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Authors: Jennifer Bernard

Set the Night on Fire

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Set the Night on Fire
Jennifer Bernard
Contents
1

S
even months
earlier

S
ean Marcus had
a knack for impossible situations. So far, he’d survived—usually by the skin of his teeth. But right now, in the Big Canyon Wilderness with the entire world seemingly on fire, he wasn’t worried about himself. Only one thing mattered: keeping his crew alive.

He squinted over his shoulder at the towering plumes of black smoke. This wildfire moved like nothing Sean had ever seen. Two minutes ago, he thought they had at least a half hour to get to the black. But the way this thing was eating through the forest, the Fighting Scorpion Hotshots didn’t stand a chance of outracing it. Especially when they were already exhausted from three days of backbreaking line work. They’d saved an entire subdivision of two hundred families. But if they didn’t get out of here fast, this would be his last impossible situation.

He gave a quick glance at the terrain around them. A thickly wooded ravine to the east, a sheer rock face to the west. The cliff face could provide some shelter against the blast of oncoming flames. This was it. Their best chance, right here. Quick head count. All twenty members of his crew here and accounted for.

“We’ll deploy here,” he called. Panic flashed across the grimy faces of his fellow firefighters. None of them had ever been in a situation like this—trapped behind the line with a forest fire marching toward them. It was every hotshot crew’s worst case scenario. They trained for it, of course, but the fear, the dread, the relentless advance of towering black smoke, the particulate matter swirling through the air, the animal need to flee—how could you ever really be prepared?

“Get those shelters out,” he shouted over the rumble of the approaching firestorm. Josh Marshall, his best friend on the crew, stood staring at the monstrous blaze as if he were hypnotized. Sean had never seen the team jokester speechless before. He reached for Josh’s pack, unzipped the carrying case that held his shelter, and gave him a shove. “Go, Marsh.
Now
.”

At the sound of his nickname, Josh snapped out of his trance. He shook out the thin aluminum shelter, stepped into it, then dropped to the ground.

His voice hoarse, Sean yelled to the other firefighters, “Stay as close together as you can. Get your face down on the ground. Pin your shelters with your elbows and knees and whatever it takes.”

Within seconds, all the hotshots had disappeared inside their silvery tents—except for one.

Finn Abrams—the rookie—backed away, his eyes wild with terror. “No way in hell,” he yelled at Sean. “I’m not gonna sit here and get burned up!” He turned and bolted for the ravine, which was already smoking from the first licks of flames.

“Finn! Get back here!” Sean started after him. He’d heard of this happening. Firefighters panicking when faced with the prospect of trusting your life to a thin piece of fabric. He’d tackle him to the ground if he had to. Pin him and force that shelter into place.

But Finn kept going as if a demon was on his heels. And maybe there was—Sean felt it nipping at his back with hot bites of sparks.

Something snagged his leg as he passed a shelter. Josh was half in, half out of his tent, arm stretched to grab him. “Get the fuck in your shelter.”

“But Finn—”

“He’s gone!”

A blast of hot air blistered the back of Sean’s neck. He took one last look at Finn, who was still running, stumbling toward the edge of the ravine, and gave a quick prayer that he’d make it somewhere—anywhere—before the fire hit.

He stepped into his shelter and dropped down. He pressed his face against the earth where the air would be the coolest and pulled the material over his head. To fend off the wind generated by the fire, he used his feet and elbows to pin the fabric to the ground.

He was still shifting around when the most intense sound he’d ever heard swept over him. It sounded like the flapping of ten million batwings pummeling the fabric that encased him. Wind shrieked and roared. Sean closed his eyes against the heat, which felt as if it could melt his eyeballs.

“Holy fuck!” Josh shouted from his shelter.

Amazing that they could hear each other over the din of the forest fire. They were trained to pack their shelters close together to reduce exposure to the heat. Being able to communicate with each other was an extra benefit.

“I gotta get out! I don’t want to die in here!”

Sean couldn’t tell who said that, but he read the panic loud and clear.

“Nobody moves!” Sean shouted. “You leave that tent, you
will
die!”

Not that he didn’t understand the urge to move. To lie here like this—unable to do anything, trapped inside a claustrophobic cocoon while a fire raged on the other side of it—was excruciating. He understood why Finn had run, because every muscle in his body tensed with the need to do the same thing.
Go. Run. Do
. Action. That’s what he wanted. That’s what he always wanted. But right now, the only possible action was—none.

Well, not exactly none. He could still help his crew.

“When we get out of this, I’m treating everyone to barbecue!” he yelled. “Extra crispy.”

Josh, good man, picked up on his lead. “When we get out of this, I’m asking Emma Watson for a date.”

“The
Harry Potter
chick?”

“Yeah. She’s hotter than this fire, man.”

“When we get out of this, I’m gonna quit this shit and be a CPA!” Rollo yelled. “Damn, something just landed on me.”

Sean felt it too. Chunks of flaming debris rained onto his body. He shifted his body to knock the embers off. “Get that shit off if you can but keep your edges tight, guys.”

A whoosh of sound stopped him cold. “What was that?”

“Tree exploded!” Rollo shouted. “This is fucking insane!”

“Just hang tight!”

Sean listened in awe to the tornado of noise outside. If the fire weren’t trying to kill him, it would be spectacular. So much sound, so much heat. Was this the closest thing a person could experience to being inside a ball of gas? Inside the sun?

His mind drifted as the moments ticked on. He thought of the Yarnell burnover, in which all except one crew member had died. If he died now, he’d be one more Marcus family fuckup. The troubled kid who never got it together. The angry rebel who left Jupiter Point in disgrace. He would never get a chance to clear his name. Never get a chance to prove himself.

When we get out of this, I’m going back—

But Hughie forestalled him.

“When we get out of this,” he yelled, panic edging his voice. “I’m gonna propose to Cindy.”

“Good,” Josh called back. “Because if you didn’t, I was going to.”

“Yeah right, you might as well propose to your tent.”

For some reason, that inspired Josh to sing. “Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today…”

“To get through this thing called fire.” Rollo finished off the line. The firefighters laughed, and Sean’s heart clenched with pride. Hotshots were tough. Who else would quote Prince while the world was burning down around them?

When we get out of this, I’m going back to—

“How long can this last?” someone yelled.

Sean honestly had no idea. In the Little Venus fire, the burnover had lasted fifteen minutes. That didn’t sound like a long time, but right now, he had no concept of time whatsoever.

“I think I can reach my phone. Anyone dare me to take a selfie?” Josh again. “I want proof for when we get out of this.”

When we get out…

“Know what I’m going to do?” Sean said out loud this time. He startled at the realization that he could hear his own voice now. The roar had faded. The heat had lessened, too. It no longer felt like a convection oven on high. Was it safe to look outside? Would a blast of heat suck the air from his lungs?

After waiting for what felt like another eternity, he stuck his head out of the opening.

It looked like night out there. Was it night? Or was it simply the thickness of smoke blocking the daylight? The only illumination came from the flames that still flickered in the charred, smoking wasteland. Tree stumps still burned and sparked, hot sap running down their trunks. Chunks of debris smoldered everywhere. Smoke lay thick on the ground, in the air, drifting, swirling.

But the fire had moved on. And it wouldn’t be back—there wasn’t enough fuel left.

Using his elbows, Sean pulled himself out of the little shelter. He scanned the other tents and saw that everyone had stayed inside.
Thank you, Lord
.
Please let Finn be okay too, wherever he is.

“Everyone alright?” he called, his voice hoarse. “You can come out now.” One by one, his crewmates poked their heads from their shelters. Streaked black with soot, red-eyed, some tear-streaked.

“What a bunch of beauties, you are,” he said. “They should make a calendar out of us.”

From the shelter next to him, Josh let out a raspy laugh. “Damn, Magneto. Are we even alive? Or is this hell?”

“Good question.” The decimated woodland could certainly pass for hell. Sean turned onto his back and let his head rest on his folded arms. The earth beneath him was warm to the touch. Overhead, twisting masses of gray and black smoke roiled, as if the sky didn’t even exist anymore.

Sean vowed never to take the sky for granted again. Assuming he ever saw it again, of course. They still had a long trek to get out of here.

As he watched, the clouds of smoke shifted to make a hole. Through it, he saw a patch of pristine early evening sky, so perfect it snatched his breath away. And there, right there in the middle, he saw a star twinkling.

No, not a star, he realized. It was too bright to be a star. It was a planet. He recognized it from all the nights he’d spent camping on the fire lines, and from the stargazing app on his phone.

That was Jupiter. The biggest, boldest planet in the sky.

“When we get out of this,” he said, mostly to himself, but also as a kind of public vow, “I’m going back to Jupiter Point.”

2

E
vie McGraw had barely turned
the Sky View Gallery’s sign to “open” when the day’s drama came pouring into her little sanctuary.

“Have you heard about those firemen coming?” Mrs. Murphy bustled through the door first. She ran the bookstore next door, Fifth Book from the Sun, but didn’t ever seem to worry much about sales or customers. Today she had that look in her eye—the one that meant she had big news and intended to share it. Like it or not.

For a moment, Evie considered turning her wooden sign, the one painted with a sun on the “open” side and a moon on the “closed” side, back to moon. “Moon” was so much quieter and more peaceful than “sun.”

But a girl had to make a living.

“You’re going to be amazed, Mrs. Murphy, but I actually have heard that news already. We’re getting one of those hotshot crews that fight wildfires. It’s a good thing, with all the fires we’ve had the last few years.”

“No, no, that’s not the real news.”

Obviously preparing for something extra juicy, Mrs. Murphy settled onto one of the high chrome stools at the espresso bar and dropped her tote bag onto the floor next to her. “Honestly, Evie, these are the most godawful chairs. You should tear all of these out and put in some nice old-fashioned booths. My rear end gives me hell after I get back from here.”

Evie drew on the politeness that had been drilled into her since birth. “I’ll have to look into that.”

“You do that, and you’ll see that I’m right.”

Evie checked the espresso machine, which was still new to her. Just recently, she’d added the espresso bar in the hopes that it would bring in more customers to her little gallery. She’d opened the gallery as a way to channel her love for photography while still having time to take care of her mother. But now that selfies were all the rage, no one wanted landscape photos anymore. They wanted duck faces and cleavage shots.

“I just turned the coffee on, so it’ll be a few minutes. Can I get you—”

“Oh, I’m not here for coffee.” Mrs. Murphy adjusted her position on the stool and leaned forward to spill her big news.

But before she could say a word, the door opened again and Brianna Gallagher burst in. With her gingery-sunburst hair, wearing her usual work clothes of grubby overalls, she looked like some kind of comet streaking into the gallery. “I just heard the news, Evie, and I rushed right over!”

Mrs. Murphy bristled like a porcupine ready to defend its territory. “I was just getting to it.”

“No offense, Mrs. Murphy.” A worried frown drew Brianna’s eyebrows together. “But I feel strongly that this should come from a friend.”

Evie stared at her best friend. What news could possibly be this momentous? Nothing big ever happened in Jupiter Point. Their little town’s only claim to fame was its stargazing, and stars didn’t generally change much from night to night.

When the door opened yet again and her cousin Suzanne waltzed in, Evie gave serious consideration to simply closing down for the day. She could spend the time preparing for the dreaded city council meeting, an event that had been giving her nightmares for the past week.

“I can’t even believe it!” Suzanne exclaimed, swinging one leg over a stool. She was so tall she made it look easy. “The nerve of that man!”

“Someone better tell me what’s going on soon.” Evie packed espresso grounds into the portafilter. “I’m starting to fear the worst. Are the firefighters going to take over the city? March naked down Main Street?”

“I like that idea.” Brianna cocked her head in a dreamy way, as if picturing it at that very moment.

“You wouldn’t find me complaining,” Mrs. Murphy agreed.

Evie gave a double-take.

“I can appreciate a fine male specimen,” Mrs. Murphy sniffed, then pointed at Evie. “You, my dear, could learn a thing or two from me in that regard.”

“I can appreciate…” She trailed off, shaking her head at herself. Why should she have to defend her personal life? Everyone in Jupiter Point
thought
they knew Evie McGraw. But Evie wasn’t sure any of them really did. Not even Brianna, her best friend from the age of four.


Speaking
of fine male specimens,” Brianna said, stepping into the awkward moment, “let’s get back to our news.”

“Nice segue.” Suzanne reached over for a high five.

“Thanks.”

“Sean Marcus is coming back to Jupiter Point,” Mrs. Murphy blurted.

The tamper dropped from Evie’s fingers and thudded onto the floor. “
What?

Brianna glared at Mrs. Murphy. “You didn’t have to say it like that.” She bounded around the counter and picked up the tamper. “This is exactly what I was worried about.”

“She was going to find out sooner or later. I find it’s usually better to spit things out.“ Mrs. Murphy gave Evie an apologetic glance. “I didn’t mean to upset you, honey.”

Brianna put her arm around Evie and squeezed sympathetically. “Are you okay, Evie? I couldn’t believe it when I heard. Of all people to put in charge of the new firemen. Why him?”

Evie gathered her wits together.
Sean Marcus.
Oh sweet heavens, Sean Marcus was coming back. She wasn’t ready for this. Of course she was. No she wasn’t.
Oh God.

She focused on tamping down the espresso grounds. “Listen, all of you. I know there was lots of talk when Sean left, but I promise you, he didn’t do anything wrong. He has every right to come back here. In fact, I’ll be glad to see him.”

“You always see the best in everyone, Evie.” Mrs. Murphy scolded her as if that quality was a bad thing. “But Sean Marcus was the biggest troublemaker in Jupiter Point. He spent more time in the police station than he did at home.”

“I know; he was such a bad boy!” Suzanne bounced on her stool. “So broody and moody, especially after his parents died. I had a huge crush on him.”

Evie could imagine that easily. Not that she’d ever had a crush on Sean Marcus—not exactly. But he knew secrets about her no one else knew. And now he was coming back? She had a very bad feeling about this. “Is he a firefighter now? I hadn’t heard about that.”

“Yes, and he’s practically famous.” Suzanne tucked her long blond hair behind her ears. “He was in that fire last year, the one where they had to get into those little shelters while the fire burned over them? I heard they’re making a movie about it.”

“A movie about Sean Marcus?” Evie asked faintly. How far back would it go? Would it talk about his history with Jupiter Point? Would filmmakers be roaming the streets? Asking questions? Panic rippled through her.

“Well, he’s part of it, but just a small part.” Suzanne shook her head in Evie’s direction. “I can’t believe you didn’t hear about all that. It’s like you live in a cave.”

Some days, like today, she wished that were true. If she lived in a cave, she wouldn’t have to get up in front of the city council tonight and endorse the one person in the whole town she despised. It would take everything she had to pull that off. The return of Sean Marcus was just a coincidental blip.

“Anyway, thank you all for letting me know.” Relieved to find her hands steady, she inserted the espresso holder into the machine and pushed the button to start the brewing process. “Although we probably won’t see the firefighters much. They’ll be out at the old Army base, right?”

“Yes, but Sean is coming to the city council meeting today.” Brianna gave Evie one last little comforting squeeze before heading back to her stool.

Evie jerked and knocked over a canister of espresso beans. Her first city council meeting, and Sean Marcus would be there? It was going to be difficult enough without that added twist. This was a full-on, flat-out disaster.

“Yup, he’s going to tell us what to expect from our hunky new firemen.” Suzanne grinned. “From what I hear, half the guys in town are going to apply. Everyone wants to be a hotshot now.”

“Women can apply, too, you know,” Brianna said. “Think about it, Suzanne. You’d be surrounded by hotness. And I’m not talking about the fires.”

Suzanne flipped her long hair over her shoulder. “Sweaty men are not my type, you know that. Unless they’re sweating over whether or not I’m going to go out with them.”

“Oooh, burn.”

Evie had never been so grateful for her friends’ chatter. She let it flow over her as she fixed her gaze on the dark brew dripping from the expresso machine into two little white china cups. The news about Sean coming back reverberated through her in waves.

Sean had been her older brother’s friend, not hers. After the plane crash that killed his parents, Sean had come to live with the McGraws so he could finish high school in Jupiter Point. But he was so withdrawn and distant that she never got closer to him than the dinner table.

Until the Incident happened.

In the chaos and confusion, Sean had lost his cool and gotten thrown in jail for the night. The next day, he disappeared, even though he wasn’t the one who had hurt her.

That was Brad White,
only
Brad. But no one knew that. She hadn’t said anything, not when it counted, and now…

She picked up one of the espresso cups and took a sip for strength. “Are any of you actually ordering anything? This is a business, you know.”

The three women looked at her blankly.

Evie sighed. “In that case, I have to prepare my statement for tonight’s meeting. I’ll see you all later.”

“It should be a juicy one.” Mrs. Murphy slid off the stool. “Brad White’s in town, I hear.”

Evie’s heart nearly stopped. “What did you say?”

“Brad White. He’s back from all his campaign la-di-da. Everyone says he’s walking around with an entourage. They all have Bluetooths and smartphones and—”

The buzz in Evie’s ears drowned out everything else. If Brad was in town, he’d definitely be at tonight’s meeting. He would want to hear her official endorsement in person.

Brad White and Sean Marcus would
both
be there. This was an even bigger disaster than she thought. Oh sweet Lord above. Where was that cave when she needed it?

As Mrs. Murphy slid off the stool, her skirt snagged on a chrome rivet and rode up her backside. “I’m telling you, Evie, these stools are a menace!”

Suzanne reached over and tugged down her skirt.

Mrs. Murphy pretended to swat her hand away. “Hands off, unless you’re a hunky fireman.”

“I’ll see if I can line one up for you.” Suzanne winked. As Mrs. Murphy sailed out the front door, Suzanne looked at her watch.

“Darn it, cuz. I have to get to work. But I’ll see you at the council meeting.”

Evie shook herself out of her trance. “You’re coming to the meeting? Don’t you have a date or something? You always have a date.”

“I’d skip anything for dreamy Sean Marcus. I bet he’s even more of a babe now. Oh, and of course to see my cousin’s first starring role as president!” She waved her fingers as she vanished out the door.

Brianna turned to her as soon as they were alone. “You sure you’re all right, Evie?”

Evie hauled in a deep breath and called on a lifetime of McGraw tutelage. McGraws kept their cool. They didn’t lose their tempers. In fact, they avoided conflict at all costs. It was safer that way.

“Of course. Why wouldn’t I be? I don’t even know why you’re worried. I barely remember Sean. Honestly, you’re being ridiculous.”

Brianna fixed the strap of her overalls, which had fallen down one freckled arm. “Evie, I know that you’re always calm, cool and collected. I know you don’t like drama and you hate making scenes and you want everything to float along smoothly like a nice, calm, stagnant river. You like peace and harmony, and I love you for that. But I will
still
love you if you lose your shit for once. It’s okay to be upset and it’s okay to show it.”

Evie stared at her friend for a long moment. She wasn’t upset. Okay, maybe she had been, for a short moment. But she was already over it. “Rivers don’t stagnate,” she muttered.

Brianna rolled her eyes. “Fine.” She hopped off the stool. “Just so you know, I’m here for you. No matter what. And I’ll see you at the council meeting.”


You’re
coming to the meeting too? They’re deadly dull.”

“I have a feeling,” said Brianna, “that this meeting isn’t going to be dull.”

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