BEN Storms rolled off his cot and stretched. His back creaked and he groaned in protest.
“I need a massage,” he called to his friend, Matt.
Clad only in Dalmatian-spot boxers, he slipped into his work boots. Laces untied, he kicked open the screen door leading onto the deck of the watchtower overlooking the forest. In the gray of early dawn he saw a dangerous telltale glow in the distance. The fire slept now in the early morning when dew hung heavy on the forest and mist veiled her appetite. She smoldered in her bed, soon to awaken. There’d been no stopping her. His lady approached despite all acts to restrain her. Slowly, methodically. Building and rolling, consuming and blackening everything in her path. Pulling this fine lady into his arms was going to be a true challenge. He needed to contain her. She wanted to run free.
He took a deep breath of the chilled air. The odor of accelerants and wood smoke perfumed the forest. “I love the smell of gasoline in the morning,” he murmured.
“You’re a sick puppy, Ben. Put some pants on. We’re late.” Matt paused. “Sorry, but I can’t give you a massage this morning. Maybe later. All right, cupcake?”
Ben urinated over the side of the deck. “You’re not touching me, Matt. My hose doesn’t connect on both sides of the hydrant. And you know what? Without my gas can, brother, this entire forest might be a goner. What I do is God’s work.”
“Freaking backburner, drip-torch-carrying, handcrew junkie. You’re all the same. You love your fire,” Matt teased. “At least I put fires out the way they were meant to be put out. With chemicals.”
Ben laughed. “You chopper pilots are all the same. Better living through fire retardants. Ooooo…We don’t want to burn our little toes, and God forbid we get dirty, so we’ll just stay high above while the real men work.” Good-natured banter aside, Ben knew Matt had his back. A hotshot needed air support, and Matt was the best.
Matt yelled across the single-room lookout tower. “You want a protein bar?”
“I want coffee,” Ben said. “Out here, on the veranda. I feel like the everlovin’ king of the world up here.”
“Anything you say, your majesty. We’d better get down to base before your kingdom is screwed. Lookout duty is over.”
Ben nodded in agreement. A backburner—a firefighter trained to set fires to stop fires—he wanted nothing more than to save the vast forestland he loved so dearly. Especially if it meant he got to dance with his lady. Fire.
His job was to sacrifice the weak to protect the strong. His instruments—gasoline and a torch. He worked on the front lines of remote forest fires, digging trenches, laying down suppression fires to burn away fuel, helping create clear cuts his lady couldn’t jump. And damn, that woman had a powerful stride. She was a juggernaut of nearly unstoppable force. Nearly unstoppable. He knew how to fight fire with fire, and had won more than a few times.
He’d worked every major forest fire for sixteen years. He’d worked the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge fire and the Pike National Park fire in Colorado five years earlier. Both bad burns. Really bad burns. His department considered him their wildland specialist. Maybe he was. He couldn’t get enough of mountainside fires.
Last season, not far from this burn above Bitter Lake, had been harder than most, and more rewarding too. He’d met a girl on the line. A woman. A fellow hotshot with red hair and a smokin’ bod. She had a quick wit, and oh, brother…could she ever swing her axe. Hadyn had been her name. He liked her so much it scared the shit out of him. He told himself right off—the first time they’d danced in that bar after a long day on the line—that she was the one. He’d thanked God for her as he’d held her in his arms and swayed to the music with dozens of hotshots looking on with envy. They’d all wanted to dance with her. On the dance floor or in the sack.
Ben rarely prayed. She was worth a conversation with God.
He hadn’t heard from her in months. Jesus, he was thirty-six years old, a veteran of eighteen years with the department, and he’d gone gun-shy with Hadyn. He’d let her slip away in cyberspace without making plans to see her again.
He thought about her every day. Was she thinking about him? Was she on a handcrew this season? His handcrew?
He didn’t talk about her.
Not to Matt.
Not to anyone.
She was a sore subject. His lost treasure.
He’d screwed up with her, and he knew it.
If he died today, he’d have only one regret—that he hadn’t asked her to marry him the first night he’d met her. Even if she’d laughed and said, “No,” which was likely, it’d have been worth it. They’d danced and had a few beers, and that first kiss…man. Not drunken and sloppy. Not quick. It’d been building for at least three hours.
They’d walked outside to get some air. As they’d watched the glow on the hillside and listened to the static coming from the off-duty truck radios, they’d embraced. It’d been a kiss like no other. Ben didn’t consider himself a romantic, but that moment had been incredibly passionate. She’d tasted sweet. He loved her mouth. He loved kissing it, listening to it speak. He wanted to lay his Pulaski next to hers and call it good.
Ben forcibly halted his obsession of Hadyn O’Hara. He’d lose himself in thoughts of her, and he needed to focus on the job. The job of bringing Lady Fire to her knees was all that mattered. He needed nothing more from her than total submission.
She wasn’t a willing participant in the firefighter’s game of bondage and discipline, however. Not her. Not fire. This season was fresh and was already shaping up to be one of the worst recorded. Fifty-seven years had passed since this mountain had burned. Sure, surrounding areas had taken heat, but not the mountain. Fifty-seven years. Ben pursed his lips. Fifty-seven years of overgrowth and undergrowth, and it was going to be a long freaking trek in.
Lightning had picked a fight with the mountain.
The gauntlet had been thrown and the duel accepted. This battle was just beginning. Lightning had assaulted the earth and ignited a tremendous blaze in the mountain forest. At one point, the state would have let the fire burn itself out. Not now. Too many retirees had built right up against Bitter Lake at the edge of the forest in the shadow of the mountain where the fire now raged. Rich retirees who didn’t want to lose their multimillion dollar homes to the blaze. And the governor felt pretty strongly that he didn’t want to lose their votes because he let the fire run its course. Politics.
The fire burned uphill and down. And when the fickle wind changed, it shifted and burned anew with fearsome vigor. When the wind changed again, all hell broke loose. Ben wasn’t afraid. He figured he was more compatible with fire than he was with most people. Fire strengthened him. Controlling it freed him. He knew fire. He knew the mathematics of fire. He knew how to make it play fair, if there was such a thing.
“Yo, princess! You coming?” Matt called.
Ben nodded. “I’ll be right there,” he replied, casting a loving gaze across the forest canopy to the blaze in the distance.
* * * *
Matt was on his cell when Ben made it to their shared work truck. Ben hopped in and buckled his seatbelt. “Was that Gregory?” he asked, referring to the fire chief in charge of his brigade.
“Yep. I got my orders. We’ve got to detour, bud. Accident has blocked the main road. We’re going to take the logging one. Then I’m heading south to the lake and bringing back buckets of water. I’m going fishing.”
“If I see a baked trout while I’m throwing flares, I’ll save it for tonight’s supper,” Ben replied.
He’d seen it before. Buckets scooped up more than just fire-quenching water from lakes. He’d picked up a trout, opened the moist, cooked flesh with his fingers and eaten it where he stood one summer. It’d dropped between two stones during the dump and the steam of the dying fire had cooked it. Best meal he’d ever had.
The road was makeshift and bumpy. It wasn’t more than a glorified logging trail reclaimed by the fire service during the burn season. They passed by a “burn ban” sign. Someone had scrawled, “No shit” on it and pumped it full of shotgun shells. At least this burn wasn’t human-caused. More than one camera had caught the lightning strike that had started the fire.
Freakishly dry weather followed by a thunderstorm of epic proportions had caused every storm chaser in the country to converge on Mount Damfino, guardian of Bitter Lake and the best trout fishing east of the Rockies. Staccato lightning had been reported, as well as even rarer sightings of ball lightning. Ben didn’t believe everything he heard. All he knew for certain was there’d been cloud-to-ground contact uphill and down, and now the fire raged in both directions. It’d reach the peak itself in the middle and the town down below—unless they stopped it.
They were only twenty minutes away from the base camp. After that, Ben would crawl into the belly of a chopper and drop into action. As a hotshot, not a smokejumper, his crew usually hiked in. Not this time. The down-and-dirty had to happen quickly. One crew had already gone in, started a break—and been turned back.
The idea now was to build firebreaks above the flames, below them, and where she wanted to meet in the middle. Let her burn herself out with their help. He was ready for this. He was up for the hard work of staring fire right in the face while swinging his Pulaski in the lady’s kisser. Fire was a woman who fought as if every battle were a bloody-knuckle cage match.
He sat back and made a mental inventory of his equipment, which was all packed and ready to go at the camp. He was always ready. They’d dropped his kit off before heading to the lookout tower for shut-eye.
He was damned proud of that kit. His father had given him the Pulaski. A combination axe and mattock, it was a wildland firefighter’s best friend. He had a shovel, chainsaw, and hacksaw too. All that and his drip torch. What else did a man need? His iPhone. Couldn’t forget that. Best damned GPS application he’d ever used.
The heavy odor of charred wood wafting down the mountain was like an aphrodisiac to Ben. Fire got him hot. “Oh, I smell my woman, Matthew. I smell my woman,” he said.
“I already called you sicko this morning, right?” Matt asked.
“Yeah, you did.”
“If fire had a pussy, you’d drop trou and do ’er in a heartbeat,” Matt said.
Ben laughed. “Yes. Yes, I would. She’d be a redhead, right?”
Matt nodded. “Nothing but, buddy. Nothing but. I know how you like your redheads. You want to go into town after we pull our forty-eight? Get a few brews with the boys. Maybe see if we can get into the pants of those lady firefighters from Winthrop? Christ almighty, they’re smoking.”
“They’re our firefighting brethren, Matt. Not pussy. Respect them or they’ll take you out,” Ben replied. “Besides that, loving on a female firefighter is like smoking crack. Dangerous and highly addictive.”
“Ah, still gun-shy after last season’s debauch? Got you where it hurt, huh?”
Ben shook his head. “I stopped it long before that could happen.” Like an idiot.
“What was her name again?” Matt asked.
“Think her unit responded to the call out?”
“I doubt she’d take an assignment way up here. She was thinking about dropping down to part-time work while going to school full-time. Said she barely had time to do her laundry with her schedule. Nah, I won’t see her. Just as well. She’ll always be the one who got away. The one who shouldabeen-couldabeen. At least she’s something to think about when I’m able to catch some shut-eye.”
“There’s a visual I don’t need. You pulling your pud to thoughts of Hadyn, last year’s burn victim,” Matt teased.
“I didn’t get a chance to make her a victim of the sweet burn that’s Ben. We didn’t get that far.” Ben wasn’t sure if he wanted to admit he hadn’t bedded Hadyn. “Off the record, Matt, she was more than that. I kind of fell hard for her, then got scared and backed away. I’ve never backed away from a fire, but that woman made me weak in the knees.”
“Isn’t that what women do?”
“We do it to ourselves. Women just breathe, and sometimes it hits us like a hurricane.”
“Well, brother, I see the telltale green of citizen soldier fatigues ahead. Looks as if we’ve arrived.” Matt slowed as they approached the first checkpoint. “Guess you’ll know soon enough if she’s here.”
“Hadyn was the best, strongest, quickest lady firefighter I’ve ever seen. I really screwed up. I’m not good with long-distance relationships. I don’t want to think about it.” Ben patted his shirt pocket. “She’s too distracting.” He glanced up at the column of smoke in the distance. “I gotta keep frosty to fight this one.”
Matt changed the subject as they approached the checkpoint. “If I recall, you guys live less than two hours away from each other. What’s so long-distance about that? Get over her.” He thumped Ben on the chest. “You ready for this, brother?”
Ben nodded. “Bring it on. There isn’t a fire I can’t handle.”
* * * *
A National Guardsman stopped their truck. “Welcome, firefighters!”
Matt held out a copy of their hurriedly scribbled orders. “Matt Helms, pilot, and Ben Storms, handcrew,” he said.
The guardsman nodded in a way that reminded Ben of a salute. “Go on ahead. You’re expected. And you’re late.”
“We were on lookout duty last night. We had to detour a bit to get here,” Ben replied.
“Glad you made it. Lots of traffic is being diverted due to the accident and the way this mother is spotting,” the guardsman said.
Ben didn’t like the sound of that. “She spotting ahead or behind the line?”
“This is an erratic burn. We’ve got a wild one.”
“Thanks,” Ben said, sinking into his seat. His gut ached. This isn’t going to be a one-two punch. Looks as if this fire is going to go the distance. Damn. He considered making the sign of the cross, but held back. It wasn’t time to pray just yet.
Matt pulled away, heading for the staging area for the pilots. “How many houses are we going to save today, Benny?”
“Twenty-five thousand. Twenty-five thousand single-family homes worth an estimated five hundred thou apiece.”
“Think anyone will come by and say thanks?”
“I doubt it.”
The base camp buzzed with activity as Matt drove through the sea of bodies moving with dedicated purpose to stop the fire. Men and women dressed in protective gear flanked by unsmiling guardsmen moved like well-oiled machinery, preparing for an uphill approach to stop the beast from spreading. This was a big burn. Bigger than the Olympic National Forest fire. Bigger than Storm King Mountain. Ben caught himself digging his thumbnail into the pad of his index finger. A nervous habit. Nervous? Yeah. Burners died in both fights. Not this time. Not on my watch.
Twenty years ago this fire would have been managed differently. Twenty-five years ago there were no houses. No citizens in the way of her path. There were natural firebreaks on the east side at the lake and on the west at a ravine. A little retardant drop would have sufficed. Not today. Housing had built up in places it was never meant to be. The lake was tamed and the ravine fenced off to keep tourists from going over the side. Too many people looking for the good life in the shadow of a mountain prone to lightning strikes. Ben shook his head. Twenty-five thousand homes. Christ almighty.
Matt parked the truck. Ben didn’t wait for the engine to rev down before leaping from the vehicle. “See you soon, brother!” he called, heading for the tent where his crew’s gear was stowed.
“You’re like a virgin on his wedding night, Ben! Try to stay focused, otherwise the monster’s gonna chomp down on you like you’re gator bait!” Matt called.
Ben waived his friend away. “She’s a lady, not a monster. Treat her as such, you hear me?”