Excerpt from Facing the Fire
Jordan Wells lifted the old metal bucket out of the icy stream and set it beside her on the bank. Shivering, she rubbed her wet, chilled hands on her jeans to warm them. She’d forgotten how cold these Montana streams were. They were little more than glacial melt rushing down the mountains.
But the place was beautiful, she had to admit. Smiling, she glanced around the tiny clearing. Early afternoon-sunlight sifted through the Douglas fir trees, making the water sparkle. The clear stream raced over rocks and overturned pebbles while the pine boughs moaned above.
She inhaled the deep-forest air, that complex mix of ancient pines and earth, so unlike the cornfields and woods of Virginia. She’d loved this place once. Being here had filled her with peace, serenity. She’d felt protected from the world, sheltered in the tiny cabin with Cade.
She closed her eyes and just for a moment, let the images swamp her. Cade’s hard face. His low, rough voice. That devastating grin.
The shocking thrills, the wild excitement she’d felt in his strong arms.
But that was before the fire season had started and the loneliness set in. The weeks apart. The endless waiting. Never knowing when he’d come back or how long he would stay.
Then the pleading. The desperation. That stark white hospital bed.
The shattering realization that he loved leaping out of airplanes more than he loved her. And always would.
She opened her eyes with a sigh. But that had happened years ago. That life was gone forever, like the innocent, trusting girl she’d once been.
And that was exactly why she’d come back here. To put that painful past to rest forever and prove she was over Cade. To sell the cabin she’d ignored for years and finally move on with her life. To marry Phil, a stable, steady man with a normal job who’d never rush off on wild adventures and leave her to suffer alone. Who’d waited far too patiently for too many months for her to accept his proposal.
And she would finally say yes to him. She’d be crazy not to. That man was everything she wanted.
She’d accept, all right. As soon as she cleaned out the cabin, she’d stop at the real estate agency in Missoula, sign the contract to sell this place, and catch the next flight back east.
She rose and lifted the dented bucket. The thick bed of pine needles muffled her footsteps as she trudged up the narrow trail toward the house.
The wind gusted in the pine trees again and they creaked and wailed overhead. The tinge of wood smoke wafted past and Jordan paused. Had someone built a cabin nearby? She hadn’t noticed any new side roads or even tire tracks on the long drive in. Maybe a passing hiker had started a campfire despite the burning ban.
Then she caught the distant buzz of an airplane and her breath stalled. A DC3 jump ship. She’d recognize that sound anywhere. She’d heard that sad, wrenching drone every time Cade flew away.
Her heart pumping hard against her ribs, she set the bucket on the ground and looked up. A patch of blazing blue sky peeked through the thrashing pines.
Could there be a fire nearby? Fear crawled down her spine. How would she know? Her cell phone didn’t work out here so she couldn’t call to find out, and no one knew where she was. She listened intently, but the lonely sound drifted away.
She inhaled deeply, but only smelled fresh air and pine. She eased her breath back out. It was just her imagination. Old ghosts. The very memories she’d come here to banish.
She picked up the bucket and carted it into the cabin. Old ghosts or not, she’d better finish quickly and leave.
Cade McKenzie stood in the open doorway of the DC3 and sucked in the smell of burning pine. Below him, black, roiling smoke pierced by huge orange flames rose from the Montana forest and covered the earth with a threatening shadow.
Undaunted, he snapped down his face guard and narrowed his eyes. No matter how formidable the fire, he’d stop it. The steep hills and volatile winds only challenged him more. And he knew the eleven smokejumpers poised behind him felt the same.
The spotter, hanging partway out the door beside him, pulled in his head from the slipstream. “Hold into the wind,” he shouted over the roar of the rushing air. “And stay wide of the fire. It’s gusting bad down low.”
Cade nodded and returned his attention to the fire. They would jump near the heel and contain it first, then split up and secure the flanks. Despite the dry conditions, they could pinch off the head by late tomorrow -- unless the wind changed direction and whipped the flames toward Granite Canyon.
His gaze shifted west toward the canyon bordered by a silver ridge. From the air, the dense pines hid the log cabin he knew was nestled beside the boulders. His old cabin, where he’d spent the most intoxicating months of his life -- until Jordan decided she couldn’t handle living with a smokejumper and cleared out. A sharp stab of bitterness tightened his gut. Hell of a time to think of his ex-wife.
He forced the old anger aside. She’d raked him over good, all right, but he’d never see her again. She wouldn’t have kept the cabin after all these years. Still, he needed to make sure no one was in there in case the wind switched and the fire jumped the only road out.
“We’re on final.” The spotter scooted back and struck the side of the open door. His adrenaline rising, Cade moved forward into jump position. His jump partner, a rookie from a booster crew out of Boise, pressed in close behind him.
His muscles bunched, his gaze focused on the horizon, he waited for the spotter’s signal. An intense calm settled over him and his mind stilled.
And in that moment, he felt perfectly right. He was doing what he was born for, what he loved.
The spotter slapped his calf hard. His pulse jerked. He thrust himself out of the plane and into the roaring slipstream. And hurtled ninety miles an hour toward the fiery earth.
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Copyright 2006 by Gail Ellen Barrett. Permission to reproduce text granted by Harlequin Books S.A.