Only Her Smokejumper Firefighter by Cami Checketts

 

Prologue

Mavyn Vance walked through the smokejumper base camp near Muir Woods north of San Francisco. It was a warm, early August evening. The air in the forest was thick with smoke and sadness. Every charred tree told a story. Her stomach churned thinking of her beloved woods going up in flames. She would include the desperation and sorrow she sensed here in her article, but she had to remember her main focus—an inside look at smokejumpers. Several whistled as she walked past. She glanced their way with a flirtatious smile. She teased and flirted with many handsome men, but she was fiercely determined to never let one into her heart. When she was eighteen, she’d lost her innocence and her desire to ever trust a man. She couldn’t revive the former and didn’t plan on reinstating the latter.

She stopped in her tracks as a man in the tan suit of a smokejumper walked toward her with determined strides, helmet in hand. The power and confidence he radiated screamed, This one’s worth paying attention to.

“Excuse me,” he said, stopping a foot away and glancing over her. There was interest in that gaze but also frustration. He didn’t want her here. His blue eyes were piercing and his handsome face and strong build should’ve been on posters for Hot Smokejumpers Are Us. “What are you doing here?”

She laughed to ease the tension. She knew she was out of her element and looked it in a flirtatious sundress and heels. Her black curls were wild and big as ever, her makeup done to perfection to highlight her smooth brown skin, full lips, and unique green eyes.

She’d been in sticky situations many times, and always turned the situation to her favor. “I’m out of my element, aren’t I?”

He relaxed and actually grinned. A slight dimple appeared in his left cheek. “We’re definitely not used to seeing beauty like yours pop up on the trail to the helipad.”

She smiled. “And I wasn’t expecting a smokejumper who looks more like a male model.”

He shook his head as if her compliment didn’t matter to him. “The pretty boy face is a farce. I’m tougher than I look.”

“You definitely look tough as well as pretty,” she admitted.

His eyebrows arched. “Thank you. Now can you tell me what you’re doing here and how I can get you to go back to your safe and happy home?”

Mavyn’s happy home had exploded during her teenage years. Supposedly at the worst time, if you believed in developmental psychology. Her dad had tried to stay involved in Mavyn’s life, but he’d failed as he plowed through different wives and had so many other children to keep up with. Many of those children were close to Mavyn’s own age, a testament that he’d cheated on her mom for years before dumping his first family. Her mom had also tried to be a parent, but sunk into a lifelong battle with depression and a marriage to alcohol after the man she’d adored ditched her for a younger model. Mavyn’s happy home now was with her best friend, Cora. She loved her friend and their small apartment.

“Well, hot smokejumper man, if you’ll give me an exclusive interview for my article, I’ll be on my merry way.”

“A reporter?” His eyes narrowed suspiciously.

“A writer,” she countered. “I write lifestyle pieces for various magazines and I want to feature the inside story of a smokejumper.”

His blue eyes studied her as if trying to determine if her motives were pure.

“I know the media is not to be trusted—” most mainstream media twisted and lied so seamlessly she had to constantly fight against those stigmas of her career— “but I promise I wouldn’t print anything unless I have your permission. I’ll make you look good, not that you need any help in that aspect.” She winked. “You can trust me, cowboy.”

“Hmm.” His gaze was warm and leery at the same time. He liked her openness, but he wasn’t sure if her intentions were pure. “Maybe I can. I’ll make you a deal. If you climb back in whatever fancy car brought you here and get somewhere safe, I’ll meet you for dinner tonight at Avatar’s. I’m craving some good Indian food.”

“Is that all you’re craving, Mr. Smokejumper Stud?” She’d never again give a man anything beyond a kiss, but this man would definitely be worth a drawn-out one.

He gave a surprised chortle. “We’ll see.”

“Why do you want me out of here so badly?”

“Look around.” He gestured with his head. “You’re distracting my men. This isn’t the safest spot for anybody, but especially not a beauty in a flimsy dress and heels. If the winds making this fire a nightmare shift direction, you’ll die without the protective equipment we have on, and some of my men will be in danger because they’ll try to protect you.”

That was blunt and terrifying. “I think you could protect me,” she said saucily.

His gaze traveled over her face. “I would die trying,” he admitted.

Mavyn froze, captured by the depth of his gaze and his words. This was a real man. An honorable, committed man. He put the lives of others first and was true to home and country. Meeting him for dinner might be dangerous for her closed-off heart.

“Now, Miss …?”

She swallowed hard. “Mavyn Vance.”

“Miss Mavyn Vance. Avatar’s at seven. In return, you protect yourself and my men by getting away from the front lines.” It wasn’t a question.

Normally Mavyn would tell Mr. Firefighter Captain that nobody ordered her around, but she couldn’t resist the power of that blue gaze or his sincere plea. He wanted her safe and he wanted his men safe. It would be incredibly selfish of her to continue prancing around their camp. “I’ll see you tonight,” she said.

“Thank you.” He tilted his chin to her and strode off toward the helipad. He cut the finest picture of a tough firefighter she’d ever seen. She couldn’t resist snapping several pictures of him. When he glanced back over his shoulder and gave her a look that was smokier than the air around them, her heart caught in her throat.

Wow. He was really something.

He disappeared into the smoke and she felt an intense letdown. As if they were in love and she’d just sent her warrior off to battle. Goodness, that was silly and dramatic. She forced those feelings away and took more snapshots of the camp as she walked to her car. Not a fancy sports car like he’d intoned, but a sensible Hyundai Sonata.

Tonight would be interesting. She’d need to stay strong. She’d ask Cora to pray for her. Mavyn believed in her Father above, but she trusted her own instincts, not Heaven. She knew He didn’t want to hear what Mavyn had to say anyway.

* * *

Mavyn waited just outside of Avatar’s at six-fifty-nine p.m. that night. She was definitely overdressed in three-inch heels and a pale blue dress that accentuated her figure and contrasted nicely with her dark hair and skin. The restaurant was in a small strip mall within sight of the bay. Peering through the window, she could see a clean, small space with nicely set wood tables. It was busy and the patrons were devouring delicious-looking food.

It was hard to think of food when she was going to meet the incredible man from this morning, and she didn’t even know his name. He’d said “his men” so she assumed he was a captain—or some kind of supervisor, since her research showed that wildland firefighters didn’t have captains. Whatever his rank, he’d been impressive and fun to flirt with.

Minutes ticked by and she worried he was going to ditch her. That would be a first for her. She was always the one doing the ditching. Maybe he’d been caught in a fire and couldn’t come. Maybe, even as she sat here waiting, he was being burned to death. The thought made her throat tighten and her stomach ache. She didn’t even know him and already she felt emotionally invested in him. She needed to stop those feelings, pronto. If she couldn’t stay detached from him like she did all other men, maybe she needed to run now, ditch out before she became emotionally invested.

A nice black quad cab truck pulled into the parking lot before she could act on her fears and run. She watched, hoping it was her man. Rolling her eyes at herself, she had to keep remembering that he wasn’t her man. Not even close. The door to the truck flung open and a fit body climbed out, sucking the oxygen from her lungs. He was dressed in a gray Henley shirt and black chinos. He wore them well. Extremely well.

When she looked into the man’s handsome face and those blue eyes twinkled at her, she felt the world settle. This may be the man who would change her opinions about never settling down. She tried to mentally slap herself, but it wasn’t working as his grin showed that dimple in his left cheek. At that moment, she couldn’t have run if she tried.

She was in deep, deep trouble.

“Hey,” he said as he approached. He stepped in close, infusing her senses with an alluring smell of pine needles and man. He personified the outdoors, this guy. Bending low, he brushed his lips across her cheek, startling her and making her want much, much more. “You look incredible, Mavyn.”

Mavyn wavered on her heels and he immediately wrapped his arm around her waist to steady her. She should’ve told him to back off, thinking he was much too forward, but the connection between them zinged and grew stronger. There was no backing off. She was meant to be supported and loved by him.

“I don’t even know your name,” she said in wonder, staring up at him.

He grinned wider. “Ren Chadwick.”

“What are you doing to me, Ren Chadwick?” she asked in a breathy voice she hardly recognized.

“Buying you dinner, getting to know everything about you, and then giving you the best goodnight kiss of your life.”

Mavyn dredged up some of her usual sass, though she desperately wanted that kiss from him. “You’re extremely overconfident and presumptuous, Mr. Chadwick.”

“We’ll see.” The twinkle in his eyes said he wrote the book on confidence and making a woman fall at his feet. Was he simply a player and she was about to get a taste of her own medicine? Or did he feel the sparks weaving and binding them together as well?

He escorted her into the restaurant and Mavyn had no power to resist. She spent the next two hours ignoring her fear and worry as they talked and laughed together. She barely tasted the delicious Indian food. Being around Ren Chadwick was like experiencing the opera for the first time—sensational, astounding, and impossible to replicate. She shared things with him she’d told no one but her best friend Cora. Of course, she didn’t share her darkest secrets. She would never share those again in this lifetime.

They talked about their families and she opened up enough to share the anger she felt toward her father. Ren had similar abandonment issues, but he’d turned to God for peace. She wasn’t even close to doing that as the memories she’d pushed away of her pastor telling her she was unworthy cropped up, but she admired Ren for it. Their bond grew stronger with every word, every shared experience, every glance, and every innocent touch of the hand.

By the time Ren paid the bill, Mavyn felt her world had upended. She had never expected this or seen it coming, but she was certain she’d found the man she was meant to spend eternity with. How had she let her guard down so completely in two hours? Was this smart? No, but she couldn’t stop it now. Cora was going to be ecstatic.

They walked down to the water, their arms brushing, and her heart threatened to burst from her chest. When Ren turned to her and pulled her into his arms, she gasped from the sheer pleasure of it, but this was much deeper than physical attraction. She’d finally found her place in life after years of not only avoiding the search, but ditching any man who might be a prospect.

“Do you believe in heavenly intervention?” Ren asked softly, gazing down at her with his blue, blue eyes.

“No,” she admitted. “I’ve never been able to deny that God exists, but I know He doesn’t care about me or my decisions.”

Ren’s eyebrows lifted. “You’re wrong, Mavyn Vance, and I’m about to prove it to you.”

She half-laughed. She didn’t like being told she was wrong, but she loved the way he phrased everything. “How are you going to do that?”

He was tall, maybe six-two, and she barely cleared five feet. With her heels and the appreciative way he studied her, though, she didn’t feel too small. She didn’t think she could ever feel insignificant with him around.

He shifted her closer and lowered his head. “God is in the details of your life, Mavyn. He loves you. Our meeting this morning, the way we’ve connected tonight, and the way we feel about each other in a matter of hours …” He shook his head and his eyes filled with wonder. “That’s divine intervention.”

Mavyn couldn’t swallow. She could hardly breathe. Cora was a big believer and Mavyn never scoffed at her beliefs, but she couldn’t embrace them either. How could this ultra-tough man she’d been falling so hard and fast for believe without a doubt that God had brought them together? It was unfathomable and more than a little uncomfortable.

But she couldn’t deny that she loved being in his arms.

“How can you be so sure He’s in the details of your life?”

“Yours too,” Ren insisted. “But for me, I’ve felt Him. His protection, His mercy, His love, too many times to ever doubt.”

Mavyn was amazed by him and amazed at her response to him. His faith made him even stronger and more appealing, but she couldn’t just start believing. She’d distanced herself too far from faith.

Her shoulders drooped and she admitted, “He doesn’t care about me.”

Ren nodded, adamant in his belief. “He cares. I promise you, Mavyn, He cares.” His voice dropped low and husky. “And I care too.”

Mavyn’s stomach hopped as if she’d jumped off a cliff. She pushed away all the evangelical talk and focused on him. “I hardly know you, Ren, but I … care about you too,” she admitted. Ren couldn’t have any idea the leap those words were for her. They’d shared a lot tonight, everything except her deepest secrets. The truth was that she was irreparably damaged. She should not be indulging in these moments of heaven with him or admitting she cared.

He gave her a meaningful look that seemed to dart around all her scars, penetrate through her cracks, and dive deep into her soul. How could he care so deeply when they hardly knew each other? She had no idea. Maybe it was the Spirit that was strong in him, maybe it was simply they were meant to be.

She didn’t waste any more time analyzing as he bowed his head and kissed her.

The kiss was tender, sweet, and soft. Mavyn had never felt a kiss like that. Usually the men she allowed to kiss her—on the one date she granted to each man who asked—kissed her deeply and insistently as if they could force her to stay with them by going at her with gusto.

Ren didn’t seem to feel any urgency. He took his time, using his lips to express his patience, his desire, and his commitment to her. The kisses grew stronger and more intense and Mavyn gave in to the feelings he stirred in her. In the back of her mind, she knew this night and especially this moment was insane, but as for right now? She couldn’t have stopped this for the Pulitzer Prize.

As the kisses continued, she was transported to a future she’d never glimpsed. A future where Ren’s lips and arms showed her love, allegiance, and joy unimagined. A future where she was safe to let down her guard and trust herself to a man she hadn’t known truly existed.

Ren!her soul seemed to exclaim with joy.

When the kisses ended, she realized time had flown by. It was much later than she’d thought.

Ren stared at her and whispered, “I’ve finally found you.”

Mavyn’s heart threatened to explode. “Were you looking for me?” she asked with only a tiny bit of sass.

He smiled, nodded, and gently trailed his fingers along her cheek. “All my life.”

Mavyn sighed at the beauty of those words. He gave her a meaningful look. And then they were kissing again and nothing else mattered but Ren and his perfect arms and inspiring kisses and sweet words.

When they walked back to their vehicles hand in hand, it was almost one in the morning. Mavyn marveled at the night’s events as Ren opened her car door. “I won’t have leave for another two weeks,” he said. “Will you meet me for dinner a week from Saturday?”

“Name the time and place.”

He grinned and bent low to kiss her one more time. “Why don’t you choose?”

“Scoma’s at seven.” She climbed into her car.

“I’ll be there.” He shut her door and stepped back.

Mavyn lifted a trembling hand before she started her car. As she pulled from the parking lot, he stood there watching her. Was this love? She touched her fingers to her lips in awe, but immediately the doubts started creeping in. Love in a matter of hours? God caring about the details of her life? What on earth had just happened to her? Was Ren a manly angel or the devil trying to trick her into thinking she could find peace and happiness, then gouging her even more deeply?

She drove home and luckily Cora was in bed. She fell onto her own bed and replayed the evening over and over again. Ren was incredible, there was no denying that, but it was preposterous that she felt that strong of a connection to him so quickly. She had to be inflating the night and her feelings.

She finally drifted off to sleep. Sleeping late the next day, she had the apartment to herself since Cora was at church. Church. Bah! She didn’t believe. God hadn’t helped her when she’d begged him to make her dad love her, begged him to help her mom be emotionally well enough to take care of her, begged the Lord to stop Bruce from hurting her, begged Him for her innocent baby to live, and finally begged for her pastor to help her find peace and repentance. Instead, she’d been belittled and told she was used up and unworthy. At least the pastor she’d trusted throughout her teenage years had been honest with her.

When she met Cora during their freshman year of college, she could’ve attributed it to divine intervention, but she knew it was just luck. Cora and Mavyn had been there for each other ever since. Mavyn almost felt like she was Cora’s big sister and best friend rolled in one. Cora trusted Mavyn’s instincts and feelings, always listened to her and looked to her for insight and support. That was ironic, since Cora was the believer. Cora needed her and Mavyn didn’t need anybody.

Except Ren Chadwick.

Her entire soul warmed at the thought and the memories of him—his looks, his words, his touch. Almost immediately, the despair and darkness oozed in. She wished she could fight it, but she couldn’t. She wasn’t the right match for a pure, strong, perfect man like Ren. How could she be so weak and let her guard down completely with him? What on earth had she been thinking? It all felt like a fanciful dream. Purity and light weren’t for her. The only light in her life was Cora, and that was how it had to stay.

The next two weeks were horrific. At first, she had to dodge Cora and her questions about the date Saturday night, writing it off as just another fun dinner and kissing session and making sure to not even tell Cora his name. Though Ren Chadwick was on a constant repeat in her own mind. Then she went on different dates every day, sometimes two a day, and that stopped Cora from thinking Mavyn had felt something with Ren. What she felt now was despair and darkness stronger than she had since Bruce had beaten her and her baby died. She knew more than ever that God despised her. He cared about people like Cora and Ren: the good, the kind, the faithful.

The only thing she could do to assuage the pain and not perpetuate the lie of thinking she could be with Ren was to stay away from him. It would hurt him, but it would be better for him in the long run. All she had to do was not show up Saturday night. It was no big deal. Yet she was certain her heart and soul would be ripped in two. The only healing balm she could see was being with Ren again.

Saturday night came and she hated the way she felt—guilty and angry, mostly at Heaven. If it was divine intervention that had brought her and Ren together, the Lord above sure had a wry sense of humor. Why show Mavyn heaven in Ren’s arms when she and heaven both knew she could never have it again?

The decent thing to do would be to meet with Ren and tell him she couldn’t see him again, but she was too afraid. If he touched her, she’d capitulate faster than her mom downed a wine cooler. She debated not showing up at all, but what if he tracked her down? Luckily, they hadn’t exchanged numbers, but a man like Ren could find her. She didn’t doubt it. He was powerful all on his own, but he also had a well-known and impressive family.

A moment in his presence and she’d fall again. She had to protect herself… and him.

There was only one path left open to her. She hated it, but she arrived at Scoma’s at five minutes after seven, buckled into the leather seats of some guy’s fancy car. She couldn’t even remember her date’s name. Her body was trembling and all she wanted was to get this battle with Ren over with.

As the valet got her door, she stood on shaky legs and immediately spotted Ren. He looked incredibly handsome in a white button-down shirt, pale blue tie, and navy-blue slacks. His dark hair was brushed to the side and his blue eyes twinkled at her. She longed for the right to throw herself against his chest and never leave. What was she doing ditching the perfect man for her?

Ren started her direction, but stopped abruptly when Mr. No-Name came around the Lexus and put his hand on Mavyn’s lower back to escort her into the restaurant. Mavyn flinched at the unwanted touch. She only wanted Ren’s hand on her back.

“Mavyn?” Ren asked, his eyes uncertain as they flickered from her date to her.

“Hi, Ren,” she managed in a wobbly voice, forcing herself to go through with the farce no matter how much it hurt. “Sorry dinner didn’t work out tonight.”

“Who is that?” her date asked.

“An old friend.”

Ren’s jaw clenched and he stormed across the sidewalk, stopping right in front of her. Sheesh. He was big, and he was glorious. “What’s going on, Mavyn?” he said in a low, gravelly voice.

“Change of plans,” she squeaked out.

Ren’s gaze raked over her and she was milliseconds away from jumping into his arms and begging him to tell her he loved her and someday God could love her. She straightened her back. Neither would ever happen. She had to stay strong.

“You’re scared,” he said in a quiet tone that contradicted how tough he was. Yet she’d seen he could be soft, for her.

Mavyn could never let herself admit to fear. Not even Cora knew how terrified she was inside. She tilted her chin imperiously, but she couldn’t think of the right words to lie to him.

“Who is this?” her date demanded.

“Ren Chadwick,” Ren said, strong, confident, in charge of the world. She wanted him in her life more than she wanted to win the Nobel Prize in Literature.

“Joel Miller,” her date said. So that was his name.

They shook hands briefly and then Joel put pressure on her back to start walking. “We’ve got a reservation.”

Ren stepped in front of her. He looked powerful, imposing, appealing, thrilling. She wanted to close her eyes to protect herself, but she stayed erect and tried for an uninterested gaze. She definitely failed.

“Look, Mavyn.” His voice was husky and beautiful. “I don’t know what’s going on here, but this isn’t the man for you … I am.”

“Excuse me?” Joel sounded affronted.

Mavyn’s stomach hopped happily. Ren was the man for her. Why was she running? She’d known perfect happiness in his arms, and she could be back there in an instant.

No, the dark voice inside said. You could never be worthy of a man like Ren. God was only taunting you, showing you how low you are.

“That’s where you’re wrong,” Mavyn ground out, each word a battle. “No man is the man for me.”

His blue eyes flashed. He was going to fight for her. She loved him for it, but she couldn’t give him the chance. She scurried around him and to the restaurant door, letting Joel play catchup.

“Someday you’ll see the truth, Mavyn. Someday you’ll see the light,” Ren said to her back.

“Light is a fantasy,” she hurled over her shoulder, “and so is love.” She allowed herself to drink in his blue gaze, so intent and full of her, one more time before darting through the restaurant door. She ran for the women’s restroom, ignoring Joel’s calls to her. Ren had never said the word love, but she knew that fantasy would never happen for her.

She’d just cruelly rejected the only man she could have had true happiness with.