The weatherman had promised snow for Christmas, but the guy had been wrong. Instead of snowflakes, the sky was raining men.
Okay. One man, but there was plenty of him to go around.
He was a big, burly, cursing presence tangled in a mess of parachute and pine branches halfway up a three-story ponderosa pine. Despite his position upside down, he seemed surprisingly okay. The audible cursing assured me his lungs were fine—and I couldn’t spot any visible wounds. Which was a good thing, because I had zero cell phone reception this far up the mountain.
I’d heard the rumble of a plane a few minutes ago, but I hadn’t made anything of it. Strong wasn’t all that far from San Francisco, and planes flew in and out of that particular airport all the time. Since I didn’t have tickets—first-class or otherwise—for a sunny and exotic beach vacation, I didn’t pay the sky any attention. Nothing for me there. Instead, I focused on the pine branches I could reach, because working on a California mountainside got downright chilly in December. Despite the state’s liberal supply of palm trees, the mountains came with a side of cold—and snow. Bikini weather it was not.
Snip a tip, drop it into my bag. That had been my routine all morning, and I could practically hear the tree breathe a thank-you—the stand of pines was more overcrowded than a San Francisco train at rush hour—and my bank account breathed a commensurate sigh of relief. Pine tree tips were as good as gold at Christmastime. I’d take these bad boys back to the tree farm and turn them into pine ropes and wreaths. The farm’s gift shop would complete the miraculous transformation of trees into cash, and I’d be able to go grocery shopping for the first time in two weeks. Seeing as how I was sick of granola bars and canned soup, grocery day currently trumped Christmas Day on my calendar. Even better, there would probably be leftover dollars to add to my college savings account. When I applied to CSU Sacramento in November, I’d be able to cover my tuition. For the first time in a year, I’d be back on track.
Another curse drifted toward me.
“You okay up there?” I had no idea what I could do, but asking the question seemed like a good first step.
My answer was a yell from the top of the ponderosa, followed by the clatter of something metallic tracing down the trunk. A utility knife with a four-inch blade landed by my feet. Apparently, I got a free souvenir of today’s encounter. Merry early Christmas to me.
“If you’re feeling helpful, how about you toss the knife up here?” Mr. It’s-Raining-Men’s voice was muffled by the helmet, the tree branches, and the guy’s unfortunate, still mostly-upside-down position. Still, the bright yellow jumpsuit was a dead giveaway. Either the local prison had experienced an unprecedented jailbreak—unlikely—or Donovan Brothers had sent their team of crack smoke jumpers out on a practice jump. The jumpers loved to tell hang-up stories about their buddies down at the bar—who’d gotten stuck in which tree and who’d taken the longest to cut himself free. Naturally, the storyteller had never suffered such an indignity. I’d also never heard of any fatalities, so maybe this was just all in a day’s work? I was certainly happier pine tipping.
“Hello?” The smoke jumper folded his arms over his chest. The helmet made it impossible to make out much of his face, but I was dead certain he was glaring at me. A firm pair of male lips tightened when I didn’t move. Yeah, buddy. I wasn’t in the mood to deal with masculine impatience, and the divorce decree currently stashed in my underwear drawer promised I didn’t have to. Hallelujah. Mr. Hung-up-in-a-Tree could take one for the entire male team as far as I was concerned.
“Maybe she doesn’t speak English.” A big pair of steel toes collided with the trunk, and the boots’ owner sighed. Loudly.
I was too distracted by the boots to pay attention to the words. If the correlation between foot size and dick size held true, this guy was hung like a horse. While I stared, enjoying the view despite my no-guys rule, the object of my attention pulled himself upright with an impressive show of abdominal strength. I just bet he had a six-pack hiding under all that fabric. Since I was officially sworn off men—divorce would do that to you—the state of the jumper’s six-pack wasn’t of interest to me.
I toed the knife. I’d never been particularly good at throwing sports, so odds were high I’d either miss my target—or I’d stick him by accident, and that could be awkward. Plenty of powdery snow drifted around the base of the tree, but we hadn’t had a good snowfall yet. The stuff wasn’t more than an inch or two deep, and it definitely wouldn’t break the smoke jumper’s fall. He was as shit out of luck as I was.
I really should be nice. The guy in the tree wasn’t my ex, and I didn’t need to vent five years of marital frustrations on him, convenient as he was. I was a grown-up, turning over a new leaf, blah blah blah. The smoke jumper pulled off his helmet, tossing it to the ground. I wasn’t sure why he did that—if I’d been in danger of falling out of a tree, I’d have wanted to protect my noggin and every other inch of my body—but then my eyes processed what I was seeing, and my brain kind of skittered to a stop.
Of all the guys to fall out of the sky and land—almost—at my feet, why this one?
Habit maybe. Or maybe my heart was more stubborn than even my head, because I myself fell for Jacks Benson the first time I saw him.
He’d been slamming a basketball against the wall of the Laundromat, rubber thwacking against the cinder blocks with deafening regularity. If my dad hadn’t been passed out inside our trailer twenty feet away, he’d have been hollering at me to make that fucking kid stop. Dad hadn’t done well with loud noises thanks to a stint in the military, and even I had had no problem substituting the thud of bombs falling for the ball.
I’d pointed this home truth out to Jacks. He’d blown me off, dismissing my concerns as if I’d suggested the possibility of rain on a cloudless day. He’d then double-dog dared me into following him down to the local creek and proceeded to share both an oversized Slurpee and the ball with me. During the course of the afternoon, he’d taught me his best basketball trick shots. After he tilted the straw in my direction and I put my mouth where his had been, I’d been halfway in love. When he pulled off his shirt and went for a swim, I was hooked. He looked like the bad boy drummer from the rock-band posters decorating my bedroom walls, and my ten-year-old self had found it all too easy to imagine a happily-ever-after. His unexpected “Wanna kiss me?” had almost had me agreeing too, but then I’d chickened out and scampered back to my trailer, his laughter chasing me the whole way.
Apparently, saying no to Jacks was like waving red in front of a bull, however, because he’d been off and running from then on, and it seemed like the entire focus of his existence was to make my life as complicated as possible. If I’d loved him at first sight, I’d flirted with hatred thereafter. He teased me. He played practical jokes on me. He generally dogged my footsteps throughout our middle school and high school days, and I could never quite relax because who knew what awkward, embarrassing thing he’d do to me next? When he’d enlisted in the Navy the day after his high school graduation, it had been good riddance on my part. Maybe Uncle Sam could make Jacks behave, because I definitely couldn’t.
Christ, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d hung up.
Spotted Dick, the jump-team pilot, had put the DC-3 up, nice and easy. Our spotter had laid down in the open bay and tossed the streamers out. We’d watched the fluttering descent like it was the coin toss at the Super Bowl. No surprises there either. I’d seen the smallest movement as the ribbons neared the ground, but nothing to worry about. Nothing to indicate I’d get within five hundred feet of the ground and find myself riding the windy equivalent of a bucking bronco. Mother Nature had decided to make me her own personal piñata today, and there wasn’t much I could do about it.
Steering the chute to the LZ—or at least the edge of the landing zone since hitting dead center had been less likely than winning the lottery—had remained possible right up until the last second when yet another unexpected gust of wind had blown up out of nowhere. I’d spent the week doing practice runs with Donovan Brothers, and today’s fiasco had been a first. I’d never had a problem in all the years I’d been smoke jumping, but apparently I really could fly fucking sideways—straight into the biggest ponderosa pine I’d ever had the misfortune to meet. As I’d crashed through the branches, chute tearing, arms over my face because I might not be a pretty boy but I didn’t need a pine-branch piercing either, I’d caught a glimpse of the DC-3 banking hard and aborting. Nice. Too bad the spotter hadn’t made that call ten minutes ago before I’d jumped out of the bay and plunged feetfirst into my current predicament.
The only consolation was that I wouldn’t be landing to the mocking calls of the team. Nope. After I’d signaled that I was okay, they were on their way back to the hangar and the airstrip. I got to hike out the two miles to the access road and my pickup.
The branch from which I hung creaked, warning me that Mother Nature might have further, even more humiliating plans for my sorry ass. I wanted down. I also wanted a hot shower, a beer, and to get laid. Right now none of those things appeared to be on the agenda. Hell, unless I got my knife back—and my Jedi mental powers were nonexistent—my options were severely limited.
The woman on the ground started humming Christmas carols like she was Looney Tunes. In addition to the approximately two thousand branches blocking my view, she wore layer upon layer of flannel shirts and a puffy black vest, all topped off by a ridiculous pom-pom hat. She hadn’t answered me about the knife, which was probably a sign right there. I’d be getting down from this tree on my own.
Only question was whether I did it in one piece.
“A little help?” I called, although asking for help was the last thing I wanted to do. Still, better her than the jump team. If the guys had to come up here and cut me down, I’d never hear the end of it.
My mystery lady dropped her bag and then followed it to the ground. For a moment, I thought she’d grab the knife. How she was going to get it up to me I hadn’t figured out—maybe my woodcutter had unexpected mad tree-climbing skills or a monkey tucked inside her bag—but then she lowered herself flat onto the snow. Tilting her head back, she stared up at me as her arms and legs moved lazily, creating snow angels in the light dusting of snow.
She definitely wasn’t playing with a full deck. Or maybe I’d hit my head on the way down.
“It’s Christmas,” I suggested. Not like I celebrated the holiday, but that line usually worked on most people.
She shoved her hat back and grinned up at me and… my stranger was no stranger at all. I remembered every inch of her pretty face, probably because it had somehow ended up tattooed on my stupid heart. I hadn’t seen her in years, but she looked just as good lying there beneath me as she had when we’d both been younger, newer, and generally less beat up by life. Although she’d divided her brown hair into two braids and looped the lot beneath her hat, her hair still escaped everywhere in little wisps and curls that stuck to her cheeks and kissed her throat. Kind of made me want to take her apart. Do a little kissing. Lick her some like she was my favorite flavor.
And the two killer dimples that twinkled up at me made me think… things. Bad, filthy, never-to-be-admitted-to things. She was one of a kind, and I’d always stuck a little too close to her.
Shitfuckdamn. Holly was off-limits, and seeing her just reminded me of what I couldn’t have. I didn’t know what reasons had brought her to Strong and my mountain, but I knew one thing. I was in trouble.
“Jacks Benson,” she said, and I was pretty sure I’d never heard my name pronounced in quite that tone of disgust before. Today was definitely a day for firsts. Since I wasn’t currently going anywhere, I took my time answering.
“Don’t pretend you don’t know me,” she continued.
I couldn’t help but notice she wasn’t making any move toward the knife—or helping me down. Figured. Holly Clark never had liked me. Not one teeny, tiny, sweet little bit.
“You’re hard to forget, babe.” For instance, I had the memory of her accepting the marriage proposal of her dickwad boyfriend burned into my brain. While she’d let the guy stick his tongue down her throat and his hands up her shirt, I’d guaranteed the immediate end of my employment at the local drive-in theater by illuminating her R-rated kiss with the drive-in’s spotlights. Honestly, I wasn’t sure why I’d done it—except that she’d fascinated me and pissed me off from the first day we’d met as kids—but that kind of history probably explained the evil grin playing across her face. She’d spotted an opportunity for payback in my current stuck-in-a-tree predicament.
Still, I’d never put her in any danger. I’d looked out for her even. I’d kept an eye on her high school dates, made sure none of those boys went too far, too fast. She made another slow, leisurely snow angel, and my blood pressure—and my dick—shot up. Holly had always been pretty, and she’d only gotten more so since I’d last seen her eight years ago.
Even mummified in all that crazy flannel, she had gorgeous boobs. The edge of a baby-blue T-shirt peeked out from beneath the checks, and her faded jeans sported more tears than my chute. It was hard to miss the shadows under her eyes though, and her cheeks were all angles. Someone hadn’t done a good job of looking out for her, and kicking that someone’s ass was gonna be fun.
So it was too damned bad she was married.
“You gonna help?” I snapped. Being noble didn’t agree with me. Kind of made me pissy in fact. So what if I’d realized too late that her picking some other guy for her happily-ever-after was the last thing I’d been gunning for?
She stared at me, then leaned up on her elbows. Naturally, her fingers didn’t so much as twitch toward my knife. “Nope.”
Not the words I was expecting to hear come out of her mouth.
“That a categorical refusal to come near me, or can we negotiate?”
Her grin got wider, and she fished in her shirt pocket and came up with a phone. Bright pink flamingoes danced across the case, and the lens was cracked in a dozen places, but sure enough she pointed the thing at me.
Guess that was my answer right there. I liked to think I was a good sport, but no way I handed her that kind of ammo.
“You take pics,” I warned her, “and I take them back.”
She shrugged, looking downright unconcerned. “You got to get down first, big guy.”
My balls were halfway to frozen despite the heated incentive of staring at Holly. The wind had picked up, the clouds were moving in, and we’d have full-on dark in two hours.
“I need the knife,” I told her.
“Uh-huh.” She made another leisurely snow angel, like she had all the time in the world. “I can sure see that.”
“Would it kill you to help me out?” I twisted, trying to get a better look at how I’d hung up. At least one branch had torn through the back of my jumpsuit—I was probably lucky I wasn’t bleeding out on her. I had chute strings wrapped around one arm and—defying all laws of physics—part of the chute itself twisted around my ankles. I was like one enormous, messed-up Jenga puzzle.
She flashed me a grin. “Helping you out wouldn’t be as much fun.”
“Payback’s gonna be a bitch,” I warned.
Growing up, we’d always traded tricks. I did something. She answered with something a little bigger. And then I did something bigger and badder. Our whole relationship could be described in terms of an arms race and nuclear escalation, with detonation a regular occurrence. Not that I really minded the twinkle in her eyes, but it was the principle of the thing.
“Why is payback always female?”
I’d forgotten how Holly’s mind worked—or leaped and twirled from point to point like some kind of crack-smoking ballerina. I’m sure it all made sense inside her head, but most of the time she left me reeling. She wasn’t done dredging up my past sins either.
“You weren’t nice to me before,” she continued, like thoughts A and B were clearly connected. Maybe they were in her universe.
“We met when I was twelve. I enlisted when I was eighteen. You gonna hold six teenage years against me forever?” Staring down at her baby browns, that suddenly seemed like a lame excuse. I could have been nicer. Fuck. That was probably why she’d ended up wearing Mr. Dick’s wedding ring and there hadn’t been any room left for me.
“You pranked me every day,” she accused me and then proceeded to rattle off a list of my misdemeanors. She’d all but alphabetized my shit. Her tirade included multiple water-balloon attacks, lockers glued shut, and my replacing her hairspray with blue hair color. That last one had been pretty funny.
In my defense, she’d tied me in knots. Apparently I hadn’t realized just how much—or how tight—until now. The branch creaked again, reminding me that I was on a deadline here. An uncontrolled fall to the ground via about four thousand spiky ponderosa branches wouldn’t do me any favors. I needed to get down.
Time to go on the offensive. “We went to school in Concord.” And since Concord—and our trailer park—was miles away, Holly was the last person I’d expected to see in the middle of the forest. “What are you doing here?”
She shrugged. “I work here.”
I made a production out of looking around. “I don’t see an art gallery.”
She’d been dead set on owning her own art gallery. She’d collected all the crap we drew in school and set it up when she was younger. I’d been roped into “viewings” on more than one occasion and had dutifully shuffled past the pictures. Since Holly was nothing if not determined, I figured she probably had at least a half dozen galleries by now. But as galleries were city material—rather than mountain material—her presence here remained a mystery.
She gave me a look I couldn’t interpret, but that was nothing new. “I work on a Christmas tree farm.”
Definitely not an art gallery, but maybe she enjoyed the work? I jumped out of planes for a living, so I wasn’t gonna judge her.
“So where’s Mr. Holly?” Wherever the fuck he was, he wasn’t glued to her side, and he damned certain wasn’t looking after her. I might be stuck halfway up a tree, but certain things were clear. She looked tired. She was alone. It was starting to get dark.
I couldn’t make out a ring beneath those ridiculous pink and green gloves she wore. She needed something tougher to go tipping.
She bit her lip, then glared up at me with the stubborn look I recognized. Usually it preceded her doing something particularly foul in the interests of evening the score or paying me back. Wasn’t like I had anywhere to be though. I was stranded in the ponderosa, facing a two-mile hike in the dusk. I’d far rather be here with her, so I could wait all night for her answer.
“I’m a failure,” she tossed off finally.
I didn’t believe that for a moment. Sure there was no such thing as insta-success, although I kinda would have liked that for her, but Holly didn’t know how to give up. She went after what she wanted, and I’d always liked that about her even if it had led her straight to Mr. Dick.
“There’s no more Mr. Holly,” she said, after the silence had stretched on for too long. “We got a divorce.”
I still had it bad for her, didn’t I? One of the last times I’d seen Holly, she’d been glued to the side of her new fiancé. She’d flashed a teeny-tiny rock at me and then demanded I congratulate her. The reality of the stone had sunk in as I’d taken in the guy’s arm wrapped around her waist. Yeah. Fucker knew he’d lucked into the best thing ever to happen to him. I’d realized—too little, too late—that I wanted to be her man. I’d never made a move on her, hadn’t said a word. She wasn’t a mind reader, and she’d gone guy shopping and picked out a happily-ever-after that didn’t include me. Truth was, that hurt worse than crash-landing in any ponderosa pine.
So if Holly had ditched her mister, I had a second chance.
But first I had to get down out of this goddamned tree. Reaching up, I started to unlace my boots.
“What are you doing?” I hadn’t known her eyes could get that wide—and she hadn’t even seen my best parts yet.
“I’m getting naked,” I told her. “Which means I’m gonna shuck my clothes so I can shimmy out of my current predicament. That’s step one in my plan. Step two involves me climbing down this tree, collecting my knife, climbing back up, and cutting my clothes free.”
I kept step three to myself, because that was the part where I either kissed her senseless or convinced her she wanted to go out on a date with a slightly banged-up smoke jumper and former SEAL.
A pink blush tinged her cheeks. It was kinda cute. “That’s a complicated plan.”
And she was a complicated woman, I was cold, and my branch was about to break and plant my sorry ass on the ground. “You got a better one?”
I set to work on the second boot. In another thirty seconds, I was going to be freezing my ass off, and she was going to get her own personal Chippendales show. If I was lucky, that would jumpstart step three of the plan. If I wasn’t lucky? She’d either run down the mountain screaming or whip out that camera of hers again. I’d deal with it when it happened.
“You could ask. Nicely.” She shrugged. “I’d bet the word please wouldn’t even kill you. And you can add a promise to that. I want to hear you say you’re going to behave yourself.”
I shook my head, frustrated but out of options. “Please.”
The word came out more growl than not, but her face lit up. Who knew six letters were the key to winning her over? I made a mental note to say the word a whole lot more around her. I’d be happy to please her in bed. For instance.
It took three tries for her to lob the blade high enough for me to catch it. I didn’t like her tossing knives around, but I also didn’t like her being alone on the mountain. She didn’t have the right boots, she wasn’t wearing enough clothing, and I was pretty sure she’d cut her fingers on those damned pine tips. She was supposed to be happy and safe—that was the principle behind why I’d joined the SEALs. Guys like me fought so girls like her could enjoy the right kind of life. No one got to her on my watch or tried to tell her how to be. She even got to marry Mr. Douche Bag. So why was she out in the woods by herself?