One nature guide. One accidental forest fire. And one steamy investigator hot on her tail.
Jen Kulak’s good at running from her problems, so when she finds her best friend and boyfriend in bed together she burns rubber, never looking back. When Jen finds the quirky town of Blueberry Springs, she finally feels as though she’s found a place she can call home, settle in, and get to know herself. With help from her boss, she rediscovers her love of nature and begins giving wilderness tours, which would be perfect if it weren’t for the fact that she may have accidentally just burned down the forest she depends upon for her fledgling business. And it would figure that Rob Raine, the man of her dreams, also happens to be the fire investigator hot on the case.
Can Jen find the strength to fight the accusations that could cost her everything? Or will she run again, ignoring the sparks that fly between her and Rob, and torching her chances at a happily ever after?
Rum & Raindrops is the second book in the Blueberry Springs series. Read it as a standalone or a part of the full set!
SNEAK PEEK: CHAPTER 1
This time she wouldn’t run.
She wouldn’t be able to live with herself if she did.
As tempting as it was. She. Could. Not. Run.
Even though this was much, much worse than anything else she’d ever been through—worse than finding her best friend’s belt under the bed she shared with her live-in boyfriend, worse than running away from home at sixteen and losing herself in the process.
She stared at the layers of gray drifting lower in the sky. For days, the clouds of smoke had been building, closing in, choking out the mountain town’s residents. Jen couldn’t hear the forest fire crackling from here, but she knew if the wind changed direction she would never live down being the girl—nature guide, at that—who burned down the small town of Blueberry Springs.
She sighed and wiggled her key in the back door of Wally’s Sporting Goods, shouldering open the warped door and reaching in to flick on the lights. Normally, on the first of June, she wouldn’t need lights at this time of day, but thanks to her own neglect, the forest fire was making pretty darn sure everyone was using plenty of electricity.
She stood outside the store’s back door and worried her keys. Her car was ready, packed with the essentials as well as her most prized belongings in case they called for an evacuation. She didn’t need to wait; she could just get in and go. Now. She didn’t have to stop. Didn’t have to come back. Didn’t have to see the destruction that was edging closer.
Her escape was right over there. Only a few steps away. She could just reach inside the store, grab the small bird cage that held an injured Whiskey Jack she was nursing back to health, put it in her car…
She jumped, dropping her keys as Wally, her boss, rested a heavy hand on her shoulder. “What are you doing?” His brows folded in concern. “There are rumors of evacuation. Almost everyone’s closing up.”
She picked up her keys and stared through the open back door to where she’d rediscovered the old Jen—sporting good by sporting good—after her unplanned arrival in Blueberry Springs. The old Jen who used to cross-country ski. Who won swim meets. The Jen who was familiar with a good pair of hiking boots and welcomed the adventures they would bring. The Jen she had been before running away from home.
She’d lost that Jen over time, but here in Blueberry Springs she’d found her again. She was thriving. Living again. But now… If she ran…
“Look. I’m staying closed for the day,” Wally said gently. “Help people load their cars and be ready to get the heck out of here.”
“It smells like rain,” she whispered, wishing she could see the sky—see the weather coming over the mountain range instead of being blocked by big clouds of smoke that made her eyes burn.
“We’re going to need a helluva lot more than a little rain,” he said, turning away.
* * *
Jen moved uneasily down Main Street. Should she simply walk up to people as they were loading their vehicles and start pitching in? What if they thought she’d started the fire and were angry with her?
Because, seriously, what kind of nature guide started a raging forest fire while out testing equipment—and everyone knew she’d been out there.
But she couldn’t understand it. She was always so careful. She’d gone camping with Wally when she first started her excursion business out of his shop, and the expression he’d used when she put out their little campfire was anal retentive. But this time, obviously, her anal retentiveness hadn’t been enough.
Scott, the local police officer and current stand-in park ranger, told her she’d been the only registered user out at Raspberry Creek Park the weekend the fire started. And therefore it wasn’t difficult to do the math and figure out where to point the finger. When the fire had been discovered, Scott had his team try to put it out. But nature had pulled a fast one, the wind switching directions several times until the fire was out of control and well beyond the remote park’s boundaries. And now everything was in jeopardy.
Everything. Just thinking about it made her stomach clench in a way that made her queasy.
“Hey, Jen,” said her friend Moe, falling into step beside her. She smiled and leaned toward him. She needed a good friend right about now. And despite the way she’d sorta chased Moe—or at least hinted in humorous and easy to brush off ways that they would be good together—they were still just friends. Which was probably a good thing. Some days she felt as though she had more baggage than would fit in a Samsonite world traveler set.
“Heard about the evacuation suggestion?” he asked, easing further away.
“Don’t worry. Nobody’s going to crack any jokes about what kind of nature guide burns down her own forests.” He gave a good-natured chuckle. “Man, that has got to be bad for business.”
“Shut up. I follow protocols.” She rubbed her forehead. Had she forgotten to do something important while out camping or done something dumb such as discard a match into a dry shrub, starting a slow smolder she hadn’t noticed? Had she left a gap in her fire pit’s ring of rocks? Started an underground fire? Or had
Mother Nature started the fire despite the season? “It had to be something or someone else.”
“Did you see any other crazies out there? Who else is willing to do a six-hour hike-out camping trip in late May when the nights are still frosty?” Moe nudged her, all smiles.
She shifted her weight. “No,” she admitted. “And it’s not the whole forest. It’s just Raspberry.” She gulped in a deep breath, working to steady herself as well as squelch the urge to flee.
“Hm. Unless the wind turns.” Moe turned to look at the sky, his expression thoughtful.
She turned to him, blinking away the wetness in her eyes. “It’s not coming to Blueberry Springs, okay? And sometimes forest fires help nature.”
“Hey, you okay?” He rested a hand on her shoulder. “I was only kidding around. I know you’re good at what you do and would never intentionally start a forest fire.”
“That’s not what I’m worried about, Moe.”
“I don’t think anyone really actually thinks you started it.” He crouched ever so slightly, bringing them to eye level. “At least not on purpose.”
She swallowed back the pain. If the wind turned, the fire would take a shortcut through town. Her town. It was that easy. That close.
“Why don’t you talk to Scott?” he asked gently. “He might have some advice or something.”
“There are a ton of reasons why forest fires start,” she said, drawing herself up. Unfortunately, none of them would apply at this time of year. There had been no lightning that weekend. The area wasn’t known for coal seams. And it wasn’t hot and dry enough for a rockfall’s sparks to ignite grass or shrubs. In other words, unless there had been unregistered users in the park who came forward, the chances were very high that she was plain and simply screwed.
“The fire investigator Scott brought in said the fire was caused by human actions,” Moe said.
She leaned closer, her heart pounding so hard she thought it’d break. “Was there someone else out there?”
Moe shrugged, his eyes never leaving hers. “He’s still investigating, but nobody’s come forward.”
“He doesn’t know who did it?”
“It wasn’t you?” he joked.
She stalked off, ignoring his pleas for her to come back.
Her hands started shaking as she mentally ran through the implications of starting a forest fire. She was sure she hadn’t started it. Positive. Except for that niggling feeling in the back of her mind that warned her to never say never. She sighed as her jacket pocket started vibrating and she yanked out the phone, pushing it to her ear as she resumed her way down the smoky street.
“Hi. I think I’m in your beginner’s overnight canoe trip?” the male voice asked, static crackling over the line.
Oh, man. Not another cancellation. She drew in a deep breath and crossed the street to the side where she usually got better reception.
“We’re still on in two weeks!” she replied in a chipper voice, trying to mask the strain. Crossing her fingers, she looked to the sky hoping that the fire inspector Scott had called in wouldn’t see that she’d been a registered user in the park and preemptively pull her guiding license and open-ended, off-trail camping permit. That would make a big ol’ crater in her business plan, if he did.
“The forest fire won’t be an issue?” the man asked.
“Blueberry Lake is in a different direction from the fire. I’m confident it’ll be just fine and that the fire will be out by then.” She tried to inject humor into her voice. “We’ll be camping on an island, and lakes usually don’t burn down.”
He let out a deep chuckle that, despite her mood, drew a smile to her lips. Ah, yes. She remembered this man from a few months back when he called to register. She’d wanted to sell him every trip she had in order to hear that wonderfully rich laugh as often as possible.
“The reason I’m calling,” he said, “is I booked the trip for myself and my girlfriend.”
Uh-oh. Here it comes. She shook her head and waited. The girlfriend didn’t want to come and so he wanted to cancel and take her to a B&B instead. Either that or he’d be switching her out for a guy friend, which was fine by her.
“We recently broke up,” he explained.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said automatically when he paused.
“Oh, don’t be. We weren’t…well, I guess you could say we weren’t well-suited for each other and had a different concept of what commitment is.” He hesitated. “We were taking this trip because I was trying to get her interested in things I enjoy.”
“My friend Mandy always says if you try to change the one you’re dating, you’re going to end up with nothing but heartache.” She paused walking and winced. Wow, Blueberry Springs was getting under her skin. She couldn’t believe she’d just dished out dating advice to a stranger.
She smiled to herself and resumed walking. She could handle Blueberry Springs getting under her skin.
Assuming, of course, she didn’t destroy the place. Because as Moe said, who else would be crazy enough to go hiking through Raspberry Creek Park when there was still frost on the ground at night?
“Sorry,” she said. “The last thing you want or need is advice from a woman who hasn’t been on a serious date in approximately three years.” She smacked her forehead. What was with her? “Or for her to start telling you the details of her pathetic life. I’m so sorry.”
He gave a light chuckle. “It’s fine.” His voice dropped in and out due to the poor reception.
Desperate not to lose two more people close to departure, she asked, “So, will you still be joining us? While it’s too late to get a full refund, you could bring a friend along in your girlfriend’s place.” Even better if that friend is as hot and nice as you sound.
As he ‘hmm’ed into the phone, she found herself imagining the body that went with his deep voice.
Probably fairly tall. At least taller than she was, and she was five-foot six. He would be cute, of course. Not much for pudge, but not hardrock buff either. Just that wonderful in between. Great butt?
“I’m not sure,” he said, startling her.
Trying to recover from her daydream, cheeks burning as though she’d fallen into a campfire, she sputtered, “Well…uh…could you let me know when you decide? It’ll be a great time. It’s so beautiful out here right now.” She cringed at her response and cast a glance at the worst of the smoky clouds. “You’ve already spent the money. You should come.”
Assuming, of course, she wasn’t out of business by then and Blueberry Springs wasn’t burning like a pit in Hell.
He paused. Had she pushed too far?
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to push,” she added quickly. Come on, I need this.
“No, you’re right. I wanted to do this because I wanted to get out again and enjoy the outdoors in a recreational way.” After a brief pause, he said, “I’m in. I’ll see if I can convince someone else to take Cindy’s place.”
“Great! Call me when you round someone up. I’ll need to get their lifejacket size and a few other personal details.”
“All right, see you in a few weeks, if not sooner. It sounds like our connection is breaking up.”
“If you need anything or have any questions, don’t hesitate to give me a call.” If not sooner? That idea left a trail of thrills through her body.
She hung up the phone and smiled. Yes! There would be at least one awesome guy on the beginner’s overnight trip. And if he was awful, she’d just turn her back and ask him to tell her the story of his life and listen as that deep tenor worked its way into her muscles, setting her at ease.
Presuming, of course, that she and the rest of Blueberry Springs wasn’t hunkered down in some hotel miles from here with her wondering how to restart her life in order to escape the guilt of destroying the homes and livelihoods of several thousand people who had, several years ago, welcomed her into their community as one of their own.
Yeah, other than that.
She blinked back the tears and tightening in her throat as the familiar pattern of berating herself set in. How could she do this to them when all they’d done was bring her in? How could she have been that careless? What would they do when they found out it was her? Because it had to be her. Who or what else could have started that fire? All signs kept pointing to her and living in denial had given her some serious bitchslapping in the past. She needed to face up to the fact that her life was over because the odds were pretty heavy that she was the guilty party. She needed to escape. Run.
She couldn’t handle this.
She ducked down a side street, but when she saw people loading up their cars she turned back to Main Street, her heart aching with guilt, and promptly barreled into someone.
“Oh, so sorry!” she said as the man she’d rammed into grabbed her arm to steady her. Her breath froze in her chest.
Holy major hotness.
“Oh. I’m so sorry,” she apologized again as she swiped at the coffee he’d spilled down his shirt. The wet cotton was plastered to his chest. Oh. And she was petting him now instead of swiping. She yanked her hand away and tried to ignore his amused expression. What was with her today? First crushing on the canoe guy and now petting a total stranger? Stress did very bad things to her brain. Very, very bad.
“It’s all right,” he said, laughing it off.
Oh, my. That was hot. A man who could laugh off spilled coffee. Coffee was precious.
And that laugh. Such a great laugh. It was as though every man she met these days was her ideal dreamboat incarnate. Again, stress was tweaking her hormones in strange and unpredictable ways. She needed to get in her packed up car and go sit on a rock somewhere far, far away and get herself sorted out.
But first she needed to make things right with this hottie.
She turned to The Diner, where he’d just exited. “I should buy you a new coffee.”
“They’re closing up,” he said. “Everyone’s in an evacuation panic.” He waved a hand, his lips curved in a half frown. It was as though he saw smoke choking out towns every day and knew this wasn’t anything major. Which was what Jen’s gut was trying to tell her—when her mind wasn’t freaking out all over the place. Therefore, she liked this guy. A lot.
She sized him up. There was something familiar about him, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was. It was as though they’d met. However, she was certain she’d remember that cute face and those bright, inquisitive, blue-gray eyes. He wasn’t local; she would have noticed him. His barely worn jeans clung in all the right places and he wore old leather work boots. He had a vibe similar to the locals she’d come to adore, but with a touch of having been away in the city for a while.
Well, wherever he came from, and wherever he’d roamed, he’d definitely been active. He had a good set of well-used muscles underneath that T-shirt. He was more than intriguing and her quick assessment left her with more questions than answers. Especially since he didn’t seem to mind being sized up. In fact, he was doing the same to her. His gaze was flicking from her long, blond ponytail with the purple streak to her slender nose ring to her generous German curves she’d inherited from her grandmother to her fit, firm legs in short cutoffs to her beat-up hikers. And instead of discounting her as many men seemed to, he seemed pleased with what he saw.
Hello, heart crush!
She studied his shirt. It definitely needed help. She chewed on her bottom lip and dreamt up a plan. “We need to do something about that shirt.”
He pulled the wet shirt away from his body. That was a very large coffee, the largest Jodi served.
“Come with me,” Jen said over her shoulder, confident he’d follow her to Wally’s where she could replace the shirt. It was the least she could do—and no, of course she wasn’t putting off facing what had to be angry crowds of soon-to-be-homeless Blueberry Springs residents. Or hoping Major Hotness would strip off his wet shirt in the middle of the store, giving her a sight for her sore, tired eyes.
She let them into Wally’s store with her key, inhaling the aroma of new hiking shoes as she led him to the shirt section. On her way, she lightly touched the smooth, wooden paddles as a mother might touch the head of a child. She loved everything in this store. It was home. Her rock in an unsteady sea called life.
She inhaled back a rush of emotion, blocking it from coming forward, and flicked through a rack of shirts before holding one up in front of His Holy Major Hotness’s torso.
He held out his hands, his empty coffee cup waving at her. “No, really. You don’t need to.”
“Blue?” she asked, switching shirts. The light blue would look amazing on him. She held it out to him. Yep. Brought out the lovely brightness of his eyes and contrasted with his dark hair. Holy Major Hotness, come to mama.
“What’s wrong?” he asked, giving his face a self-conscious wipe. “You’re, um, staring.”
She blinked and stepped back, shaking her head, muttering, “Nothing.”
She was definitely out of practice drooling over hotties. Which was odd, seeing as there were so many around. Problem was those smoke jumper hotties that cruised Blueberry Springs in the summer, using the town as a base for the really remote fires that started well beyond the end of the highway, were used to adrenalin and craziness. They usually wore her out after two dates, leading her to avoid them. There was just something about them leaping out of airplanes to put out forest fires—such as hers—that upped their intensity.
It had to be hers, didn’t it? Who else could have started it? She hadn’t seen a soul out there.
She grabbed a shirt off the end of the rack, feeling slightly woozy as she waggled it at him. “Maybe this one?” It had a stick man running from a stick moose and said Running Wild in Blueberry Springs.
He broke out one of those lovely big grins of his and nodded. “I love it.”
The man had a sense of humor. Very nice. She liked that. Liked him.
And obviously needed to get a life, judging by the way her heart was tapping out a beat for this stranger. “I designed it myself,” she said, blushing. “Hence the stick man and stick moose. I’m not what you’d call an artist.”
“Are you kidding?” He held out the shirt for another look. “You draw a mean stick person.”
She tried not to act embarrassed and mumbled a thank you.
“You realize I have to buy it now? How much is it?” he asked, reaching for his wallet.
She snatched the shirt, holding it against her chest as she carefully plucked off the tag before handing him the shirt. “It’s my apology.”
“That’s not necessary.”
“I know. But I want to.” She led him to the change room, even though she secretly hoped he’d do as some guys did and whip off his shirt in front of her. She was pathetic.
He entered the change room and closed the door.
His loss. He didn’t realize what he was giving up such as an exclusive opportunity to have her hands roaming over his taunt skin. Not an everyday offer. Not that she would have succumbed. Of course not. Well, maybe just a little. But she’d definitely stop before running her tongue over what had to be some nice abs. She had to work out her stress, after all.
She checked her reflection in the mirror outside the change room. She needed lip gloss. And to run a brush through her ponytail. She eyed the path to her office, a miniature storeroom Wally had outfitted with a desk when she’d started her excursions. Maybe she could slip in there and grab her gloss and write a note about that guy who called earlier for the canoe trip. What was his name? It was probably on her caller ID. She pulled out her phone to check before she forgot.
“So, do you always give away merchandise?” His Holy Major Hotness asked through the closed door. His wet t-shirt hit the floor with a damp plunk and she paused, staring at it beside his worn boots. She forced herself to remember to breathe. Both in, and then out again.
She pocketed her phone, unable to remember what she was doing.
“Um. No, not always!”
“Well, it is really kind of you. And on top of it all, I get a souvenir of Blueberry Springs.”
She let out a light laugh. “I suppose you do. How long are you in town for?” Please say you are moving here and have a burning need to marry me so I can awaken to the most beautiful sight in the world every morning.
“A few days. A few weeks. Depends on work.”
Fire jumper. She knew it. That was why the smoke and threat to evacuate hadn’t fazed him. And why he seemed familiar, too. They’d probably met in Brew Babies or something. But that face…she’d have remembered that handsome face, that grin felt like a warm summer rain.
“So, do you know a good place to hike around here?” he asked.
“What kind of hike?” she asked, perking up.
“Oh, just an hour or two when I have down time. Do you hike?” he asked through the door.
Did she hike? Did bears eat blueberries?
“Sure do. If you want”—she couldn’t believe she was about to say this—“I could take you out and show you some trails.” There was a slight pause on the other side of the door and she babbled on. “I could grab prize-winning brownies from Mandy who owns the wrap place in town and we could make a date of it.” Oh, oops. She wasn’t supposed to ask him out. At least not in an obvious, easy-to-turn-down way. “Um, if the town doesn’t burn down first.”
Another pause. “That would be nice,” he said quietly. Man, she wished she could see his face right now. To judge whether his quiet voice was due to a reluctant acceptance or unexpected pleasure. The problem was he seemed like a polite guy, which meant…
She turned as the store’s front door opened.
“Oh, thank goodness you’re open!” Mandy came rushing over. “Frankie says we need one of those big water jugs and a water purifier and flashlights and a first aid kit and…” She paused to check her list.
“What are you guys doing?” It really wasn’t a good time for Mandy and Frankie to go on an off-road camping adventure.
“Evacuating. Well, prepping in case the order comes.”
Jen tried not to look amused. “You won’t need those things, Mandy. Just follow the highway to safety and stay in a hotel or with friends or something. You’ll be fine.”
“Oh.” Mandy paused, looking around. Her eyes caught the shirt bunched up under the change room door and her eyes opened a little wider. She mouthed, Hot?
Jen grinned and nodded. She mouthed back, I asked him out!
Mandy scrunched her face in confusion and Jen waved her off. “I’ll tell you later,” she whispered.
“I think I’d better at least get the knife and the water jug thing to placate Frankie,” Mandy said, consulting her list again.
Jen grabbed the items and brought them to the counter as His Holy Major Hotness exited the change room, adjusting his new shirt. Man, he had nice eyes.
Working hard to look away, she rang up Mandy’s order as HHMH wandered to toward them.
Mandy grabbed the items and, shooting Jen a grin and a wink, scurried out.
“She, uh, makes the brownies I was mentioning,” Jen said as Mandy hit the sidewalk.
HHMH smiled, not looking as though he was a man trying to get out of a date. At least not yet.
“The town’s in quite the uproar, huh?” he asked, leaning on the glass counter.
“It’ll die down.”
She shrugged. She’d love to be as optimistic as this guy. “Easy for you to say.”
“Why’s that?” he asked, leaning closer.
“You aren’t the one who started it.” Oh crap. She wasn’t supposed to say that. Really, really wasn’t supposed to say that.
“And you did?” His eyebrows lifted. Suddenly, this man was on high alert in a way that had her skin prickling with nerves.
She gave a tense shrug, her voice tight. “I didn’t see anyone else in the park that weekend.”
“Huh.” He studied her for a long moment. “You wouldn’t happen to be Jennifer Kulak, would you?”
She quickly pushed away her surprise. “I am.” Had her reputation finally surpassed the nature guide over in Derbyshire and this hottie had heard of her guiding skills? She was kind of in major love with that idea. She grabbed a bag for his wet shirt and flashed him a grin. Maybe she’d stick around town after all. If she was a stellar guide with a reputation outside of these mountains she could definitely handle a little forest fire. No problem.
He plopped his shirt in the offered bag and took it by its handles.
“I’m Rob Raine.” He freed a hand to shake hers. “I’m the investigator sent to check out your forest fire.”
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Copyright © 2017 Jean Oram. All Rights Reserved. Not to be copied or distributed in any form without explicit permission from the author Jean Oram. Contact her to inquire further.