Riding into Fire: A Second Chance Romance
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The Unexpected Call
I sat back in my squeaky chair, feet propped on the desk, eyeing the dusty bull-riding trophy next to a stack of unfinished paperwork. The trophy was from a rodeo back in Cody, a small token from a past life I sometimes missed and sometimes wished to forget. It stuck out like a sore thumb in the no-nonsense vibe of the U.S. Forest Service Bureau of Land Management office, but then again, so did I.
"Johnson, you ever gonna file those reports?" Dave, a.k.a Big Red, poked his head through the door, his red beard looking like it had caught fire.
I grinned. "Paperwork's just kindling, Dave. You, of all people, should appreciate that."
Big Red strolled up to my desk, a wad of chewing tobacco stuffed in his cheek. He spat into a nearby soda can, making a face. "Well, can't argue with that logic."
He was a tall, imposing man, broad-shouldered and muscled like an ox. His bright red hair and matching beard were so thick that I sometimes suspected they were part of some genetic experiment by a mad scientist bent on creating the ultimate firefighting machine.
He tossed a fresh can of dip onto my desk, plopping down on the spare chair like he owned the place. To be fair, he did - whenever our team got into a tight spot, Big Red's know-how usually got us out. The guy was a wizard with a backhoe and could bulldoze fire lines in his sleep.
"So, you hear the news?" he asked, leaning back and rocking his chair on its hind legs. "Looks like we might get relocated. Bets are on Montana or Wyoming."
I felt a jolt of excitement or dread. I couldn't tell. Wyoming was home, but it was also a book I thought I'd closed except for family visits. "Oh really? Well, you know what they say: wherever there's smoke, there's us."
Right as Big Red headed back to his station, the door burst open, and Chloe "Spark" O'Connor walked in with a clipboard in one hand and a smirk on her face. She wasn't afraid to make her presence known. Spark caught sight of my rodeo picture and paused.
"Wow, Johnson, a rodeo champ? Was 'Firefighter' not enough of a macho title for you?" She raised an eyebrow, her voice dripping with sarcasm.
"Hey, Spark," I shot back, "It's never too late to add 'bull rider' to your resume, too, you know?"
She chuckled. "I'll stick to manipulating weather data, thanks. Less bull, more science."
I grinned. "Well, if you ever decide to switch, you've got the perfect nickname for it."
"Touché," she said, eyeing the trophy on my desk before heading to her workstation.
Then TJ burst into my office, his eyes immediately darting to the newly placed rodeo photo and trophy. "Whoa, Jack! You redecorating or something?"
I looked up from my desk, chuckling. "Just found some old memorabilia and thought, why not? Adds a personal touch, you know? You guys should bring in some stuff, too."
TJ looked around with admiration. "Looks great," he said. "And I'm sure it gives you a sense of pride. Man, you're braver than I thought!" TJ exclaimed, genuinely impressed.
"Brave or just young and foolish," I grinned. "Ever thought about rodeoing, TJ?"
He chuckled. "Man, if I ever tried, it'd be barrel racing. Less risk of getting gored."
"I don't know. Barrel racing has its own challenges," I said, leaning back in my chair.
"Yeah, but with your coaching, I bet I could take 'em on," he flashed a confident smile.
"Keep dreaming, kid," I laughed. Our Denver office felt a little more like home suddenly.
My phone buzzed on the desk, the caller ID flashing "Dispatch." I picked up, already guessing it'd be something serious. We didn't get calls. We got missions.
"Johnson here," I answered crisply, straightening up in my chair.
"Jack, we've got a situation. Wildfire risks near Yellowstone. You and your team are being deployed." My eyes flicked to the map hanging on the wall of the Yellowstone National Park area. Close to home. Real close. "Copy that, Dispatch. When do we move?"
"ASAP. We're coordinating with local authorities. I'll send you the details."
"Understood," I said, hanging up. I swiveled to face my team. "Pack your bags, folks. We're heading to Yellowstone."
"Yellowstone? That's like the holy grail of firefighting," TJ piped up, eyes wide.
Spark smirked, "Let's hope it's not a one-way ticket to Hell instead."
Big Red chuckled, "Well, if it is, I'll be driving the bus."
I grinned, shaking my head at their banter. "All right, let's move. This is the real deal, and you know what they say: Only we can prevent forest fires."
And just like that, the room filled with a rush of energy, a mix of anticipation and readiness. We were about to ride into the fire, but if anyone could handle it, it was us.
As the room buzzed with preparations, my gaze slid back to that damn rodeo photo. For a moment, the sounds of laughter and chatter faded. There I was, a cocky kid in chaps and a cowboy hat, clinging to a bucking bull like my life depended on it. A lifetime ago, or so it felt.
My thoughts drifted back to Cody. The Flying J Ranch. Home. A place that hadn't felt like home for a long time. I ran my thumb along the picture frame, its texture pulling me back to a past I'd left behind but never really escaped.
The rodeo life had given me purpose and a sense of freedom, but it had cost me something, too. Someone. And now we were headed to Yellowstone, right into my old stomping grounds.
"Jack, you good?" Spark's voice cut through my daydream.
I shook off the nostalgia, looking up. "Yeah, just thinking…"
"Thinking about what, Jack?" Chloe squinted, trying to read my mind.
"Thinking' we've got a fire to fight!"
"Last time I checked, that's what we got paid for," she smirked.
But as I turned away, my mind wouldn't let go of the photo or the memories it conjured up. We had a fire to put out, but I had personal fires smoldering, too. Ones that might flare up if I got too close to home.
I glanced at my monitor as a new email notification pinged. The subject line read, "Urgent: Fire Coordination at Yellowstone Northeastern Coordinate." My stomach tightened as I clicked it open. The email was from forestry inside the park. It laid out the situation—fire on the northeastern side, near the Montana border. They had all the heavy machinery in place, but we were being called in to assist with their efforts.
"Alright, listen up," I said, capturing the room's attention. The chatter died down as all eyes turned to me. "Like I said, we're headed to the park. The wildfire is up near the Montana border. We've been called to coordinate air cover for the retardant drops and wait for additional orders."
Big Red chewed on his tobacco thoughtfully, a nod of acceptance. "Finally, some action."
Spark looked up, her eyes serious for once. "Yellowstone, huh? You ever think you'd go back?"
TJ grinned, oblivious to the tension. "Yellowstone? That's awesome! Always wanted to see the place."
I ignored Spark's question, though it hung in the air like smoke. "Pack your bags. We leave in two hours."
As the room erupted into a flurry of movement and conversation, I felt a tinge of something I couldn't quite place. Apprehension? Dread? I was going home. And as much as the firefighter in me was ready for this, the man who once rode bulls in rodeos wasn't so sure.
I stared at the email again, the cursor blinking like a ticking time bomb. Duty called, and I was going to answer. But deep down, I couldn't shake the feeling that this fire would demand more from me than I was prepared to give.
The atmosphere in the room was a mix of adrenaline and unspoken tension as I handed out assignments.
Spark pushed back from her desk, arms crossed. "You sure you're not just trying to cowboy your way out of paperwork, Jack? I've still got reports to run. Can’t we fill out these forms later?”
Before I could retort, my phone buzzed with a call from an unknown number. I answered quickly, stepping away from the chatter.
"Johnson," I said, almost mechanically.
"Jack, it's Diez," the voice came through, all business as usual. In my mind's eye, I saw our commander—always crisp, with a no-nonsense demeanor framed by a silvering buzz cut. "The situation's escalating. A chopper will pick you and your team up in an hour. You'll be taken to the air transport, and it's pre-loaded with your heavy equipment."
The gravity of the call weighed heavy on me. "Copy that." I hung up and turned back to my team. "Change of plans. Our ride's coming in an hour. Sounds like the fire is getting out of control."
Big Red let out a low whistle. "An hour, huh? Guess I'll hold off on that second cup of coffee."
Spark chuckled, her eyes twinkling with mischief. "Oh, so you're all Mr. Serious now, huh?"
TJ's eyes were almost gleaming. "This is big. Like, really big."
"Yeah," I replied, the word almost sticking in my throat. "It's big. And yes, Spark! I'm definitely serious."
They scattered to finish gathering their personal stuff, and as I looked at each of them, I was struck by a potent mix of pride and dread. We were a team, and a damn good one. Yet an out-of-control wildfire in Yellowstone Park could have epic consequences.
But as I sat back down, staring at the empty chair Spark had vacated, her words bounced around the corners of my mind. "You ever think you'd go back?"
"No, Spark, I hadn't," I muttered to myself. And as I pondered that question, a knot tightened in my stomach. Because going back meant more than just battling wildfires; it meant facing a past and a person I figured I'd never have to deal with again.
I did a mental shrug. Whether I was ready or not, it was happening!
As I emptied out my locker and stuffed some underwear into my duffle, my mind focused on only one image. Emily. Emily Brooks, the heiress of Yellowstone Creek Ranch—the largest ranch in the area. Our families were both leaders in the community but stood on opposite ends of local politics — with one exception — land use.
Emily and I had found secret moments to escape the watchful eyes of the town. We'd meet up at a secluded spot near Shoshone River, away from the prying eyes of our families and neighbors. Those stolen moments, filled with innocent laughter and tentative kisses, seemed so far away now. But they had been our little paradise, where we weren't Jack Johnson and Emily Brooks but just Jack and Emily—two kids too caught up in each other to care about land disputes and family expectations.
I glanced at the rodeo photo again, my eyes locking on the younger version of myself gripping the reins of a bull that looked more devil than animal. Cody, Wyoming. It's a hell of a place to grow up. As much as I'd wanted out of that small town, a part of me missed it—the open skies, the familiar faces, and the way news traveled faster than a prairie fire.
I missed the rodeos, too. Not just for the thrill but for the glances Emily Brooks shot my way whenever I'd manage to stay on a bull for those miraculous eight seconds. Part of me hoped my cowboy antics would be enough to make her look past Casey McAllister, the guy I figured she would end up with.
You couldn't escape history in a small town; God knows I tried. But history's got a way of digging its spurs into you, especially when you're gearing up to head back to where it all began. Suddenly, the upcoming firefight felt like a secondary concern.
The Weight of the Morning Sun
As I entered the spacious kitchen, the aroma of coffee wafted in the air, contrasting the smell of hay and livestock that clung to me. At Yellowstone Creek Ranch, mornings began well before the sunrise.
Maggie, our cook, was already bustling about, prepping for the day's meals. "Morning, Emily," she greeted without looking up as I wandered into the kitchen.
"Morning," I mumbled, pouring myself a cup of coffee. It wasn't just any morning; it was another day packed with endless to-dos, and my father's health wasn't making things any easier.
After a quick breakfast—a luxury I often skipped—I headed out to meet Carl, our ranch foreman. We walked the barn's perimeter, checked the horses, and updated each other on the staff's schedules. "Let me know if we need more hands, Carl," I told him, my eyes scanning the horizon as if looking for answers to my never-ending concerns.
"Will do, Emily," he assured me. But his assurance did nothing to lighten the load I felt on my shoulders.
The ranch had its rhythms, and I had mine, blending into a relentless cycle that left little room for rest or retreat. When I returned to the main house, I was mentally calculating the budget for the upcoming quarter.
Taking a steadying breath, I lingered at my dad's door with my hand on the knob. As much as these visits weighed on me emotionally, seeing Dad was comforting, a touch of normalcy in an ever-changing world. With a soft exhale, I stepped inside.
"Morning, Dad," I said softly, my voice imbued with a tenderness that I rarely showed to anyone else. Dad looked frail in his wheelchair. The man who had once been my invincible hero is now confined by age and illness. "How are you feeling today?" I asked although I knew the answer would be a variation of yesterday's 'Fine, Sis, just fine.'
But today, he winked instead, "I'm feeling about the same, Em."
I sat on the edge of his bed and followed his gaze out the window. While there, I fluffed up his pillows and checked the meds on his nightstand. "We rotated the cattle to the north pasture today," I told him, my voice steadier than I felt. "And good news—the irrigation system's back on schedule. I'll catch up with Lucky about the new prescription the doctor wants you to start tomorrow." I let out a breath I didn't know I was holding and kissed Daddy's cheek. The ranch's operations were on track, and, at least for today, Dad was, too.
Lucky was Dad's nurse's nickname. She had a knack for being in the right place at the right time, like the day she managed to catch my father just as he was about to take a spill. A lifesaver, for sure. Yet, I heard the real reason was Lisa was like a rabbit's foot at the casinos. Dad never went to Vegas or the local casino without his nurse, Lisa O'Connor.
As I walked downstairs, my steps were a little heavier than when I walked up to Dad's room. For some reason, today, the ranch house walls seemed claustrophobic—a fortress that protected and imprisoned me.
I leaned against the kitchen door and sighed. It wasn't just another day; it was another day of clinging to a life handed to me. I was the youngest daughter, and I had filled her shoes since Mom's passing. At first, I didn't mind, but the years rolled by, and I had absolutely no social life other than what revolved around the ranch.
And so, I pushed on, thankful for the legacy that I enjoyed as Emily Brooks, heir to the Yellowstone Creek Ranch. I poured myself another cup of coffee as my phone buzzed. A smile spread across my face as I saw Sandy’s brown eyes appear on my phone screen. We made eye contact, and I grinned.
"Hey, Sandy! How's Cheyenne treating you?" I beamed, picking up the phone.
"Emily! Oh my god, girl, you won't believe the drama here! Mark's senator stuff, you know?" Sandy's eyes widened for emphasis, and I laughed.
"I can only imagine. Dad's enough politics for me."
"Your brother and I miss you, Em. So, guess what? We're having a fundraiser. And get this—Marshal Johnson is coming!"
“Is he in on the fundraiser, too?”
“No, Mark’s killing two birds with one stone. You know how Mark and Marshall are all into his land management projects together, a hot-button issue he shares with the Johnson family. But it’s really about raising funds for Mark’s reelection next year.”
I sighed. "Yeah, Mark's going to need all that he can get. I hear he’ll have some stiff competition.”
Sandy tilted her head sympathetically. "I heard about the divorce. Tough break."
“Mark will be fine. Always is," I shrugged. "So, Marshal Johnson, is involved too?”
"Yeah. He's a big donor. Plus, he has some contacts your brother doesn’t have.”
“Should be interesting.”
"Well, then you'll want to come, won't you? Get out of that ranch for a night?" Sandy’s voice was hopeful.
It was tempting. "I'll think about it.”
"C'mon, it'll be fun! Get dolled up, let your hair down. God knows you need a break."
She was right. I did need a break. "Alright, count me in. Send me the details, will you?"
"Will do! Love ya, girl!"
"Love you too!"
I ended the call and looked at my now-cold coffee. A fundraiser. Mark’s reelection. Something different stirred inside me for the first time in a long time. I smiled — a spark of excitement!
My gaze shifted from the coffee to the window, where the sprawling lands of Yellowstone Creek Ranch stretched beyond sight. Lands our family had stewarded for generations. The Brooks and the Johnsons were among the few families who had survived the westward movement and thrived. Our ancestors, alongside the Shoshone, had broken bread together, celebrated harvests, endured harsh winters, and built a community even to this day — with one exception — Jack Johnson!
I strolled into Dad's room, gripping a stack of mail and a tall glass of iced tea in the other. The room smelled of well-worn leather and aftershave, a nostalgic mix that had become oddly comforting. "Hey, Dad," I greeted him, smiling.
His eyes flickered open from his afternoon nap, and the corners of his mouth lifted into a wry smile. "Em," he rasped, his voice colored with that signature gruff warmth. I set the tea down on his nightstand and tossed him a stack of letters. "Look, got some fan mail."
Dad took his time, his eyes squinting to make out the text, then finally said, "Huh, looks like someone wants to put Zeus to work breeding their mare." Ah, Zeus—our powerhouse quarter horse stallion that had raked in more awards and cash prizes than we ever dreamed. Dad's eyes lit up like a kid pulling off a prank. "Never too old to sire champions, just like me," he chuckled.
"Seems like a solid deal," I replied, laughing. I couldn't match his enthusiasm, but I appreciated it. Thankfully, Zeus's breeding calendar was not my responsibility. "Worth thinking over."
"Damn right," Dad said, his eyes clouding over with a bit of nostalgia. His gaze shifted to the window momentarily, perhaps catching glimpses of his youthful adventures—days when he'd saddle up a horse and ride to feel the prairie wind mess up his hair. I like to remember my father — the young Roy Brooks — as the shrewd risk-taker who had turned our family ranch into what it is today. His poker pals used to call him "Roll 'em Roy" for his unmatchable skills at rolling dice. Those were the days before Parkinson's began to clip his wings.
The room lapsed into silence. The only sounds were the steady ticking of a rustic wall clock and, in the distance, the everyday hustle of our ranch—tractors and ranching equipment. I reached for his hand, giving it a reassuring squeeze, sealing the silent pact that had always existed between us. "I got this, Dad. You can count on it."
His eyes met mine, a serene kind of assurance washing over him. "Never doubted you, Em. Not for a second."
As I stepped out of Dad’s room, that familiar sense of commitment sank deeper into my bones, heavy but grounding. My phone buzzed just as I was reaching the kitchen. Glancing at the screen, I saw a new text notification light up.
Mark: Hey, sis, got a min?
Me: Sure, what's up?
Mark: Can we talk? Land management bill is coming up, need your thoughts.
I sighed. Land management was not my strong suit, unlike my older sibling, Mark, who always consulted me before making decisions about the ranch. However, his grumpiness was not what I needed today.
Me: Mark, if this is another heated discussion about ranch politics, can it wait? I'm swamped.
Mark: Just went through the divorce papers. Need a distraction.
I waited before texting him back, working to craft an encouraging note. I felt sorry for my brother; I really did. But my emotional reserves were already running on empty.
Me: I get it. It's tough. But I've got a lot on my plate too. Let's catch up later.
Mark: Fine. Later.
Pausing before pressing the "send" button, I considered throwing in an "I love you." But I didn't. Not today. I slid the phone into my pocket, my thoughts already drifting back to the ranch, to Dad. Mark's woes would have to wait. Like everything else around here, they would get filed under "To Be Dealt With" until I found the energy to open the file and deal the the contents.
Settling in for a late lunch, I speared a piece of grilled chicken with my fork and popped it into my mouth. As I chewed, my eyes flicked up and caught sight of a faint plume of smoke in the distance, framed by the window. "Controlled burn in Yellowstone, I guess,” I muttered, but my gut churned a bit.
Just then, Maggie, our cook, waltzed into the kitchen with the grace only she could muster, her eyes landing almost immediately on the smoke as she settled a loaf of freshly baked bread onto the counter. She was a woman of few words, but her eyes? Those told a novel's worth of tales. Dark, discerning eyes that held ancient stories from her Shoshone lineage.
"You see that?" I pointed my fork toward the window as if she didn't already know. My voice was casual, but I eyed her carefully for a reaction.
"Yeah," she said, taking a measured pause. "You might wanna give your dad and Carl a heads-up, even if it looks miles away."
Her words hung in the air, momentarily nesting into my thoughts. Maggie's intuition had an eerie knack for being right. A pearl of learned wisdom, or maybe something deeper, a sort of ancestral gut instinct that rarely led her astray.
"Yellowstone usually tips us off if they're doing a controlled burn," I mumbled, reassuring myself more than informing her.
"Usually, yeah." Her response was simple, a nod accompanying it. But the way she said it felt like an ellipsis rather than a full stop, as if a silent 'but what if...' lingered in the room.
I tried to shift my focus back to the salad in front of me, but the word 'usually' kept reverberating in my head. It mixed with the lingering taste of the greens, becoming more bitter with each passing second.
Could "usually" account for every time? It was like a splinter in my thoughts, fueled further by the subtle flicker of concern I had seen in Maggie's eyes. Her expression was a window into a much larger room where "usually" didn't carry much weight.
With a sigh, I put down my fork and grabbed my phone. Whether it was Maggie's ancestral wisdom or my newfound unease, I couldn't ignore the need to alert my father and Carl.
"Just being cautious," I justified out loud.
Maggie looked at me, her eyes softer now, "Caution is good, Emily. In these times, it's better than the alternative."
As I sent the text, I realized how much I'd come to rely on Maggie's unspoken wisdom —like an invisible handrail, always there to avoid a fall.