he DC-3 pulled through the air, heading for the thick, dark plume of smoke boiling up from the park's northeast corner. Early-summer lightning strikes always wreaked havoc out here in Northern California, setting sleeper fires the Forest Service couldn't spot right away. One quick jolt of lightning could shoot an old, dry tree full of electricity and heat, creating a slow burn spotted only when the fire flamed outward to surrounding brush. The spotter crouched by the plane's open door waved him forward, and Jack Donovan moved into position. Feet and arms braced in the open door, fifteen hundred feet of smoky air between him and his target, he had a clear shot down to the small clearing now blossoming with streamers from the plane's previous pass. The red ribbons pulled hard right, so he'd be watching for crosswind.
Overshoot the drop spot, and he'd slam into the ponderosa pines hemming the clearing.
“You ready?” The spotter roared the routine check into his ear. “Watch the drift streamers, and check your chute, or the boys will be fishing you out of the pines when this fire is finished.”
“Fuck you.” He grinned at the spotter, knowing his face mirrored the other man's exhilaration. He'd be first jumper out the door on what was likely the last jump for his team.
If it hadn't been for that damned phone call, he'd have kept the team here all summer. Money was good, and, so far, there was plenty of fire. All the makings of a good summer.
“On final, fifteen hundred.” The pilot's crackling voice warned that the plane was turning, banking to make the pass over the drop site. The pilot was a former jumper himself, and he knew the DC-3 better than he would a lover. Hell, for most of them, the plane and the fires she flew them to had to be better than a lover, because it was the rare woman who'd share her man with the fires season after season. Jack Donovan lived for the adrenaline rush and the adventure. And so did his team.
That team of eight jumpers was now sprawled out behind him. The seats of the plane were long gone, jettisoned to make room for the gear, so his boys had parked their asses on the floor in jump order. Ready to go just as soon as the pilot hit his sweet spot and the spotter signaled.
Protect and defend
âthat was the team's motto. Work hard, play harder. Fire always came first, but they'd steal a few hearts, love-'em-and-leave-'em in a heated blaze that was deliciously short-lived because they knewâand the women in their arms knewâthat these were stolen moments. No, there was no time for even a summer romance, because you never knew when that call would come.
You accepted that there wasn't a happily-ever-after waiting at the end of your rainbow. The boys you jumped with were family, and that was more than good enough. The men Jack shared a plane with had become his brothers, and it didn't matter that they didn't share a lick of DNA among them. Family was about more than science.
The plane finished its turn, straightening out as the pilot brought her around. The roar of the engines competing with the dull roar of the flames was a familiar song. This was going to be a real bitch of a fire, and there was no stopping the hungry smile spreading across Jack's face. God, he loved his job.
So why had he agreed to put it on hold?
He should have refused to take the call, should have known she wasn't calling for a little hi-how-are-ya. But, no, he'd let the boys hand him the SAT phone back in base camp, and he'd listened to what she had to say when he should have been running as fast as he could.
“You have a minute for me, Jack?” Her familiar voice had crackled down the line.
He'd always had time for Nonna. Always would. Something primal and satisfied unfurled inside him when he heard that voice of hers. Yeah, hearing her voice made him happy. He'd made his peace with that years agoâtreasured what they had. Outside family wasn't something every man on his team had, so he recognized his luck. And he'd answered her before considering his words. “I always do, Nonna.”
Her little hum of appreciation was part of the ritual. “It's fire season up here in Strong, Jack,” she'd said, as sparing with her words as ever. “We've got the station, of course, but Ben isn't sure we can handle it this time. Says the one truck may not be enough. ”
“Ben said that?” Her words had surprised him. Old bastard had never admitted to not being enough, and he had reason for his pride. Ben Cortez could have taught the hotshots on Jack's jump team a few tricks. A big, hearty man with shoulders worthy of an ox, Ben could out-bluff, out-talk any fire he went up against. Or so it had seemed to a ten-year-old boy with stars in his eyes. Hell, Jack would still fight fires with the man any day.
Ben had been his inspiration to start his own company after he'd left the military. He'd begun by jumping fires freelance, signing on with whatever crew needed an extra pair of hands. Now he and his brothers had their own company, running three or four teams each season. Good money, but it didn't come easy.
“He did. This isn't your usual summer.”
There'd been a pause, and, again, he should have recognized the signs. He'd wished he could see her hands. When he'd been a young boy living in her house, he'd learned that Nonna's hands gave her away every time. Like him, she'd never been particularly good with words, but those hands had always told him the full story. Even though the harsh static of the SAT phone was hardly a visual, he'd known those hands were telegraphing him a message.
“And?” he'd prompted finally, when the silence had stretched on long enough to become awkward.
“And people here don't quite know what to do. They're talking about bringing in outside help, but Ben's reluctant.”
“Stubborn old man.” Jack had laughed then, even though now he wanted to curse.
was the way he wanted to go out. Larger than life and cussing right up to the end. Just like Ben would.
Nonna hadn't said anythingâjust made that small hum of agreement again. He'd have bet good money her index finger was tracing figure eights on her desk. Because she wasn't done with him yet. She was still leading up to what it was she wanted from him. “Ben might take help from you,” she'd pointed out. “You come up here, lend a hand, he won't see it as outside help. You'll just be one of his boys, come home for the summer. It would make perfect sense for you to stop by, pitch in a little. Come home for the summer, Jack. We need you here.”
He'd wanted to quip, “Call the fire department,” but this was his Nonna. You didn't ignore family, not when they stood there and put a hand out for help. “I'm a smoke jumper, Nonna,” he'd pointed out, as gently as he could. Hoping against hope that she'd see the logic of his words and let him break the connection and go out on the next fire call with his life unchanged. “I jump out of planes to fight my fires. Ben's placeâthat's a small-town firehouse with a single engine.”
The town's fire department was local and all volunteer. Jack had spent summers himself on the vintage truck. Hell, he didn't even know if it was capable of getting up a stream anymore. Most they'd ever encountered was an oven fire or two, a backyard barbecue that had hopped the hearth and torn through some zinnias. Those fires could be bad, but only if they got out of hand. And they hadn't. Boring as hell.
“Night and day,” she'd agreed, “but he'll accept your help. He won't accept an outsider.”
And for some inexplicable reason, sheâand the other three thousand residents of Strongâwould let a grumpy, sixty-year-old fire chief dictate their fire plan to them.
“I haven't been back to Strong in years, Nonna.” Not since that last night he'd come too close to spending in Lily Cortez's arms. He'd run hard and fast, and he was running still. Lily Cortez was more dangerous than any fire he'd ever faced. He still saw those brown eyes of hers, accusing him, when he thought about that night too much. “You think he'll buy this coincidence?”
“Ben's not stupidâjust stubborn. He won't ask questions. And it's time for you to come home, Jack,” she'd said softly. “You've stayed away long enough.”
He didn't want to go home and fight Nonna's fires. He could still see that sleepy mining town, and it didn't take a genius to know Strong wouldn't be much of an adventure. Strong got two, maybe three, good fires in a season. He'd wind up sitting out most of the summer, and sitting had never agreed with him.
Nonna knew that. Even as a boy, he'd always been on the move. Restless. Nonna claimed he was looking for something and wouldn't stop until he found it. Sometimes she'd added that he was looking for trouble. And that, he'd had no difficulty finding. When he'd run for good all those years ago, he'd run straight into the military, and enlisting had been good for him. It had knocked honor and responsibility into a boy who was too damned smartâand too much of a smart-assâfor his own good. Hell, he was still an irreverent bastard, but now he knew who and what he stood for. What was worth defending. Protecting.
“We've already had a series of small fires, a bad start to fire season.”
He hadn't like her word choice. “ âSeries,' Nonna?”
She'd hesitated, but she hadn't taken it back. “Yes. I think so. And I think Ben believes so, as well. The grass fires were first.”
“Grass fires are pretty par for the course,” he'd said cautiously.
“True.” He could almost see her purse her lips as she mentally ran through his logic. “And that's what we all thought. At first. Then there was the mailbox. A trash bin in back of Blue Lou's Diner.”
“Sounds like you have a couple of kids on your hands,” he'd said indulgently. Someone still needed to kick their collective asses, but it didn't have to be him. Even the most harmless of fires could burn out of control when fire season got well under way in California and the rains were a distant memory. He figured she hadn't bothered him with the oven fires and false alarms.
“Maybe,” she said slowly. “Maybe not. Ben says he found accelerants. Maybe some of these were accidents or kids' mischief, but not all of them. Come on home, Jack,” she'd finished. “I think we're going to need you this summer.”
“You talk to Evan and Rio about this?” If he came home, his brothers would come, too.
“No,” she said. “I wanted to talk to you first, Jack.”
“I'll make some calls,” he said grudgingly. He couldn't be gracious, not about this, but Nonna had always been a smart woman. She didn't call him on his lack of manners. This time. “I've got three days left on my contract here, and then I'll pull a team together. We'll come up and park it in Strong for the summer. But just for the summer, Nonna,” he warned.
He couldn't go home, not for good.
He'd do it. Grudgingly. Not graciously. He wasn't walking away from Nonna, and that meant he couldn't walk away from Strong. He didn't know how he'd get through the fire season or make sure he and his guys all had what they needed. He was a jumper, not a long-term planner. But somehow he'd figure it out. Town needed someone else there 24/7 in the winter months, too. For all the oven fires and home-wiring jobs gone bad. Ben was getting on; he wouldn't be able to manage single-handedly forever. He'd make some calls, put out some feelers, he decided. Somewhere there was a man who was right for the job. But he and his boys, well, they'd be riding out of town at the end of the summer, like they always did.
There was no changing who or what they were.
The plane banked and came back around, the vibrations making the floor shudder beneath his steel-toed boots. The spotter bawled an update, but the engine's roar drowned the man out. Didn't matter. Jack knew precisely what he needed to do. Fire was clear as day from fifteen hundred feet, a Dante-esque patchwork quilt with the jump spot a small bare circle in the very heart of the flames.