination live up to the expectations?

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Glacier Creek, MT

The fire buzzer catapulted him out of bed at dawn, the strident alarm blaring through the firefighting base that housed the Glacier Creek smokejumpers, hotshot team, and search and rescue team. In the dormitory, Tyler Dodson was on his feet and yanking his pants up before he was even fully awake, responding instinctively to years of training.

He’d been back at the base for less than twenty-four hours after jumping a wildfire in Idaho earlier in the week. He’d had just enough time to shower, eat, and hit the sack for some much needed sleep before this next call came in, but he wasn’t complaining. He needed the overtime pay if he ever wanted to break ground on the sweet piece of real estate he’d bought over on the north ridge two years ago. He rented a small apartment in Whitefish year-round, but he lived at the smokejumping base during the summer so he wouldn’t miss any calls. With the crazy wildfire season they’d been having this summer, it looked like he’d finally have enough money to finance the construction of the timber frame house he’d been dreaming about.

Tyler glanced at his watch as he made his way swiftly out of the dormitory to the ready room. When the fire buzzer sounded, the smokejumpers had just fifteen minutes to suit up and get their asses on the jump plane. He took the stairs leading from the sleeping quarters to the ready room two at a time. As he crossed the lobby, he tried not to look at the parachute that hung from the balcony of the vaulted ceiling, a grim tribute to their former captain.

The outside doors pushed open and Vin Kingston came in, acknowledging Tyler with a nod as Vin fell into step beside him. Tyler had been a mentor to the younger man when Vin had gone through smokejumper training several years earlier. They’d both been close to their former captain, Russ Edwards, although that could be said of most of the team. Russ, with his easygoing nature, made everyone feel as if they’d been friends with him forever. After Russ had been killed in a jump accident the previous year, Tyler had thought Vin might quit the smokejumpers for good. He didn’t miss how Vin glanced up at the chute hanging over their heads.

Russ’s death had shocked the tightknit firefighting community, but had been especially difficult for Vin; even more-so when Russ’s widow, Jacqui, overcome with grief, had abruptly quit Montana and moved to Florida. Vin had surprised everyone by staying on, remote but determined to look after Russ and Jacqui’s dog, Muttley. But none of the crew had been surprised when Jacqui returned to Glacier Creek, thinner and more subdued than they remembered, and eventually succumbed to Vin’s charm. Only Tyler knew Vin had had a thing for Jacqui long before she became a widow.

Tyler was glad things had worked out for them. They needed each other, and while Tyler thought Russ and Jacqui had been great together, Vin had confided the marriage hadn’t been quite as perfect as they’d all believed. Tyler had to admit Vin and Jacqui made a damn good team. After what they’d both been through, they deserved some happiness.

“Hey, Vin.” He greeted the other man. “Any word on what we have?”

“Don’t know yet, but I can tell you that Jacqui’s not too thrilled about it.”

“Oh yeah?” Tyler shot his friend a sideways glance as they made their way to the ready room. “She tell you that?”

Vin snorted. “Nope. You know Jacqui; she’d never say anything about my jumping, but I know she worries every time I get called up.”

Jacqui had good reason to worry, considering her first husband had been fatally injured during a jump. Tyler gave the other man a reassuring slap on the shoulder. “I’ll make sure you get back in one piece.”

He knew as well as Vin what marriage to a smokejumper could do to a woman. That was another thing they had in common—their first marriages had each gone down the shitter. Tyler’s marriage—to a girl from California—had lasted for two years, but it had been doomed from the beginning; he’d just been too stubborn to realize it.

Vin, on the other hand, had married a local girl, Tori, but she hadn’t been able to handle his long absences during the busy fire season. Vin and Tori still saw each other on a regular basis, since she worked as a waitress at The Drop Zone pub, but they were at least on cordial terms. Tyler hadn’t seen or spoken to Alicia in almost eight years, since she’d remarried and popped out a couple of kids.

He pushed the unpleasant memories aside. Ten years might have passed since Alicia had divorced him, but he’d learned his lesson. There would be no more weddings for him.

Most of the smokejumper team had already arrived and were suiting up when Tyler and Vin reached the ready room, where the jumpers had their own equipment lockers and speed racks. The jump gear was pre-positioned to facilitate a swift suit up, and it took less than three minutes for Tyler to pull on his protective gear.

The suit itself was made of Kevlar, heavily padded to provide protection from tree landings and slamming into the ground. The jacket had a high collar to protect his neck and his helmet was equipped with a mesh face guard. He slipped into his harness, which would attach to his parachute, and buckled it securely. Lastly, he grabbed his PG bag, so called because it contained his personal gear, and then he jogged out to the flight line with the rest of the team.

The first glimmers of dawn were spreading pink and gold fingers across the horizon as Tyler made his way across the tarmac toward the waiting plane. Clouds of dust erupted around each man as they dropped their packs in the staging area. Almost immediately, the ground crew began loading the gear into the plane. The packs would be rigged into parachutes, and dropped separately, once the jumpers were safely on the ground.

“Okay, listen up!”

Sam Gaskill, the new captain who had replaced Russ several months earlier, gathered the crew in close for the in-brief. He was a few years younger than Tyler, but had proven his skill, both as a leader and a smokejumper, during this insanely busy fire season. Tyler didn’t begrudge the other man his newfound responsibilities as captain, although he knew some of the other crew hadn’t completely warmed up to Sam yet. He’d come in from outside the Glacier Creek community, and there were some guys who still complained that they hadn’t been selected for the position.

Tyler had thrown his own name into the hat, and had been more than a little surprised that he hadn’t made the cut, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to whine about it. That kind of shit didn’t endear anyone to the brass, and only eroded the crew’s ability to work together as a team. And when anyone became more important than the sum of the parts, it usually led to trouble. A smokejumper couldn’t operate alone, at least not safely. And Tyler was all about safety. He never wanted to experience another day like the one when they’d lost Russ.

As Sam began to brief the team about the deployment, Tyler noticed two other men standing to one side, listening. One of the men was their new spotter, Doster Cohen. His job was to select the best landing site for the jumpers, close to the fire.

“Hey.” Vin nudged him, nodding in Sam’s direction. “Isn’t that your old man?”

Tyler peered through the near-dawn darkness and recognized the second man standing just behind Captain Gaskill, and nearly groaned.

His old man.

What a joke.

Tyler and Mike Eldridge weren’t related by blood, as Mike had made abundantly clear, nearly from the moment he’d married Tyler’s mother.

I’m not your father.

How many times had Mike said those words to Tyler? More times than he could count. The first time had been following the wedding ceremony, when Tyler—just five years old—had happily declared that he finally had a dad. Mike Eldridge had crouched down in front of him, looked directly into his eyes, and said, “I’m not your dad, Tyler. You’re not to call me that. To you, I’m just Mike.”

And that had pretty much summed up their relationship for the next thirty years. But that hadn’t stopped Tyler from trying. He’d done everything he could think of to gain Mike’s approval, naively thinking if he could just be smart enough, strong enough, brave enough, then maybe Mike would want him.

He’d hero-worshipped his stepfather.

Mike Eldridge had been part of the Glacier Creek base for almost forty years. In his mid-sixties, he was a granite slab of a man, with a stubborn jaw and eyes like chips of glacial ice. He’d started his career as a hotshot, before moving over to the smokejumpers in his late twenties. He was very nearly a legend in the wildland firefighting world, having jumped more than three hundred fires during his long career. Retired now, he hadn’t jumped in almost two decades, and instead taught several wildfire training courses required for hotshot and smokejumper qualification. Tyler had taken them all. He had firsthand knowledge about the kind of man Mike was—hard, uncompromising, and unforgiving.

He and Tyler’s biological father had been best friends, part of the Glacier Creek hotshot crew. Bryce Dodson had been killed fighting a wildfire when Tyler was just a toddler; he had no memories of his father. But he’d heard the stories—Bryce Dodsen had been like the wildfires he’d battled—hot, wild, and unpredictable.


Sometimes Tyler wondered if that was why Mike Eldridge was such a hardass with him; he didn’t want him growing up to be like his father. But Tyler couldn’t recall a time when he didn’t want to be a smokejumper. Growing up in the shadow of his stepfather gave him a unique vantage point, and he would have done anything to gain that man’s approval. But Mike Eldridge had remained frustratingly aloof, even when Tyler had been voted all-star athlete in high-school; even when he’d enrolled in firefighting courses, and had graduated top in his class, and could hump a sixty-pound pack of gear up the side of a mountain in record time.

He’d gotten nothing.

Okay, there’d been the time right after graduation, when he had been working a summer job with a hotshot crew out of Helena, and they’d deployed to California to fight a wildfire there. Tyler had been twenty-three and pretty full of himself. After containing the fire, the crew had kicked back at a local pub where he’d met Alicia, a pretty blonde with a golden tan, and legs that could wrap around him like a vine. He’d been too dazed from all the sex to realize they weren’t a good match in the ways that mattered.

Before he knew it, they were married and living in his tiny, two-room apartment in downtown Whitefish, Montana. Oh, he’d gotten plenty from Mike Eldridge then. He’d thought the older man was going to burst an artery, he’d been so furious with Tyler. He’d called him irresponsible.



Not the qualities they were looking for in a full-time hotshot. That was when Tyler had known he’d blown it. He’d spent another couple of years working part-time jobs on different hotshot teams, trying to prove his worth. In the meantime, Alicia grew tired of being alone, and had returned to California and filed for divorce. Even knowing it was for the best, it had left a bitter taste in Tyler’s mouth. So when he got hired on full-time with the hotshots, and later with the Glacier Creek smokejumpers, he’d put any thoughts of marriage behind him.

He didn’t need to go through that again. His crew was his family. And over the next ten years, they had become his family. He’d gladly give his life for any of them, even the annoyingly cheerful Marco Linetti, the youngest crew member who had recently made it through boot camp, and was anxious to prove himself.

Tyler dragged his thoughts away from Mike Eldridge, and instead focused on the in-brief, which was thankfully short and sweet. Lightning had spawned a wildfire in the heavily timbered, mountainous terrain of Glacier National Park, on the eastern side of the popular tourist destination. High winds, compounded by a hot, dry summer had quickly fueled the blaze into an inferno that was rapidly devouring everything in its path.

Until now, the local ground crews from Missoula and St. Mary had managed the suppression effort, but shifting winds had caused the fire to behave erratically, jumping fire lines and spawning new fires that quickly grew and spread. The blaze had shut down the eastern portion of the park, and had destroyed thousands of acres of parkland. Fire roads were quickly becoming impassable, and the smokejumpers were the last line of defense before the wildfire threatened the nearby town of St. Mary.

As Tyler jogged toward the plane, he thought he heard Mike call his name, but he didn’t look back. He wasn’t that same starstruck kid anymore. He no longer needed or wanted Mike’s approval.

Once they were airborne, Tyler took time to strap on his parachute and take stock of who he’d be jumping with. There were fifteen jumpers in all, including the new captain. Vin sat beside him, and across from him sat Ace Clark, one of the younger guys.

Tyler had jumped plenty of times with Liam Ferguson, whose sister, Miranda, happened to be their pilot. The two of them had worked out of the Glacier Creek base almost as long as Tyler. Greg Winters and Garrett Broxson, both married, sat toward the front, and would be among the first ones out the door. Greg was a seasonal part-timer, but he was good at his job. Tyler had tried to persuade him to hire on full-time, but Greg insisted his wife would never allow it. The rest of the crew was comprised of guys who Tyler knew well and had jumped with dozens of time. He relaxed fractionally. No rookies on board, which meant he could focus on his own jump without worrying about the others.

Within an hour they were approaching the jump site. The sun had risen and, looking out the window of the plane, Tyler viewed the billowing black smoke that marred the brilliant sunrise. From his vantage point, he could see a long ridge of mountains topped with flames, and more wildfire extending down the eastern slope, toward the flatlands. He saw the long, narrow finger of St. Mary Lake, and beyond that, the tiny town of St. Mary. Captain Gaskill hadn’t been kidding—there were several spot fires along the western tip of the lake, and at least one had spread along the northern shore, in the direction of the town. The pilot made several passes over the front edge of the fire to determine the best spot to drop the crew.

The jump door was open now and the spotter leaned out, scoping out a safe landing site. He pulled several weighted, crepe paper streamers from a basket by the door and dropped them out of the plane, watching to see how they drifted, to ensure they came close to the landing site he had selected.

Doster Cohen was new to the base, and as Tyler glanced at the others, their grim expressions told him they were all thinking the same thing; they were recalling the day that their former captain, Russ Edwards, had died.

The spotter that day had selected a drop point, and released the streamers to ensure an accurate glide. But when Russ jumped, a rogue wind had caught him, driving him into a stand of tall spruces where he’d become tangled. He’d been unconscious, but had no visible injuries. They’d evacuated him by helicopter, convinced he would be okay, so it had been a shock to learn he had died en route to the hospital from massive internal injuries and head trauma.

He’d never regained consciousness.

The spotter had blamed himself, although an investigation had cleared him of any wrongdoing. He’d left the forest service soon afterward.

Tyler worried about wind gusts, not just for himself but for the rest of the guys. He knew the possibility of injury always existed, but he liked to think their attention to safety eliminated most of the risks. He was all about safety, even more so since Russ’s accident.

Surveying the landscape below, he saw the drop point where the streamers had landed. The spotter had selected a small tract of meadow on the side of the steep terrain, where the ground was more level. But each jumper would have to hit the spot precisely, since just above the meadow was dense forest, and the ground below fell away to a deep ravine.

While the jumpers made final preparations, Tyler took a moment to look at his map, orienting himself with the terrain, and figuring out how they might reach the leading edge of the blaze quickly, without overtaxing themselves. They’d each haul their own packs and equipment, and while they were all in top physical shape, they’d need all their stamina to battle the wildfire. Looking at the map, Tyler figured they could follow the ridge line horizontally, and avoid exerting too much energy in climbing. He also marked the map with two possible escape routes, in case the fire overwhelmed them and forced them to retreat.

“Hey, Ty.” Someone bumped his shoulder, and he looked up to see Sam crouched beside him. “We have a situation. I need you and two other guys to do a structure assessment, and possibly an evacuation. I’ll take the others and tackle the front edge of the main fire. I want you to be the point man for the evac.”

Tyler felt his eyebrows go up. They didn’t typically do evacuations, although it wasn’t outside their realm of duties. He bent to take a closer look at the map where Sam was pointing. On the extreme edge of the park, he could see what looked like an access road snaking into the steeper terrain.

“What kind of an evacuation?”

“A man and his daughter. They were told to leave two days ago, but looks like they decided to stay. The landlines are down, and the fire roads are impassable, otherwise the St. Mary crew would go in and get them. They can still use this access road if they leave in the next hour. It’ll take the ground crews at least two hours to reach them, which is why they want us to go in. The fire will reach the access road at this point”—Sam jabbed a finger at a spot on the squiggly line—“within an hour. If we can’t get them safely beyond this point, we’ll be looking at an aerial evac.”

Tyler could see the property was directly in the path of the fire. He barely contained a snort of contempt. Although the fire marshals provided ample warning for residents to flee ahead of a wildfire, there were always those who believed they could ride out the storm. They soaked their homes with water and hunkered down, putting their lives at risk, as well as the lives of those trying to rescue them. Tyler would go in after the man and his daughter because that was his job, but that didn’t mean he had to like it. He resented risking the safety of his crew because some jack-wagon thought he was fireproof. That the man would endanger his own daughter—a child—was even more infuriating.

“I’ll take Vin and Ace,” he said. “We’ll get these people to safety and cut a fire line here.” He indicated a spot ahead of the leading edge of the fire. “If things get dicey, I’ll call for a slurry drop.”

Slurry was a fire retardant liquid, dropped by aircraft ahead of a wildfire, to protect that area from catching fire. Most commonly, it was used to protect homes and people.

Sam nodded. “They’re scooping water out of St. Mary Lake and dumping it along the access road. If they can keep the road wet, those folks will have a good chance of making it down the mountain.” He started to move away, and then turned back. “Listen, that front is moving fast and hot. No heroics. Just get those people out, and then you hightail it out of there. Head back to the drop site, and radio me for our position.”

Tyler folded his map and tucked it inside his suit, as Sam climbed across the gear to tell Vin, Ace, and Doster about the evac plan. Sam and the spotter bent their heads over the map, debating on where to drop Tyler and the other two jumpers. After several moments, obviously satisfied, Sam gave Doster a slap on the back, and then signaled the remaining men for the first jump. Tyler watched as each man positioned himself in the open door, waited for the spotter to tap him on the leg, and pushed himself out into the open sky.

Then it was just the four of them left in the plane, as the pilot banked sharply and the spotter leaned out of the open door to survey the land beneath them. Tyler never tired of seeing the majestic mountain ranges and sweeping valleys that defined this part of Montana. He’d lived here his entire life, had spent countless days hiking through the wilderness of the national park. Despite having traveled all over the continental U.S. and Canada, he couldn’t imagine living anywhere else. Protecting this magnificent land from the ravages of wildfire was both a duty, and a privilege.

Less than five minutes later, they were over the second drop site. Tyler braced himself in the opening of the plane, surveying the area below. The landing site was a mix of conifer trees, meadows, and brush just below a rocky outcrop. If the winds didn’t cooperate, there was a risk of overshooting the drop site and being pushed into the rocks, or being carried into a dense copse of tall spruce. Either would suck. Tyler had dropped into trees before, and even if he managed to avoid being impaled by a branch, or getting his chute lines tangled, it was a complete drag.

When he felt the slap on his leg, he pushed forward, out of the plane and into the open air, free-falling toward earth. Tyler silently acknowledged he always had some anxiety before jumping, but once he was actually airborne, all of that vanished.

He was flying, free and untethered, the wind whipping at his jumpsuit and pushing at his face, and his heart soared with the sheer thrill of it. Then he pulled his chute and felt himself jerked upward, his downward plummet momentarily suspended. He glanced up to see the bright blue, rectangular canopy open above him. Grasping the two toggle handles, he peered down over his boots to where the ground was swiftly rising up to meet him. He steered toward the landing site, maneuvering himself to the center of the small clearing, and pulled hard on both toggles to slow his approach.

He landed on his feet, and quickly gathered in his chute and stripped off his helmet and his protective gear. Shading his eyes, he watched as Vin and Ace dropped out of the sky, wincing as Ace hit the ground hard. But the younger man was up on his feet almost immediately, and Tyler gave the thumbs up to the spotter, as the plane circled above them. Within minutes, their packs and equipment were dropped out of the aircraft, and Tyler swore softly as one of them drifted too far and landed in the trees. Retrieving the gear would cost them precious minutes and, with the wildfire bearing down on the trapped family, they needed every second.

It took them less than ten minutes to store their chutes, retrieve their gear, and begin hiking toward the threatened property. As they closed in on the wildfire, Tyler could smell burning trees and hear the ominous crackle of flames as the wildfire consumed the dry underbrush and spruce. He glanced at his map.

“We’re heading directly toward the fire. The property should be straight ahead, through these trees,” he shouted to Vin. “We’ll bring the family back this way, and get them to the access road.”

As long as the access road was still viable. If things went south and the road was impassable, they would bring them back to the drop site and call in a chopper. He could hear the roar of the wildfire ahead of them, and several times they encountered small fires that had sprung up from stray embers, carried by the wind. They suppressed those flames on the spot, working quickly to clear away flammable debris, and kick dirt over the embers. Sweat soaked Tyler’s shirt and ran in rivulets down his neck. His eyes burned from the smoke that filled the air, and he swiped the moisture from his face with the back of his gloved hands. They hadn’t even reached the main fire, and already he’d had a good workout.

They continued to push their way through the trees, using their pulaskis and, on one occasion, a chainsaw to cut through the dense forest. The sound of the wildfire grew louder. Through the brush, Tyler could now see the beginning of the property, and what looked like a high, wire fence that ran as far as he could see to either side.

Great. Now, they’d have to cut through the fencing to get to the house. Tyler cursed under his breath. The three men reached the fence line and Tyler stood back, momentarily puzzled. There were actually two wire fences, one inside the other, with a three-foot space separating them.

“What the hell?” Vin peered through the fencing. “Did you see that?”

A dark shadow moved on the other side of the fencing.

“Yeah, looked like a dog,” Ace said.

“Ah, hell.” Vin swore. “I know where we are. That wasn’t a dog—that was a wolf.”

Both Tyler and Ace turned to look at him, and Tyler knew his face showed his astonishment.

“I’ve heard of this place…it’s a wolf sanctuary,” Vin said, swiping a hand across his eyes. “I just didn’t realize it was so far off the beaten path.”

Christ. Wolves. How many were there? And had their enclosure been compromised by the wildfire? Tyler knew enough about wolves to know they preferred to avoid any contact with humans, but with the wildfire almost on top of them, their behavior could be unpredictable. Dangerous.

Perfect. Just when he thought the situation couldn’t get any worse, now he had to worry about wolves.


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Excerpt: Smolder by Tracy Solheim

Posted June 20, 2016 by Rowena in Promotions | 0 Comments

For the next few days, we’ll be featuring the books from the Firefighters of Montana series. Enjoy the excerpts!

Smolder by Tracy Solheim
Firefighters of Montana #1
Releases on June 7, 2016 by Tule Publishing

Former Army Ranger, Sam Gaskill, is starting over in Glacier Creek, Montana – far away from the plains of Texas and the memories of his late wife. Taking charge as the new captain of a squad of smoke jumpers should provide him with enough adrenaline to chase away the ghosts from his past. Until a sexy, green-eyed temptress with a sassy mouth enters the picture…

Laurel Keenan, champion horsewoman, couldn’t wait to escape her hometown. But instead, an ailing mother and an unplanned pregnancy landed the impetuous dreamer right back on her father’s ranch. Laurel has managed to lead a quiet life with her young son—until she sets eyes on the tough guy with the sexy ass.

Sam already failed one woman; he won’t trust his heart with another. And Laurel is determined not to risk her heart—or her son’s—on another thrill-seeker. Can their slow burn lead to a love that lasts?

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A chilly early morning breeze whispered off Flathead Lake, still icy in spots despite the calendar claiming it was springtime. Sam Gaskill cursed his stupidity for not buying a pair of gloves the minute he’d arrived in Glacier Creek. But the locals had all been walking around in shirtsleeves the day before, citing the “balmy” Montana weather. And Sam couldn’t afford to look weak. Not when he had so much to prove.

The lingering layer of snow crunched beneath his boots as he walked around the truck and opened the trailer door. Tabitha glanced over her shoulder, her big brown eyes seeming to plead with him.

“Yeah, I know, honey, we’re not in Texas anymore.” Sam blew on his hands and pulled his leather jacket more tightly around his neck. “But if you believe the weatherman, the snow should be gone in a day or two.”

The mare stomped her foot with a snort. Sam smiled as he reached for the lead rope and attached it to her halter. “Yeah, I don’t put much stock in the reliability of weather forecasters either.” He ran his hand over the palomino’s silky flank in order to sooth her. “But you’re gonna like it here, girl. The pastures all border the lake. And the barn looks warm and comfortable.”

Based upon his initial, quick inspection of the ranch, the state-of-the-art flagstone barn did look inviting—toasty and warm for both horses as well as humans. Despite the early morning hour, the twenty-stall stable was already bustling with activity. Sam heard the sounds of the horses grunting and nickering as their breakfast was being shoveled from a wheelbarrow into waiting feed buckets. A radio belted out a song in Spanish while a groom cheerfully whistled along with the tune. Sam breathed a sigh of relief, feeling better about his decision. If the condition of the facilities and the other horses were anything to go by, Tabitha would be well cared for at Whispering Breeze Ranch.

He unclipped the harness that secured her within the trailer stall. With a soft cluck and a gentle shove on her shoulder, Sam guided the horse backwards down the ramp. Her hooves were loud in the stable yard when they made contact with the metal. Once they’d reached the gravel drive, the good-natured mare lifted her nose in the air as if to assess her surroundings, her blonde mane lifting slightly with the breeze. She jerked her head suddenly at the sound of a low whistle.

“Well, I’ll be damned. She sure is a beauty. Even prettier than her pictures.” Clapping his hands together, Wayne Keenan, the rugged, middle-aged owner of Whispering Breeze, strode from the barn. “I still can’t believe my luck at having the only foal of the great Honey Bun and Honeysuckle boarding here. And she looks just like her mama.” He pulled off a work glove and reverently stroked his fingers down the white blaze on Tabitha’s face. The horse stood proudly, soaking in the attention. “You are a special girl, aren’t you,” Keenan murmured softly. “Bred to be a champion.”

“She looks cold to me,” a young voice said.

Sam turned toward the sliding barn doors where a young boy stood just inside. The child was dressed nearly identical to Keenan, wearing cowboy boots, jeans—baggy on his short, skinny legs—a shearling jacket, and a dark wool Sturgis Stetson that dipped low on his forehead. A black and white Boston terrier wiggled in his arms, yapping excitedly when Sam made eye-contact with it.

“You being the expert on animals that you are, Tyson, you’re probably right.” Keenan winked good-naturedly as he took the lead rope from Sam. “This pretty little filly can’t be used to the cool mountain air. I’ll take her inside and get her some breakfast, captain, while you settle up with the hauler.”
Reluctantly, Sam let the rope slide through his fingers. He was doing what was best for the horse—honoring his late wife’s dream. Still, he wondered if he was simply refusing to let go of the past.

Sam was starting over in a place far away from the plains of Texas and the mountains of Afghanistan. Hell, Montana might as well have been another planet. He didn’t know a soul in Glacier Creek, and he liked it that way. After eleven months, he wouldn’t be encountering pity in the eyes of everyone he met. He could take a breath of the cool mountain air and not taste guilt. But dragging the mare so far from home seemed both cruel and ridiculous. Yet leaving her behind had been unthinkable.

“Hey, mister.” The little boy interrupted his thoughts. “Does your horse like peppermints?”

The trouble with living in a place where no one knew his story—or his deepest secrets—was that people kept getting the facts mixed up. Tabitha was not Sam’s horse. She was, and always would be, Becky’s. The mare had been Sam’s gift to his wife weeks before his second deployment to the Middle East. In their first four years of marriage, he hadn’t been able to give Becky a child. Instead, he’d given her a young horse to keep her company during his long absences. Five years later, the mare was all Sam had left of his wife.

“Yeah, she likes mints.” Sam didn’t bother correcting the boy. It didn’t matter whose horse Tabitha was anymore. For all intents and purposes, she belonged to Wayne Keenan now. Sam was entrusting the renowned rancher with the care and training of his most precious possession. His heartbreaking albatross. “See that you don’t spoil her breakfast, though.”

The pint-sized cowboy continued to stare at him from beneath the brim of his hat until the dog scrambled out of his arms and began circling Sam’s feet.

“Oreo doesn’t like strangers,” the boy declared.

Right on cue, Oreo began growling and lunging at Sam’s boot. Reaching down, Sam grabbed the fifteen pounds of fur by the scruff of the neck and lifted the dog up so that they were nose to nose. Oreo’s big licorice eyes grew even rounder as he squirmed beneath Sam’s grip. Disciplining dogs wasn’t any different from disciplining soldiers—or smokejumpers as he was now paid to do. It was all in the look and the tone of his voice. Sam had mastered both at a very young age. Growing up with a general for a father, he’d had to.

Sam glared at Oreo for a long moment until the terrier settled down with a whimper. “Behave,” was all Sam said before handing the wee beastie off to its owner. Wrapping his arms around the dog, the boy turned on his heel and darted into the safety of the barn.

Great, now I’m scaring kids.

Sam shoved his fingers through his hair, longer today than it had been since he’d entered ROTC in college fourteen years earlier. Between his two sisters, he had five nieces and nephews, the younger two were likely close to the age of the boy who’d just hightailed it away from him. Sam used to be good with kids; the favorite uncle. But that was before war and death had changed him.

He didn’t have time to worry about a child he’d likely rarely see, however. Once Tabitha was settled, Sam could focus on his new job overseeing the forest service station that served as a base to teams of smokejumpers and a search and rescue patrol. He’d be so busy keeping the fifty-some employees of the base in line that he wouldn’t have time to check on the mare too often. That was why he’d selected Whispering Breeze for Tabitha. Keenan had agreed to train her so she was fit to be sold. He hoped her new owners would take the mare to compete in the American Quarter Horse Championship, Becky’s dream for the horse. After that, Tabitha could happily live out her life with new owners as a brood mare. And Sam could move on. If that was even possible.

The driver of the horse trailer carried a hand-tooled, western saddle off the truck and placed it on top of the tack trunk he’d already unloaded. Sam pulled a check out of his wallet and handed it to the hauler. “Thanks for getting her here safely, Jimbo.”

Jimbo adjusted the baseball cap on his head. “Your father-in-law thinks I took that horse to the glue factory months ago.”

Sam felt his jaw grow tight. “It wasn’t the horse’s fault.” He left the words about it being his own fault unsaid because he was pretty sure Jimbo knew that part. Hell, everyone in Belton, Texas, probably thought the same thing. Shaking off the memory, he clapped Jimbo on the shoulder and walked him to the driver’s side of the truck. “I appreciate you keeping her for me.”

“I did it for Becky.” Jimbo’s loyalty was clearly with his late cousin who’d made the crazy decision to marry Sam when everyone else had told her not to. “You ever comin’ back to Texas?”

Glancing up at the range of mountains looming behind the lake, their caps still covered in snow, Sam cleared the boulder from his throat. “Not much to come back to now.”

Jimbo nodded mutely before climbing behind the wheel. His wife’s cousin was no doubt relieved to see the last of Sam. “She never did like the idea of you hurling yourself out of perfectly good airplanes. Not that it matters much now. Still, you take care of yourself, Gaskill.”

Sam shoved his cold hands into the pockets of his jeans as he watched Jimbo maneuver the horse trailer back onto the long drive leading to the highway. The guy was right—it didn’t matter much what happened to Sam now. And if ‘hurling himself out of perfectly good airplanes’ chased away some of the numbness he felt, that was what he’d do. The fact that there’d be fire involved only made the jumps more challenging. And Sam needed something to challenge him—to thrill him—again.

“Truman! No!” Laurel Keenan swatted at the kid goat trying to graze along the counter of her galley kitchen. She shoved Tyson’s lunch into his backpack before her son’s pet could destroy that, too. Grabbing Truman by his collar, she dragged him through the loft apartment she and Tyson shared.

Despite being housed above the stable, the space was cozy and modern thanks to her mother’s talent as an interior designer. High ceilings lined with cherry wood complemented the bleached wood floors and the white stucco walls. The large living/dining area featured an iron chandelier that her mom had scavenged from an old boarding house near Butte. Laurel’s airy bedroom was at one end of the nine-hundred-foot-space while Tyson’s western themed bunk room was at the other end. The apartment was originally intended to be a guest house for visiting riders who came to Whispering Breeze to have their horses trained by Laurel’s mother. But life had a way of messing up even the simplest of plans and now it was home to both Laurel and her son.

“Tyson Campbell Johnson,” she called out as she hauled the goat, her son’s backpack, and her coat down the stairs leading into the barn. “How many times have I told you that you have to keep the door closed so this damn nosy goat will keep his butt out of the loft?”

The familiar scent of leather, liniment, horse, and hay greeted her, along with a suspicious silence. Too bad for her son, the chilly morning air did nothing to cool off her annoyance. Aside from finding a goat nibbling at her breakfast, Tyson’s father had texted saying he needed to speak with Laurel as soon as she’d dropped their son off at kindergarten. Both needed to happen before a very important meeting with her boss in just over an hour.

Oreo let out a little yip at the sight of the goat, but everyone else in the barn stood reverently admiring a gorgeous palomino horse munching on hay in one of the stalls—a palomino that had not been in that stall when Laurel had done the barn’s night check eight hours earlier. Laurel none-too-gently shoved the goat toward the open barn door. “Where did that horse come from?”

Her father fiddled with the piece of straw in his mouth. “Isn’t she a beauty?”

Apprehension fueled Laurel’s annoyance. At twenty-eight, she could read her dad pretty accurately, and her father’s words and demeanor told her he was up to something. “Yes, she is, but that wasn’t the question I asked, Dad. Where did she come from?”

“She came from Texas,” Tyson piped up.

“At seven-thirty in the morning? Did she walk here, then?” It was possible Laurel had missed the sound of a hauler while she was in the shower, but surely her father would have mentioned that he was expecting a horse to board with them; especially one as fine as the doe-eyed mare enjoying breakfast while an audience of worshipful men watched her every move like high school boys at a strip show. Laurel pulled on her puffy jacket to ward off the shivers brought on by both the morning chill and her premonition of trouble.

They hadn’t kept many extra horses since her mother’s health began failing nearly eight years ago. Before then, the ranch had been home to many champion quarter horses her mother had trained and Laurel had competed on. Today, their stock consisted of hearty hacks her father used for guided mountain tours and seasonal trail rides.

“She belongs to him.” Tyson’s mouth took on the familiar mulish look he got when she told the five-year-old he couldn’t buy candy at the grocery store checkout. Her sweet-natured son was usually too friendly with strangers, so his uncharacteristic animosity instantly put Laurel on guard.

She turned in the direction Tyson pointed. Her breath caught in her lungs momentarily at the sight of the tall, well-built man exiting the tack room. Amber eyes locked with hers as he prowled toward the palomino, his boots deceptively silent on the stone floor for a man of his build.

His swagger identified him to Laurel instantly, however. Her cousin’s description of the new captain of Glacier Creek’s forest service station was dead on—broad shoulders, wavy dark hair, perpetual five o’clock shadow, and an arrogant chin. Miranda had left out one crucial detail, though. The guy had a most exceptional ass. Laurel swallowed roughly when he walked past her to pat the horse on its withers.

The new station captain was definitely perpetuating the tough guy persona he’d ridden into town with a week ago. His light leather bomber jacket and well-worn Levis weren’t much of a defense against the crisp morning air in the flatlands. But if he wasn’t complaining, she’d just enjoy the view.

“Laurel, this is Captain Gaskill,” her father said. “An actual captain, as a matter of fact. He just left the army. Those boys over at the forest service base won’t know how to act with a real soldier commanding them.”

She grimaced at her father’s uncharacteristic tactlessness. Russ Edwards, the station’s previous captain, died tragically seven months ago when his parachute clipped a tree during a fire jump. The smokejumpers—as well as most of the town—had taken Russ’s death hard. Laurel’s uncle, Hugh Ferguson, had stepped back into his old job of station captain while the forest service recruited a new commander for the base, but most of the young smokejumpers only knew Hugh as the bartender from their favorite watering hole, The Drop Zone.

Needless to say, discipline and morale had been lacking during the off-season. Two of Laurel’s cousins worked at the station, so she knew the crews all deeply resented the forest service hiring someone from the outside. From what she’d heard, the army captain had his work cut out for him. Laurel almost felt sorry for him.

“And this here”—her father gestured to the mare—“is Tupelo Honey, the foal of Honey Bun and Honeysuckle. She goes by Tabitha in the barn. The captain is going to keep her at the ranch while he’s in Glacier Creek. Aren’t we lucky?”

Laurel didn’t see anything lucky about the arrangement. Her spidey-sense was still telling her there was more to the story.

She let her gaze wander back to the sexy ex-soldier. “So, you ride, captain?”

Sam Gaskill’s chin never moved while his arresting eyes slowly checked out Laurel from head to toe. Pulling her coat more tightly around her, she tried not to let the sensation of being given the once over by a lion scouting out his prey unnerve her. Instead she squared her chin and met the captain’s assessing gaze head on. So much for feeling sorry for the guy.

His lips barely moved. “I don’t.”

“Yet, you own a champion-bred quarter horse?”

“She belonged to my wife.” This time his mouth grew harder, if that was even possible.

“Oh, well, there’s your first mistake. You should have bought her some jewelry or a car so when you split it up you wouldn’t be stuck with something so difficult to pawn.”

He stiffened at her flippant remark and her father let out a beleaguered groan.

“My late wife.” The three words crackled through the frosty air and Laurel felt each one like a slap to the face.

She didn’t bother looking at her dad, who was likely wearing that pained look he always did when she spoke without thinking. Would she never learn? Her mother claimed Laurel had been born without the essential filter that ran from her brain to her mouth. Needless to say, impulsiveness had been Laurel’s downfall on more than one occasion.

Her cheeks were hot and her palms sweaty as she pushed the words out of her mouth. “Forgive me. That was beyond rude.”

A charged silence hovered within the barn as the oblivious mare continued to chew on hay. Laurel forced herself to meet the captain’s eyes. She was surprised to see the pain that was reflected there before he quickly extinguished it. Her stomach quivered in embarrassment.

“I’ve got to get to work,” he said stoically before running a hand along the mare’s sleek back. The intimate gesture brought out an unexpected flush to more than just Laurel’s face.

“Take good care of her. Let me know if you need anything else for her training.” His footsteps sounded much more commanding in retreat, and it wasn’t until Laurel heard the hum of his vehicle making its way along the drive that his last words registered.

“Training? What kind of training was he talking about, Dad?”

Her father shot her a disapproving look, likely left over from when she’d put her foot in her mouth moments earlier. But Laurel refused to let it deter her.

“You did tell the guy that Mom hasn’t trained a horse in years, didn’t you? He knows that she’s in a wheelchair and doesn’t ride anymore, right, Dad?”

Her father shoved his hat back on his head and squeezed at his temple. “I’m not some snake oil salesman, Laurel. Of course I told him all that.”

Laurel slapped her hands on her denim-clad thighs in exasperation. “Then why did you tell him we were going to train his horse?”

“Because we are!” His bellowed words echoed off the stone walls, startling the mare and sending the grooms scurrying back to work. Tyson looked on wide-eyed while Oreo let out a whimper.

Laurel felt as though the barn was spinning. “Who do you mean when you say ‘we’?” Although, she had a sinking feeling she already knew the answer to her question.

“You!” Her father pulled his hat off his head and dragged his long fingers through his shaggy silver hair. “I mean you, Laurel.”

Staggering back a step, she nearly tripped over Tyson’s backpack. “You can’t be serious? I don’t know the first thing about training a horse. That’s Mom’s talent. I just ride them. What possibly made you think I could—or would—do it?”

“For crying out loud, Laurel, the man’s wife is dead.” His voice trailed off as he stared past the barn door toward the house across the gravel drive where her mother likely waited to share breakfast with him. The barn was tense and quiet for a moment before her father swallowed fiercely, his fingers tightening on the brim of his hat. “She’d raised the horse from a foal and it was her dream to see it compete at the highest level.”

The captain’s wife had been a horsewoman like her mother then. That familiar fear that always gripped her when she thought of her mother dying added to the anxiety that already had Laurel on edge. Josephine Keenan had always been larger than life. Not only was she a popular designer for many of the stars who had vacation homes in the region, but her mother had served as the town’s elected mayor for eight years. She was a vibrant fixture in Glacier Creek until fate had intervened. Her mom’s multiple sclerosis was stable, her prognosis cautiously optimistic, but Laurel knew how quickly circumstances—and life—could change. From the looks of it, so did her father.

“Tyson.” She pushed out around the tightening in her chest. “Take Oreo up to the house and say good morning to your grandma. I’ll be up in a minute to drive you to school.” She reached down and handed her son his backpack. Tyson eyed his grandfather before wisely slipping out of the barn. Truman fell into step behind him.

“Is there something you’re not telling me, Dad,” she asked as soon as Tyson and his menagerie had cleared the door. “Something about Mom?”

Her father swore under his breath. “No, of course not.”

“Then why would you commit me to training a man’s horse?

“The captain’s wife already trained the damn horse, Laurel. You’re welcome to watch the videos.” He reached out and patted the horse’s neck. “She just needs some fine tuning so he can sell the animal. Two, maybe three months at the max.”

“Two to three months?” Laurel gasped. “Dad, even if I thought I knew how to ‘tune up’ a horse to the caliber this one needs to be, where am I going to find the time? I work full-time. I help out here at the ranch, and I’m studying for my CPA, remember?”

Her father finally turned so his brown eyes met hers head-on. Her breath caught at the vulnerability she saw in them. “I already hired an extra hand to help out on the trail rides and the overnights so you’d have more time to study. He starts next week.”

His words surprised her. Up until now, he’d been dismissive regarding her ability to become an accountant. Laurel was the first to agree the career didn’t naturally fit with her personality, but she was quick with numbers and the work provided an adequate challenge for her impulsive brain. Not only that, but she had a son to support—without her parents’ help. Unfortunately, her father’s opinion led to a great deal of self-doubt on her own part. His willingness to help her out now, in spite of the motivation behind that support, wasn’t something she could easily dismiss.

“The days are getting longer,” he continued. “I thought that maybe you could work with the horse in the evenings. Your mom could come out and watch while it’s still warm from the sun. It could be just like old times; her coaching you from the rail.” His voice broke slightly and Laurel felt it reverberate deep within her chest cavity. “I don’t think the captain is expecting miracles, honey. But I know both he and your mother would get something from it. The man was deployed in a war zone three times. He deserves our respect and whatever help we can give. And your mom. . .well, she deserves something to look forward to every day.”

Laurel didn’t know how to respond to her father. The morning had been a tsunami of anxious emotions already and she wasn’t sure how she felt about anything. She opened her mouth to say what, she had no idea, when Tyson came charging back into the barn.

“Mom, the big hand is on the twelve and the little hand is on the eight. We need to get to school. Miss Ivy said she’d let me turn on the computers and iPads today!”

Her father cleared his throat before putting his hat back on his head. “Well then, we’d better get you loaded up into your car seat. We don’t want Miss Ivy giving your special job to anyone else.” He gave Laurel’s arm a squeeze as he passed her. “Just think about it, Laurel. For once, give the situation time to settle before you react.”

He followed Tyson out of the barn, leaving her alone with the mare and enough guilt to swallow her whole. The horse eyed Laurel warily as she approached.

“You are a looker, I’ll give you that,” she said softly while the mare continued to crunch on her hay. Laurel pulled a mint out of her coat pocket and let it rest in her flat palm. The palomino hesitated coyly before sniffing Laurel’s fingers and finally taking the mint with a lick of her hand. Releasing a resigned sigh, Laurel patted the horse’s nose. “We’ll just take it one day at a time and see what happens.”

The horn on her beat-up Land Cruiser sounded as she gave the mare a final pat. “Gotta go. Tyson loves school and it makes him impatient in the mornings. Boys can be such a pain.” The horse snorted. “Your guy, too, huh?” Laurel said, sarcastically. “Hmm, I never would have guessed.” With a quick check to see if the stall door was secure, Laurel headed out of the barn to get on with her already crazy day.


About the Author


Tracy’s creative writing career started in the fourth grade when she published her first book. It was a bestseller–mainly because her dad bought all ten copies. From there, she moved on to work for NBC Sports and then to writing reports and testimony for Congress.

Today, Tracy is the author of best selling contemporary romance novels featuring hot football players and the women who love them.

She lives in Georgia, with her husband, two nearly adult children, and a horse named after her first novel: Game On.

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