Home > Freed (Steel Brothers Saga #18)(3)

Freed (Steel Brothers Saga #18)(3)
Author: Helen Hardt

I heave a sigh of relief. “Thank goodness. Dale is so looking forward to the old-vine Syrah.”

“We all are, Ashley. We all are.”

“So…what do you want me to do today?”

“Come into the office,” he says. “I’m inundated with paperwork, and I could use some help.”

Paperwork. Fun. But it’s all part of the business. “I’ll be right in. I’m ready to leave now.”

“Sounds good. Did Dale happen to say where he was going?”

“To the mountains.”

“Fuck.”

I shudder instinctively. “What?”

“This fire. It started in the foothills above the vineyards. If Dale…”

I don’t need Ryan to finish the sentence. I already know what he means.

Dale—my Dale—may be in harm’s way.

“No,” I say. “He knows these mountains. Doesn’t he?”

“I don’t know. I assume he does. This isn’t the first time he’s run to the mountains.”

I swallow audibly.

“He’ll be okay, Ashley. He’s a smart man.”

But Ryan’s tone has an edge to it.

He’s not convinced of his words.

Neither am I.

 

 

I sit in Dale’s office.

Because he’s not here, I can use his space instead of my cubicle.

Dale’s office…

We’ve kissed in here. Done more than kiss…

I shake my head to clear the images.

My senses are dull today. Nothing has any color at all. Employees bustle around the hallways, speaking and laughing, but the sounds have no vibrancy, no hue.

Nothing.

Why are they laughing? Don’t they know their boss is in danger?

He’s a smart man.

Ryan’s words ring in my ears.

Yes, he’s smart. A brilliant winemaker. Does that make him a brilliant backpacker? A brilliant fire evader?

Concentrate, Ashley.

Ryan gave me work to do, and I have to do it. I’m an intern. I have a job here.

I gaze back at my computer screen, when—

“Ashley?” A soft knock on the open door.

I recognize the voice. It’s Talon, Dale’s father.

“Come on in,” I say.

He enters and sits down across from my—Dale’s—desk. “I thought you should know,” he says, “that Dale’s birth father died two days ago.”

I nod. “He told me.”

He wrinkles his forehead. “Do you know where Dale went?”

“I don’t. He said he was going to the mountains.” Tears jab at my eyes, but I force them back.

Talon nods, and a heavy sigh whooshes out from his throat. “Shit.”

“Please tell me he’s going to be okay.”

“I hope so, Ashley.”

“But you’re not sure…?” I can’t help a desperate edge to my voice.

“We’ve already got scouts out searching for him.”

He’ll hate that.

I don’t say it though. Talon most likely knows anyway. If there’s anyone who knows Dale better than I do, it’s his father.

“Please let me know as soon as they find him.”

“Of course we will. But, Ashley…”

“What?”

“Dale knows how not to be found when he doesn’t want to be found.”

“But if there’s a fire…”

Talon sighs again. “Dale’s a brilliant man, but even the smartest men on earth can’t outrun a forest fire.”

My heart sinks.

Talon hands me a sheet of paper. “This just came in from the AP.”

I take the paper and scan it.

FIRE ATTACKS WESTERN SLOPE VINEYARDS

 

 

The most recent fire to break out in Colorado this fall began on the western slope, igniting remote, rough terrain including juniper and sagebrush outside the small town of Snow Creek.

 

 

* * *

 

Several vineyards are in its path, including those owned by Colorado Pike Winery and Steel Acres Vineyards. Grape harvesting has begun, and so far, the fires have had minimal effect. Firefighters hope the recent moisture from thunderstorms will keep the fire from spreading too rapidly.

 

 

* * *

 

No evacuations have been ordered, though that could change at any time. Firefighters are blaming a lightning strike for starting the blaze, but fire from campers in the foothills has not been ruled out.

 

 

My stomach drops, and I feel sick. Really sick. Like I’m going to explode out of both ends at once, and it’s not going to be pretty.

“Ryan says the vineyards… That he…”

“In all likelihood, the vineyards will survive,” Talon says. “Some experts feel they form a natural firebreak, but we’ve seen other vineyards destroyed, so we reject that train of thought. We take precautions far and above.”

“Yes, defensible space…” I murmur. If only I knew for sure there was a decent bubble of defensible space around Dale.

“So Ryan already told you.”

I nod.

“Then he told you that we’ve suspended the harvest for a few days to protect our property.”

I nod again.

“I’ve tried calling Dale. Wherever he is, there’s either no service or he’s turned off his phone.”

“He wouldn’t,” I say. “Would he?”

“There’s a lot you don’t know about Dale, Ashley.” Talon rubs at his temple. “A lot I can’t tell you.”

“But…we’re in love,” I blurt out. “If something is bothering him, I need to know.”

Talon smiles weakly. “He’s in love with you?”

“Yes. He said so. He loves me and I love him.”

Talon smiles again. “Thank you, Ashley.”

“What for?”

“You just gave me hope.”

 

 

Chapter Three

 

 

Dale

 

 

I walk quickly, resisting the urge to run. If I run, I won’t keep the pace for long with the heavy pack I carry. Best to walk, but walk fast. Wind gusts around me, stirring up the dry leaves on the ground.

After about two miles, the brush crunches under my hiking boots. Dry. How hadn’t I noticed this when I hiked in?

Easy.

I was thinking only of myself. Of my birth father’s confession. I noticed nothing about the condition in the woods that reeked of fire hazards.

Damn.

Still, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. My best bet is to go down the way I came.

I continue walking, twigs and leaves crunching with each step I take. I inhale. The scent of burning brush is stronger here, and the air quality sucks.

Still, I see no flames. I hurry.

Another mile down, and then another. I’m about ten miles out when the wind picks up.

A streak of flame rushes through the dry brush ahead of me.

An ember lands on my forearm, and I brush it away.

Fuck.

I’m walking right to the path of the fire.

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