Smoke and Fire Sneak Peek

Chapter One

 

The growing plume of smoke on the horizon behind Pineville did not give me any warm fuzzies. A wildfire in the mountains was not how I wanted to start the week, and it certainly didn’t lend much hope for an easy, low-key time in the mountains.

To that end, the romance book sprawled open on the counter behind me also did not give me warm fuzzies. Far worse.

It gave me butterflies.

“Fantastic,” I muttered darkly.

The last thing I needed right now was a romance novel. One that I actually liked. It only made my bad mood even worse. The water heater in my RV failed this morning, which certainly didn’t help my wrathful disposition. Not to mention a plastic taste in the water, which meant a filter had probably gone out. Yesterday, thanks to a deranged Lizbeth on a book bender, I’d forgotten to stock up on milk, so I had no breakfast at home. My alarm had gone off twenty minutes late, which meant I barely managed to change out of my PJ’s before stumbling into work.

The whole smeared-mascara-messy-bun appearance would have to cut it today.

I shoved another romance book onto the shelf on the far wall of the Frolicking Moose Coffee Shop and reached for the final one. Lizbeth had pulled off ten different books as other romantic suggestions for you to get started in the genre, Dahlia. Because we aren’t cave people here. We recognize romance as a powerful force in this world, so get reading already.

I eyed the last book warily. She’d been so serious when she said that. I’d cracked a smile that had slowly deflated, like a dying balloon, when I realized she’d been serious.

Dead. Serious.

She actually believed in romance. That romance made wonderful things happened—instead of terrible things. Instead of pain and loss and mourning and . . . separation. An uncomfortable feeling grew inside me, like my stomach was lined with itchy wool. I shoved the encroaching thoughts away when the smoke plume drew my gaze again.

Speaking of actual powerful forces . . .

Should I call that fire in, or something?

Lizbeth’s chatter filled my brain again when I shoved the last romance book back onto the shelf, and prayed she wouldn’t actually ask me for a full, written review of the novel she’d all but shoved into my chest yesterday.

There will be a report tomorrow. She’d pointed a finger at me, as stern as I’d ever seen her before. Don’t think you can fake your way through this book. I know it inside and out, and the rest of the series, too.

Instead, I turned my back to the smoke plume and faced the book that waited for me on the counter.

I frowned at it.

“What,” I muttered, “am I going to do with you?”

Historical is the way to go if you have any love of untouchable men from the past, Lizbeth had said with all the efficiency of a librarian while she searched through her bag to find this particular book. I can talk about Jamie Fraser all day, but until you read his brogue, it’s nothing. Plus, you can’t go wrong with Regency. I mean all that sexual tension wrapped up in subdued societal expectations of physical touch between men and women? I swoon just thinking about it.

She’d shuddered then, and that’s when I had realized just how in-over-my-head I’d become. When the ten historical romance novels she’d suggested went unread for two weeks, she finally figured out I hated history—on any level, I loved to forget history—then she’d immediately squealed with joy.

My hope to extricate from her romantic obsession immediately disappeared.

Then you must read Jess! It’s fate.

She’d nodded firmly once, as if that cemented it, then shoved five books at me.

No one knows who she is, but she. is. brilliant. She doesn’t write with a last name, only has a Twitter profile but nothing else, never runs ads, never appears on social media, and tops the romance charts every. stinking. month. She has twenty novels in one series and I’ve made it through the first eight for the tenth time in the last four days. Start at the beginning with Life is a Freaking Dream.

Leery again of just how much I liked Life is a Freaking Dream after only 100 pages, I meandered back to the counter and stared at splayed cover.

In all fairness, at least Life is a Freaking Dream didn’t have giant, heaving bosoms and a man with a chest so chiseled it looked like a painted sculpture. The subtle, text-based front had stylistic scrollwork with a mixture of contemporary and Victorian that drew my attention. To be honest, the cover reminded me of my favorite cousin, Tabitha. And I liked Tabitha, and I did like Lizbeth when she wasn’t on a maniacal book bender, so gave this book a chance.

Now I didn’t want to put it down.

“Sorry,” I whispered to the book. “I’m sorry. I love you, I just don’t want to love you because you’re not real and I don’t want hope. Hope sucks. And the reality never matches up to the book and romance leads down dark paths and . . .” I shrank smaller, poking it with my index finger and a gentle, “Sorry.”

The book folded back together, probably in protest of my rejection, and sat there with a silent little huff of annoyance.

My gaze slid back to the horizon through the front windows of the Frolicking Moose Coffee Shop.

Now that ugly column was a reality I could focus on.

My brow grew heavy. I’d been in and out of the mountains around Pineville every summer since I was six, but I’d never seen a plume of smoke that thick, that dark, and that close. The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

Fire.

I shuddered.

In the thick mountains that wrapped around Pineville like long, evergreen arms, fires were portent to disaster. The bigger the smoke plume, the greater the pit in my stomach. Pineville had just become my home. I’d finally parked my travel trailer in a place with actual electricity and water hook ups.

I was not leaving.

So I pointed to the smoke with a firm growl. It deserved a good scolding.

“You stay over there.” Then I jabbed a thumb to the espresso machine, near where I stood behind the coffee shop bar. “I’ll stay here. We’re square. Got it? Capeesh? Understood? I may live in an RV, but I don’t need to be uprooted again so soon, okay? I’m here to stay . . . all winter!”

The plume shifted ever-so-slightly in the wind.

“That’s what I thought,” I muttered, and turned my back to it and the book. The book stared at me while I bustled around, ignoring its existence. Surely not thinking about Amalia and Rodrigo, or whether Rodrigo would return home from the war and understand the real depths of Amalia’s love for him.

“By heavens, Rodrigo!” I cried, unable to help myself. “She bloody loves you, man. Get over your own pride!”

And I snatched the book off the counter to dive back into it.

Lost in the swirls of unrealistic romance, but I couldn’t peel myself away from my if even my boss Bethany popped in. I forgot about the shop. No one wandered in for a coffee, and I didn’t move from my position.

Until, twenty minutes later, a green bus-like truck pulled up outside, parking near the edge of the lot. The words ROCKY HOTSHOTS had been painted across the top in black letters.

With a sigh, I shoved a napkin into the pages and set the book aside. Rodrigo and his fiery kisses would have to wait.

Outside, grungy men spilled out of the strangely-colored bus in matching yellow jackets, green pants, and haggard expressions. They huddled together in a meeting while the bus hissed and turned off. I watched them from behind the counter and played my favorite game.

Match the drink with the drinker.

“Definitely a cappuccino for that guy,” I murmured, eyeing a tall, lanky figure with a scraggly beard that looked as if it’d been set to flame on one side. “Straight coffee for the other. Black, no creamer, one sugar for Mr. Short-and-Scrumptious.”

The concoctions amused me until the HotShots climbed back into the bus and left. Bemused, I forced myself away from the book to do the maintenance log on the fridge and a few checks. Dagny would be in to take the next shift, and I would not be caught derelict on duties while reading a romance novel.

Less than two minutes later, I’d grabbed the book and fallen face-first back into Amalia and Rodrigo.

The crack of the door brought me out of my reverie. My gaze darted to the clock—it had been thirty minutes!—as the door jangled open. With a squeak, I whirled around to face the front of the shop and shoved the book off to the side.

“Welcome to—”

The words died on my lips.

A pair of stormy eyes peered at me from an angular face.

One of the HotShots.

A rough beard streaked with brown and hints of blonde drew my gaze to a strong neck and shoulders. The smell of smoke entered the room with him. None of that startled me. Not even the obnoxiously yellow shirt, muted by layers of grime and filth, or the dark green camp pants. A wildland firefighter, clearly. No doubt called here to that nasty plume of smoke that had—albeit slightly—widened in the past hour so that I’d been drooling over Rodrigo again.

The expression of panic in the Hotshots eyes, despite a casual, put-together mein, arrested me almost completely.

That wasn’t normal.

“—the Frolicking Moose,” I finished.

What could possibly have a man like him look terrified like that? He shifted forward and I noticed a computer under his left arm for the first time. When he spoke, it seemed to rumble in his chest.

“Internet.”

I tilted my head to the said. Wait . . . what? What was that? A caveman request? It wasn’t even a question. Peeved now that I’d been pulled from Rodrigo for this—even if he was smoky hot—I countered.

“Coffee shop.”

He frowned. His gaze dropped to the countertop, as if seeking something, then landed on the book. The muscles around his lips tightened.

I bristled.

Great. He was going to judge me to be a simpering woman that read romance novels at work. That would put me into a label and a category without knowing me at all or the truth behind my life and who I was. The judgment already built up in his gaze, like a gathering storm. Oh, that’s exactly what I saw in his a-little-too-attractive face right now. Condemnation.

Judgment.

For the most part, I liked almost everyone I met. It’s why a coffee shop in a small mountain town near the end of summer ended up being an ideal job. Something about this tough guy, however, set my teeth on edge. Definitely wasn’t that masculine appeal.

Nope. Not that.

He scowled. “I need to use the internet.”

“Okay.”

Utter silence followed, and I felt his annoyance deepen in the weighty pause.

“If you are asking,” I drawled to his obnoxious quiet, “if we have internet, the answer is yes. Hot and cold running water too, if you like that kind of modern upgrade, but the outhouse is out back if you need it. Password is on the board.”

If possible, his frown deepened.

Tough crowd.

Time to get this guy out of here, so I slapped on my brightest smile. The kind that almost crackled with the underlayer of tension within it. He seemed to notice as well, because his gaze darkened.

“What can I get you to drink?” I asked, just to get rid of him.

“Coffee. Straight.”

I choked back a laugh. My Match the Drinker game had been absolutely spot on—like always.

He turned to head toward a table. “And protein.”

I opened my mouth to clarify that, but decided not to. No reason to force him to outdo his quote of words for the day. I bet he operated his life with fewer than twenty words per day.

Instead, I grabbed a cheese-and-sausage bagel, a mug off our wall collection with a picture of a scowling cat on it—oddly apropos—and slung coffee into it. By the time I worked my way to his table with requested nourishment, he had his laptop open and had sunk deeper into his foul mood.

I set it down, eager to sneak away without a word, but then he grabbed my wrist. The burn of his skin against went all the way to my bones.

And I knew that everything had just changed.

 

I am so exited to share Dahlia and Bastian's romance in SMOKE & FIRE. This one holds a special part of my heart – you know what they say... authors leave pieces of them in what they write. 

Click here to preorder your copy! 

Coming October 22, 2021!