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Chapter One

It was going to rain. Hard. Already, thunder shook the surroundings and lightning sporadically scarred what was left of the day.

Instead of going into the Woodsman bar for the beer he’d been looking forward to, Deon Coleman leaned against his dust-caked four-wheel-drive pickup. Feeling newly energized, he stared at the wall of evergreens surrounding the small town of Farber, Washington and eagerly waited for nature’s next shot.

It had been warm and still all day as if the world – this part of it, anyway – was waiting for something to happen. Now harsh wind blasts struck him from all directions. Instead of wanting to protect himself from the erratic force, though, he embraced it. Widening his stance, he folded his arms across a chest honed by years of physical labor. The crazed gusts of wind teased his overdue-for-a-cut hair, prompting him to push the thick dark strands out of his eyes.

There. Many-fingered lightning tendrils wounded an innocent sky. Caught in the wonder and beauty of something he would never take for granted, Deon relished the energy and threat the storm emanated. Damn but Mother Nature was a hard-ass today! If the lightning reached the trees, it might start a fire, and then—

He was still trying to deal with that nightmare possibility when the thunder started. The too-close reverberation conjured up images of angry sky giants battling each other. The thunder rolled on and on, taking him beyond himself and demanding he become something different from what he’d always been, desert his comfort zone. Just when Deon thought he couldn’t take it anymore, the great rumbling ended, and he again found himself.

Several fat raindrops struck his head and shoulders. Still he stood, more than impressed by nature’s gift and challenge. There was something extraordinary about this late September storm. He needed to put his finger on it. Try to, anyway. If he were a suspicious man, he might conclude the elements were trying to tell him something vital, but he only believed in what he could see and touch.

At least he had until his only parent had died last year and he’d found Dad’s precious essence in the log house they’d built together.

Again lightning spat its yellow/gold/red hue over the land. If it weren’t for the purplish clouds and setting sun, the streaks might not have made that much of an impact. However, to his way of thinking, Mother Nature got most things right. He’d given up trying to make sense of her actions and simply accepted the mix of heavy storm clouds, lightning that was like massive shards of broken glass, and the deep rumble that shook the earth.

Bottom line, Deon felt alive and in tune with a seldom acknowledged part of himself this evening. For a change there was nothing he had to do. He was back in the one-horse town of his upbringing. Watching a storm build.

Wondering if there was a message for him in it.

The raindrops picked up tempo. They were fat enough to make him wince when they struck his face. His flannel shirt was getting soaked. The air smelled new and shot full of electricity, adding to his awareness of his body. He could be at risk of getting struck by lightning if he continued to stand out here, but the bar he’d been looking forward to entering now looked foreign to him. The walls might trap him when he needed to be free. Better to stay outside, to watch and wait – for what?

He was looking through the growing night and storm for the answer he wasn’t sure he wanted, when another pickup pulled in close to his and a couple of men in grayed tee shirts straining over beer bellies got out. Like him, they wore boots and well-worn jeans. What else would men who made their living from the forest wear?

“You waiting for someone?” one of them asked, looking up at him with an, ‘I’m-impressed-by-your-size and I hope you don’t like to fight’ expression.

“No,” Deon answered. Something, maybe.

“Then I suggest you get the hell inside. Lightning goes after the highest spot, and you’re that all right.”

Yes, that’s what he’d do, Deon reluctantly decided as he followed the men into the bar. No reason to go on trying to commune with nature, a nature that might never tell him why his body suddenly felt as if it was on fire.

Time to step inside the bar Marah Quinn’s parents had once owned.

* * *

From where she sat on a bar stool, Marah looked toward the front door when a wash of cold air struck her. After noting that one of the newcomers who’d just come inside was nearly a head taller than the others, she turned back around. She’d been talking to the bartender until he’d had to go into the back room for more whiskey. Now she sat at the bar, alone. Voices spun around her. There was a wavelike quality to the sounds, a pulse. Memories of the countless hours she’d spent in this bar as a child when no one cared where minors did and didn’t belong assailed her.

If she could get away with it without being declared insane, Marah would have yelled at the patrons to shut up so she could listen to and appreciate what was taking place outside. There was something about what was going on beyond these familiar walls that – what?

Bothered because she couldn’t answer her own question, she waited for the cold air to dissipate. Certainly the Woodsman had been built with insulation – that was a necessity in an area where snow often remained on the ground for months – but the building was at least fifty years old so maybe there hadn’t been much to begin with. She shivered and wondered if it had been reinsulated lately.

If the structure were modern, though, she might not have heard the thunder, let alone the rain now plopping like horses hooves against the metal roof. She wasn’t sure how she felt about this unexpected summer storm, then acknowledged her unease because she was reacting to rain in a new way that didn’t make sense. She also felt on edge. Alert and alive. Shot full of a wild kind of energy.

The energy was understandable, she acknowledged as she sipped her beer. After all she hadn’t had sex since she’d separated from her ex nearly a year ago and there’d been precious little of it during her marriage.

“You’re horny,” she muttered, even though she didn’t quite believe the simple explanation. “In a room full of men, in case you haven’t noticed.”

There were also at least half a dozen women, not that that was the point. In truth, she didn’t know what the point of anything was tonight beyond putting off going to where she’d spend the night because she didn’t want to be alone.

She wasn’t much of a beer drinker. Her first, which this one was, had already hit her where she needed to be hit, but after that, the appeal rapidly fell off. Mostly she was in the Woodsman so she could go down memory lane. Pretend she was a child again with her dad behind the bar and her mother in the so-called kitchen. Wallowing in the past.

Feeling this storm through her pores, when that had never happened before.

“Where’s the bartender?”

The question, asked by a man with a deep, dark – was there any such thing? – voice, had her spinning on her stool in his direction. She found herself staring up, way up.

Everything about the man said he made his living in the forest. His rich hair was kind of scraggly as if he didn’t give a damn what it looked like. He needed a shave. In fact, if she was right, given the less than adequate light in the place, this man was lucky to get through mornings before the shadows started to show on his lean cheeks and solid chin. A veil or barrier in his eyes prevented her from seeing beyond the surface. There was a hands-off quality about his gaze. He accessed, he didn’t allow others to do the same in return.

Then there was his big, physical body. Because she’d grown up around such men, Marah knew his form had been carved by the kind of physical labor that widened shoulders and muscled arms while often making for a lean belly, hard butt, and powerful legs. She didn’t want to give away her interest by checking out his equipment or the shape and substance of his thighs. He was several inches over six feet tall, out of his twenties but not too far into his thirties. She subtly glanced at his hand. No ring.

Breathing deep against the sudden major sexual zing slicing through her, she pasted on a smile. How did women let men know they were interested in getting horizontal? She’d been out of the game so long that – who was she kidding? She’d never really been in that game.

“He’ll be right back,” she belatedly replied. “Fortunately he doesn’t have to go upstairs.”

The dark head tipped to the side. Deep-set eyes zeroed in on her as the stranger claimed the stool next to her – one other men had tried to claim tonight only to have her send them on their way. Their knees didn’t quite touch, yet she felt the impact between her legs. Just like that, her awareness of her breasts kicked into overdrive. Was it possible the weather had something to do with her reaction?

Yeah, right.

“How do you know about the upstairs?” the stranger asked.

Something about his voice tapped at a memory. At that moment, a sharp clap let her know the thunder wasn’t over. Marah bit her lip. Strange. She no longer had to strain to hear the rain. If she didn’t know better, she’d swear the stranger’s arrival had sharpened her hearing.

“I used to spend a lot of time up there,” she answered. “Playing hide-and-seek with my dog among all the liquor boxes.”

He drew upright, then leaned toward her. An electric sensation sped from him to her. Was he aware of it? More to the point, and the question startled her, was he aware of what was going on outside?

“Did you and your folks live across the street?” he asked.

Her mouth dried. In contrast, another part of her flooded. “Yes.”

“Marah Quinn, right?”

“Right. How did…” Barely aware of what she was doing, she caressed her beer. “At least it’s going to be once I get my name changed back.”

“You’re saying you’re divorced or soon to be?”

She knew this man. She might not have his name on the tip of her tongue, but her senses were saying he was part of not just her past but a personal something in that past. Of course it could be wishful thinking on her part.

“I am divorced. I’m also at a disadvantage because I don’t know who you are.”

“Oh, I think you do.”

Strange. Was that reluctance in his voice? Was he sorry he’d started this conversation and let it go in this direction? Why? She might not be model perfect, but she’d easily pass in a crowd. She’d just revealed her I’m single card, and as far as she knew, he’d come alone. From the moment she’d decided to return to her hometown, she’d entertained the possibility that she’d run into someone from her past. The thought had been both unsettling and exciting.

She was still trying to make sense of things when the bartender returned. The nameless man sitting next to her with a hell of a lot of intrigue swirling around him asked for a beer. Listening to the exchange, she tried not to look at him so she could concentrate on his voice. Elements of it were familiar all right, but she had the sense it hadn’t fully settled into a man’s chest the last time she’d heard it. Probably hadn’t had his dominating physique then either.

Damn, but remaining civilized was getting more difficult with every second. What if she grabbed him and hauled him outside so they could experience whatever was happening there together? Rip off each other’s clothes and let the storm pound them.

Become part of the elements.

He took the frosty bottle from the bartender, upended it, and swallowed the way a man who hasn’t had one for a while would. She took a swallow from her own bottle. A white-gold explosion lit up the world beyond the window to her left, startling her and drawing both their attention in that direction. Other patrons had paused in their conversations to acknowledge what was going on. Tension, or something close to it, seemed to weave through the stranger.

“You’re afraid of a storm?” she asked in part to cover up her own reaction to the violent lightning. A woman laughed nervously.

“Hardly. But this one…”

I understand. I think. “Kind of unexpected when it’s still summer.”

“Yes, it is.” Still looking out the window, he drew out the words. “I’ve been so damn busy I haven’t been paying attention to weather reports.”

Hearing him talk about something so ordinary helped her relax a bit, that and the alcohol and the probably temporary end to the lightning show. “I just returned to Farber yesterday,” she explained instead of demanding that he introduce himself. “Haven’t been back since my folks sold the bar and moved to San Diego. The town hasn’t changed much.”

“It’s older, more tired.”

“Time has passed it by,” she agreed, glad to be talking about something other than the weather. “Unfortunately that’s happened to a lot of logging towns.” She didn’t feel the need to add that Farber had actually been founded during the gold rush days.

“What brought you back, Marah?”

There. The truth of him in the way he said her name.

“Deon,” she whispered. Just then thunder threatened to drown the word, making her jump. “Deon Coleman.”

“Yes.”

Had he been about to touch her? It seemed like it, but maybe it was only her wanting him to. Needing the touch of the man – a teenager back then – who’d taken her virginity.

 


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