Fuck my life, I was exhausted. Squinting into the sun, I walked out of the Midnight Sun’s Hotshot Crew house at 10:45 p.m. I’d never known a more fitting name for a hotshot team in my life. We’d lived here the last seven years—as soon as I’d been accepted to the University of Alaska—but the sunlight situation in late July still caught me off guard from time to time.
Guess my brain always diverted back to Colorado.
“Damn, that was a long one, Riv,” Bishop said, swinging his arm over my shoulder and squeezing. He’d done the same thing after every fire we’d ever been on together. I knew he hated that I’d followed him into this life. What the fuck did he think I was going to do? Let my big brother follow in our dad’s footsteps and not tag along? Hell no. As soon as I was old enough, I’d applied, worked my ass off through college getting my degree in forestry, and now here we were.
“I’m just glad it’s over. It was getting dicey there for a while.” I unlocked the doors on my F250 as he ruffled my hair like we were kids again. Strands of the dark, heavy stuff caught in the scruff of my beard as it settled back around my face. Chin-length was as far as I could handle my hair, I had no clue how Bishop managed to keep his down his back.
Our mother is Cheyenne, he always said in explanation.
“It did go to shit,” he admitted. “You could always take a cushy job with the forest service. No fires, safe hours, nice scenery…” he said before unlocking the doors to his truck, too.
“Like that’s ever going to happen,” I said as I tossed my dirt-covered bag into the bed of the truck.
“Yeah, well, I wish it would,” he mumbled.
“Gym tomorrow?” I asked, ignoring his jibe. For only being three years older than me, he took his brothering seriously.
“Same as usual,” he answered, climbing up into his truck.
I did the same, sliding behind the wheel and shutting the door. A crank of the engine later and I was on the road out of Fairbanks, heading toward my house in Ester. Bishop was a mad man when it came to gym time. You’d better be able to outrun the fire, he’d always told me.
So he pushed me like the flames were constantly licking at my heels. Not that I minded the body it gave me—hell, it attracted more than my fair share of female attention. Though I’d definitely sampled the buffet of women up here, my exploits were nothing compared to Bishop’s.
We were both the same in one regard, though: we’d never been with one woman longer than six months or so. Bishop tended to leave around that time, and as for me…well, the girls always figured out that they weren’t my first priority, which rightfully pissed them off.
As I turned off route three into Ester the sun finally started to set. For God’s sake, it was 11 p.m. I missed warm summer nights under the stars in Colorado. Not that Northern Lights weren’t amazing…they just weren’t the same.
Don’t complain about the sunlight. It will be dark nearly all day soon enough.
The lot in front of the Golden Eagle Saloon had an empty parking spot, and I took it, jumping down from the truck once I killed the ignition. I smelled like smoke and ten days of hard firefighting, but I knew she’d lose her shit if I didn’t stop by.
Besides, I was itching to see her.
The music was up when I walked into the old-fashioned log cabin saloon. Good crowd for a Saturday night.
“River!” Jessie Ruggles called out from the bar, her skirt a hell of a lot shorter than those long-ass legs of hers called for. Not that I was complaining. “Everybody make it home okay?”
“Yeah, we’re intact,” I answered. “Have you seen—”
I turned toward her voice and was immediately met with a hundred pounds of perfection. She swore it was more. I never believed her.
Avery jumped, and I easily caught her. Her arms wrapped around my neck, one of them cradling the back of my head in that way of hers that always fucking melted me.
“You’re okay,” she whispered in my neck.
Even in the bar, she smelled fantastic, all apples and warm cinnamon.
“I’m okay, Avery,” I promised, my hands splaying on her back. “Everyone is.”
She nodded but didn’t say anything, just held me a little tighter. I’d come home from countless fires in the years that she’d been my best friend, and this was always how she welcomed me home.
There was nothing better on the planet.
I stood there in the middle of the bar, letting her hold me as long as she needed. Mostly because I could never get enough of her in my arms.
Avery Claire had been my best friend since I was eighteen.
I’d also been silently in love with her for just as long.
Maybe one day she’d be ready to hear it, but I knew that today was not that day. Hell, the next year didn’t look promising, either.
Taking in one more deep breath, Avery slid from my grasp, backing up a couple feet once her toes hit the wooden floor of the bar. Then she looked me over, inspecting for anything that might slightly resemble an injury. She tucked her long blonde hair behind her ears and nodded, appeased. Avery was fair everywhere I was dark, her skin pale where mine was deeply tanned by the sun and my mother’s Cheyenne heritage. She was tiny where I was broad, curved where I was straight, and those shorts she wore didn’t disguise much of her toned legs.
“See, I’m fine,” I said with a little grin.
“Promise?” she asked, narrowing those gorgeous blue eyes.
“I smell like smoke and I’m fucking exhausted, but other than that, I’m in one piece. I’m actually headed home, but I figured you were working tonight—”
“And that I’d kick your ass if you didn’t tell me you were home.”
“I could always text.”
“Not the same.” Her smile grew until she could have lit the world with how bright it was. “I’m glad you’re home.”
“Me, too. Did Zeus miss me?”
“Your husky is the neediest, wimpiest dog I’ve ever met, but yes, he’s content and full of treats at your house.”
“He’s a big baby,” I admitted.
“Just like his owner,” she teased.
“Avery, were you thinking about getting back to work?” Megan asked from behind the bar in her pack-a-day rasp. She was ageless, frozen somewhere in her fifties. The woman hadn’t changed since I got here seven years ago.