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Ignoring the sweat trickling down his face, Jackson turned to watch the progress of the ground fire, which crept slowly up the steep slope in the direction of him and his crew. The panicked voices on the hand-held radio crackled in his ear over the building snarl of the fire. The words were in Russian and, although he'd been in Russia for nearly half a year, they were speaking too fast for Jackson to understand. Except he did understand.
They were dead.
Not yet, but it was only a matter of time. Ivan, Levka, Potenka, Breniv and Alek. Men he'd trained these past few months to fight forest fires the American way. Men he'd become fond of despite the language barrier and their reluctance to learn a method some bureaucrat figured would help the Russians stem their annual forest fire devastation.
What a joke. You needed equipment to fight fires - reliable equipment that wasn't salvaged from some war fought fifty or more years ago - and well-trained, wellconditioned men. His Russian team was shaping up, but they had little experience. The men worked sluggishly on the mountainside in the one-hundred-and-ten-degree heat of the fire. They fought without the fire-resistant protective gear that Jackson had taken for granted in the States. As for equipment, in this area of Siberia it included gardenvariety shovels, a relic of an airplane that was supposed to be used to drop retardant on the fire - except that after months of fighting wildland fires there was no fire retardant left - and an antique fire truck with only two working gears, reverse and first - not much use in the mountains.
When Jackson had arrived in Russia and realized the limited experience and resources of the men he'd been assigned to, he'd laughed. A smart man would have filed a report with the government agency that sent him over and taken the first plane back to the States.
But then, most smart men didn't have a freshly signed divorce agreement tucked in their passport.
Jackson had nearly ten years' experience as a Hot Shot, one of an elite group of government firefighters trained to battle the hottest part of wildland fires. Hell, Jackson figured, he'd be able to teach his ragtag crew a thing or two about fighting forest fires. They had shovels, didn't they?
So he'd stayed, not yet ready to return home and smile at his Hot Shot buddies and hide the fact that his wife had blindsided him with a divorce, or fess up that he hadn't been able to sweet-talk his way back into their bed. That last night he spent in Silver Bend, Idaho, he'd told his best friend, Logan McCall, that he wouldn't have to sleep on Logan's couch again because his wife, Lexie, had called and wanted to meet him for dinner.
When Jackson met Lexie at that Boise restaurant more than six months ago, he'd been stupidly sure of himself - even after he'd signed the divorce papers and finessed Lexie into a motel room in Boise, convinced they'd rip the papers to shreds come morning. He was so confident they'd reconcile, he'd been thinking about how he'd brag to his buddies about Lexie's hot temper and how that made making up that much hotter - while she was putting her clothes back on and walking out on him for good.
"This was breakup sex. Nothing more," Lexie had pronounced, her eyes brimming with tears, the divorce papers clutched in one hand and the motel room door handle gripped in the other. "I didn't believe those empty promises of yours at dinner. I just had to ..." Lexie paused, swallowed, blinked rapidly. "It was breakup sex," she reaffirmed before disappearing out of his life.
Now, Jackson wondered why Lexie had slept with him that night and why she'd been so upset about it afterwards. He remembered the first time he'd asked her out in high school. He'd given her some smooth line. He couldn't even remember now what it'd been. She'd laughed at him - after he'd spent weeks working up the nerve to ask her out - and told him he was full of hot air. She'd gone out with him anyway ... after he'd asked her out three more times.
There was a joke. Soon, he'd be nothing but hot air, his body incinerated and smoldering. Lexie would cry for him when she found out, because she had a heart that was big enough to mourn an idiot like Jackson, even after she'd kicked him out of her life. It'd be harder on his little girl, Heidi. But Heidi had Lexie, and Lexie would support their daughter and love her no matter what. Heidi could count on Lexie.
According to Lex, Heidi couldn't count on him.
The idea that his family would go on without him held no comfort. Jackson swayed on the mountainside, suddenly feeling every ounce of the forty-plus pounds of gear he carried, as he realized how dispensable he was to Lexie and Heidi. He'd become just a voice on the other end of the telephone line, a house payment, medical coverage. He wanted his family back. Not that he was in a position to get them back now, caught between two fires halfway around the world. He didn't even have a way to call them and hear their voices one last time, to tell them how much they meant to him.
He'd been in tough spots before, but he'd always made it out. His Hot Shot crew back home nicknamed him Golden because they could always rely on him to get them out of sticky situations. Now he realized the reason he believed he'd make it was that Lexie had always been waiting for him.
She wasn't waiting for him anymore.
With his right hand, Jackson reached into his pocket and fingered the small medal Lexie had given him years ago. It was his good luck charm. No. That was wrong. Lexie was his good luck charm. Things just weren't the same without her in his life.
"Damn it," Jackson muttered, as the fire above him roared a challenge - fight or die. Time for him to stop moping and realize he needed to battle for the only woman he'd ever loved. He couldn't die now. Somehow, he'd screwed up his life, but he wouldn't go like this. He wouldn't leave Lexie and Heidi without trying to be a good husband and dad one more time. He'd figure out where he went wrong later, after he found a way out of the firestorm closing in on them.
Scowling, Jackson watched his team of trainees futilely attempt to complete the fire line he'd abandoned the moment he'd seen the fire peak the ridge. But with no chopper rescue possible, and no planes to drop a load of water to form an escape route, they were as good as crispy.
They needed a miracle.
Or a man who had to make it back home.
Excerpted from Getting Married Again by Melinda Curtis Copyright © 2004 by Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.. Excerpted by permission.
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