Scorch, Montana Firefighters
BOOK 4.5 in the Love in Montana Series
Too hot to handle…
Jacqui Edwards is back in Glacier Creek to wrap up loose ends after the death of her husband, Russ, captain of a group of daring, talented smokejumpers. She wants to stay and reboot her life, but faces an uphill battle shedding the role of the captain’s fragile, grieving widow.
After growing up in foster care, Vin Kingston finally found a family when he joined the smokejumpers. Then, six months ago, his best friend and captain died in a freak jump accident right before his eyes. Vin is consumed with guilt and determined to watch over Russ’ widow. No easy task when the vibrant, beautiful Jacqui is busting out of her shell and challenging Vin’s vow to keep her off limits.
Scorch, Montana Firefighters
is BOOK 4.5 in the Love in Montana Series
The full series reading order is as follows:
Was he judging her? Was she supposed to grieve longer and be too broken to return to where her husband had been killed doing his job?
— Jacqui, Scorch
We play a game in our house with Kinder Surprise Eggs. I like to get them at Easter and put them in stockings at Christmas. Before we open the egg, we ask a question. One time my sister asked what would happen with a particular man who lived in Australia and she received a pink airplane. She now lives there with him and they have two children.
Sometimes you have to be creative in divining the answer. For instance, I had a friend ask the Kinder gods if she would finish a particular project she’d been working on for years. When she opened the prize, she found it needed assembly and didn’t bother putting it together—which, to me, suggests a problem with completion in general, don’t you think?
I’m quite superstitious about my little prizes because of this. For instance, since I usually ask what the next year will hold for my writing career, I don’t like to throw these little toys in the trash. That seems like bad mojo. But there are many times when I get a polar bear or a little wind up car and I have no idea what the Kinder gods are trying to tell me. Such was my mystification when I received the prize in the attached photo.
I honestly can’t remember when I opened the egg with this prize. I have a shelf where I leave these toys—coincidentally the same shelf where I keep my author copies. Every once in a while I dust—again, it would be bad mojo not to, right?
I had completely forgotten this little guy existed, but I had recently completed Scorch when I came across him. I was so thrilled! He’s a smokejumper! The Kinder prediction came true!
Writing about a firefighter wasn’t actually on my radar until I was asked to participate in this series. It’s hot and fun and we set the books in a new (fictitious) town called Glacier Creek, but you’ll get a visit from Bastian and Piper from His Blushing Bride, so I like to call this book number four-point-five in my Love In Montana series.
share this excerpt!
Scorch, Montana Firefighters
Jacqui Edwards read for most of the flight, but as her ears began to pop and her seatmate leaned into the window, she tried to see around the older woman’s curly hair to the view.
A dusting of snow covered the valley, cut here and there by the lines of roads. Any ice that had formed along the margins of Flathead Lake through winter was gone. April sunlight bounced in sparkles off the rippling water.
The plane banked and, a second later, there were the Rockies. They jutted like sooty fists of triumph, gray and white against an intense blue sky.
The word, the feeling, washed over Jacqui with such force, tears bit her eyes and her heart began to pound.
She had expected emotion. Coming back to empty her dream home of its dreams was bound to be seven levels of hell. There would be tears, fresh ones on top of the countless ones she’d shed since she’d left. She had braced herself for the agony.
This wasn’t pain. It was relief.
She was home.
She sniffed and wiped at the tickle on her cheek.
The woman at the window turned with a concerned smile and offered a tissue.
Jacqui was so used to crying—in public, in front of strangers, whenever the tears arrived—she only murmured, “Thank you.” Grief was exhausting enough without fighting it out of embarrassment.
These were not tears of grief, though. Russ was always there as a heavy, solid absence crushing her heart, but in Florida her entire life had been empty. She had grieved and grieved and grieved the utter emptiness of her existence. No husband, no baby, no job, no home. Not even her freaking dog.
Her father and stepsister wanted to help her rebuild. They loved her and, behind her curtain of pain, she loved them back. Maybe she didn’t have any real hope that she could find a fulfilling life on the other side of the country, but she trusted them to walk her through the steps toward one.
In this minute, however, in this breath, she saw the foundation for that rebuild. It wasn’t in Florida. It was here.
Montana was where her childhood memories resided. Where her mother’s gravestone was planted to watch over the receding glaciers. Where her husband’s ashes were scattered among the forests he had tried to protect.
Montana was home.
She was home.
As Vincent Kingston watched travelers come off the plane and walk straight into the arms of loved ones, he felt the way he always did—like an observer. He had vague memories of his parents hugging him, but after they died, he’d mostly found physical affection with women, his latest being his soon-to-be-ex-wife. He wasn’t feeling very affectionate toward her these days and thus all women were being held at arm’s length.
Hugs were not welcome.
He scanned through the bodies beginning to crowd the luggage carousel.
Jac was short. It was no surprise he couldn’t see her. He thought he did for a sec, but that was a kid with short hair. He scanned for the two snakes of her braids—
She stepped in front of him and his heart took a bound the way it did when he shoved himself out of a plane.
“It is you.”
She was even skinnier than she had looked on the tablet all winter and was drowning in an oversized, mustard-colored sweater. Her cheeks were hollow, her chin sharp, her warm, brown eyes wet with emotion. She had her hair cut to something like Peter Pan’s, which made her look even more fragile, tugging at his tough knot of a heart.
But she was smiling that big smile he hadn’t seen since last summer and said, “Oh, Vin!” She threw herself at him.
She was light, wispy as smoke, but she hit him like a mallet in the middle of his chest, winding him. He held her carefully. She was fine-boned as a fairy, smelling like magic yet her wiry arms were surprisingly strong, hugging him with a firm grip she kept around his neck a long time.
He hugged her back, enveloped in a desire to shield her from all the hurt she was facing by coming back here. The words I miss him, too, formed on his tongue, but he hesitated. He wasn’t someone who expressed much emotion. Hell, he might make himself cry if he said something. He sure as hell didn’t want that. His chest ached enough as it was, just holding her, but he found comfort in the embrace. The yawning emptiness hanging like a mist in front of his future became less gloomy.
He caught the eye of an older woman with curly, dark hair. She was smiling at them.
This isn’t want you think, he wanted to protest. This was his best friend’s wife. He and Jac were friends. That was all.
If he happened to be aware of her small breasts flattened against his chest, or her soft hair against his jaw, that was just his starved libido whimpering on its chain. He ignored the signals and set her on her feet before his twitching wood became obvious.
Jac was totally off-limits.
Jacqui felt her feet touch the floor and the emotion charging her grounded out, but she was still shaken. That had felt weirdly good. Her father was paunchy, so hugging him was pure comfort, but Vin was built the way Russ had been. He was vital and strong and pure man. Hugging him had felt like a lover’s embrace.
He smelled different from her husband, though, beneath the fragrance of snow and pine that clung to his clothes. Which was stirring in its own way. Recognizable, yet exotic.
She hadn’t felt so much as a hint of sexuality since—
Okay, she wasn’t going there. This was all just really overwhelming. Arriving home to have all her hard-made decisions wobble was taking a toll.
“Hey,” Vin greeted lightly, and sent the back of one finger along her jawline, sweeping away a tear. He bent and shouldered the carry-on bag she’d dropped when she’d thrown herself at him. “Your luggage is blue, right?”
“Yeah. Shar put a pink and yellow ribbon on it. I kept telling her this isn’t Denver, but she’s used to big airports.”
Jacqui was babbling as she tried to pull herself together. She couldn’t even explain the emotion that had overwhelmed her when she’d seen him. Homecoming times a million and completely unexpected. In the last months, she and Vin had connected regularly over Skype, mostly so she could see Muttley. Usually, they had talked about incidental “how is your day” stuff. He was working on the house in his spare time so he gave her updates, showed her tile samples and paint chips. Sometimes they talked about more personal things. He always made her laugh at least once. She almost always cried at least once.
Vin took it all in stride, never ruffled beyond his black, spiky hair. His brows were steady, straight lines over blue eyes that never missed a thing. His nose was a reliable bridge, his jaw strong and shadowed with a hint of stubble, his mouth… She had never looked at his mouth up close like this. His upper lip was a line of masculine perfection, deep at the corners, the sexy peaks accentuated by his stubble, his lower lip not quite as wide, but a little fuller.
The weird little catch of sexual attraction pulled at her again.
Vin was good-looking. Of course, she had always been aware of that; she wasn’t blind. But she had never been so struck by how hot he was.
Get a grip, Jac.
Wiping at her cheeks, she said, “Thank you for coming to get me. I know I could have asked…” She shrugged. There were a dozen friends and in-laws she could have asked. “But I knew you’d be easier to be with. You don’t care if I cry.”
He brought his gaze back from scanning the carousel. His brows went down and he tucked in his chin, admonishing. “I care.”
“I mean you let me cry. Dad and Sharlene don’t know what to do with me when I’m like this. I’m really not looking forward to…” Talking. Seeing everyone. All the hugging and explaining and processing. She sighed and looked around, dreading bumping into someone they knew.
“It feels strange to see you in person.” He commented with a faint smile. “You’re not much taller than when you’re sitting on the coffee table. And what the hell is this?” He chucked his chin at her hair.
“Last minute madness.” She touched the silky tails at the back of her neck. “I was going for a job interview so I let Shar sheer me. It felt like a clean start at the time, but I wasn’t considering that I was coming back to Montana in April. Look at me.” She plucked the sweater off her mosquito-bite breasts. “Dressed for Florida. I left in the summer so I didn’t take any of my warm clothes. I had to borrow this from Shar so I wouldn’t freeze to death on arrival.”
“Snow’s melting. It’s not too bad.” He commented, and set down her carry-on to shrug out of his plaid shirt.
“Oh, don’t.” She protested.
“I’m acclimatized. I’ll be fine.” He wore a white T-shirt with a smokejumper crest over his heart. It clung to his tight frame, accentuating his muscled chest and flat stomach.
Seriously, Vin was so hot.
And so familiar in a million ways she wanted to cry all over again.
He swung his shirt around her and hung it off her shoulders. It was warm and held the smell of clean laundry and Montana spring and man deodorant along with the scent she’d already picked up as foreign. Not the man she slept with.
Used to sleep with.
She pushed her arms into the sleeves, blushing a little, liking how it made her feel like he was still hugging her. “You’re the best, Vin.”
“I hear that a lot,” he said with a wink, then nodded at the carousel. “That your bag?”
Vin wanted to take back the wink. What the hell was he doing? There was no flirting with the widow of your best friend. Jesus.
He retrieved Jac’s bag and said, “Is this it? You don’t pack like any woman I know.” He gave it a few pumps like a free weight, judging it to be under thirty pounds.
“I didn’t take much with me and mostly brought that one back so I’d have something to pack for the return.” She frowned at the bag, mouth pursing in dark thought. “But I can carry the small one.”
He gave her a look, not bothering to spell out that he regularly shouldered gear that weighed more than she did and carried it for miles over hilly terrain. She knew.
She even rolled her eyes a little as she met his disparaging look. “Always so macho,” she teased as they started toward the exit.
“Gotta stay in shape in the off season.”
“Yeah, you guys. Married to your muscles. I miss real men, you know. There are tons of ripped guys in Florida, but they don’t do anything with it except strut around the beach kissing themselves. Oh!”
She stopped as they exited the airport. The biting wind off the glaciers hit them in the face like a mean slap.
“Yeah, that feels like home,” she said in a strained voice. “Sometimes I think April is the coldest month here, because of that wind. Ugh.”
They hurried through the crosswalk, heads down, while the cars were stopped. “Where—?”
He pointed his key fob at short term parking where his blue pickup sat. When he pressed the button so the lights blinked, the click stirred Muttley. He jerked to his feet and paced in a ripple of shadow behind the reflection on the windshield.
“Vin! Did you bring—?” She ran toward the truck and jerked the driver’s door open. “Mutt!”
Her dog proceeded to go bananas, moaning and whimpering and licking Jac’s face while she laughed and probably cried. Happy tears this time, but still.
Vin cared that she cried. Her saying he didn’t bothered him. He knew he was reticent with his own emotions, but he felt hers. Her grief broke his heart. She and Russ had been his icon, the couple he aspired to be. His own marriage had fallen apart not even two years in, but that was because he wasn’t meant to have the happily ever after family that most people had. All those people in the airport, the Jacs and Russes of the world… They were born for that kind of happiness.
He was made for fighting fires. It was cellular, DNA level stuff.
But losing Russ had undermined Vin’s sense of how the world worked.
And Vin’s career, the family he’d made with the smokejumpers, was supposed to be inviolate. After Tori had kicked him out—for being away fighting fires too much—he had made a deal with the fire gods that he wouldn’t chase the picket-fence dream again. The men and women who cut line beside him were his brothers and sisters and that was enough.
But with Russ’s death, he’d been brutally schooled that even his best friends were temporary and could be taken away.
Their work was dangerous. Everyone knew death could happen, but it was supposed to happen to him. Vin. He wouldn’t be missed. Losing Russ? It had shaken the whole town.
It had leveled Vin. He didn’t know what he was supposed to believe anymore. Life didn’t have any meaning at all.
They got themselves settled in the truck. Muttley was way too big to be a lap dog, but he was trying to curl up his mass of yellow fur on Jac’s thighs, black muzzle lifting to keep up with giving her kisses, his tail thumping madly.
She hugged the goofy rescue. “Thank you so much for bringing him.”
“I had to. He’s been excited to see you. It’s all he’s talked about for days.”
“Really? Been counting sleeps, have you?”
She was continuing the silliness Vin has started, but Vin had been counting the days, he realized uncomfortably. He told himself he was merely eager to settle the house purchase and feel like he was finally putting down roots, but he’d been keyed up for days, anxious for her arrival.
“Oh, Christmas,” Jac said on an exhale as he turned out of the airport onto the highway.
“What? No, I mean it looks like Christmas. I pretty much gave that holiday a miss this year. We had dinner with the neighbors. They barbecued. I was glad it didn’t feel real. But now, here it is. So pretty.”
She brightened as she waved at the trees that were already losing the sparkle of this morning’s late-season flurry. The roads were clear and the snow mostly reduced to patches on shady lawns and piles in grocery store parking lots.
“Are we heading straight to the house or do you need to make some stops?” he asked.
She was quiet for a long moment, hand stroking the dog’s head.
“I think, since we’re driving right by…” She sent him an apprehensive look. “Can we stop at the base?”
“I should”—warn?—“prepare you,” Vin said. “We hung Russ’s chute on the loft.” Vin had mended it himself and paid to have it embroidered with Russ’s name and the date he passed.
Silence. Jacqui only leaned forward to hug Muttley, burying her face in the dog’s neck.
After a mile or two, she sat up. “What made you become a firefighter? I don’t think I’ve ever asked.”
He usually managed to dodge that question when it came up. Tightening his hands on the steering wheel, he gave her his stock answer.
“Why do you ask?”
“I don’t know. I guess I started thinking about everyone at the station and why—” Her voice caught. “It’s the kind of job that you have to be passionate about because it demands sacrifice. Sometimes the ultimate sacrifice.” Her voice thinned. “That made me wonder why you do it.”
He massaged the steering wheel, wishing things hadn’t got so serious so fast.
“I was on a hotshot line in Stillwater. I wound up working alongside some smokejumpers out of Idaho. It piqued my interest. I thought I could do it so I gave it a whirl.”
“You were just challenging yourself?” she asked, glancing at him with bemusement.
“To some extent. But I liked the concept. Not so much the jumping out of planes, which is a rush, I’ll admit. But I like the approach to the work itself. It’s just as grueling as any type of firefighting, but I like getting in first, being more independent and self-reliant. Making a lot of decisions on my own. That fits my personality better.”
She studied him long enough to make him want to shift under her scrutiny.
Finally, she nodded, but then said, “I meant, how did you get into firefighting?”
The thirty miles to Glacier Creek was starting to feel like too long a stretch to be trapped in a truck.
“I, uh, told you about my parents?” He knew he had.
It was one of the many things he rarely talked about, but he distinctly remembered the day he had found her crying on the front steps of the base. Her mother had just been diagnosed with breast cancer. She had been devastated.
“I don’t know what to do,” she had said, sounding shell-shocked.
“There’s nothing you can do,” he had told her gently.
“You lost your mom?”
“Both my parents. When I was four.”
She had been appalled, he’d seen it, and had braced himself for pity. Instead, she had linked her hand through his elbow and said, “Then I should be grateful for the time I’ve had with her. The time I still have. Thanks for telling me that, Vin. You always seem to put things in perspective for me.“
He hadn’t meant to come off as scolding her and he sure as hell had never said anything profound to her or anyone else. The way she had sat there, two hands on his arm above his elbow, head tilted into his shoulder, had moved him, though. He’d felt like, in that moment, somehow he was helping her.
“I remember,” she said now, and he wondered if that old moment of shared grief had been the reason they had gravitated toward each other in the new one.
He cleared his throat. “They died in a house fire. I don’t remember much about it.” Except smoke and sirens and screaming. His mother had been pregnant. “The firefighter who carried me out came to see me in the hospital. This started out as a way to cover up burn scars.” He lifted his right arm, sleeved with ink. “He checked in on me over the years.”
Frank and his wife had wanted to adopt Vin. That had fallen through when Frank had had a stroke. He didn’t tell her that part. It was still a big what-if in his life. What if he had grown up feeling wanted? What if he’d had a proper family? Would he be a different man? Believe in different things?
Would he be in a stable relationship, raising a family of his own, instead of still searching for a way to dig in and feel he belonged?
“I just knew it was the job I would do when I grew up. I was living in Billings, did well on all my courses and had a job lined up with the local department, but at the last minute they cut the budget on new hires. I had all this training, wildfire season was starting, so I was able to hire on as a temp in Missoula.”
“And you’ve never wanted to go back to a city job?”
“I realized right away I prefer wild land.” Fewer people and politics. He had shifted constantly all his life so the frequent travel hadn’t bothered him.
He had always wished for a sense of permanence, though. An anchor. To some extent he had one now, with his full-time position at the base and buying Jacqui’s house, but he couldn’t shake a sense that it was as tenuous as a strand of a spider’s web.
“Our gain,” Jacqui said with a flash of a smile. “How is the new guy? What’s his name? Sam something? Are you going to be okay working for him instead of Russ?”
“Gaskill,” Vin supplied, letting out a subtle breath, relieved she was moving toward a less personal topic. “It’s early days, but he seems all right. He’s from Texas so he tawks lack thi-us.”
“Like Forest Gump?”
Vin had always enjoyed that wit of hers. It was good to see it coming back along with her smile.
“I might be exaggerating,” he admitted. “He’s ex-Army Ranger. Knows his stuff. No bullshit.” Not everyone was as accepting of Russ’s replacement, but Vin was a foster kid. He was used to change, summing up a new authority figure, doing it their way. “He, uh, lost his wife. He hasn’t said much about it, but I get the impression he pulled up stakes and is making a fresh start.”
Like you, he was going to say, but stopped himself. It made him melancholy to think of her leaving for good. She was taking Muttley so he wouldn’t even have that excuse to talk to her anymore.
Nothing was permanent. He ought to know that by now.
But he still craved it.
Jacqui scrubbed the dog under his collar and asked, “Have you had any more rescues since I talked to you last?”
“No, the snowboarders have been staying in bounds this week. Hallelujah.”
“Been on the hills for fun?”
“Nah. Working on the house when I get the chance.”
She fell quiet again for several miles, which suited him. He was basically a loner. He had come to terms with that as his marriage had disintegrated. Making conversation wasn’t his strong suit. Although, he and Tori really hadn’t had much in common to talk about. He couldn’t play the victim in their breakup. They’d been mismatched from the start.
He’d probably talked more with Jacqui, about more personal things, than he had with any girlfriend or workmate he’d ever had.
He was going to miss her.
Jacqui had had a plan when she left Florida. Not a perfect plan, but at least a plan for moving forward with her life. She had decided to empty the house she and Russ had built. Vin had been staying in it, finishing it. He wanted to buy it and they had agreed on a price.
While she was here, she was going to talk to her husband’s replacement about the work she used to do at the base and help him hire her replacement. Then she would say goodbye to all she knew, put her husband’s dog in the back of her hatchback, and drive across country to a new life in Florida where she had pretty much accepted a job in a county clerk’s office. She would cook dinner for her Dad on Sundays and go to the movies with her stepsister on Fridays.
Nothing about that excited her. It was the furthest thing from the kind of life she had always pictured for herself, but she hadn’t expected to do anything but go through the motions for months, maybe even a year or two. Joie de vive was a distant fantasy. Dating, maybe marrying again, and having a second chance at making a family… She knew in her head that was possible, but in her heart it was so far from being on the table it hadn’t even been brought home from the grocery store yet.
She had resigned herself to depression and loneliness.
Then she had landed in Kalispell and knew how Dorothy felt when she was finally back in Kansas. The same sun shone as in Florida, but without the heat and humidity. The horizon was a line of muscled mountains, the land still dulled by winter. The traffic was sparse and filled with rugged four-wheelers. A high-octane smokejumper who knew her husband as well as she had was acting sweet and protective while swearing around her because they all treated her like one of the guys. For the first time since her husband had died, she was “Jac” again.
In Florida, all of this was something she had found difficult to talk about. Because she had been missing more than Russ. She had been missing this. Her life.
When the hangars of the twenty-acre facility came into view, she felt Vin glance at her. She could already see the jump tower as he made the turn. He took it very carefully, like he had a load of nitro glycerin in thin glass bulbs as cargo.
“Okay?” he asked quietly.
“Yeah.” Her voice croaked. It was going to hurt, she knew it would, and braced herself as the huge log cabin that was the main building grew before her. It was two stories, weathered and solid and familiar.
A pointed ache arrived, but it wasn’t the same horrible, shattering pain she’d received here that day. There were way too many memories here for that to be the only one. She’d been coming here since high school. She had left from the base the day she had graduated high school because fire season had started and she was trying to prove her dedication to Hugh. She had come back to work that evening—unpaid—instead of partying with the rest of her classmates.
Over there, toward the equipment sheds, was where she had broken up a fight between a couple of rookies one year, not giving a single thought to her own safety, only theirs. The work was dangerous enough without faces getting broken in the parking lot. Tyler Dodson had read her the riot act over that one, which still made her blush with remorse that she’d made him so mad, but also warm with a sense of being valued, he’d been so worried about her.
Russ had proposed here and over there was where she had cried with her mom when her mom had come from the doctor to tell Jacqui about her diagnosis. Jacqui had bought her first car from one of the smokejumpers and had driven it home from this parking lot, proud as punch, and this was where Russ had walked in with Muttley in his arms and said, “Look what I found. Can we keep him?”
Returning to the station after this absence was like standing on a broken leg as it came out of its cast. There was a dull, sad pain that reminded her of her injury, but she wasn’t injured afresh. She instinctively knew the only cure was to move through the pain, accepting it as a cost of returning to use.
“I thought I would resent or blame…” Her voice thinned with emotion. “But he always loved it here.” She had always loved it here.
She glanced at the handful of trucks, the empty helipad, the jump tower standing sentry. Rookie selection had started, but it was the weekend so the place was fairly quiet. The firefighters were expected to stay in shape through the winter so the ones that were here might be working out. This time of year, they might be out for a run or, if the weather stayed dry, they could be painting or doing any of the other myriad of maintenance chores around the building and grounds. The equipment inspection was ongoing. Inventory for the season would be coming in, needing to be received and put away.
So much to do, she thought with a niggle of urgency.
But she was grateful it was a ghost town at the moment. She hadn’t really talked to anyone except Vin all winter and she wasn’t ready to talk about her plans for the summer because—she absorbed with deep anxiety—she didn’t know anymore what they were.
Florida was that place she had bolted to when her period arrived and she had had to accept that her chance at having a family with Russ was really gone. Her father’s bungalow had been a warm, safe place to hide while her wounds were fresh, but she didn’t want to go back to Florida.
That realization was coming up inside her like the sun over the mountains.
Was she ready for this though?
The door beside her opened and she realized Vin had come around.
“I wasn’t sitting here waiting for you to do that,” she said with a splinter of her attention, blushing at how sweet the gesture was. Even her old-school father didn’t open doors for her.
“I know.” So calm and there for her.
She held out her hand, not really thinking it through until he hesitated briefly, surprised, before he grasped hers and steadied her as she climbed from the truck.
She should have let go at that point, she supposed, but laced her fingers through his and tightened her grip. She felt the weight of his gaze as they walked. The stairs were swept of snow and she climbed them with an ache of exertion in her thighs because she’d been sitting for hours.
Muttley scampered ahead of her, nose to the floor as they entered, looking for Russ, she thought with a pang.
The smell of wood and age and stale aromas from the kitchen area and the locker and ready rooms down the hall gathered around her like old friends. Soon they’d have all the doors open, airing out the building from being closed up all winter, but she was glad it was stuffy and potent, reinforcing her sense of returning to where she belonged.
She glanced left, toward her desk, automatically thinking to put her purse in the drawer where she always kept it. The horseshoe counter that surrounded her reception area was littered with papers and coffee cup stains. The cabinet behind it was stacked with piles of neglected filing.
A man and woman were speaking behind the closed door of Russ’s office. She skimmed her gaze past that, through the common area below the overhang of the loft, to the line of windows along the back wall, taking in the soothing view of the lake.
Best job on earth, she had thought daily, sitting at her desk with that view just a lift of her lashes away.
She swung her gaze to the far right, to the kitchen area that was less disastrous than her desk. Everyone was decent about washing up after themselves, but she would bet the cupboards were low on the necessities like coffee filters and sugar cubes.
Oh, damn, the cookies, she realized with a pang of failure. She usually made a batch a week through winter, freezing them so they wouldn’t run out in the height of summer, when the firefighters needed every calorie they could shove in their neck before they geared up for their next call out.
Her gaze traveled from there up the stairs to the loft and she couldn’t avoid it any longer.
She sucked in her breath as she saw the parachute. Everything grew very still as she took in the sprawl of red, white and blue across the rail of the loft. She cocked her ear, listening for the sound of a sewing machine, but it was silent up there in the exalted land that one only entered if invited.
The watery sun slanted in the upper windows to glint behind his name. Even in death, her husband wore a hero’s glow.
She spotted the 1* and released Vin’s hand to hug his bare arm.
“One ass-te-risk.” Russ’s favorite warning to the men. And there was the long, mended tear where the tree branches had ripped it as he was flung into the trunk. She drew a shaken sigh, clinging to Vin’s arm as she tried to hang onto her composure.
“I think all the time about how hard that must have been for you, bringing him down. Not just physically dangerous, but mentally hard.”
She felt the small jolt that went through him.
“I go over it all the time, wishing I could have a do-over,” he admitted very quietly. “Thinking there must have been something I could have done differently. We both trusted the spotter. He followed procedure with the streamers. He swears that gust of wind wasn’t indicated. When I saw it catch Russ, I thought I would be sent in right behind him.”
Jacqui had read the full report from the investigation. The spotter had been a long-time member and a jumper himself, a man she would have trusted with her own life. He’d been devastated by the accident and had since quit for a completely different line of work, having lost confidence in himself. She didn’t blame him for Russ’s death any more than she blamed Vin.
Vin had been in the air above Russ, already out of the plane, helpless to do anything but watch. She stroked his arm, unable to imagine how agonizing it must have been for him and tried not to think of it.
The coroner had said Russ wouldn’t have survived the impact. He’d been knocked unconscious and even if Vin had been able to bring him down faster, even if Russ had been set in the rescue basket sooner and whisked to hospital in seconds, it wouldn’t have made a difference. The head trauma and his internal injuries had been too severe.
“I keep wondering, if I had been the kind of wife who nagged her husband to keep his feet on the ground, would he still be alive?” Her voice was a faint rasp.
Vin glanced at her, mouth pulled down at one side with disgust. “No. We’re junkies. The nagging just makes for a lousy marriage.” His flinty gaze lifted to the ‘chute.
“Yeah,” she agreed, knowing he was talking about his own brief marriage and the other ones they’d seen impacted by the work these men did. Firefighters, in general, and smokejumpers in particular, couldn’t let go of what they did. They loved it too much. That had to be accepted if you were going to love one of them.
“If you guys are junkies, I’m a junkie for the sidelines of it,” she said wryly.
“You? A firefly? I don’t see that.”
She pinched the arm she was still hugging. It was muscled and strong. He was infinitely solid the way all the firefighters were. She fully understood why they attracted so much female attention they had their own type of groupies. Leaning into him felt safe and reassuring. Enticing.
“I mean I like being part of the support staff. I’ve always liked being here, listening to the stories. I was never going to be a real part of it. I’m not built for carrying a hundred pounds of gear and I have no desire to jump out of planes or be on the front line, but from the minute I started volunteering here, I just wanted to be here all the time, helping you guys do what you do.”
“I thought it was because you had a crush on Russ.”
“That’s what everyone thinks,” she mumbled, releasing him and folding her arms across herself, still sensitive to how much teasing she had suffered over that. “But I fell for working with firefighters before I fell for him. I love the way you guys can push aside everything, no matter the chaos, and make do with what you have and somehow manage to save the world.”
“We don’t need any help in the ego department, Jac.” His gaze cut to hers, filled with smug self-disparagement. “You do sound like a firefly, talking like that. We’re not superheroes.”
“I know. Believe me, I know.” She knocked her shoulder into his immovable frame. “I also know you can’t be bothered filling out the right billing codes for your timesheets and get your poop in a knot if someone orders the wrong kind of thread. That’s where I come in. You’re great at working in chaos and I’m great at creating order from the mess you leave behind.”
“Yeah, we’ve been missing your TLC. Someone thought Cady’s power bars were too expensive and requisitioned a pallet of granola bars from an army surplus place. They’re disgusting. Seriously awful. They taste like bear scat.”
“How do you know? Eat a lot of scat, do you?” she asked with an innocent bat of her lashes.
His mouth quirked and the feeling of homecoming struck her anew. It was this playful trash-talk and Russ’s parachute and the building itself. The high ceilings and indistinct, hollow-voiced sound of people talking through the walls. The sewing machines were quiet, the sofas and chairs here in the common area empty, but in a couple of months this building would be a hive.
The hive where she loved to buzz around with everyone else.
Seven years ago, she had begged Hugh, the former captain, to hire her when a permanent position came up. It hadn’t been about Russ. When Russ took over, however, and again when they married, he had been worried they wouldn’t be able to work together. She had repeatedly told him he would leave this place before she did.
Her heart clenched.
God she was tired of looking backward with burning eyes.
The voices grew louder and the door to the captain’s office opened.
Laurel Keenan came out with a man who had to be the new captain because he was not only built like one of the firefighters, he wore the straight-spine of military and the confidence of a man in authority.
“Hey, Jacqui!” Laurel’s tight expression brightened with warm recognition. “I didn’t know you were back. Great hair. That suits you.”
“Thanks. I just got back, literally this morning.” Jacqui touched her hair, self-conscious enough to take a step toward Vin like he was her personal archangel or something.
It was silly, but Laurel had always intimidated her, even though she was nice as pie. Maybe because she was so friendly and easily charmed everyone around her. She had been a few years ahead of Jacqui in school, popular and gorgeous, and with a quality that made her a shoo-in for head cheerleader, prom queen… whatever her heart desired. She had even made accidental pregnancy at college seem like something to aspire to. The handful of times Jacqui had seen her son, well, he was the cutest thing on two legs so, yeah. Laurel was perfect, as far as Jacqui could see.
Although, if she wasn’t mistaken, there was an undercurrent of something between her and the new captain. Hostility? Something else? A combination?
“Kingston,” the other man greeted Vin, then looked at Jacqui with inquiry.
Vin introduced them.
“I wasn’t expecting you to come in on your way from the airport,” Sam said. “Unless… Were you here to see…?” His gaze lifted to Russ’s ‘chute and a subtle air of further reserve came over him. Like he recognized how hard this might be for her and wasn’t sure how to keep from being what he was—her husband’s replacement.
“It means a lot to see it,” she said huskily, “But I also thought, if you had time, we might, um, talk about my job.”
“That’d be great.” He nodded decisively. “Whoever took over for you at the end of last season only hung around for a couple of weeks. Things are a mess. I need someone in here pronto.” He waved an invitation for her to accompany him into his office.
Laurel waved goodbye and left.
Sam closed the door behind them and moved behind Russ’s desk. It didn’t bother her as much as he probably expected it to. Hugh had occupied this office for years before he retired and bought The Drop Zone, so it wasn’t strictly Russ’s office in Jacqui’s mind.
As they both sat, Sam said, “I should have said”—a shadow passed over his expression and he muttered the platitude—“I’m very sorry for your loss.”
Jacqui caught back a snort.
“Likewise,” she said with a quirk of fatalism around her mouth.
For about one second they shared a look, both fully aware how inadequate the words were.
They both looked away. Yeah, grief sucked balls.
Sam cleared his throat. “Would you, uh, be interested in training your replacement? Or did you just want to give me an idea of your duties and maybe offer a few suggestions for a good fit?”
Jacqui opened her mouth and was probably more surprised than he was at what came out. “Actually, I want to do it. I want my job back.”