“Where are we going first?”
“Um … Garden of the Gods. Just over ten minutes away and free parking.”
“Not Pikes Peak? You haven’t hiked it, have you?” His tone was accusatory. “I’ve heard the locals don’t.”
“I have actually,” I snapped. “A couple of times. But you can see Pikes from the Garden of the Gods. Trust me. It’s really a special place.”
“Take Tejon south to Uintah. Go until you get to thirtieth, and then take West Colorado onto Ridge Road. Just follow the signs.”
“You got it,” he said, backing out. He slammed on the brakes when another car laid on its horn. “See? It wasn’t just you.”
I laughed and shook my head as he inched out onto Tejon Street.
The familiar view outside my window hadn’t changed much since I was a girl. Colorado was its own Eden, its residents holding tight to preserving the state’s natural beauty. The Garden of the Gods was the earth turned on its edge. The views were particularly gasp-worthy. As a child, it had been my favorite local place to visit—not only to see it for myself, but also to watch as others experienced it for the first time.
Taylor was no exception. As we parked, he couldn’t stop staring. He said little as we hiked along the formations, breathing in the fresh air and open space. The sky was still a bit hazy from the outlying fires, but it didn’t seem to faze him.
An hour after we’d arrived, Taylor sat on a boulder to rest. “This is incredible. I’m pissed I’ve been here for as long as I have and haven’t come here before. I’ve gotta show the guys.”
I smiled, satisfied with his reaction. “Everyone should see this place. I don’t know. There’s just something about it.”
“I walk a lot of miles when I’m on the job, and I’m fucking tired. What’s up with that?”
I looked up, squinting from the sun overhead. Beads of sweat had just begun to fall from the nape of my neck down to the top seam of my tank top. “I don’t think you’re tired. I think you’re relaxed.”
“Maybe so. All I wanna do is take a nap.”
“That’s because you were up all night, doing my laundry.”
“Not all night. I slept. You drool by the way.”
“Oh, that’s why you didn’t make the moves on me. I thought maybe I snored.”
“No. You might actually be the cutest sleeper ever.”
I made a face. “Like you’ve spent a whole night with someone before.”
He thought about it. “True.”
“So, tell me something I don’t know about you,” I said, trying not to sound too eager. This was the precarious part. It was the make-or-break moment where I would get information I needed without seeming like I was getting information.
He patted the empty space next to him. “My birthday is January first.”
“That’s kind of cool.” I sat next to him, stretching my legs out in front of me. I hadn’t realized how tired I was until I sat down. “It’s always a big party, huh?”
“Oh, are we doing Twenty Questions?”
He feigned exasperation. “A form of it, I guess.”
“It’s not just a job. You save lives, homes, entire towns.”
He waited for me to answer, unfazed.
“Do you have any siblings?”
“Your parents’ only child hates them. That sucks.”
“Wow. I thought you were going to deny hating them. Do you really hate them?”
“I think so.” The irony wasn’t lost on me that I had answered almost immediately with no thinking at all.
I sighed. The other part of the game I’d started long before Twenty Questions was not to give too much away while still seeming to play along. “I guess you had the perfect childhood.”
“Enough love for your mom to tattoo her name on your arm.”
“My brother wanted to, so I had to, too.”
“We have the same tattoos.”
“Like the exact same ones? All of you?”
He laughed, too. “Thomas, Trenton, and Travis, too.”
“Clearly. So … your parents are still in Eakins?”
He blinked, unhappy for some reason. “I don’t know. Eakins is pretty suburban, I guess.”
“No,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s really, really small. We have only one grocery store, a few restaurants, and a couple of bars.”
“Does he do all of yours?”
“All but one.” Taylor held out his arm and pointed to the tattoo that read Diane.
Taylor stood up. “That’s more than twenty.”
He held out his hand to help me up. I pulled on him and then brushed off my pants.
“I don’t think so, but we should head back if you want to see other touristy stuff.”
He looked around and then shook his head. “No. I’m good with just hiking this trail. Unless you’re hungry or something?”
I looked at Taylor. He was a little too sweet, somewhat courteous, and even thoughtful at times, all safely hidden away behind his smart mouth and his tough tattooed exterior.
“Nothing. You’re just … not what I thought … I think.”
“Great. Now, you’re in love with me. I’ll never get rid of you.”
My nose wrinkled. “I am definitely not and never will be.”
“Yes, and unlike you, I keep my promises.”
“Good. Makes things a lot less complicated now that you’ve been friend-zoned.” He playfully pushed me forward, and I pushed him back. “Onward.”
We were almost back to the truck as the sun disappeared behind the mountains. The temperature had dropped from sweltering to refreshing, and the sweat that had beaded on my skin was cooling in the light evening breeze.
Somewhere ahead, music was floating in the air, and smells of food tipped off a party.
“Every year. For the …” I scanned Taylor from head to toe. “It’s the Heroes Gala, raising money for the families of fallen firefighters.”
A look of appreciation came over Taylor’s face. “That’s kind of cool.”
Just when the lights and people came into view, I froze. “Shit … shit.”