A parachute jump gone horribly wrong nearly put an end to Hunter Buchanan's smokejumper career. But with his body on the mend, the rugged firefighter is ready to get back to Oregon's Redmond Air Center and his training. Except, while he's conquered his physical injuries, he hasn't been able to do the same for his panic attacks. Enter Charlotte Jones, aka Charlie, the trainer who tames his tension like nobody's business. It doesn't hurt that she's easy on the eyes. Or that she stirs a hunger in him to deal with just about anything in order to be the man she needs . . .
After four years of hiding from a violent man in her past, Charlie is ready to face the world again. She knows this has more than a little to do with the potent mix of strength and vulnerability she's found in Hunter's arms. But when a dangerous encounter convinces her the worst isn't behind her, she'll have to decide if she's strong enough to accept Hunter's help-and his love . . .
"Excellent for readers who enjoy plot-driven mysteries with well-developed, sympathetic characters and slow-burn romance."
-Library Journal, starred review on Tempt the Flames
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The front door to Myers and Long Physical Therapy was unlocked when Charlie Jones yanked on it, confirming that her boss was already here and had opened for her. Which meant she was even later than she'd originally thought.
Sweeping through the workout area where she and the other physical therapists ran their clients through their exercises, she hurried into her minuscule office and dropped her purse on the desk. The contents spilled all over, a handful of her belongings rolling off the side and onto the floor. Damn, why hadn't she stopped for a second to close the thing? Because she'd been late, that's why. As usual. And per the norm, because she hadn't taken the time to do things the right way, she was stuck tossing what felt like every lip gloss and pen she owned back into her bag.
"Les, I'm here," she called, pushing her wallet into a space that had held it moments earlier but didn't seem big enough for it now. "Sorry I'm late."
"Please." Her boss, Leslie Myers, stepped into the doorway of the bathroom, a small grin on her face. "No you aren't." She pressed her fist against the doorframe, swaying.
"You're right." Her perpetual lateness was a running joke between them. Leslie always said Charlie's internal clock was permanently set to five minutes behind everyone else's. Charlie narrowed her eyes, studying her boss. "You don't look so good."
Leslie pressed her hand against her stomach, her face pale. "I don't feel so good."
Abandoning her purse, Charlie hurried to the watercooler, removed a paper cone cup, and filled it. "Why are you here, then, girl?"
Creeping forward, Leslie dropped into a chair, waving off Charlie's offered water. "The interview. It's this morning."
That's right. How had she forgotten?
The town's newspaper had been following the recovery of a local smokejumper. After a parachute malfunction, Hunter Buchanan had been forced to drop out of last year's smokejumper training class. A concussion, a broken arm and leg, and a handful of other life-threatening injuries had made for a long road to recovery — a path that had led him to Myers and Long. Today, though, would be his final physical therapy treatment, only two weeks before he was scheduled to join this year's smokejumper training class. The paper wanted to be here to witness his triumph. Or rather, they wanted to be here to wrap up their feel-good story with a pretty bow.
"What time?" she asked. If this was something Leslie ate and the interview was later this afternoon, she could still do it.
Leslie's eyes widened. Though she'd appeared close to death a second ago, she was up and running to the bathroom with Olympic-sprinter speed. The sound of retching followed.
She hurried after her boss, but Leslie pulled the bathroom door closed behind her. The hollow wood door did nothing to mask her sickness.
Charlie pressed her hand to her forehead, glancing at the clock. It was ten after nine in the morning. If this was the beginning of some sort of stomach virus, those were never nice enough to finish up fast. No doubt Leslie would be choking down crackers and fighting nausea tomorrow at this time.
Which left Charlie in charge of reporters, maybe a photographer, and definitely one sexy-as-hell Hunter Buchanan.
Not that she was supposed to have paid attention to that, because it was completely unprofessional. Still, it would be hard not to notice.
The truth was that she'd been aware of how sexy Hunter was even before he became a client at Myers and Long. His sister, Meg, was her closest friend here in Oregon, so she'd casually met him a few times. For example, Meg's birthday party two years ago had been in a restaurant, so she hadn't expected him to mingle too much, but aloof and gorgeous was her brand of hot. She'd watched him all night, wondering what his story was and being way too attracted to him.
When he'd been the victim of a jump gone wrong during smokejumper training last year, her heart had broken for him, Meg, and their family. After his stint in rehab, he'd been discharged and Meg had referred him to Myers and Long, where Charlie worked.
Charlie had kept her distance, asking Leslie to take him as a client. First, she was his sister's good friend. She wouldn't be breaking any ethical guidelines by working with him, but she worried it might be awkward. Physical therapy was hands-on, and hanging out with Meg after having her hands all over her best friend's brother might be weird.
But, more important, Charlie didn't trust how much she might like being that physical with Hunter Buchanan. His first few appointments had solidified the rightness of her choice. Every time he walked through their doors, she was hyperaware of him and the energy he brought with him. There was something there, some connection between them. Or maybe it was only her, because she doubted there were many women alive who wouldn't notice how gorgeous he was.
Either way, it was best that she stayed away.
Except now, with Leslie losing whatever she'd eaten for breakfast in the other room, she might not have a choice but to break the self-enforced distance she'd put between them.
Sauntering over to the bathroom door, but keeping a safe distance from having to witness any real vomiting, she offered, "Leslie? Are you okay?"
"No," her friend moaned. "I'm dying."
"Oh God." Charlie pressed her finger to her brow. "I'm calling Kyle."
She had no idea if Leslie agreed to getting her husband involved, because her response was more of a groan than a real word. Charlie retrieved her phone from her bag, sifting through the contacts until she hit Kyle's number, and pressed send. By the time Leslie shuffled out of the bathroom, her husband was on his way.
"Are you sure you can manage this?" Leslie asked, scanning the office.
Charlie patted her on the shoulder, offering a reassuring smile. She had no idea, but there was nothing to be done about it now. "Tracy will be here in a little bit. We'll go through the appointments, figure out what can be rescheduled, and I'll juggle the rest. Don't worry about it. I can handle this."
Her boss offered her a wan grin as her husband pulled up on the curb outside. Thank goodness he only worked a few miles away. "What about the interview?"
"I got this." Charlie hoped she looked more confident than she felt. "Just feel better."
Leslie waved on her way out the door, sliding into the passenger seat. Her husband closed the door behind her, concern on his face. Charlie smiled. Kyle clearly adored Leslie. They were a cute pair.
But as they pulled away, foreboding settled in her gut.
She could definitely manage any of the appointments. The interview, though?
A shudder ran down her spine.
It wasn't talking to the reporter. She wasn't shy, so she'd never been afraid to talk to anyone. But the photographer who might accompany her?
For the past few years, she'd done everything in her power to stay off the internet and out of the public eye. That's what a person did when she'd gone through the trouble to change her name and start a new life a thousand miles from home.
There was nothing she could do about it now, not if she didn't want to let Leslie down. She'd try her hardest to stay out of pictures and hope for the best. After all, it had been three years. She had no idea what Joshua was doing now, but surely he'd long ago forgotten about her.
It would be fine. No sweat. She'd remain professional working with a man she found insanely hot while trying to keep her face obscured from any cameras.
How hard could it be?
* * *
As Hunter Buchanan parked his SUV in front of the Myers and Long in Bend, Oregon, he caught sight of the news van at the corner. The morning traffic around him faded.
Rubbing his now sweaty palms on the thighs of his workout pants, he closed his eyes, inhaling deeply. In one of the self-help books he'd devoured in his search to manage his anxiety, he'd read that rhythmic breathing could help stave off the panic. He'd watched a bunch of meditation videos and even spent time at a couple of yoga classes, trying to master his breath.
It was supposed to be all zen and shit. And it worked. Sometimes.
Now, apparently, wasn't one of those times.
In through the nose, out through the mouth.
It wasn't like this was the first of the interviews. But the entire exclusive and story hadn't been his idea. Mitch had suggested that he talk with the paper, that it would go a long way in removing some of the scandalous taint from his accident.
Not that it had been an accident. Which was part of the problem. Things didn't get any more titillating for the public than a man causing the near death of his brother in his attempt to kill the man he blamed for his father's death.
It was the stuff of soap operas. All it had needed was a secret baby.
Which was exactly why he'd agreed to this human interest story in the first place. If the public believed he had recovered, that he'd triumphed over the insane circumstances of last spring, then maybe his family could move on.
More, he needed to persuade Mitch that he had, in fact, recovered. Because the Redmond Air Center manager still hadn't agreed to let him join the rookie training class in a few weeks.
Which explained the sweaty palms and racing heart. Today, he needed to be extra convincing.
Yanking the keys from the ignition, he grabbed his duffel, climbed out, and locked the doors, pinning a confident smile on his face. He strolled across the parking lot and tried to ignore what remained of the aches in his bones, but there was moisture in the air. Since he'd broken his arm and leg, they nagged at him when rain threatened.
He was greeted by the receptionist, Tracy, as soon as he walked in. "Morning, Mr. Buchanan."
Hunter had asked her to call him by his first name three different times. She never did. "Hey, Tracy." He glanced around, bracing to be bombarded by the reporter from the Gazette. "Leslie here?"
"She actually isn't, Mr. Buchanan. She had to go home unexpectedly. You'll be working with Charlie Jones."
Lifting his eyebrows, he continued his scan of the physical therapy office before his gaze snagged on Charlie, talking with the woman from the Gazette.
Compact, with short brown curls and a huge, bubbly personality, Charlie smiled at Lena Rodriguez, the veteran Gazette reporter, before catching his eye. Same as always, something zinged between them, even as her grin dimmed. He wondered if she did that on purpose. Every time he'd hung out with Charlie Jones, one of his sister's good friends, he got the feeling that something about him rubbed her the wrong way. For someone with such an open smile, someone who put everyone around her immediately at ease, well, it was obvious when a guy wasn't included in the easy camaraderie.
Had he offended her somewhere along the line? He couldn't think of anything. When he'd asked Meg, she'd told him he was nuts. Maybe she was right, but he'd been watching women his whole life. Something about Charlie was on edge when he was near.
In response, he usually steered clear of her. He had no desire to make her uncomfortable, so he gave her plenty of space. No choice now, though. How he came across in this interview would hopefully tip the scales for Mitch. It might mean the difference between whether he got to join rookie training and whether he was stuck working as a hotshot again.
The tightness in his chest had sharpened, and his heart rate had picked up. It became hard to breathe, and he took a sharp detour to the nearest open door — Leslie's office.
Pulling the door shut as softly as he could, desperate not to draw attention to himself, he tried to slow his breath. He tried to convince himself he wasn't dying even though everything in his physiology said he was, in fact, going to die. Or, best-case scenario, that something awful was about to happen.
Pacing out of sight of the window, he pressed his palm to his chest, the hard pounding of his heartbeat banging against it. He wanted it to end, would do about anything to take the pain out. But despite his efforts at logic, he was forced to ride along as his brain offered him worst-case scenarios. Like, that he was having a heart attack or a stroke. That he'd suffocate, unable to pull in a full breath, even though he was standing upright that very moment.
The door opened and Charlie stepped in. Her dark eyes — the ones with the laugh lines he'd admired — scanned him, taking in the situation. Then she stood next to him, gripping his arm. "What's going on?"
"I'm fine," he gasped out. "Just give me. A moment."
She rested her other hand on his back. It might have been his imagination, but the heat and firmness of the touch took the sharp edges off his breath. As if it loosened his chest somehow.
Her fingers gripped his wrist, and her gaze went to the clock. She counted under her breath. "Your pulse is nearly two hundred beats a minute. You're not fine."
He pulled his hand from her grasp, shaking his head.
"It'll pass. Just give me a second." With her here distracting him, he could almost believe that was true.
"Do you know what's happening?" Her brow had dropped, and her seriousness was at odds with her usual smile and upbeat personality.
He didn't want to tell her anything. This had been his secret these past months, something he'd dealt with. Not because he was ashamed, but because he needed them to stop. Smokejumping and panic attacks didn't mix. If he didn't tell anyone, it almost felt like he could pretend they weren't real. A figment of his imagination or some kind of nightmare.
Except now he couldn't exactly pretend. Either he confessed to her and trusted she'd keep his secret or he took his chances with the reporter and photographer outside.
It was a no-brainer.
"Panic. Attack," he gasped out, one hand still on his chest, the other on his waist.CHAPTER 2
There was absolutely nothing in Hunter's chart about panic attacks or anxiety.
She wasn't an expert on anxiety disorders or panic attacks, at least nothing past the one or two panic attacks she'd had in her own life. Maybe this was a one-and-done thing for him.
But if he recognized that it was, indeed, a panic attack, it probably wasn't his first one.
Even as questions spun in her head, she did nothing. If she were him, in that moment, she wouldn't want anyone throwing a zillion questions in her face. In her experience, in the worst situations, the ones that she'd wished to just be alone and silent, those were the times when someone or many someones would throw questions at her like darts, expecting her to think, to perform, to stop acting so strange. Except it always seemed that they didn't care as much about her as they cared about themselves. They wanted to stop feeling worried or uncomfortable. They acted as if it was her job in those moments to take away their concern.
So she stood quiet, waiting. The only sound was his rapid breathing, so she breathed as slowly and completely as she could. She closed her eyes, hoping he'd latch onto her calm. When it seemed to be working, when his inhale and exhale became more even, she realized she'd been running her hand along his back. In the now-silent room, with both of them breathing normally, awareness crept through her, centered on her fingers, still pressed into the warm muscles along his spine.
As casually as she could manage, she retrieved her fingers, clasping them with her other hand in front of her and attempting her most professional smile. "Better?"
He dropped the hand he'd been pressing against his chest, leaned against Leslie's desk on both fists, and nodded. As his head dropped, she used the moment to step back, trying to find some distance from him in her boss's minuscule office.
Well, now what?
A sideways glance out the window in Leslie's door revealed that Ms. Rodriguez and her photographer, Spike, were waiting, their heads together, chatting. Unless she claimed that Hunter had been struck by lightning, run over by a rhino, or coincidentally got the same nasty flu that Leslie had, she needed to get out there with him. Looking him over — the sweat on his forehead, the pale cheeks — she might be able to sell a flu.
She considered approaching the reporter, asking her to withhold her name and photo. But that would mean explaining to Hunter her past issues, potentially open herself up to questions from Leslie about why she'd needed to pull back in the interview. All of that would lead to lots of explanations she preferred not to give.
It had been years. Surely the danger was over now, right?
"You okay now?" she asked. The stark terror had left his face, and his color was returning. When he finally straightened, he looked like the Hunter she'd met before. Strong, confident, and capable.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Risk the Burn"
Copyright © 2019 Marnee Bailey.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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