Apache Protectors: Tribal Thunder, Book 3
When opposites attract, the sparks ignite more than they bargained for…
Dylan Tehauno is a hotshot, an expert in preventing and fighting forest fires. He knows that the inferno that killed a tech billionaire was no accident—and he suspects that he and filmmaker Meadow Wrangler were supposed to die, too. When lawmakers identify Dylan as a prime suspect, he and Meadow decide to find the real arsonist themselves.
Dylan and Meadow have nothing in common. He's an Apache war hero, a self-made man. She's a rich girl with a tabloid past. But there's no denying the heat between them. Is there more to their attraction than physical desire? Will they survive long enough to find out?
Apache Protectors: Tribal Thunder
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Dylan Tehauno would not have stopped for the woman if she had not been standing in the road. Her convertible was parked beside her, a black Audi of all things, impractical as her attire. It was impossible that she did not hear him crunching over the gravel road, yet she continued to stare in the opposite direction presenting him with a very tempting view of her backside and long bare legs.
Killer curves, he thought, as dangerous as the switchbacks between him and his destination on the mountain's ridgeline. Her pale skin had tanned to the color of wild honey. The Anglo woman wore no hat and only a fool went out in the Arizona sun at mid-day in July. He let his gaze caress her curves again as she side-stepped and he glimpse what he had not seen beyond that round rump. She was bent over a small tripod which had spindly black spider legs. On the pinnacle sat one of those little fist-sized mobile video cameras.
Her convertible blocked the right lane and her camera sat on the left. There was just no way by her as the graded gravel road dropped off on each side to thick scrub brush and Pinyon pine. It was a long way from his reservation in Turquoise Canyon to Flagstaff, not in miles, but in everything else that mattered. There were some pines down here, Pinyon mostly, not the tall majestic Ponderosas. Up in the mountains they had water and an occasional cool breeze, even in July. The McDowell Mountains could not compare to the White Mountains in Dylan's estimation. The air was so scalding he felt as if he were fighting a wildfire. He rolled to a stop. The dust that had trailed him now swirled and settled on the shiny hood of his truck.
He rolled down the window of his white F-150 pickup truck and leaned out.
"Good morning," he called.
But instead of moving aside she turned towards him and pressed both fists to her hips. The woman’s clothing was tight, hugging her torso like a second skin. Was that a tennis outfit? She looked as if she had just spilled out of some exclusive country club. The woman wore her hair swept back, a clip holding the soft strands from her face so they tumbled to her shoulders in waves of bright cobalt blue. Mostly, but there were other hues mixed in including deep purple, violet and turquoise.
It seemed the only protection she did use from the sun was the wide sunglasses that flashed gold at the edges. These she slipped halfway down her narrow nose as she regarded him at last with eyes the color of warm chocolate. She had lips tinted hot pink and her acrylic nails glowed a neon green usually reserved for construction attire. A sculpted brow arched in disapproval. Was there anything about her that was not artificial?
Dylan resisted the urge to glance at her breasts again.
"Mind moving your vehicle?" Dylan added a generous smile after his request. It was his experience that Anglo women were either wary of or curious about Apache men. This woman looked neither wary nor curious. She looked pissed.
Had her car broken down?
"You ruined my shot," she said, motioning at her tiny camera.
She was shooting in the direction he traveled, toward his destination, the house that broke the ridgeline and thus had caused so much controversy. Dylan had an appointment up there that could not be missed, one that marked a change in direction.
"The dust!" she said and dropped a cloth over her camera.
"I'm sorry, Ma'am." Dylan's years in the Marines had taught him many things, how to address an angry Anglo woman among the rest. "But I have to get by. I have a meeting."
"I can't have you in the shot."
Was she refusing to move? Now Dylan's eyes narrowed.
"Are you unable to move that vehicle?" he asked.
She raised her pointed chin and Dylan felt an unwelcome tingle of desire. Oh, no. Heck no and no way, too. This woman was high maintenance and from a world he did not even recognize.
"You'll have to wait." Her mouth quirked as if she knew she was messing with him and was enjoying herself.
"But I have an appointment," he repeated.
"I don't give a fig."
"You can't just block a public road."
"Well, I guess I just did."
Dylan suppressed the urge to ram her Audi off into the rough. That's what his friend Ray Strong would do. Ray spent a lot of time cleaning up after his impulsiveness. Right now Dylan thought it might be worth it. He pictured it sliding over the embankment and resisted the urge to smile.
"Do you know who I am?" she asked.
Not who but what—trouble. He lowered his chin and bit down to keep himself from telling her exactly that. Instead he shook his head.
"I'm Meadow Wrangler."
He shrugged one shoulder.
Her pretty little mouth dropped open.
"You don’t know me?"
"Should I?" he asked.
"Only if you can read."
Charming, he thought.
In a minute he was getting out of his truck and she wouldn't like what happened next. He could move her and her camera without harming a blue hair on her obnoxious little head. Dylan gripped the door handle.
"My father is Theron Wrangler."
Dylan's hand fell from the handle and his eyes rounded.
She folded her arms. "Ah. You've heard of him."
He sure had, but likely not for the reason she thought. Theron Wrangler was the name that Amber Kitcheyan had overheard the day before the Lilac Copper Mine Massacre. It was the name of the man that FBI field agent, Luke Forrest believed was a member of the eco-extremist group known as BEAR, Bringing Earth Apocalyptic Restoration. But what was Wrangler's profession?
"I'm not surprised. He won an Oscar at twenty-five. I'm working for him now. Documentary film on the impact of urban sprawl and on the construction of private residences that are environmental and aesthetic monstrosities." She motioned her head toward the mansion rising above the tree line on the ridge. "I've been here filming since construction."
The wind was picking up, blowing grit and sand at them.
"I still need to get around you," said Dylan.
"And have your rooster tail in the shot. No way. Why are you going up there? I thought your people were protesting the building of that thing."
She referred to the private residence of Gerald W. Rustkin, the man who founded one of the social media sites that self-destructed all messages from either side of any conversation. The man who allowed others to hide had put himself in the center of controversy when he had donated generously to the city of Flagstaff and afterward quietly received his variances to break the ridgeline with his personal residence.
"My people?" asked Dylan.
"You’re Native American. Aren't you?"
"Yes, but we don't all think alike."
"But you're all environmentally conscious?" She asked as if this was a given.
“That would be thinking alike.”
Dylan glanced at his watch. "I've got to go. You know you really should put on a hat."
She scoffed. "You think I'm worried about skin cancer? Nobody expects me to make it to thirty."
He wrinkled his brow. "Why not?" She looked healthy enough, but perhaps she was ill.
"Why?" She laughed. "You really don't know me?"
"Don't be. It's refreshing. I'm the screw-up. The family goat. The party-girl who forgot to wear her panties and broke the Internet. I'm in the tabloids about every other week. Can't believe they didn't follow me out here. I thought you were one of them."
"Yes, I can see that." She approached his truck. "Can't remember the last time I did this." She extended her hand. "I'm Meadow."
She gave only her first name, as if that was all that mattered. Not her family name or her tribe or clan. Just Meadow.
Dylan looked at her elegant hand and considered rolling up his window because Dylan avoided trouble when he saw it and this woman was all that.
Instead he took her hand gently between his fingers and thumb and gave it a little shake. But something happened. His smile became brittle and the gentle up and down motion of their arms ceased as he stared into bewitching amber-brown eyes. After an awkward pause he found his voice.
"Nice to meet you, Meadow. I'm Dylan Tehauno."
Her voice now sounded breathy. "A pleasure."
Her eyes glittered with mischief. Now he needed to get by her for other reasons because this was the sort of woman you put behind you as quickly as possible.
She slipped her hand free and pressed her palm flat over her stomach. Were her insides jumping, like his?
"What's your business, Dylan."
"I'm a Hotshot."
She shook her head. “What’s that, like a jet pilot?”
"I fight wildfires. Forrest fires. We fly all over the West, Idaho, Oregon, Colorado. Even east once to Tennessee. Man is it green there."
"Really? So you jump out of airplanes with an axe. That kind of thing?"
"No those are Smokejumpers. We walk in. Sometimes twenty miles from deployment. Then we get to work." In fact he had most of his gear in the box fixed to the bed of his truck.
He thought standing in the sun with a GoPro was crazy but he just smiled. "Gotta go."
"All right, Sir Dylan. You may pass. How long will you be up there?"
"Time enough for me to get my shot then." She reversed course and moved her tripod behind her sports car.
Dylan rolled past. He couldn't stop from glancing at her in the rearview mirror. He kept looking back until she was out of sight. Soon he started the ascent to the house winding through the thick pines and dry grasses.
His shaman and the leader of his medicine society, Kenshaw Little Falcon, had recommended Dylan for this job. This was his first commission in Flagstaff. He recently earned his credentials as a fire safety inspector in Arizona. Today, as a fire consultant, it was usually his role to give recommendations to protect the home from wildfire, identify places where wildfire might trap or kill people and provide fuel reduction plans. Something as simple as trimming the branches of trees up to ten feet or not placing mulch next to the house could be the difference between losing a home and saving it. But this consultation was different because so many did not want this house completed. Cheney Williams, the attorney that filed the injunction, waited for him on the ridge. Dylan felt important because he knew that his report might prevent the multi-millionaire, Rustkin, from securing insurance. At the very least it would buy time. That would be feather in Dylan's cap. He lowered his arm out his window and patted the magnetic sign that stuck to the door panel and read TEHAUNO CONSULTING.
Dylan smiled and then glanced back to the road where he could no longer see Meadow Wrangler. He should be looking ahead. By the time he finished with the attorney bringing the suit to restore the ridge, Meadow would have her shot and be gone.
The flash of light was so bright that for an instant everything when white. Dylan hit the brakes. The boom arrived a moment later shaking the truck and vibrating through his hands where they gripped the wheel. Artillery.
His brain snapped to Iraq. He had served three tours and he knew the sound of an explosion. He glanced up looking for the jets that could make such an air strike and saw the debris fly across the ridgeline. A fireball erupted skyward raining burning embers down from above. Rocks pelted the road before him.
Dylan made a fast three point turn and was hurtling down the mountain as embers landed all about him, erupting into flames. It was July, over a hundred degrees today and the ground was as dry and thirsty as it had been all year. Perfect conditions for a wild fire. But this was not a wildfire. It was hundreds. They landed and ignited as if fueled by a propellant. The flames traveled as fast as he did. Faster, because the wind raced down the mountain, pushing the growing wall of flames that licked at the trunks of the Pinyon pines. Once it hit the crowns of the trees it would take off. There was nothing to stop it. His only chance was to get ahead of it and stay there.
Meadow gaped as the top of the ridge exploded like an erupting volcano. With her camera still running she stood in the road paralyzed by what she witnessed. The house that had broken the ridgeline collapsed, falling in fiery wreckage into the gap below. The steel skeleton vanished amid tails of smoke that flew into the sky like launching rockets.
He was up there. Her impulse was to flee but the urge to reach him tugged against her survival instinct.
The rockets of fire flew over her head and she turned to watch them land, each a meteor impacting the earth. The vibrations from the explosion reached her tipping her camera and making her side step to keep from falling beside it. She lifted the running camera and held it, collapsing the tripod as she panned, capturing the flaming rock touching down igniting infernos to her right and left, knowing the HDMI video interface and antenna in her car compressed the video data before sending it to the life feed.
The desert turned orange as it burned. She turned back to the ridge seeing the smoke billowing up to the sun. Beneath the yellow smoke came a wall of fire and the cracking, popping sound of burning. A hot wind rushed at her, burning her skin. She felt as if she stood in an oven. She had to get out of here. Meadow turned in a circle and saw flames on all sides. The smoke was so thick she began to choke. Should she try to drive through the flames?
How had the falling rock and fire missed her? She stood in the road as she realized everyone had been right. She wasn't going to see thirty.
Excerpt FIREWOLF ©2017 – Jenna Kernan