Caryn Buckner quietly cracked opened her grandfather’s bedroom door for what seemed like the sixtieth time since they’d gotten home yesterday. She couldn’t stop checking on him. When she’d heard he’d been hurt, stabbed, she’d immediately put in a leave of absence and started the drive down to Roanoke from New York City.
Her fire chief had told her if she left, her job might not be there for her when she got back, but Caryn didn’t care. Her one and only remaining family member was more important than her job.
Once upon a time, she’d had hopes that her fellow firefighters and their wives might be her new family, but those hopes were dashed fairly soon after starting the job at her first fire station. It wasn’t that the men weren’t nice, they were, but there were too many politics in the fire service and too many people who didn’t think she could do the work simply because she was a woman.
It was bullshit in this day and age, but the good ol’ boy network was still as robust in New York City as it was anywhere else.
Which was why Caryn didn’t care if the chief hired someone to take her place. She was tired of the city. Soul-deep tired. At first it had been exciting and new. She loved the diversity and all the ethnic restaurants, the way the city never slept, and all the different cultures coexisting together. It was so different from Fallport, Virginia, where she’d spent summers with her grandfather.
But eventually the grind had worn her down. The comments behind her back, the snickers to her face, the way people didn’t think she could carry a hose, put in IVs, or do anything as well as her male counterparts. She’d slowly begun to crave the simpler, slower small-town life.
The only person who’d ever supported her one hundred percent was her grandfather. Her mom had never understood her or had much time for nurturing a daughter. She sent her off to Fallport every summer to stay with her grandfather, and those were the best times in Caryn’s life. When she could be exactly who she was—a tomboy who loved to get dirty and wandering around in the woods behind her granddad’s house.
When she could be free for three months out of every year.
Most people would think Fallport was boring as hell. A backwater Virginia town in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains that time had almost forgotten. And they wouldn’t be wrong. But at forty-one, Caryn had discovered it was exactly the kind of place she wanted to live in. Where everyone knew everyone else’s name, and where your neighbors noticed—and cared—if you came home five hours after your shift was supposed to be over, too exhausted to cook for yourself.
Shaking her head, Caryn realized she’d been standing in her grandfather’s doorway for way too long. Art was sleeping soundly.
The stab wound had been too close for comfort. He’d said he jerked away at the last second, which had probably saved his life. If he hadn’t, the blade almost certainly would’ve sunk into his heart. Or at least h
is lungs. As it was, it missed both and instead tore up some muscle and skin. He’d bled a lot, and that was just as bad. At ninety-one, he was fairly fragile, even if he didn’t want to admit it.
Reassured that Art was fine for the moment, she closed his door and walked through his small house. She was an early riser, always had been. And she wasn’t used to sitting around. So she took an hour or two for herself in the mornings before her grandfather woke up. Caryn spent the time getting to know Fallport again. Sometimes she went for a run. Or she did sit-ups, push-ups, and other cardiovascular workouts in the park. There wasn’t a proper gym in Fallport. Or a building tall enough to make climbing the stairs worth her while. Keeping in shape was mandatory in her job, but there were still days when she felt every second of her forty-one years. On those days, she simply went for a walk in the woods to clear her mind.
Making sure the door was locked, Caryn headed for her Hyundai Sonata. It wasn’t a fancy car, as it was an older model, but it got her to where she needed to go. In New York, she took public transportation almost everywhere, but now she was very glad she hadn’t sold her car, since she’d needed a way to get to Virginia to look after her grandfather.
As usual this early in the morning, she didn’t pass anyone on her way to Rock Creek Trail. It wasn’t the most difficult trail around Fallport, but it had enough gains in altitude to give her a good workout.
When she arrived at the trailhead, Caryn wrinkled her nose. There was another vehicle already parked there, a black Jeep Wrangler.
And the only person she knew who had a car like that was the one man she definitely didn’t want to run into this morning. Drew Koopman. The man made her uncomfortable for some reason. Maybe because he didn’t seem to care for her too much…which stung more than she cared to admit.
It was crazy, Caryn had spent her whole life trying to fit in. First with her largely absent mother, then as an outsider to Fallport, followed by each firefighting job she’d taken. Her whole life, she’d felt as if she had to prove herself. She wasn’t feminine enough, strong enough, or the right gender to be a firefighter. So she’d worked twice as hard as her co-workers to prove that she could do just as good a job as everyone else, if not better.
But deep down, she suspected she’d never measure up in most people’s eyes. She’d al
ways be lacking. And she wished she could blow off everyone else’s opinions. Wished she could be content with who she was. But a lifetime of always trying to gain approval, and failing, was tough to overcome.
So the last thing she needed was to run into a man whose opinion shouldn’t matter…but somehow did.
Caryn considered leaving to find another trail to hike this morning. But with a shake of her head, she pressed her lips together and straightened her spine. No, she was here, and she had just as much right to hike this trail as Drew. Besides, she might not even see him. And if she did, he’d probably just nod at her like he did most times when their paths crossed and go on his merry way. Which was fine with her. Perfect, actually.
Done giving herself a pep talk, Caryn climbed out of her car and slipped her keys into the hidden pocket in the waist of her bike shorts. She slid her cell into the side pocket and did some stretches before setting out on the trail. She knew as well as anyone that her cell phone likely wouldn’t work on the trail, but she felt better having it with her. And if she ran across anything she wanted to take a picture of, she’d be able to.
Caryn was alone with her thoughts and the wilderness for around two miles. It wasn’t until she got to the top of a steep incline and rounded a corner when she finally ran into the man she was dreading seeing.
Drew was sitting on a rock, staring pensively into the forest.
She stopped in her tracks and studied the man. He hadn’t noticed her approaching, which was surprising. As a former police officer, she’d found him to be especially aware of his surroundings at all times. He was watchful almost to the point of paranoid…which wasn’t all that different from a lot of officers she knew. Her ex had been that way too.
Caryn had done her best to stay away from Drew simply because she was surrounded by men just like him every day. Assessing. Suspicious. Alpha. She figured he’d be no different from the macho, judgmental assholes she’d gotten to know over the years. But her grandfather had a different opinion, as did the residents of Fallport.
And seeing him now, lost in thought, a furrow in his brow and looking as if he had the
weight of the world on his shoulders, she was surprised to feel a jolt of…commiseration.
She knew he was forty-five, but she never would’ve guessed by looking at him. He didn’t have any streaks of gray in his hair, few lines on his face, and he was as fit as any of the twenty-somethings she worked with in the fire service. He had a closely trimmed beard and mustache, and he currently twirled a stick between his hands as he stared off into the woods.
The sudden realization of how attractive the man was hit Caryn hard. She wasn’t the type of woman to care overly much about someone’s looks. She was more concerned about the kind of person they were. And from everything she’d learned about Drew—at least from the perspective of the locals—he was hardworking, kind, selfless, and was always the first person to volunteer to help someone in need.
But they hadn’t gotten off on the right foot. When they’d first met at the hospital in Roanoke, after she’d arrived to be with her grandfather, they’d butted heads—hard. She’d been stressed because Art was in quite a bit of pain, and she’d taken it out on Drew when he’d innocently stopped in to see her grandfather.
It hadn’t helped when Art told her Drew used to be a cop. It was wrong of her to assume things about him based on his previous occupation, but considering her experience…she hadn’t been able to stop herself.
When she’d seen him again in Sunny Side Up, the diner in Fallport, her chance to clear the air between them was dashed when a patron started choking…and Drew tried to muscle her out of the way when she’d attempted to help. Once again, her past had dictated her response, and she’d been a bitch to him—after she’d helped the distressed man recover, of course.
Caryn wasn’t proud of the way she’d acted. Not at all. But there was something about Drew that had her defenses up. Maybe the cop thing just reminded her too much of her ex, but that wasn’t fair. From everything she’d heard about Drew, he was nothing like Jonah.
Refusing to think about her disaster of a marriage, Caryn shifted on her feet and must’ve made some sort of noise, because Drew’s head snapped her way and their eyes met.
For a moment, Caryn was frozen. The awareness in his light brown, almost amber eyes and the way his hand immediately went to his hip, as if reaching for a sidearm, made her stand stock still so as not to be seen as a threat.
But Drew wasn’t wearing a firearm, and the intenseness in his gaze bled out when he realized who she was.
“Morning,” he said quietly.
Caryn responded the way she did anytime she felt out of sorts or uneasy. She lifted
her chin and said a bit too defensively, “You don’t own this trail.”
One of Drew’s brows lifted in response as he said, “I know I don’t.”
Caryn took a deep breath. Shit, she was being a bitch—again—and she hated herself for it. “I’m sorry,” she said immediately. “That was rude.”
Drew acknowledged her apology with a small nod. “It’s a beautiful morning for a hike.”
“It is,” she agreed. She stood where she was, feeling awkward. Should she continue on past him, or just forget hiking any farther and go back to her car?
Drew made the decision for her. “I’m not going to bite, you know.”
“I know,” she replied a little too quickly.
Drew sighed and turned away from her.
The second his too-knowing eyes weren’t pinned on her, Caryn felt as if she could take a full breath once again. This man really got under her skin, and she had no idea why. He made her feel defensive, as if she somehow wasn’t good enough to share his same airspace. Which was stupid. He hadn’t done or said anything to warrant that kind of reaction. It was just her insecurities getting the best of her. And Caryn needed to work on that. She forced herself to take a couple of steps closer.
“You okay?” she blurted.
He turned her way again and tilted his head in question.
“I just…you’re just sitting there. Did you roll your ankle or something?”
“No, I’m good. Just enjoying the silence of the morning,” he said.
Caryn immediately felt guilty. “And I’m disturbing you. Sorry. I’ll continue on my way.”
“You want to sit with me for a moment?” Drew asked.
Caryn was genuinely shocked by the invitation. “Why?”
A small chuckle escaped his lips. “Am I really that bad? I mean, I know you don’t seem to like me for some reason, but I promise I’m harmless. I just thought maybe you could use a break for a second. To stop and enjoy your surroundings. This is very different from New York, for sure.”
Caryn’s knee-jerk reaction was to be pissed. She didn’t like him? It was definitely the other way around. Then she took a deep breath. She hadn’t heard any condescension or irritation in his tone. He was just being
She really should keep on walking. Leave him to whatever was going on in his head. But before she knew what she was doing, she’d walked over and sat on a rock to his left.
Drew had a small smile on his face, and Caryn wanted to ask what he was thinking, but was too afraid that he might be laughing at her. Shaking her head a little, she frowned, hating that she cared so much about what others thought of her. She’d been trying to break that habit her entire life…without much luck.
“Lots of thoughts going through your head,” Drew observed. “This isn’t the kind of place for thinking too hard. Close your eyes and just be, Caryn.”
Surprisingly, she did as he suggested. With every day she spent in Fallport, Caryn felt herself relaxing more and more. She’d been going nonstop for years, trying to prove herself, trying to be the best she could be, better than those around her. It felt good to take a moment and not have to think about anything.
Drew didn’t speak, and with her eyes closed, Caryn could smell the dirt under her feet, hear birds chirping, and practically taste the humidity in the air. It had rained the night before and she could smell the dampness in the mountains. Her short blonde hair was probably plastered to her head from the exertion of climbing the hill to get to this spot, but for the first time in ages, she wasn’t thinking about how she looked, or what Drew might think of her. She let the peacefulness of the quiet moment sink into her soul.
This was what she needed this morning.
“How’s Art feeling?” Drew asked after several minutes had passed.
Instead of being upset that he’d broken the peaceful stillness, Caryn was pleased he cared enough to ask.
“He’s good,” she said, opening her eyes and turning toward Drew. He had on a pair of cut-off cargo pants and a plain red T-shirt. His hair was mussed and kind of sticking up on his head. He was leaning over with his elbows resting on his knees, his head turned her way. “Feeling a little cooped up. I think he’s also feeling his own mortality a bit more than he’s comfortable with. Yes, he’s ninety-one, but deep down, I think he felt as if he had lots of time left. Currently, he needs a little help when he walks…and he hates it. He never felt his age until that attack happened.”
“Understandable,” Drew said with a small nod. “Hell, I’ve never met a ninety-one-year-old as spry as him. He’s proud of you, you know.”
Caryn blinked in surprise at the change of topic. But didn’t get a chance to say anything as Drew continued.
“Talks about you to anyone and everyone. Just the week before his attack, he cornered me at the post office and told me all about the fire you fought on the twenty-fourth floor of some apartment building. Described in detail how you carried a woman down every single flight of stairs, then went back up to get her sister. Impressive.”
Caryn couldn’t stop the flush of pride that swam through her. That day had been hell. The smoke had been so thick on their floor, and the two women were handicapped and couldn’t make it down on their own. While her fellow firefighters had been battling the fire on the floor above where the sisters lived, she’d been sent to make sure everyone had evacuated. There hadn’t been anyone else to help the women, so she’d simply done what needed to be done. She’d mentioned it in passing to Art one night, when they’d talked on the phone, and he’d been impressed as well.
“Although, I’m guessing the part where he said flames were licking at your feet the whole way and how you ran through a wall of fire might’ve been a slight exaggeration.”
Caryn burst out laughing. “You’d be right,” she said with a smile. “There was a lot of smoke in the stairwell, but once we got below the twentieth floor that dissipated. No walls of flames anywhere.”
“He’s lucky to have you,” Drew said seriously a moment later.
“Wrong. I’m lucky to have him,” Caryn countered immediately.
They were silent for a few more minutes before Caryn screwed up the courage to ask, “I heard you were a police officer.”
She waited for him to elaborate. To tell her all about his accolades and how much he loved what he did…but Drew didn’t say another word.
Caryn frowned as she struggled to come up with another topic of conversation. She wasn’t good in social situations, and this just proved it. She sucked at small talk. She’d honestly thought Drew would jump at the chance to talk about what he did, but instead the mention of his previous career seemed to make him uncomfortable, which hadn’t b
een her intention at all.
“You wanna keep going?” Drew asked, motioning down the trail.
Caryn blinked in surprise. “With you?”
Drew’s lips twitched. “Yeah, with me. I wasn’t hinting that I’ve had enough of your company, if that’s what you thought.”
Feeling guilty—because that was exactly what she thought he’d meant—Caryn did her best to keep from blushing. “Well…I just… You don’t even like me.”
“I like you,” Drew said without hesitation, sounding sincere.
Caryn was at a loss for words. She’d literally done nothing to make this man like her. The opposite, in fact. The few times they’d talked, she’d been downright rude.
“If you’d rather not, I understand. Just because I like you doesn’t mean you have to return the sentiment.”
Feeling uncomfortable and out of her element, Caryn blurted, “You think you can keep up with me?”
Drew chuckled. “Probably not, but I can at least try.”
Wow. Most men would never in a million years admit that a woman could outperform them. Yet, Drew didn’t seem the least bit perturbed at the fact she might be in better shape than he was.
Impulsively, Caryn nodded. “Okay.”
It wasn’t exactly an enthusiastic yes, but Drew didn’t seem to notice.
“Great.” He stood. “You want to take the lead or let me?”
Caryn stood, once again surprised at his question. In her experience, men didn’t ask if she wanted to go first. They just took the lead without hesitation. She gestured to the trail. “Be my guest.”
“If I’m going too slow for you, let me know.”
“I won’t lie, I came out for some exercise, but I’m not trying to set a world record or anything,” she told him with a small grin.
He returned it. “Good thing. I’m a bit out of shape.”
Caryn seriously doubted that. “Right.”
He gave her one last look, then turned and headed down the trail.
Taking a deep breath, and hoping she wasn’t making a mistake, Caryn followed.