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In every way that counts, Levi is the polar opposite of his best friend, Moose. Instead of coming from the richest family in Long Valley, Levi’s father is the town drunk, and his mother, sick of the beatings, took off when he was only two. Over time, he’d found a bit of stability when Moose’s family took him in, but life is never easy, and Levi quickly finds that coming from the wrong side of the tracks causes more than one problem in this sleepy town… Fire and Love is the third novel in the Firefighters of Long Valley series, although all books in the Long Valley world can be read as standalones. It has some strong language, and oh my, sexy times. Enjoy!
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Copyright © 2018 by Erin Wright
This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be constructed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locales or organizations is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any manner whatsoever without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotation embodied in critical articles and reviews.
I know my books aren’t your cup of tea, but it means the world to me that you support me anyway. Thank you for everything.
I couldn’t have asked for a better momma.
Thanks for bequeathing me with your ability to write and plot. I know that making a living by writing seemed like a far-fetched dream, but I’ve finally been able to make it happen, and every bit of my talent comes from you. Thank you.
Love you both.
Quick Note: If you enjoy Fire and Love, be sure to check out my offer of a FREE Long Valley novella at the end.
With that, enjoy!
Late May 2018
“Yeah, I know it’s our tradition,” Moose Garrett said, his disgruntlement coming through loud and clear, “but…” He groaned in frustration. “I just don’t want to be away from Georgia for the entire weekend. C’mon, we’ve brought people along with us before.”
“Men,” Levi Scranton retorted pointedly, perusing his fridge as they talked, shoving his cell phone between his ear and shoulder so he could use both hands to pull out empty takeout containers and nearly empty jugs of milk. “Not people. It’s a guys’ weekend to go camping and fishing and sit around the campfire and drink beers, not listen to girls squeal about how gross it is to hook a worm and toss it into the water.”
“You really think Georgia is going to be squeamish about hooking a worm?” Moose asked, laughing. Levi ground his back teeth together. That was not the point, and Moose knew it.
Levi wanted a weekend where he could wander around in his boxers and scratch his nuts and spit into the bushes. You know, things you just couldn’t do around a female of any kind, not even the Georgia kind.
“Oh hey, you should invite someone to come along with!” Moose said excitedly, clearly thrilled by the genius of his own idea. “Then you won’t feel like such a third wheel.”
Even as Levi was rolling his eyes at his best friend’s obtuseness, he could hear Moose and Levi’s former girlfriend mumbling to each other, the microphone apparently covered up by someone’s hand, and felt a bolt of jealousy shoot through him. Georgia was there with him, just hanging out. Of course she was there with him. They’d just kissed and made up – quite literally – a few days ago.
And Levi was happy for them. Obviously.
It was just hard to hear them coo nonsense at each other, was all. He wouldn’t want to listen to anyone coo nonsense. The fact that it was his best friend and his former girlfriend? That didn’t enter into the equation.
Finally, Georgia’s voice came on the line. “I think you should invite Tennessee,” she announced without preamble. Shocked, Levi straightened up so fast from his inspection of his mostly empty fridge that he whacked his head on the freezer door.
“Shit!” he mumbled, rubbing the back of his head while shutting the fridge and leaning up against it.
“What? What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” he grumbled. He touched the tender spot carefully. Dammit, he was gonna get a goose egg from that one. “But c’mon, Tennessee?! I can’t ask her to go on a camping and fishing trip with me. With us. Even if you’re her cousin. I mean, have you looked at your cousin lately? She’d freak the hell out as soon as she figured out that the tent didn’t come equipped with electrical outlets for her curling iron.”
Tennessee Rowland was Georgia’s cousin, but God had never created two people more different than those two. While Georgia was a real fitness buff, ran the local credit union as the youngest branch manager in history, and wouldn’t wear nail polish if her life depended on it, Tennessee…well, Levi wasn’t quite sure what she did all day. Get her hair highlighted? Practice the piano? Go clothes shopping for shoes that cost more than Levi made in a month?
Yeah, Tennessee’s manicured, perfect body didn’t belong anywhere near a fishing pole.
“She’d kill me if she knew I was saying this,” Georgia said quietly, “but honestly, Tennessee is struggling right now. She may not have loved Moose the way that I do, but their relationship had been a huge part of her life practically since she was born. Now, all of that’s gone, and she really doesn’t know what to do with herself. She’d love to go camping, I promise. But, if I ask her, then it’ll seem like I’m trying to set you two up on a date or something. If you ask her as just friends, then it won’t be weird.”
Sometimes, he hated talking to Georgia. She made so much damn sense and honestly, it was a little annoying. Did she always have to be so rational? Somehow, Georgia had twisted it around so that asking Tennessee – one of the most gorgeous women Levi had ever clapped eyes on – to go camping with them had become something that a good guy would do, instead of being something that a creeper would do because he couldn’t keep his tongue in his head while he was around her.
Not that Levi had any experience with that, of course. He knew better than that. Sure, Tennessee and he had flirted a little at the firefighter fundraiser a couple of months ago, but c’mon. There was no way she actually liked him. She should be dating Justin Bieber or some superstar, for hell’s sake.
Levi Scranton, local hick and son of the town drunk? He didn’t even register on her radar.
And that was how it should be.
“Just ask her and let’s go have some fun,” Georgia said firmly, obviously not budging. “Here’s Moose back,” and with that, Levi’s conversation with Georgia was over. She’d decided, so it should be done.
“You there?” Moose asked, his voice coming back on the line.
“Your girlfriend is real stubborn, you know that?” Levi asked dryly.
“You dated her for three years and you’re just now starting to figure that out?” Moose asked, laughing again. Levi ground his back teeth together. Again. When, exactly, had Moose started laughing every other sentence? Was he always this cheerful? Between that and the cooing of nonsense to Georgia, he sure was stretching Levi’s patience. “But the problem is,” Moose continued dryly, “she’s almost always right. Sucks, that.”
Levi heard Georgia whisper something to Moose and he may not have understood the words but he sure as hell understood the meaning. Sure enough, the sounds of spit swapping commenced. Levi gripped his phone harder. Were they trying to torture him?
All right, fine, even Levi thought that Georgia and Moose made a better couple than he and Georgia had, but that didn’t mean that he enjoyed that fact.
“I’ll think about it,” he said loudly, and then hung up before he could be forced to listen to any more spit-swapping sounds.
For years, it had been he and Moose against the world. Now, it was him, Moose, and Georgia against the world. It was starting to feel a little crowded.
With a sigh, he turned around and reopened the fridge door, hoping that the food leprechauns had somehow delivered food while he wasn’t looking. Alas, it was just as empty as it ever was: A moldy loaf of bread that he’d somehow missed during his first round of cleaning, a half-empty bottle of ketchup, and some generic soy sauce were the only food-like items to be found.
Levi wasn’t half bad in the kitchen, but even he couldn’t create something edible out of that. He grabbed the loaf of bread, chucked it into the trash can along with the rest of the empty and moldy containers, and headed for the front door.
He didn’t much cotton to the idea of going to Boise that evening, not when he had to be at work bright and early the next morning, so he decided to feel rich for the day and shop at the local grocery store – the Shop ‘N Go – instead. Some people called it the Shop ‘N Blow, because shopping there meant blowing through your whole paycheck, but hell, beggars couldn’t be choosers.
He pulled into the grocery store parking lot and swung out of his truck, focused on his mission. He’d get the essentials, plus pick up some stuff for the camping trip this weekend, and hopefully be able to escape with most of his bank account intact.
“I gotta go! Bye!”
He heard the whispered farewell as he walked through the sliding front doors and into the cool of the air-conditioned store. Suspicious, he looked up to find Tennessee hurriedly shoving her cell phone into her jewel-encrusted purse as she sent him a brilliant smile. “Hi, Levi,” she called out, pushing her cart over to him. “How’s it going?”
He couldn’t shake the feeling that she’d just gotten off the phone with Georgia for two reasons:
a) It was just like Georgia to meddle so much that she wouldn’t believe simply telling Levi what to do would be enough. No, she’d want to tell Tennessee what to do, too.
b) Tenny’s smile was weirdly bright and her hands were fluttering everywhere, like butterflies unsure of where to land. In other words, she looked guilty as hell.
He couldn’t help it. His eyes dropped and he studied her from head to toe.
He started with her brightly painted toenails in strappy sandals that probably cost more than he spent on food in a month, up her gloriously long and gloriously tanned legs, to her short shorts that were just barely cupping her ass, to her pink t-shirt that said Princesses need love too in sparkly letters over a sparkly crown, all the way up to her face – her gloriously perfect face. She had these blue-green eyes that changed depending on the light and her mood and the clothes she was wearing, all framed by the longest eyelashes God had ever graced a human with.
Oh yeah, and don’t forget her long, blonde hair or perfectly straight, white teeth.
Tennessee Rowland, daughter and heir to one of the richest farmers in western Idaho, was so far out of Levi’s league, he couldn’t even see the baseball field she was playing in.
But dammit all, despite what Georgia thought, the truth was…Levi didn’t want Tenny to come along as “just a friend” on this camping trip. Looking at her, he wanted so much more than that. Any man with two working eyeballs would want more than that.
Well, okay, other than Moose, who’d thrown it all away, but as best as Levi could figure, Moose was just a blithering idiot. Levi was Moose’s best friend, so he could totally say that about him. Georgia was amazing, and Levi had spent his fair share of his life in love with the woman, but clearly, she wasn’t Tennessee.
No one was Tennessee.
He propped his shoulder up against the cinder-block wall right inside of the front doors, and crossed one booted foot over the other. “Good,” he finally grunted in response to her question.
Yeah, Tennessee would be at home around a campfire like she’d be at home running a chainsaw. Just this once, Georgia was flat-out wrong.
“It’d be fun,” Georgia had said firmly, her mind clearly already made up. “It’s just for the weekend, and it’s just so Levi doesn’t feel like he’s a third wheel. It’s hard for him, this whole change up. I used to date Levi, you used to date Moose, and now of course it’s Moose and I who are together and…Levi was left flapping in the wind, you know? It’d just be as fri—”
“I gotta go! Bye!” Tennessee had whispered urgently and then had hung up, shoving her iPhone into her purse hurriedly.
Levi was walking into the store – of course he was walking into the store just then – and she wasn’t about to let him overhear her conversation with Georgia. It was embarrassing enough that her cousin was hellbent on setting Tenny up on a date (or a pseudo-date, more accurately) – it didn’t need to happen in front of said pseudo-date.
She flashed Levi a nervous smile, trying to pretend that she totally hadn’t just been caught, and failing miserably. She was normally good at hiding her thoughts and feelings from the world – 26 years of training by parents who didn’t give a damn about her feelings taught her to be real good at that, actually – but there had always been something about Levi that made it hard for her to keep up that façade.
“Hi, Levi,” she called out cheerfully, pushing her cart over to him. “How’s it going?” If she’d whistled innocently, she couldn’t have been more obvious. She stifled a groan.
Awkward in social situations but only around Levi Scranton? Check.
His eyes perused her slowly, languidly, moving up her body, making her feel like he was stripping her naked as he went. Despite the fact that it was the beginning of June and thus the summer heat was only just starting to pound down on Sawyer, Tenny couldn’t help but wish she’d worn a trench coat to the grocery store. Maybe a long-sleeved turtleneck and a pair of wool mittens, too.
Anything to cover her body from his gaze.
“Good,” he finally grunted, leaning casually up against the grocery store wall.
They stared at each other for endless moments, Tennessee waiting for Levi to say something else, and him apparently doing the same thing. Finally, they both started to talk.
“I—” Tennessee said.
“You—” Levi said.
Tennessee, like most people who’d spent more than seven seconds in Georgia’s company, tended to believe that she was always right. But as she and Levi stared at each other, the silence between them as empty and intimidating as the Grand Canyon, she was starting to think that in this particular case, her cousin was wrong.
So very, very wrong.
Sure, Tennessee wanted to go camping. Kinda. Well, it’d be something new and different, anyway, although the fact that there tended to be lots of insects in the great outdoors was not exactly enticing. Sleeping on the ground didn’t add to the allure, either.
But what she was real sure of, was that Levi didn’t want her there, too.
“Whatcha doin’?” Levi finally drawled, breaking the deafening silence between them.
“Shopping,” she said, holding up a bottle of Russian dressing as proof. “The cook sent me down here to buy it; she’d forgotten it when she’d gone shopping in Boise a couple of days ago.” She stumbled to a stop. Levi did not want to hear about the trials and tribulations of the family cook forgetting ingredients for the evening meal.
She put the bottle back down into the basket of the cart and gripped the red handle tightly. Looking down at her nearly empty cart, she realized that grabbing one had been rather dumb – she didn’t exactly need an entire cart to push a bottle of dressing around the store. But on the other hand, she was glad for its buffering effect between her and Levi. Being around him made it hard for her to breathe.
If he’d been able to stand even closer? She’d probably faint from lack of oxygen.
Before they could go back to their awkward staring contest, Tenny asked hurriedly, “What are you doing?”
“Shopping,” he answered dryly.
Scintillating conversation we’re having here.
As they continued to stare at each other, Tenny worried her bottom lip. She wanted to go camping with Moose and Georgia and Levi, even if it did involve a three-day stint with hordes of mosquitoes, and she wanted to be able to breathe while around Levi.
Somehow, though, it kinda looked like neither of those two things were going to end up happening.
She tried to think of a casual way to bring it up – So, been doing much camping lately with Moose? – but her mind was blank.
Well, not blank. It was whirling right along, focused on the Superman curl across Levi’s forehead, and how his thick eyebrows and strong jaw gave off the all-too-true impression that he knew what he wanted and how he wanted it, and how his bulging muscles created dips and valleys everywhere she looked, tempting her to run her teeth over them…
Yeah, her mind wasn’t blank. It just wasn’t producing anything useful, or at least, anything she could say out loud.
“Well, I’ll let you get to it, then,” she said finally, when the silence was unbearable and she couldn’t handle one more moment of it. “Cook will have my head if I don’t hurry–”
“Do you have any plans for this weekend?” Levi broke in, his deep voice rumbling through her, starting with her turquoise-painted toes and working its way up her body.
“Ummm…no. Not yet,” she said truthfully. Not unless you ask me to go camping, that is. She decided to keep her mouth shut and just see what he said. If weekend plans included being forced to practice yet another Beethoven piece on the piano, listen to her mother prattle on about how disloyal Georgia was for stealing Tennessee’s fiancé away from her (everyone seemed to have forgotten that Moose had never actually proposed to Tennessee, let alone her having said yes to the idea), and listen to her father rant and rave about how you can’t trust anyone these days, not even Rocky’s children…
Well then sure, she had plenty of weekend plans.
Just none that she actually wanted.
“Moose, Georgia, and I were going to go camping this weekend, up in the Goldfork Mountains,” Levi continued.
“Oh, how fun!” Tenny said, an overly bright smile blossoming on her face.
“Fun?” Levi echoed, cocking one of his thick, dark eyebrows at her.
“Well, I mean, I think it’s fun. I’ve never been camping before. But a tent, a sleeping bag, the great outdoors…that could be fun, right?” She stumbled to a stop, her cheeks flushing pink under his steady gaze. She was practically yelling, “TAKE ME, TAKE ME!” and wasn’t that just embarrassing as hell. She wasn’t used to begging people to include her in their plans. She was usually the center of people’s plans, or the one doing the planning. Just one of the side benefits of being one of the most popular girls in town.
No, she definitely wasn’t used to having to beg people to include her.
“Did you want to come along with? Give me someone to hang out with, since Moose and Georgia will spend all of their time either swapping spit or declaring their love to each other.” He grimaced at the thought.
She mirrored that grimace. She was happy for her cousin, of course, and thrilled to pieces that she wasn’t the one in a relationship with Moose, but really, their love for each other was a bit puke inducing.
“Well, if you’re okay with that,” she said hesitantly. “I’m sure it would be fun, but I don’t want to be in the way.” Because yeah, she really wanted to go, but only if Levi wanted her there. Being an unwanted third wheel wasn’t exactly her idea of a great way to spend the weekend, especially if she was going to have to do it without a single coffee shop in sight.
“Good,” he grunted, ignoring her not-so-subtle plea for reassurance. “Usually we like to leave on Friday evenings but since Georgia has some things to do at work, we’ll be leaving Saturday morning instead. Can you be ready by then?”
“Sure! Yeah! Of course!” she exclaimed brightly, and then mentally kicked herself. She really needed to tone down the enthusiasm. “Uh, well, see you Saturday morning. Bright and early.” She flashed a smile at Levi and then pushed her cart towards the checkout line, her heart going a million miles an hour. She was going to go camping with Levi.
Now there were some weekend plans she could get excited about.
Levi made his way up the creaking, broken boards of his father’s rickety front steps, trying to find the most stable planks to step on. He really didn’t think that putting his foot through old, rotten wood could be classified as a good time, and as bonus points, his dad would just chew him out for “ruining” his porch. Levi rolled his eyes at the thought; as if this piece-of-shit conglomeration of rotten boards and rusty nails could actually be ruined. As he figured it, lighting it all on fire could only improve the look of the place.
He rapped three times on the broken screen door and then eased it open, stepping into the dank, dark interior of his childhood home. “You home, Dad?” he called out, shuffling through the maze of refuse and garbage that covered the grimy floors. He held the bag of burgers up next to his head, not wanting to accidentally drop them into a pile of garbage and never be able to get them back out again. This also had the side benefit of helping to drown out the smells of the slowly disintegrating house, by putting the cheeseburgers right next to his nose.
He heard a disgruntled grunt emanating from the living room, only barely perceptible over the blaring of the TV. Judge Judy was on, one of his dad’s favorite shows. Yelling at people for a living was right up his alley; listening to someone else do it was almost as enjoyable.
Levi stepped to the doorway of the living room, his eyes still adjusting to the semi-darkness of the ramshackle house. His father kept the blinds drawn and a couple of lamps on 24/7, keeping his world in a constant state of twilight. He had no idea how his father knew what time it was.
Actually, his father probably didn’t care what time it was. If his entire day consisted of drinking and watching TV, did it really matter if it was three in the afternoon or seven in the morning?
“You have some good stuff in there, boy?” his father demanded, peering suspiciously at the bag of burgers in Levi’s hands.
Good stuff, of course, meant alcohol. Pabst beer if he could get it; anything else if he couldn’t.
“I already told you – I’m only bringing you food from now on,” Levi said firmly. “If you want alcohol, you’re gonna have to get it fro—”
“Dammit, you worthless piece of shit!” his dad hollered, cutting him off. “If I wanted some damn food, I’d walk into the kitchen and get some. Worthless, just like your mother.”
And so it began – the same rant his father always slipped into when Levi was doing anything other than supplying him with alcohol.
“When she ran off, leaving a crying baby in my lap, I should’ve known better than to take care of you,” his dad snarled. “I should’ve dropped you off on the courthouse steps and gotten the hell out of Dodge. You’ve been nothin’ but a disappointment.” His watery blue eyes were like fiery orbs in the dim lighting, dancing with anger and hatred and disgust. “Why, if I could have back all the money I ever spent on you, feedin’ you and clothin’ you and makin’ sure you stayed warm, I wouldn’t have to ask you to bring your old man a little somethin’ to tide him over. I’d be rich! You can’t even—”
The screen door banged shut behind Levi as he walked out of the dark, dingy house, his hands shaking, the bag of burgers left sitting on the cluttered mantle over the non-working fireplace.
“I didn’t say you could leave!” he heard his father shout, the words drifting out of the house on the summer breeze, but Levi ignored it all, hurrying towards his truck and freedom.
His dad, surprisingly short considering that he was his father, was also too lazy and too drunk to chase after him, not to mention that Levi had muscle and agility on his side. His dad had whooped his ass more times than Levi could possibly count growing up, but the beatings had stopped once he could stare his father in the eye. Bullies tended to do that – they only liked to beat on people who couldn’t defend themselves. Thank God his mom had apparently been some sort of Amazonian, considering how tall Levi grew up to be. If he’d been on the shorter side, the beatings could’ve continued until high school graduation.
Not, of course, that Levi would ever know for sure how tall his biological mother was. His dad refused to discuss her at all, except to say she was a worthless whore who’d dumped a crying baby on his lap. The few times Levi had tried to pry information out of his dad, even the most basic of information like what was his mother’s name, where was she born, and what did she look like, his father had simply told him that he didn’t talk about bitches because they weren’t worth the waste of oxygen.
Levi started driving the streets of Sawyer aimlessly, trying to get his hands to stop shaking and his heart to stop pounding. Despite the fact that he’d long ago told himself that he’d become immune to his father’s screaming fests, they still weren’t what he’d call enjoyable. Moose must’ve told him a hundred times to stop even trying, but Levi couldn’t help it. Watching his dad practically mold himself into his recliner; his hairline receding in tandem with his beer belly growing; eyes getting so watery, walking through his trash-strewn house was probably a death-defying stunt for him…
It was hard to just turn his back on him, even if his father was a class-A douchebag.
Levi finally made himself go home, to the empty rooms that made up his house. Being at home by himself every evening was soul-sucking. There was a reason why Levi was willing to go on this camping trip with Moose, despite the fact that it had been polluted by the presence of the female gender.
Anything was better than yet another weekend by himself.
And okay, yeah, so he’d added to the problem by asking Tennessee to come along too, but hell, he knew Moose wasn’t gonna agree to have a guys-only weekend, so if they were gonna be stuck with Georgia being there, Levi might as well have some eye candy to drool over. It was nothing more than that – it could never be more than that – but considering how stunningly, stupidly gorgeous she was, having Tennessee Rowland around wasn’t exactly gonna be a trial.
Well, other than the whole no-scratching-his-nuts and no-wearing-just-his-boxers part.
The shit he was willing to put up with for his best friend.
He kicked off his boots and settled himself down onto his lumpy couch, flicking on the TV. Although it had been fun to have Moose sleep at his house for a couple of nights after he finally left his parent’s home behind, Levi was glad to have his couch back when Moose had moved up to Franklin. He hadn’t told Moose this, of course, but Levi hated his bed. It was supremely comfortable, supremely large, and…supremely lonely.
Just him on a king-sized Tempur-Pedic mattress, all alone, just didn’t work, whereas he could actually sleep on his couch, lumpy or not. Its narrow confines kept him from tossing and turning all night long, reaching for someone who wasn’t there.
He turned on a documentary about bats, and, stuffing his pillow underneath his head, shut his eyes, trying to drift off to sleep. Red-rimmed, bleary eyes haunted him, floating in the darkness.
Worthless piece of shit…
Worthless piece of shit…
Tenny stood on the curb in front of her parent’s home, the smallest suitcase she owned propped up against her leg as she waited for Moose to come pick her up. She’d managed to fit everything that she needed for two nights out in the wilderness into only this tiny bag, which she considered to be nothing short of a miracle. She’d spent the day before packing and unpacking and repacking the suitcase, trying to shove and cram every last item into place.
It was stupidly early in the morning – who was honestly up at 7:30 in the morning on purpose?! – but on the bright side, it also meant that she didn’t have to listen to her mother harangue her about “poor life choices” yet again while she was trying to get out the door. Her mother didn’t get up before noon any more often than Tennessee did.
Tenny had needed the time this morning to get her hair just right and stuff yet more last-minute items into her bag, but two and a half hours after her alarm had gone off, she was beginning to lose steam. Georgia had told her that their campsite was hours away, up in the mountains; maybe she could catch a nap in the backseat on the way.
She was hiding a yawn behind her hand when Moose’s headlights caught her eye. They pierced the early morning darkness as he drove up Mansion Way towards her parent’s house.
It wasn’t actually named that, of course – that was too ostentatious even for the richest farmers and business owners in the area – but it’s what everyone in town called it. Tenny was quite sure no one even knew the true name for the road (Golden Creek Way, which was only slightly less ostentatious, honestly) other than the post office employees.
They even occasionally got mail made out to “425 Mansion Way” instead of “425 Golden Creek Way” but their delivery person made sure it got to the Rowland home anyway.
Just one of the many benefits of living in a tiny town.
Moose pulled to a stop in front of her in his piece-of-shit truck and jumped out, shooting her a quick hello as he grabbed her Louis Vuitton suitcase and hucked it into the bed of the truck. Tennessee let out a little squeak of terror at the sight of a $3000 suitcase being thrown around like a sack of potatoes, and Moose looked back at her, surprised. “You okay?” he asked, his eyes going up and down her, checking for injuries or an insect crawling up her leg.
“Yeah, fine,” she said faintly. She looked through the cab over to Georgia in the passenger seat who was waving excitedly, obviously missing the fact that Moose was doing his best to destroy Tennessee’s possessions. Tenny gave her a wane smile as she got up into the backseat of the truck.
“So glad you’re coming with us!” Georgia said excitedly as soon as Tenny got inside. “What did Aunt Roberta say about it?”
Moose got back in and threw the truck in gear, pulling away from the curb to head for Levi’s house.
“Oh, you know,” Tennessee said dryly. “Only hobos sleep outside; that I shouldn’t go on a camping trip without a chaperone; that I’m probably going to come back with Lyme disease…the uzh.”
Georgia grimaced at her in sympathy, even as her hand wrapped up together with Moose’s. It was like they couldn’t stand not touching each other for more than three seconds at a time.
Puke inducing, indeed.
“I’ll do my best to guard you from ticks and hobos,” Georgia said solemnly. “Snakes are on you, though.”
“There’s snakes up in the mountains?” Tennessee half-shrieked, her eyes popping wide open with surprise. “Like, honest-to-God, going-to-kill-me snakes?”
Georgia and Moose both laughed at the terror in her voice as they wound their way through the city streets to Levi’s house. “Yes, there are snakes up in the mountains,” Moose said, the laughter still plainly in his voice as he responded. Tennessee’s spine stiffened. She did not like getting laughed at. “But they won’t bother you for the most part, unless you bother them.”
For the most part…
Those were not exactly reassuring words in Tenny’s eyes.
They pulled up in front of Levi’s house before Tenny could interrogate them further, and she sank back into the worn seat with a flustered sigh, not wanting to ask questions in front of Levi and have him laughing at her, too. Two people laughing at her per day – that was her limit.
A girl had to have standards, you know.
Levi carelessly tossed his duffel bag into the bed of the truck and then swung up into the backseat, greeting Moose and then Georgia in turn. Moose, who hadn’t bothered to get out to help Levi load his bag, pulled away from the curb as Levi finally turned his dark eyes towards Tennessee. “Good morning,” he said softly. “Sleep well?”
Why was Tennessee suddenly getting the impression that Levi was imagining her in her PJs? Despite what a lot of people thought, she did not sleep in silk negligees edged with lace. When she pulled out her flannel PJs that night, Levi was going to be sorely disappointed, she was sure of it.
“Yeah, okay,” she said. “Just another night in the Rowland household.” She laughed dryly. “And you?” His eyes flicked down her body and back up again so quickly that if she hadn’t been watching, she might’ve missed it.
“Yeah, I slept great,” Levi said softly.
Tenny couldn’t breathe, which was, as she saw it, completely ridiculous. They were having a boring-as-white-paint conversation about sleeping well the night before but there was a part of her brain that couldn’t shake the feeling that they were discussing so much more.
The conversation turned back towards their weekend plans and how Moose and Levi did this every year the weekend after Memorial Day (“Only an idiot goes out camping on Memorial Day weekend,” Moose said firmly) as Levi settled back into the seat, his legs spreading apart as he tried to fit his long body into the small space. Their knees ended up pressed against each other, and somehow, this must’ve pushed blood up her body and into her cheeks, because Tennessee couldn’t seem to keep her cheeks from flaming a brilliant red.
It was their knees, for hell’s sakes. She’d rounded this base and blew right past it when she was in fourth grade, back when Moose still held an allure to her.
But despite her best self-recriminating speeches, she couldn’t seem to get her cheeks to turn any other color than tomato red.
And anyway, she was being an idiot because no matter what it was that Levi did to her, she was 99.34% sure she didn’t do anything for him. He was in love with Georgia – he had been his whole life, an apparently very common affliction in their world – and likely just saw Tennessee as an annoying tagalong. She was a third wheel to a third wheel, which…did that make her a fourth wheel?
Her head hurt.
The air grew cooler as they climbed in altitude, everyone chatting and laughing as they went. Listening to Levi rumble, his voice about two octaves lower than every other guy on planet Earth, was an oddly erotic thing to do, despite the fact that he was currently discussing the best way to hook a worm while fishing.
Tennessee looked down at her manicured fingernails discretely, trying to decide what to do if Levi or Moose guilted her into fishing over the weekend. Would she do it? Could she do it? Could she push a hook through a wiggling, alive being and then drown it in water just so a fish could eat it whole?
Maybe she’d get lucky and could be in charge of something else. Like laying out the blankets or something. She could totally do that. She was fairly sure laying out a blanket didn’t also involve hooking a worm or shooting a squirrel beforehand.
“What are you thinking about?” Levi asked, right in her ear, his deep voice setting her insides on fire.
“Shooting squirrels,” she answered honestly, and then gulped. She normally – read: Absolutely never – told people what she was really thinking. Doing so meant opening herself up to ridicule, or even worse, being told that what she thought just didn’t matter.
Honestly, she wasn’t sure which was worse.
Blurting out things without thinking them through first, but only with Levi? Check.
Levi straightened up a little and stared at her incredulously. “You were thinking about shooting squirrels?” he repeated.
She shrugged, doing her best to pretend nonchalance. “More like how I don’t want to shoot them,” she clarified.
“Ummm…good?” he said hesitantly. “That wasn’t on the agenda for the weekend, but I’ll make sure not to include it now.”
“Good,” she echoed him, and then lapsed back into silence again.
If she didn’t stop making an absolute ass out of herself, and pronto, she was going to have to learn how to live like a hermit because leaving the house seemed awfully dangerous at the moment. It was a good thing her feet were so small; otherwise, she’d be choking on them.
They finally pulled into a woodland clearing and Moose stopped under the shade of some tall pine trees, cutting the engine, the instant silence allowing the bird calls and squirrel chatters to be heard. It was…peaceful. And naturey. And calm. And remote.
In other words, it was not Sawyer or Boise or Salt Lake City or Denver or New York City.
Tennessee’s hands fluttered, not sure where to land or what to do. Why had she agreed to this? She couldn’t remember in that moment. There probably wasn’t a single mall within 200 miles of this campsite.
No, she wasn’t used to this at all.
Levi and Moose both swung out of the truck and hurried over to the other side to help Tennessee and Georgia out. Levi easily swung her down from the truck’s backseat, handling her weight as if she were nothing more than toddler-sized, and set her gently down on the ground. Their eyes locked for a moment, his hands on her waist, and then he moved away to help Moose unload the bed of the truck.
But the promise that had been there in his eyes when he’d been staring down at her…
Had she been imagining it? Maybe she had. Maybe she just wanted something so badly that she was starting to imagine it into existence.
So she could add delusional to her list of qualities that she only had while around Levi Scranton.
“You and Tennessee can set this up,” Moose said to Levi, jerking her out of her thoughts. Moose had tossed a long nylon bag to Levi that clinked as he swung it effortlessly over his shoulder. Levi looked over at her.
“Well, are you coming or what?” he asked her, startling her into action. She hurried over to his side, happy to be put to work on a project that did not appear to include killing animals. Levi walked over to the shade of some pine trees, the ground a bed of fallen pine needles, and grunted, “This looks good.”
Tennessee looked around and shrugged. Sure. Why not. She wasn’t entirely sure what they were doing quite yet, but she refused to admit her ignorance. She’d figure it out soon enough. She was a smart, capable woman. She could absolutely do this…whatever “this” was.
Levi opened the bag and dumped out a mass of metal rods and nylon fabric, with mesh and zippers going every which way. Tennessee looked at the pile wide-eyed. This was going to make something? She gnawed on her bottom lip hesitantly. She really didn’t know where to start or what to do, so rather than make a fool of herself, she decided to just wait for Levi to give her instructions.
He started rolling the fabric out, mumbling about facing the door the right way, and it finally occurred to Tenny that they were setting up the tent. Ohhhh…well, that made sense. Although, where was the other tent at? Were there two tangled up together?
“Are you gonna help?” Levi asked impatiently, arching an eyebrow at her.
“Of course, yes!” she said brightly. She waited for him to tell her what to do. He waited for her to…what? He was just staring at her. She stared back.
“Have you ever set up a tent before?” Levi finally growled, frustrated.
“No?” she said, but it came out as a question instead.
“Have you ever seen a tent before?”
“No?” This time, her voice was even higher.
With a grumble about worthless women and some other commentary that Tennessee pretended she couldn’t hear, Levi started pointing out the parts to a tent. The tarpy stuff went on the ground, the nylon stuff went up in the air, and the metal poles held it all up.
Her mother’s comment about how only hobos lived in tents flashed through Tennessee’s mind. She’d made it her life’s mission not to agree with her mother on almost anything, but in this case, she was starting to believe that she might’ve had a point.
Levi showed her how the poles slid inside of each other, eventually creating a long bouncy arc that reminded Tennessee of a pole-vaulting stick thingy, and then together, they wrestled the pole into the long strips of fabric connected to the side of the tent. Once they’d finally gotten it into place, Tennessee stood back, sweaty but proud. She’d actually gotten the pole in where it was supposed to go.
Levi stopped and looked at her. “Well,” he prodded, “let’s do the next one.” He nodded to the folded-up stack of metal that happened to be lying next to her feet on the ground. She looked down at it, surprised.
“You mean we have to put more than one pole into the tent?”
“Yes, we have to put more than one pole into the tent,” Levi repeated dryly. He began mumbling more comments about having someone put her shoes on her feet in the morning, and Tennessee’s cheeks flamed a bright red. She didn’t have servants put her shoes on for her in the morning! Just because she didn’t know how tents worked didn’t mean she was completely worthless.
She struggled with the poles and the fabric and the metal thingies apparently called “stakes” and did her best to avoid Levi’s gaze as they worked together. She was in so far over her head, she was going to drown in ignorance at any moment.
And worst of all, she was about ready to wholeheartedly agree with Roberta Rowland on a topic, which as far as she could figure, would be a first.
Saying yes to going camping was absolutely a poor life choice.
Levi knelt down and began pounding the metal stake into the ground to hold the guy-wire in place when he looked up into Tenny’s face and saw…absolute devastation. She had apparently heard his not-so-quiet comment about servants dressing her in the morning.
He groaned inwardly. He shouldn’t have said that. He just couldn’t…how was it possible that Tennessee had been born and raised in Sawyer, Idaho and had never even seen a tent in her life, let alone helped erect one?! Had her parents really sequestered her away from life that much? She hadn’t gone on any camping trips previously with him and Moose, but then again, she was a girl and up until this weekend, girls hadn’t gone on their camping trips. They had been blessedly free of the female persuasion. But surely she would’ve gone with someone else. Not camping at all…Levi’s brain didn’t comprehend that.
Tennessee snuffled, turning away from him and wiping her arm across her face, staring up into the trees as if suddenly obsessed with how the Western white pine grew straight and tall.
Levi wasn’t fooled one bit.
He pushed himself up into a standing position and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. “I’m…I’m sorry,” he said awkwardly. “I’ve been going camping ever since my dad would let me,” which since his father didn’t give a rat’s ass about him, meant he’d been going camping ever since he could walk, “and so all of it seems natural to me.”
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