Critically-acclaimed author Liora Blake is back with the wonderfully charming third installment in her Grand Valley series! In Ready for Wild, we meet Braden, a rough-talking game warden who goes toe-to-toe with TV star Amber Regan, who unexpectedly turns his life upside down. When these two are forced to work together—Braden’s boss is making him help Amber film a rough and tough archery elk hunt in Colorado—they find that sometimes a little disruption to a quiet, peaceful life is just what they both need.
Without hesitation, without even looking at him, I take a deep breath and ask for my own little taste of the good stuff. “Dance with me, Braden.”
“I don’t dance.”
“I’m sure you don’t. But I love this song.” I turn to crook my finger at him. “Let’s go.”
To my surprise, Braden doesn’t put up one syllable of further protest. He simply sweeps his hand forward toward the dance floor with a deceptively neutral expression on his face. When we find a spot on the dance floor, he holds his hands up, fox-trotstyle. I drop my head and chuckle.
“Come on. Stop that. You know where to put your hands.”
I grab his hands and pull them down, set them on my hips, then reach up to clasp my fingers together at the back his neck, teasing a few unruly curls of his dark hair at the nape.
Braden relaxes and draws me closer. “Thank you for your help.”
I glance up with a smile. “You’re welcome. I had fun. Even if you can’t follow my system.” He cracks a grin but stows it away before I have much of a chance to enjoy it.
The band starts in on the song’s chorus, lyrics that always make me think of my parents, a misty childhood memory of the two of them sitting on the front porch and sharing a glass of whiskey at our cabin in West Texas. The place we spent a few weeks every summer, the same place they went away to every year for their anniversary, and the same place they died when a forest fire trapped them in the house they loved. The song, the memory, the fundraiser—the freaking cider rum punch—all come together, and before I can stop myself, I’m sharing.
“The whole firefighting fundraiser thing hits me in a soft spot.”
Braden tips his head, listening carefully. I give an offhanded shrug before continuing, not because I feel offhanded, but because my heart demands I keep it safe from eyes that suddenly seem too prying.
“My parents died in a wildfire. We had a cabin in the mountains outside Fort Davis, and they were up there for their anniversary when a fire started. The cabin was remote, no phones, no communication. The fire was on them before they could get out.”
Braden’s entire face slackens in a sweep, from his forehead to the downturn of his mouth.
“Jesus.” He scans my expression for more, waiting. My heart locks tight on itself and I look down, watching as our feet barely move. “I’m so sorry, Amber.”
I shake my head. “It was years ago. I was ten, my brother was seven.”
Braden’s grip at my waist tightens. “Doesn’t much matter how long ago it happened, does it? You lost them. That sticks with you.”
The simplicity of that statement—the way he highlighted what I’ve always known—is what makes it almost too much to hear. We sway in silence for a few beats, then Braden pauses us and he moves one of his hands up my back, my eyes drawing up his body in time. He takes a labored swallow.
“I was a hotshot before this. Back in Oregon. So I’ve seen forest fires up close, the way they move and what’s left in their path. The destruction they can cause. So, I . . . fuck, I don’t know . . . I just . . .”
He pauses, fumbling for the words he wants. I want to tell him not to bother. No one ever has the right words, not exactly. Plus, the two of us barely know each other, and we seem to work best when we’re antagonizing each other, so this moment—no matter how real it feels—is nothing but a mirage. Courtesy of the contents of a Solo cup and hastened along by my memories and the right song. What he says next won’t make or break us, because there is no “us.” Braden takes a deep breath before speaking plainly.
“I hate that this happened to you.”
A few spare, sincere words—from a man who I’m still not sure knows what he thinks of me—that were somehow just enough. Just right, just enough, just shy of flawless. My heart hears every one, and suddenly I’m beyond exhausted. Not only from the whirlwind travel of the last few weeks and the mounting pressures with my show, but because it was overwhelming to hear someone say that they wished for something better for you. That you deserved more than what life may have handed you in a small, dark moment of fate.
Braden sweeps a lock of my hair away from my forehead, and then presses his hand to the back of my neck, urging my head to his chest with an impossibly gentle nudge. I tell myself to shore up and sober up, and most important, keep my head off of his chest. But when he exhales and speaks, my body has other ideas.
“I love this song, too. Just so you know.”
My head flops forward. Not gracefully or daintily. Not swoonily or softly. Nope. My forehead just thumps right into his sternum like it weighs three times what it should, and I groan, loudly enough that I feel Braden’s chest shaking beneath me on what I think is a silent chuckle.
“No more talking, Braden,” I mumble through the press of my face to his chest. His chest quakes again. I sigh, long and slow. “That punch has done snuck up on me, just like you said it would. And if you say one more nice, thoughtful, insightful, not-rude thing to me, I’m going to let the rum haze start doing the thinking here.”
Braden’s body goes taut. I know why, too. Because he knows how good a hazy night between us would be. And so do I.