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Maya Jackson was going to find the bastard who'd killed her little brother and she was going to make him pay.
But first she had to take care of the details. The stupid, goddamned details.
She turned the key in the lock of Tony's cottage on the edge of the Tahoe National Forest and her throat grew tight. How could he be dead?
As of Tuesday, November 15, 2:09 A.M., Tony was nothing but ashes, the remains of his bones and skin and spirit lost in the rubble of an apartment building on Lake Tahoe Boulevard. Three days ago he'd walked through flames to save a couple of stoned ski bums. And he'd died a hero.
Tony's landlord needed the place cleared out to show to potential tenants. He'd been nice about it; if she couldn't come for a week or two he'd be happy to stash everything of value in a storage shed behind the building. Maya had wanted to throw the telephone through a window.
Everything of value was already gone.
Standing on the top slate step, Maya forced herself to open the cottage door. All she needed to do was pack up Tony's T-shirts and jeans and books and shaving cream and she could get the hell out of there. But it wasn't that simple. Because the last time she'd been in Tahoe it had been her brother's birthday. Two months ago he'd been having the time of his life up in the Sierras, fighting fires, bagging babes, hitting the slopes when the powder was fresh.
Images of her brother and father tangled up inside her head as she held on to the doorknob like it was a lifeline. Judd Jackson had also been a firefighter. A hotshot, one of the elite who put out the fires everyone else ran from.
As a kid she'd marked time by her father's presence. For six months he'd be there every day. Making her breakfast. Taking her to school. Kicking a soccer ball with her and Tony in the backyard until they were called in to dinner. She'd loved falling asleep to the rough sound of his voice as he read from storybooks, then closed them to make up stories that were even better. For the other six months of the year he was gone. Fighting the worst fires that had ever been. The Wheeler Fire in Ojai, California. The Siege of 1987 in Oregon. Judd Jackson was a national hero, time and time again.
Maya knew kids with hotshot fathers who left one day with a smile and chainsaw and never came back. She learned to dread every late night phone call and unexpected visitors at the front door. Her dad always came back, thank God. But he couldn't shake a brutal cough. And then, a year ago he'd been diagnosed with aggressive lung cancer. All those years of sucking in ash and black smoke had taken their toll.
She was still recovering from her father's death when Tony's fire chief had called. One less Jackson in the world.
Maybe, she thought, if she and Tony had an antagonistic brother-sister relationship like so many of her friends it wouldn't have hurt so much. But he'd never been the kind of little brother who pulled her pigtails and messed up her things, and even though she was four years older she didn't treat him like a baby. They'd been friends as well as siblings.
Their mother, Martha, had lived on pins and needles whenever their father was away fighting fires. And since organization and details weren't her mother's strong suit in the best of circumstances, Maya had been in charge of making sure Tony signed up for teams and had his school projects done on time. It was nice to be needed, so she hadn't really minded taking care of her brother. And then, when their father had died, everything had flipped around, and Tony had taken care of her.
Now he was gone too. She hadn't cried yet. How could she when her chest felt like a block of ice?
Her girlfriends were trying to say all the right things, but none of them really understood. Her boyfriend, Dick, a San Francisco firefighter, was completely out of his depth. He'd practically seemed relieved when she'd said they should take a break. And Martha was a complete wreck, alternating between crying and sleeping.
There was no one else to take care of Tony's things. Only Maya.
She'd made a list, knew she needed to pack up Tony's clothes to give away, gather important letters and pictures, close his bank accounts, collect his mail, and tell everyone Tony had loved—and everyone who had loved him—that he was gone. But she couldn't move. Couldn't force herself to take one single step into Tony's house.
Desperation tore at her. All she wanted was to close her eyes and forget for one second. Somehow, some way, she needed to get away from the pain ripping her in two, needed to forget everything. Not just that she and her mother were the only ones left. Maya needed to forget her name, who she was.
She didn't drink much, never had, and she'd never before turned to alcohol for deliverance. But now that Tony was dead everything had changed.
She shut the door without having yet set foot inside the cottage and walked past her car in the driveway, heading down the pine tree-lined street at a steady pace toward town. Tony's house was at the top of a steep hill and Maya's walk soon turned into a sprint. She gasped the clear mountain air into her lungs, running long past the limits of her endurance, every step an effort to get farther away from her pain. Her jeans and white tank top clung to her body as she tried to run away from her grief.
The casino towers on the Nevada state border rose high in the sky off to her right—with enough booze to drown in—but they were miles away and Maya didn't have much more distance in her. Still, she ran. Praying.
She knew she should be praying for a church so that she could fall down on her knees and find some solace. But she didn't want to believe in a God who could take away a barely grown boy just trying to do some good.
Please, God, you took Tony away. You took Daddy. You owe me this one small thing. It's all I'm asking.
A fresh wave of anger jolted her. Actually, I'm asking for a hell of a lot more than that. I need to find Tony's killer. And I need you to lead me to him.
The soles of her feet burned in her sandals as she took a sharp curve. And then she saw it: the Tahoe Pines Bar & Grill.
Thank you, God, she thought. And then, as another flood of bitterness descended, But I'm still not even close to forgiving you. You still owe me.
She sprinted toward the restaurant, running to purge her demons, even though she already knew sweating and panting wasn't making anything better, that it wasn't going to bring Tony back to life.
After a cursory glance at traffic, she crossed the two-lane road, coming to a dead stop in front of the restaurant. Sharp pains knifed into her stomach as she bent over her knees, sweat dripping from her forehead to the ground.
Catching her breath, she stood up and tried to open the front door, but it wouldn't budge. The sign on the door said "Come back at 5 P.M." No wonder the parking lot was virtually empty. She didn't need to look at her watch to know it was barely midafternoon.
But a lone car in the parking lot gave her hope that the place wasn't deserted. She pressed her face to the restaurant's frosted glass and caught a glimpse of movement.
She banged on the door. She'd pay double, triple, for her drinks.
She watched herself as if from a distance, knew she was acting crazy, but it didn't matter. She couldn't stop now. Not when she was so close to becoming blessedly numb.
A guy in a baseball cap opened the door. "Can I help you with something?"
"A drink," she said, surprised by how raspy her voice sounded. "I need a drink."
His tall, muscular frame took up most of the doorway as he assessed her. Maya was suddenly aware of the way her damp tank top stuck to her skin, the fact that she hadn't bothered to put a bra underneath it that morning. It had been all she could do just to get out of bed and brush her teeth. Hell, she couldn't remember the last time she'd eaten.
Since she'd hit puberty, men had told her she was beautiful. That she had great hair. Great skin. Great eyes. A knockout body. And there'd definitely been times when she hadn't been above using her assets to get what she wanted. But nothing was normal anymore, nothing was as it should be, and she didn't have it in her to work her wiles with a stranger.
"Are you going to let me in or not?"
The corner of his rugged mouth twisted up, whether in a grin or grimace she didn't know and didn't care.
He stepped aside and she pushed past him. "Whisky, straight."
He wasn't much of a talker, thank God, not like some bartenders who would have already shot off five highly personal questions between the door and the bar stool. His hands were fast—sexy too, she was surprised to notice—as he made her drink.
He placed the glass on a napkin and before it hit the polished pine bar top, she grabbed it from his fingers, tilted her head back, and drank, shuddering as it burned going down her throat.
The first one would quench her thirst. The second might relax her tightly fisted stomach. All the rest would help her forget, if only for a few minutes.
Alcohol had never agreed with her and she knew she'd pay the price for this tomorrow. But all that mattered was making it through the next few minutes.
She put her empty on the bar and another appeared. "Thank you," she whispered as she picked it up.
The bartender was staring at her, making her uncomfortable for all the wrong reasons. She closed her eyes as she swallowed. Ever since she'd picked up the phone three days earlier, Maya had felt dead inside. Sensation, taste, smell—it had all been wasted on her.
Her limbs already felt loose from the whisky and she found that she could unclench her jaw for the first time in days.
"You live around here?"
She looked up at the bartender, into his dark eyes. Something about his smell was familiar to her, baking dirt in the sun, dry grass mixed with clean soap. Dark brown hair came just out from beneath his baseball cap and rough stubble covered the lower half of his face.
"No," she finally replied, the word feeling strange as it crossed her tongue.
When was the last time she'd spoken to anyone? Yesterday? Or was it the day before?
Tony's fire chief had offered to take care of the funeral arrangements. All she had to do was pick up Tony's stuff from his cabin, and she couldn't even manage that.
"What brings you to Tahoe?"
"I've got to clean out my brother's apartment."
"He's leaving town?"
She swallowed hard, staring into her glass. "He already left."
The bartender leaned back against the stainless sink behind him. "That's too bad. I can't imagine ever leaving Tahoe."
"He loved it here," she said as a sob rose up in her throat.
Oh God, she couldn't cry here, in this bar, in front of a stranger. She immediately took another slug from her glass to keep everything from spilling out.
She held her glass out. "I'll have another, thanks."
His eyes were on her and she didn't want to face the questions in them, but somehow she couldn't make herself look away.
"You sure about that?" he asked. "Maybe you should take a breather for a few minutes. Tell me more about yourself."
She blinked at him as rage and frustration and misery swirled together in her gut. She hadn't come here for a therapy session. She'd come to get blasted.
She shook the glass at him and a couple of pieces of ice sloshed over the rim onto the bar top.
Her message came across loud and clear and as he shrugged and refilled her glass, the way his thin T-shirt rode up his thick biceps made her mouth water. She didn't have to see him naked to know that his abs would be ripped.
He looked hard and beautiful.
And then it hit her: This stranger was another sign. First the bar appearing at the end of the road, and now, a fallen angel sent to help her forget.
Please, God, let me forget.
He moved forward, close enough for her to reach out and touch his face. The impulse to touch him, to kiss him happened so fast that she didn't think—she couldn't, it would kill her if she did, she just pushed herself up on the bar stool and grabbed a handful of his T-shirt in her fist. His mouth hit hers a moment before she was ready for it, knocking the breath from her lungs.
His kiss consumed her, rough and sure. She hadn't caught her breath yet, could only steal air from his lungs. She'd never been kissed like this, with an intensity that made her forget where she was, who she was, that she didn't even know his name.
His facial hair was coarse against her skin and she welcomed the violence of their kiss. Everything was purely physical now, about chasing sensation. Maya left her emotions on the bar stool. They belonged to someone she didn't want to be anymore.
He tasted like sugar, but he smelled like smoke. Her knees found the top of the bar and she crawled closer to him, using his shirt for leverage with one hand, the back of his neck with the other. His large hands circled her rib cage and he hoisted her over the bar without breaking their tongues and teeth and lips apart.
Wildness joined desperation as she pressed herself against the hard wall of his chest, running her palms and fingers over his torso. His skin was warm under the hem of his T-shirt and his tight abs jumped beneath her fingertips.
Without warning he closed the remaining distance between them, shoving his hips between her legs. His erection was hard against her lower belly and she instinctively rubbed herself into the thick length. He shoved her against the wall and cold bottles pressed into her spine.
Anguish came at her then, fierce and sudden.