List Price: $ 4.99
Save 7 % off List Price
Montana Mavericks-The Rancher's Daughter
To the residents of Rumor, Montana, Ash McDonough was nothing but trouble. It didn't matter that ten years had passed since he'd last set foot in town. Nothing could redeem him--not even the fact that he'd rescued the daughter of the most powerful man in the county from a fiery blaze.
But Maura Kingsley seemed hell-bent on tearing down the defenses of the cowboy who'd saved her life. While it would take a better man than Ash to resist her passionate kisses, he wasn't about to let the beautiful redhead anywhere near his wary heart. After all, he'd learned long ago that risks were rarely worth taking--even if it meant losing his chance at love....
There are no customer reviews available at this time. Would you like to write a review?
December 01, 2009
Number of Print Pages*
Adobe DRM EPUB
* Number of eBook pages may differ. Click here for more information.
Excerpt from Montana Mavericks-The Rancher's Daughter by Jodi O'Donnell
"It's a blowup! Run!"
The shout was like a shotgun blast in Maura Kingsley's ears. She didn't even hesitate. Without turning to see who'd issued the order--she knew, anyway, that it was Hal Chatsworth, the boss of her crew of firefighters--Maura took off in a sprint across the pine-studded steppe and away from the forest fire that the national media had recently dubbed the worst in Montana's history.
Her ax-hoe-hybrid Pulaski clutched in her right hand, she dashed through the bone-dry forest duff, dodging ponderosa pines that were as drought-stressed as Maura had ever seen in her three years with the Forest Service. She was aware of her crewmates, as well as others who'd been on the burnout detail, running toward the good black in the riverbed that Hal had designated a safety zone at the beginning of the shift, should the winds change direction.
There was no predicting when a fire might achieve the critical mass it needed to reinforce itself with its own heat and instantly incinerating flames, creating the vicious vortex called a firestorm. The only way to fight that kind of fire was to get out of its way.
The problem was, Maura realized as a crackling branch fell to earth in front of her, the fire was crowning above their heads, leaping from treetop to treetop at a pace faster than the firefighters were running. Embers rained down on her like the sparks of a firecracker as she picked up her pace.
Good heavens, but it was moving fast. Too fast for her to outrun.
She could feel its heat, like the draft from a blast furnace, on her back. Gasping for breath as she ran, she clutched the pouch on her belt as if it were a talisman. It contained the collapsible fiberglass and aluminum fire shelter that would be her only chance of survival should she truly become overcome by the flames licking at the heels of her lug-soled boots. It was a firefighter's worst nightmare, getting caught in a burnover, where the white-hot heat of a raging wildfire could reach over 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Not for the first time in her life Maura prayed for a little height and longer legs as she felt herself falling behind the others. Her goggles obscuring her peripheral vision, she turned her head from side to side, trying to get an idea of what her options might be. To her right was only more sparsely treed forest, to her left the craggy limestone face of a rock mountain. Neither left her much to choose from. In fact, she'd be in ten times worse trouble heading for the mountainside if the flames chose to follow her. A fire moved faster up a slope because the uphill fuels became preheated.
She'd have to do something, though, and quick. The wind whipped around her, scaring up more sparks. She could almost taste more than smell the acrid, black smoke. It burned in her throat like a draft of home-stilled whiskey, and as she ran, she tugged the protective mask around her neck over her mouth and nose.
It was the noise, however, that started panic rising in her chest. Even from half a mile away, a forest fire sounded like a tornado, jumbo jet and fifty-car pileup all rolled into one. This close, it was the very incarnation of chaos and destruction. She had a wild thought that, like surviving a deadly battle, one couldn't completely understand the sound of a forest fire without experiencing it firsthand.
If she survived, for abruptly she was not in front of the fire. It was around her, ahead of her, above her.
And the realization hit Maura in an avalanche: She was not going to make it out.
Her life fast-forwarded past her mind's eye: her childhood growing up on a ranch, good times with her family--her three older brothers who alternately teased her unmercifully and pampered her unstintingly. Her mother, so regal and refined. Carolyn Kingsley was like a rose growing out of wild and rugged Montana grassland, and Maura had always been puzzled by the difference between mother and daughter, for she herself was of that land as much as it was of her.
Like her father, Stratton. Headstrong, loving, imperious, tender. She'd spent her life trying to thwart his protectiveness.
There was no way he could protect her now.
Around her, trees were literally exploding where they were rooted. The sound was like so many dying screams for mercy.
With a choking cry, Maura made the agonizing decision to pull out her fire shelter and take refuge under it. Survival using the shelter was not a certainty. One breath of superheated air would kill her, if she didn't die of sheer terror before the fire passed over her. But it was her only hope.
Then, just as she slowed, her heart like a melon in her throat, Maura felt herself swept forward from behind.
"Come on," a masculine voice rasped into her ear. "There's got to be cover along that mountain slope that'll be safer than out in the open under nothin' but a flimsy tent."
She hadn't the presence of mind--or desire--to argue as the man, a fellow firefighter, although she didn't know exactly who, cut to the left at an angle, half carrying her. Her feet glanced the ground as she ran beside him, the black canvas fire pack containing her water bottles, rations and other essential supplies bouncing against her lower back. Her own effort was nearly useless; his long strides ate up territory as if he himself was the fire and wind rolled into one.
They reached the face of the mountain in less than a minute. Barely slowing his pace, he groped feverishly with the gloved hand of his free arm at the outcroppings, overhangs and ledges in the craggy gray limestone.
"There's got to be some kind of decent shelter here, damn it!" he shouted over the roar of the wildfire. She dared a moment's pause to shoot a glance at him and could see only grim eyes behind his goggles, his own fire mask and yellow helmet obscuring any other features.
The ground was rougher here, punctuated with rocks and boulders surrounded by sprigs of parched wheat-and needlegrass. In college, she'd studied the geology of every major forest and mountain range in Montana and knew he was right. Caves were not unusual in this kind of sedimentary rock. But who knew where one might appear or if it would be deep enough to provide adequate shelter from the fire?
Perspiration from the exertion, heat and fear ran in rivulets down every vertical plane of her body. Her eyes smarting from the smoke, Maura's gaze searched the mountainside as desperately as that of the firefighter who'd come to her rescue. Maybe he hadn't rescued her, though. Maybe he'd sealed his death warrant by coming to her aid.
For the fire had again caught up to them, and here, along the slope, there was no place to go to escape it.
Her legs like jelly, Maura tripped over a rock and stumbled to her knees, and he lost his grip on her waist.
"Leave me!" she gasped when he turned back to her. "Save yourself."
He said nothing, just grabbed her by her upper arm and yanked her up. She staggered to her feet and against his side.
As soon as she did, a flaming fifty-foot-tall pine came crashing down behind them, directly across the spot where she'd knelt a second before. Maura screamed reflexively as the firefighter shoved her behind him, protecting her from the billow of sparks with his own body. She fell again, this time backward into a clump of bone-dry sagebrush sprouting horizontally from the mountain's side. But she didn't stop there; she continued falling, plunging through the shrubbery. She cracked the back of her helmet on the ground and for a moment believed she'd lost consciousness when everything went dim. Then Maura realized that, miraculously, she was lying at the lip of a cave.
She sobbed her relief. "A ca--" Her cry was cut off by a cough that felt as if she'd dislodged a piece of lung. Maura struggled to sit up and batted madly at the prickly dry sagebrush to part it. Sucking in a desperate breath, she shouted, "It's a cave!"
But the firefighter had already comprehended her discovery. He reached down to give her a boost to her feet, then led the way into the dark, unknown interior of the cave, pausing only to flick on the headlamp strapped to the front of his helmet.
The difference in temperature and noise was day and night. Still sucking air through a raw windpipe and smarting where she'd jarred her head, Maura turned on her own headlamp and, although she could see not much more than the back of the firefighter's head and shoulders, she knew they'd lucked out. She'd lucked out for the second time in only a few precious minutes, the first being this man's rescue of her.
Now that she was out of the thick of it, the closeness of the tragedy they'd both barely escaped dropped fullblown on her consciousness like a cougar from a tree.
"Wait!" she gasped, slumping against the rough wall and tugging her mask down to draw in a much-needed draught of cool air.
The man stopped and turned. "What's the holdup?" he asked tersely.
She lifted her forearm to shade her eyes from the beam of his headlamp. It didn't help. She could see nothing, just the bright, white light. Coming out of the encompassing blackness behind him, the glow seemed otherworldly, and it set her nerves jangling even more.
"We almost got killed out there!" Her voice wobbled revealingly. "I...just need a moment to catch my b-breath."
"Really." There was a moment of silence, then he said, "I know this fire is some kind of wicked, but I didn't think the NIFC was so desperate for bodies to fight it they'd started letting powder puffs onto Type Two crews."
That got her spine straightening, as well as adding a precious half inch to her five-foot-two height. "I passed the work capacity pack test, just like everyone else, hiking three miles in forty-five minutes carrying a forty-five-pound payload." She drew in another breath. "I made it with time to spare, too, I'll have you know! And I held my own on both the Deadwood and Durango fires last year."
He cocked his head to one side, sending his headlamp's beam in another direction and out of her eyes, and she got an impression of sardonic eyes a color she still couldn't make out.
"Really," he repeated, and this time the word was loaded with skepticism. "Then this oughta be a piece of cake."
And he headed farther into the mountain again, with Maura, now more vexed than scared, scrambling to keep up.
Powder puff, indeed! She supposed he had some right to be annoyed at having to come to her rescue, but some aspects of firefighting had not so much to do with speed and strength and everything to do with intuition and luck.
The passage was narrow and low, but navigable. The cave floor sloped gently downward, and very quickly became wet and slick, as did the walls striated in golds and reds and browns.
They had gone what Maura estimated to be about a hundred feet when the cave opened up into a large chamber. Its ceiling rose ten feet above them, and she simply stood there flat-footed and openmouthed as her headlamp made a sweep of the rock formations: glowing yellow stalactites jutted from the ceiling like jagged sharks' teeth. The walls were both smoother and rougher looking than in the passageway, with humps of smooth flowstone and ragged "popcorn," the cauliflower-shaped clusters on the cave walls that she knew could be sharp as coral.
Though she'd studied caves in college, she'd never been much of a spelunker, and the sight of this one took her breath away.
"It's beautiful," she breathed, her recent fear receding as quickly as the heat, noise and threat of the fire had in the cool confines of the cave. It had the still, musty smell of condensation and earth, which was just fine with Maura, since any air movement might bring the smoke into the cave and suffocate them. Mingled with the smell was a pungency she knew had to be coming from the guano that littered the cave floor.
"Bats," she guessed aloud. They were notorious cave dwellers, along with other wild animals.
The man noted the direction of her gaze and nodded. "It's also our home, at least for the night," he said, tugging off his gloves and tucking them into his belt. He removed his own face mask and goggles, letting them dangle around his neck.
Undoing the straps to his fire pack, he examined the cave room with a much more critical eye. "It looks like it goes on, who knows how much deeper into the mountain. I'll take a look in a sec. Are you injured at all?"
"Incredibly, no. My throat is sandpapery from inhaling some smoke, but otherwise I'm fine." She felt for her eyebrows and found them both intact. They were usually the first to go.
"Good," the man said. "One less thing to have to worry about."
He removed his helmet, headlamp still on, and balanced it on a ledge about shoulder height, so that it lit the interior of the room. "Better take a reckoning of water and supplies."
As she divested herself of her own pack, Maura seized the opportunity to get a good look at her rescuer. He looked vaguely familiar, but then everyone did after a few weeks working on a firefighting crew, even with volunteers being trucked in from across the nation. He was as sooty and begrimed as she was, his face blackened around the outline of his goggles in a kind of reverse raccoon look. He was wearing the same Forest-Service-issue brown fire-retardant Nomex pants and yellow fire shirt, which he was absently unbuttoning, but the uniform looked different on him than others. His shoulders seemed uncommonly broad, his forearms, as he rolled up the long sleeves of his shirt, were muscular, his hands wide and competent looking. He appeared the very definition of an able-bodied man, she thought, as her gaze lifted to his face again, and she was confronted with his as-thorough scrutiny of her. It was only then that she noticed his eyes: gray, they were. Almost silver, only richer. They were remote and inviting at once, and she was equally torn in two directions gazing into them. Afraid yet fascinated.
He was right in that they would be spending at least the night here together. Neither of them had radios to call for help, and even if they had, there would have been no way to pick up a frequency this deep in the mountain--or any way that rescue crews could get to them at this point, with the fire still going full force outside.