San Francisco, California, present day
Whether she knew it or not, Manhattan Sloane had hooked Finn Harper like a fish and had her hoping for the day she would reel her in. Three days ago, when they were in that pool and surrounded by fire at Three Owls Vineyard, Finn had realized that Sloane, the first girl to make her steal glances, had been the one since they were thirteen. Looking back, she realized that she had always measured every love interest against her. Even Isabell, her first love, had met the teenage Sloane standard of looks, intelligence, and kindness. With Sloane back in her life, everything they shared—from mint water to taking in the view from the window of her chic Market Street condo—had a sweeter taste or more profound meaning.
But on this Sunday morning, Finn was alone, counting cars as they emerged from the fog atop the Bay Bridge on their way into the city. It wasn’t the same without Sloane. After escaping the Santa Rosa wildfire, they each had set aside today for family— she with her father and Sloane with Reagan, her stepdaughter.
Three days had also passed since she and Sloane had shared their first kiss, and her lips still tingled at the echo of their last one in the smoke-filled garage. Finn chased that feeling, running two fingers across her bottom lip and wishing they were Sloane’s lips. The memory of those few kisses would have to sustain her until Sloane continued to work through her grief over the death of her wife months earlier and wanted more.
When she focused on the image reflected in the glass of her dining room window, she realized she looked as tired as she felt. If not for her father picking her up for breakfast soon, she’d dump her coffee and go back to bed. But sleep hadn’t come easily since her return. Sensitive facial burns kept her awake, but not as much as the nightmares. Each time she closed her eyes, images of Caco’s charred body and the flames that had threatened her and Sloane from every direction replayed in her head.
Glancing at the clock, she calculated her father should be minutes away from her building. She ran her free hand through her shoulder-length dark blond hair to smooth several errant strands, inadvertently grazing the worst of her burns along her left cheek. It reminded her of her father’s reaction years ago when she announced her plan to join the Drug Enforcement Agency following graduation from Stanford Law School. “Can’t you find something less dangerous?”
“Maybe you were right, Daddy.” Finn never thought she would entertain those words, but after her and Sloane’s brush with death, she regretted quarrelling over something he may have been right about all along. Their arguing had led to a routine wherein their paths crossed but once a month for dinner. She missed him, especially the Sunday cookouts they had shared during her college days.
The buzz of the doorbell ripped her gaze from the foggy cityscape. Forcing a warm smile, she opened the door. “Daddy, come in. I’m almost ready. Give me five minutes, and then we can take off.”
Dressed as if ready for a chilly round of golf at Pebble Beach, Chandler Harper smiled. Sporting a fresh business cut for his salt-and-pepper hair, he raised a large takeout bag from Finn’s favorite neighborhood diner. “I thought you might be too tired to go out, pumpkin, so I picked up breakfast.”
She inhaled deeply as the tempting scent of bacon seeped out of the bag and over the threshold, grateful for his soft spot. Despite their never-ending disagreement over her career choice, her father showed her love at every turn.
“You read my mind.” Changing out of her lounge clothes in her current condition would have equated to scaling Mount Everest, a challenge she preferred not to accept. Her leggings and light, pullover sweater could now suffice for dining wear.
“I’ll reheat while you get the drinks.” Chandler scooted past her toward the kitchen, the musky scent of his aftershave tickling Finn’s nose.
They worked and chatted about unimportant things until they sat at the dining table overlooking the Bay Bridge. She suspected he was holding back, just as she was. When he had answered Finn’s phone call from the Santa Rosa hospital days ago, he’d told her, his heart had almost stopped. She had done her best to play down the harrowing time she spent huddled in the pool with Sloane as flames swept over them, joking, “We were perfectly safe, but I don’t want to see the inside of an oven anytime soon.” He hadn’t let on in the following days, but she suspected his vying for more time with her this weekend meant the news reports that she and Sloane had barely escaped with their lives rattled him.
Finn pushed the food back and forth on the plate with her fork and stared at it as if trying to solve a kid’s puzzle, a nervous habit she picked up from her father in her youth. Whenever he’d been worried about his fledgling law firm, he’d done the same thing at the dinner table.
“How are your burns coming along?” he asked finally. “The redness seems to be fading.”
She debated bringing up Sloane. Not since losing Isabell in a car accident years ago had they talked about her love life, never discussing Kadin Hall, her latest ex, for instance, unless they couched the topic in vague terms. A geometric pattern of fruit formed on her plate while the debate raged in her head.
“Something is bothering you. Is it the fire?” Chandler sprinkled enough concern into his question that Finn realized her suspicion was correct. He was rattled.
“No. Well, yes, but that’s not what I was thinking about.”
“Then what is it?”
A sheepish feeling that harked back to when she first embraced her sexuality during her high school years swept over her, but she finally raised her gaze to meet his. “You remember Sloane from the hospital? The one from the fire?”
He studied her expression. “You like her, don’t you?”
“I do, Daddy. You probably don’t remember, but Sloane and I went to junior high together. Her parents were killed in that car accident.”
Chandler rubbed his clean-shaven chin. “Wasn’t she in choir with you?”
Finn nodded. “We reconnected, and…she’s the one, Daddy. I know it. She’s the one.” She expected a surprised look, but he grinned. Following a lengthy pause, she said, “Well, say something, will you?”
A twinkle appeared in Chandler’s hazel eyes, eyes that looked so much like her own, signaling a level of delight that had been absent for years. “Refreshing.” Her father had never used that adjective to describe her attractions. Considering how she felt about Sloane compared to her exes, though, she liked it. “From the way you two looked at each other, I gathered it was much more than a case of professional admiration.”
“Were we that obvious?” She forked a piece of fruit and popped it in her mouth to combat the growing tightness in her lungs. I feel like a teenager again.
“Only to someone who knows you, pumpkin. We may only see one another once a month, but you never looked at Kadin the way you looked at Sloane. And she looked at you the same way.” He paused when Finn’s cheeks heated to what must have been the shade of the strawberries on her plate. “So, when can I officially meet her as your girlfriend?”
“Sloane’s recently widowed, so we’re taking it slow.”
Her father’s eyes grew distant as she pondered the term “girlfriend.” Dare she consider that yet? She braced herself for having to wait a considerable amount of time before Sloane would entertain a relationship, but she hoped it wouldn’t take too long. Finn had lost a woman she loved, but she’d never lost a wife. Her father had, though, to breast cancer—an ugly disease by any measure. He, of all people, would know what hurdles might be in store for Sloane. She met his gaze.
“Daddy, do you have any advice in that department?”
Chandler shook off whatever memory had distracted him. “Patience is the key, because it’s all about the mindset. It may take time before she stops thinking of herself as married.”
“I was there when her wife died in that explosion.” Finn’s voice cracked as horrible memories flooded back. “We pulled Sloane to safety, but…” She lowered her eyes in painful regret, unable to forget the images of Sloane’s frantic efforts to save Avery, trapped beneath the rubble, nor the agony in Sloane’s screams when the building exploded. “…we couldn’t save Avery.”
Her father’s hand fell atop hers. The gentle squeeze that followed was a welcome gesture, the kind that meant he understood her pain.
“I can say from experience losing a spouse is one of life’s most painful moments. You and Sloane will be connected forever.”
“I hope in a good way.” Finn squeezed his hand in kind.
Before he withdrew it, he gave her a gentle pat. His voice took on a wistful tone. “Now, if only I could convince you to find a safer career, I wouldn’t worry about you day and night.”
“I know, Daddy.” Any other day, the comment would’ve been annoying, but today she agreed with him. The burns on her face would heal, but for now they served as a constant reminder that she’d come close to again losing a woman she loved. She never again wanted to feel the pain she’d felt when Isabell died.
He jerked his head back comically. “What? No argument?”
“Not this time. After last week, I’m thinking a change of pace might be good.” Once she said it out loud, she oddly felt relieved, but that feeling was quickly tempered by questions. Would Sloane like it if she quit her job? Would they have a future together if she wasn’t in law enforcement?
Her father’s charming smile returned. “I’m thrilled you’re considering the idea. I don’t want to seem pushy, but I’d love to have you in the firm. I could—”
Finn put up her hands in a stopping motion. “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, Daddy. I’m only considering leaving the DEA. I’m not sure if practicing law would be a good fit.”
She braced herself for another sweet-talking session when, thankfully, her cell rang from across the room. “Saved by the bell.” Glancing at the phone after retrieving it from the entry table, she didn’t recognize the caller ID.
“Agent Harper, this is Deputy Foster from the Sonoma County Sheriff’s Department.” The deep male voice had a distinct drawl, reminiscent of a young Sam Elliot. “You asked us to notify you if any unidentified survivors from the wildfire popped up.”
“You have something?”
“Yes, ma’am. An out-of-town firefighting unit found him near the Three Owls Vineyard you mentioned in your report. No one has claimed him since, so the hospital called us.”
Finn had expected the fourth person from that hellish night to show up dead, but this presented a much better scenario. A survivor meant she and Sloane had another lead to finally determine who supplied Los Dorados in their drug operation and who in the government was helping them.
“Where is he? Can you send me a picture?”
“Valley Hospital, but the vic has bad burns. A picture won’t do you any good.”
“Thank you, Deputy Foster. I’ll get there as soon as I can.”
She ended the call, a pit forming in her stomach as she hit speed dial. This isn’t over. The call connected, and following the exchange of a few pleasantries, she said, “You’re going to have to cancel. They found a survivor.”
* * *
Sloane rested her elbows on the thin metal railing of the back deck at her Hunter’s Point townhouse. She trained her gaze on a lone tanker in the distance as it cut through San Francisco Bay at a snail’s pace. Before it disappeared behind an outcropping a mile down the shore, an airplane climbed off the Oakland tarmac across the bay and then vanished into stubborn low-hanging clouds.
It’s going to be a cold morning for a hike, she thought as a brisk breeze ruffled her hair, brushing shoulder-length strands of brown hair against the collar of Avery’s wool sweater. Absentmindedly she tucked the strands behind an ear.
The low sound of rustling leaves and chirping birds in the nearby trees merged into a soothing near-quiet. She’d come to this private oasis a hundred times over the years, seeking it whenever she felt troubled. Each time its quiet and calming effects had left her closer to a solution to her worries and ready to face the world. Today, though, she was still at a loss.
Clothes drying on the next-door neighbor’s line caught her eye, bobbing up and down in the wind, shirtsleeves and pant legs waving frantically. As she unpacked what her sixteen-year-old stepdaughter had dumped on her over Sunday breakfast minutes earlier Sloane felt equally helpless. She had expected Reagan to be moody and emotional since losing her mother, just as she had been. She hadn’t expected the calm and measured plea she’d just received. Reagan, however, was not only the mirror image of her mother with her dark blond hair and athletic body, she also had Avery’s strength and the courage to speak her mind. To look her in the eye and say, “I can’t bear losing you both. Every day I hold my breath until you walk through the door and I know you’re safe.”
Struggling with this revelation, Sloane squeezed her coffee mug tighter, trying to transfer its warmth into fingers numbed by the saltwater air. How should she respond to Reagan’s concern? At thirty-four, she had never considered doing anything other than police work. How could she make Reagan understand that her job defined her? Should she even try? She was a single parent now, and that had to take precedence.
She needed to decide if she was a mother or a cop first. The answer to that should’ve come easy, but as hard as she tried, she couldn’t see herself being happy as anything but a detective working the streets. Her grandmother had understood. She remembered Nana’s words after she announced her acceptance to the police academy. “If you’re happy, I am too.” Pride had oozed from her the morning she first saw Sloane in uniform. She had fussed over her seven-point sterling silver badge and matching shiny buttons as if they were priceless jewels. Other than in the days following the car accident that had taken her son and daughter-in-law, that proud day marked the only time Sloane witnessed that strong woman shed tears. How could she give that up?
But what kind of mother would she be if she considered a career more important than her daughter’s peace of mind? Reagan had put her grief and fears on hold following Avery’s death in order to keep their fragile family from crumbling. She’d put Sloane first, and now Sloane had to reciprocate.
Deep down, though, she hoped to find a way to balance the two. While investigations required hours of research and paperwork, Sloane didn’t consider working as a desk jockey to be real police work. She couldn’t shake the idea that real crime happened on the streets, and real cops stayed there.
The creak of a wooden plank was followed by Reagan sidling up to the railing next to her. A quick glance confirmed she was mirroring Sloane’s gaze as it trailed another tanker.
“I didn’t mean to upset you, Mom, but Eric said I should talk to you.”
Of course, she talked to him. Beyond being Sloane’s partner and friend, Eric Decker had acted like an uncle to Reagan after Avery died, serving as her rock when Sloane couldn’t.
“I understand you’re scared, but I’ve never done anything else.”
“Can’t you do it sitting behind a desk like you did when you broke your ankle?”
“I spend half my day chained to that desk as is.” Sloane faced Reagan, trying to gauge her response. In her eyes she saw genuine fear. In that instant, Sloane became first and foremost a mother, a shift she doubted would’ve happened if Avery were still alive.
From the first day she pinned on the badge, Sloane had accepted the idea one day she might make the ultimate sacrifice. Today, though, she worried what would happen to Reagan if she did. Which set of grandparents would take her? The Tenneys? She hoped. The Santoses? She feared. Her pride wasn’t worth the risk.
With that realization came another jarring doubt. Feeling as she did, would she still put her life on the line for Eric? Sloane returned her gaze to the water that had centered her for two decades. She searched inside for that sense of unwavering commitment, but it never came. That shook her to her core.
She swallowed the growing lump in her throat and turned her gaze back to Reagan. “I’ve never done anything else,” she repeated. “But I’m willing to discuss possibilities as a family.”
“Thank you, Mom.” Reagan’s deep sigh suggested Sloane had just lifted the weight of the world from her. The crack in her voice, however, signaled they’d better work through those possibilities sooner than later. Sloane had to consider practical things like paying bills and funding college, but this wasn’t the end of the conversation.
“We’re family, Reagan. No matter what we decide, I want you to promise me you’ll never stop talking to me, especially about things that upset you.” Sloane lowered her eyes at a stinging memory. “I never got that chance after my mother died, but I want that for you.”
“You never talk about your mother.” Reagan cocked her head as if trying to recall the details. “It was a car accident, right?”
“A horrible accident.” Sloane hesitated as the image of the fireball that marked her parents’ death flashed once more through her mind. “But I survived.”
“Were you hurt?”
“A few scrapes, but losing my parents hurt me in a way that took a long time to understand. I want you to know I get what you’re going through. I was just thirteen when I moved here with my nana after the accident. She was old, and it scared me to think she’d die and leave me all alone.”
Reagan’s lips trembled when they parted. She dipped her head. “Then you understand why I can’t lose you.”
Sloane rubbed Reagan’s arms, reassuring herself as much as her daughter. “I do understand. Let me think about this for a few days, and then we can talk some more.” The thought of losing her again, especially her last link to Avery, terrified her. She never again wanted to feel the paralyzing fear she felt when she thought she might lose custody to her former in-laws. She needed to get her adoption of Reagan on the fast track.
“Okay.” Reluctance laced Reagan’s voice when she accepted Sloane’s embrace.
The cold air nipped at Sloane’s ears. It reminded her they needed to get ready for their newly dubbed Sunday “family day”—a leisurely breakfast before an activity of their alternating choosing. Reagan’s choice of a water’s edge walk underneath the first span of the Golden Gate Bridge seemed like the perfect start. “We should head out to Fort Point before it gets too crowded.” She considered her garb. Avery’s sweater was too precious to chance ruining, so she returned it to its home in the deck storage.
Once in her room, Sloane picked out heavy jeans to protect her legs from the cold ocean spray and then slipped on a T-shirt and a different sweater to layer under a Windbreaker. The paved trail at Fort Point wasn’t steep, but thanks to her reinjuring it during their escape from the wildfire her left foot was still in a walking boot. She chose a sturdy hiking sneaker for the right one to compensate.
When she finished dressing, she sat at the end of the bed and replayed the conversation with Reagan. The idea of leaving the place where she met and fell in love with Avery seemed too much to fathom. Could she leave the department? Was she ready to cut those ties?
Before she could answer that question, a unique ringtone from her cell phone made her heart flutter. She hadn’t seen Finn for three days, not since the fire, the guardianship hearing, and the celebratory dinner afterward. She missed her.
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