Read Up in Flames Online

Authors: Starr Ambrose

Tags: #Mystery

Up in Flames

BOOK: Up in Flames
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1

A
spider crossed
the
white tablecloth, nimbly scooting over Sophie’s left hand. Genus
Agelenopsis,
she thought with disinterest. Family Agelenidae, Order Araneae. A common grass spider. She could list its habits and life cycle if anyone cared to know, and name the various species. A lot of good that did her. There wasn’t much call for spider experts.

Unemployment sucked. Unemployment in a specialized field sucked even more. She was pondering the exact degree of suckitude when a footstep brushed the grass behind her. Before she could turn, a man’s hand darted past her shoulder and slapped the table. She jumped. The hand lifted, revealing a dark smudge with legs. “Spider,” the man explained, wiping his hand on the tablecloth. “One of the hazards of outdoor wedding receptions.”

She frowned at the former spider, not bothering to look up at its killer. “They don’t believe in killing insects and spiders here,” she informed him. “The commune’s philosophy is live and let live.”

“I won’t tell if you don’t,” he said, pulling out the chair beside her as he set a beer bottle on the table. “Mind if I join you?”

He sat, angling toward her. She looked up, meeting a lazy smile and dark, penetrating eyes. The kind of eyes that made you want to inch closer and fall under their spell, and a smile that dared you to do it. A smile and a look that were too familiar.

Her face went slack with shock. His smile disappeared just as fast.

“Zane.” It was all she could manage to say.

He recovered first, the corner of his mouth twisting with something more like a grimace than a smile. “Sophie. Long time.”

Ten years. Not long enough. She licked her lips with a tongue that had gone suddenly dry. “What are you doing here?”

“Friend of the groom.” Sarcasm edged his voice as he grabbed the beer bottle and took a swig. “Why, do you need to see my invitation?”

Maybe she should. “
You’re
friends with Jase?”

“You didn’t know your new brother-in-law mingled with the lower classes?”

No, she hadn’t, and a little advance notice from her sister would have been nice. Zoe knew she had a history with Zane and must have known he was on the guest list. But she’d be damned if she’d let him see her discomfort. She looked away, wishing there was someone else to talk to, but she’d deliberately chosen a vacant table on the edge of the lawn in order to take a break from the festivities.

He looked at the four empty chairs around the table. “Where’s your date?”

He had to ask. “I came alone.” She supposed that made her look pathetic, not bringing a date to her sister’s wedding. It irritated her that she felt a need to explain. “I haven’t been back long enough to be dating anyone. I’ve been away at school.”

“I remember. Improving your mind. Did it work?”

She threw him a dirty look. “You should try it sometime.”

“No time. I’m too busy wasting my life, hanging out at the Rusty Wire Saloon.”

Her hackles rose, just as he’d intended. She happened to love the rollicking cowboy atmosphere at Jase’s honky-tonk saloon, but he probably wouldn’t believe it. In Zane’s mind she was forever branded as the private school snob who thought she was too good for the common folk. Too good for him.

She was inclined to agree with that last part. “I’m sorry to hear your horizons haven’t broadened in the past decade.”

“Must be all that drinking and carousing.”

“No doubt. Still despoiling virgins in your spare time?”

It just popped out of her mouth, and his sly smile caused a hot flush to creep up her neck. She swore under her breath. Ten years should have provided her with some immunity to Zane Thorson.

“Virgins are harder to come by these days,” he said, letting his lazy gaze bore into her. Her lungs tightened, as if they couldn’t get enough oxygen. Probably because she’d stopped breathing. “And by the way, no one uses words like
despoil
unless they’re trying to appear better than everyone else. Just a tip, in case you’re trying to fit in again.”

She tried to keep a cool expression. “Pardon my education.”

“That’s okay. I suppose you can’t help it. You probably have a fancy degree to show off.”

“A few of them.” It made her sound every bit as snobbish as he claimed, but she didn’t care. She wouldn’t downplay what she’d achieved while he’d probably been wasting his potential at some crappy job designed to take him nowhere.

His steady gaze was as hypnotic as ever, but she could see the curiosity behind it, and waited. He finally gave in to it. “Got your master’s, huh?”

Two, actually. But she could go him one better. “Ph.D.”

She took satisfaction in the flicker of respect that crossed his face before he hid it. There had been something else, too, something that made his fingers tighten into a fist. Envy? More likely hatred. “In what?” he asked, as if he was merely being polite.

“Entomology.”

He blinked twice before the corner of his lip quirked upward. “You’re a bug doctor?”

“That would be a doctorate in
the study of
bugs,” she clarified.

He chuckled and took another sip from the beer bottle. “And what do you do with your fancy Ph.D. in entomology, Dr. Larkin?”

Important research. Saving whole forests from invading pests, or finding ways to use helpful bugs to replace pesticides in farming. That had been the goal, anyway.

She pursed her lips in annoyance. Trust him to find her weak spot. Well, her other weak spot, that is. From the way her heart was racing and her fingers itching to ruffle that unruly mass of hair, Zane Thorson was still her major weakness. Not something she was proud of. “I study bugs, obviously,” she said, hoping he wouldn’t ask for details.

“Someone pays you to do that?”

She looked away, picking at invisible dirt on the tablecloth. “Someone will. I’m currently applying for positions.” The ever-hopeful euphemism for
unemployed
.

When he didn’t respond, she snuck a glance at him. He tipped his beer back, watching her as he drank. She wished she could read the thoughts behind those dark eyes. He’d always made her think of James Dean—a loner, defensive and closed off and liking it just fine.

And sexy as hell, along with it.

She’d like to pretend she was no longer susceptible to that dark, erotic quality, but her tripping pulse and flushed skin wouldn’t let her. The best she could do was keep her mouth shut.

He considered her lack of employment without laughing, which she took as a small miracle. “So I guess you won’t be sticking around our little town.”

She’d like to agree; to never have to worry about running into Zane Thorson again would be a boon. But with so many of the commune members—her only family—getting older and dealing with serious health problems, she couldn’t leave them. Pete’s mild heart attack and Feather’s chemotherapy had been a wake-up call; she wouldn’t have them forever. She’d seen little enough of them during the past ten years; nothing could make her leave Barringer’s Pass again.

But positions in entomology were limited. The only possible employer was a small testing lab in Juniper that hadn’t responded to her application yet. Trying to make it sound more hopeful than it was, she told him, “I’m staying. There are lots of federal and state jobs in forestry, monitoring insect pests. No one’s hiring at the moment, but they will. I just have to wait.”

He snorted softly at some inner joke. “Good luck. I’m sure I won’t find you flipping burgers in the meantime.”

Her chest tightened as if he’d squeezed the air from her lungs. Her Ph.D. was supposed to confer prestige, not make her the butt of jokes. But she gave him an unflinching stare. “You think I wouldn’t? I’m not afraid to do an honest day’s work, whatever it is.”

“Uh-huh. Have you applied anywhere?”

“Of course.” She’d even gritted her teeth, sucked up her pride, and filled out the form at McDonald’s, knowing the pimply sixteen-year-old next to her had a better shot at getting a job there than she did.

“Let me guess, no one’s interested, are they?” Her silence was answer enough. “It’s that Ph.D. What’s the point in training you in burgers and fries when you’ll just leave them for the first pine bark beetle that comes along?”

She glared. “Go ahead, laugh. Ten years of higher education, and I can’t find a job. It’s hysterical, enjoy yourself.”

He smiled, the stupid jerk. “It is.” He savored it for several seconds, taking another lazy swig of beer, watching her closely. “But I might be able to help.”

She narrowed her eyes, sensing a trap. If Zane Thorson saw her floundering in a lake, he’d throw her an anchor. But she couldn’t afford to shrug it off. Job or no job, she had a car payment and rent, not to mention a heftier student loan than she wanted her family to know about. “How?”

“I know someone looking for temporary help. It’s manual labor. Outdoors.” He ran his eyes over her, head to foot. Most of her was covered by the long, filmy dress Zoe had talked her into wearing, but it wasn’t as if he didn’t know what her legs looked like. Or any other part of her. She tried not to think about that as he did his private evaluation. “You look capable.”

Curiosity made her sit straighter. He was serious, and damn it, she was desperate. “I’m not afraid to work hard. What kind of labor?”

“Landscaping. Moving trees and shrubs. Maybe some heavy-equipment work. You ever do that?”

She could learn to operate anything. “I played around with a backhoe once. It’s not hard.”

“It’s not play.”

“I can do it.”

He nodded slowly. “Fine. The place is called Natural Designs, main highway west of town, you can’t miss it. Stop by Monday morning if you’re serious. I’ll tell them to expect you.”

She studied his face, deciding the offer was real. But it had been too easy. This was Zane, and they’d parted on bad terms. He didn’t like her any more than she liked him. Besides, she knew his style—he played on people’s weaknesses, using them for whatever he needed. Or in her case, what he’d wanted. If he appeared to be offering help, she was missing something.

“Who owns Natural Designs?” she asked.

“What difference does it make?”

She swore under her breath, finally understanding. “It’s your company, isn’t it?”

Zane drained the bottle and set it on the table, giving her a long, assessing stare as he did. “Yeah, it is. And I offered you a job. Are you going to turn it down?”

“I’m not working for you!”

He shrugged. “Okay. Accept one of your other job offers. Or ask your family for money; I’m sure they’ll come through for you.” He rocked the empty bottle back and forth in a bored manner.

She steamed quietly and reviewed her options: none. Falling back on her family for support was out of the question. Through clenched teeth, she said, “I want to know why you’re doing this.”

“You distrust my motives? I’m crushed.”

“You’ll get over it. I’m sure my feelings don’t matter to you.”

“True.” His dark gaze bore into her. “Maybe I want to watch the exalted Dr. Larkin sweat and grunt for minimum wage.”

No maybe about it. But she didn’t have to humble herself quite that much. “Bullshit. For manual labor, I get at least double that.”

He laughed, but it had a bitter edge. “Deal. I use you to get what I want, and you use me to get what you want. Isn’t this nostalgic?”

That
was the Zane she remembered.

She shouldn’t have told them. Family members always felt free to offer unsolicited opinions, especially when family included the aging hippies of the People’s Free Earth Commune. The concept of a private life was fuzzy to people who shared everything.

“It’s not a big deal,” she said, drying her four-thousandth plate and passing it to Feather. Even as casual as Jase and Zoe’s reception had been, no one here would have considered adding to the planet’s pollution by using disposable dishes, and she’d been on cleanup duty for two hours already. “It’s just a job.”

Her mother stopped scraping garbage into the compost bucket. “What about your doctorate?”

“This is just temporary, until I find something in my field.”

Feather smiled kindly and nodded agreement, a circlet of wilted daisies flopping atop her frizzy gray hair. “You’ll be out in the fresh air, getting plenty of exercise.” She looked at Sophie’s mother. “It’s healthy work, Kate, you have to admit that.”

The worry lines on Kate Larkin’s face didn’t go away, spoiling the effect of her cheerful dandelion-ring necklace and the tiny asters woven into her long hair.

“But a Thorson. Zane’s father hated the commune. He harassed us in town for decades, and he even tried to have us closed down.”

“He’s the one who injured those two goats from our first herd,” Pete added with a scowl. “Remember?”

“That’s true,” Marcy agreed.

Sophie could feel a hard wall of resistance form against anything to do with the Thorsons, a rare mind-set for people who were normally so gentle and accepting. “Zane isn’t his father,” she said.

“Isn’t he?” Kate asked. “He comes from an abusive family. Didn’t his younger brother brutally rape some poor girl?”

BOOK: Up in Flames
4.22Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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