Lexi Jewell left Scarlet Springs twelve years ago, vowing never to return to the small Colorado mountain town where she grew up. Now, here she is—over thirty, out of a job and with little choice but to move back in with her eccentric father. Lexi knows it’s just a matter of time before she runs into Austin Taylor, her first boyfriend and her first heartbreak. She’s determined to show him she’s over him—until he steps out of a pickup truck and back into her life, looking sexy as hell in his mountain ranger uniform.
As far as Austin is concerned, Lexi can turn her snazzy little convertible around and drive back to Chicago. After all, she ripped his teenage heart to pieces and turned her back on the town he loves. But from the moment he sees her again, he can’t get her out of his mind. Even her smile messes with his head.
When an evening of conversation turns into something else, Lexi and Austin agree to be friends again—with benefits. But as Lexi starts making plans to return to the big city, Austin realizes he’ll lose her a second time unless he can show her that what she’s searching for has been right here all along.
Lexi put her car into gear and nosed back onto the highway, Austin disappearing up the road behind her in his service vehicle. “He didn’t appreciate that, you know. He wouldn’t have agreed to meet up with you if he’d known you were going to invite me.”
She might not have seen Austin in twelve years, but she could still read him. She hadn’t expected him to be excited about seeing her again, but she also hadn’t expected him to be so … cold.
“Dude needs to lighten up,” Eric took his helmet from his head, dropped it into his lap, the wind catching his hair. “It would have been good for him. He’d have had a few beers, gotten reacquainted with you, realized you’re not an ogre.”
“He thinks I’m an ogre?” She laughed but felt a twinge of hurt just the same.
Eric gave her a “duh” look. “You did break his heart.”
“He broke my heart.” She’d never cried so hard in her life as that night he’d dropped her off in front of the inn and driven away. He hadn’t even said goodbye. “He’s the one who ended it.”
“Sure.” Eric nodded, then looked over at her. “But only after you told him you thought the two of you should date other people. What did you expect?”
“That’s not what I said.” She ought to have known Eric would side with Austin. The two had been best friends since they were little.
“Okay, so you both played a role in screwing things up, but, hey, you were just kids. That’s why I tried to get you together. I thought it would give you both a chance to let go of the past.”
“I let go of all that when I left Scarlet.”
“Uh-huh.” The tone of Eric’s voice told her she hadn’t fooled him.
Months had gone by before the pain in her chest had dulled to something bearable. God, how she’d missed Austin. She’d missed him more than she’d known she could miss anyone. She’d missed his kisses, his sense of humor, the way he’d made her feel special. Everything had reminded her of him—a song on the radio, their favorite TV shows, a couple kissing in the park. It had been a solid year before she’d even considered dating again. To this day, she never saw a box of Junior Mints—his favorite movie theater candy—without thinking of him.
If only she’d kept her mouth busy kissing him that night instead of talking, that entire summer might have been very different. It’s not like she’d actually wanted to date other guys. She’d been in love with Austin. Still, she’d known their lives were about to change and that they were headed in different directions. She’d thought she was being matureby forcing herself to face that fact, but he’d thought she didn’t love him.
What she hadn’t known, what she couldn’t have known until she’d gotten settled in Illinois, was that she would have changed her plans—just to be with him. But by then it had been too late.
“If I were you, I wouldn’t stir the pot.” She turned into the parking lot behind the fire station. “You’ll only make Austin angry.”
“I think I’ve made you angry.” He grinned, apparently untroubled by this. “Damn, it is good to see you again, Lexi.”
She let go of her irritation. “It’s good to see you, too. But, hey, if you ever actually fight a fire, you might want to, you know, wear something. I hear fires are hot and dangerous.”
Which was also a great description of the man sitting beside her.
He chuckled. “I’ll try to remember that.”
“Good.” If he dressed like this, the women and gay men of Scarlet from age nine to ninety might start setting their houses on fire just to stare at him.
“Hey, if you’re looking for a date during the short time you’re in town, I’m available.” Eric rattled off his phone number, then opened the door and stepped out. “If you can’t remember that, just dial 911.”
She laughed. “How do you know I’m not already in a relationship?”
She hadn’t been with anyone since Chris. Trust issues, Vic said.
Eric glanced at her hand. “No ring means there’s nothing I need to take seriously.”
“I don’t recall you being this bold in high school.”
The Eric she remembered had been shy.
He looked her straight in the eyes. “If I had been, Austin wouldn’t have been the one to pop your cherry.”
She gaped at him, unable to keep from laughing. “You’re sure of that, are you?”
“See you around, Lexi.” He gave her a devastating smile, then disappeared inside the fire station.
Still laughing at Eric’s brashness, she left the fire station, passed St. Barbara’s Catholic Church and Frank’s Pump ‘N’ Go, and soon reached the town’s biggest intersection—a roundabout where the Highway 119 intersected with Second Street and Highway 72. She kept to the right, driving past the fossil store and the New Life Institute, where people paid thousands of dollars to have their heads cryogenically frozen after death so they could be brought back to life. Then she took a right turn onto West First Street. There, across the street from Rose’s New Age Emporium, Izzy’s Mountain Café, and a new marijuana shop called Nature’s Meds, stood the Forest Creek Inn.
Yellow with white trim, it was an enormous three-story Victorian home, one of the town’s oldest inhabited buildings and a registered historic landmark. The large yard had been landscaped over several generations with small clusters of aspens, tall blue spruce, two benches, dozens of flower beds, and a pond. The bed and breakfast was run out of the top two floors, while the family had four bedrooms, a bathroom, a family room, kitchen, and dining room on the ground floor.
Everyone assumed it must have been great fun to grow up in a stately, old house with so much history. They had no idea how much work it was to run a business out of one’s home. They looked at the inn and saw its charm. She saw endless chores and lots of rules. Toilets to clean. Beds to make. Furniture to dust. No running. No jumping. No shouting. No friends coming for sleepovers.
She turned into the long, paved driveway and headed back to the parking area reserved for the family. She’d no sooner parked the car and turned off the engine, when she caught sight of her father. He stood in the backyard watering one of the flower beds wearing nothing but his underwear.
Sweet Jesus, Mary, and Joseph!
He really had gone off the deep end.
Forgetting her suitcases, she jumped out of the car and ran over to him. “Dad, what on earth are you doing? You’re going to scare the guests away!”
He turned his head, looking much older than the last time she’d seen him, his jaw covered with gray stubble, his salt-and-pepper hair unwashed and uncombed. “So, one of the prodigal daughters has returned.”
Austin turned off the highway, drove the short distance to Moose Lake, and parked. He reached for his hand mic. “Fifty-six-twenty. Moose Lake on foot patrol.”
“Fifty-six twenty,” dispatch acknowledged. “Moose Lake. Eleven-oh-five.”
So … Lexi Jewell, huh?
He’d known she was coming back to Scarlet, had known his path would cross hers eventually, but running into her as the reporting party of a call had caught him off guard. What had surprised him most was his own reaction.
Some part of him had actually felt happy to see her.
How he could possibly feel anything for her—good or bad—was beyond him. Like cleats, ski racing, and homecoming floats, she was a part of his past, just a woman he used to know. They might as well be strangers.
Except that she hadn’t felt like a stranger.
It had been twelve years since he’d seen her, twelve years since he’d kissed her, twelve years since he’d held her, but everything about her had felt familiar—the sound of her laughter, the way she smiled, the dimple in her left cheek. He’d felt drawn to her, as if some stupid part of him—probably the part attached at his groin—recognized her and wanted to stake some kind of claim.
Well, she wasn’t his. She never had been.
She’d made that clear on July 4, 2004—a date he remembered only because it was a holiday. They’d gone up past the ghost town of Caribou—to watch the fireworks, he’d told her father—and fucked each other’s brains out on a blow-up mattress he’d tossed in the back of his old Ford. Afterward, she’d lain naked on top of him, and they’d kissed. It had been perfect—until it imploded.
“I’m going to miss you so much, Austin.”
“I’m going to miss you, too, but we’ll see each other over break.”
“I’m not coming back here.”
“What? What do you mean you’re not coming back?”
“Once I leave town, that’s it. I’m not coming back to Scarlet—not for a very long time, anyway. I can’t stand this place. You know that.”
“When will we see each other?”
“I don’t know. I suppose you could come to Champaign, and I could visit you in Fort Collins.”
He had imagined them going to college, spending breaks together, and getting married after graduation. But she’d had a very different future in mind, one that hadn’t seemed to include him. With a few words, she’d brought his world crashing down.
If he’d had half a brain in his eighteen-year-old head, he would have let it go and taken the summer to convince her that she couldn’t live without him. Instead, he’d accused her of not loving him the way he loved her—which had been true—and had ended their relationship that night.
“I thought we’d stay together, spend our vacations in Scarlet, and maybe get married, depending on how things go.”
“Get married? Austin, we’re way too young even to think about that. We both need to see new places, try new things, meet other people. Maybe when we’re older—”
“You want to date other guys?”
“That’s not what I said. But the world is going to get bigger for both of us, and chances are we’ll change a lot. Statistically speaking, the vast majority of high school relationships don’t last.”
“Is that what this is to you—just a high school relationship? Am I just a fun way to pass the summer till you leave for college and hook up with other guys?”
“Get dressed. I’m taking you home, Lexi.”
He’d been so angry, so hurt. They hadn’t spoken a word to each other while he’d driven her home, fireworks exploding overhead, his heart in pieces.
In retrospect, they’d both been right. He truly had loved her more than she’d loved him, and she’d understood that they were far too young for serious commitment. She’d also known herself well enough to understand that the life she wanted couldn’t include him. He had to give her credit for that. But knowing all of this didn’t take away the memory of heartbreak.
First love. Why did people romanticize it? It sucked.
True, none of the handful of relationships Austin had had with women since then had been able to match the intensity of that year with Lexi. The two of them had spent every spare minute thinking about sex, reading how-to manuals about sex, talking about sex or having sex, practicing until they’d got it perfect for each other.
Had it really been that good, or was he remembering it through the rose-colored lenses of a teenager?
Hell, he didn’t know.
He climbed out of his service vehicle, grabbed his pack out of the back, and slipped into it, fastening the waist belt and adjusting its weight on his back. He checked to make sure the trash had been collected then walked over to have a look at the restrooms. The women’s room was out of toilet paper, and the men’s room…
“Son of a … !”
This day was going downhill fast.
He let the door swing shut, reached for his hand mic. “Fifty-six-twenty.”
He didn’t understand how shit like this even happened—no pun intended.
“Fifty-six-twenty, go ahead.”
“We need the water truck and high-pressure hoses up at Moose Lake. It’s time for a Code Brown hose down of the men’s room.”
There was a hint of laughter in the dispatcher’s voice when she answered. “Fifty-six-twenty, Code Brown hose down, Moose Lake. Eleven-oh-nine.”
The idea for the Colorado High Country series came to be back in 2013 when I was trying to decide what direction I wanted to go with self-publishing. I had self-published a few older historical romances that had gone out of print after my first New York Publisher went out of business. I had also published a couple of novellas related to my popular I-Team series. But I wanted to try something new.
Where to start? Well, there’s no place like home—especially when your home is Colorado.
I grew up in Boulder, Colorado, right up against the mountains and went on my first hike in the foothills before the age of 3. Weekends at our house were spent hiking, bouldering, skiing, rock climbing or trekking up one of the state’s many fourteeners—14,000-foot-high peaks.
My father taught rock climbing and mountaineering, even doing the first ascent of a few crags in Boulder Canyon. I have memories of my dad doing fingertip pull-ups and organizing his climbing gear—ropes, carabiners, pitons—on the floor of our living room. My brother followed in his footsteps. He learned to climb rock and ice and went on to summit Aconcagua, the highest mountain in the Western Hemisphere.
My contribution to climbing history was less admirable. I fell 40 feet down the side of Mt. Ida in Rocky Mountain National Park while on a five-day backpacking trip and had to be taken by helicopter to a trauma center. A ranger hiking in the backcountry came across my father and me, assessed my injuries, and called for a helicopter rescue.
That’s not exactly climbing glory. But it’s where the Colorado High Country series gets its inspiration—with an all-volunteer mountain rescue team.
We have several teams like this scattered across our state. Their members are highly trained men and women who do everything from rescuing injured climbers to finding lost children to helping people who’ve gotten stuck on a rock get safely down. They don’t charge for their services. They simply save lives.
My fictional Rocky Mountain Search & Rescue Team is headquartered in Scarlet Springs, a small, quirky mountain town with a colorful history and an even more colorful population. Scarlet is based loosely on Nederland, home of brewpubs and Frozen Dead Guy Days. It’s the perfect setting for these bigger-than-life heroes and heroines to meet, have adventures together, and fall passionately in love.
Have I mentioned that the series is hot? These are men and women who love adrenaline and who live big. In the bedroom, they’re just as adventurous. After all, if your idea of a good time is climbing 700-foot rock walls, you’re not going to be satisfied with a few sweet kisses and a little polite sex in the bedroom.
USA Today best-selling author Pamela Clare began her writing career as a columnist and investigative reporter and eventually became the first woman editor-in-chief of two different newspapers. Along the way, she and her team won numerous state and national honors, including the National Journalism Award for Public Service and the Keeper of the Flame Lifetime Achievement Award. A single mother with two college-aged sons, she writes historical romance and contemporary romantic suspense within view of Colorado’s beautiful Rocky Mountains.