When Bianca Pearce left Cloudburst, Colorado at eighteen, she swore she’d never come back. She moved to L.A., got married, and created a successful antique and modern clock repair business. But time mellowed the hurts of the past, and with a divorce and two kids in college under her belt, Bianca is ready to move back to the small town to have a quiet life in a familiar place. At her age, she knows who she is and what she wants, and figures love is better left to the young.
Captain Śandor Halmi is the commander of the local Hot Shots squad—and a Zomok, a Hungarian Forest spirit that most often takes the shape of a dragon. His main goal is to take the whole weekend off to relax, ignore his phone as much as possible, and generally disappear now that the Colorado fire season has ended. Love is not on the agenda…until he sees Bianca at the local farmer’s market. He’s struck dumb by her beauty, bearing, and experience, and now he can’t get her out of his mind.
Despite growing up in Cloudburst, Bianca doesn’t believe the stories about the town having non-human residents, and she definitely doesn’t believe in love at first sight. But something about the silver fox firefighter sets her desire ablaze, and she can’t seem to stop thinking about him. Not even when he shows her his true form.
Previously published in the Flip the Trope: Romance Gone Wild Anthology in 2021.
“Hey, Captain. Are you okay?”
Śandor stopped his forward motion just in time to keep from running into his big crewmate Mason Rockwell. The man stood just shy of seven feet in height and had shoulders twice the width of Śandor’s. He’d often complained about finding shirts and pants that fit his massive body.
“Yes, I’m fine.” Śandor frowned as he tried to look around Mason.
“What are you looking for?” Mason craned his head to look behind him.
“Something that smells good, I’m not sure what.”
“You mean the roast chicken? I think that stall is selling it.”
Śandor shook his head. “No, something spicy and sweet. You can’t smell it?”
Mason rumbled a chuckle. “My people aren’t known for their noses, Captain.”
Śandor scowled. “Aren’t you on duty this weekend?”
Mason shook his head with a wink. “I worked something out with Redfeather, and we traded shifts. So now I’m free to help you find whatever smells good.” He cracked a grin.
Śandor snorted but the luscious scents of pine and honeysuckle teased him too much to pursue the argument. “You really can’t smell the honeysuckle?”
Mason raised his eyebrows. “No, not in all these people and cooking smells. Maybe someone’s selling flowers?”
That made sense. Though honeysuckle was a springtime scent while pine was more prevalent in the winter months. But the two scents were equally strong and seemed to be intertwined. He needed to find the source more than he’d ever needed anything before.
What the hell is wrong with me? The question banged around inside his head even as he searched the crowds with Mason trailing behind him. He inspected the patrons in front of a syrup seller but the smells were farther on. He pushed past the sweet smells of syrup to find a vegetable stand selling squash, onions, carrots, and potatoes. Not a flower in sight, but the scents of pine and honeysuckle grew strong enough to make his mouth water. Where was it coming from?
A woman with short, deep brown hair shot through with silver selected some onions from the vendor. Faded jeans covered her rounded ass and a zip-up hoodie draped over her full breasts. Śandor’s mouth watered more. The scents of pine and honeysuckle wafted off her as she dropped the vegetables in to her cloth bag.
He stopped and stared so long, even Mason shot him an uneasy look and nudged him from behind.
“Uh, Captain, you gonna get something?”
The woman looked up and any words he would’ve said dried up in his throat.
“Oh, I’m sorry. Look at me taking up all the space in front.” She shifted over to the side to let him get closer to the table.
Three sets of eyes trained on him in surprise, but he could only see hers—a mixture of greens that reminded him of the springtime forests of his childhood home. Homesickness he hadn’t felt since he was a teenager swelled in his chest and his throat closed with longing.
“Hi, Mason Rockwell. This is my friend, Captain Śandor Halmi.” Mason extended his hand toward the woman with a smile.
She took it. “Nice to meet you, Mr. Rockwell.” Her gaze switched back to Śandor. “Captain?”
“Of the Cloudburst Hot Shots squad, ma’am. We’re wildland firefighters.” Thank the Goddess Mason was doing all the talking because Śandor couldn’t seem to find his voice.
“Wow, that’s exciting. Hopefully, you all have some downtime now that the Colorado fires have been contained.” She released Mason’s hand and looked hopefully at them.
“Uh, yes. Yes, all contained.” Why was he down to staccato syllables? He cleared his throat. “Just shopping.”
Mason rolled his eyes. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around Cloudburst before, ma’am. New to the area?”
“Oh, yes, I just moved here about a month ago.” She smiled but it didn’t reach her eyes.
“Need any help finding stuff?” Mason clapped a huge hand onto Śandor’s shoulder. “I’m sure if you need any directions, the captain here can give them to you. He knows this area like the back of his hand.”
“That’s okay. I’m from here, I’ve just been gone a while. But thank you for the offer.” She paid the vendor for her vegetables and loaded them into her bag. “Nice to meet you.”
Something fluttered to the ground as she turned away and Śandor couldn’t help watching it fall. He bent to pick it up and found a business card with an almost Steampunk image of bright shiny brass gears. The crisp black writing proclaimed it Back In Time Clock Repair, and Bianca Pearce the owner. An email, mailing address, and phone number sat printed on the bottom. He shifted his gaze to find the woman—Bianca—but she’d disappeared in the crowd again, and this time her scent was masked by the other humans and the food smells.
“Well, that was smooth. What the hell, Captain? You barely said five words to her.” Mason shook his head. “It’s been a long time since you’ve had a romantic partner of any kind, isn’t it?”
Śandor scowled. “I didn’t know what to say.”
Mason rolled his eyes. “Damn, son, you got no game a’tall. You tracked her through a crowd of people with your nose, and you got nothin’ to say to her? I’m gonna have to send you home to watch a few romantic movies just so you can figure out how to talk to her.”
Śandor snorted and flipped Mason off, which only made the stone giant rumble a laugh like a rockfall. But he stuffed the business card into the pocket of his cargo pants and snapped it shut to study later. She might have gotten away, but he had a direction in which to track her down.
And he would find her again.