Tracking Tahlula, On Call, Book Three
As author Tahlula Rae has discovered; success is a double-edged sword.
Leading a quiet and anonymous life, she isn’t prepared for the hateful backlash when her latest book hit the lists, propelling her into the limelight. No longer feeling safe in Denver, she takes her laptop and dog, Luke, and moves to the mountains around Durango, where her peaceful solitude is disrupted when a red-bearded man knocks on her door.
While one of the fire department’s finest, Evan Biel, is relatively content with his life, he can’t escape the sense something’s missing. When on fire-safety housecalls, he finds himself staring into a pair of soulful, copper-colored eyes sparking a deep interest. Discovering the striking woman may be in more trouble than he can handle, he tries—yet fails—to keep his distance.
When Tahlula offers San Antonio firefighters, Moose and Penelope Jacobs, temporary lodging, as they help fight seasonal wildfires, Evan’s relieved she’s no longer alone on the mountain. Yet when her troubles become outright threats on her life, his focus has to be keeping Tahlula safe.
Those light brown, almost copper-colored eyes looking at me curiously have me forgetting my words.
I haven’t even taken in the rest of her.
I hate this part of my job. Inevitably, as soon as we’ve had a few dry weeks, the battalion chief has us taking turns knocking on doors of the more remote homes in Durango, making sure the inhabitants are following safety standards for the upcoming wildfire season. We’ve had a pretty decent winter, which means a lot of runoff, hopefully indicating an easier season than last year, but you can’t be too safe.
Driving up to the one-story home, with a nice-looking SUV parked in the driveway, I spotted a few hazards right off the bat. The firewood, which we recommend be kept at least thirty feet from the dwelling, is stacked up on one side of the small porch. Last year’s pine needles and fallen leaves, blown up against the side of the house, were never removed. With the weather fast drying everything out, they would be a hazard as well, not to mention the overflowing gutters above.
A low growl draws my attention to the gray pit bull she’s holding back by the collar. I lift my eyes back to her face.
“Can I help you?”
Her voice is deeper than I expected, rich, full, and melodious.
I’m guessing she’s around five foot six—five foot seven—to my lofty six three. The top of the halo of ringlets covering her head would brush my lips if she were standing close enough. Her skin is a café-au-lait color, with a liberal sprinkling of unexpected freckles covering her slim nose. My eyes catch on her mouth, lips a deep taupe and enticingly full.
“Good afternoon.” I manage to tear my eyes from the flash of white teeth between those lips and force them back on hers. Not exactly a hardship either. “I’m Evan Biel with Durango Fire and Rescue. We go around to make sure the public is prepared for the upcoming wildfire season.” I take a step back from the front door and turn to the woodpile. “I can’t help notice you have a few hazards around your house that need some attention. The woodpile is one. Your gutters need cleaning, and any dry leaves and needles should be moved far from the house.”
“Oh. I wasn’t aware,” she says, sticking her head out of the door a little farther, and checking out her firewood, before looking back at me. “I moved a couple of months ago. I haven’t really had a chance to…” She waves her free slim hand around and I notice the blunt cut of her fingernails before she settles said hand on her stomach. “…do any maintenance,” she finishes.
My eyes are still on her hand and slowly slide down her legs, clad in tight pants or leggings or whatever that stretchy stuff is, until I reach bare feet with toenails painted bright orange. It’s almost startling, that blast of color. It stands in stark contrast to the rest of her; the dark hair with hints of copper, the light-brown skin, and the dark gray clothes covering her curves.
The dog starts growling again.
“Uhm. So…yeah.” Snapping my gaze up to her face, she looks as uncomfortable as she sounds. I give myself a mental slap. “I’ll make sure that gets taken care of…”
Prompted by her trailing voice, I shove my hand out at her. “Evan, Evan Biel. Durango Fire and Rescue.”
She cautiously lifts the hand from her stomach and places it in mine. I know I’m freaking her out when I hold on too long. I’m pretty sure my mouth is hanging open, she feels so good against my palm, but her eyes are shooting fire.
Jesus Murphy. Someone shoot me.
“Right. So if you wouldn’t mind taking care of that,” I mutter, and when she yanks her hand back, I add stupidly, “Thanks for your time.” I turn on my heel and head back to the truck, my proverbial tail between my legs.
I’m not a player, but I’m usually a fuckofalot smoother with the ladies. I wince when I think how inept I must have sounded. The only other woman who had me stumbling on my words from time to time had been Autumn Blackfoot. When I first met her in the burn unit at Mercy Hospital, I’d been duly intrigued by the confident—bordering on abrasive—very attractive redhead. Of course, with just a few words, Autumn had me cut down to size by using our similar coloring—we’re both gingers—to relegate me to the role of little brother. Not what I’d been hoping for. Now Autumn is married to Keith Blackfoot, one of Durango’s finest, and they have a brand-new baby boy, Aleksander.
This woman strikes me as confident too. Or maybe it’s she’s as equally unimpressed by me as Autumn was. It’s not until I drive down the dirt road, away from her house, I realize she never gave me her name.
There aren’t any more houses farther up the mountain, so I head back to town. I should have time to pick up a few things at the City Market for dinner at the firehouse tonight. My turn to cook; which I don’t mind at all.
The only other person in my crew who can cook worth a damn is Bodhi ‘Roadkill’ Jones. The others can do the basic stuff—pasta, burgers, tacos, meatloaf—but Roadkill’s food is really good. Yesterday he made butter chicken and naan; it was awesome, which means tonight I have to come up with something tasty as well.
Half an hour later, I pull into the station parking lot. I grab the bags from the passenger seat of my truck, lock up, and head inside. Fire Station Three is newly renovated and greatly improved from the outdated quarters we had before. An entire floor has been added above the two engine bays with all new living and sleeping areas, as well as a state-of-the-art industrial kitchen I’d like in my own house.
I lug the bags upstairs, lift my chin at Blue, Roadkill, Hog, and Sumo playing cards at the large table, and barely dump the groceries on the counter when the alarm goes off.
“I need a sec,” I call out when chairs scrape the floor and feet start pounding down the metal stairs. I toss the bags in their entirety in the fridge and almost run into Cap—Captain Scott Beacham—who comes running out of the men’s bathroom, still buckling his belt.
“Fucking never fails,” he grumbles, following me down the stairs. “Can’t take a peaceful dump at home, and now I can’t take one here.”
I chuckle as I find my personal protection equipment beside Engine Three. As we jump into our gear, details on the call come through. A two-vehicle crash, multiple injuries, and one of the vehicles is smoking heavily. The possibility of victims trapped in a burning vehicle adds to the sense of urgency I feel at every call.
Roadkill and Cap take the front, as Hog and I climb in behind. Hog’s real name is Noah Hodgekins, the quiet one in the bunch, but there’s no better guy to have at your back. Everyone assigned to our crew ends up with a tag, whether you want one or not. The governing thought behind the custom being that it’s team building. The meaning behind each nickname is like a private joke. I was baptized Cheddar back when I joined this crew. In part, because I’m of the firm belief any good meal should include cheese, but also because of my coloring.
My ass barely hits the seat when the engine flies out of the bay. The only female on our crew, Ava ‘Blue’ Navarro has the wheel of our advanced life support ambulance and follows close behind, with Kyle Matsumoto—nicknamed Sumo—beside her.
We’re only two miles from the scene, which apparently is right in front of the Hampton Inn at the traffic light. It’s late afternoon on a weekday, which means traffic is slowing us down. Most people will get out of the way of the sirens, but there are some idiots who don’t pay attention.
“Move, you fuckwad!” Roadkill expresses his displeasure, as he hangs on the horn to get some asshole in a pickup truck to move over.
When we finally pull up to the scene, one car is rolled over on its roof on the far side of the intersection, and flames are shooting up from the hood of the second car. That’s where our focus is first.
Some bystanders are trying to yank the driver’s side door open, which has obviously seen the brunt of the impact and is bent in.
“Boys, knock down that goddam fire,” Cap barks. “Cheddar, let’s get that vic out.”
It’s already closing on five and I’ve been sitting here, staring at my screen for the past half hour. My carefully maintained muse apparently decided to take a break after that much too intriguing visit from the local fire department. With all sorts of new plots featuring a fit, red-bearded firefighter floating around my brain, I can’t seem to concentrate on my current work in progress.
Annoyed, I grab for my phone to check the messages I’ve been ignoring while in the zone.
“Hey, Tal, it’s Lena calling. I’ve been trying to get hold of you for over a week. You really should check your emails from time to time. There’re a few things we need to discuss. Call me back as soon as you get this.”
I feel a little guilty for ignoring her calls this past week, but time is ticking and I really wanted to get this first draft done before she had a chance to bug me for it.
Lena Griffion is my agent at Griffion Media in Denver, where I lived before moving here the end of March. I’d needed a change and Durango seemed the logical choice, since my brother relocated here the end of last year.
Trunk—or Titus, which is technically his given name—jumped at the opportunity to combine his work and his passion when he heard a local MC was shopping for a child therapist. My brother is a psychologist, who has worked predominantly with kids on the autism spectrum at Children’s Hospital in Denver. I knew he wasn’t happy there. Hadn’t been for a long time since he’d discovered money and politics were more important than the patients in a large, almost corporate, setting like that.
It had taken him all of two minutes to decide, after the heads-up from one of his biker buddies, when he heard the Arrow’s Edge MC in Durango was looking for a therapist for the street kids they rescue and mentor. The chance to work independently with marginalized kids, and lead the biker life full time, had been too perfect to resist.
I hated to see him go last October. Three years older, he’s my half brother and my only family. It didn’t help that right around that time my easy, laid-back life suddenly got caught up in a spin cycle of mammoth proportions.
It started at the end of the summer, when my last book, In Flagrante Delicto, very unexpectedly hit The New York Times Best Seller list. My twenty or so earlier books had done okay—enough to allow me to write full time—but none of them had even come close to hitting any kind of list, The New York Times or otherwise. Amazingly it stayed on the list for five weeks. Safe to say, I was beside myself, but what I hadn’t counted on was the publicity that came with it.
I’m what they call a hybrid author. Some of my books I self-publish and some are traditionally published. Lena Griffion has been my agent for three years, and I have her to thank for the contract I was offered for In Flagrante Delicto by one of the major publishing houses. The downside was the publishing house insisted on having me do promotional signings and appearances.
I’ve always been a private person. My online profiles are all in my author name, T. Hanna, and I made sure any pictures I posted were of a generic variety. No one ever saw my face until I hit that damn list, and that’s what started the trouble.
Lena had been frustrated when I announced my move here, along with the footnote I would be withdrawing from social media. She’d protested loudly when she found out I wouldn’t be accessible through Messenger—the bane of my existence lately—because I wasn’t planning on hooking up Internet. There’s a perfectly good coffee shop in town where I can sign in, once or twice a week, to check emails and send or receive files if I need to. Except I haven’t been there in almost two.
I delete Lena’s message and move on to the next.
“Hi, it’s Lena again. I really need to talk to you. Call me. It’s urgent.”
Crap. This one is dated five days ago.
I quickly dial her direct line and end up in her voicemail, so I call the general number.
“Griffion Media. Jaimie speaking.”
I smile hearing the familiar voice. “Hey, Jaimie, it’s Tahlula. When did you get back?” Lena’s assistant had a baby six months ago and had been off on extended maternity leave.
“Day before yesterday. I was supposed to be off until June, but this place has been a disaster, did you hear?”
“Lena’s missing. Last anyone’s seen her was on Monday.”
“What?” I’m sure I’ve misheard her. Lena is married to her work; she wouldn’t just take off. Not without Jaimie there. Griffion Media is only her and her assistant.
“She’s gone. Her sister apparently went to check her apartment on Tuesday, after Lena missed their weekly lunch, and noticed her suitcase and toiletries are gone. Sue checked the office, finding it locked and empty, and that’s when she called me. We discovered the contract with the temp agency was cancelled last Friday. So I’ve been here ever since, trying to keep this place running while we try to figure out where she went. Did she say anything to you?”
I wince at the stab of guilt for ignoring Lena’s calls, and feel a little unsettled at Jaimie’s story. “I’ve been up to my eyeballs in getting the first draft for Mens Rea done. I did just pick up a couple of messages from her, which is actually why I’m calling. She said she had something urgent to discuss with me. Do you know what that might’ve been?”
“Not a clue, but I haven’t really had a chance to go through everything. I did notice a change of address for you. In Durango now?”
“Yes. Moved here a couple of months ago. Gorgeous area, nice and quiet, the way I like it. Say, did you guys contact the police yet?”
“Sue did. She says they told her since Lena is over eighteen, and her suitcase is missing, the logical conclusion is she left on a trip or on vacation without letting anyone know.”
“She wouldn’t do that,” I state firmly.
“I know, and so does Sue, but they say unless there is evidence of foul play of some sort, there’s not much they can do.”
“This is weird.”
“You’re telling me,” Jaimie acknowledges, concern in her voice.
I sit back in my chair and look out the window to the valley below, barely noting the beautiful view that drew me to this house in the first place. My thoughts drift back to the messages Lena left on my phone. I now regret deleting after listening to them.
“In her first message, she said something about me needing to check my emails from time to time. I don’t have Internet here, and I don’t have email set up on my phone.”
“Didn’t you get a new iPhone? It’s easy to set up.”
“For you, maybe. I’ve purposely not made the effort because Internet, email, it all spells distraction for me, and I’ve been focused on getting this manuscript ready.”
“Maybe it wouldn’t be a bad idea to get someone to help you set it up so we have a few ways to get in touch, until we know what’s going on.”
She makes a good point. I can always have email disabled again once Lena shows up. “I have an appointment in town tomorrow morning, so I can stop somewhere for help on that. I’ll let you know as soon as I check my emails.”
“Fair enough. I learn anything, I’ll give you a call right away.”