Standing before Fire Control Officer Matt Cutter is a five-year-old replica of himselfthe son he never knew he had. All Matt wants to do is hug little Davie and make up for the lost years. But forest ranger Andie Foster, the boy's mother whom Matt left behind, is understandably afraid. How can Matt possibly explain the lapse of faithin God and himselfthat drove him away from what he loved most? And will the lovely forest ranger give him a second chance to be a husband and father forever?
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"Andie, the FCO is here to see you."
Andrea Foster stared at the red light on her telephone console and felt the blood drain from her face. As she held the receiver against her ear and listened to her receptionist's voice, her stomach twisted into knots.
No, Matt couldn't be here so soon. He just couldn't. But he was. Inside the reception area. Waiting to see her. Right now.
She'd known this day would come. Eventually. It was inevitable. But she'd figured Matt would meet someone else and ask her for a divorce, not become a fire control officer working out of the Forest Supervisor's office. She hadn't planned a strategy to deal with him.
The urge to have her receptionist tell Matt she was in a meeting overwhelmed Andie. After all this time, just thinking about him brought so many feelings of anger and hurt to the surface.
It would do no good to send Matt away. He'd just return. They had to work together now. She had no choice. They were having a dry winter, which meant a heavy fire season. Already it was February and unseasonably warm, with very little snowpack in the mountains. As the new FCO, it was Matt's job to ensure her district was prepared. She should get this over with now. "Andie?"
"Yeah, um, send him in."
Andie dropped the receiver into its cradle. Her arms trembled as she brushed a hand down the front of her drab olive-green shirt and spruce-green pants. The uniform of a forest ranger. The badge pinned to the flap of her left shirt pocket meant a great deal to her. The culmination of a lot of hard work. She felt proud of her promotion over the Enlo Ranger District in Nevada. She'd longed to share the news of her promotion with Matt and even picked up the phone several times to call him, but her fingers refused to dial the numbers. At one time, she'd shared her dreams with him. All her hopes and fears. Now she didn't want him to know she'd met her career goal. It seemed too personal. Too intimate.
She stood and walked past her desk covered with tidy piles of grazing reports and watershed studies. Pausing beside the bookcase, she inhaled deeply, trying to settle her nerves.
Finally. Matt was here.
Now she could tell him what she really thought of him. Her excitement to see him again warred with absolute, utter terror.
He hadn't returned for her. He'd simply taken a new job to build his own careera job in her hometown. But his return had just hiked her life into a hyper level of complication.
A five-year-old complication named Davie.
A knock sounded on the door. Just before it opened, Andie sat on one corner of her desk, her right leg dangling over the side. She tried to look cool, professional and collected. Tried to appear unaffected by the return of her absentee husband.
Her heart pounded like a jackhammer. She didn't know what to say to Matt. Didn't know how to act. She only knew how she felt inside. Like her heart was being ripped apart again and again.
Clarice, her receptionist, opened the door. Her carefully manicured hand rested on the doorknob as she flipped her long, blond hair over her shoulder. "Here we are."
Matt Cutter limped into Andie's office, his presence like a blast of January wind to the face. In spite of preparing herself, Andie couldn't contain a short gasp. Seeing him after all this time felt like a slug to the gut. She couldn't think. Couldn't breathe.
He gripped a wooden cane in his right hand, leaning heavily on it. When had he started limping? Was it temporary or permanent?
"Can I get you something to drink? Coffee, water or something else?" Clarice smiled up at Matt.
He shook his head, his gaze resting on Andie like a ten-ton sledge. In a glance, she took in his forest service uniform, identical to hers. He looked much the same as she remembered him, still slim, broad-shouldered and tall. Except a haunted quality had replaced the cocky, daredevil look in his eyes.
"Thanks, Clarice. I'll take it from here." Andie stood and rested her fingertips on the desktop to help support her wobbly legs. Panic climbed up her throat, but she fought it off. She was a strong, educated, professional woman. She could handle this.
"Hello, Andie." Matt smiled that crooked smile of his, but it didn't reach his eyes.
Eyes the color of cobalt-blue. She remembered their color like her own face. The rich timbre of his voice. His deep laugh. The way his eyes crinkled when he smiled for real.
The taste of his kiss.
Andie felt sick inside. Five years, four months and thirteen days. That's how long it'd been since she'd seen or heard from him. So long that she'd tried to forget they'd ever been married. Tried to forget how much she'd loved him and how furious she was at him for leaving when she needed him more than ever.
She could never forget. Not with a miniature reminder bouncing around her house.
She cleared her voice. "Hello, Matt."
He looked good. Too good. But she needed to keep her distance. Needed to think before she spoke. Even though they were still legally married, this man didn't want her anymore. And she no longer wanted him. She had to remember that. They were married in name only.
"You look beautiful as ever."
Now why did he say that? His words sent shivers racing down her spine, and she realized he'd been perusing her as intently as she had him.
She decided to ignore his compliment. The last thing she needed from him were words that made her love him more. Right now, she'd rather hear an apology.
She gestured toward the cane. "Are you injured?"
"Nothing serious." He sat in a hard-backed chair in front of her desk.
"What happened to your leg?" she asked.
"Just a small battle wound. It'll be fine."
He downplayed his limp, but his strong, stubborn chin hardened slightly. Something about his demeanor told her it was more serious than he let on.
To save her life, she couldn't keep her gaze from roaming over his lean body. He seemed thinner. Even through the long sleeves of his shirt, she could detect the outline of his strong biceps and shoulders so wide she could have measured them with a broom handle. No doubt he was in the superb physical condition of a soldier. A fire warrior.
"You still running three miles every day and ten on the weekend?" She used to run with him, though not quite as far.
"Nope. Not until the leg heals. Right now, I'm just walking on a treadmill." He gestured to the cane.
He still wore his jet-black hair shaved on the sides for easy maintenance. High and tight, he called it. But it seemed a bit longer now and shaggy, as if he were letting it grow out. His face looked more mature, the creases in his forehead a bit deeper. It didn't matter. With high, chiseled cheekbones and a curved chin, he was still the most handsome man she'd ever seen.
With the power to crush her heart, if she let him.
Her leather chair creaked as she sat down and leaned back. "What can I do for you, hotshot?"
She meant the name as a derogatory word, not a compliment. When they'd first married, she'd called him hotshot. It'd been a term of endearment then, before he dumped her and actually became one. His raised brows told her he'd caught her sentiment. In his eyes, she detected a glint of arrogance mingled with sadness.
"I'm not a hotshot anymore. Just a fire control officer," he said.
As he stretched one long leg out before him, she couldn't bring herself to smile. Not for all the gold in Fort Knox. All the pain and heartache of the past five years crushed down on her all at once. She brushed a hand across her face, wishing she could hide. Wishing this moment had never come. But it had, and she didn't want to deal with it.
He leaned his cane against the desk, then arched his back as if to ease an ache there. "I don't know if you're aware I was recently promoted to FCO and transferred here to Enlo. We'll be working together."
FCO. The new fire control officer working out of the Forest Supervisor's office.
She kept her face void of expression. "Yes, I heard about that."
An hour earlier, in fact. From an email sent out to all the rangers serving on the Minden National Forest. She still hadn't absorbed the ramifications.
One of his eyebrows arched. "I've been in town a week and thought we should talk."
He tilted his head, his gaze holding hers. "Just talk. There's a lot I need to say, and I want to clear the air between us." She snorted. "I doubt the air can be cleared with a little chat."
He took a deep breath, his face hardening. "I wanted to congratulate you on your recent promotion. I know being a forest ranger was what you always wanted."
"Yes." Okay, not too gracious, but the best she could muster at the moment. At one time, she had also wanted him and a family, but that hadn't turned out too well.
She didn't like discussing her career with him. Not after all the planning they'd done together during college and the first three years of their marriage. She didn't know this man anymore. He was a complete stranger.
She took a deep breath and let it go. "I just got an email today from the forest supervisor saying you were named the new fire control officer. I can't say I'm surprised you're here in my office, although I didn't expect to see you so soon."
He glanced at the nameplate sitting on the corner of her desk. "I don't think Cal knew we were married when he made the selections for our new jobs. Looks like you're going by your maiden name."
Cal Hinkle, the forest supervisor. If he'd known the connection between Matt and Andie, he undoubtedly would never have brought the two of them in to work together on the same forest. But Andie had started going by her maiden name a year after Matt left, and she rarely talked about her missing husband.
Matt paused, his eyes drilling into hers. "We are still married, aren't we?"
She tensed, wishing she believed in divorce. But she didn't. She tried to tell herself that was the only reason she'd never filed, but deep inside her broken heart, she'd always wished he'd return. Now she couldn't help regretting that longing. It'd bring her nothing but more heartache. "As far as I know."
"Good. I never wanted a divorce."
Oh, boy! He'd just opened the corral gate with that remark. "You have a funny way of showing it, Matt."
He took a deep breath. "I know I messed things up between us, but I never wanted to lose you, Andie. I've made a lot of mistakes, but loving you wasn't one of them."
No, no, no! Why did he have to say something like that? It felt like a knife to her heart. Mainly because she didn't believe him. And she wanted to. She really did. But it was too late. "Then why'd you leave?"
"You know why. At the time, nothing was more important than becoming a hotshot crew boss. When I got the job on the Red Mesa IHC, I couldn't turn it down. After we had that horrible fight, and you told me to leave, I figured taking the job was the best thing."
Yeah, which put her in her place. His words meant nothing to her now. When he'd left, his actions had spoken loud and clear. He'd chosen his career over their marriage. Over her.
One of her biggest regrets in life had been when he'd stood on their doorstep with his duffel bag slung over his shoulder. Instead of slamming the door in his face, she should have begged him to stay, or gone with him.
But she hadn't.
She rested an elbow against the armrest of her chair, trying not to show her hurt. Trying to still the trembling of her chin. "You could have discussed it more with me before leaving. Imagine my surprise when I arrived home that night and found a note from my husband telling me he'd taken a job out of state and would talk to me later. That was over five years ago."
Her voice rose to a shrill pitch. No matter how hard she tried to control her emotions, all the anger broiled around within her, the wound still raw. As if it had just happened yesterday. She didn't know if she'd ever recover from such a harsh slap to her face. If he'd left her for another woman, she might have understood. She could have moved on. But his career had become his mistress, and his life didn't include room for his wife.
"I wish I could go back in time and change things," he said.
"Yeah, I'm sure. I think we both said things that day that we shouldn't have, but it doesn't change things now."
"I'm sorry, Andie. For everything. I really am."
Her breath escaped her in a whoosh. Finally the apology she'd longed to hear for years. But it was too late. It'd been too long. He'd chosen his work over their marriage. She couldn't forget that. Could never trust him again. The love she'd kept buried deep within had been trampled to pieces, and she refused to be his doormat ever again.
She had to think about Davie now.
The burn of tears caused her to look away, and she shrugged. "We married too young. You weren't ready for the commitment. Now it doesn't matter. You have your job to do and I have mine. We'll keep our relationship completely professional. Nothing more."
She didn't love him anymore. She didn't. He'd killed her feelings for him, but she didn't know how she was ever going to work with him every day and pull it off.
He frowned, his eyes filled with an emotion she couldn't discern. Disappointment maybe? Surely not. He'd left her, after all. He'd gotten what he wanted.
One question pounded her brain. Why had he left the job he loved? Why had he taken this job as an FCO? Sitting in an office every day. Providing fire support to the various district rangers serving on the Minden National Forest instead of working out on the front lines where the action was. It didn't sound like him. At the age of thirty-two, he was still young and strong enough to run with the best hotshots the nation had to offer. Did it have something to do with his limp?
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