Wildfire First Look

Prologue

BRIGGS

The wind already knows he isn’t coming for us. The realization settles across me as the cold mountain air whistles down the creek bed, chasing the storm south. A gust spirals through the clearing in the trees, raindrops dancing along my exposed skin, mocking my hope. Laughing at my love for him.

I tuck my arms tighter around my waist, holding onto my elbows as if pieces of me are about to be carried away in the breeze. If I blow away, I want to be taken whole. I wish every bit of me to be picked up and whisked away from this place, never to return.

It’s their fault he isn’t coming. My parents. They’ve ruined everything. That’s what I told my mother. It was the last thing I screamed at her before she swiped her truck keys from the counter and stormed off in the heavy fall rain.

I don’t know how long I stand at the edge of our creek waiting for him, breathing in the damp earth, watching the clear water rush over the smooth rocks. The sound of the tumbling current mesmerizes me, lulls me into a trance. 

One little leaf whips by, spinning and bobbing down to God-knows-where. At this moment, I relate more to this leaf than anything else in my life. 

I rub my stomach with an absent affection. It’s something I started doing almost immediately after I learned that the pieces of me I wish would blow away don’t all belong to me anymore. That slowly, bits and parts of a new life form inside me while my outsides erode. 

“He’ll show up.” I whisper the lie to my belly, pulling my fingers across the damp fabric of my best Sunday dress. The fabric clings to my legs with familiar desperation. It’s a dress that good, wholesome girls wear—not irresponsible girls like me who love boys like him. 

I never take my eyes off the creek, never take my heart off him, never take my mind off the truth.

He isn’t coming for us.

A sob gets stuck in my throat, but I don’t let it out. I won’t add my tears to the raindrops that cling to the rocks and leaves. As the clouds begin to part and the rain eases into a mist, the buzz of my cellphone tears unnaturally through the pristine wilderness, and I startle. 

They know, I think as I stare down at the name. I let it go to voicemail, but immediately it rings again. This time my heart buzzes in sync, and the cold air becomes frigid. The world instantly shifts in shape and color like the cardboard kaleidoscope I had as a kid, everything tainted with abstract dread.

“Hello?” I whisper, shivering uncontrollably.

“Get home right now,” my father commands, but there’s something else woven through his tone that brings all my fears to the surface. “There’s been an accident.” 

Chapter One

BRIGGS

Ten years later…

The last time my body ached like this, I was summiting the rocky peak of Copper Mountain with my daughter—not on all fours, digging rotted hydrangeas out of a thirty-foot long flower bed. 

I stab the trowel into the earth with an exhausted huff and wipe the sweat from my sticky brow, leaving a trail of dirt to flutter down into my eyelashes. Wispy, blonde curls escape from my headband and tickle the skin of my neck. A slight breeze rustles the great expanse of grass that makes up the backyard of my childhood home—a yard in desperate need of a facelift.

Sitting back on my heels, I examine my handiwork. It appears like I’m in the business of murdering any flower I come in contact with, but in my defense, they were dead to begin with, thanks to my father.

This flower bed, along with six other gardens and a massive greenhouse, belonged to my mother. My father hasn’t watered a plant in his life, and by the look of things, that statement is still true. The ladies from church—those nosy gossips—came to plant gardens for Dad this year to brighten up the place. Everyone knows the Truman sisters care less about the aesthetic value of the yard than the poor, widowed police officer and his crusade to destroy all things flora and fauna.

I rest my hands on my knees and close my eyes against the sun, hunching my shoulders forward. My stomach has been rolling intermittently since the moment my smarty-pants brat of a child dared to accuse me of abandoning my family. I’ve got to hand it to her, she knows how to get what she wants—because what started out as a hard no way ended up right here, with me pulling weeds as my father sits on the porch. His broken leg is propped up on a pillow, and his crutches rest against the side of the house. 

Emilia never would have gotten her way if circumstances had been different when we argued about hanging out with Grandpa while he recovered. The real reason I gave in is something I’ll take to the grave.

See, coming home to Raston, British Columbia, was a predestined event—even before my dad was clipped by a car during a routine traffic stop outside of town—but that does not mean I’m happy to be back here. Small towns like this are a tiny dot on a map, but a big looming black hole on your soul ready to suck you back in at a moment’s notice.

My notice came two weeks ago as I sat on a sunny spring beach in Manitoba, trying to figure out how my life got so messed up, so quickly. 

After the doctor called about Dad’s leg, I refused to come home. The stubborn ass didn’t even call me himself. He wanted me here as much as I wanted to be here. It was my daughter who clenched her fists and stood her ground with that tremble in her lip that melted me like butter in the sun.

“What if I want to go, mom?” she said. “I’ve only seen Papa twice in my whole life. What if I want to go take care of him? What if you got hurt and I didn’t want to help you?”

And then commenced the guilt. I would be heartbroken, there’s no debating that.

Having a baby at sixteen years old has taught me a lot of lessons about life. Losing my mother just as young has taught me a lot about death. Right now, I’m trapped between the two because at the center of both my daughter’s birth and my mother’s death is the main reason I resisted coming back here as long as I did.

Coming home was my only option. And running into Alexander Stryker is inevitable.

I was tired of looking over my shoulder, continually waiting for the moment all my choices would catch up with me. What better place to hide than the place I swore never to return to?

But being here has made my jumpiness worse—just for different reasons.

“Are you sure you don’t need anything?” Dad calls from the shaded porch of our three-story farmhouse—an expansive house that’s useless to him now. Not only because Mom died ten years ago and he let the whole place fall to shit, but because of the cast that covers his right leg from the tip of his toes to above his knee. 

“I’m fine, thanks.” I say, forcing a smile across my lips.

Small feet dangle from the edge of the tattered treehouse as my daughter, my compass and guiding force, lies on her back under the steepled roof. She tosses a baseball into a haggard old glove and watches the wind chimes sing and dance in the breeze that always funnels in from the West Valley. I set up those chimes as a kid, always fascinated by the wind and how it was in constant motion. I went from envying the wind to living like it.

These past couple of days have been the stillest I’ve been in years.

I scoop up a handful of decaying petals and wonder if I could create a line of pendants out of this—some sort of morbid gothic-inspired limited-edition necklaces or charms? 

A small chuckle ripples up my throat at the absurdity. Morbid goth isn’t exactly the target audience for my jewelry company, Wild & Free Designs…try overworked housewife who is so busy driving her kids to practice she’s completely forgotten about nature. 

These women don’t want my dead mother’s decaying flowers. They want dew drops from Niagara Falls, river stones from Yukon, and wild crocus petals from Saskatchewan. They want to wear a beautiful slice of North America on their body to remind them that they don’t get outside enough. 

These sweet women don’t like change, and they aren’t afraid to let me know when they’re unhappy. At slightly under one million followers, the hate mail is frequent enough now that I hired a virtual assistant from one of my fan groups to filter my email and moderate my comments. Sometimes these cruel things get through, and I see them because Leslie is only human and can’t be everywhere at once. 

It doesn’t feel great to hear you’re a talentless bitch that must be too ugly to show her face online as if my physical appearance should somehow dictate my skill as a jewelry designer. Luckily, I have a whole crew of dedicated crusaders that defend my honor online. Or maybe not. The joy of it all fizzled out a long time ago. I used to spend my nights scrolling Instagram being inspired by my small but loyal following. Then a celebrity decided they liked my work, and everything exploded. I’m still overwhelmed by the demand for my limited-edition pieces.

“Brigitte,” Dad calls from the porch, and I realize that my fist is clenched tight around the dead petals. I loosen my fingers and let the bits fall back to the earth. 

“What’s up?” I stand and dust my loose quick-dry pants, the color of a windstorm and cut like khakis. The sun peeks out over the jagged snow-capped mountains behind the sprawling acreage, and rays of golden warmth hit my skin. For a flash of a second, I feel the peace that used to occupy this space when Dad would read on the porch while Mom tended to her tree nursery, and I climbed the thick branches at the edge of the property. When life was easy, I thought I understood what it meant to be happy. I thought love was simple and kind before I fell for a boy I had no business loving.

Dad speaks a few words into his phone and then hangs up, focusing his attention back on me. “That was Jethro. He’s coming out this afternoon to give me an estimate.” 

My thoughts flutter to my feet like the bits of dried flowers that fell from my fingers. “Jethro Stryker?” I ask, taking long strides with my short legs to the steps. 

“That’d be the one,” Dad answers, going back to reading the news on his tablet. 

“Why is he giving you a quote? I thought I was helping you.” My voice raises a few octaves higher, and Dad doesn’t miss it. He pinches his light brows and sets his mouth in a hard line while anxiety takes root in my gut like a weed. 

“How on earth are you going to do all the repairs around here on your own?” Dad gestures to the many things that require a two-person fix right here on the porch. A collapsing eaves trough, a missing step, a paint job that will take me two years to do with a hand roller. 

“Isn’t there anyone else in town?” I can’t hide my desperation. I don’t even try. Anyone but a Stryker.

“I’m not happy about it either. I swore to never let a Stryker boy set foot in my driveway after that mess you got yourself into with Alexander.” 

Fury straightens my spine in a flash, and I point to the treehouse across the windswept grass. “Do you mean that mess? That living, breathing, beautiful mess I call my daughter?” 

Dad pauses for a moment, I assume he realizes his colossal fuck up, but his years on the force make him hard to read. 

“I mean, how you trusted a Stryker to do right by you.” His stern words steal my breath and replace it with fitful memories of the night I was abandoned by the creek in a rainstorm. The same night my mother hit a moose on the slick winding road between Raston and home. And the boy who was at the center of it all.

“Can’t we get someone else? Someone from Morleau?” I ask. 

“You knew this was coming.” My father’s straight-to-the-point nature infuriates me, but I learned to interpret the nuance he leaves out. Of course, I couldn’t come back here and expect not to see Xan.

“I’m not ready.” My voice wobbles. It’s only been two days. I need more days.

“What would make you ready? You needa wear a certain blouse or something?” 

Dad mocks me, but it’s laced with the harsh truth. I’ll never be ready to face the father of my daughter. Because it’s one thing that he rejected me…that I can live with. What I’ll never forgive is how he rejected her.

Chapter Two

XAN

Pain sears across my body like flames crawling across the forest floor, the hangover gripping my brain and my gut in a way I can’t ever remember feeling. I take a long drink off my pint of IPA hoping for the ol’ hair of the dog to help the two painkillers I popped back on the way into the bar. The buzz of my phone cuts through me like a chainsaw blade and I see a flash of the time.

I’m supposed to be in a therapist’s office right now. I’m supposed to be talking about my feelings. Instead I’m sitting in a bar at eleven fifteen in the morning, drinking.

The phone rings again, vibrating against the worn wood of the bar and one of the regulars gives me a slanted look of annoyance. I tip my beer in his direction, letting him know that I’m with him. Turning the fucking thing off would be smart, but sometimes I wonder if there isn’t a sick side of me that likes the irritation. Maybe I like being hounded by the therapist the department hired to assess my wellbeing and determine if I’m fit to return to my crew. Every time she calls it reminds me of why I deserve this.

“Answer your damn phone, Xan,” the bartender—who happens to be my little sister, Delilah—huffs at me and rolls her big silvery eyes the same way she did when she was six. “You know this is the only way to get back on the job…and outta my frickin’ bar.”

It’s been ten months since I last worked a fire with Wildland Fire Management crew. Ten months since the Creston Ridge Fire that took one of my team before the fire was harnessed. Ten months since the suits in charge told me I can’t come back to work this season until some pointy bitch who’s never seen a flame bigger than a candle asks me questions about my feelings.

Some woman who doesn’t know me at all holds the fate of my career in her hands. She has no idea that I’m Alexander Stryker. The trash of Raston, the troubled kid that beat the shit out of his own father in the middle of Main Street—the man who raised my siblings when my mother was too high on Jesus to do it herself.

I can fucking handle myself. That’s the last thing I said to Miss Uptight before she scribbled unfit to return across my file and told me we’d reschedule for the fifth time.

After another sip I stand to go to the bathroom, stumble sideways, and grip the bar to steady myself.

“Hey, Xan,” a familiar voice says, and Rich cuts off my path to the bathroom. It takes me a moment to recognize my old boss through the throbbing behind my eyes.

“Hey, man.” I glance to the back of the bar, knowing that they’ll be there but unsure of when they showed up. In the back corner illuminated by a Jack Daniel’s neon light there’s a long table and my entire crew is there. Everyone but me. But I’m not on the crew anymore.

“I didn’t see you there,” Rich says. “We’re just grabbing a bite. Join us?”

The dull pounding in my head gets worse, and part of me is only concerned about how badly I need to piss, but there’s also that familiar hook—the one just behind my ribs.

“Yeah, maybe. Thanks.” My gaze has become like opposing magnets. Every time I try to look at him, I can’t—literally cannot make myself look at my boss. I step around him, making it to just behind Del’s god-awful fish tank before the smell of smoke touches my nose. They were out on a job and the realization buckles my knees and I collapse against the wall. I can still see Rich with his back to me now, talking to my sister.

“Delilah,” he says. “Looking ravishing today as usual.”

Del snorts and throws a dish towel at him. “Richard Klepke, flattery never gets you your free ranch dip. It was fifty cents yesterday, it’s fifty cents today and it’ll be fifty cents tomorrow.”

“One of these days,” Rich laughs and knocks on the bar. My phone buzzes and both Del and Rich lean over it. “Is your brother, okay? He looks…lost.”

“He has us.” She flips my phone over so Rich can’t see it, and I can’t hold it any longer, so I disappear into the bathroom. My body sways and shakes, but not from the alcohol. From the way Rich lowered his voice when he spoke to me.

Rich was my boss. A grade-A fucking asshole in the field where if there wasn’t spit flying from his mouth while he gave a command, he wasn’t saying anything. He is not the man who expresses concern for someone in hushed tones.

The heat of the fire singes my flesh, the steady hum of oxygen being consumed by flame thrums in my chest, the muffled sounds of panicked voices spin through my head.

 I splash cold water on my skin, scrubbing my hands over my face and into my hair. One long, steady inhale pulls all the tendrils of emotion back inside, coiling them up like a hose and tucking them away where they belong. When I get my shit together, I go back to my bar stool and down the rest of my beer in a single slog.

The buzzing starts again, and I’m admittedly impressed by Miss Uptight’s tenacity—my sister, not so much. Delilah snatches my phone and jumps back out of my reach. The sharp movement makes my stomach lurch and my temples throb.

“Hello?” Del says sweetly, like only she can. In a flash of a moment her face twists into confusion and then she bursts out laughing. “Oh hey, Jet. Yup, he’s here being a stubborn asshole like usual.”

Del tosses the phone to me and shakes her head, going back to shining the old bent-up silverware before the lunch rush starts.

“Hey,” I say, setting down my empty beer glass and hopping off the bar stool. “I’m just heading over to the shop.”

“Dude are you drunk? It’s not even noon.” Jet’s voice sounds muffled through the haze of my brain.

“I’m not drunk…anymore.” I heave the heavy wooden door open and the sun cuts through my vision like a freshly sharpened axe blade. Using my hand as a shade, I let my eyes adjust to the light.

It’s one of those perfectly clear days with barely any wind. I fucking hate the wind. My gaze falls to the opposite side of Main Street and rests on a woman standing outside the grocery store with her three kids. The sight of Nicole is a sharp kick to the gut, knocking all the air from my body. She’s been back in town for a few days. The respectable thing to do would be to talk to her, but what the fuck would I say? I’m sorry your husband is dead. I’m sorry I couldn’t save him. I’m sorry I’m the one that lived. I’m just fucking sorry.

“Weren’t you supposed to head into Kelowna today?” Jet’s voice fills with understanding, but that’s as far as he’ll take it. Jet sighs, which is all he ever really does—not a chatty guy to begin with. He’s the closest to me in age—a little under a year between us—so he knows the deal.

“Nicole’s back with the kids.” She glances across the street and we lock gazes, her mouth hardens and my stomach lurches. I heard she was back last night when I came in for one beer, which turned into me hiding from my shame at the bottom of a pint glass.

“Yeah, I heard,” Jet answers, his own tone dipping low into that way I’ve come to hate. All my siblings talk about Gus like this now. Hushed and tentative, like talking about him around me is like breathing too hard on a house of cards.

I change the subject, walking back to my tiny house a few blocks away from my family. “Are you at the office?”

“Nah, man. I’m at the Marchand Acreage. Just pulled up to check out a job.”

“For Lucas? No fucking way.” I huff in disbelief. “He’s not standing on the porch with a shotgun, is he?”

Jet laughs, which is more of a forced rumble than true amusement, then he trails out in silence until I realize why he’s called. “Wait. Do you need me out there?”

There’s this moment before walking out in front of a blazing forest fire where all my energy collects in my chest, and my heart works overtime to pump the hyperawareness throughout my entire being, charging my brain and body with adrenaline-fueled nerves.

The thought of having to go out to the Marchand Acreage has the exact same effect. Because standing in front of Lucas Marchand’s burning hatred for me is a very similar experience to a forest fire. The man speaks fewer words than Jethro, but it’s never hard to understand that my mere existence is bothersome to him.

“I wouldn’t ask if I didn’t need you. Matty is home doing the new dad thing. I know you need the money.” Jet draws out into a long pause to allow me time to run through every reason why I swore I’d never even turn my truck down that road again—never mind help the man fix his house, or whatever he wants to hire my brother for. Lucas Marchand is the reason I lost the only girl I ever loved.

But Jet’s right. He wouldn’t ask if he didn’t actually need the help. It takes minutes to get to my place, and I’m through the creaking door and grabbing a bottle of painkillers off the counter.

“Fine,” I say, low and noncommittal, taking a bottle of water from the fridge. “I’ll head out now.”

“Uh, maybe take an hour and sober up,” he warns, and I can’t exactly argue. I’m not drunk, I’m hungover. There’s a difference.

Not that Lucas would care. To him, either way, I’m trash.

#

As I turn up the Lorry road an hour later, my phone buzzes again, but I leave the device face-down in my passenger seat where I tossed it. I hate that damn thing anyway. I dropped my old cell in a lake eight years ago and never replaced it. My siblings finally sat me down and forced a phone on me for emergency purposes. I still never check it, because why should I be available to everyone at all times?

It’s absurd watching people wander around with their noses pressed to the phone—and that panicked look on their faces as they smack their pockets, momentarily thinking they’ve forgotten it. I leave the fuckin’ thing at home on purpose.

I roll down the window to catch the fresh spring air, which helps soothe the last of my headache. The sound of crunching tires on gravel road drowns out the radio, so I turn it up, tapping out a beat on the steering wheel with my thumbs. It doesn’t take long to get to the Marchand Acreage, and the tightly packed trees begin to thin out until I see the driveway. The tremble in my gut flares, but this time it’s not the alcohol. It’s her.

I used to park my dad’s car at the edge and sneak in through the shadows until I met Briggs at a small clearing by the creek. I can’t stop the image of her rushing at me, faster than the water, her sunshine hair streaming behind her as she wove between the trees and leapt into my arms, legs around my waist, lips on mine with no other word.

No one else had ever lit up at the sight of me like she did. Like I was the center of the universe. The thought used to motivate me to believe in I could be more, but now it’s a harsh reminder of my naiveté. Guys like me have a place in this world, and it’s not with girls like her.

With a growl, I scrub my palms over my face as if I can actually peel away the memories. I was getting good at not thinking about Briggs, but now Jet has to go and take a job out here where everything reminds me of her. I have enough to deal with after Nicole showed back up in town and running into my crew and missing my appointment in Kelowna.

Nothing about the last twenty-four hours has gone my way, and nothing I’ve done has dampened this low-level dread that lingers in my gut.

The driveway is long and curved before opening into a huge valley, the Langland Range in the distance jutting into the sky like a jagged fortress wall. The tree-covered hills converge onto a grassy valley, and in the middle of it all is a huge, three-story farmhouse complete with wrap-around veranda and vintage shutters. Jet’s going to get a boner working on this place. My brother loves detail work, and he’s always loved the Marchand house.

Me? I loved the girl who lived here. Before she carved out my heart and took off to Vancouver without warning—leaving me and everything else in Raston behind her. The sting of her last words still singes my skin.

“You’re a fucking coward, Alexander. You hide behind your righteous anger but you’re the one that proves everyone right.”

My fingers tighten around the steering wheel as I park my truck next to an old motorhome, thinking it must be what Lucas is downsizing to. Retiring and becoming a full-time RVer didn’t really fit the burly cop, but whatever. If he sells this place and leaves town, hopefully he’ll take the last of these memories with him.

The breeze funnels through the valley, bringing with it a cool, glacial air that contrasts the heat of the noon sun. Voices carry around the house, and my skin prickles with recognition. Jet’s using the tone of voice he uses with our youngest brother, Zeke, when he’s doing something reckless or stupid, or usually both.

“Let’s be reasonable, okay?” Jet says, his voice getting louder as I move to the side of the house. My heart thunders and I’m not sure why—and that’s when I hear it.

“I’ll chain myself to the fucking door. You’re not taking down this greenhouse.” Her voice whips around me like a tornado and the thunder in my heart goes dead silent. I hold my breath, stepping around the house to see her.

I blink a few times to be sure, but there she is: small in stature and feisty in stance. Her golden hair piled on her head and held with a thick band. Her pinched brow creases above a slender nose. Her lips pointed and pink and set in a stubborn pout that on any other day would have made me laugh.

Her brown eyes bore into Jet like they used to when we were kids. Jet was like a brother to her then, and I suppose these things have a lasting effect. The adrenaline at seeing her again sharpens my vision, and even from this far away she’s as beautiful as the last time I saw her, maybe more. There’s an underlying hardness to her stare I don’t recognize, but it’s been ten years. A decade since I saw her last.

Her gaze flicks over to me, and immediately the color drains from her face. Her jaw goes slack and eyes widen as they scan me from top to bottom. She tightens her arms across her chest and fear settles in my gut. Shame washes through me hard enough to physically hurt, sending tremors through my arms and legs. My stomach twists and folds up any words I may have been able to speak.

“Xan?” she says, and my name across her lips is a shock to my system.

“Briggs?” I stumble over the word, having not spoken it aloud in so long.

“You really need to start checking your phone,” Jet cuts in, his arms folded against his broad chest. “I tried to warn you. Briggs is home, and she’s as bullheaded as she’s ever been.”

Briggs glares at Jet, still standing in front of her mother’s greenhouse. Her eyes keep flicking back to the treehouse, and there’s panic in every tense bit of her. My breathing returns to normal, and slowly, I pack up all my shock and shame and fear around Briggs and shove it down so I can think. I need to be able to think.

“You’re not taking down this greenhouse. It was hers,” Briggs snaps, but the conviction in her voice falters.

Jet throws up his arms in frustration. “Fine. You take that up with your dad. I’m adding it into my quote, though.”

He points at Briggs and they lock into a battle—something that used to amuse me. The two most stubborn people I’d ever known.

A shadow catches my attention, and a young girl runs barefoot through the grass. Her face is hidden by a low baseball hat, and long pigtail braids hang down over a loose t-shirt.

Briggs’ face pales further as the girl crashes into her and throws skinny arms around her waist.

“What’s wrong, Mom?” the young girl says to Briggs, and Jet pauses with his hands in his hair, looking at me, then the girl. It takes my brain a moment to realize the girl called Briggs Mom. Everything inside of me hollows out in an instant, and I’m left with a single thought that slips and slides around inside my mind. No matter how hard I try, I can’t get a grip on it.

Briggs is a mother.

Now everyone stares at me. Why is everyone staring at me?

“Nothing, sweetheart. Everything is fine.” Briggs hugs the girl to her side, her eyes burning with visible discomfort.

“Who are you?” the girl asks my brother and me, and I finally focus on her. She’s maybe nine or ten years old, with the same big gray eyes as my sister Del, the same pointed lips as Briggs, the same high cheekbones as Pris…the same deep brown hair as me.

Briggs is a mother.

I can’t breathe as my hollowed-out chest floods with memories.

“It’s already done. It’s taken care of.” Amalie Marchand stabbed me in the chest with her finger. “Leave my daughter alone.”

I go through the motions of breathing, my chest expanding, but no matter how hard I try, I can’t get air in my lungs. My thoughts crackle and glitch and waves of nausea crash through my stomach. I want to yell at Briggs, demand to know why this girl has the same quirk to her eyebrow that I do—the one that does whatever it wants no matter how I try to control it. Why is she using that same look on me?

Of all the questions that funnel through my mind at warp speed, I know the answer is the simple one. I see the truth sitting calmly below the surface of the storm, a boulder in my gut waiting for everything to settle before it exposes itself. Dizziness clouds my mind and I have to hunch my shoulders to stay standing.

“Briggs.” I try to talk but oh, God, I’m going to puke. She tightens her hold on the little girl as if the shit storm inside my chest is going to spill out across the yard and flood this valley.

I glance over at my brother with the same shocked confusion touching every part of him, from flickering eyes to gaping jaw to pinched shoulders. I brace myself for more memories.

“You know you’re not ready. How could you, of all people, be a good father?” Amalie spewed hatred with each word as she circled me in the kitchen of my own home.

The little girl is still staring at me and it feels like hours have passed and I’m somehow trapped in a time loop, frozen in this moment until I wrap my fucking head around it. I switch tactics and desperately grab at my wildfire training, the ways I step in front of harrowing danger and will my body to be calm.

The girl tugs on one of her braids—thick and dark, with unruly flyaways at the base of her neck just like mine, which grows in strange patterns and forces monthly haircuts. Her brow is tilted, scrutinizing every second of this panic attack that’s gripped me. Why does this little girl look like me?

I know exactly why, and the thoughts begin to settle, the storm begins to break, a calmness washes over me—but it’s not over.

Ten years since I saw Briggs. Ten years old.

A new storm begins to brew, the kind I struggle to keep at bay. The one that always sits on the horizon, waiting for a reason to build. My hand shakes, and I would kill for a beer right now. A shot of whiskey. An entire fucking bottle of tequila.

“It’s not your decision, Alexander. It wouldn’t have mattered what you thought. It wouldn’t have changed her mind.” Amalie took me in like I didn’t matter, like I never mattered.

The truth rages through every part of me, every nerve, every cell in my body, and I pull in the deepest breath, the anger giving me life.

Amalie shook the rain off her coat as she slipped it back on and looked straight down her nose at me, challenging me with a small smile. She’d already won, and she knew it. “If you really love her, you’ll walk away. You’ve already destroyed my family enough. Do the right thing for once in your life, Alexander, and let her go.”

She lied to me…

— — —

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