“Taylor’s got a handle on it,” Tyler said.
To my surprise, Tyler leaned down to kiss my cheek before following Liam to the conference room. When he opened the door, I saw a lot of official-looking people standing at the head of the table, holding down the newly unrolled papers fighting to return to their previous position. There were phone calls being made, tapping on iPads, and typing on laptops. The hotshots were standing around, waiting for orders while the TAC team gathered information. I saw some of my boys for half a second before the doors closed, arms crossed and looking tough until Puddin’ caught a glimpse of me and waved like a kid seeing his parents from the stage at a school recital.
“Hanging in there, Stavros?” Darby asked, leaning on the bar. Her white button-down was perfectly pressed, her red lips matte and perfectly lined, her black slacks lint-free, and her honey-colored mid-ponytail pulled tight, not a single hair out of place. With her curves and million-dollar smile, I wondered if Darby was a former pageant queen. Every movement she made was elegant, every smile planned.
I glanced over at her, immediately suspicious. Trexler had been flirting with her earlier. Maybe she was an agent, too.
“The firefighters don’t tip,” Stavros grumbled. “And so far, all of them are straight.”
“It’s been like this for a week,” Darby said, resting her chin on the heel of her hand.
I felt my body stiffen, worried to say or do anything that might help Trexler with his investigation of Tyler’s family.
“Who was that guy who just left? The one who talked to you before rushing out the door?”
“Trex?” she asked, her eyes instantly sparkling at the sound of his name on her lips.
“He’s a firefighter, staying here until the fire is out. He’s like … some kind of special crew. He’s not a hotshot or ground crew. He doesn’t really talk about it.”
She giggled, although the sound seemed awkward coming from her, as if she wasn’t used to laughing. “Probably. He’s about that uptight.”
“So you don’t know him?” I asked, wondering why he’d lied to her.
“What about you?” Darby asked, combing through her hair with her fingers. Her brown eyes reminded me of Tyler’s: warm with gold tones and a lot of hurt behind them. “I’m guessing you’re a reporter from your card.”
“Oh. I’ve met Taylor Maddox and Zeke Lund. They’re sweethearts. They’ve been hanging out with Trex.”
“Yeah. Been up in his room almost every night since they got here.”
Darby shrugged, glancing behind her to check that no one was at the desk. “Two weeks. He got here before the fire started.”
My eyebrows pulled together. “That’s kind of weird.”
She smiled. “Maybe it’s not the fire secret service. Maybe it’s fire secret psychic.”
A family of four breezed in through the automatic doors, approaching the desk. Darby hopped up and returned to her station, greeting them with her red-rimmed smile.
The conference door opened, hemorrhaging hotshots and TAC team officials. I saw more than just my crew in there, and I wondered how many had been called to the Colorado Springs fire.
Tyler and Runt stood next to me, looking like father and son instead of crewmates. Runt was two heads shorter than Tyler, but just as strong. Like the other guys, Runt had leaned out over fire season, but even though he was the newest and smallest, he was usually the last one in the truck at the end of the day.
Tyler crossed his arms, scanning the crowd forming in the lobby. “It’s deep. We’re going to ride in as far as we can, and then take a helo to the fire site. Alpine has the eastern edge.”
“What do you mean no? When are we headed out?”
“You’re not cleared to go. It’s a fast-moving fire. They’ve already had some close calls. The winds are changing by the hour, and it’s just not safe, Ellie.”
“The only safe zone is the black.”
“I won’t be in the black. They need me on the fire line.”
I turned my back to him, fuming. The decision wasn’t his, but knowing that didn’t help. “Did you at least stick up for me?”
“He vouched for you, Ellie,” Runt said. “We all did.”
“I could probably get my red card by now. This is some sexist bullshit,” I growled.
Tyler sighed. “There are half a dozen women out there right now. It’s not sexism; it’s a safety issue. No civilians on the mountain. They’ll reconsider when it’s closer to being controlled.”
I turned to him. “Are you fucking kidding me? Are you saying if I had a dick they wouldn’t let me up there with my press pass? A fire is never controlled. It’s never safe. You don’t know what it’s going to do. We all just hope it goes our way up there. Now I’m going to be shooting the horizon and the ground pounders mopping up when it’s over.”
“I told you not to come,” Tyler said, impatient with my tantrum. “We have to go. I’ll see you when I get back.”
“Get me out there,” I called after him. “Maddox!”
The crowd in the lobby quieted and watched Tyler walk away from me toward the elevators. I turned to face Stavros, trying to hold back angry tears.
“You said ‘dick,’” Stavros said. “I like you already.”
My fingers were spread out in my lap, all ten ink-stained and covered in dirt. I intertwined them, touching the knuckles of my thumbs to my forehead and closing my eyes but praying to no one. Echoes of movement traveled down the hall to my cell, and my knee began to bob again. This was the first time I’d been arrested without knowing my father would have me freed within the hour.
Tears stung the gash on my cheek, just one of several wounds the forest had left on my body while I’d tried to trudge through the thick trees and dry, razor-sharp branches. My head was still swirling from the countless vodka tonics that had helped me decide to sneak into the black.
The bars rolled to the right, and the sheriff’s deputy caught the gate just before it crashed into the wall.
“You got some friends in high places, Edson,” he said.
I stood, holding my hand in front of my face to block out the bright light. “Who?” I asked.
“You’ll find out soon enough,” he said.
I stepped out, hoping to God the person on the other side of the wall wasn’t my father.
The deputy guided me by the arm to a small room where Trex sat in a folded chair. He stood, reaching out to take me from the deputy’s grasp.