Tempt the Flames
The Smokejumpers #1
by Marnee Blake
Genre: Romantic Suspense
Pub Date: 9/11/2018
Meg Buchanan is determined to prove she didn’t get the trainer job in Redmond, Oregon’s rookie smokejumper class because of her family’s long history as firefighters there—or out of pity. But if teaching one of her own brothers isn’t challenging enough, Lance Roberts is in the new class of recruits. Once her brother’s best friend, and her first, unrequited crush, he’s also the son of the man responsible for her dad’s death.
Lance is stunned to realize that this confident redhead is the stubborn girl he once dreamed about. There’s no way he can fall for her now. He needs to focus all his attention on his training—and discovering the truth about the long-ago fire that killed both of their fathers. But as the undeniable heat between them threatens to ignite, someone attempts to put an end to Lance’s amateur sleuthing—and his life…
Driving from Bend to the smokejumper base in Redmond, Oregon, was like traveling back in time. It only took a half an hour, but the trip set Meg Buchanan back ten years.
As she pulled into the parking lot of Redmond Air Center, the tires of her Forerunner crunching on the dirt and gravel drive, she repeated the pep talk she’d been giving herself the entire ride.
She had the job. She was officially an assistant trainer and safety instructor for this year’s Redmond smokejumper rookie training.
She wasn’t a firefighter, but she was a physician’s assistant with lots of practical medical knowledge. She was qualified. More importantly, she was a seasoned triathlete. She was in tiptop shape, and she definitely could run some rookies through their paces. Add her willingness to do the job for barely any money and her uncle’s glowing recommendation, and she’d been approved.
That was her mantra. She could do this. She had the skills. She’d been approved.
She refused to accept that she’d been given this job because of her last name.
Sure, Will, her oldest brother, was an active Redmond smokejumper, and Uncle Joe was the base manager. Her middle brother, Hunter, would be in this year’s rookie class. Together, they made a pretty impressive Buchanan family legacy at Redmond.
But, if she’d received preferential treatment, it was because her father’s name—Jason Buchanan—rested on the memorial wall at the base, along with the other firefighters who’d given their lives in sacrifice to this job.
After shifting the truck into park, Meg dropped her hands into her lap and abandoned that train of thought. No use tempting the universe by spilling doubt and negative energy all over it. She had the experience, and she was going to give this job everything she had.
This was her chance.
She’d never been able to become a firefighter like her brothers. After hours of counseling, she couldn’t overcome her paralyzing fear of fire. But, this? She could do this. These rookies were in for the training of their lives.
And she’d finally feel like she was honoring her birthright.
With a deep breath, she checked her reflection in the rearview mirror. She’d pulled her red hair into a low ponytail and applied light makeup. Dressed in tan slacks and a pale pink blouse, she looked more like she was seeing patients than reporting for a physical trainer position. She was more comfortable, though, professionally dressed, put together.
If things were orderly on the outside, the inside would follow. She’d learned that lesson years ago, after her father’s death. Her mother had cried, and their home fell to pieces. When people showed up with food and condolences, the disaster in the house amplified how broken they were. Dishes in the sink, overflowing laundry baskets. Sleep eluded Meg those first nights, so she washed dishes, did laundry, and dusted until her body gave out. The next day, she’d cooked to fill the silence. The days stretched on, and no one ate unless they were reminded.
Eventually, though, the movements of normalcy made her feel more normal.
Fake it ‘til you make it, her mom had joked. She’d never taken that advice, but it had worked for Meg. Pretend until the lie matched reality.
She exhaled slowly, pursing her lips. With shaking fingers, she smoothed her perfectly tidy hair once more, nodding at her reflection. She had this.
Snagging her wallet and phone off the passenger seat, she tossed them into her well-worn gym bag and zipped it up. Slinging it over her shoulder, she gripped the straps to her chest like a shield and opened the truck door.
Gravel bit into her ballet flats, but she ignored the discomfort. Around her, the parking lot was full of pickup trucks and Jeeps, a few larger SUVs and late-model sedans, and even an Econovan thrown in for good measure. The van had curtains. She wouldn’t be surprised if its owner lived out of it.
There were a few guys unloading their cars, yanking duffel bags and equipment from trunks. Most of them were in their twenties and thirties. All of them were in amazing shape. The uniform seemed to be a mix of camo, Under Armor, and facial hair. A couple of the men paused to watch her walk by.
Maybe she should have put on her running clothes, some track pants. She looked as out of place in her business clothes as a peacock at a rhino tea party.
Her eyes straight forward, she hiked her bag higher on her shoulder and picked up her pace. As she approached the door, her uncle stepped out.
“Meggy.” His smile, buried under a few days of beard growth, was as warm as always. Her shoulders relaxed in response. “You’re early.”
She stepped into his open arms. Uncle Joe gave the best hugs. “They pulled back on my hours last week in preparation for my time here. I finished earlier than expected today.”
He leaned out of their embrace, scowling at her. “You’re sure this won’t affect your position with Dr. Colman, right? They’ll let you return when training is over?”
She grinned at him. “I told you. Dr. Colman is happy that I’m helping. She’s fine.” It had taken a little sweet talking, playing up how good of a community outreach opportunity this was and promising to pick up shifts on the weekends while she was at the air center. Patrice Colman recognized a good deal when she saw it. She’d wanted to start opening on Saturdays for months, so she hadn’t passed up this opportunity. But, Meg wasn’t about to tell Uncle Joe that.
He patted her shoulder. “That’s good, then. I’m not going to answer to your mom if this impacts your career.”
Meg stiffened. “I’m twenty-five, Uncle Joe. I manage myself.” Besides, they both knew her mother hadn’t managed much of anything in years.
Joe nodded. “Right. Well, your brothers should be here soon. Do you want me to show you around?”
She laughed. “It’s been a while, but I think I know where I’m going.” She and her brothers had visited her father here often. Years ago, her mother would bring the smokejumpers cookies, muffins, whatever. She used to love to bake, and it gave her an excuse to see her husband. These days, the only time her mother’s oven heated was for the Sunday dinners Meg cooked for them.
Meg scanned the exterior of the air center. “Place hasn’t changed.” Ten years later, but the air center looked the same. Behind the hangar, the airfield stretched across the open field. The Cascade Mountains filled the horizon. Here, without the multi-story buildings in Bend, the peaks were in full, majestic view.
“Why ruin a good thing?” He chuckled, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. “Come on. Let’s get you settled.”
As he guided her to the door, the rumble of an engine made her pause.
Either the Jeep that turned into the parking lot needed a new muffler or its owner wanted everyone to hear him coming. As it parked, everyone in the lot had stopped to look. Which meant this truck wasn’t a regular fixture at the air center’s lot.
She sniffed. Apparently, the diva of this year’s class had arrived.
The Jeep’s engine died, and its doors swung open. Like the other men in the lot, the one who jumped down from the passenger side was in excellent shape. He was probably six-two or so, and his T-shirt did nothing to hide the cords of muscle on his wide shoulders. But, it wasn’t the passenger that snagged her attention.
The driver slammed his door and strode to the back liftgate. She didn’t see his face, only the back of him, but his gait was familiar, with more swagger than his passenger. He was as tall as the other man, and just as broad-shouldered and slim-hipped. The tilt of his head as he tossed a few bags onto the ground, the set of his shoulders as he closed the back of the Jeep, though…if returning to the Redmond base was a blast from the past, this man was a punch to the gut.
She didn’t realize she said his name out loud until Joe grunted. “Yes. Lance Roberts.”
Meg hadn’t needed his confirmation. She’d know Lance anywhere. After ten years, her body hadn’t forgotten watching him, wishing he was hers, with the added misfortune of embodying the “little sister in love with brother’s best friend” cliché.
Hard to forget embarrassment like that.
Lance the boy had been the stuff of her girlhood dreams, and more than a few other girls’ dreams, too. As she watched, he grabbed his bags off the ground and the muscles of his forearms tightened. Heat stretched up her spine, warming her stomach.
Lance the man probably occupied more than a few women’s dreams now as well.
Meg spun sideways, not wanting to be caught staring at him. “What’s he doing here?” she whispered. She smoothed the end of her ponytail, and then tugged at her blouse, straightening imaginary wrinkles.
Catching herself, she squeezed her fingers together in front of her, forcing them still.
“Now, Meggy. I need you to be open-minded. And, I need your help with your brothers…” Joe’s head dropped, and he rubbed the back of his head.
“Joe, what have you done?” There were only so many reasons that Lance would be here, at the air center, right now…
“I offered Lance a job, if he makes it through training.” His half grin looked pained. “He’ll be in this year’s rookie training class.”
Award-winning author and RITA® finalist Marnee Blake used to teach high school students but these days she only has to wrangle her own children. Originally from a small town in Western Pennsylvania, she now battles traffic in southern New Jersey where she lives with her hero husband and their happily-ever-after: two very energetic boys. When she isn't writing, she can be found refereeing disputes between her children, cooking up something sweet, or hiding from encroaching dust bunnies with a book.
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