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Authors: M. L. Buchman

flash of fire

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Also by M.L. Buchman

The Night Stalkers

The Night Is Mine

I Own the Dawn

Wait Until Dark

Take Over at Midnight

Light Up the Night

Bring On the Dusk

By Break of Day

The Firehawks

Pure Heat

Full Blaze

Hot Point

Delta Force

Target Engaged

Copyright © 2016 by M.L. Buchman

Cover and internal design © 2016 by Sourcebooks, Inc.

Cover art by Judy York

Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.

The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.

Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.

P.O. Box 4410, Naperville, Illinois 60567-4410

(630) 961-3900

Fax: (630) 961-2168

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Contents

Front Cover

Title Page

Copyright

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

A Sneak Peek at
Heart Strike

About the Author

Back Cover

Chapter 1

An alarm shattered the predawn silence. Not some squeaky little beeper. Not Macho Man in the Morning on the radio. And, thank all the gods there ever were, not the bloodcurdling “incoming enemy fire” siren that Robin Harrow had heard a lifetime's worth of during her six years of Arizona Army National Guard service—both in practice and during a pair of six-month deployments the AANG had rocked in Afghanistan.

But it was just as strident.

Wildfire!

She lay in her bunk a moment longer, as grunts rolled out of their own racks up and down the barracks hall, feet thudding to the floor, moans and groans sounding through the thin plywood walls. With no drill sergeant to move them along, there was more shuffle than hustle, but they were moving.

Robin had been awake and glaring at the blank darkness of the bunkhouse's low plywood ceiling for hours, only now coming visible in the first light through the thin curtains. Awake and ready to go. Day One on the job, also Day One of the fire season. She'd lain there wondering just what she'd signed up for and how long it would take for the action to start. Part two had just been answered—not very long.

Bring it, people.

In the interview for Mount Hood Aviation, they'd promised her that when it hit, she'd be scrambling. She was absolutely down with that, no matter how little she actually believed them.

After the worst of the clatter in the neighboring dormitory rooms had settled, Robin dropped out of her bunk. She'd used her dad's firefighter trick—at least her mom was pretty sure her dad had been a firefighter, so she'd watched a lot of firefighter movies and learned what she could. Her flight suit was pre-slipped with fire-retardant cotton long johns and the legs of her flight suit in turn were already in her unlaced boots. In thirty seconds flat, she went from sleeping bare on top of the covers to lacing her boots.

She'd spotted the job opening for a temp one-season piloting job and, needing to get out of her post-service life in the worst way, answered the ad. Her time in the Guard had included certifying for heli-bucket brigade on out-of-control wildfires. It was a damn sight better than her gig in her mother's truck stop restaurant playing the “Hi! I'm Robin!” perky waitress. She'd had way more than enough of that as a kid and teen.

Phoebe's Tucson Truck Stop—founded by and named for Grandma Phoebe Harrow—was one of the last big independents on the routes. A massive complex that sat on the I-10 just south of Tucson. They could fuel over a dozen rigs at a time and park hundreds. Truck wash and basic service, certified CAT scales, motel if you wanted a night out of your rig, barbershop, and—the bane of her existence—Mom's Grill.

Peddling herself as a waitress was part of the gig, or at least pretending to: tight—and too goddamn short—outfit to reveal her soldier-fit body, her light-blond hair kept short with that chopped look that men thought was so cute—and she liked for its low maintenance. She really did do it herself with a pair of scissors.

Robin double-checked her Nomex pants and her leather Army boots, now that's what a girl should wear, not some damned hot-pink mini-skort. She pulled on a white cotton tee—screw the bra, she'd never liked the damn things anyway, and on a Harrow woman, they weren't mandatory. Nomex jacket in one hand, personal gear bag over her shoulder, and she was good to go. Nobody was going to mess with Robin the firefighter pilot.

She headed out into the hall of the now-silent dormitory. Not a soul in sight. She put on some hustle down the dark and narrow hallway. But she'd gone the wrong way and hit a dead end. Turning back, she went looking for a way out of this place. The corridors weren't long, but it was a maze worse than dodging the truckers with straying hands.

Despite Robin's constant battles at the truck stop, the tips had been really good; Grandma Phoebe's pointers on how to work money out of the late-night guys' soused brains—and their deeply overinflated illusions of what was
never
going to happen—paid well, but…GAG!

Much to her surprise, when she told Mama and Grandma about the ad for a seasonal firefighting job, they'd shuffled her ass out the door and over to the airport so fast it had left her head spinning. Robin had always assumed she'd eventually settle into the traces to become the third Harrow woman to run Phoebe's Tucson Truck Stop, but maybe not. At least not this season.

Robin zagged the other direction through the MHA camp's labyrinthine barracks after hitting a second dead-end corridor. The building was far bigger than it looked from the outside. Actually, it simply had more cramped into it than should be possible. She spotted a few guys coming out of a door, holding their toothbrushes. But when she arrived, she didn't see any women's bathroom close beside it.

Robin gave up on finding the women's bathroom and walked into the men's. While she leaned over the cracked porcelain and brushed her teeth, the guys who were rushing by half-dressed gave her odd looks reflected in the sheet of scratched steel screwed to the battered wood wall as a mirror. In moments, she was the only one there, staring idly at the “Jimmy + Theresa” inside a heart and a thousand more inscriptions carved into the fir-plank wall with a penknife over the years.

Robin pocketed the toothbrush and rinsed her face. If this were the AANG, grunts would all be formed up on the line by now, but in the civilian world…the men would still be moving slow and the women were probably back in their rooms doing their hair. She stroked a damp hand through her short hair and she was done with that. Robin headed for the field.

Robin headed down the hall and banged out the doors, ready to leap at the fire…and was staring at the gravel parking lot. Not a soul here. The lot was crowded with dusty pickups that had seen better lives a long, long time ago, an impressive array of muscle cars—enough to make a good drag race—and several motorbikes—some hot and some not. But no people.

Damn it! She'd come out the wrong side of the building.

* * *

“How was the wedding?”

Mickey Hamilton was moving too slow to avoid Gordon's cheery punch on the arm. He'd pulled in late last night and he'd been more stumbling than functioning since the fire alarm had rousted him. He'd had enough hours of sleep, but he really needed some coffee.

“Morning, Gordon.” Mickey rubbed at his eyes, but it didn't help. The first day of MHA's fire season, he should have been allowed to sleep in. But no-o. Sunrise hadn't even hit the horizon yet, though it was only minutes away, and the first call had come in. Most of the team were already at the base of the airfield's two-story control tower even though it was less than five minutes since the alarm. MHA tried to hit fifteen minutes from alarm to airborne and no one wanted to screw it up on the first day.

The rising sun was dazzling off the glaciered peak of Mount Hood that loomed to the west. The air smelled ice fresh and pine sharp on the June breeze—especially after spending four days back home in the Eastern Oregon, where the grass was already going dry and dusty. It was going to be a hell of a fire season.

He breathed in deep. Here the Doug fir and spruce that surrounded the camp rolled for dozens of miles in every direction, except up the face of the mountain that spilled glacier-cooled air down through the warm morning.

The grass strip runway split the ramshackle camp buildings behind them from the line of beautiful firefighting craft parked down the farside. Straight across stood Firehawk One. He could almost see a frown on its blunt nose because Emily wouldn't be aboard. But his own Bell 212 was three down the row and was just as eager to get going as he was.

“Smells like a good morning to go fight a fire.”

“Avoiding the question, Mickey. Tell me, was the bride hot?”

“My sister, Gordon. Get a grip.”

“Right, sorry.”

Vern, one of the Firehawk pilots, moseyed up looking about as awake as Mickey felt.

“Hey, Mickey. So, was the bride hot?”

Mickey sighed. “Yeah, she was…” And he left the guys hanging for several very long seconds. “But not as hot as the number-two bridesmaid.”

“Yes!” Gordon pumped a fist. “Details, Mickey. We want details.”

Mickey scanned the crowd gathering. MHA's pilots, smokejumpers, and support personal were all hustling up. The team's leaders, Mark and a spectacularly pregnant Emily, and Carly, their genius fire behavior analyst, were all conferring on the platform landing one story up the control tower stairs. But they didn't look ready to announce anything, so he turned back to his audience, which now included Steve, the drone pilot, and Cal, the photographer.

“Suzanna Rose. Went to high school together, but we never hooked up. Saw her at rehearsal dinner and let's just say I saw a whole lot of her after that.”

“It's those blue eyes of yours.”

“Nah, it's because he looks like an ex-Marine.”

“Which I'm not.” Mickey had started flying helicopters before he started driving cars. Actually, he'd flown his first helicopter on his tenth birthday and never looked back. It had been a ten-inch-long, radio-controlled wonder with red-white-and-blue racing stripes that he'd crashed and rebuilt a hundred times. It still ruled a place of honor on his dresser at his parents' house in Bend, Oregon. He'd been fifteen before his first real bird. Had been with MHA for eight years since graduation, all of it flying to fight wildfires.

“Women don't care.”

“It's because you're so pretty.” Gordon tried to pat his cheeks until Mickey fisted him lightly in the gut.

“Let's just say it was an awesome wedding.”

“Seeing her again?” Vern, the cowboy-tall pilot from Washington State.

“Nah.” Mickey tried to sound casual about it. A part of him—a past part—should have been pleased by how neatly it all worked out, but another part of him—one he didn't know well—was disappointed. “She's leaving for a job in Europe next week. Be gone at least a year.”

“Perfect!” was Gordon's response, but Vern looked a little sad for him, only reinforcing the feeling of disappointment that Mickey didn't understand.

Of course Vern was biased. He'd gone and fallen in love with the gorgeous and diminutive MHA chief mechanic over the winter. Oddest-looking couple, but it was working for them which was…good? There'd been a whole lot of weddings lately among the MHA top staff and it was…odd. He sighed but kept it to himself. Mickey missed the rest of the guys when he'd hit a bar and pick up some hot chick with the standard, “I fly helicopters to fight wildfires.”

“Oh, hey. You gotta see the new pilot. Emily's replacement. She's amazing!” Gordon, however, Mickey could still count on.

He glanced up at the pregnant Emily up on the landing. It was still wrong that she was grounded.

So she'd finally found a replacement? Flying without Emily Beale in the lead this season was going to be like having one of your arms amputated and no one telling you. You just kept reaching out and getting nothing but air. Of course, one look at her huge belly as she stood there next to Mark up on the first-story landing of the tower, and he wondered how she'd even fit in the pilot's seat for the candidate-interview flights.

They'd gone on for weeks. Hopefuls—all guys—showing up, sometimes several a day, trooping into the Oregon wilderness and driving up to the high Mount Hood Aviation base camp. To substitute for Emily, someone was going to have to be seriously good. She was the best heli-pilot Mickey had seen in a decade of flying and eight years on fires.

In between refresher flights up and down the slopes of Mount Hood, Mickey and the others had taken to hanging out at the wooden picnic tables in front of the mess hall, sipping cold sodas, and watching the slaughter.

Mickey could see the failures almost as fast as Beale had them back out of the sky. Military-quality control but no feel for a fire—not even the flaming steel drums set up midfield. Weekend aviation jocks who thought that flying fire was just about taking the certification course—MHA wasn't a place heli-aviation firefighters started, it was where they strove to end up. Top fliers from other outfits slipped into camp quietly so their current bosses wouldn't know, then slipped out just as quietly when Emily booted their butts for not being up to MHA standards.

And then she'd hired a female pilot. If it was anyone else than Emily Beale, you could claim gender bias, but not her. Emily only cared about finding the very best. She set an amazing standard.

“So…” Mickey turned back to the other guys as Betsy the cook worked her way through the crowd with a stack of Styrofoam and a pitcher of coffee.

Everything stopped while they all loaded up, then reconvened gripping cups of Betsy's best brew.

“So, what's the new recruit like other than hot?”

* * *

Robin stood at the back door of the MHA barracks and stared up at the trees. She'd arrived four days ago at this funky, little camp lost in the foothills of Mount Hood, Oregon, for an interview and still couldn't believe it every time she saw the forest.

It had been six months since she'd flown, and that had been her last day in the Arizona Army National Guard. The army heliport in Marana just north of Tucson, where she'd spent most of her six years in the AANG, was three hundred acres of baking tarmac covered with long, neatly parked rows of Blackhawks and Apaches, surrounded by tens of thousands of acres of baking desert.

Mount Hood Aviation was a tiny grass strip perched at five thousand feet on the side of an eleven-thousand-foot-tall dormant volcano. A runway stuck in the middle of trees that soared a hundred feet or more high. Spruce, Douglas fir, maples, and alder. Beneath them lay a thick mat of blackberry, salal, and a hundred other scrub varieties that she didn't recognize. And moss frickin' everywhere: dripping from tree branches, mixed into the grass, clinging to the north sides of buildings and roofs. The lush biomass was so dense that it was impossible to take in, but she could taste it in the air, thick enough with oxygen that it felt like she was in an emergency ward and they were pumping it directly into this Arizona gal.

Robin had grown up in Tucson, served twenty miles away in Marana and ten kajillion away in Afghanistan—all places where oxygen was served in reasonable helpings rather than Oregonian truck stop–sized portions. She'd never been much of traveler, so Oregon was about as familiar as the moon.

The MHA base camp was the run-down remains of a Boy Scout camp along one side of the grass runway. Plywood barracks, dining hall, and a rec hall turned parachute-and-supplies loft, all of the wood gone gray with age—at least all that wasn't covered by the frickin' moss.

She decided that going back through the dim maze of the barracks would be ill-advised. Like Alice, she might slide down the rabbit hole and never be seen again. She began walking around the building.

On the far side of the runway that cut this place in two stood a line of the finest Firehawks she'd ever seen, which more than made up for the disaster of the camp. MHA was one of the only civilian outfits to run the converted Black Hawk helicopters that she'd spent six years flying for the military. That was a huge draw, almost as big as getting out of her waitress outfit.

Robin imagined taking that pretty Firehawk helicopter—painted with the Mount Hood Aviation trademark gloss black and brilliant red-and-orange flames like a hi-fuel dragster running out at the strip in Tucson on a hot summer night—and lifting it smoothly into the Oregon sky. The controls had been silky in Robin's hands during the interview and subsequent training flights. Though it ticked her off a little that the MHA firefighters had better-equipped Black Hawks than the ones she'd flown for the Arizona Army National Guard.

The AANG birds were always three steps behind. The Night Stalkers of Special Operations got the best, of course, then the Army and Navy got the good gear. The National Guard didn't always get the castoffs, but it felt like they did. The Army and Navy made sure you knew you were a second-class citizen—they were dumb enough to think they were both first when actually neither was. But as a Guarder, she'd never met a Spec Ops dude anyway, so they didn't affect her reality.

Now she was discovering that she'd been
four
steps behind. This measly little civilian outfit fielded three Firehawks with fully electronic glass-screen cockpits. A lot of the Army and Navy birds were still mechanical dial and gauge, like all of the AANG craft. The high tech had taken some getting used to during her training flights, though all in a good way. Of course she'd now been totally spoiled.

Mount Hood Aviation also had two little MD500s and a pair of midsized Bell 212 Hueys—called Twin 212s for their dual engines—all of which were immaculate and also sported the latest gear. All the aircraft looked unusually sleek and powerful in that black-and-flame paint job.

Robin stumbled to a halt halfway around the back of the parachute loft—she'd clearly chosen the long way around. A service truck sat there with a seriously massive lock, and attached to the hitch was a trailer. The trailer was an odd one and so out of context that it took her a moment to recognize. It belonged to a ScanEagle drone. She'd seen them in Afghanistan. A small, five-foot-long surveillance bird with a ten-foot wingspan…that no civilian outfit should have.

Who the hell were these people and what had she gotten herself into?

It's not that she didn't appreciate the high-end gear. Didn't matter. Whatever the past, she had the best at her command now. Even if her new contract was only for a single fire season. So she'd stop complaining…soon.

Mount Hood Aviation had a one-season slot because their lead pilot was in her final trimester—for her
second
kid, like she was doing it on purpose—and would be grounded for the fire season itself. She probably shouldn't have even been flying the interview flights, but Robin guessed no one had dared to stop her. Emily Beale had been a total bitch in stretch-waist camos and a belly-hugging black T-shirt for Robin's interview flight, even if she was the size of an RV.

Robin dragged herself away from considering the launch trailer and continued around the service garage. Maybe she should have braved the barracks corridors. She hurried up her pace.

It wasn't that Emily Beale had been nasty, but rather that she'd been so damn good and corrected every tiny thing Robin did that wasn't up to her standards. Worse, she'd delivered every little tidbit as a simple correction. That left it to Robin to feel shitty for failing to meet the standards of a woman who could barely fit between the pilot's seat and the cyclic control joystick.

“You're starting your drop three seconds too early.” They soared over a mind-boggling wilderness of trees so thick that the terrain was invisible beneath it.

Robin
hated
personal failure; she was a specialist in self-recrimination. Had thought about putting it on her résumé.

“If you hover two feet lower, you'll pick up another six percent efficiency on the belly tank loading pumps mounted on the snorkel.” Over a mountain lake that must be twenty miles from the nearest road and just begged for her to go swimming in it.

She should have known that about the snorkel; it made perfect sense after Beale had dropped the fact quietly over the intercom. A quiet, sure voice in the roaring cockpit of the converted Black Hawk helicopter. Unlike her AANG birds with a big, orange bucket dangling unpredictably on a hundred feet of long-line, the MHA Black Hawks had been converted to Firehawks with big belly tanks that were bolted right onto the bottom of the helicopter's frame. It let her carry a thousand gallons of water, instead of the eight hundred that the bucket held, which was sweet.

The belly tank also meant she could get more up close and personal with the fire. Aiming a bucket on a long-line was like spreading your feet and trying to pee straight down into a shot glass—a good party trick in the girls' barracks during those really boring and occasionally drunken AANG weekends. The belly tank let her decide, “dump starts here, ends there,” and hit it every time.

Even without the black T-shirt and camo pants, Ms. Queen Beale had that feel of ex-military that some air jocks never got over when they hit the civilian world.
You're out, lady. Deal with it.
Robin had taken enough officer shit on the inside and didn't need it out here.

Beale wasn't the only one who was all ex-military in this outfit. The lay of the MHA land was odd.

Mark, the boss man, was also ex-officer material. Handsome as hell but married to the pregnant queen bitch. Not Robin's type anyway; she liked her men still a little rough around the edges. The boss was totally AJ Squared Away. He also was always toting around their two-year-old daughter. Which was pretty damn cute—if you lived in a women's magazine world. Besides, he spent his workday circling at high elevations in his command plane as if that was really flying.

A guy who wasn't rotorcraft? Robin was definitely not interested.

Robin hadn't sorted out the helicopter pilots yet, but she would. There had to be some extracurricular recreation to this job or she'd go stir-crazy for sure just chasing after the occasional fire.

Finally, she cleared the last corner of the last building and stopped in surprise at the size of the crowd gathered around the base of the control tower. She'd seriously underestimated the size of this outfit. Forty people were gathered together, with Mark and Queen Bitch Beale perched up on the platform as if ready to deliver some military lecture.

Her two Afghan tours had been in her rookie and her third year of service in the Guard…then three more years of sitting on her butt before she bailed on them. The stand-down of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan had turned the National Guard into a whole lot of training weekends with the tuition turkeys—in it for the free school and just praying they never deployed—and the occasional call up for a fire, flood, or some other natural mess. And she wasn't really a regular Army sort of gal.

If she spent the next six to nine months sitting around on her butt, alone, between infrequent fire calls, she was going to die of boredom.

There was hope though. She'd take this morning's alert—a fire on her very first day—as a good sign.

She'd been lying there in the crappy base accommodations—no complaints from her; they were free, but they were still crappy—bored to shit in the dark. And then that sweet alarm that could have awakened Jesus it was so damn strident had rung through the base.

And the crowd was almost entirely male, which boded very well for summer entertainment.

She tried to ease up to the back of the crowd. She was last to arrive, which she hated.

She didn't get away with it.

Emily and Mark were both looking right at her.

All forty people were.

Some still half-dressed, others were lacing their boots, but they were all there and she was delaying the entire outfit on the first day. Whatever she'd thought of the Guard, she was always first to the flight line and first in the air; anything less than her best was a personal failure.

“Now that we're all here.” Boss Man Mark Henderson spoke in a normal voice. He didn't have to do that; she already felt embarrassed.

Not being the best was the worst feeling on the planet in Robin's book and it sure as shit wasn't going to happen again.

* * *

Mickey had watched for the new pilot as they mustered but missed her arrival—on the far side of the crowd, all he could see was craned necks and a hint of sun-bright hair. She didn't come from the direction of the barracks, and he'd been too busy trying to pry some details out of the guys with no luck. All they'd added to “seriously hot” was “serious dose of attitude.” Real helpful, guys.

TJ came down the stairs from the window-wrapped comm shack at the top of the tower with some fresh printouts for Mark. His heavy footsteps echoed over the sudden silence—he still had a limp from his last day of thirty years of smokejumping. As he handed off fresh data sheets to the others, the crowd of firefighters returned to chatting softly.

Barely past sunrise and the late spring day was already warm enough that people were shedding jackets. But the smokejumpers still kept the full suits on and zipped; the most gung-ho of the breed came to MHA. To pass the time and dissipate the tension, they were hazing each other about who was going to be eating a tree on their first live jump of the season.

Mickey had always loved his helicopters, but there were times, like now, listening to them before a big jump, that he thought about switching over. The idea never lasted long…battered by trees, torn knees, broken ribs; smokejumping was a rough life. And that was all before they started eating smoke and facing the fire up close and personal. Besides, all he'd ever dreamed of was flying. But it was fun to imagine every now and then.

“Five bucks Akbar eats the first tree,” Krista, the number-two smokie, called out. Akbar, the lead smokie, was still paying for his first-ever MHA jump five years ago when he'd hung up in the very top of two hundred feet of Douglas fir. It had taken him an hour to lower himself down on a rope as he was constantly hanging up in the lower branches. Then he'd had to climb back up to top the tree so that he could recover his chute.

“Five bucks says
you
do,” Akbar countered, but his voice was overwhelmed by another smokie collecting the bets for and against Akbar. Mickey kicked in a fiver for Akbar snagging a tree, knowing it was lost money. Akbar was a great jumper, but Mickey wanted him to feel the pain of the helo-jocks betting against him.

But just like Mickey, Akbar was keeping a weather eye on the four up on the platform as they conferred over the pages of new information and their faces shifted to grim. A big fire on the first day; it didn't bode well for the season. This early, it was probably California or Alaska—still too soon for Oregon or Washington to burn. At least he hoped so.

He glanced around at Jeannie and Vern. The pilots of Firehawk Two and Three had caught it as well. He'd lost track of the new pilot again. The newer pilots—Vanessa, Bruce, and Gordon—had missed the look of worry.

Mickey nudged Gordon in the ribs.

“What?” Gordon whispered.

He nodded up toward the four on the landing.

“Oh.” Gordon was getting a clue. After three years, he was fine against a fire and one of Mickey's best buddies, but he wasn't the sharpest on reading situations on the ground. Gordon began double-checking his gear.

Mickey had already done that twice, so he resisted the urge to do so again. Instead, he looked around and finally spotted the new pilot again—back between a couple of smokejumpers, he could just see her face. She was watching the group on the landing intently. Sharp, she hadn't missed a thing.

As more and more noticed the leader's looks, everyone began pulling out energy bars they'd rat-holed away in their personal gear bags. Chances of having one of Betsy's generous sit-down breakfasts at the picnic tables this morning were fast approaching zero.

The newbie caught onto that quick enough. She too began stoking up for a flight.

When Mickey had left for a short vacation, the record stood at thirty-nine applicants, twelve test flights, and no hires. Mickey had been gone for four days and returned late last night to hear there was a new hire and she was already certified to be on the line. Bang! Just like that.

Even more strange, the new pilot was rumored to be the new flight
lead.
Everyone had expected Jeannie in Firehawk Two to pick up that role for the summer. At least Mickey sure had. He knew that he was a contender for the slot also, but Jeannie had a master's degree in fire management and Mickey just had an associate's degree in heli-aviation even if he had eight years of flying for MHA to Jeannie's four.

But there was no way to replace Emily. First, she was the best pilot. Second, also the best flight commander. Third, even though she was untouchable, she was an immense pleasure to look at. Even six months gone, she was a knockout. No question that Mark was one unreasonably lucky man because, damn, who knew pregnant could ever look good to a guy.

Mickey had never thought about getting serious with a girl, not really, until he'd first seen Mark and Emily together when they took over the outfit three seasons back. Joke was Emily Beale was still showing her mama bear spine of steel; Mark was the one who was so mushy around her it made you wonder if he was the one dosed with massive waves of pregnancy hormones rather than his wife.

Of course, thinking about getting serious with a girl versus actually doing it…well, that was something he'd do as soon as he found the right girl. Maybe.

He'd only been at his sister's wedding for four days but totally missed the new pilot's eval and training process. It had happened so fast. That had to be some amazing pilot to take the lead slot. He was sorry he'd missed the action; watching the candidates roll through camp had been amusing. Some of the candidates, especially the high-hour pilots, invariably male, would get really torqued when a beautiful, pregnant woman showed them the road home.

Of course Emily had never told them she was an Army Captain with the Night Stalkers Special Operations helicopter regiment. Or had she been Major? Emily and Mark rarely talked about their military backgrounds. It didn't matter. They were the two best pilots Mickey had ever flown with.

For more serious possibilities, Mickey had his eye on the lovely yet shy Vanessa, who flew one of MHA's little MD500s. But it never hurt a guy to look around.

A shift in the jostling smokies and Mickey got his first good look at the newcomer.

Her short plume of white-blond hair that shagged its way to her collar shone in the low-angle morning sunlight. She stood bone straight, which either meant ballerina or maybe workout instructor. She didn't look like any ballerina he'd ever seen on one of those TV shows Sis loved—
Nutcracker
every damn Christmas like religion. She might be long and lean, but she was no waiflike frail flower either. The pilot had shining, blue eyes and high cheekbones on an elegant face that went well with the choppy haircut.

She looked right at Mark, not shying off despite his reprimand for being late, which meant balls of steel. Metaphorically. Even though she had her flight jacket shrugged on and he couldn't see much of the figure beneath, there was no question of a hundred-percent babe.

“Told you she was hot shit!” Gordon leaned over to whisper in his ear.

“No ring or tan line on the finger.” Mickey played along as she raised her energy bar to bite off another chunk.

“She doesn't walk like a married person.”

Mickey Hamilton had missed her walk. He'd make sure to watch until she moved again.

He was tempted to ask Gordon how a married woman walked just to see what his friend came up with.

To pass the time, Akbar and the other smokies renewed their hot debate over which would eat a tree first. Their shifting positions exposed Vanessa standing beyond them, just a step away from the newbie.

A soft-spoken and dazzling brunette right out of an Italian travel magazine to one side.

To the other, a slender, blond Anne Heche look-alike from that movie on the island with Harrison Ford and a power stance straight from Angelina Jolie.

Side-by-side comparison of the two women during a summer sunrise, with a fire on the way. His day was off to an exceptional start.

“What's her name?”

Gordon cursed. “Thought you were after Vanessa. I was gonna have a clear shot at…”

“Buddy, she'd eat your lunch.” And by the look of her, she would.

Gordon was too decent a guy at heart for someone who looked as tough as the newcomer did.

“Besides, I
am
thinking about Vanessa. She just doesn't appear to be thinking about me so much.” Hurt to admit, but it was true. His attempts at charm had produced exactly no results. Yet. He could be patient when a woman looked as good as she did, and his ego wasn't ready to admit defeat. Yet. At least not in front of his buddy.

“In other words,
she
ate
your
lunch. I thought everybody fell for the Mr. Northwest outdoors guide.”

“Dad is the adventure guide. And it doesn't mean that. It means—” Mickey stopped.

The leaders of MHA were done with their conference.

Besides, it meant exactly that, but he still didn't want to admit it. Not to Gordon. Not to himself. Vanessa had a real spine under that quiet exterior, which only made her all the more attractive for what good it did him. It wasn't that the vibe was off or whatever it was that women said. It just hadn't…clicked for him. Or he hadn't clicked for her?

But watching her side by side with the new recruit, he was suddenly glad that nothing had clicked. The blond was spectacular. Suddenly all of his some girl, someday talk didn't seem quite so remote.

“It seems,” Mark called out over the assembled pilots and the twenty smokejumpers of MHA, “that there has been a new ‘export' problem and they've asked us to stop it from happening.”

Mickey looked at Gordon, who only shrugged. Even Akbar, the lead smokie, was looking a bit lost and he always had the inside scoop.

“I thought export problems was what the Customs Service was for,” some wag shouted from back in the crowd.

“Next you heli-pilots will be trimming trees and inspecting power lines,” a smokejumper called out, and others laughed.

“We'll start using smokies for express delivery of online shopping parcels,” Mickey shouted back, and the laughter grew. “About all they're good for anyway. Real battle is from the sky.”

There were a lot of tasks best done by helicopters, but not a one of them was as important or as hazardous as fighting wildfire.

Only the best of them flew to fire. And only the truly exceptional flew for MHA.

Which had Mickey looking toward the new blond again, as Vern riposted the next smokejumper tease.

Ballerina or workout instructor didn't get you in the cockpit of an MHA Firehawk. And especially not the lead ship. To do that, she had to be fantastic. So what did she bring?

At that moment, she turned to look at him.

* * *

Robin concentrated on not shifting foot to foot while she waited. Would the new commander hold her first-day tardiness against her? For getting lost in the goddamn rabbit warren of a barracks? And then gawking like a schoolgirl at the trees and the drone launcher and the line of Firehawks and…

The men.

Enough time had passed that everyone should have stopped staring at her by now and she could turn to scan the crowd. Time to assess just who she'd signed up with.

And the first place she looked, there was a guy staring at her from the far side of the crowd. No one else, just him.

And then another, whom she vaguely remembered meeting yesterday, looked over the man's shoulder. No comparison.

Blue eyes, short—almost crew-cut short—brown hair, and one of those friendly faces that looked like it smiled too easily and too often.

At the truck stop, they were the one kind of guy you could never figure out. The ham-handed ones were easy to spot and all of the women knew to look for the extra pair of straws that were always dropped along the outside edge of such tables, a clear sign that “This table sucks.”

Most of the truckers were fine, decent guys, and there were a lot of couples rolling down the roads, way more than in Mom's youth. She'd been able to pick out any of those types easily by the time she was ten and wiping down tables after school.

But then there were the ones like this guy on the far side of the crowd. Flying solo, looking nice…very nice, and wholly unreadable. Mr. Nice Guy or Mr. Jerk? It was hard to tell, because at the moment, he had a rather bug-zapped expression.

* * *

Mickey tried to look away, but that
so
wasn't working. Her eyes were a brilliant blue, the color of the morning sky now shining above them. High cheekbones and a chin that made him wonder what it would feel like to run his fingers along its lines.

“Told ya,” Gordon whispered behind him.

Mickey offered her a friendly nod. She returned it. Not cautious or calculating like you'd expect from a newcomer, but a short, assessing greeting. Then she turned her attention back to Mark as if Mickey had suddenly ceased to exist.

A soft “Damn” was all he could manage.
Hot
didn't begin to cover this lady.

“Told ya,” Gordon repeated himself beneath the last of the back-and-forth banter. The crew was feeling good, ready for the start of the season.

“Mount Hood Aviation sightseeing tours will be next. I've been telling Mark that's all you air jockeys are good for anyway,” Akbar teased them.

Mickey had been feeling good too. A final glance to the blond and he felt even better now.

“We have”—Mark raised his voice to quash the last of it—“a little lightning-strike fire east of nowhere in Alaska. It's in an area classified for limited to no intervention. Normally they'd just let it burn, as there are no nearby towns. However, it has grown up in the last twenty-four hours and thinks that it has a passport and entry stamp to cross into Canada.”

“That's
our
kind of export problem,” Mickey shot back at Akbar. First fire call of the year always felt great. It wouldn't be until they'd had a month or two of impossible hours and crappy camps that the feeling would wear off. Even then, it beat the dickens out of any day job he could imagine.

“I thought Canada wouldn't mind,” Jeannie asked. “They're into sustainable forest burn now.” Jeannie was getting good. Of course she'd have track of all of that, what with her fire management degree and working along with Carly the Fire Witch—as the fire behavior analyst was known all up and down the coast because she was just that accurate.

Let her be the next Carly; he didn't care.

Mickey was a flyer first, last, and all the way in between. Which left him to wonder again what the blond was.

“Not when it's threatening Dawson City,” Mark answered Jeannie's question. Mickey really had to focus. The new woman was already distracting him. Women didn't distract him; he enjoyed them and fully appreciated how easy it was to gather them up at bars or his sister's wedding with “I fly a helicopter to fight wildfires.” But this one was making him—

“Isn't that like twenty miles into Canada?” Gordon called out.

“More like forty,” Mickey answered, but Gordon's question made good sense. That was a lot of territory for a fire to cover.

“The fire burned forty thousand acres last night and is rated at zero percent contained. They want us to stop it before the strong westerlies help the fire chew up another hundred thousand acres and the only city for three hundred miles around.”

Mickey had flown enough fires in the Alaskan and Canadian wilderness to be familiar with Dawson City. It had thirteen hundred people, making it the second largest municipality in the Yukon Territory—an area bigger than California. It had fallen below “city” size with the collapse of the gold rush at the turn of the prior century, so it was technically the Town of the City of Dawson. And if the fire analysts were worried about a U.S. fire reaching all the way there from Alaska, it was an early-season monster in the making.

“Canadian firefighters are heavily engaged in the Banff fire at the moment and our crews are chasing a mess outside of Anchorage. The Alaska Fire Service put out a call for our full team. So, smokies: get outta here! Helicopters will be hot on your tails.”

* * *

The lead smokejumper let out a
Whoop!
that was picked up by the other smokies.

Robin froze, because the slightest movement seemed likely to get her trampled as they raced for the parachute shed and their full jump gear.

That thinned the crowd at the base of the radio tower by two-thirds and she could see the guy who'd kept watching her more clearly. He looked solid in the way of someone who'd always been fit, even as a kid. On a soldier, you could see the guys who'd been bulked up by weights and war versus the ones to whom it was just second nature. This guy had always looked this good.

He grabbed a second energy bar, which was a good idea, so she did the same. Once they were aloft, they'd need both hands for flying.

Adding to the general mayhem, Chutes—the head of MHA's paracargo operation who she'd met yesterday—fired up his forklift to run pallets of supplies across the runway to the waiting DC-3 and Shorts Sherpa C-23 jumper planes. The first load was a whole pallet of pumps, chain saws, and gas cans followed by another one of food and Pulaski fire axes. Each had a big parachute strapped on top of the tightly bound gear.

For two or three minutes, the field was alive with smokejumpers rushing to their ready racks, grabbing jump gear, and racing across the field to their two planes.

Robin estimated that for the planes, flying from Hood River, Oregon, to Nowhere-and-Gone, Alaska, would be six hours plus a fuel stop. They'd be jumping the fire by lunchtime.

It was the one thing Robin hated about helos, the long hauls. At a good solid cruise, they were over ten hours from the fire, not counting two refueling stops which would stretch it closer to twelve. And by then, they'd be too wiped out to do much more than sleep. They wouldn't be on the fire until tomorrow morning. It seemed like a crazy system to be sending them so far, but these guys seemed to know what they were doing.

* * *

“Helos,” Mark called from where he still stood with Emily and the others.

Mickey forced his attention away from the newcomer. She was taller than he'd first thought—close to his own five ten—and he'd always been partial to tall women. Her expression was intent. Despite being last to reach the line this morning, he'd guess there wasn't a lazy bone in that fine body. She looked as ready to spring into action as Akbar had.

“This is too far away for the MD500s,” Mark continued. “But fear not. Gordon and Vanessa, they have a mess up in Washington at Leavenworth that needs your services. The fire chief is in desperate need of someone able to tackle spot fires in severe terrain and the MDs are perfect for that. Gordon has lead.”