Mother glared at Daddy, waiting for him to interject.
He sat up, clearing his throat and chewing quickly. “Your mother”—she glared at him—“and I … feel that now that you’ve moved past your college … ways … that your place is at Edson Tech. She’s taken great care to create a station that includes photography, and she wants you to have the position and respect you deserve. It’s been very difficult for her to think of her daughter as a secretary, or this … dirty, camping, forest person snapping pictures of squirrels.”
Tyler leaned forward. “I’m sorry, sir … have you seen Ellie’s work? She’s not photographing squirrels, she’s documenting the containment of large wildfires around the U.S., and she’s very, very talented. She’s published, and she’s sought after. She’s given up a few offers, including National Geographic.”
“Really? That’s so great, Elliebee,” Finley said, a proud smile stretching across her face.
Tyler grabbed my hand under the table, and I sat up tall. “If you want me to move out of the condo, I’m happy to do that. But I’m not quitting my job.”
Mother narrowed her eyes at Tyler. “I suppose this has something to do with him.”
“No, actually, it’s just about me loving my job. But I also love him, and taking a job with Edson Tech would mean moving to the East Coast, and I want to stay in Estes Park.”
Mother rolled her eyes. “It’s a tourist town, Ellison. It’s not somewhere you plant roots.”
“That’s not true,” I said. “My roots are pretty firmly planted.”
Mother put her elbow on the table and pinched the bridge of her nose. “You’re really marrying a firefighter, Ellison? No offense, Mr. Maddox, but how do you plan to provide for our daughter?”
He tossed his napkin on the table, his shoulders relaxed. “Ellie doesn’t really need me to support her financially, but I make six figures annually, Mrs. Edson. That ain’t bad.”
Tyler shrugged. “I make a lot of overtime, and hazard pay is the tits.”
“He means it’s lucrative, Mother,” Finley said, glancing at me.
“Well,” Daddy said, loosening his tie. “I think it sounds like they’ve got it nailed down.”
“No, it most certainly does not,” Mother said. “This boy—”
Finley looked down, her mouth infinitesimally curving upward. It didn’t happen often, but we both loved it when Daddy finally reined Mother in.
“I don’t see why Ellison can’t stay in the condo as long as she likes. We’ve purchased a New York apartment for Finley, after all.”
Maricela brought out a tray full of crème brulee, passing out a small white bowl to my parents, Finley, Tyler, and me.
“Mother,” I said, taking one bite of Maricela’s specialty before I spoke. “Maybe it’s time you accept that your dreams for me are not mine. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, and broke your heart, and for that, I’m sorry. I have a long way to go and much to make up for, but I won’t apologize for wanting to keep a job I love and being engaged to a man who has been everything to me. We might have to get our hands dirty for a paycheck, but … I love being gross with him.”
“I want to see some of those features, young lady,” Daddy said.
“Dinner was amazing. Thank you,” Tyler said.
Daddy stood up as we did. “It was nice to meet you, Tyler. Looking forward to hearing some of your stories.”
Tyler walked around the long table to shake Daddy’s hand. “I’m looking forward to you seeing the pictures.”
Tyler returned to me and held out his hand. I followed him for a few steps until Mother called my name.
“Ellison? I just want you to be happy.”
I smiled. “Believe me when I say that for the first time in a long, long time … I am happy. Maybe the happiest.”
She nodded, and Tyler led me down the hall and out the front door to his truck. He held open the door, and I climbed in, settling in while he slid in behind the wheel.
“Intense.” He chuckled. He slid his fingers between mine, lifting my fingers to his mouth. “I think it went well.”
“Yeah. Everything’s going to be all right.”
I held my hand in front of me, admiring my diamond. “Think happy-ever-afters can happen for someone like me?”
Tyler’s phone went off, and he pulled it out, squinting to read the message. “Fuck.”
“Taylor’s already there with Zeke and David Dalton.”
I frowned, not recognizing the second name.
“Jew,” he explained. “They haven’t reported back. They’re getting ready to list them as missing.”
I covered my mouth. Tyler looked at me.
“I’ll stay at the hotel.” I recoiled from Tyler’s stern stare. “I promise!”
Tyler yanked the shifter into drive, surging forward. He called Chief on the way, letting him know we were heading south.
The drive down seemed to fly by—probably because Tyler was driving twenty miles over the speed limit. As soon as we ran into the lobby, Tyler joined the other hotshot crews in the conference room.
“Ellie!” Darby said with a smile. “I was hoping you’d come.”
While Darby checked me in, I turned to wave at Stavros.
“Sure,” she chirped, staring at the computer monitor and clicking on her mouse.
“I’m not going anywhere near Stavros while I’m here.”
Darby’s head popped up, and she stared at me, confused.
“Oh … oh! Yeah. Last time was … that was bad.”
I nodded once. “And it didn’t get better after that.”
Darby’s eyes widened, and she reached over the desk to grab my hand. “Chicken nuggets, it can’t be too bad! Congratulations! Tyler?”
She released my hand. “Hot damn, that is pretty. I’ll let Stavros know you’re on the wagon.”
“Thank you,” I said, deciding in the moment that I hated that euphemism.
She gave me two cards and winked, and I glanced down at the envelope to check the room number. I glanced over my shoulder, catching a glimpse of Tyler standing in the conference room, his arms crossed.
I carried my camera bag to the elevator, pressing the button for the second floor. Our room was at the end of the hall, a corner room, and I looked down to see the lot lights illuminating the news and hotshot vehicles crowded around Tyler’s truck.