Steele Ridge, Western North Carolina
Deke pushed through the door of Blues, Brews, and Books—or, as the locals liked to say, Triple B. It was good to be back in Steele Ridge, which had formerly been named Canyon Ridge. His family had moved here right before he entered the fourth grade and stayed through his junior year before returning to their hometown of Rockton.
For him, Steele Ridge would always be his true home. He’d made lifelong friends here, and it was the place where he’d become a man.
His eyes took a moment to adjust before settling on the lone figure stationed at the bar. Zigzagging his way around islands of low and high tables, he slapped his friend’s broad shoulder. “Hello, shit for brains.”
Rather than be startled by such an abrupt greeting, Britt Steele angled his lumberjack body around and held out his hand. “You’re late.” He shook Deke’s hand before bellying up to the bar again. “Some of us have to return to work, you know.”
Deke slid onto the barstool kiddie corner to his friend’s. “Can’t even work up an ounce of sympathy.” He nodded to the bartender, Grady. “My last vacation was over a year ago. I’m going to enjoy every second of the next fourteen days.”
Britt eyed the sling cradling his arm. “What happened? Keyboard attack you?”
Deke did his damnedest not to lie to those he cared about. As far as his friends and family knew, he worked for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Office of External Affairs, traveling all over the Southeast Region in search of his next story. Or he could be found cooped up at the Asheville field office banging out articles for the Service’s quarterly newsletter. All true—but not the whole truth.
“You have no idea how threatening the office environment can be.”
“And I hope I never do. How are you healing?”
The dull, throbbing pain in his shoulder served as a constant reminder of how quickly a mission could go wrong, even with hours of careful planning. Matteo had gotten the worst of it, though. SONR’s engineer had spent three days in the hospital after the surgeon had dug the arrow out of his leg. The damned thing had gone so deep that the tip had embedded in bone.
Clenching his jaw, Deke flexed his fingers and lifted his elbow until the action caused an involuntary wince. Better than yesterday, but he wouldn’t be playing basketball anytime soon.
“What do you have planned, besides lunch with a friend you’ve blown off for months?”
“Not a damn thing.”
“You’re going to stare at your apartment walls for the next two weeks?”
“Maybe. If the mood strikes.”
“Don’t see it. I’ve never known you to be idle, in over twenty-five years.”
“I’m hoping to sleep away the first two days.” Deke rubbed his tired eyes. “I’ll see where things go from there.”
He chose his words carefully. “They get more complicated every time.”
“Complicated how? Don’t you just go into an area, interview people, take some pictures and then write up an article?”
“I wish it were that simple.”
“What can I get you?” Grady asked.
“Surprise me.” He glanced at Britt. “You order food yet?”
“Yeah. Hope you’re in the mood for a burger.”
“Do you order for Randi?”
“Not a chance,” a new voice said.
Randi Shepherd cuddled against Britt’s side and kissed him. Although she kept it short, Deke could feel the power of their intimacy from two feet away. A pang of envy clutched his chest, and he shifted his attention to Grady’s nimble hands. What he wouldn’t give to have a woman love him as Randi loves Britt. It was a notion that had filtered through his thoughts a lot lately.
“He knows better.” Randi wrapped Deke in a warm hug. “Seems like forever since we saw you last. You gonna hang around Steele Ridge for a while?”
“I’d planned to. Mind if I rent the loft above the bar for a few days?”
“Of course. I’ll have someone run up there to see if it’s habitable.”
“Thought you didn’t have a plan,” Britt said.
“My plan is not to have a plan.”
Randi laughed. “Let me go check on your food.”
He watched his friend’s gaze follow Randi from the room. “How’s domestic life treating you?”
“Bit of an adjustment at first, but we’ve settled into a groove now.”
“A good one?”
“How’s the Center?”
Thanks to a hefty investment from Britt’s younger brother, he was running a Wildlife Research Center on the outskirts of town.
“I hired a botanist to study the red wolves’ habitat and the surrounding conservation area.”
“Is that trepidation or skepticism I hear in your voice?”
“Fear.” Britt lifted a beer mug to his lips. “She’s my cousin.”
He searched his memory for another conservationist in the Steele family. “Not Riley.”
“Ding, ding, ding.”
“The Kingston menace?”
“What the hell were you thinking? She used to plant shit bombs in our sleeping bags.”
“She just got back from a research expedition in Costa Rica and needed a job. The Center needed a botanist, so everyone’s happy.”
“Can’t wait to see how long that lasts.”
A gust of air signaled the arrival of a newcomer to Triple B. Even before Deke turned, a buzz of awareness sprinted down his spine. Only one person had ever had that effect on him.
The last person who should.
Even though he’d known her since she’d toddled around on chubby legs, he’d first noticed her crystal blue eyes, silken black hair, and long, long legs right after she turned sixteen. He’d come upon her sunbathing in a gut-socking white bikini. The sight had stopped him cold. Then the heat had come. Scorching, blood-searing heat.
When she’d glanced at him over her bare shoulder and thrown out her sweet Evie smile, he could only stare at the way the triangle of white material molded her firm ass. She’d twisted around, and his attention had torn from her rounded bottom to mouthwatering breasts that would fit his hand perfectly.
Somewhere between fifteen and sixteen, his Squirt had…developed. And he’d stirred. For her. Evie. The girl who, up to that point, had been like a sister to him. Guilt had consumed him.
For years afterwards, he’d done everything he could to avoid her.
Avoidance hadn’t stopped his thoughts. His vivid dreams. His comparing every woman he looked at to Evie’s perfection.
Evie Steele had squirmed her way into every conscious thought and desire he possessed. No amount of cursing, women, or distance had managed to shake her hold.
At one point, when she’d cleared high school, he’d considered braving Britt’s big brother wrath and asking her out. But she’d plunged into college and nursing school at the same time he’d been invited to join a newly formed black ops unit with the Service.
Now, four years later, their journeys were still worlds apart. With a degree under her belt, Evie would be starting a career. Whereas kids, family, and settling down had begun visiting his thoughts, as of late.
Britt had found soul-searing happiness with Randi. She smoothed his edges, cared for him in a way no one else ever had. And he’d almost lost the love of his life to a greed-driven trophy hunter.
The power of that kind of love struck fear in Deke’s heart and warmed it, at the same time. Problem was, he didn’t have a wife, fiancée, or even a girlfriend. Not one viable candidate.
His gaze locked on Evie’s across the bar, and the pressure on his chest intensified, became crushing. Time had passed, and his lecherous guilt had faded. They were both adults now. If not for the twelve years separating their ages, Evie might have been the one.
But he could never ask her to put her career on hold to be with him and start a family. What if she did and then couldn’t stomach the demands of his career? She would’ve given up so much, for what?
He swallowed back his longing and returned to his beer, allowing the familiar mask to drop in place.
Forcing away the memory of last year’s stolen kiss.
# # #
Evie Steele spotted her brother the moment she entered Triple B. Over two hundred pounds of muscle and shaggy blond hair was hard to miss, even in this lunch crowd.
Her big brother held her attention for about a half a second before her Deke radar blared.
There he was. Every bit as tall as Britt, but with the sleek, muscled planes of a leopard rather than the thick sturdiness of a tiger. Deke’s coloring was even darker, deeper. As if he’d spent all the hours of his days outside. Curly ebony hair shaved close at the sides and back and tamed at the top by a hint of hair product.
What she wouldn’t do to see that beautiful mane grow wild, to run her fingers through his thick curls. To feel their softness whisper against her bare breast. Evie shook off the erotic fantasy before she made a fool of herself in front of the good residents of Steele Ridge.
Instead, she braced herself for their reunion. At the moment, she was quite unhappy with him. But Deke Conrad could charm the cantankerous out of any farmer and he had every woman in town holding their breath for one of his lopsided grins to float their way.
Deke was a dangerous man.
Especially to her. She’d crushed on him since before she’d known what the word meant. Then her young girl’s worship transformed into something deeper, hotter, more stirring than a simple attraction. She ached to draw imaginary lines over his broad, bare back, to trace her lips down the center of his glistening chest, to inhale his musky, masculine scent as her tongue explored his most intimate parts.
Gah! She had to stop with the naked, entwined images.
The big lug refused to see her as a beddable woman. Scratch that. He’d noticed. She’d caught him looking at her behind a time or two. The most memorable moment, the time that had given her the most hope, was when she’d been sitting in front of the picture window in her mom’s front room.
At that time of the day, silhouettes from inside the house reflected onto the glass, giving her fair warning should any of her brothers try to sneak up from behind. But her brothers hadn’t filled the picture window that day. Deke had.
He’d stopped by to pick up Britt for some outing or other and spotted her reading. He hadn’t announced his presence. He’d just stood there, watching her.
Even now, years later, her flesh heated, her breasted tightened, her center dampened at the memory. All for a guy who couldn’t get beyond the fact that she was his best friend’s little sister.
Sometimes she’d like to flick his ears. Knock the fog from his eyes. Last year, at the groundbreaking ceremony for Britt’s wildlife research center, she’d thought he’d set aside the ridiculous barrier he’d erected and decided to see where their mutual attraction led. But the next morning, the scaredy-cat had disappeared.
For eleven months, eight days, and…never mind. It was a long frickin’ time.
His dark gaze honed in on her across the bar. A spin top tore across her chest, then idled on her stomach, burrowing deep. She slapped the damn thing away.
Who disappeared after a first kiss? Caveman Conrad, that’s who. When he’d vanished without a word of goodbye, he’d lost his chance with her. Not that he was rolling any dice in that direction, but if he were, he’d hit snake eyes. Too many loved ones had ditched her over the years. She wasn’t about to get tangled up with a guy who couldn’t see past her last name to the woman she’d become.
At least that’s what she told herself. One come hither-glance from those iridescent eyes, and all her hard lines would go limp like a spaghetti noodle. No getting around it. She was a hot mess when it came to her feelings for Deke Conrad. “Evie-girl, what are you up to today?” asked a woman with a thick salt-and-pepper braid resting over one shoulder.
“Here to pester my brother before I set off for another MedTour. Speaking of which, how’s your knee? Still painful when you bend it?”
“Nah. Those exercises you gave me did the trick.”
“Happy to hear it. Have a nice afternoon, Mrs. Grossman.”
As she wove her way to the bar, several diners gave her quick waves, big smiles, and warm hellos. She mustered a half-hearted acknowledgment. She didn’t stop to chat like normal. She couldn’t. No words could get past her air-locked throat.
Deke was in her midst.
Damn the man!
“Hey, Squirt,” Deke said when she neared.
The nickname was like a palm to the forehead. Blunt. Hard. Crushing.
She met his gaze. Held it long enough to determine whether or not he remembered their kiss. Those ice-blue eyes held the same warm friendship they always had. No longing. No passion. No glimmer of hope. “Hey, Deke.”
Britt turned around on his barstool, and she hugged him before sitting on his opposite side.
“What? No squeeze for me?”
Somehow she produced her most mischievous smile. “I don’t hug strangers.”
“Ouch. It hasn’t been that long.”
“Guess that depends on your perspective.”
Britt eyed the two of them, big brother suspicion creasing the area between his brows.
Time for a subject change.
“Thanks for the lunch invite,” she said. “I’m glad we could get together before I head out.”
“Need anything?” Britt asked.
“I’m good, thanks.” She nudged her shoulder against his. “I have a job now, you know.”
She let the issue alone. Britt would always look out for his younger brothers and sisters. No matter their age or economic status. Heck, Jonah was a billionaire and Britt still tried to buy his lunch.
“Taking a trip?” Deke asked.
He waited for her to explain. She didn’t. She was that annoyed with him.
“Here you go.” Kris McKay slid plates in front of Britt and Deke. “Can I get you boys anything else?”
“Not in front of the kid,” Deke said, winking at Kris.
“What in the world are you talking about, Deke Conrad?” Kris asked, throwing a conspiratorial grin her way. “Evie’s my age.”
Deke glanced between Kris and Evie.
“That way lies trouble, my friend,” Britt said, biting into his burger.
Evie raised a brow in Deke’s direction, waiting.
He grabbed the ketchup bottle and squirted a blob next to his steak-cut fries.
Noticing his sling, pressure squeezed her chest. “What happened to your arm?”
“Hunting accident.” He popped a ketchup-coated fry in his mouth. “I’ll be rid of it in a couple weeks.”
“How’d it happen?”
“A second of inattention.”
She wanted far more detail, but his expression closed like an iron gate protecting the castle.
“Want something to eat?” Britt asked, forcing her attention away from Deke’s injury.
“I’ve been thinking about Randi’s bruschetta all the way here.”
“What about your meal?”
“That will be my meal.”
Smiling, Kris said, “I’ll put your order in.”
Britt scooted his plate over to her. “Have some fries.”
“Afraid I’ll waste away?”
“No chance of that.”
She smacked his shoulder. “Rude.”
“Do you have a job lined up now that you’re done with college?” Deke asked.
“I’m not done yet.”
He glanced a Britt. “Didn’t you tell me she graduated?”
“She did. Evie’s starting a Master’s degree.”
“Master’s.” Deke’s flat tone drew her gaze. His expression remained neutral, but his eyes…his eyes revealed…loss.
Her throat closed at the small tell of his feelings. Why loss? Why wouldn’t he be happy for her?
Breaking eye contact, he lifted his beer bottle to his lips. “Is that why you’re taking a trip? A little me time before classes start up?”
“No me time.” She stared at the tray of quartered limes and lemons. A strange hollowness filled the area where her heart used to be. Why couldn’t she figure him out? Why did he persist in ignoring this thing between them? Why did she let him?
The bartender set a glass of ice water in front of her.
“MedTour,” Britt said.
Evie sipped her drink, wishing her brother would’ve let the subject drop.
“She’s going to travel around the mountains in an RV, patching up patients who don’t have health care or reliable transportation.”
“I’ll be working under the direction of a Nurse Practitioner. Lisa Frye. She went to school with you and Britt.”
“I remember her. She’s an old friend.”
The softening around Deke’s mouth and eyes lanced her insides. She reached for her water again. “Then you’ve heard of her MedTours.”
“I knew she went to different towns to offer up her services, but I didn’t realize it was so structured. Definitely didn’t know about the RV.”
“One serving of Randi’s bruschetta.” Kris set a rectangular dish in front of her. “Let me know if you need anything else.”
“Thanks, this should be more than enough.” Evie picked up a piece of toasted bread piled high with tiny cubed tomatoes, herbs, onions, garlic, and balsamic vinegar. She bit into the mound, and the mixture of flavors burst into her mouth. She closed her eyes, chewing slowly, appreciatively. Enjoying something besides yogurt and Ramen noodles, for a change.
She opened her eyes to find Britt smiling down at her. She grinned back until she caught Deke staring at her mouth. She licked her bottom lip, hoping like hell she didn’t have basil stuck in her teeth.
His focus intensified, burned, until his gaze lifted to hers.
Blink. And the fire disappeared.
Deke cleared his throat. “How does this MedTour thing work? Are people scheduling appointments? Or do you make house calls?”
Evie released a painful breath, wishing she could blink away emotion as easily as he. “Every month the MedTour visits impoverished communities all over the Smokies.”
“Residents come to expect you, then.”
“Yes, Lisa has set up a regular route. Every once in a while she’ll veer off-course because of an emergency or something. But the whole thing runs like clockwork. Takes two weeks to complete the route, barring anything crazy coming up.”
“Two weeks on tour, two weeks off?”
“What towns are you hitting?”
“I don’t recall the entire schedule, but I know Haden’s Hollow, Niles, and Creede are on the list.”
“Creede?” His gaze sharpened on her. “Isn’t that close to Bamford?”
“I have no idea.”
“Just to the north of Bamford,” Britt interjected.
“When are you headed out?” Deke asked.
“Three days from now.”
Deke took several bites of his burger, throwing them all into a thoughtful silence. Then he asked, “Do you enjoy the work?”
She nodded. “After four years of nursing school, I’m glad to finally put what I’ve learned into practice. Everyone we treat is so grateful. It’s an amazing program.” She aimed another mound of bruschetta toward her mouth. “This is only my second tour. I live in fear I’ll screw something up and cause someone more harm than good.”
“If you treat enough people, the odds are good that you’ll screw up something,” Britt said in his most pragmatic voice. “The important part is what you do afterwards.”
“Are you trying to terrify me?”
“No.” His eyebrows pushed together. “All I’m saying is when you mess up don’t dwell on the mistake. Figure out how to fix it and how not to do it again.”
Deke chuckled. “I think your sister needs a peppier talk. Something like, ‘You’re doing great. I’m proud of you.’”
“Of course I’m proud of her. But no one’s perfect, especially not when starting a new job. Mistakes happen.”
“It’s okay, Britt,” she said. “I knew what you meant.” Britt didn’t waste words, nor was he one for chitchat. For him to say as much as he had on the topic told her that he was as nervous about this new adventure as she.
“I’m proud of her, too,” Deke said.
Startled by Deke’s quiet statement, Evie stared him.
“Many people talk. They empathize with their neighbor about the poor in Appalachia, while enjoying lattes at the local coffee shop. But they don’t act. The poor have no impact on their daily lives, so their empathy wanes with the next weighty topic.” He lopsided smile appeared, the one that always, always melted her heart. “You’re a doer, Evie Steele. Always have been.”
Needles stung her nose and the backs of her eyes. Words of thanks clogged her throat, refusing to emerge for fear of their inadequacy.
He tossed his napkin onto the bar and drew a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet. “Gotta go.”
“You just got here,” Britt said.
“Just remembered I need to follow up on something for work.”
“I thought you were taking some time off.”
“I am. Or will be.” He shook Britt’s hand and hesitated a second before nodding to her. “See y’all later.”
“Hey,” Britt called, angling around. “If you’re free this Sunday, give me a call. Found a new fishing spot with bluegills the size of your hand.”
“Sounds like my kind a hole.”
She followed Deke’s departure until his dark head was no longer visible. A familiar ache of loss filled in her chest.
“What was all that about?” Britt asked.
“The tension between the two of you was so thick I nearly suffocated.”
“We’ve always teased each other.”
“Exactly. Tease.” Britt rubbed a hand over his face and released a harsh breath. “Listen, I recognize when a man—”
“There’s nothing going on between us. All I did was call him out on staying away for so long.”
He regarded her for several uncomfortable seconds, disbelief storming in his eyes. But he didn’t press her. Simply dipped a fry into his ketchup and handed it to her.
Gratitude made her smile. How could she tell her brother that the tension he sensed might have been sexual on her side, but avoidance on Deke’s? One humiliation per day was more than enough. Thank the sweet Lord she wouldn’t see Deke Conrad again anytime soon.