Smokejumper Dak Parrish has come home to Oregon to fight fires—and to mend fences with his family. He left the Warm Springs Tribal Reservation after feuding with his father. Now, with tribal lands threatened by an arsonist, Dak gets a chance to make amends by acting as a liaison between the reservation and the forest service criminal investigator—a woman who sparks a surprising and hungry flame in him.
After a trauma on the east coast, Heidi Sinclair left DC to start fresh as a criminal investigator in Oregon. But her first serious investigation provides one stubborn obstacle after another—including an arrogant firefighter she suspects knows more than he's saying. Though she tries to battle her attraction to Dak, it’s too late. As they track down the arsonist, someone will do whatever it takes to keep old secrets buried, even if it turns everything Heidi and Dak have fought for to ashes . . .
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Post-wildfire tired was a bone deep kind of exhaustion.
Dak dropped his gear on the floor of the equipment room in the Redmond Air Center. It was dirty and so was he. He needed a shower, some food, and a night in his own bed. Thinking about his Egyptian cotton sheets, he grinned. He wasn't much on creature comforts, but good sheets were the exception to that rule.
It wasn't that this jump had been longer or more physically demanding than any of his others. They'd only been on the fire for four days, pretty standard. No, this one had been difficult because it had stretched along the border of the Warm Springs Reservation, only miles from the home where he'd grown up. Being that close to his mother yet so far away ...
It weighed on him.
He yanked his nasty T-shirt over his head and sank onto the bench next to his smelly things. Burying his hands in his hair, he closed his eyes and let his shoulders droop. He would write her again. He'd write her as often as it took, until he got through. Eventually, she'd give in, get back in touch with him.
Twelve years of silence wasn't something he could undo. But she had to be able to get past that eventually, right? She was his mother.
He'd waited too long. His life in California had been full, though, not muddied by his family's dysfunction. He'd worked helitack there, and it was everything he'd ever expected out of a rewarding job. While some of his twenty-something teammates partied a lot, he mostly hung out with his few good friends, surfing and biking.
There had been no appeal to leaving the simplicity in California and returning to his family's chaos.
Two things happened last year to drive him back to Oregon, though. His mother had been hospitalized and his friend Lance Roberts decided to sign up to be a smokejumper at Redmond. The first — his mother's heart attack — led him to follow his friend back, to sign up to jump as well. It had been time to go home.
But even after all these months, she still wouldn't see him.
At one point on the job yesterday, as he dug into the line alongside the other smokejumpers and hotshot crew members, he scanned the valley, soaking in the familiar scenery of the reservation. The ache of it had stolen the oxygen from the air worse than the fire.
She was there, down the ridge. How was she feeling? Had she had any other setbacks? He didn't know, because all his overtures to find out about her health had been met with silence by her, his father, and his brother.
Maybe he should go, show up at the house and try to see her. He'd avoided that until now, because there was a good chance he'd be met with a slamming door. Nothing would anger his father worse than a scene. But maybe that's what needed to happen, because waiting for them to give in wasn't working.
Tomorrow. After some rest and food. He'd come up with some new plan to get through to her.
Decided, he tossed his shirt on the ground with the rest of his dirty laundry.
Every muscle in his tired body stilled. He closed his eyes. What were the chances that he had conjured up the man who possessed that voice? Maybe he was hallucinating. He glanced up.
His father stood ten feet away, his arms crossed over his chest, stretching his custom suit jacket. His presence made the room smaller. The air center housed a number of Forest Services groups, training facilities, and the Redmond hotshot team as well as his group of smokejumpers. In short, it was the home of a whole bunch of outdoorsy people who weren't afraid of physical labor.
His dad did not fit in.
Dak remained motionless, determined not to reveal anything to this man, the antagonist of his youth. "Father."
As if sensing that his son didn't plan to give him an opening, Lyle Parrish glanced down at Dak's gear. "You worked the fire on the ridge, the one that stretched onto the reservation."
Dak only nodded. If seventeen years living with his father had taught him anything, it was that he wouldn't be rushed. When Lyle was ready to get to the point, he would. Dak waited.
"You there at the beginning?"
He jerked his head again. He'd been one of the original jumpers at this fire, there as soon as the report of the burn had reached them.
"Good. Then you can help."
"Can I, now?" Though there wasn't anything funny, Dak laughed. Shaking his head, he returned to his bag, sorting through his things, unable to look at his father's arrogant face. "No, 'How have you been?' or 'Your mother's doing fine.' Hell, even a congratulations for making the smokejumper team would be more appropriate. Instead, just 'I need your help.'" He turned, giving his father his back. The guy was really something.
"I didn't say I needed your help. I said that you could help. And, considering everything, I would say that you need my help."
Dak motioned toward the corner of the equipment room, where they could talk out of direct hearing of his colleagues. Even now, the remaining few jumpers milling around were casting him curious looks. Another life lesson via his father? Their conversations were best not overheard.
After his father followed him and he was sure they had more privacy, Dak snorted. "I need your help?" He barely stifled another laugh. He'd forgotten how his father could turn things around, twist reality until it was barely recognizable. Standing, he crossed his arms over his own chest, mirroring his father's stance. "You're here, in my place of business. You sought me out."
"You haven't been trying to reconnect with your mother? That's not your goal?" His father's brow raised, reminiscent of the tribe leaders of generations past, his ancestors. "If it is, then you do need this chance."
Dak hadn't been in a room with his father in over a decade, but the clenching in his back teeth brought him back to conversations from the past. "And what chance would that be?"
"The investigator from the Forest Services, she wants to look into the fire, work with the tribal law enforcement. You can act as a liaison. You understand the culture, how the tribe operates. This agent, she's new. She needs guidance. You'll be able to give that to her."
"I'm a smokejumper. I fight the fires. I don't investigate them."
"Didn't you work closely with the law enforcement in California? Don't you have an interest in the forensics of burns? This won't be much different."
It shouldn't surprise Dak that his father would know any of this. Of course he'd kept tabs on him, even if he didn't want anything to do with him. A wealthy land developer, he had connections on the Warm Springs Tribal Council and in the different federal agencies up and down the western coast.
What frustrated him the most was that his father was right. He found the process of determining what caused forest fires fascinating. He sought experts in the field, went along during investigations when they would allow it, and listened. Even now, the opportunity to find out more about this fire was a siren's song.
Still, he hesitated. Because if his father wanted him involved, he had his own motives. And though Dak wanted to reconnect with his mother, he didn't want to fall into the spider web that had been his past relationship with his father.
So he hedged. "My job here ... I can't abandon my position and involve myself in a Forest Services investigation."
"I already spoke with the base manager. Mr. Mitchell? Mitch?" His father glanced toward Mitch's office, a small room off where the jumpers kept their gear. "Nice guy. Seems to grasp the tribe's concerns here."
"Now you act for the tribe? I didn't know you were on the council." Then again, he'd been gone long enough for his father to weasel his way into the inner workings of tribal government.
"I'm not. But they listen to me."
So he hadn't taken a position on the council. Not really a shock, either. He'd probably been offered one, but that would require that he govern. His father wouldn't want that responsibility, only the perks of the job. Apparently his money bought that for him. All the influence, none of the accountability.
"Wait." Dak narrowed his eyes. "You cleared removing me from my position with my boss without even consulting me?" The fury in his voice vibrated despite his attempts to keep his voice low.
His father snorted. "Don't be dramatic. I didn't remove you from anything. I only asked that you be permitted to do this public relations work for the tribe in addition to your other tasks here."
"Of course you did." Only his father could make signing him up for a second job sound like an honor. "Why should I do this? I've been back in Oregon for months now, tried to get in touch with Mother, and nothing. You want me to believe that if I do this — help some new Forest Services Special Agent — that you'll let me talk to her now? Excuse me but I don't trust you."
None of his father's features changed, but something in his eyes chilled. The familiar sickening in his gut returned as if no time had passed. That hardening in his eyes reminded him of the day he'd fled Warm Springs.
"You don't talk to me like that." His father's voice was low and threatening. "You do this, and you can see your mother. Defy me, and you'll never talk to her again."
There was the father he remembered, the one who wielded ultimatums like swords.
Dak wanted to tell him to go fuck himself. He didn't want to play these games anymore. That was a promise he'd made himself all those years ago, after he'd moved to California. That his father would never control him again. But if he wanted to see his mom, he'd need to play along, at least for now.
"Fine. Let me know when I need to meet this agent." He rolled his eyes and headed back to his stuff, the exhaustion heavier now. "I'll do whatever you want."
"Now. You meet her now." His father strode toward Mitch's office, threw open the door, and waved him inside.
Dak glanced down. There would be no use in explaining that he wasn't dressed for this. That a professional introduction required a shower. That he was completely drained after working a fire and barely sleeping. His dad wouldn't care about any of that. So, apparently, grimy Carhartt pants and exhaustion would have to work. He snagged his last fresh T-shirt out of his pack, and followed his father toward the base manager's office, already regretting whatever mess his father was about to drag him into.
* * *
"The other investigator will be here tomorrow. I can wait for him to accompany me." Heidi Sinclair did her best to keep her voice calm, but since she'd already said the same thing two other times, she sounded irritated.
Because she was irritated.
"There's no need to wait, Special Agent Sinclair —"
"And I told you already, Mr. Kirk, please," she said with her sweetest smile, "call me Heidi." He was flustered, and she was enjoying it more than she wanted to admit.
"Heidi, then." Dusty Kirk, the smarmy sergeant from the Warm Springs police department, offered her a sick return grin. Though she'd met a lot of amazing people in Oregon since she'd moved there in the spring, Kirk wasn't one of them. The other police officers she worked with from Warm Springs had been helpful, knowledgeable. Kirk was a worm: no spine and a bit slimy. "The smokejumper that Mr. Shepard," he motioned to the man from the Warm Springs fire management team, "and Mr. Mitchell here at RAC have in mind is no ordinary firefighter. Mr. Parrish grew up on the reservation and now he's a Forest Services smokejumper. He's also spent time working with fire investigations in California, before he came to us here in Redmond. He's in a unique and beneficial situation for all involved. He's familiar with the area and as part of the Forest Services he's exactly the right person to accompany you. The longer an investigation takes to begin, the more chance for scene contamination. This way, you both can go there today."
"As you know, Heidi, you can't go to the scene of a wildland fire by yourself." Mr. Mitchell, the base manager, motioned to a stack of papers on his desk. The manual that laid out procedures for wildland fire origin investigations. "It's against interagency safety protocol. The guide states that a firefighter can accompany you. Mr. Parrish is a smokejumper, one of the best firefighters out there."
Mr. Shepard nodded. "And as a member of the Warm Springs tribe, Mr. Parrish is able to provide tribal assistance as well."
They were right. The longer it took to start, the more chance for the scene to change. But, they were really pushing this fireman on her. She didn't like what that might mean.
Though she didn't want to admit, this would be the first investigation she managed alone. She'd hoped to have another investigator present. She had worked with the investigator she replaced, had studied wildland fire patterns and investigation procedures. Add that to the five years she'd spent working her way up in the DEA, and she was ready. But it never hurt to have backup. "Just for today? To get an initial assessment, then tomorrow I'll take the other investigator."
"Absolutely." Mitch leaned back in his chair. "I've already cleared the investigator's arrival tomorrow."
"Well, then, if Mr. Parrish is going to tag along while I do my job, so be it."
"Dak." A new voice cut in from the door. "My father here is Mr. Parrish." The deep timbre sent shivers to places she'd been trying to forget existed inside her. They were the places that missed male company and physical touch.
Stupid, girly places.
Turning, she discovered that the rest of him was as sexy as his voice. Framed by the doorway, he was a mass of cut male physique, over six feet tall. And his eyes were gorgeous. A light brown whiskey color and rimmed by long lashes, they were so pretty, they were almost feminine. The high cheekbones didn't help. But the strong jaw and broad shoulders corded with muscle ruined the effect. No one would call this man feminine.
Broad, bare shoulders. Why the hell wasn't he wearing a shirt? And why the hell did she have to notice?
Kirk rolled his eyes, exhaling. "It's not tagging along. Special Agent Sinclair — Heidi," he allowed, glancing at her again.
Shrugging into the gray T-shirt he'd brought with him, Dak didn't seem to be paying attention to Kirk. She couldn't focus either, distracted by the play of muscles along his big chest.
As her gaze met his, a zing of connection reverberated between them. Surely it had affected him, too. Proving her point, the right side of his lips tilted up, revealing a hint of straight white teeth. That halfway grin. The lace of heat in her gut reminded her that it had been way too long.
Well, she didn't have the emotional bandwidth for that kind of sexy right now. To be honest, she might never have that in her again.
But, she could act professionally. Her job, her work, that's what she had. Inhaling shakily, she extended her hand. "I'm Special Agent Heidi Sinclair. Call me Heidi."
He extended his hand, the muscles along his arms and chest flexing. Not that she noticed.
His fingers engulfed hers. "Dak Parrish. Your tagalong." The corner of his mouth turned up again. He'd heard her, then. If she was the sort to be embarrassed about stuff like that, she would be. But she wasn't. So she grinned back.
"Exactly. You're tagging along, so I can get a quick assessment. You're here because they want you here."
Tension exploded into the silence. If she was the kind of girl who cared about awkwardness — she wasn't — it might have bothered her.
Dak Parrish's eyebrows lifted, and his lips twitched again. "Noted."
"Fine." She was proud that she kept her eyes trained on his.
"Yes." He folded his arms over his chest. "Fine."
"Then we are in agreement. My son will accompany you to the point of origin today for your initial pictures and reports." The man who had come in with Dak was dressed too smoothly, everything too neat and perfect, even his smile. His voice was imperious, like a king visiting the masses. This was a man who was used to getting his way, someone who got things done. Heidi disliked him immediately.
Lyle Parrish. This guy was super-hot, looked-good-in-dirt-and-smelling- like-smoke guy's dad.
Bottom line: this was her job. She worked for the Forest Services, and part of that included maintaining good relations with the local communities, including the tribal ones. So, fine. If everyone wanted her to wander out to the side of the mountain today, she'd go.
"Yes. We're all in agreement."
Lyle Parrish's smug grin made her grind her teeth.
"Well, then. I should get going. It'll be dark soon." She offered a glance at Dak. "We may need to camp there." Then she smiled at Mitch. "Thank you again. I'm sure we'll be seeing more of each other." Unlike Parrish and Kirk, she'd liked him right away.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Crave the Heat"
Copyright © 2019 Marnee Bailey.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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