I had a new perspective and I felt like I was a different person. Not wholly different, but different in the ways that counted.
My entire life had changed . . . and it had only been twenty-four hours since Cole and I escaped the fire that had already annihilated over one thousand acres of forest land. Thanks to the skill of the smokejumpers and the hotshot crews in the area, no homes had been burned and so far, no other hikers or campers seemed to have been in the path of the fire.
Once the fire had destroyed all that was left to consume along the riverbank, Cole and I made our way downstream, hanging close to the shore so we didn’t get caught in the rapids. Thanks to my busted up ankle, which had turned out to be a nasty sprain, Cole basically carried, maneuvered, and helped me the entire way down the river until we finally passed shoreline that hadn’t been affected by the fire. After dragging our wet, exhausted bodies out of the river, Cole carried me on his back another two miles until we hit the first road, and then he hoofed it another mile before we flagged down the first car we saw.
He’d been a machine that day. He’d saved my life more times than I could count on both hands. And feet. Cole hadn’t only said he’d loved me that day, he’d proven it.
We hadn’t been in the emergency room more than two minutes before my dad flew through those doors, screaming my name throughout the place until he finally found me. Dani and Grandma M were quick to follow and Logan had even called my dad for a quick check-in. After I’d assured everyone I was fine, I managed to get Grandma M and Dani to go home and get some rest, but Dad wasn’t having any of it. He hadn’t left my side.
Neither had Cole.
Even when Dad drove us both home after our cuts were bandaged and our burnt and torn clothes were exchanged for hospital scrubs. Even when we’d crashed on the couch and passed out for a good twelve hours.
Even when we sat at the kitchen table as Dad flipped a batch of huckleberry pancakes. Cole’s hand gave mine a squeeze. “How are you feeling?”
There were about a hundred answers to that.
“Lucky,” I settled on. That about summed it up.
“Yeah,” he said, leaning in to give me a quick kiss. Even a tough guy like Cole was smart enough to be scared to kiss a girl for too long when her dad was in the room. “Me too.”
Dad dropped a plate of pancakes in front of Cole and me. “More coffee?”
I shook my head and dived into the pancakes. I hadn’t eaten in almost thirty-six hours and now that my appetite had finally kicked in, it kicked into overdrive.
“I can get it,” Cole said, grabbing his cup and rising.
Dad cut him off. “No, no. Sit and eat. I’ve got the coffee.” Grabbing the French press, Dad filled Cole’s cup.
“This is really great of you, Mr. Montgomery,” Cole said. “Thanks for letting me crash here last night and feeding me.”
Dad grabbed his own cup of coffee and took a sip, studying me and Cole. His eyes lingered on where Cole’s hand covered mine on the table. “It’s the least I could do for the person responsible for saving my daughter’s life,” Dad said. “You risked your life for my baby, Cole. That’s something I’ll never forget or ever be able to repay. You ever need anything . . . anything at all, you call me, okay?” Dad tilted his cup at Cole before taking a sip.
I had yet to tell Dad where Cole and I had clung on for our lives in the river. I figured that might be a bit too much right now after he’d almost lost his daughter. Finding out he’d almost lost her in the same place he’d lost his wife could wait for another day.
“Actually, there is one thing,” Cole said, setting his fork down. Looking over at me, he formed his hand over my face and stared at me like I’d never been stared at before. Like I was everything he needed and wanted without my even realizing what those things were. I melted under that look.
“I don’t know how much you know about Elle and me. I’m not sure if you know when we met or how we met,” Cole continued, turning his attention towards my dad. “But I’m guessing you know enough that you might be disappointed or disapprove of the way I pursued your daughter when she was with another guy. I don’t regret meeting your daughter, I never will, and I sure as hell don’t regret the feelings I have for her.” Cole paused, shaking his head around a sigh. “But I do regret that our journey towards one another hurt someone. I owe Logan one hell of an apology, and who knows, maybe he’ll try to kick my ass when I do, but I owe you one, too.”
Dad set his cup down on the counter.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Montgomery. I know you want what’s best for your daughter and I know the way I went about it wasn’t that.” Gazing back at me, he shot me a tilted smile. “I’m sorry to you, too, Elle.”
I shook my head. There was nothing to forgive.
“It takes a big man to ‘fess up when he’s done something wrong. Most men never get there,” Dad said, crossing his arms and leaning into the counter. “I don’t know the details that make up your and Elle’s story, and I don’t want them, but I’m perceptive enough to fill in the blanks when I see my daughter changing before my eyes.” Dad’s face changed when he looked at me. It relaxed and softened instantly. “Since that change is for the better, I can’t fault the thing or the person responsible for that change”—Dad stared pointedly at Cole—“too much. Given you’re a man who can admit when he’s made a mistake, has made my daughter a better person, and risked his life to save hers . . . I’d say you earned yourself a forgive and forget from me.”
Cole rose from his seat and headed for Dad with his hand extended. “Thank you,” he said, sounding truly relieved when Dad shook his hand. “There’s one more thing . . .” Cole rolled his head to the side and then the other side, like he was stretching or something.
Dad lifted his brows and waited.
“I know you’re old fashioned and since I didn’t exactly go about this the right way at first, I want to do my best to make up for that.” Cole shifted and continued, “I’d like to ask for your approval to date your daughter.”
I tried to hide my smile, but failed. As old fashioned as Logan was, he hadn’t even asked my dad’s permission when he took me on my first date. He did ask him before he’d given me the promise ring, but Cole wasn’t asking my dad for my hand in marriage yet. He was asking to take me out to dinner and a movie. Coming from the mouth of a man who didn’t let anyone tell him what to do or how to behave, it was kind of adorable in the cute, ironic sort of way.
Dad didn’t even try to hide his amused grin. “Yes, Cole,” he said, clapping a hand over his shoulder. “You have my approval to date my daughter. Not that it makes any difference to me, but I think most guys ask for ‘permission.’”
Cole nodded. “I do have to ask someone’s permission,” he said, coming around the table towards me. “But not from you, Mr. Montgomery. I can only get permission to date your daughter from one person.” He kneeled beside me and winked. “And that is from your daughter.”
Running the backs of his fingers down my cheek, he took a breath. “So? Miss Elle Montgomery?” he said. “Do I have permission to date you?”
I tried to hold out for a few seconds, to keep him on pins and needles, but it didn’t work. I could barely keep my lips sealed a solid second. “Yeah, Cole Carson,” I said, lifting a brow. “You have my permission to date me.”
Cole wiped his brow and mouthed phew before settling back in his seat and diving into his pancakes. Dad went back to his coffee and I went back to finishing what was left of my pancakes. Just like that, we settled into a sort of routine, a kind of family. Dad sipping his coffee as he flipped through the newspaper. Cole chowing down on breakfast beside me. It was all kind of . . . perfect.
“When do you need to be back at camp?” I asked after I’d finished the last bite of pancake.
Cole stopped chewing mid-bite and exchanged a sheepish look with my dad. Rounding up his paper, Dad tucked it under his arm, grabbed his coffee, and headed out of the kitchen. “I’ll give you two some time to talk. Alone,” he added before disappearing into the living room.
“What was that about?” I asked, looking between Cole and the spot where Dad had disappeared.
Cole shoved his plate aside and turned in his seat towards me. “I won’t be going back to smokejumper camp,” he said, dropping his hands on my legs. “Since they kind of fired me.”
My brows came together. From everything I’d heard, Cole was an invaluable asset to the team. From everything I’d experienced with him at ground level with a forest fire, he was an invaluable asset. Why in the world would they fire him?
Cole ran his hand through his hair. “I guess they consider bribing the pilot and commandeering the base plane ‘grounds for termination,’” he said, making air quotes.
“Wait . . .” I needed a few seconds to process what he’d said. “Are you saying . . .”
“That I masterminded an unauthorized flight and drop into the middle of a forest fire?” he filled in.
All I could do was nod.
“Yep, that’s what I did.”
“Why?” I asked, still dumbfounded. Cole had to have known he was risking his career when he got in that plane and made that jump. Smokejumping was everything to him, his life.
“When I heard a fire nearby was so big and spreading so fast they weren’t even flying the crew in right away to fight it, I got this feeling in my gut. I didn’t know where you’d gone after the whole explosion at the festival, but I somehow knew that fire was heading your way.” He studied my face that was only creasing more with confusion. “I know, I know. It doesn’t make sense, but when I showed up at your doorstep early the next morning, asking if your dad knew where you were and he told me you’d gone hiking . . .” Cole blew out a rush of air. “I couldn’t get back to base, in that plane, and then out of that plane fast enough. Your dad told me which trail you’d taken and where you’d likely be camped out and, like I said, the binoculars and my parachute figured out the rest.”
So he hadn’t only risked his life for me. He’d given up his career. Knowing Cole, he probably held his career to the same degree of importance as his life.
“Cole,” I said, slumping down in my seat. “I’m so, so—”
“I’m not,” he interrupted, shaking his head swiftly.
“But smokejumping was your life,” I said, not sure whether to feel overwhelming guilt or overwhelming gratitude for what he’d given up for me.
Cole gave a small shrug. “It was,” he said. “And then I met you and I wanted more out of life than just jumping out of planes for a quick rush. Because who in their right mind would settle for a quick rush when you could have a long, long rush?”
“But what are you going to do now?” I said, staring into my lap. He had no roots to keep him here in Winthrop. He had no roots to keep him anywhere in the state. Was I really about to lose the boy who’d given up everything for me?