FORREST FOR THE TREES
BY KILBY BLADES
Forrest Winters isn’t just a federal fire marshal; he’s a thorn in Ranger Sierra Betts’s side. The way he swings his big axe, fixes her with his chameleon gray eyes, and talks about his jurisdiction has a way of breaking her concentration. He has a way of showing up everywhere he doesn’t belong, including Greenbrier Ranger Station. And he really needs to quit stealing her bacon bites.
When a series of suspicious fires, an underhanded co-worker, and a cagey Parks Police Chief threaten her job and the park itself, Sierra grudgingly agrees to partner with Forrest. Their side investigation may be her best shot at preventing the framing of an innocent man. But can his firefighting expertise and her detective skills lead them to the real arsonist before Forrest breaks her with his charm?
‘Forrest for the Trees’ is a full-length contemporary romance, can be read as a standalone and is book #1 in the Green Valley Heroes series, Green Valley Chronicles, Penny Reid Book Universe.
“That is one badass knife, Sierra Betts.”
She blushed, not so much from his praise as from the rumble of his voice when he took it reverent and low. But she tried to keep things light. “The pink sheath was a dead giveaway, huh?”
“Doesn’t matter what it looks like. Just matters what it can do. I’ll admit, if you had to survive, that knife would do you a lot of good.”
“Then why do I hear a ‘but’?” She slid her knife back where it belonged and fastened it to her bag.
“A good knife will keep your heart beating—food in your belly and a little protection. But an axe will keep you warm.”
Sierra might have laughed if Forrest’s face hadn’t been so earnest. “You said it stayed on the side of your bed.” Thoughts about Forrest and beds and being kept warm infiltrated her mind. “Your knife can cut small things. And a blade like that is long enough and thick enough for you to get a good baton. But it can’t cut you a big log, or build a real shelter, or butcher whatever you catch. It can’t do the same thing as Old Faithful here …”
Forrest reached toward the side of his blanket to pick up his tool. “Please tell me you didn’t name your axe.” “I name all my axes. It makes them feel special.” Sierra laughed again. “You have given this entirely too much thought.” “Go ahead. Make fun. But you’d change your mind if you were ever out in the wilderness with me. I’d have us living in the lap of luxury.”
Forrest’s big talk got her imagining again. Her mind flashed to the two of them, stranded alone in the woods, surviving together, making their own fire, catching their own food, and staying even warmer from body heat.
“You said you majored in psych,” she baited with a sly smile. “Have you ever considered the deeper significance to why you carry that big axe everywhere?”
His eyes twinkled and the chuckle he let out was rich and deep. “Maybe,” he admitted.
“Have you ever considered the deeper significance to why you keep up that tough-girl routine? About how you want me and everyone else to think you’re some sort of ball-breaker?” She didn’t answer. She wished she had. Her silence prompted him to keep talking—to say all manner of thing she wasn’t ready to hear.
“I’ve got your number, Sierra Betts. I see what you don’t want anyone to see—the part of you that’s soft, that cares so much. It’s beautiful.”
I see what you don’t want anyone to see … She wanted to scoff and look away and dream up some flip response. Only, his gray gaze kept her in his thrall. His irises were light in that moment, the hue of clouds after a storm chasing the darkness away with the light of the sun. They were earnest and wise and they made her want to tell him things. Some part of her wanted to tell him about Shasta and about Jake Stapleton. But a bigger part of her was just plain scared.
With her next blink, she looked away, head turned and gaze set back out on the gorgeous vista. The heat of his attention warmed her face. When he, too, turned his head and fixed his gaze back on their surroundings, she thought the moment had passed. It hadn’t. His voice was softer when he spoke again.
“The first time I ever saw you was on Little Pigeon Creek, on the part that splits off after the falls. It was last summer, a few weeks after the Fourth of July.”
Sierra remembered the day she’d seen him there, at the narrowest stretch of the creek. It was an off-trail shortcut park workers used to cross between different sides.
“That wasn’t until September. Just before Labor Day,” she corrected gently. “I never ran into you at the creek until fall.”
“I said the first time I saw you—not the first time we met.” Heat prickled her nose. This was a confession. “I’ve taken a shortcut across that creek twenty times. But when I came up on you helping that cub, I just … stopped.”
Goose bumps rose on Sierra’s flesh. What she had done that day had been extreme. She’d never mentioned it to a single soul. It had also been the right thing to do. A bear cub had gotten caught in fishing netting that had floated its way down the creek from some point upstream. And the cub couldn’t disentangle himself.
But that hadn’t been the dangerous part—the dangerous part had been the fully-grown mother bear, who saw that her cub needed help but whose every instinct should have been to keep other animals away from her baby.
Understanding the mama bear’s predicament, Sierra had been cautious. She had approached slowly—carefully—hidden the knife in her pocket until she’d absolutely needed to use it to cut away the net. She’d approached the cub carefully and slowly. But when it had been time to set him free, she’d made quick work of cutting him loose.
“At first, I stayed back out of caution,” Forrest continued. “I didn’t want to spook the mama bear. But I got my tranq gun on her right away. I was aimed and ready to fire. And I’ll admit, I was spitting mad—rehearsing in my head the earful I was gonna give you about pulling a stunt like that, alone. But then I saw how gentle you were, and how you somehow got that mama bear to believe you weren’t gonna hurt her baby … it was magic. I knew then, crazy or not, I wanted to know you.”
Sierra’s nose prickled even more and some emotion she couldn’t identify welled within her—whatever it was called when you felt completely laid bare.
“Why didn’t you announce yourself, after I freed the cub and he went back to his mother?”
“Honestly? I didn’t want to intrude on any of it. There was something sacred about it. But I did follow you back. You looked shaky, afterward. I wanted to make sure you got back to the station okay.
“Look,” he said in a way that made her lift her gaze. “I like you, Sierra. And now that you don’t hate me so much anymore, I’m hoping I’ve got a shot at you liking me back.”
“I never hated you,” she corrected. It was easier than responding to what he’d said. His expression changed, his eyes crinkling at the corners and his lips subtly turning up. “Then maybe you’ll say yes if I ask you out on a date.”
ABOUT KILBY BLADES
Kilby Blades is a USA Today Bestselling author of Romance and Women’s Fiction. Her debut novel, Snapdragon, was a HOLT Medallion finalist, a Publisher’s Weekly BookLife Prize Semi-Finalist, and an IPPY Award medalist. Kilby was honored with an RSJ Emma Award for Best Debut Author in 2018, and has been lauded by critics for “easing feminism and equality into her novels” (IndieReader) and “writing characters who complement each other like a fine wine does a good meal” (Publisher’s Weekly).
During her fifteen year career as a digital marketing executive, she moonlighted as a journalist, freelanced as a food, wine and travel writer and lived it up as an entertainment columnist. She has lived in five countries, visited more than twenty-five, and spends part of her year in her happy place in the Andes Mountains.
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Kilby is a feminist, an oenophile, a cinephile, a social-justice fighter, and above all else, a glutton for a good story.