“You want something to drink?” he asked as he pulled the fridge door open.
From an intimacy that made me blush one moment to a casual question the next . . . I couldn’t keep up with him.
Although I enjoyed the challenge.
“What do you have?” I came up behind him and peered inside.
Beer, beer, and beer. And an almost empty container of orange juice.
“I’ll have some water,” I said as Cole shuffled through the bottles.
“Yeah, me too.” Ending his search, he shut the fridge door and wandered over to the sink.
“You can have a beer around me, you know. I’m not that straight-laced,” I said, watching Cole fill two plastic cups from the tap. Even performing something as everyday as filling a cup of water, he intrigued me.
“I don’t really drink anymore.” Turning the water off, Cole handed me a glass.
“Why not?” In addition to being intriguing, Cole had perfected the art of surprising me.
“Because I’m that guy who doesn’t do moderation too well,” he said, chugging his entire glass of water. “The last time I had something to drink, the cops were en route when my buddies managed to wrestle me out of that bar.”
“How long ago was that?” I asked and took a sip of my water.
“Right before I became a smokejumper three summers ago.”
“Why did you become a smokejumper?” I looked around the dark room. It wasn’t a glamorous life, nor did it pay all that well. It was dangerous, the hours were long at the height of fire season, and it made keeping a long-term relationship tough.
With all of these supposed downsides to the job, I’d never met a single smokejumper who didn’t absolutely love his or her job. Cole was no exception.
“My grandma raised me and a couple of my cousins,” he said. “My family was something of a dysfunctional mess, but Grandma took care of the responsibilities her daughters wouldn’t.” Cole had caught me, yet again, off guard. I hadn’t arrived at any conclusions about his past, but I hadn’t expected him to be so open about it over a glass of water in a dark kitchen. “My oldest cousin, Tommy, became a smokejumper a couple years out of high school. He loved the job and told me when and if I was ever ready for a change, I should give it a shot.”
I scanned the room before scanning him. “Looks like you gave it a shot.”
“I couldn’t get out of Bend fast enough once I finally figured out the life I’d been living there wasn’t the life I wanted. I was on the next bus out of town. Literally,” Cole said, leaning his hip into the counter. “Sound familiar? Small town born and raised teenager, trying and failing to accept their small town future?”
When I didn’t give him the satisfaction of an agreement, he grinned. “You and I are more alike than you think, Elle Montgomery.”
I was starting to realize that. And it scared me. But it excited me just as much.
“So is cousin Tommy stationed here too?” I asked. I wouldn’t have known. The only interaction I’d ever had with the smokejumpers was taking their orders at the diner. I wasn’t an SJ groupie like some best friends I knew.
Although the thoughts I had about Cole and the amount of time I’d spent with him might qualify me for that title.
“Nah. He jumped out of Fairbanks.” His voice got quiet again.
“Jumped as in he doesn’t jump anymore?” I might not have known a lot about smokejumping, but I did know the profession was hard on the body and the burn out rate was high.
Cole gave one shake of his head.
“He died,” he said, staring at the floor unseeingly. “He was killed in action.”
“Gosh, Cole,” I said, automatically reaching for his hand. “I’m sorry.”
He studied my hand in his, my fingers weaved through his, like they were an equation he was trying to solve. “Thanks, Elle.” His hand tightened around mine. “Tommy was one hell of a guy and like a big brother to me, but he went out with his boots on. It was a good way to go.”
My brows came together. “How was it a good way to go? He couldn’t have been very old. Twenty-five? Thirty?”
The words were out before I could stop them. This was fast becoming my habit around Cole. I’d always been more of a think-before-you-speak person, but I was the opposite with him. I was all impulse and instinct around Cole, and I wasn’t sure if this was a good thing.
“Tommy was twenty-three when he died,” Cole said, not letting my hand go or even looking offended. “And it was a good way to go because one day, Elle, we’re all going to die. We might not be able to change the day or the time, but we can at least control which way we get to leave this world. Tommy left it with a bang. He lived it with a bang.” Cole was watching me in that way again, like he saw right through me. “It was a good way to go.”
I tried not to think of my mom and the way she’d died. Would she feel the same way? That it was a good way to go? I know I certainly didn’t feel that way.
“But he was so young. He had so much life ahead of him.” I wasn’t sure I was talking about Tommy anymore.
“I know for a fact that if Tommy had the choice between a short life that he got to live every day to its fullest or a long life of average, he’d choose the short life hands down.”
“Huh,” I said to myself, giving this some thought. I loved how Cole was confident and sure. How he was perfectly fine with living his life on a day to day basis. I loved that about him, but I was nothing like it. I lived by rules and made my decisions based on decades down the road.
“What would you choose?” Cole came closer, waiting for my answer.
I thought about it. I really thought about it. I didn’t have one for him. At least not an honest one. On one hand, living carpe diem each day and every day was appealing to that wild child within on a level that paralyzed me. On the other hand, I had firsthand knowledge of the void felt when someone you loved died young. My mom had barely made it to thirty. What I did remember of her, I do know she was happy, but was it worth it? Would I choose a few days of happy to thousands of so-so?
“I don’t know,” I whispered, gazing at our joined hands. I knew this wasn’t appropriate—holding another man’s hand in a dark room when I had a boyfriend. When my stare went from our hands to his eyes, I almost gasped. The look in his eyes made me shiver. It was far too intimate for what Cole and I were.
We’d just climbed another rung on the inappropriate ladder.
“When you figure that out, let me know, okay?” His voice was low again, almost rough, and the darkness seemed to exaggerate the electricity flowing between us.
I needed to get out of this room and stop touching Cole before I did something I knew I’d regret. At least, I was pretty sure I’d regret.
“Why don’t you give me a tour?” I said, moving towards the hall. My hand went icy cool the moment his left mine.
“What? You’ve never seen the inside of the camp before?” He was smirking at me again.
“Nope. I’ve never had the opportunity to experience a walk of shame from the bunks. Although I hear the bunks themselves are almost creak-free.” I was smarting back at him again, but I was starting to like it. It felt like less of a vice and more of a virtue. I had wit. Deep down, it was there, and I shouldn’t feel the need to hide it.
I’d kept it buried for too long.
“You’ve heard right,” he said, coming up behind me. “You want to give them a test drive? You know, so you can have first-hand experience when the topic comes up on girls’ night again?”
I felt a flush run all the way down my face, down into my neck. I could tell from Cole’s tone he was only teasing; it wasn’t him or his words that unsettled me.
It was my answer to his said-in-jest question. I was smart enough to not verbalize it.
“I think we can skip the bunk room,” I said, thankful the hall was dark. If he saw the way he’d unsettled me, he’d never let me forget it. “I’ve been to camp before and I doubt it’s much different.”
“It isn’t,” he said, with a smile that suggested all the ways it was. “And it is.”
Now that his smile had given me something to think about, I’m sure the smokejumper bunk house dominated mainly by young, single, impulsive men was vastly different from the bunkhouses I’d shared for a week in the summer with a bunch of girls at 4-H camp.
“So you don’t want to see the bunks, you’ve already seen the kitchen, and I wouldn’t let my worst enemy go into the communal bathroom the night before its weekly cleaning . . .” He tapped his temple as we continued down the hall. “What will I show you?”
I almost had to clap my hands over my mouth to keep from blurting out my immediate answer—anything.
He quirked a brow at me at the same time an easy smile slid into position. I was starting to believe he actually knew what I was thinking.
That idea was horrifying on so many levels.
“Okay,” he said like he was answering my silent response. “I’ve got just the place.” Without another word, he continued down the dark hall, and the only thing more disturbing than following a semi-stranger down a black hallway in an unfamiliar building was how willingly I did. I didn’t feel threatened around Cole. I felt the opposite. It was irrational and I could have the survival instincts of a dodo bird, but I felt protected.
Cole did strange things to me. Made me feel even stranger things.
“So . . . what schools did you apply to?”
I came to a halt and, though I couldn’t really see him, I knew Cole stopped too when I couldn’t hear his footsteps anymore.
“What?” was my brilliant reply.
“Colleges? Universities?” I could hear that smirky smile in his voice. “Which ones did you send applications in to?”
“Who says I sent any in?” I said, crossing my arms, calculating what number this was on our uncomfortable conversations scale. I was pretty sure it was somewhere between fifty and one hundred.
“You said you sent some in,” he said.
“No, I didn’t say that. You did.” I narrowed my eyes at him until I realized he couldn’t see me.
“You might not have admitted it, Elle, but I know you well enough by now to say with absolute confidence that you applied to a good handful of schools. You do a good job of covering up that part of you you’re ashamed of or scared of or whatever the hell it is, but you haven’t let it die. I’m glad you’re still fighting.” He paused and I could both hear and feel him move closer. When he exhaled his next breath, I could feel it breaking across my face. “I’ll repeat my question. What schools did you apply to?”
I sighed just so he knew I was irritated. “U dub, Wazzu, and University of Oregon,” I said. “Now that I’ve told you something, you tell me something. How did you know?” I hadn’t told anyone about the applications I’d sent in last fall. Not even Dad, Logan, or Dani knew. Especially not Dad and Logan.