The last thing Colton Barlow expected while visiting Stone Gap, North Carolina, was for opportunity to come knocking.
He wasn’t a man given to living by the seat of his pants, and in fact, most everyone who knew him would say Colton was deliberate. A planner. A man who set a course and mapped his route carefully. It was how he had always approached a fire on the job—assess the situation, know the risks and variables, and plot the battle with care. Rushing into a blaze with no forethought was what got people killed.
And Colton Barlow had already made that mistake.
He’d spent the past six months trying to settle back into his job. Most days he did okay. Some days he was lucky he could shrug an arm into the heavy turnout coat. But he told himself he was fine, just fine, and everything was on track.
Until the information that upended his life, told him everything he thought he knew about himself was wrong and led him to a small Southern town and three half brothers he hadn’t even realized existed until a month ago. For almost thirty years he’d been Colton Williams—his mother’s last name—and now it turned out he was a Barlow. That last name still felt like a new pair of shoes—a little uncomfortable, a little odd. Maybe if he kept thinking of himself as Colton Barlow, the name would grow on him.
His family had, so far. He’d finally met the other Barlow brothers—Jack, Mac and Luke—at Jack’s wedding a couple of weeks ago, and in the process, stumbled upon a job opening on the Stone Gap Fire Department.
A job he hadn’t even been looking for. But once the idea took root in his head of a change, a new start, Colton thought it wouldn’t hurt to at least check it out. Maybe at a new department, people wouldn’t look at him with eyes filled with a mixture of pity and mistrust. Maybe he could finally leave the shadows behind him and begin again. He’d lost his love for firefighting after the accident, and wondered sometimes if he’d ever get it back. Then he’d talked to Harry and the first glimmers of excitement about his job returned.
That’s what had him turning around almost the minute he got home to Atlanta. He’d returned to Stone Gap, both to have a little time to get to know his brothers and father, and to meet with the fire chief for a formal sit-down. Except Fire Chief Harry Washington wasn’t a formal sit-down kind of guy, more a walk-and-talk, see-how-it-goes man. Which was why Colton was strolling through downtown Stone Gap, while Harry gave him a guided tour of the town.
“Best apple pie in the county is served right there,” Harry said, pointing at a little restaurant on the corner. A bright red-and-white awning above the Good Eatin’ Café pronounced the same thing in a dark blue curly script. Harry, a short and slightly pudgy man with a white buzz cut, looked as if he might indulge in the pie on occasion. He had a wide smile, a twinkle in his eyes and a friendly manner, which most everybody in Stone Gap seemed to respond to, given how many people had shouted a hello on their walk so far. “And if you ask Viv real nice, she’ll give you an extra scoop of ice cream on top.”
So far, Harry had talked about the best place to buy a pair of work boots, how to unclog a drain, the top menu items at Mabel’s diner and a whole host of other topics that didn’t have a damned thing to do with firefighting. Colton kept expecting some kind of questions about his skill set, but in the half hour since Colton had met Harry at the station and they’d started walking, nothing related to his occupation had come up in conversation. Maybe Harry was a circuitous guy, Colton thought. One who needed to be brought back around to the real reason he was here. “Sir, if you want my résumé—”
Harry put up a hand. “Let me stop you there, son. I don’t hire people based on a piece of paper. You and I both know how quickly paper disappears when you set it ablaze. I make my decisions based on the person, not their fancy-dancy credentials.”
“But surely you want to know if I have experience—”
Harry squinted in the sun. “Do you like fishing, Colton?”
The non sequitur made Colton stumble over a crack in the sidewalk. He pushed his sunglasses back up his nose and fell back into place beside Harry. “Uh, yes, sir.”
Harry nodded. “Good. Go home, grab a pole and meet me down at Ray Prescott’s place `round three this afternoon. We’ll do the whole formal interview thing then.”
“While we’re fishing?”
Harry grinned. “It’s called multitasking, son. Now, if you ask my wife, she’ll tell you I can’t talk and breathe at the same time, and while that may be true, I sure as hell can talk and fish at the same time.” He gave Colton a little salute then strode off down the sidewalk toward the brick fire station.
Colton stared after him for a long time then decided if he wanted a job in Stone Gap—and he still wasn’t sure he did—then he should get a fishing pole. Not that Colton had gone fishing much. A few times with his uncle Tank, but that was about it. He’d been too busy trying to be the man of the family, a job thrust on him from the minute he could walk. Even now, even all these miles away from his mother and sister, he felt that mantle of responsibility. Of course, Katie was all grown up now, and their mother…well, she was what she liked to call “a work in progress.”
Which meant Colton shouldn’t feel bad about doing something for himself for once. Like going fishing.
Especially considering how much his life had changed in such a short period of time. A month ago he’d been working for the Atlanta FD, spending his free time working on his mother’s rundown car and urging his sister to take some time off, live a little, someplace other than the accounting firm where she spent a minimum of eighty hours a week. In return, Katie had needled him about being the quintessential bachelor, with an apartment as empty as a store going out of business. Sure, he had the occasional fling, but he wasn’t interested in serious relationships, and made sure the women he dated knew it. He’d thought his life was more or less complete.
Then he found out that Uncle Tank—his real name was David, but no one ever called the barrel-chested, hearty man by anything other than Tank—whom Colton had always thought was just a family friend, was actually his real uncle, and that his biological father—a man his mother had never spoken about—lived in Stone Gap, along with the three sons he had raised. Robert Barlow had ignored Colton’s existence for thirty years, a fact that still stung, even though Colton told himself he was far too old to care whether he’d had a dad to teach him how to complete a layup or tell him how to win a girl’s heart.
But he did care. And working through the roller coaster of emotions that meeting his siblings and father had awakened was part of what had kept Colton here in Stone Gap. A saner man might have just turned his back on all of this and left town forever, but Colton had this need to know where he came from. His mother had called it his curiosity gene, the same need that had driven Colton to dismantle the dishwasher when he was eleven, and ask a thousand questions in every class he ever took.
Now he had a thousand and ten questions for Bobby Barlow, but Colton had hesitated to ask them. Had delayed seeing his father again, because Colton wasn’t so sure he wanted to hear the answers.
Nor was he so sure his father would want a relationship with him. Colton wasn’t the success that Mac was, the war hero Jack was, or the second generation partner that Luke was. Sure, Colton was a firefighter, but was barely hanging on to the job he had in Atlanta after the disaster that claimed two of his coworkers six months ago. A disaster that Colton could have avoided, if only he had tried harder.
The memory of that night had a way of stealing Colton’s breath when he least expected it. He’d catch a whiff of smoke or hear a crash, and he’d be there again, screaming into his mask for Willis and Foster. He’d see the burst of flame, hear the crack of the overhead beam, feel the heat crushing his gear. And see the yawning cavern that opened up like a hungry beast and swallowed the best men—and the best friends—Colton had ever known.
He pinched the bridge of his nose and willed the memory back into the shadows. It took a while, four deep breaths to be exact, but then he opened his eyes and reminded himself he was in Stone Gap, North Carolina, on a vacation of sorts. And about to go fishing.
Get it together, Barlow.
He jogged across Main Street, avoiding the lone car going south. He shook his head in amazement. Stone Gap wasn’t a hundredth as busy as Atlanta had been. That alone might be a nice change, if he got offered a job at the department here.
If he even wanted to stay. Living in Stone Gap, becoming part of the fabric of the community, would mean being around his father on a regular basis. Dealing with all those questions that kept needling at his thoughts, the ones he wasn’t ready to face.
At the same time, it would mean having three brothers, three men who were the kind Colton had as friends back home. Three men he already genuinely liked. A lot.
He spied a familiar pair of legs sticking out from under the body of a Ford pickup truck at Gator’s Garage, the Barlow family business. Colton hesitated for a moment—this whole thing with his brothers was still so new, he wasn’t sure how to handle things like running into Luke downtown—then decided the only thing to do was to just go over there and say hello.
Colton ambled into the garage. He’d always liked garages, the smell of motor oil, the myriad tools, the puzzles of the cars that needed fixing. Gator’s used to be run by his father, until Bobby had knee-replacement surgery and needed to slow down. Now Luke was in charge, while Bobby worked part-time.
Colton took in the peg boards filled with tools, the tall red chests stuffed with parts, and imagined his father here, teaching Luke how to change the oil in a Chevy or rotate the tires on a Ford. The thought made Colton a little envious. Maybe getting to know Luke, Jack and Mac better would help ease some of those feelings. Colton looked down at the work boots below him. “Hey, Luke.”
Luke pushed out from under the car and grinned up at Colton. He had the same dark brown wavy hair and blue eyes as the rest of the Barlows, Colton included. Looking at his brothers was eerily like looking in the mirror. “Hey, Colt. Good to see you! Guess we didn’t scare you off after all.”
“I’m not so easy to get rid of.” He chuckled. “Plus, I had an interview with Harry, the fire chief, so I figured I’d come back here and see it through.” Colton shrugged. “Not thinking it’s going to lead to anything, but it’s a shot. Might as well check it out.”
Luke nodded at that then got to his feet, grabbed a rag and cleaned off his hands. “Glad to hear you’re staying a bit. You can help me torture Mac now that Jack is off on his honeymoon. But I have to warn you, Jack and I have a good routine going that keeps Mac at the center of a lot of merciless teasing. You gotta be on your toes to hang with us.”
Colton laughed. He liked the relationship the brothers had. Jack, a former soldier, was a good guy, solid, and clearly head over heels for his new wife, Meri. Luke was the prankster of the family, though his heart was with his new fiancé, Peyton Reynolds, and their daughter Maddy, while Mac was the overachieving tycoon who had made millions in buying and selling companies but had recently met and fallen in love with local girl Savannah Hillstrand.
“Sounds like a plan.” Colton shook his head. “I still have to get used to having all this family. It’s been just me, my sister and my mom for so long, and now all of a sudden, it’s like I’m tripping over Barlows.”
Luke chuckled. “We’re pretty much everywhere. Just ask the neighbors, who blamed every broken window and torn-up lawn on one of us.”
“You know it.” Luke grinned. “But I’ll never admit to the crimes of my youth, at least not in front of my impressionable daughter, who I’m trying to steer away from my mistakes.” He made a circle in the air. “So between you and me, I was a Goody Two-shoes.”
That made Colton laugh. “And people are going to believe me when I say that?”
“Hell, no. But that’s okay. I just blame all my misdeeds on Mac. I love seeing his face get that scrunched-up look.” Luke tossed the rag on the counter then grabbed the clipboard that held the day’s jobs. “Listen, I’d love to sit around and shoot the breeze, but I have a bunch of work on tap for today. Ever since I took over for Dad, this place has been hopping. What say we grab breakfast tomorrow morning, you, me and Mac?”
“Sounds good.” Colton feigned coolness, but he was secretly pretty pleased the other Barlow boys had welcomed him so easily. He didn’t expect the road ahead would always be smooth, but he was glad they’d started off so well. His brothers had brought him into the fold as easily as inserting a card into the deck. Maybe if he started with the brotherly relationship, he’d be able to ease into the one with his father. “Hey, where’s the best place to get a fishing pole around here?”
Luke grinned. “Let me guess. Did Harry invite you? That man would be a professional fisherman if he could get paid for it. Go on over to Ernie’s across the street. They have pretty much everything.”
“Thanks.” It didn’t seem like enough to say to Luke, because it didn’t capture all that Colton really wanted to say, but he was a guy, and thanks was pretty much the extent of what he was capable of. “See you.”
Luke nodded. “See you tomorrow.”
Tomorrow. Breakfast with his brothers. The word still sounded weird in his head, even weirder when he spoke it aloud. All the things he had lacked all his life, right here in this tiny little town. Yeah, maybe staying a while was a good idea.
He ducked into Ernie’s Hardware & Sundries, which sported a hand-drawn sign advertising a special on nightcrawlers. Colton waited a second for his eyes to adjust to the dim interior, the rows of shelves, the bins of garden tools.
“Good morning. Can I help you?”
He turned toward the lilting sound of a woman’s voice. That was what hit Colton first—her voice, which, even in those few syllables, seemed to have a sweet, happy tone to it, as if his coming into the store was the best thing that had happened to her all day.
Then he saw her. And decided maybe seeing her was the best thing that happened to him all day—because the woman behind the counter was stunning.
His grandmother would have called her willowy. She was tall and thin, with long, straight, light blond hair that was so pale, it seemed ethereal. Her dark green eyes were wide and deep, and matched by a welcoming smile that made him feel warm inside. She wore a white button-down shirt with big silver buttons with the sleeves rolled up, tucked into a pair of dark jeans that hugged her curves.
“Uh…yeah, good morning,” Colton said, wondering when he’d become a guy who stammered. “I’m looking for fishing rods?”
“Right this way.” She crooked her finger, beckoning to him, and made her way down one of the aisles. He would have followed her to Timbuktu with just that one gesture. Not to mention the view he had from behind.
She stopped in the middle of the aisle and waved toward a display of tackle and fishing poles. “I don’t know what you’re looking for but if you were to ask my dad, he’ll tell you the best one is this graphite bait caster right here. Lot of folks go for this spinning combo—” she pointed to another, fancier pole “—but my dad always says that the right pole sits in your hand like it was made for your palm. Not too heavy, not too light, and when you go to pull up on the hook, the pole does the work.”
It was all pretty much Greek to him. “Okay, let me see one of the graphic things.”
“Graphite.” She grinned at his mistake then handed him the pole. “It also matters where you’re fishing and what you’re fishing for.”
“Well, I don’t really know the second answer. I’m meeting Harry Washington over at Ray Prescott’s place. It’s a job interview. Sort of.”
She laughed. “I know Harry. He’s not much on formalities. Ray’s place is right on the water, so chances are you’re doing a little surf fishing. That’s a different animal from fishing in the lake. You might want to try this pole, instead.” She pulled yet another from the seemingly endless rack. “It’s got a heavier reel. That will help you if you’re going for some striped bass or red drum. And the gear is heavy enough, in case you accidentally hook a shark.”
He took the new pole she handed him and hefted it in his palm. It seemed strong, solid. “Sounds like you know what you’re talking about.”
She turned and gave him a grin. “Well, when you’re daddy’s girl, and the only kid at that, you play soccer and catch fish and learn how to shoot a rifle. At the same time you’re learning how to curl your eyelashes and pick out lipstick and wear high heels.”
He chuckled then put out his hand. “I think with a line like that, we should be formally introduced. I’m Colton. Colton…Barlow.” The name sounded strange still, but it was beginning to grow on him.
Confusion muddied her eyes. “One of the Barlows? With Jack, Luke and Mac?”
Small-town living, Colton thought and grinned. “Sort of. I’m their half brother. From Atlanta. Firefighter, novice fisherman and decent first baseman.”
He didn’t know what made him give her that mini-résumé, but then she laughed, and it made his day. “Pleased to meet you, Colton Barlow from Atlanta. I’m Rachel Morris, daughter of the famous Ernie. Expert fisherwoman, and not-bad shortstop.”
“Maybe you could teach me a thing or two about catching the right one.”
Her smile reached into her eyes, lighting up her entire face. A flirty, teasing look in those green depths toyed with the edges of her lips. “Is that what you’re here for? Because we don’t sell matches made in heaven. Just fishing poles and garden rakes.”
“I’m just talking trout and bass.” He picked up another pole from the ones she’d pointed out to him, hefted it for weight, put it back and reselected the one she’d given him. From feel at least, it seemed like Rachel’s choice was the best. “Definitely not long-term commitments.”
“Just what this town needs. Another confirmed bachelor.” But she laughed when she said it, took the fishing pole from him and walked back to the register. She punched in a few keys then recited the price and thanked him when he handed over a credit card.
While she was finishing the transaction, Colton racked his brain for something else to say. Something to prolong the moment before he had to leave. He liked Rachel. Found her intriguing. And it had been a long, long time since he’d met a woman who interested him like that. “So, have you lived here all your life?”
Yeah, way to go on the lame question. Clearly, he was out of practice.
“Pretty much. I was born and bred here.” She printed out the credit card receipt and handed the white slip of paper to him, along with a pen. “Are you thinking about moving here? If you get the job with the fire department?”
“Still testing us out, huh?” She grinned. “Well, I can tell you this much about Stone Gap. It defines small town. If you sneeze over your Wheaties at breakfast, half the town is lined up for a flu shot by lunchtime. Most everyone here grew up in each other’s pockets, as my dad likes to say. Which means everyone knows pretty much everything about everyone else.”
“It can be.” She shrugged. “But in a small town, someone’s always there if you need help. If you’re down, there’s a neighbor or a friend to pull you back up. Stone Gap has its faults, like any place, but at its core, it’s a great town to live in. And you can’t beat the weather or the fact that we’re right on the water.”
He chuckled. “Are you with the welcoming committee?”
She blushed, a soft pink that stole across her cheeks. “No, I just…finally learned to appreciate this place.”
“I’ve never lived in a place that I loved like that. Atlanta’s fine, but it’s a big city. You can get…lost there pretty easily.” His voice trailed off, and he shook his head.
“Lost in more ways than one?” she said softly.
Colton cleared his throat. He wasn’t about to unload his life history in a hardware store with a woman he barely knew. Even if every time she smiled, she made him want to linger for hours on end. “Well, thanks for the tips about Stone Gap. I’ll keep them in mind.”
“Sure. Anytime. And if you want the twenty-five-cent tour, you know where I am.”
“Twenty-five cents? That’s it?”
She blushed again. “It’s a small town.”
That made him laugh. “Harry already told me where the best apple pie is.”
“Then you’re down to the twenty-cent tour. Unless you have already discovered the best place for making out.” The blush intensified. “I meant, for the teenagers.”
“Of course.” Making out? That made him think about climbing in the backseat of his car with Rachel and seeing where it might lead. Not a good train of thought to follow, but that didn’t stop him from a quick mental image. “Us old people are too mature for that.”
Yet everything in the undercurrent of their conversation said differently. He might be out of practice in the dating arena, but he sensed some definite attraction in the air. He had the strangest urge to lean across the counter and kiss her right now.
“Uh, I should sign this.” He bent his head and scrawled his name across the receipt then handed it back to her.
“Thanks,” she said. She lifted the fishing pole and gave it to him. “Need anything else?”
Your phone number, his brain whispered. Because he definitely wanted to get to know Rachel Morris, fisherwoman and shortstop, much better. But he was leaving in a few days, so asking her out wouldn’t make any sense.
But as he headed out of the store, Colton had to wonder if maybe forgoing her number was the thing that didn’t make any sense, because she lingered in his mind long after he cast the first line into the water.