Chapter 1 – Hero
Nine Years Later
The heel of my hiking boot skidded ten feet down the slick embankment before I managed to stop. At least I stayed on my feet—oof. I slipped a second time and slid another six feet on my ass, which was now muddy and soaked.
Great. Just perfect.
I lurched back to standing. A bolt of lightning followed instantly by a crack of thunder meant being exposed. Cold rain pelted my head and shoulders, and every drop registered through my hooded, waterproof jacket. The sudden summer cloudburst turned the already muddy soil of the mountain to the consistency of a soggy bar of soap. The kind that slid out of grasp and had to be chased around the tub while leaving slick remains in its wake.
I needed to find a place to take cover until the storm passed. There were trees taller than me to get hit by lightning, but I wasn’t stupid. I needed shelter, and now. The trouble was, the closest place belonged to Ford Ledger.
God, Ford. The guy I’d been stupid over when I was eighteen. Who’d embarrassed me. No, I’d done a really impressive job of that all on my own. My own tattered pride was the reason I was debating whether to step foot on his land, even in a flash storm.
Yeah, it had been that bad. He was the extremely hot but jerky best friend of my brother, David. Or better known by his friends as Buck. Ford was the last guy on Earth I wanted to ask for or accept help from. His grandmother might be there. She’d let me in with open arms and dry clothes, but I couldn’t risk it. Not if it meant seeing or dealing with Ford. So there was no chance in hell I’d show up at his door. Not even if the mountain turned into a volcano and erupted.
Sparks was a small town, but somehow I’d managed to avoid Ford in the months since he retired from combat to do God-knows-what on his land. That was because I would’ve rather frozen to death than have a one-on-one conversation with him. I didn’t need to be told off and turned away. Again.
I slid again. I was completely off-trail now, and getting back to the path and following it probably wasn’t my best bet. It was a ninety-minute hike without any cover to the trailhead where I parked. Not even a rocky outcropping to shelter beneath.
I looked down the mountainside toward Ford’s property through the pouring rain. It was hard to see, but there was an old greenhouse, one I never remembered. Although the one time I’d been to his house, I’d been more interested in his bedroom than anywhere else on the huge property. I could hole up in the greenhouse until the storm passed. I wasn’t the first Montanan to seek refuge from a neighbor.
I hunched my shoulders against the wind and rain and changed the angle of my descent, picking my footholds carefully to avoid more sliding and slipping. A lot of good it did me. I spilled three more times before I reached the property line. The barbed wire on the low fence looked new and aggressive like it was built for more than just keeping stray cattle in or out. Going to the nearest post, I braced on it as I climbed the strands of taut wire. Even taking great care, I ripped my pants climbing over it.
“Fuck,” I muttered, wiping rain off my nose and setting off again.
I made it to the greenhouse—which was also in better repair than I expected—and tested the door. It was locked.
“Seriously?” I said to no one.
Who locked a greenhouse? I might hate the guy, but I’d known Ford my whole life. Sure, the only time I’d seen him since that fateful, naked night years ago was at Buck’s memorial. Pot was legal to grow now, but I couldn’t imagine Ford or his grandmother cultivating plants that had to be kept safe from theft. What was the guy up to? A lock only meant one thing. He was shady. Like Buck, whose last actions as a SEAL were supposedly less than heroic. Hell, they said he’d murdered someone.
I pushed that thought away like usual because I didn’t want to think about the shit that we were told about my brother. The things he couldn’t answer. Because he was dead.
Dropping my backpack on the ground, I grabbed the multipurpose tool I always carried. I tried to jimmy the lock, but after several frustrating wet attempts I couldn’t get it. Finding a rock, I smashed a low window and used it to clear the remaining shards. Grabbing my bag and shoving it through the opening, I then hoisted myself through next and tumbled inside.
Christ, I was wet.
I left a puddle which only grew larger as I shook like a Golden Retriever to get the water off my jacket. My hiking pants were soaked through, despite being made of water-wicking material. They were no competition against thisa rainstorm. My boots, well, they were at least five pounds heavier than normal and caked with mud.
I was a mountain guide, used to things like this, but it didn’t make being soggy and cold any more pleasant. Thankfully, I didn’t have to paste on a smile for paying tourists. Tell them that a little rain made a vacation more memorable. I glanced around. “What the hell?” I whispered to myself.
There weren’t any plants. The space had been converted into a gym. A gym like at a fancy hotel. Two treadmills and a rowing machine were at one end. Racks held free weights, and in the corner were neatly placed kettlebells. The floor wasn’t concrete but a grid of cushioning rubber. A giant punching bag hung over the mats on one end.
I glanced up at the glass ceiling, and all I saw was pounding rain. Who knew how long this spring storm would last. I had no intention of putting in a few miles on a treadmill; I had the wilderness outside for that. Except I couldn’t sit here in my wet clothes while I waited for the weather to pass. Before the front came in, it had been in the high seventies, and thankfully, the glass kept the space balmy. I sighed, then shivered, even though it was warm.
“Sorry, Ford,” I muttered as I toed off the muddy boots. Nah, I wasn’t sorry. Getting his fancy home gym muddy wasn’t close to what I’d had in mind for getting even after all these years.
I would’ve been lying, though, if I pretended there wasn’t a part of me that didn’t want to stick it to him a bit after what he’d done to me. Okay, what I’d done to him, but either way, “the incident” had left a big scar on my confidence—and heart—and created enough shame to pretty much ruin sex for me. It didn’t make me any less horny, because I’d seen Ford at the grocery store a few months ago. Yeah, I’d hid behind a display of canned peaches, but I’d seen him. He’d changed since the night I offered up my virginity to him on a platter. Back then, he’d been a focused SEAL, all sharp edges and precision. At the funeral, he’d looked older. Weary. The gloss had been gone, but I hadn’t paid him all that much attention. But in the pasta aisle? His dark hair had been longer. He had a dang beard like he was settling in well to mountain life, which somehow made me all kinds of aroused.
He still had sharp edges, but they were honed now. As if his focus was laser-sharp.
It made me wonder what all that intensity was like in bed.
Those thoughts were why I was hiding in his greenhouse gym instead of knocking on his front door. I wasn’t going to be denied twice. In the same place.
I removed my jacket and stripped off the wet hiking pants. At least my t-shirt and panties were dry. That was about all, though. I hopped on one foot, then the other, to take off my wet socks. They weren’t going to be fun to put back on, but I’d worry about that later.
The pounding of the rain on the plastic roof must’ve drowned out all other sound because I had no idea I was no longer alone until a deep, all-too-painfully familiar voice rumbled behind me.
I jumped a foot and screamed, then spun around.
There, standing in jeans and a soggy black shirt was an older, broader, bigger Ford Ledger. And he was holding a gun. He ran a hand over his mountain man beard as he raked his gaze over every inch of me.
“You have a real habit of taking your clothes off and making yourself at home where you don’t belong.”