“Ow ya goin’?” Jack said. “We’re just in from Oz.”
“Great,” I said, knotting the robe belt and pulling it tight.
Tyler padded in, glowering at the two men. I’d never seen his expression so severe.
Liam held out his hand to Tyler. His bicep was as big around as my head, and I wondered how he carried all that muscle mass on a hike to a fire.
Tyler stared at Liam’s hand until he took it back, but the Australian didn’t seem fazed.
“There’s an undressed woman in your midst, gentlemen. I suggest you excuse yourself to another room until she’s otherwise.”
Jack slapped Liam on the shoulder. “They’re a bit uptight about nudity. Let’s not piss off the crew on our first day.”
Liam didn’t take his gaze from Tyler’s, but he wasn’t challenging him. With his unrelenting stare and amused grin, Liam was letting Tyler know he was far from intimidated, which only pissed off Tyler more.
The Aussies left, and Tyler joined me at the sink. “You okay?”
“Yeah,” I said, waving my hand dismissively. “You’re no longer the only Alpine hotshot crewmember who’s seen me naked.”
Tyler clenched his teeth. “We should have just had them go straight to Colorado Springs.”
“Then we wouldn’t have had last night.”
He smiled, gently pinching a few strands of my hair. “It’s a political fire. They need all hands on deck. Maybe you should stay.”
I frowned. “And what the hell am I going to do here? Take pictures of flowers? The barracks? Jojo will be pissed if I don’t go.”
“There’s a different TAC team. It’s not just Chief making the decisions. They might not let you up there.”
“I have a press badge. I can go wherever I want.”
Tyler breathed out a laugh. “That’s not exactly accurate.”
“I never said that about you. I was talking about how much I liked that you smelled like a wild fire.”
I squeezed out toothpaste on my toothbrush, making Tyler grin. I pointed my brush at him. “Don’t even think about it. We’ve got crew here now.”
Tyler seemed unhappy. “They just got here.”
“Or maybe you heard his accent and suddenly you don’t want us to have a thing.”
He shrugged. “Chicks dig that.” He walked off, and I brushed my teeth like I was punishing them.
We packed our bags, and Tyler called Chief, letting him know the Australians had arrived. The guys loaded up in a forestry truck and began the hundred and thirty miles south, down Highway 36 to Colorado Springs.
“About two and half hours,” Tyler said. “Give or take.”
Jack adjusted a few times, and I turned. “You must be sick of traveling. When did you get in?”
“Late last night. We drove over first thing this morning,” Jack said. He smiled a lot, making him seem younger, even though he was all muscle.
I laughed, knowing it was going to be an interesting drive. We both spoke English, but the slang was going to be a challenge. “Just that you started working the second you landed.”
“That’s the way we like it,” Liam said.
I faced forward, adjusting my seat belt. Tyler had both hands on the wheel, his knuckles white.
“What?” I said. We were sharing the cab of the truck, but the Aussies were chatting, and the engine helped to muffle anything I didn’t direct at them.
“I’m just thinking of this morning.”
“You’re not the only one who’s ever seen me unclothed.”
“I know,” he said, closing his eyes. “I know, but I wasn’t there to witness it.”
“You’re going to have get over it,” I said. “You have to work with these guys.”
“Maybe I could if I knew what the hell we were doing.”
I wrinkled my nose, caught off guard by his sudden ire. “It’s not like you’ve brought it up.”
“Actually, I have. I was trying to be patient.”
“A man can only be patient for so long.”
“And what does that mean, exactly? Did I miss the deadline I didn’t know I had? Everything was fine two hours ago. Why are you so pissed off?”
He didn’t answer, his jaws fluttering beneath the skin.
Liam leaned up, patting Tyler’s shoulder. “Sorry about your girl.”
“She’s not my girl,” Tyler said.
I curled my shoulders forward and looked out the window, trying hard to seem unaffected. The Aussies were instantly quiet, making the awkwardness even worse. I didn’t realize how much Tyler’s dismissal would hurt. The entire time we’d known each other, I had thought I was the one being pursued, but in that instant I understood why I’d held back: Tyler had left his dad, his friends, his brothers behind. Deep down I knew he was going to leave me, too.
The engine revved, and the tires spun on the asphalt, creating a high-pitched hum. I couldn’t talk, so I folded my arm against the window and closed my eyes, pretending to sleep.
Tyler spoke when the Aussies asked him questions about the Alpines, keeping silent while they chatted in the back seat, discussing their enthusiasm for the hikes in the mountains and the cooler climate.
Liam paused, and then called up to Tyler. “What’s the story with the sheila?”
“She’s a photographer for a local magazine. She’s following us around for fire season, documenting what it is that we do.”
“She’s a beaut,” Liam said. “She’s got the lightest blue eyes I’ve ever seen.”
Tyler stayed quiet, but I didn’t have to open my eyes to see his expression.
“Crikey,” Jack said, disgusted. He clearly understood what Liam didn’t, that something was going on between Tyler and me, even if he wouldn’t admit to it.
“You’re barking up the wrong tree, pal. She’s into girls,” Tyler said.
Technically, he wasn’t lying, but it didn’t make me feel any less pissed. Up until that moment, Tyler had been forthcoming and unapologetic about his feelings for me. Now he was acting like a prepubescent who was trying to act cool in front of his buddies.
The two and a half hours felt like an eternity, and by the time we pulled into the hotel parking lot, my body was stiff and screaming for me to move.
I stepped out onto the asphalt, and then scrambled to pull my camera out of the bag and slipped the strap over my head, snapping pictures of the pink ball of fire behind the thick layer of smoke in the sky.
“That’s nothing, darl,” Liam said. “You should come back to Oz with me.”
Tyler grabbed his duffel and slammed the driver side door, walking quickly into the lobby. Liam and Jack followed, and I walked behind them, standing back while Tyler and the Aussies checked in.